01 Secret Fires of LoveSecret Fires of Love
Daniel Thomson; Terry McKenna; Thomas Leininger; Studio Rhetorica; Robert Toft
Talbot Productions TP1701 (belcantohip.com)

The love song has been a mainstay of vocal music, through its incarnations as performed by minnesingers or troubadours, followed by lieder or chanson artists, to John Cusack with a boom box above his head in Say Anything, to the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran. Throughout this time, it grew steadily louder: the meekest of instruments, the lute, has been supplanted by the guitar (sometimes electric) while the harpsichord yielded to the pianoforte and synthesizers. One thing, seemingly, has been lost: the contemplative, almost meditative quality that permeated the Renaissance and Baroque songs of courtly love. The intimate connection is still there in modern music, the sweet pain of love still exerts its pangs, but the whisper has turned to a shout. No wonder – in our crazy 24/7 world, who really does take time to smell the roses? Robert Toft, that’s who! The music scholar from Western University in London brings together a stellar cast to survey the love songs of the Italian and English Renaissance and Baroque. The unique talents of Daniel Thomson, Terry McKenna and Thomas Leininger recreate the very intimacy, closeness and wonder of music played and sung pianissimo, requiring us to tune out the world and meditate alongside.

Thomson, an Australian countertenor, is having “his” moment: his muscular, precise voice is pure joy. McKenna, a Canadian lutenist, coaxes his “meek instrument” into a commanding performance. Leininger, a German master of the harpsichord, makes one long for the days before the invention of the pianoforte. Arriving a few weeks late for Valentine’s Day, nevertheless this will be the best gift for the one you love.

02 Peoples PurcellThe People’s Purcell
Michael Slattery; La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2726 (atmaclassique.com)

As with his 2012 recording, Dowland in Dublin, tenor Michael Slattery has collaborated again with La Nef to present the music of a beloved composer, reworked and transformed in fresh and novel ways that prove most pleasing (and accessible) to a modern listener. Though Henry Purcell enjoyed an elevated position as composer at the court of Charles II, his theatrical music, based on popular song and dance forms of the time, was clearly loved by the more common folk. As well, there has been a long tradition of re-arranging Purcell’s sublime melodies for public use, beginning with Playford’s collection The Dancing Master in 1651.

Each piece selected for this recording has been individually stamped by either Slattery or a member of La Nef, without compromising the original intent of the music. Baroque cellist Amanda Keesmaat and cittern player Seán Dagher infuse their arrangements of instrumental suites from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur with playful interplays and folksy articulations. Flutist Grégoire Jeay and tenor Slattery take turns providing arrangements of the songs, with stunning results. The recording ends with Slattery’s reworking of Dido’s Lament in which a vacillation between the minor and major key provides a surprisingly dramatic and rather surreal effect, poignantly enhanced by the tenor’s artful and subtle delivery.

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03 sony yonchevaThe Verdi Album
Sonya Yoncheva; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Massimo Zanetti
Sony Classical 88985417982

“A high C that takes no prisoners,” muses Presto Classical editor Katherine Cooper wittily about the final note on this disc. And neither does Verdi. In fact, he “murders” sopranos so the legend goes (even though he married one). Bulgarian dramatic soprano Sonya Yoncheva is his latest intended victim. I’m happy to report that she is alive and well after her sensational debut at the Met’s Tosca and this, her latest CD issued on February 2, has already won an award. The final high C comes from Abigaille’s hair-raising cabaletta in the second act of Nabucco, young Verdi’s first breakthrough success.

Verdi is the ultimate challenge for the soprano. Not just for the voice, but a certain quality the great master insisted on: beauty of tone, intelligence and feeling. Right at the outset in Leonora’s opening cavatina (Il Trovatore, Act I), Yoncheva’s handling of the wonderful soaring tune that culminates in a heartrending fortissimo makes her rich vocal colour and emotional intensity immediately manifest. In the ensuing cabaletta, her voice becomes light as a feather by contrast. Her stunning high register further impresses in Come in quest’ora bruna from Simon Boccanegra: the heroine sings her heart out to a shimmering spring morning in Genoa on the Ligurian Sea, and I shiver in delight whenever I hear it.

But the real test is far more difficult: the tragic, the defiant, the anguished, the women in despair (Odabella in Attila, Luisa Miller, Lina of Stiffelio, Desdemona or Elisabetta in Don Carlo), where Yoncheva’s congenital empathy and effortless mid- and low register dominate. And then there are those iconic prayers sung in hushed near silence like Ave Maria from Otello... and more. Massimo Zanetti of Tutto Verdi fame conducts with zest and vigour.

A daring new issue by a singer with a great future.

04 Sarah WegenerInto the Deepest Sea!
Sarah Wegener; Gotz Payer
SWR2 8553374 (sarah-wegener.de)

For the profound beauty of Brahms’ Meine Liebe ist grün Op.63 No.5 to have its greatest impact on the senses, its majestic beauty must unfold in a mere minute and 44 seconds. It does so here in the voice of lyric soprano Sarah Wegener. At her command even the shortest of phrases are sung with gilt-edged, almost liquid silkiness. This is, however, not only the case with Wegener’s Brahms. It’s true of her Schubert, Strauss and everything else.

Throughout Into the Deepest Sea! not only does Wegener sing with utter beauty, but her interpretations of Brahms, Schubert, and indeed, the other composers, communicate very strongly the meanings of the words, as if each song speaks to her in the secret of her heart before reaching her lips. Her expressive manner of communicating pure poetry of feeling is echoed in the pianism of Götz Payer, who enters into each lied as a protagonist in his own right, playing his part in the music with vim and verve.

Wegener is wonderfully adept at maintaining the emotional centre of gravity of each song, navigating with graceful beauty around the outermost extremities of its narrative, yet always returning to the beating heart of the song. Her passionate performance extends to the mystical songs of Sibelius and the pastoral grandeur of Grieg, too. Everywhere on this disc, every nuance and subtlety has been carefully considered and beautifully sung, performed with both sublime delicacy and intense contrasts.

01 Zauberflote

Mozart – Des Königs Zauberflöte
Enoch Zu Guttenberg
Farao Classics A108095 (farao-classics.de)

It was not an uncommon practice in the 19th century for aristocratic families to mount extravagant amateur performances of classic theatre, including opera. Such productions demonstrated their education and sophistication and Ludwig II of Bavaria was no exception. In the late summer of 1884 at Herrenchiemsee in his “New Versailles” at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, Ludwig staged evenings of music and lights, outdoing the opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles by employing new technology and an elaborate system of electric lights.

For his gala Zauberflöte, Ludwig enlisted members of the political elite to perform name roles: he himself played Sarastro; Emperor Franz Joseph was Tamino; his mother Sophie was Queen of the Night and Empress Elizabeth was Pamina. This re-enactment of that event was first performed at the Herrenchiemsee Festival in 2010 under the direction of Enoch zu Guttenberg, a recognized and respected Mozartean. It is he who directs this exuberant performance recorded live in the Prinzregenten Theatre, Munich in November, 2013.

Each member of the outstanding professional cast plays a named aristocrat singing their role in the original 1884 cast. The scenario though is fictitious. The whole production is, in effect, a show within a show. Before the actual performance starts we are treated to some amusing exchanges involving the King and various obsequious persons explaining the lighting, etc. One figure stands out and appears throughout the production… an elderly gentleman who just happens to be the original Papageno from long ago. His is a spoken role and he wanders in and out of the action as he tells the singers and others how it was done back then and hence how it should be now. Lots of clever banter and exchanges throughout, performed in German with optional subtitles, but Mozart’s music remains brilliantly intact and the audience gets the opera and a show. As do we.

In state-of-the-art video and audio, Mozart lovers and others will get a real kick out of this unique event.

02 Haunted by BrahmsHaunted by Brahms
Lewis Furey
ATMA ACD2 2765 (atmaclassique.com)

Haunted by Brahms may be less lied in the classic sense and more song in the modern sense, but nay-sayers of either style ought not to have a complaint. The clarity with which Brahms’ overlapping melodic strands and patterns of narrative tension are weighted, articulated and cleverly woven together in the angular charm of Lewis Furey’s whimsical lyricism, is beautiful. Moreover, turning Brahms’ lieder on its head gets the listener’s attention as Furey’s gently slurred nasal intonation recreates a hypnotic aura around the prevailing Brahms gravitas.

Purists may recall Glenn Gould’s April 6, 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, where Leonard Bernstein voiced his dissent but proceeded to conduct the New York Philharmonic while Gould performed his radical interpretation of the work. To those who would bristle at Haunted by Brahms it bears remembering that there were still aficionados of Brahms who stayed behind and appreciated that performance. Likewise listeners of this recording will be better served by wide open ears rather than a proverbial Germanic rigidity.

Furey’s interpretations of Brahms’ rather unique German lieder reminds us that the composer took great risks when he also patronized lyricists who weren’t – like Goethe and Heine – counted among the major poets of the day. Furey’s lyrical, philosophical leap is just as remarkable. Also, in mirroring Brahms Deutsche Volkslieder in his own rather folksy, contemporary English renditions, Furey may actually have opened a new window into the Brahmsian lied.

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03 I PuritaniBellini – I Puritani
Diana Damrau; Javier Camarena; Teatro Real de Madrid; Evelino Pidó
BelAir BAC142 (belairclassiques.com)

This was one of those rare events in the annals of opera when everything is just right, a spectacular success, with show-stopping moments like the final duet between the tenor and soprano. Even the conductor is applauding the singers from the pit while on the square outside a spontaneous crowd gathers watching it on a big screen, cheering wildly. Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, I Puritani, his take on the 17th-century civil war in England, hugely successful at its premiere in Paris in 1835, has remained one of the most demanding and difficult to perform. It demands four superstar quality singers (the so-called Puritani Quartet), very rarely available. Recently it was revived at the Met with Anna Netrebko, which I thought quite wonderful, but this one surpasses it. Two main reasons are the tenor and the soprano.

Phenomenal Mexican tenor Javier Camarena (Arturo) is unlike anything I’ve heard before, capable of producing shattering high Cs and even higher (Ds, F-sharps) with ease. At the same time his gorgeous tone, beautiful lyricism and total abandonment communicates the love he feels for Elvira. His A te, o cara made the audience go wild. More surprisingly, Diana Damrau, whom I always regarded as a soprano of great potential, now suddenly becomes a true diva, another Sutherland, in the role of Elvira with a breathtaking mad scene, a total immersion in the role and almost divine inspiration.

Primo baritone Ludovic Tézier (Sir Richard), one of today’s most sought-after, is a very complex villain, an enemy who forgives his rival. His voice is rich and powerful yet he can be tender; a warrior very much in love. The famous duet in Act II with basso Nicolas Testé (Sir George), a longtime favourite of mine, is suitably rousing. Highly acclaimed Italian conductor Evelino Pidó, with tremendous sense of style and perfectly chosen but flexible tempi, alternately intensely dramatic or tenderly lyrical, has Bellini in his veins. Stage design by Emilio Sagi is deceptively simple, unobtrusive yet elegant, but can be awe-inspiring at crucial points of the opera.

04 NormaBellini – Norma
Sonya Yoncheva; Joseph Calleja; Sonia Ganassi; Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1247 D

Ah, Norma, the opera with which young Bellini (merely 30 at the time) cemented his hold on Italian stages! He did create it as another vehicle for Giuditta Pasta, the foremost soprano of the time, yet she was followed by countless others including Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Canada’s Sondra Radvanovsky, and now, Sonya Yoncheva. Breaking with Romantic and Classical tradition, however, is the fact that Norma is no damsel in distress. She is a force of nature, potent, fearless and terrifying. She is also in charge of her own, however tragic destiny. That alone is enough to experience the opera with goosebumps on one’s arm. Here, the director, Àlex Ollé of the famous collective La Fura dels Baus, chooses to present Norma as enmeshed in a religious and military apparatus, an intellectual choice. However, rather than presenting modern-day, right-wing evangelical orthodoxy, he gives us Spanish Inquisition-era ultra-Catholicism. This results in unintended humour and the need for even more of a suspension of disbelief: a woman, ordained as a top priest? So yet again, we are best left just listening to the music…

And what music! Pappano is the undisputed conductor-king of the operatic stage. The three principals are in fine form, especially Calleja, as a strong, commanding Pollione, rather than the frequently portrayed wimpy ladykiller. In the end, it seems that Yoncheva, though gifted with a silky and precise voice, does not have the dark notes with which Callas’ and Radvanovsky’s Normas strike fear in our hearts.

05 OtelloVerdi – Otello
Nikolai Schukoff; Melody Moore; Lester Lynch; Gulbenkian Orchestra and Chorus; Lawrence Foster
Pentatone PTC 5186 562 (pentatonemusic.com)

Apart from Nabucco, all Verdi operas contain important tenor roles, but the demands in his penultimate opera Otello are much greater than those in his earlier work. Many readers will recall the sad time when Carlo Bergonzi attempted the role (Carnegie Hall, 2000) and was unable to finish. Bergonzi was already 75 then. Perhaps he simply left it too late. I think it is misleading to call the part that of a heldentenor, yet it is worth adding that several of the finest interpreters of the role, notably Ramón Vinay and Jon Vickers, have also been known for their singing of Wagner.
The Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff has sung a large assortment of roles (they include a great deal of operetta) and he has also performed some important Wagnerian parts: Lohengrin, Siegmund, the Götterdämmerung Siegfried and Parsifal. These CDs show that he is certainly up to the part of Otello, both in its heroic qualities and in its more tender moments. I like the tone of the soprano (Melody Moore), although her diction is not always clear. She is very affecting in the opera’s final act. The Iago (Lester Lynch) is first-rate.

A peculiarity of the recording is that the voices seem recessed in contrast with the clarity of the orchestra. This brings out orchestral detail in ways that recordings generally don’t, but it is only by using a very high volume that one can hear the singers properly.

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