Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 14 - June, 2000

A Vocal Bouquet - Part II

Jason Serinus





As promised in the first part of the Vocal Bouquet, posted sometime back, much of this second round-up features modern day recordings. Because sonics are an important factor here, they again take their rightful place in the ratings.

Naxos has recently released the first four volumes of the NAXOS DEUTSCHE SCHUBERT LIED EDITION, three of which we’ll discuss here. It’s wonderful that this bargain label ($6.99 list in the U.S.) has decided to issue a complete Schubert edition to compete with the high-priced HYPERION SCHUBERT EDITION. That a bargain label includes full texts and translations is cause for celebration, putting to shame text-less mid-price issues from EMI and the like, as well as recent full-priced issues from the BBC and IMV, amongst others. (Even though IMV provides English liner notes, they only include song texts in French). But Naxos is going to have to find better singers if they want to make their mark. Ulf Bastlein’s GOETHE LIEDER VOL. 1 Naxos 554665 () succeeds neither on sonic nor vocal/interpretive grounds. Michael Volle’s SCHWANENGESANG Naxos 8.554663 () is somewhat better, but his baritone does not offer enough color, variety or freedom to draw me to the music. Happily, I am drawn to Roman Trekel’s beautifully-voiced and sensitively-inflected WINTERREISE Naxos 554471 () far more than the Gramophone critic who just reviewed this set. In fact, I prefer some of Trekel’s interpretations to the over-stated versions by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The sonics on this disc are also the best of these three issues. If you don’t know this great, often tragic Schubert cycle, an echo of the despair of the composer who was to die of syphilis at age 31, this recording will prove a good starting point. If you like what you hear, try the myriad versions by F-D and Hans Hotter (three or four each), and branch out from there.

CPO has embarked on a complete mid-price JOHANNES BRAHMS LIEDER EDITION, featuring soprano Juliane Banse and baritone Andreas Schmidt. VOLUME 2 CPO 999 442-2 () offers the complete op. 19, 32, 43 and 46 sets of lieder. Banse’s soprano is young, sweet, bright, and a bit fluttery. To these ears, her interpretations lack both flexibility of tempo and maturity of expression. The radiant Elly Ameling and the late, incomparable Elisabeth Schumann need have no fear that their reputations have been eclipsed by this singer. Baritone Schmidt is a finer and more experienced artist than Banse, with a voice that can move from sweetness to forcefulness without loss of beauty of tone. He sings with much feeling and variety, but his instrument lacks the ultimate heft called for by a masterpiece such as Von ewiger Liebe or a number of the other songs in Brahms’ intense collections. Baritone Thomas Allen and contralto Kathleen Ferrier, both capable of the most intimate and personal of expression, are far more successful than Banse and Schmidt in songs which require forte declamation. For an example of what Banse and Schmidt lack, listen to soprano Lotte Lehmann’s recording of Brahms’ Der Schmied, included on LOTTE LEHMANN: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1947-1949) Romophone 81033-2 (). Lehmann vividly conveys that we are hearing a love song to a blacksmith who is pounding away at his anvil, her instrument perfectly complemented by the pounding chords of Paul Ulanowsky’s piano. That Lehmann, as equally accomplished in Wagner as in Brahms, recorded this demanding song when she was 59 years old makes the performance even more extraordinary.

Are there baritones currently in their prime who can give us what the mostly excellent Schmidt and some of the Naxos singers lack? Absolutely. Although I did not have time to give more than a preliminary listen to the MATTHIAS GOERNE BACH CANTATAS disc, conducted by Roger Norrington on Decca 289 466 570-2 (Performance ), what I did hear suggests that it is another superb issue from perhaps the most sensitive, versatile, beautifully-voiced baritone now on the concert stage. We also have noteworthy new lieder recordings by the superb Thomas Quasthoff and Bryn Terfel. BRAHMS • LISZT • LIEDER – THOMAS QUASTHOFF, Justus Zeyen piano DG 289 463 183-2 (Performance , Sonics ). He presents one of the most beautifully-voiced baritones on the concert circuit singing Brahms’ op. 32, op. 72 and op. 94, as well as Liszt’s Tre sonnetti di Petrarca plus three other songs. Such Brahms gems as Wie bist du, meine Konigin, O kuhler Wald, and Sapphische Ode are included in these Brahms sets. Quasthoff sings with much beauty, feeling, and intelligence. The voice is absolutely even from top to bottom, its basic tone about as beautiful as it gets. Comparison with the CPO version of Lieder und Gesange, op. 32 is most telling. If I do not go hog-wild over Quasthoff’s music-making, it is because his voice lacks the sweetness of tone in soft passages that for me would put his interpretations at the top of the list. This is very much a personal matter, and should not in any way dissuade you from exploring the music making of this superb artist.

The same must be said for that lion of a bass-baritone, BRYN TERFEL, whose collection of SCHUMANN • LIEDERKREIS OP. 39 • ROMANCES AND BALLADS, wonderfully accompanied by Malcolm Martineau DG 289 447 042-2 (Performance , Sonics ), has already found its way to a permanent place on my shelf. Terfel’s combination of consummate intelligence and vocal control are remarkable, and many of his interpretations can stand comparison with the greats of yore. Yet I find myself harboring a nagging fear that just when he is singing at his sweetest, he may suddenly turn around and roar at me. Those who prefer toy poodles to German shepherds will know what I mean. This is a matter of the heart, and everyone’s heart and boundaries are different. When Matthias Goerne sings sweetly, I not only believe him, but feel safe in opening my heart to the music. With Terfel, besides his forceful vocal personality, I also experience a bit too much over-emphasis on word painting to entirely convince me all the time. (Try reciting the lyrics the way Terfel sings them, and you’ll understand what I mean.) When I last heard this man in recital, I found it interesting that the highlights of the evening, for many in the audience, were his Rogers and Hammerstein encores. These are pieces of music in which showmanship, as well as beauty of tone, count in equal measure. A little less show in Schumann would convince me more of the time.

GROVER WASHINGTON, JR • ARIA Sony Classical Sk 61864 (Performance , Sonics ) offers the late saxophonist in a curious collection of jazz arrangements of well-known arias by Bizet, Puccini, Massenet, Delibes, Giordano, and Gershwin. Accompanied by the star line-up Billy Childs, Ron Carter, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Freedman, and Terence Blanchard, the playing is superb. But for those who know this music, hearing these arrangements is a strange experience indeed. This has to be the most laid back operatic collection on the planet. Just when you expect the tenor to open his voice and sing his heart out, he instead takes another toke or sip and offers you mellifluously mellow musings. This disc may prove perfect dinnertime or late-evening background, but it will not prepare you for the experience of what the human voice can do in opera.

JANE EAGLEN STRAUSS FOUR LAST SONGS Sony Classical 61720 (Performance , Sonics ) presents the soprano whom many consider our greatest living Wagnerite in a potentially awesome recital that includes, in addition to the Strauss masterpieces, Wagner’s Wesendock Lieder and the Berg Seven Early Songs. While I cannot imagine any lover of song who would want to be without performances of these three great sets of lieder, Eaglen’s performances cannot be recommended. The soprano has a beautiful higher range, but, on the five days she recorded this music in 1999, she also had a disturbing beat in her mid-range. This could be overlooked if the interpretations smacked of greatness. Instead, the voice is somewhat inflexible, with not enough plasticity of either tone or feeling to bring this music to life. In the liner notes, conductor Donald Runnicles praises Jane Eaglen’s “uncannily instrumental approach to her singing.” I cannot. To compare Eaglen’s interpretations of the Strauss songs with versions by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (either one) or Jessye Norman (captured in her prime, with a performance so great as to mostly triumph over the space age synthesizer-sonics of Philips early digital engineering at its most wigged-out) leads one to shake one’s head with regret. Eaglen’s Traume from the Wesendock lieder, for example, sounds lovely, but to play Lotte Lehmann’s incomparable 1929 interpretation is to realize what is missing.

Similarly, if you love the Berg songs, Barbara Bonney’s recent version on DG, accompanied by Riccardo Chailly on a disc that also includes Mahler Symphony No. 4, cannot be recommended highly enough. On the other hand, disappointing is DEBUSSY • CHAUSSON: MELODIES – CHRISTINE SCHAFER • IRWIN GAGE DG 289 459 682-2 (Performance , Sonics ). Schafer adopts a cool, sensual approach to this music. For the most part, she sings Debussy’s Fetes galantes(1) and Proses lyriques very slowly. The interpretations and voice do not move me, with Maggie Teyte’s incomparable interpretations invariably singing in my head as Schafer makes her way through the Debussy. Furthermore, the RIDICULOUS sonics, which place singer and piano in an echo chamber unlike anything one might hear in the concert hall, make this singer positively untouchable. I have played this recording on two completely different high-performance systems, and through a total of four different preamps. It simply does not work. If DG is trying to make a recording that will sound good on MP3, a boom box or a less-than-audiophile car system, perhaps they have succeeded. On the other hand, how many people are going to play French melodie on their computer or while negotiating rush hour traffic?

FROM THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK – JUDITH FORST, MEZZO-SOPRANO • CBC VANCOUVER ORCHESTRA • MARIO BERNARDI CBC Records SMCD 5191 (Performance , Sonics ) offers this superb Canadian mezzo in music by Oskar Morawetz, Malcolm Forsyth, Ramona Luengen, and John Oliver. Forst, like the great Maureen Forrester, is considered a Canadian national treasure, and for good reason. Since both the Forsyth Sun Songs and Oliver Unseen Rain were specifically written for this mezzo, these performances by this mature artist must be considered definitive. The music is quite dramatic, frequently atonal, and anything but an upper. Morawetz sets 17 minutes of the most phantasmagoric passage from Anne Frank’s Diary, while Forsyth chooses poems from Doris Lessing’s novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Even Oliver’s eight miniatures to poems by the great Sufi mystic Rumi, who was murdered at age 37 by his lover, smack not of metaphysical exaltation, but of atonal disturbance. With the caveat that this is not a collection of sweet love songs, this disc is highly recommended.

Equal recommendation goes to the Christopher Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques FRANCOIS COUPERIN LECONS DE TENEBRE Decca 289 466 776-2 (Performance , Sonics ). This wonderful disc stars soprano baroque specialists Veronique Gens and Sandrine Piau, accompanied by bass violists Emmanuel Balssa and organist Christopher Rousset. Featuring two motets and Magnificat, probably written in the 1690s, as well as the three surviving Lecons which were composed in the early 1700s, this music is absolutely heavenly in its purity and simplicity of means. The singing is superb, the blending of the sopranos in the third lesson celestial. The visually-stunning organ of the Abbey Church of St. Antoine in Isere, built between 1620 and 1625, and fully restored in1992, provides perfect, historically authentic accompaniment. Couperin’s Lecons are one of the vocal gems of the baroque era. A competing recording by countertenor Rene Jacobs sounds thick and unconvincing in comparison. Rousset and crew create the perfect rarefied atmosphere required to bring this beautiful music to life. This performance is not to be missed.

Another gem is DIASPORA SEFARDI • ROMANCES & MUSICA INSTRUMENTAL – HESPERION XXI ALIA VOX 9809 A+B (Performance , Sonics ). The duo of famed director and instrumentalist Jordi Savall and his soprano wife, the superb Montserrat Figueras, complemented by the Hesperion XXI ensemble, gifts us with another of their great vocal/instrumental collections, this one devoted to the Jewish Sephardic music of various cultures. The performers are so assured in their musicianship, and so comfortable with one another, that these performances reside on another plane from most ancient music reconstructions. With full translations in English, Catalan, Italian, and German, this collection is self-recommending for anyone who either loves or wishes to explore the repertoire.

NAGUILA CHANTS MYSTIQUE SEFARADES/MYSTIC SEPHARDIC CHANTS L’empreinte digitale ED 13118 (Performance , Sonics ) A rawer, absolutely authentic helping of Sephardic music comes from the Sephardic Jews of the Naguila Ensemble. Emigres to France from North Africa, the group features the unique, unclassifiable intonation of Sephardic cantor Andre Taieb of the Montpellier Synagogue. Taieb’s voice sounds far more like that of Hamza el-Din or a Sufi mystic than your typical Jewish cantor. Naguila lets loose, as do vocalist Etty Ben-Zaken and Ensemble Yazan Azan on one of my fellow critic Sarah Cahill’s "Ten Best of 1999" discs, THE BRIDE UNFASTENS HER BRAIDS…LADINO LOVE SONGS, directed by Eitan Steinberg (New Albion). (Performance , Sonics ). Both these discs are the "real thing." If you wish to hear the moving religious and secular music of the people whom the Christians drove out of Spain, these recordings merit your attention.

On the classical best-seller charts, you will find ARVO PART • I AM THE TRUE VINE • THEATRE OF VOICES THE PRO ARTE SINGERS PAUL HILLIER, DIRECTOR, Harmonia Mundi HMU 907242 (Performance , Sonics ) While many of the initial compositions of Estonian-born Arvo Part (born 1935) were secular in nature, his more recent, Christian-based music combines a deeply religious, ancient faith with a contemporary musical aesthetic. In the wake of twelve-tone music, agnostic serialism, and cerebrally-stuck compositions that leave many feeling empty and left out, Part has created an accessible, strikingly beautiful form of classical music with deeply spiritual roots. Part’s unique “tintinnabuli” style utilizes the bell-like characteristics of the notes of the simple triad. Derived from intense study of western plainchant and early polyphony, this instantly recognizable style beautifully suits the religious texts illuminated by the music. We begin with six pieces written between 1990 and 1997. Those accustomed to Part’s seriousness may be amazed to discover that the music of the first composition, set to Orthodox Liturgy, actually rejoices. The next, I am the true vine (John 14:1-14), is gentle and intimate, while others are solemn and penitent. Tribute to Caesar (Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s) accurately conveys the emotions of the text, becoming touchingly sweet and naïve when Jesus speaks. The disc ends with the wonderful Berliner Messe, revised for organ accompaniment. Part has collaborated with Paul Hillier and organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent since the mid-1980s. Both singing and recording exhibit a wonderful transparency that enhances spiritual exaltation. Comparing this organ version of the Mass to the earlier, equally authentic ECM recording with chamber orchestra accompaniment, the more forward, cleaner sound and perfect complement between organ and voice deeply impress.

DAVID DANIELS • SERENADE Virgin Classics 7243 5 45400 2 8 (Performance , Sonics ). From the first notes of pianist Martin Katz’s caressing introduction to Beethoven’s great, extended love song, Adelaide, we know we are in for something special. Expectation immediately transforms into wonder when countertenor David Daniels joins his fine accompanist in song. The first sung phrases of Adelaide are ravishingly beautiful, the entire rendition one that haunts the memory long after the performance has concluded. And as this generous 70-minute recital progresses, it becomes clear that Daniels’ sensitivity, exceptional beauty of tone, total concentration, and absolute attention to musical and poetic nuance place him in the front rank of song recitalists. Daniel’s voice, best suited for the slower, more elegiac songs in this 21-song recital, does not fit the standard conception of “countertenor.” It is full, flexible, and reminiscent of neither man nor woman. The esteemed critic John Steene has suggested that Daniels might be best thought of as a male mezzo-soprano. Categories aside, it is clear that, with Daniels’ artistry, androgyny rules. Drop any conception you may have about a countertenor’s suitability for repertoire originally written for other voices. Daniels’ singing of these selections by Beethoven, Poulenc, Schubert, Gounod, Vaughan Williams, Purcell and others creates one of the most memorable song recitals of the digital era. His interpretation of Schubert’s Nacht und Traume (Night and Dream) surely ranks among the most beautiful ever recorded, while his performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea and Hands, eyes and heart touch as deeply as the great Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon. If you are unfamiliar with the classical song repertoire of the last three centuries, this disc, the late Arleen Auger’s Love Song recital (Delos), and any mixed recital by Elly Ameling recorded up until the early ‘80s are the perfect places to start. Though there is too much reverb on Daniels' voice to warrant more than a 3.5 star sonic rating, the sonics are otherwise quite pleasing; they certainly do not detract from the impact of this man's must-hear artistry. By all means obtain this disc.

Let us end with a vocal collection from Nimbus that complements The Prima Voce TREASURY OF OPERA lauded in my last vocal bouquet. THE GOLDEN AGE OF SINGING 50 Years of Great Voices on Record VOLUME ONE 1900-1910 NI 7050/1 () features two discs and 2 hours and 34 minutes filled with 44 performances by 44 different singers. While we get such well-known greats as Plancon, Caruso, Eames, Patti, Calve, de Lucia, Lilli Lehmann, Melba, Ruffo, Destinn, Schumann-Heink, and Gadski, we also get such lesser-known magnificent artists as Olympia Boronat, Alessandro Bonci, and Giuseppe Anselmi. While these recordings are somewhat primitive, Nimbus does a superb job in making them both listenable and engrossing. Celestina Boninsegna’s Nile Scene sounds simply beautiful, and Patti here feels far more affecting than the reputation of her too-late-in-life recordings suggests. If you love opera, and have never heard Caruso’s 1904 recording of Una furtiva lagrima, in which his then-light voice is capable of effects seldom produced later in Caruso’s career, please avail yourself of the opportunity. Some of these singers enjoy full collections of their own in the Nimbus Prima Voce series. If you are drawn to any of their performances, and to the unique Nimbus sonics, you know where to turn to hear more. If you prefer samplers, Volume Two of this five volume Golden Age series is due in U.S. stores in August.

Your faithful classical reviewer treasures the magic created by the human voice. Stay tuned for more vocal reviews at a later date. Some, of course, will be found in the three part American music reviews following this one.

- Jason Serinus -


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