Friday, November 13, 2020

Organ portraits

Organ discs frequently focus on a particular historical organ. In many cases, the instrument is more important than the music, and that explains why in some productions the booklet includes much information about the organ and its history, and very little or even nothing at all about the organ. That is the case, for instance, with the last production under review here.

However, let me start with a disc whose booklet does offer information about both the instrument and the music. Christian Brembeck recorded a programme on the organ of St. Michael's Church in Bobenthal im Wasgau (Germany), in the southwestern corner of the Palatinate Forest, near the French border. The instrument was built in 1817 by Wendelin Ubhaus(er), an organ builder from the Anterior Palatinate. As expected, in the course of time it has been subjected to various 'adjustments', some of which were partially reversed during a restoration in 2016/17. In his selection of pieces, Brembeck was not primarily guided by the time the organ was built, but by the character of the instrument, which he describes as 'old-fashioned'. We therefore hear pieces by Scheidt, Johann Krieger, Louis Couperin, Bach and Handel, which stylistically belong to a different era. They sound quite good here, but especially the works from the 17th century would have come off better in a meantone temperament. Overall, I would have preferred music from around 1800, especially since the organ repertoire from that time is hardly known. It is represented here with pieces by Krebs, Leopold Mozart and Beethoven. Almost no organ works of the latter have survived, and that is why Brembeck plays a few little piano pieces here, including a couple of Bagatelles. A CD like this shows that little-known instruments are often wrongly neglected. It would be nice if they were used for recordings of organ literature. There is no reason why only the famous and widely-known instruments should be used for organ recordings. Christian Brembeck is an excellent organist and presents the instrument in a convincing way.

An exciting discovery is the background of the next disc. In 1995, the French organ builder Frédéric Desmottes was in the Spanish village of Cobeta in order to restore its organ, at the request of the priest who was also the prior of the Buenafuente del Sistal convent. He mentioned the remains of another instrument, which had been dismantled in 1970. These remains were such that a reconstruction was possible, and in 1997 a contract was signed to start the restoration work. However, in 2000 the nuns of the convent told that they could not afford the costs of the restoration works. Attempts to sell the organ failed, and in the end, Desmottes decided to purchase the organ himself. When permission was given to export the organ from Spain to France, it was moved to the church of Saint Éloi in Fresnes. The organ, built in 1786 by Joseph de Fuentes y Ferrer, has the characteristics of a typical Catalan organ, and therefore the programme focuses on Spanish organ works by the likes of Cabezón, Bruna, Cabanilles and Arauxo. In addition, a sonata by the Portuguese composer Seixas is included as well as some contemporary pieces by Géraud Chirol. The fact that works are played here that are much older than the organ is hardly a problem, as organ building on the Iberian Peninsula has long been based on tradition. That has been observed in the restoration of the instrument. The pipes are tuned at a'=392 Hz; the temperament is meantone with eight pure thirds. As a result, the repertoire, which is a nice mixture of better-known and less familiar pieces, comes across convincingly here. Étienne Baillot, Anne-Marie Blondel and Jean-Luc Ho give the best possible account of this excellent instrument.

The third disc may not be intended as an organ portrait, but since the instrument is prominently mentioned on the title page as well as the side-panel, the organ seems to be in its centre of interest. It was built in 1737 by Christoph Treutmann the Elder in the collegiate church of St. Georg in Grauhof, near Goslar, southeast of Hanover. It is the largest and most important work from Treutmann's workshop, who worked in Magdeburg. From 1989 to 1992 and in 2009 the instrument was restored and reconstructed. It has 42 registers, divided among three manuals and pedal. Stylistically, it combines elements of North and Central German organ building. The pitch is a'=462 Hz (known in Germany as Chorton) and its temperature is unequal according to Bach/Kellner. It will come as no surprise that the works of Johann Sebastian Bach that Mami Nagata selected, come off best. The older works, especially the Fantasia in a minor by Sweelinck, are less convincing because of the organ's temperament. However, this is also due to the interpretation; I would describe Nagata's presentation as 'solid'; unfortunately it lacks inspiration. I had trouble keeping my concentration, especially in the longer pieces, such as Buxtehude's Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein. I believe that more could have been made of these pieces. As far as the interpretation is concerned, I liked Mendelssohn's sixth organ sonata most of all the music performed here. The organ turns out to be a good instrument for this early romantic work. As the selection of pieces is not exactly very imaginative, organ lovers should consider this disc mainly because of the instrument.

On the last disc, Michael Schönheit introduces the organ in Halle Cathedral. It was built in 1851 by Friedrich Wilhelm Wäldner and is characterized in the text booklet as an example of early romanticism. The then famous organist August Gottfried Ritter expressed his praise for the instrument, the disposition of which was largely designed by him. Schönheit has put together a programme with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Although he is a representative of historical performance practice, we hear a rather romantic interpretation of Bach's works here. That seems quite right to me: an organ like this one does not allow baroque articulation anyway, and the sound is too dense to really reveal the polyphonic fabric. So we're hearing Bach from the perspective of the 19th century. Or, perhaps I should say: from the perspective of Franz Liszt, because two Bach arrangements from his pen are included: the prelude on 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen' from Bach's cantata BWV 12, and the Introduction and Fugue 'Das Lamm, das erwürget ist' from Bach's cantata BWV 21. This organ is tailor-made for such pieces. Schönheit also selected Mendelssohn's first two organ sonatas, which do well on this organ, although I prefer the Treutmann organ in Grauhof just mentioned. Here I had liked a less thick and massive sound. However, there is little wrong with Schönheit's performances. Unfortunately, some things have gone wrong during the production process. In the track-list, Liszt is not mentioned as the composer of the Introduction and Fugue. The number of the cantata from which the other Liszt piece is taken, is also omitted. Even more embarrassing is the duplication of Bach's chorale arrangement Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit. It is not only allocated to track 13, but also included as the second half of track 12, following Liszt's Introduction and Fugue. And, as I mentioned above, the booklet omits any information about the music. These are serious blots on a production, which otherwise is an attractive item for those organ lovers whose interest goes beyond the baroque period.

[1] La Pastourelle - The Ubhaus Organ in Bobenthal
Christian Brembeck
Cantate C58053 (© 2017) details

[2] Órgano viajero
Etienne Baillot, Anne-Marie Blondel, Jean-Luc Ho
Son an ero 10 (© 2017) details

[3] The Christoph-Treutmann Organ of 1737 in the former Collegiate Church of St George in Grauhof
Mami Nagata
organumclassics ogm 181013 (© 2018) details

[4] The Wäldner Organ at Halle Cathedral
Michael Schönheit
Querstand VKJK 1910 (© 2019) details

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Purcell: A man of the theatre

Music for the theatre takes an important place in Henry Purcell's oeuvre. Today his only opera, Dido and Aeneas, is regularly performed and recorded. In comparison, his semi-operas are lesser known, although they are certainly not neglected. Songs from these works are well-known and part of solo recitals. They were already popular in Purcell's own time, which explains why they were separately published in the collection Orpheus Britannicus.

Complete performances of the semi-operas in our time are extremely rare. According to New Grove, a semi-opera is "[a] play with four or more separate episodes or masques which include singing, dancing, instrumental music and spectacular scenic effects". The inclusion of the spoken text would result in a performance lasting about four hours. Moreover, a complete performance would only make sense if it would be staged, which is rather complicated. It is also questionable how many in an audience, even if they are all native English speakers, would really comprehend the texts of the original play. Today, most performers confine themselves to the musical items from Purcell's pen. Sometimes they include a spoken synopsis, which explains the story to the audience. That may make some sense in a live performance, but would be rather useless in a commercial recording, also because of the language. No wonder that both recordings reviewed here omit any narritive.

The Fairy Queen is based on a libretto by an anonymous author, which is an adaptation of the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. It is divided into five acts, preceded by First Music and Second Music, consisting of two instrumental pieces each, and an overture. This piece includes much diversity in forms and scorings, and it was one of the main concerns of Sébastien d'Hérin to create some sort of coherence. "I have wanted to be able to demonstrate that feeling of diversity and of exuberance which I have experienced myself, as well as the work's importance and stature which, I like to think, must have been so eminently evident at the time." It is inevitable that performers take differente decisions, but one would hope that these are all within the boundaries of what is historically tenable. Unfortunately d'Hérin has crossed that line.

The very first piece, the prelude which opens the First Music, is preceded by a solo of the timpani. That is already a bad omen. It is especially with regard to the instrumental scoring that d'Hérin has taken decisions which are debatable at least, and sometimes simply wrong. Purcell's scoring includes two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, strings, timpani and basso continuo. For unknown reasons, d'Hérin added a cornett and a harp. His ensemble also includes two cellos, a double bass, a regal and an organ. The use of cellos is very questionable, as these instruments were anything but common in Purcell's time. The double bass was never used in Purcell's music. Why a regal was used, is anybody's guess. The entire ensemble is also rather large, including seven violins and two violas.

The decisions regarding the vocal line-up make much more sense. The choral sections are sung by the soloists, and this may well be in line with the performance practice in Purcell's time. "In this score, there is no actual 'role', strictly-speaking [sic], nor any extended musical narrative. One is called upon to highlight a succession of arias and of dissimilar but demanding playlets; little in the way of the psychology of singing characters exists. My choices have thus focused on what I was able to see and understand from among all these loyal and dedicated artists: their personality, their individuality, their strength and their character." No problems here.

What about the actual performance? The decisions regarding the instrumental line-up may be controversial, but that in itself does not prevent a musically satisfying performance. However, that is not the case, I'm afraid. The inclusion of instruments like the cornett and the regal has pretty disastrous effects. The 'Dance of the Followers of the Night' at the end of Act Two is destroyed by the use of the regal. Moreover, here as elsewhere the strings include exaggerated dynamic accents, which are out of place in English music. In The Plaint (O let me weep), the obbligato violin part is played on the cornett, which is highly unsatisfying, for instance with regard to the balance between the soprano and the instrumental part. The cornett just attracts too much attention at the cost of the vocal part. Too often d'Hérin uses percussion, for instance in the chaconne at the end of Act Five. For some reason not discussed in the liner-notes, this piece - the Dance for the Chinese Man and Woman - is placed at the end of the work, after the chorus 'They shall be as happy', which in Purcell's score closes this work.

The singing does not give much reason for joy. Most singers use too much vibrato; Anders Dahlin is the only exception, and he is by far the best of the singers. Samuel Boden does also reasonably well. The Plaint is one of the highlights of this work, but it is destroyed here, not only due to the inclusion of a cornett, but also to Caroline Mutel's wide vibrato. However, the worst part of this recording is her performance of 'Hark! The echoing air', in which she adds some extravagant ornaments, as we are used to hear in a bad performance of a Handel opera. On a positive note: some of the singers are French, but their English pronunciation is surprisingly good. I hardly need to say here that the pronunciation is not historical; that is still the exception in performances of English music of the Renaissance and baroque periods.

King Arthur was first performed in 1691 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, in London in 1691. The libretto was written by John Dryden and is about the battles between King Arthur - about whom many legends have been woven - and the Saxons. This semi-opera exactly shows why a performance of Purcell's music alone can never be entirely satisfying from a dramatic point of view. The title character is a spoken role, and as a result King Arthur is nowhere to be seen or heard in Purcell's music. It is well summed up in the article on King Arthur in Wikipedia: "King Arthur is a "dramatick opera" or semi-opera: the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, pastoral or, in the case of Comus and the popular Your hay it is mow'd, drunk. Secondary characters sing to them, usually as diegetic entertainment, but in Act 4 and parts of Act 2, as supernatural beckonings."

There is one similarity between the performances of King Arthur by Vox Luminis and The Fairy Queen by Les Nouveaux Caractères. Like in the latter, the choruses in King Arthur are sung by the soloists. Their number is about the same: twelve and thirteen respectively. But that is where the similarity ends. The instrumental ensemble is much smaller: only two violins and one viola, plus recorders, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and percussion. There are no cellos and no double bass; the string bass is here a bass violin, which is much more in line with the performance practice in Purcell's time. There are no instruments which Purcell did not require.

I have heard Vox Luminis twice with this work. The first time was a concertante performance at the 2015 Festival Early Music Utrecht, the second time a scenic performance during the Purcell Day in Utrecht in 2018. At the latter occasion I did not get the impression that the singers are born actors, but undoubtedly these performances in different settings have helped them to find the right approach for a recording of this work. In the scenic live performance an actor recited a text which informed the audience about the story. That has been rightly omitted here. The synopsis in the booklet can be considered a compensation for it, although it could have been a little more extensive.

I very much enjoyed both live performances, and it was not any different this time. Considering the quality of this performance it is almost impossible to mention some highlights, as this recording is full of them. Let me point out some particularly fine moments. Robert Buckland gives an excellent account of the part of the British Warrior (Act I: Come if you dare). 'Hither, this way' (Act 2) is exquisitely sung by Caroline Weynants. Olivier Berten delivers a refined performance of 'How blest are shepherds' (Act 2). Zsuzsi Tóth and Stefanie True are a perfect match in 'Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying' (Act 2). The former is at her very best in the air 'Fairest isle' (Act 5). Sebastian Myrus does well as the frozen Genius. The staccato in his air could probably have been a little sharper. The only small disappointment is Sophie Junker, who uses a bit too much vibrato in the part of Cupid; she makes a better impression in the part of Honour in Act 5. One of this recording's assets is also the instrumental playing. Here all the exaggerations of Les Nouveaux Caractères have been avoided. There is no excessive use of percussion, and there are neither exaggerated dynamic accents nor extremely fast tempi. The whole piece has a nice and natural flow.

This is an impressive and highly enjoyable recording of one of Purcell's theatrical masterpieces. It would be nice if Vox Luminis would turn its attention to other theatre music by Purcell. What about The Fairy Queen?

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (Z 629)
Caroline Mutel, Virginie Pochon, Hjördis Thébault (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Christophe Baska (alto), Samuel Boden, Anders Dahlin, Julien Picard (tenor), Guillaume Andrieux, Kevin Greenlaw (baritone), Ronan Nédélec (bass-baritone), Frédéric Caton (bass), Les Nouveaux Caractères/Sébastien d'Hérin
Recorded September 2016 at the Théâtre Laurent Terzieff - Ensatt, Lyon, France DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Glossa - GCD 922702 (2 CDs) [2.03'52"]

Purcell: King Arthur (Z 628)
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
Recorded January 2018 at AMUZ, Antwerp, Belgium DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Alpha - 430 (2 CDs) [1.37'59"]

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

It is an intriguing coincidence that some of the great masterpieces of music history leave many questions which have not been answered yet, and probably never will be Examples are Monteverdi's Vespers, Bach's B minor Mass and Mozart's Requiem. To that list one can add Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. For a long time it was thought to have received its first performance in 1689 at Josias Priest's Boarding School for Young Gentlewomen, but first it was discovered that an earlier performance may have taken place at that school two years before. Right now it is assumed that it may have received its premiere at the court of Charles II, as early as 1684. From that perspective the statement of Robert Matthew-Walker, in the liner-notes to Christopher Monks's recording, that "[there] is also a subtle reference to contemporary events: the first chorus: 'When monarchs unite, how happy their state,' was - in 1689 - surely a direct reference to the accession to the throne of the joint British monarchs William and Mary the previous year", is highly questionable.

He also does not mention the problems with regard to the sources, which are discussed by Ellen Hargis in the booklet to Fabio Bonizzoni's recording. We know next to nothing about the first performances. The earliest musical source of the entire opera dates from about a century later. More interesting is a performance in London in 1704, the second at the public stage; the first public performance was in 1700. In 1704 Purcell's opera was preceded by the masque Mars and Venus by John Eccles and Godfrey Finger. "The conjunction of these two masques also provides information on the vocal ranges in Dido and Aeneas, as the singers in the masque of Mars and Venus are known. In all, Mars and Venus calls for one boy, two men, and five women (...)", Ellen Hargis writes. They can be correlated to Purcell's score, and that results in the Sorceress being scored for a bass rather than a mezzo-soprano or alto, as is the case in many recordings. That is not to say that the latter option is wrong; for the performance at the boarding school that part may have been transposed up an octave. Another difference is the role of the Sailor, mostly performed by a tenor, but apparently intended for a soprano. Bonizzoni follows these indications in his recording. In some recordings attempts are made to reconstruct dances which may have been part of the original performances. The only specimen in Monks's recording is a Guitars' Chaconne in the first act. Bonizzoni plays here a kind of improvisation as well, and if I am not mistaken, it is based on a piece by the Italian Bernardo Storace, which is a little odd.

The liner-notes to Monks' recording are not really up-to-date, and in a way that goes for the performance as well. I haven't heard anything I had not heard before. In no respect this recording offers a new perspective, which is disappointing, considering the large number of recordings in the catalogue. That would be less of a problem if the performance would have been really good, but it is not. Most of the singers use quite a lot of vibrato, and that includes Rachael Lloyd, who takes care of the role of Dido. It severely damages the famous lament, which makes too little emotional impact anyway. The most stylish singer is Roderick Morris as the Sorceress, but he seems vocally overstretched, and does not make much of his role, which is anything but fearsome. As is so often the case in performances of Dido and Aeneas, the Witches make a caricature of their part, producing the conventional nasal sound and singing deliberately out of tune. However, this opera is a tragedy, not a comedy. Bonizzoni understands that, and in his performance the Witches have to be taken seriously. In that respect there is more consistency with the role of the Sorceress, who is really threatening, thanks to Iason Marmaras' excellent interpretation. On the other hand, here the bickering between Dido and Aeneas at the end - "I'll stay / Away, away" - is unsatisfying: the tempo is too slow and as a result the agitated character of this dialogue doesn't come off. In this recording the performance of the part of Dido by Raffaella Milanesi does certainly not lack emotional depth, but stylistically it is disappointing because of her incessant vibrato.

Her diction also leaves a bit to be desired; the text is not always clearly intelligible, which is especially regrettable as we come here to one of the ground-breaking aspects of this recording: the use of historical pronunciation. The starting point was the fact that words which are supposed to rhyme, don't in present-day English. In order to correct that, the performers have adopted a kind of historical pronunciation. As a result "destiny" rhymes to "defie" (Aeneas, act 1) and "wounds" to "hounds" (Belinda, act 2). This is of great importance, but I have the feeling that the performers are a bit half-hearted. I remember to have heard that at that time, for instance, the pronucnation of the "r" was closer to present-day American English than to 'Oxbridge' English. The differences could be much more far-reaching than this recording suggests. It seems there is still some work to do in this department.

The third recording to be reviewed here is a staged performance, released on DVD by Alpha. Vincent Dumestre, director of the renowned ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, is responsible for this performance which took place in 2014 at the Opéra of Rouen. Those who have enjoyed the recording of, for instance, Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, may expect a comparable approach here: historical staging and costumes, baroque acting gestures and a use of historical pronunciation. They will be severely disappointed. As far as I know the stage directors have no experience with baroque opera, and although they deliberately avoided a "consciously modernising transposition", they did not opt for "a pure historical reconstruction". Incorrectly they call both options "extremes" - in my view a basic misunderstanding. If one aims to do as much justice to the intentions of the composer as possible, the adherence to what we know about the performance habits of his time is the most logical option. That said, in comparison to so many stagings of 18th-century operas, there is little here that is outright annoying. That is at least something. As you will understand, historical acting and pronunciation are also ignored here.

I already mentioned the scoring of the various roles. Like in Bonizzoni's recording, the role of the Sorceress is sung here by a baritone (Marc Mauillon). However, he also sings the role of the Sailor, which was originally intended for a soprano. Unfortunately that is not the only unhistorical aspect of this recording. The orchestra is relatively large, including eight violins and three violas. Even more problematic is the participation of instruments Purcell did not include in his scoring, such as recorders, oboes and bassoons. In the ensemble we also find a double bass, although it is known that in Purcell's time this instrument was not used (it is also part of the Armonico Consort; the instruments in Bonizzoni's performance are not listed). There are also guitars, which mostly play in the reconstruction of some dances. It is assumed that there were several dances in the score, but the music has mostly not survived.

The performance does not give much reason for enjoyment. Vivica Genaux is pretty horrible. I find her voice unpleasantly harsh, and she has quite some intonation problems. Moreover, she uses a pretty wide vibrato on virtually every note, and as a result the famous Lament is severely damaged. Henk Neven is alright as Aeneas, but is rather bland in the account of his role, and there is little 'baroque' in his style of singing. Vocally speaking Marc Mauillon is by far the best of the ensemble. Ana Quintans as Belinda does rather well, but I can't really warm to her singing either. The minor roles are not more than mediocre.

All in all, neither of these three recordings does really satisfy me, as neither consistently applies what we know about performing habits at the time. If I had to choose between these three, I would go for Bonizzoni, as he is most consistent in the scoring of the various roles, and makes use of historical pronunciation, Moreover, he also offers Mars and Venus by John Eccles and Godfrey Finger, which preceded Dido and Aeneas in the London performance of 1704. It is here performed after Purcell's opera, but if you want to 'reconstruct' that performance, you can easily do so by programming your CD player accordingly.

Rachael Lloyd (Dido), Elin Manahan Thomas (Belinda), Eloise Irving (Second Woman, First Witch, Spirit), Jenni Harper (Second Witch), soprano; Roderick Morris (Sorceress), alto; Robert Davies (Aeneas), Miles Golding (Sailor), baritone
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Recorded October 2014 at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, UK DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Signum Classics - SIGCD417 [50'45"]

Raffaella Milanesi (Dido), Stefanie True (Belinda), Michela Antenucci (First Witch, Sailor), soprano; Anna Bessi (Second Witch, Spirit), mezzo-soprano; Richard Helm (Aeneas), Iason Marmaras (Sorceress), baritone
Coro Costanzo Porta; La Risonanza/Fabio Bonizzoni
(+ John Eccles (1668-1735) & Gottfried Finger (1685-1717), The Love of Mars and Venus, 1680)
Recorded live 25 February 2016 at Cité de la Musique et de la Danse, Soissons, France DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Challenge Classics - CC72737 [76'11"]

Ana Quintans (Belinda), Caroline Meng (First Witch), Jenny Daviet (Second Woman), soprano; Vivica Genaux (Dido), Lucile Richardot (Second Witch), mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Tamagna (Spirit), alto; Henk Neven (Aeneas), Marc Mauillon (Sorceress, Sailor), baritone
Choeur Accentus; Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre
Recorded May 2014 at the Opéra, Rouen (Haute-Normandie), France DDD
Subtitles in E/F/D/ES
The entire performance is available on YouTube
Alpha - 706 [1.20']

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Francesco Feo: San Francesco di Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Georg Philipp Telemann: Reformations-Oratorium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Music of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Opera (4)

Francesco Cavalli: L'Ormindo (Jérôme Correas)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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