July 3, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schubert: Winterreise (Coote, Drake)

Alice Coote has been successfully portraying men for years, but usually she’s done it with aid of wigs and costumes, in breeches roles like Orfeo, Idamante and Octavian. This disc, recorded live at the Wigmore Hall last year, finds her essaying a different sort of male role: that of the haunted protagonist in Schubert’s Winterreise. Coote is not the first female singer to take on the cycle, but it’s still predominantly the domain of tenors (the voice for which the songs were originally written) and baritones. In Coote, Schubert’s great and harrowing work finds yet another distinctive interpreter. Her velvety, contralto-ish voice is laced with mournful sweetness, and she takes a refreshingly simple, naturalistic approach: there’s no micromanaging of phrases or belaboured angst, just a subtle dissection of a disintegrating soul, whose occasional outpourings – the tempestuous Der stürmische Morgen, for instance, or the tearful urgency of Erstarrung – are made all the more potent by the slow burn which precedes them. Coote has a full and telling palette of vocal colours at her disposal, from an eerily pretty Wasserflut to the introspective glow of Der greise Kopf and the stripped- back tone of Die Krähe. She’s not afraid to let…

July 2, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Rossini: Arias (Kurzak)

The current roster of Decca/Deutsche Grammophon glitters with star sopranos, most of them on the lyric side and many with at least some claim to coloratura. Yet Aleksandra Kurzak continues to set herself apart, her formidable technique matched by vocal charisma and a richness of colour more idiomatic form here under conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi, playing with sympathetic panache. Kurzak sings with poise, rounded tone and evocative colours, moving mercurially from the ecstatic assurance of Semiramide’s Bel raggio to Amenaide’s ardent prayer from Tancredi and even a kittenish not always found in a voice of such agility. Her solo recording debut, Gioia!, came as something of a revelation, and while, two years on, she’s no longer such a surprise, this generous collection of Rossini arias is further proof of the Polish soprano’s ability to dazzle and delight. The album focusses mostly on the composer’s serious operas: Semiramide, Guglielmo Tell, Matilde di Shabran and, in a nod to Kurzak’s homeland, Sigismondo, whose title character is a 16th-century Polish king. There’s a smattering of comedy too, though, with arias from Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Turco in Italia, the former featuring an avuncular cameo by fellow Pole Artur Rucinski as Figaro….

June 26, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Balfe, Wallace, MacFarren: British Opera Overtures

At the age of 82, Richard Bonynge could be forgiven if he sat back on his laurels rather than heading off for the recording studio yet again. But that is most emphatically not what he seems to be up to at the moment, with a steady stream of recent recordings. He and his late wife Dame Joan Sutherland explored Victorian song throughout their long recital careers, and Bonynge persuaded Decca to let him produce a complete recording of Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl back in 1991. Of late, however, he has turned his mind to some of the period’s lesser-known composers with a fascinating complete recording of William Wallace’s opera Lurline. Wallace is represented on the new CD, along with Balfe, Benedict and MacFarren, but composers like John Barnett, Edward Loder and Arthur Goring Thomas are each represented in the current catalogue by just one piece each – and that’s the overture on this CD. It’s delightful fare. The composers here were nothing if not craftsmen and the works have a great deal of colour, energy and imagination. If one or two of them feel a touch overlong, that is a minor quibble when there is so much enjoyable music here…

June 20, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Schreker: Der Schmied Von Gent

A mere century ago, Franz Schreker was mentioned in the same breath as Richard Strauss, Korngold and Berg as one of Europe’s most important opera composers. In 1938 the Nazis put paid to all that by condemning his work as “entartete” (meaning degenerate) and after the war his exotic, late Romantic style was hardly flavour of the month. Recent decades have proved kinder however, and this new CD joins a healthy catalogue of recorded works. For anyone used to the highly perfumed sexual psychodrama of Der Ferne Klang, this piece may come as a bit of a surprise. A late work, Der Schmied von Gent is set during the 16th-century Spanish occupation of Flanders and turns out to be a light-hearted folk opera. Our hero, Smee, is accused of overcharging the occupying forces and loses his business. To get it back he sells his soul to the devil and enjoys seven years of good fortune. After an act
 of kindness towards the Holy Family (who are in disguise, naturally), St Joseph grants him three wishes, enabling him to wriggle out of his enforced trip to Hell. Unable to enter Heaven either after his death, he sets up a pub outside…

June 12, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Arias (Klaus Florian Vogt)

If Jonas Kaufmann is your idea of the perfect heldentenor,
voice then Klaus Florian Vogt’s preternaturally light instrument might not be your cup of tea. Nevertheless, the other German Wagner tenor du jour has built quite a following and this is his second solo album for Sony. He includes several items also on Kaufmann’s current disc,
so a comparison is apt. Sadly it seems that Vogt holds none of the winning cards. Listen, for example, to Siegmund’s sword monologue: next to Kaufmann’s heroic tone and attention to text, Vogt’s is a pale, thin sound with little interpretive detail. His cries of “Wälse” are weak, and over in half the time of his rival’s. More lyrical items fare little better. Rienzi’s rushed prayer has awkward multiple breaths and little sense of line. The top notes are all there but delivered at low voltage and strained when required to be above forte. His Meistersinger sounds best but the tone is more that of a David than a Walther. Parsifal finds Vogt in better voice and he has some fine moments, but Tristan is a role that simply doesn’t suit him. Vogt is partnered by the excellent Jonathan Nott and his Bamberg Symphony. These are…

June 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Puccini: Turandot DVD (Opera Australia)

Graeme Murphy’s handsome production of Puccini’s grandest opera was first recorded back 
in 1991, so why have Opera Australia chosen to revisit it? First of all, it’s an opportunity for a technological upgrade, and in this respect the DVD is a singular success. Picture quality is crystal clear, with clever use of overlays to enhance the visuals. The sound, too, is very good, every detail of Andrea Licata’s highly effective, dramatic reading of the score brought vividly to life. First honours go to American soprano Susan Foster in the title role, commanding the stage with ringing tone, immaculate diction and an insightful dramatic identification with the character. It’s a wild performance, and some might find the vibrato a trifle wayward, but she easily sails over the chorus and her emotional transformation is riveting. The other star of the show is the Australian Opera chorus who, despite Murphy’s production occasionally veering into Kismet territory, sing with unflagging power and commitment. Unfortunately, Rosario La Spina proves a fly in the ointment. His foursquare musical approach and unimaginative use of text lacks finesse and, although the top notes are all there, his hollow tone is dull. Add to this some dubious Italian vowels…

June 5, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Alleluia (Julia Lezhneva)

There are two ways of looking at the 18th-century solo motet. One is as a vehicle for expression of religious thought (and a cheap means to fill out your service if you were on a budget). The other is a way of slipping a virtuoso operatic showpiece or two into a sacred service – indeed, if you were Handel, Vivaldi or Porpora, this form of recycling was common 
practice. For her solo Decca
 debut recording, the Russian
 coloratura Julia Lezhneva has
 opted to explore this fruitful
 musical genre with motets 
from four of the most distinctive
 composers of the Baroque and 
Classical periods. Neatly, each motet 
ends with an Alleluia movement, giving the disc its title. Still only 23, Lezhneva is possessed of an exceptionally pure instrument. The danger with a “clean” voice like hers is the risk of
 a certain sameness over the course of an hour’s solo program, but do not despair:
 this young soprano has two tricks up her sleeve. Recognising the operatic dimension within these works, she hurls herself into the opening of Vivaldi’s In Furore with more bite even than Sandrine Piau on the rival Naïve recording (which is saying something!). Her technique is rock…

May 30, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner: Die Walkure (Gergiev)

Anyone passionate about Wagner’s Ring Cycle knows that every generation has its own prospective dream team. Cruel twists of fate, aging and contracts have frequently meant that key players never came together on one recording and/or in good voice. Given the paucity of new opera recordings around nowadays, it seems even more remarkable, therefore, that our current generation’s dream team should have coincided on this new Die Walküre from Mariinsky Opera. Valery Gergiev is solid in Wagner – his 2010 Parsifal proved that he has an ear for Wagner’s orchestral sonorities and is
able to sensitively support a vocal line. Given his reputation for being driven, what is surprising here is his breadth of pacing throughout. What he occasionally lacks in climactic payoffs he makes up for with revelatory touches of instrumental colour and meaningfully shaped instrumental phrases. It’s generally very well recorded too, on SACD, with plenty of air around the sound and singers well caught. His cast, as mentioned, is exemplary. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Kampe are the Wälsung twins, drawing you inexorably into the drama from the word go. Vocally Kaufmann is unmatched on record, a heroically dark tenor with ringing top notes. Kampe gives him a run…

May 23, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Verdi: Complete Works

Forget the Complete Wagner with its paltry 43 CDs – this monolith, weighing in at a gargantuan 75 discs, beats all comers this year – that is if you can manage to struggle home with it from the shop! From 1840 to 1860, Giuseppe Verdi produced a new opera nearly every year. A slowpoke compared with some of his contemporaries (the likes of Donizetti and Pacini could
whack out three or four operas
a year) but considering that
Verdi’s output included works
like Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto,
La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Un
Ballo In Maschera, that’s pretty good
going by anyone’s standards. He slowed down over the following 30 years, with only five more works seeing the light of day – but what masterworks they were! Decca and Deutsche Grammophon have made so many recordings over the years that it comes as no surprise that Universal Music are able to curate a “complete works” of the depth of quality that we have here. The classic sets include Kleiber’s La Traviata with Cotrubas and Domingo, Abbado’s Macbeth, Giulini’s Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, Domingo’s finest Otello and Karajan’s earlier Aida. We also get both versions of La Forza del Destino (St Petersburg and Milan) and both French and Italian…

May 16, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vaughan Williams: A Cotswold Romance

This CD is a treat for lovers of English music and English folk song in particular. A Cotswold Romance is a concert version by Maurice Jacobson of Vaughan Williams’ robust ballad-opera, Hugh the Drover, written in the era before World War One and later refashioned as a cantata in 1951 using the opera as its prime source. The open-hearted, full fresh air composer is in fine form here; the music is very attractive and performed in great style by the assembled forces. It is led by the late Richard Hickox, whose work in rescuing forgotten English music is his legacy. This sweet rural fantasy is about a time when a young man could risk all to get the girl he loves and finally, after various tribulations, the happy couple sets off on the road to a new life, under the open sky. In today’s more cynical times, we can only look upon such idealistic foolishness with wry amusement and affection. As operas go (and the composer’s very fine Sir John in Love is similar) it inhabits a very different world to the more heady European styles, opting not for gripping drama but for more serene stories of village life with…

March 21, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: VillazoĢn Sings Verdi

Record companies love anniversaries, so
 with Wagner, Verdi and Britten all reaching significant ones in 2013, we can expect a plethora of celebratory releases. Rolando Villazón actually has two Verdi tributes out: one a compilation from his former label, Virgin Classics, which predates the tenor’s well- publicised vocal crisis and subsequent 
surgery; and this new, meatier
 collection, recorded – with able
 support from the Orchestra del
 Teatro Regio di Torino and its
 principal conductor Gianandrea 
Noseda – as an early birthday
 present to Italy’s operatic master. There’s no avoiding the difference
 in Villazón’s voice: his molten gold
 timbre has hardened and the sound as a
 whole (particularly up top) is narrower and tighter, no longer the effortless wonder it
 once was. What hasn’t changed is Villazón’s inimitable enthusiasm. He wears his heart quite audibly on his sleeve, and reinforces 
it with instinctive, pliable phrasing and a knack for five-minute vocal portraiture. His program here is substantial and varied, with plenty of lesser-known repertoire alongside several of the usual suspects, and even
 a few non-operatic selections, including 
three Romanze orchestrated by Berio. Villazón attacks each piece with gusto, and if the results aren’t always flawless, his commitment is undeniable. The Duke’s…

March 20, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: 18th-century Portuguese Love Songs

In his booklet notes to this most bewitching of releases, David Cranmer quotes from a 1787 journal entry by the English traveller William Beckford, in which he refers to modinhas, or Portuguese love songs: “This is an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.” Wow. Fans of Portuguese fado
 will find these songs, which effortlessly bridged the gap between the popular and the courtly, immediately attractive, languid and sensual. Just listen to a modinha such as Tempo que breve passaste (“So short a time you passed”) by Antonio da Silva Leite. Then there are those, such as the bright, cheeky Onde vas linda Negrinha (“Where are you going, pretty black girl”) by the same composer, alive with Afro- Brazilian rhythms. L’Avventura London director Zak Ozmo, who also plays Spanish and English guitars, has wisely broken up the songs and instrumental works with more “classical” fare with a Portuguese connection – keyboard pieces by Carlos de Seixas and Domenico Scarlatti. The performances by sopranos Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seeara, violone player Andrew Kerr and guitarists Taro Takeuchi…

March 13, 2013
CD and Other Review

Review: Vivica Genaux: A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni

Vivica Genaux’s superb recording of arias by Handel and Hasse composed for Faustina Bordoni shows why that 18th-century singer, who had a notorious catfight with her rival Francesca Cuzzoni in front of the Princess
 of Wales, was so envied. Handel wrote some glorious arias for her, most notably Lusinghe piu care from Alessandro, beautifully sung by Genaux on the opening track. Johann Adolph Hasse didn’t quite have the magic touch of Handel musically, but he married Bordoni and then proceeded to compose 
at least 15 operatic roles for her – truly justifying their contemporary reputation as the power couple of 18th-century opera. As for Genaux, she began her career singing Hasse’s music back in the 1990s with René Kollo, and her interest in his repertoire has never faltered. Her tightly controlled coloratura is ideally suited to Hasse’s technical showpieces, especially in Padre ingiusto from Cajo Fabricio. Genaux’s voice gets swamped occasionally in the Radio Bremen mix, but such is her compelling presence on disc that it hardly matters, and generally she finds sympathetic support in the Cappella Gabetta, established in 2010 with brother and sister Andrés and Sol Gabetta as the driving forces. They are sparkling interpreters of the Baroque…

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