Saturday, June 14, 2014


East is East and West is West (2)



Four years ago I published an article on this weblog under the title 'East is East and West is West'. The reason was the release of various discs which juxtaposed or blended music from the West and from the (Near) East. There is every reason to return to this subject. Its popularity seems to be unbroken. One wonders why the music of non-European cultures is attracting so much interest. Only few of the artists involved are clear about their motifs.

Among those who are most active in this field is Jordi Savall. He regularly brings musicians from different cultures together to give them the opportunity to become acquainted with music from a culture they did not know. This has resulted in various recording projects which are either devoted to the music of a specific culture outside of Europe or at the margins of the continent or juxtapose music from different cultures. His motifs are partly politically motivated, under the impression of the aggravation of conflicts between various cultures in our time.

A musical confrontation between East and West can be quite interesting. But whether it makes sense largely depends on how it is worked out. Generally speaking there are two concepts here. In the first the music of East and West is mingled. This is what is often called crossover, which Daniel Manhart (chant1450) defines as "uniting two worlds and thereby generating new music which has never been heard before". Unintentionally he puts his finger on the sore spot. In projects which are based on this concept the artists perform music which has never existed before. This has nothing to do with historical performance practice, and even the word interpretation would be out of place here.

The first disc from the list at the bottom of this article, called "raga vira", is an example of this approach. Maria Jonas and her ensemble Ars Choralis Coeln perform chants by Hildegard of Bingen. This is mixed with music from northern India, sung and played by Amelia Cuni. This results in 'new' music without any historical foundation. Whether one likes the result or not - I certainly do not - one should not expect a historically plausible interpretation of Hildegard of Bingen's chants. Music from two entirely different cultures is thrown into one pot, probably on the basis of the assumption that there are many similarities between them. But what seems the same is not always the same.

The second concept is the opposite: music from different cultures is juxtaposed, but in both cases performed - interpreted indeed - according to its own standards. This approach seems rather rare, although Jordi Savall's performances are quite close to this concept. Most performers and ensembles follow a path between these two opposites. In this context one important aspect needs to be mentioned. The confrontation between two cultures can be historically plausible, even if we don't know if it has ever really happened. In this respect there is a difference between the recording of Ars Choralis Coeln and Doulce Mémoire's disc. It is inconceivable that Hildegard of Bingen was aware of any music from outside her immediate region, let alone from non-European cultures. Likewise the people of northern India will never have heard any music from Europe. However, Denis Raisin Dadre's project is based on a confrontation which actually could have taken place. In the liner-notes he writes: "The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans (...) did not put an end to exchange with the Christian west. In the Byzantine period there already existed a hill opposite Byzantium called Pera, on which stood the walled city of Galata. (...) By leaving the inhabitants of Galata [Greeks, Jews, French et al] their possessions and their freedom to trade, the conquerer of Constantinople, Mehmed II, permitted this colony to remain a bridgehead of the Christian west in its relations with the 'Gate of Felicity' (...)." He then assumes that the musicians from both cultures must have been interested in each other's music. He put a programme together which comprises pieces from both sides, performed with the appropriate voices and instruments, and the corresponding singing and playing techniques. Only in some pieces the members of the two ensembles join, and as a result we hear instruments from the East in western music and vice versa.

The ensemble chant1450 follows more or less the same concept. Before 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain three cultures coexisted: the Christian, the Moorish and the Jewish. Specimens of the music of the former two are brought together here. We hear motets by Spanish composers, such as Antonio Ribera, Pedro de Escobar and Juan de Anchieta, and improvisations by Mahmoud Turkmani on the ūd. He improvises between the motets but also participates in the performance of mass sections in plainchant. This is highly unsatisfactory. The coexistence of three cultures in renaissance Spain is a historical fact and their mutual influence in musical matters is also generally acknowledged, but it seems highly unlikely that muslims played any role in Christian liturgical music. This is indeed music which did not exist before it was performed in our time. It is especially regrettable as the motets are so beautifully sung.

Canticum Novum also brings music from Spain as it could have been performed before 1492. It rather focusses on secular and non-liturgical religious music. "We have selected several pieces which seem to us to express, in all its richness, diversity and vivid colours, that blessed era when men and women of different cultures and origins came together to nurture shared acts of creativity. We had no difficulty in choosing such pieces from the Sephardic repertory, the repertory of the Muslim tradition and Alfonso X el Sabio's song collection, the Cantigas de Santa Maria", Emmanuel Bardon writes in the booklet. This could have been an interesting disc, if the performers had not made use of instruments from exotic cultures, such as the bandolim - a type of mandolin used in Portugal, but not before the late 16th century - and Tibetan bowls. It is acknowledged that they were not used in 13th-century Spain, but "[we] used them to increase the range of colours and the variety of timbres". This way the recording has lost its historical credibility.

That is quite different in the case of the various projects of Jordi Savall. Here musicians generally perform their 'own' repertoire. Seldom instruments of one culture are used in music from another. That lends his performances a great amount of authenticity and credibility. The books which accompany the discs include much information about history and culture, but unfortunately very little about the music, the instruments or performance practice. The listener becomes acquainted with the music of other cultures, but it seems unlikely that having listened to the discs and read the books he has a really better understanding of the music of other cultures.
Orient-Occident II is almost exclusively devoted to music from Syria; only a couple of 'western' pieces are performed. In Esprit de l'Arménie there is no meeting between various cultures at all. Only Armenian music is performed, not only 'early' music, but also much later repertoire, including music from the 20th century. Armenia had to deal with 'eastern' cultures, marked by Islam, but music from the environment is not included. The third project is devoted to the Balkans; for a long time this region was a meltingpot not much different from Spain before 1492. Here not only Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures coexisted, but also the culture of the Roma whose role is often neglected and is given special attention in this project.

I am not particularly interested in or fond of the music of those cultures, but the value of Savall's projects can hardly be overestimated, especially considering the sincerity with which he and all musicians participating treat the musical material. Savall's approach is the most plausible and credible of the recordings mentioned here.


"raga virga"
Ars Choralis Coeln, Maria Jonas; Amelia Cuni (dhrupad-chant, tanpura), Poul Høxbro (flute, percussion)
Talanton - TAL 90010 (2011; 68'07")

"La porte de félicité - Constantinople 1453 entre Orient et Occident"
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin Dadre; Ensemble Kudsi Erguner
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT314 (2012; 73'39")

"Flores de España - Orient & Occident in Spanish Renaissance"
Mahmoud Turkmani (ūd), chant1450
Christophorus - CHR 77374 (2011/12; 60'03")

"Paz, Salam & Shalom"
Canticum Novum, Emmanuel Bardon
Ambronay - AMY033 (2010; 75'33")

"Orient-Occident II - Hommage à la Syrie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9900 (2013; 79'28")

"Esprit de l'Arménie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9892 (2012; 76'55")

"Esprit des Balkans"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9898 (2012; 79'15")

Saturday, May 31, 2014


East Empire Light - Liturgical music from the Balkans



The political changes in Europe in the late 1980s which resulted in the dismantling of the Eastern Block had all sorts of implications and these extended to the world of music. Musicians who lived in relative isolation all of a sudden had access to sources outside their own realm, and could become acquainted with the new insights in regard to performance practice. On the other hand, the West learnt about developments in a part of the world they mostly didn't know, and the results of research on the musical past of that part of the continent of which they were not aware.

Musicians in Eastern European countries were sometimes forced to confine themselves to delve into the musical heritage of their own country. In some cases this was encouraged by the regimes: the awareness of a rich cultural heritage could unite the people whereas the state ideology more and more lost its appeal. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and as part of the process of growth towards independence interest in local history and culture increased. In this way people could become more aware of their national identity. The last decade of the 20th century has shown that this interest in national heritage had its drawbacks, and that notion is especially relevant as this disc is devoted to music from the Balkans, in particular Serbia. One cannot read the words of Bishop Danilo Krstic in the booklet without thinking of the dubious role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the war at the Balkans. Milena Miloradovic, music editor of Serbian radio and television, states in her liner notes that "every well-educated singer is a precious bloom in the Orthodox garden adding colour, but above all promoting faith and love among people". During those years we have seen very little of that.

This disc is devoted to the early stages of Orthodox liturgical music. These are not that well-known to other than insiders, and certainly not in the Western part of Europe, let alone elsewhere. It is a great thing that the fruits of research such as that by Vera Zlokovich are made available to a wider public. However, it is a big shame that this disc comes without any documentation about the nature of the chants, their place in the liturgy or even the time of the ecclesiastical year for which they were written. The texts could give some clue in regard to the latter, but these are omitted as well. Instead we get a biography - not particularly objective at that - of Vera Zlokovich and her ensemble and a description of her activities. This is all very interesting, but not half as interesting as the music. And that is what I would like to know more about.

Almost all of these pieces are monophonic. That doesn't mean that we always hear a single voice. Most pieces are performed by a solo voice, sometimes in alternation with chorus, singing over a kind of bourdon, taken by a choir. The rear inlay indicates that all pieces are arranged. I would like to know in what way they have been arranged. Considering the differences in region and time there is a remarkable stylistic similarity among many items, which bears witness to the strength of the tradition and the relative isolation in which these chants were sung.

That isolation makes it all the more surprising that some chants reminded me of liturgical music in Western Europe, especially the so-called 'Notre Dame School', which is associated with composers like Perotinus and Leoninus. That goes in particular for Ize heruvimi - a chant from Bulgaria (track 15). This piece dates from the 17th century - one again a token of the strength of the tradition of Orthodox liturgical music. Another piece which shows some similarity to the organa of the Notre Dame School, is the Russian chant Blazen muz, also from the 17th century. The disc ends with a polyphonic piece, Allilosa.

This is all fascinating stuff. Listening to these chants raises many questions but the booklet doesn't answer any of them. Therefore: more of this repertoire, please, but then with some useful background information.


The East Empire Light - Prayer Chants from the XI - XVIII centuries
Musica Antiqua Serbiana/Vera Zlokovich
place and date of recording not mentioned
Meridian - CDE 84543 (71'46")

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Opera (3)


Leonardo Vinci, La Partenope (La Rosmira fedele) (Antonio Florio)

Opera lovers will immediately think of Handel when they see the title of this disc. He also composed an opera on this same subject, performed in 1730. Five years earlier Handel had performed a pasticcio which included seven arias from this opera by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730).

The original libretto of the opera was written by Silvio Stampiglia and presented to the Spanish Vicereine of Naples (synopsis). There is a close connection between Parthenope and Naples. During the Spanish domination of the city the Neapolitans called themselves partenopei, children of Parthenope. The latter was considered the founder of the city. There are two figures with that name in classical mythology. The first is one of the Sirens; she was washed ashore at the spot where Naples is situated. The second was a Greek princess, daughter of the King of Thessaly. With a group of people from her country she settled at the same spot and founded the city.

The libretto had been set by various composers before, such as Antonio Caldara and Domenico Sarri (Sarro). A revised version of the latter's opera was performed in Rome in 1724 when Vinci was there, and for some time the two worked together. When Vinci became active as an opera composer in Venice he decided to stage La Partenope, but then under the title of La Rosmira fedele. The reasons for this change of title are not known. It has been suggested that it was a kind of homage to the famous soprano Faustina Bordoni, who sang the role of Rosmira. Another reason could be that the name of Pathenope hadn't any special meaning for Venetian opera lovers as it had for the Neapolitans.

For this setting Vinci kept parts of Sarro's score: he borrowed his recitatives, the chorus 'Viva Partenope' and the military sinfonias in Acts 1 and 3. He also reused music from previous compositions of his own, which in some cases forced him to change the text of an aria. In 2004 Antonio Florio conducted the first modern performance of La Rosmira fedele, and the present recording is a compilation of live performances in April and May 2011, with a partly different cast.

A live performance on disc has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is the interaction between the protagonists which is not easy to realise in a studio recording. The stage noises add to the illusion of being present in the theatre. That can also be a disadvantage, though: you hear something but can't see anything, and therefore some of those noises make no sense. There are some battle scenes where you can only hear a clash of arms; as you can't see a thing this is lasting too long, especially as there is no music. Such a scene at the end of Act 3 is especially odd: you hear a clash of arms but according to the libretto the actual fight between Arsace and Rosmira and their respective seconds never takes place. In a CD recording you can only guess what is going on. Another disadvantage is the annoying habit of opera audiences to applaud arias or scenes which stops the flow of the music. In this performance the battle scene from Act 1 is followed by applause, and only then Arsace gets the chance to force Emilio to surrender.

The acoustic is rather dry, as is to be expected from a live recording in a theatre. That is not so much of a problem in a DVD recording, but on a CD it not always makes for pleasant listening. In January 2013 a DVD of this production was released, but I haven't seen that. It should be especially interesting because of the period staging.

The assessment of an operatic production concerns both the acting and the singing. On the basis of the CD it is virtually impossible to evaluate the acting. I have to confine myself largely to the musical aspect, and in that regard I am not that positive about this production. Especially from a stylistic point of view the performances are rather disappointing. One of the main problems is the incessant and sometimes very wide vibrato of the female soloists. That includes Sonia Prina, who sings the title role. For some reason I got used to it in her case, and that has something to do with the fact that she is an contralto. In my experience a wide vibrato is less obtrusive in low voices than in high. Moreover, in the interpretation of her role she is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. She is versatily singer and is able to lend the necessary heroism to her role. Her coloraturas are impressive, for instance in 'A far stragi, a far vendetta'. Maria Grazia Schiavo sings the role of Rosmira pretty well, but sometimes her technique fails her. In 'Tormentosa, crudel gelosia' her breathing technique isn't good enough to sing long coloraturas; she takes a breath at some curious moments, especially in the dacapo. In 'Spiegati e di che l'ami' the ornament at the start of the dacapo is highly exaggerated, which is all the more notable as in the performance as a whole the ornamentation is quite stylish.

Maria Ercolano's performance is technically and stylistically problematic. 'Amante che incostante' is one example of an aria where her wide vibrato is particularly unpleasant. Here the cadenza at the end of the dacapo is exaggerated and the high notes sound stressed. Eufemia Tufano doesn't make a better impression: her voice is rather unstable and her vibrato in 'Men superba andrà la sorte' is unacceptable. In 2004 the role of Armindo was taken by Makoto Sakurada. I would prefer him to Stefano Ferrari whose voice lacks clarity. His upper register sounds a bit husky, as in 'Vanne e spera'. Charles do Santos has a small role; he has no arias, at least not in this production.

That brings me to another disadvantage of a live recording: more often than not live performances are incomplete. That is also the case here. According to the libretto - which can be downloaded from the Dynamic site - complete scenes are omitted: from Act 1 scenes 11, 15 and 16, and from Act 2 scenes 5, 6 and 9. Moreover one aria from Act 2, scene 7 - the only aria of Ormonte - has been cut. A comparison with the original score reveals that six arias in total are missing. In the aria 'Men superba andrà la sorte' (Act 3) the dacapo has been cut. The omitted scenes are indicated in the libretto, but the missing aria is not. The libretto also causes some confusion, when in Act 3 a recitative is ending with Ormonte speaking and is followed by an aria without an indication of the character. One expects here an aria by Ormonte, but in fact it is Armindo who is singing. The short recitative which introduces the aria has been cut and with it the name of the character. Cuts in live opera productions seem inevitable these days, and as performances of operas by relatively unknown composers such as Vinci are rare, we probably shouldn't complain. Even so, it is a bad habit. This also speaks for a studio production.

A couple of other things need to be said. There are various asides in the opera which have to be sung softly - the other characters shouldn't hear them. Unfortunately that is often ignored; some asides are sung so loudly that the other characters have to be deaf not to hear them. In some arias the protagonist addresses his words to various people. Obviously that is impossible to notice in a CD recording. Fortunately it is indicated in the libretto.

The plot of many baroque operas is quite complicated and this one is no exception. The synopsis in the booklet is useful. One can't help being surprised about the lack of logic, though. In scenes 2, 3 and 4 of Act 3 characters disappear and turn up again for unexplicable reasons, without any indication in the libretto.

I have been rather critical about this production. It is quite possible that I would have been more positive if it had been a DVD. It wouldn't have made the singing of some soloists any better, though. Even so, I have enjoyed this recording, mainly because of Vinci's music which I like. I wouldn't mind to hear more from him, preferably in a studio recording.

N.B. I thank Maurizio Frigeni for listing the cuts in this performance. His own review - in Italian - can be found here.

Leonardo Vinci, La Partenope (La Rosmira fedele)
Maria Ercolano (Arsace), Maria Grazia Schiavo (Rosmira), soprano; Eufemia Tufano (Emilio), mezzo-soprano; Sonia Prina (Partenope), contralto; Stefano Ferrari (Armindo), tenor; Charles Do Santos (Ormonte), baritone
I Turchini di Antonio Florio/Antonio Florio
Recorded live 29 April - 1 May 2011 at the Auditorium Victor Villegas, Murcia, Spain
Dynamic CDS 686/1-2 (2 CDs; 2.05'25")

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, or: A curse in disguise


Until recently there were two ways to enjoy an opera: going to the theatre to watch a live performance or listening to an opera on disc. With the introduction of the DVD - originally meant for movies - a whole new dimension opened for opera and its lovers. For the first time one could actually see and hear an opera at home as it was - or could have been - performed at the theatre. However, opera productions on DVD turn out to be a mixed blessing, and sometimes even a curse in disguise. As I have written before I am not a great opera lover. As a reviewer I sometimes have to sit through a whole performance on DVD. That isn't always a pleasant experience, and some performances don't exactly help me to overcome my rather negative attitude towards opera.

That is the case, for instance, with a recent release of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea by Virgin Classics, under the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm. It is the recording of a live performance in the Opera in Lille. It has always been a mystery to me why conductors insist on using period instruments while at the same time completely ignoring everything that is known about the way operas were performed in the baroque era. The staging, the acting, the costumes, the stage-properties - it was all very different from what is common use nowadays. Research into these matters has resulted in some very interesting and convincing staged performances, for instance by Benjamin Lazar and Sigrid T'Hooft. Ms Haïm seems not to be interested in these matters; her stage-director Jean-François Sivadier ignores everything that has been achieved in this department. This is a performance for a present-day audience which is not that interested in historical performance practice.

It is rather odd that this production was released by Virgin Classics, as only three years ago they released the same opera on DVD in a staged performance under the musical direction of William Christie. He and his stage director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, didn't opt for a historical approach either. However, their performance is at least decent and tasteful. The stage is not that large which gives the whole performance a kind of intimacy which is well reflected by the performance itself. The subject of this opera and the way is has been worked out probably gives little opportunity for real subtlety. After all, there is hardly a truly decent character around. The main protagonists are pretty repulsive, and the famous closing duet is only hiding the immorality and the emptiness of the two main characters, Nero and Poppea. Even so, Christie's performance is a marvel of good taste in comparison with Haïm's production. She and the stage director apparently thought it necessary to blow up everything that is disgusting in the development of the story. The scene in which Nero celebrates the death of Seneca is one of the worst examples.

Interestingly these two productions have something in common. Max Emanuel Cencic who took the role of Ottone in Christie's performance, plays Nero in the production by Haïm. He portrays both characters pretty convincingly. His voice isn't that strong, and that suits the role of Ottone rather well. In the role of Nero his rudeness comes off well; vocally he seems to be miscast, tough. His tessitura seems to be too limited; in the upper range he forces himself and he starts to shout. Stylistically he is more at home in 18th century opera, although his incessant vibrato isn't appropriate there either. In comparison Philippe Jaroussky does better, although he also has some trouble with the top notes. Stylistically he is clearly ahead of Cencic: his ornamentation is very natural and his singing more flexible and just nicer to the ear. Danielle de Niese portrays Poppea better than Sonya Yoncheva who makes little impression, but De Niese's singing shows that she isn't really acquainted with the style of Monteverdi's time. That goes, by the way, for most singers in both productions. It is often the smaller roles which are stylistically most feasible. In Haïm's production there is at least one other miscast: Paul Whelan sings the role of Seneca. I am not that impressed by his singing and the way he portrays his role, but he is also far too young to give this role any credibility. The fact that Haïm adds percussion to the ensemble - Christie does not - only underlines her intention to present Monteverdi's opera for a modern audience which is not really interested in the composer's intentions and the conventions of his time.

On balance Christie's performance is much to be preferred over Haïm's. Even so, it is quite depressing that both conductors chose to ignore the result of research in regard to the way operas were performed in the baroque era. Equally depressing is that they obviously didn't strictly select the singers on the basis of their commandment of the style of singing in Monteverdi's time.


Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea), Max Emanuel Cencic (Nerone), Ann Hallenberg (Ottavia), Tim Mead (Ottone), Paul Whelan (Seneca), Amel Brahim-Djelloul (Drusilla), Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arnalta), Anna Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), Khatouna Gadelia (Virtù, Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), Aimery Lefèvre (Mercurio, Console), Patrick Schramm (Un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), Mathias Vidal (Soldato, Un famigliare di Seneca, Lucano), Nicholas Mulroy (Tribuno) Le Concert d'Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm; stage director: Jean-François Sivadier
Recorded March 2012, Lille, Opéra
Virgin Classics 928991 9 (2 DVDs; 2.58')

Danielle de Niese (Poppea), Philippe Jaroussky (Nerone), Anna Bonitatibus (Ottavia), Max Emanuel Cencic (Ottone), Antonio Abete (Seneca), Ana Quintans (Drusilla), Claire Debono (Fortuna, Pallade, Venere), Katherine Watson (Virtù, Damigella), Hanna Bayodi-Hirt (Amore), Suzana Ograjensek (Valletto), José Lemos (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Robert Burt (Arnalta), Mathias Vidal (Lucano), Andreas Wolf (Mercurio, Littore Tribuno, Un famigliare di Seneca), Damian Whiteley (Un famigliare di Seneca), Juan Sancho (Tribuno, Console, Un famigliare di Seneca), David Webb (Tribuno, Console)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; stage director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Recorded May 2010, Madrid, Teatro Real
Virgin Classics 07095191 (2 DVDs; 3.00')

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zanaida, or How an interesting recording project goes astray


Some record companies release very interesting recordings on a regular basis. As far as early music is concerned the French label ZigZag Territoires is one of them. They often present little-known repertoire, and many performances are very good. Unfortunately the production is not always of the same standard. The recent release of a recording of the opera Zanaida by Johann Christian Bach is a good example.

Let me start with the merits of this recording. Johann Christian Bach was an important composer in his time and widely admired, not the least by Mozart. He was especially active as a composer of operas, first in Italy and then in England. However, today his music is still underestimated, and that certainly is true for his operas. Some of them have been recorded, but they don't belong to the standard repertoire of today's opera houses and even arias from his operas are seldom included in recital discs. That makes the release of a recording of Zanaide, his second opera performed in London, most welcome. It is a live recording, but fortunately one doesn't get applause after every aria which is a great relief. One can only make compliments to the audience which attended these performances. The orchestra plays period instruments. However, that hardly needs to be noticed, as that seems to be the standard these days. Three cheers for that.

That is where I have to stop singing the praise of this production, I'm afraid. This release has a number of features which are greatly annoying. Nearly all the soloists are affected by the vibrato virus. That makes listening to this performance not exactly an unqualified enjoyment. Otherwise it is almost impossible to assess the performances of individual soloists.

First of all, the libretto in the booklet is hard to read. The letters are in bleak grey on a white background. The indications of the characters is such that it strains the eyes if one wants to know exactly who sings when and what. Secondly, the record company has done those who don't understand Italian a particularly bad service. The booklet includes two translations of the libretto, in French and English respectively. However, these are printed separately which makes it impossible to follow the original and the translation simultaneously. One has to leaf back and forth constantly, and that simply doesn't work. One could decide to concentrate on the translation, at least for the recitatives. However, that is not unproblematic either. I used the English translation, and I didn't recognize much from what I heard, not even names. I soon found out that the original recitatives were severely cut. That is mentioned nowhere in the liner-notes or anywhere else.

This is a pretty bad habit in live performances, although for some reasons it never happens in, say, Mozart or romantic operas. As there is not much chance of hearing an opera by Johann Christian Bach anyway, we probably shouldn't complain too much. The problem is that the English translation doesn't indicate the cuts. In fact, we get the complete libretto instead, and that makes it virtually impossible to follow what happens as the original and the translation are consistently out of sync. As if that is not bad enough, the translation of the arias is very imprecise. It seems more a kind of paraphrase than a translation. Moreover, we seem to get here the translation of the performances in Bach's time, and these are rather hard to understand.

I simply don't get this. One can have different opinions on matters of interpretation, and some music lovers don't care about the vibrato of singers in an opera production like this. There can be little difference of opinion about the sloppiness of this production, though. It is sad that an important project like this goes astray because some people in the production department didn't care enough to make sure that the music can be fully appreciated.

Johann Christian Bach, Zanaida
Sara Hershkowitz (Zanaida), Chantal Santon (Roselane), Vannina Santoni (Osira), Julie Fioretti (Silvera), soprano; Mirina De Liso (Tamasse), Majdouline Zeran (Aglatida), mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey Thompson (Gianguir), tenor; Pierrick Boisseau (Mustafa), baritone
Opera Fuoco Orchestra/David Stern
Recorded Feb 10 & 11, 2012 at the Theatre of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
ZigZag Territoires ZZT312

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Opera (2)


Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen (Ottavio Dantone)

Henry Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen was first performed in May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre. It was based on Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The original play was strongly adapted: it was abridged, scenes were arranged in a different order and some characters were omitted. On the other hand, the librettist added verses which Purcell was to set to music. The work is divided into five acts; the characters differ from one act to the other; no character appears in more than one act. This indicates that the story of the play is not directly linked to the music. Without the spoken text it is impossible to follow the story, unless one is familiar with Shakespeare's play.

The version which is mostly performed and recorded is the second of 1693, and that also goes for the present recording. In the first version there was no music in Act 1; in 1693 three pieces were performed during this act, a duet, the 'Scene of the Drunken Poet' and a 'first act tune', a jig. In Act 3 a solo was included, the song 'Ye gentle spirits of the air', and in Act 5 'The Plaint' which has become one of Purcell's most famous vocal compositions.

This performance - originally released by the Italian label Arts - was recorded live at the Teatro Rossini in Ravenna. The audience is surprisingly quiet. That should be considered a virtue - it is quite annoying when every aria is greeted with loud applause in a live opera recording. However, here it is different: this semi-opera is entertainment, and one may expect the audience to show its appreciation. The fact that nothing of this kind happens - apart from the applause at the end - is probably due to the audience being Italian and following the text only through super-titles in the theatre where this performance took place. It is also likely that they were not quite familiar with the original play.

However, there could be another explanation. This performance may have taken place in a theatre - the booklet doesn't tell us whether it was scenic or not - but it isn't very theatrical. I never had the feeling of being actually there. It is a sequence of pieces sung and played, but that is it. Too little has been made of some of those moments which were definitely written to make audiences laugh, such as the scene of the drunken poet in Act 1 (Bundy) and the dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa in Act 3 (Bundy and Towers). In my collection I have the recording under the direction of William Christie (Harmonia mundi), and there the performers make much more of these episodes. Under Dantone's direction they are rather stiff and unimaginative. The more serious parts come off much better, such as the end of Act 2, with the entrance of the Night, and also the solos of the four seasons in Act 4.

The solo parts are different in quality. Andrew Carwood makes a bit of a slow start: 'Come, all ye songsters' is hesitant and his voice is too weak, but 'One charming night' and 'Thus the gloomy world' are much better. Rebecca Outram is fine, and I enjoyed her singing more than that of Gillian Keith. Carolyn Sampson is largely disappointing. 'The Plaint' is really spoilt by her wide and incessant vibrato. 'See, even Night herself is here' (Act 2) is a little better, but that is about the only one of her contributions which I could appreciate. Michael Bundy may be disappointing in the two scenes mentioned before, but there is nothing wrong with his singing from a technical and stylistic point of view.

On balance I am not very impressed, despite the good things which this disc has to offer. I most admired the orchestral playing. Dantone and his players are Italians, but they don't make the mistake to force this music into an Italian straigtjacket. Strong contrasts as one may expect in music by Italian composers would be completely inappropriate in Purcell's music. However, if you look for a recording of The Fairy Queen, this seems not to be first choice.


Details
Henry Purcell (1659-1695): The Fairy Queen
Gillian Keith, Rebecca Outram, Carolyn Sampson (soprano), William Towers (alto), Andrew Carwood, Robert Murray (tenor), Michael Bundy (bass), New English Voices, Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Recorded 10 July 2001 (live) at the Teatro Rossini, Lugo di Romagna, Ravenna
Brilliant Classics 94221 (© 2012) (2 CDs: 65'19" - 67'07")

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Bach Cantatas from St Gallen


The Bach lover of the 21st century is spoilt for choice as far as the number of recordings of his cantatas is concerned. No less than five complete recordings - if we confine ourselves to performances with period instruments - are available: Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Leusink, Koopman, Suzuki and Gardiner. The latter two only recently finished their respective projects. To those one can add a large number of recordings of individual cantatas. Two conductors need special mention: Philippe Herreweghe and Sigiswald Kuijken. Their purpose is not the recording the whole cantata output, but a considerable number of cantatas are available on disc under their direction. We should not forget to mention the many recordings of solo cantatas by individual singers.

Even so, there is not that much chance to hear Bach's cantatas in public concerts. If such concerts take place it is mostly as part of a Bach festival, but in regular concert series taking place during the course of a year one won't see cantatas by Bach programmed that often. That was the main incentive for a project which takes place in Switzerland under the responsibility of the Bach Stiftung St. Gallen. I had read about this undertaking, but not heard any recording. Recently I received five CDs and three DVDs with recordings from this project. Rather than writing a review of these discs - many more are available right now - I decided to give my impressions on the basis of these recordings.

Let me start with quoting from the booklets of these discs what this project is all about. "Despite the wealth of Bach recordings available, the concert experience remains vital to musical appreciation. In the interest of sustaining this tradition, musician Rudolf Lutz and private banker Konrad Hummler resolved in 1999 to re-interpret Bach's complete vocal works - first and foremost his over 200 cantatas - in a new concert cycle. The project, which will span approximately 25 years, is privately funded by the J.S Bach Foundation of St. Gallen".

From these words we may gather that its main purpose is not so much adding another complete cycle to what is already available. It is the live performance of a cantata which is the core of the project. Every month one cantata is performed. This explains that the project will take much time until its completion.

The concerts take place in the Evangelische Kirche in Trogen, a village near St Gallen. Every concert begins with an introduction of the cantata. Rudolf Lutz, the musical director, explains the peculiarities of the music from the keyboard, and the theologian Karl Graf explains the theological and biblical aspects. Then the cantata is performed twice; the two performances are separated by a lecture, called "Reflections". The speakers are people with various backgrounds, artists, scientists, economists or politicians. One could compare these lectures with the sermons in St Thomas' in Bach's time. There is quite a strong difference between them, though. The speakers - at least those I have heard - take distance from the spiritual world in which Bach's cantatas were written. It seems unlikely that these lectures are helpful in bringing the world of Bach's cantatas closer to a modern audience.

When I received the CDs and DVDs I was surprised to see that each DVD includes only one cantata, even if it is very short, like Cantata 54 which lasts less than 13 minutes. However, this is not all: the DVDs also include the introduction and the lecture. Only one of the performances is included. The introduction is very interesting, but unfortunately the DVDs omit any subtitles. As a result they won't appeal to those who don't understand German. I can't imagine Bach lovers purchasing a DVD with 12 minutes of music just to see how the singers and players perform it. They will be more interested in the CDs which contain three cantatas each.

I have the impression that they are more or less put together at random. I can't see any direct connection between the cantatas on a single disc, neither in regard to subject nor scoring nor the time of composing. It also seems that Lutz has avoided to take a position in regard to the subject of the number of singers which should be involved. "The ensemble varies according to the work in question: some cantatas require a choir of up to 20 voices while others are complemented only by soloists (...)". The choice seems to be based on Rudolf Lutz's personal views regarding a specific cantata rather than on historical sources. I can't imagine any source indicating the need of 20 voices.

There is a tendency of late to perform and record Bach's cantatas with a large organ instead of a small chamber organ. That is, for instance, the case in the project of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam and Musica Amphion. That practice has not been applied here, which can be explained from the fact that every performance takes place in the same church. Its organ is a late 19th-century instrument and obviously not suitable for performances of baroque music.

These issues justify my conclusion that this project doesn't and will not provide any new insights in regard to performance practice. That is not meant as criticism; it is just not the purpose of this project. However, it could be an important factor for those who may consider purchasing the discs which document the performances in this project. It seems that these are especially worthwhile for those who have attended the concerts. That goes even more for the DVDs.

However, for many that will not be decisive. They would like to have more than just one interpretation, and I can imagine that more than average Bach lovers who have more than one complete recording in their collection - maybe even all of them - will seriously consider collecting these discs as well. In their interest I will give my impressions of the performances on the basis of the discs and DVDs which I have heard.

Let me first say that I was almost never completely disappointed about any cantata. One of the strengths is the choir which is very good. The singing is lively and the performances show a good understanding of the idiom. The voices blend well, but sometimes I noted a lack of transparency, especially in those choruses in which the polyphony is rather dense. That could well be partly due to the acoustic, which isn't bad but probably less than ideal. Moreover, a choir of 20 singers is too large.

The orchestra is also good; the instrumental solo parts are always played very well. However, in some cases the performances don't quite bring what one would expect. The aria 'Die schäumenden Wellen' from Cantata 81, for instance, is too feeble. It also happens now and then that specific features which are mentioned in the introduction are hardly noticeable in the actual performance.

As only one cantata is performed every month it is almost inevitable that the soloists differ from one performance to the other. Whether the involvement of soloists is just a matter of coincidence or the result of deliberate decisions is something I can't tell. Some of the soloists belong to the elite of early music singers, like María-Cristina Kiehr, Makoto Sakurada - who also participated in the recordings by the Bach Collegium Japan - and Wolf Matthias Friedrich. Others were unknown to me. Again, I am generally pleased about the way the solo parts are performed. There are some weak spots, and I don't appreciate every single voice that much, but that is also a matter of taste. Some arias come off better than others, but the far majority is at least alright.

It is no surprise that the best-known singers deliver the best performances. María-Cristina Kiehr participates in the performance of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180). She gives a fine account of the recitative and ensuing chorale; the aria 'Lebenssonne, Licht der Sinnen' is one of the best I have heard. The German soprano Ulrike Hofbauer is equally impressive: she sings the demanding aria 'Gelobet sei der Herr' (BWV 129) admirably and sings beautifully in the duet from Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (BWV 42). Her partner is the tenor Bernhard Berchtold, a singer who was new to me, but who made a generally good impression, for instance in 'Jesu, laß durch Wohl und Weh' (BWV 182). I have already mentioned Makoto Sakurada; he gives a fine performance of 'Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten' from Cantata BWV 1, but considering his experience in Bach I was a bit surprised that his pronunciation was less than perfect.

Another seasoned performer is the bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich who is a specialist in German vocal music. His contributions confirm his skills, for instance in 'Wer bist du' (BWV 132). He effectively explores the sharp edges of the aria 'Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer' in Cantata BWV 81. Another new name was Markus Volpert, a singer who deserves to keep an eye on. He makes a very good impression in these recordings. A good example is the recitative and ensuing aria 'Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen' (BWV 42).

The altos are a rather mixed package. The male alto Markus Forster sings his aria in Cantata BWV 22 well, but I am disappointed by his performance of Cantata BWV 54 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) which is short on expression. That is also due to the instrumental contribution; the liner-notes refer to "penetrating bow strokes" but I didn't really notice them. Forster's colleague Jan Börner - also someone I didn't know before - has a nice voice as he proves in Cantata BWV 63. The contralto Roswitha Müller gives a good interpretation of her aria in Cantata BWV 81. I don't understand, though, why she sings with much vibrato, whereas she doesn't use any at all at long notes on the words "schläft" and "hoffen". If she can avoid it, why doesn't she do so? Her colleague Claude Eichenberger (whose name is several times given as "Eichberger") has a voice I don't find particularly attractive. There is nothing wrong with her singing in Cantata BWV 35 (Geist und Seele wird verwirret), but there is also nothing in her interpretation which really struck me. I am more impressed with Margot Oitzinger who gives a very good speech-like interpretation of the aria in Cantata BWV 34; both her diction and the amount of expression are excellent. The duet 'Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten' (BWV 78) is one of the highlights of these discs; here Oitzinger is joined by Julia Neumann. Their voices blend perfectly; the tempo is well-chosen and the rhythmic pulse comes off very well. Lastly I would like to mention another singer I didn't know, the soprano Eva Oltiványi. I am not impressed by her singing in Cantata BWV 132, but in Cantata BWV 1 she delivers a very beautiful rendition of the aria 'Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen, göttlichen Flammen', in excellent partnership with the oboe da caccia. The difference could well be explained by the difference in time: the former cantata was recorded in 2006, the latter 1 in 2010.

A couple of observations to conclude. The recitatives don't always come off that well. It is a problem I often notice in recordings of baroque vocal music: they are not speech-like enough and the singers don't take enough rhythmical freedom. In some chorales the organ plays short interludes between the phrases, probably suggesting the participation of the congregation. There seems to be no evidence, though, that this was indeed practised in Leipzig. In Cantata BWV 54 Rudolf Lutz felt that a chorale was missing, so he delivered a chorale setting of his own making. I can't see any reason for that, and the change in style between the cantata and his chorale damages the overall result.

One can only greatly appreciate the efforts of the performers and the people who make this project financially possible. There are much worse ways to spend your money. The artistic standards are highly respectible: on every disc which came my way I have heard at least a couple of things which I greatly enjoyed. Bach lovers are well advised to investigate this project. For more information take a look at the site of the J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen.