Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sopranos in opera - male and female

From the late 17th century until the beginning of the classical era, composers and audiences had a strong preference for high voices. Sopranos and altos were dominating operas and other dramatic works. Often these were castratos, but some of their female counterparts also earned quite some fame. No wonder, then, that there are more discs with baroque opera arias by sopranos and altos than by tenors and basses. Three are reviewed here, and it is notable that two of them are by male sopranos, although only one of them specifically manifests himself as such. However, let me start with a 'conventional' soprano.

It is always nice to be able to listen to a singer's debut recording, as it tells much about what he or she is about and has to offer. Jeanine De Bique [1] seems to have been active at the music scene for some time before she was given the opportunity to make a solo recording. She is not a baroque specialist, but as so many opera singers, she was keen to record some Handel arias. However, she "was adamant not to do a Best of Handel Arias for soprano", as the musicologist Yannis François writes in the booklet. Therefore they developed a concept which is summarized in the disc's title: "Mirrors". On the reverse we read: "For her debut album (...) Jeanine De Bique unveils the different reflections of the same female characters of Handel and his contemporaries, as though looking through a broken mirror". It resulted in a programme which includes arias by composers whose operas are little-known, especially Carl Heinrich Graun, Gennaro Manna and Riccardo Broschi, but also gives an interesting insight into the world of 18th-century opera. It is known that some librettos were set by several composers. Interestingly, we find here arias from two operas, called Rodelinda, but Handel and Graun used almost completely different librettos. Equally interesting is that the same aria is not always sung by the same character. Only in one case the same text is performed in two different settings: 'Mi restano le lagrime' from Handel's Alcina and Broschi's L'isola d'Alcina, but whereas in Handel it is Alcina herself that sings it, in Broschi's opera it is given to Morgana. It demonstrates that the connection between text and character in baroque opera was rather loose. I already mentioned Broschi as one of the composers included here whose opera oeuvre is little-known. I did not mention Vinci and Telemann, as their operatic output has received some interest in recent years. That does not mean that it has become familiar, and that makes the inclusion of an aria by each of them most welcome.
Obviously one is curious about what a singer brings to the table in such arias. I have mixed feelings. As is mostly the case, we should not expect a way of singing that comes close to the baroque aesthetic ideals. Jeanine De Bique is a product of a very contemporary style of singing baroque opera. I noted with satisfaction that she takes quite some freedom in the ornamentation department (although I am not sure that they are of her invention - were they written-out by Luca Quintavalle?), but does not exaggerate in that she competely rewrites, as it were, the dacapo sections; the original is still recognizable. I also noted that her performances are differentiated according to what an aria is about; there is no doubt that she has quite some dramatic talent. Unfortunately she uses too much vibrato nearly all the time. That goes especially for the more dramatic stuff, such as the aria fro Graun's Cesare e Cleopatra, which opens the programme. However, there are also much more restrained arias, where she reduces her vibrato, and that makes things so much better. There she shows to be an expressive interpreter. Those are the arias I enjoyed most. She definitely has many possibilities, and it is probably dependent on the people she is working with, which of these are explored. The way the programme has been put together and the inclusion of unknown arias is what makes this disc attractive to opera-lovers, independent of what they think about the way they are performed.

Nicolò Balducci [2] is a singer, who is labelled an alto (the cover says 'countertenor'), but is able to sing in the soprano range. Therefore I marked him as 'male soprano' in my review of his recording debut ("Castrapolis"). His programme was quite interesting in that it included arias by composers one does not often encounter on recital discs, let alone that their operas are recorded at full length. Among them are Giuseppe Porsile and Domenico Natale Sarro (or Sarri). The second disc is a little different: it includes arias by two little-known composers - Riccardo Broschi and Egidio Romualdo Duni - but the largest part of the programme is devoted to Handel and Vivaldi, by far the most popular baroque opera composers of today. In the Handel section we even find some evergreens: 'Lascio ch'io pianga' and 'Ombra mai fu'. The title of his disc nicely sums up what baroque operas are about: love and sadness - often connected. The unknown composers are undoubtedly the most interesting part of the programme. Broschi - who also appears on Jeanine De Bique's disc - is a relatively unknown name, but he was the brother of a famous singer, Carlo Broschi, better known as the castrato Farinelli. The arias performed here may have been sung at first by castratos, and Broschi's aria was even performed by his brother, during a performance of an opera by Johann Adolf Hasse. It attests to the habit of famous singers at the time to include their favourite arias in whatever opera they were singing, whether they fit into the work or not. Vivaldi's operas are regularly performed these days, but single arias have not reached the evergreen status as some of Handel's. Therefore the Vivaldi part of the programme is an interesting section of this disc as well. I would have liked some lesser-known arias by Handel, but I can live with the evergreens performed here, if they are sung as nicely as here by Nicolò Balducci. My positive impressions of his debut are confirmed here. He has what it takes to bring opera arias to life, and I am sure he will do well in complete opera performances too. There are many things to enjoy, such as the freedom in the recitatives and the fact that he does not exaggerate in the addition of ornamentation and cadenzas. He uses a bit too much vibrato to my taste, but it did not spoil my enjoyment. Balducci is a singer to keep an eye on, and I am curious to hear how he is going to develop.

In contrast to Balducci, Samuel Mariño [3] is a real soprano. The booklet tells us that his speaking voice is the same as his singing voice. That sets him apart from those singers who are able to sing well into the soprano range, but through vocal technique. Mariño's recital is also different from most recital discs of his peers in that it focuses on later repertoire: all the pieces are from the classical era, probably with the exception of Christoph Willibald von Gluck's Orfeo, which is not quite classical, but also not baroque, and was an important trailblazer for the classical style in opera. It is Mariño's mentor Barbara Bonney, who stimulated him to explore the music by Mozart and contemporaries. The programme includes arias from Le nozze di Figaro, Il re pastore, La clemenza di Tito and Mitridate. In addition we get arias from two operas by Domenico Cimarosa, who is almost exclusively known for Il matrimonio segreto, and from the only extant opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The latter arias are what makes this disc interesting, although those who have a special liking of Mozart's operas may well be curious to know how arias they know very well, are sung by a male soprano, something that very seldom happens in live performances.
Before I heard this disc I had heard some of Mariño's live performances, and I wondered what the fuss was about. I did not like what I heard, and thought: another soprano who ignores what we know about the aesthetics of the time the music was written. Especially his heavy vibrato and exaggerated ornamentation and cadenzas put me off. Some of that is noticeable here as well, and that is the reason that I don't particularly like this recital. However, it is not as bad as I had expected on the basis of live performances. There is too much vibrato, but it is not as wide as I had heard before, and the whole is not as extravagant as I had feared. Opera lovers may investigate this disc, because of the lesser-known arias, and just to experience the singing of a natural soprano. One can only hope that Mariño is willing to turn to a more 'authentic' way of singing 18th-century opera.

[1] "Mirrors"
Jeanine De Bique, soprano; Concerto Köln/Luca Quintavalle
Berlin Classics 0302017BC (© 2021) details

[2] "Amore Dolore"
Nicolò Balducci, soprano; Baroque Academy Gothenburg Symphony/Dan Laurin
BIS 2645 (© 2023) details

[3] "Samuel Mariño, sopranista"
Samuel Mariño, soprano; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel/Andrea Marcon
Decca 4852943 (© 2022) details

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The keyboard in Central Europe, 1750-1830

During second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century a large amount of keyboard music was written for a variety of instruments, from harpsichord to fortepiano. Today only a small portion of that repertoire is performed and recorded. The three Viennese classical composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven overshadow most of their contemporaries. Although representatives of historical performance practice have always liked to look beyond the standard repertoire, it is only in the last decades that composers in the shadow of the masters have received serious attention. However, even today many composers of keyboard music are forgotten. "Some of these pieces might not have the sublime perfection of the greatest masterpieces, but they do offer a lot of charm, inventiveness, and playful expression that reflects the period and style in which they were written. In this sense, these works may be even better witnesses to their time than the pinnacles of timeless genius", Menno van Delft writes in the booklet that accompanies the first recording to be reviewed here, appropriately called "Miscellanea" [1].
The inspiration for this project was the large collection of photocopies of keyboard music that the late Christopher Hogwood, one of the pioneers of historical performance practice, had put together during his career, based on scores in archives, libraries and private and public collections. This came into the hands of Menno van Delft, and together with his colleague Artem Belogurov, he sorted it out and created a survey of what was written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Apart from pieces for solo keyboard, the programme includes items for two keyboards, keyboard à quatre mains and even a piece for six hands at one keyboard. The fact that only one piece for two keyboards is played - Mozart's Sonata in D (KV 448) - is no co-incidence: most of the music played here was intended for amateurs, and only a few were rich enough to possess two keyboard instruments. Playing the keyboard à quatre mains, on the other hand, was very popular, and that explains that quite a number of such pieces are included here. Mozart's sonata does receive an unusual performance, though: it is played with a combination of harpsichord and fortepiano, which is seldom practised. That does create a bit of a problem here, because the fortepiano dates from 1805, which is too 'modern' for a piece which was written in 1781. The balance is too much in favour of the fortepiano. Its use in some other pieces is also anachronistic, but this is the effect of the decision to use four historical instruments, which otherwise is praiseworthy, especially as all of them are wonderful instruments: apart from the fortepiano a clavichord of 1803, a Kirkman harpsichord of 1766 and a house organ of probably 1813, built by Gideon Thomas Bätz. The latter two instruments are part of the collection of Amerongen castle, in the south of the Dutch province of Utrecht, where the recordings took place.
Among the composers one finds some names that have become pretty well-known in recent years, such as Hässler, Reichardt, Wagenseil and Kozeluch, but also 'nobodies' such as Palschau, Saupe, Schwenke, Stanzen or Schmiedt. One won't find such names on the concert programmes of the celebrated pianists of our time, and their music may not do very well on the modern concert grand anyway. It is no surprise that quite a number of pieces are played on the clavichord, the most intimate of all keyboard instruments, which was very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and perfectly suited for domestic music making.
All in all, this is wonderful set of pieces, played on very interesting and beautiful instruments, and by two masters of historical keyboard playing. This is a mouthwatering production for all keyboard aficionados, and one can only dream of what else the Hogwood collection may include. Let's hope this set of discs (the third is only available as digital download) is not going to be the last exploration of that rich source.

Although Van Delft and Belogurov included a piece by the English composer Thomas Arne, otherwise they focuse on what was written in the German-speaking world. Therefore it makes sense to review here some other discs which also contain music from this part of Europe. The composers all belong to the same category as nearly all those represented in the 'Miscellanea': they are largely forgotten.
Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792) [2] is a case in point. It is only recently that his oeuvre is receiving some attention, which has resulted in recordings of sacred music (Passion, cantatas), string quartets and keyboard works. The latest in the latter category is a recital of four sonatas and a fantasia with thirteen variations, performed on a tangent piano by Flóra Fábri. When Wolf was just 17 years of age, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach heard him play one of his own pieces, and he was very impressed. He continued to follow what Wolf was producing, and the admiration was mutual. Wolf earned a reputation as one of the most original composers of his generation. Ernst Ludwig Gerber wrote about him: "Wolf (...) is not only (...) one of our classical and best composers in every category, but also a true original." He led an adventurous life, moving from one place to another, often driven by a lack of money, which also made him composing music in what may not have been his preferred genres, such as operettas. From the 1760s he worked in Weimar, where he became a leading figure in music life, very much at the dismay of Goethe. His oeuvre comprises music for the stage, sacred works and instrumental music of various kinds, from keyboard concertos to music for keyboard solo. The specimens of the latter category recorded by Flóra Fábri show a strong similarity with the works of CPE Bach. That goes especially for the two sonatas from 1774, which include quite some surprises, such as sudden pauses. Another specimen of this similarity is the Fantasia mit einem dreizehnmal variierten Thema; the fantasia could be part of one of CPE Bach's collections. The performances by Ms Fábri do these works full justice; this disc is a really excellent case for the oeuvre of Wolf. That is also due to the instrument: an original tangent piano by Christoph Friedrich Schmahl, built in 1790, which suits Wolfs music very well. There is every reason to pay more attention to the oeuve of this composer, whose reputation in his own time was well deserved.

Anton Eberl (1765-1807) [3] is another composer from the second half of the 18th century, who has received quite some interest recently through recordings, mostly of music in which the keyboard - more particularly the fortepiano - plays a key role. The latter is not surprising, as this was his instrument. He made a career as a keyboard player and composer, who spent most of his life in Vienna, but was in St Petersburg from 1796 to 1800. In our time he has become known at first when Concerto Köln recorded his Symphony in E flat, which had its premiere alongside the first performance of Beethoven's Eroica. Most in the audience preferred his symphony to Beethoven's, as they also found Eberl's keyboard works more accessible than those of Beethoven. Sayuri Nagoya selected keyboard works from his early and from his late period, which show the stylistic development in his oeuvre. Eberl was close to both Mozart and Beethoven, and it is telling that his Sonata in c minor, op. 1 was first published under Mozart's name. The later works are much more pianistic, and also more dramatic, closer to Beethoven than to Mozart, and pointing in the direction of the romantic style. Especially the Sonata in C, op. 43 is a highly dramatic work, whose fast movements include marked contrasts, which Ms Nagoya, in her liner-notes, compares to opera. The developments in Eberl's keyboard oeuvre come off well, but would have been even clearer, if two different instruments had been used. Sayuri Nagoya plays a Brodmann of 1805 which perfectly fits the sonatas opp. 27 and 43, which date from around that year. They are less suited for the earlier works, the Variations on 'Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen' (1791 or earlier) and the Sonatina in C, op. 5 of 1796. A Stein or early Walter may have been more appropriate here. However, that does not compromise the importance of this disc, as it shows the quality of Eberl as a composer of keyboard music. Sayuri Nagoya is an excellent advocate of his music, and the Brodmann fortepiano is a very fine instrument. For lovers of classical keyboard music, this is an essential addition to their CD collection. (The liner-notes are a bit confusing as it is suggested that the opp. 27 and 43 include more than one sonata, which seems not the case, if we have to believe New Grove and the Petrucci Music Library.)

Wolf, Eberl and several composers represented in the collection 'Miscellanea' were held im high esteem in their own time, but are hardly known or even virtually forgotten in our time. That also goes for Johann Gottfried Schwanberger (or Schwan(en)berg) (1737-1804) [4], who was nearly his whole life active in Braunschweig, where he was appointed organist at the court in the 1720s. He had his talent at the keyboard from his father, who was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. He stayed for more than six years in Italy, where Johann Adolf Hasse was one of his teachers. After his return he was appointed Hofkapellmeister at the Opera, at the age of just 24. His oeuvre comprises operas, secular cantatas, sacred music, symphonies and keyboard works. He was held in high esteem by Charles Burney and Ernst Ludwig Gerber. Today he is almost forgotten; the only work that has been recorded to date is the sinfonia from one of his operas. It is due to the collector of musical instruments Peter Karsten, that his eight keyboard sonatas could be recorded on a unique fortepiano that was built by Carl Lemme, of whom only four instruments have been preserved: two clavichords and two fortepianos. The instrument used for this recording is the only one which is in playable condition, and was built in 1796 in Braunschweig, which makes it quite likely that Schwanberger has played it himself. It has been preserved almost unchanged. This production is interesting for two reasons: it offers the possibility to become acquainted with Schwanberger's music, and it presents a historical instrument by a little-known keyboard maker in virtually authentic state. The sonatas are rather short works; the entire programme takes less than 54 minutes. One sonata is in one movement, four are in two movements, and the remaining three have three movements. They are specimens of the classical style; the right hand has most of the thematic material, but the left hand is more than just an accompaniment, as was the case in the galant idiom. The booklet - only in German - is entirely devoted to the composer, the instrument and its builder and their historical and musical environment. The sonatas are not analysed or put into their historical perspective. It would be interesting to hear more of Schwanberger's oeuvre. It seems to me that these eight sonatas won't shock the world, and it may be hard to experience them the way they were received in his time. However, I like them and I think they are valuable additions to the keyboard repertoire of the time. Claus-Eduard Hecker delivers good performances, but probably a bit too straightforward. I would have liked a little more differentiation in articulation and dynamics, and in the treatment of the tempi.

[1] "Miscellanea"
Menno van Delft, Artem Belogurov, harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano
TRPTK TTK 0047 (© 2021) details

[2] Ernst Wilhelm Wolf: "Selected Works for Clavier"
Flóra Fábri, tangent piano
CPO 555 490-2 (© 2022) details

[3] Anton Eberl: "Piano Sonatas & Variations"
Sayuri Nagoya, fortepiano
Brilliant Classics 96509 (© 2022) details

[4] Johann Gottfried Schwanberger: "Claviersonaten"
Claus-Eduard Hecker, fortepiano
Prospect 00371 (© 2022) details

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Vocal recitals, from alto to bass

The arias in vocal recitals of baroque music are mostly taken from operas. That is also the case with three of the discs to be reviewed here. However, the first includes arias from oratorios, and the last a mixture of oratorio and opera. The oratorio was one of the main genres of vocal music during the baroque period. In the mid-17th century it developed in Rome, and came in two forms: either written for ecclesiastical use, on a text in Latin, or a so-called oratorio volgare, a piece in Italian, which was performed outside a liturgical context. This way the message of the church - and especially that of the Counter Reformation - could be disseminated among the people who did not understand Latin. In the course of time the latter form became dominant: from the late 17th century onwards Italian composers wrote their oratorios on librettos in Italian and stylistically they became closer to opera. Most oratorios of the 18th century are basically operas on a sacred subject. That could be either the life of a saint (or episodes from it) or a story from the Bible. Philippe Jaroussky [1] has recorded a selection of arias from Italian oratorios from the late 17th to the mid-18th century. Most of them are appearing on disc for the first time, and that is telling: there seems to be more interest in operas of the late baroque period than in oratorios. That is very regrettable, as this disc shows. Jaroussky has undoubtedly selected the best arias, but one may assume that their quality says a lot about the level of the oratorios from which they are taken. It is impossible to choose highlights, but one of them is definitely the aria 'Il rimorso opprime il seno' and the preceding accompanied recitative from La conversione di Sant'Agostino by Johann Adolf Hasse, which is a perfect example of a 'sacred opera'. One easily recognizes here the operatic skills of Hasse who was the most celebrated opera composer of his time for a reason. Very moving is the last aria, 'È morto il mio Gesù', from the oratorio Morte e sepoltura di Christo by Antonio Caldara. Most composers included here have written several oratorios, and one can only wish that this part of their oeuvre is going to be explored more extensively than has been the case to date. The performances are excellent: Jaroussky's relatively light and agile voice is perfectly suited to this repertoire, and this recording is close to his heart, as he explains in his notes in the booklet. That shows: he sings with great conviction and engagement, and he is excellent form. Apart from some exaggerated cadenzas he avoids all eccentricities, and often he sings with great subtlety. The ensemble is his best possible partner, and delivers outstanding accounts of the orchestral scores. This disc makes one longing for more.

One of the most influential poems of the Renaissance was Ludovico Ariosti's Orlando furioso, which inspired authors of opera librettos and their composers, and whose various characters became the subjects of cantatas. The Italian alto Filippo Minecccia [2] recorded a programme of arias from various operas, in which some of them figure. Orlando is the title character of operas by Handel and Vivaldi and he also appears in Porpora's L'Angelica. Ruggiero is one of the characters in Orlando generoso by Agostino Steffani, Polinesso in Handel's Ariodante. Among the lesser-known characters are Lurciano (Wagenseil, Ariodante) and Ergasto (Mele, Angelica e Medoro). Medoro is one of the title characters of Angelica e Medoro, which is attributed to Giuseppe Millico. The latter work dates from 1783 and closes the programme, which opens with Steffani's Orlando generoso of 1691. This indicates the wide chronological scope of the programme, which explains the stylistic differences. The problem with aria recitals is the lack of dramatic context. In this case that may be less of a problem as the stories about the different characters are rather well-known, at least among opera lovers. It is nice that in some cases the aria is preceded by a recitative, which offers at least some of the context. It also gives the interpreter the opportunity to show his or her skills in the interpretation of recitatives, which is harder than one may think. Mineccia does well in them, and he certainly does not lack in dramatic craft. That said, I am not entirely satisfied by this recital. Over the years I have heard a number of recordings by him and I mostly enjoyed them. Here I find his voice sometimes a bit harsh, lacking in warmth and suppleness. There is also too much vibrato, which is stylistically debatable and not nice to hear. In the aria from Porpora's L'Angelica he adds a cadenza which crosses the compass of the role, which is undesirable, and he sings it at full power. That is a bad habit of many opera singers these days. Unfortunately the orchestra also does not always produce a pleasant sound. With eight violins and two violas it is larger than the orchestras in some aria recordings, but in this repertoire I could imagine an even larger ensemble. What speaks in favour of this disc is that it has a clear subject which has been worked out well, and includes extracts from operas that are not that well-known. Mele and Millico are virtually unknown qualities, and Wagenseil is also not known for his operas. From the angle of subject and repertoire this is definitely a very interesting disc.

The Italian tenor Marco Angioloni [3] put himself into the shoes of Annabale Pio Fabbri, a singer and composer from Bologna, who appeared in operas by various composers, among them Vivaldi and Handel. Tenors usually did not take the main roles in operas in the 18th century. That was different in the 17th century, when they often played a key role in the comical part of operas, and also in the 19th century, when they often sang the title role. However, in the 18th century some composers scored major roles for a tenor. One could see it as a time in which they gradually gained in status. Some of the arias by Handel may attest to that. Four arias are first recordings, among them two from Rinaldo, which may surprise, as this is one of Handel's most frequently-recorded operas. However, the two arias are from the revival of 1731; in that performance the role of Goffredo, which was scored for an alto in the first performances of 1711, was rescored for tenor, and sung by Fabbri. The revival of Publio Cornelio Scipione in 1730 was even more drastic in that the title role, which in the first performances of 1726 was scored for alto, was rewritten for Fabbri. He was considered one of the greatest singers of his time, and according to Angioloni, in his liner-notes, he had a 'pure lyric tenor' voice, and "without a doubt (...) is one of the tenors who contributed to the development of this tessitura at the beginning of the 18th century". The programme offers arias from operas, in which he participated. Apart from Handel and Vivaldi, the programme includes arias by Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Sarro and Antonio Caldara. All of them are first recordings, which bears witness to the lack of recordings of the operas by these composers. Angioloni thinks that Fabbri had the same kind of voice as he has, and he may well be right. His voice is indeed lyrical, and suits the selected arias perfectly. I like his singing, and I hope to hear more from him. His interpretations are stylish, and he never goes over the top in ornamentation and cadenzas. The way he treats the recitatives betrays his Italian roots: they sound completely natural, both in his pronunciation and in his rhythmic liberties. The orchestra is a bit on the small side; I would prefer a slightly larger orchestra, especially in Handel. Because of the many first recordings and the performances this is a disc every opera lover may want to add to his collection.

Antonio Caldara is one of those composers of the baroque era who were celebrities in their own time, but play a marginal role in modern music life. Some of his works are rather well-known, such as his oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo , but the largest part of his sizeable oeuvre waits to be rediscovered. He worked in Venice, Rome and Barcelona, before moving to Vienna, where he for many years was the favourite composer of emperor Charles VI. There he wrote liturgical music, cantatas, serenatas, oratorios and operas. The bass Alexandre Baldo [4] recorded a number of arias from operas and oratorios which Caldara composed for the court in Vienna. He is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, in which he used to play the viola, before turning to a career as a singer. The ensemble plays with one instrument per part, and in some pieces that may be appropriate. That goes for Scipione africano il maggiore, which is called a festa di camera per musica, and the oratorio Il Batista, which was performed in the emperor's private chapel. In other cases a larger orchestra would have been more in line with the performance practice at the court and have done more justice to the dramatic nature of an aria. It took me a while before I started to appreciate Alexandre Baldo's singing. I liked his voice, but found his performances a little stiff and flat. This may also be due to the arias themselves, which are probably not always top-class. It is in the arie di bravura that I liked his singing best, and the arias from the two oratorios also come off well. Even so, the cadenzas are not very imaginative, and I would have liked stronger differences between good and bad notes, especially in coloratura. However, a disc with arias from Caldara's oeuvre is welcome anyway, as he deserves much more interest and he should be better represented on disc. Baldo has himself dug up these arias and found out who sang them in Caldara's time. He also wrote the informative liner-notes. It is a bit odd, though, that none of the people participating in this production, seems to know that the title character of Il Batista - mentioned 'Sto Giovanni Battista' in the score - is generally known as (St) John the Baptist, not as 'the prophet Baptist'.

[1] "La vanità del mondo"
Philippe Jaroussky, alto; Artaserse
Erato 0190295179298 (© 2020) details

[2] "Orlando - amore, gelosia, follia"
Filippo Mineccia, alto; The New Baroque Times/Pablo García
Glossa GCD 923523 (© 2020) details

[3] "A Baroque Tenor - Arias for Annibale Fabbri"
Marco Angioloni, tenor; Il Groviglio/Stéphane Fuget
Pan Classics PC 10437 (© 2022) details

[4] Antonio Caldara: "Arias for Bass"
Alexandre Baldo, bass-baritone; Ensemble Mozaïque
Pan Classics PC 10 447 (© 2023) details

Saturday, November 11, 2023

The 2nd International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments - Observations and considerations

Recently I have been following parts of the International Chopin Competition on period instruments, which took place in Warsaw and ended on 14 October. Chopin is not exactly a favourite composer of mine, and you will not find any review of performances of his music on my website. However, as I am interested in everything that goes on in the field of historical performance practice, I was curious to see and hear how the competition was going to proceed. I am not going to give any verdict on the performances of the individual contestants. I rather offer some observations and considerations with regard to the event.

The International Chopin Competition can look back on a long history: the first edition took place in 1927. Since 1955 the competition is held every five years. It has had prestigious winners who have made a great career. In 2018 the organization held a competition for performers on period instruments for the first time. As one may gather, this did not replace the usual competition: it took place halfway the edition of 2015 and 2021 (the latter was postponed for one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Apparently the first edition was a success, which explains why this year the second edition was held.

In the first round 35 contestants participated. A look at their biographies revealed that, apart from some very young players at the start of their career, there were several contestants who had already made quite a career on modern piano. That is not without risk: what does it say, if a respected pianist falls at the first hurdle? The fact that they took that risk may attest to the growing respectability and importance of historical performance practice in the world of the piano. There was a time that pianists of the 'traditional school' - the large majority of professional players - looked down at historical pianos and considered them primitive predecessors of the 'superior' modern concert grand. It seems that the younger generation is more open to the playing on period instruments and can value them for what they are. Often they say that these instruments learn them a lot about how the music of the 19th century has to be performed.

At the same time, the fact that the competition on period instruments has the form of a 'special edition' shows that playing on such instruments is a speciality, and still takes a marginal place in the piano world. That probably will not change very quickly, if only because many players want to cover a chronologically wide repertoire in their recitals. It is nearly impossible to play a recital with music written over a period of, say, 150 years on the appropriate instruments. In such cases the modern concert grand is the preferred instrument. This is only going to change if performers decide to put together their programmes in a different way.

Obviously the contestants had to play pieces by Chopin. However, in the first round they also needed to play pieces by some of his Polish contemporaries and pieces by Bach (from the Well-tempered Clavier) and Mozart. The latter is rather surprising. Bach's keyboard music is not intended for fortepiano; only late in his life he became acquainted with the pianos of Silbermann. And Mozart's keyboard instruments were very different from those which were at the disposal of the contestants, the oldest of which was the copy of a Graf of 1819. I understand that the reason was that Chopin held both in high esteem and played their music. That makes sense, but then the question is: how to play them? Like Chopin? I wonder whether we know how he played Bach and Mozart, and from which editions. For the sake of 'historical correctness' the contestants could have been asked to play Bach's preludes and fugues from the Well-tempered Clavier in the edition of Czerny. Whether there are any Mozart editions of Chopin's time, I don't know.

There is every reason to be happy with the developments in the field of performance practice of 19th-century music, as was demonstrated in this competition. At the same time, I suspect that many - probably most - pianists see the use of historical instruments as just one of the options. That is better than a complete neglect or even rejection. That said, we are still far away from what would be ideal: the awareness that period instruments are a sine qua non when one does want to do justice to the intentions of a composer.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The harpsichord under Louis XV

We are used to see recordings of keyboard music by composers who are hardly known, mainly thanks to the releases of Brilliant Classics. The latter mostly include music by Italian composers. It seems that the map of the landscape of keyboard music in 18th-century France has hardly any white spots. That is a mistake, if we look at some of the releases reviewed here.

Christophe Moyreau and Charles Alexandre Jollage were contemporaries; the former is not mentioned in my edition of New Grove, the entry about the latter is confined to less than ten lines. It is interesting to listen to the oeuvre of these two in comparison: they may have been contemporaries but were stylistically different.

Christophe Moyreau [1] was born in Orléans where he worked all his life. He was educated as an organist, and acted in this capacity for most of his career. Although he seems not to have left any organ works, some of his harpsichord pieces that Fernando de Luca included in his recording, can be played on the organ, such as Les Cloches d'Orléans, which is included in his Op. 5 and closes the sixth disc. His keyboard works were published around 1753; the last disc of the set includes 'sinfonias' and 'concertos' which are dated 'c1760'.

The most common form of harpsichord works in France was the suite. In the 17th century composers left it to the performers to put together a suite according to their own preferences. In the 18th century composers published their pièces de clavecin as fixed suites. Another development was the introduction of character pieces. These became increasingly important and started to overshadow the traditional dances. Often suites also included pieces based on a basso ostinato, such as chaconne and passacaille. Moyreau's five books of harpsichord pieces are a little different. They include suites, but also pieces with the title of sonata, in four movements, following the Italian model: slow - fast - slow - fast. In addition there are some concertos and a few individual overtures. Some suites are extremely long: the Op. 1 includes a Suite in d minor, which takes here the complete first disc, lasting more than 64 minutes. Some individual pieces are quite long as well: La Parissienne from Op. 5 takes more than eight minutes, Le Pegase from Op. 4 almost nine. In the above-mentioned Suite in d minor we find some sort of operatic scenes, about the Cyclops and Apollo.

Stylistically Moyreau's music reminds me of that of his contemporary Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. The first of the two pieces about the Cyclops includes effects that show strong similarity to Balbastre's , Marche des Marseillois et l'air ça-ira. Those who have a more than average knowledge of French harpsichord music know what to expect. Moyreau's music may be considered a token of the decline often associated with Balbastre. Not every lover of French harpsichord music may appreciate it. I would not recommend listening to Moyreau's music at a stretch. It is better to take one disc at a time or even a part of it. I have nothing but praise for Fernando De Luca's performance. He rightly does play Moyreau with aplomb; too much subtlety would be out of place. This is mostly pretty extraverted stuff, and that is the way De Luca treats it.

The fact that all of Moyreau's books of harpsichord pieces were published in one year, suggests that they were written over a longer period of time. Therefore, it is anything but sure that the Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin by Charles-Alexandre Jollage [2], which was printed in 1738, is much older. However, stylistically the pieces included in this book are much more conservative.

It is not known exactly when Jollage was born; it is assumed it must have been around 1700. The place of his birth is not known either, but it seems likely that he was from the same region as Moyreau. Like he, Jollage was educated at harpsichord and organ, and worked as organist for most of his life. In 1755 he became one of the four organists of the Notre-Dame in Paris, alongside Daquin, Armand-Louis Couperin and René Drouard du Bousset. Apparently he had worked for quite some time in Paris as a harpsichord teacher.

The first book of pieces for the harpsichord is the only music of his pen ever printed. It consists of two suites in G major/minor and in A major/minor respectively. One of the features is that some pieces are divided into two sections, the first in major, the second in minor. In accordance with the conventions of the time, most movements are character pieces. The titles are mostly hard to interpret, but Le Postillon (Suite in A major/minor) cannot be misunderstood. Another notable piece is Les Caquets (the singular means 'chatter') (Suite in G major/minor). The same suite includes L'Obstinée, which is another nice musical painting.

In New Grove Jollage's music is called "bland and conventional". I politely disagree. I have enjoyed these two suites, and they are definitely more to my taste than the music by Moyreau. Fernando De Luca has caught their character very well, and plays with more restraint and more subtlety than Moyreau's oeuvre. This is the first recording of Jollage's harpsichord music, and that is well deserved.

If there is one French composer whose harpsichord music has strong operatic traits, it is Jean-Philippe Rameau [3]. Although it dates from the time before he turned to opera, it shows that he was an operatic genius from early on. Some of his harpsichord pieces were later orchestrated and included in his operas. This was the reverse of the common habit of transcribing operatic music for harpsichord. Rameau paid tribute to the latter practice in that he published Les Indes galantes 1735 in the form of Quatre grands concerts to be played on harpsichord(s) or by an instrumental ensemble. This was the inspiration to the recording by Loris Barrucand and Clément Geoffroy. Some of the pieces need a third hand or can only be played by two players, which explains that the music on their disc is played on two harpsichords. They have chosen pieces from four operas, which are connected by the fascination for the culture of the East, and especially that of Persia.

The operatic nature of the music comes perfectly off. The interpreters play with aplomb and imagination. That said, those who know and love Rameau's operas will miss something that it a hallmark of his operas: the colours of the orchestra. Rameau was a masterful orchestrator, which earned him the admiration of composers of later generations, such as Berlioz and Debussy. This aspect is lost in a transcrioption for harpsichord(s), and therefore a disc like this may appeal more to lovers of the harpsichord than admirers of Rameau's operas.

The fourth disc does not include opera transcriptions, but is theatrical in that Céline Frisch [4] ordered the pieces with the aim of illustrating a day at the court. The first chapter is called "the beginning of the day and the mass": each day started with a mass in the Chapelle Royale. It opens with Le réveil-matin (the alarm clock) from François Couperin's 4e Ordre and closes with Carillon ou cloches by Pierre Dandrieu. The second chapter is about hunting: "Les plaisirs de la chasse". That is also the title of a cycle of pieces by Louis-Claude Daquin, which takes this entire chapter. Then comes "Promenade amoureuse et bucolique". Among the pieces are Les tendres sentiments by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer and Le Rossignol-en-amour from Couperin's 14e Ordre. "Les jeux et le divertissement de la cour", which is about the evening entertainment, is the title of the fourth chapter. It opens with Couperin's Les Amusemens (7e Ordre) and also includes some transcriptions of operatic pieces by Rameau, from the pen of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. At the end of the programme, the king goes to bed, with Michel Corrette's Les Étoiles.

Céline Frisch's performances are profiled characterisations of the different pieces; one of the highlights is Daquin's cycle about the hunt. Apart from Frisch's playing, it is due to the harpsichord that the various pieces come off so well: it is a copy of an instrument by Jean-Claude Goujon (before 1749), ravalé by Joachim Swanen (1784). It has a strong sound, and also has a knee-lever mechanism, which allows for a change in registration. Frisch uses it in Balbastre. Rather than simply presenting a random selection of pieces, she tells a kind of story here, which makes it a very entertaining recital.

One of the composers included in her programme is the subject of the last disc to be reviewed here: François d'Agincour(t) [5], who was born and died in Rouen, where he was active as organist all his life. For some time he also acted as one of the organists of the Chapelle Royale. He was a strong admirer of François Couperin; in the fourth suite of his only book with harpsichord pieces, Premier livre de clavecin (1733), he devoted some pieces to him. He also called his suites ordres, and - like those by Couperin - they mostly consist of character or genre pieces. The book was dedicated to the Queen of France, Marie Leczinska. This explains the opening of the book with the Allemande La Couronne. The countryside makes its appearance with Les Danses Provençales. In the Second ordre we find a scene of a play, the rondeau Le Colin Maillard, which Céline Frisch also included in the chapter devoted to the entertainment at the court. The second suite ends with the beautiful Chaconne La Sonning.

D'Agincourt is one of the lesser-known composers of keyboard music from 18th-century France. That is regrettable, and it is nice that Stéphane Béchy has taken the initiative to record his harpsichord book complete; this is the first volume, which hopefully will be followed by another disc, which may also contain (at least a part of) d'Agincourt's organ works. I very much like Béchy's playing, which is stylish and subtle. This recording makes crystal clear that the negligence of d'Agincourt's oeuvre is undeserved. It's time for a revaluation. This disc helps.

[1] Charles Moyreau: "Complete Harpsichord Music"
Fernando De Luca, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96285 (© 2022) details

[2] Charles-Alexandre Jollage: "Premier livre de Pièces de Clavecin"
Fernando De Luca, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 96773 (© 2023) details

[3] Jean-Philippe Rameau: "Fêtes Persanes"
Loris Barrucand, Clément Geoffroy, harpsichord
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS079 (© 2022) details

[4] "L'aimable - Une journée avec Louis XV"
Céline Frisch, harpsichord
Alpha 837 (© 2022) details

[5] François d'Agincourt: "Pièces de Clavecin - Livre de 1733 Vol I"
Stéphane Béchy, harpsichord
BY Classique BY003 (© 2022) details

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Classical concertos & symphonies

There is not much chance that visitors of live concerts with music of the classical era have the chance to hear music by lesser-known contemporaries of the masters Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Even the best-known among them, such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, take a minor role in modern concert life. It is thanks to some specialists, and in the latest decades in particular the representatives of historical performance practice, that now and then recordings of such repertoire are released. Today their composers are overshadowed by the 'masters'. That was very different in their own time. The two Kozeluchs, for instance, were highly respected in their time. They were just two of many composers and performers from Bohemia, who made a career in their own part of Europe or even far beyond. The first disc to be reviewed here includes three concertos for a wind instrument. During the baroque era the oboe was one of the most revered instruments. Two oboes, strings and basso continuo was the standard scoring of orchestral suites, and many composers wrote concertos and sonatas for it as well as obbligato parts in vocal works. The best-known oboe concerto from the classical era is the one by Mozart. According to Karl Böhmer, in his liner-notes to this recording, Jan Anton Kozeluch's Concerto in F is one of the best of its time, and written in the classical style. Many concertos of the classical era show the influence of opera, and that manifests itself here especially in the slow movement. The bassoon was also often part of the scoring of baroque orchestral suites, but in comparison to the oboe, only a few composers wrote solo concertos or sonatas for it. Antonio Vivaldi was the first prolific composer of bassoon concertos, and in Germany it was Christoph Graupner who composed some virtuosic bassoon concertos. In the classical era it is Mozart's concerto that is best-known, although by far not as famous as his clarinet concerto. Jan Anton Kozeluch wrote the Concerto in C that has become part of the standard repertoire. Many pieces by the Kozeluch's are hard to attribute to one of them, as they often mention only 'Kozeluch' as the name of the composer. That is also the case with the Concerto in B flat, whose solo part falls within the range of a baroque bassoon and therefore may be the earliest piece on this disc. It may be an early work of Leopold. The disc ends with the latter's Symphony in g minor, which is one of three dating from the 1780s. Böhmer mentions similarities with Mozart's last symphonies, and it is interesting to note that Kozeluch's symphonies precede them. This disc is a worthy tribute to two composers whose oeuvre is seriously underexposed, which is unjustified, as this recording proves. Both Giovanni de Angeli and Sergio Azzolini deliver excellent performances of the solo parts. Especially interesting is Azzolini's instrument, an original bassoon of around 1794. Camerata Rousseau is their outstanding partner, and closes this disc with an energetic performance of Leopold Kozeluch's symphony.

Like the Kozeluchs, Antonin Reicha was from Bohemia. He is better-known than they, but mainly because of his connection to Beethoven. As far as his oeuvre is concerned, the wind quintets are part of the standard repertoire of wind ensembles, but he has written much more, which is seldom performed. That makes the second disc reviewed here especially important. It includes two sinfonias concertante, specimens of a genre that was very popular in the classical era. The first such works were written and performed in Paris in the second half of the 18th century. Such pieces were something between a symphony and a solo concerto. They were always scored for an orchestra with solo parts for two or more instruments. The main aim of a sinfonia concertante was entertainment. The genre belongs among the 'lighter' genres of the time. However, the way composers treated it was different. One of the best-known pieces of this kind is Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, which is one of his most-beloved works for a reason. The two sinfonias concertante by Reicha which Stephan MacLeod recorded with his orchestra Gli Angeli Genève and four soloists, are far more than mere entertainment. The sheer size of these works - around 30 and 40 minutes respectively - indicates that these are substantial works. That goes in particular for the Sinfonia concertante in E, which has two cello parts that are technically challenging; in comparison the parts for transverse flute and violin in the Sinfonia concertante in G are easier to deal with. At the same time, as Alexis Kossenko states in the booklet, it is obvious that Reicha, having been educated at the flute, had an intimate knowledge of the instrument. This work is closer to the ideal of entertainment than the other piece. In the work for two cellos we find traces of opera, as in the concertos on the first disc. It is also uncommon in that it opens in C major rather than the main key of E major. This disc should contribute to giving Reicha its rightful place in the landscape of classical music. These two works deserve the best possible performances, and that is exactly what they get here. Chouchane Siranossian, Alexis Kossenko, Christophe Coin and Davit Malkonyan are top-class performers, who deliver outstanding performances of the solo parts and are also fully integrated in the orchestra. In particular the Sinfonia concertante in E was recorded in difficult circumstances, due to the restrictions because of COVID-19. It is a token of the quality of the soloists and the orchestra that the result is this good.

The third disc is devoted to Johann Wilhelm Wilms, a composer of German birth, who settled in Amsterdam in 1791 and played a major role in music life in the Netherlands in the early 19th century, as a composer, a conductor, a flautist and a pianist. In the last twenty years or so we witness a modest revival of his output. Some of his symphonies and solo concertos have been recorded, but the Accent disc seems to include only first recordings of his clarinet concerto and two sinfonias concertante, which he himself called just Concertante. The most remarkable piece may well be the Concerto in B flat for clarinet, which - according to the soloist, Ernst Schlader - is technically comparable with Mozart's concerto. He also notes some tricky passages that point in the direction of clarinet works by Weber. The two sinfonias concertante are not without technical challenges either. That goes, for instance, for the cello part in the Concertante in C. The other solo parts are for transverse flute, clarinet, bassoon and violin. The Concertante in F is scored for transverse flute, oboe or clarinet (here the oboe has been chosen), bassoon, horn and orchestra. The 'entertainment' in these works comes in the last movements: a polonaise closes the Concertante in C and the clarinet concerto. The Concertante in F comprises only two movements: the first is in three sections (allegro - andante - allegro), the second is a set of variations - a very popular form at the time. So far the ensemble Harmonie Universelle has almost entirely confined itself to music from the baroque era; this is probably the latest music it has ever played. It does so very well, and it is nice that they have focused on Wilms, who deserves more interest than he has been given so far. With Andreas Spering they have invited a conductor with vast experience in the classical repertoire. The soloists do an excellent job here as well; they are all specialists on their respective (historical) instruments. This disc is a most convincing case for Johann Wilhelm Wilms.

[1] Johann Antonin & Leopold Kozeluch: "Concertos and Symphony"
Giovanni de Angeli, oboe; Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; Camerata Rousseau/Leonardo Muzii
Sony 19439788202 (© 2021) details

[2] Antonin Reicha: "Symphonies concertantes"
Alexis Kossenko, transverse flute; Chouchane Siranossian, violin; Christophe Coin, Davit Melkonyan, cello; Gli Angeli Genève/Stephan MacLeod
Claves CD 50-3011 (© 2020) details

[3] Johann Wilhelm Wilms: "Clarinet Concerto, Sinfonie Concertante"
Ernst Schlader, clarinet; Harmonie Universelle/Andreas Spering
Accent ACC 24391 (© 2023) details

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Tunes from the British Isles

Most 'classical' music performed today in churches and concert halls all over the world, and recorded on disc, belongs among the category of what is called 'art music'. It was written by composers and has come down to us in fixed form, either in manuscript or in printed editions. However, in the course of history, much music - and probably even most - was sung and played by people who did not use any written notes; many of them were probably not even able to read music. Improvisation was the name of the game, and music was handed over from one generation to another orally. It had no fixed form, and in the course of time, both texts and music often changed considerably. In most cases their original forms are not known, unless at some time such music was written down. That is the case with the music which is the subject of a recording by an the Makaris [1], whose name is derived from makar (pl. makaris), a royal court troubadour of medieval Scotland; the term was resurrected centuries later and is used now to describe a Scottish bard or poet (booklet).

The title of this disc also needs some explanation. David Rizzio, of Italian origin, was secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1566 he was murdered by Mary's Protestant opponents. He was also a bass singer, but there is no reason to think that he has ever written any note of music. However, a number of songs are attributed to him, and that was the work of William Thomson (c1684-c1762), who in 1726 published a collection of songs under the title of Orpheus Caledonius. It was the first printed edition of arrangements of traditional Scottish songs, consisting fifty settings by Thomson over a figured bass. For 43 melodies no composer was mentioned, and it is likely that Thomson plagiarized their texts from a book of Scottish poetry published two years before. Thomson attributed the seven remaining melodies to David Rizzio. The reason for that may well have been that the Italian style was fashionable and that attributing melodies to an Italian Thomson hoped to sell more copies. Several respected composers fell for this myth, including James Oswald and Francesco Geminiani.

Makaris's disc presents all 22 songs falsely attributed to Rizzio, in various arrangements, mostly by composers from the 18th century (Geminiani, Veracini, JC Bach), but also by members of the ensemble. Most of them are performed in a combination of voice and instruments, and some are performed in instrumental versions. In some cases, arrangements by different composers have been mixed. The only composer who is represented with original music, is James Oswald. This disc seems to me of great interest to any lover of traditional music. What we have here is the performance in historical fashion - with instruments of the 18th century - of music from a stage in its development in which it was fixed. It is not only an interesting contribution to our knowledge of the music scene in 18th-century England, but also the history of traditional music and the way it developed in the course of time. Even if you don't understand all the texts, this is an enjoyable disc, as the members of the ensemble perform these pieces with audible enthusiasm and technical skills on their respective instruments.

The second disc is more modest with regard to the participation of instruments. Most pieces are played on the harp, either solo or with violin; the latter was the instrument of the Irish Turlough O'Carolan, and he is one of the best-represented composers on the programme recorded by the ensemble Spirit & Pleasure [2]. This ensemble consists of Christoph Mayer (violin) and Johanna Seitz (harp), in a few pieces joined by Monika Nielen on the oboe. Whereas Makaris entirely focused on tunes from Scotland, here we also get some from Ireland and England. The above-mentioned Geminiani is also represented, and so is James Oswald, who was from Scotland and was educated on the cello. He settled in London and became acquainted with the English, Italian and French styles. He a had a strong influence on later generations of composers.

The pieces in the programme belong among two categories. On the one hand we have 'authentic' arrangements of traditional tunes in baroque style by the likes of Geminiani, O'Carolan and Oswald. On the other hand we have traditional tunes arranged in a comparable way by the performers themselves. The fact that composers of the 18th century arranged these tunes - and they were followed by classical masters such as Haydn and Beethoven - justifies this procedure, and it seems to me that they have done a fine job. The traditional tunes have their own charm, and even those who have no great interest in traditional music as such may well enjoy these tunes in a baroque shape. In this case there are no texts which are hard to understand, as the songs are performed instrumentally, which again is an entirely legitimate procedure.

[1] "The Galant David Rizzio - Eighteenth-century arrangements of traditional Scottish songs"
Olde Focus Recordings FCR921 (© 2022) details

[2] "Good taste - Baroque folk from Ireland, Scotland and England"
Spirit & Pleasure
Aeolus AE-10346 (© 2021) details