Monday, November 23, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Recordings

In this year of disaster, I've found myself drawn especially to the music of the 17th century and before. That music of such beauty and depth could be produced at other times of uncertainty, political instability, and deadly plague somehow gave me hope.

What follows is a list of my favorite recordings first heard in the past twelve months (no matter when they were recorded or released) in roughly chronological order by composer.

Roland de Lassus: Canticum Canticorum (1560s?-1580s)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Clematis; Leonardo García Alarcón, director. Ricercar, recorded 2015.

As an adult it's as surprising to me that this musical setting of the Song of Songs was performed in church as it was for me to discover at age 15 a hymn to the pleasures of kissing in the middle of the Bible. Choeur de Chambre de Namur and the instrumental ensemble Clematis under the direction of Leonardo García Alarcón offer a cool yet sensuous performance of this sexiest of sacred texts. "Osculetur me osculo oris sui" (Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth): [links to full playlist]

Tomás Luis de Victoria: Officium Defunctorum (1603)
Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, director. Phi, recorded 2011.

In this year of sorrow and loss, Victoria's mass for the dead offered consolation. It is hushed, meditative, melancholy and inward, qualities which the performance of Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent captures beautifully. Sad, but (if you're the sort of person I am) paradoxically uplifting. "Taedet animam meam" (My soul is weary): [links to full playlist]

Giulio Caccini: L'Euridice (1600)
Soloists with Scherzi Musicali; Nicolas Achten, director. Ricercar, recorded 2008.

Giulio Caccini was a singer, instrumentalist and composer in Florence who was involved in the first experiments in a new musical form around the turn of the 17th century: opera. Jacopo Peri wrote what is considered to be the first opera, Dafne, in 1598; some of Caccini's music was included in a performance of Peri's second opera, a setting of Ottavio Rinuccini's libretto Euridice, which was given in October 1600 as part of the festivities surrounding the marriage of Henri IV of France with Maria de' Medici. Apparently there was a rivalry between the two composers: Caccini then rushed his his own setting of the same libretto into print before Peri's became available. The first full performance of Caccini's Euridice occurred in 1602, but it does not seem to have had quite the same effect as Peri's two years before.

The reference works I've consulted seem to agree that Peri was the more dramatic composer, and Caccini the more lyrical. Certainly the lyricism of this score is highly apparent in this recording by Scherzi Musicali, which features Céline Vieslet as Euridice (Eurydice) and director Nicolas Achten as Orfeo (Orpheus). It is through-sung in a flowing, melodic arioso occasionally punctuated by madrigal-like ensembles. It's fascinating to hear the origins of the style that would reach its artistic and expressive peak in the operas of Claudio Monteverdi.

Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggerio dall'isola d'Alcina (1625)
Huelgas Ensemble; Paul van Nevel, director. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, recorded 2016.

Francesca Caccini was the first woman to compose an opera. Giulio Caccini's eldest daughter, she was raised in a musical household and appeared along with her half-sister Settimia and her stepmother Margherita in musical performances led by her father; she was one of the singers in Peri's L'Euridice. Very highly regarded as a virtuoso singer, after her marriage at age 19 or 20 to another performer she also turned to composing and teaching. An indicator of the regard in which she was held is that after the accession of Ferdinando II de' Medici as the Grand Duke of Tuscany, she became the highest-paid musician in his service.

Although Francesca Caccini was a prolific composer of vocal music, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) is her sole surviving opera. Based on an episode from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), it was first performed in Florence during Carnival in 1625 for the visit of Prince Władisław of Poland, who immediately commissioned two further operas from Francesca. For more about the work and a description of a puppet opera performance, please see the post Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola Alcina.

It's easy to hear in this performance why the prince was so impressed. The melodies are fluid, the characters are musically delineated, and the ensembles are lovely. Although there are no starry soloists on this recording, the performers of the Huelgas Ensemble do the work justice. Many thanks to the dear friend who brought this on a visit in early March; we haven't stopped listening to it since.

Luigi Rossi: La Lyra d'Orfeo & Arpa Davidica (1620s?-1650s)
L'Arpeggiata; Christina Pluhar, director. Erato, recorded 2005 & 2019.

Luigi Rossi was from the generation after the first opera composers such as Guilio Caccini, Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi, although their influence can still be heard. In 2005 the French soprano Véronique Gens and the period-instrument group L'Arpeggiata recorded a selection of Rossi's vocal works, including arias from his opera Orfeo (1647). As L'Arpeggiata's musical director Christine Pluhar reports in her booklet note, the recording became caught up in a legal dispute and could not be issued for 15 years. When it finally became available, Pluhar decided to augment it with two more CDs of Rossi's vocal music featuring countertenors Philippe Jaroussky, Jakub Józef Orlinski, and Valer Sabadus, along with sopranos Céline Scheen and Giuseppina Bridelli.

In the past I've occasionally found Pluhar's musical approach to be too anachronistic for my taste: in her arrangements of the often skeletal scores that were written in the 17th century, she and her musicians sometimes have included elements such as jazzy harmonies or percussion that were unlikely to have been a part of the sound-world of their composers. L'Arpeggiata largely avoids those kinds of incongruities on these recordings, many of which are world premières. Véronique Gens' voice is extremely appealing, the two other sopranos are nearly as good, and the three countertenors (each with a very distinct timbre) are among the most renowned exponents of this voice type performing today. A delightful collection of music by an under-performed composer. "Mio ben" (My beloved) from Orfeo:

Johannes Schenck: Le Nymphe di Rheno (1702)
Wieland Kuijken & François Joubert-Caillet, bass viols. Ricercar, recorded 2012.

This CD seems to have been planned as the first volume of two that would have included all of the 12 sonatas for two bass viols composed by Johannes Schenck and collected under the title Le Nymphe di Rheno (The Nymphs of the Rhine). Alas, only these six sonatas have appeared (they are II, III, VII, VIII, XI, & XII). Beautifully performed and recorded in the resonant 13th-century Chapelle Notre-Dame de Centeilles in Siran, France, these performances have a warmth that is missing from the complete set of Le Nymphe di Rheno sonatas recorded by Les Voix Humaines on Naxos, which to my ears have a harsh metallic edge to the sound.

George Frideric Handel: Agrippina (1709)
Soloists with Il Pomo D'Oro; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor. Erato, recorded 2019.

Handel was only 24 when he composed the brilliant music for Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani's satirical libretto about ancient Romans double- and triple-crossing one another in a mad scramble for sex and power. 

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) schemes to make her teenaged son Nerone (Franco Fagioli) Emperor, and when it is announced that the Emperor Claudio (Luca Pisaroni) has perished at sea she makes her move. No sooner is Nerone acclaimed Emperor by Agrippina's henchmen than a fanfare announces the arrival of Claudio. The report of his demise was premature: he was rescued by Ottone (Jakub Józef Orlinski), whom Claudio has now gratefully named as his successor. As someone of Nerone's age might say today: awkward! Agrippina immediately goes to work to get Ottone out of the way by spreading rumors about him and Poppea (Elsa Benoit), who is loved by Ottone and lusted after by Claudio and Nerone. Characters' fortunes undergo sudden reversals; hope is followed quickly by despair, tragedy by farce, and vice versa. (For more on the plot and background of the opera, see the post Agrippina.) But Handel's music raises the stakes by grounding the characters' duplicitous actions in real emotion.

This wickedly entertaining opera is having a cultural moment. It has finally gotten the recording it deserves, with a superb cast accompanied by a virtuosic period-instrument ensemble, Il Pomo D'Oro. And it can also be seen in David McVicar's modern-dress production for a mere 5-spot via Met Opera on Demand, which pointedly updates ancient Rome to contemporary Washington D.C. (DiDonato is a memorably fierce Agrippina in both). 

Here is DiDonato in an excerpt from her "In War & Peace" concert with Il Pomo D'Oro performing Agrippina's Act II aria "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate":

Pensieri, voi mi tormentate.

Ciel, soccorri a mie disegni, soccorri ciel!
Il mio figlio fa che regni
E voi Numi il secondate!
Thoughts, how you torment me.

Heaven, help me in my plan, help me, heaven!
Let my son reign
Second only to you, oh gods!

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Live performances
Last time: Favorites of 2020: Movies

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