22 June 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | June 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel — OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA, HWV 15 (M.E. Cenčić, L. Snouffer, P. Kudinov, A. Hallenberg, X. Sabata, A. Starushkevych; DECCA 483 1814)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | May 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel - OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA (DECCA 483 1814)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Ottone, re di Germania, HWV 15Max Emanuel Cenčić (Ottone), Lauren Snouffer (Teofane), Pavel Kudinov (Emireno), Ann Hallenberg (Gismonda), Xavier Sabata (Adalberto), Anna Starushkevych (Matilda); Il pomo d’oro; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 22 June - 2 July 2016; DECCA 483 1814; 3 CDs, 203:07; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

England in 1723 was in some ways perhaps not unlike the Holy Roman Empire in the Tenth Century. The death of the heirless Queen Anne in 1714 ended the Stuart dynasty and, according to the anti-Catholic dictates of 1701’s Act of Settlement, conferred the British crown upon a Continental head. In 1723, Anne’s second cousin and successor George I was in the ninth year of his thirteen-year reign and still embroiled politically and socially in defending the legitimacy of the Hanoverian occupancy of the British throne. Attending to his royal duties whilst entertaining London society with a mistress—perhaps his secret wife—as his de facto consort and perennially feuding with his recalcitrant son, the eventual George II, the first King George clung to his adopted throne with Teutonic tenacity. Many of Britain’s political players were none too impressed by the mandated German subjugation of the halls of power, but London’s music lovers welcomed at least one vassal of the Hanoverian court, one whose tenure in the English capital had actually begun in the twilight of Queen Anne’s reign: Georg Friedrich Händel.

Nearly a millennium earlier, the Holy Roman Empire was also governed by a German-born prince, the Saxon Otto II, son of Otto the Great and husband of Theophanu, a niece of the Byzantine emperor. Crowned co-emperor alongside his father by Pope John XIII in 967, the younger Otto’s continued rule after the death of Otto I in 973 was secured. Like that of George I, Otto II’s administration was not fated to be long-lived, extending for only a decade and a few months until the young emperor’s death at the age of twenty-eight. Though the fraction of the Tenth Century during which Otto II sat on the imperial throne was a time of relative calm, the succession of his three-year-old son plunged the Holy Roman Empire into unrest like that against which Otto I fought. Ironically, Otto II’s operatic adversaries, Adalbert of Italy and his duplicitous mother Willa of Tuscany, figured little if at all in the emperor’s affairs: Willa is known to have died in 970, and Adalbert is thought by historians to have followed her in death no later than 975 but likely in 971. Even in the Twenty-First Century, far more is conjectured than actually known about the life of Otto II, but to Britons in the third decade of the Eighteenth Century he must have seemed an apt candidate for musical exhumation.

Premièred at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 12 January 1723, Händel’s opera Ottone, re di Germania bridged the gap between Hanoverian Britain and the Tenth-Century Holy Roman Empire. The timely significance of an operatic tale of the machinations of a Germanic monarch and those supporting or opposing him surely was not lost on London audiences and would likely have ensured some degree of success for the new work, but Ottone conquered London with its music. Writing for an ensemble of world-renowned singers, Händel produced a score of extraordinary quality and inspiration, setting a new standard for his own efforts and paving the way to his annus mirabilis, 1724, in which year he composed Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano. Intriguingly, much of the opera’s beauty arises from its inherent ambivalence: in Ottone, not even the basest villainy is wholly without noble objectives. Like those of many Eighteenth-Century operatic intriguers, the conniving of Ottone’s players is, depending upon the individual listener’s predilections, either captivatingly or confoundingly convoluted, but the opera’s drama is surprisingly palatable for modern listeners in this exhilarating new DECCA recording. Perceiving the antics of today’s politicians in Ottone’s plot hardly stretches the imagination. If only the voices that bark in legislative debates, press conferences, and incessant media coverage were as alluring as those that sing Händel’s music on these discs!

The scheming of the pseudo-historical figures who sing it notwithstanding, Händel’s music for Ottone is both beautiful and shrewdly characterful, the orchestrations that support the voices in several of the most beguiling arias intensifying the listener’s perceptions of aspects of the personalities that they portray. Dulcetly played by the continuo, the delicate accompaniment to Teofane’s exquisite aria ‘Falsa imagine’ is an example of Händel’s theatrical savvy and musical ingenuity at their most refined: in an aria that only threats of tossing her out of a window are said to have persuaded the first Teofane to sing, the plaintive music conveys the newly-arrived princess’s confusion and trepidation before she utters a word. It is perhaps this heightened atmosphere of musical and dramatic characterization that draws from conductor George Petrou one of his strongest recorded performances. Here leading the first-rate orchestral forces of Il pomo d’oro, Petrou supports the cast in bringing Händel’s characters to life, the tempi that he selects for arias right for both the music and the singers. The volleys of fiery bravura singing that modern listeners expect in Händel’s operas are present in Ottone, but this score shares with Tamerlano an emphasis on introspective contemplation. The vigor with which that contemplation transpires on these discs is evidence of the effectiveness of Petrou’s approach. Owing both to his galvanizing conducting and il pomo d’oro’s fantastic playing, this is the rare Händel recording that is as gripping as any staged performance in an opera house—more than many staged performances, in fact. This is a recording that must be heard by those listeners who believe that Händel’s operas and performances of them are dull.

The cast for whom Ottone was written could only with considerable planning have been rivaled in the Eighteenth Century: such a strong sextet of singers having been assembled for this recording is but one of the many vocal glories of this Ottone. In the opera’s 1723 première, the rôle of Matilda, the title character’s cousin and Adelberto’s intended bride, was sung by Anastasia Robinson, a singer with a constantly-evolving range for whom Händel composed a half-dozen of fine parts including Cornelia in Giulio Cesare. Filling Robinson’s shoes in this performance is Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych. A vibrant presence in recitatives throughout the performance, Starushkevych sings Matilda’s Act One aria ‘Diresti poi così?’ assertively, her technique equal to the demands of Händel’s music and the character’s appetite for revenge. The unique timbre of her voice ensures that Matilda is never lost in the twists of the opera’s serpentine plot. Her finest music comes in Act Two, and Starushkevych phrases ‘Ah! tu non sai quant’il mio cor sospira’ incisively. The immediacy of her delivery of ‘All’orror d’un duolo eterno’ is complemented by the reliable solidity of her intonation. This Matilda duets engagingly with Gismonda in ‘Notte cara,’ rejoicing in the progress of their plan to free Adelberto from Ottone’s clutches. Starushkevych reveals the full depths of her artistry in ‘Nel suo sangue, e nel tuo pianto’ in Act Three, performing the aria with focused tone and dramatic ardor, reveling in the offended lady’s desire for vengeance. Hints of unevenness are occasionally apparent in her vocal production, but her depiction of Matilda in this performance of Ottone induces eager anticipation for Starushkevych’s next appearance on disc.

Having originated the rôle of Pallante for Händel in the 1709 Venetian première of Agrippina, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi reunited with Händel in London, where he participated in the first performances of several of the composer’s operas. His rôle in Ottone was Emireno, né Basilio, Teofane’s buccaneering brother, and Boschi’s eminently capable successor in this performance is Russian bass Pavel Kudinov. All three of Emireno’s arias are challenging, but Kudinov conquers their difficulties with singing of vigor and virtuosity. In Act One, Kudinov gives an account of ‘Del minacciar del vento sì ride quercia annosa’ that bristles with always-musical machismo. Then, the bass voices ‘Le profonde vie dell’onde’ in Act Two with a keen sense of the character’s motivations, dispatching the divisions with minimal effort. The aria ‘No, non temere, o bella’ in Act Three exposes a less bellicose facet of Emireno, and Kudinov polishes it with cultured, caressing vocalism. Entirely convincing as both a corsair and the brother of the empress consort, Kudinov is most compelling as an exponent of Händel’s music.

The part of Adelberto, the dutiful pawn in his mother Gismonda’s stratagems to usurp both Ottone’s throne and his bride, was created in 1723 by Gaetano Berenstadt, the castrato for whom Händel also wrote Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare and the title rôle in Flavio. As he confirms with his singing on this recording, there is no better-qualified modern interpreter of Adelberto’s music than countertenor Xavier Sabata. The ambivalence of Adelberto’s predicament finds in Sabata’s artistic temperament an ideal outlet, and his music might have been written for the countertenor’s voice. Adelberto’s entrance aria in Act One, ‘Bel labbro, formato per farmi beato,’ is a sublime piece, and Sabata sings it marvelously, his rounded, evenly-produced tones effortlessly tracing the aria’s expansive lines. His account of the vastly different ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’ blazes, ignited by Adelberto’s disdainful defiance of the victorious Ottone. Encountering his rightful fiancée Matilda as he is led away to prison in Act Two, Adelberto expresses his longing to learn fidelity and humility from his betrothed’s example in ‘Lascia, che nel suo viso,’ and Sabata sings the aria mesmerizingly. The sudden burst of sincerity in the spirit of a man whose path in the opera has heretofore been guided by duplicity is movingly evinced by the singer with sounds of tranquil beauty. His character battling meteorological and metaphysical tempests in Act Three, the countertenor traverses ‘D’innalzar i flutti al ciel’ with vocal confidence that enhances the subtlety of the psychological nuances of his portrayal. An antagonist but never truly a blackguard, Adelberto is one of Händel’s most interesting characters: in Sabata’s performance, he is a conflicted but sympathetic man who ultimately wins Matilda’s and the listener’s affections.

It was also in Venice in 1709 that Händel’s artistic path crossed that of soprano Margherita Durastanti, who created the title rôle in Agrippina. When their paths crossed again in London a decade later, she resumed her collaboration with Händel by singing the title rôle in Radamisto, Sesto in Giulio Cesare, and Gismonda in Ottone. So admired was Durastanti in London that her daughter, born in 1721, counted among her godparents the king himself, George I. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg reminded listeners with her recent solo recording with il pomo d’oro, Carnevale 1729, that she is one of today’s foremost performers of Baroque repertory; an artist and a lady deserving of the admiration of royalty. Even with many wonderful recordings to her credit, Hallenberg’s performance as Gismonda in this Ottone is a milestone. From her first line of recitative, she commandeers the opera’s drama, at once appalling with her character’s incessant lust for power and touching with her genuine love for her son. In Gismonda’s opening aria, ‘Pur che regni il figlio amato,’ Hallenberg’s affinity for the part is affirmed, and she follows this with an animated but utterly stylish performance of ‘La speranza è giunta in porto.’ There is treachery beneath the surface of Hallenberg’s singing of ‘Pensa ad amare,’ but who could refuse anything asked by the source of such refined, appealing sounds? Allowing her maternal instincts a rare moment of exposure as her son is imprisoned in Act Two, Gismonda articulates her impulse to comfort Adelberto in ‘Vieni, o figlio, e mi consola,’ music in which the proud woman’s façade is infiltrated by candor. Here and in the duetto with Matilda, Hallenberg amazes with the intelligence of her vocal acting, never employing tonal beauty, of which she has tapped a seemingly inexhaustible vein, solely for its own sake. ‘Trema, tiranno’ in Act Three is a return to vehemence, and it is sung with potency and precision. Humanity is not a quality that would be immediately associated with Gismonda, but she has greater depth than some singers have bothered to explore. Hallenberg creates a fully three-dimensional character who loves as strongly as she hates and who sings as though it were notes rather than heartbeats that sustain her.

It was as Teofane in the first production of Ottone that Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni made her much-anticipated London début. In the following year, she would achieve artistic immortality with her portrayals of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, Asteria in Tamerlano, and the title rôle in Rodelinda, but it was as Teofane that she won the hearts of musical London. With singing that is both freshly youthful and refreshingly mature, soprano Lauren Snouffer besieges the listener’s heart, and her success is indisputable. Threats of physical violence were required to persuade Cuzzoni to sing Teofane’s first aria in Act One, the exquisite ‘Falsa imagine, m’ingannasti,’ but, Händel’s promise to toss her out of a window having prevailed, the soprano relented, sang the aria to great acclaim, and eventually sang it in virtually every venue in which someone would pay to hear her. If Snouffer required any convincing of the aria’s merit, her own performance of it should have eradicated any doubt. Her phrasing is light but not brittle, and her breath control is undaunted by the long melodic lines. The soprano brings to ‘Affanni del pensier’ energetic and sweetly feminine vocalism that conjures a persona both wounded and strong-willed. Snouffer voices ‘Alla fama, dimmi il vero’ and ‘S’io dir potessi al mio crudele’ in Act Two with abundant imagination and clear comprehension of Händel’s musical language. In Act Three, ‘Benchè mi sia crudele’ is enunciated with emotion as responsive to the text as to the music, and the soprano emits a stream of pure, flawlessly-tuned sound in ‘Gode l’alma consolata.’ She sings her part in the ecstatic duetto with Oronte, ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni,’ an ancestor of ‘O namenlose Freude’ in Beethoven’s Fidelio, joyously, the voice radiating reclaimed happiness. With a flickering vibrato on sustained tones, Snouffer’s voice recalls that of Toti dal Monte, and her technique is reaching the high level of her natural talent. She is an intuitive singer who realizes that Teofane’s music needs only to be sung honestly and tastefully in order to be extraordinary, and it is the combination of honesty and taste that makes her singing in this Ottone extraordinarily satisfying.

The rôles that Händel wrote for the alto castrato Senesino are some of the most difficult parts in Baroque repertory to cast for modern performances. The brawn in the lower register that contemporary accounts attribute to Senesino eludes many countertenors, and female singers often lack timbres suited to credibly portraying heroic male characters like Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Andronico in Tamerlano, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. As Ottone in this performance, countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić honors Senesino’s legacy with singing of muscle and musicality. Alternately sensual, serene, and rabble-rousing, Cenčić’s timbre possesses both the lower-register resonance and the bold masculinity that Ottone’s music requires. Always an alert, communicative artist in recitatives, Cenčić introduces Ottone’s seductive thoughtfulness with a lushly romantic account of ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore, conforta questo sen.’ [In the 1726 London revival of Ottone, Senesino returned to the title rôle. Unusually for a revival featuring a rôle’s originator, Händel made significant revisions to Ottone’s music, three of which are sampled on this recording. ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore’ was replaced by ‘Io sperai trovar riposo,’ which Cenčić here sings authoritatively, and ‘Cervo altier,’ also thrillingly delivered in this recording’s appendix, was inserted earlier in Act One.] The rollicking ‘Dell’onda ai fieri moti’ is voiced with bravado befitting an emperor.

Braving the dramatic gauntlet of Act Two, Cenčić sings ‘Dopo l’orrore’ charismatically, his technical assurance conveying the emperor’s dignity, and the spectrum of feelings that he imparts in ‘Deh! non dir, che molle amante’ is wondrous. Starting Act Three, the crestfallen Ottone seeks his beloved Teofane, and Cenčić sings ‘Dove sei, dolce mia vita?’ wrenchingly, the rising figurations representing Ottone’s growing despair voiced with particular emphasis. The despondency that grips Ottone in the accompagnato ‘Io son tradito’ floods Cenčić’s voice, and he pronounces the words with deliberateness that evinces shame and disbelief. As the countertenor sings it here, the superb ‘Tanti affanni ho nel mio core’ is the opera’s musical climax, the character’s churning emotions limned by vocalism free from artifice. [Surprisingly, ‘Tanti affanni’ was replaced in 1726 by ‘Un disprezzato affetto,’ a markedly inferior piece which Cenčić nonetheless sings well.] The gleam that his voice projects as he joins Snouffer in ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni’ evokes irrepressible delight. Cenčić’s performances sometimes overwhelm with flamboyance rather than finesse, but he is an artist whose excesses shroud a profound interpretive vulnerability. In this performance of Ottone, simplicity is the crux of his portrayal. This is an Ottone who lives, one whose life matters to the listener not because he is an emperor but because he is a man, flawed and fascinating.

That Londoners in 1723 embraced a musical portrait of long-dead participants in a thousand-year-old political fracas should substantiate the absurdity of Twenty-First-Century debates about the relevance of opera. It is universally acknowledged that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: so, too, is the relevance of art. It is unlikely that any composer ever put a character upon the stage with the goal of inspiring an observer to say, ‘Yes, of course! He reminds me of Uncle Fred in Des Moines!’ That is not the nature of opera’s relevance. Opera is what those who perform and hear it make of it, and its relevance is born of perspective, not practicality. The musicians involved with this recording make Händel’s Ottone, re di Germania a passionately-sung, sumptuously-played examination of the conflicts between love and ambition. Voices are the essence of opera, and singing of the quality heard on this recording is always relevant.

19 June 2017

CD REVIEW: Felix Mendelssohn — SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 – 5 (Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337)

CD REVIEW: Felix Mendelssohn - SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 - 5 (Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337)FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847): Symphonies Nos. 1 – 5Karina Gauvin (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Regula Mühlemann (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Daniel Behle (tenor – Symphony No. 2); RIAS Kammerchor (Symphony No. 2); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie, Paris, France, 20 – 22 February 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337; 3 CDs, 200:10; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

‘Hier stehe ich: ich kann nicht anders.’ With these seven words or a sentiment of similar brevity, one man changed the course of history in ways that continue to enrich, embolden, and embitter mankind. The publication in 1517 of Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, commonly known in English as the Ninety-Five Theses, ignited a conflagration of religious dissent that singed Europe and dispersed its smoke over every square millimeter of the globe. At the center of the inferno, the man whose thinking emitted the fateful sparks was Martin Luther, an Augustinian theologian whose questioning of the ethics of Catholic sales of indulgences is now believed by scholars to have been intended to provoke contemplation and quiet reform rather than outright philosophical revolution. In addition to the enduring, still-evolving ramifications of his theological paradigm shift, Luther exerted an influence of virtually incalculable significance on human culture. Without Luther’s pioneering translation of Biblical texts into the German vernacular and composition of hymns and chorales, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah, Johannes Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, and countless other seminal works of art might never have emerged from the minds of their creators.

Three hundred years after Luther’s issuance of the Ninety-Five Thesis, the eight-year-old scion of a well-respected German Jewish family of intellectuals was impressing his society with a rapidly-developing musical precocity that rivaled that of Europe’s greatest Wunderkind, Mozart. Born in the independent city of Hamburg on 3 February 1809, nine days before another of the Nineteenth Century’s preeminent geniuses, Abraham Lincoln, was born on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, Felix Mendelssohn benefited from as normal a childhood as a prodigy could expect. Without the necessity of earning a living via musical means, Mendelssohn’s father did not seek to profit from his son’s boyhood feats of musical prowess as Mozart’s had done a half-century earlier. Like Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms, Mendelssohn the composer was a master of form whose work expanded the creative possibilities of building new musical structures upon firmly-established foundations. Also like Mozart, Mendelssohn was destined for a brief life, but the breadth and significance of his accomplishments are remarkable—and in no genre more so than in the symphony.

Complemented by the dozen string symphonies composed during his adolescence, Mendelssohn’s five symphonies—or, as is now the preferred designation, his four symphonies and symphonic cantata—are cornerstones of German Romanticism, scores in which the stylistic advancements of the Eighteenth Century were propelled into the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Recorded in sound of astonishing clarity during performances in the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of Paris’s much-discussed Philharmonie, Deutsche Grammophon’s new accounts of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin sound as novel as they must have done during their composer’s lifetime. ‘Hier stehe ich,’ Mendelssohn said in these innovative scores, but what more might his thwarted genius have achieved?

In the opening Allegro di molto movement of Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Opus 11 / MWV N 13), the Québécois Nézet-Séguin and his COE colleagues institute tempi, textures, and balances among sections of the orchestra that uncannily highlight the Classical accents of Mendelssohn’s musical language whilst also speaking his ardently Romantic dialect with absolute fluency. One of the most brilliant facets of Nézet-Séguin’s artistry is his ability to simultaneously emphasize both a piece’s drama and its lyricism, and that facet sparkles throughout the performances on these discs. The rhythmic vitality initiated in the first movement is equally evident in the Andante second movement, in which some conductors sacrifice momentum in pursuit of externalized, often wrongheaded emotional contexts for the fifteen-year-old composer’s music. In this performance, Nézet-Séguin avoids the traps of approaching Symphony No. 1 as juvenilia that requires delicate handling or as a mature masterpiece needing no advocacy. The confident playing of the COE musicians heightens appreciation of the confidence that the young Mendelssohn’s music exudes. Nézet-Séguin manages the third movement’s transition from Menuetto to Trio with elegance, following the music’s lead. The energy with which Mendelssohn infused the Symphony’s closing Allegro con fuoco movement courses through this performance, the COE’s string playing a model of taut ensemble. The composer’s beloved sister Fanny must have been delighted by the Symphony, which was first performed in celebration of her nineteenth birthday, and that elation is recreated in this performance. How many birthday gifts continue to provide such enjoyment after 193 years?

Composed in 1840 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of modern printing, Mendelssohn’s large-scaled Lobgesang (Opus 52 / MWV A 18), a cousin of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second Symphonies, was published after the composer’s death as his Symphony No. 2. Chronologically, its genesis followed that of the Italian Symphony, but it was never regarded by the composer as a symphony, an opinion that was honored by the scholarly edition of the Mendelssohn canon prepared for the composer’s bicentennial in 2009, in which the Lobgesang was classified as a choral work rather than a symphony. Nevertheless, the piece’s structure has much in common with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the duration of the final movement with vocal soloists and chorus exceding that of the instrumental movements combined. Under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership, the introductory Sinfonia possesses the grandeur necessary to prefacing so ambitious a work, but there are no traces of pomposity. The sincerity of the sense of ceremony that pervades the Maestoso con moto - Allegro lends the performance as a whole a welcome honesty. Nézet-Séguin interprets the subsequent Allegretto un poco agitato with straightforward vigor that contrasts markedly with the contemplative nuance of the conductor’s pacing of the Adagio religioso.

When the voices of the RIAS Kammerchor are first heard in the Allegro moderato maestoso chorus ‘Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn,’ the perceptiveness of Mendelssohn’s settings of the Biblical texts selected for his Lobgesang is immediately apparent. Enhanced by the uncommon clearness of the recorded sound, the choristers’ crystalline diction enables every syllable to be discerned. Joining the ladies of the chorus in ‘Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele,’ soprano Karina Gauvin offers excellent diction of her own, allied here with vocalism of unassailable concentration and poise. The tonal beauty of tenor Daniel Behle’s singing of the recitative ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn’ and Allegro moderato aria ‘Er zählet unsre Tränen’ is stirring, but the subtlety of his enunciation of text is no less impressive. Supported by conductor and orchestra, the choral reprise of ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid’ resounds with probity.

In their Andante duet, ‘Ich harrete des Herrn,’ Gauvin and soprano Regula Mühlemann blend their very different voices with consummate skill, the Canadian soprano’s slightly heavier timbre providing a warm rose-gold setting for her colleague’s opalescent tones. The chorus ‘Wohl dem, der seine Hoffnung setzt’ is delivered with musical and emotional power, Nézet-Séguin’s conducting spotlighting the organic thematic development in even Mendelssohn’s most transparent writing. Behle’s mellifluous voicing of ‘Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen’ is answered by Gauvin’s radiant reading of ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen,’ and their RIAS Kammerchor comrades elucidate the meaningful intricacies of the exuberant Allegro maestoso e molto vivace ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen.’ Marked Andante con moto - Un poco più animato, the chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ is sung atmospherically, the sounds of the words used to conjure an aura of spiritual awe. The Andante sostenuto troppo duet ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede ewig dein Lob’ receives from Behle and Gauvin a traversal of moving sensitivity, Mendelssohn’s melodic lines blossoming with the semblance of spontaneity. The Allegro non troppo chorus ‘Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!’ and final ‘Danket dem Herrn und rühmt seinen Namen’ are performed without affectation: choristers, instrumentalists, and conductor all inhabit the music as though it were their own creation. Symphony, cantata, or hybrid, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang is in this performance a genuine hymn of praise.

The editions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies employed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Nézet-Séguin for the concerts that yielded these recordings were prepared by late British conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood, whose close acquaintance with Baroque and Classical repertories afforded him an unique perspective on Mendelssohn’s music. This is particularly valuable in Symphony No. 3 in A minor (Opus 56 / MWV N 18), the widely-known Scottish Symphony inspired by the composer’s travels through the Highlands and Scotland’s rugged islands. Whether or not his own globetrotting has instilled in Nézet-Séguin any special affection for Scotland, his affinity for Mendelssohn’s musical portrait of the country is unmistakable. The metamorphoses from Andante con moto to Allegro un poco agitato, Assai animato, and Andante come prima in the Symphony’s first movement are exaggerated by many conductors at the expense of continuity, but Nézet-Séguin finds within each change of tempo its core relationship with the movement’s broader structure. In the Vivace non troppo movement that follows, the electricity of the musicians’ playing illuminates Highlands landscapes in the listener’s mind’s eye. The impact of the polarity of the subsequent Adagio could hardly be greater, but here, too, Nézet-Séguin and COE only accentuate the disparities that are inherent in the music, playing what Mendelssohn wrote as he wrote it and inviting the listener to share in the labor of interpretation. As realized in this performance, the evocative effervescence of the Allegro vivacissimo - Allegro maestoso assai movement mimics the crashing of the sea upon Scotland’s craggy coastline. The appeal of this music is difficult to resist in the context of half-hearted performances: here, the mighty Hebrides themselves might be swept away by the force of the music making.

Dating from 1833, in which year the score was premièred by the London Philharmonic Society, Symphony No. 4 in A major (Opus 90 / MWV N 16), christened by the composer as his Italian Symphony, is perhaps Mendelssohn’s most familiar work in symphonic form, and its profusion of sun-drenched tunes is a formidable attraction. The picturesque immediacy of the writing in the Scottish Symphony is paralleled and perhaps exceeded by that in the Italian, and every Mediterranean detail of Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of bella Italia is affectionately illustrated by Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The whir of traffic in the congested streets of Rome buzzes in their playing of the Allegro vivace, and their performance of the Andante con moto suggests the relaxed ambiance of the emblematic passeggiata. Nézet-Séguin perfectly judges Mendelssohn’s ‘Con moto moderato’ instruction in the Menuetto, his tempo precisely suited to the music and COE’s truly terpsichorean playing of it. The Presto Saltarello is among the few pieces of Classical Music to have enjoyed life beyond its natural habitat. Recognized by listeners who have never seen the interior of a concert hall, its frenetic opening subject is unforgettable. Regrettably, many performances of the Italian Symphony are all too forgettable, but the rendering of the Saltarello that concludes this performance of the Symphony is representative of a fusion of engaging moxie with irreproachable musicianship. This is not German fare that has been artifically flavored with Italian herbs but a festa italiana prepared by a chef d’orchestre with cosmopolitan flair.

It is hardly surprising that a composer as respectful of and responsive to music of prior generations as Mendelssohn should have drawn considerable inspiration from history. As vibrant as the musical vistas in the Scottish and Italian Symphonies is the aural homage to spiritual renewal in the Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor (Opus 107 / MWV N 15). Negotiating the shift from Andante to Allegro con fuoco in the opening movement with his customary attention to the composer’s motivations for the change, Nézet-Séguin leads this performance of the Reformation with controlled zeal. The COE strings’ articulation in the Allegro vivace compels admiration, and the orchestra’s brass playing is praiseworthy throughout the performance. Kettledrums have never been more effectively—and sometimes startlingly—recorded than on these discs. Leading into the recitative that announces the Symphony’s final chorale, the Andante radiates the simplicity that is the nucleus of the greatest works of art. Nézet-Séguin observes the reverence of Mendelssohn’s treatment of Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,’ guiding the orchestra in a display of sonorous solemnity. Navigating the Andante con moto, Allegro vivace, and Allegro maestoso sections with grace, conductor and musicians resolve Mendelssohn’s Reformation with an exhibition of the power of music to communicate universal ideals of endurance and hope that require neither words nor creeds.

In analyses of the development of the modern symphony from its origins in Baroque models to the Twenty-First-Century incarnations, the vital rôle played by Felix Mendelssohn is often undervalued and sometimes altogether overlooked. The important contributions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Mahler to the symphony’s Darwinian progress are universally acknowledged, but Mendelssohn’s Symphonies, though widely respected, are encountered less frequently in the repertories of the world’s great orchestras than those of his illustrious fellow symphonists. The quincentennial of Martin Luther’s instigation of the Protestant Reformation is an apt occasion for a reappraisal of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies. As in any repertoire, the most persuasive argument on behalf of the quality of Mendelssohn’s music is made by playing it as the composer intended it to be played, seeking meaning and relevance within the scores. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe accomplish this as compellingly in these performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies as in their DGG survey of Mozart’s mature operas, soon to be expanded by a recording of La clemenza di Tito. Mendelssohn’s Symphonies pose challenging questions to conductors and musicians, but the performances on this new release find answers that are not exclusively but wholly right.

05 June 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Trading Voices — The 2017 WNO Opera Gala (J. Donica, C. Erivo, R. Fleming, D. Graves, S. Howard, B. S. Mitchell, L. Odom Jr.; Washington National Opera, 3 June 2017)

IN REVIEW: TRADING VOICES - The 2017 WNO Opera Gala [Graphic © by Washington National Opera, Photographs © by the artists]Trading Voices – The 2017 WNO Opera GalaJordan Donica (Broadway star), Cynthia Erivo (Broadway star), Renée Fleming (soprano), Denyce Graves (mezzo-soprano), Soloman Howard (bass), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Broadway star), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Broadway star); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin and Steven Mercurio, conductors [Washington National Opera, Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 3 June 2017]

Whether the genre is opera, symphony, chamber music, musical theatre, jazz, pop, or any other, an impresario’s most fervent prayers are surely for the vision to devise audience-pleasing programming and financial resources extensive enough to make that vision reality. In America’s Twenty-First-Century Performing Arts environment, that sort of vision is rare, but funding pledged to the Arts without agendas is what Rodolfo in La bohème might include among the ‘castelli in aria’ of which he sings, a fiscal stability that exists in the poet’s verse but not in his pocket. Which task could be more daunting for the enterprising impresario than planning a company’s season within the boundaries of a finite budget, within the confines of which a near-infinite number of audience expectations must also be met? This is the challenge faced by every opera company in America, now more than ever. Criticizing companies’ failures to meet these quixotic goals has become almost a contact sport among opera lovers, but there are notable successes amongst the widely-discussed missteps, one of the most extraordinary of which resides along a beautiful stretch of the Potomac River in the nation’s capital. As exhibited by the company’s fantastic recent production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [reviewed here], Washington National Opera has thrived in recent seasons under the leadership of Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and Music Director Philippe Auguin. The efforts of a team of talented and dedicated artists have made WNO an oasis of culture and humanity amidst the tumultuous conflicts of today’s Washington, and the 2017 WNO Opera Gala was a thrilling, touching, and thought-provoking homage to the past, present, and future of opera at Kennedy Center—and a spectacular answer to any impresario’s prayers.

Celebrating the conclusion of the company’s 2016 – 2017 Season, the centennial of Kennedy Center’s namesake, President John F. Kennedy, and the tenure of the retiring Chairman of the company’s Board of Trustees (and now, fittingly, the Chairman Emeritus), philanthropist and indefatigable friend of the Arts Jacqueline Badger Mars, WNO’s 2017 Opera Gala, Trading Voices, the first such event in the company’s history, brought together seven artists of different backgrounds and experiences under the direction of conductors Auguin and Steven Mercurio, the former presiding over the evening’s operatic excerpts, including a sparkling performance of the Overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and the latter pacing the Broadway standards. The WNO Chorus and Orchestra were on fantastic form, the instrumentalists proving to be the hippest ensemble in the District with their playing of the musical theatre pieces. Auguin conducted with his usual flair, sensitively accompanying the vocalists whilst always preserving the integrity of the music at hand. Mercurio emphasized the nuances of each number entrusted to his baton without sacrificing rhythmic precision or stylistic identity. Unlike some similar events, this gala possessed unflagging continuity and energy, captivatingly paying tribute to both the company’s artistic achievements and the remarkably generous lady who has contributed so much to their realization.

WNO assembled a quartet of phenomenal performers to represent the world of musical theatre in Trading Voices. A relative newcomer to the Great White Way, Jordan Donica has already established himself as one of his generation’s brightest stars with his performances of Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and the dual rôle of the Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson in the national tour of the most successful show in recent Broadway history, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. For his first number in WNO’s gala, Donica sang ‘Feeling Good’ from Anthony Newley’s and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Equal parts Sam Cooke, Sidney Poitier, and James Bond, he delivered the song with the solid foundation of an operatic baritone and the suave swagger of a jazz singer. Revisiting The Phantom of the Opera, Donica later sang the title character’s signature song, ‘The Music of the Night.’ The young singer’s phrasing honored the melodic line’s indebtedness to the principal theme of the Act One love duet in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, but neither the falsetto top A♭ nor the repetition of the tone in full voice was produced with ideal freedom. These were the only minute flaws in an otherwise galvanizing performance. This music may be forever associated with Michael Crawford, but Donica owned it, along with the audience’s appreciation.

Recipient of the 2016 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical Tony® for her portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo had the unenviable assignment of substituting for a beloved singer who withdrew from the show. With a smile as electrifying as her voice, she wholly conquered the audience within seconds of her first entrance, however. Her soaring performance of Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables roused the audience to a frenzy of excitement, her changing of the pronouns from singular to plural—the dreams we dream—in the song’s final bars unmistakably conveying her belief in the universality of the rights to dream big and achieve even bigger. Erivo returned to end the gala with a performance of ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot. She rushed ahead of Mercurio and the orchestra in a few phrases, but her traversal of the aria was anything but a crossover stunt. She approached the piece with the respect that it deserves, and her musicality was irreproachable. Unlike Calàf, she did not have to wait until dawn to enjoy her triumph. It was a sad irony that, as Erivo sang, news of terrorist attacks in her native London was breaking, but her performance embodied the spirit of community, compassion, and mutual understanding possible through music that is the foremost countermeasure against violence and intolerance.

A true Broadway leading man in the tradition of John Raitt and Jerry Orbach, Brian Stokes Mitchell brought to his singing in Washington the same unforced charisma and heroic vocalism that defined his portrayals of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime, the title rôle in Man of La Mancha, and Frederick C. Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, for which he garnered the 2000 Tony® award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. His account of Sportin’ Life’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was a true performance, Mitchell’s polished-silver vocalism complemented by expert comedic timing and light-footed dance steps worthy of Rudolf Nureyev. In addition to his performance, Mitchell emceed the event with humor and class. The sole regret of the evening was that he was not allowed another song. It was apparent that, to paraphrase Eliza Doolittle, he and his audience could have sung all night.

Another bona fide star of the Broadway stage and 2016 recipient of the Tony® award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his no-holds-barred depiction of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. is one of musical theatre’s most distinctive performers. Like Mandy Patinkin’s, his voice is an unique, immediately-identifiable instrument, and he uses it with complete control. The principal marvel of his singing of Sportin’ Life’s ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ from Porgy and Bess was the control with which he evinced improvisatory abandon. Were all drug dealers’ sales pitches so sensually persuasive, the battle against addiction should be virtually unwinnable! For his second number, Odom Jr. performed the song that has become emblematic of his career to date, Burr’s ‘Wait For It’ from Hamilton. One of the choicest fruits of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius, the number unfailingly stops the show in performances of Hamilton, and, owing to the ardor of Odom Jr.’s delivery, it ignited the atmosphere inside Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The intensity of his vocal acting was thoroughly at home in the room, and his singing hit the target as surely as Aaron Burr’s bullet in his fateful 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Easily avoiding being outshone by such high-wattage colleagues from the world of musical theatre, bass Soloman Howard offered a thunderous but stylish voicing of Banco’s romanza ‘Come dal ciel precipita’ from Act Two of Verdi’s Macbeth. An alumnus of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Howard is one of the company’s most popular artists and will likely further hone his musical magnetism when he portrays Il re d’Egitto in WNO’s production of Aida at the start of the 2017 – 2018 Season. His already-refined Verdian credentials were sonorously verified by his handling of Banco’s music. There was no cheating at either extremity of the range, and Howard shared the Broadway performers’ ability to bring the character to life even in the context of a concert.

It was divulged during the course of the gala that Lauretta’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is Jacqueline Badger Mars’s favorite aria, and it was a testament to the Arts community’s esteem for her that internationally-admired soprano and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor At Large Renée Fleming was on hand to serenade her with the aria. Fleming’s recent Boston Symphony, Covent Garden, and Metropolitan Opera farewells to the rôle of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a part that she sang to great praise in concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at Kennedy Center in 2014, have been the topic of much actual and virtual conversation during the first half of 2017. The discussion prompted by her singing of ‘O mio babbino caro’ in WNO’s gala could focus only on the superlative condition of Fleming’s voice. The lyricism of Puccini’s vocal line was lovingly maintained, but the soprano’s expansive phrasing evocatively hinted at an elusive kinship between this music and the Czech song repertory of which she is an important exponent. Legions of sopranos include ‘O mio babbino caro’ in their repertories, but very few of them could ever hope to sing it as simply and alluringly as Fleming sang it for the WNO gala’s honoree and audience.

A native Washingtonian, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is one of America’s most influential ambassadors for opera. Now sharing her expertise with students at Peabody Conservatory in addition to performing, she shared with her hometown audience a display of the artistry that has endeared her to opera lovers throughout the world. For her ‘typical repertoire’ selection, Graves offered a languid reading of Dalila’s ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila that seemed capable of seducing the varnish off of the auditorium’s woodwork. Both her legato and her intonation were exemplary in the sinuous lines of ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse.’ The most surprising repertory choice of the evening was Graves’s singing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat. Hearing a female voice in music typically sung by basses and baritones like Paul Robeson and Bruce Hubbard was a novelty; and an effective one. Anyone who has heard Graves sing African-American Spirituals or Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’ is acquainted with the otherworldly depth and richness of her lower register: it is as though the voice of Helen Traubel were inverted, with the might from the top of the stave to top B♭ extended below the stave. The burnished quality of her lowest tones lent her performance of ‘Ol’ Man River’ an emotional gravitas that few male singers could match. In a matter of moments, Kennedy Center was relocated from the banks of the Potomac to the humid Mississippi delta, and one of the nation’s preeminent musical storytellers unaffectedly defined the evening’s theme of ‘trading voices.’

At least since the invention of recording technology, the concept of artists ‘crossing over’ to perform music from different genres has wielded an undeniable though frequently-condemned commercial enticement. Purists work diligently at preserving their frowns, but is it really possible to hear Dame Joan Sutherland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Shore giggle and chirp through a classic Gilbert and Sullivan number without smiling? Can one hear Thomas Hampson sing Stephen Foster ballads and not think that, though hardly Schumann or Brahms, this is significant music? Can one hear Brian Stokes Mitchell sing Man of La Mancha’s ‘Impossible Dream’ and not feel that opera is close at hand? This is the essence of trading voices: singing someone else’s songs enlarges an artist’s understanding of his own music. Washington National Opera’s Trading Voices gala was an evening for expressing gratitude, but the artists’ committed performances also revealed the undiminished potential of one of life’s fundamental sources of hope. When we trade voices and open our ears to new, diverse, and unfamiliar music, it is difficult to avoid opening our hearts, as well.