Schubert – Winterreise

02 vocal 01b winterreise kaufmann02 vocal 01a winterreise finleySchubert – Winterreise
Gerald Finley; Julius Drake
Hyperion CDA68034

Schubert – Winterreise
Jonas Kaufmann; Helmut Deutsch
Sony 88883795652

Only one of these two new versions of Winterreise seems to be able to take seriously one of Schubert’s most harrowing delineations of despair.

Finley and Drake provide an object lesson in rendering these pieces as more than mere entertainment, whereas Kaufmann and Deutsch seem content with simply providing a well-sung song cycle. Both singers are consummate operatic artists and their pianists are both good but Drake is by far the better at conveying subtle nuances. Kaufmann is certainly an expressive singer but does not yet really have those skills that can project the psychological internalization of drama and tragedy. It is Finley and Drake who have all the essential extra skills in the strategies of lieder singing. These qualities are omnipresent throughout the entire cycle. In the final song, “Der Leiermann,” Kaufmann certainly gives an engaging rendition, carefully projecting to his audience a muted picture of aimlessness. But listening to Finley and Drake we learn how bereft and suicidal the subject really is, making it painfully clear that he has lost all hope and is looking for his death. Mention must be made of the appropriate salon acoustic that crowns the Finley, versus a much larger venue in which Kaufmann appears.

Winterreise is Schubert’s most trenchant metaphor of his own life and tragedy. It is a difficult piece and it is rare to hear such an unflinching probing of this sad masterpiece as Finley’s, which may indeed be the best version ever.


Wagner – Parsifal

02 vocal 02 wagner parsifal kaufmannWagner – Parsifal
Jonas Kaufmann; René Pape; Peter Mattei; Katarina Dalayman; Evgeny Nikitin; Metropolitain Opera; Daniele Gatti
Sony 88883725589

The Met is certainly back on the right track following their dubious and very costly Ring adventure with this stunning, awe-inspiring, memorable and by far more economical production of Parsifal, created to kick off the composer’s 200th birthday festivities. Why? Three reasons:

To begin, acclaimed film director, French-Canadian François Girard, already known in Toronto for his Siegfried for the COC, here envisages a “pervasively gloomy” apocalyptic vision with dark clouds and swirling mists (no doubt inspired by Goya’s frescos), barren grounds bisected with a river of blood and atavistic symbolism thoroughly in keeping with the harrowing story of the Knights of the Holy Grail’s inner doubt and hopelessness.

Next, the choice of Italian conductor extraordinaire Daniele Gatti, a wonderfully talented musical mind who truly presides over this incredibly complex score and conducts it entirely from memory! To my recollection only Toscanini could do that, mainly because he was vain and refused to wear glasses. My experience with Gatti so far has been his memorable Verdi performances, but here he is on an altogether different level. With broad tempi and long melodic lines he sustains a glowing intensity rarely achieved by even the very best.

Thirdly, in the title role, German heroic tenor Jonas Kaufmann is an inspired choice, with a wonderful stage presence and voice of immense sensitivity he becomes a thoroughly committed personification of Parsifal for our age. The distinguished cast is superb: René Pape is synonymous with Gurnemanz, Peter Mattei is simply heartbreaking as the suffering Amfortas and Evgeny Nikitin is terrifying as the evil bloodthirsty Klingsor. As Kundry, an almost insanely difficult female role, Katarina Dalayman is maternally seductive with spectacular vocal power.

This is an immortal production that will resound through the ages.


Franck – Stradella

02 vocal 03 franck stradellaFranck – Stradella
Isabelle Kabatu; Marc Laho; Philippe Rouillon; Opera Royal de Wallonie; Paolo Arrivabeni             
Dynamic 37692

A child prodigy, a brilliant piano player and composer already in his teens, with a career tightly controlled by his father – until he emancipated himself. No, I am not talking about W.A. Mozart. This unusual career path was also followed by César Franck. The Belgian composer is remembered for his organ compositions that constitute a goodly part of every organist’s repertoire. However, he was just as skilled as a composer of instrumental music with sonatas, a celebrated piano quintet, the Symphony in D Minor and the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra plus several operas.

Rarely, if at all staged, Franck’s operas nevertheless deserve our attention. Stradella, his first, was never fully orchestrated and the current recording represents its first public performance.

Alessandro Stradella, the 17th century composer murdered in Genoa, is only nominally connected to the libretto – as this is a work of fiction. Stradella seeks to woo Leonor with his beautiful singing, but not for himself – for the Duke of Pesaro. Of course, he falls in (reciprocated) love and the lovers elope to Rome, pursued by the vengeful Duke. The Duke hires assassins and instructs them to kill Stradella. Here is where this production by Jaco Van Dormael diverges from the original story: the opera actually has a happy ending, as the Duke is so moved by Stradella’s singing, he forgives the betrayal and blesses the union of Leonor and her love. Alas, Van Dormael has decided to reference the murder of the real-life Stradella and has Leonor dying of grief. Stradella then joins her in heaven, as joyous music, hardly appropriate for this tragic ending, plays on.

The staging is beautiful, though at times puzzling – a giant wading pool is the perfect setting for Venice flooded during the Carnival, but it makes less sense as the action moves to a church in Rome. Regardless of the dramatic choices in this production, the music of Franck and beautiful singing by Marc Laho as Stradella make this disc a keeper.


Poulenc – Stabat Mater; Sept Répons de Ténèbres

02 vocal 04 poulenc stabatPoulenc – Stabat Mater; Sept Répons de Ténèbres
Carolyn Sampson; Cappella Amsterdam; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Reuss
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902149

In the 1930s Francis Poulenc started to display a more introspective character in his compositions. A period of soul-searching after the deaths of two close to him, his lover Raymonde Linossier and composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, Poulenc began to explore the religion he had once set aside, undertaking a pilgrimage and adding sacred music to his oeuvre. Highly personalized, the subsequent works seem to vacillate between two sides of the composer’s life, embodying both sublime reverence and worldly excess. His settings of Stabat Mater and Sept Répons de Ténèbres were composed two decades later and represent the mature expression of this dichotomy, breaking character from the solemnity with expressions of extreme emotional, sensual and even dancelike diversions. This is a challenging drama for an ensemble to undertake, to tackle Poulenc’s personification of the sacred and express it in all its complexity. The flawless voicings of Capella Amsterdam and the Estonian Chamber Choir and superb musicianship of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra led by Daniel Reuss produce a truly affective interweaving of these seemingly diverse elements while the dulcet renderings of soprano Carolyn Sampson perfectly embody the Marion essence.


Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem

02 vocal 05 birtwistleHarrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem
Roderick Williams; BBC Singers; Nash Ensemble; Nicholas Kok
Signum Classics SIGCD368

This fourth of Signum’s series of composer-led releases with exquisite performances by the BBC Singers is perfectly timed to coincide with Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th year. Though a mixture of recent and older compositions, this is a premiere recording for all works on the disc.

The title piece is the most recent. The Moth Requiem is composed for 12 female voices, alto flute and 3 harps. The beauty and tenuous life of the moth is explored through a text based on The Moth Poem by Robin Blaser, with the names of moth species, both common and close to extinct, intertwined throughout. An eerie, shimmering fragility is perfectly evoked by the women’s voices while the music is crafted to portray a moth trapped inside a piano, touching the strings and bumping on the lid in its efforts to escape.

This tenuous hold on life is mirrored through similar effect in Three Latin Motets employed as interludes for Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper. In The Ring Dance of the Nazarene, Christ is alternately represented by the superb baritone Roderick Williams and the chorus while an Iranian darbuka drum is employed to evoke the dance that Christ performs for his disciples. On the Sheer Threshold of the Night, is taken from his opera The Mask of Orpheus, a setting of Boethius’ early Christian interpretation of the Orpheus myth, set underneath the motif of Orpheus and Eurydice calling out to each other over the great divide between life and afterlife.


Schubert – Winterreise - Jan Kobow; Christoph Hammer

02 vocal 01 schubert winterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Jan Kobow; Christoph Hammer
ATMA ACD2 2536

The best live performance of Die Winterreise I ever heard took place in Edinburgh many years ago. The singer was a young German tenor, at that time completely unknown to me. His name was Jonas Kaufmann. I understand that Kaufmann’s recording of Winterreise has just been released; I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Winterreise was composed for a high voice. When sung by a lower voice, the songs have to be transposed. There is nothing wrong with that but the character of the songs changes. When performed by a singer with a dark voice like Hans Hotter or Thomas Quasthoff, there is a correspondence between the darkness of the songs and that of the singer’s voice. But when we hear a tenor, the brightness of the voice and the sadness of the songs give us a poignant contrast. This tenor, Jan Kobow, is able to cope with the high tessitura of these songs but he also has a very even low register. The pianist Christoph Hammer is also very good; he plays not a modern grand but a fortepiano of the period (an early 19th century Brodmann).

The accompanying booklet is informative but the English translation is full of mistakes: “re majeur” is D major, not D flat major; C minor, not B minor, is the relative minor of E flat major; and so on. I also regret that the wanderer of the poems is called “a hiker.”

Of the available recordings with a tenor, I think my personal preference is with Christoph Prégardien, but that may change once I hear the new Kaufmann!


Wagner – Tristan und Isolde - Stephen Gould; Nina Stemme; Kwangchul Youn; Michelle Breedt; Johan Reuter; Rundfunk Berlin; Marek Janowski

02 vocal 02 wagner tristanWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Stephen Gould; Nina Stemme; Kwangchul Youn; Michelle Breedt; Johan Reuter; Rundfunk Berlin; Marek Janowski
PentaTone PTC 5186 404

The wonderful score of Tristan und Isolde is what placed Wagner among the gods and to listen to this new PentaTone recording in natural stereo sound sensitive to the slightest dynamic change, with singers perfectly balanced, will give this statement true justification. The 200th birthday of Richard Wagner is celebrated in Germany, not by issuing more DVD’s, but recording his ten masterworks in live concert performances the best way possible, with state-of-the art technology and the best available artists.

An international cast is led by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme who literally inhabits Isolde with tempestuous outbursts, the ecstasy of love and the final transfiguration expressed by her magnificent voice and persona. A worthy partner in suffering, American heldentenor Stephen Gould journeys valiantly through the gruelling role of Tristan. South African mezzo Michelle Breedt is a passionate, deeply sympathetic Brangaene, excelling in her second act soliloquy. Korean basso Kwangchul Youn is a noble, wronged and magnanimous König Marke, while Johan Reuter’s brave and loyal Kurvenal is fine, but unfortunately no match for the Fischer-Dieskau of yore.

Marek Janowski is probably the best kept secret of our times. Now at 75 and still going strong, I always thought of him as a hard -working conductor, travelling all over Europe and bringing many orchestras up to the level of excellence and winning prizes and awards along the way. His orchestra of tenure, the Berlin Radio Symphony produces magical sounds I haven’t heard since Furtwängler, so one literally melts away in ecstasy in the welter of sound. And indeed there is ecstasy of the highest order in this performance of the Liebestod where the enigmatic Tristan chord finally gets resolved into pure harmony.


Schoenberg – Gurrelieder (reduced orchestra by Erwin Stein)

02 vocal 03 gurreliederSchoenberg – Gurrelieder (reduced orchestra by Erwin Stein)
Stig Andersen; Anne Schwanewilms; Lilli Paasikivi; Fernando Latorre; Arnold Bezuyen; Jon Frederic West; Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao; Günter Neuhold
Thorofon CTH2606/2

Schoenberg’s magnum opus of 1911, as written, requires many more musicians on stage that the regular symphony orchestra employs, plus six soloists and an enormous choir. Erwin Stein, a one-time student of the composer, arranged the work for fewer players in order that it would reach a wider audience. He did this in consultation with Schoenberg in 1922/23. In addition to requiring smaller orchestral forces Stein also reduced the choir and did some transposing to make it less demanding. Schoenberg approved Stein’s work, realizing the practicality of making performing Gurrelieder less demanding. In fact, in 1929 Schoenberg conducted Stein’s version of the songs from “Part 1” for broadcast on Berlin radio.

The strings in the original number 84, in Stein’s version 60; flutes 8 vs. 4; oboes 5 vs. 3; clarinets 7 vs. 4; bassoons 5 vs. 3; horns 10 vs. 6; trumpets 7 vs. 4; trombones 7 vs. 4; harp 4 vs. 2. The two timpanists, six percussionists and single celeste remain untouched. However Stein introduces a piano. That is a final total of 156 players versus 102. Still, that is a formidable number to which must be added the six soloists and the choirs.

In this first recording of the reduced forces version conductor Günter Neuhold shows that he understands the work; the orchestra is right there and I hear no reason to be picky with any member of the ensemble. So how does it sound? There is clarification in the crowded passages and the only downside (to my ears) was the absence of the richness and texture of the larger version. But the lines are easier to follow now, although I missed the complex flavours of the original to which I am accustomed. Listeners less saturated with the original will be well pleased. The recorded sound is translucent and very impressive.

Recorded in concert in Bilbao at the Palacio Euskalduna on March 8 and 9, 2012 the enthusiastic applause from the audience after the glorious sunrise scene is well deserved.


Britten – Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach - Alan Oke; Giselle Allen; Britten-Pears Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

02 vocal 04 britten peter grimesBritten – Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach
Alan Oke; Giselle Allen; Britten-Pears Orchestra; Steuart Bedford
ArtHaus Musik 102179

The troubled Aldeburgh fisherman Peter Grimes has rowed home at last in a unique production presented on the pebbly shores of the Suffolk village by the festival that Benjamin Britten established there in 1948. Lacking a facility large enough in the town to accommodate the large chorus and sets for the presentation of this most celebrated of Britten’s stage works, Aldeburgh Music boldly proposed to celebrate the centennial of the composer’s birth with ”Grimes on the Beach.” Compromises aside (a pre-taped orchestra and headset microphones to amplify the soloists), the weather co-operated and the risk proved well worth the effort.

The three evening performances of June 2013 have been expertly assembled by Margaret Williams into a cinemascope format film which amplifies the concert experience with close-ups, cutaways and specially commissioned atmospheric videos accompanying the four orchestral interludes. The title role is sung by the redoubtable Alan Oke in his first appearance in this role, ably abetted by Giselle Allen as the ever-sympathetic Ellen Orford. The cast also includes David Kempster as Balstrode, Robert Murray as Bob Boles and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs. Sedley.

Britten stalwart Steuart Bedford pre-recorded the students of the Britten-Pears Orchestra in a raw yet energetic studio session. The excellent chorus is drawn from members of Opera North and the Guildhall. The static, multi-purpose set consists of a number of oddly angled fishing boats that serve as pub, church and shacks as needed while the costuming is vintage 1945 dowdiness. The overall solidity of the vocal ensemble and the exceptionally clear diction make for a most engaging evening best enjoyed indoors, comfortably far from the crashing waves and pesky seagulls of the rugged North Sea.


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