30 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – GUILLAUME TELL (A. Foster-Williams, M. Spyres, J. Howarth, T. Stafford, A. Volpe, R. Facciolà; NAXOS 8.660363-66)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - GUILLAUME TELL (NAXOS 8.660363-66)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Guillaume TellAndrew Foster-Williams (Guillaume Tell), Michael Spyres (Arnold Melcthal), Judith Howarth (Mathilde), Tara Stafford (Jemmy), Alessandra Volpe (Hedwige), Raffaele Facciolà (Gesler), Nahuel Di Pierro (Walter Furst, Melcthal), Marco Filippo Romano (Leuthold, Un chasseur), Giulio Pelligra (Rodolphe), Artavazd Sargsyan (Ruodi); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany on 13, 16, 18, and 21 July 2013 (XXV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival); NAXOS 8.660363-66; 4 CDs, 252:21; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The foremost lesson learned from incessant cycles of ‘farewell tours’ and legions of singers wobbling merrily through rôles they should no longer be singing is that important careers in opera and those who admire and support them deserve appropriately-timed, properly-planned finales. For the past 150 years, a popular theme among operatically-inclined musicologists and aficionados has been regret of​ the retirement from composing for the stage of the famously industrious Gioachino Rossini after the first performance of Guillaume Tell at the Théâtre de l'Académie Nationale de Musique on 3 August 1829. The composer was only thirty-seven years old at the time of his final opera's première and had almost thirty-nine more years ahead of him, but what has often been interpreted as a waste of resources motivated by laziness was almost certainly at least as much a carefully-calculated act of going out with a bang. Another popular pastime, especially among operatic sophisticates in the past half-century, has been disparaging Rossini's creative powers. As scores like La donna del lago and Il viaggio a Reims have joined Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, and L'italiana in Algeri in the repertories of the world's most important opera houses, it is surely more apparent now than ever before in modern times that it was not solely for his penchant for writing great tunes that Rossini was heralded during his career as the Italian Mozart. Within days of its première, Guillaume Tell fell victim to the abundance of Rossini's genius: a work of Wagnerian dimensions in its original form, the opera was subjected to substantial cuts after only three performances, and by the time of its first revival in Paris a whole act had been excised. A prime attraction of this new recording of the opera from NAXOS, recorded during performances at the 2013 ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, is the opportunity that it offers to hear Guillaume Tell in absolutely complete form, including not only the original score of 1829 but the amended finale devised for the three-act 1831 version, in which—remarkably—Rossini approved the suppression of Tell's celebrated air 'Sois immobile.' It is unfortunate that this performance could not have been recorded either in studio or during concert performances as the profusion of stage noise often intrudes upon appreciation of the singers' generally capable meeting of Rossini's extraordinary demands, but the NAXOS label again provides opera lovers with a valuable recording that combines admirable scholarship and modern production values with some fantastic old-fashioned stand-and-deliver singing.

A behemoth of a score even in truncated form, Guillaume Tell was familiar to a generation of Americans solely owing to the prominent use of the concluding section of its Overture as the theme of the popular television serial The Lone Ranger. Being Renaissance men of their era, the show’s stars, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, likely had greater cognizance of the origins of their opening track than most of their contemporaries, but even in 2015, when Rossini rarities are performed throughout the world, a production of Rossini’s ultimum opus in any guise remains virtually unprecedented. Still, espousal by some of today’s foremost bel canto singers has hopefully engendered among the public at large a wider familiarity with the opera that extends beyond its famous Overture. In this performance, Antonino Fogliani presides over a taut, evocative account of the sprawling Overture by the Virtuosi Brunensis, each of its four sections granted careful consideration of its unique character. Upon that foundation, an exciting, generally accurately-played performance of the full score—including dance music—is constructed. Maestro Fogliani for the most part sets reasonable tempi, but a number of passages are compromised by extremes of speed. Both singer and chorus might have benefited from a slower tempo for Arnold’s ferocious cabaletta in Act Four. The tender music, of which there is more in Guillaume Tell than cut performances of the opera have often suggested, is paced with lightness and lyricism. This is a score in which the principals desperately need support rather than opposition from the pit, and, missteps notwithstanding, Maestro Fogliani maintains dedication to discerning the cast’s strengths and weaknesses throughout the opera. A decided strength in the performance is the singing of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań. More than in any of Rossini’s other operas except for the Biblical epics, the choristers play important rôles in the drama of Guillaume Tell, and, under the direction of Ania Michalak, they enact their parts in this performance with vigor. There are moments of untidy ensemble, but the great challenges are capably met. In Act One, both 'Hyménée, ta journée' and 'Gloire, honneur au fils de Tell' are energetically sung, and the choristers’ account of 'Quelle sauvage harmonie au son des cors se marie!' in Act Two is suitably awestruck. 'Gloire au pouvoir suprême!' and the spirited Tyrolienne, 'Toi que l'oiseau ne suivrait pas,' in Act Three receive from the chorus performances of stirring commitment, but it is rightly the final chorus in Act Four, 'Liberté, redescends des cieux,' that inspires the choristers to their finest singing. Rossini’s choral music in Guillaume Tell established a precedent followed by the poignant patriotic choruses in Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth, and this performance fully reveals not only how influential Rossini’s example was but also how sublimely effective the choral episodes in Guillaume Tell remain.

As though the difficulty of the music were not challenge enough for any company thinking of performing Guillaume Tell, the opera also requires a large cast, not one member of which can get away with lacking the technical acumen demanded by the score. Rossini productions at Bad Wildbad have not always been distinguished by high-quality singing in smaller rôles, and this production of Guillaume Tell is also undermined by inconsistent casting. In the parts of Walter Furst and Melcthal, Arnold's father, Argentine bass Nahuel Di Pierro sings powerfully, his resonant voice lending Walter’s lines in the Act Two trio with Arnold and Tell, 'Il est donc vrai,' crucial dramatic substance. Rodolphe, the captain of Gessler's archers, is strenuously sung by tenor Giulio Pelligra, who is heard to even lesser advantage as Arnold in the alternate finale to Rossini’s three-act version of the opera that NAXOS provides as a supplement to the complete Bad Wildbad performance. Soprano Diana Mian, appearing solely as Mathilde in the alternate finale, sings ably, delivering the top line in ensemble expertly. The shepherd Leuthold and an unnamed hunter are portrayed demonstratively by bass Marco Filippo Romano, who appears as Tell in the supplemental music. Such are Rossini’s excesses in Guillaume Tell that even the fisherman Ruodi, like Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, has a beautifully decorative song taking him to top C: young tenor Artavazd Sargsyan sings 'Accours dans ma nacelle' handsomely, his upper register not ideally free but projected with intelligence and grace.

Tell’s son Jemmy is sung with contrasting sweetness and piquancy by soprano Tara Stafford, who off the stage is the wife of this performance’s Arnold. Jemmy’s air in Act Three, ‘Ah, que ton âme se rassure,’ has often fallen victim to the heinous cuts imposed on Guillaume Tell, but Ms. Stafford justifies its inclusion in this complete-and-then-some performance by singing it winningly. Tell’s wife Hedwige receives from mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe a portrayal of integrity and plush vocalism. In reality, her luxurious singing makes the character seem more important than her music suggests that Rossini thought her to be. Ms. Volpe’s voicing of Hedwige’s lines in the Act Four trio with her son and Mathilde, ‘Je rends à votre amour,’ is lovely, but her phrasing of the Prière (also in Act Four), 'Toi, qui du faible est l'espérance,' is stirring. She and Ms. Stafford make an appealing wife and son of whom any Tell would be both protective and proud.

As sung by Catania-born bass Raffaele Facciolà, Gesler is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a three-dimensional, troubled despot rather than a cardboard operatic villain. Throughout the performance, Mr. Facciolà’s vocalism is more assertive than attractive, but he acts with the voice emphatically. He is at his best in Act Three, his sinewy declamation of 'Que l'empire germain de votre obéissance' hurled out with defiance. In ‘Tant l’orgueil me lasse,’ the quartet with Rodolphe, Tell, and Jemmy, his voice palpitates with frustration and thwarted menace. Without a credibly threatening Gesler at the center of the drama, Guillaume Tell is at risk of seeming like a celebration without a cause: the defeat of Mr. Facciolà’s Gesler provides this performance with a legitimate reason for rejoicing.

The Hapsburg Princess Mathilde, the unlikely heroine of Guillaume Tell whose love for Arnold wins her support for Swiss liberation, is portrayed with aristocratic grace and vocal elegance by British soprano Judith Howarth. Having proved herself a bel canto stylist to the manner born with her inspired depiction of the title rôle in Minnesota Opera’s 2011 production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Ms. Howarth attacks Mathilde’s music unhesitatingly in this performance. Her musical portrait of the Princess combines qualities familiar from the recorded performances of her most acclaimed predecessors in the part: Carteri’s intuitive Romanticism, Cerquetti’s intensity, Caballé’s regal demeanor, Żylis-Gara’s security, Freni’s poise, and Studer’s fearlessness. Mathilde’s Act Two romance 'Sombre forêt, désert triste et sauvage' is one of Rossini’s most majestic arias for soprano, and Ms. Howarth sings it amazingly. No less beguiling is her singing in the duet with Arnold, 'Doux aveu,' another number in which Maestro Fogliani’s tempo jeopardizes the quality of the singers’ execution of the music. The air 'Pour notre amour plus d'espérance' in Act Three is shaped with passion by Ms. Howarth, and she fills her lines in the Act Four trio with Jemmy and Hedwige, 'Je rends à votre amour,' with lush, easily-produced tone. The coloratura demands of Mathilde are not as great as those of many of Rossini’s soprano parts, but Ms. Howarth leaves nothing to be desired with her deft handling of all aspects of Mathilde’s music and character.

It is inevitable that a performance featuring an Arnold capable of executing his voice-wrecking music impressively will be dominated by him. Indeed, merely surviving the rôle, the monstrous tessitura of which was famously spelled out by James Joyce, is admirable. American tenor Michael Spyres achieves far more than survival as recorded here. His voice is an astonishing instrument capable of brilliance in both the baritonal lower register demanded by much of Rossini’s writing for Andrea Nozzari and the stratospheric territory at and above C5 that is typical of rôles composed for Adolphe Nourrit, Rossini’s first Arnold, Gilbert Duprez, and Giovanni Battista Rubini. Mr. Spyres reaches the punishing high notes of his music with complete confidence, but the most enjoyable aspect of his work in this performance is his chameleonic dramatic versatility. His voicing of 'Le mien, dit-il! jamais, jamais le mien!' in Act One is rousingly masculine, and the indecision that he imparts in the duet with Tell, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Â​​me,' infuses Arnold with sympathetic credence. Mr. Spyres’s ardent singing in the Act Two duet with Mathilde, 'Doux aveu,' is ecstatic despite the battle he must fight to cope with Maestro Fogliani’s conducting, and his part in ‘Il est donc vrai,’ the trio with Walter and Tell, is authoritatively accomplished. Arnold’s air and cabaletta in Act Four are the pieces anxiously awaited by audiences fortunate enough to witness a performance of Guillaume Tell. A tenor’s stamina and technique are put to the test as nowhere else in opera in the air ‘Asile héréditaire’ and its cabaletta ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,’ but Mr. Spyres, aided by the committed singing of his colleagues, makes the wait seem very brief indeed. The range and impact of Mr. Spyres’s upper register are hardly surprising: his E5—requested by the composer rather than an interpolation as has been asserted by some sources—in Polyeucte’s [a Duprez rôle] cabaletta ‘Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples’ in Opera Rara’s 2014 concert performance of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs electrified the London audience, and his Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard College in 2009 was marked by assured negotiation of the part’s troublesome tessitura. He does not make singing Act Four of Guillaume Tell sound easy, but the singer who does that cannot be human. Maestro Fogliani does not permit him to linger over his top Cs, but he ascends to them and to the climatic top D spectacularly. Not even the sensitive Nicolai Gedda affirmed as irrefutably as Mr. Spyres that Arnold is far more than a sequence of flashy high notes, however: the heart, not just the throat, aches for this thoughtful, deeply conflicted young firebrand.

Equaling a performance as commanding as Mr. Spyres’s is a fearsome proposition, but British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams manages to do so with panache and bold, focused singing and thus restores the title character to the prominence that he deserves. Often a revelatory presence in Baroque repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams has amassed an impressively varied gallery of operatic portrayals that includes a detailed, surprisingly sympathetic Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and a mellifluous Balstrode in Britten’s Peter Grimes. His Tell in this performance is a tantalizing glimpse of what he is likely to achieve as he continues his journey into Verdi baritone repertory. In a sense, Tell might be considered one of the first great rôles in what is now regarded as Verdi’s style of composition for the baritone voice. Possessing elements of the histrionic power of Rigoletto, the dignity of Rodrigue [a rôle created by Jean-Baptiste Faure, who was also a celebrated Guillaume Tell], and the good humor of Falstaff, Tell was first sung by Henri-Bernard Dabadie, who was also Donizetti’s original Belcore in L’elisir d’amore. Gone are the bravura and patter of Figaro and Dandini: they are replaced by intense but always musical utterance of the kind familiarized by Verdi’s Macbeth, and in his fulfillment of the part’s demands Mr. Foster-Williams brings commanding charisma to a rôle that requires nothing less. In Tell’s Act One duet with Arnold, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Âme,' the reliability of Mr. Foster-Williams’s well-honed technique is immediately apparent, and his vocalism possesses equal rations of iron and velvet. The character’s singularity of purpose is meaningfully conveyed in Tell’s Act Two trio with Arnold and Walter, 'Il est donc vrai,’ the security of the singer’s voice evident in the incredible breath control on display in his generous phrasing. The pinnacle of Rossini’s music for Tell is the recitative 'Je te bénis' and air 'Sois immobile, et vers la terre incline au genou suppliant' in Act Three. How is it possible that this music was ever cut or that the composer could have sanctioned its excision? Musically and dramatically, ‘Sois immobile’ is worthy of comparison with Rigoletto’s monologues and Renato’s ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima in Un ballo in maschera, and Mr. Foster-Williams sings it accordingly. Tell is a stern, often unyielding character, but Mr. Foster-Williams establishes a core of humanity that spurs Tell’s actions. The rôle’s tessitura is higher than that of much of the music in which this exceptional artist has shone in past, but he has built the technique necessary to project the voice evenly throughout the range. Not all of Tell’s highest notes, cresting on G, are produced without effort, but Mr. Foster-Williams is a shrewd singer who puts fleeting moments of vocal stress to clever dramatic use. Most vitally, he is a Guillaume Tell who reminds the listener that the opera’s title is not Arnold.

There are enough shortcomings in this recording of Guillaume Tell to render this a somewhat disappointing release. With acclaimed recent performances both in the United States and in Europe and the opera being scheduled to return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the 2016 – 2017 Season after an absence of eighty-five years, the time for reassessment of Guillaume Tell and its significance in Rossini’s career and the development of Nineteenth-Century opera on all sides of the Alps has come. It is a score that was dismissed as a bloated, rambling monstrosity by several generations of critics who likely never even heard it performed—not in anything resembling its original form, at any rate. Like the indomitable spirit of the nation in which it is set, Guillaume Tell is a work that is not easily tamed, one that damns modest efforts to failure. It is a Brobdingnagian work but a resplendent one, a fitting finale to the operatic career of one of the genre’s most original composers. This NAXOS recording ultimately falls short of the standard needed to fully do justice to the score. Would Rossini have minded? With singers of the calibre of Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, and Judith Howarth performing as they do on this recording, Rossini would almost certainly have been delighted by this traversal of Guillaume Tell—yes, Maestro, all of it!

28 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert – LIEDER (Robin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert - LIEDER (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op. 61 and Folksong Settings and FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): LiederRobin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded ‘live’ at Wigmore Hall, London, UK, on 11 January 2014; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071; 1 CD, 46:48; Available from Wigmore Hall, Amazon, iTunes (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Even amidst the tradition-smashing endeavors of young musicians in Twenty-First-Century Classical Music, there are few things more enjoyable and rewarding than a successful recital or recording of Art Songs. Very sadly, the qualities that define such an undertaking—Art and Song—are too often missing from such undertakings. Almost anyone with a decent grasp of pitch and the ability to read words and music can perform a Schubert Lied on the most basic level, but only an artist with a direct connection to the Grand Tradition of Lieder singing can conjure a world into which an audience is lured for a song’s duration. In the midday recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11 January 2014, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler proved a recitalist whose marvelously beautiful voice is but one of many notable qualities that he brings to his performances of Art Song. The programme of songs by Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert selected for this recital provided ideal territory for the singer’s dauntless excursion into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche. The performances on this disc, preserved in clear, ideally-balanced sound that betrays no indications of having been recorded in live performance aside from well-deserved applause, are perfectly-judged journeys in which the crystalline pulchritude of the vocalism bathes the psychological depths of the music in revealing light. Though many performances offer fleeting moments of musical and interpretive efficacy, few Lieder recitals genuinely merit being preserved for posterity. Robin Tritschler’s 2014 Wigmore Hall recital earned that distinction, and this disc earns a place among the most cherished Lieder recordings of great tenors past and present.

No matter the repertory, the presence of Iain Burnside at the keyboard endures musicality of the first order and the facilitation of a nurturing, genuinely collaborative environment for the singer. Inexplicably, the term accompanist has taken on a derogatory connotation, but Mr. Burnside epitomizes the deepest essence of the concept of accompaniment. Without question, there are pianists who merely play notes, but Mr. Burnside’s playing transcends even his confidently virtuosic executions of music of finger-numbing difficulty. He understands and conveys to the listener that accompanist is a designation that is won, not given solely because the pianist shares the stage with a singer. No, he must accompany the singer musically, emotionally, intellectually, and dramatically; accompany in the sense of being a participant rather than an observer. This Mr. Burnside achieves in every passage in which he partners Mr. Tritschler. Both as pianist and as collaborative artist, the immediacy of his playing of Britten’s and Schubert’s songs is exquisite.

Composed during the summer of 1958, the Opus 61 Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente—settings of verses by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843)—followed cycles in French (Les Illuminations, Opus 18, with texts by Rimbaud) and Italian (Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Opus 22) and constitute Britten’s only song cycle in German. Introduced to Hölderlin’s poetry by Louis, Prince of Hesse and by Rhine, to whom he dedicated the Fragmente, Britten found in these texts sentiments that surely resonated with him and his partner, Sir Peter Pears, for whose voice the songs were crafted. Hölderlin’s simple, stark imagery and emotional desolation instigate contemplation of love and loss, themes that surely remained in Britten’s and Pears’s minds during the gestational period of the Hölderlin settings, only months after the untimely death of their friend and esteemed colleague, horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. It is no exaggeration to state that Mr. Tritschler rivals Mark Padmore as the finest interpreter of the Hölderlins yet recorded. He uses text at least as thoughtfully as Sir Peter Pears but with none of that gentleman’s mannerisms, and the voice is considerably more conventionally attractive. His singing of ‘Menschenbeifall’ alternates exultation with unease, his phrasing of the lines ‘Ach! der Menge gefällt, was auf den Marketplatz taugt, / Und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen’—‘Ah! the mob fancies what is on offer in the marketplace, / And the servile cherish none but the violent’—exhibiting an apt suggestion of frustration. Voicing Britten’s lines with impeccable rhythmic precision, Mr. Tritschler subtly contrasts the bleak disappointment of ‘Die Heimat’ with the irony of ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades,’ the latter song’s latent homoeroticism neither emphasized nor evaded. The closing line of ‘Die Jugend,’ ‘Im Arme der Götter wuchs ich groß’ (‘I grew up in the arms of gods’), receives from Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside luminescent treatment. The impersonal influence of nature is keenly felt in their muted performance of ‘Hälfte des Lebens.’ Not even Pears brought as much quiet understanding to the opening lines of ‘Die Linien des Lebens,’ ‘Die Linien des Lebens sind verschieden, / Wie Wege sind, und wie der Berge Grenzen’ (‘The lines of lie are manifold, / As paths are, and the mountains’ borders’) as Mr. Tritschler reveals: certainly no other voice has sung the number more elegantly.

Britten’s folksong arrangements are some of his greatest gifts both to singers and to music itself. There has ever been a stupid tendency among ‘serious’ musicians to regard folksongs with bemused contempt despite the legions of masterworks in the core repertory that are inspired by—or directly quote from—folk tunes and the advocacy of esteemed composers like Britten, Dvořák, and Percy Grainger. These performances by Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside course with uncomplicated feeling and gentle melancholy. Their serene traversal of ‘Oft in the stilly night’ is complemented by the exuberant charm of their account of ‘The Minstrel Boy.’ Mr. Tritschler’s voice shimmers like midwinter moonlight in ‘At the mid hour of night,’ and no two adjectives could better describe the quality of his singing than those that begin ‘Rich and rare were the gems she wore.’ Mr. Tritschler’s singing of ‘The last rose of summer’ is one of the most perfectly beautiful things one might ever hope to hear: projecting tones so that they spin hypnotically into the listener’s ear, he transforms this piece into a deeply moving paean for the little tragedies of everyday life.

The Lieder of Franz Schubert need neither introduction nor explanation. The famously introverted composer found in the Lied a medium through which emotions too personal for speech could be communicated in ways not only meaningful but universal. In this recital, Mr. Tritschler evinces profound connection with both music and text, his mercurial vocalism shaped by the effervescent nuances of the words. Opening his Schubert selections with Father Reinhard van Hoorickx’s 1959 arrangement from ‘Die Blume und der Quell,’ ‘O Quell, was strömst du rasch und wild’ (D874), the tenor’s singing and the pianist’s playing raptly evoke the sharply-drawn images of nature. Mr. Tritschler’s phrasing of ‘Im Frühling’ (D882) seems borrowed from the very essence of eternal renewal, and the almost childlike wonder of his account of ‘Im Freien’ (D880) is uniquely inviting. A gnawing sadness pervades this performance of ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (D870), the song’s introspection finding an insightful outlet in Mr. Tritschler’s silver-hued singing. The spiritual breadth that he manages to convey without ever distorting a rhythm or sacrificing the poise of his vocal placement is uncanny. The yearning that he highlights among the sentiments of ‘Ständchen’ (D889) and ‘An Silvia’ (D891), respectively drawn from Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Two Gentlemen of Verora, is bizarrely ambivalent, in his delicate handling both unsettling and comforting. This gets at the heart of Schubert’s genius: individual tribulations are reflected in universal pain, and the singular eloquence of Schubert’s explication of this duality is both saddening and liberating. The artistic union of Schubert and Shakespeare is also the source of Mr. Tritschler’s encore. The narrative voice of his singing of ‘Trinklied’ (D888), its text adapted from Antony and Cleopatra, is more poet than publican, but it is difficult to imagine any listener not wanting to share a pint with such an enthralling musical storyteller.

It is easy to make the mistake in an Art Song recital of regarding the music as a holy relic that the audience can revere from afar but never approach, much less handle. Likewise, too many singers seemingly perceive Lieder as a sort of archaic language that must be translated into a less-intimidating vernacular for Twenty-First-Century listeners. In truth, song is in every heart. Robin Tritschler’s voice, Iain Burnside’s hands, and the music of Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert are vessels in which our hearts’ songs are distilled. In this Wigmore Hall recital, singer and pianist lift the soul countless times in the course of forty-six minutes. There is no shortage of new Lieder recordings even in today’s erratic Classical Music industry, but this disc is something very special.

24 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – ELEKTRA & All-Strauss Concert (R. Pauly, C. Boerner, E. Szánthó, J. Huehn, F. Jagel; Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - ELEKTRA (Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2)RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): [1] Elektra [abridged]—Rose Pauly (Elektra), Charlotte Boerner (Chrysothemis), Enid Szánthó (Klytämnestra), Julius Huehn (Orest), Frederick Jagel (Aegisth), Abrasha Robovsky (Der Pfleger des Orest); Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York; Artur Rodziński, conductor; [2] Elektra [excerpts from the Metropolitan Opera première]—Gertrude Kappel (Elektra), Göta Ljungberg (Chrysothemis), Karin Branzell (Klytämnestra); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Artur Bodanzky, conductor; [3] All-Strauss Concert—Rose Pauly, soprano; New York Philharmonic; Sir John Barbirolli, conductor; [4] ‘Allerseelen’—Rose Pauly, soprano; Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Fritz Reiner, conductor; [5] Die Ägyptische Helena [selections]—Rose Pauly, soprano; Berliner Symphoniker; Fritz Busch, conductor; and LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): [6] ‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’ from Fidelio—Rose Pauly, soprano [Recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on 21 March 1937 (Elektra 1); Live performance, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, on 3 December 1932 (Elektra 2); Concert, Carnegie Hall, 27 February 1938 (All-Strauss Concert); Ford Hour, 20 February 1938 (‘Allerseelen’); Berlin, 1928 (Die Ägyptische Helena); 9 November 1927 (‘Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’); Immortal Performances IPCD 1045-2; 2 CDs, 150:47; Available from Immortal Performances]

There are in the hearts and minds of every opera aficionado ​fabled ​performances that true believers would trade almost anything to hear and own​ on competently-mastered recordings. For some, the elusive trove contains the complete Brünnhilde and Isolde of​ Maria Callas and the La Scala Fedora with ​la Divina​ and Franco Corelli that conventional wisdom imparts must have been recorded by someone. Others long to hear in sonics worthy of the voice the Kundry of Kirsten Flagstad. For this writer, a particular unfulfilled desire is to hear the complete 1935 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s Aida with Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, and Carmela Ponselle. Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances are in the business of making dreams such as​ these come true. Scouring ​public and private ​collections in pursuit of the finest source material available, Mr. Caniell unites mastery of the painstaking technological restoration of deteriorating media with pervasive passion for the music that makes his exhaustive efforts worthwhile. Equal parts detective, curator, advocate, and musical ​archaeologist​, Mr. Caniell devotes to performers of the past—performers whose work dwarfed that of many of today’s interpreters but whose legacies might otherwise be neglected or forgotten—the meticulous handling that they merit. His endeavors are rightly models of their kind; models that most other individuals and labels are too greedy, hurried, or inexperienced to emulate. The present release, dedicated to the music of Richard Strauss, is nothing short of sensational. By peeling away decades of sonic grime without damaging the singular ambience of the original recordings, Mr. Caniell enables today’s listeners to appreciate not just the artistic standards of a bygone era but to contemplate the triumphs and failures of the intervening years.

The ​extraordinary raison d'ê​tre for this release is Kammersä​ngerin​ Rose Pauly.​ Born in Eperjes, Hungary in 1894 [eminent writer London Green asserts in his excellent essay about the soprano accompanying this release that ​Ms. ​Pauly was born in 1895, but most sources—including the biological sketch also included in the liner notes—cite the year of her birth as 1894]​, she débuted in Vienna in 1918 as Desdemona, the first Verdi rô​le in a repertory that eventually included Lady Macbeth, Aida, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, and Eboli in Don Carlo. Otto Klemperer brought her to Berlin in 1927 to sing Leonore in a legendary production of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Kroll-Oper, where she also first sang the title rôle in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Her gallery of Strauss portraits was gradually expanded with interpretations of the name parts of Salome and Die Ägyptische Helena—both represented in this Immortal Performances release—and both the Kaiserin and the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as the less-familiar rôle of Christine in Intermezzo, all of which she sang under the baton of Clemens Krauss. In addition to creating the rôle of Marie in the Viennese première of Berg’s Wozzeck, she cited Mozart’s Donna Anna and Janáček’s Jenůfa as two of her favorite parts and was celebrated as an unusually sympathetic Turandot. Reputed to have had an active repertory of more than sixty parts, some of which she knew in multiple languages, Ms. Pauly was an acclaimed Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, Ortrud in Lohengrin, Venus in Tannhäuser, and Kundry in Parsifal who, unlike many singers with similarly-scaled vocal endowments, possessed sufficient cognizance of her own voice and temperament to avoid Isolde and the Brünnhildes. It is known that Strauss himself regarded her as a vocal and dramatic phenomenon, and the performances on this pair of discs confirm the validity of the composer’s assessment. To an extent, Ms. Pauly might be said to have combined the best qualities of several of her successors in Strauss repertory: Varnay’s stamina, Nilsson’s security, Borkh’s crisp diction, and Schröder-Feinen’s intensity. Having settled in Palestine after the end of World War II, Ms. Pauly reminisced in 1965—a decade before her death—about both her experiences in Strauss repertory and those with the composer himself. Of Elektra she said, ‘Dissonant? Taxing? Yes! But it is a masterpiece filled with moments of sublime beauty!’ She is one of the few sopranos ever recorded in Elektra’s music whose singing of the part is also filled with moments of that sublime beauty.

Elektra was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera on 3 December 1932. Over the course of the 1932 – 1933 Season, the opera received five more performances, in which Strauss’s powerful score was partnered first with Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino and then with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci! The first-night cast featured conductor Artur Bodanzky pacing Gertrude Kappel as Elektra, Göta Ljungberg as Chrysothemis, Karin Branzell as Klytämnestra, Rudolf Laubenthal as Aegisth, and Friedrich Schorr as Orest. Disappointingly, none of the recorded excerpts of the first performance preserve samples of Schorr’s singing. Elektra was not broadcasted again until 1952, when Schorr had been gone from the MET for nearly a decade. The brief selections from the MET’s inaugural Elektra suggest that the performance, while well-prepared and undeniably exciting, paled in comparison with the performances in Carnegie Hall slightly more than four years later. Ms. Kappel, whose MET début in 1928 was as Isolde, is an Elektra of granitic solidity but little flexibility. The finest singing is contributed by Ms. Ljungberg, who also sang Sieglinde to Ms. Kappel’s Walküre Brünnhilde, and Ms. Branzell, who was a stalwart of the MET’s German wing for a quarter-century.

The 1937 Carnegie Hall Elektra with Artur Rodziński leading the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York is as legendary as any performance in the modern era, its significance not only to the Strauss canon but to the broader history of music in the Twentieth Century rivaled only by the premières of Strauss’s operas and the débuts of standard-setting Strauss interpretations like Maria Cebotari’s Salomé, Irmgard Seefried’s Komponist, and Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin. First heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 1932 (as represented above), Elektra was still an infrequent, controversial visitor to New York at the time of the abridged concert performance preserved here. Assessing contemporary press response to the concert, some of the most insightful of which is reproduced in Immortal Performances’ liner notes, it is no exaggeration to state that this and the two further performance​s with the same forces​ provided American audiences with the proper introduction that the MET performances did not manage to achieve.

It was as Elektra​ that Ms. Pauly débuted at the MET, where she went on to sing Ortrud and Venus. At Carnegie Hall, the performing edition proceeded from the crashing opening statement of the Agamemnon motif directly to Elektra’s monologue, ‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein.’ Allying verbal clarity with a piercing but unfailingly beautiful timbre in a stupendous account of the music, she succeeds as almost no other soprano recorded as Elektra in making the cumulative impact of Hofmannsthal’s words as great as that of Strauss’s music. She rises to the top B♭ at the zenith of the phrase ‘die beiden Augen weit offen und ein königlicher Reif von Purpur ist um deine Stirn’ with silk-clad steel, and her top C on ‘die um sein hohes Grab so königliches Siegestänze tanzen’ is unforgettable, an expression of the character’s insurmountable anguish in a single note. Responding to Ms. Pauly’s fiery singing, soprano Charlotte Boerner (1900 – ?) proves a memorable Chrysothemis, following Ms. Pauly’s scorching singing of Elektra’s monologue with a soaring, womanly performance of ‘Ich kann nicht sitzen,’ the security of her top A♭s propelling her performance to a deeply-felt delivery of ‘Mit Messern gräbt Tag.’ The chilling Klytämnestra of mezzo-soprano Enid Szánthó (1907 – ?) is introduced by an aptly exasperated ‘Was willst du? Seht doch, dort!’ Ms. Szánthó’s three appearances at the MET were as Fricka in Die Walküre and Klytämnestra opposite Ms. Pauly—a performance in which Elektra was paired with the MET première of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amelia al ballo—in 1938 and Erda in a tour performance of Das Rheingold at Philadelphia’s American Academy of Music in 1939. Whether her Fricka and Erda equaled her Klytämnestra cannot now be ascertained, but the stinging irony of her articulation of ‘Ich habe keine guten Nä​chte’ in this performance, her low A♭ a primal groan, assures her place among the greatest interpreters of Strauss’s music. The Recognition Scene reunites Ms. Pauly’s Elektra, whose declamation of ‘Doch ich! doch ich! da liegen, und zu wissen, dass das Kind nie wieder kommt’ gleams, with the Orest of Julius Huehn (1904 – 1971), the Massachusetts-born baritone whose MET performances of Jochanaan in Salome and Fanninal in Der Rosenkavalier were admired both in New York and in stops on the national tours. Though he sang the title rôle in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi on evenings when Ms. Pauly sang Elektra opposite Friedrich Schorr, MET audiences never heard Mr. Huehn’s Orest. His interactions with Ms. Pauly in this Carnegie Hall performance are breathtaking. His aristocratic phrasing of ‘Lass zittern diesen Leib!’ and ‘Der ist selig, der tun darf!’ makes an indelible effect. He, the little-known Abrasha Robovsky as der Fleger des Orest, and the excellent, now underappreciated American tenor Frederick Jagel (1897 – 1982) as Aegisth hold their own in competition with their female colleagues, but this was—and, thanks to this release, is—Ms. Pauly’s show. In the final minutes of the performance, her singing of ‘Ich habe ihm das Beil nicht geben Können!’ and the bracing ‘Agamemnon hört dich!’ is wondrous. The opera’s apotheosis has rarely been more cathartic. Mention must be made of the fine playing of the Philharmonic musicians and the poetry of Maestro Rodziński’s conducting: none of the score’s violence is neglected, but the waltz rhythms that dance throughout the opera are gracefully sprung.

The New York Philharmonic performance of Strauss’s symphonic poem​ Don Juan from the Carnegie Hall concert of 27 February 1938, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, should be required listening for all of today's conductors who ​sacrifice passion in pursuit of perfection. Maestro Barbirolli was a demanding conductor, of course, but also one whose goals were founded upon a desire for complete realization of a score rather clinically flawless execution of the notes. His reading of Don Juan is truly a character portrait as Strauss intended it to be, the contrasting passions of the music more apparent than in most performances in digital studio sound. Similarly, his performances of the Lieder ‘​Verfü​​hrung’ (Op. 33, No. 1)​ and ‘Gesang der Apollopriesterin’ (Op. 33, No. 2) and the thrillingly lurid final scene from Salome with Ms. Pauly are true collaborations. Bolstered by the fine playing of the Philharmonic and Maestro Barbirolli’s intuitive mastery of Strauss’s multi-textured orchestrations and lush harmonies, Ms. Paul’s singing bridges the distance of time compellingly. Indeed, as remastered by Mr. Caniell, the only real indication of the vintage of these performances is the fact that they are sung so unaffectedly. Even when impersonating the legendarily wanton Salome, Ms. Pauly finds the voluptuous allure in the music and wraps her voice around it: she is an impetuous but intelligent and surprisingly sexy Salome. Having every note of the music in her voice, she draws the listener into her obsession, transforming the girl’s unfulfilled lust into a deeply human desire for connection. Though Classically-poised in the tradition of the great Eastern European singers of the Nineteenth Century, Ms. Pauly’s is, from a psychological perspective, an unexpectedly modern Salome: vocally, not even Cebotari and Welitsch sang the opera’s final scene more impressively. The programme of the Carnegie Hall concert of 27 February also included Till Eulenspiegel, a recording of which sadly has not been unearthed. With glories such as those on Immortal Performances’ disc restored so devotedly, this is truly a case of beggars having no right to be choosers.

Ms. Pauly’s performance of the orchestrated version of ‘Allerseelen’ with the Detroit Symphony and Fritz Reiner, taken from a Ford Hour broadcast of 20 February 1938, is a marvel of phrasing and the now-endangered art of coloring the voice without distorting vowels. Even more remarkable are the excerpts from Die Ä​gyptische Helena recorded in conjunction with the opera's première in 1928. The opera’s first performance was sung by Elisabeth Rethberg, but subsequent performances and the première recording were entrusted to Ms. Pauly. She, the Berliner Symphoniker, and Fritz Busch reach considerable heights of eloquence in ‘Bei jener Nacht’ and Helena’s awakening from Act One. Ms. Pauly’s singing of the passionate ‘Zweite Brautnacht!’ from Act Two is magnificent, the eruption of erotic energy introducing an electric charge into her vocalism without upsetting the placement of tones. Maestro Busch paces the Funeral music with obvious understanding of the music’s structure. Recorded on 9 November 1927, Ms. Pauly’s account of Leonore’s aria ‘​Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio is an apt companion to her Strauss performances: the fluidity of her singing reminds the listener that former generations of great dramatic voices were often nourished on diets of music of the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Flagstad sang Händel and Gluck; Nilsson sang Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber. Ms. Pauly was an accomplished Mozartean and Rezia in Weber’s Oberon. Her singing of ‘Abscheulicher’ is the work of a singer who clearly recognized that, musically, Leonore and Elektra are sisters, not mere distant relations.

There are defects in the original recordings that even Mr. Caniell’s near-miraculous work could not completely eliminate, but the selections on this release are laudably clear, free from distortion, and correctly-pitched. The performances deserve nothing less. With well-written, genuinely informative liner notes by bona fide connoisseurs whose knowledge of the performers, the composer, and the music is drawn from experience and careful research rather than from hasty perusal of Wikipedia articles, these Immortal Performances discs offer today’s listeners an unparalleled opportunity to hear Elektra and other works by Richard Strauss as though for the first time. Each listener must ultimately form his own opinions of Rose Pauly’s Elektra, but this release enables Twenty-First-Century ears to hear both the singer and the character as Strauss himself knew them.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ROSE PAULY, Elektra at Carnegie Hall in 1937 [Photo by World Wide Studio, © The Metropolitan Opera]Rose ever blooming: Soprano Rose Pauly, Elektra at Carnegie Hall in 1937 [Photographed as Elektra at the time of her Metropolitan Opera début in 1938 by World Wide Studio, © The Metropolitan Opera]

This review is dedicated to the memories of contralto Maria Radner and bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak, tragically lost in the Germanwings airline crash whilst en route to Düsseldorf following engagements as Erda and Alberich in Wagner’s Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

23 March 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giaochino Rossini – LA CENERENTOLA (A. Crider, J. Blalock, L. Hernandez, D. Hartmann, Z. James, A. Theis, K. Kelly; Opera Roanoke, 22 March 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Opera Roanoke (22 March 2015)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La CenerentolaAmanda Crider (Angelina), Jonathan Blalock (Prince Ramiro), Levi Hernandez (Dandini), Donald Hartmann (Don Magnifico), Zachary James (Alidoro), Angela Theis (Clorinda), Kathryn Kelly (Tisbe); Opera Roanoke Chorus; Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; Scott Williamson, conductor [JJ Hudson, Director; John Lipe, Stage Manager; Costumes by Sueann Leung; Wigs and Makeup by Beckie Kravetz; Set Designs by Jimmy Ray Ward and Laurie Powell Ward; Set Construction by Joey Neighbors; Lighting Design by Tláloc López-Watermann; Opera Roanoke, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia; Sunday, 22 March 2015]

It seems inexplicable that an opera as popular and endearing as Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola was not presented on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera until 1997. Even the composer’s elephantine Guillaume Tell had been mounted by the MET, albeit in trimmed editions first in German and later in Italian, and Il barbiere di Siviglia entered the MET repertory as early as 1883. In the MET’s inaugural production of Il barbiere, Rosina was sung by coloratura soprano Marcella Sembrich, who was also the MET’s first Lucia, Violetta, Gilda, Amina in La sonnambula, and Elvira in I Puritani, and this illustrates an important point in the performance history of Rossini’s operas. It was not until a decade later, in 1892, that Rosina was sung at the MET by a voice similar to that for which Rossini composed the part: Jane De Vigne, also the MET’s first Malika in Lakmé and Meg Page in Falstaff, returned Rosina to her intended mezzo-soprano Fach, though the restoration was hardly permanent and efforts at resisting the charms of a high-soprano Rosina like Lily Pons or Diana Damrau are futile. Both Rosina and the eponymous heroine of La Cenerentola were created by Bolognese contralto Gertrude Righetti, a singer whose brief career was shaped in large part by her collaboration with Rossini. Even when La Cenerentola premièred at the Teatro Valle in Rome on 25 January 1817, a year after the triumphant first production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Signora Righetti was already an anomaly: by the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the coloratura contralto voice was drifting towards extinction alongside castrati and hautes-contre. Whereas Rosina could be appropriated by higher voices with minimal and largely innocuous alterations to Rossini’s vocal lines [not that respect for the letter of a Rossini score has ever been any great concern], Angelina could not be so handily ‘lifted’ for performance by sopranos. Thus, she waited, biding her time until the emergence of singers like Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Marina de Gabarain, and, later, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Cecilia Bartoli [the MET’s first Cenerentola], Jennifer Larmore, Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato, and the irreplaceable Ewa Podleś. A performance like the one offered on Sunday afternoon by Opera Roanoke leaves no doubt that the tender, tenacious heroine of Rossini’s and librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s adaptation of Charles Perrault's Cendrillon deserved the public’s patience. With high production values, lofty musical standards, and a noteworthy cast, Opera Roanoke’s witty, winsome Cenerentola proved anew that world-class opera is not the property only of larger companies with deep-pocketed patronage and Chagall murals in their lobbies.

Directed by JJ Hudson with imagination and sensitivity to the fact that the principals have devilishly difficult music to sing, Opera Roanoke's production of La Cenerentola fostered an environment in which the singers could engender sympathetic characterizations without being distracted from singing by an overabundance of manic goings-on. Stage manager John Lipe kept the show moving at Rossini’s frenetic pace, managing entrances with expert timing. Sueann Leung's costumes and Beckie Kravetz's wigs and makeup perfectly conveyed the ‘shabby chic’ quality of Don Magnifico’s ostentatious household and transformed the ‘restored’ Prince and Angelina in the opera’s final scene to glamor worthy of the Monaco of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting unfailingly focused attention where the score indicates that Rossini wanted it centered, something that is far rarer than it should be. Designed by Jimmy Ray and Laurie Powell Ward and constructed by Joey Neighbors, the simple but evocative sets handsomely complemented the attractive human denizens of the stage, honoring the presiding spirit of the composer’s fanciful tale rooted in very real emotions. The production team collectively provided many clever details that lent the performance individuality and personality. The replication of the birdcage and model ship that decorated Don Magnifico's crumbling castle in the marvelously gigantic wigs worn by Clorinda and Tisbe to the Prince's ball was ingenious, and the business with Dandini reclaiming a chair 'borrowed' from Ramiro's palace by Don Magnifico in Act Two was hilarious. Opera Roanoke's Cenerentola succeeded as few productions that I have attended in the past several seasons have done in attracting young people to the opera: if their laughter is a reliable indication of their enjoyment of the performance, Opera Roanoke surely secured a number of dedicated future patrons.

The company's Artistic Director Scott Williamson led the singers, the players of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and the nine gentlemen of the Opera Roanoke Chorus in a rollicking account of Rossini's score. The orchestra played the Sinfonia, borrowed from the composer's La gazzetta, premièred between Barbiere and Cenerentola, with exuberance and impressively secure intonation from the brasses and woodwinds. As the performance progressed, the orchestra's playing became even more assured, culminating in a raucous account of the Temporale in Act Two, in which it must be admitted that the absence of percussion from the orchestra was regrettable. Taylor Baldwin's harpsichord continuo was expert, keeping secco recitatives—the work of Luca Agolini, not Rossini—fleet and nimble. In a larger venue, the choral singing might have seemed anemic, but in the Jefferson Center the Cavalieri were suitably robust of tone, especially in 'O figlie amabili di Don Magnifico, Ramiro il principe or or verrà' and 'Scegli la sposa, affrettati' in Act One. Their singing of 'Della Fortuna instabile' in Act Two was lovely. In an ensemble of nine, individual voices occasionally emerged with infelicitous prominence, but in ensembles with the principals their voices blended immaculately. With all of the music forces responding to his leadership with complete dedication, Maestro Williamson paced a performance notable for intelligent choices of tempi and scrupulous attention to maintaining tautness of rhythm and ensemble. A number of the world's large opera companies could learn much from Opera Roanoke about making the most of their resources and putting all of their efforts at the service of the music.

The lustrous singing of soprano Kathryn Kelly made it particularly lamentable that Rossini and his librettist did not invent more for Tisbe to do. Ms. Kelly ran with the music that she had, interacting humorously with her colleagues and exhibiting comic timing worthy of Carol Burnett. As Cenerentola’s other spoiled stepsister, soprano Angela Theis was also a consummate mistress of Rossinian comedy, launching Act One with a lively 'No, no, no, no: non v'è chi trinciar sappia così leggerissimo sciassè.’ She took the high line in ensembles with poise, showing off a fine top B, and her singing of 'Ah! Parlar, pensar vorrei, parlar, pensar, non so' and Clorinda’s string of sustained top As in the Act One Finale was first-rate. Her voice shone in the Sextet in Act Two, and she gave a fine, genuinely funny performance of her aria, also the work of Luca Agolini, 'Sventurata! sventurata, sventurata! mi credea comandar, comandar seduta in trono,' capping the vocal line with solid top B♭s.

Bass Zachary James physically towered over his colleagues as Alidoro. Costumed like a hybrid of Georg Friedrich Händel and Sir Isaac Newton, he looked as though he could have stepped out of an episode of Blackadder. He dominated the stage whenever he appeared on it, not least in his exchanges with Angelina and the wonderful Quintet in Act One, a number in which all participants sang beguilingly. Rather than employing the aria by Agolini sung in the first production of La Cenerentola, Mr. James sang the aria that Rossini composed for the 1820 Roman revival of the opera, ‘La, del ciel nell'arcano profondo.’ This is the logical choice, and Mr. James’s traversal of the piece justified its inclusion. He deployed some impressive notes at the bottom of his compass both in the aria and in his anchoring of ensembles, and his slyly amorous beckoning of Clorinda at the end of her aria was riotously droll. Though strong and accurately-pitched throughout the range, Mr. James’s voice occasionally sounded slightly hollow, but his Alidoro was an unusually vivid characterization.

Is there any part in his Fach that bass-baritone Donald Hartmann cannot sing entertainingly? Having excelled as the Huntsman in Rusalka and Baron Douphol in La traviata with North Carolina Opera and Sulpice in La fille du régiment with Greensboro Opera, he was again on sterling form in Roanoke as Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola. In the cavatina in Act One, 'Miei rampolli femminini,' Mr. Hartmann focused his dark, distinctive timbre in an imposing delivery of Rossini’s music, an achievement repeated in the patter and seemingly endless—or so it must appear to the singer—profusion of top Es in 'Mi sognai fra il fosco e il chiaro'  and in the de facto cabaletta, 'Per pietà quelle ciglia abbassate.' His pomposity as the newly-appointed court sommelier was side-splitting. In Act Two, Mr. Hartmann sang commandingly both on his own and in ensemble, but the highlight of his performance—and, indeed, of the performance as a whole—was Magnifico’s duet with Dandini. Mr. Hartmann‘s dumbfounded grumbling of 'Senza batter, senza battere le ciglia' was priceless. Negotiating Rossini’s bravura writing was not without effort for him, but he approached Magnifico’s challenges without hesitation. Receiving Angelina’s tender pardon in the opera’s final minutes, Mr. Hartmann’s Magnifico seemed suddenly transformed from a blustering fool into a touchingly frail old man: unlike many Magnificos, this one ultimately deserved his stepdaughter’s magnanimity.

Levi Hernandez is one of the few baritones singing today who makes a movingly three-dimensional figure of Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and he proved to be an equally effective Rossinian with his animated portrayal of Dandini. He hurled out the top Fs in the Act One cavatina 'Come un'ape ne' giorni d'aprile va volando leggiera e scherzosa’ with aplomb, and his singing in the duet with Ramiro, 'Zitto, zitto; piano, piano,' was fantastic. Mr. Hernandez’s method of singing coloratura was sometimes idiosyncratic, but he sang every note that Rossini asked of him, firing off ringing high notes and offering a fine trill. He joined Mr. Hartmann thrillingly in their duet in Act Two, 'Un segreto d'importanza,' and his part in the Sextet, 'Questo è un nodo avviluppato,' was rendered with concentration and compelling bravado. Even among such top-notch colleagues, Mr. Hernandez stole the show with his dynamic Dandini, his confident acting and good-natured comedic antics completing a standard-setting musical portrayal.

North Carolina native Jonathan Blalock was a dashing, boyishly suave Ramiro who wore his heart on his sleeve and made expressing adoration in sixteenth notes seem the only meaningful way of doing it. Many Clorindas and Tisbes are undoubtedly lured by Ramiro’s rank and riches, but Mr. Blalock was a Prince the sisters could love as a man rather than a moneybag.  Beginning with his honeyed 'Tutto è deserto' in Act One, he was credible as aristocrat, pseudo-valet, and lover. The duet with Angelina, 'Una soave non so che in quegl'occhi scintillò,' was sung elegantly, his mastery of the coloratura passages cresting on top A and B never deserting him. The sincerity of his statement of 'Una grazia, un certo incanto par che brilli su quel viso' was obvious. The Quintet, duet with Dandini, and Act One Finale inspired Mr. Blalock to forceful but beautiful singing and unerringly-projected ascents above the staff. 'Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,' the Prince’s aria at the start of Act Two, asks for four top Cs, which Mr. Blalock tossed off with ease before caressing the vocal lines in 'Pegno adorato e caro che mi lusinghi almeno.' Two further top Cs crowned ‘Dolce speranza, freddo timore dentro al mio core stanno a pugnar,’ and another was interpolated at the cabaletta’s close, but it was the ardor of the tenor’s singing that established the Prince as a swaggeringly virile hero of the swashbuckling kind. Mr. Blalock was more adventurous with ornamentation than his colleagues, decorating his music tastefully and interpolating higher options in several passages. The security and reliability of his upper register were indeed admirable. Most importantly, though, he radiated the charisma that his rôle requires: even if he was not singing, when he flashed a cheeky smile at the audience it was impossible not to feel that, the zany machinations of the plot notwithstanding, all would end happily.

Mr. Blalock had in mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider an Angelina​ fully worthy of the Prince’s devotion. Starting with a lovingly-phrased voicing of the haunting 'Una volta c'era un re,’ Ms. Crider carved in the frothy context of Opera Roanoke’s production a deeply-felt, warmly feminine Cenerentola who was down but never out. The girl’s budding love for the disguised Prince resounded in Ms. Crider’s singing in the duet with Ramiro, 'Io vorrei saper perchè il mio cor mi palpitò,’ her coloratura in the lower octave expressive of her suspicion of new emotions, and she phrased 'Una grazia, un certo incanto par che brilli su quel viso' with fervor. The simplicity of her shaping of Angelina’s pleas to her stepfather in the Quintet, 'Signor, una parola,' was moving, and her cry of 'Ah! sempre fra la cenere, sempre dovrò restar?' was heartbreaking. The Act One Finale prompted Ms. Crider to grand singing in 'Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa,' and as the character’s future seemed to grow brighter so, too, did the singer’s vocal colorations. The reprise of the canzone 'Una volta c'era un re' in Act Two was even more beautiful than its first appearance. After enduring ridicule, abuse, and rejection by her adopted family, this Cenerentola dominated the opera’s final scene as Rossini intended. Ms. Crider’s delicate but strong voicing of 'Sposa...Signore, perdona la tenera incertezza che mi confonde ancor' was suggestive of a kind heart bolstered by an iron will. Her singing of the andante 'Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto’ was as affectionate as it was effective, her grace threatened by neither the coloratura nor the ascent to top B. A reworking of the frequently-cut tenor aria 'Cessa di più resistere' from Il barbiere di Siviglia, Cenerentola’s rondò finale, 'Non più mesta accanto al fuoco starò sola a gorgheggiar,' is a bravura showpiece as imposing as any in opera. Undaunted by the fiendish coloratura writing and top Bs, Ms. Crider exhilaratingly brought down the curtain on an extremely appealing Cenerentola.

One of the joys of writing musical criticism is the opportunity that it offers to revisit performances in words that hopefully convey at least some measure of their fascination. Opera Roanoke’s performance of La Cenerentola was just that—fascinating. In the ongoing struggle to ensure opera’s survival, so many of the genre’s everyday combatants—singers, conductors, directors, impresarios, and even audiences—lose sight of the true power of this most confounding, most cathartic of art forms. Taken at face value, opera will never be relevant; no more than the novels of Charles Dickens, the poetry of Lord Byron, or the canvases of Vincent van Gogh are relevant. However they otherwise sustain and enrich life, these things do not give the average man, woman, or child food or shelter. It is unlikely that anyone in the audience for Opera Roanoke’s performance of La Cenerentola could actually relate on a personal level to being a prince or marrying one, but few people cannot sympathize with feeling unappreciated, alienated, and hopeless. La Cenerentola affords us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, and Opera Roanoke’s performance enabled the audience to do so while also savoring compellingly virtuosic Rossini singing. Is that not always relevant?

21 March 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Recital by Jill Gardner, soprano, and Christy Wisuthseriwong, piano (Music Academy of North Carolina, 20 March 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Music Academy of North Carolina recitalist, soprano JILL GARDNER (Photo © by Jill Gardner)Wonder of Winston-Salem: Soprano Jill Gardner, Music Academy of North Carolina Guest Artist and recitalist at UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, 20 March 2015 [Photo © by Ms. Gardner]

IN RECITAL: Music by AMY MARCY CHENEY BEACH (1867 – 1944), WILLIAM BOLCOM (born 1938), CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918), and SIR ANDRÉ PREVIN (born 1929)—Jill Gardner, soprano, with Christy Wisuthseriwong, piano [The Music Academy of North Carolina – Recital Hall, UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Greensboro, North Carolina; Friday, 20 March 2015]

How does one define an important artist? It is easy to avoid the issue by stating that an important artist is a creature in which an array of elusive qualities are combined in proportions and configurations that defy explication and replication. There is evident truth in this assertion, but how is success measured if there are no parameters within which to assess an artist’s endeavors? The designation of ‘artist’ is itself now a prize without a fight. Singers like Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas earned the distinction of being termed artists, but the term has become a description rather than an honor. In its truest essence, identification of an important artist is perhaps best characterized by an adaptation of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about the objectivity of obscenity: in the case of an important musical artist, one knows one when one hears one. On Friday evening, one was heard in the recital hall at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Visiting Greensboro as a guest artist at the Music Academy of North Carolina, Winston-Salem native Jill Gardner took her audience back to a time when singers were merely singers until they deserved to be regarded as artists. Much as some naysayers persist in ignoring and denying it, there are important artists working among the charlatans, egotists, and fools today. Rarely, however, are great voice, interpretive intellect, and beauty of spirit blended in a single individual as compellingly as they are in Jill Gardner. By the second bar of her opening selection, it was obvious that this wonderful soprano is not merely a dulcet-toned vocalist. It is difficult and frankly unnecessary to dissect every trait that contributes to her artistic significance: pedantry and pedagogy aside, her singing speaks for itself.

At the piano, The Music Academy of North Carolina Master Teacher and Dean of Faculty Christy Wisuthseriwong proved a colleague worthy of Ms. Gardner—quite a feat! Whether sauntering through Impressionistic music or retracing the harmonic meanderings of more recent idioms, Dr. Wisuthseriwong journeyed with Ms. Gardner into the deepest spirit of each song. Her performance was remarkable for the absolute synchronicity with which she timed her phrasing with the singer’s. The ladies seemed to breathe in tandem, and their like-timed smiles and scowls indicated that their interpretations were not merely well-rehearsed but equally collaborative. In the opening set, Amy Beach’s Opus 44 Three Songs by Robert Browning, pianist and soprano gave inspired, inspiring performances of this unfathomably neglected composer’s music. ‘Ah, Love, But a Day!’ received a reading of nervous intensity, the text seeming to occur to Ms. Gardner as she sang, and the poignant sentiments of ‘I Send My Heart Up to Thee’ seemed almost too private for sharing even when the vocal line took the singer into her plush, platinum-clad upper register at mezzo forte. ‘The Year's at the Spring’ was sung with a generous outpouring of vernal freshness, Ms. Gardner’s emerald tones glowing in the warm light of Dr. Wisuthseriwong’s playing.

Observing the breadth of her connection with the music, it is hardly surprising to note that Claude Debussy’s Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire were the subject of Ms. Gardner’s Masters thesis. From the opening bars of ‘Le Balcon,’ she ventured without hesitation into Debussy’s individual sound world, tellingly employing the composer’s exploitation of vocal intervals to convey the emotional ebb and flow of the text. Her subito piano in ‘Harmonie du Soir’ was ravishing, and her command of dynamic contrasts was unerringly effective throughout the evening: nothing was manipulated or overemphasized to the detriment of composers’ intentions, but she utilized every pause and shift in volume as an expressive device. The finely-wrought interplay between voice and piano in ‘Le Jet d'Eau’ was elevated to an impassioned conversation, and the diaphanous utterances of ‘Recueillement’ were expressed with refinement and tone that shimmered as though bathed in moonlight. The bleak but strangely comforting aura of Baudelaire’s words in ‘La Mort des Amants’ blossomed in Ms. Gardner’s performance of the song, the sudden warmth of her voicing of the line ‘Nos deux cœurs seront deux vastes flambeaux’—‘Our two hearts will be two immense beacons’—igniting the meaning of the text and fully revealing the profundity of Debussy’s musical response to the poet’s singular vision.

Composed for Renée Fleming, Sir André Previn’s Three Emily Dickinson Songs found in Ms. Gardner an even more suitable interpreter, drawing from her performances of textual clarity and nuance. The starkness and unconventional rhyme schemes of Dickinson’s poetry make setting it to music a daunting task, but Previn’s success was confirmed by Ms. Gardner’s accounts of these songs. Supported with uncanny synergy by Dr. Wisuthseriwong, her singing of ‘As Imperceptibly as Grief’ had the sheen of Fleming’s vocalism at its best with none of the mannerisms. The sheer beauty of Ms. Gardner’s voice shone in ‘Will There Really Be a Morning,’ her voice soaring on the lines ‘Is it brought from famous countries / Of which I have never heard?’ The sincerity of the plea ‘But—please take a little girl’ and the dejection of the reply ‘He turned away!’ in ‘Good Morning Midnight’ were haunting, the voice reduced to a fragile but unbreakable silken thread.

Histrionically, the recital was dominated by Ms. Gardner’s emotionally raw performance of William Bolcom’s masterful 1978 song ‘Mary,’ a musical character study in miniature rivaled in Twentieth-Century music only by Schönberg’s Erwartung and Poulenc’s La voix humaine—both of which would be ideal repertory for Ms. Gardner. With far greater economy than his European counterparts, Bolcom crafted a three-dimensional portrait of a woman used and then discarded by society. Ms. Gardner brought true operatic intensity to her performance without overwhelming Bolcom’s subdued, folk-inspired vocal lines. The despair that she evinced in her delivery of the line ‘Proud Mary’s gone mad’ was harrowing, and her simple elocution of the concluding stanza was tremendously moving. A more perfect foil for the taxing ‘Mary’ than Bolcom’s brilliantly comedic ‘Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise’ could hardly be imagined. In her uproariously funny performance of it, Ms. Gardner conjured the archetypal small-town church society lady—the Hyacinth Bucket of the genteel American South.

Ms. Gardner was joined in her encore, ‘Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio’—the familiar Flower Duet—from Act Two of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, Chair of the Voice Faculty of The Music Academy of North Carolina and Ms. Gardner’s Suzuki in Piedmont Opera’s acclaimed 2014 production of the opera. The camaraderie that they forged during that production was renewed in their pantomimed return to Nagasaki in this recital. Ms. Foley Davis’s rich, opulent timbre and expert Italian diction complemented Ms. Gardner’s assured handling of Cio-Cio-San’s music, and they offered a performance of the duet that was far more rewarding than the typical obligatory recital encore.

In terms of repertory, singing, and pianism, two extraordinary collaborative musicians offered a genuinely engaging, illuminating recital. The songs of Beach, Bolcom, Previn, and even Debussy are heard in recitals by acclaimed singers far less often than they deserve to be. Even fewer are opportunities to hear them sung as authoritatively as they were in this performance. What too many of today’s singers seemingly fail to grasp is that, in service to the Art of Song, neither a beautiful voice nor an inquisitive spirit on its own can sustain a recital. The voice and the curiosity must work in tandem to discover new ways of guiding audiences along the scenic highways of musical adventure. This was evident in every moment of the expertly-accompanied, faultlessly-sung, and inventively-interpreted performances in this recital. How, then, might one define an important artist? Simply cite Jill Gardner as a model.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano JILL GARDNER in recital, 20 March 2015Scene of a great evening: the beautiful recital hall in the UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance [Photo by the author]

20 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Samuel Barber & Benjamin Britten – PIANO CONCERTI (Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; DECCA 478 8189)

CD REVIEW: Samuel Barber & Benjamin Britten - PIANO CONCERTI (DECCA 478 8189)SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981): Piano Concerto, Op. 38 and Nocturne for Piano, Op. 33 and BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Piano Concerto, Op. 13 [1945 revised version] and Notturno (Night Piece)Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; London Symphony Orchestra; Emil Tabakov, conductor [Recorded in Cadogan Hall, London, UK, 20 – 22 September 2013; DECCA 478 8189; 1 CD, 74:30; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910 and Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1913, respectively, Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten were separated by far more than three years and the Atlantic Ocean. The precocious child of a comfortable, musical family that included the acclaimed contralto Louise Homer, the composer’s aunt, Barber was from an early age exposed to art and artists. Britten’s origins were by his own assessment thoroughly middle class, though he too showed early signs of his prodigious gifts. The composers notably shared the distinction of finding in one person a partner in both life and art, Gian Carlo Menotti in Barber’s case and Sir Peter Pears in Britten’s, but their musical infancies were very different. Whereas Barber’s reputations as a musician and composer were established by the time that he was in his late teens, Britten was a decade older before his music gained wide recognition. The American composer sought to increase the stature of his native land’s music by elevating the significance of compositions in an accessible, populist vein: his British counterpart’s music grew ever more cosmopolitan as the composer’s career progressed, revitalizing English music by infusing it with sounds and spirits drawn from other cultures. Despite the cultural, ideological, and societal differences that separated them, Barber and Britten both came to epitomize for many observers the Twentieth-Century musics of their fatherlands. Born in ​Chicago, educated at Juilliard​, and renowned, among a wide range of accomplishments, for her artistic partnership with fellow pianist Greg Anderson, young American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe insightfully explores in her excellently-written liner notes for this disc the parallels, perpendiculars, and intersections between Barber’s and Britten’s Piano Concerti. What makes this disc an exceptional delight is the manner in which her written eloquence is unaffectedly manifested in her playing of the Concerti. Though hardly neglected, neither Concerto is as popular as Mozart’s concerti or the great Romantic concerti of the Nineteenth Century, but Ms. Roe’s performances suggest that the blame for this must be laid at the feet of listeners rather than at those of the composers. Adhering to the high standards of presentation and sonic production for which the DECCA label is acclaimed, this disc is a very welcome addition to the discographies of both the composers and their music for piano. It is also a superlative recorded—and superlatively-recorded—introduction to the solo work of a young lady who seems to possess every quality needed to become one of the Twenty-First Century’s most imaginative pianists.

Britten himself played the 1938 première of his Piano Concerto, his first work for piano and orchestra. The 1945 revision played by Ms. Roe was first performed at the 1946 Cheltenham Festival, its London première played soon after by the ill-fated Noel Mewton-Wood. During the past forty years, Britten’s Concerto has been associated in the minds of many listeners with Sviatoslav Richter, who recorded the Concerto in 1970 under the composer's direction. There are hints of Richter’s singular way with the music in Ms. Roe’s performance, but her interpretation is very much her own. Expertly supported by Emil Tabakov and the London Symphony Orchestra,​ she rips into the Concerto’s opening Toccata (Allegro molto e con brio) with a show of force as awe-inspiring for its unapologetically thorny pragmatism as for its uncompromising virtuosity. Ms. Roe’s fidelity to the notes on the page is allied with an uncanny elasticity of approach: listening casually, the incredible tautness of rhythm that more careful listening reveals seems miles away from the pianist’s rhapsodic playing. She does not shrink from the rough edges of the music, her incisive executions of Britten’s unconventional but approachable bass figurations grounding her playing of the most far-flung passages of the movement. The restless harmonies of the Waltz (Allegretto) draw from Ms. Roe playing of special refinement, and she and Maestro Tabakov collaborate to lend tender contemplativeness to the Impromptu (Andante lento), Britten’s replacement for the original Recitative and Aria movement from the 1938 version of the Concerto. Ms. Roe’s left hand gets a workout in the March (Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia), which she delivers with the brash elation of the brass bands that were once the prides of virtually every English town. The LSO musicians follow both Maestro Tabakov and Ms. Roe with consummate artistry. In the magical, mercurial performance that Ms. Roe provides on this disc, Britten’s ‘night piece,’ Notturno, is both subtle and seductive: so ethereal is her playing that the voice of Oberon and the mysterious sylvan world of the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seem very close at hand.

Commissioned by the publishing house of G. Schirmer to celebrate the firm's centennial and first performed in 1962 at the newly-built Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with John Browning at the keyboard and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Barber's Piano Concerto garnered him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 [the first was for his opera Vanessa]. A broadly-conceived, unabashedly festive work, the Concerto is a demanding piece that requires of the soloist the kind of concentrated brilliance that must be fastidiously practiced but seem spontaneous. One does not play music like this as confidently as Ms. Roe does on this disc without having devoted hours upon hours of study to the score, but her performance exudes a laissez-faire exuberance that makes the difficulty of the music secondary to her obvious glee in playing it. Ms. Roe brings to the opening Allegro appassionato movement an expansive reading marked by unstinting attack on the music’s climaxes. Her playing is splendidly athletic, the robust tone that she coaxes from the sonorous Steinway instrument at her disposal filling Barber’s deceptively jaunty melodic lines with sunny but occasionally dark humor. The contrast between the opening movement and the wistful Canzone (moderato) is made all the more apparent by the tranquil elegance of Ms. Roe’s playing of the second movement. The intensity of her playing of the Canzone is no less pulse-quickening than that of her playing of the outer, more ‘public’ movements, but the sensitivity to the composer’s contemplative writing that she displays is further evidence of the depth of her gifts. Aided by Maestro Tabakov’s sharply-defined beat and the accurate, alert playing of the LSO, Ms. Roe traverses the Concerto’s closing Allegro molto movement with complementary grace and grandeur, meeting every technical demand with absolute assurance. Barber’s homage to John Field, the Opus 33 Nocturne for Piano, is lovingly played, Ms. Roe’s lustrous phrasing matching her crepuscular shaping of Britten’s Notturno.

Though she débuted as a concerto soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1997, Elizabeth Joy Roe is a pianist whose greatest achievements are still before her. This first recording for DECCA must be counted as one of them. In her dedicatory remarks in the liner notes for the disc, she wrote, ‘This album has been a dream project and a true labour of love.’ Such sentiments are easily expressed, but her playing of Barber’s and Britten’s Piano Concerti and strangely symbiotic ‘night pieces’ validates the sincerity of her assertion. Still, not all labors of love inspire the same feeling in listeners, but it is difficult to imagine any listener failing to find a place in the heart—and on the shelf—for this superb recording.

14 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Gabriel Fauré, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, & Xavier Montsalvatge – APRÈS UN RÊVE (Guzmán Hernando, tenor; Aurelio Viribay, piano; Cezanne Producciones CZ014)

CD REVIEW: Fauré, de Falla, Ravel, Poulenc, Montsalvatge - APRÈS UN RÊVE (Cezanne Producciones CZ014)GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924), MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), and XAVIER MONTSALVATGE (1912 – 2002): Après un rêve – French and Spanish Art Songs—Guzmán Hernando, tenor; Aurelio Viribay, piano [Recorded in November 2012 in Cezanne Studios, Madrid, Spain; Cezanne Producciones CZ014; 1 CD, 72:06; Available from La Quinta de Mahler (España), Amazon, CD Baby, Google Play, and iTunes]

​Whether performed before an audience or studio microphones, an Art Song recital should educate, enlighten, and entertain. A thoughtfully-sung Lied, chanson, or canción should transport the listener to the banks of the Rhine, the boulevards of Paris, or a dusty plaza de toros, the fusion of music and text unlocking unexplored regions of the imaginations of both performers and audiences. This is a lofty goal, one that often no longer seems practical, but when the state of Art Song on disc seems most imperiled a disc like Après un rêve restores faith in both the potency and perseverance of Song. Taking on an ambitious selection of songs by Gabriel Fauré, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Xavier Montsalvatge, tenor Guzmán Hernando and pianist Aurelio Viribay hold nothing back in their collaborative journey through piquant harmonies and melodies that alternately throb with emotional intensity and insouciantly flirt with the senses. There are no shortages of well-trained singers and pianists today, and there are pretty Lieder recordings released one after another. Nonetheless, important recordings of Song repertory are no more plentiful now than when Alexander Kipnis recorded Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge or Hans Hotter recorded Schubert’s Winterreise. Après un rêve is an important disc. It is unusual to be educated, enlightened, and entertained by an Art Song recording, but Après un rêve beguiles the ears, enraptures the heart, and brings the mind nearer to the composers’ most personal creative impulses.

Integral to the tremendous success of this disc is the playing of Mr. Viribay, whose flawlessly attentive support enables Mr. Hernando not only to interact with the nuances of each text on a profound level but also to cast aside concerns about ensemble and follow where his interpretive sensibilities lead. The Gallic sophistication that Mr. Viribay exhibits in his playing of the selections by Fauré, Ravel, and Poulenc is touched by an understated melancholy that highlights the darker colorations that coruscate in Mr. Hernando’s nacreous singing. A native Spaniard’s mastery of music by de Falla and Montsalvatge is not surprising, but Mr. Viribay’s commands of the evocative rhythmic figurations of de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas and the distinctive harmonies of Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras are shaped by something deeper than musical compatriotism. His flexible but forceful management of de Falla’s cadences places the Siete canciones populares españolas both in the caves of the Camino del Sacromonte and in the cosmopolitan salons of fin-de-siècle Barcelona and Madrid, and the gritty textures of the Cinco canciones negras are hewn with a sharp musical chisel that unleashes the brooding savagery of the texts. Mr. Viribay neither unimaginatively follows his musical partner nor aggressively leads him: rather, he and Mr. Hernando approach these songs as though performing chamber music. Mr. Viribay’s playing is as attentive to the twists and turns of text and mood as is Mr. Hernando’s unfailingly beautiful singing.

The song that gives the disc its title is one of Fauré’s most familiar creations, and Mr. Hernando sings it with an inviting combination of interpretive warmth and vocal coolness. ‘Tristesse,’ a setting of a superb text by Théophile Gautier, is delivered with understated languidness by both singer and pianist, and Fauré’s unflappable elegance is highlighted by Mr. Hernando’s satiny voicing of ‘Les Berceaux.’ ‘Prison’ and ‘Mandoline’ benefit from texts by Paul Verlaine: in this performance, the great poet’s words and the composer’s ever-evolving melodies glisten in the musical moonlight of Mr. Hernando’s singing.

Now a century old, de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas are among the most widely-known Spanish compositions for voice. Still, despite espousal by Gérard Souzay and José Carreras, it is unusual to hear them sung by a male singer, and Mr. Hernando’s delicate but stirringly masculine timbre establishes an atmosphere in the canciones that is quite different from the sound worlds conjured in recorded performances by Victoria de los Ángeles, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Joyce DiDonato, and Ailyn Pérez. Mr. Hernando’s cantorial timbre gives ‘El paño moruno’ an aptly Moorish sensibility, and ‘Seguidilla murciana’ is characterized by razor-sharp rhythmic precision from voice and keyboard. The distinctive harmonies of ‘Asturiana’ are realized with special fervor owing to Mr. Hernando’s reliably solid intonation. His accounts of ‘Jota’ and ‘Nana’ simmer with the aural representation of the earthy, quintessentially Spanish aroma of pimentón, but there is a compelling subtlety coursing beneath the surface of these interpretations of ‘Canción’ and ‘Polo.’ In the hands of many singers, the Siete canciones populares españolas are souvenirs of the ‘tourist’ Spain of cheap plastic castanets and mass-produced mantillas: revealingly, Mr. Hernando and Mr. Viribay treat them as the songs that Spaniards sing as they go about the business of their everyday lives.

The charms of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, using texts by Pierre-Jules Renard, have never been more apparent than in the performances on this disc. Not even Souzay, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, or the brilliant Régine Crespin dove as deeply into the poetic waters of Ravel’s music and Renard’s texts: among recorded interpreters, only Jan DeGaetani rivals Mr. Hernando’s thoughtful traversal of Histoires naturelles. The pride tinged with regret evinced in ‘Le paon’ gushes from Mr. Hernando’s polished but edgy vocalism, and his alert singing of ‘Le grillon’ is complemented wonderfully by the chirruping virtuosity of Mr. Viribay’s playing. The urbane refinement of their account of ‘Le cygne’ is expected, but the humanity that they extract from the clever interplays of melody and harmony in ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ and ‘La pintade’ is extraordinary. This is a reading that reveals new facets of these sparkling songs.

It is frustrating that a poet as gifted as Paul Éluard remains more renowned outside of France for his wife—the infamous Gala, who eventually married Salvador Dalí—than for his own work. In an artistic utopia, Tel jour, telle nuit, Poulenc’s cycle using texts by Éluard, would contribute mightily to the restoration of the poet’s worldwide literary reputation. Few composers ever dealt with French texts as insightfully as Poulenc, and his sly manipulations of Éluard’s verses are as meaningfully layered as his Cocteau settings. The essence of Poulenc’s mastery of Art Song is simplicity, and both Mr. Hernando and Mr. Viribay look solely to the music for the cornerstones of their interpretations of these songs. They mine the lodes of feeling in ‘Bonne journée,’ ‘Une ruine coquille vide,’ and ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu’ with explorers’ sense of adventure, and the forthright, unexaggerated sentiments of ‘Une roulotte couverte en tuiles,’ ‘À toutes brides,’ and ‘Une herbe pauvre’ receive from Mr. Hernando singing stripped of all artifice. He caresses Poulenc’s vocal lines in ‘Je n'ai envie que de t'aimer’ and pours out a stream of granitic tone in ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche.’ There is no finer recorded example of Poulenc’s vocal music than Mr. Hernando’s and Mr. Viribay’s performance of ‘Nous avons fait la nuit,’ in which the significance of every note and word is meticulously assessed and rendered accordingly.

Some of the imagery in the texts of Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras is perhaps uncomfortable for modern listeners, but the composer’s music deserves to be heard far more frequently than it is, especially beyond the borders of Spain—and to be heard as it is performed on this disc. The starkness of the texts does not preclude flashes of humor from both artists. Mr. Viribay’s spirited playing of ‘Cuba dentre de un piano’ enhances Mr. Hernando’s singing, and they unite their talents in splendidly animated performances of ‘Punto de Habanera’ and ‘Chevere.’ The concluding ‘Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito’ and ‘Canto negro’ are songs as fine as any composed in any language, but the comfort with Montsalvatge’s idiom showcased in Mr. Hernando’s sweetly resonant singing makes his presentation of the songs a luxuriously unique experience.

Après un rêve is a disc in which poetry and music interact in explosive collisions of passion and pageantry, but what makes it an exceptionally valuable recording is the quality of the music-making. The line ‘Je te soutiens de toutes mes forces’ from Poulenc’s and Éluard’s ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’ is an ideal description of the collaboration between Guzmán Hernando and Aurelio Viribay that makes Après un rêve so moving: each gentleman supports the other with every atom of his artistic constitution. The molecules that these artists form in their navigations of the songs of Fauré, de Falla, Ravel, Poulenc, and Montsalvatge expand in every phrase to metamorphose the elemental energy of song into a kinetic intimacy between music and listener.