12 July 2018

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, K. 621 (R. Villazón, J. DiDonato, M. Rebeka, R. Mühlemann, T. Erraught, A. Plachetka; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, K. 621 (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): La clemenza di Tito, K. 621Rolando Villazón (Tito Vespasiano), Joyce DiDonato (Sesto), Marina Rebeka (Vitellia), Regula Mühlemann (Servilia), Tara Erraught (Annio), Adam Plachetka (Publio); RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded during concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 2017; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210; 2 CDs, 140:36; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

1791 was a remarkable year for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday in January, he produced three of his most enduring and influential compositions: the E♭-major String Quintet (K. 614), the Clarinet Concert (K. 622), and his opera Die Zauberflöte. In July, he and his wife welcomed the second of their children who would eventually reach adulthood, their son Franz Xaver Wolfgang. Sadly, the infant would need to survive only a few months in order to outlive his father. When Mozart died on 5 December 1791, the works dating from his final year, including the unfinished Requiem and the motet ‘Ave verum corpus,’ essentially became characters in a drama that grew ever more fantastical until the Mozart known to the musical denizens of Enlightenment Vienna was little more than a shadow in his own spectacle.

Until the second half of the Twentieth Century, a little-read chapter in the story of the last months of Mozart’s life recounted the genesis of La clemenza di Tito, an opera seria of the type that was a relic of earlier generations, though still a respected and in some circles, like that of which Mozart’s supporter Gottfried van Swieten was the center, beloved one. The death of the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II in February 1790 closed Vienna’s theatres whilst Mozart was at the zenith of his faculties, but the ascension of Joseph’s brother Leopold II to the throne made amends with an opportunity to write an opera to celebrate the new monarch’s coronation as King of Bohemia. The contract for arranging the composition and performance of the opera was granted to Prague impresario Domenico Guardasoni, whose invitation to participate in the project was declined by Antonio Salieri. The tremendous success of the inaugural production of Don Giovanni, staged in Prague in October 1787, made Mozart a viable candidate to substitute for Salieri, and, despite being immersed in the preparation of Die Zauberflöte, the younger composer accepted the offer and started his work—and how he worked! Less than two months separated Guardasoni’s receipt of the contract on 8 July and the world première of La clemenza di Tito in Prague’s Stavovské divadlo on 6 September.

Unlike many composers of his time, Mozart prized novelty in his writing for the stage, preferring to work with libretti prepared specially for him rather than perpetuating the tradition of using widely-traveled texts already employed by other composers. In this regard, La clemenza di Tito is an anomaly among Mozart’s mature operas, its libretto, an adaptation by Caterino Mazzolà of the work of the Eighteenth Century’s busiest librettist, Pietro Metastasio, having been previously set by nearly forty other composers including Antonio Caldara (1734), Christoph Willibald Gluck (1752). and Baldassare Galuppi (1759). For Prague, Mazzolà substantially streamlined and restructured the drama, reducing Metastasio’s three acts to two and eliminating many arias, only a few of which were replaced with new texts. In truth, the original goal of the commission was to serenade Leopold II with a wholly-new piece, but the writing of a fresh libretto would have left even less time for composition of the music. Nevertheless, the recycled tale of amorous intrigue, political upheaval, and royal magnanimity clearly inspired Mozart, who had fallen ill by the time that the opera reached the stage. His burden was lightened by the task of writing secco recitative being placed in other hands, but it is doubtful that, facing the pressure of such a deadline, the industrious Rossini or Donizetti could have crafted a score of the quality and significance of La clemenza di Tito under similar circumstances.

Expanding the cycle populated to date by recordings of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Mozart’s three operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte and to be joined in due course by a souvenir of this month’s Festspielhaus Baden-Baden concert performances of Die Zauberflöte, this Clemenza di Tito deepens Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s experience with the music of a composer in whose musical language he has demonstrated a notable fluency. It is hardly surprising that this young conductor, still only in his early forties, excels at leading performances of scores shaped by white-hot passions, but his fervent handling of the ‘formal’ style of La clemenza di Tito is tempered by commendable and period-appropriate restraint. The contrasts among fast and slow sections of arias are sometimes slightly exaggerated, but the opera’s emotional transitions benefit tremendously from the heightened sense of impending calamity that this engenders. On the whole, Nézet-Séguin’s tempi are both prudent and sensitive: the quickest passages are controlled, and slower music rarely languishes.

The conductor’s concerted efforts to keep the drama moving at a sensible, sustainable pace are supported by Jory Vinikour’s fortepiano continuo, played with technical and intellectual nimbleness, and expertly seconded in secco recitative by cellist William Conway. Likewise, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe musicians deliver performances that spur renewed admiration of Mozart’s skill as an orchestrator, not least in the brilliant—and, in this performance, brilliantly-played—Overture and the delightfully martial Maestoso Marcia in Act One. Some performances of La clemenza di Tito create the illusion that in this score Mozart’s creative genius took a step back from his achievements in the da Ponte operas and Die Zauberflöte, first performed in Vienna three weeks after Tito’s Prague première, but the performance incited by Nézet-Séguin corroborates the assertion that La clemenza di Tito is a by no means unworthy sibling of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte.

Mozart’s operatic choral writing reached its apotheosis in La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte. In these works, the choristers genuinely participate in the drama rather than merely commenting on it. As the populace of Tito’s Rome, patricians and plebeians, the expert RIAS Kammerchor singers perform Mozart’s music with a balance of zeal and precision that complements Nézet-Séguin’s approach to the score. In Act One, they deliver ‘Serbate, o Dei custodi della Romana sorte’ with credible avidity, their plea for divine protection propelled heavenward on a torrent of accurately-pitched, perfectly-blended tone. The tumultuous music of the Act One finale could hardly be more different, and the mettle of their singing makes the fear and panic of the scene palpable. ‘Ah, grazie si rendano al sommo fattor’ in Act Two returns to a reverential manner, and the ensemble’s performance adapts accordingly. They preface the opera’s finale with a heartfelt account of ‘Che del ciel, che degli Dei tu il pensier,’ and their singing intensifies the catharsis of the final scene. Like Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, RIAS Kammerchor’s singing further spotlights the ingenuity that Mozart expended in the composition of La clemenza di Tito.

It is unusual to hear a singer of Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka’s abilities as Publio, the commander of Tito’s Praetorian guards, but the power of his singing gives the character a stronger presence than he typically commands. In the first of his trios, the ensemble with Vitellia and Annio in Act One, Plachetka is a rare Publio who is always noticeable. This is also true in the quintet, in which the bass-baritone voices Publio’s lines sonorously and energetically. Trios in Act Two unite him first with Vitellia and Sesto and then with Sesto and Tito: Plachetka makes a robust impression in both settings. Between these trios comes Publio’s aria, ‘Tardi s’avvede d’un tradimento,’ sung here with secure tone and solid technique. Plachetka’s voice remains audible and attractive in the opera’s closing ensemble, and his Publio sets a high standard both for his colleagues and for the performance of this rôle.

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught characterizes the young Annio with keenly-honed histrionic instincts and vocal technique that maintains the requisite style without sacrificing the emotive spontaneity of her singing. In the beautiful Andante duet with Sesto in Act One, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso,’ Erraught voices Annio’s words with obvious understanding of their meaning, and, here and in the subsequent duet with Servilia, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ the mezzo-soprano imbues the rôle with significantly greater dramatic involvement than he wields in many performances. Like Plachetka’s Publio, Erraught’s Annio is engagingly conspicuous in both their trio with Vitellia and the momentous quintet that ends Act One.

The first of Annio’s arias in Act Two, the Allegretto ‘Torna di Tito a lato,’ is affectionately sung, but it is in the Andante aria ‘Tu fosti tradito’ that Erraught claims for herself a place alongside Brigitte Fassbaender and Frederica von Stade among the finest recorded interpreters of Annio. The appeal of her vocalism is consistent throughout the performance, but the parlous position in which Annio finds himself in ‘Tu fosti tradito,’ acknowledging that his friend Sesto’s deeds warrant a death sentence but entreating Tito to allow his deliberations to be guided by the mandates of his heart rather than the rule of law, inspirit Erraught’s depiction. In the opera’s finale, her Annio evinces the jubilation of having facilitated Sesto’s deliverance from an inglorious fate, and the magnetism of Erraught’s singing compels the listener to rejoice, as well.

In recent seasons, Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann has rapidly established herself as one of her generation’s preeminent Mozart singers. Heard as Barbarina in Nézet-Séguin’s recording of Le nozze di Figaro and donning Papagena’s musical plumage in his Die Zauberflöte, she portrays Servilia in this performance of La clemenza di Tito with unforced charm and secure, often radiant singing. She does not over-accentuate the top As in the Act One duet with Annio, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ instead emphasizing continuity of the musical line. She, too, utters her lines in the quintet with urgency and impeccable musicality. Mühlemann phrases Servilia’s Act Two aria in minuet time, ‘S’altro che lacrime per lui non tenti,’ liltingly, rising to a dulcet top A. Her tones gleam in the final scene, in which she resolves Servilia’s part in the drama with noteworthy comprehension of the intricacies of Mozart’s part writing.

That Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka’s repertoire has expanded in the past two years to include the title rôles in Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco and Luisa Miller is indicative of this artist’s musical intrepidity. It is also evidence of her technical fortitude. With Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, Mozart created a full-blooded sister for Elettra in Idomeneo, re di Creta and Die Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte—and, though he did not know it, a fantastic part for Marina Rebeka. Vitellia’s duet with Sesto in Act One, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ offers the soprano an opportunity to exhibit her talents, and she seizes it with alacrity, bringing mellifluous sounds to the Andante and projecting resonant top notes in the Allegro section. She quarries the rich lode of expressivity in the shift from Larghetto to Allegro in the aria ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi,’ executing the fiorature unflinchingly. Rebeka takes control of the trio with Annio and Publio with the authority of an emperor’s daughter, hurling out ‘Vengo! aspettate!’ with vehemence echoed by her effortless top B and thrilling launch to the infamous D6. As Vitellia’s plans spiral out of control in the final pages of Act One, Rebeka’s voice simmers with the heat of the flames that engulf the Campidoglio.

The Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio discloses a different dimension of Vitellia’s personality, and Rebeka voices her music with assurance. Words and notes erupt with the cataclysmic kinesis of Vesuvio in the accompagnato ‘Ecco il punto, o Vitellia,’ declaimed in this performance with Shakespearean perceptiveness. The plummets below the stave in the rondò aria ‘Non più di fiori vaghe catene’ are not easy going for Rebeka, but she shirks nothing, bravely traversing the two-octave interval to top A♭. As her quest for vengeance unravels and she confesses her treachery to the emperor, Vitellia leaves the world of Elettra and Die Königin der Nacht and enters the realm of Pamina, made worthy of mercy by tasting the bitter elixir of tragedy. The beauty of Rebeka’s singing makes this transformation especially apparent. Musically and dramatically, few singers manage to embody a character as completely as Rebeka animates Vitellia on this recording. Neither victim nor vixen, this Vitellia is merely, movingly human.

Among the many sparkling facets of Joyce DiDonato’s artistry, her singing of Mozart repertoire perhaps does not receive the attention that her performances of Baroque, bel canto, and contemporary music justifiably garner. This is an inexplicable injustice, as her depiction of Sesto in this recording of La clemenza di Tito is a performance of the sort of psychological depth and technical confidence that only a truly great singer can muster. In the past few seasons, the mezzo-soprano has sometimes discernibly worked harder to conjure the musical magic for which she is renowned, but her Sesto is a reminder of the wisdom of singers like Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, mistresses of other repertoire who insisted that periodically singing Mozart rôles is a soothing balm for the voice. Sesto’s music is daunting, but Mozart was too shrewd to write vocal lines that could not be sung.

After hearing DiDonato’s singing in the Act One Andante duet with Vitellia, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ doubting the veracity of Flagstad’s and Nilsson’s suggestion is unfathomable. Here and in the duet with Annio, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso,’ DiDonato’s vocalism is youthful, poised, and sincere: what artifice there is exists in the music. Weaving her voice into the colorful tapestry fabricated by Romain Guyot’s wonderful playing of the aria’s clarinet obbligato [his performance of the basset-horn obbligato in Vitellia’s rondò is equally superb], she delivers an astounding account of ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio,’ the crispness of her trills matched by the fluidity of her articulation of the triplet fiorature cresting on top B♭s in the fast-paced Allegro assai. Then, as Sesto wrests with his promise to slay Tito, she summons the potency of Greek tragedy in the accompagnato ‘O Dei! che smania è questa, che tumulto ho nel cor!’ The passage beginning with ‘Deh, conservate, o Dei, a Roma il suo splendor’ in the quintet is voiced with acute understanding of Sesto’s motivations and the conflicting loyalties that torment him.

Responding to Rebeka’s and Plachetka’s vocal sparks, DiDonato sings ‘Se al volto mai ti senti lieve aura che s’aggiri’ in the Act Two trio with Vitellia and Publio with imaginative nuance, followed by a subtle but steadfast reading of ‘Quello di Tito è il volto!’ in the subsequent trio with Tito and Publio. DiDonato’s performance of the Adagio rondò ‘Deh, per questo istante solo ti ricorda il primo amor’ affirms that this piece is in no way inferior to Sesto’s more famous aria in Act One. Interpreted by this singer, Sesto’s shame and self-loathing are uncommonly believable, not least when he declares ‘Tu, è ver, m’assolvi, Augusto, ma non m’assolve il core.’ There have been excellent recorded performances of Sesto’s music, foremost among which are Teresa Berganza’s portrayals for István Kertész and Karl Böhm, but DiDonato initiates a class of her own. So apt are her discreet embellishments that Mozart might have been whispering them in her ear. Her Donna Elvira in Nézet-Séguin’s Don Giovanni was a tremendous accomplishment, but this Sesto surpasses even her own best work.

In the first legs of Nézet-Séguin’s DGG Mozart journey, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón surprised many listeners who questioned the wisdom of his Mozartian forays with vibrant, mostly stylish performances as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Don Curzio in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. [Villazón’s rôle in the forthcoming Die Zauberflöte is Papageno.] Here mounting the imperial throne as the troubled but ultimately level-headed Tito Vespasiano, he does not fully rise to the level of those previous impersonations, but this is music in which many valiant efforts have fallen short of success. A cinematic stereotype of Roman emperors—either exasperatingly haughty or vulgarly libidinous and unfailingly speaking with a pompous British accent—persists in today’s cultural consciousness, and Villazón turns this paradigm on its head. His is a Tito more likely to be found among his subjects, devouring the marvels of Rome, than cloistered behind palace walls. He sculpts the lines of the Andante con moto aria ‘Del più sublime soglio l’unico frutto è questo’ with the steady hand of a master craftsman, little bothered by the frequent treks to G at the top of the stave. The reliability of the tenor’s G4 is further tested in Tito’s Allegro aria ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al trono,’ and Villazón again passes without cheating, laudably confronting every difficulty with determination.

There is an aura of a celebrant’s interactions with his congregation in Villazón’s singing of Tito’s Act Two scene with the chorus, his pronouncement of ‘Ah no, sventurato non sono cotanto’ ringingly regal in tone. His smoky timbre enables a probing explication of the emperor’s predicament in the accompagnato ‘Che orror! che tradimento!’ Villazón’s bold but calm demeanor is touchingly effective in this music and in the trio with Sesto and Publio. The aria ‘Se all’impero, amici Dei!’ is a veritable obstacle course, the tranquil contemplation of its Andantino section disrupted by a return to the galloping Allegro. When a singer as stylistically deft as Nicolai Gedda was unable to negotiate the aria’s dizzying fiorature cleanly under studio conditions, Villazón earns leniency, but no apology needs to be made for his performance. The pitches are there, and the top B♭s present no problems. The accompagnato ‘Ma che giorno è mai questo?’ is ideal territory for him, and he enlivens music in which leaner voices can sound feeble. Villazón’s voicing of ‘Il vero pentimento di cui tu sei capace’ in the finale scene proclaims that this Tito’s mild manner is a manifestation of courage, not weakness. Musically, this is not a flawless performance, but it is as thoughtful and enjoyable a portrayal of Tito as has been recorded.

Mozart’s correspondence divulges a fascinating profundity of self-awareness, but it is impossible to know whether the composer was cognizant as he left Prague after the première of La clemenza di Tito to return to Vienna and resume work on Die Zauberflöte that he had said his farewell to Italian opera. As is the case with Pergolesi, Schubert, Bellini, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and other composers who died young, later generations of musicians, listeners, and scholars ponder what these artists might have achieved had they lived longer. Many long-lived composers would undoubtedly savor a final effort in any genre as inventive as La clemenza di Tito and a performance of it as superlative as this one via which to be remembered.

07 July 2018

CD REVIEW: Harold Meltzer — VARIATIONS ON A SUMMER DAY and PIANO QUARTET (A. Fischer, Boston Chamber Music Society; Open G Records 888295672382)

IN REVIEW: Harold Meltzer - VARIATIONS ON A SUMMER DAY and PIANO QUARTET (Open G Records 888295672382)HAROLD MELTZER (born 1966): Variations on a Summer Day and Piano QuartetAbigail Fischer, soprano; Tara Helen O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flute; Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinet; Margaret Kampmeier, piano; Cyrus Beroukhim, Miranda Cuckson, and Andrea Schultz, violin; Daniel Panner, viola; Greg Hesselink, cello; Jayce Ogren, conductor; Boston Chamber Music Society [Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA, on 25 March 2017 (Piano Quartet) and 28 – 30 March 2017 (Variations on a Summer Day); Open G Records 888295672382; 1 CD, 40:51; Available from Bandcamp.com]

Originality for its own sake is scarcely better than unimaginative adherence to traditions. Popularity is not universally indicative of quality, but traditions are rarely devoid of some degree of celebration of the exceptional. Newly-minted words with nothing to say merely clutter languages that are already ludicrously verbose, widening the chasm between thought and expression in ways that further complicate the critical act of communication. As a physical manifestation of the most honest aspects of humanity, Art must communicate necessary truths too uncomfortable for everyday discourse and must do so in ways that demand attention and action. For music, it is not enough to spin a beguiling melody or beat out a distracting rhythm. Whether old or new, the sounds must forge connections among people—connections that engender harmonious resolutions for life’s chaotic cacophonies.

There are no formulæ that reliably concoct success for a composer of what is now identified as ‘serious’ music. Few composers in the recent history of Classical Music are likely to have been spared enduring the well-meaning dictate that artistic fulfillment depends upon originality, but originality in music is a misleading notion. All that has been achieved by musicians since the inception of composing in written form notwithstanding, the available tonal spectra are finite. Whether music makes use of quarter tones, tone rows, counterpoint, scordatura, or any of the thousands of effects that fill musicological glossaries, the basic structural tenets are unchanging. Success as a composer begins with recognizing that originality does not demand abandonment of the time-tested fundaments of music.

That Johannes Brahms was one of the most powerful instigators of musical evolution is indisputable, but which bold innovation in music does one attribute solely to Brahms’s invention? Brahms’s genius was not in discarding established methods and fabricating new ones: he altered the course of music’s cyclical metamorphoses by perfecting the forms he inherited from past masters and reshaping them to realize his own designs. As a reformer looking to both the past and the future, Brooklyn-born composer Harold Meltzer is among Brahms’s most gifted Twenty-First-Century heirs. The pieces on this expertly-produced Open G Records disc ask the listener not only to absorb the complexities of the sonic layers but also to consider their meaning. Why did Meltzer choose these forms, these instruments, these words? This is not arbitrarily-conceived music. Like Brahms, Meltzer has crafted an individual style not by rejecting the work of his artistic ancestors but by respecting, learning from, and continuing it. His is originality with purpose.

Written in 2016 in memory of composer Steven Stucky (1949 – 2016), Meltzer’s Piano Quartet is a thought-provoking but never coldly academic piece in which novelty and nostalgia interact in a mesmerizingly intricate ballet. The spirit of Meltzer’s memorial to a fellow artist is anything but funereal: this music is a paean to living, remembering, carrying on, and moving forward. The adjectives combined by the composer with metronome markers in lieu of conventional verbal instructions of tempo and temperament—effervescent, ardent, ecstatic, eager, poignant, ebullient, contented, sparkling—are observed so meticulously by the Boston Chamber Music Society musicians—violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Dimitri Murrath, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianist Max Levinson—that an attentive listener might use precisely these words to describe the impact of this performance of the piece. The through-composed structure of his quartet differs from the architecture of these earlier works, but Meltzer’s part writing fleetingly recalls both Brahms’s three piano quartets and Antonín Dvořák’s superb Opus 87 Piano Quartet. Notable for inspired use of pizzicato, the emotional epicenter of the American composer’s quartet is the ‘Dreamwaltz for Steve,’ an episode further distinguished by kaleidoscopic intermingling of instrumental textures and timbres that amplify a faint echo of Beethoven. The instrumentalists are alert to the music’s subtleties, navigating the work’s expressive transformations with playing of unwavering technical mastery. This is a sophisticated performance of significant, splendidly-scored music.

A setting of verses by American poet Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), Meltzer’s Variations on a Summer Day discloses a rare affinity for perceiving the inherent song in words and fashioning music that manifests that song for performers and listeners. Stevens’s text is a stream-of-conscious meditation that is not unlike the mature work of writers as seemingly dissimilar as T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg, the thoughts within his lines seeming to exist externally, free-standing concepts that are not reasoned but encountered like landmarks along a path. The poet blurred the distinctions between physical and metaphysical, and Meltzer embraces this ambiguity in writing that is at once earthly and ephemeral. Though their musical idioms are very different, there is a familial relationship between the narrator of Variations on a Summer Day and the nameless protagonist of Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine. Like Poulenc’s incarnation of Jean Cocteau’s surrealistic drama, Variations on a Summer Day is an engrossing exchange with an unheard conversant. Mimicking nature’s cycles, the music imparts a sense of inevitability: rather than beginning and ending with contrived formality, the music rises to the surface for the duration of Variations on a Summer Day and then retreats into silence, waiting to be heard again.

Under the direction of conductor Jayce Ogren, the musicians to whom performing Variations on a Summer Day for this recording was entrusted play Meltzer’s music with an abiding interpretive spontaneity, vividly limning the score’s tonal unpredictability. Flautists Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, clarinetists Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, violinists Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violist Daniel Panner, cellist Greg Hesselink, and pianist Margaret Kampmeier approach this music with obvious preparation, but their playing is appealingly free from artifice. [In the passages beginning with ‘Round and round goes the bell of the water’ and ‘Low tide, flat water, sultry sun,’ violinist Cyrus Beroukhim deputizes for Cuckson. That the substitution is indiscernible is a testament to both musicians’ artistic integrity.] Cleanness of execution of the music’s rhythmic transitions is critical to the effectiveness of Variations on a Summer Day, but clinical exactitude would deprive the piece of its improvisational fervor. Guided by the apparent thoroughness of Ogren’s acquaintance with the score’s challenges, this performance is precise without ever being perfunctory.

It is often as an implicit euphemism for a less-flattering characterization that a singer is said to possess an unique voice, but soprano Abigail Fischer proves to be a peer of Bethany Beardslee, Cathy Berberian, and Jan DeGaetani as a singer with a wholly unique voice in the very best sense. A bright, forward placement of vowels and a flickering vibrato contribute to the fluidity of the soprano’s singing of both Meltzer’s music and Stevens’s words. Moreover, Fischer’s diction is little affected by notorious ‘opera singer English,’ her enunciation refreshingly natural. The exhilaration generated by her voicing of ‘Say of the gulls’ is tempered by the uneasy serenity of her declamation of ‘A music more than a breath.’ Fischer commands the irregular emotional tides of the sequence encompassing ‘The rocks of the cliffs,’ ‘Star over Monhegan,’ and ‘The leaves of the sea’ like a sorceress, wielding the magic of Meltzer’s music with able, assured vocalism.

A restless energy reminiscent of that found in Dylan Thomas’s poetry courses through ‘It is cold to be forever young,’ its sparks igniting Meltzer’s ingenuity. The music here grows more intense, and Fischer and Ogren sharpen their focus on the composer’s aural imagery. Singer and musicians lend ‘One sparrow is worth a thousand gulls’ a measure of lightness, and the accents of ‘An exercise in viewing the world’ and ‘This cloudy world’ are judiciously matched with the cadences of the words. Meltzer provides music of uncompromising directness for both ‘To change nature’ and ‘Now, the timothy at Pemaquid,’ and these performers give his lines readings of equal earnestness. Fischer sings ‘Everywhere the spruce trees bury soldiers’ with particular eloquence, joining Meltzer in evincing the ambivalence of the text with touching simplicity. Emotional honesty is also the heart of Fischer’s account of ‘Cover the sea with the sand rose,’ the vocal lines of which she sculpts with perfectly-balanced tenderness and toughness.

‘Words add to the senses’ is an apposite artistic credo for both Meltzer and Wallace Stevens—and for this performance of Variations on a Summer Day. Too often, words seem to stand in the way of today’s composers’ efforts at creating memorable music, but Meltzer seizes the opportunities for sketching familiar but previously unseen vistas offered by Stevens’s words. A near-Baroque sensibility permeates ‘The last island’ and ‘Round and round goes the bell of the water,’ the composer identifying distant vestiges of John Donne in the text, and Fischer sings the music with appropriately ringing tone that would serve her as stylishly in music by Bach or Telemann. Meltzer’s final variations emphasize the parallels between Stevens’s words and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Afforded a chance to demonstrate her dramatic instincts, Fischer sings ‘Pass through the door’ with unaffected sincerity. Her vocalism is impressive throughout the performance, but she saves her best singing for the final three segments, launching the work’s quest for renewal with a searching traversal of ‘Low tide, flat water, sultry sun.’ The strangely disquieting ‘One boy swims under a tub’ and ‘You could almost see the brass on her gleaming’ highlight the perpetuality of Variations on a Summer Day. Instead of proposing a resolution, they suggest an inexorable continuation of the voyage. Fischer, Ogren, and their colleagues eschew ostentatious gestures in Variations’ final pages: their sounds cease, but the music does not end.

In grasping at success that is increasingly difficult to define, today’s composers sometimes forget the ideal that should always be the objective of creativity. Scholars can debate whether originality is characterized by saying something entirely new or saying something that has been said before but differently, but the truest gauge of music’s success is its appeal to the listener. Sonic treatises on new ways of composing and performing music are valuable, but how often does one genuinely want to hear them? Harold Meltzer’s Piano Quartet and Variations on a Summer Day break new ground without subjecting the listener to gruesome noises of demolition. No idols of previous generations were smashed in the name of originality in the making of this music. Rather, this composer has molded contemporary music that is as pleasing as it is progressive. How original!

02 July 2018

July 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Agostino Steffani — O BARBARO AMORE (A. Brisson Paquin, C. Ricci, J. Lemos, S. Soph, M. Bouvier; Musica Omnia mo0711)

July 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Agostino Steffani - O BARBARO AMORE (Musica Omnia mo0711)AGOSTINO STEFFANI (1654 – 1728): O barbaro Amore – Duetti da cameraAndréanne Brisson Paquin (soprano), Céline Ricci (mezzo-soprano), José Lemos (countertenor), Steven Soph (tenor), and Mischa Bouvier (baritone); Jennifer Morsches (cello), Deborah Fox (theorbo and guitar), and Jory Vinikour (harpsichord and direction) [Recorded in Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 14 – 18 February 2017; Musica Omnia mo0711; 1 CD, 66:07; Available from Musica Omnia, Naxos Direct, Amazon (UK), Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

There is an uncannily timely lesson about cultural cooperation and coexistence to be learned from the fact that much of Twenty-First-Century observers’ acquaintance with the music of Italian composer Agostino Steffani is owed to the advocacy of a German-speaking aristocrat who became King of England. When the Elector of Hannover ascended to the English throne as George I in 1714, included in the souvenirs of his native land that accompanied him to London were Steffani scores that would otherwise now almost certainly be lost. Royal prerogative has indisputably sometimes been abused, but Sir Winston Churchill might reasonably have said of the fledgling Hannoverian dynasty’s preservation of Steffani’s work that there are few instances in musical history in which so much is owed to so few.

Born in 1654 in the Veneto region of Italy, near both Treviso and Venice, Steffani embarked upon his circuitous musical education at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, where he served as a chorister. Noble patronage subsequently transported the young composer first to Munich, then to Rome, and ultimately back to the Bavarian capital, in which cities his natural abilities flourished under capable, nurturing tutelage. The path that led him to the court of the eventual George I also brought him into contact with a fellow composer who, unlike Steffani, would follow his employer to Britain: Georg Friedrich Händel. The extent to which Steffani may have influenced his Halle-born junior cannot be definitively discerned, but Händel undoubtedly benefited from the older man’s encouragement. Later appointments found Steffani in Brussels, Düsseldorf, and again in Hannover, where, like the esteemed castrato Farinelli, he was entrusted with diplomatic missions. It was whilst fulfilling political duties that the composer died in Frankfurt in 1728. Neglecting the work of an artist who was sufficiently esteemed by his superiors to be tasked with the handling of affairs of state seems anything but reasonable, but the whims of artistic fashion adhere to no conventional logic.

Recent years have ushered in a resurgence in Steffani’s reputation, propelled by the espousal of his music by renowned artists, perhaps the most committed amongst whom is mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Productions of Steffani’s 1688 opera Niobe, regina di Tebe by London’s Royal Opera House and Boston Early Music Festival were recorded and released commercially to great acclaim, broadening awareness of his proficiency for writing for the stage. Appreciation of the keen understanding and innovative use of the prevalent music forms of his time that was likely the basis of his contemporaries’ respect for Steffani has been somewhat slower in expanding into the Twenty-First Century. Recorded with extraordinary acoustical clarity and immediacy by the industry-leading production team of Peter Watchorn (Executive Producer), Dan Merceruio (Producer), Daniel Shores (Engineer, Mixing, and Mastering), and Allison Noah (Recording Technician), O barbaro Amore, Musica Omnia’s recital of ten of Steffani’s sublime, stirring duetti da camera, offers a wonderful opportunity to examine the fluency of the composer’s musical language in the setting of inward discourses among voices and continuo instruments. Distant but undeniable relations of Monteverdi’s madrigals, the duets are here imaginatively ordered to form a continuous psychological arc that rivals the linear storytelling of Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

Amidst the bursts of enthusiastic rediscovery that have introduced Steffani and his work to modern audiences, his music has been revitalized by no artists more gifted than Deborah Fox, Jennifer Morsches, and Jory Vinikour. Directing these performances from the harpsichord, Vinikour paces each piece with masterful command of its musical and poetic nuances, both emphasizing the unique qualities of each duet and persuasively creating context within the cumulative narrative of the ten duets in succession. As a harpsichordist, Vinikour’s work has rarely been more refined, the restraint exhibited by his playing here affirming his faith in the expressive potential of the music. Avoiding the trap of excessive ornamentation, he fosters lean, lithe textures that support the vocalists rather than competing with them. Likewise, Fox plays theorbo and Baroque guitar with interpretive nimbleness that rivals her manual dexterity. Via her participation in performances of Baroque operas, she has honed an unerring instinct for aiding singers in maintaining conversational naturalness even in music of tremendous technical difficulty. Cadences are her punctuation, and Fox resolves phrases with unforced momentum. Morsches complements her colleagues’ efforts with alert, adaptive playing, accenting her tones in response to the words that they accompany. Fox’s theorbo and Morsches’s cello are an aural embodiment of Ovid’s Pyramus, and Vinikour’s harpsichord is the porous wall through which they converse with the singers’ Thisbe.

It seems unlikely that music of the quality heard on O barbaro Amore was written without the voices of specific singers resounding in Steffani’s mind, but the circumstances of the composition and first performances of these duets are largely unknown. Unanswered questions about their inception give the duets an alluring aura of mystery, but the performances on this disc establish beyond any uncertainty that soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin, mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, countertenor José Lemos, tenor Steven Soph, and baritone Mischa Bouvier are a quintet to whose talents any composer past, present, or future would delight in tailoring new music. The variety of Steffani’s deployment of different vocal registers in the duets is evidence both of the composer’s expertise in writing for voices and of the quality of the voices by which he anticipated his music being sung. Individually and in ensemble, the voices selected for this recording heighten the expressive impact of the duets with singing in which virtuosity, always present and wielded with confidence, seems an afterthought. Beauty of tone, purity of line, and honesty of emotional engagement are the characteristics that shape the artistic experience of O barbaro Amore. The raw sentiments of the words are felt before the difficulty of the music is perceived. How many performances of repertory of this vintage can truly be said to achieve this?

Brisson Paquin and Bouvier take the first steps on this journey with a traversal of ‘È spento l’ardore’ that establishes a charged atmosphere in which the relationships between text and music—and the alternating collaborations and confrontations between voices—conjure bitingly realistic tableaux of lovers’ rows and reconciliations. The brightly-polished patina of the soprano’s timbre soars above the darker hues of the baritone’s voice, but their sounds meld with surprisingly mellifluous homogeny. Brisson Paquin also shares an euphonious bond with Ricci, who joins her in an account of ‘Saldi marmi’ that closes the distance from Steffani’s music to duets for Rossini’s Semiramide and Arsace and Bellini’s Norma and Adalgisa. The adventurous harmonies of Diana’s exchanges with Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto also echo in Steffani’s music, rising to the surface in ‘Saldi marmi’ owing to the singers’ judicious management of the intervals that separate their vocal lines. Soph proves a wholly-qualified partner for Brisson Paquin, as well, delivering his part in their account of ‘Io voglio provar’ with dulcet but sonorous vocalism. In each of the first three duets, the soprano finds within her voice a range of colors that reflect the moods of the text, and each of her colleagues proves to be wonderfully skilled at revealing the unexpected modernity of Steffani’s word settings.

In the evocative strains of ‘Non so chi mi piagò,’ Brisson Paquin and Lemos fuse their voices into a stream of molten sound that illuminates the subtleties of the composer’s exploitation of the polarities of the upper and lower lines. The soprano’s vocalism is particularly effective here, her opalescent tones at the top of the stave cascading like lovers’ sighs. In the first of Ricci’s contests with Lemos, ‘Placidissime catene,’ the music seems to pour not solely from their lungs but from every cell of their bodies and every recess of their psyches. They unleash the latent verismo in Steffani’s music without one note of their performance straying from the appropriate style of elocution. This is historically-informed singing that refuses to be pedantic. Soprano and mezzo-soprano reunite for an affectingly spirited account of ‘Lontananza crudel’ in which their navigation of the intersections of their serpentine vocal lines compellingly limns lovers’ loathing of the distances that separate them.

The poignant potency of Ricci’s alliance with Brisson Paquin also courses through her performance of ‘Il mio seno è un mar di pene’ with Soph. The tenor voices his music with dramatic immediacy and silver-clad tone that gleams most brightly in his enunciation of vowels. The essence of the music is articulated in the lines ‘in sperar tropp’anelante solo si muor per essere costante,’ and the despair of these words permeates this reading of the duet. As in their first encounter on O barbaro Amore, there is an unique electricity that sizzles in Ricci’s and Lemos’s singing of ‘Quando ti stringo, o cara.’ Though similar in basic compass, their voices are very different instruments. The churning depths of the mezzo-soprano’s timbre collide with the lava that flows from the countertenor’s vocal cords, generating a scorching geyser of histrionic steam that lends their musical sparring an element of spontaneous but perceptively-wrought catharsis. The metamorphosis in Ricci’s demeanor in ‘Labri belli, dite un po’ is indicative of her submersion in the text, and she reacts alluringly to Bouvier’s vigorous but sensitive voicing of his music. Mezzo-soprano and baritone make of this duet a vibrantly hypnotic dance, approaching words and music with caressing sensuality.

The last chapter in this tale of love’s pains and pleasures, ‘Occhi, perché piangete,’ pairs Brisson Paquin with Lemos in a demonstration of artistry that epitomizes both the consistency of Steffani’s inspiration and the caliber of the music making that produced O barbaro Amore. These singers and the musicians who accompany them follow the music wherever it leads, swathing even the most uncomfortable niches of humanity in beauty. Above all, the performances on this disc raise a vital query: how can such music have been ignored for so many years?

Pat Benatar and the Four Aces got it right: love is truly both a battlefield and a many-splendored thing. History preserves few intimate details of Agostino Steffani’s life before his rise to prominence on Europe’s musical, political, and ecclesiastical stages, but his music provides glimpses of the man time has largely concealed. With the ten duetti da camera on this disc, Steffani transformed a remarkable aesthetic cognizance of the complexities of love into music of timeless cogency. In performing these duets, the artists whose work created O barbaro Amore unequivocally got it right, too.