Friday, July 1, 2022

Stradella: Three operas

After having recorded Alessandro Stradella's oratorios, Andrea De Carlo turned to his operas. Although they are not completely forgotten, only a few are available on CD to date. Stradella as a person is still shrouded in mystery. Although we know that he was murdered in 1682 due to a love affair, we have fragmentary information about the various phases of his life and career. 1639 was always mentioned as the year of his birth, but it is now known that he was born in 1643. The study of his operatic activities has long focused on the later phase of his career, when he was in Genoa (1678-1682). However, he started composing operas much earlier, when he was still in Rome. A letter from a Milanese aristocrat states that as early as 1672 Stradella was known as one of the few composers able to set a libretto to music within two weeks. This earned him a good amount of money. In 1677 he had to flee Rome. It is certain that by this time he had already composed three operas. Amare e fingere [1] is probably one of them. It is not certain that he is the composer, because it has been handed down in a copy that does not mention the composer's name. However, there are very strong indications of Stradella's authorship. The work consists of three acts. There are six roles; however, four of them present themselves with a different name. This is something that often happens in baroque operas, and is one of the reasons why the plot is often so difficult to follow. This is also the case here. However, in this particular case it also reflects the tenor of the work, as the title suggests - in English: "Love and pretend". Appearance and reality are mixed up and whoever appears to be a servant at first is actually a ruler. At the end, the servant Erinda sums it up as she looks at a chessboard and says: "Some will be king, some will be queen, but poor Erinda will always be just a pawn." She is the comic figure in this work; in the 17th century such characters were still part of opera. In the 18th century, when the opera seria arose, they were relegated to the intermezzi. The instrumental scoring is small: only two violins and basso continuo. The work is closely related to early baroque opera: there are long recitatives - which incidentally have little in common with the recitatives of later opere serie - and now and then short arias and duets that do not yet have a da capo; only sometimes at the end of an aria the opening line is taken up again. In most arias the singers are accompanied by the violins (aria con strumenti); in some, however, they only play the ritornellos (aria con ritornello). Act III includes an aria con strumenti e la chitarra, but we don't hear a guitar and the list of players doesn't mention such an instrument either. An aria in the first act is based on a basso ostinato. It seems that the work comes without an opening sinfonia, as the performance begins with a recitative by Fileno/Artebano, one of the main protagonists of the work. Musically this opera is very entertaining and one can understand why Stradella had a good reputation as a composer. In quality his operas are not inferior to his oratorios. That's why this recording deserves an unequivocal welcome, especially as the interpretation is excellent. It is the recording of the live performance at the Tage alter Musik in Herne (Germany) and the rehearsals preceding it. Unfortunately, because of that some cuts were thought to be necessary. I didn't notice any background noise; either the listeners have behaved in an exemplary manner or the recording staff has done a great job. The performance was not staged; even so, the work's dramatic character comes off to full extent and there is a good interaction between the singers. Both dramatically and stylistically this recording is entirely convincing.

La Doriclea [2] is also one of the operas that Stradella composed in Rome. In this case his authorship is certain, as it is mentioned in an inventory from 1705, along with around 50 other volumes of music written by him. The author of the libretto may have been Flavio Orsini, a member of an aristocratic family with whom Stradella was friends. This makes it all the more remarkable that in this libretto the dividing line between social classes is crossed. There are two lovers: Lucinda (soprano) and Celindo (tenor), who belong to the upper class, and Doriclea (soprano) and Fidalbo (alto), who both belong to the middle class. There are also two lower-class comical characters, Delfina (alto) and Giraldo (bass). The two couples are plagued by jealousy, which causes much confusion, especially when Doriclea disguises herself as a man in Act II. In the end it is Delfina who prevents the worst - when Fidalbo decides to kill his lover Doriclea - and also manages to win over Giraldo, who always considered her too old and too ugly. That she, despite her low position, talked to Fidalbo was unheard of at the time. Andrea De Carlo points out in the libretto that Stradella, although composing his operas for an aristocratic audience, liked to poke fun at the habits of the aristocracy of his day. The stylistic features are largely the same as in the opera Amare e fingere just discussed. The arias are mostly short and have no da capo, and the accompaniment is limited to two violins and basso continuo. The social difference between the two pairs of lovers and the two 'low' characters is expressed in the fact that Delfina and Giraldo are only accompanied by basso continuo in their arias. Incidentally, the arias are particularly beautiful, as are the strikingly large number of duets. They are often based on a dance rhythm. This is nicely emphasized in the interpretation of the ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. In any case, Stradella's opera is in the best of hands with these interpreters. I have very much enjoyed this performance, because of Stradella's fine music, with quite some variation, and because of the excellent performances by the singers and instrumentalists. I would particularly like to mention Riccardo Novaro, whose account of the role of Giraldo is simply brilliant.

The third production takes us to Genoa, where Stradella worked the last years of his life and where he was murdered in 1682. Il Trespolo tutore [3] is a commedia per musica in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte. There are no characters from the upper class here; all the protagonists belong to the middle and lower classes. Again, love it is central subject, and once again this is something that causes utter confusion due to changes in appearance. Stradella characterized the libretto as "ridiculous but beautiful"; In his view, Genoa's music lovers "had a taste for ridiculous things". It is questionable whether this can still be understood today. Humor is also a very personal thing. Anyway, the whole thing did never make me even smile. Here, too, there are beautiful but short arias and duets. However, the largest part of this work consists of recitatives, and that might not be easy for today's audiences to digest, especially since comedy lacks drama and suspense. It's quite theatrical, but that doesn't really come off in a performance without staging and acting. I am not sure that a work like this will survive, unless it is presented in a staged performance; a DVD production would have been more appropriate. I got a bit bored after a while. However, that is not due to the performance; on the contrary. All the singers deliver excellent interpretations and the main characters are perfectly cast with Roberta Mameli and Riccardo Novari. The ensemble Mare Nostrum is outstanding. Andrea De Carlo has developed into a Stradella specialist, who has given us some excellent recordings of his oratorios and operas. I am looking forward to future productions of vocal music by Stradella.

Amare e fingere
Silvia Frigato (Erinda), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina/Clori), soprano; José Maria Lo Monaco (Oronta/Celia), mezzo-soprano; Chiara Brunello (Silvano), contralto; Luca Cervoni (Coraspe/Rosalbo), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Artabano/Fileno), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A493 (© 2021) details

La Doriclea
Emöke Baráth (Doriclea/Lindoro), soprano; Giuseppina Bridelli (Lucinda), mezzo-soprano; Gabriella Martellacci (Delfina), contralto; Xavier Sabata (Fidalbo), alto; Luca Cervoni (Celindo), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Giraldo), baritone; Il Pomo d'Oro/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A454 (© 2018) details

Il Trespolo tutore
Silvia Frigato (Ciro), Roberta Mameli (Artemisia), Paola Valentina Molinari (Despina), soprano; Rafal Tomkiewicz (Nino), alto; Luca Cervoni (Simona), tenor; Riccardo Novaro (Trespolo), baritone; Ensemble Mare Nostrum/Andrea De Carlo
Arcana A475 (© 2020) details

Friday, June 10, 2022

German opera (2)

One of the main contributors to operas in Hamburg was Georg Philipp Telemann. A substantial number of his operas are lost or have been preserved only fragmentarily. One of his extant operas is Miriways [1]. Most operas of the baroque period are based on material from ancient history or mythology, and in the latter the gods also have a say. Miriways, which premiered in Hamburg on 26 May 1728, and was performed again two years later, is an exception. The events - partly historical, partly fictitious - take place in Persia in 1722. In 1723 a biography of Mir Wais, an Afghan prince, was published and this edition inspired Johann Samuel Müller to write a libretto on this character. He took the liberty of crediting Mir Wais's son's conquest of the Persian throne to his father's account. In fact, Müller's libretto does not differ fundamentally from the usual ones at the time, because here, too, everything revolves around the conflict between love and power, a hidden identity, and loyalty and deceit. Telemann's setting of this libretto is then rather atypical, since the mixture of different languages, which was a feature of Hamburg operas, is missing here: both recitatives and arias are sung in German. This results in a stronger cohesion and a more natural transition from recitative to aria than in multilingual operas. The orchestra is colourful: the usual strings are joined by transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns. The latter are often used to give the work a certain degree of exoticism. In his programme notes, Rashid-S. Pegah points out that Telemann took the exotic elements primarily from the folk music he was familiar with. The kind of sounds which we encounter in later 'oriental' operas is absent here. This opera contains many beautiful arias, and several of them include an obbligato part for one or more instruments. The performance, directed by Bernard Labadie, is the recording of a concert performance on 24 November 2017 in the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg. Either those present behaved in an exemplary manner or the recording engineers have done a brilliant job, as their is hardly any noise. There is applause only at the end of each act, otherwise only the aria of the drunken scandor in the third act is rewarded with applause. From a dramatic point of view, this performance is generally convincing. André Morsch, in the role of Miriways, is a bit restrained at the beginning and only really gets going in the second act. Marie-Claude Chappuis as his wife Samischa remains a bit bland. In the most important supporting roles, Robin Johannsen, Lydia Teuscher and Michael Nagy are fully convincing. Stylistically, this performance is less satisfying; in this respect, Lydia Teuscher and Michael Nagy come off best. The orchestra is, as one might expect, very good. Acoustically, this recording is not ideal; now and then I found the sound a bit flat. The production also leaves a lot to be desired. Although the programme notes puts the work in its historical and stylistic context, there is no summary of the plot. There are also some modernizations in the libretto: one reads, for example, "für dich" and hears "vor dir". Here and there parts of the recitatives have been omitted, but this is neither mentioned in the liner-notes nor marked in the libretto. As a result one could easily get one's wires crossed. As far as I know, this recording is the second of this opera. Ten years ago CPO released a recording conducted by Michi Gaigg. I haven't compared them, but reading my impressions from back then, I have to conclude that Gaigg's recording is preferable, especially as it is stylistically more consistent and convincing.

In 2018, CPO released a recording of excerpts from the opera Die getreue Alceste by Georg Caspar Schürmann, who worked at the Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel court. It was a logical step to then turn to Carl Heinrich Graun. We know him almost exclusively as a member of the orchestra of Frederick the Great, where he was primarily responsible for composing operas. The stage works he composed there are all settings of Italian librettos. Today they are rarely performed; with any luck, some arias are included in anthologies. His compositions before this period are completely ignored, including some German-language operas, such as Polydorus [2]. In 1724 Graun was employed as a tenor at the court in Wolfenbüttel. In addition to his duties as a singer, he also composed, among other things, serenatas, cantatas as well as passion and funeral music. The court had its own theatre, which was also open to the public, which explains why German texts were used at least for the recitatives. The arias could sometimes have French or Italian texts, but Polydorus, first performed in 1727 and again in 1731, is entirely in German. The story is too complicated to retell here; the booklet contains a summary. When one is listening to this recording, it is not easy to follow the story and from a dramatic point of view it is not entirely convincing. The main reason is that we don't get a complete performance in Ira Hochman's recording. The booklet calls it a "dramaturgically streamlined" recording. This means that entire scenes have been deleted and many recitatives have been abridged. This is perhaps also the reason that the performance seems a bit static; it does not have much momentum, also because the pauses between the sections and also between the recitatives and arias are mostly too long. Musically, however, this work is very valuable: it contains many beautiful and often virtuosic arias. Some highlights include the aria 'Tyrann, du suchtest Liebe' (Andromache; Act 2), with an obbligato cello part, 'Ruhe sanft, du edle Seele' (Polidorus, Act 4), with two horns, and Andromache's arioso in the same act, 'Komm denn, du angenehmer Tod', with an obbligato part for violin. While this recording leaves a lot to be desired from a dramatic point of view, stylistically it is almost completely convincing. Hanna Zumsande, Santa Karnite, Mirko Ludwig and Fabian Kuhnen are all excellent in their contributions. They have no problems with the often high demands of their respective roles, for example with regard to the tessitura. I would only have wished that the two ladies would not always sing the highest notes at full power. Alon Harari sings the title role and he generally does it well, but with a little too much vibrato at times. The orchestra plays very beautifully and the obbligato parts are impressively executed. Ira Hochman presents here another interesting discovery. However, it is regrettable that - for whatever reason - this opera by Graun is not being performed in its entirety. It deserves better.

As everyone knows, Christoph Willbald Gluck tried to reform opera and aimed at a more 'natural' form of music theatre. This resulted in another form of opera; his Orfeo ed Euridice is one of its specimens. In the 1770's a whole new form appeared on the horizon: the melodrama. There is no singing, all the characters are only speaking. There are no arias that bring the action to a standstill. The orchestra reacts directly to the characters' statements, prepares them, illustrates them or comments on them, often with short interjections of a chord or with longer phrases, and the interpreter of a role also speaks into the orchestra's playing. Mozart was enthusiastic about this genre, and characterized it as a long accompanied recitative. He was particularly impressed by the melodramas of Georg Anton Benda, who left two such works: Medea [3] and Ariadne auf Naxos. The former exists in two versions: Marcus Bosch made the first recording of the second, which Benda preferred, with the ensemble Cappella Aquileia and the actress Katharina Thalbach. There are several roles in this melodrama: although Medea plays the leading role, the housekeeper and Medea's children appear in the fourth and fifth scenes, and Jason turns up in the seventh and eighth scenes. All roles are spoken by Katharina Thalbach. Unfortunately, the booklet does not mention whether this corresponds to Benda's intentions. There is another recording in the catalogue, also with only one female voice, but also one with different voices. Opera lovers know the story of Medea. There is little action here, apart from Medea killing her children. We mainly hear how Medea expresses her feelings. Against the advantage of a direct connection between music and text there is the disadvantage that almost only Medea lets her madness run wild here, and her constant deafening screaming is an ordeal. How this role was performed at the time maybe impossible to establish. Frau Thalbach has perfectly settled into the character of Medea, but I wonder whether this is in line with Benda's intentions. To my taste it is just too much. Others may experience it differently. The orchestra plays its role very convincingly. As far as I can tell, it plays modern instruments, but in period style. Lovers of music theater may not want to miss this production, if only because of the second version that is played here.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767): Miriways (TWV 21,24)
Anett Fritsch (Zemir), Robin Johannsen (Sophi), Sophie Karthäuser (Bemira), Lydia Teuscher (Nisibis), soprano; Marie-Claude Chappuis (Samischa), mezzo-soprano; Paul McNamara (Gesandter), tenor; Dominik Köninger (Geist, Scandor), André Morsch (Miriways), Michael Nagy (Murzah), baritone; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Bernard Labadie
Pentatone PTC 5186 842 (© 2020) details

< Carl Heinrich Graun (1703/04-1759): Polydorus (Graun WV B,I,3) (exc)
Hanna Zumsande (Ilione), Santa Karnīte (Andromache), soprano; Alon Harari (Polidorus), alto; Mirko Ludwig (Deiphilus, Geist des Deiphilus), tenor; Ralf Grobe (Pyrrhus), Andreas Heynemeyer (Dares), Fabian Kuhnen (Polymnestor), bass; barockwerk hamburg/Ira Hochman
CPO 555 266-2 (© 2020) details

Georg Anton Benda (1722-1795): Medea
Katharina Thalbach, narrator; Cappella Aquileia/Marcus Bosch
Coviello Classics COV 92014 (© 2020) details

Friday, May 27, 2022

German opera (1)

The baroque opera scene is now almost entirely dominated by Italian and French operas. In comparison, there are very few performances and recordings of German operas. This can partly be explained by the fact that most of the repertoire that was performed at the two public operas - Leipzig and Hamburg - has either disappeared completely or survived only in fragments. It is telling that of the four operas that George Frideric Handel composed for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt - before his trip to Italy - only one came to us complete (although this work can only be performed after some reconstruction). As far as I know, this opera, entitled Almira, has only been recorded once on CD. This recording, conducted by Andrew Lawrence-King, was also released by CPO in 1996. A new recording was released a few years ago after being performed on stage at the Boston Early Music Festival. The booklet includes some pictures of this performance.

Almira [1] has some typical features of the Hamburg opera of the time. It is linguistically mixed: the recitatives are all in German and the arias are in either German or Italian. In other Hamburg operas - for example by Telemann - there are also arias in French. Those are missing here, but the French influence is noticeable in the ballets. The arias are mostly relatively short, but Almira in particular has some longer arias to sing, the character of which already points to the future. There are also other things here that we encounter later in Handel's works: now and then one recognizes melodies or motifs that he later reused. Almira is not yet what was later known as opera seria: during the 18th century comic elements, which in the 17th century were often part of an opera, were removed from it; these then found a place in intermezzi. But there are definitely humorous elements here, embodied by Tabarco, who is the servant of Fernando, who marries Almira at the end of the opera and ascends the throne next to her. When Tabarco delivers the message to Fernando that Almira has decided that he should die, and he reacts: "How, should Fernando die?", Tabarco replies: "Yes, of course! Sir, where is your money? I would like to inherit after your farewell." This short dialogue has a relaxing effect. While there is no shortage of conflicts, they are less dramatized.

The character of the work is well captured. I have to give Jan Kobow a special mention here, as he portrays the role of Tabarco in an intoxicating manner and with a great deal of humour, without making a caricature of him. Emöke Baráth is convincing as Almira, not only in the soulful arias, but also in some violent outbursts of anger. Colin Balzer provides a differentiated portrayal of the role of Fernando. Consalvo, who later recognizes Fernando as his long-lost son, also plays a central role. Christian Immler embodies him with the right dignity and authority. The other roles are also well cast. From a stylistic point of view, there are some debatable performances, and that concerns Emöke Baráth and Zachary Wilder in particular. On the other hand, Jan Kobow, Jesse Blumberg and Christian Immler make a good impression. What I haven't mentioned yet is the role of the orchestra, in a colourful line-up with recorders, oboes, bassoons and trumpets. It shows its colours in particular in the ballets, but there are also nice obbligato parts in the arias. The basso continuo group is a strong foundation and with its rhythmic precision it really drives the singers on. This is a studio production; nevertheless, there are some sound effects (like the knocking on the door) that make sense and help to convey to the listener what is happening. The interaction of the actors is also optimal. Conclusion: this is a generally pretty good and entertaining performance.

Christoph Graupner is doing well these days. CD recordings of his music are released every year, and his name often appears in concert programmes and radio broadcasts. It is always instrumental works and sacred cantatas that are performed. It could almost be overlooked that he began his career as an opera composer and that he composed five operas between 1707 and 1709 for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. It was also his work as an opera composer that prompted Ernst-Ludwig von Hessen-Darmstadt to bring him to his court as Kapellmeister. He was supposed to be responsible for the opera, but his employer soon realized that he could not afford opera performances financially. And so Graupner had to confine himself to the composition cantatas for Sundays and feastdays and instrumental music. This has resulted in a large repertoire of high quality, which is rightly given a lot of attention today. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs have excavated several dramatic works at the Boston Early Music Festival, which were later released in studio recordings by CPO. Among them are several works that were written for the opera in Hamburg, such as Antiochus and Stratonica [2], one of the two surviving operas by Graupner. The title characters represent one of the two love stories in this opera. Antiochus (Christian Immler) is the son of Seleucus (Harry van der Kamp) and has fallen madly in love with his stepmother Stratonica (Hana Blazíková) until he almost literally dies. There is also Demetrius, the royal treasurer (Aaron Sheehan), who is married to Ellenia (Sherezade Panthaki), but is being courted and charmed by the Persian sorceress Mirtenia (Sunhae Im). And as in Handel's Almira, there is also a buffoon here: Negrodorus (Jan Kobow) is always there to accompany the events with his comments. A special feature is that in some places he addresses the audience directly, which was unusual at the time. He even proclaims that without a character like his, an opera could not be performed. The story is relatively simple, in comparison with other librettos. It helps a great deal that none of the characters disguises as someone else. In addition, the two storylines are largely separate. Only towards the end do they come together. Incidentally, the ending is quite implausible, but that doesn't seem to have bothered anyone at the time. Anyone who is acquainted with Graupner's instrumental music knows that he was a sound magician who liked to use unusual instruments and unconventional combinations of instruments. This is also the case here. It is hardly a surprise then that he repeatedly gives the viola an obbligato part and in one aria uses three recorders alongside strings playing pizzicato. We also know from Graupner's sacred cantatas that he composed very well for the voice, and that is obvious here from beginning to end. That he is also able to convince in a dramatic sense, which is clearly demonstrated here, is something we were not familiar with, since his surviving operas have never been performed or recorded to date.

The performance and recording of L'amore ammalato, oder Antiochus and Stratonica as the full title reads, is a sheer delight. All roles are very well cast. Maybe I would have preferred slightly less powerful voices for Antiochus (Christian Immler) and Demetrius (Aaron Sheehan), because they are basically wimps. Be that as it may, the two gentlemen have settled perfectly into their respective characters. Sunhae Im portrays Mirtenia's insidiousness very convincingly, and Sherezade Panthaki is her perfect antagonist, her opposite in everything. Harry van der Kamp is a human king, and Hana Blazíková embodies the somewhat shaky feelings for Antiochus well. As in Handel, Jan Kobow is the perfect buffoon; this role seems to suit him. In terms of style, too, there is hardly anything to criticize here. The orchestral playing is colourful and differentiated. There are several ballets in this opera, but these are not included in the score; they may have been inserted later, shortly before the performance. The performers decided to use movements from Graupner's overtures, and that works very well. There is just one small point of criticism: some sentences in the score are between brackets, indicating an aside. This is supposed not to be heard by the other characters, but here they are mostly too loud, which makes them lose their effect. However, in the light of the performance as a whole this doesn't really matter. Given that this is an opera production, the interaction between the protagonists is excellent. As one may understand by now, this is a top-class productio, first thanks to the great music by Graupner, but then also thanks to the performers. This opera makes abundantly clear why the loss of most operas by Graupner is such a big shame.

[1] George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Almira (HWV 1)
Emöke Barath (Almira), Amanda Forsythe (Edilia), Teresa Wakim (Bellante), soprano; Colin Balzer (Fernando), Jan Kobow (Tabarco), Zachary Wilder (Osman), tenor; Jesse Blumberg (Raymondo), Christian Immler (Consalvo), baritone; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
CPO 555 205-2 (© 2019) details

[2] Christoph Graupner (1683-1760): Antiochus und Stratonica
Hana Blažíková (Stratonica), Karlina Hogrefe (Flavia), Sunhae Im (Mirtenia), Kim Kavanagh Medor), Sherezade Panthaki (Ellenia), soprano; Jan Kobow (Negrodorus), Aaron Sheehan (Demetrius), tenor; Jesse Blumberg (Hesychius, Ober-Priester), Christian Immler (Antiochus), baritone; Harry van der Kamp (Seleucus), bass; Capella Ansgarii; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
CPO 555 369-2 (© 2020) details

Friday, April 29, 2022

Handel: Opera arias

Discs with arias from operas (and sometimes oratorios) appear regularly. Every year a number of them land on my desk. I find it not easy to review them, for several reasons. First, I am not a great lover of opera, and that is the reason that I don't review opera recordings on a regular basis. Second, the isolation of arias from their dramatic context is unsatisfactory, even thoug the texts are mostly of such a general nature that they can be inserted in almost any opera. Third, I am not very happy with the modern trends in singing baroque music, as to often they have little to do with what we know about the aesthetic ideals of the time in which the music was written and performed.

Among singers who focus on baroque opera, Handel is one of the favourite composers. No wonder then that recitals which include (almost) only arias from his operas are very common. Four of them are the subject of this review. The first is by Sandrine Piau [1], who can be called a veteran in baroque opera and who has a special liking of Handel. Her recital has not avoided the danger of many such recitals: the inclusion of some 'evergreens'. We find here such frequently-performed arias as 'Piangerò la sorte mia' from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' from Amadigi di Gaula and the inevitable 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo. A surprising choice is the aria 'Alla salma infedel porga la pena' from Lucrezia, not an opera but a cantata. The title is also the complete text, and it is an example of a piece which loses its meaning without its context: "And may it inflict its punishment on my faithless body". What is 'it'? The listener who does not know this cantata is left in the dark about the meaning of this aria. Piau is one of the stars of baroque opera, and that is understandable if one listens to this recital. Her ability in expressing the emotions of a character is brilliantly exposed in 'Piangerò la sorte mia' with its strongly contrasting A and B sections. One of the highlights is 'Ah! mio cor! from Alcina. This aria is a good specimen of a piece in which the use of the dacapo form doesn't make any sense. One understands why later some composers wanted to get rid of it. Piau is a singer I have to get used to; recently I admired her performances in a recording of Handel's Brockes Passion, but on other occasions I have had problems with her style of singing. That is the case her as well. She often uses more vibrato than is justifiable, but - unlike many of her colleages - she does not use it indiscriminately. The ornamentation and the cadenzas are also often overdone. In 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' her cadenza in the dacapo seems at odds with the tenor of the text. On balance, though, I have enjoyed this recital more than I expected, especially as Piau is more than most other singers able to explore the dramatic features of an aria. It helps that Les Paladins is not a chamber ensemble but a full-blooded orchestra and that the recording was made in a theatre.

The next disc is from a singer I had never heard before and even did not know by name. For her recital - which seems to be the soundtrack for a videostory of her own making (which I have not seen) - Héloïse Mas [2] selected arias of various characters, mostly female, but also some male, such as that of Orpheus from Parnasso in festa and that of Dardanus from Amadigi di Gaula. When I started listening I noted that she has dramatic talent, but little understanding of baroque singing. In the course of time I changed my views a little. In fact, her performances are less dramatic than I had expected. From that angle the cantata La Lucrezia is rather disappointing. Ms Mas is able to sing pretty loud, but that as such has little to do with a dramatic interpretation. I did not like her pretty wide vibrato, but my fear that she would use it indiscriminately, did not entirely come true, even though she uses it too often. She softens it in 'Ho perso il caro ben', the aria of Orpheus in Parnasso in festa. Scherza infida from Ariodante is also one of the better items in this recital. However, her performances are pretty far away from real baroque singing, but that is something that unfortunately is accepted these days, even by those who should know better. The orchestral contributions are not very colourful. I find the playing of the London Handel Orchestra rather bland. All in all, I can't see how this recital brings us closer to understanding and appreciating Handel's art in the department of dramatic music.

Eva Zaïcik [3] is a singer I first heard in a recording of Bach's Magnificat, under the direction of Valentin Tournet. I appreciated her singing, and that is the reason I was curious to hear her in very different repertoire. Listening to her voice, one does probably not expect her to perform opera, but the Alpha disc with the title "Royal Handel" reveals that she knows her way here too. The programme "is intended as a musical portrait of the first Royal Academy of Music", according to the liner-notes. This explains why arias by two other composers are also included: Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini. However, it is Handel who is the main composer here. Eva Zaïcik has made a fine selection of arias which suit her voice well. I particularly liked 'Stille amare' from Tolomeo, 'Ah! tu non sai' from Ottone and 'Ombra cara' from Radamisto. These are pieces of a rather intimate character, and there Eva Zaïcik's qualities come to the fore most clearly. She has a lovely voice, flexible and warm, and it has a kind of intimacy of itself. The short aria 'Strazio, scempio, furia e morte' from Bononcini's Crispo is very different, and there are also more extroverted arias by Handel. She deals with them rather well, but avoids the yelling and screaming that some singers think are necessary to depict the feelings of the protagonist. It is also nice that Eva Zaïcik pays attention to the text; it is mostly clearly intelligible, not destroyed by a wide vibrato that is applied indiscriminately, as is so often the case. The orchestra is much smaller than what Handel had at his disposal, and that compromises the dramatic impact of these performances, but probably suits Zaïcik better than a larger ensemble. Another factor is here the recording venue: a church, with its reverberation, is not the ideal venue for an opera recital. That said, I have really enjoyed this disc, much more than most recordings of this kind.

'Handelian Pyrotechnics' is the title of the fourth and last recital disc to be reviewed here. The singer is the male alto William Towers [4]. He is probably not the best-known representative of his voice type who participates in opera performances. I at least can't remember having heard them in opera. His modesty, as he shows in his liner-notes, is refreshing. Rather than recording a recital as "self-promotion and general career-advancement" he preferred to record arias from roles he had actually sung on stage. The result is this disc, which certainly does not include only arias with pyrotechnics, but also more introverted items. Unfortunately there are quite a number which one has to reckon among the 'evergreens', such as 'Ombra mai fu' which opens the disc. However, there is enough variety, and Towers also selected some lesser-known pieces. I like his voice, which is strong but can also be sensible. Overall I like his interpretations, and his ornamentation is tasteful. What I don't like is that in some arias he exceeds the range of his part, and goes to extreme heights. The pyrotechnics don't always come off that comfortably. The Armonico Consort plays with one instrument per part, which is not in line with what Handel would have used in the theatre, but in a recital like this that is probably acceptable. However, the Armonico Consort is not the most engaging ensemble I have heard in this kind of repertoire. In comparison, Le Consort in Eva Zaïcik's recital is doing a better job.

[1] "Enchantresses"
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Les Paladins/Jérôme Corréas
Alpha 765 (© 2020) details

[2] "Anachronistic Hearts / Les coeurs anachroniques - Haendel arias"
Héloïse Mas, mezzo-soprano; London Handel Orchestra/Laurence Cummings
muso mu-045 (© 2020) details

[3] "Royal Handel"
Eva Zaïcik, mezzo-soprano; Le Consort
Alpha 662 (© 2020) details

[4] "Handelian Pyrotechnics"
William Towers, alto; Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Signum Classics SIGCD658 (© 2019) details

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Organ portraits (2)

Many years ago, in the vinyl era, Harmonia mundi released a series of recordings on historical organs, played by specialists in the field, such as Francis Chapelet and René Saorgin. Now Arnaud De Pasquale [1] is following in their footsteps, as he is given the chance to discover historical organs and make recordings of them, with appropriate repertoire. In the booklet he already whets our appetite for the second volume, which will be devoted to Mexico. The first volume includes recordings at instruments on Sicily, where - as he writes in his liner-notes - there are probably 1,500 organs, of which only about ten percent is in playing condition. One may hope that projects like this one make authorities of countries and regions realise what kind of treasures are part of their heritage and that they deserve to be preserved and, if necesary, restored. De Pasquale selected six instruments, built between 1547 and 1775-82. For his repertoire he confined himself to music by Italian composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. One may be inclined to think that later repertoire may have been more appropriate for the latest organs. However, organ building in Italy tended to be rather conservative, and there is mostly very little difference between instruments of the early 17th century and organs of the mid-18th century. Music by composers from Naples and its nearby regions takes a central place. The Italian scholar Dinko Fabris points out that there is hardly any Sicilian keyboard repertoire. Sicily and Naples were closely connected, not only geographically, but also due to the fact that for several centuries both were under Spanish rule. De Pasquale included some ensemble pieces as well as secular vocal items, considering that the organ was used for secular music as well. That is certainly right, but such music was not played in church. Setting that issue aside, this is a most exciting disc, as we get acquainted here with organs that hardly anyone may have ever heard, in repertoire that allows their specific features to be demonstrated, in stylish performances by De Pasquale. This is a series that every organ lover needs to keep an eye on. On a critical note, it is disappointing that the booklet omits details of the organs, such as their disposition, pitch and temperament.

With the next disc we stay in Italy, but move to Florence. Giovanna Riboli presents the organ in the Badia Fiorentina, an abbey and church now home to the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem situated on the Via del Proconsolo in the centre of Florence. It was completed in 1558 by Onofrio Zeffirini da Cortona (Tuscany). In 1978 the instrument was restored and returned to its original state. Its temperament is quarter comma meantone. Giovanna Riboli [2] has put together a programme of music that covers a large part of Europe; the exception is France. Obviously, the temperament of this organ reduces the repertoire: in the course of the 18th century meantone temperament gradually went out of fashion. Because of this, Riboli has confined herself to pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries. It has to be said that she has not been very adventurous in her selection: nearly all the pieces are pretty well-known. The exceptions may be those by Scheidemann and Correa de Arauxo. The various genres common in the 16th and 17th centuries are represented: toccata, fantasia, variations and transcriptions. The organ was also used in secular music, and that seems to have inspired Riboli to add a dance by Scheidemann. However, such music was certainly not played in church. Farnaby's variations on Mal Sims turn out to be a bad choice: probably due to the reverberant acoustic, the tempi are too slow, which takes away its sparkle. Generally the tempi seem rather slow. Giovanna Riboli is a fine organist and I have certainly enjoyed what is on offer here. It is just that I would have liked a less conventional selection of music and also pieces that are better suited to the acoustic of the church, also with regard to tempo.

The next disc is is devoted to a very special instrument, which is situated in the chapel of Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød in Denmark. It dates from 1610, was built by Esaias Compenius and was originally commissioned by Duke Heinrich Julius von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. It was to be placed in his summer residence at Hessen Castle. When the Duke died, his widow Elisabeth decided to give the instrument to her brother, King Christian IV of Denmark. In 1617 the organ was installed in the chapel. The organ has two manuals, 27 stops and 1001 pipes. The most notable aspect of the instrument is that all the pipes are made of wood, which was highly unusual. Mads Kjersgaard, in his liner-notes, points out that, considering that the manufacture of wooden pipes was nearly "virgin territory", it is a mystery how Compenius was able to produce such a magnificent organ. It is undoubtedly his masterpiece in the field of organ building. The organ can be played exclusively with wind produced by a calcant on a total of four bellows. As this organ was originally intended as a secular instrument for performance in the ducal castle, the programme recorded by Peter Waldner [3] largely focuses on secular pieces. The concept is quite original: we get a sort of biography of Christian IV, who ruled Denmark for 59 years, from 1588 to 1648, and the various stages of his life are illustrated by pieces from across Europe. Under the header 'Children', for instance, we get Giles Farnaby's A Toye. One of the king's main occupations, the hunt, is illustrated by John Bull's famous piece The King's Hunt. Kings were usually involved in wars, and that was not any different in Christian's case. It is illustrated by the Batalla by the Spanish composer José Ximénez. Most pieces do well on this organ, also thanks to the not too reverberant acoustic. Waldner is a fine player who does justice to both the organ and the music.

Most organs built in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries have considerably changed in the course of history. As they played a substantial role in the liturgy, they were adapted to the taste of the time and the requirements of liturgical music. Sometimes it is possible to restore such instruments to an earlier stage, and often this requires a considerable amount of reconstruction. The disc under review here is devoted to an instrument that has been entirely reconstructed. The image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes has to be taken litterally here, as nothing but the case of the organ at the Franciscan Holy Trinity Church in Gdansk has survived. Andrzej Szadejko [4] was responsible for the concept used to reconstruct the organ on the basis of the instrument that was built in the early 18th century and was replaced by a pneumatic organ in 1914. Only the case of that organ could be put together again. The builder of the new organ, Kristian Wegscheider, a specialist in the restoration and reconstruction of historical organs, has done a magnificent job in the Holy Trinity Church. It is a very fine instrument as is demonstrated in this recording of mainly (north) German organ music by Szadejko, who is an excellent player. It is also due to the acoustic that the organ's qualities come off so brilliantly here. This disc is the first of a promising series devoted to organs in Gdansk.

For lovers of historical organs Stralsund is a famous name because of the Stellwagen organ in the Marienkirche, one of the main historical instruments in Germany. In comparison, the organ of the St. Jakobikirche is far lesser known. It is largely a modern instrument, built by Kristian Wegscheider, who also restored and reconstructed the Stellwagen organ. The 18th-century organs in the St. Jacobikirche were taken as the starting point for the building of the new instrument, which found its place in the baroque case. The programme is a mixture of German works of the 17th and 18th centuries, from Buxtehude to Krebs. It is nice that we also get pieces by little-known masters, such as Druckenmüller, Erich and Leyding. One of the highlights is the magnificent set of variations on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr by Daniel Magnus Gronau. We know Martin Rost [5] as an excellent organist, who has portrayed many organs on disc. He is also the incumbent organist of the Marienkirche. As he knows the new instrument very well, he is the man to demonstrate its features, and he does so very well. This organ is another masterpiece of Kristian Wegscheider.

'Bach in Lübeck' is probably not intended to portray the organs in St. Jakobi in Lübeck, but considering the importance of the instruments in relation to Bach's works selected for the recording, it seems appropriate to include this disc here. We already met the name of Stellwagen, as he was the builder of the organ in the Marienkirche in Stralsund. He is also the builder of the 'small' organ in St. Jakobi. That instrument is only called 'small' because of the large organ, but it still has three manuals and pedals, which makes it suitable for most German baroque organ music. The large organ is more of the result of a long history of adaptations, restorations and reconstruction which makes it impossible to put the name of one builder on it. Both instruments are clearly inspired by the music of the north German organ school. This had a strong influence on the young Bach, and therefore Arvid Gast [6] has selected pieces that betray that influence, such as the preludes and fugues BWV 531 and 549a as well as the Toccata BWV 566. In addition there are some pieces based on chorales, such as the Partita Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen. The pedals play an important part in this repertoire, and playing the pedals was an art that was highly developed in North Germany. It must have greatly inspired Bach, witness the brilliance of the pedal parts in many of his own organ works. Gast is a stylish interpreter, who - being the incumbent organist of St Jakobi - knows exactly how to use these instruments for a convincing interpretation of Bach's oeuvre.

For the last two discs we move south, to Regensburg in Bavaria. Roman Emilius [7] presents two organs, which are connected by the name of Frantz Jacob Späth, but in very different ways. Späth has become best-known for the invention of the tangent piano. However, he was also active as a builder of organs. He built the organs in the Oswaldkirche and in the Dreieinigkeitskirche in Regensburg. The former was finished in 1750 and has largely been preserved. The adaptations of the 1950s, with the purpose of making possible the performance of the entire baroque repertoire, have been undone later, and its south German character has been restored. Music of the north German organ school and a part of Bach's organ works cannot be performed here in a satisfactory manner. That makes it rather odd that Emilius selected several such pieces for his recording. Those don't come off that badly, but I missed the clarity of north German instruments. Pieces by Neufville, Mozart and Krebs are more convincing. However, the articulation is generally not clear enough, and the tempi are often a bit slow. I have never heard Bach's Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659) being played so slowly.

In 1758 Späth finished the building of an organ in the Dreieinigkeitskirche. Apparently it did not satisfy and it was soon replaced; only the case and some principal pipes were preserved. In modern times Hendrik Ahrend was asked to build a new instrument in the old case. Starting point was the disposition of the instrument of the 18th century, but "without neglecting the modern needs of a church organ", as Ahrend writes in the booklet. At the reverse of this disc the organ is called a 'Bach organ', but that seems a misnomer, even setting aside that the label 'Bach organ' is rather problematic in itself. The programme includes two of Bach's most popular organ works, the Toccata and fugue BWV 565 (which is of doubtful authenticity) and the Passacaglia BWV 582. I find the performances unsatisfying: they are rather massive and lack transparency, and the tempi are too slow. In addition there are some extreme dynamic contrasts which are not in line with historical performance practice, and frequent changes of registration. A Fantasia by Froberger needs meantone temperament. Emilius also plays a suite from Mozart's Zauberflöte and Messiaen's Chants d'oiseaux from his Livre d'orgue of 1951. Given that in recordings with organ portraits the instruments are more important than the music, one may overlook the shortcomings in the interpretation, although I find in particular the second of these two discs hard to swallow. Organ lovers who are interested in the instruments themselves, may consider adding these discs to their collection anyway.

[1] Orgues de Sicile
Arnaud De Pasquale
Perrine Devillers, soprano; Sarah Dubus, Camille Frachet, cornett; Jérôme Van Waerbeke, violin; François Guerrier, organ (II)
Harmonia mundi HMM 905331 (© 2021) details

[2] The Organ of Badia Fiorentina
Giovanna Riboli
Brilliant Classics 95957 (© 2020) details

[3] Life Pictures - Scenes of the Life of King Christian IV
Peter Waldner
Tastenfreuden 8 (© 2020) details

[4] Like a Phoenix from the Ashes - An Organ Portrait
Andrzej Mikołaj Szadejko
MDG 906 2157-6 [SACD] (© 2020) details

[5] Orgel in St. Jakobi zu Stralsund
Martin Rost
Querstand VKJK 2011 (© 2020) details

[6] Bach in Lübeck
Arvid Gast
Querstand VKJK 2007 (© 2020) details

[7] The Späth Organ (1750) in St. Oswald Regensburg
Roman Emilius
TYXart TXA 19144 (© 2020) details

[8] Die neue Ahrend-Orgel Dreieinigkeitskirche Regensburg
Roman Emilius
Spektral SRL4-20185 (© 2021) details

Friday, October 15, 2021

Vivaldi con amore

Vivaldi is still one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers of the baroque era, alongside Bach and Handel, with some stiff competion from Telemann. Recently several discs with Vivaldi's music have been released. The effect of the composer's popularity it is inevitable that we often get pieces that are already available in several recordings. However, at least one of them comprises concertos that are new to the catalogue, ot at least new in the form in which they are performed.

There is nothing new about the first disc to be reviewed here. Vivaldi's oeuvre includes a little over fifty concertos and sinfonias for strings and basso continuo without any solo parts. There is no fundamental difference between the concerto - in some manuscripts called concerto ripieno - and the sinfonia. The main difference is the treatment of counterpoint. This is more elaborated in the concertos, whereas the sinfonias are generally more homophonic. Here the melody has greater importance and the two violins often play in unison. There is also a difference in keys: the sinfonias are all in major keys, whereas seventeen of the forty concertos are in the minor. These pieces have all been recorded by the ensemble L'Archicembalo, but not everyone is interested in such a comprehensive production. Enrico Onofri recorded a nice selection with the Academia Montis Regalis [1]; it is his first recording with this ensemble as its new conductor. The selection reflects the variety in this section of Vivaldi's oeuvre. Strings and basso continuo is the basic scoring, but in the Concerto alla rustica RV 151 Vivaldi added parts for two oboes. The Concerto RV 155 is a hybrid piece: the first two movements are of the concerto ripieno type, whereas the last two movements include a solo part for the violin. Another kind of hybrid concerto is RV 159, whose last movement has the traces of a concerto grosso. Most sinfonias and concertos comprise three movements, but there are exceptions. One is the above-mentioned RV 155, another the Concerto madrigalesco RV 129, which also has four movements. And then there is the Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV 169, which has two movements, and is also scored for strings without the participation of any keyboard instrument. The Concerto RV 114 is notable for its opening movement in dotted rhythm, à la française, and its closing chiacona. As one will have noticed, there is a lot of variety in this programme, which is given an excellent interpretation by the Academia Montis Regalis, with fine solo contributions by Onofri himself. In some cases I could imagine a faster tempo and more marked dynamic contrasts, but I appreciate that Onofri does not try to contribute to a contest in speed and exuberance.

In addition to more than 250 solo concertos for the violin, Vivaldi wrote many concertos for other instruments, from the lute to the bassoon. As they were often written for professional players or the highly-skilled girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of them are no less virtuosic than those for the violin. Vivaldi also wrote concertos for two and more instruments, often in less than conventional combinations, such as two oboes and two violins. Under the title "Vivaldi con amore", the Canadian Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra [2] released a disc with specimens of the various kinds of concertos that Vivaldi's oeuvre has to offer: two concertos for solo violin and one for four violins, concertos for bassoon and for lute respectively, and two concertos for two oboes, one of them with two solo violins, preceded by the overture to the opera Ottone in villa, which also includes a solo part for the violin. This disc shows that for engaging performances one does not need Italian ensembles. The time has gone that ensembles from the Anglo-Saxon world came up with neat and clear performances, largely devoid of drama and ignoring the fundamentally theatrical nature of Vivaldi's instrumental music, although now and then such performances may still be heard. This disc definitely shows that much has changed. The ensemble, directed by the Italian-born Elisa Citterio, delivers excellent performances. Citterio herself leads the way in her interpretation of the Concerto RV 761, whose last movement is especially nice. Dominic Teresi is responsible for an exciting performance of the Concerto RV 481 for bassoon; the middle movement is particularly theatrical. The disc closes with a compelling performance of the Concerto RV 564a for two oboes and two violins, with excellent solo contributions by John Abberger, Marco Cera, Elisa Citterio and Julia Wedman. This is a very fine disc with a mixture of more or less familiar pieces and lesser-known items.

The next disc, with the ensemble Musica Antiqua Latina [3], is simply called "Vivaldi", and includes concertos and sinfonias. Nothing special, at first sight. However, the booklet includes two essays whose authors, Giovanni De Zorzi and Giordano Antonelli respectively, argue that Venice was an amalgam of different cultures, among them those of the Orient, and that this must have had an effect on the music written there. That sounds plausible, but unfortunately they fail to point out exactly in what way one can notice oriental influences in Vivaldi's music. The disc ends with the Sinfonia in b minor (RV 168), and the last movement opens with an improvisation on the Greek lyra by Antonelli (what kind of instrument he plays is not specified), which then leads to the music that Vivaldi has written. I can't take this seriously; this is a gimmick to demonstrate an influence in Vivaldi's music that the authors of the essays and the performers otherwise fail to prove. Overall the playing is alright, although I am not really enthusiastic about what is on offer here. That has also to do with the recording. Apparently to compensate for the reverberation of the venue where the recording took place (which is clearly audible at the end of movements), the miking is rather close. The two cello concertos are particularly unsatisfying: the sound of the cello gets right in your face, as it has been placed in front of the ensemble. I sometimes had the impression that the cello's solo part had been recorded in a different room. This has nothing to do with the role of the solo instrument as primus inter pares in Vivaldi's music (or in baroque solo concertos in general, for that matter). The part for transverse flute in the Concerto RV 96 is played at the recorder, but that is not mentioned in the track-list or the list of performers. I can't see this disc as a substantial contribution to the Vivaldi discography.

Vivaldi composed many violin concertos for his own use. However, he also had some virtuosic performers at the Ospedale del Pietà, and one of them was a real star, Anna Maria. As was customary, the orphans who were taken in and received a (musical) education, were known only with their forename, given to them when they entered. Anna Maria left a partbook which includes 31 concertos, most of them by Vivaldi. They comprise only the solo part and sometimes the bass. A number of these concertos are known from other sources, but some are not, and this means that they can only be performed through reconstruction. Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes to the Glossa recording by Modo Antiquo under the direction of Federico Maria Sardelli [4], explains how such reconstructions are possible, despite the scarcity of the material. One reason is that Vivaldi often reused material from previous compositions, slightly or more rigorously reworked. Moreover, there are certain patterns in his oeuvre which help the editor of reconstructions. The fact that some concertos include an organ part is not an additional problem, but in fact makes the reconstruction easier because of Vivaldi's habit of making the two instruments move in parallels or imitate each other. Even so, reconstructions of this kind are inevitably speculative, and unless the original concertos are found, we cannot be sure that these reconstructions are in accordance with what Vivaldi intended. In the end, it is the result that counts, and these reconstructed versions make an excellent impression and can be considered substantial additions to Vivaldi's oeuvre. The concertos for violin and organ are definitely the most interesting as to date we knew only a handful of pieces in this scoring. RV 774 and 775 were known, but only incomplete, whereas RV 808, as the number in the Ryom catalogue suggests, was not established as an authentic Vivaldi work until recently. With Federico Guglielmo we have an accomplished performer, who has a vast experience in Vivaldi's music; with his ensemble L'Arte dell'Arco he recorded a large number of discs with Vivaldi's music for Brilliant Classics. Roberto Loreggian is an excellent keyboard player, as he shows here once again. I had only wished they had used a larger organ with a broader palette of colours.

There has been quite some fuss about Nicola Benedetti's [5] forays in the world of baroque music, as I learnt from a search at the internet for her credentials. She has made a good career with later repertoire, and that may explain why I had never heard of her. At first, I was sceptical as I have encountered too often performers who jump the bandwagon of what seems to be selling well. However, Benedetti seems to be sincere: she has sought the advice of the Italian harpsichordist and conductor Andrea Marcon, and in her ensemble she collected some respected performers from the period instrument scene. Although she plays a modernized violin, I learnt from several sources that she uses gut strings and plays a baroque bow. That is also how it sounds, and overall I am quite happy with the way Benedetti plays Vivaldi. She does not entirely focus on the virtuosic aspects, but also pays much attention to the lyrical and expressive side of Vivaldi's concertos. She exercises restraint in her insertation of cadenzas, in that she does not use them to show off by making them too long or too virtuosic. The fact that, as a kind of 'encore', she adds an andante from another concerto, rather than a virtuosic fast movement, supports my impression of someone who takes the music seriously and does not use it for her own good. This disc, although unfortunately rather short, is a welcome addition to the discography, and I sincerely hope that Nicola Benedetti is willing to further explore the world of baroque violin music. How about some Tartini?

The concertos for the recorder and the flautino are among Vivaldi's most popular works. That has undoubtedly to do with their quality, but also with the fact that the number of baroque solo concertos for the recorder seems to be rather limited. There are fewer to choose from, certainly in comparison with what is availble for the transverse flute or the oboe. Many recorder players of name have recorded some or all of them, and Giovanni Antonini [6] is certainly a performer of that category. Given that he has been around for quite some time - Il Giardino Armonico was founded in 1985 - it is rather surprising that only now he has recorded Vivaldi's concertos. I have read some reviews of this disc which were all full of praise for Antonini's performances. His virtuosity and imagination are certainly impressive, and if there are still some who think that the recorder is not an instrument for virtuosic playing, this disc proves them wrong. However, I feel that Antonini focusses too much on technical virtuosity. In too many concertos, he did not make me enjoy the music. I am not saying that he uses them to show off, but to my taste he goes too far in emphasizing these concertos' - and his own - brilliance. In the largo of the Concerto in C (RV 443) he just does not add embellishments, he almost rewrites what Vivaldi has written down, comparable with the bad habit of some opera singers to rewrite, as it were, arias in the dacapo. The Concerto in F (RV 442), which closes the disc, is the most enjoyable piece of the entire programme, as here he keeps it relatively quiet. I should add that Il Giardino Armonico also falls for the temptation to try too hard to be different from the competition, a habit of quite some Italian ensembles. If I want to really enjoy Vivaldi's recorder concertos, I am turning to another disc.

[1] Concerti particolari
Academia Montis Regalis/Enrico Onofri, violin
Passacaille PAS 1100 (© 2021) details

[2] "Vivaldi con Amore"
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra/Elisa Citterio
tafelmusik TMK 1039CD (© 2019) details

[3] "Vivaldi"
Musica Antiqua Latina/Giordano Antonelli, cello
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439846222 (© 2021) details

[4] "Lost Concertos for Anna Maria"
Federico Guglielmo, violin; Roberto Loreggian, organ; Modo Antiquo/Federico Maria Sardelli
Glossa GCD 924601 (© 2020) details

[5] "Baroque"
Benedetti Baroque Orchestra/Nicola Benedetti, violin
Decca 485 1891 (© 2021) details

[6] "Concerti per flauto"
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini, recorder
Alpha 364 (© 2020) details

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bach and the violin

There is probably no greater challenge for violinists than the interpretation of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is like climbing Mount Everest. It is extremely difficult and not everyone gets there. Nowadays a historical instrument or in any case an interpretation according to the principles of historical performance practice is almost a prerequisite for a convincing performance. The career of the exceptional violinist Thomas Zehetmair [1] is particularly revealing. He has always felt just as comfortable in the baroque repertoire as in contemporary music. His curiosity guarantees that he gets to the bottom of every work. The focus is not on his own abilities, but always on the music. It resulted in his studying these works with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the early days of his career when he played in the Concentus musicus Wien. This resulted in a recording, at that time still on a modern violin and with a modern bow. This was reissued a few years ago and is still of great importance. For those who are skeptical of historical instruments, it may serve as a bridge between 'new' and 'old'. In 2019, ECM released a new recording of these works from 2016, and this time Zehetmair turned to period instruments. He plays two different baroque violins and two baroque bows. His starting point has not changed in comparison to the first recording: his interpretation is based on the principle of 'music as speech', as Harnoncourt once pithily summed up the character of baroque music in the title of a book. This is expressed here in the treatment of phrasing and articulation as well as dynamics and tempo. It is notable that Zehetmair allows himself more freedom in these matters today. In doing so, he does not deviate from the principles of historical performance practice. He has internalized them and can now bring in his own views. After all, it is one of the characteristics of historical performance practice that one's own personality may be part of it and that one may adapt the interpretation to the circumstances. This explains the differences between the many recordings that are available. Which one to prefer is ultimately a matter of taste. I like this new interpretation by Zehetmair very much. Technically, his playing is impressive. It is amazing how in some of the movements he plays at high speed, the articulation remains very clear and he also manages to dynamically differentiate between good and bad notes. Dynamic shading is also carefully dosed, for example in the ciaccona from the Partita No. 2. It starts out very powerful, but then there are quieter passages. This movement is an example of one in a relatively brisk tempo (12'29"). Others are the fugue and the presto from the Sonata No. 1 and the concluding allegro from the Sonata No. 2. But even then Zehetmair varies the tempo: the allegro from the second sonata is not as fast as the fugue of the first. It is also nice - and this can also be interpreted as a sign of internalization - that he plays ornaments in repeats. As one may know, this is a matter of debate among interpreters and scholars. However, one doesn't need to fully agree with every decision in order to regard this interpretation as a monument of Bach interpretation. I personally prefer strong restraint in this matter, but that does not prevent me from putting this recording at the top of my list of favourite recordings of these works. Another which is high at my list is the one by Amandine Beyer (ZigZag Territoires, 2011). I would also like to mention Gunar Letzbor (PanClassics, 2013/2014), who has something special to offer in that you can hear what the player himself is hearing while playing. It is something one needs to get used to, but it is very revealing and intriguing, and Letzbor is obviously a superb performer.

The second recording of the sonatas and partitas is quite different. I hesitated whether to review it at all because we are dealing here with a compromise between traditional and historical performance practice. Such compromises are not uncommon, and they are seldom convincing. Tomás Cotik's interpretation [2] is no exception. He plays a modern violin in modern tuning (a = 440 Hz). He does not use gut strings, but rather synthetic strings that produce a slightly milder sound. It is hardly noticeable, because Cotik's tone is unplesantly penetrating, compared to the sound of the baroque violins that Zehetmair plays. Cotik does play with a baroque bow, but that makes little sense if the violin is from a different aesthetic tradition. 'Music as speech' is not the foundation of this performance, because Cotik often plays legato and there is little difference between good and bad notes. His tempos are often a little faster than Zehetmair's: for the ciaccona of the second partita he only needs 10'55" (vs 12'29"), but his fast movements sound hasty and therefore superficial. In the allegro of the second sonata he largely omits dynamic contrasts. The preceding andante is then again too slow: he takes it for an adagio. Where Zehetmair's playing always breathes, even at the fastest tempos, the listener gets breathless with Cotik. It's all too much of the same. I was often bored listening to it. That’s a bad sign.

Plamena Nikitassova and Peter Waldner [3] have recorded a mixed programme in which the two major cycles are represented. They play three of the six sonatas for harpsichord and violin (Nos. 3, 4 and 6); in addition Nikitassova plays the Sonata No. 3 for solo violin and Waldner the Adagio BWV 968, which is an arrangement of the first movement of the sonata. The aim of this production was not primarily to present works by Bach; after all, there are many recordings of these pieces. The focus is on the instruments they use. Plamena Nikitassova plays a Stainer violin owned by the Tiroler Landesmuseums Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck. Stainer violins were played in Central Germany in Bach's time, and he may have owned such a violin himself. The harpsichord is a copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Harraß, made by Jürgen Ammer. There are no details about this instrument in the booklet, but in several works I noted the use of a 16' register, for instance in the Adagio BWV 968. The existence of instruments with a 16' register in Bach's time is documented. The question is when and in what kind of music it was used and whether Bach used it himself, but that may be impossible to answer. The performer's personal taste also plays a role. In any case, I am not very enthusiastic about interpretations in which this register is used. That doesn't compromise my generally positive assessment of this production. These two excellent musicians bring convincing interpretations. Plamena Nikitassova's performance of Sonata No. 3 is very good; her tempi are somewhat more moderate than Zehetmair's, and I rate his realisation of the double stopping a little higher, but both performances are based on the same principles. This comes also to the fore in the three sonatas for harpsichord and violin, which are performed in a speechlike manner. with a clear articulation and appropriate dynamic differentiation. The problem, however, is the balance between the instruments, which is too much in favour of the violin. It is rather odd that a harpsichord with a 16' register struggles to hold its own against the violin.

The sonatas for harpsichord and violin (BWV 1014-1019) are among the most frequently performed and recorded chamber music works by Bach. Several recordings have come onto the market in recent years. Most of them have nothing special to offer, and it is regrettable that the performers don't turn to less common repertoire. However, one recent recording is different from almost any other. Freddy Eichelberger and Odile Edouard [4] wanted to celebrate a collaboration of thirty years with a new recording. They have often performed repertoire from the 17th century, but Bach has always been a thread through the careers of both musicians. And so the idea came about to record the sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Eichelberger is first and foremost an organist, so it was an obvious choice to play the harpsichord part on the organ. There is no historical argument for this decision. It seems highly unlikely that Bach ever did so himself. That does not mean that these sonatas cannot be performed this way. In the baroque era composers and performers were pretty pragmatic in choosing instruments. Ultimately, it's the result that matters. The booklet rightly points out that the balance between the harpsichord and the violin is problematic. I can confirm that on the basis of several recordings, including the one just mentiioned. Too often the violin dominates, whereas both instruments are treated on equal footing by Bach. In a performance with organ, there is little chance that it will dominate. However, here it is rather the other way around. There are some moments when the organ overshadows the violin. There are no such problems in the two sonatas for violin and basso continuo (BWV 1021 and 1023); there the organ plays a more modest role. Eichelberger has selected three organs that suit Bach's style. He also plays some organ works in between the sonatas. Despite the critical remarks, I recommend this set of discs to Bach lovers, because it offers an opportunity to hear these pieces in a different way. Eichelberger and Edouard deliver good performance, but I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts in the violin part.

The last disc then focusses on the sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Several such sonatas are attributed to Bach, but only two are considered authentic: BWV 1021 in G and BWV 1023 in e minor. La Divina Armonia [5] - Mayumi Hirasaki (violin), Anna Camporini (cello) and Lorenzo Ghielmi (harpsichord) - has recorded both sonatas and the Sonata in c minor (BWV 1024), which is of doubtful authenticity and whose composer could not yet be established with any amount of certainty. The fourth work is the Sonata for harpsichord and violin BWV 1022, which has its origin in a trio sonata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, that in turn is derived from the sonata BWV 1021. The program is expanded with two harpsichord works, which also have their origins in violin works: the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964) - an arrangement of the Sonata No. 2 for violin solo - and the Adagio in G (BWV 968), which was originally conceived as the first movement of the Sonata No. 3 for violin solo. The result is a programme of strong coherence and at the same time variety in scoring. From these artists one expects first class performances and that is exactly what we get here. The balance between the instruments is exactly right. Mayumi Hirasaki plays beautifully and dynamically differentiated, both in the contrast between good and bad notes and on long notes. Ghielmi delivers speechlike performances of the harpsichord works. The choice of tempi is also convincing; the andante of the Sonata BWV 964, for example, is played at a nice walking tempo and not like an adagio. Everything is right here.

[1] "The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Thomas Zehetmair, violin
ECM New Series 2551/52 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[2] "Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo"
Tomás Cotik, violin
Centaur CRC 3755/3756 (2 CDs) (© 2019) details

[3] "Sonaten"
Plamena Nikitassova, violin; Peter Waldner, harpsichord
Musikmuseum CD13045 (© 2020) details

[4] "Trios pour clavier et violon"
Freddy Eichelberger, organ; Odile Edouard, violin
L'Encelade ECL 1704 (3 CDs) (© 2020) details

[5] "Sonatas for violin and basso continuo"
La Divina Armonia
Passacaille PAS 1077 (© 2020) details