Bach – Cantatas Vol.1 (182; 81; 129)
J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz
Bach-Stiftung A909

The J.S. Bach-Stiftung, a Swiss enterprise, is committed to performing all of J.S. Bach’s vocal music. Many of these performances (we are not told how many) will also find their way to CDs. This is the first installment; recorded in 2007 and 2008 and published in 2011 but only now released in North America (the project has now reached volume 12). It contains recordings of three cantatas: the early Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV182), written for Weimar in 1714, and two cantatas which belong to Bach’s first Leipzig cycle: Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV81) and Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (BWV129).

The conductor, Rudolf Lutz, uses a small chamber orchestra and a small chamber choir. The size is in between the strictly one-to-a-part approach of Joshua Rifkin and the slightly larger ensembles employed by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner or Philippe Herreweghe. The singing is strong (I especially liked Claude Eichenberger, one of the alto soloists) but the real glory of the performances is in the instrumental work. There is a wonderful duet between violin (Renate Steinmann) and recorder (Armelle Plantier) at the opening of the first cantata and an equally fine oboe d’amore obbligato part (Esther Fluor) in the alto aria of the final work.

Of the three cantatas on this disc only the second is at all well known (it is described in great detail in John Eliot Gardiner’s recent biography). I was glad to make the acquaintance of the other two.

 

02_Mozart_Piau.jpgMozart – Desperate Heroines
Sandrine Piau; Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg; Ivor Bolton
Naïve V5366

Sandrine Piau has not recorded the music of Mozart since her Mozart Opera Arias in 2001. The latest album on the progressive label Naïve (known for its recordings of the complete works of Vivaldi) is dedicated to Mozart heroines, but not necessarily the best-known ones. The disc is certainly filled with arias that rarely receive recording treatment. This speaks to Piau’s in-depth knowledge of the composer’s output and her security in the belief that as a soprano in demand all over the world, she has arrived and does not have to cater to more common tastes.

The former harpist is particularly celebrated for her vocal performances of the Baroque repertoire – the music she discovered after an encounter with William Christie, the period performance guru. It was Christie who encouraged her to forgo the harp and start singing. Piau’s voice seems uniquely suited to Baroque music, with its singular clarity and purity of line. This is a voice with a lean, almost austere tone. There is no velvet here, no softness and padding – just a simple strand of gold. That is why some, including this writer, may find her interpretations of Mozart’s music somewhat lacking. Then again, after her transformative recordings of Vivaldi and Handel, it was time to balance the score. As the artist herself says: “Mozart allows me to regain my focus; he preserves that miraculous balance that can so easily be disturbed in the whirlwind of life.”

 

03_Lemieux.jpgChansons Perpétuelles
Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Roger Vignoles; Quatuor Psophos
Naïve V 5355

Fin de siècle chansons reflect the obsessions of the age: decadence, degeneration, neurosis and ennui that were exquisitely expressed in sublime melody, drawing the listener ever inward to explore psyche’s secrets. A rich and rarified tapestry created by composers of the age is fertile ground for a singer possessing an affinity for the texts as well as great depth of expression in vocal performance. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has carefully studied, crafted and delivered this to perfection, bringing to life all the dishevelled beauty this repertoire offers. Guided by the deft hand of pianist Roger Vignoles, joined by Quatuor Psophos in the Nocturne from Guillaume Lekeu’s Trois Poèmes and in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle, she rides the instrumental undercurrents with poetic charm and grace. Lemieux’s light touch and agile playfulness in Fauré’s Mandoline contrasts nicely with a sorrowful Mein Liebster singt from Wolf’s Italianiensches Liederbuch and excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s Six Romances which highlight the sheer drama of her rich contralto. The character of the CD is largely intimate – the final track around which she chose the program, Chanson Perpétuelle, is the most operatic of all the selections: Lemieux’s portrait of an abandoned woman’s angst skillfully intertwined with the quartet’s mesmerizing performance.

 

01 Vocal 01 Wagner ParsifalWagner – Parsifal
Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1158 D

The sacred forest of the Grail a sterile hospital ward... Parsifal’s bow a broken bicycle wheel… The symbol of the Holy Grail a bleeding innocent young boy... The Knights look like a bunch of football hooligans. These and more are some of the disturbing images of this latest incarnation of Parsifal from the Royal Opera House, conceived by British director Stephen Langridge and Britain’s sole contribution to Wagner’s 200th anniversary. A controversial new production aimed to shock and wake up a supposedly smug, complacent audience to realities of today’s world? Perhaps, but nevertheless Parsifal is still a Bühnenweihfestspiel (“A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” – Wagner) that must transcend the mundane into an exalted domain, as certainly achieved recently by the Met. Whether achieved here visually I am not so certain although the hypermodern cubistic set (by designer Alison Chitty) does morph ingeniously into an impressive, luminous cathedral in the Transformation Scene of Act I. 

But if you are worried at all, please “Have no fear,” I heard Gerald Finley say, because this is indeed a glorious Parsifal thanks mainly to Antonio Pappano’s insightful, deeply felt and thoroughly understood musical direction. The faultless, mostly English-speaking cast has Simon O’Neill, a strong heldentenor from New Zealand (Parsifal), Sir Willard White, the formidable bass-baritone from Jamaica (Klingsor) and legendary English basso Robert Lloyd as Titurel. From Germany comes René Pape, today’s best Gurnemanz and the great singer-actress Angela Denoke whose radiant portrayal of Kundry is somewhat marred by her pronounced vibrato.

The biggest surprise and a great sensation, however, is Canadian baritone Gerald Finley creating a lasting impression as a newcomer to the incredibly difficult central role of the suffering sinner, Amfortas.

01 Vocal 02 Robert BruceRobert Bruce – Songs of Light and Shadow, Vol.1
Various Artists; Robert Bruce
Independent (robertbrucemusic.com)

Robert Bruce is the composer, lyricist and pianist in nine pieces which border on new age, easy listening sentiments while exploring minimalism, simple harmonies and uncomplicated melodies.

Listening to Bruce perform his own work on piano is such a joy, and a perfect example of compositions played just the way the composer intended them to be performed. Sure he wrote them, but this is no easy task even for the composer himself. Bruce the performer plays with an appropriate degree of detachment to make Bruce the composer’s works elegant, unaffected and clear. Vocalists Janet Obermeyer, Amy Dodington and Karen Barrett-Grignon perform clearly and musically to Bruce’s accompaniment. The additional occasional instrumental inclusion of harpist Elizabeth Eastwood, oboist Nancy Neeson and percussionist Dave Simpson add much appreciated aural depth.

Bruce’s Songs explore love, dreams and the female life experience. The words may not be to everyone’s taste but are a tight fit to the carefully composed constructed lines and, like film music, image-evoking harmonic colours. Especially enchanting and beautiful are the repeated oboe line in Spirit of Song and the closing repetitive piano line of The Candle of Love. Too bad A Little Bit of Neptune ventures a little bit too much into the pop music planet for this reviewer, but that’s the only one which does.

Excellent production values, mix and levels complete the package. The haunting, enigmatic and ethereal tonal music of Robert Bruce makes this a satisfying listening experience.

 

 

01 Vocal 01 MessiahHandel – Messiah
Gillian Keith; Daniel Taylor; Tom Randle; Summer Thompson; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers
CORO COR16125

The Boston Handel and Haydn Society has had a long and distinguished history. It was founded in 1815 (these recordings mark its 200th anniversary), at a time when Handel represented the old and Haydn the new. Messiah has been important for many years: the Society performed excerpts in 1815, gave the first American performance of the complete work in 1818 and began its annual performances in 1854.

On this recording the soprano (Gillian Keith) and the alto (Daniel Taylor), both Canadians, are superb. I also liked the baritone, Summer Thompson, who is imposing in exactly the right way. I have reservations about the tenor, Tom Randle, who sings with great involvement but also with a great deal of vibrato. The very good orchestra of the Society is now led by “our own” Aisslinn Nosky, who in the past has given us so much pleasure as a member of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. Harry Christophers conducts with real momentum and the choir is terrific (just sample them in All we like sheep).

High points: there are many, but I especially enjoyed the soprano’s precision in Rejoice greatly, the alto’s He was despised (beautifully decorated in the return of the opening section in a way that never obscures the vocal line) as well as the alto-soprano duet He shall feed his flock. Handel originally wrote the duet as a soprano aria and his revision was well judged: the entry of the soprano is magical. When I was asked to review these discs, my first thought was: another Messiah – who needs it? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

01 Vocal 02 Cecelia BartoliSt. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 6767

With celebrity comes responsibility, at least it should in the arts. That is why many celebrated soloists, once having established themselves with the standard repertoire, seek new or forgotten gems to create their legacy. After all, Maria Callas opened our ears anew to the music of Cherubini and Bellini.

Cecilia Bartoli, a mezzo, whose impact on the musical scene was in my opinion at times overestimated, has researched and recorded a fascinating disc of largely forgotten music. In stark contrast to 2014, Russians of the 1700s desperately tried to emulate and get closer to Western Europe. Peter the Great, he of St. Petersburg and the infamous “beard tax,” started a cultural trend that continued until the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. A large part of this Europeanization of Russia was a musical development, encouraged and supervised by three Tsaritsas – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The course chosen by those powerful women was to import Italian opera wholesale, including Italian composers and Italian musical sensibilities. Famously, Porpora refused to be seduced by the “Third Rome” (as the Tsars referred to their capitol, suggesting that they had continued with the Byzantine tradition). This opened the way for lesser talents such as Francesco Domenico Araia and Vinzenco Manfredini. Alas, even Cimarosa contributed to this “Russian renaissance,” which came to an abrupt halt when Catherine the Great turned her attention to the stage plays of Voltaire and Diderot.

Found in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, the works recorded here are restored to life in a lavishly illustrated edition, played with great sensitivity by I Barocchisti. Kudos to Bartoli for this find, although the arias themselves at times tax her stubbornly small mezzo.

 

01 Vocal 03 Strauss ArabellaStrauss – Arabella
Renée Fleming; Thomas Hampson; Dresden State Opera; Christian Thielemann
Cmajor 717208

Fleming – Hampson – Thielemann. Salzburg Easter Festival certainly did well by getting this team for a new Arabella for the Strauss anniversary season. Director Florentine Klepper overcame the challenge for something new and different yet in immaculate taste by traversing the scene into the 20th century, the Art Deco period with a gorgeous, panoramic set fitting nicely onto the wide stage of the Grosses Festpielhaus. Being a woman, she had the right feeling and empathy for the female characters; so important in this opera.

Not that she had a difficult time. For the title role, Renée Fleming has been the reigning diva of Straussian heroines. Her uncanny ability to delve her entire self into the character has been legendary and her soprano voice has all the delicacy and nuance for this very demanding role. Arabella is in the midst of a difficult decision of choosing a husband from a trio of rich, bumbling suitors and hopes for the right man to miraculously appear, and he does.

The right man, American baritone Thomas Hampson (Mandryka) is having some difficulty in becoming this gauche, shy provincial fellow, but his handsome physique, stamina and vocal power amply compensate. The two fall into each other’s arms and the opera would be over, but unfortunately that’s where all the trouble begins, caused by the younger sister and her lover, who provide a lot of sparkle to the story.

Highest praise goes for Thielemann who conducts with beautifully sustained broad tempi, relishing in the beauties of the score, keeping it as an undercurrent, but coming to the fore just at the right moments and towards a ravishing finale.

 

01 Vocal 04 Renee FlemingVienna at the Turn of the Century – A Recital with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming; Maciej Pikulski
ArtHaus Musik 102 196

In an age of instant gratification and overnight (YouTube) success, enduring artists like Renée Fleming are a rare breed. The singer, currently in her mid-50s, epitomizes the slow-burn. At the age when many sopranos are considering retirement, Fleming is in peak form, defying any tarnishing of the upper register as well as the visual impact of middle age. I was not always a fan. In fact, some two decades ago I dismissed her as a lightweight. What I did not recognize then was that this was a singer on her way to greatness. The proof came a few seasons ago, at the Met, where she conquered the role of Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Immediately inviting (and challenging) comparisons with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, her erstwhile teacher, Fleming has firmly established herself as the pre-eminent soprano of our times.

This glittering concert at the acoustically perfect Golden Hall of the Musikverein hall Vienna is a virtual compendium of lieder over almost 50 years. From Mahler and Zemlinsky to Korngold and Strauss, Fleming’s recital tells in music the story of the Golden Age of the great city on the Danube. Polish pianist Maciej Pikulski offers sensitive, Gerald Moore-like piano support. This beautiful disc may prompt listeners to get dressed in their Sunday best before pressing the start button.

 

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