29 September 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini – I CAPULETI ED I MONTECCHI (N. Cabell, K. Lindsey, D. Portillo, J. Beruan, L. Moran; Washington Concert Opera – 28 September 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Liam Moran as Lorenzo, Kate Lindsey as Romeo, Nicole Cabell as Giulietta, Maestro Antony Walker, David Portillo as Tebaldo, and Jeffrey Beruan as Capellio in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Bellini's I CAPULETI ED I MONTECCHI, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]Four Gentlemen and a Lady of Verona: (from left to right) Liam Moran as Lorenzo, Kate Lindsey as Romeo, Nicole Cabell as Giulietta, conductor Antony Walker, David Portillo as Tebaldo, and Jeffrey Beruan as Capellio in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): I Capuleti ed i MontecchiNicole Cabell (Giulietta), Kate Lindsey (Romeo), David Portillo (Tebaldo), Jeffrey Beruan (Capellio), Liam Moran (Lorenzo); Orchestra and Chorus of Washington Concert Opera; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Sunday, 28 September 2014]

It seems counterintuitive to opera lovers in the Twenty-First Century, particularly those whose native tongue is English, to suggest that any opera with Romeo and Juliet as its protagonists is not at least an illegitimate offspring of William Shakespeare. Even before the première of Shakespeare’s play in the first half of the 1590s, however, stories of the feuding Montagues and Capulets had been popular in Italian literature since the families were encountered in Purgatorio in Dante’s Divina Commedia. Like Shakespeare, Dante may have been influenced by Ovid’s recounting of the tragic love of Pyramus and Thisbe, which may also have inspired, at least in part, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Felice Romani, Bellini’s librettist for I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, as well as Il pirata, La straniera, Zaira, La sonnambula, and Norma, seemingly drew primarily upon the same Fifteenth-Century novella by Matteo Bandello that most inspired Shakespeare’s dramatic retelling of the story. A poet with unusually sure instincts for the theatre who had given a number of Italy’s most celebrated composers libretti that led to career-defining success, Romani distilled the essence of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet into an intoxicating brew that was first disseminated in 1825 by Nicola Vaccai. When Bellini’s setting of Romani’s libretto first greeted the public in 1830, the opera’s success was immediate and considerable. Romeo was entrusted to Giuditta Grisi, who, like Bellini, was doomed to die young, and Giulietta was portrayed by Maria Caterina Rosalbina Caradori-Allan, a respected singer who had previously sung the soprano part in the first British performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was Maria Malibran who initiated the custom of substituting the Tomb Scene from Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo for Bellini’s final scene, but the tradition fortunately lost its appeal as I Capuleti ed i Montecchi gradually re-emerged during the Twentieth Century. Bellini’s score combines the melodic profligacy and unapologetic sentimentality for which the composer is renowned, and it is a piece that is almost perfectly-suited to being performed in concert. Details that are lost in staged performances can be unveiled with great effectiveness in concert, but no performance can be successful without penetrating the nucleus of bel canto. This is the realm of the greatest triumph of the Washington Concert Opera forces. There were imperfections in their performance of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, but even the mistakes were rooted in a profound understanding of Bellini’s idiom. The opera does not end happily, but the evening in Lisner Auditorium could hardly have been more joyous for the lover of bel canto.

Both with Washington Concert Opera and in his engagements with other companies, conductor Antony Walker has developed a reputation as one of today’s leading champions of bel canto. This performance confirmed that the esteem in which his leadership of music by the masters of bel canto is held is fully justified. In this account of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, his conducting united expressive lyricism with taut rhythmic pacing that allowed the singers to make dramatic points without sacrificing momentum or edge-of-seat vitality. This is the sort of opera in which the basic plot elements are so familiar that no one is surprised by the tragedy, but Maestro Walker conducted as though the fates of Romeo, Juliet, and their feuding families were completely new to him. He was seconded in this by the wonderfully alert, generally polished playing of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Starting with a sprightly performance of the spiritedly tuneful Overture, the orchestra and Maestro Walker were attentive to the delicate moods of Bellini’s orchestrations. Harpist Cecile Schoon, horn player Evan Geiger, cellist Gita Ladd, and clarinetist Suzanne Gekker all gave beautiful accounts of their respective solo passages, phrasing with intuitive grace. The orchestra’s collective musicality was shared by the Washington Concert Opera Chorus. The choristers’ singing of the ​opening chorus, ‘Aggiorna appena,’ was vigorous, with only a few moments of uncertain ensemble disturbing the positive impression. The strength of the choral singing grew as the performance progressed, and ‘Lieta notte, avventurosa’ later in Act One was nobly done. Significantly, both chorus and orchestra were of ideal proportions for an opera first performed in 1830, and even when their execution was not quite perfect there was no doubting the integrity—or the genuine affection—of their efforts.

As Lorenzo and Capellio, basses Liam Moran and Jeffrey Beruan sang robustly. One of the few problems with performing I Capuleti ed i Montecchi in concert is conveying that it is Capellio’s waylaying of Lorenzo rather than a circumstantial misadventure that precipitates the final tragedy. Bellini’s Lorenzo does not enjoy the prominence of Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, but Mr. Moran made the most of every opportunity afforded him, dealing equally sympathetically with both Romeo and Giulietta. Mr. Beruan thundered Capellio’s implacable pronouncements imposingly, his resonant, rock-solid tone anchoring ensembles impressively. His singing in Capellio’s brief scene in Act Two, ‘Qual turbamento io provo,’ was stirring, the softening of the character’s fury in response to his daughter’s suffering reflected in the brighter colorations in the voice.

The tessitura of Bellini’s music for Tebaldo—Shakespeare’s Tybalt—is not as stratospheric as that for Elvino in La sonnambula or Arturo in I Puritani, but his cavatina and cabaletta in Act One present the tenor with formidable tests of his bel canto technique—tests that many singers fail. Young San Antonio native David Portillo brought to his performance as Tebaldo impressive bel canto credentials, including lauded assumptions of Rossini rôles and successful traversals of the vocal minefield of Donizetti’s music for Tonio in La fille du régiment. In his introductory recitative, ‘O di Capellio, generosi amici,’ it was immediately apparent that Mr. Portillo was comfortable in Tebaldo’s music. Though forced to sing his cavatina without benefit of extensive warm-up, a cruel trick repeated by Bellini with Pollione’s ‘Meco all’altar di Venere’ in Norma, Elvino’s ‘Prendi, l’anel ti dono’ in La sonnambula, and Arturo’s ‘A te, o cara’ in I Puritani, Mr. Portillo rose to the occasion thrillingly. Phrasing the melodic line of the cantabile ‘È serbato, a questo acciaro’ with organic expressivity, he handled the lingering of the vocal line in the passaggio with brio and ascended to the aria’s top B with every appearance of ease. The proliferation of Fs and Gs in the cabaletta, ‘L'amo tanto, e m'è sì cara,’ also makes an assault on the tenor’s passaggio, and Mr. Portillo triumphed, interpolating a ringing, secure top C in the cabaletta’s coda. His intelligent ornamentation of the repeats of both his cavatina and cabaletta was delightful. The strength of Mr. Portillo’s bravura technique was further revealed in his assured singing in Tebaldo’s duet with Romeo in Act Two, ‘Ella è morta, o sciagurato.’ His assertive delivery of coloratura passages in thirds with Romeo was wonderful, and the rise to top B♭ in unison at the duet’s end was an apt resolution of the passion of the moment. Mr. Portillo’s Tebaldo was a resonantly youthful rival for Romeo, not just a conventional operatic antagonist, and the tenor confirmed that he is a bel canto stylist of exceptional abilities.

Named Seattle Opera’s artist of the year in 2010, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey has been heard at the Metropolitan Opera in rôles as diverse as Mozart’s Cherubino, Siebel in Gounod’s Faust, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, and Nicklausse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. In Romeo’s introductory recitative in Act One, ‘Lieto del dolce incarco a cui mi elegge,’ Ms. Lindsey immediately captured attention with refined, dramatically vibrant singing and energetic negotiation of Bellini’s triplets. Interacting with Capellio and Tebaldo, Ms. Lindsey’s Romeo seethed with barely-contained rage that never disrupted the singer’s spinning of a long-sustained thread of bel canto silk. The larghetto cantabile cavatina ‘Se Romeo l’uccise in figlio’ traverses more than two octaves, taking Romeo from low G to top B, and Ms. Lindsey took the considerable range of the music in stride. Throughout the performance, she was very cautious in the lower register, taking head voice very low and generally avoiding chest voice even in crucial exclamations at the very bottom of the range. Ms. Lindsey gave a stirring account of ‘La tremenda ultrice spada,’ Romeo’s Allegro marziale cabaletta, the written pair of top Bs produced without strain and her embellishments of the repeat displaying winsome creativity. The great duet for Romeo and Giulietta drew from Ms. Lindsey her most impassioned singing of the evening, her top Gs shining in ‘Sì, fuggire! a noi non resta’ and her B♭ fired into the auditorium like a missile. In Act Two, the desolation with which she began ‘Deserto è il luogo’ was heartbreaking, and her account of the gorgeous ‘Deh! tu, deh! tu, bell’anima’ stopped time, the repeated Es and Fs at the top of the staff evoking Romeo’s anguish. The top A that crowned the line was stunningly voiced, and the altering anger and despair in the duet with Tebaldo were electric. Still, the dramatic pinnacle of Ms. Lindsey’s performance was Romeo’s death in the Tomb Scene. The agony of Romeo’s dying words to Giulietta could not have been more movingly depicted in a staged performance. Across two-and-a-half octaves, from a firm low G to a pitch-perfect top C, Ms. Lindsey was a stylish, credibly masculine Romeo who walked away with more hearts than Giulietta’s.

Acclaimed for her singing as Medora in WCO’s March performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro [reviewed here], soprano Nicole Cabell returned to Washington on short notice to substitute for an indisposed colleague as Giulietta. Possessing an attractive voice and an appearance to match, Ms. Cabell won considerable praise for her Giulietta in a San Francisco Opera production—soon to be available on DVD and Blu-ray—that paired her with the Romeo of Joyce DiDonato. Ms. Cabell is an intelligent singer who knows her own voice, and in this performance she consistently made decisions that brought glory to herself and to Bellini. She does not waste effort on producing gaudy interpolated high notes: rather, she focuses her considerable gifts on the proper projection of Bellini’s broad melodic strands. Her full-bodied tone and aged-mahogany timbre are virtually ideal for Giulietta’s music, and she managed to convey both girlishness and consummate artistic maturity. In Giulietta’s opening recitative, ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta,’ she emitted a series of golden tones—rising thrice to top B♭—that introduced a deeply thoughtful character. In the opera’s most famous aria, the romanza ‘Oh! quante volte, oh! quante ti chiedo,’ Ms. Cabell soared to the top B♭ and C with complete security and disarming delicacy. Most arresting, though, was the extent to which Ms. Cabell surrendered herself to the drama even in the context of a concert performance. From her first entrance, she was not singing Giulietta’s music: she was Giulietta. Her character’s shifting emotions were shown on her face, and her subtle gestures were those of a great Juliet of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the duet with Romeo in Act One, Ms. Cabell’s portrayal of Giulietta’s hesitation, her heart torn between loyalty to her father and the memory of her slain brother and her love for Romeo, was touching, and her voicing of the top C and descending series of trills was superb. She and Ms. Lindsey combined splendidly in their coloratura in thirds in ‘Ah, crudel! d’onor ragioni,’ so reminiscent of the duets for Norma and Adalgisa, and they blended both their tones and their phrasing with the naturalness of true musical soul mates. She made Giulietta’s capitulation to Romeo in ‘Vieni, ah! vieni, in me riposa’ tremendously cathartic, and her growing resolve in the Act One Finale was reflected in Ms. Cabell’s increasingly bold singing. Launching Act Two with the gorgeous lento aria ‘Morte io non temo, il sai,’ she chillingly imparted Giulietta’s terror and uncertainty, and she rose to the top Bs of ‘Ah! non poss’io partire,’ her plea for her father’s absolution, on the wings of a spirit already fleeing this world. The emotive power of the top A with which she began ‘Ah! crudel! che mai facesti’ disclosed the enormity of Giulietta’s shock and dismay, and she matched the dignity and poignant simplicity of Ms. Lindsey’s singing of Romeo’s death with a profoundly moving rendering of Giulietta’s death. Like her colleagues, Ms. Cabell ornamented her music insightfully, but the foremost achievement of her performance was the serene confidence with which she gave a masterclass in the art of mining every magnificent diamond from Bellini’s score rather than distracting the audience with the cheap sparkles of interposed crystal and glass.

If the essence of bel canto could be distilled and bottled like Donizetti’s elixir of love, it would be a commodity more precious than petroleum. In this age in which singers are expected to master virtually every style of music, a performance in which bel canto receives consistently polished treatment among cast, chorus, orchestra, and conductor is as rare as the Hope diamond—and, to those who love bel canto, as valuable. Washington Concert Opera followed a March performance of Il corsaro that made the Verdi efforts of many of the world’s most acclaimed opera companies seem amateurish with a presentation of I Capuleti ed i Montecchi that seemed steeped not just in respect for Bellini but in the truest, most fleeting ethos of bel canto. This was a performance that sensually, sensationally told the woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo.

IN PERFORMANCE: Kate Lindsey as Romeo (left) and Nicole Cabell as Giulietta (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Bellini's I CAPULETI ED I MONTECCHI, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]Sì, fuggire: Kate Lindsey as Romeo (left) and Nicole Cabell as Giulietta (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, 28 September 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

24 September 2014

ARTIST PROFILE: autentico baritono italiano MASSIMO CAVALLETTI

BARITONO ITALIANO - Massimo Cavalletti [Photo by Giacomo Belluomini; used with permission]L’italiano in New York: baritone Massimo Cavalletti [Photo by Giacomo Belluomini, used with permission]

​Esteemed critic Raymond A. Ericson wrote in Musical America that, in the Metropolitan Opera's 1953 Christmas Day performance​ of Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore, the singer performing the rôle of the Conte di Luna 'revealed himself as potentially one of the best baritones in the Italian wing to come along in quite a while. He had a big, open voice of considerable beauty and he sang accurately and with much style.' Those words described Siena-born baritone Ettore Bastianini, whose house début twenty days earlier introduced one of the finest Italian voices of the Twentieth Century to the Leonard Warren Era at the Metropolitan Opera. Since its first performance in 1883, the Metropolitan Opera had been a bastion of great Italian baritone singing. The fear of ocean travel that seized Mattia Battistini—‘il re dei baritoni’—after a misfortune-laden voyage to Buenos Aires left development of the baritone department of the MET’s Italian wing to illustrious singers such as Mario Ancona [début: 1893 as Tonio in Pagliacci, in which he was frequently required to encore the ‘Prologo’], Giuseppe Campanari [début: 1894 as Conte di Luna in Il trovatore], and Antonio Scotti [company début: 1899 in Chicago as Comte de Nevers in Les Huguenots]. The 1908 début of Pasquale Amato as Giorgio Germont in La traviata launched an extraordinary MET career that included the first MET performances—and, in several cases, the first performances in the United States—of Puccini’s Le villi, Catalani’s La Wally, Franchetti’s Germania, Gluck’s Armide, Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Massenet’s Thaïs, Mascagni’s Lodoletta, and Leoncavallo’s Zazà, the first performance in Paris of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and the world premières of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, Damrosch’s Cyrano, and Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne. Giuseppe De Luca’s 1915 début as Rossini’s Figaro, a rôle that he sang fifty times with the MET in New York and on tour, inaugurated a relationship with the company that encompassed the first MET productions of Verdi’s La forza del destino and Don Carlo, Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore, Spontini’s La vestale, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, the first staged performance in the United States of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, the American premières of Rabaud’s Mârouf, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Puccini’s Turandot, Respighi’s La campana sommersa, and Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino, and the world premières of Granados’s Goyescas and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Several of the most notable baritones of the first decades of the Twentieth Century—Apollo Granforte, Cesare Formichi, Mariano Stabile—were conspicuously absent from the MET roster, and the New York tenure of Carlo Galeffi consisted of a single performance of La traviata and a concert. From the time of a 1923 performance of Boris Godunov until the mid-1990s, baritone singing at the MET was dominated by a quartet of American colossuses: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Sherrill Milnes. Warren’s sudden death during a performance of La forza del destino in 1960 created a near-impossible situation for General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing: the necessity of replacing one of the most popular singers in the MET’s history. Bing entrusted the lion’s share of Italian repertory to Anselmo Colzani, whose début in the title rôle of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra a month after Warren’s death was followed during the next eighteen years by a further 271 performances. Colzani was by birth and vocal endowment a true Italian baritone in the grand tradition, but he was not Warren. Perhaps the two most emblematic Italian baritones of the second half of the Twentieth Century were infrequent visitors to the MET: Tito Gobbi sang only forty-five performances for the company between 1956 and 1975, and Giuseppe Taddei was not heard at the MET until 1985, when his début as Verdi’s Falstaff was followed by only another twenty performances as Falstaff and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. The omnipresent reality during the past fifty years is that no heirs to the traditions of the great Italian baritones of the MET’s early seasons have emerged. In the performance of Puccini’s La bohème on 20 February 2010, however, a performance featuring Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo, Nicole Cabell as Musetta, and Gerald Finley as Marcello, the MET welcomed a young baritone Italian both in nationality and spirit. Making his début as Schaunard, Massimo Cavalletti proved a prince among pretenders. The words that praised Bastianini’s début apply with equal relevance to Mr. Cavalletti, and when he returns to the Metropolitan Opera on 30 September to sing the rôle of Escamillo in Richard Eyre’s production of Bizet’s Carmen, Mr. Cavalletti will bring back to the house one of the greatest thrills in opera—the bold, brilliant sound of an authentic Italian baritone voice in its prime.

Born in Lucca, which also produced Francesco Geminiani, Luigi Boccherini, Alfredo Catalani, and Giacomo Puccini, Mr. Cavalletti possesses by the circumstances of his birth an intuitive submersion in the native Italian culture of opera and by gift of nature a firm, handsome voice that seems warmed throughout its range by the Tuscan sun. The machismo strength of his singing does not prevent heart-melting suavity that gives his performances dramatic and emotional substance. Convincing as aristocrat or peasant, lover or villain, poet or pugilist, his operatic portraits are painted without artifice or affectation. Despite his natural affinity for the music of his native Italy, Mr. Cavalletti is attentive to the achievements of singers from other parts of the world in Italian rôles. ‘There are many amazing opera singers from all parts of the world,’ he confides. ‘They have an innate, Italian feeling for Italian opera. They can sing in my language with the same or even more love and deep understanding of the text.’ In his view, a singer’s success in any repertory is a direct result of the singer’s dedication to mastering the nuances of the music. ‘It always depends [upon] how much energy and time [singers] want to use for that,’ he says of singers’ efforts to connect with a particular repertory. ‘There are very good voices around the world that do not care to go deep inside the characters and libretti and just want to sing the notes.’ This, Mr. Cavalletti feels, is central to the distinction of a great artist from a merely good one. True success, he suggests, ‘always depends on the greatness of the artist. I think that there is an opera blood, and opera is still so amazing everywhere because of that blood. This blood is inside all of us, everywhere in the world, and we need good artists ready to let this blood boil in the veins of the audience. That makes the difference.’ It is a difference that depends not only upon the efforts of today’s singers but also upon the commitment of artists of the past and present to sharing their enthusiasm and technical acumen with future generations of singers. ‘Fortunately,’ Mr. Cavalletti says, ‘there are still opera singers [of the past] who are not too egotistical to share with the new generation this art and this bloodline. When I am older, I’ll be very happy to share with good young singers all of my knowledge of opera.’

Massimo Cavalletti as Enrico in Mary Zimmerman's production of Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Teatro alla Scala, 2014 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia & Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]Cruda, funesta smania: Massimo Cavalletti as Enrico in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro alla Scala, 2014 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia and Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]

In his own youthful development as a singer, Mr. Cavalletti was fortunate to benefit from exposure to some of the greatest musical artists of the Twentieth Century. ‘It was amazing for me to study at the Accademia Teatro alla Scala from 2004 until 2006,’ he says. ‘There, I met Leyla Gencer, Luciana Serra, and many other important opera singers, some retired and some still active.’ His interactions with these singers had profound effects on his progress as a young singer. ‘I think that I changed my mind regarding making a career in the theatre during these years,’ he recalls. ‘I started to understand that, in order to be a really good opera singer in the Twenty-First Century, there are many considerations besides the voice, and one of the most important is the mind. Acting and stage presence are also very important. It is extremely important to deeply know the characters and rôles, to sing with very good pronunciation and to be attentive to every possible subtext.’ These qualities are necessary both to meeting the needs of the music and to drawing audiences into performances, Mr. Cavalletti feels. ‘Audiences are in many cases new to opera, and we must find the way to show them how magical this world is. We can do it if we also come to opera as if we are new to it—but with all of the old wealth of ideas. When I was admitted to the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, I felt that this school must be a new start and a trampoline to the future. Between fifteen and twenty students are at the Accademia each year, but not all of them find the way to first-class international careers. [Success] always depends upon finding ways to accept and convert the teaching of the Maestri encountered in school.’

A singer respectful of the past and hopeful for the future, Mr. Cavalletti unsurprisingly retains particular devotion to artists by whom he has been influenced, directly or indirectly. ‘When I started my studies in 1999,’ he reminisces, ‘I had just one idol, and his name is Ettore Bastianini. I loved his amazing line and the colors in the voice; and also his amazing diction. I listened to everything he sang, and I still think that he is amazing.’ Nevertheless, he is cognizant of the ways in which the challenges faced by an opera singer in 2014 are very different from those to which singers of earlier generations were subjected. ‘A lot has changed since 1950,’ he opines. ‘Today, there are many other factors to make [a singer’s] job more difficult. A lot has changed in the theatre. I love to listen to all singers, to understand how they resolve difficult situations with scores. Especially, singers with voices that are not so perfect give me good ideas of how to deal with difficult points in the scores that I sing. I really like to listen to Piero Cappuccilli in many different rôles, but I also listen very often to tenors because they have to resolve issues that help me to better understand how to use my own instrument. I love listening to Jonas Kaufmann and Luciano Pavarotti.’ It is not solely from singers of the past that Mr. Cavalletti draws inspiration. ‘Many of the singers I really appreciate are still singing. Foremost among them is Leo Nucci [with whom he will alternate as Rossini’s Figaro at La Scala in 2015]. I am proud to be good friends with Leo and his charming wife, Adriana. They are both great people, always ready to help and support me in many different ways—especially with advice about my voice and technique. I’m lucky because I sing with such wonderful colleagues, and I can learn from them so many important ideas.’

Anyone who heard Mr. Cavalletti’s MET début as Schaunard in La bohème was reminded of the motivation for the axiom that states that, for singers with imagination, there are no secondary rôles. ‘I also débuted at La Scala as Schaunard,’ Mr. Cavalletti reflects. ‘I remember that at my first stage rehearsal with Franco Zeffirelli he personally told me [that he was] glad to have such a good singer for Schaunard because these four friends in La bohème cannot be a true quartet if, as is too often the case, one of them is not at the same level as the others. Certainly, Marcello is more interesting than Schaunard, but I love them both. I have already sung more than a hundred performances of La bohème, thirty-five as Schaunard and more than seventy as Marcello. [Of his sixteen performances at the MET to date, all in La bohème, seven were as Schaunard and nine as Marcello.] I love La bohème. It is an opera for young singers and actors. I was lucky to début at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010 as Schaunard because otherwise I would have had to wait until 2014. To sing Schaunard in opera houses like the MET and La Scala is an awesome gift for a thirty-one-year-old singer! Next year, I’ll finally also sing Marcello in the Zeffirelli production at La Scala, and then I will have sung both rôles in both houses. I’m very proud of that!’

Gerald Finley, Piotr Beczała, Anna Netrebko, Massimo Cavalletti, and Shenyang in Act Two of Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera, February 2010 [Photo by Corey Weaver, © The Metropolitan Opera]Al Quartiere Latino: (from left to right) Gerald Finley as Marcello, Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo, Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Massimo Cavalletti as Schaunard, and Shenyang as Colline in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, February 2010 [Photo by Corey Weaver, © The Metropolitan Opera]

Unlike many singers, Mr. Cavalletti exhibits impressive understanding of the necessity of careful pacing of the expansion of his repertory in order to preserve the freshness of the voice. ‘I’m very lucky because at my age—thirty-five—I can still sing only lyric rôles and repertory,’ he says. ‘My manager is able to let me continue with these kinds of rôles and wait until my voice is ready to “step up” in the repertoire.’ He is uncommonly clear-sighted about the trajectory of his career, always remaining mindful of the absolute necessity of maintaining vocal health. ‘I still want to add a few new rôles from the Bellini and Donizetti repertory; and maybe one new Verdi part,’ Mr. Cavalletti admits. ‘I am going to début Riccardo in Puritani, and I would like to try out Renato in Un ballo in maschera and Don Carlo in Ernani in concert—but I must still wait some years before trying these parts out on stage! I would really like to sing Lescaut in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut again, too.’ He is very sensitive to the good fortune of working with a manager who collaborates with him on repertory choices rather than attempting to dictate them. ‘I really trust my manager, Germinal Hilbert,’ he says. ‘He always gives me good advice, and I follow his ideas. Very often, opera singers would like to rush, but it is especially important today to keep calm and wait for the right steps at the right moments. Step by step, I’ll try to decide with my manager which kinds of rôles are good for me. I think that it is really important to consider whether any rôle is right for my age and for the specific moment in my life. After all, I want to continue to sing new rôles when I am forty, fifty, and even sixty years old!’

His decision to sing a new rôle launches a journey that takes Mr. Cavalletti into the profoundest recesses of the character. ‘When I studied Rodrigo in Don Carlos,’ he cites as an example, ‘I started with Schiller’s play, and I tried to understand how Verdi developed this fascinating rôle of Posa. Then, I threw myself into the piano score to explore the language of Rodrigo, looking for clues to help me in ensuring that I have the proper technique for the rôle. There are some operas that are very difficult solely for technical reasons, and in those cases it is critical to resolve the problems with the style of the singing, and then the rest will come.’ Music is always the primary focus of Mr. Cavalletti’s attention, but he also always examines the literary and cultural influences on composers and librettists. ‘How is it possible to sing operas like Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena without understanding on a deep level the bloody wars and situations of the countries in which they are set?’ he asks. ‘I do this for Shakespeare, Schiller, Beaumarchais, Goethe, Scott, and many others.’ This leads to contemplation of the recent trends in the ‘modernization’ of opera. ‘All operas need a bit of restyling to be good for new opera audiences,’ Mr. Cavalletti says, quickly adding, ‘Not too much—and not losing the contrasts and relations among characters! I think that we can change everything in a new production—the setting, age, places—as long as the story is the same. I always refer to the cinema: there are now many examples of updating immortal stories or old films with new ideas or settings. Take, for example, Dracula, Robin Hood, or even some old Hitchcock films. Even if they are re-set in the future, they don’t lose the original concept or the history. Audiences must understand the story easily and be able to follow it during a performance.’ The abilities of audiences and artists to connect with the drama of opera set boundaries beyond which ‘restyling’ of standard repertory threatens to damage both the music and its impact. ‘I cannot agree with the idea that everything on stage is obscured by incomprehensibly foggy sets and characters are denied space in which to interact because a director needs to see his vision come to life. Opera directors must love opera: otherwise, it is perhaps better to pursue some other kind of art. When the original concepts are completely missed without any reason, I think that we risk destroying this awesome culture that we have.’

The significance of Verdi in Mr. Cavalletti’s musical life is illustrated by his unhesitant naming of the composer when asked from whom he would most like to commission a rôle created specially for him. Choosing a single rôle proves more difficult. ‘It is really difficult to give an answer! I would like to say Lear, for sure. I’m very sorry that Maestro Verdi had no time or opportunity to complete this wonderful idea.’ [As most opera lovers recall, Antonio Somma wrote a libretto, Re Lear, for Verdi in the 1850s, perpetuating a concept that originated with Verdi commissioning a libretto based upon Shakespeare’s King Lear from Salvadore Cammarano. Some musicologists conjecture that sketches for Re Lear that Verdi completed before abandoning the project, particularly scenes for Lear and Cordelia, found a home in Rigoletto.] ‘I would really like to claim this opera for myself,’ Mr. Cavalletti says. ‘With Arrigo Boito as librettist, Verdi could finally have found a way to resolve this opera and give me a fantastic new rôle! I would also like Hamlet from Verdi. I’m not sure whether Verdi could imagine Hamlet as a baritone, but I am sure that he could love a baritone Lear!’

Massimo Cavalletti as Ford in Robert Carsen's production of Verdi's FALSTAFF at Teatro alla Scala, 2013 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia & Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]È sogno? o realtà?: Massimo Cavalletti as Ford in Robert Carsen’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at Teatro alla Scala, 2013 [Photo by Marco Brescia, © Marco Brescia and Teatro alla Scala; used with permission]

Though it is a complicated, often confounding struggle, Mr. Cavalletti has no doubt that opera will win its fight for survival. ‘Today, we are in the middle of a very difficult economic crisis,’ he expounds. ‘Everything is difficult, and it is important that there are many sponsors—public and private—ready to invest in opera.’ How does he propose to ‘sell’ opera to new investors? ‘Opera can be a very good investment,’ he continues. ‘Operas are the most incredible live performances ever! Everything happens now. It is not like recordings or films, but we act, play, and sing as if we were in a film. At the MET, I saw an enthralling production of Werther with Jonas Kaufmann, and his performance was really cinematic. The Michieletto Bohème in which I sang at Salzburg in 2012 was also like a film. We can use these new ideas to bring opera back to the cinema and television.’ He may be an idealist from an artistic perspective, but Mr. Cavalletti does not overlook the formidable demands of the business aspect of opera. ‘We must find good sponsors and open minds for politicians and governments, perhaps with tax deductions for those who invest in opera and culture,’ he surmises.

It is immediately apparent whether seeing Mr. Cavalletti on the operatic stage or conversing with him for a few minutes over coffee that, for him, opera is not a job. It is a friend, a companion, a way of life. ‘The opera singer’s life is a very strange life full of sacrifices, but it is also full of gifts and amazing experiences,’ he muses. ‘I can visit so many countries and see so many different cultures, meet people, and be many different people and rôles. Every rôle is a new life and a new opportunity to understand myself and humanity. We must be able to understand and accept this life because we are so lucky to do what we love, and I will do it as long as God allows me to sing and share emotions with people.’ He is young, but he is always mindful of the future—his own and that of his artistry. ‘I’m still not married, and I’m so in love with my singing and my work,’ he says. ‘I hope one day to have a family and children, but I would never tell another singer how to do these kinds of things. Everyone knows himself what is best. It is really difficult to give advice about the balance between the career and life off of the stage. It always depends too much upon the character of the singer. Every case is different. I know many opera singers who are very happy and in love with great families, but there are also many who are lonely. Opera and theatre need a lot of time and full attention. I think that it is important to accept ourselves and pursue our own individual goals and ideas.’

Pursuing his own goals has led Massimo Cavalletti to the stages of many of the world’s greatest opera houses. After sharing his Escamillo with the Metropolitan Opera in September and October 2014, December will find him in Amsterdam for Marcello in La bohème with Dutch National Opera. In 2015, he will travel to Florence for Riccardo in Bellini’s I Puritani with Opera di Firenze, Oman for Malatesta in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Royal Opera House Muscat, Barcelona for more Escamillos at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opernhaus Zürich for Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and Teatro alla Scala for Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Marcello, and Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff. Wherever he sings, he offers audiences glimpses of both the storied past of Italian baritone singing and the undimmed future of opera. When he dons the matador’s uniform at the MET, the language will be French, but the ethos will be that of Amato, De Luca, and Bastianini: in short, Massimo Cavalletti is the authentic Italian baritone for whom opera lovers have longed.

Massimo Cavalletti (left) as Marcello and Anna Netrebko (right) as Mimì in Damiano Michieletto's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Salzburger Festspiele, 22 July 2012 [Photo by Silvia Lelli, © Silvia Lelli & Salzburger Festspiele; used with permission]Quando s'è come voi non si vive in compagnia: Massimo Cavalletti (left) as Marcello and Anna Netrebko (right) as Mimì in Damiano Michieletto’s production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Salzburger Festspiele, 22 July 2012 [Photo by Silvia Lelli, © Silvia Lelli and Salzburger Festspiele; used with permission]


To learn more about Massimo Cavalletti, please visit his Official Website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. To purchase tickets for his performances as Escamillo in Carmen at the MET, visit the Metropolitan Opera website. His performances are scheduled for 30 September and 4, 9, 13, 17, and 23 October.

Mr. Cavalletti is represented by Theateragentur Hilbert. His press representative is Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Cavalletti for his time, candor, and enthusiasm in responding to questions for this profile and to Tim Weiler for his kindness, patience, and assistance in facilitating the interview.

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE WALKÜRE (A. Välkki, H. Hotter, C. Watson, J. Vickers, R. Gorr; Testament SBT4 1495 & A. Varnay, H. Hotter, L. Rysanek, J. Vickers, R. Gorr; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DIE WALKÜRE (Testament SBT4 1495)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre—Anita Välkki (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan), Claire Watson (Sieglinde), Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Rita Gorr (Fricka), Michael Langdon (Hunding), Marie Collier (Gerhilde), Judith Pierce (Helmwige), Margreta Elkins (Waltraute), Joan Edwards (Schwertliete), Julia Malyon (Ortlinde), Noreen Berry (Siegrune), Maureen Guy (Grimgerde), Josephine Veasey (Roßweiße); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Sir Georg Solti, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, 2 October 1961; Testament SBT4 1495; 4CD, 224:00; Available from harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre was first performed in Munich on 26 June 1870, the enthusiasm of Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig II preempting the composer’s intention that the opera should première alongside its Der Ring des Nibelungen brethren in the first Bayreuth presentation of the complete Cycle, one of greatest works of art in musical form was introduced to a tumultuous world that was in so many ways altered by it. Also springing to life for the first time was Brünnhilde, the heroine emblematic not just of Wagner but of idealized Teutonic Romanticism in general and a rôle that after 144 years still plants fear in the hearts of aspiring Wagnerians. Though Das Rheingold has recently gained traction in the international repertory, Die Walküre has traditionally been the Ring opera most frequently encountered beyond the context of productions of the full tetralogy. Even among the bounties of musical invention and metaphysical depth in the Ring, Die Walküre possesses special qualities. It is Verdi whose explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters are most celebrated by opera lovers, but there is no more heart-rending study of the fracturing of the relationship between a father and his favorite daughter than in Act Three of Die Walküre. This performance, given two days after the première of a new production of the opera by the Royal Opera House, was also intended to be part of a complete Ring, an inaugural Cycle planned for Covent Garden’s then-new Music Director, Sir Georg Solti, who was already engaged in the recording of a complete Ring with the Wiener Philharmoniker for DECCA. Ultimately, the Covent Garden Ring ran aground, but this performance is evidence both of Maestro Solti’s familiarity with Wagner repertory in the opera house as well as the recording studio and of the dramatic self-sufficiency of Die Walküre.

Testament’s meticulous restoration of Wagner performances of the past to sonic standards competitive with much more recent recordings is widely acclaimed, and the remastering of the monaural sound from the original BBC broadcast recording of this performance allows these Valkyries to ride as never before. It is not true that, as stated in press materials and on the physical CD set, this performance is being made available for the first time with this release, but it has not been previously circulated in sound of the quality achieved by Paul Baily’s remastering. The drop-outs and periods of static that marred earlier, unauthorized editions of the broadcast are absent from Testament’s release, which has natural if somewhat dry balances—nicely reflective, that is, of the acoustics of the Royal Opera House. The enthusiastic and occasionally very prominent prompter still intrudes distractingly, however, and the increased clarity of the sound enables stage noises and coughs from the audience to emerge more noticeably. Offsetting these very minor blemishes, the exemplary playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra can be heard with considerable immediacy; more so than in a number of more recent broadcasts and issues on Covent Garden’s own house label, in fact. Why the Royal Opera House Chorus is credited when there are no choral passages in Die Walküre is slightly perplexing: perhaps a few of the Valkyries, all of whom were engaged for solo parts in contemporaneous Covent Garden productions, were also members of the chorus. In this performance, the Covent Garden brass and wind players distinguish themselves with playing of laudable accuracy. Surprisingly, there are passages of uncertainty from the strings, but the musicians follow Maestro Solti’s leadership instinctively. This is a more spacious, relaxed reading of Die Walküre than would become typical of Maestro Solti in the decade after this performance, but the expansiveness permits many details of Wagner’s orchestrations to be emphasized with unusual profundity. One example among many is the delicacy of the woodwind figurations that accompany the beginning of Brünnhilde’s and Wotan’s conversation in Act Three, music that Maestro Solti and the Covent Garden players deliver with particular concentration and sensitivity. In general, the conductor’s Wagner interpretations were notable for their drive and energy, and these qualities are in evidence in this performance. There are also many moments of repose, and this, on the whole, is one of Maestro Solti’s most openly emotional performances of a Wagner opera.

Valkyries Marie Collier (Solti’s Chrysothemis opposite Birgit Nilsson in his DECCA studio recording of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with the Wiener Philharmoniker) as Gerhilde, Judith Pierce as Helmwige, Margreta Elkins as Waltraute, Joan Edwards as Grimgerde, Julia Maylon as Ortlinde, Noreen Berry as Siegrune, Maureen Guy as Grimgerde, and Josephine Veasey as Roßweiße are as imposing a family of warrior sisters as can be heard on any recording of Die Walküre. Individually and in ensemble, each lady manages her part capably, and this is the rare octet who prove capable of producing sounds of real beauty. In pleading with Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde, the musicality with which these Valkyries intertwine their voices is tremendous: the enormity of Brünnhilde’s betrayal is made all the more clear by Wotan’s refusal to yield to such a radiantly-expressed argument. The terror and understated sadness with which these girls, unused to affairs of the heart, turn their backs on their errant sister is unexpectedly touching. It is as though they are seized, if only for a moment, by the humanity to which Brünnhilde is condemned.

Already a Covent Garden stalwart for a decade at the time of this performance, bass Michael Langdon is a menacing, mean-spirited Hunding who seems intent on exterminating Siegmund from the moment he finds the meddlesome male Wälsung in his home. The nastiness of his voicing of ‘Ich weiß ein wildes Geschlecht’ in Act One is startling, and he leaves little doubt that Sieglinde’s life with him is one from which any self-respecting woman would be eager to flee. Such is the impact of Mr. Langdon’s pitch-black timbre and gleefully hateful portrayal of Hunding that Wotan’s slaying of the character at the end of Act Two inspires a sigh of relief.

At the particular request of conductor Erich Leinsdorf, the powerhouse Belgian mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr sang Fricka in the nearly-contemporaneous studio recording of Die Walküre for RCA Victor (and eventually DECCA), replacing the singer originally engaged for the studio sessions, Grace Hoffman. For Leinsdorf and RCA’s microphones, Ms. Gorr was a bold, unrelentingly magisterial Fricka: for the Covent Garden audience, she was nothing short of definitive. Though the character lurks in the orchestral Leitmotivs throughout the opera, Ms. Gorr was obviously keenly aware that Fricka has only a quarter-hour or so in which to leave her mark on a performance of Die Walküre. Leave her mark this granite-toned singer does with a vengeance. At her first entrance, Ms. Gorr credibly conveys Fricka’s annoyance at finding Brünnhilde with Wotan, and the growing impatience in the subsequent scene with Wotan is compellingly enacted. Many singers make Fricka’s demand that the adulterous Sieglinde and Siegmund—the products of her husband’s infidelity with a mortal woman—must be destroyed seem irrational and impetuous. With Ms. Gorr’s Fricka, there is no question that her commandeering of the Wälsung’s fate is vindictive, but the force with which her argument is made allows no dispute of the legitimacy of her mandate: it must be, and Wotan is powerless to deny her. The visceral impetus of her singing in ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern’ is astounding. Ms. Gorr takes leave of her crestfallen consort with palpable satisfaction, knowing that she has prevailed in the contest of wills. Vocally, Ms. Gorr is among the few recorded Frickas able to reflect in her singing every dramatic point of her portrayal. The part’s range does not trouble her, and she here sings with greater steadiness and accuracy of pitch than in almost any other of her preserved performances. The voice was a true dramatic mezzo-soprano instrument, a thing of great rarity then as now, and this recording is a worthwhile memento of this cyclonic artist at the summit of her talents.

Solely in terms of tessitura and vocal weight, few if any rôles suited Canadian tenor Jon Vickers better than Siegmund. In this performance, his Siegmund emerges from the tempest with a primordial ‘Wes Herd dies auch sei’ that sets the tone for his impersonation of the impetuous Wälsung. Mr. Vickers’s recounting of the misfortunates that befell Siegmund in the years since his separation from his sister is harrowing and inspires true sympathy for the character. ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ is sung with such enchanting intensity that even the incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde seems not just an instrument of fate but a star-crossed union. Many Siegmunds convincingly impart either the character’s desire or his self-righteousness: few combine these sentiments as plausibly as Mr. Vickers manages to do here. His immediately-identifiable voice never sounded better in studio or in theatre than in this performance, and his voicing of the famous cries of ‘Nothung’ are less self-indulgent than in many outings, including a number of the tenor’s own efforts. The ringing security of his top A in the final moments of Act One is rousing, but he is in phenomenal voice throughout the performance. His rejections in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ of Brünnhilde’s promises of glory in Valhalla if Sieglinde cannot remain by his side are affecting, and his interactions with Sieglinde in Act Two are remarkable for their vocal sheen and emotional directness. His singing of ‘Zauberfest bezähmt ein Schlaf’ is superb, one of the finest recorded examples of Mr. Vickers’s artistry. Ultimately, his Siegmund is the ideal foil for Mr. Langdon’s Hunding: when this Siegmund falls, the loss is potently felt.

In 1958, New York-born soprano Claire Watson both débuted at Covent Garden as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and joined the company of the Bayerische Staatsoper, where she also sang Sieglinde. It is not for singing Wagner that she is most remembered, but her portrayal of Sieglinde in this performance is unforgettable. There are problems, foremost among which is the size of the natural instrument: it was not a small voice, but in comparison with many of the Twentieth Century’s best Sieglindes Ms. Watson is a ‘leaner’ presence in the rôle. In Act One, her singing of ‘Müd am Herd fand ich den Mann’ details an acutely painful life with Hunding, and the exuberance of ‘Du bist der Lenz’ is evocative of a burgeoning sense of freedom. The simple elation in ‘Wehwalt heißt du fürwahr?’ is uplifting. In the world to which she has been subjected, not even freedom is to be trusted, and Ms. Watson’s utterance of Sieglinde’s doubt and trepidation in Act Two is forceful without being forced. Ms. Watson was an intelligent singer who knew how to project her voice, and she achieves extraordinary heights of passion in Act Three without pushing the voice beyond its limits. Her singing of ‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge am mich’ abounds with humility and despair, but her account of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ is rightfully an outburst of maternal euphoria. Ms. Watson’s Sieglinde is far more engaging than a conventional operatic damsel in distress: rather than ‘saving’ her, Siegmund provides her with the wherewithal to save herself. She is a Sieglinde who seems capable of preserving her bloodline even without Brünnhilde’s intervention. Despite a few moments of stress, Ms. Watson’s warm, womanly singing is a joy.

Hans Hotter was one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated Wotans, and though this 1961 performance did not find him in best voice—he had been singing the part for nearly three decades by the time of the opening of this Covent Garden production, after all—it documents one of his finest preserved performances of the rôle. Few singers convey as much of Wotan’s inner torment in ‘Nun zäume dein Roß,’ the brief passage before Fricka’s entry in Act Two, and Mr. Hotter’s Wotan tangles with Ms. Gorr’s Fricka with immense dignity that might prevail in a contest with a weaker adversary. In Wotan’s subsequent scene with Brünnhilde, Mr. Hotter’s singing of ‘Was keinem in Worten ich künde’ courses with shame and weariness. In this performance, it need not be taken on faith that Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite offspring: the tenderness that Mr. Hotter exudes reveals the emotional core missing from so many Wotans. The explosive anger of ‘Steh, Brünnhild’!’ in Act Three is quickly replaced with misery when Wotan and Brünnhilde are left alone. The heartbreak of Mr. Hotter’s performance of ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ is complemented by the stark sincerity of ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!’ The erosion of his wife’s trust and respect is debilitating, but the despondency with which Mr. Hotter traverses the final minutes of Act Three suggests that separation from his daughter is as distressing a plight as his own demise. Vocally, Mr. Hotter is neither as firm nor as authoritative as in earlier performances of Die Walküre, but all of the rôle’s notes remain within his grasp. The voice is that of a man, the phrasing that of a god, and Mr. Hotter confirms his status as a Wotan for the ages, one whose divinity is too burdensome to bear.

Finnish soprano Anita Välkki creates a Brünnhilde who deserves the affection lavished on her by her father. From her first ‘Hojotoho,’ she backs down from none of the demands of her music, and the steadiness of her voice up to top C is formidable. She possesses elements of Nordic coolness, but her timbre is touched by heat and allure. In ‘Schlimm, fürcht’ ich, schloß der Streit,’ her interrogation of her father is both lighthearted and deadly serious, and it is apparent in her imaginatively-phrased ‘O sag’, künde’ that her Brünnhilde senses both the impossibilities of her father’s predicament and the depths of his anguish. Ms. Välkki sings ‘Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!’ enthrallingly, the solidity of the lower octave of her voice matching her resplendence on high. It is in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ that a prescient Brünnhilde sees her future before her and makes the conscious decision to defy her father in order to honor him. This is imparted in few performances as tellingly as in Ms. Välkki’s. Her desperation in Brünnhilde’s petition to her sisters in Act Three intimates that she is fleeing from Wotan not because she fears his wrath but because she knows the part that she must play in his downfall. Her singing of ‘War es so schmählich’ glows with affection rather than defiance, and her capitulation is one of acceptance, not defeat. In this performance, Ms. Välkki has every trait needed to be a legendary Brünnhilde: thanks to Testament, a new generation of Wagnerians can make her acquaintance.

Three years before Maestro Solti conducted Die Walküre at Covent Garden, three members of his London cast assembled at Bayreuth to sing their rôles in the opera under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch. Newly available in Walhall’s Eternity Series, the 1958 Bayreuther Festspiele Walküre is also a performance of incredible histrionic power. The slightly younger Hans Hotter, Rita Gorr, and Jon Vickers sing almost as well as in London three years later. Mr. Hotter was in better voice at Bayreuth, but his Covent Garden Wotan is the more moving—and, on the whole, almost as well-sung. The band of Bayreuth Valkyries is suitably august, with Ms. Gorr doing double duty as Grimgerde and such fine singers as Lotte Rysanek, Maria von Ilosvay, and Grace Hoffman also donning Valkyrie attire. Josef Greindl was a practiced, well-known Hunding, and though his vocalism is less smooth he is no less sinister than his British counterpart. Leonie Rysanek was one of the most renowned Sieglindes of her or any generation, and at her best she fully justified that reputation. She is here an involved participant in the drama but is not the firebrand that she would become in subsequent productions. The lower range of the voice—where much of Sieglinde’s music dwells—was never the most comfortable territory for Ms. Rysanek, but when the vocal line climbs so does her confidence, and the meteoric top notes are predictably spectacular. Interestingly, though, she is not clearly superior to Ms. Watson, vocally or dramatically. The greatest contrast between the Bayreuth and Covent Garden performances is provided by the respective Brünnhildes. In 1958, Astrid Varnay had as much experience in Die Walküre as any singer in the world. She famously débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Sieglinde on 6 December 1941: six days later, she sang Brünnhilde in the same production. Interestingly, she only sang the Walküre Brünnhilde four times at the MET over the course of slightly more than twelve years, but she sang the rôle in consecutive Bayreuth Ring Cycles from 1951 through 1958—and in the ‘54 and ‘55 Cycles alternated as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde!—and again in 1960, 1961, and 1962. [She also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in Cycles in 1963 and 1964 in which the Walküre Brünnhilde was sung by Ms. Välkki, who in turn sang the Third Norn in Ms. Varnay’s Götterdämmerung performances.] Ms. Varnay was a more stately, sheerly powerful Brünnhilde than Ms. Välkki, but the Finn had the lovelier timbre. In these performances, they are relatively evenly matched. Always a shrewd performer, Ms. Varnay was in 1958 a Brünnhilde to be reckoned with, and she and Mr. Hotter easily dominate the performance. The specially-selected members of the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele play wonderfully, and Maestro Knappertsbusch presides with easy command. It is intriguing to note that, in what would be his final Bayreuth Ring, he lingers over the score ten minutes longer than Maestro Solti at his most unhurried, but the older conductor’s pacing is no less vital than his younger colleague’s. [Maestro Solti would not conduct at Bayreuth until 1983, when he led a Ring with Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde and Siegmund Nimsgern and Bent Norup as Wotan.] Walhall’s sound is excellent, and the performance contains a host of admirable elements.

With a very high retail price, the Testament issue of the 1961 Covent Garden Walküre likely will not be heard as widely as its virtues warrant. That is truly a pity as it is one of the finest performances of the opera ever released on compact discs. Both the Testament recording and Walhall’s reissue of the 1958 Bayreuth performance divulge anew how engrossing Die Walküre can be. They also expose with demoralizing perspicuity how precipitously the standards of performing Wagner’s operas have declined in the following half-century.


Richard Wagner - DIE WALKÜRE (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247)RICHARD WAGNER: Die Walküre—Astrid Varnay (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Rita Gorr (Fricka, Grimgerde), Josef Greindl (Hunding), Marlies Siemeling (Gerhilde), Charlotte Rysanek (Helmwige), Elisabeth Schärtel (Waltraute), Maria von Ilosvay (Schwertleite), Hilde Scheppan (Ortlinde), Grace Hoffman (Siegrune), and Ursula Boese (Roßweiße); Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele; Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Bayreuther Festspiele, August 1958; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247; 3 CD, 234:12; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

21 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – MACBETH (H. Braun, C. Goltz, A. Dermota, W. Kreppel, E. Majkut; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - MACBETH (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Macbeth [Sung in German]—Hans Braun (Macbeth), Christel Goltz (Lady Macbeth), Anton Dermota (Macduff), Walter Kreppel (Banquo), Erich Majkut (Malcolm), Anny Felbermayer (eine Kammerfrau), Franz Fuchs (ein Arzt); Der Wiener Rundkunkchor; Das Große Wiener Rundfunkorchester; Argeo Quadri, conductor [Recorded for broadcast by Wiener Rundfunk, Vienna, Austria, in 1960; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0380; 2 CD, 131:50; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Once upon a time, before the advent of the European Union, when opera in an audience’s vernacular was not dismissed as a quaint affront to the integrity of composers’ creations, the principal broadcasters in German-speaking Europe frequently offered their listeners performances of operas from all niches of the repertory sung in their native tongue. To such broadcast performances is owed enormous gratitude for the preservation of a host of legendary interpretations that were not otherwise recorded: Gertrude Grob-Prandl’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes; Martha Mödl’s Ulrica and Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; Astrid Varnay’s Salome, Elektra, and Santuzza; Dragica Martinis’s Tosca and Leonora in La forza del destino; Lenora Lafayette’s Aida; Josef Metternich’s Rigoletto; Sena Jurinac’s Suor Angelica. Alongside a thrilling 1954 Westdeutsche Rundfunk broadcast of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth featuring Metternich, Varnay, and Ludwig Weber must now be placed another radio performance of the composer’s atmospheric adaptation of the ‘Scottish play’ recorded in 1960 by Viennese radio. Made available on compact disc for the first time with this release, this Macbeth is a real discovery, fortunately presented in a fresh remastering by Walhall Eternity Series with vibrant, largely undistorted sound. It is strangely discombobulating at first to hear lines as unapologetically Italianate as those in Macbeth sung in German, but after a few bars the ears adjust: with singing of the quality heard in this performance by a cast more likely to be encountered in music by Wagner or Richard Strauss, it is an adjustment that is readily made.

Born in Como, Argeo Quadri (1911 – 2004) was a stalwart presence in the performance of Italian opera in Vienna during the 1950s and ’60s, and his idiomatic, generally shapely conducting is documented on a number of broadcast and studio recordings. He was what now might be termed a ‘singers’ conductor,’ his pacing seemingly almost always attentive to singers’ needs. Verdi’s Macbeth was not typical fare in Vienna in 1960, but Maestro Quadri leads this performance with a sure hand, showing fine management of the opera’s dramatic thrust and natural affinity for the kernels of bel canto that enrich the score. In the conspiratorial exchanges between Macbeth and his treacherous Lady, Maestro Quadri takes a brisk approach, but lyrical passages like Macduff’s aria in Act Four are given ample breadth for emotive expansiveness. The finales of the first three acts, in which the young Verdi flexed his musical and dramatic muscles exhilaratingly, are resolved without forcing, and the innovative structure of Act Four is deftly handled. There is a squareness in Maestro Quadri’s conducting, but it is undeniably quenching to hear an Italian conductor with lifelong acquaintance with Verdi’s music focus on keeping things moving within the scope of the score rather than consciously pursuing an individual ‘interpretation.’

Vienna was in 1960 and remains today a rich mine from which to extract musical gems, and the playing of the Große Wiener Rundfunkorchester is appropriately sparkling. Despite a few missteps, the opera’s Prelude, one of Verdi’s finest efforts in this vein, is beautifully played, and the orchestral musicians consistently follow Maestro Quadri’s lead in delivering their parts with responsive but not inflexible attention to the quicksilver fluidity of Verdi’s music. Expectedly, the ballet music is not included in this performance, and there are cuts, mostly small, throughout the opera. The opening chorus of witches in Act One, ‘Was gibt's Neues?’ (‘Che faceste?’), is rousingly sung, and the choristers’ voicing of the witches’ return later in the act, ‘Sie hab'n sich fortgemacht!’ (‘S'allontanarono!’), has a wonderfully sinister energy. The choral Incantation at the beginning of Act Three, ‘Frisch auf zum Kessel her!’ (‘Tre volte miagola la gatta in fregola’), the stand-in for Shakespeare's ‘Double, double, toil and trouble,’ bristles with ethereal menace, but the greatest opportunity for the chorus comes at the start of Act Four. The lament of the suffering Scots, ‘Arme Heimat!’ (‘Patria oppressa!’), is the equal of the universally-celebrated ‘Va, pensiero sull'ali dorate’ in Nabucco, and the Vienna choristers sing as though they were themselves subject to Macbeth’s tyranny. Heard in 2014, this is an uncannily relevant instance of art mirroring life, but even in 1960 it was a moving, ardently-voiced expression of the yearning of a people to take back their own freedom.

German soprano Anny Felbermayer (born 1927) won the prestigious Cebotari Prize and gave many seasons of reliable service at the Wiener Staatsoper and elsewhere. In this performance, she sings the rôle of Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting with fresh tone and dramatic involvement. Unfortunately, little information survives about the career of baritone Franz Fuchs: here portraying the Doctor who attends to Lady Macbeth in the Sleepwalking Scene, he delivers his lines with a firm voice of no great distinction. Viennese tenor Erich Majkut (1907 – 1976) enjoyed successful careers at both the Wiener Volksoper and the Wiener Staatsoper, as well as at the Salzburger Festspiele, and he fills Malcolm’s lines with vocal ease and some notion of how to shape a Verdian phrase.

German bass Walter Kreppel (1923 – 2003) sang Fasolt in Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1962 opposite Otto Wiener, Grace Hoffman, Jutta Meyfarth, Marga Höffgen, and Otakar Kraus, and his impersonation of Banquo in this performance seems a surprisingly apt preparation for his outing on the Green Hill. In his Act One duet with Macbeth, ‘Schon hat sich's zweimal’ (‘Due vaticini compiuti or sono’), Mr. Kreppel sings resonantly, the dark, grainy quality of his timbre lending credibility to his portrayal of Banquo as both warrior and thinker. In ‘Sie, wie vom Himmel schwer herab’ (‘Come dal ciel precipita’), Banquo’s aria in Act Two, Mr. Kreppel sings powerfully, rising with force to the top E. His account of Banquo’s ‘return’ in the Apparitions Scene in Act Three, ‘Ach, Macbeth! Macbeth!’ (‘O Macbetto! Macbetto!’), is chilling. Mr. Kreppel’s performance lacks the nobility that an ideal Banquo possesses, but his granitic vocalism and excellent diction create a character who is no man’s—or dastardly Lady’s—dupe.

Slovene tenor Anton Dermota (1910 – 1989) was one of the finest Mozart tenors of the Twentieth Century, for which accomplishment he was made a Kammersänger before he reached the age of forty. In celebration of his seventieth birthday, he sang Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Wiener Staatsoper with a voice little touched by time. Perhaps even more successful as a Lieder singer, he made wonderful recordings of Lieder by Richard Strauss with the composer at the piano. Throughout his operatic career, Mr. Dermota also sang a number of Italian rôles including Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, and this experience serves him well in this performance. Though he joins in ensembles in the opera’s first two acts, the pinnacle of Macduff's music is his aria in Act Four, ‘Ach, meine armen Kleinen’ (‘Ah, la paterna mano’)​​. Mr. Dermota sings every note of Macduff’s music with the well-supported, ingratiating tone and elegance for which he was renowned, but his performance of his aria is special—the finest singing heard in this recording. He ascends to the aria’s top B♭♭ with ardor, and he alone among the principals is attentive to the bel canto refinement of Verdi’s score.

Dortmund-born soprano Christel Goltz (1912 – 2008) was one of the Twentieth Century’s most acclaimed interpreters of the complex heroine of Richard Strauss’s Salome, a part that she recorded in studio three times and sang for her début at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954. In actuality, all of her six MET performances were as Salome, but she was also celebrated for her dynamic Färberin in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Verdi rôles did not figure prominently in her career, but her traversal of Lady Macbeth’s music in this performance lacks none of the ferocity of her Salome and Färberin. She provides a reading of Macbeth's letter in Act One, ‘Sie begegneten mir am Tage des Sieges!’ (‘Nel dì della vittoria io le incontrai’), that is superior to many sopranos’ reading of the letter in Italian, but unsteadiness and stylistic discomfort rear their heads in the subsequent recitative, ‘Voller Ehrgeiz bist du’ (‘Ambizioso spirto tu sei’). Her ascent to the exposed top C falls short of the mark, but she reclaims much of her glory in the aria ‘Komm, dass ich reize dein träges Blut’ (‘Vieni! t'affretta!’), in which her top C is steadier and more accurate of pitch. Both here and in the​​ cabaletta, ‘Komm, Hölle, und sauge’ (‘Or tutti, sorgete’), her technique is sorely tested: she manages the cabaletta’s top B with panache, but her coloratura is inadequate. By the time that she reaches the Act One Finale, however, she is coping with the high tessitura with greater security, sustaining the extended top C in ensemble without incident and venturing a decent interpolated top D♭ in the coda. In her Act Two aria ​​‘Nun sinkt der Abend’ (‘La luce langue’), she ignites a dramatic fire that burns until the final note of her performance. The Brindisi, ‘Den vollen Becher lasst froh uns heben!’ (‘Si colmi il calice di vino’), is rippingly performed, the voice hurling out firm, ideally-placed tones up to top C.​​ The stumbling blocks of the plethora of top Bs in the Act Two Finale never upset her balance, and the vehemence of her singing in the scene with Macbeth in Act Three is arresting. Like Macduff, Lady Macbeth faces her greatest challenge in Act ​​Four, in which she takes her leave of the bloody drama with the unusual ‘Gran Scena del Sonnambulismo,’ ‘Dieser Flecken kommt immer wieder!’ (‘Una macchia è​​ qui tuttora’)​​. The eeriness of Ms. Goltz’s singing is spine-tingling, and there are fleeting passages in which her tone approaches genuine beauty. She gamely goes for the notorious top D♭—one of the infamous climactic high notes that Verdi actually wrote—and only just misses the center of the pitch. Vocally, Ms. Goltz is a decidedly inconsistent Lady Macbeth: dramatically, only Maria Callas and Renata Scotto are her true rivals.

Austrian baritone Hans Braun (1917 – 1992) sonorously intoned der Heerrufer des Königs in the unforgotten 1953 Bayreuth production of Lohengrin that featured Wolfgang Windgassen, Eleanor Steber, Astrid Varnay, Hermann Uhde, and Josef Greindl, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. In this recording of Macbeth, Mr. Braun is a burly, masculine presence. A measure of the vulnerability of the character is sacrificed, and though his singing is rough-hewn it is rarely unsatisfactory. In the Act One duet with Banquo, he phrases capably—occasionally more imaginatively than the German translation would seem to allow, in truth—and produces the climactic top Fs without strain. His ​​duet with his seditious consort, ‘Geh! Melde meiner Gattin’ (‘Sappia la sposa mia’), is rebelliously sung, and his lines in Act Two are lobbed like grenades. Mr. Braun reacts to the chorus and Banquo’s ghost with trembling defiance in the Act Three Apparitions Scene, his brawny voicing of ‘Ich bin am Ziele’ (‘Finchè​​ appelli, silenti m'attendete’) and​​ ‘Wehe! Du siehst wie Banquo aus!’ (‘Fuggi, regal fantasima’)​​ leading to compelling acting with the voice in the Act Three Finale, ‘Sie werden leben?’ (‘Ove son io?’). Mr. Braun permits an element of sadness to flow through his singing of ‘Was sonst wohl das Alter verkläret’ (‘Pietà​​, rispetto, amore’) in Act Four, and he fires off a striking high G as Macbeth goes into battle​. Like Ms. Goltz, Mr. Braun is not a natural Verdian, but his strapping voice—not on its best form in this performance, sometimes sounding fatigued and tentative—and resilient dramatic persona render him a Macbeth worthy of his vividly nasty Lady.

Virtually every opera lover enjoys contemplating how favorite singers might have sounded in rôles that they seldom or never sang. Fortunately, the archives of Europe’s broadcasters enable much of this conjecture to be compared with little-known performances. Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera that, despite its Scottish setting, is as Italianate as any score might claim to be, and in an era of downloadable libretti and supertitles what is the value in reviving a Macbeth sung in German more than fifty years ago for the benefit Viennese radio listeners? In the context of this recording, there are three phenomenal reasons: Hans Braun, Christel Goltz, and Anton Dermota.

20 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Sergey Prokofiev & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – PIANO CONCERTOS (Behzod Abduraimov, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI; DECCA 478 5360)

CD REVIEW: Sergey Prokofiev & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - PIANO CONCERTOS (DECCA 478 5360)

SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953): Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 and PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Dance of the Four Swans (Pas de quatre) from Swan Lake (transcription by Earl Wilde), Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 23Behzod Abduraimov, piano; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI; Juraj Valcuha, conductor [Recorded in Auditorium RAI ‘Arturo Toscanini,’ Torino, Italy, 10 – 12 July 2013; DECCA 478 5360; 1CD, 64:19; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Regardless of the criteria applied to analyses of the health of Classical Music in the early Twenty-First Century, it cannot be denied that each generation in its turn produces a crop of Wunderkind pianists. If not game-changing prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn, many of the young pianists who have emerged in recent years have proved to be extremely gifted technicians. A prepubescent pianist can hardly be expected to possess the mature artistry of a Schnabel or a Moravec, but the most disenfranchising aspect of precocity is the frequency with which it cannot survive the relentless, often artistically irrelevant pressures of the struggle to fabricate a lasting career. Perhaps, as the example of Mozart’s thwarted youth suggests, little has changed across the years for an aspiring virtuoso:in music, as in any discipline, the formidable challenge for any child prodigy is maintaining the momentum of a career with early success. Many Wunderkinder eventually realize that youthful acclaim was never truly their own aspiration. Ultimately, the talents that prove capable of perseverance are those that simmer consistently. Those that boil quickly are exciting but often evaporate quickly and then grow cold, but the youngster whose gifts enable measured intensification has a far greater chance at retaining the warmth of true love for music throughout a long career. Unlike a number of young musicians who emerged in the past quarter-century, fully-formed like musical Minervas, but disappeared before the public learned to pronounce their names properly, Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov has shown in the first years of his international career no signs of fading: his artistry is simmering steadily, and the source of the heat is the music itself.

Being the offspring of creative geniuses so closely allied with what might rather simplistically be termed the ‘Russian soul,’ it is interesting and somewhat ironic that both Prokofiev’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerti received their first public performances outside of Russia. Premièred by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1921 with the composer at the keyboard, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto was not immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, but by the time that the composer recorded the Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1932 it had found a place in the repertoires of many of the world’s preeminent pianists. Now, ninety-three years after it was first performed, the Concerto is generally acknowledged as the most popular of Prokofiev’s six piano concerti. Like many of the famously sensitive Tchaikovsky’s works, his First Piano Concerto had a turbulent genesis. The first version, composed during 1874 and 1875, was sternly critiqued by Nikolai Rubinstein, who would later become one of work’s foremost interpreters and defenders, and Tchaikovsky may have been especially inclined to authorize a première for the Concerto beyond Russia’s borders. When the composer ascertained that the acclaimed pianist Hans von Bülow, whose playing he came to admire after hearing a recital in Moscow in 1874, was preparing for an American tour, an ideal opportunity presented itself. Whether von Bülow’s first performance of the Concerto in Boston in 1875 was the result of serendipity or mere circumstance, Tchaikovsky’s correspondence reveals that he was genuinely surprised to learn that audience response to the Concerto’s première compelled von Bülow to encore the third movement. Following their American débuts and substantial revision on Tchaikovsky’s part, both Concerti are mainstays in the performance diaries of many of the most respected concert pianists. It is only natural that a relative newcomer like Mr. Abduraimov should want to prove himself in these works, and he not only confirms that he is a masterful technician but also manages even at his young age to fashion interpretations of these towering works that are worthy of comparison with those of the greatest pianists past and present.

The Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI is not an ensemble that enjoys the exalted reputations touted by orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and Wiener Philharmoniker, but the RAI players here rival the finest work of their esteemed colleagues. The orchestral parts in both concerti are often tours de force in their own right, and the RAI musicians back down from none of the challenges. Under the direction of Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, the Orchestral personnel exhibit exceptional versatility, adapting their playing to Prokofiev’s and Tchaikovsky’s individual voices. All sections of the orchestra rise to every peak in the music, and both musicians and conductor supply the structure needed for Mr. Abduraimov to focus on making magic.

Mr. Abduraimov’s credentials as a thoughtful interpreter of Prokofiev’s music for piano were established in a 2011 recording for DECCA of the composer’s fiendishly difficult sixth Sonata [A major, Opus 82] and Suggestion diabolique—a devil of a piece, indeed—in which his fantastic performances of the Prokofiev pieces were complemented by equally accomplished playing of Franz Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre. The powerful tone and near-perfect negotiation of difficult intervals that made such an indelible impression in the performances on the earlier disc are even more imposing in Mr. Abduraimov’s playing of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. In the opening movement, his sensitivity enables atypical discernment of the fragmentary repetitions of the lyrical opening theme in the red-blooded piano part, and his calm command of the demanding arpeggios, glissandi, and triadic writing in the coda highlights the unconventional logic of Prokofiev’s harmonic progressions. The Andante con variazioni second movement is a light-hearted recitation of the litany of compositional techniques that Prokofiev inherited from his musical ancestors and observed in the works of his contemporaries. The cleverness of the interactions between the piano and orchestra is accentuated by the suppleness of Mr. Abduraimov’s phrasing and his close collaboration with Maestro Valcuha. The pianist’s gossamer touch in the obbligato-like response to the restatement of the principal theme adds an intriguing note of mystery to the movement’s final bars. The aggressive, almost pugilistic final movement challenges the world’s best pianists, and it is to Mr. Abduraimov’s credit that he not only survives unscathed but also plays with unflustered concentration that optimizes the impact of Prokofiev’s inventive bitonality. Despite his youth, Mr. Abduraimov’s playing discloses a first-rate comprehension of Prokofiev’s unique style.

In truth, the inclusion of Earl Wild’s arrangement of the ‘Danse des petits cygnes’ (Pas de quatre) from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake contributes little to the appreciation of Mr. Abduraimov’s artistry, but it is a lovely piece that the young pianist plays at least as well as Wild did in his celebrated recording of it. In the monumental opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, Mr. Abduraimov and Maestro Valcuha work closely to build a majestic foundation upon which the primary theme is unfurled with delicacy. Mr. Abduraimov does not linger over the thematic figure now widely thought to be a subtle reminiscence of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Désirée Artôt, nor does he allow his rhythmic fortitude to succumb to the rhapsodic nature of the familiar introduction. The wit of Tchaikovsky’s development of the Andantino semplice subject of the second movement is exposed with extraordinary effect by Mr. Abduraimov’s unsentimental phrasing, and Maestro Valcuha’s management of the transition to the prestissimo tempo of the central section of the movement maximizes the significance of the contrast. In the Allegro con fuoco final movement, both Mr. Abduraimov and Maestro Valcuha treat the ‘rise’ from the initial B♭ minor to the B♭ major in which the Concerto ultimately ends with the emotional and musical distinction that the similar conversion in the final scene of Swan Lake demands. Throughout the Concerto, Mr. Abduraimov’s technical abilities are awe-inspiring, but he also has the sort of open-hearted communicativeness that finds an ideal outlet in Tchaikovsky’s special Romanticism. His performance of the First Concerto is unique not in the sense of being offputtingly idiosyncratic but for the unassuming joy of his playing.

It is difficult to assess a young pianist’s effectiveness as a concert artist and potential for longevity solely by listening to his recordings, but this recording of Prokofiev’s Third and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerti furnishes ample evidence of Behzod Abduraimov’s vivacity and technical hegemony, particularly in Russian repertory. In short, these are outstanding performances—the kind of performances in which a young pianist proclaims, ‘I am here to stay.’


Behzod Abduraimov plays music by Franz Liszt, Sergey Prokofiev, & Camille Saint-Saëns (DECCA 478 3301)FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886), SERGEY PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953), and CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921): Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (S. 173, III), Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (S. 514); Suggestion diabolique, Op. 4 No. 4, Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82; Danse macabre, Op. 40 (transcription by Liszt, adapted by Vladimir Horowitz)—Behzod Abduraimov, piano [Recorded in the Wyastone Concert Hall, The Doward, Herefordshire, England, UK, 28 June – 1 July 2011; DECCA 478 3301; 1 CD, 70:43; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]