Recently in Recordings
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.
10 Jan 2007
MARTINŮ: Peach Blossom; The Orphan and Other Songs
The artsong in the twentieth century benefits from the efforts of national composers, like Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), who stimulated the genre by incorporating regional folk elements into their music.
While Martinů had composed over a hundred songs around 1910, those remain unpublished and do not represent his efforts in this area of composition as the works he composed later, in the 1930s and early 1940s, when he composed many of the works recorded on this CD. In contrast to his earlier music, Martinů had already turned to folk music for his inspiration, and without entirely abandoning entirely some of the stylistic traits as French music, which had been a force in his creative life, he infused his efforts with ideas found in his native Bohemian folk tradition. Almost the domain of cognoscenti of solo vocal music, this recording brings Martinů’s efforts in this area to a wider audience in a single CD that offers a representative selection of his music in this style.
The various songs in this recording date from around 1930–1942, when Martinů indulged in song writing. While some of the songs used texts translated into Czech from other languages, most of the pieces are based on Czech poetry, either from collections of verse or found with folk songs. Some songs are from collections of two or three pieces, while others, like the 1942 collection Nový Špalíček (New Anthology), based on specifically Moravian texts, are more extensive. Two of the pieces derive from a larger work, Hry o Marii (1935), the so-called Miracles of Mary that is included in work-lists with Martinů’s sixteen operas.
As to the music itself, it is difficult not to find the works engaging musically. Sometimes the overt simplicity is captures the folk idiom well, while elsewhere the speech rhythms urge the listener to pay attention to the text and what is being said. The rhythms are, at times, reminiscent of those found in Janáček’s late vocal works. The interplay between vocal line and accompaniment is critical, and an excellent example of this may be found in Martinů’s setting of Guillaume Apolinaire’s Saltimbanques, a playful piece in which the music fits well into the title of the piece that involves tumblers — acrobats, as the musicologist Geoffrey Chew, the translator of the text in the accompanying booklet has it.
In fact, it is useful for those interested to listen to the music with the texts in hand, so as not to miss any of the nuances of the pieces that are found in the texts. While some recent Naxos recordings include just a URL to texts and translations at its website, this particular recording includes all of them in the booklet that accompanies the CD. To understand the composer’s intentions in these pieces, it is important to listen to the music with the texts in hand. Without suggesting anything obscure or otherwise pejorative about the music, the works require such close reading because they are hardly as familiar to modern audiences as the more standard Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and Strauss, and thus require more effort to listen to Martinů’s well-crafted settings as the music of those other composers, whose text are relatively more familiar. This is not to suggest anything arcane or remote about the music, which is in itself quite effective.
The performances of Olga Černá and Jitka Čechová demonstrate their familiarity with the music. As a native speaker, Černá brings nuances to the performances that others simply cannot convey, and her readings are engaging for the inflections she offers that go beyond the literal meaning of the texts. Likewise, the accompaniments benefit from the approach Čechová has taken in executing it well. While the music may be, at time, simple sound, its qualities stem from the clear articulations and chiseled rhythms that Čechová brings to all of the pieces. Her strengths are apparent throughout the recording, and are all the more appealing in the solo passages that allow her move out of the role of accompanist and take on the solo part. At the same time Černá’s fine voice deserves to be heard in other music, including works by Janáček, because of her sensitivity to the language, and element that is almost necessary for the effective performance of Smetana’s operas.
While Martinů’s reputation rests mainly on instrumental music, the vocal works reveal of different side of his art. Like the operas that are part of his compositional legacy, the songs deserve attention, and it is good to know that the International Bohuslav Martinů Society and the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation sponsored the performanced and supported the production of this CD that brings to light a fine selection of songs by this Czech composer. While this selection is just under and hour in duration, it serves well in bringing to light a further development of the artsong in the hands of one of the finest exponents of Czech music in the twentieth century.
James L. Zychowicz