31 December 2016

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2016: Dmitri Shostakovich & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — VIOLIN CONCERTI (Linus Roth, violin; Challenge Classics CC72689)

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2016: Dmitri Shostakovich & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - VIOLIN CONCERTI (Challenge Classics CC72689)DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975): Violin Concerto No. 2, Opus 129 and PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Violin Concerto, Opus 35Linus Roth, violin; London Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Sanderling, conductor [Recorded at LSO St. Luke’s, London, UK, 2 – 4 May 2016; Challenge Classics CC72689; 1 SACD, 74:25; Available from Challenge Records, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​The Serbian poet Dejan Stojanović wrote in his poem ‘Dancing of Sounds’ that ‘There is no competition of sounds / Between a nightingale and a violin.’ When he penned these words, Stojanović had perhaps never heard the playing of German violinist Linus Roth, so it is likely that he did not realize how insightful his words are. Simply put, to hear Roth play is to experience one of Art’s greatest phenomena, a human equivalent of birdsong echoing through a wood and the roar of Niagara. From the violin in his hands, th​e 1703 Stradivarius instrument played in years past by Jean Baptiste Charles ​​​Dancla and Nathan Milstein, Roth cajoles sounds ​that recall not only the playing of these legendary forebears [one of Dancla’s most precocious pupils, Maud Powell, left a legacy of recordings said by contemporaries to enshrine vital elements of Dancla’s technique] but also, more pointedly, the mesmerizing tones of Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the disarming lyricism of Schneiderhan’s wife, soprano Irmgard Seefried. Perhaps it is too clichéd to suggest that Roth’s playing ‘sings,’ but his violin is truly the voice of artistry that encompasses understanding of the most intimate implications of musical communication. As his well-documented espousal of the nearly-forgotten music of Mieczysław Weinberg has revealed, Roth clearly perceives his responsibility as one of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted violinists as extending beyond the interpretation of composers’ music to acting as a direct link between composers and listeners, whether they are separated by a fortnight or a century. ​Here focusing his artistry on concerti by Dmitri Shostakovich and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in performances preserved in sound of sparkling clarity, Roth bares the souls of both works, playing them as freshly as though the ink on the scores were still wet. Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are now viewed from a post-Freudian perspective as composers with proverbial ‘baggage,’ but Roth frees these concerti from anachronistic pseudo-psychological associations. His formula is disarmingly simple: combine great music with great music making, and all contexts and subtexts become irrelevant.

​Formally premièred in 1967 by David Oistrakh, to whom the score was dedicated, and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the second of Shostakovich’s two remarkable concerti for violin and orchestra (Opus 129) was the last of the composer’s six concerti, completing the symmetry of the pairs of concerti for cello and piano. ​The base key of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, C♯ minor, has prompted comparisons with other significant works with the same tonal foundation, not least Beethoven’s powerful Opus 131 String Quartet, but Shostakovich’s music is utterly original. The dialogues that the composer created between soloist and orchestra are sometimes stunningly creative but are unfailingly integrated into the Concerto’s flow. There are virtually always suggestions of anxiety, ambiguity, and stark expressive candor in Shostakovich’s music, but performances that emphasize these qualities do so at the expense of the brighter moods that emerge when allowed to penetrate the surface. At its most powerful, Roth’s playing of the Shostakovich Concerto maintains a concentrated lightness, a vein of unaffected humility amidst the cyclonic virtuosity. In the Concerto’s opening Moderato movement, this is manifested most rewardingly in the violinist’s subtle handling of the thematic continuity with which Shostakovich manipulated the sonata form that constitutes the music’s skeleton. Roth’s individual style of playing bears little resemblance to that of David Oistrakh, but the younger musician shares with his Ukrainian predecessor an uncanny capacity for spotlighting melody, a skill that Roth exercises without placing a single accent contrary to the score’s indications.

The meandering course of the Adagio movement is followed by Roth with a gossamer tread that gives the music a dream-like aura. Returning to​ ​Stojanović​’s analogy, the violin is here a weary nightingale greeting the dawn, its song subdued by its exhausting nocturnal vigil. Things are rarely wholly as they initially seem in Shostakovich’s music, and there is a steely core that lurks in these bittersweet cadences like the blade beneath a matador’s muleta. Shostakovich crafted and Roth recreates a delicate but endearingly awkward pas de deux between slow movements from a Prokofiev symphony and a Bach partita: past and present embrace, first one and then the other lifted into view. Roth’s supple phrasing makes the transitions imperceptible. ​This is also true in the Concerto​’s closing movement, in which Roth manages the shift from Adagio to Allegro​—and the corresponding changes of mood—with irrepressible momentum and imagination. This is some of Shostakovich’s most exhilarating, spontaneous-sounding music, and it is a testament to Roth’s absorption of every detail of the composer’s writing that his performance exudes easy confidence. His connection with the music’s expressivity never disrupted by his often breathtaking feats of virtuosity, Roth exudes assurance in a piece in the performance of which many violinists rely upon arrogance.

In certain ways, the Russia into which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 was not markedly different from Russia in 2016. At the time of the composer’s birth in the town of Votkinsk in today’s Udmurt Republic, the doggedly conservative Tsar Nicholas I was in the middle of his three-decade reign, a period in which Russia was plagued by inner turmoil—at the time of his succession, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, the subject of an once-popular opera, threatened to prevent Nicholas from occupying the imperial throne vacated by one of his older brothers and refused by another—and a litany of ill-conceived foreign policies that politically and economically isolated the vast, fiercely proud nation. Isolation was likewise perhaps the single most defining aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life and musical career. His was a life that embodied the ambiguity of Francesco Maria Piave’s familiar description of Paris in his libretto for Verdi’s La traviata as ‘questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi.’ Reading the body of his correspondence that survived familial and governmental censorship, the Tchaikovsky who quickly emerges is a man whose existence could accurately be described as a populated desert, a life that was lonely and often distressingly solitary despite its extensive dramatis personæ.

The extent to which Tchaikovsky fell victim to the frequently hypocritical social conventions of his time continues to be questioned without hope of definitive resolution, but what cannot be doubted is that even an artist as important as Tchaikovsky would find today’s political climate in Russia little if any more hospitable than it was in 1893, when, under circumstances still debated by scholars, the composer’s life ended, perhaps at his own hand. Nevertheless, the kinship between Tchaikovsky’s life and Piave’s characterization of Parisian demimonde society in La traviata is analogous to the parallel between Twenty-First-Century perspectives on Tchaikovsky’s music and Maria Callas’s oft-quoted remark about attentive listeners finding the full spectrum of her artistry in her recordings. In music, knowledge is not always power; or not the sort of power that consistently proves beneficial, at any rate. That Tchaikovsky was homosexual is beyond doubt, but the notion that he was an archetypal ‘gay artist’ is a meaningless and frankly ill-considered application of modern sensibilities to a man whose manifest seriousness of purpose confirms to have been concerned with being a worthy heir to the legacy of Mozart, not with furthering a social agenda. Which are the passages in any of Tchaikovsky’s works that would miraculously be of lesser quality were it discovered that their creator was actually heterosexual? The tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s life is that he could not live openly, publicly following his heart’s lead, but the tragedy of his afterlife is that his music is now too often subjected to scrutiny based not upon its inherent quality but upon superfluous connotations. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a masterpiece not by a gay composer but by a great one.

Composed in 1878 whilst Tchaikovsky sought refuge in Switzerland from his farcical marriage, the writing for the soloist in his Opus 35 Concerto was guided by Iosif Kotek, a violinist with a burgeoning reputation and Tchaikovsky’s pupil and probable paramour. A decade passed before the Concerto was published in full score and began to be widely established in the international repertory, a delay that now seems inexplicable, but, as was often the case, the quality of Tchaikovsky’s music was not immediately recognized. Subsequent generations of violinists have vindicated the Concerto and its sensitive composer, and Roth’s performance further honors Tchaikovsky’s genius​. ​The technical demands of the Concerto’s Allegro moderato movement are near-demonic, but Roth tames even the most ferocious passages with playing that blends palpitating brilliance with astonishing calmness. This music has been recorded by many of the greatest violinists of the past century, and Roth here equals the best of their performances, recalling the majesty of David Oistrakh’s recording with Franz Konwitschny and Staatskapelle Dresden and the ebullience of Jascha Heifetz’s reading with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Unique to Roth’s performance is its prevailing youthfulness: in his hands, this is a young man’s music, the influence of Iosif Kotek and the fact that Tchaikovsky was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the Concerto’s genesis continually apparent.

In the G-minor Andante Canzonetta, Tchaikovsky partners the violin and orchestra as though he were writing chamber music for only two instruments. Roth responds with playing of conversational immediacy, each note’s significance in the musical conversation carefully but not obsessively considered. One of the most compelling components of Roth’s artistry is that he listens to rather than merely playing the music—all of the music, not solely his part in it—and reacts to intricacies that many soloists seemingly do not hear. The passing of thematic material from soloist to orchestra is a vital element of the construction of many concerti, but Roth bothers to question why motifs are treated in specific ways: it is not enough to suppose that Tchaikovsky did so because Brahms did so, who did so because Schumann did so, who did so because Beethoven did so, who did so because Mozart and Haydn did so. As the Canzonetta is played in this performance, Tchaikovsky’s voice resounds with tremendous personality, the lush Romanticism of the harmony cushioning wistful, emotionally vulnerable melody that seems as natural to Roth as to Tchaikovsky.

The Concerto’s Allegro vivacissimo finale is the sort of ambivalent music that Tchaikovsky composed with extraordinary profundity and tunefulness. Like that of Mozart, whose work the Russian composer idolized, Tchaikovsky’s music often evokes contrasting emotions simultaneously: effervescent, even banal melodies can convey surprising depths of discord. The breadth of the finale’s spiritual adventure, its heart stated by the composer to be the pursuit of pure beauty, is enhanced by the expansiveness of Roth’s phrasing, his affinity for finding song within any piece disclosing the close kinship of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto with music by Grieg and Sibelius. As in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto, the sureness of his negotiations of difficult intervals and passagework and the security of his intonation are unimpeachable, but these are only facets of Roth’s playing. In opera, those who possess great voices are not necessarily great singers. A violinist with a great technique can only be a great artist if that technique is allied with sagacity that begins rather than ends with notes on a page. Roth’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto is built upon a lovingly-honed acquaintance with the score that he shares with the listener with the enthusiasm of introducing one cherished friend to another—in short, the work of a major artist.

In the performances on this disc, Roth enjoys superlative support from the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Thomas Sanderling. Some of today’s most talented soloists seem to exist in artistic vacuums, never interacting or communicating with their orchestral colleagues, and their recordings, while technically proficient to a considerable degree, flounder in a sort of emotional wasteland littered with meaningless notes. Artists need not be kindred spirits in order to collaborate effectively, but camaraderie and cordiality are as vital in music as chemistry between Romeo and Juliet is in theatre. Roth’s efforts on this disc are enhanced by tempi that are right both for the music and for his performance of it. Balances between orchestra and soloist sometimes sound slightly artificial, reminding the listener that this recording is a product of the studio rather than the concert hall. Likewise, the orchestral playing is occasionally pedestrian, especially in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Always professional and commendably precise, the orchestra’s work contrasts with rather than sharing the propulsive energy of Roth’s playing. These Concerti are soloist-driven, however, and both Sanderling and the LSO are attentive, engaged passengers in Roth’s success-bound musical caravan.

In the poem quoted at the start, Dejan Stojanović also wrote that ‘Art is apotheosis; / Often, the complaint of beauty.’ In the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, the poet’s words echo a particularly poignant truth. Their works were perhaps the complaints of beautiful souls subjected to the ugliness of societies in which they were seers amidst almost universal blindness. Humanity still crawls along, seeking distant trinkets in darkness when there are so many well-lit treasures within reach. Though only towering peaks in a career already as magnificently craggy as the Himalayas, Linus Roth’s performances of these Violin Concerti by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are an apotheosis in an important artist’s mastery of his instrument.

18 December 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | December 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach — PARTITAS FOR HARPSICHORD, BWV 825 – 830 (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Sono Luminus DSL-92209)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | December 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach - PARTITAS FOR HARPSICHORD, BWV 825 - 830 (Sono Luminus DSL-92209)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Partitas for Harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830: Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 17 – 21 March 2015; Sono Luminus DSL-92209; 3 CDs, 153:34; Available from Sono Luminus, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​Readers who visit Voix des Arts often know that the harpsichord music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the playing of harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour are two of this author’s greatest passions. It will hardly be surprising, then, that Vinikour’s new, sonically-spectacular Sono Luminus recording of Bach’s six remarkable Partitas for solo harpsichord, BWV 825 – 830, was eagerly awaited. Those readers who are familiar with Vinikour’s work will be even less surprised to discover that the anticipation was justified and is magnificently fulfilled by the performances that grace these three discs. Born in Chicago and now again based in his native city after a long residency in France, Vinikour restores to America one of her foremost musical treasures, one who enriches life in Chicagoland and throughout the United States through both his solo playing and his leadership of Chicago Bach Ensemble and Milwaukee-based Great Lakes Baroque, Ltd. Still, not even these accomplishments overshadow what Vinikour achieves with this recording of the six Partitas. Measured solely against the exalted standards of Bach’s work, this is demonically demanding, richly rewarding music, music that some keyboard virtuosi perform as insipid exhibitions of their technical proficiency. Vinikour of course deserves profuse praise for the incendiary virtuosity with which he ignites the Partitas, but his pyrotechnics are intended to illuminate, not to distract and blind. Ultimately, what ushers this release into the company of the most important Bach recordings is its documentation of Vinikour’s faculty for allying historically-informed erudition with timeless eloquence. In his playing of the Partitas, the music sighs and smiles, jokes and jostles, ponders and prays, but the supreme marvel of this recording is that every sentiment that emanates from these performances comes directly from Bach’s scores.

Built in 1995 by Virginia-based Thomas and Barbara Wolf, the double-manual ​harpsichord heard in these performances of Bach’s Partitas was modeled after a 1739 single-manual instrument from the workshop of Hannover-born Christian Vater. Any music played on this splendid instrument could not fail to make a favorable impression on the listener, but the interplay of the harpsichord’s exceptional clarity and rich but perfectly-balanced overtones, expertly managed by Vinikour and captured with rare immediacy by Sono Luminus’s technicians, is ideal for Bach’s opulent music. Published individually between 1726 and 1730 and collectively under the title Clavier-Übung I in 1731, the six Partitas were likely the last of Bach’s suites for keyboard to be composed, furthering the aims pursued in his so-called English and French Suites. That the Partitas are milestones both in Bach’s writing for the harpsichord and in the keyboard literature as a whole is apparent in every bar of the music, and Vinikour’s playing, while observing every intricacy of the scores, reveals that Bach’s expressive vocabulary was no less prodigious in the harpsichord’s language than in his musical essays for orchestra and voices.

Introducing his performance of Partita No. 1 in B♭ major (BWV 825) with a broadly-phrased but quicksilver account of the magisterial Praeludium, a movement worthy of the greatest of Bach’s works for organ, Vinikour at once establishes a musical environment in which virtuosity and interpretive intelligence are the defining virtues of the playing. In this performance, the solemnity of the music is never allowed to completely overshadow the flashes of humor. Vinikour’s fingers deliver the Allemande with the unerring precision of a dancer’s feet, and he makes the bustling Corrente redolent not of a society of starched jabots and powdered periwigs but of an assembly of spirited youths. This is not to suggest that Vinikour’s performance is in any way lacking in sophistication: rather, his is the sophistication of sincere connection with the music rather than snobbish proselytizing. There is an appealing serenity at the heart of his playing of the Sarabande, the bel canto flow of its melody emphasized, and Menuets 1 and 2 are here genuinely festive, not artificially formal. The energy that Vinikour expends in his exhilarating performance of the Giga that ends the first Partita sounds sufficient to illuminate the Manhattan skyline for years to come, but, instead of the harpsichordist’s ego, it is the composer’s brilliance that glistens in the tuneful glow.

What can superficially be deemed an arbitrary progression of tonalities among the Partitas is revealed upon closer scrutiny to be a carefully-considered, deliberately-wrought exploration of the full range of sonorities and expressive possibilities afforded by the keys selected by Bach. Partita No. 2 in C minor (BWV 826) begins with a Sinfonia that receives from Vinikour exceptionally fine handling. His recent conducting of Händel’s Agrippina for California’s West Edge Opera and Purcell’s Fairy-Queen for Chicago Opera Theater confirmed the depth of Vinikour’s talent for attentive management both of pieces’ individual structures and of their functions within the overall construction of a score, and this talent is as apparent in the Partitas as in large-scaled vocal works. As in Partita No. 1, the sequence of Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande in Partita No. 2 is traced with focus on the distinct rhythmic identities of each form, thematic development exposed with remarkable clarity that never disrupts the lyrical tides of the music. Unique among the Partitas, the effervescent Rondeaux is dispatched by Vinikour with cosmopolitan elegance: the fallacy of Bach having virtually been an artistic loner is dispelled by the close kinship with similar music by François Couperin, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Jakob Froberger that Vinikour’s performance discloses. The Partita’s closing Capriccio is an ideal showcase for harpsichord and harpsichordist. The instrument’s response is as compelling as the musician’s mastery of it, the flawless articulation of passagework putting many fine harpsichords and harpsichordists to shame.

It is with an imaginative Fantasia of the type found throughout Bach’s oeuvre for keyboard that Partita No. 3 in A minor (BWV 827) begins, and the freedom within historically-appropriate parameters with which Vinikour plays it expands the sparks of ingenuity that flicker throughout the Fantasia into a conflagration that consumes the Partita as a whole. The taut fingering in the subsequent Allemande gives way to appealing contrasts of vigor and tranquility in the Corrente and Sarabande, the player’s wrists seeming first to be controlled by tightly-wound springs and then by spring zephyrs. The term having a substantially less risqué connotation in the Eighteenth Century than it now evokes, Bach’s Burlesca is charming rather than insinuating, but there is nothing quaint about Vinikour’s playing; no more so than there is anything overtly comical in his playing of the Scherzo, an early use of this form which further validates Bach’s stature as an innovator. The concluding Gigue’s demands are met with unflappable ease, but Vinikour is not satisfied by merely playing the notes capably—a feat, it must be admitted, that is commendable in its own right. His playing here is beguilingly balletic, every decorative note of the Gigue perfectly en pointe.

​Partita No. ​4 in D major (BWV 828) is prefaced by an Ouvertüre in Bach’s most extroverted ceremonial style, and Vinikour’s performance verifies its place among the Eighteenth Century’s greatest compositions for the keyboard. Prefiguring Brahms by more than a century, an essential aspect of Bach’s artistry was his ability to make even rigid adherence to conventions seem revolutionary, and Vinikour highlights the breadth of the composer’s creativity by achieving an astounding degree of expressive pliability whilst also carefully observing rhythmic and dynamic boundaries. In this Partita, an Aria infiltrates the Allemande – Courante – Sarabande formula between the latter two numbers, and this simple addition alters the course of the Partita surprisingly. Nobly phrased by Vinikour, the subdued Aria introduces an aura of introspection that persists in the Sarabande, one of Bach’s most beautiful. The Menuet and Gigue that follow breathe the unpolluted air of Bach’s purest vein of musical expression. Vinikour understands that the only means of performing this music that is true to Bach is to regard the notes upon the page not as a portal that leads to some hidden world of meaning but as the essence of that meaning. To interpret this music effectively is simply to play it without agendas or affectation: Bach said all that needs to be said in the music itself, and Vinikour’s stylish, selfless playing allows Bach to speak with tremendous impact.

The opening movement of Partita No. 5 in G major (BWV 829) was designated a Praeambulum by Bach, and the number has in Vinikour’s performance the driving force of a Verdi overture. More than almost any of his contemporaries, Bach excelled at developing thematic material in novel ways, exploiting every form known to him so cleverly that he redefined their emotive capacities, and Vinikour is sensitive to the manner in which Bach employed subjects and countersubjects in intimate dialogues. The harpsichordist recounts the narrative that Bach wove into the trusted pattern of Allemande, Corrente, and Sarabande with playing of demonstrative beauty, extracting frequently-overlooked subtleties from the music’s inner voices. The Tempo di Minuetto, Passepied, and Gigue constitute as varied a concatenation as occurs in any of the Partitas, and Vinikour plays each of the three pieces insightfully, differentiating their individual atmospheres and spotlighting the links among them.

​With Partita No. ​6 in E minor (BWV 830), Bach brought to fruition a cyclical body of work for the harpsichord that, whatever his initial intentions may have been, has ultimately exerted as great an influence on Western music as Beethoven’s String Quartets and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. It is impossible to hear Domenico Scarlatti’s, Haydn’s, Mozart’s, or Beethoven’s Sonatas for keyboard, Chopin’s Nocturnes, or the Piano Concerti of Schumann, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky without perceiving the lessons that these composers learned from Bach’s keyboard music. As Vinikour plays the blazing Toccata with which the sixth Partita commences, it is also impossible to hear this music without gaining or refining a sense of Bach’s significance as one of the musical guideposts at which past and future meet. There is special gravity in Vinikour’s performance of this Partita’s Allemande, too, his pacing facilitating complete realization of Bach’s unerring symmetry. After the fashion of Partita No. 4, an Air here steals into the company of the Corrente and Sarabande, punctuating the pulsating dances, both charismatically played by Vinikour, with a dulcet interlude almost stream-of-conscience-like in its harmonic evolution. Like the fifth Partita’s Tempo di Minuetto, the Tempo di Gavotta in the sixth Partita receives from Vinikour a traversal of uncompromising concentration melded with uncommon expressive elasticity. Too many musicians seemingly believe that Bach repertory must either be approached with arms-length reverence or subjected to overwrought interpretations in order to be acquitted of charges of academic dullness. Crowning a performance notable for its undeviating commitment to providing the listener with an experience akin to what might be heard were Bach himself at the keyboard, Vinikour’s playing of the final Gigue entrances, his fingers truly jigging through the music. As in every movement in all six of the Partitas, Vinikour finds precisely the correct mood for the Gigue—Bach’s.

More than a half-century after it was liberated from opera house orchestra pits, there are listeners who still think that the harpsichord belongs in drawing rooms and salons rather than in concert halls; or recording studios, for that matter. Likewise, an image of Bach as a dour figure peering down upon the world from an organ loft persists. Indicative to Twenty-First-Century observers of shortsightedness and downright ignorance, it is telling that Bach was primarily esteemed by his own children not as a composer but as a keyboard virtuoso. Industrious as he was throughout a long career, one wonders how much music other than his own his children heard Bach play. Could they hear the performances of the six Partitas on these Sono Luminus discs, how might they have re-evaluated their father’s legacy? Bach is now rightly esteemed as one of music’s greatest masters, but even a reputation such as his can stand occasional substantiation. Were Bach an unknown composer whose Partitas were discovered in a moldy library, Jory Vinikour’s performance of them would convince the skeptical listener that their creator was surely an unheralded genius. He now needs no advocacy, but a performance like this one, a performance in which the Partitas sound newly discovered, reaffirms that Bach was a genius both of his own age and for all time.

07 December 2016

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MANON LESCAUT (A. Netrebko, Y. Eyvazov, A. Piña, C. Chausson, B. Bernheim, E. Anstine, P. Vogel, S. Vörös; Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828)

IN REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - MANON LESCAUT (Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautAnna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut), Yusif Eyvazov (Il cavaliere Renato des Grieux), Armando Piña (Lescaut), Carlos Chausson (Geronte di Ravoir), Benjamin Bernheim (Edmondo), Erik Anstine (L’oste, Un sergente), Patrick Vogel (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), Szilvia Vörös (Un musico), Simon Shibambu (Un comandante di marina), Daliborka Miteva (Madrigalista), Martina Reder (Madrigalista), Cornelia Sonnleithner (Madrigalista), Ariana Holecek (Madrigalista); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Marco Armiliato, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at the 2016 Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria, in August 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828; 2 CDs, 127:50; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

His early operas Le villi and Edgar, both scores with undeniable though hardly abundant merits, never having claimed places in the standard repertory, it is with Manon Lescaut that Giacomo Puccini's three-decade career as the master of sentimental music drama began in the esteem of most opera lovers. Premièred at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893, with soprano Cesira Ferrani—also Puccini’s first Mimì in La bohème three years later—in the title rôle and tenor Giuseppe Cremonini as Chevalier des Grieux, an adaptation for the Italian stage of Abbé Prévost’s 1831 saga L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut for was a daring choice for the thirty-something composer and his proponents. Though it was not until eight months after the première of Manon Lescaut that Jules Massenet’s Manon reached Italy, news of the phenomenal success of Massenet’s opera had flowed southward over the Alps for nearly a decade by the time that Manon first met her tragic end in italiano on the stage of Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 19 October 1893. Respectively published by the rival firms Casa Sonzogno and Casa Ricordi, there is no doubting that Massenet’s and Puccini’s scores were subjected to publicity-stunt rivalries. Intriguingly, though, it was a Manon judiciously reworked to more closely resemble Manon Lescaut that besieged Milan. Gone was Massenet’s pivotal Cours de la Reine scene, but ‘in’ were a new, evocative Italian translation of the libretto and widespread revisions to the score. Despite Puccini’s vow to eschew the ‘powder and minuets’ of Massenet’s quintessentially Gallic retelling of Prévost’s story, there is a certain heady sophistication amidst the churning emotions of Manon Lescaut. As Puccini asserted and the heroine of this recording of Manon Lescaut, internationally-acclaimed soprano Anna Netrebko, would surely agree, as multidimensional a woman as Manon can have more than one lover, and the Italian composer pressed his suit with music that retains its magnetism after 113 years.

Puccini the orchestrator seldom receives the appreciation that he deserves, even his La fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s most progressive works, seldom being praised for the ingenuity of their scoring. From the bustling open pages of Act One to the opera’s evocative Intermezzo, Manon Lescaut exhibits the flair for orchestration that would produce its most luscious fruits in the final fifteen years of Puccini’s career. Under the well-honed, authentically Italianate guidance of conductor Marco Armiliato, a familiar presence in performances of Puccini repertory throughout the world, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester musicians provide this Manon Lescaut with a vibrant setting redolent both of Puccini’s Romanticized Italy and of Prévost’s France. An aptly French cosmopolitanism permeates the orchestral playing, complemented by welcome doses of take-no-prisoners Italian temperament and Teutonic discipline. The high standard set by the instrumentalists’ work is upheld by the excellent singing of the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Whether portraying the rowdy patrons of the Amiens tavern or the abusive populace of Le Havre, the choristers balance characterful singing with well-schooled ensemble. The efforts of both orchestra and chorus benefit from Armiliato’s sensible tempi. The conductor provides his leading lady with the frame in which to display her portrait of Puccini’s tempestuous heroine without seeming to passively indulge her. There is no doubt that the soul of this Manon Lescaut resides upon the stage, but the spine of the performance is in the pit, where it belongs.

In generations past, the concept of ‘festival casting’ suggested a level of artistic quality in the context of a major festival like the Salzburger Festspiele that exceeded the everyday achievements of opera companies in their regular seasons. Salzburg’s cast for this Manon Lescaut recaptures some of that now-elusive allure, filling supporting rôles with voices of leading-rôle potential. Anchoring the relay team of promising young artists, South African bass-baritone Simon Shibambu delivers the Comandante di marina’s few words with wonderful presence. Singing attractively, American bass Erik Anstine impresses as both L’oste in Act One and Un sergente in Act Three. Also embracing double duty, German tenor Patrick Vogel voices Il maestro di ballo’s ‘Un po’ elevato il busto’ in Act Two and Un lampionaio’s ‘...e Kate rispose al re’ in Act Three with fine, focused tones.

Singing the rôle of the anonymous Musico who serenades Manon in Act Two, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös, winner of the First Éva Marton International Singing Competition, dispatches ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori’ lusciously, her timbre ideally suited to the music. She is backed dulcetly by the Madrigalisti of sopranos Daliborka Miteva and Martina Reder and mezzo-sopranos Cornelia Sonnleithner and Ariana Holecek. The ladies create a formidable ensemble, uniting their voices in a wall of sound that is handsomely adorned by the intricately-woven tapestry of Puccini’s faux-Baroque madrigal.

The singing of French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Edmondo is one of this performance’s foremost strengths. His spirited depiction of the boisterous young student’s humor and hubris enlivens Act One. The opera’s rollicking opening scene begins with an account of ‘Ave, sera gentile, che discendi col tuo corteo di zeffiri e di stelle’ in which Bernheim’s vocalism is as fresh and free as the music itself. Later, he sings ‘Addio mia stella, addio mio fior’ with insinuating subtlety. The irony of ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton sei tu!’ is anything but subtle, but it is sung so appealingly that it for once seems merely jocular rather than truly mean-spirited. Bernheim’s Edmondo is a fun-loving fellow who makes easy going of the top G♯s, As, and B of his part. The only regret inspired by Bernheim’s performance is that Edmondo appears only in Act One.

Spanish bass-baritone Carlos Chausson is a great asset to the performance as the vindictive roué Geronte di Ravoir, the veteran singer’s voice still as steady as the character’s practiced flirtation is vile. With his vivid but unexaggerated singing in Act One, Chausson makes Geronte’s infatuation with Manon palpable: listening to his exchanges with Lescaut, the old man’s rapacious lust is unmistakable. In Act Two, his singing of ‘Affé, madamigella, or comprendo il perché di nostr’attesa!’ exudes the impotent rage of a man whose pride has been deflated by his lover’s betrayal. Chausson’s Geronte is not all bluster, however: in the quieter moments of his interaction with Manon before Des Grieux’s arrival, there are suggestions of gentleness and legitimate affection in his demeanor. There is no question that Geronte is a caddish, spoiled misogynist, but Chausson, consistently singing well, gives the hateful codger an unexpected vein of humanity.

The rôle of Lescaut, Manon’s brother in Puccini’s opera [he is her cousin in Massenet’s Manon], is in many ways a thankless part. The casts of many performances of Manon Lescaut are promoted as Soprano Lead, Tenor Lead, and Some Other People, but a lackluster Lescaut can markedly dim the wattage of several of Puccini’s most illuminating scenes. In this Manon Lescaut, Mexican baritone Armando Piña is a Lescaut who works hard to match the vocal lumina emitted by his high-profile colleagues. Lescaut is something of an enigma, his agenda never wholly obvious, but Piña lets the music speak for itself. Taking charge of Act One like an amiable but self-serving master of ceremonies, his Lescaut seems to be at the center of every plot, and the baritone voices ‘Certo, certo, ho più sana la testa di quel che non sembri’ robustly. In Act Two, this Lescaut sounds as bored as his sister, and Piña sings ‘Ah! che insieme delizioso! Sei splendida e lucente!’ with a wonderful flash of boyish glee. The contrast with ‘È il vecchio tavolier (per noi) tal quale cassa del danaro universale!’ could hardly be greater. Manon is an unabashed but idealistic materialist, but Lescaut, no less an opportunist, always has an eye turned towards the consequences of his and others’ decisions. Piña does not ignore the callousness of Lescaut’s character, but, like Chausson, he strives to make the part atypically sympathetic. Lescaut’s tessitura is high, and there are rough patches in Piña’s negotiations of it, but his is an earnest, ably-sung performance that reflects thorough preparation.

Netrebko’s husband off the stage, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov joins her compellingly on the stage in this performance of Manon Lescaut, strengthening the drama by making Renato des Grieux a genuine protagonist rather than merely another of Manon’s admirers. Entering in Act One with the brooding sensitivity of Werther or Hoffmann, Eyvazov sings ‘L’amor! L’amor?! Questa tragedia, ovver commedia, io non conosco!’ impetuously, notes and words pealed out insouciantly. The tenor’s voice tends to blare above the stave, especially when dynamics rise above mezzo forte, and his vocalism can be monotonous. Still, the delicacy of ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde si nasconde giovinetta vaga e vezzosa’ is not lost on him, and he phrases ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ with red-blooded passion that crests on easy, secure top B♭s. In duet with Manon, this Des Grieux holds nothing back, matching his partner decibel for decibel. Bursting in on Manon’s comfortable but listless cohabitation with Geronte in Act Two, Eyvazov depicts a figure not unlike Mozart’s Donna Elvira, disenfranchised and entranced at once. His elation turning to desperation as Geronte’s vengeance is enacted, the tenor’s singing grows ever more intense, culminating in a piercing ‘Ah! Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier’ of cataclysmic dramatic force. Their timbres are very different, the younger tenor’s brighter and more metallic, but Eyvazov’s daring, driven singing in this performance often recalls that of Francesco Merli, the first recorded Des Grieux. Act Three of Manon Lescaut is a veritable obstacle course for the tenor, and the fact that Eyvazov emerges unscathed from the act’s final anguished utterance is a testament to the solidity of his technique. His deliveries of ‘Dietro al destino mi traggo livido’ and ‘Manon, disperato, è il mio prego!’ are viscerally exciting, but it is his ‘Ah! non v’avvicinate! Ché, vivo me, costei nessun strappar potrà!’ that lingers in the memory. The upper register is pushed, but it responds without serious weakness, only an openness on the highest tones prompting lasting concern. In many performances of Manon Leacaut, the expiring heroine dominates Act Four to such an extent that the brief act seems like an extended solo scene. Here, though, Eyvazov does not allow the listener to forget that this is also Des Grieux’s tragedy. The desolation of his ‘Tutta su me ti posa, o mia stanca diletta’ is wrenching, and he heeds Puccini’s ‘con passione infinita’ instructions in his pained articulation of ‘Un funesto delirio ti percote, t’offende.’ Also featured alongside Netrebko in selections on her Deutsche Grammophon disc Verismo and recently acclaimed as Calàf under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton in a Wiener Staatsoper revival of Turandot, Eyvazov is rapidly establishing his credentials as a valuable interpreter of Italian repertory. More refulgent than refined, he is not yet a highly-polished artist, but as recorded here he is a savvy, sonorous Des Grieux.

Thus far in her career, Manon Lescaut is the Puccini heroine that Netrebko has most made her own. Her Mimì in La bohème, unfailingly touching, has generally lacked the unforgettable frailty of Rosanna Carteri’s portrayal or Mirella Freni’s unaffected sweetness, but the Russian soprano’s Manon Lescaut, not unlike her much-appreciated depiction of Massenet’s Manon, possesses consummate musicality and a sharply-etched dramatic profile. Netrebko’s is not a conventionally Italianate voice, but it can be and in this performance often is a very beautiful one. Her rôle début as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Dresden, earlier this year, was nothing short of revelatory, clearly indicating one path open to Netrebko as her career progresses. At times, her Manon in this performance wields a Wagnerian grandeur, honoring the tradition of Marcella Pobbe and Renata Tebaldi, both persuasive Elsas, albeit in Italian. Missing from this performance are Licia Albanese’s near-perfect command of Puccini’s style, Dorothy Kirsten’s vocal unflappability, and Magda Olivero’s boundless charisma, but Netrebko’s Manon is a memorable portrayal in its own right, an insightfully-concocted melange of the best aspects of her artistry. When she intimates ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ in Act One, this Manon immediately has Des Grieux—and the listener, for that matter—in the palm of her hand. Innocence, while not inherently objectionable, equates with inexperience and missed opportunities, and Netrebko is a Manon who is anxious to get on with the business of living. For her, love is an adventure, not a commitment. Nevertheless, Netrebko’s singing of ‘Una fanciulla povera son io’ radiates sincerity, and the sheltered young girl’s contrived coquetry is gradually transformed into fanciful jubilation as she duets with Des Grieux. In Act Two, Netrebko sings Manon’s aria ‘In quelle trine morbide’ beautifully, soaring to the top B♭s without worry, and her top C in the subsequent duet with Lescaut gleams. Netrebko is at her most charming in Manon’s gavotte, ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella,’ phrasing the number with elegance. Reunited with Des Grieux, she unleashes a deluge of emotion in ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu? Sei tu, ah, mio immenso amore? Dio!’

Epitomized by her readings of ‘Io voglio il tuo perdono’ and the desperate outbursts of Act Three, not least the ecstatic top C on her dejected ‘Addio’ to Des Grieux and Leacaut, this is Netrebko’s most expressive performance on disc to date; and, along with her touching portrayal of the title rôle in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, also her most beautifully-sung. In the brief span of Act Four, Netrebko the diva is wholly absorbed by Manon Lescaut the tragic heroine. She voices ‘Sola... perduta, abbandonata... in landa desolata!’ with enthralling immediacy, demanding that the listener look with her into the face of death. The climactic top B♭ is her cry of surrender, the moment at which reality banishes her illusions. As Netrebko inflects the words, ‘Io t’amo tanto... e muoio!’ becomes a sort of philosophical mantra of her Manon. Her ‘Le mie colpe... travolgerà l’oblio... ma... l’amor mio... non muore’ is shaped less by selfishness and self-pity than by a longing for Des Grieux to cling to memories of a happier past. The deficiency of Act Four of Manon Lescaut is that, unlike Mimì’s, Cio-Cio San’s, and Liù’s demises, the soprano must consciously strive to give Manon’s death histrionic gravity. Netrebko succeeds, not by overdoing the melodrama of the opera’s final scene but by having theretofore created a Manon who engages the senses and garners the listener’s affection. The soprano’s experience with Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder is put to good use: hers is a Manon Lescaut whose final moments movingly convey a Straussian acceptance of the inevitable. The tragedy is not to die but to die without having made peace with life. Aided by a fine ensemble of singers and musicians and a conductor whose sensibilities harmonize with her own, one of today’s most famous singers here bequeaths to posterity a recording of an interpretation that nobly justifies her reputation.

04 December 2016

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach — GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988 (Ignacio Prego, harpsichord; Glossa GCD 923510)

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2016: Johann Sebastian Bach - GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988 (Glossa GCD 923510)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Goldberg Variations, BWV 988Ignacio Prego, harpsichord [Recorded in Centro Cultural La Torre, Guadarrama, Spain, in July 2015; Glossa GCD 923510; 1 CD, 79:08; Available from NAXOS Direct, fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

​In a musical history from which so many pages are exasperatingly missing, one episode in the career of Johann Sebastian Bach that is at least moderately well-documented is his composition of the so-called Goldberg Variations. Unlike the vast majority of Bach’s many works, the aria and its thirty variations were published during the composer’s lifetime, appearing in print in 1741 in copies pressed from hand-engraved, error-filled copper plates prepared in Nürnberg by Bach’s acquaintance Balthasar Schmid. Bearing the title ‘Clavier Ubung bestehend in einer ARIA mit verschiedenen Verænderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen,’ the Schmid edition leaves no doubt that Bach intended for the work to be performed on a double-manual harpsichord, a conclusion further solidified by corrections in the composer’s own hand in one of the nineteen surviving copies from Schmid’s initial print run. Even with this wealth of evidence, though, there are unanswered—and now likely to remain unanswerable—questions about the genesis of the Goldberg Variations. If the oft-repeated story suggesting that the variations were composed in fulfillment of an explicit commission from an insomniac Russian aristocrat is credible, why does the score have no dedication to the patron to whom its existence was owed, and why, if intended solely for private performance, was Bach allowed to publish it?

​A logical point at which to begin wrangling with the variations’ enigmas is the obvious question suggested by the title by which the work came to be identified: who was Goldberg? Born in the Prussian town of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) in 1727, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg had achieved the advanced age of fourteen by the time that the variations that now carry his surname were published, a circumstance that has led some Bach biographers to dismiss as apocryphal the notion that the variations were composed for the adolescent Goldberg to play on demand for the soothing of his employer, Count Hermann-Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and virtually any of Bach’s children could certainly have played—or written, for that matter—the variations at the age of fourteen, and Goldberg having garnered aristocratic patronage and contact with Bach at an early age suggests some degree of precocity. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the adolescent Goldberg was to his master what Farinelli was in his retirement to the Spanish court, an exceptional talent reserved for private enjoyment. In spite of gnawing inquisitiveness, though, to concentrate too much on solving what is now likely to remain an inscrutable mystery is perhaps to overlook the greatest thrill of the Goldberg Variations: experiencing them as their still-unidentified first performer and hearer must have known them more than two centuries ago.

Playing a clarion-toned harpsichord built in Milan in 2004 in the mode of a Christian Vater instrument dating from 1738, Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego surprises, educates, and gladdens the listener wearied by lifeless, pedantic performances of Bach’s music with a sparkling, stimulating traversal of the Goldberg Variations. One of his generation’s most ruminative artists, one whose talents as a soloist were confirmed by his superb Cantus Records recording of Bach’s French Suites [reviewed here] and whose expertise in continuo playing is revealed on the recently-released Glossa disc featuring music from Cervantes-inspired operas by Antonio Caldara [The Cervantes Operas featuring La Ritirata and Josetxu Obregón—Glossa GCD 923104], Prego brings to his playing of the Goldberg Variations an exuberant youthfulness tempered by profound respect for both the music and previous interpretations of it. In this performance, there is never a sense of a young musician making radical choices solely for the sake of putting his idiosyncratic ‘stamp’ on the music. Rather, Prego has clearly studied and appreciated the efforts of Bach interpreters ranging from Wanda Landowska (and her magnificently anachronistic Pleyel harpsichord)​ ​and lead-wristed pianists​​ ​to more recent, historically-informed practitioners. There are many harpsichordists capable of playing the Goldbergs proficiently, but mastery of this music depends upon skills only partially governed by technique: imagination and individuality. Bach was an innovator, and his works are frequently mistreated by performers who follow fads rather than the music. On this disc, however, Bach’s music is in exceptionally loving, properly-guided hands.

Presented with the informed advocacy of a doctoral thesis on the interpretation of the variations, Prego’s performance begins with an account of the Aria that truly sings, the player’s measured tempo enabling atypically clear articulation—and appreciation on the listener’s part—of the subject that is subsequently so adroitly handled by the composer. Throughout his performance, Prego shapes each variation like a paragraph in a continuous narrative, the first pair of variations phrased with keen focus on Bach’s use of the source thematic material. The third variation, Canone all’ Unisuono, receives a performance that revels in the music’s contrapuntal intricacies without turning the piece into a dull academic treatise. Vitality is at the heart of Prego’s playing of the fourth and fifth variations, as well, and the expressive harmonic nuances of the sixth variation, Canone alla Seconda, are drawn to the surface by the young harpsichordist’s wonderful animation of inner voices. The subtle transitions of mood and chromatic twists in the seventh and eighth variations here lead organically to the brilliant virtuosity exhibited in the ninth and tenth variations, Canone alla Terza and Fughetta. For the next pair of variations, culminating in the Canone alla Quarta of the twelfth, Prego summons a burst of interpretive energy that he channels into the darkest recesses of the music, spotlighting thematic links lurking in the densest passages. This spirit of adventure persists in his deliveries of the very different thirteenth and fourteenth variations, the undulating melodic lines of which are traced with determined delicacy. Notable throughout the variations is the combination of strength and softness that Prego employs: passages that demand raw power receive it, but the prevailing lyricism of Prego’s playing, disclosing felicities in Bach’s writing that remain hidden in many other keyboardists’ performances, gives compelling credence to the notion of the Goldbergs having been composed to soothe a restless mind. The Canone alla Quinta of the fifteenth variation blossoms under Prego’s care, Bach’s treatment of the principal subject illuminated by the unexaggerated lightness of the harpsichordist’s approach. Some musicians are ostensibly inclined to toil at making this music sound important: Prego is content to allow the variations’ importance to emerge by pursuing no agenda but Bach’s.

With the Ouverture of the sixteenth variation, Prego figuratively begins the Goldbergs’ homeward journey, christening the voyage with an effervescent toast to the Ouverture’s musical landscape. The crispness of his executions of Bach’s ornaments contrasts marvelously with the graceful flow of his playing. The transition to the seventeenth variation has the unforced awe of rounding a curve in the road and seeing a wholly new vista, and the Canone alla Sexta of the eighteenth variation transforms that vista with the diverting novelty of a kaleidoscope. The linear momentum of the nineteenth and twentieth variations surges from Prego’s fingers but never at the expense of the music’s latent poise. From the bustling interplay of voices in the twenty-first variation’s Canone alla Settima, the sequence of the twenty-second and twenty-third variations progresses naturally, never hurried, to the fugal kinesis of the twenty-fourth variation’s Canone all’ Ottava. Similarly, the tuneful springs of variations twenty-five and twenty-six, tapped by Prego with especially sensitive playing, feed the deluge of invention that gushes from the Canone alla Nona of the twenty-seventh variation. Prego dedicates particular attention to the thematic relationships woven into the resplendent fabrics of the final three variations, facilitating heightened recognition of the triadic structures that Bach utilized throughout the Goldbergs. Whether the remarkable mathematical precision of Bach’s work was achieved by design or arose unintentionally from his unparalleled skill for fostering musical symbiosis, the Goldbergs are essentially a brilliant algorithm, one enacted by Prego with the computational genius of René Descartes. Still more rewarding is the emotional directness with which the harpsichordist bares the souls of variations twenty-eight and twenty-nine, every note of his performances allied with its purpose within the scope of the Goldbergs. So, too, is the Quodlibet of the final variation given expertly-judged emphases on both its individual qualities and its function within the Goldbergs as an unified entity. In his playing of the Aria’s da capo​, Pregro resolves the cycle with a potent reminder of the sentiments that provided the journey with its expressive destination. This is no carbon copy of the opening Aria, however. Prego evokes a conscious feeling of fulfillment, his unerring musical stewardship having led the listener into the presence of the true spirit of the Goldbergs and into the wondrous heart of Bach’s creativity.

The musical milieux of the first half of the Eighteenth Century inspire many confounding questions among modern musicologists, musicians, and audiences. To precisely which pitch were instruments in a particular venue tuned? How did the realization of continuo in one city differ from those in other cities? How did the voices of great castrati like Farinelli and Senesino truly sound? Alongside such queries as these, the questions of for whose performance and for whose enjoyment the Goldberg Variations were intended seem largely insignificant, especially considering that questions of provenance have—or should have—little effect on performance of the music. That Ignacio Prego is an accomplished technician is apparent as soon as his fingers cause plectra to make contact with strings, but the finest aspects of his artistry emerge when the sounds that result from his playing cause listeners to surrender their preconceptions and prejudices to the seduction of music in its most distilled forms. In his performance of the Goldberg Variations, this gifted young musician renders the music’s lingering conundra inconsequential. What matters is the quality of the music, and this music has never sounded more beautiful, searching, or revolutionary than in Ignacio Prego’s performance on this indispensable disc.

03 December 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Coloratura coronation — Soprano JESSICA PRATT to début at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart’s Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016

COLORATURA CORONATION: Soprano JESSICA PRATT, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart's Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016 [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]Schöne Königin: Soprano Jessica Pratt, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Die Königin der Nacht in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 20 December 2016
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]

Mimi Benzell, Lucia Popp, Cristina Deutekom, Colette Boky, Rita Shane, Edita Gruberová, Luciana Serra, Laura Aikin. In the 116 years since the company's first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 30 March 1900, these are some of the acclaimed singers whose voices were first heard at The Metropolitan Opera in the stratospheric reaches of the Königin der Nacht’s music. Sung in the opera’s 1791 première in Vienna’s Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, the capacity of which is estimated by historians to have numbered no more than a thousand seats, by Josepha Hofer, eldest sister of Mozart’s wife Constanze, the Königin der Nacht joined rôles in operas by Ignaz Holzbauer, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Antonio Salieri in the ranks of the most daunting parts composed for the soprano voice in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. Hofer retained her brother-in-law’s cantankerous Königin in her repertory for a decade before her retirement from the stage in 1805, and in her footsteps an astonishing array of singers have followed, ranging from high coloraturas like Lily Pons and Erika Köth to more dramatic voices like those of Zdzisława Donat and Edda Moser. So great are the Königin’s trials that even a singer as renowned for her easy mastery of high tessitura as Dame Joan Sutherland employed downward transpositions in her few performances of the rôle. Requiring no adjustments to Mozart’s fiendish music and already widely celebrated for her fearlessness in traversing musical terrain where many singers rightly fear to tread, soprano Jessica Pratt is uniquely qualified to bring fresh sparkle to the Königin’s diadem when she débuts at The Metropolitan Opera on 20 December 2016, reigning over the family-oriented, holiday-season revival of Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking production of Die Zauberflöte. Hark, opera lovers: as Die drei Damen exclaim in Act One, ‘Sie kommt!’ Here is the rare Queen of the Night worthy of her starry crown.

Her sensational technical acumen notwithstanding, Pratt’s Königin der Nacht for the MET, which will be sung in J. D. McClatchy’s English translation, will not be solely a vocal phenomenon. As she revealed in a recent exchange, she is not only cognizant of the legacy of the ladies who have donned the Königin’s mantle in years past but has also deeply pondered the character’s emotions and motivations. For Pratt, bringing the Königin to life necessitates the fostering of a delicate but unassailable equilibrium between music and drama. ‘To not let the fury of the part ruin the vocal line, to find the right balance between portraying her anger and frustration and keeping an accuracy and a good quality in the vocal line and in the tone of the voice,’ she cites as the foremost principles that guide her interpretation of this fascinating woman. Pursuing this balance puts both the voice and the mind on the right path, she suggests—and proves with her performances, not least in her 2011 rôle and house débuts as Die Königin at London’s Royal Opera House.

Ever a practical creature of the theatre as well as a lofty-minded artist, Pratt is alert to the non-vocal difficulties posed by the Königin. ‘The other challenge for me,’ she confides, ‘is all the time I have on my hands between arias! The main bulk of my repertoire consists of rôles [in which], once I go on stage, I usually remain on stage and come off again at the end of the opera, three or four hours later. There’s no time to get nervous.’ Her critically-acclaimed triumphs in recent portrayals of the eponymous heroines of Rossini’s Semiramide and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix and rarely-heard Rosmonda d’Inghilterra confirmed that her near-constant presence on stage kept nerves at bay. With this in mind, Pratt has given particular thought to ensuring that New Yorkers are as delighted by her Königin as Roman and Florentine audiences were by her Rossini and Donizetti performances. ‘My extra little challenge [in Die Zauberflöte] is to distract myself and keep the voice warmed up and ready, while taking care not to tire it out it before I go back on stage!’

COLORATURA CORONATION: Soprano JESSICA PRATT, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Mozart's Königin der Nacht on 20 December 2016 [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]Nachdenkliche Sängerin: Soprano Jessica Pratt, débuting at The Metropolitan Opera as Die Königin der Nacht in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 20 December 2016
[Photo by Benjamin Ealovega; used with permission]

Many Mozart aficionados are familiar with Trollflöjten, Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film adaptation of Die Zauberflöte, much-loved images in which depict the Königin, portrayed by Swedish soprano Birgit Nordin, and Die drei Damen smoking—directly beneath a ‘No Smoking’ placard—and perusing magazines backstage, the embodiments of ennui. Beverly Sills famously quipped that she and her husband managed to address 250 holiday greeting cards in her dressing room in the time between the Königin’s two arias, ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ in Act One and ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meimen Herzen’ in Act Two. How will Pratt pass the time in which Mozart and Schikaneder leave her stranded backstage? ‘Probably reading a book, doing some cross stitch, or sewing beads on a gown,’ she replies without hesitation, adding, ‘I don’t like being idle, so, during rehearsals and performances, I tend to sew beads on performance gowns or stoles or cross stitch.’ These, she intimates, are ‘small distractions that relax me but don’t require too much concentration, as most of my mind will be on the performance.’

The technical demands of Pratt’s repertory, in which the Königin is only one of many coloratura beasts, are extraordinary, both in the contexts of each performance and in the cumulative impact on the voice. Ever aware of the centuries-old traditions of bel canto singing that she furthers, this soprano is uncommonly clear-sighted about the unstinting care that must be expended in maintaining the quality of the superb technique that she has cultivated. As she starts to judiciously consider ‘heavier’ rôles, especially in Verdi repertory, Pratt recalls the wisdom of Birgit Nilsson, who sang Elettra and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Idomeneo and Don Giovanni and retained ‘lighter’ Italian rôles in her active repertory even when her career consisted primarily of legendary outings as Wagner's Brünnhildes and Isolde and Richard Strauss’s Elektra. ‘I think Birgit Nilsson was right,’ Pratt says. ‘Singing rôles that have a lot of coloratura demands that the singer dominates [her] technique for coloratura, and this in itself will help to keep flexibility in the voice.’ Is this unique to the Königin and Mozart repertory, or does the same logic apply to all coloratura parts? ‘I feel the same way about Rossini and Donizetti,’ she answers. ‘Every composer has something in particular which requires us to develop our technical abilities. I find [that] the coloratura di forza of Rossini is great for keeping my coloratura in line. The languid central lines of a Bellini rôle help me to develop my legato.’

Uncharitable to her colleagues as it may be to say so, it is her understanding of both the obstacles of the music that she sings and the skills needed to conquer them that sets Pratt apart from today’s would-be prime donne. Rather than obsessing about the rôle’s ferocious fiorature and five F6s, she focuses on giving audiences a Königin of dramatic specificity and vocal health. Débuting with a company of the MET’s significance, in a house of such vast dimensions, in a rôle like Die Königin der Nacht is a prospect that might justifiably give many singers nightmares, but Pratt’s attention is devoted not to this milestone but to the miles that she has traveled in her career to date and those still before her. ‘The choice of repertoire is a very important thing for a singer,’ she summarizes. ‘It shapes a voice over time more than many of us are aware.’ More than most singers are aware, she might have truthfully said, but not more than she is aware. With this thoughtful singer’s début, The Metropolitan Opera roster gains a Königin der Nacht who not only deserves her crown but has measured meticulously to ensure that it is a true fit.

COLORATURA CORONATION: A design sketch for Die Königin der Nacht's costume in Julie Taymor's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE for The Metropolitan Opera [Image © by Julie Taymor]Rötliche Königin: A design sketch for Die Königin der Nacht's costume in Julie Taymor's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for The Metropolitan Opera
[Image © by Julie Taymor]


MET performances of Die Zauberflöte featuring Jessica Pratt as Die Königin der Nacht are scheduled for 20, 23, and 29 December 2016, and 5 January 2017. To purchase tickets, please visit the MET’s website.
Her début performance on 20 December will be live-streamed on the MET’s website [free] and via MET Opera Radio Channel 74 on SiriusXM® [subscription required].

To learn more about Jessica Pratt and her engagements throughout the world, please visit her official website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Pratt for her astute and candid responses and to Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations for facilitating this article.

28 November 2016

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden — THEADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, volume oneSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Bennewitz Quartet; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Johannes Kronfeld, trombone [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1003-2; 2 CDs, 140:50; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Casting aside semantics and etymology, how does one really define music? It seems obvious enough: combinations of melody and harmony manipulated in specific ways produce music. What, though, does this truly mean? Patterns of notes, rests, dynamics, tempi, and key signatures make music of arbitrary lines and scribblings on a page, of course, but what makes music significant in an artistic sense is the way in which sounds transcend the mechanics of physics to become audible emotions. To hear sound is one of the most basic functions of being human, but to hear emotions is an essential tenet of humanity, one not possessed by all members of the species. Hearing threads of a prayer – volume one, Solaire Records’ new release dedicated to music by American composer Jeffrey Roden [volume two will be forthcoming in 2017], adds dimensions to the meaning of music in the simplest but most profound ways, asking each listener not to observe and react but to participate, to discern within his own experience the origins of each note, the places in the psyche from which the notes are ripped, still pulsating with life. This is music that speaks not in individual chords, bars, or phrases but in extended paragraphs, in great swaths of thought that seem neither to begin nor to end, and it cannot be played or discussed in conventional ways. As acknowledged in Tobias Fischer’s wondrously literate liner notes [his essay in lieu of a dates-and-facts biography of the composer is fantastic] and by Dirk Fischer’s immaculately-engineered acoustics, this is also music that must not be presented to the listener with the modern recording industry’s slick, assembly-line indifference. Like Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the works on this first volume of threads of a prayer redefine music with insights as illuminating but ungraspable as sunlight. Like the touch of the summer sun upon one’s face, Roden’s music is as much felt as heard.

From the opening bars of the first of the twelve prayers that begin disc one, it is apparent that Roden is as gifted and communicative a composer for piano as Chopin was and that Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli is as keenly insightful an interpreter of Roden’s work as Artur Rubinstein was of Chopin’s. The splendors of Bartoli’s technique are never doubted, but spiritual virtuosity is the hallmark of his playing here. The rhythmic precision of his executions of Roden’s pieces is no less impressive or vital than in his previous Solaire recording of music by Franz Liszt, but, unlike the heartbeats that propel Liszt’s melodic lines, Roden’s rhythms are footsteps, cautiously placed but ambivalent. Are they the performer’s own steps, or is he retracing someone else’s? The prayers need no programmatic context, but they might be interpreted as abstract portraits of Christ’s apostles, each man in his turn revealed as a crumbling façade of ceremonial—and sometimes sanctimonious—faith behind which humor, doubt, anger, and pride lurk. Perhaps they are representatives of the dodecagonal tone row or the artificial calendrical divisions of a year. Subtly but slyly contrasted, the prayers are at once appeals to all and to no deities: nothing is either as pure or as putrid as it first seems, in life or in music, and these pieces sputter and sigh with half-told truths. Bartoli understands that striving to impose finite interpretations on the prayers would be to obstruct the connection between composer and listener.

The untitled 10 pieces that follow the twelve prayers are of a vastly different character but exhibit the same devotion to giving emotions audible essences that can be molded according to performers’ and listeners’ unique psychological identities. Bartoli’s pianism is here like a microscope, examining the individual particles of Roden’s musical molecules and revealing the stunningly beautiful landscapes within the stark tonal topography. Each of the ten pieces is its own microcosm, but they collectively function as a compelling entity, lodestars within a galaxy near enough to be perceived but too distant to be wholly scrutinized. Bartoli again fuses rhythmic tautness with elasticity of phrasing, maximizing the impact of each melodic unit without jeopardizing each piece’s structural integrity. There are very discreet allusions to sonata form in the interplay of principal subjects within and among the pieces. Bartoli is alert to every motivic device, emphasizing even the relationships intimated by measured silence. To assert that these pieces are not bountifully tuneful in the manner of music by Brahms or Dvořák is to overlook their greatest achievement: rather than overtly stated, their wealths of melody are suggested, cunningly inspired in the listener’s mind and therefore different for every pair of ears. Indeed, the pieces as recorded here seem to change with every hearing, a powerful testament to both Bartoli’s astonishingly skills as a musical storyteller and Roden’s creation of a musical language that is comprehensible regardless of the dialect with which it is delivered.

Conceived in homage to the late B.B. King, the passing of a king is equals parts elegy, raucous New Orleans jazz funeral, dialogue with a silenced voice, and coming to terms with an altered reality. It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Roden disavows that platitude with a tribute to a musical legend shaped not by quotations from his works but by reminiscences of the feelings evoked by King’s music. Whether or not his style is one’s proverbial cup of tea, it is impossible to steep in B.B. King’s music without surrendering to its propulsive energy. The same can be said of Roden’s the passing of a king and Bartoli’s playing of it. The pianist’s performance draws the listener into the embrace of the music, and the unaffected sincerity of the composer’s writing fills the listener with wistful recollections. Any musician should be honored to be so lovingly remembered by a colleague. This music reveals that the most exalted mode of flattery for an artist is serving as the foundation upon which other artists erect their own monumental works.

Composed for an octet comprised of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, trombone, and timpani, the many latitudes of grief is a work of such deeply-considered emotional honesty that it sometimes seems too intimate for public performance, as though an exchange between confessor and sinner were conducted in music. Joined by Bartoli, double bass player Szymon Marciniak, trombonist Johannes Kronfeld, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the musicians of Bennewitz Quartet—violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violist Jiří Pinkas, and cellist Štěpán Doležal—engage with Roden’s music not merely as professionals realizing their parts but as fellow travelers on the journey of coping with loss. There is perhaps no greater fallacy in modern psychology, especially in America, than the concept of closure. For all of society’s efforts at compartmentalization, life is not a book in which grief is written upon a page that is subsequently turned and forgotten. Just as the abundance or absence of water sculpts physical landscapes, torrents of grief carve recesses in human hearts, canyons that resound with reminders of voices that can only be heard in the memory—or, Roden discloses, in music. Wielded by Kronfeld with piercingly accurate intonation, the trombone startles, mourns, and consoles with equal force, and the piano and timpani form an unlikely confederation of safety and insecurity. Like the grieving process, nothing in the many latitudes of grief is predictable. Relative tranquility is interrupted by unexpected, unstoppable agony, and the paralysis of uncertainty suddenly gives way to the sure footing of even-measured acceptance. Like all of the pieces included on this pair of discs, this is groundbreaking, fresh music that nonetheless immediately sounds familiar. John Milton and William Styron wrote of ‘darkness visible’: in the many latitudes of grief, Jeffrey Roden wrote of darkness audible.

The differences between the untitled quintets #2 and #3 are as significant as they are understated, but Roden’s craft in the works on these discs is guided by making bold statements with delicate expressions. As performed here, the quintets capture the fleeting effervescence of champagne: they sparkle alluringly, ignite the senses, and are rapidly but satisfyingly consumed. Unlike many composers past and present, Roden was endowed with intelligence and sagacity that prevent him from lingering over even the most fecund of ideas. Not one concept is extended beyond the music’s inherent ability to sustain it. The quintets are Existential pieces, however. Each note has its own importance, and each note contributes to the cumulative impact of the music. The musicians comprehend and highlight this, often playing as though they were a single organism. Likewise, leaves for string quartet is magically played by the Bennewitz Quartet, the shifting textural profiles of the music given unanticipated dimensions that expose the skillfulness of Roden’s part writing like complex stitchwork held under a magnifying glass. Listening, one feels the pierce of the needle, the pull of the thread, and the exhilaration of gaps closing. These are not works to be heard passively: like the heroine’s ribbon in Claude Berri’s film Manon des Sources, these works become affixed to the listener, not like garments slipped on but like appendages that grow with every subsequent sound.

When writing about a composer’s work, especially that of one whose compositions are not yet familiar like Beethoven’s symphonies and Chopin’s nocturnes to virtually every listener apt to be interested in them, comparisons with other composers are tempting and sometimes helpfully informative. To state that a Vivaldi opera is like a Händel opera without the flashes of emotional insight is to provide the curious reader with a point of reference from which to launch an exploration of his own. The composer who denies having been influenced by fellow tunesmiths cannot be trusted, but comparing Jeffrey Roden’s music to that of any other composer in any genre would be a disservice to this artist and the originality of his work. Composition cannot be a vocation for Roden, something that he pursues at certain hours and in certain places, jotting down notes like the minutes of a meeting between himself and his muse. No, music must be second nature for Roden, an alternate comfort zone in which he contemplates, reasons, and dreams. As our world continually invents new means of communicating, we forget how to listen, how to truly hear and absorb the confounding cacophony that engulfs us. With the pieces on this first volume of threads of a prayer, all superbly performed, Jeffrey Roden reminds us that there is music even in our most unassuming thoughts and actions. We need only switch off our devices, silence our tongues, and let music happen.

25 November 2016


BEST ARTISTS OF 2016: Tenors STEPHEN COSTELLO (left) and ZACHARY WILDER (right) [Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) and Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]Tenori trionfanti: Tenors Stephen Costello (left) and Zachary Wilder (right)
[Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) & Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]

In 1996, I waltzed at the age of eighteen into a well-meaning university professor’s voice studio, armed with every quality necessary to prepare for and pursue a successful career as an opera singer—every quality, that is, except for those two most vital ones, talent and ambition. Like F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus, the passion was abundantly present, the discipline was a work in progress but steadily progressing, and the thirst for knowledge was all-consuming. Ultimately, though, the acquired craftsmanship was of far greater value than the raw materials bestowed by nature. I have sung and occasionally might even have sung well, but there is no musical alchemy capable of transforming vocal lead into platinum. No lesson is more difficult to impart to the sort of stubborn young singer that I was (and sometimes still am, fleeting youth notwithstanding) than that which conveys the plain truth that he is a pretender, no golden-throated Duke of York but a tuneless Perkin Warbeck. It is a lesson that I have been slow to learn and even slower to fully accept, but the most precious gift of mediocrity is the ability to appreciate greatness on a profoundly intimate level. In that regard, two of America’s most talented singers have been especially influential teachers. With very different voices and careers similar only in their conscientiousness and significance in their respective repertories, tenors Stephen Costello and Zachary Wilder are the practitioners of the philosophy that led me to the door of that voice studio twenty years ago. Artists of once-in-a-generation distinction, they are something considerably more personal for me: they are artists who epitomize the singer that I can never be.



Neither Stephen Costello nor Zachary Wilder is as extensively represented on disc as he deserves to be. In truth, though, despite their considerable merits, neither gentleman’s recordings fully convey the broad spectrum of vocal colors with which their live performances are illuminated. Nonetheless, their recordings are excellent introductions to their work.

Documenting both Costello’s beautiful handling of bel canto repertory and his début at London’s Royal Opera House, Opera Rara’s ‘live’ recording of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix [ORC43] preserves the tenor’s exquisitely-phrased account of Carlo’s romanza ‘Se tanto in ira agl’uomini.’ His native Philadelphia’s spirit of brotherly love permeates his performance of Jake Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc on Pentatone’s disc Here/After, Songs of Lost Voices [PTC 5186 515], but the most persuasive of the qualities evident in his singing of the Persuasions is the voice’s beauty. Costello created the rôle of Greenhorn in Heggie’s Moby-Dick in the opera’s 2010 première at The Dallas Opera, and his reprisal of the part in San Francisco was filmed and released on DVD and Blu-ray by EuroArts: see it to experience a remarkable fusion of sublime singing and intensely moving characterization. Among performances not currently available on disc, seek recordings of the Wiener Staatsoper broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème dating from 6 September 2010, in which Costello’s heart-wrenching Rodolfo partners the poetic Mimì of Krassimira Stoyanova, and Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, in which his singing of the Sänger’s ‘Di rigori armato il seno’ was mesmerizing.

Stephen Costello on disc: Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX (Opera Rara ORC43) and Jake Heggie's (Pentatone PTC 5186 515)

One of his generation’s finest exponents of Baroque repertory, Wilder is heard at his estimable best in the recently-released ATMA Classique recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243) and Johann Kuhnau’s Cantata ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ [ACD22727]. His singing of Bach’s ‘Et misericordia’ (with countertenor James Laing) and ‘Deposuit potentes’ and Kuhnau’s ‘Ich huld’ge dir, grossmächt’ger Prinz’ exudes confidence and absolute comfort with both composers’ idioms. Simply put, his performance of ‘Would you gain the tender Creature’ in Händel’s Acis and Galatea [cpo 777 877-2] is one of the most sublime pieces of singing ever committed to disc. In recordings of music by composers as diverse as Giosotto Zamponi, John Blow, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Félicien David, Wilder’s voice flows like molten silver. Poised to conquer bel canto repertory with the same grace and elegance that he brings to his Baroque performances, Wilder’s recordings to date chronicle a compelling, uncompromisingly musical journey.

Zachary Wilder on disc: Johann Sebastian Bach's MAGNIFICAT (ATMA Classique ACD22727) and Georg Friedrich Händel's ACIS AND GALATEA (cpo 777 877-2)

19 November 2016

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — ROBERTO DEVEREUX (Ş. Pop, M. Devia, S. Ganassi, M. Kim, A. Fantoni, C. Ottino, M. Armanino, L. Purpura; Dynamic CDS7755.02)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - ROBERTO DEVEREUX (Dynamic CDS7755.02)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Roberto DevereuxŞtefan Pop (Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex), Mariella Devia (Elisabetta I, regina d’Inghiterra), Sonia Ganassi (Sara, duchessa di Nottingham), Mansoo Kim (Il duca di Nottingham), Alessandro Fantoni (Lord Cecil), Claudio Ottino (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh), Matteo Armanino (Un paggio), Loris Purpura (Un familiare di Nottingham); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice; Francesco Lanzillotta, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova, Italy, on 20 and 24 March 2016; Dynamic CDS7755.02; 2 CDs, 130:51; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

One of the most-discussed operatic events in America in recent years was Opera Orchestra of New York’s 2014 concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. OONY’s relationship with the third of the operas that comprise the so-called ‘Tudor Trilogy,’ a designation not conceived by Donizetti [his seldom-performed Elisabetta al castelo di Kenilworth expands the trilogy to a tetralogy—L’annello dei Tudori?], began with a 1991 performance featuring Martile Rowland, Fernando de la Mora, and Stella Zambalis, enriching the long drought between the score’s first outings in New York, the still-revered 1965 American Opera Society concert performance with Montserrat Caballé as Elisabetta and the New York City Opera production mounted for Beverly Sills, and NYCO’s revival with Lauren Flanigan and the opera’s Metropolitan Opera première in 2016 with Sondra Radvanovsky. More so than the opera’s relative rarity in the international repertory, a neglect that has recently abated to some extent, what made OONY’s 2014 performance a genuine event was the participation of Italian soprano Mariella Devia. Despite having been heard at The Metropolitan Opera as Konstanze and Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Gilda and Nannetta in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Falstaff in a career with the company sporadically spanning fifteen years, Devia has been an exasperatingly infrequent visitor to North America, a scarcity mirrored by the soprano’s unaccountably sparse commercial discography. ​Now, bel canto lovers are simultaneously treated to two recordings of Roberto Devereux featuring Devia, a filmed souvenir of an acclaimed Madrid production with Gregory Kunde in the title rôle and the present aural and visual mementos of two March 2016 performances in Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice. Dynamic’s engineers clearly appreciated the significance of this project, producing one of the label’s finest releases. Neither stage noises nor audience disruptions come between the listener and the thrilling performance of Roberto Devereux that plays out on these discs. Its strong cast notwithstanding, this release is undeniably an instance of unabashed diva worship. In this opera in which the Earl of Essex claims the title but it is Elisabetta who ultimately sears her name into the listener’s psyche, is that not as it should be?

Under the baton of conductor Francesco Lanzillotta, the Teatro Carlo Felice choral and orchestral forces acquit themselves professionally and idiomatically. The opera’s programmatic Sinfonia, popularized in concert repertory by its quoting of ‘God Save the Queen,’ is buoyantly played by the orchestra and confidently paced by the conductor. With its extended melodic lines and quicksilver rhythms, Roberto Devereux is an opera that—in good performances, at least—sounds easier than it is for all of the musicians in the pit. Even so, very few of the inevitable mistakes that give live performances their unique frisson intrude in this recording. The balance between stage and pit achieved by Lanzillotta is commendable, and Dynamic’s flattering acoustics permit appreciation of the cleverness of Donizetti’s orchestrations. After laudable work in Act One, the choral singing in ‘L’ore trascorrono’ at the start of Act Two is disappointingly ragged in both tone and ensemble, though the hushed final chord is managed well. Granting the principals relative interpretive license, Lanzillotta maintains tighter control of the performance than many conductors who approach bel canto repertory with greater rigidity. Roberto Devereux is a momentous destination along the route from the quintessential bel canto of Bellini to the dramatic Romanticism of Verdi, but Lanzillotta is careful to avoid letting lyricism or bombast dominate this performance. The dominant force in this recording is Donizetti. Here, too, is this not as it should be?

Represented by the appealing singing of Matteo Armanino as the page and Loris Purpura as Nottingham's servant, care was taken in the casting of supporting rôles. Relative to their historical importance in the political milieux of Elizabethan England, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil were marginalized by Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, serving their sovereign in Roberto Devereux more as scene setters than as ambitious courtiers. Claudio Ottino voices Gualtiero’s lines robustly, and Alessandro Fantoni makes the most of every note that Donizetti allotted to Cecil. Bad singing in any of these rôles is not an insurmountable disaster, but far more enjoyable is the Roberto Devereux that, like this one, needs to make no apologies for the performances of its secondary players.

The Duca di Nottingham of South Korean baritone Mansoo Kim is an unsubtle but not unfeeling man in possession of a voice of good quality. Occasionally recalling the bel canto singing of Renato Bruson, Kim’s performance fuses unimpeachable musicality with well-honed dramatic instincts. In Act One, Kim gives ably-sung, dramatically urgent accounts of ‘Forse in quel cor sensible’ and ‘Qui ribelle ognum ti chiama,’ his upper register focused and projected impressively. As the Duca pleads in Act Two for the queen to spare Roberto’s life, Kim duets with Devia’s Elisabetta excitingly, his lines in ‘Non venni mai si mesto’ delivered with conviction, and the baritone sings commandingly in the trio with Elisabetta and Roberto, ‘Ecco l'indegno.’ Reading the fateful letter that his wife receives from Roberto in Act Three, Kim partners Ganassi’s Sara powerfully in ‘Non sai che un nume vindice.’ The knots that bound the characters’ allegiances loosed by the revelation that Sara, compelled by the queen’s prerogative to marry Nottingham, is the unnamed rival for Roberto’s love, Nottingham exacts vengeance with cataclysmic results. Kim’s final utterances are as crushing as the blows of the axe that claim Roberto’s head. Kim’s vocalism is sometimes short on bel canto elegance, but he brings the conflict-hardened duke to life with style and bravado.

Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi has devoted much of her career to service to the bel canto muse, and her portrayal of Sara, the reluctant Duchess of Nottingham, in this performance of Roberto Devereux provides ample evidence of why, even after she has expanded her repertoire to include heavier rôles, she continues to be in demand for bel canto performances. Making her entrance in Act One recounting the tale of fair Rosamund, mistress of Henry II and the eponymous heroine of Donizetti’s 1834 opera Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, Ganassi sounds marginally unsteady, her top notes effortful and off-pitch. She settles the voice for a flawed but refined traversal of the melodious romanza ‘All’afflitto è dolce il pianto.’ Sara brings the curtain down on Act One with the pulse-quickening duet with Roberto, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera.’ Here, Ganassi takes charge like the consummate mistress of bel canto that she is, producing centered, impactful tones and hurling out notes above the stave with complete control and spot-on intonation. The Act Three duet with Nottingham, ‘Non sai che un nume vindice,’ inspires the mezzo-soprano to her finest singing of the performance. Her every note in the opera’s final act draws its impetus from the text, and her Sara is ultimately as much a tragic heroine as Elisabetta. In this setting, Ganassi is a seconda donna upon whose music a prima donna voice is lavished.

Singing the title rôle with bright, secure tone, Romanian tenor Ştefan Pop furnishes this recording with what many performances of Roberto Devereux lack: a Roberto worthy of his top billing. The gravity of the earl’s predicament in Act One never weighs down Pop’s vocalism, but he meaningfully conveys the inner anguish that afflicts Roberto. Denying his illicit love for the now-married Sara when confronted by the queen, whose advisors press her to grant the royal assent to Roberto’s death warrant, Pop voices ‘Nascondi, frena i palpiti’ vividly, endeavoring to maintain a proper bel canto line even when plumbing the depths of the character’s emotions. Benefiting from his partnership with the experienced Ganassi, he fearlessly scales the vocal and expressive heights of the duet with Sara, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera,’ ending Act One with a pyrotechnical display of electrically-charged singing and unison top notes. In the Act Two trio with Elisabetta and Nottingham, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ Pop fires cannonades of heated responses to Devia’s and Kim’s impassioned discourse. Imprisoned and awaiting execution, Roberto’s beautifully-written scene in Act Three is tastefully handled by the young tenor. His breath control in the aria ‘Come uno spirto angelico’ is admirable, and the integration of his upper and lower registers also earns praise. Pop manages the difficult cabaletta ‘Bagnato il sen di lagrime’ better than any other Roberto on disc: concentrating on phrasing rather than individual notes, he reveals the integrity of music that can seem banal. Among Donizetti’s rôles for tenor, Roberto is one of the most difficult to cast. With Pop, this production got it right.

It is apparent from the first familiar strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ in the Sinfonia that, no matter whose name is on the score’s cover, Elisabetta is the opera’s protagonist. The Sinfonia invokes Providential blessing, but Devia is a queen who needs no divine intervention. Returning to this daunting rôle on her home turf, sixty miles from her native city of Chiusavecchia, and less than a month before celebrating her sixty-eighth birthday, Devia is an astonishingly assured presence at the center of the drama. The voice is drier, harder-edged, and less pliant than in years past, but the voice’s basic timbre has ever been a potent cocktail with a splash of tart limoncello. In this performance, Devia takes more time in executing fiorature than she might have done a decade ago, but she and Lanzillotta never allow momentum to be adversely affected. Still, like Sutherland in the seasons just before her retirement, Devia’s agility remains incredible. In Elisabetta’s Act One cavatina, ‘L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,’ it is immediately obvious that Devia is in excellent voice, and she utilizes her still-miraculous technique to accomplish feat after feat of superb singing. She spins the cavatina’s melodic lines like vocal silk, the thread of sound never in danger of breaking. In the Act Two duet with Nottingham, ‘Non venni mai si mesto,’ the soprano’s vocalism is at once wondrously steely and hauntingly ethereal, and Devia leaves no doubt in the trio with Nottingham and Roberto, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ that Elisabetta is wounded to the core of her soul. Discovering too late that Sara is her rival and that even she, the most powerful woman on earth, is powerless to save Roberto from the death that she sanctioned, Elisabetta’s scene at the close of Act Three contains the opera’s most visceral music. Devia voices the poignant aria ‘Vivi ingrato, a lei d’accanto’ with intense emotional involvement, imparting the extent to which the aging queen’s happiness is dependent upon the crumbling relationships that have sustained her in the lonely years of her virginal reign. Vocally and histrionically, she remains the reigning monarch of this music. The maestoso cabaletta ‘Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza’ is the outward culmination of Elisabetta’s inner turmoil and one of the true peaks of dramatic bel canto. After a first statement of the cabaletta’s theme that is wracked with pain, Devia’s voice takes on an air of serenity in the repeat, the crown already lifted from her mind if not from her head. This phenomenal music needs no interpolated high notes in order to make an indelible impression, but the easy, defiant top D with which Devia concludes her performance is the ecstatic cry of a woman reclaiming her freedom. This is, after all, the heir of Henry VIII, the diminutive figure with the soaring spirit who proudly declared herself to be to the marrow of her bones the issue of her legendary sire. History relays that Henry VIII was an uncommonly accomplished singer: in that regard, Devia’s Elisabetta is indeed very much her father’s daughter.

The collector in search of good-quality recordings of Devia in her best rôles has before him difficult sleuthing. Fortunately, enthusiasts with technological ingenuity like that of Australia-based Celestial Audio have made in-house and broadcast recordings of some of Devia’s most memorable performances available to her admirers. [Celestial Audio’s newest Devia release, catalogue number CA1888, preserves an excellent 2006 La Scala-in-Tokyo performance of Verdi’s La traviata in which Devia’s Violetta was paired with Giuseppe Filianoti’s handsome, handsomely-sung Alfredo.] This Dynamic recording of Teatro Carlo Felice’s production of Roberto Devereux gratifyingly fills a lamentable gap in the documentation of one of the most remarkable careers in opera. Better late than never, it is tempting to say; but in this case, in some ways better now than ever.

IN REVIEW: Soprano MARIELLA DEVIA as Elisabetta I in Teatro Carlo Felice's March 2016 production of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX [Photo by Marcello Orselli, © by Teatro Carlo Felice]La regina del bel canto: Soprano Mariella Devia as Elisabetta I in Teatro Carlo Felice’s March 2016 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
[Photo by Marcello Orselli, © by Teatro Carlo Felice]