02_bach_violinBach - Violin and Voice

Hilary Hahn; Matthias Goerne; Christine Schafer; Münchener Kammerorchester; Alexander Liebreich

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8092

The twelve arias on this disc have been selected by violinist Hilary Hahn because they all feature a prominent part for solo violin. She has searched through Bach’s cantatas, the St. Mathew Passion and the B- Mass to put together a lovely, surprisingly well-balanced program.

But the concept behind this disc, evident right from the title, “Violin and Voice”, overplays the role of the obbligato violin in these arias. It’s not the leader here – its job is to comment on what the singers are singing. Fortunately, Hahn proves to be a sensitive ensemble player. Responding to the singers and never intruding on the vocal lines, she lightens her sound, restricts her vibrato, and sharpens the edges of her phrases.

The Münchener Kammerorchester under Alexander Liebreich offers buoyant support. But the key to the success of this venture lies in the heartfelt, dramatic singing. Baritone Matthias Goerne’s yearning intensity in “Welt, ade”, with soprano Christine Schäfer singing the chorale part, is matched by Hahn’s expressive obbligato. Schäfer is equally affecting, with an engaging honesty that illuminates these mostly religious texts. Her poignant “Erbarme dich”, given here in Mendelssohn’s transposition, blends exquisitely with Hahn’s lyrical, stylish playing.

The highlight for me is the impassioned performance by Goerne and Schäfer of the duet “Wann kommst du, mein heil?”, with Hahn providing beguiling elaborations on the operatic dialogue between Jesus and a soul longing to join him.

01_meashaNight and Dreams

Measha Brueggergosman; Justus Zeyen

Deutsche Grammophon 289 477

Has it really been twelve years since soprano Measha Brueggergosman made us sit up and take notice when she sang the title role in James Rolfe’s Beatrice Chancy here in Toronto, followed by her appearance a year later at the Millennium Opera Gala? Since then, this native of Fredericton, New Brunswick has rightfully gone on to international fame, appearing regularly on concert stages throughout Europe and North America. Her newest disc - the fourth altogether and second for Deutsch Grammophon - appropriately titled “Night and Dreams” is inspired by all things nocturnal.

With German-born pianist Justus Zeyen providing a sensitive musical partnership, this is a wonderfully varied program indeed! While most of the repertoire dates from the mid-to-late Romantic period with songs by composers such as Debussy, Fauré, Duparc, Brahms and Wolf, there is also a lied by Mozart, a lullaby by Montsalvage, and an evocative Portuguese song, Anoiteceu, by Francis Hime. All are miniature gems, and within the overall intimate and introspective context of the whole Brueggergosman effortlessly captures the varying moods of each song. Her interpretation of Debussy’s Beau Soir – the opening track – is magically lyrical, while Duparc’s Phidylé soars with joyous intensity. In all, this is a most satisfying recording and further proof (if any were needed) of this soprano’s enormous talents.


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

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_porpora_ariasNicola Porpora - Arias

Karina Gauvin; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

ATMA ACD2 2590


Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – The glory of this world is fleeting. What an apt description of the current status of Nicola Porpora. At one time, creator (with poet Petro Metastasio) of some of the greatest triumphs of musical performance that pleased monarchs, delighted their courts and held sway over public imagination – today Porpora is little known and even less recorded. Six of 14 arias on this disc are world premiere recordings. How could the vocal teacher of castrati Caffarelli and Porporino, female superstars La Romanina, Nicola Grimaldi and Lucia Facchinelli, the man who discovered his most important protégé, Farinelli, be so thoroughly neglected? Well, there are two reasons for that: there are no more castrati and, secondly and most importantly, the music of Nicola Porpora was always meant to be a neutral background on which to showcase the castrato’s voice. His arias are not necessarily brilliant or groundbreaking – in fact, many of them seem repetitious. However, endowed with the sound of the castrato’s voice they must have been stunning. Such voice is impossible to replicate. Even for the film Farinelli, the producers digitally “mashed” the counter-tenor and soprano, to achieve a desired effect. The Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin continues to amaze with the beauty of her voice, increasingly focusing on Baroque music. Technically flawless, in this recording she is augmented by the “first leaguers” of period performance, Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis. So if no single human being can reproduce the castrato’s voice, we owe Ms. Gauvin thanks for approximating it for us.

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