Recently in Recordings
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of
Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at
Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced
disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and
supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by
Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic
selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary
versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of
songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime
friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at
the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been
many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s
major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing
traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set
compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche
Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of
orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of
the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s
Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled
Great Wagner Singers.
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.
24 Jul 2006
SHOSTAKOVICH: The Execution of Stepan Razin
This new Naxos recording offers a rare opportunity to hear three little-known works by one of the 20th century's greatest composers - The Execution of Stepan Razin op. 119, October op. 131, and Five Fragments for orchestra op. 42, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75).
The works, recorded over the last decade, are performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz; Stepan Razin also utilizes the Seattle Symphony Chorale under the direction of Abraham Kaplan, with Charles Robert Austin as the soloist.
All three pieces seem to have suffered neglect over the years, not because of their unquestionable quality, but rather for the sake of ideological expediency. The Fragments, a series of aphoristic gems composed in 1935 as experimental sketches to the ill-fated 4th symphony, might have shared the symphony's fortunes then and are still rarely heard today. Which is unfortunate: this is a fabulously quirky little suite, and a wind lover's paradise. The opening moderato is written exclusively for the woodwinds, while the following andante combines their crisp, whimsical lines with an energetic double bass solo; no. 4, another moderato, is a contemplative fugue for a wind trio. The strings take the lead in a pensive, moody, lyrical Largo (no. 3) - a beauty even by the standards of a spoiled Shostakovich fan. The Allegretto finale opens with a tongue-in-cheek duet for a solo violin and a snare drum, followed by a violin-double bass duet - both combinations straight out of Histoire du soldat, although the violin sounds more like a Mahler scherzo than a Stravinsky "fiddle."
The other two pieces on the CD belong to a later period in Shostakovich's career - the 1960s. The 1967 symphonic poem October, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, is unlikely to be found on concert programs today, both Western and post-Soviet orchestras evidently embarrassed by the obvious ideological connotations. October is a high quality symphonic work, although perhaps lacking in either the biting irony or the gut-wrenching depth of its composer's greatest masterpieces. The main theme is an appropriate quotation of a so-called "partisan song" that Shostakovich appropriated from his own early film score, Volochayevskie Dni. Yet the overall mood of the piece is dark and somehow hollow - not at all appropriate for a laudatory offering the subject should have inspired and the reason for the composition's lack of popularity when it first appeared. It may not prove to be anyone's favorite, but it is an intriguing piece of a Shostakovich legacy, and the Seattle Symphony should be commended for resurrecting it.
The title track of the recording is the monumental 1964 Execution of Stepan Razin - an unusual and conceptually difficult work, billed by the composer himself as a "symphonic poem" for a baritone soloist, mixed chorus, and orchestra. Conceived as a sort of companion piece to the 13th symphony, it shares many characteristics of the earlier work: both set the edgy poetry of Yevgeni Yevtushenko; both include a solo male voice and a chorus; both confront the themes of victimization, indifference, and sacrifice. Yet the approach to those themes taken in Stepan Razin is arguably more complex than in the symphony, due to the ambiguous nature of the protagonist - for some, a terrorist, for others, a freedom fighter who kills for a just cause and sacrifices his life for the people who scorn him. Shostakovich himself reportedly struggled with his character's image, and repeatedly asked the poet if, in his opinion, Razin was a good man.
The composer's setting may best be described as, in his own words, "the Russian style" typical of several compositions of the early 1960s, in which elements of pseudo-folksiness (such as the use of plagal cadences and natural minor characteristic of the Russian folk tradition) combine with a more recognizable Shostakovich idiom - flat-degree scales, dark orchestral hues with much use of low register and sharp high/low contrasts. Frequently dry instrumentation with an emphasis on winds and percussion is reminiscent of Stravinsky (an open homage to Histoire is recognizable in an orchestral interlude that illustrates the text "even the skomorokhi fell silent"). More evidently perhaps, the treatment of vocal declamation, the powerful choral scenes, and the overall structure of this unstaged "folk drama" suggests a pervasive influence of Mussorgsky whose opera Khovanshchina and song cycle Songs and Dances of Death Shostakovich was studying and orchestrating in the years immediately prior to composing Stepan Razin.
The Execution of Stepan Razin is an emotionally compelling and intellectually complex work that ought to be much better known than it has been to date. Hopefully, this recording will help change that. The only drawback perhaps is a sorely inadequate booklet that provides next to no help to the listener. I therefore direct my readers wishing more information on the composer and the pieces to Laurel Fay's excellent biography and other examples of first-rate Shostakovich scholarship of recent years.
University of Maryland — College Park