20 May 2018

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — HANDEL ARIAS (Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541) & Nicola Porpora — OPERA ARIAS (Max Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; DECCA 483 3235)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - HANDEL ARIAS (Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541) and Nicola Porpora - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 483 3235)[1] GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Handel AriasFranco Fagioli, countertenor; Il pomo d’oro; Zefira Valova, concertmaster and director [Recorded in Sala Rossa, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, in March 2017; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541; 1 CD, 79:52; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Opera AriasMax Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in the Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 6 – 9 March and 4 – 12 September 2017; DECCA 483 3235; 1 CD, 75:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

The Russian actor and pedagogue Konstantin Stanislavski famously quipped that ‘there are no small parts, only small actors.’ Virtually every actor engaged to portray Chorus Girl Number Seven in a blockbuster Broadway revue or Silent Roman Centurion in a cinematic epic clings to an optimistic interpretation of Stanislavski’s assertion, trusting that true talent is as apparent in ten seconds of screen time as in ten pages of dialogue. In opera, this could be equated with a singer making as great an impact in undemanding recitative as a colleague manages to create in an intricate aria—a feat achieved on stage and in studio by some of opera’s foremost singing actors. Still, it cannot be denied by even the most unbiased aficionado that there are niches in opera’s four-century repertory that, though in no way of ‘small’ quality, require the advocacy of specially-qualified artists. Anyone who has heard poorly-sung performances of Baroque music can be pardoned for questioning whether the long-ignored operas of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries truly merit rediscovery. In order to reclaim the impact that they exercised on audiences in the Eighteenth Century, the arias of composers like Georg Friedrich Händel and Nicola Porpora need singing of the distinction of Claudia Muzio’s and Rosa Ponselle’s performances of music by Verdi and Puccini. Such singing is ever in short supply, but some of Händel’s and Porpora’s finest opera arias receive on new discs from Deutsche Grammophon and DECCA performances by countertenors Franco Fagioli and Max Emanuel Cenčić that embody the system of bringing characters to life advocated by Stanislavski: feeling the emotions of the individuals they portray, even in the context of studio-recorded recitals of individual arias, Fagioli and Cenčić confirm that they are ingenious artists, here playing large parts in facilitating the modern reassessment of Eighteenth-Century vocal music.

Unlikely as it may seem to Twenty-First-Century observers, there was little difference in the eminence of Händel’s and Porpora’s reputations among their contemporaries. When a rival company was formed with the aim of undermining Händel’s dominance of Italian opera in London, Porpora was imported to serve as its presiding genius, both as composer and organizer of a troupe of singers to compete with Händel’s regular ensemble of foreign and domestic virtuosi. Renowned throughout Europe as a pedagogical paragon of the Neapolitan school of singing that produced the celebrated castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli, Porpora was sufficiently appreciated to have been invited to fill Antonio Vivaldi’s former post at the helm of the lucrative musical activities at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà.

Paralleling the similar perceptions of Händel’s and Porpora’s artistic merits in the Eighteenth Century, there is little to choose between Il pomo d’oro’s playing in Fagioli’s recital of Händel arias and Armonia Atenea’s backing of Cenčić’s accounts of Porpora arias. Led in this performance by Zefira Valova, the Pomo d’oro musicians transform their instruments into participants in the dramas that play out in arias that Fagioli sings. Armonia Atenea’s artistic director George Petrou leads his colleagues in accompanying Porpora’s arias with dauntless technical and interpretive dexterity. The performances of both ensembles are insightfully molded to complement the styles of the composers and singers, Il pomo d’oro’s emotionally-charged sonorities suiting Händel and Fagioli and the bold colors of Armonia Atenea’s soundscapes mirroring Porpora’s and Cenčić’s sensibilities. Moreover, these performances reflect the tremendous progress in producing ear-pleasing sounds made by period instrument ensembles since the inception of the historically-informed performance practice movement. Perhaps accompaniment of this caliber does not truly enhance the distinction of the singing, but it indisputably increases the listener’s enjoyment of it.

Recorded in celebration of his victory in the 2003 Bertelsmann Neue Stimmen competition, Fagioli’s first commercial recording featured arias by Händel and Mozart, handsomely if slightly anonymously sung. In the subsequent fifteen years, Fagioli has fastidiously honed his artistry, both on stage and in studio. To this release, his first solo recital disc dedicatedly wholly to the music of Händel, he brings an abiding musicality that is only occasionally compromised by over-emphatic delivery. In the performances on this disc, Fagioli is on excellent form, but there are fleeting moments in which he seems to be pushing the voice uncomfortably. His voice is an extraordinary instrument that impresses without manipulation, and his technique largely enables him to meet the demands of the most difficult music without forcing. In his singing of the Händel arias on this disc, he is at his best when he surrenders himself to the music. He needs only to follow where Händel leads in order to find greatness.

Still undeservedly among Händel’s least-known works for the stage, the 1734 pasticcio Oreste (HWV A11) was tailored to the abilities of a fine cast that included the castrato Giovanni Carestini, often cited as Farinelli’s foremost rival for recognition as the greatest singer of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, as the title character. Fagioli here performs Oreste’s aria ‘Agitato da fiere tempeste’ with dazzling agility that sounds frantic only at the top of the range.

The title rôle in Serse (HWV 40), created in the opera’s 1738 première by Caffarelli, is a near-perfect fit for Fagioli, who also recorded the part complete in conjunction with a concert performance at Opéra Royal de Versailles in 2017 and will return to it in an European tour with Il pomo d’oro in October and November 2018. The brief ‘Frondi tenere e belle’ is perhaps the most famous recitative in any of Händel’s operas, and Fagioli mostly evades the trap of over-singing, exercising restraint and resolving cadences without distorting the flow of the text. The recitative is followed by one of Händel’s most familiar arias, albeit one that has suffered in the guise of ‘Händel’s Largo’ almost every conceivable bowdlerization in the 280 years since it was first sung. Thankfully, ‘Ombra mai fu’ is now allowed to cast its spell with more authentic tempi, and Fagioli sings it captivatingly. He voices ‘Crude furie degl’orridi abissi’ with gravitas, evincing the sentiments of the text by exploring Händel’s vivid musical imagery.

Composed in 1711, Rinaldo (HWV 7) was the score with which Händel secured both his own and Italian opera’s fortunes in London. The name part was created by the castrato Nicolini, for whom Händel wrote music of tremendous musical and dramatic variety. The exquisite ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’ is one of its composer’s most affecting contemplative arias, and Fagioli sings it with palpable, nuanced emotion, magnifying the pathos of the words without imposing anachronistic Freudian subtexts. The bravura brilliance of his performance of the electrifying ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ is arresting but almost too aggressive. The voice rockets through the tessitura thrillingly, but the undeniable impact of the highest notes comes at the expense of lessened focus and beauty in the middle of the voice.

After an uncharacteristically long gestation, Imeneo (HWV 41) reached the stage in 1740, with Giovanni Battista Andreoni, who also created the rôle of Ulisse in Händel’s Deidamia the following year, taking the rôle of Tirinto. The castrato must have been delighted by the opportunity for exhibiting his histrionic abilities afforded by the aria ‘Se potessero i sospir miei,’ and Fagioli honors his memory with a performance of edge-of-the-seat immediacy. Nearly three decades earlier, the part of Mirtillo was created in the 1712 première of Il pastor fido (HWV 8) by Valeriano Pellegrini, who had sung Nerone in the Venetian première of Händel’s Agrippina in 1709. Fagioli brings to Mirtillo’s ‘Sento brillar nel sen’ the easy command of the fiorature that the music demands, but he also traces the vocal line with imaginative phrasing. Singing the aria competently is a feat, but Fagioli convincingly recreates Mirtillo’s predicament with sounds that stoke the listener’s empathy.

Perhaps none of Händel’s operas merits the attention that it has received in recent years as completely as his 1725 masterpiece Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi (HWV 19), a musical tangle of amorous intrigue and presumed death of the type frequently encountered in Baroque opera. Senesino’s rôle was Bertarido, the rightful ruler of Lombardy who is believed to have been slain, and his Twenty-First-Century counterpart fully expresses the horror, shock, and anger of a man confronting the sight of his own tomb in ‘Pompe vane di morte.’ The aria that follows, ‘Dove sei, amato bene,’ is one of those miraculous passages in which the affectation of opera is stripped away, enabling a deluge of genuine, timeless emotions to flow from the music. Producing a commendably well-integrated stream of tones and tastefully ornamenting the da capo repeat, Fagioli exercises welcome restraint, imparting Bertarido’s inherent dignity as meaningfully as his desperation.

First performed in 1724, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) was the score by which Händel’s standing as a composer of opera was maintained for generations, and it remains his most widely-known—and likely still his most frequently-performed—opera. The title rôle is perhaps the most overtly heroic of the parts that Händel wrote for Senesino, but the aria ‘Se in fiorito, ameno prato’ reveal’s the hero’s latent romanticism. Historical accounts of his stage presence suggest that Senesino was not altogether convincing as a lover. In this realm, Fagioli has a decided advantage, his virile voicing possessing a core of magnetic attractiveness that he puts to good use in his voicing of ‘Se in fiorito, ameno prato.’ There is no doubt that this is a Cesare with tyrannical inclinations, but sensuality is one of his most potent weapons.

The first of two operas that Händel composed for the Covent Garden Theatre in 1735, Ariodante (HWV 33) has proved to be one of the composer’s most enduring scores, its name part, created by Carestini, having been sung in recent seasons by renowned and diverse singers including Cecilia Bartoli, Dame Sarah Connolly, and Joyce DiDonato. Fagioli joins their company with performances of Ariodante’s two most familiar arias. To the animated ‘Scherza, infida, in grembo al drudo’ he devotes an exhibition of bravura singing of the highest order. Still, it is his intense but tranquil singing of the serenely beautiful ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ that impresses most. Baroque vocal music is equated by some listeners with the difficult passagework that consigned it to generations of neglect, but there are moments, a number of which are found in Händel’s operas, in which Baroque music rivals the emotional sophistication of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. Fagioli’s singing of ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ on this disc assumes a place among Elisabeth Grümmer’s, Maria Callas’s, and Kirsten Flagstad’s unforgettable performances of Pamina’s ‘Ach, ich fühl’s,’ Violetta’s ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ and Isolde’s Liebestod.

In the 1730 Season that included the first production of Partenope (HWV 27), the Bolognese castrato Antonio Bernacchi replaced Senesino as Händel’s primo uomo, interpreting the rôle of Arsace in Partenope. To the extent that the music that he wrote for Arsace can be assessed as a benchmark, Händel seems to have harbored great esteem for Bernacchi’s abilities. Could they hear his performance of ‘Ch’io parta?’ on this disc, both Händel and Bernacchi would undoubtedly regard Fagioli with the respect due to an exemplary interpreter and an equal. From the first casts to Dame Janet Baker, Helen Watts, and Marilyn Horne, Händel’s operatic rôles in mezzo-soprano range have been sung by an array of engaging artists, each of whom brought unique qualities to the music. Foremost among Fagioli’s Händelian virtues is the absolute confidence in the importance of this music that is audible in every bar that he sings on this disc. This is a disc that should be heard by those listeners who continue to doubt the effectiveness of Händel’s music for today’s singers, theatres, and audiences.

Leading men of Baroque opera: composers NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (left) and GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (right) in Eighteenth-Century engravingsNicola Antonio Porpora (left) and Georg Friedrich Händel (right)
[Source: Eighteenth-Century engravings in the public domain]

The espousal of Porpora’s music that engendered a fantastic DECCA studio recording of the composer’s opera Germanico in Germania [reviewed here] led the ever-inquisitive Cenčić to seek in the composer’s still-under-appreciated body of work arias awaiting rediscovery via which his passion for Porpora’s singular idiom could be translated into performances of stylistic authority. As an artistic laboratory in which experiments utilizing elements of past, present, and future trends were conducted in musical form, Porpora’s career was not unlike Mahler’s, in whose music the past of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms met the future of Bax, Britten, and Berio. Porpora was perhaps more of a synthesizer than an innovator, but the adroitness with which he absorbed, modified, and individualized aspects of his contemporaries’ compositions is evidence of the depth of his inventiveness. Throughout his career, Cenčić has been a musical catalyst, not only reviving forgotten Baroque repertory but also broadening the reach of the countertenor voice with projects including his creation of the rôle of the Herold in Aribert Reimann’s Medea. Critical to the success of Cenčić’s initiatives is his understanding of the fact that even the most exalted aspirations are betrayed by haphazard musicianship. When he commits to a project, it is with undeviating focus and diligence. This has rarely been more discernible than in his performances of the arias on this disc. By lending his percipient artistry to reintroducing these pieces, Cenčić expands his significance as a pivotal, persuasive champion of Porpora’s music.

The cast of the 1728 Venetian première of Porpora’s Ezio was graced by a pair of acclaimed castrati: Domenico Gizzi, who portrayed Valentiniano, and the famed Nicolino, who sang Ezio. Familiar to modern listeners owing to their appearances in operas by Händel and Gluck, Valentiniano and Ezio are two of Eighteenth-Century opera’s most widely-traveled characters. In his performance on this disc, Cenčić matches the virtuosity of the blazing trumpets in Valentiniano’s aria ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ with remarkably assured handling of the cyclonic coloratura. His singing of Ezio’s ‘Lieto sarò di questa vita’ is equally exciting, his vocal colorations mirroring the subtle, shifting hues of the text. Cenčić’s naturalness on stage tellingly permeates these performances. Whereas Fagioli looked inward in his singing of Händel arias, seeking the motivations within the characters’ hearts, Cenčić projects the emotions of Porpora’s characters across the unseen footlights, acting even when before studio microphones.

The structure of Ericlea’s aria ‘Torbido intorno al core’ from Meride e Selinante, written for the 1727 Venetian Carnevale season, reveals kinship with the tuneful slow movements of Vivaldi concerti. Cenčić crowns his nobly-phrased account of the aria with a truly superb final trill. Porpora’s most celebrated pupil Farinelli was the first Agamennone in Ifigenia in Aulide, premièred in 1735 in London, and the volleys of fiorature with which Porpora shaped the aria ‘Tu, spietato, non farai’ are reminiscent of similar music by Johann Adolf Hasse. Cenčić despatches the divisions with indefatigable technical acumen, but, as must have been true of Farinelli, it is the perceptiveness with which Cenčić integrates the coloratura into his portrayal of the aria’s drama that mesmerizes.

Porpora’s Filandro was first heard in 1747 in Dresden, a center for operatic progress in which cultural cross-pollination yielded strikingly original musical blossoms. The Arcadian finesse of ‘Ove l’erbetta tenera, e molle’ is sustained by delicate writing for recorders that comment on a dulcet vocal line, gracefully delivered by Cenčić. The countertenor’s vocalism in ‘D’esser già parmi quell’arboscello’ is a model of Italianate bel canto technique appropriately returned to the repertory from which the fundamentals of bel canto emerged. Providing another vehicle for Farinelli, Poro was first performed during Torino’s 1731 Carnevale. Bolstered by raucous horns and timpani, the great castrato surely made a dashing impression with the martial aria ‘Destrier, che all’armi usato.’ Cenčić here sings the number with electrifying bravado, the contrast between his upper and lower registers heightening the effect of his take-no-prisoners machismo.

Premièred in 1734, Enea nel Lazio was one of the operas that Porpora wrote for London during his tenure as composer-in-residence for the opera company founded by aristocrats organized by the Prince of Wales as a rival to Händel’s second Royal Academy, which enjoyed the patronage of the prince’s parents, King George II and Queen Caroline. Italian opera’s prominence in London was then already being supplanted by entertainments in the vernacular, including Händel’s own oratorios, but Porpora’s music for the English capital, typified by the aria ‘Chi vuol salva la patria e l’onore,’ enjoyed popularity among the cognoscenti. The listener need not be a scholar or a nobleman in order to appreciate Cenčić’s singing of ‘Chi vuol salva la patria e l’onore,’ his voice ably limning the gallantry of the text. Having abandoned Händel and joined Porpora and the Opera of the Nobility, Senesino remained loyal to the Italian composer, ultimately making his farewell to staged opera as Turno in the 1740 Naples production of Porpora’s Il trionfo di Camilla. The arias ‘Va per le vene il sangue’ and ‘Torcere il corso all’onde’ indicate that Senesino remained a very capable singer until the end of his career—or else that Porpora expected him to be. Cenčić voices ‘Va’ per le vene il sangue’ with intensity that builds to a stirring climax. His traversal of ‘Torcere il corso all’onde’ is among his most memorable recorded performances: in the agility, accuracy, and artfulness of these four minutes of his singing beats the heart of Cenčić’s artistry.

Three of Lottario’s arias from Porpora’s opera Carlo il Calvo, premièred in Rome in 1738, are here heard for the first time on disc. ‘Se rea ti vuole il cielo’ receives from Cenčić a performance of particular urgency, the voice surging with enhanced pointing of the words’ meaning. The lyricism of ‘Quando s’oscura il cielo’ draws from the singer vocalism of mellifluous expressivity. The full panoply of his faculties is deployed in ‘So che tiranno io sono,’ the voice flickering with the character’s remorse and self-recrimination.

Seven years before his retirement from the stage, Senesino sang the rôle of the mythological hero Teseo in the 1733 première of Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso, and the musical and dramatic requirements of the aria ‘Nume che reggi ’l mare’ were unquestionably customized to the castrato’s gifts, which were documented by Eighteenth-Century Londoners to have included the declamatory power of a musical orator. Today’s listeners can only conjecture about how Senesino sounded in his performances of Porpora’s music, but, if he sang ‘Nume che reggi ’l mare’ as eloquently as Cenčić sings it on this disc, his place in musical history is justified by this alone.

Whether the repertory is Baroque, bel canto, or verismo, the viability of opera largely depends, now as much as when Senesino first sang in London in 1720, upon the continual presence on the world’s stages of singers for whom opera is not artifice but a way of life—singers, as these discs reaffirm, like Franco Fagioli and Max Emanuel Cenčić. In recent months, both Fagioli and Cenčić have added fully-staged interpretations of Rossini rôles to their repertoires, the former singing Arsace in Semiramide and the latter portraying Malcolm in La donna del lago in a new production that he also directed. The horizons of countertenor singing now rightly extend well beyond the boundaries of repertoire written for castrati. With singers of Fagioli’s and Cenčić’s stature leading the way, the continued viability of both countertenor singing and opera in general is guaranteed.

14 May 2018

ARTS IN ACTION: The Operatic Wizards of Oz — Eminent conductor Brian Castles-Onion and Désirée Records preserve the legacies of Australia's foremost vocal artists

ARTS IN ACTION: Desirée Records releases devoted to the careers of Australian artists NANCE GRANT, ROBERT ALLMAN, and JUNE BRONHILL (GAV 001, GAV 002, & GAV 003)
ARTS IN ACTION: Desirée Records releases devoted to the careers of Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (GAV 004 & GAV 005)[1] Great Australian Voices – Nance Grant, soprano [Désirée Records GAV 001; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[2] Great Australian Voices – Robert Allman, baritone [Désirée Records GAV 002; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[3] Great Australian Voices – June Bronhill, soprano [Désirée Records GAV 003; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[4] Great Australian Voices – Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano [Performances recorded in Melbourne and Sydney during the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season, July – October 1965; Désirée Records GAV 004; 4 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[5] Great Australian Voices – The Australia House Recital 1959—Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano; Richard Bonynge, piano [Recorded in performance at Australia House, London, UK, 18 June 1959; Désirée Records GAV 005; 1 CD; Available from Fish Fine Music]

If one establishes as the objective of one’s artistic endeavors a summarization of the ethos of a time, a place, or a people, how does one pursue the fulfillment of that goal? In which medium can the collective ideals of a culture be best expressed? Walt Whitman made a persuasive argument for poetry with Leaves of Grass, in which he created one of the most complete and compelling portraits of Nineteenth-Century America available to modern observers. The Zeitgeist of Victorian England haunts the novels of Charles Dickens, and every cry for equality and plea for peace of the 1960s resounds in the songs of Bob Dylan. These are the works of artists whose creative impulses and intellects were shaped by the eras that they immortalized, and in this distinction is the crux of what makes Désirée Records both unique and invaluable. Dedicated to the preservation and celebration of the legacies of Australia’s foremost vocal artists, many of whom were never adequately appreciated or are now too little-remembered beyond Oceania, Désirée Records and the label’s founder, conductor and voice connoisseur Brian Castles-Onion, are affectionately restoring to these singers the reputations they earned with performances that deserve worldwide adulation.

Though hardly the first Classically-trained singer of Australian birth to win fame in her native land, Dame Nellie Melba was the first Australian opera singer to enjoy widespread recognition throughout the world. That Melba studied in Melbourne with a teacher who was herself a pupil of the celebrated pedagogue Manuel García, the brother of Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot and son of the tenor who was Rossini’s first Norfolk in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra and Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, reveals a tradition of vocal training in Australia that places the emergence of the great Australian voices of the Twentieth Century in a well-established tradition that many Eurocentric histories of singing have overlooked. Like many American singers of her time, Melba conquered opera in Europe, and details of the crucial context of her formative experiences in her homeland were outnumbered in musical annals by tales of her European successes, as well as by memories of her rapturously-received appearances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In addition to support of Australian art and artists, Melba bequeathed to her countrymen an example of translating appreciation in Australia into global stardom with a fluency that perhaps only Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) can truthfully be said to have matched in subsequent generations.

Melba was unquestionably a phenomenon, but she was not an operatic Uluṟu, a musical monolith rising out of an uncultured desert. Still, mimicking modern expressions of time, opera in Australia can be categorized into AM and PM periods: ante-Melba and post-Melba. With the indefatigable concertizing in support of Australia’s armed forces in World War One that secured her appointment as a Dame Commander of the British Empire and the seemingly interminable cycles of farewell appearances that ushered her into a jocund colloquialism, Melba honed the persona of the quintessentially Australian prima donna, as temperamental as that distinction implies but singularly practical and hard-working. Her legacy continued on the world’s stages first by Florence Austal and later by Marjorie Lawrence, Melba imparted to aspiring Australian singers both the drive to succeed and the necessity of developing an ironclad technique akin to the mastery of bel canto that she learned from Mathilde Marchesi.

Melba’s extant recordings are mostly sonically paleolithic, but they furnish dim glimpses of the magic that the voice could wield. Owing to their various provenances, there are selections on Désirée Records discs that suffer from poor sound. Unlike some ill-advised attempts at remastering Melba’s recordings, however, Castles-Onion’s work is focused on faithfully recreating voices’ individual timbres, avoiding the distortion and false overtones that can result from aggressive processing of archival recordings. In the context of material of the vintage heard on these Désirée Records releases, some of which was recorded non-professionally and under less-than-ideal conditions, only varying sound quality is wholly faithful to the source recordings. These discs are the aural equivalents of the weathered family Bibles so beloved by many Americans: the pages are crinkled, discolored, and torn, but the potency of the message is not lessened by the dilapidated state of the vessel.

Among these discs, the recording of Sutherland’s 1959 Australia House recital is the most challenging for the listener in terms of its soundscape, but the ears that cannot adjust to the difficult sound for the sake of hearing the youthful, exuberant, dauntlessly virtuosic singing that Sutherland shared with the London audience—and it can be heard to thrilling effect—are listening for the wrong reasons. Four months after the Covent Garden performances of Lucia di Lammermoor that catapulted her to international recognition, Sutherland remained on pristine form, offering a programme that at least temporarily quashes contentions that she was an unimaginative singer. Alongside selections typical of her recital repertoire in the first decade of her career—arias from Händel’s Alcina and Rodelinda, Elvira’s mad scene from Bellini’s I puritani, and music for another Elvira, the heroine of Verdi’s Ernani—Sutherland sang numbers from Dalayrac’s Nina, Paisiello’s La molinara, Arne’s Love in a Village, Lehár’s Merry Widow, and Shield’s Rosina, all of them voiced with astonishing freedom and immediacy. The surprises come in her performances of songs by Arditi, Arne, Dvořák, Grieg, Leoncavallo, and Rachmaninoff. Seldom admired for her handling of text even before the much-discussed sinus surgery that she underwent in the same year as the first Covent Garden Lucia and this Australia House recital, La Stupenda is unlikely to be proclaimed a peer of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the merit of these song performances, but this is not the Sutherland of the mid-career studio recordings, in the contexts of which diction can be problematic. The words in this recital were surprisingly crisp and genuinely felt. Detrimental though it is to the overall experience of this disc, the imperfect sound focuses the attention on listening closely to every note and syllable that Sutherland produces. It is a visceral journey that every Twenty-First-Century listener who wonders why Sutherland was adored by many operaphiles should make.

Like Melba before her, Sutherland was a phenomenon whose work was applauded in almost every locale in which she appeared, and Désirée Records’ release devoted to Melbourne and Sydney performances from the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season allows today’s listeners to hear her singing as it sounded to the audiences who applauded her. Even amidst a plethora of widely-circulated in-house, broadcast, and studio recordings, connoisseurs and her countrymen know that, whether at the outset or in the twilight of her career, Sutherland was never on better form than when singing before an Australian audience. Her DECCA account of Puccini’s music for the heroine of Suor Angelica is beautifully sung, but, when performing the rôle on stage in Sydney opposite the draconian Zia Principessa of Rosina Raisbeck, she sang the character, not merely the music. Likewise, time’s effects on the voice, an immense instrument that challenged recording technology, were often magnified by studio microphones but seemed less apparent and sometimes inconsequential in Australian performances. When Sutherland returned to Australia after triumphs in London, Milan, New York, and Chicago to revitalize the touring company inaugurated decades earlier by American-born J. C. Williamson, whose entrepreneurial ambition contributed indelibly to Melba’s popularity in Australia, her performances combined the vigor and vocal health of youth with the discipline and experience of a seasoned artist.

In excerpts from the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season Melbourne staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland is joined by John Alexander as Edgardo, Cornelis Opthof as Enrico, Dorothy Cole as Alisa, Clifford Grant as Raimondo and Sergei Baigildin as Arturo, the last two of whom reprised their parts with Opera Australia when Sutherland sang Lucia in Sydney in 1986. In addition to having sung Pollione in the first of Sutherland’s studio recordings of Norma and partnering her in MET performances in New York and on tour, including in Lucia di Lammermoor, Alexander respectively portrayed Pollione and Gennaro in Sutherland’s début performances in Vancouver of the title rôles in Norma and Lucrezia Borgia. Edgardo was a part to which he was well suited, and he was in strong voice in Melbourne, giving Edgardo’s music beauty and brawn. Still, the spotlight is naturally on Sutherland, and she does not disappoint. The significance of any loss of verbal clarity suffered since the 1959 Covent Garden outing is lessened by the increased confidence of the singing: an affecting Lucia in 1959, she was an engrossing one in 1965.

Also sampled are Sydney performances of Lucia di Lammermoor from later in the same year, represented by Elizabeth Harwood’s traversal of Lucia’s ‘Ardon gl’incensi,’ more fragile than the madness of Sutherland’s Lucia but no less spellbinding, and an unexpected but stirring account of Edgardo’s ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’ by Alberto Remedios, whose lauded Siegfried for Sadler’s Wells and superb Melbourne Tristan, both opposite Rita Hunter, would eventually overshadow the tenor’s strong showings in Italian repertory.

In addition to Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti appeared in the 1965 season via performances of L’elisir d’amore with Harwood as Adina, Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino, Spiro Malas as Dulcamara, Robert Allman as Belcore, and Doris Yanick as Giannetta. No opera company in the world could engage a cast of this quality for L’elisir d’amore in 2018. Pavarotti brought unforced charm to Nemorino, not least in this production, staged when he inhabited the part with physicality that matched his vocal suitability for the music. Malas and Allman are sonorously effective in their parts, but Harwood’s Adina is a pure delight. The voice glistens throughout the range, and the character springs to life with humor and good-natured feminine cunning. What a pity that Harwood never had an opportunity to record Adina under studio conditions!

The 1965 Melbourne production of Gounod’s Faust united Sutherland’s Marguerite with the native Mississippian Alexander’s Faust, a portrayal also heard at the Metropolitan Opera, including on the auspicious occasion of the joint house débuts of Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes, later in 1965; Richard Cross’s saturnine Méphistophélès; Opthof’s Valentin; the underrated Margreta Elkins’s Siébel; and Raymond Collier’s Wagner. Alexander lacked the easy resonance in the upper register that Corelli had in spades in Sutherland’s studio recording of Faust but otherwise sang with greater stylistic fluency and vocal pliancy than his Italian counterpart. The technical demands of Marguerite’s music—trills, long phrasing, and security on high—were easy going for Sutherland, and she here soars in passages in which some sopranos sink. In these selections, Sutherland’s characterization of Marguerite is generic, but the music is sung with supreme assurance.

Soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND in a 2001 portrait by Richard Stone [Image © by the artist; used with permission]The essence of La Stupenda: soprano Dame Joan Sutherland in a 2001 portrait by Richard Stone
[Image © by Richard Stone; used with permission]

The Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season’s 1965 Sydney production of Bellini’s La sonnambula was the setting for one of Sutherland’s early collaborations with Luciano Pavarotti, then not yet thirty years old. Discovered by Sutherland and her husband and frequent conductor Richard Bonynge two years earlier, the young tenor from Modena was the rare colleague who could match Sutherland in height, stage presence, and tonal opulence. His Elvino complemented an awe-inducing cast that also included Harwood as Lisa, Lauris Elms as Teresa, Malas as Rodolfo, and Tom McDonnell as Alessio. That singers of Harwood’s and Elms’s caliber assayed rôles like Lisa and Teresa is indicative of the prestige of the company assembled for the 1965 season. As heard on this disc, Malas is a grumbling, uncomplicated Count, Pavarotti’s Elvino a golden-voiced swain with a quick temper. Sutherland’s Amina is a sweet-souled, abidingly rustic creature. The marvel of Maria Callas’s depiction of Amina was the sophistication that she found in the part, allying coloratura display with emotional complexity. There is little depth beyond basic sincerity to Sutherland’s Amina, but the music is sung with unrivaled brilliance.

Pavarotti and Opthof also appeared as Germonts fils and père opposite Sutherland’s Violetta in the 1965 Melbourne La traviata, with a supporting cast that included Malas, Clifford Grant, Morag Beaton, Joseph Ward, Monica Sinclair, and Ronald Maconaghie. Like Amina and Elvino in La sonnambula, Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata are rôles that Sutherland and Pavarotti recorded together in studio, but the excerpts from this Melbourne production preserve their partnership at its freshest, their voices produced with almost giddy effortlessness. Sutherland was subjected to much negative criticism of her diction, but Pavarotti rarely received the praise that he deserved for his crystalline enunciation. In his singing on this disc, Alfredo’s love for Violetta is potently conveyed by both words and music, handled with equal aplomb. Sharing the stage with an artistic equal galvanizes Sutherland: audiences could rely upon her Violetta being impeccably sung, but Melburnians were treated to a characterization as satisfying dramatically as vocally.

Still staged infrequently at the time of the Melbourne performances memorialized by this Désirée release, Rossini’s Semiramide is perhaps the opera that benefited most from Sutherland’s espousal. The daunting music for the eponymous queen, composed to emphasize the still-strong elements of the deteriorating voice of Isabella Colbran, who married Rossini less than a year before Semiramide’s première, held few terrors for La Stupenda, who returned to the score in Sydney as late as 1983. Sutherland sang the title rôle in all of the Melbourne performances in 1965, backed by Joseph Rouleau’s Assur, Maconaghie’s Oroe, and Grant’s Ombra di Nino. Sinclair and Elms alternated as Arsace, and André Montal and Joseph Ward shared duties as Idreno. [Elms and Grant also reprised their Melbourne rôles in the 1983 Australian Opera production.] The age of Rossini tenors of the ilk of Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Michele Angelini had not yet dawned, but it seems as though there were no embarrassments in Melbourne. Rouleau’s Assur is familiar from Sutherland’s studio recording of Semiramide and a recording of a Boston performance, and the vocal solidity heard in those performances was also at his command in Melbourne. Marilyn Horne may always be many listeners’ paragon for the performance of Arsace’s music, but Elms was an artist of comparable gifts and a worthy partner for Sutherland’s regal Semiramide. Whereas recent performances of Semiramide have inspired barrages of squabbling about the quality of the singing, it is difficult to imagine the singing in these selections provoking any reaction but universal acclamation.

The Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season also gave audiences down under then-rare opportunities to hear Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, staged with Allman as Onegin, Joy Mammen as Tatyana, Alexander as Lensky, and Elms as Olga—a cast comparable to the best ensembles heard at the Bolshoi, Covent Garden, or the MET. In addition to singing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, the Melbourne-born Mammen alternated with Sutherland and Harwood as Violetta and Adina. Her portrayal of Tatyana exhibits the technical stability that she continues to share with today’s singers. Heard both at Lincoln Center and in a MET tour performance in Boston, Alexander’s Lensky was an aptly poetic depiction, delivered in Australia with boyish vitality. Any Tchaikovsky aficionado might dream of hearing a singer of Elms’s calibre as Olga, and the same can be said of Allman, who brandished a voice that recalled Giuseppe Taddei’s instrument. In the character’s music on this disc, Allman’s Onegin is a virile but diffident man, evinced with powerful vocalism.

A beloved component of Dame Nellie Melba’s carefully-cultivated farewell performances was her singing of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ the song by composer Sir Henry Bishop and librettist John Howard Payne that Donizetti famously—criminally, according to Bishop—used in the Anna Bolena mad scene. Sutherland often paid tribute to her predecessor by singing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in her own recitals and concerts. A Melbourne performance of the song, recorded on 14 August 1965, makes a fitting finale to Désirée’s memento of the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1965. In a sense, it is a memorial to a bygone era, as much an exercise in nostalgia as an example of the singer’s artistry. Perhaps there will always be operas and singers who perform them, but Dame Joan Sutherland was a gift to the art form that can never be replicated.

Soprano NANCE GRANT as Ortrud in Victoria State Opera's 1985 - 1986 production of Richard Wagner's LOHENGRIN [Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]Bringing Bayreuth to Melbourne: soprano Nance Grant as Ortrud in Victoria State Opera’s 1985 production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin
[Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]

Anyone who has not heard the 1981 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert performance of Die Walküre in which Nance Grant’s Sieglinde was rescued first from Donald Shanks’s Hunding by Robert Gard’s Siegmund and then from the political wrangling of Raymond Myers’s Wotan and Lauris Elms’s Fricka by Rita Hunter’s Brünnhilde is sadly ignorant of a performance that could teach many fellow Wagnerians much about the elusive art of singing Wagner’s music beautifully and characterfully. An exceptionally versatile singer whose repertoire extended from Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, rè di Creta to rôles in contemporary works, Grant possessed a voice worthy of being heard in the world’s most exalted opera houses and concert halls. Rightly lauded in the land of her birth, Grant inexplicably does not share Sutherland’s familiarity abroad. Castles-Onion’s meticulous curation of Désirée’s wide-ranging survey of this marvelous soprano’s career is therefore particularly valuable.

At first glance, the most striking facet of Grant’s bejeweled artistry as this release celebrates it is the incredibly broad array of musical styles that populated her repertoire. From the Eighteenth Century, there are pieces from Gluck’s La corona and Orfeo ed Euridice and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte, all capably if not always authoritatively sung. Moving into the Nineteenth Century, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio is a rôle in which Grant excelled: the tempestuous ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ might have been composed to suit her abilities, and the nobility of the character was ably served by the singer’s balance of gusto and grace. Finding music from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor among these treasures of Grant’s career is surprising, but the determination with which the soprano sings is customary.

A sample of Grant’s Marguerite in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust returns to more predictable repertory. In the Verdi canon, excursions into the dramatic worlds of Simon Boccanegra and Aida disclose Grant’s affinity for interpreting the Italian composer’s heroines, but the excerpt from La traviata is revelatory. Similarly enlightening are numbers from Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I quattro rusteghi, vastly different pieces that Grant sings with unwavering commitment to stylistic verisimilitude. Similarly unique is the selection from Rossini’s devout but overtly operatic Stabat Mater, sung with utter conviction and gleaming tone. Assessed in the context of these performances, Grant clearly was an artist for whom partial efforts were unacceptable. When she approached new music, her commitment was absolute, the results of which are audible in every selection on these discs.

Grant had a natural affinity for the operas of Richard Wagner, in which she encountered characters with whom she sympathized, musically and temperamentally. This Désirée release introduces the listener to her resigned but resilient Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, her radiant Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and her resolute, resplendently maternal Sieglinde in Die Walküre, music from all three rôles voiced with assurance and spot-on dramatic instincts. Her portrayal of Ortrud in Lohengrin was one of the greatest successes of her career, and hearing her ethereally intone Elsa’s name suggests how entrancing she must have been in the rôle in the theatre. The Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier could hardly be more different, but Grant lends her pathos without ever being pathetic, achieving precisely the balance between heartbreak and self-awareness that enables the listener to feel the struggle between the character’s dignity and desperation.

Alongside such cerebral scenes, the once-popular number ‘My Hero’ from Oscar Straus’s Chocolate Soldier is unusual fare for this musical feast, but Grant’s singing makes it a delectable interlude. Desirable, too, is the music from Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue, sung with impressive comprehension of the composer’s singular musical language. The three minutes in which Grant is heard as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites constitute a captivating character portrait in miniature. The unexaggerated expressivity of her operatic portrayals is convincingly adapted to the smaller dimensions of the Art Songs included here. The singer’s intelligence and interpretive insightfulness are ever apparent, but it is the voice that ultimately prompts contemplation of how knowledge of the work of such an artist can for so long have been confined to privileged connoisseurs. With this release, Grant débuts anew on the international stage, and how fantastic she sounds!

Baritone ROBERT ALLMAN as Iago in The Australian Opera's 1984 production of Giuseppe Verdi's OTELLO [Photograph © by Opera Australia]The complexities of malice: baritone Robert Allman as Iago in The Australian Opera’s 1984 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello
[Photograph © by Opera Australia]

The paucity of voices endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for success in singing Verdi repertory has been one of the most lamentable realities in opera in the first eighteen years of the Twenty-First Century. It has become clichéd to state that this or that singer of a previous generation, perhaps under-appreciated during his career or largely forgotten since his retirement, would be widely celebrated were he singing now, alongside today’s lackluster colleagues, but earnest Verdians long to hear baritones like Cesare Bardelli, Franco Bordoni, and Lorenzo Saccomani, singers whose fine performances of Verdi rôles were overshadowed by the work of better-known singers. The Désirée Records released devoted to the singing of Melbourne-born baritone Robert Allman (1927 – 2013) documents the enviable career of a true gentleman who was arguably Australia’s foremost Twentieth-Century Verdi baritone.

Allman sang the small rôle of Monsieur Javelinot in the 1958 British première of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, opposite fellow Australians Sutherland and Sylvia Fisher. By that time, his Covent Garden credentials included performances as Donner in Das Rheingold with Sutherland and Rosina Raisbeck, Monterone in Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi as the jester, the herald in Verdi’s Otello, and Escamillo in Carmen. Another of Allman’s London rôles was the Greek captain in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. More than a quarter-century later, he returned to Les Troyens in Melbourne, singing Chorèbe to the Cassandre of Margreta Elkins. Though sung in English, the excerpt from Allman’s performance included by Désirée imparts the distinctive Gallic ethos of the music. Further evincing the baritone’s incredible stylistic flexibility, very early recordings of music from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, complemented by endearing mementos from Allman’s 1997 farewell gala and disarmingly sincere performances of Katie Moss’s ‘The Floral Dance’ and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord,’ deepen awareness of the subtleties of the singer’s artistry.

Selections from Der fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Götterdämmerung, and Parsifal divulge that Allman was no less enthralling in Wagner rôles than in Verdi parts. His Holländer and Amfortas are tormented by weariness of body and psyche, his Gunther exudes the uncertainty of a powerful man whose control of his empire is crumbling, and his enigmatic Telramund and reverent Wolfram reaffirm that, when sung with uncompromising musicality and proper technique, there is considerably more beauty in Wagner’s music than many performances suggest. Allman’s preeminence in German repertory also encompassed Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and, as heard in the excerpts tendered by Désirée, his Jochanaan and Orest would be boons to any production of these operas, in any language. In all of the music on these discs, Allman phrases with a poet’s attention to the sounds and meanings of words. Nothing is over-accentuated, but nothing is ignored.

Schaunard in Puccini’s La bohème was another rôle for which Allman was applauded at Covent Garden, where his Musetta was fellow Victorian Marie Collier. Via this release, his interpretations of Scarpia in Tosca, Michele in Il tabarro, and Gianni Schicchi can be appraised. The menace that a successful Scarpia must exert is unmistakable in Allman’s depiction, but there are also indications of a gnawing vulnerability: this is a Scarpia whose cruelty emerges from an unfillable void. Similarly, a vein of humanity enriches the blood of Allman’s Michele, who proves that the most dangerous hatred is born only of the most intense love. Allman was perhaps not the most natural comedian, and his is an uncaricatured Gianni Schicchi—and is all the better for it. Prospective interpreters of the part could learn from Allman’s example that comedy and stupidity are neither identical nor interchangeable commodities. A related lesson can be gleaned from the baritone’s singing in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. His Tonio commits monstrosities but is not the snarling, grunting monster portrayed by many singers. His villainy is no less triggered by unrequited love than is Canio’s violence. Not even legendary recordings by Carlo Galeffi, Gino Bechi, and Giuseppe Taddei are superior to Allman’s account of ‘Nemico della patria’ from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, for which his emulsion of passion, patrician sensibilities, and resonant, beautiful tone was ideal.

As an exponent of Verdi’s baritone rôles, Allman’s only Australian rivals were Raymond Myers and John Shaw, both gifted singers who shared their countryman’s suitability for this repertory. Myers and Shaw often portrayed these characters as tough, irascible scions of their social strata, but Allman projected greater individuality, emphasizing personal rather than universal emotions. The drama that he brings to the excerpt from I masnadieri is siphoned from the score, the structure of the music used as a template for creating vocal imagery. There is venom in Allman’s Macbeth, but his fangs, sharpened by his wife’s deadly ambition, are bared with reluctance. His Rigoletto is akin to Giuseppe de Luca’s admired portrayal, defined as much by finesse as by raw force: the man’s shame, boundless love, and fury burst from only a few minutes of music. The decorum of both the Conte di Luna in Il trovatore and Giorgio Germont in La traviata is communicated in singing of consummate musicality and dramatic integrity. In Allman’s performances, the fathers in Simon Boccanegra and Aida, the former conciliatory and the latter vengeful, share a core of bronzed vocalism that makes Simone’s probity profoundly moving and Amonasro’s rage chilling. Allman’s Iago in Otello is grippingly mercurial: his nefarious plans come to fruition with the added peril of being handsomely sung.

As deserving of praise as the breadth of Allman’s repertory is the fact that the consistency of his singing throughout the four decades explored by this Désirée release is inviolable. The voice aged, of course, and the technique metamorphosed accordingly, but the essence of his artistry was unchanging. Perhaps Allman’s most important legacy to subsequent generations of singers is his embodiment, of which this Désirée release is a testament, of the premise that the health of a voice is maintained by singing only what and how it is meant to sing.

Soprano JUNE BRONHILL (center) in the title rôle of Victoria State Opera's 1976 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]Queen of the stage: soprano June Bronhill (center) in the title rôle of Victoria State Opera’s 1976 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]

To the company of a trio of Joans—Hammond, Sutherland, and Carden—in the ranks of Australia’s foremost interpreters of bel canto repertory must be added a single June: the charismatic soprano June Bronhill (1929 – 2005). Now remembered by many music lovers principally for her sparkling portrayals of operetta heroines, not least in productions and recordings by London’s Sadler’s Wells, her deft characterizations of leading ladies of serious opera, epitomized by her singing of the title rôle in Victoria State Opera’s 1976 production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which she was antagonized by Nance Grant’s Elizabeth I, are not recalled with the respect that they deserve. For this sin of omission, Désirée’s release endeavors to make amends by spotlighting performances of music important to Bronhill’s artistic development but overlooked in most remembrances of her work.

Like many Australian artists of her generation, some of Bronhill’s earliest experiences in the often harrowingly combative world of professional Classical Music—and some of listeners’ earliest experiences of her singing—resulted from her participation in Mobil Quest, one of the world’s first widely-disseminated competitions for Classical singers. Bronhill was a finalist in the 1951 edition of Mobil Quest, in which the top prize was won by another coloratura soprano, Margaret Nisbett. This and other competition successes put her on the path to stardom in and beyond Australia, facilitating her studies and early appearances in the UK.

The variety of music chosen by Castles-Onion to retrace the progress of her career is mesmerizing. From early Mobil Quest appearances to comic parts and triumphs in rôles from the standard repertory, the musical odyssey on these discs leads to destinations as relatively remote as Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, for the heroine in which Bronhill’s voice might have been specially tailored. Considering her comfort with Eighteenth-Century vocal writing, it is regrettable that, subject to the availability of archival recordings, Mozart figures in this study of Bronhill solely in music from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which she notably sang Blonde to Joan Carden’s Konstanze in 1977. Almost any of the pre-da Ponte operas might have been revived for her, and she could have been a near-perfect Ilia when Sutherland sang Elettra in Idomeneo in Sydney in 1979. [Further evidence of her Mozartean credentials is the warm reception her singing in Le nozze di Figaro at Sadler’s Wells garnered from the British press.]

Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale was another part for which Bronhill’s gifts qualified her, and the music presented by Désirée is sung with the timing of a conscientious comic actress. Her timbre and vocal amplitude reminiscent of Mercedes Capsir, Bronhill is a light, bright-toned Lucia di Lammermoor, a rare exemplar of the girlish guilelessness that Miss Lucy should manifest. The Melbourne Maria Stuarda was a pinnacle in Bronhill’s singing of serious rôles, and the excerpts on this release permit the listener to make the acquaintance of the soprano’s delicate but spirited Mary Stuart, little like contemporaneous portrayals by Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé but a riveting realization of Donizetti’s—and, in its verbal boldness, Schiller’s—heroine.

Though very different musically and dramatically, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Lady Harriet in Flotow’s Martha, and Massenet’s Manon were parts in which Bronhill’s vocal splendor shone, and the music from these scores that she sings on this release opens a portal into a niche in her repertory that few of her admirers outside of England and Australia witnessed. The luminosity of the soprano’s singing of pieces for Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s Gilda, Violetta, and Oscar in Un ballo in maschera is expected, but the adroitness with which she made music from Puccini’s La bohème and La rondine work on her own terms dazzles. Equally astounding are her performances of selections from Menotti’s The Telephone and The Saint of Bleecker Street: here, too, she stakes her own unique claim to the music. Poaching ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ from Porgy and Bess is a trick that she brought off with aplomb, sounding wholly in her element in Gershwin’s jazz-influenced idiom. Another musical theatre piece, Ron Grainer’s and Ronald Millar’s Robert and Elizabeth, occupied a prominent place in Bronhill’s repertory, and gratitude is owed to Désirée Records for championing music from Robert and Elizabeth and numbers from Romberg’s The New Moon and Ivor Novello’s King’s Rhapsody, all sung with unflappable glamour.

Eurydice and Gabrielle in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers and La vie parisienne were rôles in which Bronhill was particularly admired, and her performances of music from these scores are the foundation of Désirée Records’ audit of her career. There is abundant humor in her singing of Offenbach’s frothy melodies, but what lingers in the memory is the generosity of spirit that permeates her characterizations. This is also true of her traversals of music from the Gilbert and Sullivan gems Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, and The Mikado. Few singers of any nationality have brought greater enchantment to Iolanthe’s Phyllis than Bronhill conjures on this disc. Likewise, her singing of pieces from Lehár’s Merry Widow and Das Land des Lächelns is bewitching, proving that these scores are as divertingly picturesque when staged by the Georges and the Thames as when played along the banks of the Danube. This serves as a germane metaphor for the careers of all of the Australian artists heard on Désirée Records’ releases, subsequent titles having given more singers the attention they deserve: products of one of earth’s most dynamic nations, the allure of these voices is universal.

Widely known on other continents only in the contexts of a handful of world-famous exports, the musical heritage of Australia is as rich and varied as the country’s geography. Also like the continent’s sparsely-populated interior, where hidden wonders await adventurous visitors like the mammoth crocodiles that lurk in the nation’s waterways, Australia’s musical history contains many delicacies perhaps tasted but never fully savored by international audiences. Désirée Records’ ongoing dedication to fondly and analytically honoring and sharing these extraordinary singers’ lives and careers indeed advances Australia fair.

30 April 2018

April 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Jessica Krash — PAST MADE PRESENT (Albany Records, TROY1716)

April 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Jessica Krash - PAST MADE PRESENT (Albany Records TROY1716)JESSICA KRASH: Past Made Present: Music of Jessica KrashEmily Noël, soprano; Ian Swensen, violin; Robert DiLutis, clarinet; Tanya Anisimova, cello; Laura Kaufman, flute; Jessica Krash, piano; Members of the Washington Master Chorale; Thomas Colohan, conductor [Albany Records TROY1716; 1 CD, 73:31; Available from Albany Records, Amazon (USA), iTunes, and major music retailers]

As important to the continued viability of Classical Music as memorable performances by accomplished performers is the emergence of original, compelling compositional voices that communicate the modern world’s complex emotional conundrums in musical language that challenges, comforts, and uplifts. The legacies of previous generations of composers, bolstered by works of timeless, universal relevance, are sufficient to preserve the prestige of genre’s illustrious history, but its future cannot be secured solely by memories. In the words of the English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, ‘music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is,’ and the world in this second decade of the Twenty-First Century direly needs gestures of friendship. There is no surer path to friendship than mutual understanding, understanding of the kind that can be found in—and learned from—Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and, above all, it is a quest for compassionate awareness that permeates the music of American composer Jessica Krash. With Past Made Present, Albany Records’ commitment to providing this superbly unique composer with an avenue into the public conscience is furthered with recordings of music that both manifests and encourages accord achieved through self-examination.

The pieces on Past Made Present speak with a creative voice that is at once wonderfully original and gratifyingly familiar. All of the music on this disc reveals an extraordinary gift for part writing on an intimate scale that rivals the work of masters of the Tudor courts of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, allied with an innate ability to craft melodic lines that grasp and retain the listener’s attention. Like the music of Brahms, Krash’s works disclose a command of form that enables inventiveness. Also like Brahms’s best works, especially his chamber music, and Anton Bruckner’s remarkable F-major String Quartet, the music on Past Made Present is shaped by a bipartite, almost ambiguous sensibility that juxtaposes an abiding aura of disquiet with haunting purity of vision. The profound and the profane coexist, agreeing to disagree, struggling for domination but held in an uneasy—and truthfully human—equilibrium by musical discourse that refuses to take sides. This is music that advocates no ‘right’ point of view: rather, the sophisticated but appealing harmonic language invites the listener into exchanges that nurture contemplation. Here, there are no prerequisites. Krash’s music asks the listener to focus not only on how it resounds in the ears but also on how it reverberates in the heart.

Expertly sung on this disc by twelve voices from Washington Master Chorale under the direction of Thomas Colohan, Young Vilna is Krash’s harrowing, healing, and heartfelt act of grappling via music with the legacy of the Holocaust among the Jewish communities of her grandfather’s native Lithuania. With a text drawn from youngsters’ questions addressed to Ellen Cassedy, author of the seminal cultural study We Are Here, during her own time of study and self-enrichment in Lithuania, Young Vilna unites words of timely poignance with music that often seems to pursue thoughts beyond words’ abilities to fully embody emotions. Tenor soloist Eric Lewis emerges from instead of seeking to sing over the chorus, and the delicate fervor of his and his colleagues’ singing is equaled by the ideally-balanced playing of violinist Ian Swensen, clarinetist Robert DiLutis, and cellist Tanya Anisimova.

The insightfulness of the composer’s use of text emphasizes the ambivalence of the line ‘Today’s young people live in the present,’ suggesting undertones of denial, accusation, and self-doubt beyond the façade of disengagement. The emotional weight of ‘Maybe I would have been a killer. Would I have been different?’ is intensified by the lightness of Krash’s setting: this is a sentiment to be whispered, the possible responses too momentous for public discussion. The repetition of ‘Are Jews genetically geniuses?’ imparts a subtle crisis of identity, heightened in this performance by the unpretentious immediacy of the choristers’ singing. The ambivalence of Krash’s treatment of the question ‘Do you feel at home?’ recalls the final moments of Britten’s Death in Venice, its protagonist suspended between life and death and wholly at peace in neither state. Reconciliation, resignation, and recrimination echo in Krash’s music, pulsing in the subdued passion of this performance.

Krash found both inspiration and texts for the song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs in Mary Maxwell’s wonderfully singable translations of verses written by Sulpicia, a too-little-studied Roman poet and scholar believed to have been active during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Chauvinistic elements in academia persist in questioning the authorship of the handful of poems attributed to Sulpicia, alleging that the complexities of their language and themes place them beyond the capabilities of even the best-educated women of First-Century Rome. As is true of the collection of sonnets written by someone who may or may not have been christened with the name William Shakespeare, questions about the true identity of the author of Sulpicia’s poems in no way lessen their literary and historical value. What cannot be doubted is that an indelible aspect of an artist’s rôle in society is to see, sense, and surmise beyond the limitations of her time and place. That debate continues about whether, as a Roman woman of the First Century, Sulpicia could have written these poems is indicative of insecurities and prejudices that have nothing to do with art.

Accompanied by the composer, soprano Emily Noël gives new life to Sulpicia’s words, catapulted into the Twenty-First Century in settings via which Krash spotlights the often uncanny modernity of the poet’s conceits. In the opening song, ‘At last it’s come,’ Noël’s voice gleams with the enthusiasm of new discovery, and she contrasts this tellingly with the muted feeling with which she delivers the cunningly-crafted melodic lines of ‘The hated birthday approaches.’ The vocal writing in ‘Did you hear?’ is challenging in unexpected ways, demanding concentration that the soprano employs to perform the song with complementary control and cogency. Noël’s voice, a versatile and splendidly-trained instrument, is always diverting but is exquisitely beautiful in ‘I’m grateful,’ her flawless placement of tones throughout the range supported by enviable diction, and she subsequently sings ‘Fever’ with appropriate fervor and an infusion of vocal warmth. The spartan expressivity of ‘No longer care for me’ is forcefully imparted by Krash’s mercurial pianism and seconded by the singer’s forthright enunciations of notes and words. ‘For pleasure likes a little infamy; discretion is nothing but a tedious pose’ is one of the most delightful lines ever set to music by any composer, and Noël and Krash articulate these and all of the lines of ‘Let it be known!’ with impish humor and playful but polished musicality.

An enchanting pas de deux for flute and piano, Turns of Phrase here proves to be a perfect scene-changing interlude between Krash’s song cycles. Flautist Laura Kaufman joins the composer in a performance of the piece that sonorously explores all of the music’s eponymous turns of phrase. The music’s textures are fabricated from artful uses of the interplay between the instruments, hearkening back to Bach’s writing for flute in his BWV 1030 - 1032 Sonatas. As in all of the music on Past Made Present, though, Krash’s idiom is entirely distinctive, learning lessons from the past but applying that knowledge to the development of her own musical vocabulary. At the keyboard in this performance of Turns of Phrase, she and Kaufman intertwine thematic material with the skill of dexterous weavers. So eloquent are Kaufman’s tones that, in this traversal, Turns of Phrase is virtually another song cycle.

More than a millennium closer than Sulpicia in temporal proximity to today’s listeners, the minstrel Martin Codax benefits little in increased familiarity from those centuries. Almost every assertion about his work is punctuated by parenthetical question marks. Indeed, dating Codax’s life and work to the middle of the Thirteenth Century stems from the chronology of the contributions to the cantigas d’amigo in the Pergaminho Vindel commonly attributed to him, verses that uniformly adhere to the strictest form of these refined ballads. Utilizing Daniel Newman’s translations from the original medieval Galician, Krash rekindles the perspicacity of her Sulpicia settings with The Cantigas de amigo of Martin Codax, again navigating the courses of the texts’ physical and psychological landscapes with a seemingly inexhaustible flow of apt musical imagery.

From her first notes in ‘Ondas do mar de Vigo,’ it is apparent that Noël is as authoritative an interpreter of Krash’s Codax songs as of Sulpicia’s Songs, and she and the composer collaborate on a reading of the song that is as much a performance of chamber music as an interaction between singer and accompanist. The lulling motion of the sea cascades from Krash’s fingers, buoying Noël’s shimmering singing. The singer portrays the transition from ‘Mandad’ei comigo’ to the related but very different ‘Mia irmana fremosa’ as a significant change of mood, enhancing the shift in perspective with a broad spectrum of vocal colors. Noël’s and Krash’s phrasing seizes the meandering momentum of ‘Ai Deus, se sab’ora meu’ and ‘Quantas sabedes amare amigo,’ creating in each song an individual microcosm that is also an episode within the cycle’s narrative. Like the dénouement and deus ex machina of Greek drama, ‘Eno sagrado en Vigo’ and ‘Ai ondas que en vin veere’ escalate and resolve the music’s internal struggles, employing the words as catalysts for the music’s ultimate evolution. The energy of Noël’s singing and Krash’s playing electrifies the music, their camaraderie emitting a charge that crackles across the songs’ difficult vocal and sentimental intervals. Melodic distinction, niceties of harmony, verbal clarity, and ingenuity are important gauges of a composer’s proficiency as a creator of Art Songs, but the foremost test of songs’ merit is in how they respond not to study but to singing. In Noël’s performances, Krash’s songs are confirmed to be works of wit and innovation—and, most endearingly, exceptionally good music.

It is fitting that the final piece on Past Made Present should be Delphi — What the Oracle Said, an affectionate reminiscence for solo cello of an adolescent visit to Greece. Like a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela for modern Catholics, a visit to Delphi was for denizens of ancient Hellenistic societies both an end, the culmination of an arduous journey, and a beginning, the start of a spiritual voyage guided by the oracle’s wisdom—a dichotomy shared by Krash’s music. In Anisimova’s hands, the timbre of the cello is the voice of a primordial force that has not yet conquered worded speech, a siren call that needs no verbalization to be understood. Anisimova’s virtuosity encompasses not only the technical wherewithal to play Krash’s music with confidence but also the artistry to deliver this musical monologue with an actor’s theatricality. With this music, the oracle speaks of the continuity resilience and renewal, qualities that define the cellist’s playing.

Prominent among music’s marvels is the power to access regions of the psyche that hide their secrets from ordinary modes of communication. Music can reclaim memories from oblivion and reignite dormant feelings, but it, too, must be reclaimed and reignited in order to survive the indifference of societies too frenetically-paced to stop and listen. Classical Music can never tame the din of modern life, so it must harness it and make of the noises of living a symphony of survival. In the pieces on Past Made Present, Jessica Krash transforms the bittersweet sounds of looking back and forging ahead into music that makes sincerity audible.

25 April 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — MASS (K. Vortmann; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Y. Nézet-Séguin; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - MASS (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and DancersKevin Vortmann (Celebrant); Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James (sopranos); Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, Pearl Sun (mezzo-sopranos); E. Clayton Cornelious, Devin Illaw, Benjamin Krumreig, J.D. Webster (tenors); Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, Nathaniel Stampley (baritones); Zachary James (bass); Douglas Butler, Daniel Voigt (boy sopranos); Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; The Rock School for Dance Education; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; Student Musicians from the School District of Philadelphia; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 30 April – 3 May 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009; 2 CDs, 107:45; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In his Mémoires, passages in which make Mein Kampf seem like a paragon of humility by comparison, Hector Berlioz wrote that he ‘came into the world quite naturally, unheralded by any of the signs which, in poetic ages, preceded the advent of remarkable personages.’ Perhaps Jennie and Samuel Bernstein were similarly unaware of the artistic significance of the event when they welcomed their son Louis to the world on 25 August 1918. Like Berlioz’s 1803 début, though, the birth of the boy who would become Leonard Bernstein was an auspicious occasion in the history of music. In this year of celebration of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth, the prominent rôle played in the evolution of American music in the Twentieth Century by this son of Ukrainian immigrants is rightly being reassessed from new and perspectives, balancing appreciation of the sometimes flamboyant fervor of his conducting with fresh analyses of the contemplative brilliance of his work as a composer. From his still-potent Broadway scores to symphonic pieces that, like the music of fellow baton-wielding composers such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Paul Kletzki, largely have not entered the international repertory, Bernstein bequeathed to contemporary Classical Music a body of work in which virtually every facet of his musical personality is reflected.

Not even Bernstein’s least-heralded works are unknown, but, aside from West Side Story, not even his best-known and best-crafted works—the fantastic Candide, for instance—are as widely heralded as they deserve to be. This is especially true of his Mass, a pièce d’occasion of quality that should have triumphantly outlived its occasion but has received greater appreciation in print than in performance. Recorded during performances in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts with emotional immediacy that is all but impossible to achieve in recording studios [recording this atmospheric work under studio conditions would surely have yielded sonics of markedly improved balance and clarity, which might have increased the performance’s potency for repeated hearings], this Deutsche Grammophon Mass honors the score’s creator with an interpretation that shirks none of the piece’s difficulties and controversies. A product of the social and artistic contexts of a tumultuous period in America’s history, Mass was when new and can still sound radical when performed without complacency. Responses to every stimulus not found in Bernstein’s score ignored, this is a Mass that throbs with the true spirit of its composer.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and first performed on 8 September 1971, in conjunction with the inauguration of the Center for the Performing Arts built in Washington, DC, to honor her slain husband’s cultural legacy, Bernstein’s Mass is a work that is as complex and multi-layered as the composer himself. Like Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Bernstein’s Mass is an indictment of the inherent hypocrisy of the modern era. Manifested in Mahagonny in the substitution of a hedonistic cult of consumption for conventional morality, the duplicity is portrayed in Bernstein’s Mass as a spiritual crisis via which the national conscience is dissected and found to be fallible but resilient.

Bernstein devised Mass as a ‘theater piece’ rather than a straightforward musical treatment of the Ordinarium of the Mass, and the work’s theatricality is especially apparent in the performance preserved on these discs. Bernstein scored the piece for an exceptional ensemble of diverse musical forces, and a particular joy of this recording is hearing the young musicians of the Temple University Concert Choir and Diamond Marching Band and students from the School District of Philadelphia performing with abundant energy, musicality, and enthusiasm. The composer’s writing for voices and instruments not typically employed in formulaic Mass settings, an integral element of his concept, met with critical skepticism when the work was premièred, but the brilliance with which these parts are executed in this performance validates the sagacity of Bernstein’s vision.

The easy virtuosity brought to the music by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the young men of The American Boychoir, whose training academy is among the most lamentable victims of the new millennium’s financial calamities, reveals the extraordinary vitality of the composer’s ingenuity. The Philadelphia musicians, professional and amateur, manage the transitions among idioms—operatic in the manner of Candide and the flawed but engaging A Quiet Place [a new recording of which, featuring an excellent cast and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the direction of Kent Nagano, is scheduled for release by DECCA in June 2018], symphonic in the mode of his homages to Beethoven and Mahler, and Broadway-esque, reminiscent of West Side Story—with keen awareness of both the individual implications of each stylistic component and how each part fits into the whole. A performance of Mass cannot survive haphazard musicianship: this performance thrives on its participants’ consistent, consistently incisive musicality. Every woman, boy, and man involved with this recording audibly approaches the music with unique points of view, but a particular success of this performance is that it is emphatically Bernstein’s Mass and no one else’s.

With vocal lines inhabiting many of the stylistic worlds explored by Bernstein during his career, the solo singers in Mass face unenviable challenges of range, diction, and versatility. The effectiveness of a performance of this music cannot be assessed solely using the criteria of accurate pitches and rhythms, not least because an aura of improvisational spontaneity is crucial to the realization of Bernstein’s musical and expressive intentions. The singers assembled for this performance of Mass constitute an ensemble of great variety and vitality, and their work engenders a reading of the score in which the equilibrium between words and music, meticulously cultivated by Bernstein, is maintained with unfaltering scrutiny of the dramatic significance of each phrase.

The mostly well-matched singers—boy sopranos Douglas Butler and Daniel Voigt; sopranos Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James, and Meredith Lustig; mezzo-sopranos Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, and Pearl Sun; tenors E. Clayton Cornelius, Devin Ilaw, Benjamin Krumreig, and J. D. Webster; baritones Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, and Nathaniel Stampley; and bass Zachary James—are wholly credible as participants in a spiritual probe driven by a musical explication of traditional liturgy. The integration of disparate idioms is accomplished with laudable fluency, lending the traversal of the score the continuity and fluidity that it needs to truly lure the listener into the soul of the music—and, through the music, into the soul of America. That this is difficult music is obvious, but the vocalism provided by these talented, dedicated artists enables the listener to joyfully and truthfully echo the words of Walt Whitman: in their performance, one hears America singing.

The performance of Seattle-based tenor Kevin Vortmann as Mass’s celebrant is nothing short of a tour de force. With only a few notes at the lower end of the compass disclosing weakness, the singer exhibits vocal qualifications diligently adapted to the music—music that requires a blend of a good opera singer’s security throughout the range, an accomplished Lieder singer’s communicative acuity, and the charisma of a leading man of the Great White Way. Vortmann brings to the Celebrant’s music a timbre reminiscent of that of John Aler and a vibrancy that recalls the best performances of Mandy Patinkin. His approach to the part is wholly his own, however, mimicking neither the inimitable creator of the rôle, Alan Titus, nor any subsequent Celebrant. Vortmann elucidates textual subtleties not by exaggerating his diction but by remaining sensitive to the ways in which Bernstein employed words to propel vocal lines.

The depth of Vortmann’s comprehension of the composer’s musical architecture is evident in every phrase of his performance, beginning with an account of ‘A Simple Song’ that is both exciting and moving and continuing with a forceful Epiphany. In the Fraction sequence launched by ‘Things Get Broken,’ Vortmann intones ‘Pacem! Pacem!’ with the angst of a soul torn by violence and injustice, and the Allegro furioso statement of ‘Why are you waiting?’ explodes with doubt and sudden rage. Vortmann makes ‘God...said...’ and ‘Oh, I suddenly feel ev’ry step I’ve ever taken’ wrenchingly personal, delving into the sinister dimensions of dogmatism with terrifying honesty. In an instant, the listener also feels every step of the Celebrant’s voyage, Vortmann’s delivery imparting the catharsis of self-awareness. The Celebrant’s metamorphosis from instrument of ritual to self-sufficient Everyman is wrought with unerring histrionic instincts: the liberation of a symbolic scion of modern society from the drudgery of self-delusion is palpable. An amalgamation of the Evangelists in Bach’s Passions, the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Britten’s Albert Herring, and Bernstein’s own Candide, the Celebrant receives from Vortmann a mesmerizingly complex, cogent characterization.

Having recently conducted performances of Wagner’s Parsifal and Richard Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera, that company’s Music Director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin has vast experience with music sometimes cited as troublesome by fellow musicians and listeners. Performances and recordings have revealed him to be a masterful conductor of a broad repertoire including music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, and the too-little-appreciated Florent Schmitt, manifesting a far-reaching but not pedantic intelligence. His handling of Bernstein’s music in this performance of Mass, ebulliently youthful and galvanized by the impatience with the musical establishment that erupts from every page of the score, illuminates a close artistic kinship between composer and conductor. Executing the instructions provided in the music is something of which any competent conductor should be capable, but Nézet-Séguin shapes this performance of Mass with the sort of comprehensive mastery that Britten disclosed in his conducting of Schumann’s unwieldy Szenen aus Goethes Faust. Under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, the idiosyncrasies of the music that perplexed and displeased critics in 1971 sound inherently right: rather than missteps to be corrected, they are innovations to be celebrated.

Mass’s peculiar but engrossingly episodic structure, not wholly unlike Act Two of Parsifal, becomes an impactful linear narrative in this performance, the momentum of the Celebrant’s storytelling energized by Nézet-Séguin’s urgent but unhurried pacing. The conductor’s comfort with music from many eras is particularly advantageous in Mass’s pair of Meditations, here impressive as finely-crafted pieces with their own merits rather than forgettable as affectionate but decorative pastiches. In a work like Mass, it can be argued that, to transplant Thomas Jefferson’s observation from the halls of civic power to the concert hall, the conductor is best who conducts least—or, more to the point, least imposes his conducting upon the music. In the context of these DGG discs, it could almost be believed that, this group of musicians having assembled in Verizon Hall, a performance of Mass extemporaneously occurred like the proverbial hockey game that arises from an impromptu brawl at the ice rink. Its copious virtues notwithstanding, this is not music that scores hat tricks without adept coaching. Conducting with an exemplary fusion of zeal and perceptiveness, Nézet-Séguin unobtrusively coaches this team to unequivocal victory.

Perfection in Art is an imperfect thing. One pair of eyes gazes upon Pablo Picasso’s Guernica with the belief that the carnage would be more real to the viewer if striking colors gushed from the tableau. Other eyes study a kaleidoscopic work by Marc Chagall and wonder whether its message would be more forcefully conveyed by hues of grey. It is now fashionable to dismiss some of Bernstein’s works as dated, and there are indeed passages in Mass that are very much of the time of their creation. As the music is performed on these discs, Mass can no more be dismissed as a relic of the past than Guernica can be described as merely a well-known image. Still rousing after more than four decades, Bernstein’s own recording introduced Mass to the public beyond Kennedy Center’s walls. Overcoming technical limitations that mitigate its efficacy, this recording introduces Mass to a new generation of listeners with a performance that recreates the magic of the composer’s account on its own terms.