Sunday, October 24, 2010

Opera recitals

Discs with arias from operas and oratorios appear regularly. They are mostly a vehicle to make the soloist shine in his or her favourite repertoire. I am always rather sceptical about this kind of discs. Firstly, because I believe the music should always take first place rather than the interpreter. If the name of the soloist is printed in larger letters than the name(s) of the composer(s), you just know something is wrong.
Secondly, isolating arias from an oratorio or an opera is mostly unsatisfying, as they lose some of their meaning without their dramatic context. It depends what kind of arias are sung: in Italian operas, for instance by Handel, arias often are not strongly connected to the dramatic context. Sometimes arias were moved from one opera to another and given to another character. It is more problematic in French operas where the arias are more closely connected to the dramatic development. That is one of the reasons the disc by Anne Sofie von Otter which I review on my site, is highly unsatisfying. It is not the only reason, the performances are rather bad as well.

The two discs I would like to mention here are not convincing either. The German mezzo Mareike Morr has finished two musical studies, piano and singing, and has diplomas in teaching both as well. But she has decided to concentrate on a career as a singer of oratorio, opera and songs, basically from every period in music history. As far as I know this is her first solo recording. I don't understand why she has chosen almost exclusively 'evergreens' of the baroque opera. Only the excerpts from Vivaldi's operas are lesser known, but all other pieces are available in numerous other recordings. This way she has to compete with interpreters who have more experience in this particular repertoire, and she fails to live up to that competition. In the two pieces by Monteverdi Ms Morr's performance is far from the ideal of recitar cantando. In general she pays too little attention to the text, and often there is a lack of declamation. She has certainly a nice voice, and that makes it all the more disappointing that her performances are rather one-dimensional and undifferentiated, for instance in regard to articulation and dynamics. And expressive her interpretations are mostly not. In Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga' her performance lacks subtlety, and I don't think anyone will be moved by her singing of Gluck's 'Che farò senza Euridice'. Lastly, the orchestra - with two violins, viola, cello, violone, theorbo, harpsichord and the additional wind instruments - is far too small for most arias. The recording is also very direct, and as a result there is no theatrical atmosphere at all.

Gluck has been a key figure in the history of opera. But only a handful of his theatrical works are known. Everyone knows Orfeo ed Euridice and maybe two or three other works, but most of his about 50 operas are largely unknown. In January 2010 Ian Page staged a concert in the Wigmore Hall in London in which he directed the Classical Opera Company in a selection of arias from various Gluck operas. Of course it couldn't be without 'Che farò senza Euridice' from Orfeo ed Euridice, but there were also arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta, Paride ed Elena, Ezio, Antigono and L'ivrogne corrigé. The latter is a comical opera - a genre one doesn't immediately associate Gluck with. Historically speaking the programme which was recorded in the Wigmore Hall Live series, is quite interesting, and in particular opera aficionados should love it. But musically it is very disappointing. Like in the Mareike Morr's recording the orchestra is too small: just 7 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos and one bass. In addition the playing is mostly dull and undramatic. As far as one can tell from extracts the singers give a good account of the respective roles from a dramatic point of view, but stylistically the performances of the sopranos Ailish Tynan and Sophie Bevan and the mezzo Anna Stéphany are wide of the mark. Too little attention is given to the text and the continuous wide vibrato of the ladies is unbearable and - more importantly - against all we know about the aesthetic ideals of the 18th century. This disc is another example of a great idea which has gone awry due to an inadequate performance.

- "Lamenti - furore e dolore" - Mareike Morr, Hannoversche Hofkapelle (Genuin GEN 10176)
- Gluck: "Blessed Spirit - A Gluck retrospective" - Ailish Tynan, Sophie Bevan, Anna Stéphany, Classical Opera Company/Ian Page (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive 0037)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Frans Brüggen, José Antonio Abreu & politics ... and Vivaldi

After a long break it is time to revive this weblog. More than 10 years ago I started a website with reviews of discs with early music. The number of discs which I receive is so huge that it is simply impossible to review all of them, as interesting as they may be. Therefore I have decided to use this weblog to give more general impressions of such discs, as well as of recordings which have been reissued.

But this week I would like to pay attention to some news which deserves attention.

Frans Brüggen may be 75, he still has a busy schedule. In August and September he has conducted the Orchestra of the 18th Century in Warsaw in a series of piano concertos by Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann, as well as the latter's violin concerto. Among the soloists in these performances, which have been recorded, were Kristian Bezuidenhout and Thomas Zehetmair. After returning he received the Medal of Honour in Arts and Sciences from Queen Beatrix in The Hague. A well-deserved award for someone who - with the likes of Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt - fundamentally changed the way music of the past has been played.
He still has big plans. Next month he will perform and record Beethoven's Triple Concerto, with Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Kristian Bezuidenhout, and in October of next year all Beethoven's symphonies will be performed and recorded once again. And in April 2011 the orchestra will return to Bach, with some of the orchestral suites and the Easter Oratorio.

Brüggen has regularly conducted the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, one of the three orchestras of Dutch radio. There is a good chance all of them will be disbanded, as the result of the compulsive economizing of the upcoming right-wing coalition government. The world-wide financial and economic crisis makes savings inevitable but the rigorous measures in the making to cut short the expenses of the Dutch national channels are far over the top and could well be a fatal blow to music life in the Netherlands. The radio orchestras - and the radio choir - play a major role in music life and several concert halls are highly dependent on their performances. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw fears that it will be impossible to balance the books and some even fear its closure. Representatives of the arts will argue against these drastic measures, but as the radical right-wing party this coalition depends on has a strong anti-cultural bias - considering arts as a "left-wing hobby" - it is hard to see them finding a response.

It is ironic that the same day the prospective prime minister received the order to build a cabinet the Venezuelan pianist José Antonio Abreu received the prestigious Erasmus Prize from Crown Prince Willem-Alexander. Abreu is the founder of what is generally known as El Sistema, a project which aims at bringing children from the lower classes into contact with classical music. They participate in a choir or an orchestra and receive private music lessons. The system has had great success and is now copied in other countries. The combination of cultural education and social elevation is praiseworthy and is ample justification for awarding Abreu the Erasmus Prize. One would hope his message of the importance of musical education, particularly for those who don't have the financial means to really participate in society, is not lost on those who will decide which austerity measures have to be taken.

And then some positive news: recently a flute concerto by Vivaldi has been discovered. The Gramophone writes: "University of Southampton research fellow Andrew Woolley stumbled across the score of a Vivaldi flute concerto among papers housed in the National Archive of Scotland in Edinburgh. “This piece was previously known only from a mention in the sale catalogue of an 18th-century Dutch bookseller. Discovering that it is actually in existence is unexpected and hugely exciting,” he said. The concerto is named Il Gran Mogol and is a cornerstone of a quartet of “national” concertos (the others celebrate France, Spain and England, but alas they are have not come to light). The score is virtually complete: a part for second violin had to be reconstructed using another manuscript that appears to be based on the same concerto." This is exciting indeed, and I can't wait to hear this piece. It shows that music still can be found at unexpected places. Time to clean up your attic! Who knows?

Lastly, some months ago I have joined the world-wide Twitter community. I don't see any reason to keep other people up-to-date with what I am doing. Many people overestimate the interest of others in their activities or thoughts. But it gives the opportunity to follow the activities of musicians and ensembles at the early music scene. Many use it to inform their followers about their concerts and recording plans. Anyone who likes to know what is going on at "the scene" should consider following the musicians and ensembles of his liking.