12 Nov 2007


As its name suggests, the selections on this wonderful new CD are all excerpted from five different versions of the tale of the beautiful enchantress “Armida.”

Looking at the history of the prolific treatments of this story, the liner notes proclaim her to be way “ahead of Medea as the stage’s Number One Sorcerer.” If quantity of composers’ interest alone didn’t put “Armida” in the lead, surely these superlative readings by German soprano Annette Dasch and company would alone propel our heroine to the forefront of operatic accomplishments.

Ms. Dasch encompasses all of the roles’ technical and artistic demands with aplomb. Moreover, she succeeds quite admirably in creating a different aural persona for each composer’s treatment. No matter how celebrated the artist, I often find such solo recitals eventually suffer from a certain sameness, unbroken by the variety of other vocal timbres in full opera recordings. Not really so with this one. The disc leads off with some splendid cuts from Gluck’s “Armide,” which slowly build in emotional conflict, tension, and release, characterized by increasingly plangent singing.

Immediately, I was drawn in by the soprano’s subtle word accents, coloring, and sensitivity to the text. Not to say that musical lines were slighted, oh no. She mined every delight in these offerings, from charming floated high notes, to phrases of throbbing and weighted dramatic conviction, to meaningful dramatic development of emotional state, to effective crescendi, to lyrical ascents of high tessitura. The voice is even throughout the range, capable of soaring with well-shaped legato phrases, as well as clean execution of angular and arpeggiated demands.

While the Handel pieces were more familiar, they did not at all suffer in comparison to other well-recorded versions. “Ah, crudel, il pianto mio” (“Rinaldo”) was a model of a controlled “torment,” witness her skilled start with a hushed, straight tone, which she then lets bloom into a full throbbing lamentation. The middle agitato section almost out-Bartoli’s-Bartoli with trip-hammer, spot-on, rapid-fire coloratura.

Jommelli’s “Armida Abbandonata” is well represented by “Ah! ti sento, mio povero core” (oh, that again!), featuring a silvery filigree of a voice over 3/4 pulses, superbly ornamented with immaculate trills and wide-ranging arpeggiated accents.

If the two perfectly fine selections from Handel’s “Armida Abbondonata” are the least “interesting” to my ears, perhaps it is because they are so familiar; or perhaps because by this point in mid-play I just wholly took it for granted that Annette Dasch is some kind of special singer; sort of, “oh, yeah, here is that rich tone, intelligent artistry, and knowing display of wide-ranging, arching lines. Again. Still.”

However, just as I might have been in danger of taking all this terrific singing for granted, I was jarred right back to proper attention with the juicy offerings from Haydn’s “Armida.”

Bold legato statements alternate with introspective moments of uncommon beauty, that give way to busy, hushed, mosquito-like fioritura and ornamentation, the whole of which amounts to an awesomely controlled display of idiomatic virtuosity.

It’s hard to believe that the Jommelli “Odio, furor, dispetto” (“Armida Abbandonata” again) is listed as a “Bonus Track.” I mean, who in their right mind would have thought to leave this fiery jewel off the recording? First, it is a wonderful contrast to the other introverted melodies, and second, Dasch sings the living hell out of it. Like Mozart’s “Elettra” in full meltdown, this is passionate, bravura singing complete with staccato ascending and descending laughs and cackles that are as meaningful as they are accurate.

The Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie under David Syrus is a satisfying accomplice in this accomplished music-making. Always solidly supporting Ms. Dasch, I especially delighted in their shimmering bucolic murmurings that marked portions of the Gluck set; the lilting, even sassy three-quarter-time playing in the first Jommelli aria; and of course, the stand-alone instrumental treats of the Gluck “Chaconne” and the Jommelli “Sinfonia.”

If there is truth in advertising, Ms. Dasch is also a lovely young woman as evidenced by the evocative cover and liner art. On disc, her handsome voice seems to have good size and potent allure. I look forward to hearing her live, with the hope that she would make as favorable and commanding an impression in person as she does on this wholly successful theme album.

James Sohre