Friday, September 9, 2022

Schmelzer & Biber - the Austrian violin school

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c1623-1680) can be considered the founder of the Austrian violin school. After he was accepted into the Vienna court orchestra in 1649, he was able to fully develop his skills, also as a composer. In this function he was responsible for the ballet music that was performed during the carnival period. In 1664 Schmelzer published his first - and only - collection of solo sonatas, entitled Sonatae unarum fidium [1]. They testify to the advanced playing technique of the composer, including in the area of ​​bowing and the extension of the tessitura to the highest positions of the fingerboard of the time. Musically, the sonatas stand out with brilliant variations over an ostinato bass and strong contrasts in the area of ​​affects. Gunar Letzbor recorded the entire collection and in his liner-notes he points out that the sonatas become increasingly sombre as they progress. He connects this with the situation in Europe at the time, such as the attacks by the Turks and repeated plague pandemics. Schmelzer himself fell victim to such a pandemic in 1680. The six sonatas are extended by a Ciaccona in A, which once again demonstrates Schmelzer's technique of variation. And then there are two ballets that might serve as entertaining intermezzos. They show another, less serious side of the composer. The Austrian/Central European music of the late 17th century is at the heart of Letzbor's repertoire. He has already made many excellent recordings of such music, and this recent disc may well represent the ideal interpretation of Schmelzer's sonatas. His playing is colourful, dynamically differentiated and always rooted in rhetorics. The different affects are effectively communicated. Letzbor's colleagues in his ensemble offer an substantial contribution with their realisation of the basso continuo. This recording perfectly documents how amazing and exciting Schmelzer's music is.

Although Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) cannot be considered a formal pupil of Schmelzer, there were contacts between the two and it is difficult to imagine that Schmelzer's sonatas did not influence Biber. Both followed the developments in violin playing in the more northern regions of the German-speaking part of Europe. Schmelzer had already done that, and Biber adds a lot more. This is well expressed in his collection Sonatae, Violino solo [2] from 1681. In Schmelzer's music double stops and the use of scordatura are rare, while they are among the hallmarks of Biber's music. And he doesn't shy away from surprises. Using a scordatura tuning in a sonata is one thing, but Sonata VI requires a retuning in the middle of the piece. Like Schmelzer, Biber may have often improvised, and this is indicated by the opening and closing of Sonata I, where the violin moves over a pedal point. Biber also repeatedly resorted to the form of variation. Lina Tur Bonet recorded the sonatas I, III, V and VI, and in the first three there is a section entitled Variatio, whereas in Sonata VI we find one entitled Passagagli. In the liner-notes to his recording of the entire collection (Symphonia, 1994), Gunar Letzbor points out that the sonatas follow an particular order in their sequence of keys. This is lost in a selection. From the fact that Lina Tur Bonet only recorded four of the eight sonatas we probably may conclude that the remaining four are going to be recorded in due course. The programme is extended with the Partia VII from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa from 1696, for two viole d'amore and basso continuo. One could describe the interpretations by Lina Tur Bonet and her colleagues as theatrical in their treatment of dynamics and tempo, which emphasizes the contrasts within each single piece. This is reinforced by the sizeable line-up of the basso continuo. The result is a captivating performance of these brilliant sonatas. I don't know how many recordings of these works exist, but Biber fans should definitely not miss this production.

Among the best-known and most frequently recorded works by Biber are the so-called Mystery Sonatas [3]. They have become known under this title - at least in the English-speaking world; in German they are called Rosenkranz-Sonaten. We do not know what title Biber gave his sonatas, as they were never printed and the title page has been lost. The collection includes fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo and a passacaglia for unaccompanied violin. In the manuscript there is an engraving for each sonata, which depicts one of the mysteries of the rosary. The sonatas are divided into three sections of five sonatas each: the joyful mysteries (from the Annunciation to the visit of twelve-year-old Jesus to the temple), the sorrowful mysteries (from Christ's passion in Gethsemane to his crucifixion) and the glorious mysteries (resurrection and ascension of Christ, the descent of the Holy Ghost and assumption and coronation of Mary). The passacaglia is preceded by an image of a guardian angel with a child. Little is known for certain about the reasons of the composition, or the circumstances under which they were or should be performed. They are dedicated to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Max Galdolph von Kuenberg. They may have been intended for performance in his private chapel during his meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. But it is also possible that they were performed in the Aula Academica of the Jesuits in Salzburg. This aspect is not unimportant, for example with regard to acoustics and the question of which instruments are suitable for the basso continuo. In this aspect performers go very different ways. There are recordings with a large basso continuo group, consisting of string and keyboard instruments, and often also plucked instruments such as theorbo and harp. Some recordings were made in pretty large venues, others in more intimate surroundings. Lucie Sedláková Hulová and Jaroslav Tuma decided to record the sonatas in the Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in Horni Police with a two-manual organ tuned to a'=415 Hz. I can't remember ever having heard a recording with such an organ. This recording could therefore represent an interesting alternative to the many available recordings. However, such a recording seems to me to be on shaky ground from a historical point of view. In my opinion, this music itself proves that it is not suitable for a large church space. The effects intended by Biber to depict the mysteries don't come off to full effect. However, that is also due to Lucie Sedláková Hulová's performance. Her playing as such is excellent and she produces a beautiful tone. However, in some sonatas, especially those about Christ's scourging and his crucifixion, I found her performances too harmless. Such pieces need a more dramatic approach. As I said, this production could be considered as an alternative, but it didn't really convince me.

In 1683 a collection of twelve sonatas by Biber was published in Nuremberg under the title Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum [4]. The full title reads in English translation: "Music sacred and profane for stringed instruments, arranged with art for the court and for the church." From this it can be concluded that these sonatas are suitable both for domestic use and for the liturgy. Like the Mystery Sonatas, they are dedicated to Biber's employer, Max Gandolph von Kuenburg. The first six sonatas are in five parts - for two violins, two violas and basso continuo - and the remaining six are in four parts: violin, two violas and basso continuo. One may assume that the first group was composed primarily for liturgical purposes because of the dense texture of the sound, which is reminiscent of the consort music of the renaissance and the early baroque period, and the second for the chamber. However, there is no fundamental difference between the two groups. Both contain solemn and dramatic, almost theatrical sections. In the second group, the part of the first viola does not differ significantly from that of the violin, and that is why it is played on the violin in the recording by Harmonie Universelle. The performers seem to have had liturgical performances in mind, as the heart of the basso continuo group is an organ built by Balthasar König in 1714 in the former monastery church of Nederehe, which has nine manual registers and an attached pedal. Between the two groups of sonatas, Francesco Corti plays the Toccata XII from the collection Apparatus musico-organisticus by Georg Muffat, who was Biber's colleague in Salzburg for several years. Harmonie Universelle is an excellent ensemble whose style of interpretation is clearly modelled after that of the former Musica antiqua Köln. This means: sharp articulation, clear dynamic contrasts and a wide range of colours, all rooted in the awareness of the rhetorical and affective nature of this repertoire. In short: an exciting and stylistically convincing interpretation of these great sonatas.

[1] Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: "Violin Sonatas"
Gunar Letzbor, violin; Ars Antiqua Austria
Pan Classics PC 10436 (© 2022) details

[2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Violin Sonatas"
Lina Tur Bonet, violin; Musica Alchemica
Glossa GCD 924701 (© 2022) details

[3] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: "Rosenkranz-Sonaten"
Lucie Sedláková Hulová, violin; Jaroslav Tuma, organ
Arta F10256 (© 2020) details

[4] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum
Harmonie Universelle/Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman
Accent ACC 24357 (© 2019) details

Friday, August 19, 2022

Josquin, Der Noten Meister

2021 was Josquin year: he died in 1521. He was considered the greatest composer of the time and is still considered the greatest composer of the Renaissance. Who doesn't know his Ave Maria? A composer like Josquin does not need a commemoration. His music, both sacred and secular, is available on many discs. Even so, the commemoration of his death was the reason that several discs have been released. The Brabant Ensemble [1], directed by Stephen Rice, recorded ten motets, which are considered authentic. Rice, in his liner-notes, discusses at length the issue of authenticity, and mentions a number of pieces that have been and still are the subject of scholarly research with regard to their authorship. Josquin experts often have completely opposite views. Some pieces in the programme have been performed with parts that have been added by other composers. This was a pretty common practice, and has to be interpreted as a way to express admiration for Josquin. In some cases the additional parts may be from Josquin's own pen; in that case we have to do with early and later versions. As one may gather, this disc is quite interesting, and even those who have many recordings of Josquin's music in their collection, may find here something that they are not familiar with. If you purchase this disc, you are well advised to read first the liner-notes carefully. There is no need to specifically mention highlights; every piece is of superior quality. As far as the performances are concerned, these are very good. There are some moments in which the text is illustrated in the music, and these have not escaped the attention of the performers. There is just one issue, which concerns the Stabat mater. It is an exemple of a piece which is performed here with an additional part. Josquin's version is for five voices, here we get a six-part version, which has been preserved in a Czech manuscript, in which the text is 'protestantized'. The second section begins with the words "Christe verbum" instead of "Eia mater". For this recording, the additional part is performed with the original text. That is questionable, as Josquin's version was probably never performed with six voices. It would have been more plausible to use the 'protestant' text in all parts instead. That way it would have represented an interesting aspect of the Josquin reception in his time. It does not compromise my appreciation of this disc, which is a substantial addition to the Josquin discography.

It was common practice in the Renaissance to intabulate vocal music so that it could be played on a plucked instrument. This practice was by no means limited to secular music; sacred works could also be treated this way. It was also not uncommon for one or more parts to be performed vocally. Sebastian Ochsenkun mentioned this possibility in his Heidelberg tablature book. In Spain it was Diego Pisador, vihuela player and composer, who mentions this practice in his Libro de música de vihuela (1552), when he writes that he wants "the reader to know that all that is in this book I have done with great diligence and labour so that it might be correct and of great clarity without diminutions, so that players may recognise the voices easily as they are on the vihuela, and so that they might be able to sing them (...)". There are no fewer than eight Josquin Masses in this book. The composer was immensely popular in Spain, and his works can be found in intabulations in various collections of music for the vihuela, including those by Luys de Narváez and Alonso Mudarra. The aforementioned practice and the popularity of Josquin's music in Spain inspired Ariel Abramovich [2] to transcribe works by Josquin for the vihuela, in addition to some intabulations by Spanish composers, and to invite María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado to sing the vocal parts. Some of Josquin's best-known works are included, such as Nymphes, nappés, Praeter rerum seriem, Mille regretz and the above- mentioned Stabat mater. There are also some mass sections and the programme ends with Josquin's Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem. What is offered here is relatively unusual - not from a historical point of view, but from the perspective of today's performance practice. That is a shame because it offers the opportunity to listen to Josquin's music from a different angle. The performances are very good. María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado have the perfect voices for this repertoire and they blend superbly. Ariel Abramovich is a very fine and sensitive performer, which comes especially to the fore in Mille regretz, the only piece he performs alone. There is only point of criticism: the recording. It was done in a church and that was a bad idea. Singing to the vihuela was something taking place in intimate surroundings, not in a church. Due to the church acoustic, the voices are too dominant. They sound like soloists, but they are not. Originally, it was undoubtedly the vihuela player himself who sang to his playing. Today these roles are separated, but that is no reason to put the voices into the centre. I highly appreciate the concept of this recording as well as the actual performances. It is unfortunate that the recording damages the overall positive impression of this project.

The last disc offers French chansons, which in all likelihood date from two periods of Josquin's career. The first was when he was in the service of René 'le Bon' d'Anjou (in the 1470s) and the second when he had settled back in his native region at the end of his career (after 1504). These songs are heavily inspired by simple folk songs; it is known that René d'Anjou and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, not only had a great interest in literature and art, but also loved the simple life, and occasionally disguised themselves as shepherds. Denis Raisin Dadre, the director of the ensemble Doulce Mémoire [3], took the connection to folk culture as an opportunity to compare chansons with folk songs. This enabled him to increase the number of stanzas in some cases. By the way, there are not only pieces by Josquin here. His Ma bouche rit is preceded by Ockeghem's version, with partly different lyrics, and Scaramella va alla guerra is based on a version by Loyset Compère (Scaramella fa la galla). There are also a few instrumental works from the Lochamer Liederbuch, whose relation to Josquin is unclear. In that respect the documentation leaves something to be desired. The programme also includes some of Josquin's most popular works, the authenticity of which is very much in doubt: El grillo and In te domine speravi'. I have rarely heard the latter work performed as nicely as here: the soprano Clara Coutouly sings it extraordinarily beautifully, with imaginative embellishments. In contrast, let's forget the caricatural treatment of El grillo. All in all, I really like this disc: the performances by the singers are first class, and the instruments - recorders and shawms - are also played excellently. Independent of the level of interpretation, this production has several things to offer that makes it an interesting addition to Josquin's discography. The booklet includes an informative introduction to Josquin and his oeuvre by David Fallows.

Another disc with music by Josquin has been released recently at the Aparté label. I was looking forward to that one, as the performers are the members of the ensemble thélème, whose disc with chansons by Claude Le Jeune and Clément Janequin I rated positively. However, reading the booklet caused disappointment. In some items instruments from an entirely different world participate: the ondes Martinot, the Fender Rhodes and the Buchla synthesizer. For me, these are completely unknown quantities: I have not heard them and I have not the slightest desire to change that. Therefore I decided not to review this disc: I have neither the time nor the appetite to listen to this kind of nonsense, which has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

[1] "Motets & Mass Movements"
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321 (© 2021) details

[2] "The Josquin Songbook"
María Cristina Kiehr, soprano; Jonatan Alvarado, tenor; Ariel Abramovich, vihuela
Glossa GCD 923529 (© 2021) details

[3] "Tant vous aime"
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
Ricercar RIC 436 (© 2022) details

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Italian keyboard, 1540 - 1670

Keyboard music was an important genre in renaissance and early baroque Italy. Organists in particular enjoyed great prestige, and positions as organist in an important church or cathedral were in high demand. Only the best were considered. They were also often active as composers, writing pieces such as toccata, canzona and ricercar. Such works can usually be played both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument (harpsichord, virginal, spinet). They were also often used in the liturgy. In addition, versetti suitable for the alternatim practice, such as Masses and Magnificats, were composed. These are the main part of the oeuvre of Girolamo Cavazzoni (c1525-after 1577) [1]. When and where he was born is not known exactly, and we don't know much about his career either. The libretto of the Brilliant Classics production claims that he was appointed organist at Mantua Cathedral in 1521, but this is of course impossible. There is no evidence that he was in the service of the Gonzagas; all that is certain is that he oversaw the building of the organ in this cathedral in 1565/66. Federico Del Sordo recorded all of his organ works on this same organ, built by Graziadio Antegnati. They are included in two collections; the first was printed in 1543, the second, whose title page has been lost, probably appeared before 1549. They comprise four ricercars, two canzonas on French chansons (Josquin's Fault d'argent and Passereau's Il est bel et bon), twelve hymns, four Magnificats and three Masses. The last three categories are alternatim compositions; the plainchant is sung here by the Nova Schola Gregoriana, and the chants are taken from two sources from around 1600. Del Sordo explains how the alternatim practice was subject to certain rules that were not always followed. Among these rules was that the passage in the Creed concerning the Incarnation of Christ (et incarnatus est) was not to be played, but was always to be sung. The first verse of the Magnificat should also always be performed vocally. This has consequences for the relationship between the text and the organ verses. In addition to the collections mentioned, there are two ricercares that have been included in anthologies. One is played on the harpsichord, the other is intended for an instrumental ensemble, but can - as here - also be played on the organ. Federico Del Sordo is a specialist in the alternatim repertoire, and in early Italian keyboard music in general. His interpretations are excellent. The tempi are slightly slower here than in Ivana Valotti's recording on the same organ. I appreciate both, and if you don't have Valotti's recording, you'll get your money's worth with this edition on a budget label. The booklet includes details of the instruments used. Unfortunately the lyrics are missing, but you can find them on the internet.

It is not surprising that many Italian composers of music for a keyboard instrument are hardly known today: they are overshadowed by a few great masters whose music is frequently played and recorded. Strictly speaking, this does not apply to Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) [2], whose name is well known, if only because one of the most famous collections of harpsichord works, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, contains a toccata from his pen. However, his music is not played very often. If I'm not mistaken, it was Ton Koopman who first produced a recording of his complete works, at the very beginning of his career, still in the vinyl age. As far as I know it was never re-released on CD - unfortunately. But now there is a new complete recording: the Italian harpsichordist and organist Simone Stella, of whom Brilliant Classics has already released several recordings, is responsible for a production in which - in addition to the oeuvre of Picchi - music by Venetian composers of earlier generations can be heard. These are Annibale Padovano (1527-1575), Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (c1533-1585 and 1557-1612 respectively), Vincenzo Bellavere (c1540-1587) and Claudio Merulo (1533-1604). They were all respected masters of their craft, and so were the least known: Padovano was first organist at St. Mark's from 1552 to 1566, and Bellavere also served as organist in that church, but only nine months, as soon after his appointment he passed away. By including these organists, Picchi is put into his historical context. And the comparison shows that his music is by no means inferior to that of the others. Nevertheless, it was not easy for him to find suitable positions. Only one collection of his keyboard music was printed: the Intavolatura di Balli d'Arpicordo appeared in 1621 and contains nine pieces. There are also five works that have veen preserved in manuscript, and the Toccata from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Where other composers mostly wrote pieces that can be performed both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument, nearly all of Picchi's works can only be played on the harpsichord, since they are entirely dominated by dance rhythms, as their titles - Ballo, Padoana, Saltarello - indicate. Perhaps only a few passemezzi may be playable on the organ. Simone Stella has chosen the harpsichord; he plays a copy of an instrument by Carlo Grimaldi. Stylistically, his interpretation is comparable to that of Koopman: rhythmically succinct, sharply articulated and at a relatively fast tempo, in accordance with the character of the work in question. The music included here is pretty exciting, and that comes off perfectly in Simone Stella's interpretations.

In comparison, the keyboard music of Michelangelo Rossi (c1601/02-1656) [3] is played much more frequently. There are several recordings of his equally modest oeuvre for harpsichord or organ. Although he was primarily known as a violinist, not a single work for violin has come down to us. He also composed vocal music, but little attention is paid to this part of his oeuvre. He is best known for his Toccate e correnti d'intavolatura d'organo e cembalo: these twenty pieces were published in Rome in 1657. The Toccata VII has become particularly famous, because towards the end the dissonances accumulate: these are the extreme consequences of the mean-tone temperament. The toccata is a free form that emerges from the practice of improvisation, and this requires a free treatment of tempo. It's no wonder that strong fluctuations in tempo are one of the features of Lorenzo Feder's interpretation, released by fra bernardo. He plays the correntes much more strictly, which is justified by the dance rhythm. In addition to the toccatas and correntes, he plays three other works that have survived in manuscript: two ciacconas and the Partita sopra La Romanesca. Feder has chosen to perform all the pieces on the harpsichord; most other performers alternate between harpsichord and organ. This also has consequences for the choice of tempo: a performance on an organ usually requires a somewhat slower tempo, especially because of the acoustics in a church. Nevertheless: compared to some other recordings - for example by Sergio Vartolo and Riccardo Castagnetti - Feder's tempi are generally very fast. Perhaps the dissonances in Toccata VII may have come out more clearly in a more modest tempo. Even so, I appreciate this recording very much, and I find these performances quite captivating. Feder plays a harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen after Bartolomeo Stefanini (1694), which proves to be the ideal instrument for this music.

Whereas Rossi has achieved fame mainly because of his Toccata VII, Bernardo Storace (c1637-after 1664) [4] achieved something comparable with his Ciaccona, which is played and recorded frequently. It is a brilliant work which undoubtedly testifies to the composer's ability as a harpsichord and organ virtuoso. However, there is more to his oeuvre and it is nice that all the works of this man, of whom we know next to nothing, are now available on CD. I don't know whether another complete recording is on the market; if so, I have not heard it. Enrico Viccardi plays four different instruments: two organs from the 18th century, a copy of a Grimaldi harpsichord and a spinet, which is based on models from the second half of the 17th century. In Storace's oeuvre we find the common genres of his time: capriccios, passemezzi, ricercares, correntes, passacagli, toccatas (interestingly followed here by a fugal canzon), some dances (ballo, ballet) as well as various pieces on bassi ostinati that were popular at the time, such as Follia, Monica, Spagnoletta and Ruggiero. The second disc closes with a pastoral. According to the title page, these works can be played on both the harpsichord and the organ. It is left to the performer to make a choice. All in all, I can agree with Viccardi's decisions, with one exception: the above-mentioned Ciaccona is played here on the organ. I only know of recordings on the harpsichord, and I think that's the most suitable instrument. The performance on organ offered here did not convince me. The piece contains some abrupt transitions, and these are underplayed on the organ, due to the spatial acoustics. Incidentally, the performances on the organ are the best. Viccardi plays the pieces on harpsichord and spinet well, but here I missed that little bit of inspiration that makes an interpretation really compelling. It wasn't always easy for me to keep my concentration, especially in some of the longer pieces. Nevertheless, anyone who is interested in Italian keyboard music of the 17th century should get hold of this production.

G Cavazzoni: "Complete Organ Music"
Federico Del Sordo, organ; Nova Schola Gregoriana/Alberto Turco
Brilliant Classics 96192 (© 2021) details

Picchi: "Complete Harpsichord Music and other Venetian Gems"
Simone Stella, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95998 (© 2021) details

M Rossi: "Toccate e Corrente"
Lorenzo Feder, harpsichord
fra bernardo fb 1907498 (© 2019) details

Storace: "Complete Harpsichord and Organ Music"
Enrico Viccardi, harpsichord, spinet, organ
Brilliant Classics 95455 (© 2021) details

Friday, July 22, 2022

La mandola rediviva

The mandolin has played an important role in European music history. However, this is hardly reflected in today's performance practice. Now and then a piece for mandolin has been recorded, especially the Vivaldi concertos, but for a long time it hardly made an appearance at the concert platform. Even when historical performance practice aimed at reviving forgotten instruments, the mandolin was almost completely overlooked. Only a few specialists have dealt with the history and repertoire of the instrument. Since a few years, however, the tide seems to be turning. Several discs with music for mandolin, either solo or in ensemble, have been released.

Artemandoline [1] is one of several ensembles which entirely devote themselves to the mandolin repertoire. Its recording of Italian baroque mandolin sonatas attests to the backlog in the exploration of the repertoire for this instrument: five of the six sonatas in the programme are first recordings. The names of the composers were completely unknown to me: (Abbate) Ranieri Capponi, Niccolò Susier, Nicola Romaldi, Giovanni Pietro Sesto da Trento and Francesco Piccone. It speaks volumes that none of these are mentioned in the English music encyclopedia New Grove. The booklet includes a detailed history of the mandolin and mandolin playing, and there is also information about the composers, but very little is known about several of them. It is also worth mentioning that what is on offer here is only a small selection of a large repertoire. Music for mandolin is often assumed to be purely entertainment, and that is not entirely incorrect, but one-sided. Several sonatas performed here have something substantial to offer. One of them contains a fugue, several sonatas begin with a slow movement with the character of a toccata, with strong improvisational traits, and there is also a movement that is strongly reminiscent of a recitative. Musical entertainment can certainly be of good quality, and that's the case here. It is then the challenge to the performers to bring those qualities to the fore, and in this department Artemandoline is doing a very good job. This disc is an important contribution to the re-evaluation of an instrument that has been forgotten for too long.

The next disc is devoted to one of the best-known composers of the baroque period: Domenico Scarlatti [2]. The ensemble Pizzicar Galante recorded eleven sonatas, although Scarlatti did not leave a single mandolin sonata. His sonatas are rightly considered keyboard music, but around 25 of them are probably primarily designed for a melody instrument and basso continuo. In these sonatas, the upper part stands out from the other parts and also contains performance signs - for example with regard to ​​dynamics - which suggest a performance on a melody instrument. The violin has to be first choice to perform those parts. However, a library in France keeps a manuscript which includes the first movement of a sonata scored for mandolin and basso continuo. The mandolin was particularly popular in France in the second half of the 18th century. The ensemble's decision to present several sonatas in this line-up can be justified by the fact that in France between 1761 and 1783 at least thirty editions were printed in which the mandolin is mentioned as an alternative to other instruments such as the violin, pardessus de viole or transverse flute. Anna Schivazappa, who is also studying the mandolin at Sorbonne University in Paris, uses three different instruments. The differences in sound come clearly to the fore. Pizzicar Galante is not the first ensemble to present Scarlatti's sonatas on mandolin: in 2013 Brilliant Classics released a disc with Scarlatti sonatas in performances by Artemandoline. That disc included only six of the best-known sonatas. Pizzicar Galante plays them too, but adds five others. The interpretations are first class and this disc further attests to the qualities of the mandolin. Scarlatti and the mandolin are a perfect match.

With the third disc we return to unknown territory: there are probably very few music lovers who have ever heard of Giovanni Battista Gervasio [3]. Again, we have a composer here who has not found a place in New Grove. The years of his birth and death are not known, but he was born in Naples and specialized in the mandolin. He improved the four-course mandolin, which was first built in Naples. As a mandolin virtuoso he performed in many places across Europe: Paris, London, Frankfurt, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Vienna. He was also active as a teacher; among his pupils were members of the aristocracy. In 1767 he published a didactic work in Paris, Méthode très facile pour apprendre à jouer la Mandoline, which was used as a reference for several centuries. Only a few of Gervasio's compositions have been printed, and of these only the Sei duetti per due mandolini o due violini, Op. 5 have come down to us; they were published in Amsterdam after 1786. Other pieces are part of anthologies from the late 18th century. As we have seen, violin and mandolin were often considered alternatives, and that is not any different in case of these duets, as their title indicates. It is possible that duets were performed as part of public concerts, but they were usually conceived as pedagogical material, to be played by teacher and pupil. The six duets, recorded by De Bon Parole (consisting of Marco Giacintucci on the first mandolin, and Francesco Marranzino and Luca Dragani respectively on the second), are written in the galant idiom and comprise three movements. All six duets are in major keys, as was common in the galant style. These are very well-written sonatas and their pedagogical purpose guarantees that they are devoid of superficiality; this is serious stuff, both technically and musically. The fact that four of these sonatas take more than fifteen minutes is an indication of their weight. The three players deliver outstanding performances, which I have greatly enjoyed. I like the rhythmic suppleness and the clear differentiation between good and bad notes. These are gestural performances in the true sense of the word. Gervasio is an example of a composer who had a great reputation, but is largely forgotten, except among mandolin specialists. He deserves to be better known, and this set of discs is the ideal way to get to know him.

In the decades around 1800, the mandolin enjoyed great popularity, especially in Vienna and Paris. The next two discs, in which Beethoven's contributions to the mandolin repertoire are in the centre of attention, bear witness to that. He wrote them for Countess Josefine Clary-Aldingen in Prague. She was not only an excellent singer - Beethoven composed the concert aria Ah! perfido op. 65 for her - but also played the mandolin very well. She was what in the 18th century was called a Liebhaber; an aristocrat could not be a professional musician anyway. However, there were also mandolin virtuosos, and one of them was Bartolomeo Bortolazzi. Johann Nepomuk Hummel composed his Sonata in C, op. 37(a) for him, which is also included on both discs. Raffaele La Ragione and Marco Crosetto [4] also include one of Bortolazzi's own compositions, the Sonata in D, op. 9, which was written around 1804 in Leipzig. Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer [5] have extended their programme differently. First they play another piece by Beethoven: the Rondo in D, which has survived as a sketch. Only one melody part has survived, intended for either violin or mandolin. This was obviously a common alternative, since Hummel's sonata also mentions the violin as such. However, the conductor and composer Frank Löhr thinks that the parts are intended for the mandolin, as typical violin features are missing. He has attempted a reconstruction, creating a piano accompaniment which - as he himself admits - is highly speculative. But it is nice that the solo part of Beethoven's making can now be heard. Two other works take us to other parts of Europe. Born in Naples, Gabriele Leone was summoned to France by the Duke of Chartres. His Sonata in A, Op. 2, is a work in the galant style, but the central movement has dramatic features. The Sonata with Variations in C by the Portuguese composer Porto Feliziano is preserved at the National Library in Lisbon. It is written in the Italian style and the final movement is a theme with variations. Since the programmes of these two discs are partly different, they can be considered as complements rather than as competitors. However, there are some differences that should be mentioned. Anna Torge and Raffaele La Ragione both play a four-course mandolin in fifths. Under Anna Torge's hands, the sound is a bit sharper and more succinct. This may be due to the fact that La Ragione's mandolin has exclusively gut strings, while Anna Torge's instrument also has copper wrap and silver wrap strings. The choice of keyboard is often a problematic one. Beethoven mentions the harpsichord as a keyboard instrument, but it is questionable whether that was his first choice. La Ragione points to the dynamic markings in the Czech manuscript of Beethoven's Adagio ma non troppo in E flat, indicating that he had a fortepiano at his disposal in Prague. Hummel's sonata also mentions fortepiano and harpsichord as alternatives. The harpsichord was still widespread at that time, and it is probably mainly for commercial reasons that it was mentioned on front pages. A fortepiano is played in both recordings. In all of the pieces, Gerald Hambitzer plays an instrument made by Louis Dulcken from 1793 and owned by WDR Cologne. This is a suitable instrument for most pieces, but it is too old for the work of Porto Feliziano (1793-1863). Marco Crosetto plays a copy of a Walter piano in Beethoven, the other works are played on a copy of a Graf from 1819. In my opinion, the Walter would also have been suitable for Bortolazzi and Hummel. The performances of Hummel's sonata are not very different, unlike those of Beethoven's pieces. In the Sonatina in c minor, with the tempo marking adagio, Anna Torge's tempo is the most convincing; La Ragione is too fast here, as his tempo is something like an andante. With regard to ornamentation, however, he has the edge; Anna Torge is too economical. The playful character of the Sonatina in C comes off better with La Ragione, due to his choice of tempo, than in Torge's performance. However, I appreciate both recordings and I recommend them to any lover of music of the classical era.

[1] "Italian Baroque Mandolin Sonatas"
Artemandoline
deutsche harmonia mundi 19439819362 (© 2021) details

[2] D Scarlatti: "Mandolin Sonatas"
Pizzicar Galante
Arcana A115 (© 2019) details

[3] Gervasio: "Sei duetti per due mandolini op. v"
De Bon Parole
Tactus TC 720790 (© 2022) details

[4] "Beethoven and his Contemporaries - Music for Brescian mandolin and fortepiano"
Raffaele La Ragione, mandolin; Marco Crosetto, fortepiano
Arcana A117 (© 2020) details

[5] "Mandolino e Fortepiano"
Anna Torge, mandolin; Gerald Hambitzer, fortepiano
CPO 555 112-2 (© 2018) details

Friday, July 1, 2022

Stradella: Three operas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 10, 2022

German opera (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2022

German opera (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 29, 2022

Handel: Opera arias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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