24 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – CONCERT ARIAS FOR TENOR (Rolando Villazón; DGG 479 1054)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - CONCERT ARIAS FOR TENOR (DGG 479 1054)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Concert Arias for Tenor and Orchestra, K. 21 (19c), 36 (33i), 209, 210, 256, 295, 420, from 430 (424a), 431 (425b), & 435 (416b)Rolando Villazón, tenor; John Alley, harpsichord continuo; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Antonio Pappano [Recorded in Studio One, Abbey Road Studios, London, UK, in February 2012 and February 2013; DGG 479 1054; 1CD, 63:09; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Thankfully, the fascinating trove of concert arias composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, dating from all periods in his too-brief career, is now considerably more known and appreciated than it was a half-century ago, when the arias were—with a few notable exceptions—infrequently-encountered curiosities that were regarded as ‘lesser Mozart.’ A number of these gems would more properly be termed ‘insertion arias,’ having been composed by Mozart for inclusion in other composers’—or, in the case of the alternate Rondo for Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, his own—operas, and an element of the neglect of these arias was perhaps derived from the obscurity of the scores which they were intended to supplement. The soprano aria ‘Popoli di Tessaglia,’ with its infamous pair of G6s (the highest note ever demanded of the soprano voice, at least on paper, whether by Mozart, by Massenet in his flights of fancy for Sibyl Sanderson in Esclarmonde, by Salieri, by Offenbach, or by less familiar composers: the 1912 version of Zerbinetta’s ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’ in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos requires only a pair of meager F♯6s!), was created for insertion into performances of Gluck’s Alceste: the extraordinary difficulty of Mozart’s music notwithstanding, the disappearance of Alceste from the world’s stages hardly bolstered the aria’s fortunes. Still, despite the attention that Mozart’s concert arias have received in both concert halls and recording studios during the past fifty years, those composed for tenor have not enjoyed the same exposure that their brethren for soprano and bass have garnered. With only a handful of recordings of the tenor arias on disc (and a lovely performance by Werner Hollweg awaiting transfer to CD), what is needed—for better or worse—in order to introduce these pieces to 21st-Century listeners is the advocacy of a star singer. This the concert arias for tenor receive in Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. The sincerity and integrity of this artist’s endeavors are never in doubt, but the tantalizing enigma of this disc is whether the actual singing will be as stylish and technically assured as it is enthusiastic.

Aside from the fragmentary ‘Ah, più tremar non voglio,’ Mr. Villazón here sings all of the concert arias for tenor, and his efforts are supported by the superb playing of the London Symphony Orchestra. LSO’s first concert in 1904 featured music by Mozart, and under the leadership of such eminent conductors as Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Claudio Abbado, and Sir Colin Davis the Orchestra’s reputation for uncompromisingly stylish performances of Mozart’s music has flourished. As the passing decades have ushered in trends for period-instrument performances of Classical repertory, LSO’s traditions have stood fast, the playing adapting to advances in scholarship without diminishing the standards of excellence for which the Orchestra is renowned. Too many ensembles have lost sight of the fact that success in performance of Mozart’s music relies upon finding the Master’s spirit in his scores rather than playing instruments that existed during the composer’s lifetime, but the playing of the LSO on this disc is unfailingly illustrative of the finest musicianship to be heard today in any repertoire. These arias make strenuous demands on the woodwinds and horns, and the LSO players respond unflinchingly to the most virtuosic passages, taking care to listen to each other, the singer, and their conductor. Acclaimed productions at the Royal Opera House have established Sir Antonio Pappano’s credentials as a thoughtful Mozartean, and his conducting of the arias on this disc, which embody the full range of Mozart’s stylistic evolution from the Händelian beginnings of his youth to the eloquent intensity of his maturity, furthers his reputation. Maestro Pappano’s sung contributions to the aria buffa ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ confirm that his proper place in the opera house is on the podium rather than on the stage, but the energy, wit, and engaging sense of collaboration with which he conducts are endearing. The details of his interpretations are never obtrusive, and both his tempi and his highlighting of individual passages simply sound right for the music. It is apparent that Maestro Pappano not only knows these arias inside and out but also possesses a deeply sympathetic awareness of how they challenge and reward his tenor. There is in Maestro Pappano’s shaping of each aria a refreshing commitment to success, with passages that are most troublesome for Mr. Villazón being treated with sensitivity that enables the honesty of the singer’s performances to power through. Few listeners pick up a disc of Mozart’s vocal music in order to appreciate the orchestral playing and conducting, but the LSO and Maestro Pappano provide great enjoyment.

Vocally, the disc begins inauspiciously. Ostensibly responding to Mozart’s specified Andante tempo and piano dynamic markings, Mr. Villazón sings ‘Si mostra la sorte’ (K. 209 – 1775) almost as though he were marking in rehearsal. There is an increase in the vibrancy of his singing when the tempo changes to Allegro assai at the words ‘Ma sempre nemica,’ but there is something slightly precious in Mr. Villazón’s management of the frequent F♯s. In general, however, Mr. Villazón’s troublesome upper octave, though approached with caution, is on good form in ‘Si mostra la sorte’ and all of the arias. A holdover from the incomplete 1783 – 1784 Lo sposo deluso, Pulcherio’s aria ‘Dove mai trovar quel ciglio’ is sung by Mr. Villazón in a completion by Franz Beyer, whose orchestration of ‘Müßt ich auch durch lausend Drachen’ (K. 435/416b – 1783) is also employed. In the aria from Lo sposo deluso, Mr. Villazón sings broadly, using the text artfully. Interestingly, his diction and explorations of nuances of text are even finer in the German words of ‘Müßt ich auch durch lausend Drachen,’ the ascents to high G and A brought off winningly.

The treacherous accompagnato ‘Misero! O sogno o son desto’ and aria ‘Aura, che intorno spiri’ (K. 431/425b – 1783) inspire Mr. Villazón to his finest outpouring of dramatic vitality on the disc, with both the coloratura and top A♭s integrated into his singing of the vocal lines impressively. Mr. Villazón is fastidiously consistent in his execution of appoggiature, which contributes meaningfully to the cumulative impact of his compelling if unconventional stylishness. Similar attention to placing musical values in the service of his powerful dramatic instincts shapes his singing of ‘Tali e cotanti soli’ (K. 36/33i – 1766) and its recitative ‘Or che il dover,’ composed in Salzburg when Mozart was just shy of his eleventh birthday. Mozart the dramatist remained in his infancy, but already Mozart the musician was reaching beyond the examples of his contemporaries. His musical curiosity having also encompassed performances of Monteverdi, Händel, and Vivaldi repertoire, Mr. Villazón clearly relishes the young Mozart’s amalgamation of Baroque models with his own burgeoning style. The aria’s tessitura again centers punishingly in the passaggio, but Mr. Villazón takes this in stride, and he makes laudable efforts at producing the trills.

‘Va’, dal furor portata’ (K. 21/19c – 1765), composed in London when Mozart was nine years old, is a setting of an aria from Pietro Metastasio’s Ezio, a libretto set by Händel, Popora, and Gluck. Perhaps orchestrated by Leopold Mozart, this aria—the boy composer’s first concerted vocal composition—also offers an intriguing glimpse of the younger Mozart’s musical development. Using ornaments devised by fellow tenor (and Mozartean paragon) Christoph Prégardien, Mr. Villazón brings excellent breath control to his singing of the aria, delivering unaspirated coloratura with rhythmic precision and accurate pitch. Both ‘Con ossequio, con rispetto’ (K. 210 – 1775) and ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ (K. 256 – 1776) were composed for insertion into Niccolò Piccinni’s 1772 comic opera L’astratto, ovvero Il giocator fortunato. The vocal line in ‘Con ossequio, con rispetto’ also rises frequently to F and G at the top of the staff, and in this lighter buffo fare Mr. Villazón shines, the words tripping off his tongue with the sheen of a practiced comedian. The high spirits in ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ are slightly too much of a good thing, though the sheer joy in Mr. Villazón’s singing prevents the performance from slipping into banality. The aria’s purposefully unusual start with twenty-six repetitions of the same note is indicative of its structure, with repeated notes central to the comedic profile, and Mr. Villazón gives every note its due. His Capitano’s exchanges with Maestro Pappano’s bumbling Don Timoteo are a bit heavy-handed, but Mr. Villazón is too sensitive an artist to do anything truly unmusical.

‘Se al labbro mio non credi’ (K. 295 – 1778) was composed in Mannheim for the dual purposes of supplementing the music of Johann Adolf Hasse’s opera Artaserse and making a positive impression on celebrated tenor Anton Raaff, who in 1781 would create the title rôle in the first masterpiece of Mozart’s operatic maturity, Idomeneo. An Adagio of considerable beauty, its vocal line adorned with trills and rising to top B♭, the aria reaches great heights of expressivity, and Mr. Villazón sings it with focused tone and unwavering sense of purpose. These same qualities make his performance of the Rondo ‘Per pietà, non ricercate’ (K. 420 – 1783)—intended to be sung in Pasquale Anfossi’s 1777 opera Il curioso indiscreto—particularly memorable. More than any other composer of his generation, Mozart possessed an innate gift for achieving extraordinary feats of emotional connection via often surprisingly sparse musical means. The ebbs and flows of the vocal line are delivered with consummate grace by Mr. Villazón, who seems to feel the sentiments of which he sings to the depths of his own heart, and the spare repetitions of ‘Vo’ pensando’ are aimed squarely at the heart of the listener. As so often in Mr. Villazón’s performances, even those in which the voice does not function exactly as its owner intends, his shots in the direction of the listener’s imagination hit their mark.

Like his performances of Don Ottavio and Ferrando in DGG’s recordings of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Mr. Villazón’s singing of Mozart’s concert arias for tenor is not what listeners accustomed to the Mozart singing of Fritz Wunderlich or Peter Schreier are likely to expect. His is a voice tanned by sultry Latin sunlight, dark and burnished but heavy only when he wishes it to be. It is a voice that, in the space of a single bar of music, can burst with laughter or drip with tears, and, whatever reservations a listener might have about the stylistic aspect of Mr. Villazón’s singing of it, it cannot be denied that the same description applies to Mozart’s music. Nothing that Mr. Villazón does in his performances of these arias is disinteresting, and his individual, uncomplicated approach to the music communicates the soul of each aria in a direct manner that is refreshing and ultimately very touching. Perfect vocalism is an elusive but admirable goal, but Rolando Villazón again proves that, not least in the music of Mozart, perfection pales in comparison with genuine affection.