17 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Poul Ruders — THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (S. Shafer, T. Mumford, A. Sewailam, M. Boehler, A. Kent, D. Portillo, A. Rosen, A. Evans; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)

IN REVIEW: Poul Ruders - THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)POUL RUDERS (born 1949): The Thirteenth ChildSarah Shafer (Lyra, Princess of Frohagord), Tamara Mumford (Gertrude, Queen of Frohagord; Ghost of Gertrude), Ashraf Sewailam (Drokan, Regent of Hauven), Alasdair Kent (Frederic, Prince of Hauven; Toke, Prince of Frohagord), David Portillo (Benjamin, Prince of Frohagord), Matt Boehler (Hjarne, King of Frohagord), Alex Rosen (Corbin, Prince of Frohagord), Amber Evans (choral soloist); Bridge Academy Singers, Odense Symfoniorkester; David Starobin and Benjamin Shwartz, conductors [Recorded in Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA, and New Rochelle Studios, New Rochelle, New York, USA, during September 2016 and December 2018; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527; 1 CD, 77:50; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

When his opera L’Orfeo premièred in Mantua in 1607, within mere days of the landing of the first party of successful English settlers in what would become the colony of Virginia, can Claudio Monteverdi have imagined that, 412 years later, not only would opera remain a thriving art form but that tomes would have been written about how L’Orfeo and his other surviving operas should be performed in the Twenty-First Century? Scholars debate whether short-lived composers including Mozart and Bellini expected their operas to be studied and appreciated by future generations, and there are many lamentable examples, among whom Rossini is one of the most familiar, of composers witnessing the waning of interest in their music. Wagner surely intended to be discussed by future listeners and musicologists, but perhaps he did not envision the virtues and vices of his operas being debated no less vehemently—likely more so, in fact—in 2019 as at the time of his death in 1883. If the important composers of the past considered the notion of opera’s future, how might they have dreamed that opera would sound in 2019?

It is likely that opera can survive on a diet of familiar works, but the genre’s appetite for new music must be fed in order to ensure that opera will thrive throughout and beyond the Twenty-First Century. It cannot be denied that innovation is not always welcomed, however. A maddening paradox of opera in the new millennium is that, in many instances, those listeners who dismiss current trends in staging standard-repertory works as unacceptable also reject new works. Professing to advocate for the perpetual vitality of opera, some connoisseurs argue both that long-admired scores should be shelved until singers and conductors capable of equaling acclaimed performances of past generations can be found and that most new works are not worthy of sharing stages with beloved classics.

All listeners, novices and aficionados, have likes and dislikes and the right to defend them, but opera quickly stagnates without new voices and new music. Since the label’s inception, Bridge Records releases have given listeners opportunities to discover new works in an array of genres, introducing or deepening acquaintances with accomplished composers, musicians, librettists, and lyricists. The present release, The Thirteenth Child, is a masterfully-recorded continuation of the label’s initiatives, but it is not merely the product of a concerted effort to affirm the merits of contemporary music. This project is the apotheosis of a personal crusade to create an opera not as an academic exercise in joining words with music but as a rejuvenation of the theatrical aesthetics that characterize the works that shaped the first four centuries of opera’s history.

Adapted from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s story ‘Die zwölf Brüder,’ Danish composer Poul Ruder’s two-act opera The Thirteenth Child is a setting of an atmospheric, wonderfully singable libretto by Becky and David Starobin, the founders of Bridge Records. Under their guidance, this world-première recording, the release of which coincides with the opening of the opera’s inaugural production at Santa Fe Opera on 27 July 2019, gives the opera a truly memorable début.

The vocal music conducted by David Starobin and the superlative playing of the Odense Symfoniorkester, by which ensemble The Thirteenth Child was commissioned in partnership with Santa Fe Opera, led in Act One by Starobin and in Act Two by Benjamin Shwartz, there is not one passage of the score that seems haphazardly paced. The opera advances with cinematic celerity that incites both Starobin and Shwartz to conducting of gripping urgency. Throughout the performance, maintaining the intelligibility of the text is paramount. The result of this concentration on the impact of the words is a drama that ensnares the listener’s heart.

The operatic tapestry woven by the Starobins from the threads of the Grimms’ story unfurls in music that is by turns mesmerizing, wrenching, moving, and, in the opera’s final scene, uplifting. Born on the bustling island of Zealand in the Baltic Sea, Ruders turned to composition after studying the organ. From that start, a trajectory that is often audible in this score, he has forged a career that, with The Thirteenth Child, has engendered five operas. With each of these works, Ruders has exhibited an exceptional faculty for recounting profoundly human experiences in music that heightens their universality.

As its Grimmsian provenance suggests, The Thirteenth Child is fantastical, but the score is always rooted in a plausible emotional reality that is reinforced by transitional Interludes. Ruders eschews obvious, coy allusions and effects: the metamorphosis of the princes of Frohagord into ravens exerts a temptation to indulge in Wagnerian pastiche that many composers would find irresistible, but Ruders devises his own musical language for this and all of the opera’s dramatic exploits. That language, closely allied with the Starobins’ words, evokes an enigmatic, ritualistic realm in which discordant hostility ultimately cannot vanquish melody.

It is not surprising that considerable care was employed in casting this recorded performance of The Thirteenth Child, but engaging artists with uniformly exemplary qualifications for their rôles is rare in any repertoire. Soprano Amber Evans impresses as both chorus master of the Bridge Academy Singers and soloist, and her example clearly influenced the elegant, ideally-balanced singing of the choristers. Bass Alex Rosen’s voicing of Corbin, one of the ill-fated Princes of Frohagord, is handsomely forthright, his unaffected approach to the part conveying the frustration of a strong youth prostrated by ungovernable circumstances.

Few singers embody the musical and temperamental meanings of tenore di grazia as fully as tenor David Portillo. Acclaimed as an interpreter of Baroque, Classical, bel canto, and modern music, he possesses an appealing, flexible voice, the technical acumen required to use it properly, and an unfeigned charisma that endears his characterizations to audiences. As Benjamin, the youngest Prince of Frohagord, in The Thirteenth Child, Portillo provides a beam of light that brightens the decaying, Cimmerian environment engendered by Hjarne’s suspicions and uncertainty. United in Act Two with Lyra, the sister whose existence was hidden from the Princes, Benjamin realizes that the girl will fall victim to her brothers’ longing for vengeance. Singing ‘I must hide you’ with a torrent of fraternal affection, the tenor traverses the range of the music effortlessly, his upper register shimmering.

Portillo delivers Benjamin’s riddle with boyish playfulness, slyly shepherding his brothers to the discovery of Lyra. Transformed into a raven, Benjamin receives a mortal wound whilst freeing Lyra from flames that threaten to consume her. Portillo voices Benjamin’s dying words, ‘I hardly knew my parents’ love, yet felt complete in brotherhood,’ with touching sincerity. The Grimm story indicates that Benjamin was named for the biblical son of Jacob whose honesty and loyalty restored his brethren to the good graces of their wronged brother Joseph. In The Thirteenth Child, Benjamin’s sacrifice precipitates the opera’s lieto fine, and Portillo’s portrayal makes the young man’s modest but pivotal valor poignantly credible.

First heard in the music accompanying Hjarne’s funeral in the second scene of Act One, the voice of tenor Alasdair Kent is extraordinarily beautiful. In both the music for Frederic, Prince of Hauven, and the few words sung by Toke, Prince of Frohagord, Kent sings gloriously, his golden tones drawing their patina from his sparkling diction. When Frederic returns in the third scene of Act Two, the tenor persuasively expresses the prince’s yearning in his account of ‘For seven years I searched in vain.’ Later​, ​entreating the duplicitous Drokan to watch over the mute Lyra, Kent’s Frederic sings ‘Keep my beloved safe’ with tenderness and integrity that only the basest villain could betray. The brief, soaring phrases with the liberated Lyra in the opera’s final scene are projected with fearlessness and intonational accuracy. In longevity, Kent’s parts in The Thirteenth Child are not extensive, but his ringing, regal vocalism gives this performance its romantic hero.

Bass Matt Boehler copes courageously and securely but not always comfortably with the sepulchral tessitura of Ruder’s music for Hjarne, King of Frohagord. Manipulated by Drokan’s duplicitous warnings about his sons’ plots to usurp his throne, Hjarne is goaded into a state of Lear-like delirium in the throes of which he trusts no one, and Boehler utters the king’s raving ‘I gave them life’ with sputtering ire. This contrasts tellingly with the haunting loveliness with which he voices ‘The night air groans.’ Like many historical kings, Hjarne’s most powerful enemy is his own weakness, but in Boehler’s performance there is dignity even in the king’s most manic moments.

Drokan, Regent of Hauven, is the sort of irredeemable schemer who in a silent film might affix helpless maidens to railroad tracks. In fact, he resorts as his final misdeed in The Thirteenth Child to binding Lyra to a bonfire. The character’s one-dimensional pursuit of power notwithstanding, bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam portrays Drokan as a man of Machiavellian cunning. Preying upon ​Hjarne​’s insecurity with insinuation, this Drokan is a model of false concern.

Sewailam’s voice echoes the perilous duality of the character’s words: frighteningly thunderous in anger, his singing can also be cajolingly soft. The jealous malevolence that erupts in his voicing of ‘Their house endures with each new child’ unmasks Drokan’s perfidy. The listener knows the calculating regent’s intentions before they become apparent to those he seeks to harm, of course, and he is in Sewailam’s performance unsettlingly chameleonic, alternately suave and sinister. The bass-baritone’s voice is perfect for the part, his granitic timbre and emphatic delivery filling Drokan’s veins with coldly fiendish blood.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is one of today’s most versatile singers. Unlike versatile singers who personify the cliché of being jacks of all trades and masters of none, Mumford excels in many musical styles. To their company she adds Ruders’s music for Gertrude, whom she will also portray in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child. Enacting the confusion and horror of the queen’s response to ​Hjarne​’s bizarre ranting and unprovoked repudiation of their children, Mumford sings first ‘Lilies, red with blood, their beauty ever flowers’ and then ‘What is this madness?’ with musical and verbal immediacy, disclosing a queen’s poise, a wife’s alarm, and a mother’s anxiety.

Mumford’s phrasing of ‘O’, your sweetness dulled his rage’ in Gertrude’s death scene recalls the cadences of John Dowland’s doleful lute songs. Aided by suitably spectral electronic reverberation, she eerily intones the pronouncements of Gertrude’s ghost, dismay suffusing her singing of ‘My child, what have you done?’ when Lyra guilelessly destroys the lilies that are the Hofmannsthal-esque symbols of the princes’ existence. Alive and dead, Gertrude is the voice of reason in an increasingly unhinged domain. Mumford’s vocal prowess and theatrical savvy magnify this matriarch’s domination of a patriarchal world.

The thirteenth child of the opera’s title, Princess Lyra unwittingly jeopardizes the lives of the brothers she has never known and atones for her mistake by submitting to seven years of silence. Soprano Sarah Shafer interprets the rôle without artifice, evincing the princess’s innocence with singing of gossamer purity. Learning from her dying mother of the wrongs endured by the brothers she has never met, Lyra resolves to find and help the twelve princes. A guitar emerges from the instrumental ensemble to animate the accompaniment to ‘Oh, mother, your hand still warm, guide me,’ lending this music the communicative spirit of a troubadour’s ballad, and Shafer’s performance focuses on the text.

The soprano’s demeanor in the scene in which Gertrude’s ghost appears to Lyra is convincingly unnerved, but the voice remains glowingly resilient. Mourning the death of Benjamin, who gives his life in order to save Lyra from Drokan’s machinations, Shafer’s voice throbs with emotion as she sings ‘Benjamin! Do not go!’ The catharsis of the restoration of the princes’ birthright and Lyra’s joyous reunion with Frederic is all the sweeter for its brevity. Shafer’s voice rockets above the stave with the brilliance of a fireworks display, but Ruders does not prolong the celebration. There is a sense of reclaimed equilibrium: Lyra is eager to carry on, living rather than extolling normalcy. If the quality of Shafer’s singing in The Thirteenth Child were normal in performances of contemporary operas, their paths to acceptance might be far less arduous.

In some ways, it is now more difficult than ever before to bring a new opera to the stage, not least in terms of securing financial support. Perhaps contributing to a lasting work of art is no longer viewed as being as meaningful a return on an investment as it once was, or perhaps it is more gratifying to back projects that are more visible than operas are in the Twenty-First Century. From its earliest birth pangs in the Sixteenth Century, though, operatic innovation has relied not upon the espousal of the masses but upon the vision and daring of a small community of artists and their advocates. There are many variables in the equation that determines an opera’s success, yet, as The Thirteenth Child demonstrates, the computation is simple. The common denominator among memorable operas old and new is an engaging story told with words and music to which performers and audiences respond. Performed with the enthusiasm that this recording exudes, The Thirteenth Child is a score in which progress raises its voice like a lily lifting its head to welcome a new day.

14 June 2019

June 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: W. Leigh, N. Rorem, V. Kalabis, & M. Nyman — 20TH CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)

IN REVIEW: Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis, & Michael Nyman - 20th CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)WALTER LEIGH (1905 – 1945), NED ROREM (born 1923), VIKTOR KALABIS (1923 – 2006), and MICHAEL NYMAN (born 1944): 20th Century Harpsichord ConcertosJory Vinikour, harpsichord; Chicago Philharmonic; Scott Speck, conductor [Recorded in Wentz Hall, Naperville, Illinois, USA, on 3 November 2016 (Nyman), Feinberg Theater at Spertus Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 5 March 2018 (Leigh and Kalabis), and Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 8 May 2018 (Rorem); Cedille Records CDR 90000 188; 1 CD, 75:42; Available from Cedille Records and major music retailers]

Whether his musical curiosity encompasses five centuries or five months of artistic innovation, each listener develops unique sensibilities that are influenced by performances that inspire, intrigue, and educate. The jazz lover is unlikely to forget his first hearing of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ For the rock ’n roll enthusiast, an introduction to the pioneering recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe can have the impact of a spiritual awakening. Buddy Holly, Bill Monroe, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles all changed the ways in which music is created and heard, cutting records that altered their own and other genres. The recorded efforts of these and countless other trailblazers, some widely acclaimed and others barely remembered, form an artistic legacy that parallels and in some cases propels the evolution of human societies.

Even if only Western cultures are considered, the diversity of the vast spectrum of genres and forms that collectively constitute what has somewhat cavalierly been designated as Classical Music is astounding, and every genre, form, and individual work has performance and recording histories that shape listeners’ perceptions of the music. Recordings like Artur Schnabel’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, Pau Casals’s early account of Bach’s cello suites, Bruno Walter’s 1938 performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and Maria Callas’s first Tosca created standards by which the merits of other performances of these and similar works are measured.

Determining which performances shoulder the responsibility of primacy is anything but a perfect science, what is definitive to one pair of ears sounding disastrous to another, but there are recordings that demand that listeners discard their assumptions and prejudices. Cedille Records’s ambitious new recording of Twentieth-Century works for harpsichord and orchestra lures listeners out of Eighteenth-Century salons and transports them to an aural world in which Igor Stravinsky is closer at hand than Domenico Scarlatti. With one notable exception, the pieces on this disc are not new to recordings, but these electrifying performances inaugurate a new chapter in the harpsichord’s still-developing narrative.

There are perhaps fewer milestones in the history of recording music for the harpsichord than in other instruments’ discographies. From Wanda Landowska’s pioneering performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations to George Malcolm’s recording of Poulenc’s Concert champêtre with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the first half-century of the harpsichord’s tenure before recording microphones produced many performances in which obvious good intentions were ultimately mitigated by increased awareness of stylistic anachronisms. For some listeners, the very notion of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord might seem inherently oxymoronic, a misconception that this disc seeks to remedy. Significantly, the music on this does not approach the harpsichord as an antiquated instrument that must be adapted to modern idioms. This music exploits the modernity of which the harpsichord has been capable since its emergence in its most familiar form in the Sixteenth Century.

It is not merely by right of monopoly that Chicagoland-born harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour’s survey of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord and orchestra assumes a place of great prominence in the harpsichord’s discography. His mastery of the instrument’s typical Baroque repertoire has been manifested in performances in a plethora of critically-acclaimed performances and recordings, but Vinikour is no less committed to championing the work of contemporary composers who write for the harpsichord. With this disc, he advances the initiative exemplified by his GRAMMY®-nominated recording Toccatas [reviewed here]. The harpsichord’s basic mechanism of tonal production is unchanging, whether the music being played is by a composer born in 1650 or in 1950, but Vinikour’s immersion in the divergent styles of the music on this disc yields spellbinding performances. To some listeners, these pieces may seem like curiosities. Vinikour reveals them to be cornerstones of Twentieth-Century writing for the harpsichord.

Expertly led in these performances by conductor Scott Speck, the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic prove to be nimbly adaptable exponents of the disparate styles of the works on this disc. Chicago is home to another, more known large-scaled instrumental ensemble, but, as the Philharmonic’s playing affirms, notoriety does not always equate with superiority. Conductor and musicians devise consistently logical solutions to the music’s problems, one of the most important of which is that of maintaining proper balances between the harpsichord and a modern orchestra. Excessive or ill-managed electronic manipulation of the harpsichord’s timbre can result in harsh, unnatural sounds, but this disc’s engineering achieves a near-ideal acoustical balance between harpsichord and orchestra, a particularly commendable accomplishment considering that the recording sessions utilized three different venues.

Speck conducts each piece with perceptible comprehension of its musical infrastructure, his commands of stylistic shifts and thematic development facilitating the Philharmonic musicians’ crisp executions of difficult ensemble passages. The works on this disc are more overtly symphonic in basic construction than earlier music for harpsichord and orchestra, requiring particularly sympathetic collaboration between harpsichordist and conductor. The efforts of Vinikour, the Chicago Philharmonic, and Speck here impart an inviolable unity of purpose, their shared dedication to elucidating the many felicities of this music manifested in performances enriched and emboldened by each musician’s contributions.

Completed in 1934, eight years before World War II claimed the thirty-six-year-old composer’s life, Walter Leigh’s Concertino for harpsichord and strings is an attractive, accessible piece with bucolic charms that never linger beyond their capacities to entice. This is not to suggest that the Concertino lacks sophistication, however. Its musical language assimilates accents from a number of influences into an identifiably individual dialect, both discernibly cosmopolitan and unmistakably English. Vinikour and his colleagues perform the Concertino’s opening Allegro movement with consummate skill, the clarity of their ensemble playing aided by Speck’s sensible, supportive pacing. The movement’s elaborate cadenza, not unlike that in the first movement of the fifth of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, provides Vinikour with an opportunity to display his virtuosic prowess, which he wields with restraint appropriate for this unpretentious score.

Leigh’s central Andante begins with an extended unaccompanied passage for the harpsichord that is reminiscent of the sarabandes found in the music of Georg Friedrich Händel and Jean-Philippe Rameau. His expertise in playing Baroque music is especially evident here, but the fluidity of his phrasing demonstrates commensurate comprehension of the essential tenets of bel canto. Hints of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti echo in the concluding Allegro vivace movement, enlivening the music with a rustic exuberance.​ This performance of Leigh’s Concertino concludes with a surge of controlled spontaneity, harpsichord and orchestra conversing with the familiarity of beloved friends.

Here made commercially available on disc for the first time, Ned Rorem’s Concertino da Camera dates from 1946, when the composer was only twenty-three years old. The tunefulness of the piece contrasts with a metaphysical profundity that reminds listeners that the horrors of World War II remained open wounds as the ink dried on Rorem’s score. His introductory Allegro non troppo movement is characterized by writing for the instrumental ensemble that is both energetic and subtly elegiac, the melodic momentum of the music escalated by the scintillating figurations for cornet and flute. The Chicago Philharmonic musicians play their parts with passion and precision, the transitions among instruments navigated by both composer and conductor with the organic eloquence of similar effects in Mozart’s Divertimenti and Serenades.

The long melodic lines of the Molto moderato that momentarily still the dramatic tumult of Rorem’s Concertino da Camera like an operatic intermezzo receive intelligent handling in this performance. It can be argued that the harpsichord’s manner of tonal production is not conducive to lyricism, but an integral component of Vinikour’s artistry is an unusual ability to effectuate expressive legato playing despite the limitations of an instrument’s tonal prolongation. Vinikour plays poetically, evincing genuine emotion in the dialogue between harpsichord and orchestra. In the Presto, too, the music’s quest for resolution is driven by Rorem’s vivid writing for the cornet, which is delivered with galvanizing aplomb. The Concertino da Camera is a youthful work but in no way an immature one, and the performance of it on this disc spotlights the prodigality of invention that has distinguished Nyman’s music throughout his career.

In the final years of his life, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis and his wife, celebrated harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková (1927 - 2017), formed a friendship with Vinikour, and, thirteen years after Kalabis’s death, the mutual respect of that relationship continues to permeate the harpsichordist’s performances of the composer’s music. Kalabis’s Harpsichord Concerto might have been written to showcase Vinikour’s singular blend of technique and heart. In the Allegro Leggiero that begins the Concerto, the rhythmic exactitude of Vinikour’s trills allies with the crystalline brilliance of his playing of bravura passages to beget stark, sometimes abrasive aural tableaux. The movement ends with a Wagnerian halo of high strings, recalling the gossamer sounds of the Vorspiel to Act One of Lohengrin. Speck’s intuitive conducting discloses the wealth of beauty in the music without dulling its jagged edges.

Launched by a mournful phrase for solo violin that grows more agitated when it recurs, the slow movement of Kalabis’s Concerto, marked Andante, is disquietingly ambiguous. Morose and menacing at once, the music is intriguingly intimate even at its most extroverted., The brusque chords with which the harpsichord makes its entrance are played with unstinting attack. Vinikour’s performance transcends the technical demands of the music, finding in its outbursts of fury and frustration a captivating emotional chronicle. There are moments in the Concerto’s Allegro vivo movement that bring the music of Samuel Barber to mind, but Kalabis’s work clings to originality, not least in the ferocious writing for the harpsichord. In the first of the movement’s oasis-like interludes, the exchanges among the strings’ pizzicati with the harpsichord’s isolated chords is given conversational immediacy: Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic musicians wage battle with passion and civility, ending the Concerto with an affectingly straightforward rendering of Kalabis’s ambivalent synthesis of conflict and accord.

Michael Nyman is justly esteemed as one of Britain’s most gifted contemporary composers. Like his colleagues whose music is featured on this disc, Nyman has written successful works in many genres, his ingenuity exhibited in vocal and instrumental music. The writing for the solo instrument in his through-composed Concerto for amplified harpsichord and strings occasionally suggests a vocal line, and Vinikour plays Nyman’s music with aptly ‘singing’ tone. The Concerto’s first sequence (crotchet = 120 - 144) has the complexity of a Bach toccata, and harpsichordist, orchestra, and conductor unleash a torrent of sound in the piece’s cacophonous, almost bellicose segments.

The allure of Vinikour’s lyrical phrasing lends the broad melody of the più mosso section unexpected tenderness, and the reminiscences of the keyboard works of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the lilting meno mosso episode of Nyman’s Concerto benefit from this harpsichordist’s acquaintance with the Baroque master’s music. Representative of Speck’s insightful negotiations of Nyman’s changes of tempo is his seamless shift into the music marked crotchet = circa 100. Ostinati emerge as the pulse of the music during the Concerto’s final minutes, and this performance triumphs as few traversals of similar music manage to do at exploring the psychological subtexts of inevitability and temporal claustrophobia that repetitive devices can convey. In Vinikour’s performance, the three-minute cadenza is a both personal examination of the Concerto’s emotional currents and a recapitulation of the musical questions for which the post-cadenza finale proposes answers.

The most consequential question asked by the music on this disc is whether, in this age of large orchestras and performance venues designed to physically and acoustically accommodate them, the harpsichord remains a viable, relevant conduit for composers’ creative impulses. With the performances on this disc, Jory Vinikour establishes that the harpsichord is not a period instrument. Rather, it is a semicolon instrument, one that, after decades of pause, rightly inspires new clauses of composition.

06 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner & Richard Strauss — LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER AND STRAUSS (Lise Davidsen, soprano; Decca 483 4883)

IN REVIEW: LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER & STRAUSS (Decca 483 4883)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883) and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and StraussLise Davidsen, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor [Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 28 – 29 September and 6 – 7 October 2018; Decca 483 4883; 1 CD, 63:55; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It can be argued—even, in this instance, by a member of their ranks—that a significant measure of the most mesmerizing magic of opera eludes Twenty-First-Century listeners. Ears that have heard the great voices of the past solely as digitalized streams of sound emanating from speakers or coursing through headphones can have only an imperfect understanding of the boundless energy of Lauritz Melchior’s Siegfried, the engrossing intimacy of Maria Callas’s Tosca, the visceral impact of Birgit Nilsson’s Turandot, and the crestfallen charm of Carlo Bergonzi’s Nemorino. Conscientious study and careful listening can deepen an acquaintance with opera’s past, but observation never equals experience. Just as some natural phenomena cannot be adequately described to those who have not seen them, there are musical marvels that can be fully appreciated only by those who heard them in the flesh. As it might be colloquially put, grasping the momentous importance of certain events in operatic history requires that you had to be there.

As the decades continue to separate listeners from the performers and performances that they cite as definitive, today’s singers are increasingly compared, often unfavorably, to artists whom neither they nor their analysts have ever heard except via recordings. There is always value in assessing the merits of an artist’s work in the context of similar achievements by acclaimed artists of prior generations, but is there any true validity in dismissing a singer’s interpretation of a piece or a rôle because it is judged to be inferior to a performance by a long-dead artist whose preeminence is now affirmed exclusively by recordings? Does the artistry of an aspiring Siegfried meaningfully benefit from the singer being said to be no Melchior by someone who never heard Melchior? Without neglecting the models of history, must it not be more nurturing to artists and advantageous to the continued vitality of opera to principally base assessments of singers upon their own efforts? Genuinely great artists rarely publicly disparage the work of their colleagues and successors: a component of their greatness is perhaps the realization that success should be determined by how accurately and appropriately a singer performs a piece of music, not by how closely that performance emulates another artist’s interpretation.

As vocal longevity is a crucial gauge of the efficacy of a singer’s technical foundation, it is premature to proclaim Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen the heir apparent to the legacies of her legendary predecessors in the repertoire sampled on this captivating Decca release, the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. As a Scandinavian singer with an affinity for works by Wagner and Strauss, it is inevitable that Davidsen will endure comparisons with other Nordic artists who similarly excelled, singers including fellow Norwegians Kirsten Flagstad and Ingrid Bjoner, Swedes Birgit Nilsson, Berit Lindholm, and Siv Wennberg, and the Finn Anita Välkki. The collective influence of these artistic ancestors is unavoidable (and should not be avoided), but Davidsen has proved in her career to date to be a singer who approaches music without preconceptions. The extensive performance histories of the works on this disc are too consequential to be ignored, but Davidsen’s singing is that of an artist who is destined to create her own history.

It is indicative of Davidsen’s potential that, for her first recital disc, she was given the gift of collaborating with the Philharmonia Orchesta and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The prominence of music by Wagner and Strauss in her repertoire notwithstanding, Davidsen is a versatile artist: she demonstrated impressive mastery of late Classicism in her singing of the title rôle in the 2017 Wexford Festival production of Cherubini’s Medea, for example, and her Metropolitan Opera début, scheduled for 29 November 2019, will be as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya dama. Not least in his capacity as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, Salonen’s work manifests a kindred artistic inquisitiveness, and he shares with Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein the boon of bringing a composer’s sensibilities to the podium.

In the performances on this disc, the same concentration on setting tempi that aid both composer and singer and supporting the voice by identifying its proper place within orchestral textures that characterize his conducting of a work like György Ligeti’s Le grand macabre also permeate his pacing of these pieces by Wagner and Strauss. The virtuosic panache with which the Philharmonia musicians respond to Salonen’s leadership is not surprising, but playing of this caliber on a recording of this nature is uncommon. Many fine recital discs have been recorded with merely competent orchestras and conductors. Nonetheless, a Monet canvas looks out of place in a mass-produced frame, and Salonen and the Philharmonia offer Davidsen’s musical portraiture the opulent presentation it deserves.

On 25 July 2019, Davidsen will expand her Wagnerian credentials when she débuts at the Bayreuther Festspiele as Elisabeth in a new production of Tannhäuser. Anticipating that milestone, she launches this disc with a radiant account of the music with which Elisabeth makes her entrance at the start of Act Two, ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder.’ The immediacy of her singing fosters a rush of theatrical energy, plausibly imparting to the listener the irrepressible excitement of an earnest young woman greeting the space in which her future is to be determined. The soprano’s voice retains its rich patina and certain intonation from the bottom of the range to her sonorous top B.

Some Elisabeths are comfortable either in ‘Dich, teure Halle’ or in the exquisite prayer to the Madonna in Act Three, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen.’ Davidsen sings the latter as beguilingly as she sings the former, the expressivity of her vocalism enhanced by the eloquence of her phrasing. Every listener who believes that the essence of Wagner’s aesthetic is bombast without beauty should hear ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau.’ Listeners who believe that singing Wagner’s music requires power at the expense of pulchritude should hear Davidsen’s singing of Elisabeth’s music.

One of the most-discussed opera productions of 2018 was Katie Mitchell’s evocatively modern staging of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the musical nucleus of which was Davidsen’s beautifully-sung, movingly unaffected portrayal of the Prologue’s Prima donna and the mythological heroine into whom she metamorphoses in the Opera. The dramatic profile of Davidsen’s interpretation of her rôles in the Aix-en-Provence Ariadne auf Naxos transitioned from the aloof but slyly endearing singer of the Prologue to the despondent but dignified woman scarred by betrayal.

It is a woman of genuine psychological depth rather than a one-dimensional archetype who emerges in the soprano’s account of Ariadne’s monologue ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ on this disc. She displays an invaluable talent for using vocal effects to complement the emotional subtexts of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, but it is the confident ecstasy of her handling of Strauss’s music that bewitches. Singing forcefully when the composer so dictates, she never forces the voice. Ariadne has been sung credibly by voices as diverse as those of Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price, and Montserrat Caballé. Davidsen’s performance of ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ amalgamates the best traits of Ariadnes of the past with her own distinct artistry.

Composed and first published in 1894, the four Lieder that constitute Strauss’s Opus 27 were initially devised with piano accompaniment and later orchestrated by the composer. These are four of Strauss’s most familiar songs, but Davidsen does not rely upon tradition to supply interpretive nuances. Rather, she is guided by the texts, finding within the words of each Lied its musical and sentimental cadences. She voices ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ with ethereal grace, her tones unerringly placed and seemingly effortless. Strauss orchestrated ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ in 1948, contemporaneously with his composition of his Vier letzte Lieder, and the kinship between the works is here made poignantly conspicuous. In their performance of ‘Cäcilie,’ Davidsen and Salonen faithfully observe Strauss’s ‘Sehr lebhaft und drängend’ marking, producing an account of the song that rivals long-praised recordings of the piece.

Robert Heger’s orchestration of ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ receives a reading that feels both profoundly personal and aptly timeless, soprano and conductor fostering an environment of musical symbiosis in which their trust of one another—and of the music—yields unfiltered emotional directness. At least two recordings of Strauss conducting his orchestral arrangement of ‘Morgen!’ survive, and the performance on this disc has much in common with the earlier of Strauss’s recordings, a 1941 traversal with tenor Julius Patzak. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s artful playing of the violin solo echoes the subtleties of Davidsen’s navigation of the song’s melodic line. Like Patzak, Davidsen lends the song an understated urgency, voicing the words ‘und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen’ with compelling probity.

‘Wiegenlied,’ the first of the five Lieder of Opus 41, was completed in 1899, the year in which Strauss’s much-admired tone poem Ein Heldenleben was first performed. The atmosphere of the song could hardly be more different from that of the tone poem, but Davidsen finds in the lullaby a vain of slumbering heroism that her unwavering intonation awakens. A setting of a text by Swiss writer Betty Wehrli-Knobel, the song ‘Malven,’ composed in November 1948, was the last piece that Strauss completed. Instead of submitting the piece for publication, the composer presented the manuscript to Maria Jeritza, the Moravian soprano who created the title rôle in Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Unknown until after Jeritza’s death in 1982, ‘Malven’ was given its public première by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Martin Katz in 1985. Wolfgang Rihm’s orchestration is employed for Davidsen’s performance of the song, which glows with the ‘himmlischen Licht’ evoked by the text.

The culmination of the composer’s career-long passion for the soprano voice, Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder were completed in 1948, when their creator was eighty-four years old, and first performed on 22 May 1950, eight months after Strauss’s death. To view the Vier letzte Lieder from the perspective of Strauss’s most enduringly popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier, the songs have been sung in the seven decades since their première by Marschallins, Octavians, and Sophies, but the task of introducing the songs to the public was entrusted in fulfillment of one of Strauss’s final wishes to Kirsten Flagstad.

Despite the recommendation of the doyen of German repertory at The Metropolitan Opera, Artur Bodanzky, that the Marschallin be among the rôles that she should prepare before offering her services in New York, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio was the only part in an opera not by Wagner that Flagstad ultimately sang at the MET. Strauss greatly admired Flagstad but had not heard her voice since conducting a 1933 Bayreuth performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in which she was the soprano soloist. In the subsequent fifteen years, Flagstad’s instrument had lost some of its youthful flexibility. When Flagstad sang the first performance of the Vier letzte Lieder in 1950, hers was the voice of a late-career Brünnhilde and Isolde, heavier than a voice like that of the composer’s wife Pauline for which the Lieder were likely conceived, but the beauty and earnestness of her singing, qualities that overcome the poor sound of the recording of the occasion, revealed the wistful glories of the penultimate fruit of Strauss’s musical storytelling.

Flagstad’s colleagues in the world première of Vier letzte Lieder were the Philharmonia and celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Under Salonen’s direction, today’s Philharmonia musicians play Strauss’s score with a synthesis of Romanticism and modernity. Salonen does not overlook the fact that, though they are resolutely tonal and accessibly tuneful, the Lieder are mid-Twentieth-Century works, written in the year that Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw were first performed.

The Lieder are here performed in the sequence that has become customary rather than the order in which Flagstad sang them, beginning with ‘Frühling.’ Though its companions remained in her repertoire, Flagstad did not return to ‘Frühling’ and substituted the G two tones lower for its top B in the première. As in ‘Dich, teure Halle,’ Davidsen soars to the B exultantly. The vernal lightness that challenges the prevailing melancholy of the Lieder is only partially realized, but the freshness of the soprano’s singing appealingly brightens the soundscape. Horn soloist Nigel Black contributes hauntingly to a sublime reading of ‘September’ in which Davidsen’s vocal depiction of the warmth of Indian summer is gradually muted by the words’ crepuscular sobriety.

Visontay’s violin is a source of comforting beauty in ‘Beim Schlafengehen.’ The expressive acuity of Davidsen’s performance here reaches its apex, the voice engaging in a duet of such tender discourse that the ears almost attribute words to the horn’s replies. Few composers have evinced the resigned relief of a wanderer at a journey’s end more serenely than Strauss did in ‘Im Abendrot.’ Salonen and Davidsen dedicate themselves to serving the text without surrendering to the temptation to impose metaphysical complexities on Strauss’s musical treatment. At its core, this is simple music, its meandering harmonies progressing inexorably to the fading trills with which it gives way to silence. Rather than battling the orchestra as some singers do, Davidsen listens to the instruments’ voices and adds her sound to the theirs like a bird joining a flock migrating towards an inviting sunset. This is not easy music, however, and Davidsen deftly and intrepidly meets its demands; an accomplishment of which only an excellent voice bolstered by a superlative technique is capable.

Nordic voices are often said to possess a timbral coolness that recalls the frigid climates that nourished them, but Scandinavia is also the land of the Northern Lights. It is this blazing wonder of nature that the singing on this disc mirrors. Virtually every listener has personal favorite interpreters of the music on this awe-inspiring disc, and the intention of this release undoubtedly is not to mimic or supplant them. This is a recording that should be appraised on its own terms, not as a competitor but as a peer of the great recordings of the past. With these dazzling performances of music by Wagner and Strauss, Lise Davidsen exclaims to the world, ‘Hier bin ich!’

IN REVIEW: Soprano LISE DAVIDSEN in the title rôle of Festival d'Aix-en-Provence's 2018 production of Richard Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d'Aix-en-Provence]Strauss songstress: soprano Lise Davidsen in the title rôle of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s 2018 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos
[Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence]

03 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti & Giuseppe Verdi — VERDI ● DONIZETTI (Michael Fabiano, tenor; Pentatone PTC 5186 750)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti & Giuseppe Verdi - VERDI ● DONIZETTI (Pentatone PTC 5186 750)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Verdi ● DonizettiMichael Fabiano, tenor; London Voices; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Enrique Mazzola, conductor [Recorded in St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, August and September 2018; Pentatone PTC 5186 750; 1 CD, 57:03; Available from Pentatone, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Assessing the technical and artistic merits of voices is a divisive endeavor in any context, but in the realm of aficionados by whom voices and music written for them are revered it can be dangerous. This assertion seems ridiculous, but it should be remembered that as earnest a proponent of important voices as Schuyler Chapin, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera for four tumultuous seasons in the 1970s and one of opera’s true gentlemen, received death threats from New York’s organized crime families for suggesting to the aging Renata Tebaldi that she might consider singing a few carefully-selected mezzo-soprano rôles. His dual aims were prolonging the career and preserving the legacy of one of opera’s greatest singers, but the reaction to what some of the soprano’s admirers perceived as an unforgivable affront is indicative of the fervor with which aficionados debate the virtues and vices of voices and the singers who brandish them.

It is unlikely that any singer in the history of opera has garnered universal acclaim or condemnation. Wagnerians who recognize no idols other than Kirsten Flagstad allege that Birgit Nilsson’s singing was cold and mechanical: Nilsson’s champions assert that Flagstad’s characterizations were inert and matronly. Perceptions of artistry are as subjective as those of natural wonders: there are always observers who regard the Grand Canyon as an over-hyped hole in the ground. Like the river that carved the Grand Canyon, voices can sometimes seem like ungovernable forces of nature, functioning independently of their owners’ artistic impulses, but the finest voices are managed with meticulous control that requires intellectual engagement matching the caliber of the natural instrument. That tenor Michael Fabiano has a voice with a rare ability to enthrall is unmistakable, but his singing’s power to inspire what in opera can be regarded as universal appreciation is evidence of artistic acuity of the sort for which listeners yearn.

Since being selected as the 2014 recipient of the prestigious prize awarded by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Fabiano has assumed a prominent rôle in the generation of young American tenors whose work furthers Tucker’s initiatives to cultivate, celebrate, and encourage artistry of the highest order among America’s singers. During his three-decade MET career, Tucker excelled in a varied repertoire that encompassed Ferrando and Tamino in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and many of Verdi’s and Puccini’s leading rôles for tenor.

In the trajectory of his career to date, Fabiano has exhibited artistic kinship with Tucker, having enjoyed success in rôles that formed the foundation of his forebear’s career. With his début recording for Pentatone, expertly engineered to place the voice in a vibrant but remarkably clean acoustical space, Fabiano examines the artistic kinship that linked Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi via the work of the tenors who sang their music. Through his performances with Arturo Toscanini, Tucker had a direct connection to Verdi: though he was born after Tucker’s untimely death, Fabiano honors his memory ​by continuing the legacy of advancing respect both for opera in America and for American singers in the opera community by singing with musicality and artistic integrity that pay homage to Tucker, Toscanini, and the heritage they sustained.

The study of history relies upon chronologies, but the evolution of music has rarely been straightforwardly linear. That bel canto existed long before it was refined by Donizetti is apparent in the almost Bellinian vocal line of a piece like Oronte’s aria ‘Un momento di contento’ in Händel’s Alcina: proof of bel canto’s survival far beyond the careers of Donizetti and Verdi can be found in the music of Philip Glass—though repetitive, the writing for Gandhi in Satyagraha embodies a bel canto aesthetic—and Jake Heggie. It is not difficult to erroneously glean from musicological analysis of Italian opera in the Nineteenth Century that, with his post-Nabucco operas, Verdi wrote the obituary for true bel canto, but this disc guides the listener to the discovery of a vastly different reality.

Though it can be argued that in propelling operatic expressivity towards verismo Verdi obliterated the formulaic tenets of bel canto, it cannot be denied that a piece like Rodolfo’s oft-excerpted aria from Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a paragon of bel canto grace. One of Fabiano’s most notable triumphs in Verdi repertory was his unapologetically romantic portrayal of Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Luisa Miller, and he revisits the character’s music by opening this disc with deftly-delivered accounts of the recitative ‘Oh! fede negar potessi’ and aria ‘Quando le sere al placido.’ Liberated from the necessity of projecting a column of sound into the vast expanse of a space like that of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the tenor’s singing of the aria is here more nuanced than it was in San Francisco. Shifts in dynamics and vocal coloring are more pronounced, and the immediacy of his verbal articulation is undiminished. Fabiano approaches the aria not as a showpiece but as a moment of reflection in Rodolfo’s dramatic development, accentuating the manner in which Verdi integrated the subtle hues of bel canto into the bolder tones of his musical palette.

The Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto is another rôle in which Fabiano has won praise from both critics and audiences, not least in Claus Guth’s 2016 Opéra de Paris production. On stage, Fabiano is a Duca whose actions disclose inner conflict: credible as a dangerously seductive cad, his interpretation of the part also conveys a redeeming vulnerability, intimating that the Duca’s debauchery is driven as much by desperation born of the loneliness of his position as by libido. In this recorded performance of the Duca’s most famous music, ‘La donna è mobile,’ the focus is primarily on the aria’s musical impact, but the tenor’s singing imparts compelling dramatic impetus. Sounding alluringly youthful but wearied by the demands of his rank, this Duca’s commentary on the fickleness of women and their affections seems empirical rather than cynical. Vocally, Fabiano brings a bronzed, virile timbre to the music, lending even the flippant cadenza uncommon gravitas.

Following his Festival début as Alfredo in La traviata in 2014, the title rôle in Donizetti’s tale of Christian piety, conjugal love, and martyrdom in Imperial Rome, Poliuto, endeared Fabiano to Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s discerning patrons anew in 2015. Glyndebourne’s Poliuto was conducted by Enrique Mazzola, whose marshaling of the stylishly sonorous vocal and instrumental forces of London Voices and the London Philharmonic Orchestra contributes indelibly to the success of this release. With the conductor’s support, the tenor offers a performance of ‘Veleno è l’aura ch’io respiro’ that is genuinely communicative, his diction heightening the aural impact of the words. The momentum with which he advances the melodic line in ‘Fu macchiato l’onor mio’ confirms the potency of the composer’s theatrical savvy. Fabiano sings the cabaletta ‘Sfolgorò divino raggio’ with ardent swagger that elucidates the skill with which Donizetti adapted the principles of bel canto to his own unique dramatic sensibilities. The tenor is in easy, exhilarating voice in all of the selections on this disc, but his singing of this music from Poliuto is a valuable document of his mastery of bel canto.

From the lean lyricism of Ferruccio Tagliavini to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers, a surprising array of voices have effectively sung Verdi’s music for Gustavo—or his American alter ego Riccardo—in Un ballo in maschera. The blend of light-hearted jocundity, amorous zeal, and inviolable commitment to duty that makes Gustavo difficult to portray convincingly suits Fabiano’s stage persona, by which the joyous facets of even the most tragic figures are illuminated. In his singing of ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ and ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’ on this disc, the relationship between Fabiano and Richard Tucker is especially meaningful. An integral component of Tucker’s memorable interpretation of Riccardo was his capacity for plausibly shouldering the weight of the affairs of state that trouble the man without overshadowing the ebullience that is the core of his charisma. Fabiano achieves this, too, the duality of Gustavo’s constitution manifested in his candid, unreserved vocalism. His dedication to fully realizing the dramatic potential of every rôle that he depicts can occasionally lead Fabiano to sing too strenuously, but his earnestness in this miniature portrait of Gustavo never overwhelms his innate musicality.

Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a part that Fabiano sang with the gusto that has become a hallmark of his artistry even when he was a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, and his returns to the character in the Spring 2018 revival of the MET’s Mary Zimmerman production and in Opera Australia’s July 2018 staging disclosing the thoughtfulness with which he continues to hone his interpretation of the rôle. In the performance on this disc, a deluge of anguish surges in his voicing of ‘Tombe degli avi miei,’ the despair of a young man reeling from his beloved’s betrayal evoked in the singer’s febrile phrasing. The poise of his singing of ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ contrasts tellingly with the angst of the preceding recitative, reflecting the solemnity that Edgardo feels amidst the tombs of his ancestors. The inviolable security of the tenor’s intonation throughout the range gives his Edgardo greater strength than some interpreters of the music can muster, again revealing the narrowness of the musical divide between Donizetti and Verdi.

At this juncture in his career, the younger tenor’s voice does not possess the pulse-quickening thrust at the very top that his illustrious predecessor’s voice wielded, but, in the performance of the recitative ‘Qual sangue sparsi’ and aria ‘S’affronti la morte’ from the 1862 St. Petersburg version of Verdi’s La forza del destino that is one of this disc’s musical zeniths, Fabiano’s timbre is often arrestingly reminiscent of Franco Corelli’s. Fabiano’s forays into heavier Verdi repertory have thus far been confined to the title rôle in Don Carlo, but this performance of Alvaro’s death scene, excised when Verdi revised La forza del destino for its 1869 La Scala première, provides a tantalizing preview of future endeavors. Though La forza del destino is unquestionably a more coherent work in the 1869 guise that is typically preferred in modern stagings, the beauty and brawn of Fabiano’s traversal of ‘S’affronti la morte’ grant credence to the efficacy of Verdi’s first thoughts on the opera’s ending. Fabiano’s vigorous but appropriately-scaled singing also reminds Twenty-First-Century listeners that, two decades before the première of La forza del destino, the first Alvaro, the Roman tenor Enrico Tamberlik, made his operatic début as Gennaro in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgina, another rôle that Fabiano has sung with great success.

First performed at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater in 1843, Maria di Rohan is deemed by some musicologists to be Donizetti’s finest score despite the neglect from which it is only beginning to emerge. A compact, fast-moving drama, the opera is indisputably distinguished by some of its composer’s most thrilling and emotionally affecting music. The brilliance of Fabiano’s performance of Chalais’s brief aria ‘Alma soave e cara’ is wholly worthy of the music: the voice intertwining with a lovely flute obbligato, the sentiments of the text are entrancingly limned with bel canto sensitivity.

Aside from Nabucco, which has clung to popularity with audiences, Verdi’s early operas sadly have not sustained the attention that they received in conjunction with 2013’s celebrations of the Verdi bicentennial. Charges that the scores that came before the transformative triumvirate of La traviata, Rigoletto, and Il trovatore—pieces that are now frequently denigrated, as well—are musically inferior to the composer’s later masterworks are not unfounded, but there are abundant pleasures to be found in the early operas, foremost among which is a profusion of unforgettable Italianate melodies that no other composer’s efforts have surpassed.

Unlike its fellow products of Verdi’s ‘galley years,’ Ernani continues to be performed with relative regularity, including at the MET, where, in 101 performances between 1903 and 2015, the title rôle has been sung by an impressive progression of lauded tenors including Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. Proving himself to be a splendidly-qualified prospective Ernani [rôle débuts as both Ernani and Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera are planned for future seasons], Fabiano sings ‘Odi il voto’ with a bona fide Verdian line, and his reading of the cabaletta ‘Sprezzo la vita’ resounds with heroic fortitude. Here and in all of the performances on this disc, ascents above the stave are always evocations of the character’s predicament rather than demonstrations of the singer’s ego.

Jacopo Foscari, the younger half of the eponymous Byronic protagonists of Verdi’s I due Foscari, is a rôle for which Fabiano’s emotive immediacy is ideal, and he sings both ‘Notte, perpetua notte’ and ‘Non maledirmi’ with attention to detail that uncannily adheres to the requisite bel canto idiom whilst also emphasizing the ingenuity with which the young Verdi transcended conventionality. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, premièred at La Scala in 1839, and, though its first production was lukewarmly received, the promise apparent in the score was sufficient to prompt La Scala’s management to commission Verdi to compose two additional operas for the theater. On disc, Fabiano’s best-known rival in Riccardo’s music is Carlo Bergonzi. In these performances of ‘Ciel, che feci!’ and ‘Ciel pietoso,’ he does not yet equal Bergonzi’s finesse, but the voice, very different from Bergonzi’s, withstands comparison with the most exalted standards of Verdi singing.

Fabiano is one of the few living tenors of international renown who can boast of singing Corrado in a complete performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro [the 2014 Washington Concert Opera performance in which he portrayed Corrado is reviewed here]. He is unlikely to have plentiful opportunities to return to Corrado’s music, making the inclusion of a scene from Il corsaro on this disc all the more welcome. Fabiano voices both ‘Ah sì, ben dite’ and ‘Tutto parea sorridere’ handsomely, his burnished tones engendering an impression of maturity atypical for a singer who has only recently celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday. The cabaletta ‘Pronti siate a seguitarmi’ is a prototype for Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore, and Fabiano sings it with the swashbuckling masculinity of an important Manrico in the making. He has captivated audiences with his portrayals of rôles including Gounod’s Faust, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Jean in Massenet’s Hérodiade, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, but his singing on this disc establishes the operas of Donizetti and Verdi as this stage animal’s musical natural habitat.

Activist, indefatigable advocate for Arts education, aviation enthusiast, avid sports fan, and debonair man about town, Michael Fabiano revives the jet-setting glamour of opera’s storied past in an era in which not even the greatest artists escape the scrutiny of naysayers armed with internet access and social media accounts. Glamour is a vital aspect of the operatic experience, perhaps more so in today’s age of high-definition cinecasts than ever before, but the most basic ingredient in an operatic feast is the same now as it was when Donizetti and Verdi were testing their musical recipes: the voice. The sounds made by Fabiano on this disc are those of a major voice that is already extraordinary but not yet in its prime. That is to say that, building upon the accomplishment of this fantastic recording, the best is yet to come for this artist who, like Donizetti and Verdi, is redefining opera.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHAEL FABIANO in the title rôle of San Francisco Opera's 2016 production of Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLO [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Verified Verdian: tenor Michael Fabiano in the title rôle of San Francisco Opera’s 2016 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

02 May 2019

CD REVIEW: Jean Sibelius — SYMPHONY NO. 1 (Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; ATMA Classique ACD2 2452)

IN REVIEW: Jean Sibelius - SYMPHONY NO. 1 (ATMA Classique ACD2 2452)JEAN SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957): Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded in Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada, in October 2018; ATMA Classique ACD2 2452; 1 CD, 41:06; Available from ATMA Classique, Naxos Direct, Amazon (Canada), Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is unlikely that any serious musician pursuing a career in North America has escaped being regaled with the adage that stipulates that the path to New York City’s Carnegie Hall, revered as a sort of Mecca for concert artists, is peregrinated with practice, practice, practice. The peril of conventional wisdom is that it is often more conventional than wise, but few musicians with genuine affection for their work would contradict the assertion that, even for artists with extraordinary natural talent, the only true means of achieving greatness is a continuous process of honing, refining, and renewing one’s craft.

Assessing artists’ significance is an inherently subjective undertaking, but there are finite criteria that determine an instrumentalist’s qualification for consideration. Any piece of music presents its own unique challenges, and a musician’s technical proficiency either is or is not equal to the music’s demands. There are also appraisable aspects of a conductor’s artistry, among which baton technique is perhaps the most visible, but evaluation of a conductor’s importance is affected to an even greater extent than analysis of an instrumentalist’s noteworthiness by intrepretive acuity.

A professional orchestra deserving of that designation can maintain musical integrity without the guidance of a conductor, but the reputation of the personage on the podium is founded upon subtleties that are perceived and esteemed differently by each listener. The physical dimension of conducting notwithstanding, a conductor’s success is innately ephemeral. Colloquially, it might be said that the proof of a conductor’s merit is in the hearing. Hearing this ATMA Classique recording of Jean Sibelius’s First Symphony, expertly engineered to faithfully reproduce the rich acoustic of Montréal’s Maison symphonique, is a gratifyingly visceral experience. The performance exudes a vitality that is achieved in the recording studio only by a conductor who respects the music and commands the respect of his musical collaborators. Are those not two crucial measures of a conductor’s artistic value?

At an age at which some of the most admired conductors of previous generations essentially remained apprentices, Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has built a career that has already encompassed leadership positions with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Metropolitan Opera, with the last of which institutions he is completing his first season as Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director with performances of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It is in his capacity as Music and Artistic Director of his native city’s Orchestre Métropolitain that he leads this performance of Sibelius’s Opus 39 Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

Nézet-Séguin has been fortunate to inherit from his predecessors resilient orchestras, and his effective, nurturing direction has bolstered the standards of excellence achieved by Orchestre Métropolitain. The performance on this disc conveys an engrossing sense of occasion, orchestral balances meticulously matched to the music and the space in which it was recorded. The understated rhythmic precision that has become a hallmark of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting is particularly apparent in this performance: at the core of even the most rhapsodic passages is a robust beat that intensifies the continuity of the conductor’s handling of this score.

Born in the Finnish city of Hämeenlinna in 1865, the ethnically Swedish Sibelius would ultimately become the globally-recognized ambassador for Finnish music and the Finnish people’s quest for absolute cultural and political autonomy from czarist Russia. Like many Scandinavian musicians, Sibelius received a musical education that was strongly influenced by the Teutonic tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann—a tradition in which the symphony was the principal mode of large-scaled orchestral expression.

Completed when the composer was thirty-three years old, the first of Sibelius’s seven symphonies was premièred by the Helsinki Philharmonic in 1899. Exhibiting the stark judgment of his own work later epitomized by his relative avoidance of composition during the final three decades of his life, Sibelius substantially revised the score after the first performance and may have destroyed the original manuscript, which has never resurfaced. His six subsequent works in the form would further develop Sibelius’s singular voice as a symphonist, but his inaugural effort established him as a peer of Bruckner and Brahms.

With a duration of 12:25, Nézet-Séguin’s traversal of the symphony’s opening movement is unusually expansive, but his pacing facilitates both exceptional clarity in the realizations of Sibelius’s orchestral textures and striking contrasts among the majestic fanfares for brass and percussion, the gossamer figurations for the strings and harp, the latter beautifully played by Danièle Habel, and the playful, almost rustic writing for the woodwinds. The plaintively meandering clarinet solo that introduces the Andante, ma non troppo passage is thoughtfully phrased by Orchestre Métropolitain’s principal clarinetist, Simon Aldrich, and his colleagues in all sections of the orchestra deliver their solos with unfluctuating musicality. The transition to the movement’s Allegro energico section is intelligently navigated by the conductor and zestfully executed by the orchestra.

An atmosphere of impending misfortune permeates the start of the Andante, ma non troppo lento movement, but, sensitive to the momentum generated by Sibelius’s thematic metamorphoses, Nézet-Séguin does not surrender to tragedy. Rather, he conjures a tonal environment in which moments of mystery are resolved by bursts of melody. His is a notably optimistic reading of the piece: whilst wholly respecting the fundamental structure of the movement, he emphasizes the expressive significance of the brightness that penetrates the music’s gloom, finding more excitement than angst in the agitation that propels the movement to its tranquil conclusion, which in this performance suggests a cathartic moment of relief after a grave emotional struggle.

In comparison with similar movements in the symphonies of other consequential contributors to the genre, Sibelius’s Allegro Scherzo is especially unconventional. This Scherzo is anything but the expected jocular episode: the disquiet of the preceding movement returns, only temporarily abated, infusing the music with an oppressive uncertainty. The orchestra’s opulent but astonishingly transparent sound potently imparts the distress that haunts the music, but here, too, Nézet-Séguin pursues a course that circumvents unequivocal desolation. His approach to this music is uncommonly attentive to the fact that, as surely in music as in nature, shadows cannot exist without light. The Orchestre Métropolitain’s playing echoes this conviction, lending the ambiguous stretto an undertone of hesitant contentment.

Marked ‘quasi una fantasia’ by Sibelius, the symphony’s Finale undulates from an initial Andante through a progression of tempi and temperaments that recapitulates the dramatic journey of the previous movements with ambivalence reminiscent of the final movements of Mahler’s symphonies. Nézet-Séguin’s management of the lyrical effusions spotlights the kinship between Sibelius’s and Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing. In this performance, the brief but meaningful silences that punctuate the symphony’s last pages are staggeringly jarring. The conductor employs these abrupt interruptions in the narrative’s dénouement as opportunities for aural palate-cleansing, preparing the listener for the movement’s terminal trajectory. Even with the portentous din of the percussion, the symphony seems not to truly end but merely to stop. Instead of imposing a speculatory resolution upon the music, Nézet-Séguin leaves the impression of the symphony’s final movement being a flow of thought that exhausts and then pauses to replenish its musical resources.

Since Robert Kajanus, who conducted the first performance of Sibelius’s revision of the First Symphony in 1900, recorded the work with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1930, this score has presented listeners with difficult choices. This is a piece that affirms that the notion of any interpreter or performance being the ‘greatest of all time’ is as stupid in music as in sports. The composer having appreciated the young conductor’s earliest recordings of his music, Herbert von Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon account of the First Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker has long enjoyed exalted status, but dozens of challengers have widened and complicated the symphony’s discography. It is fatuous to argue that this or any recording of Sibelius’s First Symphony is definitive, but this performance and its conductor wield greatness very persuasively.

01 May 2019

April 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Georg Friedrich Händel — TOTAL ECLIPSE: MUSIC FOR HANDEL’S TENOR (Aaron Sheehan, tenor; Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra; Stephen Stubbs, conductor; Naxos 8.573914)

April 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Georg Friedrich Händel - TOTAL ECLIPSE: MUSIC FOR HANDEL'S TENOR (Naxos 8.573914)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Total Eclipse: Music for Handel’s TenorAaron Sheehan, tenor; Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra; Stephen Stubbs, lute, guitar, and conductor [Recorded in St. Thomas Chapel, Kenmore, Washington, USA, 21 – 24 February 2017; Naxos 8.573914; 1 CD, 68:00; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is impossible to discern precisely when the cult of celebrity in the modern sense first welcomed singers into the coven of social sorcery. Both the mythological Orpheus and the biblical David can be said to be early examples of musicians whose abilities to utilize their prodigious gifts to literally and symbolically influence others’ actions and perceptions spurred analysis, emulation, and adulation. Whether societal lionization of legendary musicians originated in antiquity with figures like Orpheus and David or is a more recent phenomenon, history documents that, by the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, some of the most widely-acclaimed figures in Western culture were musical artists. Aside from military leaders, monarchs, and saints, few people were as universally idolized in previous eras as the castrati Carlo Broschi and Francesco Bernardi, familiar throughout Europe as Farinelli and Senesino, were in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. Their notoriety among their contemporaries was perhaps rivaled only by appreciation of Voltaire, Goethe, and George Washington. Neither Johann Sebastian Bach nor Georg Friedrich Händel was as famous in his lifetime as Farinelli and Senesino were in theirs, and not even the extraordinary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now virtually worshiped, enjoyed the respect and adoration that Farinelli and Senesino commanded.

In a broad sense, opera was more of an entertainment for the wealthy and privileged in the Eighteenth Century than it is in today’s pay-to-play society. Public theaters were uncommon, and aristocratic patronage was a critical component of the success of any musical endeavor. In London, the rival opera companies operated by Händel and his detractors respectively relied upon the financial backing of the royal family and a consortium of noblemen whose efforts were governed at least as much by politics as by art. It was battle between factions that brought Senesino and Farinelli to London, the former initially committed to Händel’s Royal Academy of Music and the latter seeking to bolster his former tutor Nicola Porpora’s leadership of the Opera of the Nobility. During the course of Händel’s half-century career in London, he endured more betrayals and shifting alliances than there are in the plots of his operas. He recognized, respected, and rewarded loyalty, however, and few singers have been more loyal to a composer and his work than English tenor John Beard was to Händel. Though not as known beyond Britain as his higher-voiced counterparts, Beard served Händel with devotion that inspired some of the composer’s finest music.

The infamously cantankerous Händel would perhaps have rejected the notion of Beard being a muse for him, but their artistic partnership was a prototype for the beneficial relationships between Rossini and Adolphe Nourrit, Bellini and Giovanni Battista Rubini, and Britten and Sir Peter Pears. Variously reported as having been born in 1716 or 1717, Beard first worked with Händel in the winter of 1734, when, still an adolescent, he appeared alongside another of the Eighteenth Century’s star castrati, Carestini, and the widely-fêted dancer Marie Sallé in the second revival of Il pastor fido. This launched a collaboration that continued until Händel’s death in 1759, encompassing Beard’s creation of rôles in several of the composer’s operas, including Lurcanio in Ariodante, Oronte in Alcina, and Vitaliano in Giustino.

In 1735, Beard interpreted the part of Mathan in the first London performance of Händel’s 1733 oratorio Athalia. This provided Händel with a new channel for his creativity: challenging the convention of assigning heroic male rôles to castrati, he devised the heroes in several of his English oratorios as tenor parts. In the next two decades, Beard originated the title rôles in Samson, Belshazzar, Jephtha, and Judas Maccabaeus, as well as Jonathan in Saul, Simeon and Judah in Joseph and his Brethren, the tenor solos in Israel in Egypt, and Jupiter in Semele. As this wonderful homage from tenor Aaron Sheehan, Pacific MusicWorks, conductor Stephen Stubbs, and Naxos proclaims, Beard was indeed ‘Händel’s tenor.’ Senesino’s musical legacy has been extensively explored on recordings: this disc reveals that Beard’s artistry is no less deserving of commemoration.

Seattle has long been rightly celebrated as America’s Bayreuth, Seattle Opera’s enterprising Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival having nurtured an association between metropolitan Seattle and the operas of Richard Wagner that continues today. The initiatives of Pacific MusicWorks are now giving the Emerald City a presence in the global historically-informed Early Music community that rivals its Wagnerian prominence. Under the direction of Stubbs, an eminent scholar and advocate of period-appropriate performance practices, Pacific MusicWorks’ musicians display technical and stylistic prowess worthy of comparison with the work of the most proficient period-instrument ensembles. Stubbs’s wonderfully alert, communicative playing of lute and guitar provides the pulse of each piece, creating a compelling dialogue with keyboard virtuoso Adam Pearl, whose mastery of the art of inventive but unobtrusive realization of the continuo is apparent in every moment of his performance. Stubbs’s pacing of each of the pieces performed on this disc is guided by palpable understanding of and affection for the music, his fluency in Händel’s musical language disclosing how modern authenticity can sound.

The superlative caliber of the orchestra’s collective musicianship is demonstrated in performances of two of Händel’s Concerti grossi, both of them in B♭ major. The contrasts of forms, tempi, and dynamics among the movements of the concerti are exceptionally evident in these performances, but thematic links are also elucidated. The Vivace that introduces the HWV 313 Concerto is played with a level of energy that risks sloppiness, but tidiness of ensemble is an aspect of the orchestra’s virtuosity. The subsequent Largo is a tranquil sigh before the frenzy of the Allegro. The Minuet and Gavotte are here recognizably dances, their rhythms taut but elastic. HWV 325 opens with a Largo, played with gravitas befitting a performance of a Bach prelude, and the Allegro that follows is exciting but controlled. HWV 325’s Largo e piano movement is another temporary shelter from Händel’s musical tempest, and the Pacific MusicWorks instrumentalists perform it serenely. Stubbs reminds the listener that Andante in the Eighteenth Century was not the plodding speed that it became in the next century, and the Hornpipe’s rustic charm is enhanced by the spirit with which it is played.

John Beard’s voice was characterized by contemporary observers including the much-quoted Charles Burney as being more powerful than pretty—a description that cannot be employed in an assessment of Aaron Sheehan’s voice. As he has affirmed on previous recordings, a gem among which is his account with Stubbs of Händel’s Acis and Galatea [reviewed here], the younger tenor’s voice is a superbly-trained instrument in which tonal beauty and flexibility are supported by reserves of strength powered by projection rather than volume. This blend of finesse and fortitude lends Sheehan’s singing of music from Part Two of Alexander’s Feast (HWV 75) the sort of dramatic vitality that Händel likely received from Beard. Sheehan’s traversals of the recitative ‘Give the vengeance due’ and aria ‘The princes applaud with a furious joy,’ the former presented as an integral extension of the latter, are never overwrought, however: he identifies the moods of the music and text and makes them audible on an appropriate scale. The poetic integrity of the tenor’s handling of words gives his accounts of Moses’s song from Part Three of Israel in Egypt (HWV 54), ‘The enemy said, I will pursue,’ and the aria ‘Sharp violins proclaim their jealous pangs’ from Händel’s setting of John Dryden’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (HWV 76) unusual psychological depth. Meeting the demands of Händel’s vocal writing typically consumes singers’ resources, but the abundance of this singer’s technical wherewithal enables him to explore textual subtleties without jeopardizing musical adroitness.

Sheehan recently sang Jonathan in Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s San Francisco-area performances of Händel’s Saul (HWV 53), and he samples that rôle on this disc with some of the character’s most poignant music. The accompagnato ‘O filial piety!’ and air ‘No, cruel father, no!’ in Act One constitute one of Händel’s most emotionally powerful scenes, and Sheehan delivers the music with expressive expertise worthy of but wholly different from opera. Moving into the oratorio’s second act, he phrases the recitative ‘Ah, dearest friend’ with both tenacity and tenderness, and the eloquence with which he voices the air ‘But sooner Jordan’s stream’ creates a moving vignette of Jonathan’s fateful nobility. In some performances of Händel’s oratorios, it seems that the musical idiom—or, rather, fear of it—is an obstacle that separates singers from the emotions of the characters whom they are portraying or describing. Wholly comfortable with Eighteenth-Century modes of expression, Sheehan affirms that this is music to be felt, not merely sung.

Messiah (HWV 56) requires neither introduction nor espousal by accomplished singers, but singing of the quality brought by Sheehan to his performance of the tenor soloist’s sequence from Part Two of the oratorio is invaluable in any context. There is no artifice in his articulations of the recitative ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ or the affecting arioso ‘Behold and see if there be any sorrow.’ Händel famously wrote that, with Messiah, he aimed not solely to entertain listeners but also to enlighten and improve them. Performances of Messiah are so frequent that its emotional potency is easily neglected, especially by singers whose acceptance of invitations to sing the piece is motivated solely by the prospect of collecting a fee. As Sheehan’s readings of the very different but equally effective arias ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ and ‘Thou shalt break them’ intimates, the words of Messiah are Christian, but its themes of redemption through suffering, faith, and righteousness are universal. Musically, these selections from Messiah are sung marvelously. Ever tasteful, Sheehan’s ornaments are derived not from the singer’s ego but from the temperament of the music. As an English-speaking singer with special affinity for Händel’s music, Sheehan has perhaps participated in too many performances of Messiah to number, but he sings the excerpts on this disc with the immediacy of new discovery.

On 3 and 4 May 2019, Sheehan will sing the title rôle in Pacific MusicWorks’ performances of Händel’s Samson, and his performances of music from that score on Total Eclipse offer a gratifying preview of his portrayal of one of the most iconic biblical heroes. His singing of three airs from the oratorio’s first act establishes Samson as a charismatic man whose physical brawn masks spiritual vulnerability. The skill with which the tenor evokes turmoil without abusing the vocal line in the air ‘Torments, alas, are not confin’d’ is indicative of the essence of his artistry: not even the most ravishing sounds are acceptable if they do not echo the sentiments of the words that they enunciate. It is from the air ‘Total eclipse!’ that the title for this disc was taken, and it proves to be a wise choice. The piece is voiced with carefully-managed intensity that demonstrates how Beard eclipsed other tenors with whom Händel worked and how few modern interpreters of this music are capable of emerging from Sheehan’s shadow. The recitative ‘My griefs for this’ and air ‘Why does the God of Israel sleep?’ are delivered with sincerity and expressivity that overwhelm the listener but not the music. On records, at least, with a voice that was far larger, Jon Vickers was a Samson who sounded markedly smaller of emotional stature than the flawed but fervent man brought to life by Sheehan.

In the performance on this disc, the Act Two air ‘Your charms to ruin led the way’ is intriguingly introspective, Samson’s recriminations for his surrender to temptation addressed to his own weakness. An atmosphere of heightened self-cognizance also permeates the recitative ‘Let but that spirit’ and air ‘Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed’ from the oratorio’s third act, Sheehan’s vocalism touchingly imparting the character’s conflicting weariness and renewed hope. As assured in descents below the stave as in passages at the top of the range, Sheehan sings this music with confidence that does not beget complacency. There are occasional moments of toil in bravura passages, in which the tenor’s breath control unfailingly impresses, but the performances on this disc suggest that, in this repertory, effortlessness pales in comparison with earnestness.

The concept of opportunism is now marred by a pervasive pejorative connotation, but Händel indisputably made a virtue of seizing opportunities. With the music that he composed for John Beard, Händel capitalized on the opportunity of having at his disposal an artist whose musical and theatrical sensibilities paralleled his own. In the Twenty-First Century, the precarious state of funding for Arts projects leaves many opportunities unrealized. That Pacific MusicWorks’ goal of recording Aaron Sheehan’s performances of music that he was born to sing came to fruition is a triumph of planning that would have delighted Händel. Opportunism may be semantically unsavory, but, on Total Eclipse, it sounds spectacular.