October 20, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: RAMEAU: Orchestral Suites for Louis XV (Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall)

This 2-CD set of dance numbers from Rameau operas captures Jordi Savall’s period-instrument band Le Concert des Nations playing with all the lusty, effervescent joie de vivre the music demands. The “suites” put together by Savall trace a similar but more unified trajectory to Marc Minkowski’s Imaginary Symphony Rameau album (Les Musiciens du Louvre on Archiv). The present collection is a reminder that the composer’s instrumental music was just as thrilling and inventive as what he wrote for the voice: earthy and robust like a good Provençal stew, without sacrificing the majestic air of refinement that captivated the court of Versailles. One can only marvel at the punchy phrasing in the overture to Zoroastre and be seduced by the exotic percussion in Air des Incas from Les Indes Galantes. An authentic musette, that rare and peculiar Gallic bagpipe, makes an appearance in Naïs to spice up the French Baroque palette. Natural horns in Les Boréades, Rameau’s final tragédie en musique, are less graceful than Les Arts Florissants’ under William Christie (Opus Arts DVD) but richer for their pungency. Surging strings, turbulent transverse flute and a wind machine summon elemental forces, while delicate gavottes have more charm and snappy detail than…

October 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: SCHMITT: La Tragedie de Salome (Susan Bullock; Sao Paulo SO/Tortelier)

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was a contemporary of Ravel, Roussel and Dukas, and like them he wrote music for the ballet, including Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In the early decades of the 20th century his name was well known but his reputation suffered after the 1930s. The reasons were partly personal – Schmitt was a cantankerous personality and Nazi sympathiser – but also his richly orchestrated, fulsomely chromatic style fell out of fashion. The three works on this stunningly recorded disc are among Schmitt’s better-known. His ballet The Tragedy of Salome was written at exactly the same time as Richard Strauss’s opera, although the opera was performed first and its notoriety overshadowed the Frenchman’s score. The ballet is packed with “orientalisms”, cymbal-topped climaxes and disembodied melismatic sopranos. Big on atmosphere and beautifully played, the performance is subdued compared to the ancient Paray version (Mercury) and the white-hot performance from the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic (Onyx).  Psalm 47 is a setting of biblical verses for soprano, large choir and orchestra. It employs the same exotic palette, but here the prolonged choral fortes and relentless climaxes invoke the law of diminishing returns. A few calm moments, usually involving the excellent Susan Bullock, provide welcome respite….

September 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: The Maltese Tenor (Joseph Calleja; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Armiliato)

It’s seven years since Joseph Calleja made his solo recording debut, and he’s still only 33 years old. The hype which attended the arrival of this wunderkind in opera’s top tier has settled somewhat now, but he has maintained his place at the top of his profession and avoided the burnout which too often strikes such early and feverishly promoted bloomers. The Maltese Tenor, Calleja’s third collection of mostly popular, mostly Italian arias, finds him in bright and healthy voice. Once greeted by some as the second coming of Pavarotti, it’s clear now that Calleja is not quite – or at least not yet – as exceptional as that, but his honeyed, Italianate tone is swoonworthy just the same, and his delivery is underpinned by a solid technique which bodes well for a long future. Gorgeous legato, rather than textual detail, is Calleja’s specialty. He spins ardent favourites like E lucevan le stelle and Donna non vidi mai out with impeccable lyricism and audible sincerity, but there’s still a degree of characterisation missing. Still, there’s burnished colour aplenty in Calleja’s ardent Quando le sere al placido, and infectious energy in Offenbach’s jaunty Légende de Kleinzach, and Massenet’s Des Grieux also brings out…

September 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Great Baritone Arias (Peter Mattei; Royal Stockholm PO/Renes)

From Mozart to Tchaikovsky to Britten, with a smattering of Wagner and Rossini along the way, Mattei dashes from one Greatest Hit to another with a versatility that’s almost galling. Comparisons are inevitable but for once, not odious; Mattei is a worthy heir to his illustrious predecessors, and the vocal and theatrical charisma which have made him such an audience favourite transfer remarkably well to disc. His honeyed baritone is as beguiling in Don Giovanni’s Serenade as it is devastating in Billy Budd’s Look! Through the port…, and he manages both Wagnerian legato and Rossinian coloratura with ease. Mattei’s madcap Largo al factotum must be one of the laugh-out-loud funniest on disc, and when it comes on the heels of a soaring, dignified account of Yeletsky’s Ya vas lyublyu (The Queen of Spades), it’s hard to believe that the same singer produced both performances. Or rather, it would be, were they – and indeed, every selection on this disc is – not unified by his sterling musicianship, vivid characterisation and seriously beautiful voice, all of which make Mattei such a distinctive artist. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, under Lawrence Renes, is an excellent partner in crime, particularly in the disc’s vibrant…

September 22, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (Jonas Kaufmann; Nina Stemme; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Abbado)

This live recording of Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio is from the 2010 Lucerne Festival, under the baton of Claudio Abbado. Together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Lucerne Festival Orchestra the succeeds in contrasting dramatic impetus with lyrical subtlety throughout the performance.  Few tenors are able to convey the conflicting suffering, near-dementia and inextinguishable hope in Florestan’s character, but Jonas Kaufmann produces a sound that is both heroic and nuanced. Meanwhile, Nina Stemme’s Leonore is rich and expressive, delivering a heartfelt aria but falling short of joyous brilliance in her duet with Florestan. Falk Struckmann sings a powerful Pizarro, perhaps lacking a bit of snarl at times but successfully portraying an insecure despot who is about to snap. The supporting roles are sung well, but not outstandingly so; they all lack a degree of dramatic involvement. Beethoven’s sublime chorus writing provides the Arnold Schoenberg Choir with plenty of opportunity to shine, especially in the affecting Prisoners’ Chorus. The only major weakness here is the spoken dialogue, which in some cases has been abbreviated into monologue, the content of which is dramatically incoherent and delivered unconvincingly by the principals.

September 8, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BOITO: Mefistofele (Dimitra Theodossiou; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Massimo Palermo/Ranazani)

This fascinating opera has had an uneven reputation from day one. Although Boito is better known as the brilliant librettist to Verdi’s last two masterpieces, Falstaff and Otello, he was also a composer of some standing, and Mefistofele was his magnum opus. It is the Faust legend, but done more flamboyantly and with a different dramatic emphasis than Gounod’s. Boito’s opera is a series of vignettes, with gaps between some scenes that do not always add up to a dramatic whole. In this opera, the character of Margherita is almost a sideshow. The main drama takes place between Mefistofele, Faust and God – as represented by a heavenly host, the chorus. By the final act and epilogue Margherita is long gone, leaving the stage to the three protagonists. It all works up to a wonderfully bombastic and exciting finale. Having seen a fine production of this opera in Vienna, I can attest to the work’s power on stage. Flawed it might be, but it is much more fun than Gounod’s Faust, and more dramatic. This live recording comes from the opera house in Palermo and is an effective enough performance from a good provincial opera house. The cast is uniformly…

September 1, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: MOZART: Arias (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino/Noseda)

His Deutsche Grammophon contract may be relatively recent, but Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has been around for quite some time. On this new disc, he’s palpably at ease, singing arias from the Italian Mozart roles which have been his bread and butter for a couple of decades. The program holds few surprises – Mozart basses and baritones are rather less spoilt for choice than their soprano counterparts – but D’Arcangelo’s vocal swagger is enough to keep these familiar favourites fresh. He’s at his best in the faster-paced comic arias: the Italianate bite of his timbre, coupled with a native speaker’s suave command of the text, allows him to tread nimbly and engagingly through Figaro’s Aprite un po’ quegli occhi, Leporello’s catalogue aria and Count Almaviva’s Vedro mentr’io sospiro. In Don Giovanni’s serenade, he’s muscular if not massively seductive, but Finch’han del vino is energetically delivered, as is Se vuol ballare. Differentiation between characters could be stronger, but each aria in itself is vivid enough, and one imagines that a stage could easily elicit the charisma occasionally lacking on disc. No doubt for variety’s sake, D’Arcangelo also includes a few lesser-known concert arias. These free-standing showpieces, with their generic texts, haven’t…

August 17, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BEAUTY OF THE BAROQUE (soprano: Danielle de Niese; English Concert/Harry Bicket)

A celebration of the English, Italian and German Baroque? Or a celebration of one of Decca’s most marketable sopranos? It would be lovely to say this album was both. But the beauty of this repertoire has been brushed aside to make room for an underwhelming diva showcase. Danielle de Niese’s breathy, pop-inflected delivery, lazy diction and apparent disregard for both text and context do this music scant justice. Ombra mai fu, Dido’s Lament and Sheep can safely graze all receive saccharine, underpowered treatment with a shockingly pinched upper register for such a young singer. The relentlessly slow-and-ethereal vibe of the album does de Niese no favours either, highlighting as it does her one-size-fits-all approach. Occasional coloratura passages liven up proceedings slightly, but are not stylishly handled. Her voice is not fundamentally unattractive – indeed, there’s a certain prettiness to it which, coupled with her lithe stage presence and certain genetic blessings, has gained her a large and devoted following – but her singing here fails to live up to the promise of the album’s title. The English Concert plays well, but with only marginally more vibrancy than its soloist. The only person to emerge triumphant here is guest artist Andreas Scholl.

August 4, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Apres un reve: Strauss, Faure, Britten, Chausson (soprano: Sandrine Piau)

If Sandrine Piau is aging, then nobody has passed the message on to her voice. The French soprano sounds as fresh and ravishing now as she ever has – and this new disc is another pearl in her exceptional solo discography. In line with the title, a dreamlike air pervades this selection of French, German and English songs. Piau’s iridescent soprano, underpinned by the limpid, evocative playing of her regular recital partner Susan Manoff, is ideally suited to the magic (and often the melancholy) of this music. Her voice’s natural shimmer becomes a fully-fledged glow in the Richard Strauss selections which open the disc – Piau’s rendition of the oft-recorded Morgen! could stand with the best of them – and of course she’s especially at ease in the French repertoire. Phrases floated sweetly in the air are her particular talent, but there’s no lack of expressive variety here. With unfailing sensitivity and elegant phrasing, she conveys the rapid cynicism of Poulenc’s Fêtes galantes as easily as the stillness of Mendelssohn’s Schlafloser Augen Leuchte or the rapture of Chausson’s Amour d’antan. The Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) of contemporary composer Vincent Bouchot are a delightful surprise, and Piau renders them in vivid, memorable…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Wagner and Me (Stephen Fry)

Genial and general arts all-rounder Stephen Fry provides a useful introduction to Wagner in this new DVD. The film is full of fascinating behind-the-scenes activity in various opera houses, including Bayreuth. It’s also nicely shot, although I found a few of the musical edits a little clumsy. Fry has been criticised for inaccuracy, casual frivolity and for a “gee-gosh” approach to the subject. While there is some merit in those comments, what remains is an engaging journey through the Wagner myth and some of the music; an ideal introduction for those new to the composer and his works – and great fun for the rest of us. Fry also gets to grips with the serious side of the music, and the scene where he examines the astonishing Tristan chord is moving and instructional. Many Wagnerians take a deeply serious approach to the work of the great composer, especially The Ring. But high art needs its populist proselytisers, and Fry is ideally placed. He not only reveres Wagner, but is Jewish into the bargain – and this dilemma provides the film with added frisson. He handles this piece of hot toast adroitly and with feeling.  Fry is such a Wagnerite that…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: ROSSINI: Arias (soprano: Julia Lezhneva; Sinfonia Varsovia/Minkowski)

At just 21 years old, Julia Lezhneva already has an enviable list of engagements to her name, and a growing discography: this release marks her third album by Naïve, and her solo début.  For such a young singer, the protégée of Kiri Te Kanawa, Lezhneva is indeed remarkable – but an artist promoted so heavily and so early needs to display a talent which transcends her age rather than making a selling point of it, and on this showing Lezhneva has yet to reach that point. Nor is she helped by the choice of repertoire here, a series of grand Rossini scenes, most of which demand greater maturity and vocal grandeur than Lezhneva can yet muster. Her voice is attractive, and dazzlingly agile, and she’s a sterling musician, but one senses she’s not yet tapped into the full expressive possibilities of her voice, nor yet sufficiently strengthened it at either top or bottom. Florid selections like Tanti affetti or Bel raggio lusinghier are reasonably successful – and her ardent Non più mesta is the disc’s highlight – but slower arias, like Sombre forêt or Giusto ciel, fall short, showing gorgeous legato but very little colour or sense of drama. If Naïve were determined…

July 28, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: BAROQUE DUETS (Fiona Campbell; David Walker; Ironwood)

This collection reunites Australian mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell and American countertenor David Walker in duet following performances with Pinchgut Opera in Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. The latter was the starting point for this inspired partnership, with two scenes bound to please Pinchgut devotees since the production was never recorded for commercial release. A protégé of Monteverdi, Cavalli was the most influential and prolific opera composer of the 17th century. With duets from his L’Ormindo and La Calisto framing the album, Campbell and Walker invite listeners to dine on a banquet of Italian Baroque delicacies, with a few choice excerpts from Handel’s English oratorios and operas for good measure. Most of the duets being love songs or laments, there is much sighing and weeping and few opportunities to break out of a solemn mood.  In L’Ormindo’s extended Act III death scene Campbell’s warm mezzo is not always as controlled as it could be, but her unbridled fervour captures the anguish of a heroine’s darkest hour. Luminous, vibrato-less strings from period-instrument ensemble Ironwood bring clarity and gravity to the moment. Pur ti miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is the earliest work on the menu and the most ravishing, with voices…

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