23 Sep 2007
The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey is surely many things to many people.
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 Magdalena Kožená.
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 archives.
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.
Westminster Abbey is surely many things to many people.
To some it is an architectural icon of royal ceremony and London’s vibrant public life; to others, it is a gallery of monuments; to others still, it persists as a cherished site of prayer and liturgy. The many faces it wears are, of course, the legacy of Edward, the Confessor, who in the eleventh century rebuilt the Abbey to grand dimensions. As the Abbey church houses his shrine and, by association, has long been the church of the coronation, it is no surprise that the Feast Day of St. Edward (October 13) is observed at the Abbey with special attention. And it is special attention that also marks the quality of this recording, a broad sampling of things one might hear at Matins, Holy Eucharist, and Evensong at the Abbey on the Feast. The aural glimpse of a particular feast day is a format that the Abbey Choir has previously essayed with a Trinity Sunday recording, also from Hyperion (CDA67557). The format is something of a variation on the long familiar service recordings of English cathedrals and chapels—Evensong for Ascension, Evensong for Advent Sunday, etc.—keeping the same sense of occasion and cohesion, though offering a wider swath of repertory.
Much of the music here represents a “golden age”: canticles and an anthem by Purcell, preces and suffrages by William Smith (whose Amen to the closing collect is a wonderful jewel), and a psalm by Morley. Stanford and Crotch come along for the ride, as well; their relative distance from the golden age make the hue of their gilt paler, although both remain well within the tradition. And while these pieces are familiar ones, the Abbey recording is no less welcome for it. The choir’s dance-like lilt for Purcell, their expressive explorations of the soft dynamic range, and, in the main their very satisfying blend are all compelling. Occasionally last notes of phrases from the men show less control than perfect balance requires—the opening chant is a case in point—but this is a rare lapse. And occasionally treble solo passages sound unconvincing, a surprise given the overall strength of the trebles in the tutti. The shortcomings are fleeting and momentary, the delight in the performance long-lasting.
The Anglican affinity for tradition might have left the recording to bask in the rich aura of its golden age hues—a “gilty plea” that few would begrudge--but O’Donnell boldly adds to the mix two commissioned works, Jonathan Harvey’s 1995 Missa Brevis and Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” (2005). Harvey’s mass is full of challenging dissonance and thick clusters, spiced also by spoken declamations amid the singing. Its modernism is a welcome reassurance of the continuing vibrancy of the “tradition,” and the challenges of its idiom are brilliantly met by the choir. Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” sets a beautiful modern poem by poet laureate, Andrew Motion, interestingly rich in medieval evocations. If the text looks backwards, the music does not, as Moore offers rich harmonic textures, well-crafted solo lines and rhythmicized interweavings that are engagingly dynamic. The performance is again, a strong one, especially in the tuttis and the bass solo. However, the treble solo—the voice of the “robin”--ultimately sounds difficult. It is accurately rendered, but wanting in confidence, much as was the case in the treble solos from the older repertories, as well.
One might eagerly await the continuation of this format from Hyperion, and look forward to further offerings from the liturgical riches of the Abbey and its brilliant choir.