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Recordings

Karine Deshayes — Rossini
08 Jul 2017

Karine Deshayes’s Astonishing New Rossini Recording

Critic and scholar John Barker has several times complained, in the pages of American Record Guide, about Baroque vocal recitals that add instrumental works or movements as supposed relief or (as he nicely calls them) “spacers.”

Karine Deshayes — Rossini

Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano, Les Forces Majeures, conducted by Raphaël Merlin.

Aparte AP121 [CD]

$20.99  Click to buy

I can now join him and complain about the same thing—in this case in a Rossini album, on the Aparte label, presenting the remarkable young mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes.

Alternating vocal and instrumental pieces makes sense in a long concert, but less so in a CD for one’s library. Here we get two orchestral numbers, and they are ones that don’t stand very well on their own, namely the storm interludes from two Rossini operas: Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. How often would you want to listen to, say, the storm from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony out of context? The conductor states, in the booklet essay, that he was trying to give the whole CD a dramatic arc. This was lost on me.

Still, it’s churlish to complain about such things if the repertoire is interesting and the performances are accomplished and persuasive. That is certainly the case on this recording, which will be many people’s first introduction to the mesmerizing Deshayes. I first encountered her voice and artistry on the world-premiere recording of Félicien David’s grand opera Herculanum. In my review of that recording, I called her performance of the role of the pagan queen Olympia “at once commanding and subtle, quite an achievement.” She can also be heard on two other recent CDs: one consisting of pieces by Karol Beffa; the other entitled Après un rêve, with the Ensemble Contraste.

Deshayes is a mezzo of the modern kind, which is to say light and clean, with a quick, tight vibrato, splendid breath control, and marvelously fleet coloratura. She is perfect for the many Rossini roles that were written for mezzo—roles sung, just a few decades ago, by Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli. Deshayes has her own vocal personality: her low notes do not bloom as Horne’s did, and she rarely bites into the words as Bartoli does. Instead, she focuses on etching the vocal line with all the nuances of a great instrumentalist. (Perhaps some of her musicality derives from her early training as a violinist.) We are treated to innumerable subtle shadings in dynamics, including many ear-ravishing instances of a sudden diminuendo on a single note, such as one more often encounters in recordings of Baroque music. Deshayes never seems unaware of the emotions behind a given passage. It’s just that she tends not to sacrifice vocal beauty in order to drive a verbal message home. Her frequent embellishments are appropriate to the context, gently surprising but never distracting, and performed with keen rhythmic variety.

The tempos set by conductor Raphaël Merlin are generally brisk and always apt, with natural-sounding adjustments at major structural junctures. The orchestra, Les Forces Majeures, is here making its disc debut. Les Forces Majeures seems to be active mainly in the summers, at festivals. It consists of players who—according to the booklet—are members of professional string quartets or other chamber groups, or play in French orchestras, or have recently finished their musical training. (Merlin is best known as the cellist in the award-winning Quatuor Ebène.) As for the orchestra’s name: force majeure means a situation that was unavoidable and overturns all plans and promises; or, more generally, an irresistible trend. The phrase can at times be roughly equivalent to “an act of God.” Here it is made plural, creating a play on words because the orchestra consists of various groups—i.e., performing forces, including those string quartets—that combine to form a single unified ensemble that makes a major impact. The musicians presumably play modern instruments. Gratifyingly, it sounds as if the timpanist is using hard sticks rather than the big spongy ones that would be appropriate to later repertoire.

There is one problem: the acoustics. The recording was made in a repurposed stone-walled granary in Villefavard (near Limoges), which now serves as a concert venue. A photo of the raked seating that has been installed at one end of the space suggests that no more than 400 listeners can be accommodated. Presumably because the hall is small and the surfaces are non-absorbent, the microphones pick up a quick, loud echo, especially on high notes (whether from the singer or from the brass and winds). I sometimes have trouble hearing notes that the singer touches lightly (e.g., in a downward run) after she has emitted a clarion high note that continues to ring, and I often have trouble hearing what harmonies the strings are playing quietly under the singer or under wind passages. Since the music-making here is on such a high level, I hope that the engineers, in future recordings, temper the hall’s acoustics, perhaps by more careful microphone placement or by placing absorbent cones in the seats to simulate the effect of an audience.

The repertory is a mix of familiar and not. We get to hear the most famous soprano or mezzo arias from Il barbiere di Siviglia (two: “Una voce” and “Contro un cor”), Cenerentola, Semiramide, and Otello, plus a second, shorter, excerpt from the latter opera and a wonderful multi-movement aria from La donna del lago, which can be heard by clicking here. There are also three Rossini songs, orchestrated by the conductor in a colorful manner. Indeed, too colorful at times: the numerous instrumental intrusions in L’âme délaissée are distracting, even at times soupy. The Spanish touches added to Nizza, though played with great flair, seem excessive. The poet who wrote Nizza, by the way, is not identified in the booklet: it’s Emile Deschamps. The performance of Nizza omits Deschamps’s wittily worded second strophe, which Rossini certainly intended to be sung, as one can see in the early edition available online at IMSLP.org.

I particularly object to the way that Merlin has updated the Canzonetta spagnuola to make it seem like a direct model for the Gypsy Song in Bizet’s Carmen. Merlin, clearly following Bizet’s lead, makes the orchestration progressively more elaborate in each of the three strophes and gradually speeds the tempo up. Rossini’s score (for, of course, voice and piano) simply gives the music once, with repeat signs and the three sets of words.

More appropriate to the aesthetics and style of Rossini’s music is the orchestration used here for the cantata Giovanna d’Arco (i.e., Joan of Arc). It was made in 1989 by renowned Rossini scholar Philip Gossett for a performance by Teresa Berganza and is based on Salvatore Sciarrino’s edition of Rossini’s original version (for voice and piano). It may be that the orchestral version is here receiving its first recording. Though the publisher (Ricordi) has labeled it an elaborazione (on the title page), I found it very persuasive and not—as that word might suggest—over-done.

I will be listening to this CD many times in the future, if not often to its two interpolated storms. And I look forward to the future projects of this remarkable young mezzo and equally remarkable new chamber orchestra—separately or together. A video with captivating excerpts from the recording sessions is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpAo06q2x4I.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press).

   

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