Saturday, June 14, 2014

East is East and West is West (2)

Four years ago I published an article on this weblog under the title 'East is East and West is West'. The reason was the release of various discs which juxtaposed or blended music from the West and from the (Near) East. There is every reason to return to this subject. Its popularity seems to be unbroken. One wonders why the music of non-European cultures is attracting so much interest. Only few of the artists involved are clear about their motifs.

Among those who are most active in this field is Jordi Savall. He regularly brings musicians from different cultures together to give them the opportunity to become acquainted with music from a culture they did not know. This has resulted in various recording projects which are either devoted to the music of a specific culture outside of Europe or at the margins of the continent or juxtapose music from different cultures. His motifs are partly politically motivated, under the impression of the aggravation of conflicts between various cultures in our time.

A musical confrontation between East and West can be quite interesting. But whether it makes sense largely depends on how it is worked out. Generally speaking there are two concepts here. In the first the music of East and West is mingled. This is what is often called crossover, which Daniel Manhart (chant1450) defines as "uniting two worlds and thereby generating new music which has never been heard before". Unintentionally he puts his finger on the sore spot. In projects which are based on this concept the artists perform music which has never existed before. This has nothing to do with historical performance practice, and even the word interpretation would be out of place here.

The first disc from the list at the bottom of this article, called "raga vira", is an example of this approach. Maria Jonas and her ensemble Ars Choralis Coeln perform chants by Hildegard of Bingen. This is mixed with music from northern India, sung and played by Amelia Cuni. This results in 'new' music without any historical foundation. Whether one likes the result or not - I certainly do not - one should not expect a historically plausible interpretation of Hildegard of Bingen's chants. Music from two entirely different cultures is thrown into one pot, probably on the basis of the assumption that there are many similarities between them. But what seems the same is not always the same.

The second concept is the opposite: music from different cultures is juxtaposed, but in both cases performed - interpreted indeed - according to its own standards. This approach seems rather rare, although Jordi Savall's performances are quite close to this concept. Most performers and ensembles follow a path between these two opposites. In this context one important aspect needs to be mentioned. The confrontation between two cultures can be historically plausible, even if we don't know if it has ever really happened. In this respect there is a difference between the recording of Ars Choralis Coeln and Doulce Mémoire's disc. It is inconceivable that Hildegard of Bingen was aware of any music from outside her immediate region, let alone from non-European cultures. Likewise the people of northern India will never have heard any music from Europe. However, Denis Raisin Dadre's project is based on a confrontation which actually could have taken place. In the liner-notes he writes: "The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans (...) did not put an end to exchange with the Christian west. In the Byzantine period there already existed a hill opposite Byzantium called Pera, on which stood the walled city of Galata. (...) By leaving the inhabitants of Galata [Greeks, Jews, French et al] their possessions and their freedom to trade, the conquerer of Constantinople, Mehmed II, permitted this colony to remain a bridgehead of the Christian west in its relations with the 'Gate of Felicity' (...)." He then assumes that the musicians from both cultures must have been interested in each other's music. He put a programme together which comprises pieces from both sides, performed with the appropriate voices and instruments, and the corresponding singing and playing techniques. Only in some pieces the members of the two ensembles join, and as a result we hear instruments from the East in western music and vice versa.

The ensemble chant1450 follows more or less the same concept. Before 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain three cultures coexisted: the Christian, the Moorish and the Jewish. Specimens of the music of the former two are brought together here. We hear motets by Spanish composers, such as Antonio Ribera, Pedro de Escobar and Juan de Anchieta, and improvisations by Mahmoud Turkmani on the ūd. He improvises between the motets but also participates in the performance of mass sections in plainchant. This is highly unsatisfactory. The coexistence of three cultures in renaissance Spain is a historical fact and their mutual influence in musical matters is also generally acknowledged, but it seems highly unlikely that muslims played any role in Christian liturgical music. This is indeed music which did not exist before it was performed in our time. It is especially regrettable as the motets are so beautifully sung.

Canticum Novum also brings music from Spain as it could have been performed before 1492. It rather focusses on secular and non-liturgical religious music. "We have selected several pieces which seem to us to express, in all its richness, diversity and vivid colours, that blessed era when men and women of different cultures and origins came together to nurture shared acts of creativity. We had no difficulty in choosing such pieces from the Sephardic repertory, the repertory of the Muslim tradition and Alfonso X el Sabio's song collection, the Cantigas de Santa Maria", Emmanuel Bardon writes in the booklet. This could have been an interesting disc, if the performers had not made use of instruments from exotic cultures, such as the bandolim - a type of mandolin used in Portugal, but not before the late 16th century - and Tibetan bowls. It is acknowledged that they were not used in 13th-century Spain, but "[we] used them to increase the range of colours and the variety of timbres". This way the recording has lost its historical credibility.

That is quite different in the case of the various projects of Jordi Savall. Here musicians generally perform their 'own' repertoire. Seldom instruments of one culture are used in music from another. That lends his performances a great amount of authenticity and credibility. The books which accompany the discs include much information about history and culture, but unfortunately very little about the music, the instruments or performance practice. The listener becomes acquainted with the music of other cultures, but it seems unlikely that having listened to the discs and read the books he has a really better understanding of the music of other cultures.
Orient-Occident II is almost exclusively devoted to music from Syria; only a couple of 'western' pieces are performed. In Esprit de l'Arménie there is no meeting between various cultures at all. Only Armenian music is performed, not only 'early' music, but also much later repertoire, including music from the 20th century. Armenia had to deal with 'eastern' cultures, marked by Islam, but music from the environment is not included. The third project is devoted to the Balkans; for a long time this region was a meltingpot not much different from Spain before 1492. Here not only Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures coexisted, but also the culture of the Roma whose role is often neglected and is given special attention in this project.

I am not particularly interested in or fond of the music of those cultures, but the value of Savall's projects can hardly be overestimated, especially considering the sincerity with which he and all musicians participating treat the musical material. Savall's approach is the most plausible and credible of the recordings mentioned here.

"raga virga"
Ars Choralis Coeln, Maria Jonas; Amelia Cuni (dhrupad-chant, tanpura), Poul Høxbro (flute, percussion)
Talanton - TAL 90010 (2011; 68'07")

"La porte de félicité - Constantinople 1453 entre Orient et Occident"
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin Dadre; Ensemble Kudsi Erguner
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT314 (2012; 73'39")

"Flores de España - Orient & Occident in Spanish Renaissance"
Mahmoud Turkmani (ūd), chant1450
Christophorus - CHR 77374 (2011/12; 60'03")

"Paz, Salam & Shalom"
Canticum Novum, Emmanuel Bardon
Ambronay - AMY033 (2010; 75'33")

"Orient-Occident II - Hommage à la Syrie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9900 (2013; 79'28")

"Esprit de l'Arménie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9892 (2012; 76'55")

"Esprit des Balkans"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9898 (2012; 79'15")

Saturday, May 31, 2014

East Empire Light - Liturgical music from the Balkans

The political changes in Europe in the late 1980s which resulted in the dismantling of the Eastern Block had all sorts of implications and these extended to the world of music. Musicians who lived in relative isolation all of a sudden had access to sources outside their own realm, and could become acquainted with the new insights in regard to performance practice. On the other hand, the West learnt about developments in a part of the world they mostly didn't know, and the results of research on the musical past of that part of the continent of which they were not aware.

Musicians in Eastern European countries were sometimes forced to confine themselves to delve into the musical heritage of their own country. In some cases this was encouraged by the regimes: the awareness of a rich cultural heritage could unite the people whereas the state ideology more and more lost its appeal. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and as part of the process of growth towards independence interest in local history and culture increased. In this way people could become more aware of their national identity. The last decade of the 20th century has shown that this interest in national heritage had its drawbacks, and that notion is especially relevant as this disc is devoted to music from the Balkans, in particular Serbia. One cannot read the words of Bishop Danilo Krstic in the booklet without thinking of the dubious role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the war at the Balkans. Milena Miloradovic, music editor of Serbian radio and television, states in her liner notes that "every well-educated singer is a precious bloom in the Orthodox garden adding colour, but above all promoting faith and love among people". During those years we have seen very little of that.

This disc is devoted to the early stages of Orthodox liturgical music. These are not that well-known to other than insiders, and certainly not in the Western part of Europe, let alone elsewhere. It is a great thing that the fruits of research such as that by Vera Zlokovich are made available to a wider public. However, it is a big shame that this disc comes without any documentation about the nature of the chants, their place in the liturgy or even the time of the ecclesiastical year for which they were written. The texts could give some clue in regard to the latter, but these are omitted as well. Instead we get a biography - not particularly objective at that - of Vera Zlokovich and her ensemble and a description of her activities. This is all very interesting, but not half as interesting as the music. And that is what I would like to know more about.

Almost all of these pieces are monophonic. That doesn't mean that we always hear a single voice. Most pieces are performed by a solo voice, sometimes in alternation with chorus, singing over a kind of bourdon, taken by a choir. The rear inlay indicates that all pieces are arranged. I would like to know in what way they have been arranged. Considering the differences in region and time there is a remarkable stylistic similarity among many items, which bears witness to the strength of the tradition and the relative isolation in which these chants were sung.

That isolation makes it all the more surprising that some chants reminded me of liturgical music in Western Europe, especially the so-called 'Notre Dame School', which is associated with composers like Perotinus and Leoninus. That goes in particular for Ize heruvimi - a chant from Bulgaria (track 15). This piece dates from the 17th century - one again a token of the strength of the tradition of Orthodox liturgical music. Another piece which shows some similarity to the organa of the Notre Dame School, is the Russian chant Blazen muz, also from the 17th century. The disc ends with a polyphonic piece, Allilosa.

This is all fascinating stuff. Listening to these chants raises many questions but the booklet doesn't answer any of them. Therefore: more of this repertoire, please, but then with some useful background information.

The East Empire Light - Prayer Chants from the XI - XVIII centuries
Musica Antiqua Serbiana/Vera Zlokovich
place and date of recording not mentioned
Meridian - CDE 84543 (71'46")

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Opera (3)

Leonardo Vinci, La Partenope (La Rosmira fedele) (Antonio Florio)

Opera lovers will immediately think of Handel when they see the title of this disc. He also composed an opera on this same subject, performed in 1730. Five years earlier Handel had performed a pasticcio which included seven arias from this opera by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730).

The original libretto of the opera was written by Silvio Stampiglia and presented to the Spanish Vicereine of Naples (synopsis). There is a close connection between Parthenope and Naples. During the Spanish domination of the city the Neapolitans called themselves partenopei, children of Parthenope. The latter was considered the founder of the city. There are two figures with that name in classical mythology. The first is one of the Sirens; she was washed ashore at the spot where Naples is situated. The second was a Greek princess, daughter of the King of Thessaly. With a group of people from her country she settled at the same spot and founded the city.

The libretto had been set by various composers before, such as Antonio Caldara and Domenico Sarri (Sarro). A revised version of the latter's opera was performed in Rome in 1724 when Vinci was there, and for some time the two worked together. When Vinci became active as an opera composer in Venice he decided to stage La Partenope, but then under the title of La Rosmira fedele. The reasons for this change of title are not known. It has been suggested that it was a kind of homage to the famous soprano Faustina Bordoni, who sang the role of Rosmira. Another reason could be that the name of Pathenope hadn't any special meaning for Venetian opera lovers as it had for the Neapolitans.

For this setting Vinci kept parts of Sarro's score: he borrowed his recitatives, the chorus 'Viva Partenope' and the military sinfonias in Acts 1 and 3. He also reused music from previous compositions of his own, which in some cases forced him to change the text of an aria. In 2004 Antonio Florio conducted the first modern performance of La Rosmira fedele, and the present recording is a compilation of live performances in April and May 2011, with a partly different cast.

A live performance on disc has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is the interaction between the protagonists which is not easy to realise in a studio recording. The stage noises add to the illusion of being present in the theatre. That can also be a disadvantage, though: you hear something but can't see anything, and therefore some of those noises make no sense. There are some battle scenes where you can only hear a clash of arms; as you can't see a thing this is lasting too long, especially as there is no music. Such a scene at the end of Act 3 is especially odd: you hear a clash of arms but according to the libretto the actual fight between Arsace and Rosmira and their respective seconds never takes place. In a CD recording you can only guess what is going on. Another disadvantage is the annoying habit of opera audiences to applaud arias or scenes which stops the flow of the music. In this performance the battle scene from Act 1 is followed by applause, and only then Arsace gets the chance to force Emilio to surrender.

The acoustic is rather dry, as is to be expected from a live recording in a theatre. That is not so much of a problem in a DVD recording, but on a CD it not always makes for pleasant listening. In January 2013 a DVD of this production was released, but I haven't seen that. It should be especially interesting because of the period staging.

The assessment of an operatic production concerns both the acting and the singing. On the basis of the CD it is virtually impossible to evaluate the acting. I have to confine myself largely to the musical aspect, and in that regard I am not that positive about this production. Especially from a stylistic point of view the performances are rather disappointing. One of the main problems is the incessant and sometimes very wide vibrato of the female soloists. That includes Sonia Prina, who sings the title role. For some reason I got used to it in her case, and that has something to do with the fact that she is an contralto. In my experience a wide vibrato is less obtrusive in low voices than in high. Moreover, in the interpretation of her role she is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. She is versatily singer and is able to lend the necessary heroism to her role. Her coloraturas are impressive, for instance in 'A far stragi, a far vendetta'. Maria Grazia Schiavo sings the role of Rosmira pretty well, but sometimes her technique fails her. In 'Tormentosa, crudel gelosia' her breathing technique isn't good enough to sing long coloraturas; she takes a breath at some curious moments, especially in the dacapo. In 'Spiegati e di che l'ami' the ornament at the start of the dacapo is highly exaggerated, which is all the more notable as in the performance as a whole the ornamentation is quite stylish.

Maria Ercolano's performance is technically and stylistically problematic. 'Amante che incostante' is one example of an aria where her wide vibrato is particularly unpleasant. Here the cadenza at the end of the dacapo is exaggerated and the high notes sound stressed. Eufemia Tufano doesn't make a better impression: her voice is rather unstable and her vibrato in 'Men superba andrà la sorte' is unacceptable. In 2004 the role of Armindo was taken by Makoto Sakurada. I would prefer him to Stefano Ferrari whose voice lacks clarity. His upper register sounds a bit husky, as in 'Vanne e spera'. Charles do Santos has a small role; he has no arias, at least not in this production.

That brings me to another disadvantage of a live recording: more often than not live performances are incomplete. That is also the case here. According to the libretto - which can be downloaded from the Dynamic site - complete scenes are omitted: from Act 1 scenes 11, 15 and 16, and from Act 2 scenes 5, 6 and 9. Moreover one aria from Act 2, scene 7 - the only aria of Ormonte - has been cut. A comparison with the original score reveals that six arias in total are missing. In the aria 'Men superba andrà la sorte' (Act 3) the dacapo has been cut. The omitted scenes are indicated in the libretto, but the missing aria is not. The libretto also causes some confusion, when in Act 3 a recitative is ending with Ormonte speaking and is followed by an aria without an indication of the character. One expects here an aria by Ormonte, but in fact it is Armindo who is singing. The short recitative which introduces the aria has been cut and with it the name of the character. Cuts in live opera productions seem inevitable these days, and as performances of operas by relatively unknown composers such as Vinci are rare, we probably shouldn't complain. Even so, it is a bad habit. This also speaks for a studio production.

A couple of other things need to be said. There are various asides in the opera which have to be sung softly - the other characters shouldn't hear them. Unfortunately that is often ignored; some asides are sung so loudly that the other characters have to be deaf not to hear them. In some arias the protagonist addresses his words to various people. Obviously that is impossible to notice in a CD recording. Fortunately it is indicated in the libretto.

The plot of many baroque operas is quite complicated and this one is no exception. The synopsis in the booklet is useful. One can't help being surprised about the lack of logic, though. In scenes 2, 3 and 4 of Act 3 characters disappear and turn up again for unexplicable reasons, without any indication in the libretto.

I have been rather critical about this production. It is quite possible that I would have been more positive if it had been a DVD. It wouldn't have made the singing of some soloists any better, though. Even so, I have enjoyed this recording, mainly because of Vinci's music which I like. I wouldn't mind to hear more from him, preferably in a studio recording.

N.B. I thank Maurizio Frigeni for listing the cuts in this performance. His own review - in Italian - can be found here.

Leonardo Vinci, La Partenope (La Rosmira fedele)
Maria Ercolano (Arsace), Maria Grazia Schiavo (Rosmira), soprano; Eufemia Tufano (Emilio), mezzo-soprano; Sonia Prina (Partenope), contralto; Stefano Ferrari (Armindo), tenor; Charles Do Santos (Ormonte), baritone
I Turchini di Antonio Florio/Antonio Florio
Recorded live 29 April - 1 May 2011 at the Auditorium Victor Villegas, Murcia, Spain
Dynamic CDS 686/1-2 (2 CDs; 2.05'25")