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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.
10 Sep 2007
BACH: St. Matthew Passion (Excerpts)
There is much to admire in Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach performances with the Bach Collegium Japan, and this recording of excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion will remind the listener of the diverse ways in which this is so.
Among Bach ensembles, few can rival the Bach Collegium Japan for clarity and control, a control that is unflaggingly maintained, though best heard here in stunningly beautiful soft passages. Two chorales, the emblematic “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” and “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,” emerge here not as familiar pauses between events, but as moments of depth, deepened through the breathtaking control of the rendition. Sometimes the control has a shadow side: for instance, in the canonic duet with choral interjections, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” the solo lines lament Jesus’s being led away captive while the choir, in their role as the crowd of onlookers, exclaim their objection: “let him go, stop, unbind him!” Here the choir seems rather too controlled and soft; the objections become more like furtive comments among the crowd than forceful attempts to intercede. More’s the pity, as in other instances like the chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner,” the ensemble has fury and force in ample proportions.
If the ensemble is distinctive in its control and cultivation of the soft dynamic, the soloists are sensitive in this way, as well. The soprano aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” sung by Nancy Argenta, is exquisite in its intimacy, and both Peter Kooij as Jesus and Gerd Türk as the Evangelist also show consummate ease in the full dynamic range of their roles—the dramatic force of certain passages is keenly exciting, but it is, I think, the soft passages that are the most memorable.
The excerpt format of the recording invites one to consider the selections as self-standing moments rather than part of the dramatic flow. And in that light, the alto aria, “Erbarme dich” is easily one of the high points of the recording. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze is at his best here with a soaring high range and compellingly engaging sense of line. And the rich interplay with the ornamental violin playing of Natsumi Wakamatsu makes for especially rapturous counterpoint.
The recording is not problem-free, however. In the imposing chorale fantasia on “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross,” the treble cantus firmus adds the sound of children’s choir, a well-considered echo of Bach’s scoring of the opening chorus. However, here it is precisely echo that is the problem. The cantus firmus sounds as though it is being sung somewhere else, and that somewhere else seems to have an exaggerated reverberation at odds with the main acoustic of the performance. The effect is both surprising and jarring.
Another problem surfaces in the excerpt format of the recording itself. Apart from the economic attraction of a one-disc affair, it is difficult to see the gain and easy to perceive the loss. In a number of the excerpts, there is a clear intent to provide a degree of cohesion, and that is welcome. But in other instances arias are severed from their immediate surroundings, which leads to disjuncture, ambiguity of reference and context, and the loss of the characteristic ebb and flow of declamation and lyricism. Instead, the isolated moments emerge as independent “favorites.” If one wants to listen to one’s favorites, the CD format in general makes that an easy thing to do. The record producers do not need to devise excerpt recordings to make this convenient. And in devising recordings of excerpts, they invite the listener to consider the work shorn of its beauty of integration. That’s a sad loss.