Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sopranos in opera - male and female

From the late 17th century until the beginning of the classical era, composers and audiences had a strong preference for high voices. Sopranos and altos were dominating operas and other dramatic works. Often these were castratos, but some of their female counterparts also earned quite some fame. No wonder, then, that there are more discs with baroque opera arias by sopranos and altos than by tenors and basses. Three are reviewed here, and it is notable that two of them are by male sopranos, although only one of them specifically manifests himself as such. However, let me start with a 'conventional' soprano.

It is always nice to be able to listen to a singer's debut recording, as it tells much about what he or she is about and has to offer. Jeanine De Bique [1] seems to have been active at the music scene for some time before she was given the opportunity to make a solo recording. She is not a baroque specialist, but as so many opera singers, she was keen to record some Handel arias. However, she "was adamant not to do a Best of Handel Arias for soprano", as the musicologist Yannis François writes in the booklet. Therefore they developed a concept which is summarized in the disc's title: "Mirrors". On the reverse we read: "For her debut album (...) Jeanine De Bique unveils the different reflections of the same female characters of Handel and his contemporaries, as though looking through a broken mirror". It resulted in a programme which includes arias by composers whose operas are little-known, especially Carl Heinrich Graun, Gennaro Manna and Riccardo Broschi, but also gives an interesting insight into the world of 18th-century opera. It is known that some librettos were set by several composers. Interestingly, we find here arias from two operas, called Rodelinda, but Handel and Graun used almost completely different librettos. Equally interesting is that the same aria is not always sung by the same character. Only in one case the same text is performed in two different settings: 'Mi restano le lagrime' from Handel's Alcina and Broschi's L'isola d'Alcina, but whereas in Handel it is Alcina herself that sings it, in Broschi's opera it is given to Morgana. It demonstrates that the connection between text and character in baroque opera was rather loose. I already mentioned Broschi as one of the composers included here whose opera oeuvre is little-known. I did not mention Vinci and Telemann, as their operatic output has received some interest in recent years. That does not mean that it has become familiar, and that makes the inclusion of an aria by each of them most welcome.
Obviously one is curious about what a singer brings to the table in such arias. I have mixed feelings. As is mostly the case, we should not expect a way of singing that comes close to the baroque aesthetic ideals. Jeanine De Bique is a product of a very contemporary style of singing baroque opera. I noted with satisfaction that she takes quite some freedom in the ornamentation department (although I am not sure that they are of her invention - were they written-out by Luca Quintavalle?), but does not exaggerate in that she competely rewrites, as it were, the dacapo sections; the original is still recognizable. I also noted that her performances are differentiated according to what an aria is about; there is no doubt that she has quite some dramatic talent. Unfortunately she uses too much vibrato nearly all the time. That goes especially for the more dramatic stuff, such as the aria fro Graun's Cesare e Cleopatra, which opens the programme. However, there are also much more restrained arias, where she reduces her vibrato, and that makes things so much better. There she shows to be an expressive interpreter. Those are the arias I enjoyed most. She definitely has many possibilities, and it is probably dependent on the people she is working with, which of these are explored. The way the programme has been put together and the inclusion of unknown arias is what makes this disc attractive to opera-lovers, independent of what they think about the way they are performed.

Nicolò Balducci [2] is a singer, who is labelled an alto (the cover says 'countertenor'), but is able to sing in the soprano range. Therefore I marked him as 'male soprano' in my review of his recording debut ("Castrapolis"). His programme was quite interesting in that it included arias by composers one does not often encounter on recital discs, let alone that their operas are recorded at full length. Among them are Giuseppe Porsile and Domenico Natale Sarro (or Sarri). The second disc is a little different: it includes arias by two little-known composers - Riccardo Broschi and Egidio Romualdo Duni - but the largest part of the programme is devoted to Handel and Vivaldi, by far the most popular baroque opera composers of today. In the Handel section we even find some evergreens: 'Lascio ch'io pianga' and 'Ombra mai fu'. The title of his disc nicely sums up what baroque operas are about: love and sadness - often connected. The unknown composers are undoubtedly the most interesting part of the programme. Broschi - who also appears on Jeanine De Bique's disc - is a relatively unknown name, but he was the brother of a famous singer, Carlo Broschi, better known as the castrato Farinelli. The arias performed here may have been sung at first by castratos, and Broschi's aria was even performed by his brother, during a performance of an opera by Johann Adolf Hasse. It attests to the habit of famous singers at the time to include their favourite arias in whatever opera they were singing, whether they fit into the work or not. Vivaldi's operas are regularly performed these days, but single arias have not reached the evergreen status as some of Handel's. Therefore the Vivaldi part of the programme is an interesting section of this disc as well. I would have liked some lesser-known arias by Handel, but I can live with the evergreens performed here, if they are sung as nicely as here by Nicolò Balducci. My positive impressions of his debut are confirmed here. He has what it takes to bring opera arias to life, and I am sure he will do well in complete opera performances too. There are many things to enjoy, such as the freedom in the recitatives and the fact that he does not exaggerate in the addition of ornamentation and cadenzas. He uses a bit too much vibrato to my taste, but it did not spoil my enjoyment. Balducci is a singer to keep an eye on, and I am curious to hear how he is going to develop.

In contrast to Balducci, Samuel Mariño [3] is a real soprano. The booklet tells us that his speaking voice is the same as his singing voice. That sets him apart from those singers who are able to sing well into the soprano range, but through vocal technique. Mariño's recital is also different from most recital discs of his peers in that it focuses on later repertoire: all the pieces are from the classical era, probably with the exception of Christoph Willibald von Gluck's Orfeo, which is not quite classical, but also not baroque, and was an important trailblazer for the classical style in opera. It is Mariño's mentor Barbara Bonney, who stimulated him to explore the music by Mozart and contemporaries. The programme includes arias from Le nozze di Figaro, Il re pastore, La clemenza di Tito and Mitridate. In addition we get arias from two operas by Domenico Cimarosa, who is almost exclusively known for Il matrimonio segreto, and from the only extant opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The latter arias are what makes this disc interesting, although those who have a special liking of Mozart's operas may well be curious to know how arias they know very well, are sung by a male soprano, something that very seldom happens in live performances.
Before I heard this disc I had heard some of Mariño's live performances, and I wondered what the fuss was about. I did not like what I heard, and thought: another soprano who ignores what we know about the aesthetics of the time the music was written. Especially his heavy vibrato and exaggerated ornamentation and cadenzas put me off. Some of that is noticeable here as well, and that is the reason that I don't particularly like this recital. However, it is not as bad as I had expected on the basis of live performances. There is too much vibrato, but it is not as wide as I had heard before, and the whole is not as extravagant as I had feared. Opera lovers may investigate this disc, because of the lesser-known arias, and just to experience the singing of a natural soprano. One can only hope that Mariño is willing to turn to a more 'authentic' way of singing 18th-century opera.

[1] "Mirrors"
Jeanine De Bique, soprano; Concerto Köln/Luca Quintavalle
Berlin Classics 0302017BC (© 2021) details

[2] "Amore Dolore"
Nicolò Balducci, soprano; Baroque Academy Gothenburg Symphony/Dan Laurin
BIS 2645 (© 2023) details

[3] "Samuel Mariño, sopranista"
Samuel Mariño, soprano; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel/Andrea Marcon
Decca 4852943 (© 2022) details

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The keyboard in Central Europe, 1750-1830

During second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century a large amount of keyboard music was written for a variety of instruments, from harpsichord to fortepiano. Today only a small portion of that repertoire is performed and recorded. The three Viennese classical composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven overshadow most of their contemporaries. Although representatives of historical performance practice have always liked to look beyond the standard repertoire, it is only in the last decades that composers in the shadow of the masters have received serious attention. However, even today many composers of keyboard music are forgotten. "Some of these pieces might not have the sublime perfection of the greatest masterpieces, but they do offer a lot of charm, inventiveness, and playful expression that reflects the period and style in which they were written. In this sense, these works may be even better witnesses to their time than the pinnacles of timeless genius", Menno van Delft writes in the booklet that accompanies the first recording to be reviewed here, appropriately called "Miscellanea" [1].
The inspiration for this project was the large collection of photocopies of keyboard music that the late Christopher Hogwood, one of the pioneers of historical performance practice, had put together during his career, based on scores in archives, libraries and private and public collections. This came into the hands of Menno van Delft, and together with his colleague Artem Belogurov, he sorted it out and created a survey of what was written in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Apart from pieces for solo keyboard, the programme includes items for two keyboards, keyboard à quatre mains and even a piece for six hands at one keyboard. The fact that only one piece for two keyboards is played - Mozart's Sonata in D (KV 448) - is no co-incidence: most of the music played here was intended for amateurs, and only a few were rich enough to possess two keyboard instruments. Playing the keyboard à quatre mains, on the other hand, was very popular, and that explains that quite a number of such pieces are included here. Mozart's sonata does receive an unusual performance, though: it is played with a combination of harpsichord and fortepiano, which is seldom practised. That does create a bit of a problem here, because the fortepiano dates from 1805, which is too 'modern' for a piece which was written in 1781. The balance is too much in favour of the fortepiano. Its use in some other pieces is also anachronistic, but this is the effect of the decision to use four historical instruments, which otherwise is praiseworthy, especially as all of them are wonderful instruments: apart from the fortepiano a clavichord of 1803, a Kirkman harpsichord of 1766 and a house organ of probably 1813, built by Gideon Thomas Bätz. The latter two instruments are part of the collection of Amerongen castle, in the south of the Dutch province of Utrecht, where the recordings took place.
Among the composers one finds some names that have become pretty well-known in recent years, such as Hässler, Reichardt, Wagenseil and Kozeluch, but also 'nobodies' such as Palschau, Saupe, Schwenke, Stanzen or Schmiedt. One won't find such names on the concert programmes of the celebrated pianists of our time, and their music may not do very well on the modern concert grand anyway. It is no surprise that quite a number of pieces are played on the clavichord, the most intimate of all keyboard instruments, which was very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and perfectly suited for domestic music making.
All in all, this is wonderful set of pieces, played on very interesting and beautiful instruments, and by two masters of historical keyboard playing. This is a mouthwatering production for all keyboard aficionados, and one can only dream of what else the Hogwood collection may include. Let's hope this set of discs (the third is only available as digital download) is not going to be the last exploration of that rich source.

Although Van Delft and Belogurov included a piece by the English composer Thomas Arne, otherwise they focuse on what was written in the German-speaking world. Therefore it makes sense to review here some other discs which also contain music from this part of Europe. The composers all belong to the same category as nearly all those represented in the 'Miscellanea': they are largely forgotten.
Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792) [2] is a case in point. It is only recently that his oeuvre is receiving some attention, which has resulted in recordings of sacred music (Passion, cantatas), string quartets and keyboard works. The latest in the latter category is a recital of four sonatas and a fantasia with thirteen variations, performed on a tangent piano by Flóra Fábri. When Wolf was just 17 years of age, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach heard him play one of his own pieces, and he was very impressed. He continued to follow what Wolf was producing, and the admiration was mutual. Wolf earned a reputation as one of the most original composers of his generation. Ernst Ludwig Gerber wrote about him: "Wolf (...) is not only (...) one of our classical and best composers in every category, but also a true original." He led an adventurous life, moving from one place to another, often driven by a lack of money, which also made him composing music in what may not have been his preferred genres, such as operettas. From the 1760s he worked in Weimar, where he became a leading figure in music life, very much at the dismay of Goethe. His oeuvre comprises music for the stage, sacred works and instrumental music of various kinds, from keyboard concertos to music for keyboard solo. The specimens of the latter category recorded by Flóra Fábri show a strong similarity with the works of CPE Bach. That goes especially for the two sonatas from 1774, which include quite some surprises, such as sudden pauses. Another specimen of this similarity is the Fantasia mit einem dreizehnmal variierten Thema; the fantasia could be part of one of CPE Bach's collections. The performances by Ms Fábri do these works full justice; this disc is a really excellent case for the oeuvre of Wolf. That is also due to the instrument: an original tangent piano by Christoph Friedrich Schmahl, built in 1790, which suits Wolfs music very well. There is every reason to pay more attention to the oeuve of this composer, whose reputation in his own time was well deserved.

Anton Eberl (1765-1807) [3] is another composer from the second half of the 18th century, who has received quite some interest recently through recordings, mostly of music in which the keyboard - more particularly the fortepiano - plays a key role. The latter is not surprising, as this was his instrument. He made a career as a keyboard player and composer, who spent most of his life in Vienna, but was in St Petersburg from 1796 to 1800. In our time he has become known at first when Concerto Köln recorded his Symphony in E flat, which had its premiere alongside the first performance of Beethoven's Eroica. Most in the audience preferred his symphony to Beethoven's, as they also found Eberl's keyboard works more accessible than those of Beethoven. Sayuri Nagoya selected keyboard works from his early and from his late period, which show the stylistic development in his oeuvre. Eberl was close to both Mozart and Beethoven, and it is telling that his Sonata in c minor, op. 1 was first published under Mozart's name. The later works are much more pianistic, and also more dramatic, closer to Beethoven than to Mozart, and pointing in the direction of the romantic style. Especially the Sonata in C, op. 43 is a highly dramatic work, whose fast movements include marked contrasts, which Ms Nagoya, in her liner-notes, compares to opera. The developments in Eberl's keyboard oeuvre come off well, but would have been even clearer, if two different instruments had been used. Sayuri Nagoya plays a Brodmann of 1805 which perfectly fits the sonatas opp. 27 and 43, which date from around that year. They are less suited for the earlier works, the Variations on 'Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen' (1791 or earlier) and the Sonatina in C, op. 5 of 1796. A Stein or early Walter may have been more appropriate here. However, that does not compromise the importance of this disc, as it shows the quality of Eberl as a composer of keyboard music. Sayuri Nagoya is an excellent advocate of his music, and the Brodmann fortepiano is a very fine instrument. For lovers of classical keyboard music, this is an essential addition to their CD collection. (The liner-notes are a bit confusing as it is suggested that the opp. 27 and 43 include more than one sonata, which seems not the case, if we have to believe New Grove and the Petrucci Music Library.)

Wolf, Eberl and several composers represented in the collection 'Miscellanea' were held im high esteem in their own time, but are hardly known or even virtually forgotten in our time. That also goes for Johann Gottfried Schwanberger (or Schwan(en)berg) (1737-1804) [4], who was nearly his whole life active in Braunschweig, where he was appointed organist at the court in the 1720s. He had his talent at the keyboard from his father, who was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. He stayed for more than six years in Italy, where Johann Adolf Hasse was one of his teachers. After his return he was appointed Hofkapellmeister at the Opera, at the age of just 24. His oeuvre comprises operas, secular cantatas, sacred music, symphonies and keyboard works. He was held in high esteem by Charles Burney and Ernst Ludwig Gerber. Today he is almost forgotten; the only work that has been recorded to date is the sinfonia from one of his operas. It is due to the collector of musical instruments Peter Karsten, that his eight keyboard sonatas could be recorded on a unique fortepiano that was built by Carl Lemme, of whom only four instruments have been preserved: two clavichords and two fortepianos. The instrument used for this recording is the only one which is in playable condition, and was built in 1796 in Braunschweig, which makes it quite likely that Schwanberger has played it himself. It has been preserved almost unchanged. This production is interesting for two reasons: it offers the possibility to become acquainted with Schwanberger's music, and it presents a historical instrument by a little-known keyboard maker in virtually authentic state. The sonatas are rather short works; the entire programme takes less than 54 minutes. One sonata is in one movement, four are in two movements, and the remaining three have three movements. They are specimens of the classical style; the right hand has most of the thematic material, but the left hand is more than just an accompaniment, as was the case in the galant idiom. The booklet - only in German - is entirely devoted to the composer, the instrument and its builder and their historical and musical environment. The sonatas are not analysed or put into their historical perspective. It would be interesting to hear more of Schwanberger's oeuvre. It seems to me that these eight sonatas won't shock the world, and it may be hard to experience them the way they were received in his time. However, I like them and I think they are valuable additions to the keyboard repertoire of the time. Claus-Eduard Hecker delivers good performances, but probably a bit too straightforward. I would have liked a little more differentiation in articulation and dynamics, and in the treatment of the tempi.

[1] "Miscellanea"
Menno van Delft, Artem Belogurov, harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano
TRPTK TTK 0047 (© 2021) details

[2] Ernst Wilhelm Wolf: "Selected Works for Clavier"
Flóra Fábri, tangent piano
CPO 555 490-2 (© 2022) details

[3] Anton Eberl: "Piano Sonatas & Variations"
Sayuri Nagoya, fortepiano
Brilliant Classics 96509 (© 2022) details

[4] Johann Gottfried Schwanberger: "Claviersonaten"
Claus-Eduard Hecker, fortepiano
Prospect 00371 (© 2022) details