Vocal and Choral
Schubert – Lieder: Nacht und Träume
Ailish Tynan; Iain Burnside
Lucy Crowe; William Berger; Iain Burnside
An accompanist (or, as we now prefer to write, a collaborative pianist) must be a technically accomplished player. That goes without saying. But he also needs to be more: he needs to be alert to a singer’s every nuance. The two discs reviewed here have one performer in common: the pianist Iain Burnside. He is splendid.
Many of the songs on the Schubert disc are very familiar. Their inclusion came as something of a surprise to me, for Burnside, in a 2009 interview, complained that singers tend to play it safe. He himself felt that he had nothing new to say on the Schubert song cycles. But the record shows that, if singer and pianist are sufficiently committed to the works they perform, these works do not come across as merely routine. The disc includes Schubert’s Ave Maria and I cannot think of any music more familiar. Yet the way Ailish Tynan and Burnside perform it here makes one feel that one has never heard it before. Besides, not everything here is familiar fare; Ave Maria was one of three songs projected by Schubert as a setting of Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. This recording gives us all three songs.
Tynan is an Irish soprano who won the Cardiff Singer of the World recital prize in 2003. She is a lyric soprano who has sung at several of the leading opera houses, including Covent Garden and La Scala. But her main strength would appear to be that of a recitalist. I look forward to hearing her live one day. I have not heard such a fine recital disc by a soprano since the days of Elly Ameling and the young Irmgard Seefried.
Duet includes a few solo songs but most of the works here are indeed duets, by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Cornelius. In an accompanying note, Richard Stokes argues that the duet form has fallen out of favour because many artists as well as listeners feel that the form is beneath them. I doubt that is the real reason for the drop in popularity in the duet form. Two centuries ago, domestic music making was a central part of people’s experience and both the solo song and the duet must have played an important part in the rituals of courtship in upper- and middle-class society. Be that as it may, these songs, none of them now familiar, were well worth reviving. They are beautifully performed with the radiance of the soprano (Lucy Crowe) set against the gravity of the baritone (William Berger). Of particular interest is the concluding song, a setting of the poem Wiegenlied by Friedrich Hebbel. When Schumann set the poem, he changed the title to Wiegenlied - am Lager eines kranken Kindes. Stokes is, I am sure, right when he argues that the change in title shows an allusion to the illness and death of Schumann’s infant son Emil.
Canadian-born R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is without question one of the most significant African/North-American composers of the 20th century. In 1937, near the end of his life, Dett’s magnificent oratorio, The Ordering of Moses (which he described as a “Biblical Folk Scene”) had its world premiere in a performance by the May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Orchestra, which was broadcast live throughout the United States by NBC, and was the first network broadcast of a work by an African/North-American composer.
Throughout his life, Dett was a unifier of music, culture and individuals – and in light of the world’s current condition, his oratorio, linking the Israelite exodus from Egypt and slavery with the northern exodus (via the Underground Railroad and beyond) of the African-American peoples is as meaningful now as when it was composed. The orchestration and composition is lush, dynamic, thrilling and harmonically complex while still gracefully embracing American folk and negro spiritual motifs. The juxtaposition of the dynamic chorus with the rich, sonorous vocal instruments of the skilled soloists (soprano Latonia Moore, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller, tenor Roderick Dixon and baritone Donnie Ray Albert) is almost unbearably gorgeous.
The exceptionally produced new recording, which once again features the May Festival Chorus (under the direction of Robert Porco) and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (conducted by James Conlon), was performed in its entirety on May 9, 2014, as part of the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This beautifully produced and performed recording of Dett’s magnum opus was facilitated and broadcast nationally by WQXR FM, New York City’s classical music radio station.
Around 510 BC, Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan king of Rome, raped the Roman aristocrat Lucretia. The rape, and Lucretia’s honour-driven suicide, precipitated the rebellion that toppled the monarchy, launching the Roman Republic. So goes the legend, perhaps historically based, recorded in much later Roman annals and subsequently re-interpreted in poetry, paintings, plays and, in 1946, Britten’s first chamber opera, with eight vocalists and only 13 instrumentalists.
This 2015 Glyndebourne production won rave reviews from the British press, and no wonder. The singers are all vocally and dramatically terrific and the staging stark, powerful and moving. The innovative staging by director Fiona Shaw and set designer Michael Levine presents a military tent and archaeological site, darkly lit, in which the ancient events take place.
Shaw introduces two silent extras: Lucretia’s young daughter and a warcamp slave-prostitute. Most surprisingly, she has the Male and Female Chorus, as modern archaeologists, not only comment about the action, but in time-warp fashion, actually get physically involved with it! I usually deplore such deviations but here, they respect the spirit of Ronald Duncan’s libretto, while enhancing the very visceral dramatic impact.
Duncan’s libretto provides the opera’s only weakness, an epilogue sung by the Male and Female Chorus, replete with Christian religiosity, quite extraneous to the tragedy that has just unfolded. Extras include commentary by director Shaw, a brief documentary about the opera’s 1946 Glyndebourne premiere and a cast gallery.
Intensely gripping, strongly recommended.
Andrew Staniland; Jill Battson – Dark Star Requiem
Neema Bickersteth; Krisztina Szabó; Peter McGillivray; Marcus Nance; Elmer Iseler Singers; Gryphon Trio; Ryan Scott; Mark Duggan; Wayne Strongman
Centrediscs CMCCD 22716
In a 2010 review of a Luminato performance of Dark Star Requiem, Joseph K. So said “the text would have benefited from surtitles.” I’m afraid that a lack of libretto for this recording left me with a similar reaction. This is a shame, as I’m a huge McGillivray and Szabó fan. Also, when I interviewed librettist Jill Battson in 2010, I was intrigued by what she was doing with the 19 poems comprising the piece. These days, even English performances carry same-language surtitles, and perhaps this production would have been more accessible as a DVD release. Despite excellent enunciation by the soloists and Elmer Iseler Singers, the words are often overwhelmed by the music and miking from different distances, and I was only able to catch snippets of much of the text; even the parts of the Mass used in the libretto were lost to this Latinist, as was my concentration: it was too hard to hear this work holistically, trying to follow the sung and spoken words.
The music, however, is intriguing. Track 1, Zero Six One, is a chilling introduction to the work by highlighting the assigned numbers for HIV-1 and HIV-2 from the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, and it brought to mind the song Three-Five-Zero-Zero, from the musical Hair. There’s something very affecting about using enumeration to humanize huge horrors. Unfortunately, the percussion seems to be competing with the singers throughout the CD; however, the Gryphon Trio’s strings play empathetically.
Seven years after Claudio Monteverdi’s death, the publisher Vincenti, with help from Monteverdi’s pupil Francesco Cavalli, put together a volume of the composer’s unpublished works, consisting of Mass and Psalm settings, to which they added a work of Cavalli’s own. In this first volume of two devoted to this 1650 publication, Harry Christophers focuses on the salmi (psalms), his Beatus vir and Cavalli’s Magnificat, saving the Messa a quattro voci for the second volume. The psalm settings are characteristic of the gorgeous, rich harmonies, with just a smattering of highly affective dissonance; innovations resulting from the transition from renaissance to baroque that Monteverdi pioneered through his long compositional career.
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen understand the repertoire well and perform the many affectations and embellishments with great beauty and exceptionally polished skill. For example, the polyphonic five-voice setting of Psalm 121, Laetatus sum (I was glad when they said unto me) is highly virtuosic and contrasts nicely with the six-voice, more declamatory Laetaniae della Beata Vergine (Litany of the Blessed Virgin) in which Mary’s many virtues are presented as somewhat of a list, but so meditative that one never feels even a hint of monotony in the repetition. With beauty such as this, Volume II is keenly anticipated.
Handel – Giulio Cesare
Scholl; Bartoli; von Otter; Jaroussky; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini
Decca 074 3856
Handel – Saul
Purves; Davies; Crowe; Bevan; Appleby; Hulett; Graham-Hall; Glyndebourne Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Ivor Bolton
Opus Arte OA 1216 D
Handel – Hercules
DiDonato; Shimell; Bohlin; Spence; Ernman; Kirkbride; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie
BelAir Classics BAC213
Until the 1960s the operas of Handel and his contemporaries, including Giulio Cesare, were generally viewed as unstageable. There was, however, a remarkable breakthrough with the production by the New York City Opera in 1966. It was a production that would not pass today’s standards of authenticity. Most seriously, the part of Caesar was transposed an octave down and given to a baritone. But the production, which I saw and remember well, certainly put the opera on the map. Other productions followed as did recordings. I, myself, am very fond of the recording conducted by René Jacobs with Jennifer Larmore and Barbara Schlick.
Operagoers of a certain age will remember the time when the main function of a director seems to have been to make sure that the members of the chorus did not get in the way of the soloists. The role of the director is now taken more seriously. In many ways that is a good thing as it has led to thoughtfully conceived work (I am thinking of the COC’s recent La Traviata and of Joel Ivany’s revised Carmen). On the other hand, the now important role of the director may lead to productions which are self-indulgent and self-promoting. I fear that has been the case with the Giulio Cesare under review. It was first staged at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival in 2012. It accents heavily the contemporary relevance: when the overture is played, there is a battle taking place on the stage (the booklet that comes with the DVD makes clear that this is meant to evoke the American invasion of Iraq). The treacherous Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and consort, is likened to the late Colonel Gaddafi. On the other hand, there is also a contemporary reference of a very different kind: Cleopatra’s wig, when she visits Caesar in his camp, is clearly meant to invoke Elizabeth Taylor when she played the role. Elsewhere Cleopatra enters in combat uniform with a Tina Turner wig. Much of the singing is excellent. I particularly liked Anne Sofie von Otter as Pompey’s widow Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky as his son Sesto. It is too bad that the directorial quirks overshadow the musical qualities of the performance.
Both Saul and Hercules are oratorios and were not meant to be staged. But the reasons for that are largely historical and, in the case of sacred subjects, ideological. Many of them are suitable for theatrical realization as a number of recent productions have shown. This Saul, which has the superb Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, concentrates on madness. It was first performed at Glyndebourne in 2015. The production shows how madness is a destructive force, towards others but also towards the self. In the second part Saul goes to consult the Witch of Endor and asks her to conjure up the ghost of Samuel. Samuel is sung by Saul himself: this convincingly suggests that we are dealing here with an inner debate. Of the singers, I was especially impressed by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, who sings David. Christopher Purves (Saul and Samuel), Lucy Crowe (Merab), Sophie Bevan (Michal) and Paul Appleby (Jonathan) are also very good.
Hercules is a triumph, both because of the subtle conducting by William Christie and because of the imaginative staging by the late Luc Bondy. It is based on a staging at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Opéra National de Paris shortly afterwards. Les Arts Florissants is the excellent orchestra. A distinguishing aspect of the staging is the way Bondy presents the members of the chorus fully involved in the human drama. That drama centres on jealousy: Hercules returns from the sack of Oechalia with Iole, the beautiful princess of that land, as his captive. Iole is hostile to Hercules because he destroyed her city and killed her father. At the beginning of the oratorio she sings an aria in which she expresses the wish that she was a simple village girl. But there is an ambivalence here which the production neatly captures: a ring and a necklace appear. These are clearly gifts from Hercules. Iole accepts them and wears the ring for the rest of the duration of the oratorio. Joyce DiDonato is brilliant as Dejanira, Hercules’ threatened wife, and her singing is complemented by the lyrical voice of Ingela Bohlin as Iole and the dark mezzo of Malena Ernman as the counsellor Lichas.
In the DVD of Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse (Erato 2564632323), countertenor Franco Fagioli’s extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics as Arbace stole the show from his better-known colleague, Philippe Jaroussky, in the title role. J.A. Hasse’s setting of the same libretto by Pietro Metastasio premiered exactly one week after the debut of Vinci’s version, in February 1730. Metastasio’s highly effective libretto was subsequently used by many other composers, including Gluck, Cimarosa and Paisiello.
Arbace’s father, Artabano, has assassinated Persia’s king Serse (Xerxes). Arbace is accused of the murder, creating painful rifts within each pair of lovers: Arbace and Serses’ daughter Mandane, and Semira, Arbace’s sister, and Artaserse, Serse’s son. Artabano plots to murder Artaserse, the new king, but his villainy is exposed, the lovers are reunited and all ends happily.
In this 2-DVD set from the 2012 Valle d’Itria festival, Fagioli again thrills as Arbace, with breathtaking coloratura runs. Also excelling in vocal expressiveness and agility are mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina (Artabano) and rich-voiced contralto Rosa Bove (Semira). Hasse’s emotion-laden ABA arias are augmented by a virtuoso aria from Vivaldi’s Motezuma, added to give Prina as Artabano an extra showpiece.
There’s no resemblance to ancient Persia; the male characters wear gaudily bemedalled modern military uniforms. One annoyance: endlessly repeated cutaway views of Corrado Rovaris conducting from the harpsichord.
Hasse’s Artaserse will please lovers of Baroque opera, superb singing and, especially, the growing contingent of fans of the amazing Franco Fagioli.
The passing of Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt earlier this year has left a tremendous void in the music world. An aristocrat, not only by birth (he was a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs), but in his mind and soul, he was not only an original musical mind, a scholar and a great conductor, but a teacher and inspiration to the young. He had the uncanny ability to treat any piece of music like he had never heard it before, breathe new life into it and make his players and audiences feel enthusiastic and rejuvenated. Rehearsing Beethoven, which I saw him do, he became a giant and literally roared like a lion at some of the great outbursts, but he also had a wonderful sense of humour that made his young orchestra chuckle with laughter.
He himself had problems with Missa Solemnis and came late to conducting this disputed masterpiece: “a religious work that combines war and redemption, horror and hope – a bizarre enough combination in the extremes to which Beethoven takes it” (Robert Levine). There haven’t been many recordings and very few successful ones. Most recently (2012) Harnoncourt conducted it at the Concertgebouw with modern instruments and a superb quartet of soloists (including our wonderful Gerald Finley), but here he is rejoined with Concertus Musicus Wien, a period instrument group he founded, for what he intended to be his last recording. Never happy with earlier accomplishments, this version is full of question marks, looking for new answers, new sonorities and it’s just another example of what he was all his life, constantly searching and never wanting to give up. So the quest continues….
Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms were very different in their Weltanschauung. Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic; Brahms could be described as an agnostic. Their musical language too is very different but they clearly have one thing in common. They were both committed to the revival of religious music and both of them looked back to earlier traditions from Gregorian chant to J.S. Bach by way of Renaissance and early Baroque composers like Isaac and Schütz.
Tenebrae is an English chamber choir founded in 2001 by Nigel Short and the late Barbara Pollock. Short is now the choir’s conductor: he was previously a member of the King’s Singers. The sound worlds of Brahms and Bruckner contrast in interesting ways and the two composers complement each other very well. The two halves are fairly evenly divided: there are eight motets by Bruckner here, mainly unaccompanied. The works by Brahms are more varied and many are given with organ accompaniment. They include the movement How lovely are thy dwellings from his German Requiem. I was initially surprised to find that it was sung in English but when I read that this was the translation in which the work was sung in London in 1873, I could see how the translation emphasizes the centrality of Brahms to 19th–century English musical life. The performances are bookended by two Aequale for three trombones by Bruckner, beautifully played.
The choir’s discography suggests that much of its attention is given to contemporary music. But they have also recorded music by Berlioz and Fauré. This beautiful record confirms that they are equally at home with 19th-century repertoire.