Recently in Reviews
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
22 Mar 2009
Songs by Samuel Barber
Among the impressive contributions to the American song literature of the twentieth century are works by Samuel Barber (1910-81), whose efforts in this genre reflect his own musical training as a singer, as well as the influence of his aunt, Louise Homer, whose professional relationships put her nephew in contact with other vocalists of the day.
Among Barber’s contributions are a number of sets of songs from throughout his career, works that are heard periodically in performance and available in various recordings. This selection by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake offers a fine cross-section of Barber’s songs on a single CD and collects his set of Hermit Songs, Op. 29; Mélodies passagères, Op. 27; Three Songs, Op. 10; Dover Beach, Op. 3; and several individual songs. Lacking, of course, Knoxville 1915, Op. 24, since it was intended for soprano and orchestra (albeit performed by tenor), this recording of Barber’s song is a rich selection which captures the composer’s major efforts in the genre in interpretations by two of the finest performers of the day.
The spiritual aspects of the Hermit Songs implicit in the texts require the clear and fervent execution Finley and Drake offer. With texts from various sources, primarily translations of Medieval verse, the turns of phrases in modern English are nicely supported by Barber’s music. The plaintive quality of “The Crucifixion” reflects simultaneously the vocal idiom of an earlier time and yet the dissonant idiom that Barber used to punctuate the music contributes to the welcome complexity of the song. Julius Drake’s approach to the accompaniment of this song and the one that succeeds it in the recording, “Sea Snatch” by making the pianistic touches work well with Gerald Finley’s sensitive interpretations of the works. Such details emerge aptly in Finley’s delivery, not only in shorter settings, like “St. Ita’s Vision” (translated by Chester Kallman) but also in one of the more extended songs, “The Monk and His Cat” (translated by W. H. Auden). One of the particularly moving performances is that of “The Desire for Hermitage” (translated by Seán O’Faoláin), which, as the culmination of the cycle, serves as a kind of summary of the entire set.
The sometimes angular settings of English-language translations receipt apt settings by Barber, but his craft at composing the French artsong is apparent in the set of Mélodies passagères, which are based on verse by Rainer Maria Rilke. These sometimes enigmatic poems bear rehearing for the nuances of the texts, and Finley’s approach invites returns to the songs to capture some of the details he and Drake bring to the music. “Un cynge” (“A swan”) receives its appropriate delicacy, a quality implicit in the music and effectively rendered in this performance. The subtle accompaniment works well with Finley’s sinuous approach to the text. Yet the entire set merits attention for the well-placed details that beg for a repeated hearings not only of the music, but also this compelling performance.
In addition to these pieces, the performers include a selection of Barber’s earlier songs on this recording. Some of the music is quite familiar from vocal recitals of various performers, as is the case with “Sure on Thdsis Shining Night,” a work that receives fresh treatment from Finley and Drake. The pacing of the vocal line and accompaniment are key to the interpretation found here, with model phrasing between the strophes of the verse. Equally impressive is Barber’s early masterpiece, Dover Beach, which involves the Aronowitz Ensemble. Part of the select vocal repertoire which involves chamber music, like Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”), Dover Beach retains a special place in vocal literature. The maturity that Finley brings to the work is clear from the start, and as the piece progresses, the performance demonstrates an incredible level of involvement.
In this piece and the others on the recording, Finley shows himself to be a major interpreter of Barber’s music. Just as he is impressive on stage in such a powerful role as Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, Finley is also commanding in the more intimate solo vocal literature. This is a fine addition to recent recordings of twentieth-century song, and also an impressive contribution to the discography of Samuel Barber.
James L. Zychowicz