Saturday, November 25, 2023

Vocal recitals, from alto to bass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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