Recently in Recordings
30 Jan 2005
How narrow-minded can one be ? Very much so in the case of Richard Wagner who succeeded in not mentioning once the name of Verdi in all his writings. And is not his decision to banish his early youth works from the Bayreuth-barn rooted in that same mentality ? Of course during his lifetime he was the subject of many attacks and maybe he feared to be the victim of ridicule with critics dissecting every bar of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi and looking for influences of other composers. Rienzi and Liebesverbot had been staged while he lived but Die Feen was only known by a few selections and he never took pains to have his first opera performed at a time when he could easily have done it. Die Feen was premiered 5 years after his death and then led a rather undistinguished life of a few performances. Still the amount of bigotry of his successors is even greater, considering that Siegfried Wagner himself was a composer of fairy tales and should not have respected his father’s wish not to perform Die Feen. The grandchildren complied as well though one can understand their motives. As Wagner lost some of his hallowed reputation during the fifties and the sixties, the stock of Verdi rose very high indeed and maybe it was not in the Wagners’ interest to show the more amateurish trials of granddaddy. Eva Wagner, Wolfgang’s estranged daughter who should have succeeded him long ago, was the first to offer a business plan for a new New Bayreuth where Die Feen, Rienzi and even the operas of composers who influenced the maestro would have their place. And then music lovers could at last hear and see what the fuss is all about if there is something to be excited about.
Well, there is. The overture is a gem, all of its 11 minutes and almost worth the purchase of the set. Yes, it’s easy to trace the influence of Mozart and especially Weber but 20-year Wagner had a voice of his own as well, different from that of his contemporaries. Wagner was twelve years younger than Lortzing who could easily have treated the same fairy subject but one immediately hears the far richer orchestration, the ease Wagner has in composing more complicated arias and ensembles. And one regrets somewhat that the mature Wagner gave his best tunes to the orchestra instead of sticking with the singers like the youthful composer still did in the old tradition. »
25 Jan 2005
New artists are taking greater chances with repertory, looking for niches to call their own. Dawn Upshaw explores new music, Cecilia Bartoli eighteenth-century Italian song, and in this live recording up-and-coming artists Eva Mei and Rainer Trost take on the lead roles in Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella. Mei and Trost’s sympathetic singing with the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro lirico di Cagliari conducted by Gérard Korsten breathes life into this choppy opera, which Liszt famously condemned as a work of only historical interest. »
21 Jan 2005
For the last couple of decades, the “concept production” has been a controversial presence on opera stages, generally director-driven and decried by traditionalists as detracting from the essence of opera which they define as “voice, voice, voice.” Here’s a refreshing and overdue variant, a production concept that is conductor-driven, devoted to rethinking the sound and casting principle appropriate for French grand opera by starting at the top with the grandest of them all.
The point is often made that we now lack heroic voices for the great works. John Eliot Gardiner’s casting argues, rather convincingly I think, that “heroic” is a concept relative to an opera’s overall style and the period in which it was written. He casts in the French tradition that knows the difference between a German heldentenor whose strength lies in the middle and bottom of the voice, and a French heroic tenor, of whom is demanded a free and brilliant top and the ability to soar over ensembles with precisely focused tone. Many in this cast are associated with music of the Renaissance, Baroque and early nineteenth century. Their voices are clearer and lighter than we have become accustomed to in Les Troyens and Gardiner surrounds them with a chorus that can not only move and act with distinction, but whose voices in ensemble have the required buoyancy, flexibility and brilliance for Berlioz’s demanding choral writing. »
20 Jan 2005
Andante’s new mastering of famous live performances aims to capture what those performances might have felt like. This gives these recordings an automatic cachet of authenticity and a kind of cult status. However, much depends on the quality of the particular performance. The skill is to choose quality performances that really are interesting in themselves, and to remaster them in ways that do them justice. The Andante series comes impressively packaged, with luxuriously bound booklets, beautifully presented. However, in this case the music does not quite match the promise. Worthy as this performance is, and worthy it is indeed, it is not an ideal first choice. Artistically it is good, but best appreciated by those who know Abbado, Boulez, Dohnanyi and even Böhm’s later recording. While I’m one who listens for music, not for sound quality, in this case the sound quality is poor enough to distract – not enough to ruin listening, for it would take a lot to deter a genuine listener – but just enough to feel that you’re listening through an artificial medium. This may have been recorded live, but it doesn’t “feel” live, with the pops, crackles and occluded passages. Ultimately that defeats its own purpose. »
18 Jan 2005
The latest volume of Hyperion’s comprehensive collection of the Songs of Robert Schumann is an impressive recording of Schumann’s Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op. 79 (1849). The songs are settings with children in mind, and not necessarily music for children to perform; the texts are by a number of poets, such as Goethe, Hebbel, Schiller, Rückert, Uhland, and von Fallersleben. In selecting the texts for this collection of Lieder, Schumann touched upon a variety of subjects, including topics associated with children, like Christmas, and verse about animals (“Marienwürmchen” and “Die Schwalben”); other texts deal with seasons, like Spring (“Frühlingsbotschaft” and “Frühlingsgruss”) and the fantastic, as occurs in “Vom Schlaraffenland.” »
13 Jan 2005
This release documents performances of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Munich National Theater in July of 2002. The cast includes several contemporary singers well known for their Wagnerian performances, as well as a famous conductor who has enjoyed a long and successful career, both in the concert hall and opera house.
Die Walküre is an opera that has been particularly well served on records, with several outstanding versions derived both from the studio and live performances. Unfortunately, this new Walküre does not stand up well to that formidable competition. »
13 Jan 2005
Now, who needs another Aida? There are (or there have been) available 65 complete recordings (commercially available pirates included) and I don’t take into account the staggering amounts of non-commercial recording now widely circulating among collectors. Another Aida therefore can only interest buyers interested in specific singers. Happily, this set indeed fills a gap and it is not centered upon il divo himself, as the nice sleeve notes make clear. This set is for the admirers of Julia Varady, though not only for them.
The Hungarian soprano has a reputation. As the fourth Mrs. Fischer-Dieskau she was undoubtedly helped in her career in the early seventies by this connection. But I presume this asset soon turned into a liability. Allow me to digress a few moments. »
11 Jan 2005
Cela arrive rarement, le souffle coupé dès les premières notes. Une minute entière à retenir sa respiration dans une apnée d’émotion totale pour recevoir la première phrase du Lamento pour contralto, de Johann Christoph Bach, d’après les Lamentations de Jérémie, son ascension douloureuse, ornée de sanglots, puis les deux accords d’une longue plainte instrumentale, avant l’entrée, magique, de la voix de Magdalena Kozena. “Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte.” “Ah, si ma tête était remplie d’eau, si mes yeux étaient une source de larmes.” L’insouciance a été jusqu’alors votre lot ? Vous, toi, nous tous, pécheurs, allons connaître ce que pèse le lourd fardeau de nos iniquités – et la récompense de cette connaissance : 7 minutes 22 d’une pure splendeur musicale. »
10 Jan 2005
Recorded in Tokyo on October 23, 1963, this live recording of Nozze di Figaro boasts fine sound, a top cast, and the leadership of a conductor of great skill and experience. The label, Ponto, has joined the ranks of such other companies as Opera D’oro and Gala in making available broadcast and in-house recordings at affordable prices. Sometimes these releases are not even worth the modest price asked for; this one may well have more to offer than higher-priced studio sets.
After a slightly hesitant first few moments, the sound quality settles down and becomes admirably strong and well defined. There is relatively little stage noise, the voices have a natural presence without being too forwardly placed, and Böhm’s orchestral control can be relished. His may be an old-fashioned reading, but it never lags or lacks for humor or beauty. The audience can be heard laughing from time to time at the stage antics; applause only interferes with the musical pleasures at the end of Non piu andrai, when unrestrained clapping covers a bit of Böhm’s ironically happy martial send-off. »
10 Jan 2005
Elsewhere on Opera Today readers can find a recent review of a live recording of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the Ponto label, a company that has joined the ranks of Opera D’oro and Gala in offering, at budget price, live recordings of various provenance. At their best, as with that Nozze, these recordings offer in acceptable sound (sometimes better) performances of such quality they rival their more expensive competitors. At less than the best, however, even the budget price becomes exorbitant.
This Tristan und Isolde, recorded on January 25, 1967, unfortunately belongs to the latter category. Unless one has a strong personal reason for wanting a keepsake of this company or the artists involved, the recording is unlikely to please most listeners. The primary reason is the sound. While not unlistenable, the recording is clearly an “in-house” affair, and probably from an audience member, as some of the coughing is more up-front than the singing. Worse, during the climax, some audience members are whispering as Isolde enters the Leibestod. One would love for a Jon Vickers to have been present to yell out, “Stop your damn whispering!” »
07 Jan 2005
William Bolcom is arguably the preeminent American opera composer of today. His third commission for Lyric Opera of Chicago, A Wedding, recently opened to mostly positive reviews. His previous work in the form, A View from the Bridge, had a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera following its premiere in Chicago. »
04 Jan 2005
Il Trovatore Giuseppe Verdi, music and Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare, libretto TDK DVUS-CLOPIT Raina Kabaivanska (Leonora) Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena) Plácido Domingo (Manrico) Piero Cappuccilli (Conte di Luna) José van Dam (Ferrando) Maria Venuti (Inez) Heinz Zednik (Ruiz) Karl... »