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What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a
record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and
Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal.
Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the
extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms
Among the recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Valery Gergiev’s release on the LSO Live label is an excellent addition to the discography of this work.
While not unknown, the songs of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) deserve to be heard more frequently.
Recorded on 5 and 6 May 2008 and 17 and 18 January 2009 at the Lisztzentrum (Raiding, Austria), this recent Bridge release makes available the piano-vocal versions of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder performed by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck, accompanied by Russell Ryan.
Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.
Following their 2011 Decca recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (1566), I Fagiolini continue their quest to unearth lost treasures of the High Renaissance and early Baroque, with this collection of world-premiere recordings, ‘reconstructions’ and ‘reconstitutions’ of music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and their less well-known compatriots Viadana, Barbarino and Soriano.
Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.
Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct.
Based on performances given in Summer 2010 at the Lucerne Festival, this recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio is an admirable recording that captures the vitality of the work as conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was one of the most popular composers of his day in Poland, and of the many works he wrote for the stage, two are performed from time to time, Halka (1848) and Strazny dwór [The Haunted Manor] (1865).
The Polish alto Jadwiga Rappé is a familiar voice in various stage and concert works, and the recent release of a selection of songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is an opportunity to hear her performing artsongs.
Originally released on multiple discs in 1981 this reissue on two CDs is a comprehensive collection of art songs by Italian and French composers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An exciting contribution to the discography of this popular opera, the live performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden is a compelling DVD.
11 Dec 2005
STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; The Nightingale
So much has been written about the notorious scandal of May 29, 1913, the scandal of the reception of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, that it is easy to forget that the music itself was less the cause of the riotous activities than the subject, the décor, and the dancing.
Due in part to the commotion caused by the work’s premiere and its subsequent performances in the following weeks, but more because of wartime privations affecting musical performances all over Europe, it was not until the 1920s that audiences began to hear and appreciate the score of The Rite in concert form. Its subsequent rapid ascent to “classic” status is now a fact of history, and the number of respectable recorded performances available are well into the double digits.
Naxos’ project of releasing CDs of all of Stravinsky’s works, conducted by Robert Craft, is a huge and noble one, and the present disc represents a significant addition to the recorded Stravinsky legacy. This particular Rite was released by Koch International Classics in 1995; the overall sound and balance of the new release reflect the complex score superbly. The playing of the London Symphony comes as close to perfection as one could ever expect in bringing this score accurately and vibrantly to life, no small complement given the strength and size of the recorded competition. The players and the engineers deserve particular credit for allowing listeners to hear inner voices and subtle rhythmic and sonority features often absent from other recordings. This manifests itself both in the quieter pages of the score, (e.g., the “Introduction” of Part One) as well as in the heavier passages (e.g., the “Procession of the Sage,” also in Part One).
Despite such important and deserved kudos, the performance here does not exude the frenzy and daring excitement that one hears in such recordings as the one by the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev for Philips. If perfection in realization of the composer’s notated intentions is the purchaser’s goal, one can arguably do no better than this recording, particularly in view of Craft’s capabilities and vast experience with the composer personally as well as with his works. However, someone preferring a bit more risk-taking by performers and conductor might not find this performance quite up to par.
The remainder of this disc is given over to a 1997 MusicMasters recording of Stravinsky’s one-act opera, The Nightingale. Stravinsky actually began composing this sonically gorgeous work in 1908, not finishing it until after the premiere of The Rite, when a performance opportunity presented by Diaghilev and his stage director Alexander Sanin provided the composer with the necessary impetus. Paris was again the site of the premiere, on May 26, 1914, almost exactly a year after the premier of The Rite. Less than an hour in length, The Nightingale shared double-billing with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le coq d’or in its initial presentations.
While fully two-thirds of the opera was completed after Stravinsky composed The Rite, the musical language is much closer to that of Firebird, with more than a few pages bringing the sounds of Debussy to mind as well. The experience of scoring both Petrushka and The Rite had developed Stravinsky’s orchestral pallet significantly, however, with the result that the latter parts of this work have some of the richest and most imaginative sonorities to be find anywhere in the composer’s output. Certainly, this can be credited in part to the setting (in China) of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale as well as to the fantastic nature of the story and the role of the nightingale as a central character.
The Philharmonia Orchestra serves both composer and conductor well in this performance. The technical difficulties of the score are handled with aplomb, and the oriental atmosphere is created with sensitivity and a lightness of touch that are perfectly suited to the nature of the story. Both the “real” and the mechanical nightingale in the story fairly leap from the disc with a brilliant realism. The orchestra bears much responsibility for this sonorous beauty, of course, but the singers are equally up to their tasks. The highly demanding role of the Nightingale is virtually tossed off by Olga Trifonova, whose thrilling voice amazes with its agility and range. Likewise, Robert Tear brings his usual lyricism and focused sound to the important role of the Fisherman. Pippa Longworth as the Cook, Paul Whelan as the Emperor, and Sally Burgess as Death stand out among other vocalists, as do the London Voices under Terry Edwards’ guidance.
This is a performance that has been prepared with considerable care and understanding. The Nightingale deserves wider exposure, both for its own virtues and because of what it displays about Stravinsky’s developing style and technique. This valuable (and inexpensive!) recording should go far in increasing that exposure.
Roy J. Guenther
Professor of Music
The George Washington University