30 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – STABAT MATER (J. Schenkel, A. Potter, Zürcher Sängerknaben; Tudor 7166)

CD REVIEW: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - STABAT MATER (Tudor 7166)

GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736): Stabat mater and GIOVANNI LORENZO GREGORI (1663 – 1745?): Concerti grossi, Op. 2 Nos. 9 & 10—Jonah Schenkel (boy soprano), Alex Potter (countertenor); Zürcher Sängerknaben; Barockorchester Capriccio; Alphons von Aarburg, conductor [Recorded in Kirche Neumünster, Zürich, Switzerland, 24 – 27 January 2013; Tudor 7166; 1CD, 43:56; Available from Tudor, Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The Stabat mater of the short-lived but prolific Giovanni Battista Pergolesi remains one of the most familiar but frustratingly enigmatic liturgical compositions of the Eighteenth Century. Perhaps more than almost any of his contemporaries, Pergolesi has been the subject of waves of accepted and discredited scholarship: now, in 2014, little more is known with any degree of certainty of the circumstances of the musical genesis of the Stabat mater than was known a century ago. It is likely that the Stabat mater was composed in the friary at Pozzuoli in the Campania where Pergolesi resided in the last months of his life, as disease—likely consumption—eroded his health. Commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo, the progressive gallant style employed in the Stabat mater, which is among the relatively few scores that can be proved to be wholly Pergolesi’s work, captivated listeners and composers throughout the Eighteenth Century, inspiring respectful retoolings by artists as diverse as Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Paisiello. Perhaps because of the modest performing forces the work requires and the deceptively uncomplicated appeal of its melodies, the Stabat mater is one of the few larger-scaled vocal works of the Eighteenth Century to have clung to a place in the international repertory throughout subsequent generations. Even a cursory acquaintance with the music cannot fail to disclose the justification of that place.

Since the infancy of recorded sound, Pergolesi’s Stabat mater has been a frequent guest in recording studios, the score having amassed an extensive discography of recordings that range in performing ethos from the barest-boned historically-informed Early Music approach to the largesse of Victorian and Edwardian practices. Tudor’s new recording places the Stabat mater in the context of an Italian tradition familiar to those who know Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus: expanding Pergolesi’s vocal distribution to include chorus, this recording offers a full vista of the convention glimpsed in the cinematic depiction of the funeral for Antonio Salieri’s father. This performance also maintains tremendous fidelity to details of period-appropriate practice, however. If this suggests something of a hybrid concept of the score, it is one that ultimately proves more coherent, dramatically fulfilling, and musically distinguished than almost any other on records. This is authenticity at its best: no minute detail of execution is permitted undue prominence, and the cumulative impact of the work as a whole is enhanced rather than undermined by the brilliant sparkle of the musical facets of this performance.

The Italianate sunlight in which this jewel of a performance coruscates is provided by the playing of Barockorchester Capriccio and especially the continuo of organist Yves Bilger and theorbist Mirko Arnone. Along with exemplary performances of two Concerti grossi by the little-remembered Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori, whose compositions for his native Lucca included liturgical music that was greatly admired in the early Eighteenth Century. Though the playing of every member of Barockorchester Capriccio radiates virtuosity and vitality, the organ and theorbo continuo is delivered with unobtrusive genius, every phrase of Mr. Bilger’s and Mr. Arnone’s playing not only perfectly complementing the vocalists but also highlighting nuances of the text with uncommon eloquence. This collaboration reaches its zenith in ‘Sancta mater, istud agas,’ in which Mr. Bilger’s organ lines are rendered with incomparable beauty. Under the direction of Alphons von Aarburg, the performance pulses with energy and sincerity.

The instrumental glories of the performance are matched by the singing of the youngsters of the Zürcher Sängerknaben, whose numbers are similar to those that historical records suggest were typical of choirs in Italian parish churches during Pergolesi’s lifetime. From their first entrance in the opening ‘Stabat mater dolorosa,’ the boys of the Zürcher Sängerknaben sing with polish and precision foreign to all but the very best ensembles of child singers. The urgency of their singing in ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’ exudes surprising maturity, and their poise in the final bars of ‘Quis est homo, qui non fleret’ is superb. The forthrightness and depth of expression in the boys’ performance of ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ is arresting: there is in the simplicity of their delivery of the text a compelling—and very moving—sense of a true desire to share the Holy Mother’s transfiguring sorrow. The contrapuntal elements of the final ‘Amen’ pose no challenges that the choristers are not fully capable of meeting, and their singing brings the performance to a close with tremendous grace. Particularly before the advent of the focus on historically-informed performance practices, there were occasional performances of Stabat mater featuring choirs, but the boys of the Zürcher Sängerknaben are among the few choristers on records whose singing is a genuine advantage to the performance at hand.

Boy soprano Jonah Schenkel quite simply possesses the finest treble voice recorded in Pergolesi’s Stabat mater to date, and he allies his natural vocal abilities with technical acumen that is exceptionally rare for such a young singer. Trills are not a common weapon in a boy soprano’s arsenal, but Mr. Schenkel consistently makes credible efforts, even on the extraordinarily demanding trills on top G in ‘Cujus animam gementem.’ The technical hurdles of ‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’ are cleared with the alacrity of an Olympian, and Mr. Schenkel’s musical precision is admirable throughout the performance. In the ascending lines of ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ and ‘Quando corpus morietur,’ Mr. Schenkel sings with complete assurance, and the whole of his performance is marked by beautiful, focused, and absolutely secure tone. When his voice combines with that of countertenor Alex Potter, the magic of this performance is at its most potent. The evenness of Mr. Potter’s tone in ‘Quae moerebat et dolebat’ is refreshing, and he, too, takes the many trills in his music in stride. In ‘Eja mater fons amoris,’ too, the integration of Mr. Potter’s vocal registers is wonderful, not only as a musical achievement but equally as a dramatic device enabling telling use of text. Mr. Potter’s technique is most tested in ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem,’ in which he delivers a splendidly musical and effective cadenza, and he proves a complete master of the music. The power of Mr. Potter’s tone in the lower reaches of his part, where the voices of many countertenors are weakest, is deployed unforgettably in passages in which he sings in duet with Mr. Schenkel, especially in ‘Inflammatus et accensus.’ Both singers employ straight tone to great effect in the crucial chromatic passages of Pergolesi’s music, but they do not indulge in artificial whitening of their timbres. It is the naturalness of the singing of both soloists that is the greatest achievement of this performance: free from posturing and the strutting of egos, Mr. Schenkel’s and Mr. Potter’s singing is exceptionally enjoyable in its consummate but unforced stylishness.

Some of the greatest pleasures to be had from music arise from hearing familiar works performed in unexpected ways, and many of the most perceptive innovations of recent years have been derived from restoring works of the Eighteenth Century to musical milieux that replicate the contexts of their first performances. This recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater resurrects a tradition with which the composer was likely acquainted, but its lasting value is in the merit of the achievement. The comprehension of period-appropriate performance practices displayed in this recording is appreciable, but it is the manifest understanding that beauty is—or should be—the foremost goal of any performance that makes this a Stabat mater that mesmerizes.

16 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – ORLANDO (B. Mehta, S. Karthäuser, K. Hammarström, S. Im, K. Wolff; Arkiv Produktion 479 2199)

Georg Friedrich Händel - ORLANDO (DGG/Arkiv 479 2199)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Orlando, HWV 31Bejun Mehta (Orlando), Sophie Karthäuser (Angelica), Kristina Hammarström (Medoro), Sunhae Im (Dorinda), Konstantin Wolff (Zoroastro); B’Rock Orchestra Ghent; René Jacobs, conductor [Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Bruges, West Flanders, Belgium, during July and August 2013; Arkiv Produktion 479 2199; 2CD, 160:02; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

So influential was Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso in the three centuries immediately following its first publication in 1516 that the poem inspired three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s finest operas: Alcina, Ariodante, and Orlando. The tremendous musical and dramatic riches of the last of these render the fact that after the ten performances in the opera’s 1733 première production—for which the accomplished cast of Senesino, Anna Maria Strada del Pò, Celeste Gismondi, Francesca Bertolli, and Antonio Montagnana was assembled—the score was neglected until 1959 unbelievable. That as beautiful and moving an opera as Händel’s Orlando could be ignored while so many lackluster scores enjoyed the attention of great musicians is inexplicable. It is argued that singers capable of technical and stylistic competence in Händel’s music were absent from the world’s opera houses for two centuries after the composer’s death, but might the singer who excelled as Rossini’s Tancredi not have proved a fluent Orlando and the successful Gilda an effective Dorinda? Despite Händel having devoted to Orlando some of his most radical innovations, even now the opera is performed—and recorded—less frequently than several of its brethren in the Händel repertoire. In a committed, consistent performance like the one recorded here by Arkiv Produktion in spacious sound that allows attractive ‘bloom’ on both instrumental and vocal tones, Orlando emerges from the shadows as one of its composer’s most fully enjoyable operas. It is not only Orlando’s celebrated madness that drew from Händel an extraordinary display of his theatrical genius: the score contains a plethora of the most exalted pages in any of Händel’s operas. The Orlando discography is hardly a crowded field, but closely following the September 2013 release of Pacific Baroque Orchestra’s thoroughly enjoyable ATMA Classique recording this performance faces daunting competition. For listeners who cherish the music of Händel, the release of Arkiv’s recording richly expands an unheralded bounty: sonorously played and compellingly sung, this performance offers an unique perspective on one of the most intriguing operas of the Eighteenth Century.

In recent years, almost all of René Jacobs’s recordings have generated controversy, with the strictest adherents to historically-informed performance practices provoked to overt hostility by the liberties that Maestro Jacobs is inclined to take with scores. There are numerous points of contention in this Orlando, but the prevailing spirit that pervades the performance is one of legitimate affection for the music. There is no doubt that grandiose scenic effects were critically important to Eighteenth-Century opera, and the intricate stage machinery preserved in the theatre at Drottningholm Palace confirms the extent to which recreations of nature shaped the dramatic conventions of the day. The scene-setting sound effects employed in this performance—wind, thunder, birdsong, and the like—are engaging and authentic to the opera’s provenance, but their prevalence becomes wearying, especially when they sonically obstruct the continuo in secco recitatives. The continuo, provided with perfect virtuosity and dramatic energy by Andreas Küppers at the harpsichord, David Van Bouwel on harpsichord and organ, Shizuko Noiri on lute, and Elena Spotti on harp, presents additional grounds for discussion: though appropriate in its nods to the stylistic kinship of Orlando with earlier Italian and French models, particularly in Zoroastro’s scenes, it is virtually certain that Händel’s continuo in 1733 would not have included organ or harp. The inclusion of harp in the orchestra for Händel’s 1739 oratorio Saul was a great novelty, and there is no evidence to support the notion that Händel’s operatic continuo extended beyond harpsichord, lute or theorbo, and a bass instrument. The use of harp and organ in this recording may be historically incorrect, but it sharpens the dramatic bite of the performance grippingly. The playing of B’Rock Orchestra’s team of first-rate musicians is wonderful, the recorder parts done with particular brilliance by Bart Coen and Katelijne Lanneau. Maestro Jacobs’s choices of tempo are mostly ideal, and his conducting displays greater attention to the needs of the singers than has been heard in some of his recorded performances. There is also a more perceptible sense of collaboration among conductor, orchestra, and soloists than in many of Maestro Jacobs’s recordings: the boldest of his choices are integrated into a laudable pursuit of musical and dramatic vitality.

Zoroastro is one of Händel’s best bass rôles, and the expansiveness brought to his music by bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff captures the character’s innate dignity. Mr. Wolff’s grasp of the gravitas of Zoroastro’s utterances is apparent in the opera’s opening scene, and his delivery of his aria in Act One, ‘Lascia Amor e siegui Marte,’ is magisterial. Microphone placement emphasizes a slight unsteadiness on sustained tones that likely would not be noticeable in an opera house acoustic, but Mr. Wolff’s technique is equal to the demands of Zoroastro’s music. His singing of ‘Tra caligini profonde’ in Act Two is superb, and his performance of the bravura showpiece ‘Sorge infausta una procella’ in Act Three crackles with dramatic fire. It is in his broadly-phrased performance of the accompagnato ‘Tu, che del gran Tonante’ in the final minutes of the opera that Mr. Wolff is at his best: the stern magnanimity his singing has exuded throughout the performance reaches its zenith in his manipulation of the situation to ensure that all ends well. Vocally, Mr. Wolff’s handsome tone is unfailingly ingratiating, with only his lowest notes lacking authority. His Zoroastro is a subtle but unflappable presence in the drama.

Without affecting the shallow flamboyance assumed by some of her well-known colleagues in Baroque repertoire, mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström is quietly one of the best Händel singers in the world today. Her singing of Medoro in this performance is a splendid addition to her gallery of superlative operatic portraits. The dark beauty of her timbre does not detract from the credibility of her portrayal of a male character: in fact, she here sounds more believably masculine than many countertenors. In Act One, Ms. Hammarström’s performance of Medoro’s aria ‘Se ’l cor mai ti dirà’ is shaped with the masterful hand of a potter working fine clay, and she combines with Angelica in a lovely account of the duettino ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso.’ No less hypnotic is her singing in ‘Consolati, o bella,’ the terzetto with Angelica and Dorinda. Medoro’s arias ‘Verdi allori’ in Act Two and ‘Vorrei poterti amar’ in Act Three are both captivatingly sung. Whether singing cascades of coloratura or passages of concerted lyricism, Ms. Hammarström maintains uncompromising elegance and regality, but it is the glory of her vocalism that ultimately lingers in the memory among the ghosts of the best Händel performances past and present.

Soprano Sunhae Im is a frequent participant in Maestro Jacobs’s recording projects, and her voice is almost always heard with pleasure—never more so than in this performance of Orlando, in which her singing of Dorinda glistens with focused tone and luxuriant femininity. Ms. Im’s singing of the accompagnato ‘Quanto diletto avea’ in Act One pulses with emotional honesty, and her subsequent performance of the aria ‘Ho un certo rossore’ further heightens the impact of her uncomplicated approach to her part. The simple beauty of her singing of ‘O care parolette’ is very moving, and in Act Two the voice soars in her performance of the aria ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato.’ The pinnacle of Dorinda’s music is the superb ‘Amor è qual vento’ in Act Three, and Ms. Im devotes her finest singing to her performance of the aria. Every note that she sings on this recording is secure of intonation and unerringly placed in a sunny depiction of Dorinda, however, and the total success of her efforts is complemented by the insurmountable stylishness of her singing.

The charismatic, imperious Angelica of soprano Sophie Karthäuser is a fantastic foil to Ms. Im’s Dorinda. Ms. Karthäuser has developed into an uncommonly insightful singer, and in this performance she impresses by taking risks in her endeavors to breathe life into her character. In Act One, the technical faculty with which she sings the arias ‘Chi possessore è del mio core’ and ‘Se fedel vuoi ch’io ti creda’ is terrific, and the fluidity of her tone as it washes over the full range of the music is matchless. The aria ‘Non potrà dirmi ingrata’ in Act Two is sung with power and precision, but the radiance of Ms. Karthäuser’s performance of ‘Verdi piante’—one of those arias in which the genius of Händel shines like a sudden rush of moonlight through clouds—surpasses even the best of her singing in other scenes. From this point, she inhabits a lofty plane of musicality typified by her delicate delivery of the arioso ‘Amor, caro Amore!’ In Act Three, the aria ‘Così giusta è questa speme’ receives from Ms. Karthäuser a powerful reading, but her talents are revealed most tellingly in the duetto with Orlando ‘Finché prendi ancora il sangue,’ in which Angelica’s cantilena lines are contrasted with Orlando’s bravura interjections, and the duettino—also with Orlando—‘Per far, mia diletta.’ Ms. Karthäuser’s voice is not a plush instrument, but she cushions her timbre on carefully-managed suggestions of velvet. Though the otherwise infallible solidity of her performance is jeopardized by a few questionably-judged cadenzas, her ornamentation is mostly apt and natural; not always characteristics of the efforts of Maestro Jacobs’s leading ladies. The hints of haughtiness in Ms. Karthäuser’s performance nicely differentiate Angelica from Dorinda, and Ms. Karthäuser equals Ms. Im’s levels of accomplishment in musical performance and dramatic verisimilitude.

More so than in some of Händel’s operas, the title character in Orlando dominates the action—and the score—to an extent that makes an indifferent performance of the rôle of Orlando disastrous. The Orlando of countertenor Bejun Mehta is an assertive creation, and the strength and swagger with which he traverses the unusually demanding rôle are magnificent. From his entrance in Act One with the cavatina ‘Stimolato dalla gloria,’ which he sings beguilingly, Mr. Mehta never missteps in his journey through the upheavals of this errant nephew of Charlemagne. Both of Orlando’s arias in Act One, ‘Non fu già men forte Alcide’ and ‘Fammi combattere,’ benefit from the technical adroitness of Mr. Mehta’s singing, and the singer meets the challenges of Act Two—the aria ‘Cielo! Se tu il consenti,’ the lilting cavatina ‘Ah stigie larve,’ the cavatina ‘Già latra Cerbero,’ and the smoke-breathing accompagnato ‘Ma la Furia che sol mi diè martoro’—with consummate artistry and aplomb. Orlando’s contributions to Act Two culminate in the sublime aria ‘Vaghe pupille, non piangete,’ which Mr. Mehta sings with the beauty and breath control of a great exponent of bel canto. In Act Three, the vivacity and virtuosity that Mr. Mehta brings to the arioso ‘Unisca amor in noi,’ his aria ‘Già lo stringo,’ the knife’s-edge accompagnato ‘Già per la man d’Orlando,’ and the arioso ‘Già l’ebbro mio ciglio’ are ebullient and inspiring. Mr. Mehta is a passionate singer whose zealous dramatic portraits seldom lack tempestuousness, but the plangent, understated sadness that he manifests in his depiction of Orlando’s madness is poignant, and the profundity of his artistry is revealed in this performance in unexpected ways. There are moments in which the voice sounds slightly threadbare and pushed beyond comfortable limits, particularly in the highest reaches of cadenzas, but there are greater care and connection than in almost any of Mr. Mehta’s other recordings. It is not a cautious performance, but it is one in which this gifted singer bares his soul in music to which his voice is almost ideally suited.

Orlando is a great opera; not Händel’s greatest, surely, but one that is superior to many operas that are performed more frequently. Uniting a quintet of singers and a team of musicians under the direction of one of the most thought-provoking conductors of Baroque repertoire, this recording explores Orlando in ways that surprise and astonish. Not all of these ways are Händel’s, at least not as the details of the composer’s conceptions of the opera and the forces involved in its creation are understood, but they are rooted in a desire to give Orlando the kind of sorcery that it deserves. Its virtues silencing whispers about its vices, it is a performance that demands to be heard and refuses to be forgotten.

13 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (C. Van Horn, F. Antonelou, A. Bondarenko, S. Kermes, M.-E. Nesi; Sony 88883709262)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (Sony 88883709262)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata, K. 492Christian Van Horn (Figaro), Fanie Antonelou (Susanna), Andrei Bondarenko (Conte di Almaviva), Simone Kermes (Contessa di Almaviva), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Cherubino), Nikolai Loskutkin (Bartolo), Krystian Adam (Don Basilio), Maria Forsström (Marcellina), James Elliott (Don Curzio), Garry Agadzhanian (Antonio), Natalya Kirillova (Barbarina); MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre); Teodor Currentzis, conductor [Recorded in P. I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia, 24 September – 4 October 2012; 3CD, 188:25; Sony 88883709262; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Gioconda, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is one of the defining masterworks of its genre, and like da Vinci’s canvas Mozart’s score reveals different qualities when examined under different conditions. What is unchanging is the glorious flowering of Mozart’s genius that touches every bar of Le nozze di Figaro, but even this shimmers with an astonishing spectrum of hues when viewed through the prisms of the work of attentive artists. After nearly a century’s worth of recordings featuring many of the 20th and 21st Centuries’ most compelling Mozart conductors and singers, a new recording of Le nozze di Figaro must possess a fresh, valid perspective on the evergreen score if it is to justify its initiation into the opera’s discography. Freshness and validity surge from every moment of this recording by MusicAeterna and Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. Discarding traditions solely for the sake of pseudo-individuality rarely produces enduring results, but the adventurousness that pervades Maestro Currentzis’s work in this performance rises from an admirable desire to reconnect with the theatrical experience that Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, surely intended Le nozze di Figaro to be. The revolutionary sentiments explored in its dramatic situations led to the banning by imperial edict of Beaumarchais’s La foule journée, ou le mariage de Figaro, Mozart’s and da Ponte’s source for their opera, in 18th-Century Vienna, but successive generations of performances and recordings have effectively entombed Le nozze di Figaro in a sarcophagus of well-meaning but blunt conventions. Judging from the performance he instigates on this recording, Maestro Currentzis regards Le nozze di Figaro not as an oft-embalmed corpse to be made as presentable as possible for viewing by new audiences but as a remarkable creature still very much in the prime of its life.

Considering his reputation as something of an enfant terrible in ‘traditional’ repertoire, it is surprising to note upon close scrutiny how few deviations from tradition Maestro Currentzis actually undertakes in this recording. It is the spirit rather than the substance of the performance that differs so markedly from many performances of Le nozze di Figaro, even those with ambitions of replicating the performance practices of Mozart’s time. In truth, the glut of ‘historically-informed’ performances of Le nozze di Figaro in recent years has been disconcerting: there is little credible scholarship to support the notion that Mozart’s mature operas were intended to be performed as small-scaled affairs, and many of the performances and recordings that have ostensibly sought to return Le nozze di Figaro to the 18th Century, as it were, have instead stripped away much of the emotional largesse and musical splendor that marked the opera as something very special from the time of its first performance in 1786. Under Maestro Currentzis’s direction, this performance amalgamates the most effective elements of traditional and historically-informed approaches, shaping a momentous account of the score that manages both to sound like an opera composed in 1786 and to communicate very modern sensibilities. Though brief in duration, the singing of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Chorus certainly contributes to this dichotomy by disclosing the careful tonal blends and balances typical of period-specialist ensembles and the credibly jubilant exclamations of guests at what in the environs of Conte di Almaviva’s castle would have been a celebrity wedding. The playing of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra is similarly evocative of both the niceties of late-18th-Century performance practices and the larger-scaled traditions that accumulated in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This hybridization creates a sound world in which Mozart’s score flourishes excitingly. In the opening minutes of the recording, concerns arise about Maxim Emelyanychev’s fortepiano continuo, which threatens to emulate the overwrought business heard on several recent recordings of Mozart’s operas. Ultimately, though, Mr. Emelyanychev provides a thoroughly enjoyable continuo, his accompaniment of secco recitatives inventive and his playing in concerted numbers witty but never distracting. Among consistently first-rate performances by all of the instrumentalists, the clarinet lines in the Contessa’s cavatina ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ are sublimely played by Toni Salar-Verdú and Marie Ross.

More than many standard-repertory scores, Le nozze di Figaro truly is an ensemble opera: poor singing even in the secondary rôles can significantly undermine a performance. The smallest parts are assigned to capable singers in this performance, and only a sameness of timbres among the ladies in the cast interferes with total immersion in the drama. After singing charmingly in Act Three, soprano Natalya Kirillova gives a haunting account of Barbarina’s gorgeous cavatina at the start of Act Four, ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina.’ Maria Forsström, a less-caricatured Marcellina than most, is allowed her frequently-excised aria in Act Four, ‘Il capro e la capretta,’ and she sings it excellently despite a slightly overdone cadenza. Her interactions with Susanna display wonderful comic timing, especially in their duettino ‘Via, resti servita, madama brillante,’ and she manages to engender something like maternal affection in her dealings with Figaro in Act Three. Krystian Adam’s lively Don Basilio, an engaging presence in recitatives and ensembles, is also permitted to sing his seldom-heard aria, ‘In quegl’anni, in cui val poco,’ and he takes advantage of the opportunity to show off his handsome tone and finely-honed technique. James Elliott is an alert, silver-tongued Don Curzio, and Garry Agadzhanian is an appropriately frustrated but unusually sophisticated Antonio: he is sure to have observed some very interesting things transpiring in his garden. Nikolai Loskutkin is a Bartolo of strength and sly insinuations. There is nothing subtle about his performance of ‘La vendetta, oh, la vendetta,’ however: his voice detonates the aria like a firebomb, and he makes his indignation felt in ensembles with delectable vocal posturing.

Mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi provides an unmistakably womanly Cherubino but a fantastically-sung one. From her first entrance, Ms. Nesi dons her character’s trousers with dramatic vibrancy that convincingly allays the femininity of her voice. She and Susanna are fabulously conspiratorial partners in misfortune, and the vivacity that she brings to recitatives and ensembles is captivating. Despite the feminineness of the basic timbre, Ms. Nesi’s Cherubino is a hormonally-charged adolescent to the life: though slightly ridiculous as youthful passions invariably are, this Cherubino’s infatuation with the Countess is a deeply-felt affection. Ms. Nesi’s singing of Cherubino’s arias ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ and ‘Voi che sapete che cosa è amor’ is exemplary, her technique more than equal to Mozart’s musical demands and her dramatic instincts inspiring her to give each aria precisely the right emotional profile. Ms. Nesi confirms the histrionic power of her artistry by overcoming the obstacle of her ladylike timbre and creating a musically first-rate and surprisingly sexy Cherubino.

From her entrance in the opera’s opening scene, soprano Fanie Antonelou offers a light-hearted Susanna to whom plotting and preening do not come naturally, but when darker sentiments invade her sunny disposition they erupt like midsummer thunderstorms. In the opening duet with Figaro, ‘Se a caso Madama la notte ti chiama,’ Ms. Antonelou’s Susanna is a charmingly flirtatious fiancée, her voice combining with that of her betrothed with humor but sly authority. There is never any doubt that this Susanna has the upper hand in her exchanges with the busybody Marcellina, and her intelligence deepens as the drama progresses. Ms. Antonelou gives a lovely performance of the aria ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi,’ her timbre slim but shining. In the trio with the Conte and Contessa, ‘Susanna, or via, sortite,’ she rises with complete comfort to her pair of top Cs, and her voice flutters through the celebrated duettino ‘Che soave zeffiretto’ with the freshness of the gentle breezes evoked by the text, her timbre combining beautifully with that of the Contessa. Ms. Antonelou’s singing of ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar,’ one of Mozart’s loveliest soprano arias, is tremendously effective both in its musical poise and its dramatic import. Whether tangling with the Conte or Figaro, Ms. Antonelou portrays a Susanna who never loses her wits. Susanna is the sort of rôle that seems far easier to sing than it actually is, and Ms. Antonelou makes a grand impression: she is the rare Susanna who seems destined to be a challenging but wonderfully endearing bride.

The steely Conte of Andrei Bondarenko is more than usually in command of his court: it seems remarkable, in fact, that young Cherubino would dare to give voice to his pining for the Contessa even in private in this Conte’s castle. The finest quality of Mr. Bondarenko’s performance is the manner in which he both snarls and smiles in his execution of Mozart’s music, however. His sturdy, well-integrated voice is an ideal instrument for the Conte, and he sings the rôle with debonair urbanity. In dialogues with both Susanna and the Contessa Mr. Bondarenko’s Conte seethes with nervous energy, occasionally threatening but rarely truly cruel. His performance of the Conte’s aria ‘Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’ is invigorating, and he brings rousing musical and textual alertness to ensembles. His pianissimo, almost crooned singing of ‘Contessa, perdono’ in the opera’s final scene at first seems a misjudgment, but Mr. Bondarenko manages it with such dignity and sincerity that the risk pays off. Strangely, it is the quiet intensity of this passage that lends the opera’s finale the incredible poignancy that it has in this performance, and Mr. Bondarenko’s Conte is far more involved in both the unease and its resolution in this Le nozze di Figaro than almost any other on records.

The self-proclaimed ‘Lady Gaga of opera,’ soprano Simone Kermes is without question one of the most dynamic and in some ways divisive presences in Classical Music today, and whether her singing pleases or perturbs it unfailingly generates the kind of spirited conversation that sustains opera. In this performance, her Contessa is worlds away from the legendary portrayal by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but Ms. Kermes crafts an equally absorbing characterization on her own terms. It is sometimes overlooked that Ms. Kermes possesses a superb voice, and she displays an uncanny ability to wield absolute technical control over her vocal resources. Her Contessa in this performance is a sublime triumph of graceful vocalism and conventions-to-the-wind dramatic commitment. Ms. Kermes’s singing in ensembles is precise and passionate whether she is suffering the sting of her husband’s jealousy and suspicion, dealing kindly but somewhat aloofly with Cherubino, or taking Susanna’s part in her quest for liberation from masculine domination. Not one note or dramatic accent is misplaced in Ms. Kermes’s performance, and her singing exudes irresistible charisma. The Contessa’s arias ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ and ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ are two of the greatest challenges in the soprano repertory, and Ms. Kermes conquers them with exquisite self-assurance. Her account of ‘Porgi, amor’ radiates very individual warmth, and her singing of ‘Dove sono’ is marked by almost unbearably dolorous beauty of tone. In the final scene, the absolution granted by Ms. Kermes’s Contessa has the redeeming force of a benediction: her silver-toned delivery of ‘Più docil io sono, e dico di sì’ crowns a magnificent performance that encapsulates the best of Ms. Kermes’s artistry.

It has become atypical for a Figaro to dominate a performance of Le nozze di Figaro: it is his wedding, after all, but too few modern Figaros seize the dramatic reins as Mozart and da Ponte surely wanted. Christian Van Horn strides to the center of the drama in his first line of recitative and never ceases to be the fulcrum upon which this performance pivots. Mr. Van Horn brings pointed humor to his singing of Figaro’s cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor Contino,’ imparting not so much a serious challenge to the Conte as a bemused taunt. In the oft-abused ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’ Mr. Van Horn takes care to actually sing rather than bark the aria, and his performance of ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’ is similarly shaped by genuine musicality. Mr. Van Horn’s voice is a burnished, mahogany-hued instrument, and his Figaro buzzes with unforced machismo. This Figaro may be in service to the Almaviva household, but he is anything but subservient. The Nozze di Figaro discography preserves many fine performances of Figaro’s music, but few Figaros have succeeded as completely as Mr. Van Horn at constructing a character who is both strong and sympathetic. A performance of Le nozze di Figaro with an inept Figaro is a marriage without a groom: this is a performance with a Figaro who not only proves a worthy partner for Susanna but whose singing fully justifies the opera having been named in his honor.

Few operas figure more prominently in the international standard repertoire than Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, productions of which grace the world’s stages with deserved regularity. The score is also no stranger to the recording studio, and the performances of many of the most gifted Mozarteans of the past century have been preserved in the opera’s exceptionally competitive discography. It is an opera about which it might be presumed that new generations of performers can have nothing new to say, but this recording confounds that presumption. Teodor Currentzis and a near-ideal cast say much that has never been said before, and in their musical speech it is the voice of Mozart that is heard most affectingly.

06 May 2014

CD REVIEW: LOVE DUETS – Ailyn Pérez, soprano, and Stephen Costello, tenor (Warner Classics 825646334858)

Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello - LOVE DUETS (Warner Classics 2564633485)

LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), GEORGE FORREST (1915 – 1999), CHARLES GOUNOD (1818 – 1893), FRANK LOESSER (1910 – 1969), PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), RICHARD RODGERS (1902 – 1979), GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), and ROBERT WRIGHT (1914 – 2005): Love Duets – Duets from West Side Story, L’elisir d’amore, Kismet, Faust, Guys and Dolls, L’amico Fritz, Manon, La bohème, Carousel, Rigoletto, and La traviataAilyn Pérez, soprano; Stephen Costello, tenor; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Patrick Summers, conductor [Recorded in Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale, London, 9 – 11 December 2013; Warner Classics 825646334858; 1CD, 65:42; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​​The best recordings of operatic arias and ensembles are like reunions with friends who, though perhaps absent for dishearteningly extended periods of time, are as familiar and treasured as immediate family. The metaphor can be extended both to the music and to those who perform it, for the success of a recording of excerpts removed from their broader contexts depends upon the listener’s ability to discern in the disembodied sounds of recorded voices the flickering emotions that have preserved opera from its distillation from the genius of Monteverdi unto the troubled climes of the 21st Century, when the survival of serious music is threatened by every sort of nonsense masquerading as cultural progress. Damning, too, are the pressures endured by today's singers, stresses that have so little to do with Art or artistry. It must be maddening to always be measured against standards that are different for every listener and to face criticism skewed by what other artists did or might have done. It is especially confounding for artists like soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Stephen Costello to so often be recommended with qualifications—tremendously promising American singers, one of opera's best couples, both recipients of the Richard Tucker Award—rather than commended for being what they are: two of the most emotive, expressive, and vocally persuasive singers of their generation. Love Duets, their first recording together, unites them in performances of some of the most iconic duets from opera and American musical theatre, and it is a disc that resounds with freshness, affection, and the simple joy of two young singers who love singing. Some of this music is rarely sung by voices of this quality, but the wistfulness of Bernstein and Loesser stands proudly in the company of the tender melancholy of Gounod and Puccini in these performances. All of the selections on Love Duets are indeed old friends, but this reunion unforgettably welcomes two golden-voiced new friends into the family.

Too many opera singers’ performances of music from the American musical theatre are problematic because the artists either over-sing or condescend to the music. For that matter, condescension is not uncommon among audiences. The natural, ideally-scaled singing by Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello in the Broadway numbers on Love Duets tacitly reminds the listener that, in previous generations, the distinctions between ‘serious’ singers in America’s opera houses and ‘popular’ singers on the Great White Way were less rigid. An artist like Ezio Pinza was not an important opera singer squandering his gifts by appearing in South Pacific: rather, he was a great singer polishing a different facet of his sparkling talent, and Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello validate the notion that much of the music composed for Broadway stages deserves to be sung by extraordinary voices. Few duets in the American repertoire have suffered more from well-intentioned mishandling by opera singers than ‘Tonight’​ and ‘One Hand, One Heart’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story, but Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello bring extraordinary honesty to their performance​s of the music. Theirs is legitimately romantic rather than artificially operatic ardor, but there is also a disarming naïveté in their singing: this is audibly the wonder-filled discourse of young people in love for the first time. ‘And this is my beloved’ from Kismet, its Borodin-inspired melodic lines wafting the piquant fragrances of exotic environments, is sung with simmering devotion, Ms. Pérez’s and Mr. Costello’s voices uniting like the first rays of dawn stretching across the sea. The inclusion of the magical ‘I'll Know’ from Guys and Dolls is unexpected, but it is a gamble that hits the jackpot: these two singers could charm the numbers off of a roulette wheel, and the sounds they make together in Loesser’s gorgeous music are the aural equivalents of the transcendent rapture depicted in Klimt paintings. The aptness of the music of Richard Rodgers among the repertoires of opera singers (and opera companies) is thankfully no longer questioned, but too few concerts by first-rate singers feature ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel, which has become the sort of number that almost everyone acknowledges as superb music but virtually no one has heard sung with excellence to match. Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello make amends with an account of the piece that sparkles with vocal finesse and touches the heart by achieving precisely the right attitudes of warmth and wistfulness. In all of these numbers, both singers confirm that this is not easy music: it demands the best of their technical and interpretive abilities and unvaryingly receives it. Phrasing is deftly managed, both individually and in ensemble, the singers’ clear diction and avoidance of the pomposity that too many well-trained singers bring to musical theatre numbers contributing to their relaxed performances, and Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello negotiate the tessitura of the music with undisturbed confidence.

The rôles of Mimì and Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème provide Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello with obvious but especially congenial opportunities to align their individual but dove-tailed affinities for refined musical expression. In productions by Cincinnati Opera and Los Angeles opera, they impressed audiences with the earnestness of their singing, and this trait permeates their performance of ‘O soave fanciulla’ on this disc. Mr. Costello launches the duet poetically, the warmth of his tone instantly setting the vocal line ablaze, and the ascent to top A in unison with Ms. Pérez as Mimì joins Rodolfo on the phrase ‘Ah! tu sol commandi, amor!’ is breathtaking. The playfulness of Mr. Costello’s ‘E al ritorno?’ and Ms. Pérez's ‘Curioso’ in response is delightful, and the tonal lustrousness with which both singers deliver their lines is enthralling. Ms. Pérez soars to a shrill but beautifully-sustained top C at the duet’s close. The major-third harmony of Puccini’s written E4 for Rodolfo is rightly preferred, and Mr. Costello resolves the ultimate phrase with gleaming tone. ‘Suzel, buon dì,’ the familiar Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz—sadly, virtually the only music from this charming opera now familiar to audiences—is shaped with extraordinary tenderness. The dulcet affection with which Mr. Costello sings ‘Di maggio è simile un vago fiore fragrante e roseo’ goes straight to the heart, and Ms. Pérez suffuses her voicing of ‘Sembra che parlino...Sembra salutino coi canti il raggio dell'aurora!’ with innocent passion she seems barely able to contain. Not since the early years of the careers of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti has this music been sung so beautifully by voices of ideal proportions for the parts.

Washington National Opera’s recent production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore partnered Ms. Pérez’s winsome Adina with Mr. Costello’s heartfelt Nemorino, a rôle he has sung with great distinction at Glyndebourne and—earlier in 2014—at the Wiener Staatsoper. Their deliveries of the lyrical bel canto lines of ‘Esulti pur la barbara’ on this disc find both singers on best form in music that suits them perfectly. Both singers rise to the frequent Fs, Gs, and A♭​s​ at the top of the staff with freedom and effervescence, but it is the animation of their singing that draws the listener into both the performance and the lives of these characters. The offhand insouciance of Ms. Pérez’s Adina contrasts amusingly and touchingly with the amiable boyishness of Mr. Costello’s Nemorino.

Much of the acclaim garnered by San Diego Opera’s 2011 production of Gounod’s Faust was rightly focused on Mr. Costello’s Faust and Ms. Pérez’s Marguerite, and a souvenir of their sympathetic traversals of Goethe’s characters is offered here in their stylish performance of ‘Il se fait tard, adieu!’ The understated innocence with which Ms. Pérez delivers Marguerite’s ‘Il m’aime, il ne m’aime pas’ is sweetly moving, and the expansive eloquence of Mr. Costello’s phrasing of Faust’s ‘Porter en nous une ardeur toujours nouvelle’ leads to his thrillingly-voiced launch of the sublime ‘Ô​ nuit d’amour, ciel radieux.’ These qualities are replicated in their resonant singing of ‘N’est-ce plus ma main’ from Massenet’s Manon, in her inaugural performances of the title rôle of which Ms. Pérez earned considerable praise from London critics and audiences. Both singers bring incredible fervor to their performances without damaging the Gallic delicacy of Gounod’s and Massenet’s vocal lines.

For singers whose gifts combine dramatic vitality, lyrical grace, and innate command of bel canto, it is hardly surprising that the music of Verdi figures prominently in their careers, both individually and as a couple. Their singing of ‘Signor nè​ principe io lo vorrei’ from Rigoletto indisputably confirms the couple’s Verdian credentials. Recently lauded in Houston Grand Opera’s production of the opera, Mr. Costello’s Duca di Mantova is a virile but sensually sophisticated lecher, and his buoyant phrasing of ‘È​​ il sol dell’anima’ on this disc, cresting on a sunny top B♭, is fantastic. Ms. Pérez makes easy going of​ Gilda’s repeated top B♭​s, and the ebullience of the couple’s singing of ‘Addio, addio, speranza ed dio, speranza ed anima’ ignites Verdi’s rocketing vocal lines. Including the traditional interpolated top D♭​ in unison at the duet’s close strains Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello unnecessarily, but the effort is admirable. Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata are also rôles in which Ms. Pérez and Mr. Costello have excelled, not least in the current revival of the opera at London’s Royal Opera House. Their singing of ‘Un dì felice, eterea,’ the scene from the opera’s opening Act in which Alfredo expresses his burgeoning love to Violetta, is one of the most enjoyable tracks on Love Duets. Mr. Costello’s voicing of the duet’s opening phrase, shaped by one of Verdi’s most memorable melodic lines, is ardent but appropriately poetic, and the sheer jubilation with which he and Ms. Pérez conjoin their voices is ravishing. To the detriment of the drama, very few Violettas and Alfredos manage to convey such sincere, uncomplicated affection.

Love Duets is not a perfect disc, but its imperfections are those of irrepressible enthusiasm rather than carelessness. Musically, this is a very satisfying recital of some of the most emblematic love duets from the Broadway and operatic stages. Those listeners who are attentive to the ascents of young singers of quality are almost surely already familiar with Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello: they will find in Love Duets, in which the performances receive superlative support from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers, an opportunity to renew their acquaintances with these wonderful singers. Those for whom Love Duets is their first introduction to this couple have before them an experience that, in the best of circumstances, comes but a few times in each generation, that of meeting new artists on the best of terms. Love Duets is neither an arbitrary title nor even merely a descriptive one: this is a disc in which the very personal love of a young couple, their loves for singing and for singing together, and the loves of the characters they portray are wedded indelibly. Few discs convey this marriage of life and art so affectingly. Ultimately, it is upon discs like Love Duets and the endeavors of singers like Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello that the future of opera depends.

03 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi – VESPRO DELLA BEATA VERGINE (Chœur de Chambre de Namur, Cappella Mediterranea; Ambronay Éditions AMY041)

Claudio Monteverdi - VESPRO DELLA BEATA VERGINE (Ambronay Éditions AMY041)

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): Vespro della beata vergina (1610)Céline Scheen and Mariana Flores, sopranos; Fabián Schofrin, countertenor; Fernando Guimarães and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Matteo Bellotto and Victor Torres, baritones; Sergio Foresti, bass; Chœur de chambre de Namur; Cappella Mediterranea; Leonardo García Alarcón, conductor [Recorded in the Abbatial Church of Ambronay, Ambronay, Ain, Rhône-Alpes, France, 7 – 12 September 2013; Ambronay Éditions AMY041; 2CD, 87:18; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata vergine was first published in Venice in 1610, it is doubtful whether the seismic significance of the music—its forms, its fusions of old and new, its almost erotic expressivity—was fully apparent to Monteverdi’s contemporaries. In the pages of the score, the Italian Renaissance was given an ornate, deeply respectful funeral, and in the soil loosely tossed over the grave Monteverdi cultivated new species whose fragrant blossoms would eventually be pressed among the pages of Purcell’s Anthems, Bach’s Passions, Händel’s oratorios, Haydn’s Masses, Rossini’s Stabat mater, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and every choral work of each subsequent generation. In Monteverdi’s Vespro are the first sounds of Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus,’ Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, and Howells’s ‘Take him, Earth, for cherishing.’ As radical in the appropriate context as Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’ or the twelve-tone system of the Second Viennese School, Monteverdi’s innovations in his 1610 Vespers were as much refining as redefining: like Mahler, Monteverdi preserved the best of the past in structures that ensured appreciation in future. Though there is no greater certainty now than when interest in this remarkable score was rekindled about the circumstances that spurred creation and compilation of these diverse sacred ‘concerti,’ the six decades since the earliest efforts at recording the Vespers have engendered a plethora of theories concerning stylistic and practical aspects of performing the music. It is not even known whether Monteverdi intended the individual numbers to be performed in succession—and, if so, in which order—on a single liturgical occasion. Perhaps even the work’s presumptive title is misleading: recent scholarship suggests that, if the Vespers were devised as a functional whole for celebration of a Church festivity, it was likely for veneration of Saint Barbara in the Mantua Basilica of the Gonzaga family rather than for Marian rites. What is more certain is that musicologists, conductors, and period-specialist performers have in the past sixty years created a discography for Vespro della beata vergine in which a multitude of theories have been put into practice. In many ways, this new recording from Ambronay Éditions and Leonardo García Alarcón is the most adventurous performance of Monteverdi’s mercurial score yet preserved on disc: from its first note, this is a performance that discards preconceptions and the sorts of traditions justified solely by the argument of precedent. This recording, too, is an examination of theories, but the experiments are conducted in resplendent sound rather than in expostulations of vacuous words scribbled by scholars in musical journals.

Recorded in the Abbatiale, Ambronay’s Gothic abbatial church, this performance is placed in a resonant acoustic that likely replicates the sonic ambiance of Mantua’s Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara without afflicting the music with any of the troubling effects of echoes and distortion. Balances among singers and musicians sound more natural than on most recordings of this music, of course keeping in mind that any arrangement of forces with pretensions of authenticity is founded upon conjecture. Virtually everything that is known about Monteverdi's distributions and positioning of musical personnel dates from his tenure at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco and thus may or may not have bearing on similar logistics during his employment at the Gonzaga court. In a pragmatic sense, this is both confounding and liberating to a modern conductor: though a plan of placement of voices and instruments cannot ever be claimed to be wholly right, neither can it be dismissed as altogether wrong. The same logic applies equally to the music, and this enables a thoughtful conductor like Maestro García Alarcón to make bold choices. His decisions in this performance are anything but academic shots in the dark, however: he has targeted the emotional core of each movement of the Vespers and devised a musical arsenal specially appointed for resuscitating the spirit of each text. The irony of his choices is that Maestro García Alarcón ultimately proves quite conservative in the sense that his actions are informed by a pervasive understanding of the music and its problems. In those passages in which this performance differs most from other recorded accounts of the Vespers it may well come closest to the ethos of the music as Monteverdi envisioned it. Certainly, Maestro García Alarcón’s leadership produces a performance that emphasizes the continuity and consistency of inspiration of the music, and stylistically the inner links among the individual numbers are emphasized without distortion. Short of some miraculous rediscovery of primary-source documentation of the first performance(s) of the Vespers, it is unlikely that there will ever be definitive answers to the questions raised by the Vespro della beata vergine. This performance may not be a perfect facsimile of the Vespers as their composer expected to hear them, but it is impossible to imagine Monteverdi being anything but pleased and profoundly moved by this performance.

The success of Maestro García Alarcón’s concept as recorded owes much to the phenomenal playing of the GRAMMY®-nominated Cappella Mediterranea. Without a single weakness, the playing of Cappella Mediterranea triumphs where performances by many period-instrument ensembles fail most detrimentally, namely in the wind playing. The twenty-three players of Cappella Mediterranea give performances of sterling virtuosity and expressivity, but special mention is due to the extraordinary playing by Judith Pacquier, Gustavo Gargiulo, and Rodrigo Calverya on cornets; Sylvain Sartre and Sarah van Cornewal on piffari (double-reeded relatives of the modern oboe); Giulia Genini and Mr. Calverya on recorders; and Fabien Cherrier, Jean-Noël Gamet, and Adrian France on sackbuts. In many past recordings of the music of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, the imminent appearances of these instruments induced cringes of anticipated perturbation: in this recording, every note produced by these instruments—and these fantastic musicians—delights. It is the overall preeminence of Cappella Mediterranea’s playing that impresses most, however. The collective instrumental complement is a breathing, palpitating participant in the performance that collaborates with the singers rather than merely accompanying them. The twenty-one singers of the Chœur de chambre de Namur excel in every choral passage of the Vespers, producing impeccably-balanced, plangent sounds in introverted moments and hurtling through their most difficult contrapuntal music with energy that does not undermine the formidable accuracy of their singing. In the monumental setting of the ‘Magnificat’ that crowns the Vespers, the choristers and instrumentalists achieve sublime heights of expression that seize the imagination in ways that few performances of this music have done in past.

The achievements of the Cappella Mediterranea and Chœur de chambre de Namur deserve to be combined with solo singing of equal accomplishment, and the team of soloists assembled for this recording delivers capitally. The poised, polished tone that sopranos Céline Scheen and Mariana Flores bring to their lines, particularly in the rapt account of ‘Pulchra es,’ is startlingly beautiful, and the zeal and merit of their singing is matched by the performance of countertenor Fabián Schofrin, whose firm, focused voice lends unexpected poignancy to the alto lines. Some of the most stringent bravura demands in this performance are made of the tenor soloists, and Fernando Guimarães and Zachary Wilder respond with breathtaking exhibitions of technical prowess, not least in the dazzling ‘Nigra sum,’ the glorious ‘Duo Seraphim,’ and the penultimate ‘Gloria Patri’ in the ‘Magnificat.’ Baritones Matteo Bellotto and Victor Torres and bass Sergio Foresti sing their parts superbly, supplying the strength and suppleness required by the music but so seldom heard in it. Among both the soloists and the choir, every individual number is performed unforgettably, but even in such a setting the grandeur of ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ is intensely stirring, the tension so masterfully built in the rise and fall of the music resolved with a cathartic statement of the concluding ‘Amen.’ The performance of ‘Ave maris stella’ aptly evokes both the disquietude of troubled seas and tranquil starlight, and the whole of the ‘Magnificat’ is performed with elating sincerity and unparalleled musicality. Purely in terms of possession of technical aptitude equal to the needs of the music, these soloists are among the best-qualified singers ever to record this music: their mastery of such elusive devices as the Monteverdian trillo is exceptional, especially in Mr. Wilder’s case, and all of the singers leave nothing to be desired in their negotiations of Monteverdi’s often exacting coloratura. More importantly, they truly comprise a team, not just among themselves but also with the choristers, instrumentalists, and Maestro García Alarcón.

There are as many valid ways of interpreting Monteverdi’s enigmatic Vespro della beata vergine as there are performers willing to face the challenges of the music. As in music of any vintage, however, those interpretations that prove most valid are those that extrapolate least—those, that is, that look to rather than beyond the score. In the score of Vespro della beata vergine, there are many blanks to be filled in, and the evidence of the Vespers’ performance history and discography suggests that just enough is known about Monteverdi and period-appropriate practices to facilitate the commission of every sort of idiocy in alleged pursuits of authenticity. It may be argued that Leonardo García Alarcón’s interpretation of Vespro della beata vergine on this recording is unconventional, but the standards by which this judgment is made are flawed. If it is a flaw to defy trends guided by imperfect and egotistical scholarship, this performance of Vespro della beata vergine is splendidly fallacious. It seems certain that such deficiencies as these would gladden Monteverdi himself.

01 May 2014

CD REVIEW: Augusta Read Thomas – SELECTED WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA (Nimbus Alliance NI 6258)

Augusta Read Thomas - SELECTED WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA (Nimbus Alliance NI 6258)

AUGUSTA READ THOMAS (b. 1964): Aureole, Carillon Sky, Words of the Sea, Terpsichore’s Dream, In My Sky at Twilight, Silver Chants the LitaniesChristine Brandes, soprano; Baird Dodge, violin; Gregory Hustis, horn; DePaul University Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra, Southern Methodist University Meadows Wind Ensemble; Cliff Colnot, Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, and Jack Delaney, conductors [Various recording dates and venues; Nimbus Alliance NI 6258; 1CD, 79:50; Available from Nimbus, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

One of the great conundrums for a composer of contemporary Classical Music is the challenge of connecting with 21st-Century audiences in ways that are memorable for the right reasons. The fictionalized Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus advises the frustrated Mozart that success as a composer is determined by ending pieces in suitably rousing fashion that alerts audiences to the proper timing of applause. This ‘advice’ was a tongue-in-cheek representation of the playwright’s depiction of the Italian composer’s envy of Mozart’s genius, of course, but the circumstances of the success of a new work might seem similarly fickle to a modern composer. In an environment in which resources are barely sufficient to sustain performances of standard repertory works, new compositions face almost crippling odds. Perhaps advances in technology and social media lessen the disadvantages faced by 21st-Century composers in today’s reality of increasing ignorance and decreasing appreciation of music history and theory, but the endeavor to unite new compositions with knowledgeable, receptive audiences remains as critical—and as necessary—now as at any moment in the distant past.

Taking her place in the lineage extending from Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi via Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Alma Mahler to Thea Musgrave and Judith Weir, contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas thankfully faces fewer obstacles created solely by her sex than plagued women composers of previous generations. Still, to pretend—or to hope—that prejudice has been eradicated in Classical Music is simply dishonest and overtly insulting to artists like Ms. Thomas. Though considerable progress has been made in recent years, true equality for women artists remains elusive. In 2014, only a handful of women regularly conduct important orchestras, and almost none of the world's major choral ensembles, orchestras, or opera companies are headed by women. The six works by Ms. Thomas on this disc, a wonder of which is the consistency of the superb, ideally-balanced sonics of the recordings despite the various venues and provenances, make the paucity of women among today's prominent composers seem all the more regrettable. Whatever difficulties impede perfect application of the cliché to global justice, Music surely should be blind. Fortuitously, the friends of music at Nimbus Alliance are not deaf to the exceptional quality of Ms. Thomas’s compositions. The label’s commitment to documenting this fascinating composer’s artistic journey is a gift given to very few contemporary composers, but the music of very few contemporary composers justifies the confidence that Ms. Thomas’s inspires. First-rate music deserves first-rate performances, and these are what this disc preserves.

Completed in 2013, Aureole receives from the DePaul University Symphony Orchestra and conductor Cliff Colnot a performance that revels in the exuberant sonoroties of the music. Benefitting from the admirably sure intonation of the Orchestra's players, the fanfare-like figurations at the piece's opening are broadly but rousingly phrased, providing an apt introduction to the generally high spirits of the music that follows. When darker harmonies invade, momentum is maintained both by Maestro Colnot and by the Orchestra, but neither the pace of the performance nor the jocularity of the atmosphere that the music conjures seems forced. Maestro Colnot also conducts the performance of Terpsichore's Dream (2007) by members of the Chicago Symphony. Here, too, Maestro Colnot displays an affinity for Ms. Thomas's music, applying a firm hand to ​​his manipulation of the musical fragments that Ms. Thomas combines to create an alluring mosaic depicting the mythological muse of dance. The musicality of the playing of the chamber orchestra is impeccable, and the rhythmic vitality of the performance lends grace and endearing luminosity to Ms. Thomas's balletic writing. The plangent trombone lines are especially beautifully done, and the combination of celesta, harp, and glockenspiel produces sensually ethereal sounds.

Recorded in concert, the account of Words of the Sea (1995) by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bustles with the virtuosity and commitment expected from this great orchestra. A celebrated composer in his own right, Pierre Boulez devotes to Ms. Thomas's music the same attention and insightful management of musical textures that made his Wagner performances memorable. There is something of the grandeur of Der fliegende Holländer in Words of the Sea, and Maestro Boulez penetrates the depths of each of the work's four unified but stylistically divergent movements, especially the fourth and final, an homage to Debussy depicting 'mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea.' The spirit of the Debussy of La mer lurks in Ms. Thomas's music, to be sure, but there are also occasional hints of Britten, Tippett, and even Messiaen in the ways in which she advances thematic ideas through subtle distortions of harmonies. Maestro Boulez’s talent for insightfully managing the interplay of textures among individual instruments and sections of the orchestra is given a prominent outing in Words of the Sea, Ms. Thomas’s musical structures providing plentiful opportunities for Impressionistic tone-painting.

Structured similarly to Baroque motets and cantatas, In My Sky at Twilight (2002) pairs a soprano soloist with chamber ensemble. Soprano Christine Brandes here enjoys the support of the Chicago Symphony's MusicNOW Ensemble. Maestro Boulez again presides at the podium, but his concentration and identification with Ms. Thomas’s compositional style, though still impressive, are not as palpable as in Words of the Sea. Set in two movements separated by an interlude, In My Sky at Twilight makes use of an uncommonly diversified text. The first movement, 'Deeper than all Roses,' incorporates excerpts from poems by Ono no Komachi, Robert Browning, Gustave Flaubert, Kshetrayya, Sappho, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and W. S. Merwin, as well as ancient Egyptian love poetry, and 'Lament,' the work’s second movement, offers verses by Christina Rossetti, Pindar, Pablo Neruda, Bayard Taylor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Kasa. The integrity of Ms. Thomas’s desire to forge from these poetic strands a cogent text is apparent, but the goal is only partially realized: ultimately, the impact of the music is lessened by the lack of continuity in the text. There are moments in the generally capably-wrought vocal lines in which Ms. Brandes is not entirely comfortable, her intonation faltering slightly at the apexes of climactic phrases, but she is irreproachably musical and is never overwhelmed by the orchestra. This is strenuous music, but Ms. Brandes and Maestro Boulez cooperate in a performance that illustrates the suavity of Ms. Thomas’s compositional strength.

The performance of Carillon Sky (2006) unites violinist Baird Dodge with CSO’s MusicNOW Ensemble and conductor Oliver Knussen, who, like Maestro Boulez, is an accomplished composer. Carillon Sky is a de facto violin concerto, but Ms. Thomas expectedly utilizes the concerto form in innovative ways. Her faculty for distilling the most essential spirits from long-standing musical forms suggests that traditions are liberating rather than confining for Ms. Thomas, much as they were for Brahms. More than in many of the violin concerti of the 20th and 21st Centuries, the violin writing in Carillon Sky is focused on thematic development rather than empty display. Mr. Knussen leads the MusicNOW Ensemble in playing that complements Mr. Dodge’s bel canto-infused phrasing.

Silver Chants the Litanies (2004) for solo French horn and eighteen players hearkens back to the example of Schubert’s great F-Major Octet of 1824, and the masterful integration of the solo horn with the ensemble evokes memories of Richard Strauss, Mahler, and even Elgar. Dedicated to Luciano Berio, Ms. Thomas’s score applies a modern idiom to musical structures little changed since the days of Gabrieli’s Antiphonal music and Mozart’s Serenades for winds. Jack Delaney paces the Southern Methodist University Meadows Wind Ensemble’s performance of Silver Chants the Litanies with complete comprehension of the music’s demands. Horn soloist Gregory Hustis plays with the breath control of a great Lieder singer, phrasing even the most daunting lines of his part with consummate adroitness. The expressiveness of the music is magnificently realized, and the subtle indebtedness to Berio is repaid with stirring warmth.

For reasons that defy explanation and understanding, the notions of approachability and pleasure in contemporary Classical Music have assumed negative connotations. Many sages of modern music would have it that new music is of lasting quality only if it repulses the listener. In order to survive the changing prejudices and priorities of successive generations, music must inspire genuine affection among those who hear and perform it, however. The performances on this disc assert that the six works of Augusta Read Thomas recorded on this first installment in Nimbus Alliance’s intended anthology of the composer’s music have precisely that effect on the world-class musicians involved: these performances brim with affection for the music, and it is a sentiment that impersonal microphones cannot diminish. It is infuriating and saddening to think that there may be other composers as talented as Augusta Read Thomas whose work suffers neglect because of lingering stupidity and discrimination. This disc featuring standard-setting performances of six emblematic works by Augusta Read Thomas is thus all the more elating. Even in times as troubling and uncertain as these, important music is again victorious.