25 August 2019

RECORDING REVIEW: Mason Bates — MASS TRANSMISSION (Cappella SF; Delos DE 3573)

IN REVIEW: Mason Bates - MASS TRANSMISSION (Delos 3573)MASON BATES (born 1977): Mass Transmission – Choral Works by Mason BatesCappella SF; Ragnar Bohlin, Artistic Director [Recorded at St. Ignatius Church and Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA, in January and March 2018; Delos DE 3573; 1 CD, 54:24; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether the music being performed is a marvel of polyphony by a Renaissance master, a Bach Passion, a Händel oratorio, a crowd scene from an opera by Verdi or Wagner, or a Mahler symphony, choral singing wields a communicative power that no other mode of musical expression can duplicate. To hear a good performance of a motet by Josquin des Prez, the prisoners’ chorus in Act One of Beethoven’s Fidelio, or Hindemith’s When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d is to participate, even when listening to a recording, in a communal celebration of music’s capacity to transform sounds into emotional conduits that transcend ordinary modes of interpersonal connection.

Were their texts wordless, the choral works by American composer Mason Bates on the captivating Delos release Mass Transmission would impart engagingly provocative messages, but, like choral music itself, this tunesmith’s music divulges a notable gift for crafting music that not only conveys, complements, and heightens the meanings of words but also facilitates the listener’s comprehension of subtleties that read and spoken words can at best only partially disclose. So spiritually resonant are the pieces on Mass Transmission—and so eloquent are these performances of them—that it almost seems as though this is not music at all. Rather, Bates has made the essence of humanity audible.

Planning, polishing, and performing works in an array of genres have taken Bates from his native Richmond, Virginia, to many of the world’s most prestigious concert venues, where he has collaborated with celebrated artists and ensembles. His relationship with the Chicago Symphony has proved to be particularly fruitful, not least on disc, and the recording of the Santa Fe production his opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs—the most successful production of a new work in Santa Fe Opera’s history—garnered the 2019 GRAMMY® award for Best Opera Recording.

Also much in demand on the nightclub circuit as DJ Masonic, Bates has cultivated a rare and eclectic expertise in the mixing of sonic timbres and textures. This talent for creating musical mosaics that depict the magnificent simplicity of the complexities of life, represented by disparate aural components, permeates the works on Mass Transmission, as well as his Children of Adam, commissioned by the Richmond Symphony in celebration of the orchestra’s sixtieth anniversary and forthcoming on compact disc via a Reference Recordings release. The most daunting task faced by an insightful composer is surely that of giving life to relevant narratives with sounds that are at once original, challenging, and convincing. In the music on Mass Transmission, Bates accomplishes that task with grit and grace.

Completed in 2009, Sirens is performed here in the composer’s version for twelve-part a cappella chorus. A tremendously demanding meditation on the physical, psychological, and philosophical consequences of resistance and surrender to internal and external seductions, the piece is performed by Cappella SF with the kind of hypnotic immediacy that a choir merely singing for studio microphones cannot project. Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin brings clear-sighted pragmatism to his conducting of this music, and the choir’s singing of the intertwining parts echoes the lucidity of his approach. It is unlikely that the San Francisco-based choristers have native speakers’ familiarity with the Greek text from Homer’s Odyssey that shapes the first segment of Sirens, but, guided by the cadences of the music, they enunciate the words as though their second home is an Athenian amphitheater.

One of the best-known literary incarnations of a cornerstone motif of German Romanticism, Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Lorelei,’ becomes in Bates’s treatment an unsettlingly personal interlude, and the singing lures the listener into the mesmerizing intricacies of the vocal writing. The words of Pietro Arentino’s ‘Stelle, vostra mercè l’eccelse sfere’ drew from Bates’s imagination music of absorbing individuality, the inventiveness of which is appealingly accentuated by Bohlin and the singers. The text of ‘Sirinu nuqa rikunia’ is a beautiful passage in the indigenous language of the Quechua peoples of South America, a wrenchingly timely allusion in this season during which swaths of the Amazonian rain forest are burning. Quechua civilizations largely inhabited mountainous regions of their continent, but their words, evocatively set by Bates and exquisitely sung by Cappella SF, are an apt ambassador for South America’s environmental and cultural crises. ‘Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee’ from the biblical Book of Matthew is similarly current, the evangelist’s imagery receiving from the composer’s music increased, sometimes astonishing modernity. The return of words from Homer’s Odyssey in the last of Sirens’ songs precipitates a cathartic surge of emotional growth and self-awareness. Hearing this music is not a passive undertaking: this is a performance that an attentive listener will feel.

The disc’s eponymous work, Mass Transmission, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony as a headlining work for the 2012 Mavericks Festival. Fascinatingly, its poignant texts were taken from sources as unlikely as a document published by the government of the Netherlands and the diary of a Dutch citizen residing in Indonesia. In its sequence of movements, Mass Transmission examines the ramifications of separation from the perspective of a mother and her daughter, the former in Holland and the latter a continent away on the island of Java. With his music, Bates elucidates every unexpected expressive nuance of the impersonal bureaucratic language in ‘The Dutch Telegraph Office.’ The tone of the writer’s words in ‘Java’ is sporadically reminiscent of the fragile but fiercely unflappable spirit that emerges from Anne Frank’s diary. ‘Wireless Connections’ is a modern motet of the sort that Claudio Monteverdi might have written were he living in an age of interminable profusions of words without substance or significance. Bates’s music is ever on the cusp of cacophony. In Mass Transmission, he takes sounds and words to the precipice of atonality, not as a means of forging a dull alloy of musical modernity but as a way of renewing the timeless oracle of choral music.

Vocally and interpretively, soprano Cara Gabrielson and mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen partner their Cappella SF colleagues excellently, their artistry lending the words the honesty of genuine conversation. Though the musical idioms are very different, the playing of organist Isabelle Demers recalls Marie-Claire Alain’s performances of the music of her brother Jehan, who perished in the Second World War. Her commitment to the music is no less than the composer’s, who here provides the music’s electronica elements. Soloists, choristers, organist, composer, and conductor devote themselves to serving the words and the stories that they tell. These artists are no pantomime players: they are sensitive, sonorous surrogates in whose performances the sentiments that they express become their own.

The emotional potency of Mass Transmission is a testament to Bates’s genius in composing pieces that meaningfully realize the ‘e pluribus unum’ potential of choral music, uniting many individual voices in a single stream of sound, sometimes a deafening deluge and sometimes barely a trickle, that overcomes obstacles of difference and division. A critically important voice in the chorus of artists whose contributions fostered the success of Mass Transmission is that of recording engineer David v.R. Bowles.

A skilled engineer’s goal is to manufacture an aural atmosphere in which his work is imperceptible, eliminating the tangible and intangible distances that isolate listeners from performers. True to his reputation, Bowles achieves this spectacularly on Mass Transmission, but his work on this disc is not merely the science of turning dials and manipulating channels. His is the artistry of a creator, in addition to that of a craftsman, akin to the efforts of a master translator whose translations have their own literary merit. On this disc, Bowles’s expertise yields a recorded ambiance in which Bates’s music seems as organic a part of existence as birdsong, roaring thunder, and whispered words of love and comfort.

The ‘bonus’ inclusion of a wonderful performance of the three-and-a-half-minute jewel ‘Rag of Ragnar’ to conclude Mass Transmission begets a parable about this disc and the composer whose music it showcases. Drinking from the spring that nourished the great creators of choral music of the past, a composer might understandably hoard the refreshment gathered from those waters. He might collect and closely guard ideas with justifiable concern for the advancement of his career. There is no question that a composer’s reputation benefits from a recording of the quality of Mass Transmission, but this is not a disc that ostentatiously seeks to impress. Rather, Mass Transmission earnestly seeks to inspire. Mason Bates does not drink his fill from the fountain of inspiration and then turn away. With his music, he fills a chalice and invites every listener to savor the undiluted elixir of choral song.

19 August 2019

August 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gioachino Rossini — GIOVIN FIAMMA (Levy Sekgapane, tenor; Prima Classic PRIMA002)

August 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gioachino Rossini - GIOVIN FIAMMA (Levy Sekgapane, tenor; Prima Classic PRIMA002)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Giovin fiammaLevy Sekgapane, tenor; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Giacomo Sagripanti, conductor [Recorded in Bayerischer Rundfunk Studio 1, Munich, Germany, 26 February – 3 March 2018; Prima Classic PRIMA002; 1 CD, 63:54; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

If one’s objective is to ignite impassioned debates amongst opera lovers, there is no spark more certain of starting confrontational conflagrations than the assessment of Fächer. Since the premature decline of the celebrated Cornélie Falcon’s vocal prowess precipitated the search for fellow exponents of the Fach that now bears her name, the business of categorizing voices according to subjective parameters has been a contentious endeavor. Though some species are critically endangered, nature’s falcons remain considerably more plentiful than opera’s Falcons, yet suggesting that Maria Callas was perhaps a Falcon provokes volleys of indignant dismissal from advocates of spinto, drammatico d’agilità, and other Fächer. A marvel of the human voice is that a physiological apparatus of unchanging basic construction produces such a remarkable array of voice types. Extraordinary, too, is the capacity of ears to hear identical sounds so differently.

Encompassing nearly a century of musical invention, ranging from rôles like Oronte in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina and Mozart’s operatic protagonists to parts in Giuseppe Verdi’s early operas, bel canto writing for the tenor voice engendered a variety of Fächer, some of which are now erroneously cited interchangeably to describe singers whose voices likely little resemble those of their Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century counterparts. Terms such as tenore di grazia, tenorino, and tenore contraltino are used to characterize voices that are produced with resonance that differs markedly from that described by contemporaries of the tenors who worked with Händel, Gluck, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. With too many singers and their admirers now confusing volume with vocal amplitude, connoisseurs’ discussions of a singer’s Fach are complicated by misinformation, misconceptions, and ever-decreasing familiarity with the storied traditions of past generations of singers. A young singer cognizant of his own Fach and confident in his place in the lineage of the masters of the music he sings is uniquely equipped to set the opera world ablaze, renewing opera’s cauldron with a young flame.

Making his solo recording début with Giovin fiamma, the second release from Prima Classic, South African tenor Levy Sekgapane upholds the standard of excellence established by the label’s first disc, Marina Rebeka’s splendid Spirito [reviewed here]. The admirably clear, focused, natural aural perspective that so faithfully conveyed the beauty of Rebeka’s voice on Spirito here enables the listener to experience the tenor’s voice not as it sounds on his previous recordings, an enjoyable but flawed performance of Donizetti’s Enrico di Borgogna and contributions to Amor fatale, Marina Rebeka’s disc of Rossini scenes, but as it blossoms in a hall with a good acoustic. [Sekgapane is also featured as Erster Priester and Erster Geharnischter on Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.]

It is apparent that Giovin fiamma is not a disc that has been made to sound good by artful engineering: rather, a pleasing ambiance was organically achieved and then recorded with tremendous fidelity. Sekgapane thus provides the listener with a recital of some of Gioachino Rossini’s most daunting music for the tenor voice in which emphasis is placed on every aspect of the singer’s artistry. This is music that requires and, in the performances on this disc, receives showmanship, but Sekgapane sings with a palpable exuberance that distinguishes Giovin fiamma as a young singer’s invitation for the listener to join him on his artistic journey.

The repertory explored on Giovin fiamma makes comparisons with celebrated Rossini exponents including Ugo Benelli, Rockwell Blake, Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Javier Camarena inevitable, but the voices that Sekgapane’s singing on this disc most meaningfully recalls are those of his countryman Colin Lee, the abrupt cessation of whose career is one of the most regrettable misfortunes in opera’s recent history, and the fantastic American tenor Kenneth Tarver. As heard here, the young tenor’s vocalism exhibits qualities akin to the innate nobility and poetic phrasing of Tarver’s singing, as well as the crystalline clarity of Lee’s articulations of bravura passages. The trait that marks Giovin fiamma as the work not merely of an exceptionally gifted singer but also of a discerning, disciplined artist is likewise one of the disc’s principal sources of pleasure for the listener: a pervasive sense of a singer with a thorough understanding of his vocal abilities.

Perception of this connection between singer and music is intensified by the support that Sekgapane receives from conductor Giacomo Sagripanti. Perpetuating the aesthetic fostered by the conducting of Alberto Zedda and Jesús López-Cobos, Sagripanti maintains fidelity to both the letter and the spirit of Rossini’s music without jeopardizing Sekgapane’s artistic individuality. Benefiting from the unerring musicality demonstrated by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, here enlivening Rossini’s orchestrations as effervescently as any Italian orchestra might do, Sagripanti paces the pieces on this disc with insightful—and unquestionably well-rehearsed—comprehension of their hazards for singer and instrumentalists. Nonetheless, it is Sekgapane’s visage on Giovin fiamma cover, and the young tenor earns that pride of place. Devoting this first solo outing to a thoughtfully-conceived tribute to Rossini and three of the tenors whose voices inspired the composer, Sekgapane creates for himself a worthy presence in their company.

Few singers have influenced opera’s evolution as tangibly and enduringly as did Spanish tenor Manuel García (1775 - 1832), first with his own performances and later via his rôle in shaping the careers of his progeny, celebrated daughters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot and son Manuel, whose voice was declared inferior to his father’s but whose much-read tome on the art of singing continues to be regarded as an invaluable resource for students of bel canto. During his own career as a singer, the elder Señor García created several rôles for Rossini, foremost in familiarity to Twenty-First-Century audiences among which is Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Sekgapane logically begins his survey with Conte Almaviva’s bravura tour de force from Act Two of Barbiere, ‘Cessa di più resistere,’ a piece so demanding—and, undoubtedly to the chagrin of many interpreters of Rosina and Figaro, so exhilarating when sung well—that it was routinely omitted from performances of Barbiere by the early 1820s. Ever a savvy judge of the potential effectiveness of his own music, Rossini devised new homes for music from ‘Cessa più resistere’ in Adelaide di Borgogna, first performed in December 1817, and, most famously, as ‘Non più mesta,’ the heroine’s rondò finale in La Cenerentola. Propelled by a conspicuous evocation of the young aristocrat’s amorous ardor, Sekgapane’s rousing performance of ‘Cessa più resistere’ both validates the unmusical justifications for cutting the aria and, when sung with this sort of virtuosic panache, makes its customary excision seem little short of criminal.

The rôle of Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri was created in the opera’s 1813 Venetian première by Serafino Gentili, but García’s interpretation of the part in Lisbon in 1819 ensured that Lindoro and his music became forever associated with the Spanish tenor. Even without aural evidence of the particular virtues that García brought to his performances of the rôle, Sekgapane’s singing of Lindoro’s ‘Languir per una bella’ on this disc challenges his artistic ancestor’s dominance. This is also true of the sample of the younger tenor’s portrayal of Don Ramiro, the prince in search of a suitable bride in La Cenerentola. Like Lindoro, Don Ramiro was first sung not by García but by a lesser-known tenor, Giacomo Guglielmi. García’s first Ramiro was likely heard in London two years after Cenerentola’s première in Rome, in a production supervised and conducted by Rossini.

Don Ramiro’s scene in Act Two of Cenerentola exemplifies a style of assertive writing for the tenor voice that Rossini would employ with sensational impact in Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ in Act Four of Guillaume Tell. The scale of Don Ramiro’s ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ is less heroic than that of Arnold’s music, but Sekgapane’s voicing of the music from Cenerentola is aptly electrifying. Don Ramiro shares with Verdi’s Manrico a resolve to find the woman he loves at any cost, but Sekgapane resists the temptation to sing—or, more accurately, over-sing—‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ as a bel canto ‘Di quella pira.’ Sekgapane conveys Don Ramiro’s determination with sparklingly precise fiorature, perfectly-placed top notes, and dramatic impetus drawn from the music.

The voice of Scottish tenor John Sinclair, the first interpreter of the rôle of Idreno in Semiramide, was characterized by Nineteenth-Century chroniclers in terms not unlike those employed to recount the singular qualities of French haute-contre singers. Upon his return to England after a brief period of study with Rossini and the première of Semiramide at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, Sinclair was praised for his smooth delivery of passagework and expert management of an upper register that extended without strain to F5. His singing was also criticized for being excessively effeminate. Diverging from Sinclair’s example in that regard, Sekgapane’s singing of Idreno’s ‘Ah, dov’è, dov’è il cimento?’ imparts stirring bravado, lending the character greater machismo than he often wields. It is improbable that the capabilities of singers as prodigiously gifted as John Sinclair and Manuel García were not taxed by ‘Ah, dov’è, dov’è il cimento,’ but neither the aria’s tessitura nor its coloratura overwhelms Sekgapane’s technical adroitness.

Contemporary appraisals of his performances indicate that Giovanni David (1790 - 1864) could not equal the stage deportments and theatricality of the most talented of his rivals, but his harshest critics acknowledged that few if any other singers of his time matched the brilliance of his vocalism. Perhaps this dichotomy accounts, at least in part, for Rossini allocating the rôle of Rodrigo rather than the name part in his setting of Otello to David. Veritably offering a seminar on the art of acting with the voice, Sekgapane prefaces the recitative that precedes Rodrigo’s ‘Ah, come mai non senti’ with declamatory authority, but it is his handling of the aria that verifies his mastery of Rossini’s writing for David. In this performance, the words are used not merely as sources for the vowels needed to produce a pleasing stream of sound but also as a catapult that hurls the character’s motivations into the dramatic fray. Sekgapane is more comfortable above the stave than below, but his lowest notes are fully, genuinely sung and integrated into the vocal line.

Contrasting markedly with the primal atmosphere of Otello, Act Two of Rossini’s La donna del lago begins with ‘Oh fiamma soave,’ a sublime aria sung by Giacomo, the Scottish king who masquerades—not implausibly, history relays—throughout much of the opera as Uberto di Snowdon. The man’s regal bearing is apparent in Sekgapane’s account of the piece. Capitalizing on Sagripanti’s apposite tempo, the tenor projects each note and phrases each roulade with purpose, limning the sentiments of the text with engrossing specificity.

The profusion of top Ds that makes Ilo’s ‘Terra amica, ove respira’ from Act One of Zelmira hard going for many singers poses no great hardship for this tenor. Sekgapane craftily trades the final written top D for an interpolated ascending passage cresting on a sustained top C, sung with the indefatigable brio heard in all of the performances on Giovin fiamma. Vitally, Sekgapane’s singing discloses an aptitude for capturing and maintaining the listener’s interest by expressing the feelings that provoke the dizzying divisions. The first rôle that David created for Rossini was Narciso in Il turco in Italia, and Sekgapane commemorates the inauguration of that momentous partnership with a resplendent voicing of Narciso’s ‘Tu seconda il mio disegno.’ Listeners who are inclined to question the psychological perspicacity of Rossini’s musical portraiture should scrutinize the immediacy with which Sekgapane animates the lovelorn Narciso’s music: this is irrefutably the work of an intuitive interpretive artist, but the materials with which he draws a compelling sketch of Narciso were provided by Rossini.

The final selection on Giovin fiamma, the Duke of Norfolk’s scene from Act Two of Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, is presented in homage to Andrea Nozzari (1776 - 1832), who sang the rôle of the Earl of Leicester in the opera’s first performance. Information in Nineteenth-Century annals concerning Nozzari having later portrayed Norfolk, who was created in Elisabetta’s 1815 première by Manuel García, is ambiguous, but it is wholly plausible that he accepted the advancement in rank from earl to duke in the sixteen years between the opera’s première and his retirement from the stage. [Incidentally, Juan Diego Flórez included the scene on a disc of arias sung by Giovanni Battista Rubini, whose portrayals of Norfolk are extensively documented.] From the first bars of his golden-toned enunciation of ‘Deh! troncate i ceppi suoi,’ the legitimacy of Sekgapane’s association with this music is affirmed, however. Always adhering to standards of period-appropriate tastefulness, the intensity of his voicing of Norfolk’s ‘Vendicar saprò l’offesa’ transforms his performance from a demonstration of a young singer’s vocal health into a pulse-quickening depiction of an ambitious nobleman’s chicanery. Nevertheless, the purest essence of Rossini’s art was in Nozzari’s time and is still the fluidity of the vocal writing, and the caliber of Sekgapane’s singing on this disc warrants the distinction of being described as bel canto.

For the star tenors celebrated on Giovin fiamma, there was no heavier repertoire with which to contend. Only after the advents of Verdi, Wagner, and verismo, after revisiting the music of the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century with perceptions influenced by larger orchestras and larger theatres, was it determined that tenors who sing Rossini’s Conte Almaviva, Don Ramiro, and Idreno should not also sing Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz. It is ironic that singers whose careers were limited by swaths of today’s standard repertory having not yet been written were also less inhibited by strict definitions of Fächer and their boundaries. [Josef August Röckel, Beethoven’s first Florestan in the 1806 revision of Fidelio, sang several Rossini rôles in Vienna, including Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri, and his son later worked as Rossini’s assistant in Paris.] As Manuel García, Giovanni David, and Andrea Nozzari would surely have attested, the health and longevity of a voice rely upon its owner first cultivating a reliable technical foundation and then building a repertoire that the technique can support. The carcasses of ruined voices that litter the paths to the world’s great opera houses confirm that too many young singers are not being taught or allowed to listen to their own voices. Giovin fiamma is therefore a ray of hope. With these performances of some of Rossini’s most difficult music, Levy Sekgapane professes that he is a singer who both literally and figuratively knows and respects his own voice.