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.
21 Mar 2007
Große Opernchöre — Great Opera Choirs
In setting the scene or furthering the action on stage, the opera chorus often provides some
memorable aural scenery in works by composers from Claudio Monteverdi to Arnold
Schoenberg, and this collection offers a representative selection of examples from both those
composers, and well as a number of others. Recorded on 14 January 2004, this concert of the
Stuttgart Staatsopernchor and Staatsorchester offered a program devoted to memorable choruses.
The selection offered here is as diverse as the function of the chorus in the works represented,
and this points to the demanding role the chorus has in this genre.
Audiences may be familiar with the version of Borodin’s “Polevtsian Dances” from Prince Igor
in its orchestral form, but the music properly belongs to the chorus, who commands the stage for
the quarter hour of this scene. As an opening number in this compilation, it is impressive for the
stylistic demands placed on the ensemble, and the skill of the Stuttgart group offers a convincing
reading of this work. Full of the exoticism found in modal passages, spare and unusual scorings,
percussive interludes, and other sound effects. To these sounds the choral forces contribute their
own particular colors as Borodin juxtaposed men’s and women’s voices, contrasted smaller
ensembles with larger ones, and otherwise manipulated the chorus just as he deftly scored the
Some of the choruses are well known enough to have taken on a life of their own, as is the case
with the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida, and its performance here conveys majesty
without ostentation. Schrottner offers a crisp reading and avoids indulging the cliches that can
mar the piece. As with the excerpt from Prince Igor, Verdi scored the chorus with a variety of
colors to suggest the various groups enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh, and the vocal timbres that
the Staatsopernchor brings to the piece are varied sufficiently to create such a sonic tableau.
Other choruses can be more atmospheric, as with the one from Pagliacci, “Andiam, andiam,”
which often blends into the staging of Leoncavallo’s opera. Performed apart from Pagliacci, this
chorus is effective by itself, and resembles in some ways the famous chorus from Mascagni’s
Cavalleria Rusticana with its nuanced choral scene-painting. It is an excellent choice for a
concert of opera choruses because of the rare occasions when this excerpt from Pagliacci is
heard on its own. Likewise, it is a pleasure to encounter the chorus “Wo ist Moses?” from
Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron on this recording. A satisfying excerpt on its own merits, its
presence here calls attention to the role the chorus has in that opera. Similarly, the chorus of
nymphs and shepherds from Monteverdi’s Orfeo is a fine choice, which represents some of the
earliest efforts to include the chorus in the genre. Balancing some of the more familiar choral
excerpts, these latter two are worth hearing separately, so that audiences can appreciate their
character and which, in turn, adds to the depth of the operas to which each belongs.
Such ensembles can function as characters in their own rite, as with the chorus of exiles from
Verdi’s Macbeth or the Russian people in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. With the latter, the
Stuttgart chorus is highly effective in creating the dramatic tension required in the prologue. The
famous “Coronation Scene” requires a strong chorus to set the scene, and this performance offers
a fine reading of Mussorgsky’s score. Its dark colors reflect the Russian populace well, just as the
lower female voices needed in the first-act “Witches’ Chorus” from Verdi’s Macbeth is
appropriately dark in its execution. A well-known excerpt, it is a fine example that uses
exclusively women’s voices.
The performance is exemplary, and the recording suggests studio quality, with audience and
stages sounds virtually imperceptible. Yet after the last track, the enthusiastic applause shows
that this was recorded live and benefitted from the dynamism that arises when an audience is
present. The chorus involved certainly would know how to react to the situation, and they carry
themselves with elan and intensity. As much as recordings of opera choruses can sometimes,
blur, this particular recording contains some fine choices that are not often encountered.
James L. Zychowicz