When in 1997 Isabel Bayrakdarian took the MET auditions by storm, we knew something special was happening. The voice was breathtaking, light, shimmering, silvery and agile. The compliments piled up after some spectacular stage performances. I still vividly remember her star turn at the side of Ewa Podles in the COC’s Julio Cesare. A succession of JUNO-winning albums followed and then… her career seemingly stalled. When I heard her again a few years later, I realized that her voice was changing. From a light-as-mist soprano, it was becoming more dramatic, gravitating more and more towards a mezzo sound. A voice in search of the right repertoire? Well, fear not, Bayrakdarian has found it! The enchanting, exotic music of Armenia is the perfect foil for Ms. Bayrakdarian’s “grown-up” voice. It’s lush, languid, opulent and absolutely remarkable. The arrangements for cello and voice shock with their purity of melodic line and meditative quality already built in. This may very well be an album to obsess about. In the space of just a week, I must have listened to it at least ten times. The usual superb quality of Delos recordings only enhances the beauty of the experience. It will be exciting to see what will be the next steps in the recording career of this gifted artist.
Vocal and Choral
Jonas Kaufmann has it all: one of the most beautiful tenor voices in the world and a stage presence that makes him a convincing leading man, especially when portraying a passionate lover. He is sought after by most if not all the important opera companies. He was chosen to inaugurate the beautiful and controversial Elphie, the new Elbenphilharmonie Hall in Hamburg, a $1 billion orgy of architecture and acoustics. He has a rare quality, namely artistic integrity, which enabled him to walk away from a disastrous production of Manon Lescaut at the Met with just weeks to spare. So why, oh why did he record this crossover album?
The answer is very simple: at his level of fame and success, unlike in most of classical music nowadays, these recordings are still big business. Sony Classical realized that they have on their hands a possible platinum or double platinum seller. At different times, different artists have been put under the same pressure: Caruso, Kiepura and now Kaufmann. Having repeatedly stated my bias against crossover recordings in this space, I decided to put it aside and give the disc a thorough listen. It will sell like hotcakes. The reason is simple: Jonas Kaufmann. No matter how schmaltzy the material, no matter how insipid the playing of Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, that voice is simply superb. Shower tenors of this world, rejoice! This is your singalong album. The reason I fully support this CD is also simple. I sincerely hope it will obliterate Michael Bolton and Andrea Bocelli in the popular consciousness. If we are going to devour aural candy, it may as well be delicious!
Antonio Lotti – Crucifixus
Syred Consort; Orchestra of St. Paul’s; Ben Palmer
Antonio Lotti died in 1740 and by the end of the 18th century his music had been virtually forgotten. In 1838, however, two of his settings of the Crucifixus were republished and it is these settings by which Lotti is still generally known – in so far as his music is known at all. This recording demonstrates, however, that both pieces are parts of larger works: the Crucifixus for eight voices is part of the Missa Sancti Christophori, while the Crucifixus for six voices is part of a Credo in G Minor. This recording gives performances of both works and shows the context from which the two Crucifixus settings were plucked. Both settings of the Crucifixus gain a great deal from being placed in the right context. There are two other works on the disc: a setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus and a Miserere in C Minor.
In the booklet that comes with the CD Ben Byram-Wingfield mentions the recent interest in early music, saying that Vivaldi’s Gloria and his Four Seasons were “almost unknown only a handful of decades ago.” That is surely an exaggeration. I don’t know about the Gloria but I well remember that The Four Seasons evoked a great deal of interest as far back as the 1950s.
This CD constitutes an important addition to the Baroque music available on disc. Lotti’s voice is distinctive. No one is likely to confuse his style with that of Bach or Handel, although that of Vivaldi comes closer. The Syred Consort is a chamber choir of 13 voices. Much of the music is one on a part and the singers are good enough to perform it. Ben Palmer’s conducting ensures the rhythmic vitality of the performances.
Most of Bach’s cantatas were written for church performance but he also composed a number of secular works. Masaaki Suzuki has completed his recordings of the religious works and has now turned his attention to the secular cantatas. The first on the disc, Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen, was written in 1733 on the occasion of the 11th birthday of the Saxon Electoral Prince Friedrich Christian. It dramatizes the Greek myth according to which Hercules was met by Lust and by Virtue. Forced to make a choice, he predictably chooses Virtue. Bach set the part of Lust for a soprano (Joanne Lunn) and that of Virtue for a tenor (Makoto Sakurada). Hercules himself is an alto (Robin Blaze) and the part of Mercury is sung by a bass (Dominik Wörner).
The second cantata, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, also has four soloists (sung here by the same singers): the Goddess of War is a soprano, the Goddess of Arts and Science is an alto, the Goddess of Peace is a tenor and the Goddess of Fame is a bass. It also dates from 1733 and was written to celebrate the 34th birthday of the Prince-Elector’s wife. Much of the music in both cantatas was adapted by Bach later and became part of the Christmas Oratorio.
These are fine performances. In the first of the two cantatas I regretted that Hercules made his decision so soon as it deprived us of Lunn’s lovely soprano voice. I also liked Wörner the bass, a singer whom I had not previously heard. Among the orchestral musicians, two stand out: Masamitsu San’nomiya, who plays first oboe as well as the oboe d’amore, and Jean-François Madeuf, who plays both trumpet and French horn.
Stravinsky Choral Works – Mass; Cantata
Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh; Duncan Ferguson
This CD comprises works Stravinsky wrote after he was Orthodoxically reborn in 1926. The discretely composed parts of the Mass run from celebratory to sparse, and even the two Credos are contradictory: one is stalwart and modern, the other urgent and sounding slightly more like traditional English church music. The Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral is joined by youngsters from the dedicated choir school, as the composer had intended the Mass to be sung. The blend is wholesome.
The Cantata is based on Middle English songs on Christian themes but likely with secular origins. Soloists Ruby Hughes’ and Nicholas Mulroy’s voices complement each other and so in turn do the choral Versus refrains of A Lyke-Wake Dirge, which recount the voyage of the dead from Earth to purgatory. The setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day was new to me, as was the controversy of the inclusion by Stravinsky of the anti-Semitic middle verse, which is outlined in the liner notes.
The a cappella Tres Sacrae Cantiones, some of the partially lost pieces of late-Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, were “finished off” by Stravinsky, at a safe remove of 300 years!
Duncan Ferguson deftly conducts Scottish Chamber Orchestra soloists so that the two larger pieces are accompanied in the truest sense of that word; they go alongside their singing companions rather than merely support them. This would be a lovely addition for collectors of Stravinsky, jack-of-all-eras.
Stabat Mater – Sacred Choral Music by Lennox & Michael Berkeley
Marian Consort; Berkeley Ensemble; David Wordsworth
It is indeed a pleasure to witness the resurrection of a worthy, yet neglected English vocal work, particularly when performed so eloquently as by the Marian Consort. They deliver this 20th-century musical setting of the 13th-century text with all the precision, depth of feeling and intimacy required. Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater was originally commissioned by Benjamin Britten who premiered the work in 1947 with his English Opera Group tour. The next known performance took place at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1953 and the BBC presented a broadcast performance in 1965. The intricate scoring calls for four-part chorus and 12 exceptional instrumentalists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, harp, percussion and string quartet) and conductor David Wordsworth, who serves as chairman of the Berkeley Society, leads the ensemble with great sensitivity and meticulous execution.
Berkeley’s exquisite Mass for Five Voices was composed for the choir of Westminster Cathedral in 1964. In this and another a capella work Judica me, the Marian Consort fully exploits their experience performing early music with perfect intonation and diction. The recording ends with Touch Light by Lennox’s son Michael Berkeley; a rapturous nod to Monteverdi with its sensuous dissonances and highly ornamented phrasing.
Ah, it’s so easy to imagine the famous Schubertiades, the composer’s evenings of music with his friends in 19th-century Vienna. A beautifully appointed salon, fire roaring in the fireplace, Franz at the pianoforte, encircled by his friends accompanying and singing…except it never happened like that. For most of his brief life and career, Schubert lived in relative poverty and could not possibly have afforded a pianoforte. Most of his songs and song cycles were composed with a guitar, as presented here. That seems to solve the mystery of his Arpeggione Sonata, scored for that briefly popular guitar-like instrument and piano.
So what are Schubert’s songs like in their “authentic” version? Surprisingly different and beautiful. The absence of piano, so pivotal to our experience of Schubert’s music, is only felt in Erlkönig, where the piano’s lower register conveys horror with a greater force. Otherwise, the well-known pieces present a gentler, more delicate picture, with a beautiful nuance, inviting you to lean in and listen closely. A lot of credit for this goes to Philippe Sly and John Charles Britton. Sly, yet another talented alumnus of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal is receiving well-deserved recognition for his operatic performances all over the globe. Britton is an accomplished guitar accompanist and transcriptions writer, who collaborates with artists of the calibre of Angela Gheorghiu and, of course, Sly.
A beautiful and memorable album.
The 18 charming, sweet and sentimental love songs that populate Brahms’ first Op.52 Liebeslieder Waltzes were completed in 1859. With four-handed piano accompaniment debuted by himself and his secret (albeit unrequited) love Clara Schumann, they pay homage to the city of Vienna, incorporating the Ländler style throughout. Due to the popularity of such amusements for “house music” he followed with another set, the Op.65 Neue Liebeslieder in 1874. The majority of the texts come from Polydora, Georg Friedrich Daumer’s collection of folksongs and poems. They explore infatuation, longing and the many joys and disappointments that go along with them. They are both a pleasure and a challenge to sing, with soft heartfelt passages punctuated by some rapid-gunfire tongue twisters.
Though sometimes performed by choirs, the songs are most expressive when sung by a quartet of soloists. Soprano Kimy McLaren, mezzo Michèle Losier, tenor Pascal Charbonneau and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre all deliver superb and emotionally dynamic performances as the lovestruck foursome with pianists Myriam Farid and Olivier Godin beautifully augmenting the undercurrents of their turbulent emotional states.
Anna Netrebko; Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
Deutsche Grammophon 4795015
One of the most glorious moments in Turandot is when the ice princess warns Prince Calaf: “Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte una!” (The riddles are three, death is one!”), to which the prince answers “No, no, gli enigmi sono tre, una e la vita!” and the orchestra soars to a tremendous climax. Such a moment is captured in DG’s latest CD of La Diva Assoluta, Anna Netrebko, singing with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, adding real-life chemistry to this unforgettable moment. Puccini is of course generously represented here being the greatest exponent of Italian verismo, another golden age of Italian opera immediately following Verdi.
The divine Netrebko, whose stellar career has been closely followed in these pages, is stepping into new territory again as she hasn’t yet sung any of the great verismo soprano roles on stage, except Manon Lescaut in Rome in 2014 under Sir Antonio Pappano and this gave her the impetus for this new disc. Much of it is taken up with the entire fourth act, an epitome of despair and human suffering and a great vehicle for both the tenor and the soprano.
The 16 selections survey almost all composers of the period (with the glaring omission of Mascagni): Ponchielli, Giordano, Cilea, Boïto, Leoncavallo, Catalani each with one aria familiar to all opera lovers. Netrebko conquers them all with her wide vocal and emotional range, solid foundation of honey-coloured low register and spectacular high notes. And in this dazzling technical display what impresses most is her sincere, unassuming personality of a young woman who emerged from nothing and in a few years became a shining star and worthy successor of the immortals, like Callas and Sutherland.