EXTENDED PLAY – COLOURFUL COLORATURAS

By Seth Estrin

These new releases showcase four of the finest coloratura opera singers on stage today. Together, they offer the listener numerous opportunities to marvel at both the technical and emotive capabilities of the human voice when placed in the throat of superb dramatic actors.

01_natalie_dessayFrench soprano Natalie Dessay’s disc Mad Scenes (Virgin Classics 6 99469 0) brings together mad scenes from I Puritani, Hamlet, Candide, and Le Pardon de Ploërmel bookended by two recordings of the famous demise of Lucia di Lammermoor – one in French, and one in Italian. All the material on this CD has been previously released, yet it makes a compelling if (perhaps appropriately considering the theme), idiosyncratic compilation. Composers from Donizetti to Bernstein were united by an unwritten rule: the crazier the heroine, the faster and higher her music. Fortunately, Dessay can sing both very fast and very high (up to a sustained G above high C in the Meyerbeer selection). What’s more, she can do so while convincingly sounding insane, alternating between moments of delicate serenity and full-blooded drama when her plangent voice almost threatens to unravel. If you are not already familiar with Dessay’s artistry, this is an excellent starting-point.

02_diana_damrauGerman soprano Diana Damrau’s voice is essentially of the same type as Dessay, less delicate and poised but somewhat brighter and more full-bodied, and so it is not a surprise to find some of the same selections on her disc Coloratura Opera Arias with the Münchner RFO under Dan Ettinger (Virgin Classics 5 19313 2). It is a testament to the abilities of both singers that they can bring strikingly different yet equally convincing approaches to similar repertoire – both of their over-the-top interpretations of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are not to be missed. Damrau’s fluttering voice has a natural smile that she uses to great advantage in portraying ebullient characters such as Zerbinetta, Rosina, and Oscar. Yet even in more subdued moods, such as when portraying Anne Trulove, her dramatic inclinations are spot-on. Aided by perfect enunciation, Damrau is so immersed in her characters that you hardly notice her modulating between four different languages in this varied program. This is an outstanding disc from beginning to end.

03_joyce_didonatoMezzo Joyce DiDonato tackles more limited repertoire, focusing on arias written by Rossini for the famous singer Isabella Colbran on Colbran, the Muse with the Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Edoardo Muller (Virgin Classics 6 94579 0). Written as showpieces for a particular singer’s unique voice, Colbran’s roles are notoriously difficult to sing, but I doubt they have been better sung in modern times than on this disc. DiDonato has an intense, focused voice with a quick vibrato, impeccable coloratura, and lovely legato. But she is not afraid to embolden it with robust expressions of joy or desperation. Her incredible range allows DiDonato to bring to roles that are often sung by lighter sopranos (such as Elena, Semiramide, and Armida) a richer mezzo tonal colour, but without any hint of strain or lack of high notes. An exceptional release, with excellent support from both orchestral and vocal colleagues.

04_vivica_genauxFellow American mezzo Vivica Genaux, likewise concentrates on a single composer: Vivaldi, on Pyrotechnics - Vivaldi Opera Arias (Virgin Classics 6 94573 0). Genaux’s disc rivals DiDonato’s not simply for the number of notes sung or the sheer technical accomplishment of the singing, but also for the skill with which she uses coloratura to express emotion. Though her voice is earthy and vibrant, with a visceral, palpitating quality, it is light enough to give it a buoyancy that allows Genaux to navigate astoundingly difficult coloratura with ease. This facility with the passagework lets her focus on the drama, so that arias such as “Agitata da due venti” from La Griselda are not simply Baroque showpieces, but music sung by true operatic characters. Genaux’s singing is bolstered by the flamboyant playing of the period instrument group Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi.

Seth Estrin

03_la_cenerentolaRossini - La Cenerentola

Joyce DiDonato; Juan Diego Florez; Gran Teatre del Liceu; Patrick Summers

Decca 074 3305

It is such a pleasure to enjoy this completely original, very imaginative and colourful DVD performance of the 24 year old Rossini’s comic Cinderella masterpiece completed under great pressure in a few weeks for the carnival season of 1817. Original indeed. What an inspired idea to bring in the ‘Comediants’, a group of itinerant players who give outdoor impromptu performances all over Catalonia much like in the Middle Ages. The overall effect is the work of Joan Fonts (director) and it’s like a comic book fairy tale with strong primary colours that are ever changing with mirrors and the magic of backlighting. One hilarious feature is a group of anthropomorphic rats constantly moving around in the background following and silently commenting on the action.

And it’s a musical triumph as well. The two principals, Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Florez are top of the line today in terms of bel canto singing. American mezzo DiDonato easily conquers the fierce technical demands of Rossini fioraturas but is also capable of pathos and introspection to move audiences with the warmth of her voice. Juan Diego Florez’s voice is spectacular in the high flying tessitura and he throws out the high C’s with the greatest of ease. After his aria in the second act Si, ritrovarla, io giuro the audience goes simply hysterical.

There is no disappointment in the three supporting baritone/basso roles either. Perhaps veteran Italian basso Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) stands out in his characterization, irresistible comedy and bravura Rossinian pattering, a feature that Arthur Sullivan adopted later into his English operettas.

Indiana born conductor Patrick Sommers is fast becoming a force to reckon with, especially in bel canto repertoire. His unerring beat of metronomic precision and graceful and stylish tempos, sometimes at lightning speed, contribute to an outstandingly memorable evening.

Janos Gardonyi

04_nixon_in-chinaJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Robert Orth; Maria Kanyova; Thomas Hammons; Marc Heller; Tracy Dahl; Chen-Ye Yuan; Opera Colorado Chorus; Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Naxos 8.669022-24

Watching modern operas become a part of the standard repertoire is like watching the children grow up. Some of the precocious ones (the ones by Philip Glass) sometimes become rather dull adults, others are still gawky teenagers (works by Corigliano), while others reach their full, stunning potential. The seminal work by Adams, Nixon in China, belongs to that last category.

Just over 25 years old, the opera has had numerous productions in North America and Europe, initially overshadowed by the premiere Peter Sellars production and sacrosanct casting of voices (Maddalena, Sylvan, and Craney). Its one and only recoding, an excellent rendition on Nonensuch Records with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Edo de Waart became the de-facto reference recording… But some 5 years ago, the tide started changing. When I saw in 2006 an early version of the current production, here recorded live in Denver, it was a fresh and fascinating experience. The excellent Naxos CD recording conveys this freshness and Alsop brilliantly reveals the lyrical, almost romantic side of Adams’ music. That lyricism, often buried under the trappings of minimalism, emerges victoriously.

Winnipegger Tracy Dahl is every director’s dream of Madame Mao, both vocally and visually, especially in her triumphant coloratura “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”. Robert Orth brings us a strangely sympathetic, pre–“I am not a crook!”Nixon; just listen to his opening aria “News has a kind of mystery”. Overall, this is my first must-have recording of the new decade!

Robert Tomas

05_shadowlandShadowLand

DaCapo Chamber Choir

Independent DC 002-09 (www.dacapochamberchoir.ca)

 

The essence of this recording weaves an ever-changing metamorphosis of darkness to light, highlighting the thought that neither of these polarities can possibly exist without the other. Night and day, life and death, earthly time and eternity are each a shadow of the other and which is real? The compositions chosen for this brilliantly focused choir provide exquisitely mystical and powerful music as meditations for a variety of texts highlighting this theme. The most dramatic is Whitacre's When David Heard based on the biblical passage telling of David's grief over the death of his son Absalom. Contrasting with the quietly poignant settings of Absalom fili mi we are used to, Whitacre's fourteen and a half minute setting moves through several different musical characterizations, evoking movement from sobbing to screaming, pain to ritual acceptance, through a processional passage. Other pieces such as Moonset by Jeff Enns and Nocturne by Leonard Enns which celebrate the beauty of night and the harmony of the spheres make effective use of overtones to inspire awe. In The searching sings by R. Murray Schafer, and Leonard Enn's The Amazing Day the choir celebrates the magic and lightness of nature. The recording begins and ends with two meditations on the sacred, Enn's I saw eternity and Imant Raminsh's O ignus spiritus.

 

Dianne Wells

EXTENDED PLAY: VERSATILE CANADIAN GUITARISTS SCORE

By Ken Waxman

 

Arguably more responsible than any other instrument over the past century for famous and infamous music, the electric guitar is a harsh taskmaster, especially for musicians creating innovative sounds. Luckily the six-string’s versatility can be adapted to a variety of sonic situations. Mixing original concepts with sympathetic musical partners make each of these discs notable.

01_ken_aldcroftToronto’s Ken Aldcroft takes an organic approach on Our Hospitality

(Trio Records TRP-010 www.kenaldcroft.ca), situating his axe within his top-flight Convergence Ensemble filled out by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, trombonist Scott Thomson, alto saxophonist Evan Shaw, bassist Wes Neal and drummer Joe Sorbara. Long-time colleagues, this relationship means that Aldcroft’s eight compositions are extended with instant arrangements and sympathetic improvisations throughout. Just a Hint and Dialoguing illuminate this. On the former, Sorbara’s paradiddles set up each soloist’s understated parallel lines while discursive guitar plucks maintain spectral separation. Eventually Rampersaud’s fluttering grace notes provide connective sinew as she ascends the scale. A group improv, Dialoguing matches the trumpeter’s flutter-tonguing with moderato and legato trills from Shaw. All the while Thomson’s trombone is slurring and shuffling on its own tangent, as is Aldcroft’s circular, finger-styled pacing. When the plectrumist introduces below-the-bridge hammering plus metallic crunches, it’s Neal’s bass line that steadies the narrative from below.

 

02_tony_wilsonTransforming much different source material is Vancouver’s Tony Wilson’s The People Look Like Flowers (Last Drip Audio DA 00482 www.dripaudio.com), whose centrepiece is an improvisational re-imagining of Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae. The 11-movement suite is made new not only by mutating and mixing melodies with improvisations and other musical tropes, but by interpreting the chamber work composed for viola and piano with Wilson’s guitar, Peggy Lee’s cello, Paul Blaney’s bass, Dylan van der Schyff’s drums, Dave Say’s saxophones and Kevin Elaschuk’s trumpet. Proving the theme’s adaptability, the sextet takes it straight in sections, adds to its lyricism elsewhere, distorts it abrasively in other spots and alludes to folk songs at points. The last is most apparent on Movement #4 Variation as Wilson’s linear development is given added impetus by Lee’s sul tasto sweeps as well as wavering trumpet lines. Movement #2 on the other hand includes sul ponticello scratches from the strings, plus the drummer’s martial flams and rim shots that only occasionally let portions of the melody peek through. Elaschuk’s contrapuntal trumpet lines and Wilson’s slurred fingering help turn Movement #11 into a sectional swinger with the others riffing until the guitarist’s distorted licks give way to theme recapitulation.

 

03_east_van_stringsAnother Vancouver guitarist, Gordon Grdina follows a similar route on The Breathing of Statues (Songlines SGL-SA 1572-2 www.songlines.com). Except all the compositions are his, and the East Van Strings which accompanies are violinist Jesse Zubot, violist Eyvind Kang and again cellist Peggy Lee. Combining Grdina’s fascination with Middle Eastern music – he also plays oud here – the second Viennese school and improvisation, the CD ensures that disparate influences converge without conflict. A detour into double-timed Arabic progressions is most apparent on the title track, when following a strummed drone from the oud, the other strings’ initial gypsy-like romantic colouration takes on the tonal characteristics of kamanchas or three-string spiked fiddles. This allegro stridency ceases though, when Lee’s adagio slides move the piece towards western lyricism. More attuned to atonality are Silence of Paintings and Origin. On the latter, after lively string curves illuminate the theme, Grdina counters with spidery runs and antiphonal slurred fingering. Pitch-sliding and flying spiccato from Kang lead the narrative towards stop-time until guitar strokes and romantic harmonies level the tempo. On the former, heavily rhythmic, vibrating cadenzas from Grdina sharply drive the theme chromatically as the strings’ layered pulsations scrape and scatter.

 

04_grdina_trioTauter three-part dialogue characterizes Gordon Grdina’s other session while confirming both the guitar’s versatility and his own. If Accident Will (Plunge Records PR00628 www.plungrecords.com), with his combo filled out by bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen, furrows the classic fusion power trio groove. However the originality and finesse exhibited on his other CD also appear here, albeit in a brawnier fashion. Tracks such as Yellow Spot into the Sun illustrate this, as the drummer’s measured march time is decorated with drags and flams as well as thick double bass thumps. Thanks to Grdina’s chromatic sound sprays the disguised ballad still retains its form despite Loewen’s hard pummelling. Arabic influences and the oud aren’t neglected either. Cobble Hill/Renunciation brings out a double-strung ecstatic pitch from Grdina, elastic chording from Babin and beats that could arise from a dumbek or North African goblet-shaped drum.

01_quintessence_handbellsA Ring of Bronze

Quintessence Handbell Ensemble

Independent QHE200901 (www.quintessencebells.ca)

 

“Drats! If only I had listened to this CD before Christmas!” was my first reaction – it would have made a perfect gift for many of my friends. Handbell ringing is a dying art – usually ridiculed on par with the kazoo and ukulele. There is nothing to ridicule here however, as the Quintessence members are very talented musicians and arrangers. The selections range from classical (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) to spirituals (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) to seasonal and original tunes – all superbly and precisely rendered by the five member ensemble. The amateur musicians, whose spiritual and musical home is the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, are joined by a talented trio of professional musicians, Svetla Dybenko on cello, Kevin McChesney on guitar and Joanne McLennan on piano. Almost regardless of the tune, the sound is all Christmas – shimmering lights and joy, invoking the magic that captivates us so about the season. Do yourself (and your friends) a favour and start you Christmas 2010 shopping early at www.quintessencebells.ca.

 

Robert Tomas

12_triple_concertoThe Melody of Rhythm - Triple Concerto and Music for Trio

Bela Fleck; Zakir Hussain; Edgar Meyer; Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

E1 Music KOC-CD-2024

 

A trio of stars creates a musical galaxy of sound, ideas, patterns and rhythm, that gives a new meaning to the words “classical crossover” – the Grammy nomination in this category pretty well sums up the high quality of “The Melody of Rhythm”

Bela Fleck (banjo), Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Edgar Meyer (double bass) are each stars in performance and composition. Their ensemble work as a trio is brilliant. Theirs is a trustworthy conversation in the six trios presented here. The music is a quilt of styles – the short rhythmic and tonal melodic ideas create amazing counterpoint.

 

Add the symphony orchestra in the Triple Concerto The Melody of Rhythm and a fascinating mix of the Western classical, world music and American jazz/folk is created. The best part of the three movement concerto is that not a single musician is asked to be something they are not. No uncomfortable stylistic boundaries are crossed. The symphonic musicians parts, though indicative of the banjo, tabla and double bass parts, provide more of a different viewpoint than an accompaniment to the soloists. It is clever writing with respect for the different genres from everyone involved.

 

Fleck, Hussain and Meyer are phenomenal as always. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin rises to the musical challenge. The production is clear, with the concise liner notes a dream to read. This is entertainment and musical genius to be applauded!

 

Tiina Kiik

Thanks to my day job as general manager of New Music Concerts, it has been my great privilege over the past decade to work with flutist Robert Aitken whenever he is not off on his travels, performing around the globe. Largely due his activities as artistic director of NMC over the past four decades Bob is mostly thought of as a contemporary music specialist here in Toronto, but throughout the rest of the world he is renowned as a performer of music from all eras. Recent activities have included a tour to Hong Kong with harpist Erica Goodman, 10 days of conducting in Slovenia and three weeks of solo and orchestral performances in the Philippines and mainland China. 01_stamitz_aitkenOne project that he is particularly proud of is a recording of four flute concertos by Johann Stamitz (1717-1757) which has been released by Naxos(8.570150) just in time for Christmas. The disc was recorded in Vilnius, Lithuania following concert performances with the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra conducted by Donatas Katkus. We will have an impartial review in our next issue, but I did not want you to have to wait until February to hear about this new disc which I think sounds great. Concert notes: Robert Aitken conducts the NMC ensemble in “Happy Birthday, Udo!” on December 13 at Betty Oliphant Theatre and on January 10 he will receive the prestigious Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts at Glenn Gould Studio during NMC’s presentation “Zygmunt Krauze and the Polish Perspective”.

 

When I dropped by the WholeNote office recently to pick up last minute arrivals there was a bumper crop of discs waiting for me. Here’s a brief mention of those which I found particularly worthy of note.

02_beethoven_gryphonBeethoven Piano Trios Op.1 No.2 and Op.97 “Archduke”– The Gryphon Trio (Analekta AN 2 9858): With the St. Lawrence Quartet having taken up residence in California, the Gryphon Trio can rightfully be called Canada’s pre-eminent chamber group. These two Beethoven trios are personal favourites and receive exhilarating performances here. Although this “Archduke” may not replace as my benchmark the Gilels/Kogan/Rostropovich recording I grew up with, the Gryphons do themselves proud here.

 

03_el_sistemaEl Sistema – A film by Paul Smaczny & Marta Stootmeir (EuroArts 2056958): This year’s Glenn Gould Prize winner was José Antonio Abreu for his development of El Sistema, the incredibly successful program bringing children to classical music across Venezuela. There are currently 340,000 children, many from disadvantaged families, enrolled in more than a hundred youth orchestras across that country. For those of us not lucky enough to have been in the audience at the Four Seasons Centre last month to hear the jewel in the crown of the program, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel and experience the exuberance (and excellence) of these young performers first hand, this DVD documents Abreu’s miraculous achievement.

 

04_togni_elmer_iselerLamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae – Jeff Reilly; Elmer Iseler Singers; Lydia Adams (ECM New Series 2129): Peter-Anthony Togni’s stunning Jeremiad is a concerto for bass clarinet and mixed choir and it’s great to see it getting international exposure on Manfred Eicher’s adventurous label. This very original work capitalizes on Jeff Reilly’s ability to improvise and uses the bass clarinet as the voice of the beleaguered prophet. The choir is in fine form, with soprano soloist Rebecca Whelan deserving special mention. Recorded in the Cathedral Church of All Saints, Halifax the broad acoustic is well suited to this haunting music. [It is to my ear at moments somewhat reminiscent, but not at all derivative, of Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” created as a soundtrack for the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Philip Glass’ music for the film Koyannasqatsi. I wonder if there is a film to be found in this music too?]

 

05_torture_memosThe Torture Memos – The Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra (www.parkdalerevolutionaryorchestra.com): Composer Ben Mueller-Heaslip uses texts drawn from the writings of John Yoo and his colleagues at the Office of Legal Counsel for the George W. Bush administration for this unusual song cycle. The stark orchestration includes saxophone, violin, cello, bass and drum kit to accompany the declamatory vocals of soprano Kristin Mueller-Heaslip. The result is very effective but hard to define or categorize. The composer sites Schubert, Philip Glass and David Byrne among his influences and the music is as eclectic as might be expected from such diverse roots. Concert note: The Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra launches “The Torture Memos” at The Tranzac Club on December 11.

 

06_torQTorQ Percussion Quartet (www.torqpercussion.ca): This eponymous CD features improvisations, arrangements and compositions by group members Daniel Morphy, Jamie Drake and Richard Burrows, plus works by Toronto composers Michael Smith, Elisha Denburg and Mark Duggan. There’s lots of lively music here, but moments of contemplation too as in the bell-like sonorities of Duggan’s moving John’s Gone. TorQ was awarded a MARTY for “Best Emerging Performing Arts Group – 2009” by the Mississauga Arts Council and this debut release demonstrates why.

 

07_catherine_meunierNight Chill – Catherine Meunier (Centrediscs CMCCD 15109): While you might be forgiven for thinking that an hour of banging on the wooden keys of a marimba might be a bit much all at once, there is plenty of contrast here thanks to sound files from Christian Ledroit and Alcides Lanza, Paul Frehner’s second marimba doubling on vibraphone and Nicolas Gilbert’s use of French horn for colour in one of two pieces included here. Like Gilbert, Andrew P. MacDonald contributes two works - The Riff, a lively extended piece for solo marimba and The Illuminations of Gutenberg, a playful marimba duet. Montreal percussionist Catherine Meunier shines throughout.

 

08_imagesImages, New Music for Guitar and Strings – Rob MacDonald; Madawaska String Quartet (robmac92@hotmail.com): I took a break from writing this column to attend the CD launch of this disc at Gallery 345. This was my first opportunity to hear young guitarist Rob MacDonald and I must say I was very impressed. Very clean articulation, exceptional technique, a strong sense of line and the solo pieces were performed from memory. Like the concert, the CD begins with a very effective set of pieces by Andrew Staniland for solo guitar and concludes with Images, an extended work for guitar and string quartet by American composer Christopher William Pierce. Like Staniland, Pierce did his doctoral studies at the U of T and both are laureates of the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music. Another award winning local composer, Jules Léger Prize laureate Omar Daniel, contributes the dark Nocturne for viola, guitar and cello. Double bassist Peter Pavlovsky joins MacDonald and the members of the Madawaska Quartet for Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s lyrical Love Song. Although not mentioned on the disc, a web search indicates that all four pieces are world premiere recordings - well worth seeking out.

 

09_beauvaisInvisible Cities - music composed and performed by William Beauvais (Centrediscs CMCCD 14809): I have mixed feelings about this disc. Not that it isn’t well performed or well recorded, but simply that it is surprising to hear music with a rhythm section and a “back-beat” – even one so ably provided by George Koller and Alan Hetherington – on the Canadian Music Centre label. These examples – Well Tempered Choros and In Joplin’s Pocket - are just the bookends however and in between there are a number of more “serious” compositions including the Italo Calvino inspired title track for solo guitar. This is a piece I hope to hear live one day because I would love to see how the multiple layers of sound are achieved without overdubbing. Also particularly effective is Infinity’s Window on which Beauvais is joined by percussionist Barry Prophet whose bowed cymbals and other extended techniques add an eerie, electronic ambience, and the quartet Juxtapositions with guitarists Raffi Altounian, Michael Kolk and Rob MacDonald.

 

10_rick_washbrookMoonlit Solace – Rick Washbrook (www.washbrookmusic.com): The latest disc from local guitarist Rick Washbrook is an eclectic offering. This solo effort showcasing his bluesy finger-style steel and nylon string picking, with and without gravely voice, features a number of original compositions along with eccentric vocal takes on My Funny Valentine and Fulsom Prison Blues and extended instrumental interpretations of Moon River and Summertime. Of particular note among the originals is the moving You’re Not Alone and the introspective instrumental title track.

 

11_wendy_warnerWendy Warner Plays Popper and Piatigorsky – Wendy Warner; Eileen Buck (Cedille CDR 90000 111): As a student of the cello I became more than familiar with David Popper’s “High School of Cello Playing”, a set of 40 etudes designed to develop all the fundamental techniques required for mastering the music of the late 19th century. It surprises me now, some thirty years after struggling through those exercises, that I did not realize that Popper was also the composer of some lovely music. American Wendy Warner, a protégé of Rostropovich who went on to win first prize at the 1990 International Rostropovich Competition in Paris, presents us with three sets of pieces by Popper including a fully developed Suite for Cello and Piano lasting nearly half an hour. 20th century virtuoso cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was also an important teacher among whose students was notable Canadian Denis Brott. Piatigorsky is represented here by an intriguing set of variations on that familiar theme of Paganini. Each of the fourteen variations is inspired by another great string player – Pablo Casals, Joseph Szigeti, Yehudi Menuhin, Fritz Kreisler and Piatigorsky himself among others – culminating with a Tempo di Marcia dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz. These virtuosic portraits are performed with fiery panache by Warner and her able accompanist Eileen Buck. Fasten your seat belt for a hair-raising ride!

 

12_jcbach_jarousskyJC Bach, La dolce fiamma – Philippe Jaroussky; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie; Jérémie Rhorer (Virgin Classics 5099969456404): Elsewhere in this issue you will find a review of Cecilia Bartoli’s latest release “Sacrificium”, a collection of arias written for castrated male sopranos in the 17th and 18th centuries. This follows on last month’s release of a similar collection of castrati arias by Porpora sung by Karina Gauvin, also reviewed in these pages. Lest we think that this repertoire is now only the domain of female singers, French sopranist/countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has thrown his hat into the ring with a collection of “forgotten castrato arias” by Johann Christian, youngest son of Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena Bach. I must say I am a bit surprised to learn that the barbaric practice persisted so long into the 18th century, with the latest work included here a concert aria dating from 1779. Be that as it may, this is wonderfully lyrical and dramatic music superbly sung by the young Jaroussky. The period orchestra is fine form under Rhorer’s direction and the sound is immaculate.

 

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds

DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com

 

 

01_111_cdIn 1998 Deutsche Grammophon published their Centenary Collection celebrating its first 100 years of sound recordings. The first track on the first disc was of the voice of Emile Berliner from a spoken letter to his sister in 1897. There were seven sets containing 63 discs occupying 700 cms (27½”) of shelf space. A new set, celebrating their first 111 years, contains 55 CDs in one box and occupies only 40cms (5½”) (DG 4778176).

For this new set, the editors selected works in critically acclaimed performances and recordings from 1951 on, covering a broad spectrum of music from virtually every era and style. They have, in effect, produced a basic repertoire of a somewhat sophisticated taste, eminently of interest to both beginners and collectors alike.

Going through the recordings I sampled some of my old favourites, such as the superlative Carmina Burana with Eugen Jochum; Dvorak’s 9th with Kubelik sounding fresher than ever and the Dvorak Cello concerto with Rostropovich and Karajan. There’s Igor Markevitch’s brilliant and articulate Symphonie Fantastique and Carlos Kleiber’s supercharged Beethoven Fifth. Ferenc Fricsay is heard in his acclaimed Verdi Requiem; while Furtwangler’s renowned Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is coupled with his Haydn 88th. As expected, Karajan’s unsurpassed 1963 Beethoven Ninth is included as is today’s hot ticket, Gustavo Dudamel and his Youth Orchestra playing the Mahler Fifth.

 

No such a collection would be complete without an example of Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert. Here is Winterreise with Gerald Moore. Other singers include Domingo, Kozenà, Netrebko, Quasthoff, Terfel, Villazón, and Wunderlich.

 

From a long list of great instrumentalists I was happy to see organist Helmut Walcha playing Bach and cellist Pierre Fournier in the complete Unaccompanied Suites of Bach. David Oistrakh plays the Tchaikovsky concerto in the 1954 Dresden recording with Konwitschny conducting and Richter plays the Rachmaninov second concerto in Warsaw. Martha Argerich plays all 26 Preludes of Chopin and Pollini plays both sets of the Etudes while Benedetti Michelangeli plays Volume 1 of the Debussy Preludes. Horowitz in a memorable Moscow concert in 1986 still impresses. Wilhelm Kempff’s ever classical Beethoven is heard in the Fourth and Fifth Concertos with Leitner and the formidable Emil Gilels, at his peak, is heard playing Beethoven’s Walstein, Les Adieux & Appassionata sonatas. Maria João Pires performance of the complete Chopin Nocturnes remains a special experience and the once controversial Ivo Pogorelich plays Scarlatti sonatas.

 

Today’s generation is represented by Anne Sophie Mutter playing the Brahms concerto with Karajan, her mentor, while Hillary Hahn plays Bach Concertos and Lang Lang plays concertos by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. The Emerson String Quartet turns in a stunning performance of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Quoting the cellist of the quartet, “I don’t know if there’s scientific evidence to support it, but when I listen to this music I feel my brain cells being re-aligned.” I truly believe him.

 

The above discs are just a selection from this exceptional collection, for which space constraints preclude a complete listing. Each of the discs is in a fine cardboard sleeve bearing a replica of the cover of the original issue. That’s how 55 of these plus a 134 page booklet fit nicely into a cube measuring only 40 centimetres. Branded a “limited edition,” the retail price is absurdly low and cheaper by far than downloading. Even if someone has more than quite a few of the discs the package is still a bargain. Also each recording sounds as if it were re-mastered to “Originals” standard.

 

02_111_dvdThere is a companion set of DVDs for 111 years of Deutsche Grammophon (0734566, 13 DVDs). The editors selected the making of West Side Story with Leonard Bernstein and two Beethoven concertos with Pollini and Bohm; Carmen with Vickers and Karajan, also Mutter playing and directing Mozart’s fourth and fifth concertos. There are Furtwangler’s Salzburg Don Giovanni, Carlos Kleiber’s Der Rosenkavalier and La Traviata with Anna Netrebko. The Swan Lake ballet stars Fonteyn and Nureyev and Karajan’s Verdi Requiem has Pavarotti. Boulez’s Die Walküre from Bayreuth still impresses and finally a charming Peter and the Wolf with Sting and Claudio Abbado.

 

03_van_beinumThe late Eduard van Beinum who succeeded Mengelberg as conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra produced scores of extremely fine recordings for Philips and Decca beginning in 1946 with the Leonora 2 on two 10” 78s. His admirers, count me in, are always delighted to acquire CDs of unreleased performances. Tahra has two piano concertos with Dame Myra Hess recorded in concert (Tahra TAH672), the Beethoven 4th from 1952 and the Schumann A minor from 1956. These are marvellous performances that confirm that Hess’s exalted reputation was well earned. The sparkle and exuberance of these live performances from two of their generation’s acknowledged masters are timeless and not one wit ‘old hat. The recorded sound is remarkably fine and I’d happily take this one to that desert island of imagination.

 

04_tagliaferroFor decades Magda Taglieferro (1893-1986) was one of the most influential and noted pianists before the public. Born in Brazil to French parents, her father was her first teacher; she was taken to France at an early age, won the Premier Prix in the Paris Conservatoire in 1907 and was accepted by Alfred Cortot as a pupil. Noted for her individuality, flamboyance and charisma in performance, she also had an illustrious recording career spanning more than half a century, with composers active in Paris at the time, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, d’Indy, Hahn, and Ibert writing works dedicated to her or with her in mind. EMI and others have issued parts of her legacy but there remain many recordings not yet on CD, including those recorded in Brazil during her frequent stays there. A new set from DOREMI (DHR-7961-3 2CD+DVD) includes material new to CD. Included are studio recordings from Brazil and live concerts from Paris, featuring Chopin, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy and Hahn. Her personal approach to Chopin is quite fascinating, never tentative. The same assuredness is heard in her brilliant Prokofiev and her crisp and stylistic Mozart. The package includes a DVD of the Prokofiev 3rd concerto and two Debussy pieces. The sound throughout is pleasant.

05_hampson_schumannThomas Hampson sings Schumann

Thomas Hampson; Wolfram Rieger

Medici Arts 2072508

American Baritone Thomas Hampson has proven himself a formidable presence on both opera and recital stages. His credibility portraying a character or presenting an art song is rooted in his personal and artistic maturity. He has demonstrated his ease with a wide range of repertoire reflecting his conviction that singers should sing what they want and what they can.

This DVD recording presents a 2007 concert in Munich where the audience listens with palpable intensity to a cultural foreigner performing German music and poetry that has no equal in the American experience. Hampson’s spiritual kinship with Schumann’s music and his poets (Kerner, Heine) afford him the access to the deeper nuances that German audiences expect.

Intriguing too is the fact that Hampson’s own research on the 20 Lieder und Gesange, Op.48 uncovered an early Schumann manuscript which predates the cuts and changes made to the commonly published editions we have known for decades. Hampson adds four recovered songs and restores both text and music to Schumann’s original.

Fans of Op. 48 will enjoy the well known Ich grolle nicht to which Hampson brings more intensity than is commonly expected. Curiously though, Hampson opts to avoid the optional high note in the latter portion of this brief Lied. As a baritone with a reputation for a strong upper range, and having demonstrated that very ability in the first half of the recital (Zwolf Gedichte Op.35), one can only assume that fatigue commended the choice of the lower note.

The performance is altogether a very serious one and accurately captures Schumann’s melancholy mindset allowing only occasional rays of sunlight to appear. Accompanist Wolfram Rieger is a superb companion for Hampson in this performance and deserves the equal place he takes with Hampson in the final bows.

 

04_kaufmann_shubertSchubert - Die Schöne Müllerin

Jonas Kaufmann; Helmut Deutsch

Decca 478 1528

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann is a remarkably versatile singer, with a broad repertoire. But his greatest operatic successes have so far been in Italian and French romantic opera, and Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller-girl) is unusual fare for a Cavaradossi or a Don José. Yet, as this winning disc makes clear, Kaufmann is thoroughly at home in the world of lieder – and not just because he is German.

Kaufman’s distinctive lyricism, agility and dark timbre are all used to great effect in this cycle of twenty songs. Though his approach is dramatic, he manages to avoid exaggerated interpretations and intense dynamic levels. In fact, he achieves an intimate and natural style here.

The detailed nuances that he uncovers in Wilhelm Müller’s texts contribute to a vivid portrait of the love struck young miller. In Der Neugierige (The Curious Man) when the miller sings, O stream of my love, how silent you are today!, Kaufmann’s tender pianissimo suggests the tragedy awaiting him. Even the ebullient Mein! (Mine!) is coloured with shades of foreboding.

Some of the most moving passages occur in the dialogues with pianist Helmut Deutsch, whose playing provides a worthy match for Kaufmann’s beautiful singing. Together Kaufmann and Deutsch tell a compelling story. The booklet has texts and translations, an interview with Kaufmann, and a terrific cover.

Pamela Margles

03_puccini_edgarPuccini - Edgar

José Cura; Amarilli Nizza; Julia Gerseva; Marco Vratogna; Teatro Regio Torino; Yoram David

ArtHaus Musik 101 377

Ricordi, the great Milan music publisher and impresario must have been hard pressed to recoup the losses from his investment after the young Puccini’s second opera Edgar’s disastrous premiere at La Scala in 1889 a year before the overnight sensation of that true verismo masterpiece Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Edgar was not to recover for over 100 years until rediscovered, with a lost 4th act added, in this performance. Ironically Puccini made a quantum leap of true genius, turning out nothing but masterworks thereafter, while Mascagni stagnated unable to duplicate his initial success.

Edgar is an unfortunate opera, an interesting failure as it were, suffering from a weak libretto, but it does contain some beautiful melodies, arias and choral scenes. Puccini already had a sense of theatre, knew how to create suspense, resolve tension and develop insight into character, mainly Edgar. I would call him a ‘poor man’s Tannhauser’ struggling between carnal and pure love, bringing tragedy upon both.

This performance, honouring Puccini’s 150th, is headed by the great Argentinean José Cura, so successful in Italian ‘heldentenor’ repertory (Trovatore, Otello). He is heartrending in his immersion into Edgar’s character. The two ladies representing two sides of love are soprano Amarilli Nizza and mezzo Julia Gertseva, both in spectacular voice and characterization. Gertseva perhaps steals the show in the role of the aptly named Tigrana, the gypsy girl who is somewhat reminiscent of Carmen. Noted Israeli-born Yoram David conducts with verve and passion contributing much to the success of this performance.

02_handel_cloriHandel - Clori, Tirsi e Fileno

Suzie LeBlanc; Jörg Waschinski; David Cordier; Lautten Compagney; Wolfgang Katschner

NCA New Classical Adventures 60188

This is a reissue of a 1997 recording from the Handel festival in Halle. Handel’s Clori, Tirsi e Fileno is a secular cantata composed in 1707 for the Italian nobility. Though a fairly obscure work, many of the arias sound familiar as they were indeed reworked as some of the central arias for the composer’s later operas. This sweet little pastorale tells the story of a shepherdess (Suzie LeBlanc, soprano) who strings along suitors Tirsi (Jörg Waschinski, sopranist) and Fileno (David Cordier, alto) until they tire of her two-timing machinations. The singers are suitably matched and the combination of the three treble voices paints a light and carefree comic impression. While the liner notes include an English translation, unfortunately, the text does not, although from the performance and musical language, it is easy to imagine the events. That the piece is an early piece of Handel’s is demonstrated by the fluid alternation of dialogue between characters, dialogue with the orchestra, arioso and da capo forms. Purity, vocal clarity, the expressiveness of obbligato sections and the precision of the seven-member ensemble are hallmarks of this performance, well worth its revival.

 

01_bartoli_sacrificiumSacrificium - La Scuola dei Castrati

Cecilia Bartoli; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini

Decca 478 1521

Castration is the final obstacle to truly authentic vocal performance of repertoire written for unwilling mutants. The ranks of early music zealots have, however, produced no volunteers willing to make the necessary sacrifice to reproduce the legendary qualities of the Castrato voice. Until then, the Castrato repertoire remains an unknown frontier explored only occasionally by adventurous counter tenors and female voices.

“Sacrificium” is a 2 disc collection of period arias written exclusively for Castrati. Decca has produced a miniature tome with fine historical notes and photographs documenting the age of the Castrato. The choice of Neapolitan and Venetian composers reflects the fact that the mutilation of young boys for the sake of music was principally an Italian phenomenon, albeit one that northern European courts eagerly imported.

Cecilia Bartoli’s hallmark vibrato and intense emotional style make these recordings (11 of them world premieres) truly impressive. She sustains long melismatic passages effortlessly and negotiates leaps from head to chest voice in rapid succession. And while her display of vocal technique is confident, even brazen at times, some of the finest moments in these 2 discs come in the tender passages of slow descending sequences where she draws out the beauty or anguish of the text in a way that is both simple and intense.

You’ll find familiar composers like Handel, Caldara, Porpora, Broschi and Giacomelli along with the lesser known names of Graun, Araia and Vinci. They all, however, share a gift for crafting both dynamic vocal lines and exquisite melodies that leave a listener wondering how the castrati must actually have sounded and understanding why they were worshipped.

01_gurreliederA new performance of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg’s Tristanesque narrative, is not so rare these days, but still of interest. Earlier this year Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall. Among the soloists is soprano Soile Isokoski singing Tove. Salonen appears to be less Romantic than, say Stokowski or Ferencsik, but achieves some exquisite balances between soloists and orchestra in the third part. The speaker in Herr Gänsefuss...” is Barbara Sukowa who is also in Abbado’s version (DG) in the role usually spoken by a male voice. The recording, issued by Signum (SIGCD173, 2 CD/SACDs) is lucid and dynamic.

 

02_beethoven_jansenPaavo Järvi has just finished a complete Beethoven Symphony cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen, for RCA. These are electrifying performances, bringing new life to these perennial warhorses. Violinist Janine Jansen joins this same cast in the Violin Concerto with stunning results in a new Decca release (4781530). Her performance belongs to the perfect group emerging from young performers but, unlike most of them, she maintains the listener’s undivided attention. Jansen combines ease and elegance with authority, conveying Beethoven’s genius directly. The Britten Violin Concerto follows with Järvi at the helm of the London Symphony. They make a perfect pairing and complement Jansen’s previous Decca recordings of core repertoire.

 

03_stravinskyThe Mariinsky Ballet’s performance of the meticulous re-construction of Nijinsky’s choreography and Roesch’s sets and costumes of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, so enthusiastically reviewed here a few months ago, is now available on Blu-ray (BelAir BAC441). The high definition video makes an enormous difference, affecting a 3-D illusion, brilliantly drawing the viewer onto the stage mighty impressive, indeed. Fokine’s original Firebird of 1911 is included, as is the documentary on the extensive research to realise the originals.

 

04_richterCollectors know that there are many live performances of Pictures at an Exhibition played by Sviatoslav Richter, each being individual and different from the others, no two the same. Richter was known to abhor the studio and therefore most of his recordings are drawn from live performances. In 1958 however, Melodiya managed to record him in the studio under ideal conditions. That recording has recently re-appeared (Melodiya MEL CD 1000515) and I had the opportunity to re-visit this exuberant reading. Here one can appreciate the finger work that is sometimes blurred in the live recording. Comparing it to the 1958 Sofia live performance for instance reaffirms what we already know about Richter, namely that never plays the same piece the same way twice.

 

05_preyA MUST HAVE: The late Herman Prey, one of the last century’s greatest baritones, singing the three Schubert song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin, Schwanengesang, and Winterreise (C MAJOR 700208, 2 DVDs). Prey was known for his perfect delivery of German art songs including, of course, Schubert. Not only did he have the voice, he was a consummate musician. The living room settings here are ideal and the sound appropriately intimate. How much nicer this is than a concert hall.

 

06_tchaikovsky_2_filmsTwo Films, Christopher Nupen’s celebrated 1989 video on Tchaikovsky’s life and music, is, at last, available on DVD (Allegro Films A10CND). Presented in two segments; Tchaikovsky’s Women deals with his relationships with women who passed through his life and their effect on his mental well-being, segueing nicely into Fate, his states of mind and the ensuing compositions. This is not presented as an entertainment but as a journal of his life and some major works. As is usual, Nupen provides the narrative, deftly drawing the viewer (me) into watching the entire 156 minutes without interruption. This is an important document and I liked it a lot.

 

07_mariinsky_1812The Mariinsky Orchestra’s third CD on their own label is devoted to the music of Tchaikovsky (MAR 0503, CD/SACD). The 1812 Overture which opens the program is mighty impressive with the added cannons and bells heard as if from afar and not vying with the entire orchestra for sonic dominance. The Moscow Cantata, scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, follows then the Marche Slave (sic), opus 31, the Festival Coronation March, and the Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, opus 15. Recorded in their own hall earlier this year this album is outstanding in the excellence of the recorded sound, presenting a wide and deep sound stage, with every instrument and voice in natural perspective. The dynamic range, too, is impressive. Credit must go to the producer, James Mallinson, who is also responsible for the recordings of both the London Symphony and the Chicago Symphony orchestras on their own labels.

 

08_mahler_2Mahler’s Second Symphony with Chicago Symphony under Bernard Haitink continues their ongoing Mahler cycle with an outstanding performance recorded live earlier this year (CSO-RESOUND CSOR 901916, 2 CD/SACD discs). This is not an angst-ridden performance but a well considered interpretation from a Mahler conductor who has performed this work countless times and has already two performances in the catalogue. This is one of the very greatest orchestras and their playing is outstanding by any standards. Again, the recording itself is state-of-the-art, dynamic with breathtaking three dimensional perspectives that transports listeners to the best seats in Symphony Hall.

 

09_nutcrackerThe San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is but one of the countless different ways Tchaikovsky’s perennial favourite is offered to delight young and old alike. The 2008 staging was seen on PBS last year but Blu-ray enthusiasts will be delighted with the release on OpusArte, looking and sounding better than witnessed on TV (OA BD7044 D). In addition to an illustrated synopsis, there are interviews with the choreographer, the scenic designer and the costume designer. Also a documentary on the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. A good package.

06_i_musici_tchaikovskyTchaikovsky - Souvenir de Florence

I Musici de Montreal; Yuli Turovsky

Analekta AN 2 9954

It was during his second visit to Italy’s sunny skies in 1890 that Tchaikovsky composed his string sextet in d minor, Op.70, appropriately titled Souvenir de Florence. Initially dissatisfied with it, he ultimately revised the piece and we have it here as arranged for string orchestra, along with the much earlier String Quartet Op.11 with I Musici de Montréal under the leadership of Yuli Turovsky.

What a fresh and vigorous sound IMM achieves on this recording! While always displaying a formidable precision, the group also demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the counterpoint. Melodic lines are carefully delineated, and there is none of the muddiness that can characterize string playing from time to time. This element of clarity is nowhere more evident than in the lively finale, which to me, always sounds more Slavic than Italian.

The String Quartet in D major is a considerably earlier work, written in 1871. Today, the piece is most famous for the well-known slow movement, the “Andante Cantabile”. Here, the augmented size of the ensemble, resulting in a lusher sound, seems particularly suited to this lyrical music which apparently brought Leo Tolstoy to tears upon first hearing it!

Kudos should also go to the engineering team for its fine technical work, and also for their decision (if indeed it was theirs) to record the disc at the Église Saint-Mathieu de Beloeil. The acoustics in this venerable 113-year old building are sublime and give a wonderfully resonant sound throughout, an element that further enhances an already great performance.

 

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