March 29, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: HANDEL Arias: Ombra Cara (countertenor: Bejun Mehta; Freiburg Baroque/Jacobs)

Countertenor Bejun Mehta enters the increasingly crowded field of Handel recitals and triumphs with this engaging and exquisitely sung selection of arias and duets, many of them composed for the great castrato Senesino.  Dark yet delicate in timbre, Mehta’s voice defies the common criticisms (or myths) surrounding the countertenor voice, displaying not only spectacular agility but a wealth of colour, superb dynamic control, and a steely strength which underpins the sheer loveliness of sound.  But it is Mehta’s vocal acting which lifts this recital to another level. Be it in the exultant coloratura of Sento la gioia, the long, hushed lines of Stille amare or the militant staccati of Fammi combatere, Mehta teams technical brilliance with sensitive expressivity, capturing even the most broadly drawn Baroque emotions with touching sincerity.  Collections of Handel arias are hardly thin on the ground these days – barely a month seems to pass without a few new additions to the discography – but Mehta’s rare combination of virtuosity and expressive acuity makes this recital one of the finest such releases in recent years.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: CHARPENTIER David and Jonathan (Soloists and Chorus of Pinchgut Orchestra, Cantillation, Orch of the Antipodes/Walker)

 This recording was made over four performances by Pinchgut Opera at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in 2008. It shows clearly the advantages – and limitations – of live performance recordings. The advantages are the feeling of immediacy, of being caught up in the excitement and danger of live performance. If one performer falters, the whole ensemble can fall. On audio, however, live performance can be distracting. Footsteps, movement of scenery, and of course audience noise, can take the edge from an otherwise immaculate performance. That does happen here intermittently. But only intermittently. In essence, this is another splendid outing from Pinchgut, which continues to offer esoteric operas our national company could not economically stage in the major Sydney and Melbourne theatres. This opera from 1688 features some of Charpentier’s most unshackled writing, free from earlier performance conventions. It’s performed here on Baroque instruments while the supple voices of the principals – especially the outstanding Baroque tenor Anders J Dahlin as David, Sara MacIiver as his beloved Jonathan and baritone Dean Robinson as Jonathan’s father Saul – tackle the special demands of this period’s music with relish. Some studio recordings have finer polish than this, but few match its impetuous drama.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: DVORÁK Rusalka (singers: Martínez, Jovanovich, Schelomianski, Diadkova; The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Belohlávek)

 Glyndebourne’s Rusalka made headlines last year when soprano Ana María Martínez took a tumbleinto the orchestra pit, escaping injury only by landing on a cellist instead of the floor. She was back on the proverbial horse for the rest of the season, however, and now we have a souvenir of those performances, with Martínez in pretty and plaintive voice as the doomed nymph. Her vibrato won’t be to all tastes, but ultimately this is a fine, persuasive portrayal. That said, she’s very nearly outshone by her colleagues. Brandon Jovanovich cuts a dashing figure as the Prince, singing with clarion freshness, while two Russians – Mischa Schelomianski as Vodník and Larissa Diadkova as Ježibaba – bring idiomatic colour and lyricism to their roles. Bit parts are admirably filled across the board; the three Wood Nymphs are especially impressive, but the star of this show is conductor Jirí Belohlávek. His shimmering reading revels in both the fairytale magic and the humanity of Dvoák’s opera, drawing from the London Philharmonic playing of revelatory and refined romanticism. This set inevitably includes some stage and audience noise, but this is relatively unobtrusive and, especially as weighed against Blohlávek’s mighty contribution, ought not to deter any but…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BIZET Highlights from Carmen (singers: Domashenko, Bocelli, Mei, Terfel; Choeur de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung)

It is to his presence that this Carmen owes its existence: the opera is not exactly underrepresented in the market. Bocelli, whose live performances are usually amplified and rarely in opera, can’t compare to his predecessors, but he makes a reasonably decent fist of Bizet’s guileless hero. There’s not much in the way of style or characterisation, but he sings (or croons) with commitment and warmth of tone. Nevertheless, he’s easily outclassed by his colleagues. Marina Domashenko’s magnetic, silver-voiced account of the title role would crown any Carmen; in an ideal world, this recording would be her vehicle rather than Bocelli’s. Bryn Terfel brings too much bluster and Scarpia-snarl to Escamillo, but his unerring ability to command a scene is undimmed, and Eva Mei is a touchingly girlish Micaëla. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung provides sweepingly idiomatic support. This highlights disc focuses as determinedly on Bocelli as possible, skewing the dramatic arc somewhat, but most of the show’s other big hits are also squeezed into its 75-minute selection. Bocelli-philes may well prefer the complete recording, also released this year, but as a sampler and overview, this disc does its job well.

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Santo (tenor: Juan Diego Florez; Orchestra e coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna/Mariotti)

But after a series of solo discs which maintained this focus, and one charming excursion into South-American pop songs, Flórez has now hit upon a project which allows him to branch out: sacred songs. Seasonal favourites like O Come All Ye Faithful and Franck’s Panis angelicus jostle alongside music from Fux, Ariel Ramírez and even Flórez himself. It’s good to hear the tenor cast his net so wide; and yet, it has to be said, it’s still on home territory that he sounds his best – shiningly immaculate in arias from florid bel canto-era masses, soulful and relaxed in the Latin textures of Ramírez’s Missa criolla or his own song Santo, an upbeat guitar-based number which takes Rossini’s lead in making a solemn text sound jaunty. But the further he moves from his usual fare, the less idiomatic Flórez sounds – contemplative music like Comfort ye and Schubert’s Ave Maria need caressing by a more limpid voice than his bright, edgy tenor, and his delivery of traditional carols, though sincere, lacks gravitas. Nevertheless, kudos to Flórez for stepping beyond his usual bounds – there are better and more beautiful sacred albums about, but Santo is still a worthy addition to…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Habanera (mezzo: Elina Garanca, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai/Chichon)

The concept gives her access to unexpectedly diverse repertoire. Several hits from Carmen appear, of course, including not only the Habanera everyone knows, but also Bizet’s rarely heard (and very different) first version of the aria; and there are songs from Falla, Obradors and Montsalvatge. But the gypsy angle also allows for surprises like I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls from Balfe’s Bohemian Girl, Lehár’s Hör ich Zymbalklänge (Zigeunerliebe) and even the Old Woman’s Tango from Bernstein’s Candide. Across this broad range of language and musical styles, Garanca’s voice is voluptuous and velvety as ever, as she revels in the sensual possibilities of tangos, habaneras and the odd csardas. Limpid, legato beauty abounds, and yet, as the disc progresses, Garanca’s arias seem to start to melt into one another. Perhaps it’s that Spanish sun, or perhaps the urge to unify so many diverse musical strands, but each selection, whatever its origin, is imbued with roughly the same sultry colours. The result, while eminently listenable, and with moments of loveliness, has a certain superficiality to it. Garanca has proven her ability to compel, but in Habanera, seductively as she sways, the glamour mezzo of the hour sounds like she might…

January 11, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: For Eternity (Celine Byrne, RTE National Symphony Orchestra)

Byrne had her big break in 2007, when she won the Maria Callas Grand Prix, and she’s maintained a busy schedule – if not massive stardom – ever since. Her website’s calendar shows a preponderance of concert peformances in the last three years, with just a scattering of operatic engagements. The repertoire selected for this disc reflects that: Byrne’s chosen arias are of the warhorse species, ideal for a gala if not always for her light, lyric soprano. She sings sweetly in Micaela’s Je dis and Marguerite’s Jewel Song, but sounds shrill and pressurised in heavier fare such as Un bel dì and Vissi d’arte. No surprise that Mimì is the only Puccini heroine currently in her repertoire. Byrne’s enthusiasm for Spanish comes through engagingly, while still lacking the last degree of idiomatic finesse. A lilting rendition of Granados’s La Maja y el Ruiseñor is the most successful of these selections. There’s a sense of the concert performance about Byrne’s delivery, too. Her phrasing and diction are mostly admirable, but her approach seems to focus more on dazzling climaxes than characterisation; her singing is extroverted and personable, but a sameness creeps in, with everything from Rusalka’s Song to the Moon…

January 3, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART Die Zauberflöte (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin / Jacobs)

Jacobs goes to town in this new Die Zauberflöte, with sprightly tempi, unconventional vocal and instrumental flourishes and sound effects aplenty – all of it backed up at length in the lavish booklet. The singing is excellent: Daniel Behle (Tamino) and Marlis Petersen (Pamina) are an ardent, lyrical pair, Daniel Schmutzhard a witty Papageno, and Anna-Kristiina Kaappola an edgily effective if slightly unruly Königin. It’s very much an ensemble piece, however, with no single, dazzling standout; if this recording has a star, it is Jacobs himself. In his inimitable hands, this is Zauberflöte as you’ve never heard it before, and in all honesty, may never hear it again – a curiosity, but realised with a talent and conviction that are hard to resist. Only one major caveat remains: Jacobs has, true to form, retained what seems to be every last speck of dialogue, and while it’s handled with as much imagination as the singing, its interference may be a dealbreaker for some.

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