27 Jun 2006
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vols. 1 and 2
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.
‘Can great music be inspired by the throw of the dice?’ asks Peter Phillips, director of The Tallis Scholars, in his liner notes to the ensemble’s new recording of Josquin’s Missa Di dadi (The Dice Mass). The fifteenth-century artist certainly had an abundant supply of devotional imagery. As one scholar has put it, during this age there was neither ‘an object nor an action, however trivial, that [was] not constantly correlated with Christ or salvation’.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Edouard Lalo (1823-92) is best known today for his instrumental works: the Symphonie espagnole (which is, despite the title, a five-movement violin concerto), the Symphony in G Minor, and perhaps some movements from his ballet Namouna, a scintillating work that the young Debussy adored.
Two new recordings from highly acclaimed specialists Opera Rara - Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe.
It is not often that a major work by a forgotten composer gets rediscovered and makes an enormously favorable impression on today’s listeners. That has happened, unexpectedly, with Herculanum, a four-act grand opera by Félicien David, which in 2014 was recorded for the first time.
This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.
Félicien David’s intriguing Le désert, for vocal and orchestral forces plus narrator, was widely performed in its own day, then disappeared from the performing repertory for nearly a century.
This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).
This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.
Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.
Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc
Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
As the editor of Opera magazine, John Allison, notes in his editorial in the June issue, Donizetti fans are currently spoilt for choice, enjoying a ‘Donizetti revival’ with productions of several of the composer’s lesser known works cropping up in houses around the world.
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era was produced in 1997 by Jan Schmidt-Garre as a television series of thirteen episodes broadcast on a variety of European networks. The series was packaged as four videos and then as two DVDs. Highlighted in Volume I of this latest incarnation are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt (the episode on Schmidt received mention at the Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film festival). The second DVD features segments on Lauritz Melchior, Helge Rosvænge, Jussi Björling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Koslovsky and others, including a final episode on “The Singing Robot”—the record player. Timed fairly equally at just under 30 minutes, each episode has a similar format: following a “canned” introductory film of a nameless tenor in a recording studio (usually singing from L’Africaine), the viewer is taken back into the lives of these great singers. In the case of Caruso, we are introduced to New Yorkers who knew the tenor when they were young; to get a glimpse of Slezak’s past, we are transported into the mountains where dirndl and lederhosen-clad mountainfolk with beer steins recall how the tenor loved his free time there among them. Other episodes offer less-stereotypical portraits, but the pattern remains: an exploration of where these men lived and performed, interviews with people who knew them as friends or colleagues, and various commentaries on recordings of their voices. Although the soundtracks of recordings of the singers, particularly of lesser known voices like Schmidt’s, are worth the viewing time, the dissections of their vocal styles not only leave much to be desired but make one question the overall point of the exercise.
In general, the listening “analyses” in these episodes are so subjective that one is reminded of the childhood game of “Telephone” in which everyone supposedly hears the same phrase yet each repeats it back differently. It is absolutely true that recordings have become “primary source” research materials, and historians of both opera and recording science use them to trace issues like the technical influences singers of the past have had on present performance practices. Yet such commentary often slips into the realm of subjective interpretation. Clearly, there are objective judgments that one could make about listening to recordings; one might, for example, note that an artist’s approach to a particular phrase was technically correct or that a certain critical pitch was delivered sharp or flat. One can also compare the recordings of singers to trace the transmission of stylistic elements from an important voice teacher to his or her pupils. However, comments—all too frequent in these episodes—such as “He caresses the melody” are senseless and, in fact, detract from the worthwhile moments. What is even more puzzling is why the producer would include contradictory comments one right after the other. For instance, one commentator will applaud a certain singer’s ability to control volume; the very next person interviewed will bemoan said singer’s dynamic weaknesses. One can only expect differences of opinion in a format such as this, but it becomes difficult for the viewer to know precisely whom to believe.
Most interesting in the series are the interviews with other performers who share their memories of working with these great artists. Next come the portions dedicated to recording historian Jürgen Kesting; it is a revelation just to watch him as he listens to recorded excerpts. He provides a living example of audience interaction with recorded sound. By far the weakest portions of the series are those featuring Stefan Zucker; he may well be an expert in this repertory but his comments do anything but demonstrate this. For example, he comments that when Joseph Schmidt sang in the synagogue, he was performing in the florid style of the nineteenth-century opera house; to cap off this reference to Rossini and his colleagues, the video cuts to a cantor who is singing a traditional prayer. Although there a thread of logic here—that cantors and singers embellish vocal lines—it is so poorly stated that Zucker’s point goes far afield of its intended mark.
Perhaps the wisest remark is offered by John Steane, who seems to be commenting on the series title: Bel Canto. The term, he notes, is “so vague. I sometimes think that the term should be banned. It’s used without any definition. Its principle use is negative—we know what isn’t bel canto.” In fact, the series title, Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, demonstrates the lack of focus of the entire series: does it center on the singers and their careers? On recordings of their voices? On clips that document their cinematic activities? The latter—even if they are the only ones available—offer unflattering profiles of Slezak’s activities with the Ufa and Gigli’s appearances in Fascist-era movies; the former would hardly appreciate being remembered in a scene that shows him singing “Kleine Frau” while surrounded by a roomful of merry Nazi officers. While there are moments of wonderful music and interesting information in these episodes, one can not help but wonder why the producer did not simply let the singers’ eloquent voices speak for themselves.