Mahler – Lieder

01 Vocal 01a Alma  Gustav01 Vocal 01b Mahler LiederAlma & Gustav Mahler – Lieder
Karen Cargill; Simon Lepper
Linn LC 11615

Mahler – Lieder
Bernarda Fink; Anthony Spiri; Gustav Mahler Ensemble; Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich; Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Harmonia Mundi MNC 902173

Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, trained in Glasgow, Toronto (with Patricia Kern) and London, is in the early stages of a burgeoning career. This recording marks her debut recital on the Glasgow-based Linn record label. The disc offers a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the Fünf Lieder by Alma Mahler (1879-1964) published in 1910, along with two major song cycles by her husband Gustav. The young Alma Schindler, Mahler’s fetching 22-year-old composition student and sometime lover of Alexander Zemlinsky when the two first met, was persuaded to abandon her creative pursuits before agreeing to marry the first of her many husbands in 1902, though at the end of his life (1860-1911) a repentant and cuckolded Gustav arranged to have her songs published by Universal Edition. Zemlinsky’s influence looms large in these erotically chromatic and assuredly accomplished Lieder which are given highly sympathetic readings here. The set is followed by Gustav Mahler’s Fünf Rückert Lieder and the four-movement Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, closing with a passionate rendition of the Urlicht movement from his Second Symphony. Cargill is blessed with an enormous and opulent voice which in full flight can reach operatic volumes, notably so in the triumphant conclusion of Um Mitternacht from the Rückert Lieder, though a certain breathiness becomes apparent when her powerful voice is drawn back. Veteran accompanist Simon Lepper provides immaculate support throughout. The otherwise enjoyable and well-recorded disc seems rather skimpy at a mere 53 minutes.

An artist of exceptional sensitivity and great emotional depth, Bernarda Fink is an Argentinian singer of Slovenian extraction best known for her Baroque-era performances. With this disc she reveals a sympathy for the music of Mahler comparable to the great Mahler singers of the past such as Christa Ludwig and Janet Baker. The programming of this excellent Harmonia Mundi release (aptly subtitled “A Life in Songs”) is innovative, including two very rarely heard early songs, Im Lenz and Winterlied; Arnold Schoenberg’s 1920 arrangement for chamber ensemble of the complete Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; the mournful Kindertotenlieder cycle with full orchestra; and selections from his Rückert Lieder in various orchestral and piano versions for a generous duration of 78 minutes. Pianist Anthony Spiri and Fink collaborate wonderfully well together and the young Colombian conductor Andrés Orosco-Estrada (recently appointed to lead the Houston Symphony) proves equally sensitive to the subtle nuances of her deeply felt interpretations. This is truly a recording to treasure.


Strauss – Capriccio

01 Vocal 02 Strauss CapriccioStrauss – Capriccio
Fleming; Skovhus; Schade; Eiche; Kirchschlager; Rydl; Wiener Staatsoper; Marco Arturo Marelli
Cmajor 715908

Fresh from the rapture of watching this video performance of Strauss’ last utterance in opera and recovering from the delirium of the standing ovation, can I silence the skeptics who believe that opera is dead and totally irrelevant in our age? “They should eat their words” (to quote Bruce Surtees) after seeing this production from the Wiener Staatsoper. This venerable opera house actually just recently produced at least two phenomenal successes including this one and a stupendous Anna Bolena.

Richard Strauss, a genius who managed to revamp his earlier, very successful sturm und drang hyper-romantic style towards an almost Mozartian restraint and elegant classicism without losing his tremendous gifts of melody, advanced harmonies and overall structural control of his material, is now 150 years old (I use the present tense to emphasize just how alive he is to me through his music). To celebrate this landmark Vienna chose this, his most difficult and problematic opera, not Salome nor Der Rosenkavalier, but Capriccio, taking an enormous chance.

The heroine, Renée Fleming as the Countess, pretty well owns this crown jewel of a role and there is no match for her presently. She had a difficult start as she is not getting any younger, but she soars, grows in stature and achieves heights in the last scene where even the Gods would fear to tread. Canadian tenor Michael Schade and German baritone Markus Eiche, the frustrated would-be lovers, are no disappointment either, but Angelika Kirschlager (mezzo) with her perfect German diction, wonderful stage presence, charming voice and sense of humour certainly gives Fleming a run for her money. Kurt Rydl, in the comic role of the busybody schauspieldirektor, certainly lives up to his reputation as one of the great character basso-buffos of today. Swedish baritone Bo Shovkus is a bit outlandish in the role of the Count, but adds a lot of interest to the character and his voice is excellent. In his Wiener Staatsoper premiere, Christoph Eschenbach is in masterly control and gets able support from his virtuoso musicians. Special credit is due to the young violinists in the opening very difficult string sextet and to the wonderful horns in the famous “Moonlight Intermezzo.”

Director Marco Arturo Marelli’s concept is surprisingly grandiose for this intimate, chamber-like opera, but the resplendent sets of a Rococo palace in vibrant, opulent colours of blue and silver, translucent furnishings and abundance of mirrors never cease to delight the eye. All the foregoing notwithstanding it is the underlying abundance of talent, good taste, charm and Viennese gemütlichkeit which carry the day and the birthday boy, Maestro Strauss, the big winner.


L’Heure Rose - Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé

01 Vocal 03 Helene GuilmetteL’Heure Rose
Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé
Analekta AN 2 9141

This is a revelation for those wishing to learn more about the female contemporaries of Fauré, Duparc, Debussy and Poulenc. Ten women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries are represented on this recording: some we’ve been introduced to before (Viardot, Chaminade, L. & N. Boulanger, Beach) and others quite unfamiliar (Holmès, Canal, Karveno, Landry).

While perusing sheet music on Rue de Rome in Paris in 2007, soprano Hélène Guilmette, found some excellent works by Mel (Mélanie) Bonis, one of those who used a pseudonym to get by in the male-dominated world of music publishing. Her story is one of talent long-hidden; a marriage arranged by her parents to a man 25 years her senior left little space to pursue her art. Only later, when reunited with a long-lost love, a singer, did she receive the encouragement she needed.

Guilmette’s raison d’être for this collection is “making these works better known and honouring their memory.” Fin-de-siècle Paris is brought to life in these impressionistic songs by Guilmette’s shimmering voice and long-time coach, collaborator and accompanist Martin Dubé’s pianistic finesse. A few interesting later works are included as well, such as cabaret actress/singer/composer Wally Karveno’s La robe de lune (1954) and Quebec-born Jeanne Landry’s Émergence (1996).


Remembering Alfred Deller

01 Vocal 04 Alfred DellerRemembering Alfred Deller
James Bowman; Robin Blaze; John Turner; Laura Robinson
Divine Art dda 25114

The countertenor Alfred Deller was born in 1912 and I wonder if this CD had been intended to mark his centenary. No matter, the disc is as welcome as it would have been two years ago. An obvious way of remembering Deller would have been to reissue some of his recordings but the producers of the CD have hit on something much more imaginative. The recording commemorates not only Deller himself but two others who were central to the revival of early music in the 40s and 50s: Michael Tippett and Walter Bergmann. It was Tippett who discovered Deller in the choir stalls of Canterbury Cathedral and who launched him in his solo career at Morley College.

Bergmann had been a lawyer in Germany but was forced to flee to England, where he started a new career as a music editor, harpsichordist and composer. The CD, which features two fine countertenors, James Bowman and Robin Blaze with recorder players John Turner and Laura Robinson, includes John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (which Deller himself performed and recorded) and also several works dedicated to Deller: Bergmann’s haunting Pastorale for countertenor and recorder (1946) and the Three Songs for countertenor and guitar (1973). It also contains Peter Racine Fricker’s Elegy, a work given its first performance by Deller.

The recorder pieces (solo Inventions by Tippett and trio sonatas by Handel and William Williams) are less obviously related to the work of Deller but they serve to remind us that his emergence was part of the rediscovery of early music.


Bel Raggio – Rossini Arias

01 vocal 01 aleksandra kurzakBel Raggio – Rossini Arias
Aleksandra Kurzak; Sinfonia Varsovia; Pier Giorgio Morandi
Decca 478 3553

Now here is a disc that once and for all will put a stop to people moaning that the “golden age of singing is over.” Those lucky enough to have attended L’Elisir d’Amore in December 2012 at London’s Covent Garden with Aleksandra Kurzak (and Roberto Alagna) or even before, in 2008, at Kurzak’s sensational debut there in Rossini’s Matilda di Shabran will certainly protest vehemently. The young Polish coloratura non-plus-ultra is following the footsteps of the great Joan Sutherland with her opening number Bel Raggio lusinghier here, the phenomenal aria from Semiramide – and to put it mildly if she (Dame Joan) were still alive, she’d better watch out for her job. Without a doubt “her voice is stupendous, firm, crystal clear in coloratura, beautifully rich in legato” – as The Times of London raves.

This is indeed a stunning recording, one that you’d want never to end and to listen to over and over again. There are nine arias of immense difficulty, emotional scope and a vocal range extending from strong deep notes into the stratosphere of shattering high notes, which unfortunately I cannot identify (not having perfect pitch). The hair-raising Rossini fioraturas she sails through lightly as a feather and she refers to these “as the easy part.” Kurzak comes from a musical family; her mother was an opera singer and her father a horn player and she is also ravishingly beautiful with a lovely stage presence. Splendid accompaniment too by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted with great flair by Pier Giorgio Morandi. This is her second release for Decca and it’s a winner.


Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde

01 vocal 02 wagner wessendonkWagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde
Anne Schwanewilms; ORF Vienna RSO; Cornelius Meister
Capriccio C5174

Named Singer of the Year by Opernwelt magazine, highly acclaimed German dramatic soprano Anne Schwanewilms steps proudly into the league of such legends as Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, and is equally at home on the opera stage and as a lieder recitalist. Her discography is already impressive, but this new release will serve as a good introduction to her as a true “sound painter.”

As befits the composer’s bicentennial, this issue is more dedicated to Wagner than to the singer, so the orchestra plays a big part. To begin, a rousing performance in sonic splendour of Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, the Paris version that was his post-Tristan effort and therefore harmonically far more adventurous than the original. Tristan Prelude follows later where the famous Tristan chord’s break-up into two is manifest, eloquently performed.

The soprano enters with the Hallenaria from Tannhäuser full of the joyful anticipation (and some shattering high notes) of Elizabeth expecting her long-awaited lover’s return. In the Wesendonck Lieder Schwanewilms’ interpretive skills and her tones as a sound painter are well tested. This is more difficult territory and there is a lot of beautiful shading and innigkeit in this most Schopenhauerian poetry, written by Wagner’s beloved, Mathilde Wesendonck. Tristan is foreshadowed already in these songs, especially in No.3 (Im Treibhaus) and No.5 (Träume). The final offering is suitably the Liebestod, sung ecstatically as it should be, as we reluctantly bid farewell to this exquisite recording.


Britten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37

01 vocal 03 britten lucretiaBritten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37
Cast of the 2001 Aldeburgh Production; English National Opera Orchestra; Paul Daniel
Opus Arte OA 1123 D

The Rape of Lucretia is one of Britten’s most difficult subjects. It is almost a graphic description of a rape and although it should be a fit subject for opera, it is almost unmanageable both to observe and to stage.

This production is a gripping and successful mounting of this harrowingly painful illumination of the dark side of human nature. Lucretia was the first of his chamber operas, which were succeeded by his Church Parables Trilogy, all valued for their modest demands.

Britten’s ritual structuring of this unusual piece makes it possible to negotiate the more lurid aspects of this tragedy, and the production strips away the operatic stage, make-up, ritualizing and costuming devices that would have served to objectify the depiction of the rape. The opera makes it clear that this violation destroys Lucretia’s soul. Her relationship with her husband will be demolished and, in her subjective context, the only solution is suicide. Yannis Thavoris’ set and costumes, appropriate for the time and David McVicar’s direction bring Ronald Duncan’s libretto to explicit realisation. The Greek Chorus, whose classic role is only to comment on the proceedings, is brought as much as possible into the dramatic space, frequently approaching the protagonists but never engaging with them. Persuasively sung and acted with ardour by John Mark Ainsley and Orla Boylan.

Contralto Sarah Connolly is a perfect Lucretia, patrician in bearing and maternal in spirit, and baritone Christopher Maltman is the Etruscan Tarquinius, supercilious in his soldier’s tunic and cuirass, with legs bare, making a formidable sexual aggressor. Clive Bayley is Collatinus, her husband and Leigh Melrose sings Junius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is Bianca and Mary Nelson is Lucia.

Performed in the ambience of The Maltings in Aldeburgh, Britten’s own theatre, by a superlative cast on a starkly true set, this production will probably never be equalled, let alone surpassed. The 2001 BBC documentation is faultless and the finished DVD puts us in the audience. A unique treasure.


Dear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore

01 vocal 04 dear theoDear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore
Paul Appleby; Susanna Phillips; Brett Polegato; Brian Zeger
Delos DE 3437

Ben Moore is an American composer of song cycles, chamber music and of late, opera, well-regarded in the Metropolitan Opera circles. That regard comes from his previous collaborations with Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, Frederica von Stade, Robert White, Lawrence Brownlee, Nathan Gunn and the darling of Broadway, Audra McDonald. His choice of texts is equally careful and accomplished – John Keats, W.B. Yeats, Anna Wickham, Muriel Rukeyser, Vincent van Gogh and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Lyrically set and accompanied by the great Brian Zeger, the songs will seem instantly familiar, because of Ben Moore’s homage to Benjamin Britten’s writing style. Paul Appleby renders the dark letters of the increasingly sick painter with the right balance of anguish and raw energy, while Brett Polegato lends his velvet-smooth voice to Keats’ lyricism to create an instant classic. The only voice that did not convince me in this recording is that of Susanna Phillips. This young artist with a rapidly growing popular appeal may be better suited to a different repertoire, but here her soprano sounds glassy-fragile and slightly pushed. Regardless of that reservation, modern song lovers will find it a fine disc.


The Rosenblatt Recitals – An Overview

Nowadays amidst tightening budgets, cutbacks and a growing sense among the public that the golden age of singing is over, it must be very difficult and frustrating to pursue a career as a singer. For precisely this reason a British philanthropist, Ian Rosenblatt, under the aegis of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden set up a foundation in 2000 to support young singers by giving recitals, enabling them to be discovered by the public and furthering their career. Among the number of recordings received I’ve selected three artists who impressed me the most with their imagination and artistry, but I encourage the reader to investigate the complete series at for their particular interest:

01 vocal 05a francesco meliBritten – Michelangelo Sonnets; Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets; Francesco Meli (Opus Arte OA CD9019 D). Young Italian tenor Francesco Meli is celebrated for a voice of lyricism, purity of tone and wonderful bel canto that has made him an ideal Verdi tenor and he sang a number of roles in the Tutto Verdi series to world acclaim. In this recording he tackles the two above-noted song-cycles, complemented with an exciting selection of French and Italian repertoire, accompanied by Matteo Pais.

01 vocal 05b ekaterina siurinaAmore e Morte (Opus Arte OA CD9017D). Spectacular Russian spinto soprano Ekaterina Siurina,who has already made her debut at La Scala and the Met and is in great demand today all over the world, is featured in a most entertaining disc of songs by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi in a series of alternately flirtatious and grief-stricken ballads, with Iain Burnside at the piano.

01 vocal 05c susan chilcottShining River (OA CD9016D) features Susan Chilcott,the great English lyric soprano whose young life tragically ended in 2003 and who created many memorable heroines (e.g. Verdi, Janáček, Britten) on the opera stage. The Shining River is of course the Ohio, starting off a program of American traditional and poetic songs by Aaron Copland and others, where her supreme artistry, youthful vitality and imagination is really a “shining river” surging through this very heartwarming disc. A great gift for young and old alike. Once again Iain Burnside is the accompanist.


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