Caccini – L’Euridice

02 early 01 caccini euridiceCaccini – L’Euridice
Soloists; Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30552

In 1607 Carlo Magno wrote to his brother that there would soon be a performance of “a piece that will be unique because all the performers speak musically.” The piece was Monteverdi’s Orfeo and the letter clearly shows that a work that was sung throughout or, as we would call it, an opera, was felt to be a new thing. The earliest opera was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1597 or 1598) but, since the music for that work has not survived, opera is generally thought to begin with the two Eurydice operas (written to the same libretto) by Peri and Giulio Caccini, both of which date from 1600. Musicologists have usually dismissed the Caccini version. On the other hand, the printed material that comes with an earlier recording of the Caccini (conducted by Nicholas Achten, on the Ricercar label) claims that Caccini, not Peri, was the true founder of the new genre.

The musical language of Caccini’s opera, the stile rappresentativo, is based on the impassioned speech of the solo voice. It is more melodious than mere recitative but it never develops into aria. Nor does it have the musical inventiveness or instrumental variety that characterize Monteverdi’s opera only a few years later. Whether or not the Caccini is inferior to Peri’s version, it has a great deal of dramatic power and is certainly worth listening to, especially when it is sung and played as well as it is here. Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano have given us many fine recordings, particularly of the Monteverdi Madrigals, and this CD does not disappoint.

 


Leclair – Complete Sonatas for Two Violins - Greg Ewer; Adam Lamotte

02 early 02 leclair 2 violinsLeclair – Complete Sonatas for Two Violins
Greg Ewer; Adam Lamotte
Sono Luminus DSL-92176
(sonoluminus.com)

This two-CD set does indeed include all 12 violin duos by the French violin virtuoso Jean-Marie Leclair, six each in his Opp.3 and 12 collections. Leclair’s compositional brilliance is in marrying Italian and French styles with endlessly interesting and entertaining results. A dancer in his younger life, Leclair has an innate sense of dance rhythms and even the most ferocious of his allegro movements possesses grace, elegance and warmth. His writing for two violins, in particular, makes full use of the sonic possibilities of each instrument. Each part has equal prominence and there is an intricate relationship of soloistic and accompaniament duty-sharing as one finds in the gamba duos of Marais from a generation before. Along with Leclair’s sonatas and concertos, these duos deserve wider recognition and more frequent performance.

Ewer and Lamotte display an obvious fondness for this repertoire and take great care to bring out the expressiveness and line in each of these delightful sonatas. My one minor wish is that they might have occasionally made a more extreme tempo choice, either on the fast or slow side of the equation. That being said, their performances are poised, elegant and full of colour, contrast and life. It was a pleasant surprise to read the informative program notes by Montreal’s Matthias Maute.

 


Telemann – Miriways

02 early 03 telemann miriwaysTelemann – Miriways
Markus Volpert; Ulrika Hofbauer; L’Orfeo Barockorchester; Michi Gaigg
CPO 777 752-2

The Opera House in Hamburg, the first public opera house in the German-speaking world, opened in 1678. The operas it staged were in German, although they sometimes included Italian arias. Initially the major composer was Reinhold Keiser; later younger composers like Handel and Johann Mattheson gained their start in Hamburg. Telemann settled in Hamburg in 1721. He soon became the director of the company and wrote many operas for it. Most Hamburg operas dealt with mythology or ancient history but occasionally more topical subjects were introduced: Keiser wrote Masaniello Furioso in 1706; its subject was the 1647 Neapolitan revolt against the Spanish rulers of the city. Mattheson wrote an opera about Boris Godunov in 1710. Telemann’s 1728 Miriways was more topical than either. Its main character is a Pashtun emir from Kandahar, who, supposedly, defeated the Persians and conquered Isfahan in 1709.

Although the opera is in German, it is based on the Italian opera seria pattern with elaborate da capo arias. There is some interesting experimentation: in the first act the Persian Nisibis sings an aria, in which she invokes sleep, and appropriately falls asleep in the middle, in the B section, on the dominant! An oriental colouring is provided by the brilliant and taxing parts for the corni da caccia. In this performance recorded live in Theatre Magdeburg the opera is well sung and well played. Magdeburg was Telemann’s home town and the Magdeburg theatre is committed to performing all his works. Telemann’s operas are not well known and this lively (and live) performance can be wholeheartedly welcomed.

 


Handel – Tamerlano

02 early 04 handel tamerlanoHandel – Tamerlano
Xavier Sabata; Max Emanuel Cenčić; John Mark Ainsley; Karina Gauvin; Ruxandra Donose; Pavel Kudinov; Il Pomo D’Oro; Riccardo Minasi
Naïve V 5373

The story of Tamerlano, or Timur the Lame, and his victory over the Ottoman sultan Bajazet provided perfect fodder for the operas of Baroque’s greatest masters (Handel and Vivaldi), as well as a slew of lesser composers, Gasparini amongst them. The peasant who rose to rule most of Asia, from Anatolia to northern India, and claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, was essentially a 15th-century version of Alexander the Great. His defeat of the Ottoman Empire offered Europe a 50-year breather from a war on its eastern flank. His imprisonment and killing of Bajazet was already being used in Great Britain as a political metaphor for the struggle against the house of Stuart and plays on the theme were staged in early November of each year before Handel wrote his opera. In 1724, at its premiere, Tamerlano was joined by two other plays on the subject. It proved to be one of Handel’s great successes, in no small part because of numerous, brilliant arias and the dramatic tension of Bajazet’s suicide. In this recording, as in most if not all Naïve productions (the label is famous for recording all of the works by Vivaldi), the playing is meticulous and the voices… The voices are, to be frank, fantastic! If we only had such an ensemble in the recent COC production of Hercules! Karina Gauvin astounds with her ongoing vocal development, and Sabata and Cenčić are both delightful discoveries for this reviewer. Bravi!

 


Bach – Six Partitas from Clavier-Übung I (1731) - Rafael Puyana

02 early 05 bach harpsichordBach – Six Partitas from Clavier-Übung I (1731)
Rafael Puyana
SanCtuS SCS-027-028-029 (sanctusrecordings.com)

Lavish is an understatement when it comes to describing the cover and booklet for this interpretation by the late Rafael Puyana of these six partitas. They are a tribute to a breathtaking odyssey in which Puyana’s teacher Wanda Landowska first saw the three-manual harpsichord used in this recording – back in 1900. The instrument was acquired and painstakingly restored by Puyana, but not until 2013 was his 1985 recording made public on these CDs.

 The very first Praeludium and Allemande indicate the joy and pleasure that Bach discovered when composing the partitas. Indeed, the rural background of the allemandes, courantes and sarabandes found in each of the partitas show how important this provenance was for Bach. This light quality is shared by the writer of the sleeve notes regarding the allemande: “If it is treated as being in quadruple time, the player is obliged to take it more slowly, the end result being frankly soporific. Many contemporary harpsichordists have bored us to death through over-literal interpretations…” No such anxieties here; listen to the gushing quality of the Giga or the Sinfonia which opens Partita II, not to mention the heavenly quality of the latter’s Sarabande. Its concluding Capriccio is “technically fiendish to master.”

 Partita III demonstrates both the speed of the Corrente [sic] and the slow, stately Sarabande which immediately follows it in total contrast. The three last movements (Burlesca, Scherzo, Gigue) return the listener to the demanding complexity of Bach’s composition.

 Particularly testing (even in comparison with other partitas) is the overture to Partita IV, with its almost glissando effects. Everything else is sedate by comparison until the concluding Gigue places its own demands on Puyana’s skills. Partita V is far more spirited, as Praeludium, Gigue and Corrente contrast with the slower Sarabande.

 And finally Partita VI, starting with the only Toccata in the collection, which culminates in a complex and varied set of sequences. The subsequent movements are light but expressive. All in all, the comment in the notes is absolutely correct: Bach’s six partitas were unprecedented in their virtuosity, length and intensity. They amazed contemporary harpsichordists.

 Soporific and bored to death? Not with Rafael Puyana’s interpretations.

 


In Translation – Selections from JS Bach’s Cello Suites - Amy Porter

02 early 06 amy porter bachIn Translation – Selections from JS Bach’s Cello Suites
Amy Porter
Equilibrium EQ 124 (equilibri.com)

What an audacious undertaking, to record J.S. Bach’s cello suites played on the flute. Despite all we hear about composers of the Baroque era encouraging musicians to play their works on instruments other than the ones for which they were written, these suites seem made for the cello, and are indelibly associated with it, particularly because of their introduction to mainstream music-making in the 20th century by the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. Since Casals, every cellist able to play them, including Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma and a host of others have performed and recorded them.

Outrageous as the undertaking may seem, Amy Porter almost pulls it off: she plays the Prelude of Suite 1, the Sarabande of Suite 2 and the Prelude and Sarabande of Suite 4 with an effortless, ethereal and contemplative serenity, which to me works as well as any number of interpretations by cellists. Her technical brilliance in the Prelude of Suite 6 is striking, especially because she carries her virtuosity lightly; it’s just what she does – no big deal.

Where things don’t go so well is in the dances – the allemandes, courantes and gigues. Rostropovich plays these like dances, with great energy, vitality and forward motion. This is what Porter doesn’t do. She stays in a contemplative frame of mind: when the music is crying out for dynamic physicality it becomes static. While the more contemplative movements are often exquisite, the rest is dragged down by dances that don’t dance.

 

Beethoven – Symphonies 1-4 & Overtures - Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Bruno Weil

03 classical 01 beethoven tafelmusikBeethoven – Symphonies 1-4 & Overtures
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Bruno Weil
Tafelmusik TMK1023CD2 (tafelmusik.org)

Toronto’s Tafelmusik ensemble is nearing completion of their long-term Beethoven Symphony Project with this release of the first four symphonies of Beethoven on their own independent label, with only the Ninth yet to appear on disc. Tafelmusik, nominally considered a Baroque ensemble, is here expanded to roughly 40 players with a larger string section, though this added strength is attenuated by the use of gut strings and the total suppression of vibrato. Bruno Weil, a longtime collaborator with the orchestra, draws a finely articulated and transparent response from the rarely seen Tafelmusik podium.

The performances of the first two symphonies (programmed on separate discs), though rich in detail, seem to take their time to fully blossom. Surprisingly, the strikingly subversive series of dominant chords that launches the First Symphony are tossed off quite nonchalantly, though it gradually becomes evident that Weil is a master of the slow burn. The subsequent Andante movements of both works, though fleetly paced in accordance with Beethoven’s after-the-fact metronome marks, in my opinion have a tediously conventional character that is difficult for any conductor to overcome. All is put right however with a pair of powerful and scintillating finales.

The renderings of the Third and Fourth Symphonies can be recommended without qualification; both are superb throughout. The Third in particular (previously paired with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony in an earlier release) has a rare sense of urgency and spontaneity and offers many outstanding solo contributions; I was particularly enchanted by the deliciously tangy pair of oboes and the brassy stopped tones of the three horn players.

The two-disc set is flanked by two overtures, opening with the Prometheus Overture and ending with a commanding performance of the Coriolanus Overture. These live performances were recorded in Toronto’s Koerner Hall in 2012 and 2013 with exceptional clarity yet with nary a peep to be heard from the audience.

 


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