Saturday, November 17, 2018

Francesco Feo: San Francesco di Sales

Next year (2019), the Early Music Festival Utrecht will be dedicated to Naples. That is a good choice, because for several centuries this city was one of the musical metropoles of Italy and even of Europe. Naples was famous not only because of the music. There was also a lot to see. Hence the famous statement by the German poet Goethe: "First see Naples, then die".

Nowadays only a small part of the music, which was composed in Naples, is known, despite the efforts of Antonio Florio in particular. For many music lovers, Naples is mainly the city of Pergolesi, whose Stabat mater is performed across the globe every year and is available in many recordings. Some may also know the names of Leonardo Leo, Francesco Mancini and Antonio Porpora, but that's about it. The name of Francesco Feo (1691-1761) will probably be known to only a few. He should be better known: the English music journalist Charles Burney regarded him as one of the greatest Neapolitan masters of his time. He was born in Naples and studied at one of the many conservatories there. He soon began composing operas, like most of his colleagues. His large oeuvre includes a considerable number of operas, but he contributed to almost every genre of his time. Only instrumental music is absent in his output. Like most opera composers, Feo also wrote oratorios. Stylistically there is little difference between the two genres anyway. That is also the case with the oratorio that Fabio Biondi recorded for Glossa, San Francesco di Sales.

In many oratorios from the 17th and 18th centuries, the protagonist has to choose between the path of virtue and the temptations of a worldly life. That is not the case here. One of the allegorical figures from this oratorio is called Eresia, Heresy. From this it is immediately clear that this is not a work with a moral dilemma, but a theological conflict. That has everything to do with the person in the title of the work. While many saints in the Roman Catholic Church are probably no historical figures, Francis of Sales was. His name derives from the castle at Thorens in France where he was born in 1567; he died in 1622 in Lyon. For a number of years he was bishop of Geneva and Annecy, and this oratorio refers to this. Since the Reformation Geneva was in the hands of the Calvinists and therefore the bishop resided in Annecy. Francis's ambition was to bring the area back into the lap of the church of Rome. He had some success with this: in the Chablais region a part of the Calvinist population returned to the Roman Catholic Church. In this oratorio Heresy symbolises Calvinism. In 1665 Franciscus was canonized.

This oratorio is not really dramatic; there is hardly any action. In fact, it is mainly a dispute between two parties: on the one hand Heresy, assisted by Deceit (Inganno), on the other side Francis, assisted by an angel (Angelo). The work comprises a series of recitatives and arias, and in that respect is not different from an opera. It consists of two parts, both ending with a short chorus. In the first part the conflict between the two parties is described, in the second part we see Francis and the angel win the battle. The four roles are divided among the four voice types: the angel is a soprano, Francis an alto, Heresy a tenor and Deceit a bass. In this recording the role of Heresy is sung by a soprano. The booklet does not explain this, in my opinion, unfortunate decision.

That is not the only shortcoming of this recording. The main disappointment is that this is not played on period instruments. The Stuttgarter Kammerorchester is a modern ensemble that covers a wide repertoire. More and more ensembles of this kind are being trained by specialists in historical performance practice and that is in itself a positive development. Fabio Biondi is an experienced baroque specialist and the orchestra's way of playing is clearly based on historical performance practice. Unfortunately, the playing of in particular the strings is sometimes not very subtle. That is not always necessary, but here I think it is sometimes a bit too rough and unpolished. I need to add that the acoustic doesn't exactly favour the orchestra, or the performance as a whole, for that matter. The sound is blown up and there is too much reverberation. Moreover, I have always regarded Biondi more or less as a compromise figure; his violin playing is rather different from that of most of his colleagues. Under a different director the instrumental part might have been better.

Another recording of this work, on period instruments, is not to be expected. That is a shame, because this oratorio is a really nice piece, and there is every reason to be happy with its rediscovery. Moreover, the performance of the singers on the whole is excellent. Many recordings of baroque oratorios and operas are ruined by a wide vibrato of singers, who are hardly able to make their texts being understood and who go overboard in their addition of ornamentation and cadenzas. That is not the case here. Although Roberta Mameli and Luca Tittoto are not without some vibrato, it generally does not go beyond what is acceptable. Monica Piccinini's singing is superb and Delphine Galou is totally convincing, stylistically and in the interpretation of the title role.

In short, this is a nice addition to the discography of Neapolitan music of the 18th century, but the performance has some loose ends.

N.B. As on my site I publish only reviews of recordings on period instruments, I decided to review this disc here.

Francesco Feo: San Francesco di Sales, oratorio in two parts
Monica Piccinini (Angelo), Roberta Mameli (Eresia), soprano; Delphine Galou (San Francesco), contralto; Luca Tittoto (Inganno), bass
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Fabio Biondi
Recorded April 2017 at the Stiftskirche, Stuttgart, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
Cover, track-list and booklet
Glossa - GCD 923409 [2.17'52"]

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Georg Philipp Telemann: Reformations-Oratorium

The title of this disc seems to be a commercial ploy. It brings together two commemorations. Georg Philipp Telemann, the most prolific composer of the 18th century, died in 1767, 250 years ago. And 2017 is also the commemoration of the 500 years of Reformation. However, the title given to the oratorio is not from Telemann's pen. In fact, this work was not even written for a commemoration of the Reformation in Telemann's time or for the yearly Reformation Day. In the Telemann catalogue it is ranked among the compositions for political ceremonies.

Holder Friede, Heil'ger Glaube (Lovely peace, holy faith) dates from 1755 and was written for the bicentennial of the Peace of Augsburg. This was a treaty between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Schmalkaldic League, signed on 25 September 1555 at the imperial city of Augsburg. It officially ended the religious struggle between the two groups and made the legal division of Christendom permanent within the Holy Roman Empire, allowing rulers to choose either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism ("cuius regio, eius religio") as the official confession of their state (Wikipedia). The libretto was written by Johann Joachim David Zimmermann (1710-1767), a theologian and poet from Hamburg, who received part of his education from Erdmann Neumeister, known for his cantata texts which were used by, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The oratorio was first performed on Sunday, 5 October 1755, in St Peter's in Hamburg. Two days later is was performed again in the auditorium of the grammar school. For that occasion it was divided into two parts. On the next two Sundays the work was performed in two of the city's main churches. The solo parts are connected to four different characters: Peace (Der Friede), Devotion (Die Andacht), Religion (Die Religion) and History (Die Geschichte). However, eight male singers are known by name as having participated in the performances. "Given that the singers all received the same fees, it is safe to assume that the four allegorical figures mentioned above were not 'personified' by one singer each, but were taken alternately by solo vocalists of the same range (...)", Reinhard Goebel states in the liner-notes. In the choruses choirboys participated, in order to give them more weight. The orchestra comprised 19 players, some of whom played several instruments. The Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie is only a little larger, but here every player only plays one instrument.

The oratorio has no overture. It opens with a duet which is followed by a sequence of arias, recitatives, choruses and a few chorales. The opening duet for Peace (soprano) and Religion (bass) is a piece in a galant idiom: "Lovely peace, holy faith, to kiss you and to know that we are finally united - how good/glorious that makes me feel." It has the form of an extended dacapo aria: ABACA. This duet sets the tone as this piece is a celebration of the marriage of peace and religion. Religion claims its rights, but Peace says: "Since I am still with you, your guardian (God) does not demand a serious fight or the trembling fulfilment of his wishes." Devotion (tenor) praises its intervention: "I feel that I have been woken up when I hear you speak, O blessed servant of the Lord!"

The second part opens with a chorus, whose text is taken from the prophet Isaiah (ch 66, vs 10): "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be happy, all of you, you who hold her dear, all who have been sad about her." History (bass) reminds the faithful of the tribulations which preceded the peace: "Before that day of rejoicing whose two-hundredth anniversary we are marking today, O Lutherans, your world was full of fear and lamentation, your field was covered with men." Religion states that its only weapon is "the sword of the spirit". The reference to the past inspires to the chorale "Zion echoes with fear and anguish". Devotion then sings a moving aria about "Zion's suffering". The last recitatives and arias then tell how Peace brought that to an end. Devotion sings God's praise: "O Zion's God, how wonderfully you have shown that your arm remains victorious after all." The oratorio ends with a chorus which quotes the chorale 'Herr Gott, dich loben wir'.

The category of compositions for political ceremonies in Telemann's oeuvre comprises 25 pieces. Unfortunately most of them have been lost; only nine are extant, among them the present oratorio. One is probably inclined to be sceptical about the quality of such occasional music. Sometimes that scepticism is justified, but in the hands of great composers even texts which may not be that brilliant can come to life. However, I feel that this piece cannot be ranked among Telemann's most inspired pieces. The opening duet is a nice specimen of the galant idiom and there is some effective text expression in the aria 'Ihr werdet gedrungen' (Religion). The most beautiful aria is the one by Devotion in the second part, 'Noch erwecket dies Erwähnen', which I have already mentioned. Another good piece is History's aria 'Vergess'ne Gefahr', with its participation of trumpets. But I also heard arias which I didn't find that interesting. Some recitatives are quite long, and those don't constitute the most interesting part of this oratorio. However, that is also due to the performance. The singers don't take enough rhythmic freedom here, although that is almost certainly the effect of Reinhard Goebel's decisions. As a result they become a bit tiresome. In a more declamatory and speech-like performance they would have been much more interesting. There are also very few impulses from the basso continuo section. I really don't understand why the bassoon almost continually participates in the basso continuo. It is also notable that the bass line is almost always held at its full lenght, in contrast to the common habit of shortening them, which results in a more differentiated and accentuated performance.

Most of the soloists are alright, but I don't find their singing very appealing. The exception is Daniel Johannsen, who gives a wonderful performance of Devotion's aria which I mentioned above. The chorales lack clear dynamic accents and a differentiation between good and bad notes. The choir seems to me a bit too large, also considering the circumstances of the performances in Telemann's time. The orchestra plays modern instruments, but in period style. They do so quite well, but period instruments are superior and more suitable to the idiom of the time.

The recording of this oratorio deserves to be welcomed. It represents a part of Telemann's oeuvre which is hardly known. Although I tend to think that this is not one of Telemann's finest works, I would like to hear it in a fully satisfying performance. Maybe that could make me change my mind about this work.

N.B. As on my site I publish only reviews of recordings on period instruments, I decided to review this disc here.

Holder Friede, Heil'ger Glaube (TWV 13,18)
Regula Mühlemann (Der Friede/Peace), soprano; Daniel Johannsen (Die Andacht/Devotion), tenor; Benjamin Appl (Die Religion/Religion), baritone; Stephan MacLeod (Die Geschichte/History), bass
Choir of Bavarian Radio; Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie/Reinhard Goebel
Recorded 1 - 4 August 2016 at Studio I of Bavarian Radio, Munich, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
Sony - 88985373872 [60:54]

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Music of the Reformation

October 31 is Reformation Day - a tradition to commemorate the Reformation which was initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. In recent years a large number of discs have been released at the occasion of the Reformation Year 2017 - the 500th anniversary of this event which changed European history and has had a lasting influence on the development of music. One of the main features was the birth of the 'chorale', as it is generally known. Luther wanted the congregation to sing, and the best way to achieve that was the writing of sacred songs in rhymed metrical verse, either based on texts from the Bible or on free poetry. He himself set an example; some of his hymns have become world-famous. Others followed in his footsteps, and hymns in this tradition are written and set to music up until our time. In addition, many hymns from ancient times - thr 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - have found their way into hymnals across the world, mostly in translations. They have often gone through a process of transition, melodically and rhythmically. As a result they are sometimes hardly recognizable as dating from long ago.

On my site I have reviewed quite a number of discs which were released as part of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation. These mostly included music by composers from the renaissance and baroque periods, such as Michael Praetorius, Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. I have mostly neglected discs with hymns which include settings or arrangements from the 20th and 21st centuries. They don't fit into a site with reviews of early music recordings. However, some are interesting enough to bring them to the attention of music lovers, who are interested in this kind of repertoire. Therefore I decided to review a number of sich discs here.

The probably most remarkable disc is entitled "Praise the Lord - Luther's hymns on their way into the world" [1]. It documents the influence of Luther's chorales in a programme with hymns from Germany, England and the United States. It hardly matters that the commemoration of the Reformation was not the reason for this production. The recordings took place in 2012 and 2013 in connection to the commemoration of the birth of August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), the founder of the orphanage in Halle which was also a centre of music. The orphanage served as an international networking hub for songs and songbooks. Hymns were not only sung in church - in fact, in Germany it took a while before the hymns were sung by the congregation: the first hymnals were printed for school choirs. Hymns were also an important part of domestic music making, among family and friends. Especially among Pietists the singing of hymns was very popular. The Pietists in Halle were also responsible for the translation of hymns to English and their dissemination in England and later to the New World. The House of Hanover, which occupied the English throne in the early 18th century, was an important channel for the dissemination of German hymns as their court preachers were from Germany and took their hymns with them. The programme of this disc goes from Johann Walter (1496-1570) to American spirituals. It would have been better, if the pieces in English had been sung by singers whose native language is English, even though the German singers are doing a respectable job. This is a very interesting and compelling disc which approaches the hymn repertoire from a quite original angle.

The next three discs confine themselves to German music from the 16th century to our time. The Sächsische Kammerchor, directed by Fabian Enders, sing a programme with hymns in the order of the ecclesiastical year [2]. They start with Advent and Christmas, then focus on the Lord's Prayer, sing some hymns for Passiontide and Easter and for Pentecost. They close with some hymns which are specifically associated with Lutheranism: 'Verleih uns Frieden/Gib unsern Fürsten', the funeral hymn 'Mitten wir im Leben sind' and two of Luther's own hymns: 'Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort' and 'Ein feste Burg'. Among the composers we find some old masters - Schein, Hammerschmidt, Scheidt, Schütz, Bach - and some composers of the 20th century, such as Herbert Collum, Günther Raphael and Georg Christoph Biller. Unfortunately the performers take quite some liberties in the performance of the older pieces, especially those by Bach. His chorale settings are mostly taken from cantatas, but then sung a cappella. These are mostly sung in a rather slow tempo, sometimes almost caricatural. In some pieces there are exaggerated dynamic contrasts, which sound very unnatural. As far as I can tell, the modern pieces come off best.

Peter Kopp, the conductor of the Vocal Concert Dresden, made a personal choice of hymns [3]. That was not easy, as he admits: he could have easily filled three discs with 'favourite hymns'. Here we find perfect examples of how some hymns changed considerably over the centuries, sometimes in their melody, but more often rhythmically. Whereas most of the hymns were originally intended for congregational singing, the programme also includes hymns which were written for vocal ensembles or to be sung at home, such as Gott des Himmels und der Erden. Another example is Der Mond ist aufgegangen: the text is by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) and also was probably not intended as a church hymn. It was set by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747-1800) as a song to be sung with keyboard accompaniment. It was only in the early 20th century that it was included in hymnals. It developed into a much-loved piece and has acquired the status of a folk song. The settings span some four centuries, and the performances also bear witness to the various periods in which these hymns were sung. In some cases a stanza is sung with a full-blooded organ accompaniment, as if a whole congregation is singing. That is the case with Großer Gott, wir loben dich, whereas Nun danket alle Gott (Now all we thank our God) is given in the style of the 19th century. The German chorales are part of a living tradition. That comes to the fore here through the differentiated choice of settings and various styles. Those who love such chorales should not hesitate: this is highly enjoyable recording, with first-class singing by the Dresden Vocal Concert. For those who are not familiar with this kind of repertoire it offers an excellent opportunity to broaden their horizon.

Carus has released a twofer, which includes various recordings from its archive [4]. On the second disc we find several pieces by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. They could hardly be omitted, as he was one of the relatively few composers of the 19th century, who paid much attention to the Lutheran chorale. These pieces are performed by the Kammerchor Stuttgart, directed by Frieder Bernius. Together these five pieces take 40 minutes. That is disappointing for those who have these recordings already in their collection. They are part of a complete recording of Mendelssohn's sacred choral music by Bernius. With the exception of two choral pieces all the other compositions on the second disc are chorale arrangements for organ, among them several which are very well known (Buxtehude, Bach) and are available in many recordings. They are played by Matthias Ank and are introduced by the original chorale, sung unaccompanied by Sophie Harmsen, unfortunately with a lot of vibrato. The first disc is much more interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned. It juxtaposes old settings by - among others - Scheidt, Schein, Walter, Eccard and Vulpius with modern versions from the pen of such composers as Sebastian N. Myrus (*1977), Christoph J. Drescher (*1982) and Volker Jaekel (*1965). It is quite interesting to hear how the various composers treat the material. Whether one likes the modern stuff is a matter of taste. It is not my cup of tea, but others may enjoy it. The performances by the Athesinus Consort, directed by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, are overall pretty good. This disc is definitely the most interesting of this set.

[1] "Praise the Lord: Luther's Hymns on their way through the world" Melanie Hirsch (soprano), Thomas Riede (alto), Henning Kaiser (tenor), Matthias Vieweg (bass), Stadtsingechor zu Halle, Lautten Compagney Berlin/Wolfgang Katschner Carus 83.339 details

[2] "Ein neues Lied wir heben an - Choral works on hymns by Martin Luther" Sächsischer Kammerchor/Fabian Enders Querstand VKJK 1605 details

[3] "Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott - The most beautiful German hymns" Vocal Concert Dresden/Peter Kopp Berlin Classics 0300553BC details; there you'll also find a more comprehensive review.

[4] "Luther's Hymns" Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Matthias Ank (organ), Athesinus Consort Berlin/Klaus-Martin Bresgott; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Frieder Bernius Carus 83.469 (2 CDs) details

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Opera (4)

Francesco Cavalli: L'Ormindo (Jérôme Correas)

The history of opera begins in 1600, with performances of two operas on the same subject: Euridice, by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini respectively. These operas and those which were composed in the first 35 years of the 17th century were performed at various courts, in Florence, Mantua and Rome. The first public theatre, San Cassiano, opened in Venice in 1637 with a performance of Andromeda by Benedetto Ferrari. Soon opera became big business. Here Monteverdi performed Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643). In Venice Francesco Cavalli performed nearly 30 operas; the first was Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo which premiered in January 1639 in the San Cassiano theatre.

Two of his next operas have become quite well-known: Didone (1641) and Egisto (1643). In 1644 L'Ormindo was performed; it was one of the Cavalli operas which was revived in the 1960s under the direction of Raymond Leppard, albeit in an modern arrangement. The recording under the direction of Jérôme Correas seems to be the first; I haven't found any other performance in the various databases which are available on the internet.

The plot is set in Fez, in the ancient kingdom of Mauretania in northern Africa. However, as Barbara Nestola points out in her liner-notes, "[this] far-off and exotic setting displays a number of points in common with the Serenissima [Venice] (...). An obvious analogy can be found in the Che città aria (Act 2, Scene 6), in which Nerillo the page describes, in trepidation and wonderment, the whirl of persons and situations that his passing inexplicably arouses. Venice is not only sung of and celebrated in opera; it is also described with great realism." The opera opens with a prologue in which Harmony (L'Armonia) expresses her admiration for the city and especially its theatres. "Now, by your leave O glorious city, thou that hast walls of crystal in which to behold thy beauty, which all the universe does admire, I come to throng once more thy theatres with the glorious reign of grace and love".

The libretto was written by Giovanni Faustini and is divided into three acts. "The foreign princes, Amida and Ormindo, who are assisting in the defense of Mauretania, are both in love with Erisbe who is unhappily married to Hariadeno, Mauretania's elderly king. The princes agree to remain friends while they test her love. During the course of the opera, there is much plotting by Amore, Princess Sicle (Amida's abandoned lover) and Erice (Sicle's nurse) to interfere with the contest. Erice stages a séance to communicate with the 'dead' Sicle who reproaches Amida for his inconstancy which had driven her to suicide. Amida, overcome with remorse, realizes that he still loves Princess Sicle and is overjoyed when it is revealed that she is actually alive and not a ghost. Meanwhile, Erisbe and Ormindo decide to elope to Tunis, where Ormindo must defend his homeland from attack. When King Hariadeno discovers their adultery, he orders his captain, Osmano, to have them poisoned. However, Osmano substitutes a sleeping potion for the poison at the urging of Mirinda (Erisbe's confidante) who has promised to marry him if he spares the lovers. All ends more or less happily when the King learns that Ormindo is actually his son from a youthful liaison. He forgives everyone and cedes his kingdom to Ormindo." (Wikipedia).

Cavalli has set the libretto in form of recitatives, ariosos and arias. These are mostly not clearly split but rather follow each other without interruption. Sometimes there is a longer episode which is set as a unity, especially the prison scene in the third act. The role of the instruments is limited: they now and then play a sinfonia, and sometimes support a singer in an aria. The instruments are not specified, but it is assumed that the two treble parts were intended for violins. There is also no indication in regard to the number of instruments involved. Some conductors, such as René Jacobs, like to use a battery of wind and strings and a large basso continuo section in Cavalli operas. Correas has confined himself to the minimum: two violins, two viole da gamba, violone, harp, theorbo or guitar and harpsichord or organ. This recording shows that this is enough to achieve a satisfying result. This way the vocal parts and the text are in the centre as they should.

Correas has permitted himself the luxury of allocating every role to a different singer. Sandrine Piau, for instance, only sings the role of Harmony in the Prologue, which lasts a little over six minutes. Martín Oro gives a differentiated account of the title role which is not as dominant as one may expect; several other roles are just as important. Stylistically his singing lacks consistency: at some moments he is fine, but there are also episodes where his singing is marred by vibrato, albeit not very wide. The role of Hariadeno is sung by Jacques Bona. I don't particularly like his voice, but his character comes off well, especially in the scene where he learns that Ormindo whom he has just sentenced to death through poisoning is his son. I have always considered Howard Crook a specialist in French baroque music; I have heard some very fine performances by him in that kind of repertoire. I find him far less convincing in Italian music - or German music, for that matter - and that is confirmed here. He is a little bland in his account of the role of Amida. When he sings forte his voice starts to flutter. The comical role of Nerillo is sung by Dominique Visse - who else? He seems to like this kind of roles, and that shows. His command of coloratura and the sophisticated ornamentation of the seconda prattica is admirable, and so is his ability to colour his voice according to the text and its affetti. The most impressive contributions come from the sopranos. Karine Deshayes sings the relatively small role of Mirinda nicely, but especially Stéphanie Révidat as Erisbe and Magali Léger as Sicle are very impressive. The latter role is the most versatile, and that is perfectly conveyed by Ms Léger. Both ladies have very beautiful voices and show a full command of the technical and stylistic means a performance of this repertoire requires.

As this seems to be the first recording of L'Ormindo there is no competition. But even if there was, this recording would probably end up on top, despite some weaknesses in the vocal department as I have indicated above. However, it has a serious shortcoming: it is not complete. Several scenes have been cut entirely, and I suspect that the scenes which have been recorded are not always complete. Even parts of the text which is printed in the booklet are omitted; that should have been marked, for instance through brackets, but it is not. As a result it is not always easy to follow the proceedings; while listening and reading I lost track several times. The libretto should also have been edited more carefully as it includes several errors. Cuts are common practice in live performances. That is pretty annoying, but I really can't see any reason why a studio recording should be incomplete. In my view this is a major shortcoming, especially as there is no alternative recording available.

Let us hope that some day a complete recording of L'Ormindo will be released. In the meantime this production gives at least a good idea of the character and qualities of this Cavalli opera.

Francesco Cavalli, L'Ormindo Karine Deshayes (Mirinda), Mahali Léger (Sicle), Sandrine Piau (L'Armonia), Stéphanie Révidat (Erisbe), soprano; Martín Oro (Ormindo), Dominique Visse (Nerillo), alto; Howard Crook (Amida), Jean-François Lombard (Erice), tenor; Benoît Arnould (Osmano), Jacques Bona (Hariadeno), baritone
Les Paladins/Jérôme Correas
Recorded June 2006 at Temple St Marcel, Paris
Pan Classics PC 10330 (2 CDs; 2.11'10"; © 2015)

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")