Saturday, December 15, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Recordings

Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet. Photos: Jiyang Chen (Kindra Scharich), Rory Earnshaw (ASQ)


My favorite recordings first heard in 2018:

Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet: In Meinem Himmel: The Mahler Song Cycles (FoghornClassics)

This recording has hardly left our CD player since it was first issued a few weeks ago. (For people who prefer digital media, it is also available in CD-quality and high-resolution downloads.) Scharich's pure, clear soprano is exquisite, and the string quartet transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo offer both intimacy and richness of sound. Although Scharich can rise to dramatic heights, as in "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" (I have a red-hot knife in my breast), she does not over-emote: she allows the (often quietly devastating) meanings of these songs to be conveyed by the music and words. She also uses vibrato lightly, as an expressive technique, so that her voice blends beautifully with the quartet. If you already know Mahler's songs these versions will let you hear them anew; if you are unfamiliar, they are a great place to start. Lovely and moving; a triumph for all involved.

From the Rückert-Lieder, "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!"

Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!

Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!
Im Zimmer stand
Ein Zweig der Linde,
Ein Angebinde
Von lieber Hand.
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft!

Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft!
Das Lindenreis
Brachst du gelinde!
Ich atme leis'
Im Duft der Linde
Der Liebe linden Duft.
I breathed in the scent of linden

I breathed in the scent of linden!
In the room stood
a sprig of linden,
a gift
from a dear hand.
How lovely was the linden scent!

How lovely is the linden scent!
That twig of linden
you broke off so gently!
Softly I breathe in
the scent of linden,
the lovely scent of linden.

Vicente Martín y Soler: Una cosa rara. Montserrat Figueras and other soloists, with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall (Astrée)

The most popular composer by far in Vienna during the time of Mozart wasn't Mozart. It was Vicente Martín y Soler, and Una Cosa Rara (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786) was his most successful opera by far.

As the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music that echoes Mozart's earlier Le Nozze di Figaro and anticipates his later Don Giovanni. The conventional narrative has been that Mozart's genius condescended to Martín's mere talent. This recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.

The erotic duet that inflamed Viennese audiences, "Pace, caro mio sposo":

Read more about the opera: A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara

Prima la musica, poi le parole and Der Schauspieldirektor. Roberta Alexander and other soloists, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec)

In February 1786 the Emperor Joseph II staged a contest between Italian opera buffa and German Singspiel (literally "singing play": arias interspersed with spoken dialogue). Representing Italian comedy with Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) was the music director of the court's Italian opera company, Antonio Salieri; representing the German Singspiel with Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was a promising young composer, Wolfgang Mozart. Both works are operas about producing an opera, and both feature the rivalry of two sopranos, one serious and tragic, and the other light and comic.

This recording was produced in the early days of CDs, and the excerpts were clearly chosen so that each opera would fit on one side of a vinyl album. All of the spoken dialogue in Der Schauspieldirektor was cut; Prima la musica lost most of its recitative, as well as several arias. But what remains is highly enjoyable. Here is Salieri's parody of a prima donna's aria, "Lá tu vedrai chi sono" (There you shall see who I am), and as Donna Eleonora, Roberta Alexander's voice has a remarkable range:

This sounds not unlike "Come scoglio," a parody of a prima donna's aria Mozart included four years later in Così fan tutte. Nothing was lost on Mozart. . .

Handel: Saul. Featuring soloists with the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ivor Bolton, directed by Barrie Kosky (Opus Arte)

We regretted that the timing of our Glyndebourne trip this summer did not allow us to see the revival of this production of Handel's oratorio Saul (1739). Fortunately the original production from 2015 is available on video. It boasts an excellent cast (Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan) and the striking stage images of director Barrie Kosky and designer Katrin Lea Tag.

The libretto by Charles Jennens (who a few years later fashioned the libretto for Messiah) tells the story of the Israelite king Saul, who is at first grateful to David for saving his kingdom by slaying the Philistine giant Goliath. But soon Saul's gratitude turns to envy, and then to murderous madness. Saul's hatred ultimately redounds on Saul himself and his son Jonathan.

In the opening chorus "How excellent thy name, O Lord," David (Iestyn Davies), in post-traumatic shock after his battle with Goliath, is hailed by Saul and the Israelites—and yes, that is Goliath's severed head downstage center:

Kosky clothes many of the singers in 18th-century-style costumes; the madness of Saul thus cleverly evokes the madness of King George III, who had acceded to the British throne six months before Saul's premiere. On the music blog Bachtrack David Karlin has written, "When you go to a Barrie Kosky production, you know you’re going to get something theatrical, something to astonish you, something brimming with ideas—whether or not you agree with them." I'm usually allergic to Regietheatrical interventions; the ideas of most directors are impoverished compared to those of the composer and librettist. But to my surprise, I found myself completely engaged by Kosky's staging. Saul shows that Regietheater doesn't always have to involve a crime committed against the work.

The Vivaldi Edition returns:

Dorilla in Tempe, soloists with I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis (Naïve)
Il Giustino, soloists with Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (Naïve)

Yes, it's cheating to include two full-length operas in one capsule review. But the Vivaldi Edition, on hiatus since 2014, issued these two splendid recordings over the past twelve months—a most welcome return. They are also nicely contrasted. Dorilla in Tempe (1734) puts its pastoral lovers through a wringer of misunderstandings, jealousies and betrayals before everything is sorted out for the happy ending. Il Giustino (1724) follows the martial rise of the peasant Giustino (Delphine Galou) to the throne of the Byzantine Empire, with bear attacks, shipwrecks, sea monsters, prison escapes, and ghostly apparitions in between.

These new entries maintain the high standard set by the Vivaldi Edition. They feature emerging and established singers such as Romina Basso (Dorilla), Emöke Barath, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, and Delphine Galou (all Giustino), vivid conducting and virtuosic period-instrument ensembles; the recorded sound and the packaging are also first rate. As an added bonus, both operas re-use melodic material from Vivadi's most popular work, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).

Here is a Delphine Galou performing Giustino's aria "Bel riposo de' mortali" from the first act of Il Giustino:

Bel riposo de' mortali

Bel riposo de' mortali
Su quest'occhi spiega l'ali,
Dolce sonno, e vieni a me.
Lovely repose of mortals

Lovely repose of mortals,
Over my eyes spread your wings,
Sweet sleep, and come to me.

Some of the previous entries in the Vivaldi Edition are now unavailable in CD format. So if (like us) you're still wedded to the physical, don't hesitate to pick these up right away.

More Favorites of 2018:

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