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Amadeus & Vienna:Mozart, Haydn, Martín y Soler, Cimarosa, Salieri, Gazzaniga, Sarti

Mozart Arias and Strauss Orchestral Songs

Mozart: Opera and Concert Arias

Three recitals largely devoted to the composer alas too often referred to these days as Amadeus offer much of interest to listeners. For one thing, it is curious to hear Mozart concert arias accompanied by such very different orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or Les Talens Lyriques, and while we are easily seduced by the Berlin velours, there is much to be said for the leaner accompaniment of a period band. All three singers, moreover, are aware of such niceties as appoggiaturas and ornamentation, particularly the sopranos, with Christine Schäfer indulging in what some may even regard as over-kill in the decorations that embellish such a simple piece as "Nehmt meinem dank", which may lack the charm brought to it by Graziella Sciutti long ago. While eyebrows might raise at the lack of a high C at the end of the Alleluia (Exultate jubilate), the high Ds, Es and even Fs that are tossed in off in the following "Mia speranza adorata" indicate a desire to respect Mozart's alternative. Where Schäfer falls short is in the charm necessary for such an aria as Zaïde's "Ruhe sanft", while Abbado sets a few questionable tempi as a kind of bouncy slow section in the "Exultate" or a tepid allegro in "Vorrei spiegarvi". It is unfortunate that more Mozart was not recorded as the Strauss selections surely sit more comfortably on an Ariadne/Marschallin voice rather than a Zerbinetta/Sophie light soprano. Only "Morgen" begins to exemplify the magic quality that these pieces should generate.

Véronique Gens first solo venture in repertoire that is usually not associated with her marks a new phase in the soprano's career after ten years working with Christie, Minnkowski, Lesne - in fact the cream of the early music movement. Gens is extending her career after successful onstage ventures in the da Ponte operas, as this disc reminds us. While Zerlina would never have been Gens's role, her rendition of Elvira's despair is convincing except for the one flaw on the disc at about four minutes into the aria which could also be a splicing error. Fiordiligi's two arias show that the extremes of tessitura offer no terror, though perhaps a bit more chestiness might emphasize the parodic qualities of the music. One might wish for a bit more temperament or characterization, but the disc is valuable for introducing us to the new territory that the soprano is about to conquer. It is with the K. 505 concert aria that the disc overlaps Schäfer, and while we may admire the playing of pianist Maria João Pires for Schäfer rather than Melvyn Tan's tinkling fortepiano for Gens, it is the latter who mines more deeply the emotions of one of Mozart's most formidable concert arias.

Scaltriti's mixed recital is fascinating for the juxtaposition of Mozart and his contemporaries, thereby allowing us to hear the original aria from I due litiganti that Mozart cites in Don Giovanni; the orchestra additionally gets overtures by Haydn and Cimarosa to show off. While the baritone has problems with the occasional low notes, the fact that he is not visible means we are spared his facial contortions though the occasional effortful moment cannot be avoided. We are nonetheless grateful for the reminder that Mozart himself rewrote the Count's aria from Le nozze di Figaro for a singer with a higher voice than the first performer (it is unfortunate that not all conductors think of this version when it would be better suited to a singer otherwise struggling with the low tessitura of the first version). Each of the composers present is heard to advantage, but the test is always how they will fare on their own, not always a major success. Haydn, as always, is exemplary, but it is good to be reminded of the qualities of Martín y Soler (a vengeance aria), Cimarosa, Gazzaniga (a list aria), all of whom were as much influenced by as influential on Mozart.

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Bach: Compete Cantatas - Volume 6 (BWV 50, 59, 69, 69a, 75, 76, 104, 179, 186, 190)

Ton Koopman continues his traversal of the Bach cantatas, in chronological order, with Ruth Ziesak as the best soprano in the series since the departure of Barbara Schlick. As we have already discovered, it is not the introspective Bach that Koopman advocates but the jubilatory, and when the composer is in full D major trumpeting glory we are swept along in admiration. In this respect, Koopman offers a reading in stark contrast to the now-standard Leonhardt-Harnoncourt concept, more exuberant, externalized if you like, but one that is nonetheless valid on its own terms. If doubts previously existed as to Agnew's capacities, they are now removed by his performance of the aria in Cantata 104. Klaus Mertens occasionally sounds as if he is on automatic pilot, but even then his performance remains at a high level. Only alto Elisabeth von Magnus sounds out of place, her light, almost timbre-less voice out of place in this music that demands a more personal approach.

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Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle

Star performers often feel the need to have their second thoughts on the interpretations of musical works perpetuated, something that is not always necessary. Boulez's first recording from 1976 for Sony is already near the top of the list of available performances, with Tatiana Troyanos's incisive portrayal of Judith matching the conductor and orchestra, alongside a more atmospheric sound. This new recording, made in 1993 and only released now, offers a clinical sound, enabling us to here the sumptuous orchestra, while the presence of László Polgár, a Hungarian, is a guarantee of linguistic authenticity. The problem lies with the imperious Judith of Jessye Norman, very much a take-charge figure rather than the character who gradually assumes her responsibilities as envisioned by librettist and composer. Comparison with von Otter on the Haitink-Berlin recording for EMI shows that she pleads to be given the keys while Norman demands them. Boulez and Chicago have already shown in several other recordings that they are a good match for Bartók, but this time they are let down by Norman.

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Handel: Admeto

Handel: Rodelinda

Virgin has done us a great service by returning the now 20-year-old recording of Admeto to circulation, with an extraordinary cast that more than compensates for the slightly dry reading of Alan Curtis. Once available on five lps, each of the three acts now fits onto a single cd, and for well over 3½ hours attention rarely flags. The singers were chosen for their contrasting timbres, so that the two women are distinctive characters: Yakar the grand tragedienne, Gomez the lighter role. Jacobs has often been accused of affectation in his performance, but his reading is certainly preferable to the blandness too often encountered today (and yesterday). Basses Ulrik Cold and Max von Egmond are the equals of their higher-voiced colleagues, only Rita Dams sounding out of place in this company, but then she only has a single aria. James Bowman remains a case apart, either one likes his voice and approach or one doesn't. I do not, but at the same time must admit that in 1977 he was capable of giving an excellent performance, the hootiness less in evidence than usual. Neither of the countertenors sounds particularly comfortable in Italian but they at least sound as if they understood what they were singing.

That is not the case in the new recording of Rodelinda, a case where such adjectives as bloodless, aseptic, sterile come to mind. Sophie Daneman, a singer we have otherwise admired, here sounds like a girl trying to do a woman's job, lacking the venom for "L'empio rigor", or the tonal depth for the laments. Adrian Thompson's character tenor lacks the tonal beauty that is also part of the Handelian ethos, while Robin Blaze's countertenor might be described as "distinctive", in this instance with a sharp pejorative connotation. Daniel Taylor's blandness as the hero is fortunately offset by Christopher Purves' characterful villain, Garibaldo. Conductor Nicholas Kraemer sounds as if the staged performances that preceded the recording left little impression on him, he being the one most responsible for the prevailing lifelessness of one of Handel's sharpest dramas. After the previous bland attempt on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, we are still awaiting the reissue of the old Stich-Randall - Forrester (and Watts, Young, Rössl-Majdan, Boyden) recording (once on Westminster), the most alive despite the now old-fashioned approach of conductor Brian Priestman.

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Krása: Verlobung im Traum; Symphonie

Hans Krása is yet another of the composers once more seeing the light of day thanks to such a series as Decca's Entartete Musik; like too many others, he perished in the Holocaust, leaving behind a small body of work which is slowly being restored to currency. As with his contemporaries, the jazz influence is important (use of saxophone or piano), but so is the music of Stravinsky. The libretto of Verlobung in Traum (Betrothal in a Dream) is based on a short story by Dostoevsky, and yet there is sufficient action to keep up the requisite momentum. The characters are sufficiently individual, especially the two confidantes (Nastassja and Paul) who make the most of their vengeance duet at the end of Act One. Jane Henschel's strong presence comes across even on disc, while Juanita Lascarro's heroine can even make us accept the interpolation of Norma's "Casta Diva" as the basic material for a large ensemble. A curious work, with occasionally too obvious gear shifts, but one that is fascinating as a period piece and as representative of promise not to be fulfilled. The 16-minute Symphonie for small orchestra that rounds out the set is perhaps more coherent, but it is difficult to believe that only in 1991 was the work finally presented in its entirety, the last movement - a setting for mezzo-soprano of Rimbaud's "Chercheuses de poux" - seemingly too audacious for some. Krása may have been a dilettante in the eyes of some of his contemporaries, but the craftsmanship displayed here merits our attention.

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Lutoslawski: Chantefleurs et Chantefables, Five Songs, Chain 1, Preludes and Fugue

Over thirty years elapsed between the Five Songs and Chantefleurs et Chantefables, from 1956 to 1991, a period in which Lutoslawski's music underwent a number of changes. The Five Songs were originally written for piano accompaniment, but the composer later added a string orchestra, two harps, percussion and timpani, so that it is difficult to imagine now what the original sounds like. The Polish texts are perhaps the major reason for such fascinating songs languishing in oblivion, the fashion in which the kaleidoscopic moods are reflected offering constant amazement. Ms. Kringelborn is the dedicatee and first performer of the Chantefleurs cycle, even though Dawn Upshaw's recording has been available for some time, and we are hear charmed from start to finish by Robert Desnos's texts that call to mind similar cycles by Poulenc, Ravel or Chabrier. The instrumental pieces are essential for anyone wishing to understand the composer, and Daniel Harding is an excellent guide.

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Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Once again, DGG offers us Das Lied in a performance that offers nothing new in the way of insight into one of Mahler's most moving works. Jessye Norman's reading has become even more marmoreal since her recording with Colin Davis, while Siegfried Jerusalem's performances of Siegfried and Tristan make it difficult for him to negotiate some difficult writing. James Levine seems content to underline the obvious rather than let the music speak for itself, while the Berlin Philharmonic sails obliviously if perfectly through from start to finish.

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Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery

Even at his most light-hearted, there are enough of the Prokofievan fingerprints to reassure us that we are at the right address. This adaptation of Sheridan's Duenna is nothing at all like the Roberto Gerhard version reviewed several months ago, but is perhaps even more successful as an opera if performance history is anything to go by. Gergiev is of course in his element, this being the third Prokofiev opera he has recorded, with The Gambler presumably somewhere in the pipeline. The Duenna herself is only present in three of the nine scenes, but Larissa Diadkova makes the most of her opportunities. Sergei Alexashkin's Mendoza, the object of her affections, may not be as well characterized as Vladimir Matorin who I saw in Geneva this past winter, but he nonetheless holds his own against the brilliant performance of Vladimir Gassiev as Don Jerome. The four lovers are all charming, with Marianna Tarassova as Clara able to make more of an impression than the brilliant Anna Netrebko simply because she has been given more to sing. My only complaint is that to avoid breaking in the middle of a scene the opera is spread over three discs when it could have fit easily on two: economic considerations ought not to be forgotten in this day and age.

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Schubert: Lieder

Bostridge's recent incursions into lieder on disc have been fascinating. While I prefer his Schubert to the textually hyper-reactive performances of Schumann's Heine settings, both the Dichterliebe and the Op. 24 Liederkreis offer much matter for reflection. Schubert finds the tenor in a more reflective mode, which does not mean that he is unable to rise to the emotive needs of Erlkönig or Der Zwerg. At the same time, such favorites as Heidenröslein or Die Forelle are not devoid of charm, while the sensuous quality essential to Ganymed is perfectly captured. This is not a disc for anyone seeking Schubertian rarities, but the pleasure offered by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake should be rewarded by all lovers of the composer and those eager to discover a bright new talent.

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Szymanowski: King Roger

Why is this greatest of Polish operas so resolutely unknown to the public at large? The question, of course, may also be posed asking why one of the great Polish composers, who is at the same time one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century, has not yet succeeded in becoming as much a household word as such contemporaries as Bartok or Stravinsky. Król Roger is a reflection of the composer's fascination with the east, in this case 15th century Sicily where there is still a strong Dionysian cult and where Arab influences are still felt. Andrzej Hiolski has been singing the title role since 1965, and this 1990 recording shows him still to be supreme, while Barbara Zagórzanka runs him a close second as the Queen, though the close recording deprives her offstage solo of some of its mystery. Wieslaw Ochman's Shepherd, the third major role, exerts the requisite magnetism to entice Roksana away from the Court. At just over 80 minutes, alas necessitating a second disc (here filled out with Szymanowski's incidental music to Act V of Prince Potemkin), we must be grateful to Naxos for releasing this masterpiece at bargain prices, perhaps the only way that a larger audience may be won. Do not hesitate to acquaint yourself with a unique work. The only comparison that comes to mind to give you an idea is Roussel's Padmavati, which also succeeds in marrying the exotic east to western tradition.

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