Joyce DiDonato – Eden

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TRACKLIST – EDEN

Charles Ives 1874-1954
The Unanswered Question

Rachel Portman b.1960
The First Morning of the World*

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911
Rückert-Lieder
“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!”

Biagio Marini 1594-1663
Scherzi e canzone Op.5
“Con le stelle in ciel che mai”

Josef Mysliveček 1737–1781
Oratorio Adamo ed Eva (Part II)
Aria: “Toglierò le sponde al mare” (Angelo di giustizia)

Aaron Copland 1900-1990
8 Poems of Emily Dickinson for voice and chamber orchestra
Nature, the gentlest mother

Giovanni Valentini c.1582–1649
Sonata enharmonica

Francesco Cavalli 1602–1676
Opera La Calisto (Act I, Scene 14)
Aria: “Piante ombrose” (Calisto)

Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714–1787
Opera Orfeo ed Euridice Wq. 30
Danza degli spettri e delle furie. Allegro non troppo

Christoph Willibald Gluck 1714–1787
Scena ed aria Misera, dove son! From Ezio Wq. 15 (Fulvia)
Scena: “Misera, dove son!… ”
Aria: “Ah! non son io che parlo…”

George Frideric Handel 1685–1759
Dramatic oratorio Theodora HWV 68 (Part I)
Aria: “As with Rosy steps the morn” (Irene)

Gustav Mahler
Rückert-Lieder
“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”

Richard Wagner 1813–1883
5 Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme WWV 91 (Wesendonck Lieder)
“Schmerzen”

George Frideric Handel
Opera Serse HWV 40 (Act I, Scene 1)
Recitativo: “Frondi tenere e belle”
Aria: “Ombra mai fù” (Serse)

*World-premiere recording

Joyce DiDonato’s new album could probably best be described as a concept album and, despite one or two less than smooth transitions, is best listened to in one sitting and in the order she has set out.

At present DiDonato is in the middle of a twelve city tour, taking in both Europe and the USA and I am very much looking forward to seeing her perform at the Barbican in April. Looking at the photographs from some of the concerts she has already done, DiDonato is using to redefine the the recital format. Apparently every audience member is to receive a seed to plant as they’re asked: ‘In this time of upheaval, which seed will you plant today?’

“With each passing day,” writes DiDonato, “I trust more and more in the perfect balance, astonishing mystery and guiding force of the natural world around us, how much Mother Nature has to teach us. EDEN is an invitation to return to our roots and to explore whether or not we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being, to create a new EDEN from within and plant seeds of hope for the future.”

As on the album, she is accompanied by her regular collaborators Il Pomo d’Oro under Maxim Emelyanchev.

The programme ranges wide, from the 17th to the 21st century and at least one change, when we go from the 21st century to the 17th strikes me as a little jarring, but for the most part the choices are sensible and the journey well thought out.

The album starts with an absolutely haunting performance of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, in which DiDonato wordlessly sings the trumpet part. This segues into a commission from the Academy Award winning composer Rachel Portman, entitled The First Morning of the World, to a text by American writer Gene Scheer. This is a wonderfully evocative piece, full of sweeping lyricsm and gorgeous harmonies. Portman surely could not have hoped for a more beautiful performance. This is followed by a lovely performance of Mahler’s Ich atmet einen Linden Duft, though we miss the richness of Mahler’s original orchestra in this chamber re-orchestration.

The first slightly incongruous transition happens here with Biagio Marini’s Con le stelle in ciel che mai, though there is nothing wrong with its execution and, once I’d got used to being plunged into an entirely different sound world I enjoyed it and the Mysliveček aria from his orotorio, Adamo ed Eva, which follows.

This first part of the recital finishes with a masterful performance of Nature, the Gentlest Mother from Aaron Copland’s 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson, beautifully played by Il Pomo d’Oro and in which DiDonato sings with excellent diction without compromising her legato line.

It is followed by one of two purely orchestral tracks, the Sonata enharmonica by Giuseppe Valentini. The other is Gluck’s Dance of the Spirits and Furies from Orfeo ed Euridice.

DoDonato is known to us as a great Handel singer and one of the highlights of the album is Irene’s As with rosy steps the morn from Theodora, which is deeply felt, even if ultimately for me it doesn’t quite erase memories of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the same music. Handel is also reserved for the final piece, which comes after Mahler and Wagner, leaving us to bask in the peace and calm of his Ombra mai fu.

DiDonato is in fine voice throughout, her fast flicker vibrato, which can sometimes be intrusive, hardly in evidence at all. I must say that I rather like this “concept” and I have no hesitation recommending this album, and I would urge you to listen to it in one sitting. If I have sometimes had reservations about DiDonato’s ability to convey personality and individuality in the studio, I have no such reservations here and would recommend this album unreservedly.

Dame Janet Baker – The Great Recordings

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This exhaustive twenty disc box was, when it was first released on EMI, more properly called The Great EMI Recordings. The deletion of the word EMI from the titele has something to do with the conditions of the sale, of EMI to Warner but the original title is more representative of the contents, as Dame Janet also made “great” recordings  for Decca, Philips and Hyperion. Aside from Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and the final scenes from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, this set includes no opera. Still, the range is wide, covering music from Monteverdi to Schoenberg and, as it also includes excerpts from various complete recordings of orotorios, covers just about everything she ever recorded for EMI and later Virgin Classics. The quality is extrordinarily high and it is safe to say that she never made a bad record and many of them are out and out classics.

The lay out is mostly logical, starting with early music and moving forward in time, but cramming shorter LP recordings onto twenty well-filled CDs has inevetably led to the occasional odd juxtaposition. Most of the recordings cover her vocal prime, from 1966 through the 1970s. Shortly after she retired she made a few recordings with Richard Hickox in 1989 and 1990 and only these show a slight decline in her vocal resources, though the artistry remains undimmed.

Disc one starts with a 1969 recording of music by Monteverdi, Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti with the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard rounded off by excerpts from a duet recital with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970. Leppard’s souped up arrangements of the Monteverdi might seem anachronistic now, but Baker’s impassioned singing of Arianna’s Lament and Ottavia’s Lament and Farewell from L’Incoronazione di Poppea transcends any matters of style. The duet items (music by Schütz, Schein and Lilius) have continuo realisations by George Malcolm, who plays the organ with Kenneth Heath on the cello and are delightful in every way.

Disc two gives us the first side of an LP called A Pageant of English Song, which had songs by Dowland and Campion accompanied on the lute, and by Purcell, Monro (I can’t think of his My lovely Cecilia without having Baker’s smiling tone in my head) Boyce and Arne, with accompaniments by Martin Isepp on harpsichord. More duets with Fischer-Dieskau round off the disc, some of these taken from a 1969 Queen Elizabeth Hall recital with Barenboim on the piano.

From here we move to Bach for the next two discs, the wonderful performance of Ich habe genug under Menuhin being particularly noteworthy. A Bach recital, which she recorded wit Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner is spread over the two discs, which finished with the alto arias from Klemperer’s 1967 recording of the Mass in B minor. What a superb Bach singer she was.

We move onto Handel, a composer with whom Baker was particularly associated. Mackerras’s recording of Messiah was one of the first to make a stab in the direction of HIP. It was also the first one I ever owned, Baker’s contribution being particularly memorable. Her version of He was despised is incredibly moving. The two Handel cantatas are listed as arr. Leppard, but I’m not sure what those ‘arrangements’ involve. Baker is, as always, a superb Handelian.

The Haydn and Beethoven Folk Song Arrangements, which follow on the next disc, rather outstay their welcome, for me anyway, even in performances as special and imaginative as these, which means that the ensuing Schumann and Brahms duets from the QEH concert come as something of a relief.

Discs seven and eight are all Schubert, taken, for the most part, from a two disc set she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1971, which included quite a few rarities and a 1980 recital with Geofrrey Parsons of more popular fare. Amongst so many great performances, it’s hard to name favourites, but I doubt I’ve ever heard a better performance of Du bist die Ruh, which is not only deeply felt but also displays the perfection of her tehcnique and her superb breath control.

A few more Schubert songs start the ninth disc, which then continues with a Mendelssohn recital with Geofrrey Parsons and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben with Daniel Barenboim. One of the first records Janet Baker ever made was of the Schumann cycle, for the Saga label before she was contracted to EMI. It was released to much acclaim, but this one delves that much deeper and is indeed one of the greatest recordings of Schumann’s cycle in the catalogue. The Mendelssohn songs are perhaps not so memorable or so wide ranging as Schubert’s but Baker makes the best case for them, but the Schumann cycle is the real prize of this disc.

The tenth disc gives us the second side of her Schumann LP with Barenboim, a wonderful performance of the Opus 39 Liederkreis, and the whole of an all Brahms programme with Previn at the piano, the two songs for alto and viola (Cecil Aronowitz) and the Vier ernste Gesänge are deeply felt and wonderfully accompanied.

A Liszt recital (with Geoffrey Parsons) starts disc eleven, an excellent selection of songs, which are not performed as often as they should be. Baker and Parsons make the very best case for them. These are followed by a small selection from Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch and a couple of Mahler’s youthful songs.

Disc twelve is something of a mixed bag and brings together recordings from the beginning and end of Dame Janet’s career, a selection of Strauss songs from an early EMI recital disc, the Song of the Wood Dove from Ferencsik’s 1968 recording of Gurrelieder and Respighi’s La Sensitiva from recording sessions made for Virgin Classics in 1990, a gap of some twenty-three years. I suppose you can detect a slight loosening of the vibrations, but the voice is still very firm and the artistry undimmed. Some may hear a slight lack of spontaneity in the 1967 Strauss songs (absent from the 1973 recording of Ständchen) and I’d have to admit I prefer the sound of a soprano in these songs, but I’d still rather too much care than too little. The Schoenberg might seem an unexpected piece for Dame Janet, but she is absoutely superb here, wonderfully intense and dramatically involved and the Respighi, recorded just after she had retired from the concert platform, is a lovely performance, warmly sung and senisitively phrased.

Disc thirteen is all of song with orchestra. The Brahms Alto Rhapsody was originally used as a filler for Boult’s Brahms Symphony cycle, then reissued as a makeweight for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and a selction of Strauss songs Baker and Boult recorded in 1975. The Alto Rhapsody and the Wagner are absolutely superb, indeed among the most recommendable versions of these songs. The Strauss songs suit her less well, but I’m still glad to have them.

This legendary recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures has never been equalled. It was originally issued with Du Pré’s equally legendary recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and is one of the best selling classical records of all time. The disc finishes, fittingly enough with Dame Janet’s wonderfully consoling and radiant singing of the closing pages of The Dream of Gerontius.

Now if I were allowed just one Janet Baker record on that proverbial desert island, I’d be hard pressed to choose between her Mahler and her Berlioz and  the next two discs are dedicated to these two composers.

Disc fourteen gathers together all the Mahler recordings she made with Barbirolli and adds Urlicht from Rattle’s acclaimed recording of the Second Symphony. All three cycles are amongst the best recordings of these songs ever made. The Rückert Lieder were originally issued on the fourth side of Barbirolli’s famous recording of the 5th Symphony with the New Philharmonia, the other two cycles having been recorded a couple of years earlier with the Hallé. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was recorded at the same time and used as a fill-up, which explains why they recorded the song twice. If I were to use one piece of music to illustrate the genius of Janet Baker, then it would undoubtedly be one of these two versions of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The song is not so much sung as experienced and you can really feel the connection between singer and conductor. To be honest, there is very little to choose between the two performances; maybe the later one is even more withdrawn, even more self-communing. When I listen to either I feel as if I too am lost to the world.

Disc fifteen is also one of the most desirable discs in this set. Baker was a great Berlioz singer and it has always been a huge cause for regret that she never recorded the role of Didon, making these excerpts more treasurable than ever. She recorded La mort de Cléopâtre again for Philips under Davis, another superbly impassioned and dramatic performance, but she is in slightly fresher voice here.

This Barbirolli recording of Les nuits d’été is, I think, her finest and indeed one of the greatest performances of the songs ever committed to disc. In his survey of the then available recordings for Song on Record 2, David Cairns makes it a top recommendation alongside Steber/Mitropoulos. She is possibly a little stiff in Villanelle but all is glorious after that and, with the inestimable help of Barbirolli, she unerringly captures the mood of each of the four middle songs especially. Le spectre de la rose is taken slowly but never drags, and the tempo gives her ample time to fill out the phrases, its climax gorgeously radiant.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade, which opens disc sixteen, was recorded at the same time as Baker’s superb Les nuits d’été and is wonderfully sung, though I’d say she misses that hint of inuendo in the last song that you get from Crespin. Nonetheless this is a beautiful performance of the cycle. The Chausson and Duparc were recorded ten years later, and there is a slight detioration in the quality of the voice, the vibrations have loosened a bit and there is a slight feeling of strain. She sings the Chausson with a greater sense of freedom in a live performance under Svetlanov only a few years earlier, but this is still a great performance with Previn and the LSO offering superb support as they do in the Duparc.

D’amour l’ardent flamme from La Damnation de Faust, which closes the disc, is one of the greatest ever recorded and it’s too bad that it is taken from a not very recommendable performance of the work under Georges Prêtre. If only Baker had been the Marguerite on Davis’s Philips recording of 1973, in which Gedda got to reprise his Faust under much happier circumstances. Baker joins Callas and Verrett as my favourites for this piece.

Baker was also a renowned interpreter of French song with piano and the lion’s share of disc seventeen is given over to A French Song Recital, which she recorded with Gerald Moore in 1969, songs by Duparc, Fauré and Debussy. It was logical to add the French items from a mixed bag recital of a couple of years later. These songs by Hahn, Massenet, Chabrier and Gounod demonstrate Baker’s prowess in a lighter vein. The Berlioz orchestral songs were originally coupled to her final recording of Les nuits d’été, recorded right at the end of her career. The voice is not quite the same as it was twenty years earlier, admittedly, but to be honest, very few allowances have to be made for the passing years.

One of the first discs Baker ever recorded was a recital of British songs, for the Saga label, and English song would often be a part of her concert recitals. This eighteenth disc brings together the second side of A Pageant of English Song (you might remember the first side was included on Disc 2). This time the composers are Parry, Stanford (a superbly impassion performance of La belle dame sans merci), Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Ireland , Gurney and Warlock, and the English items from her Favourites album. She was also much associated with the music of Benjamin Britten, but all her recordings were made for Decca, so it is good to have this one excerpt from Previn’s recording of his Spring Symphony.

When Walton’s Troilus and Cressida was revived at Covent Garden in 1976, Walton re-wrote the role for a mezzo, specifically so that Baker could sing it. The performances were recorded and the disc is filled out with three excerpts from that recording.

The penultimate disc starts with the remaining item from her 1972 Favourites album (Mendlessohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges) and continues with two arias from the 1968 Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Elijah, her singing of O rest in the Lord sung with a sincerity and compassion that enfolds you in its warm embrace.

It was perhaps an unfortunate idea to present the Mendelssohn Psalm of twenty years later straight after, for she sounds uncharacteristically tentative and strained in the solos, which are, in any case, designated for soprano. The concert aria that follows fares a little better as the tessitura lies slightly lower, but these are not performances I would want to listen to often. On the other hand, the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, recorded the same year, is rather wonderful and probably the gem of these late sessions. It lies a lot lower of course, so the sounds a great deal more comfortable, and it is a wonderful memento of the moving performance I heard these same artists give of the work at the Barbican round about the time of this recording and shortly before she retired. As in the live performance, the moment when the music shifts from the minor to the major is a moment of pure magic. This is definitely the prize of these late recording sessions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the final disc in this wonderful set is the only one I would call dispensable, though I was actually pleasantly surprised by this 1990 performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. She takes a little less time over the songs now, and this performance comes in around three minutes shorter than the Barbirolli. She still has an innate understanding of Berlioz and the way to shape and mould the phrases, but there is also a slight feeling of her husbanding her resources where the Barbirolli (and the live Giulini) find her in full vocal plenitude. They are still the ones I would reach for when wanting to hear Baker in this work.

The remaning items are from a 1980 disc called Songs for Sunday which will no doubt be more to some people’s taste than to mine. She sings with her customary sincerity and generosity of spirit, but I don’t really respond to the religious sentimentality of the material.

However these twenty discs have confirmed for me Baker’s place as one of the greatest singers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Her records continue to educate and enthral. There is something so personal about Baker’s art, a sense of total identification with the composer in question and an innate ability to capture the right mood of each song. This goes hand in hand with a gift for communication which is vouchsafed to only a few. Just occasionally one can be aware of the huge amount of thought that has gone into each interpretation, but I’d rather too much intelligence than too little. It has been  interesting too to hear her collaborations with so many different musicians. How lucky we are that she left behind her such a rich and varied legacy.

 

Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

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So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Valerie Masterson – Song Recital

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  1. Arne – O ravishing delight
  2. Arne – Under the greenwood tree
  3. Arne – The soldier tir’d
  4. Handel – Nel dolce del’oblio
  5. Bishop – Lo! Here the gentle lark
  6. Gounod – Le premier jour de mai
  7. Gounod – L’absent
  8. Gounod – Sérénade
  9. Bizet – Vieille chanson
  10. Bizet – Pastel
  11. Bizet – Tarantelle
  12. 12 – Satie – La diva de l’empire

The English soprano Valerie Masterson was a mainstay of my early opera going life and I saw her on stage quite a few times. A light lyric soprano with great flexibility and an immediately recognisable voice, she was also much admired in France, having made her French debut in Toulouse in the role of Manon. The following year she created quite a stir at the Aix-en-Provence Festival singing the role of Matilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra opposite Montserrat Caballé. She was an arrestingly beautiful woman with a charming stage presence and I well remember her Semele at Covent Garden which was both vocally and visually stunning. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see her ravishing Cleopatra in ENO’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar (sung of course in English) with Janet Baker, but at least it was filmed. I did however see her as Manon, Juliette, Margeurite, the Governess in Britten’s Turn of the Screw and as the Marschallin, a role she took into her repertoire quite late in her career, having had enormous success as Sophie when she was younger.

Recorded in 1986 when Masterson was approaching 50, this recital probably catches her just past her best. There is just the suspicion that the lovely voice is thinning out, a trace of a slight taint on its silvery purity. Nevertheless the recital is something of a treasure, especially considering Masterson was so little recorded.

With piano accompaniment provided by Roger Vignoles, it splits neatly into two halves, the first being of music from the baroque era (Arne, Handel and Thomas Bishop), where she is joined by Richard Adeney on the flute, and the second of songs by Gounod, Bizet and Satie. The baroque items display her neat and deft coloratura as well as her ability to shape the long line. When she sings O ravishing delight in Arne’s song, the words mirror exactly the sounds coming from the speakers. It is good also to have the Handel cantata, reminding us of her many successes in his works.

The French items are all fairly light. They are a sung with elegance and style but a little more variety in the material might have been welcome here. She finishes with a delightful performance of Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire which captures a coquettish smile in the voice.

A lovely reminder of a lovely singer.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Songs by Mahler, Handel and Peter Lieberson

 

There are some singers whose emotional connection to the music they are singing is so complete, so all-embracing that such minor details as vocal technique and beauty of voice are completely forgotten. Not that either of those two qualities are in the least bit lacking here, but they don’t really register, so intense, so all-enveloping is the experience of listening.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was one such artist and, more than once during the course of this marvelous recital, she managed to reduce me to tears. In her voice, the act of singing becomes as natural as the act of speaking. There is no artifice, no show, just total commitment to the music and that rare gift of communication.

The disc starts with a highly personal and emotionally shattering performance of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I prefer Mahler’s orchestral version of these wonderful songs but even with piano accompaniment (wonderfully realised by Roger Vignoles here) I would place this performance with Janet Baker’s of the orchestral versions under Barbirolli as the pinnacle of Mahler interpretation. Indeed the desolation of Um MItternacht is utterly overwhelming and the performance of all the songs totally gripping, with the audience sitting in rapt silence.

The Handel items, though more theatrical, more outwardly dramatic, are no less sincere. She makes musical sense of the vocal leaps in Scherza infida and pours calming balm on the ears in As with rosy steps from Theodora, a reminder of her devastating Glyndeboure performances of Irene.

She married Peter Lieberson the year after this recital and she sings here two of his Rilke settings, written specifically for her as well as an aria from his opera Ashoka’s Dream, which she performed in Santa Fe the previous year. The lovely Rilke songs were recorded complete at the Ravenna Festival in 2004 but it is good to have this tantalising extract from Lieberson’s opera.

To close we have two encores, a stunningly heartfelt performance of the spiritual Deep River which became something of a Hunt Lieberon speciality and a radiantly ecstatic performance of Brahms’s Unbewegte laue Luft.

Hunt Lieberson died at the age of 52 when she was at the absolute height of her career, which makes every recording she made, most of them from live performances, absolutely essential. This one is no exception

Sandrine Piau – Handel Opera Seria

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Although we may seem to be suffering a dearth of great Verdi and Wagner singers in recent years, Handel singing has gone from strength to strength over the last twenty years or so. However, even amongst the wealth of excellent Handel recital discs that have appeared, this one, recorded in 2004, stands out.

The programme itself is varied, with a nice sprinkling of arias from lesser known works amongst the more well known excerpts from such as Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Rodelinda and Orlando, whilst there is a good selection of different moods represented.

Sandrine Piau is the equal of everything Handel throws at her. The needle-fine precision with which she executes the florid music is breathtaking, as she tosses off stratospheric pyrotechnics with insouciant ease, but she is also adept at sustaining the long lyrical line. Furthermore she encompasses the full range of mood from quiet introspection to dramatic declamation. This is a real tour de force of Handel singing.

She is wonderfully supported by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques and the recording cannot be faulted.

Warmy recommended.

The Young Domingo

 

These days, with Domingo’s sometimes less successful forays into the baritone repertoire, it is easy to forget just how amazing his career was, not to mention how long it has lasted. This two disc set is a composite of three recitals made in 1968, 1971 and 1972 when Domingo (27 at the time of the first disc) was already an experienced artist, having first appeared on stage at the age of sixteen and singing his first major role (Alfredo) in 1961 at the age of 20.

The earliest of these recitals, which was given the title Romantic Arias heralded the arrival of a major artist, not only a tenor but a musician. The repertoire is wide ranging, taking in music from Handel to Mascagni and he sings in Italian, French, German and Russian. I can’t think of many tenors, even from the golden age of 78s, who could sing Puccini and Mascagni with so much passion and yet give us a wonderfully accomplished Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, the longest run sung cleanly and accurately and not only spun out in a single breath but phrased through into the next statement of the opening tune. The only other tenor I’ve come across who manages it as well is John McCormack. In all, whether it be in Lohengrin’s Narration or Lensky’s aria, sung in Russian, his singing is musical and immaginative. If we were to nitpick, it might be to note that, especially in the Italian items, there is a lack of excitement, of real intensity. Both are qualities he later added, along with his fine acting that served to make him the best Otello to be heard for many years. So he may not thrill in the manner of a Franco Corelli, but could Corelli have ever embraced such a wide range of differing music styles with such musicality and sensibility? I dount it very much. So let’s be grateful for what we have.

The second disc entitled Domingo sings Caruso is less wide ranging, most of the arias more well known, though it does include an aria for Marcello from Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème, and the third La Voce d’Oro, an apt description of the golden tone that pours forth. Again one might note that his singing can be a little generic, but his musical sensibilities are always evident. Nor does he ever indulge in the vulgar mannerisms of some who preceded him. His singing is always tasteful, his musical manners impeccable.

To the three recitals, BMG have added two Leoncavallo arias (another from La Bohème and one from Chatterton) which were originally included as fill-ups for his recording of I Pagliacci under Nello Santi. Both are attractive pieces, wonderfully sung by Domingo.

Looking at Domingo’s website I see his calendar is still pretty full, with engagements, both singing and conducting, booked up to November next year. It is a remarkable achievement for a man approaching his eighties. There is no doubt the promise of these early recitals has been not only fulfilled but surpassed. Now that we have said goodbye to Domingo the tenor, now might be a good time to go backto these early recitals and remember just how good he was.

Amor e gelosia – Handel Operatic Duets

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Looking through my collection I note that the majority of fairly recent recital acquisitions seem to be mostly of music of Handel and the baroque. I’m not sure whether this has more to do with a change in my taste, the general change in taste or the dearth of decent singers of Verdi, Wagner and nineteenth century muisc in general. Whatever the reason, I think it’s safe to say there are far more excellent Handel singers around these days than there used to and the performers on this disc are certainly fine examples.

Handel’s operatic duets are rare delights, usually either expressing sadness at lovers’ parting or delight in reunion, and there is a good cross-section of both types in this recital. That said, I am not a Handel specialist and I personally find less variety here than I would in a programme of duets from the bel canto period or Verdi. The programme is drawn from well-known works, such as Rinaldo, Serse and Rodelinda, as well as lesser known works like Silla and Teseo, with no less than five excerpts (including the Act III Sinfonia) from Poro, and certainly no fault can be found with the performances.

We hear two very fine voices in prime condition, DiDonato’s darker, straighter mezzo contrasting and blending nicely with Ciofi’s bright, clear soprano. Both are expressive artists with a fine legato and superb technical proficiency in the florid music. They also repond well to the dramatic elements in the music, and are superbly supported by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco. The disc can be recommended unreseverdly to all lovers of Handel and the baroque, even if on this occasion, and I realise this has no relevance to the present disc, I found myself wishing I was listening to, say, Caballé and Verrett in their disc of Romantic opera duets. Maybe my tastes haven’t changed that much.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Live broadcasts

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This is not a recital as such, but a collection of off the air recordings made by Schwarzkopf between the years 1941 and 1952. We get the opening of a Berlin Das Rheingold, conducted by Artur Rother (Schwarzkopf as Woglinde), Nie werd ich deine Hulde verkennen from a Vienna performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, conducted by Rudolf Moralt (with Emmy Loose, Anton Dermota, Peter Klein and Herbert Alsen), a duet from Weber’s Abu Hassan from 1942, with Michael Bohnen, and part of the Act II finale of Le Nozze di Figaro from La Scala in 1948, with Imrgard Seefried and W Hoefermeyer (who he?) under Karajan. We also get a couple of excerpts from the 1950 Salzburg Festival, both conducted by Furtwängler; Mi tradi from Don Giovanni (on which unusually she takes an unwritten upward ending, presumably sanctioned by Furtwängler though absent from all other versions by her) and Marzelline’s opening duet and aria from the famous performance of Fidelio at which Flagstad sang Leonore. In all Schwarzkopf displays her familiar virtues of pure, firm tone, excellent legato and elegant phrasing, the voice shot through with laughter in the lighter pieces. Marzelline’s aria is sung with a fuller tone than we often hear in this music, but captures perfectly her wistful charm. Ilia’s Zeffiretti lusinghieri is taken from a 1951 Turin Radio Mario Rossi broadcast, but it is not quite so accomplished as the one on her studio recital of the following year.

The rest is is given over to a Hamburg broadcast from 1952, beginning with a lovely performance of He shall feed his flock, from Handel’s Messiah (sung in German). The Act I monologue from Der Rosenkavalier is perhaps less detailed than the one on the complete set under Karajan and no doubt some might prefer it for that reason, though I wouldn’t necessarily be one of them. It’s a lovely performance nonetheless. Schwarzkopf’s Countess is also justly well known, and Porgi amor is sung with creamy tone and matchless legato, but the excerpts from Madama Butterfly (sung in German) don’t really work for her, and indeed Schwarzkopf herself, when she heard them in later years, thought them “rather screechy on top”. She did however approve the aria from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (the soprano version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb) and rightly so, as this is without doubt the prize of the whole disc. I have never heard it sung better, not by Te Kanawa, not by Fleming, not even by Lehmann, who recorded the duet with Richard Tauber. The pianissimi on the top notes, the diminuendi, the way she fades the tone are absolutely miraculous, no other word for it. Everyone needs to hear this, but getting the recital on disc is quite difficult these days. Fortunately you can hear it on youtube, though you will need to go to the youtube site to hear it.

The whole disc is a fitting repost to all those who think Schwarzkopf was a studio creation, catching her live and on the wing, but treasured mostly for that sensational and unfortunately unrepeated performance of the Korngold.

Natalie Dessay – Cleopatra

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This Handel recital, which showcases the talents of Natalie Dessay, concentrates solely on the music Handel wrote for Cleopatra in his Giulio Cesare, and even includes music he wrote but later cut from the full opera. Variety is provided, by the orchestra (the excellent Le Concert d’Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm) contributing a couple of orchestral interludes, and by Sonia Prina as Caesar, whose contributions, however, are restricted to a few lines of recitative and the final duet.

It is quite interesting to hear side by side, as we do here, Handel’s first and final thoughts on certain scenes, so the heroic Per dar vita all’idol mio gave way to the grieving Se pietà di me non senti, whilst the lilting siciliano of Troppo crudele siete was dropped in favour of the intensely moving, and justly famous Piangerò.

Dessay is on top form, stunningly agile in the florid music such as Da tempeste il legno infrante, playfully seductive in V’adoro pupille, movingly heartfelt in Piangerò.

Le Concert d’Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm, offer superb support. This is no replacement for a performance of the complete opera, of course, but nonetheless a wonderful distillation of Dessay’s Cleopatra, a role she performed with great success at the Palais Garnier in Paris, shortly after making this record.