Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 29 - October, 2001

Jason Serinus








EMI is determined to insure that dramatic soprano Angela Gheorghiu earns a place in the operatic firmament. Stars appear everywhere, including on the front and back covers, the spine, and the CD itself. When you open the case, an enlarged photo of the sparkles that adorn Ms. Gheorgiu's sleeveless evening dress surround the CD itself, as though they carry the same import as the swaddling cloth that cradled the infant Jesus. And the brochure itself includes numerous Gheorghiu glamour shots, with a striking centerfold unwrap destined for Vogue.

Somewhere in all of this there is the voice. It is exceptionally beautiful and perfectly produced. Far more even than Maria Callas' controversial instrument, its dark sound in the lower and middle range speaks of drama and tragedy. The highs, although not always as free as the great Maria Callas' in her too brief prime, are certainly less steely and more reliable. Coloratura ability too is on display. And there are myriad accents and shadings, all indications of a major artist.

The repertoire has Callas written all over it. Gheorghiu does a fine job singing Bellini's "Casta Diva" from Norma, "Qui la voce...Vien diletto" from I Puritani, and "Ah! non credea mirarti" from La Sonnambula; Rossini's "Selva opaca" from Guglielmo Tell and "L'ora fatal s'appressa... Giusto ciel!" from L'Assedio di Corinto; and Donizetti's final scene from Anna Bolena. While you may prefer a lighter, more fragile voice in the Puritani and Sonnambula selections - Gheorgiu is certainly no Sutherland, Sayao, or dal Monte -- or have long ago decided that Sills' live 1969 La Scala debut recording of The Siege of Corinth will never be equaled, there is no denying that, in the Italian repertoire, Gheorghiu is quite possibly the finest lyric/dramatic soprano before us today.

There are some disappointments. "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia falls flat; it lacks the essential coy smile, sparkle, and teasing wit that so many sopranos, even the hardly jovial Callas, bring to it. Nor does Donizetti's first act aria from Lucia di Lammermoor have the combination of pathos and technical freedom that sopranos from Tetrazzini and Galli-Curci to Sutherland, Sills, and Callas have brought to the role. But the rest of the performances are quite fine.

When all is said and done, however, the test of a singer is whether she or he moves you. Some people's voices, even if imperfect, never fail to touch the heart. Such singers seem to sing from their innermost being, wedding emotion and sound into a performance that makes music vital and alive. This is what you'll experience when listening to Callas, Caballé, Cerquetti, Freni, Tebaldi, Olivero and other greats sing the central Italian repertoire.

Perhaps you will experience this with Gheorgiu. Certainly, to judge from critical reaction, many do. However, if you sense a veil, an impenetrable divahood as it were, that leaves you observing who Gheorgiu sings more than feeling what she's singing, know that you are not alone.




What kind of music might you expect from a 45-year old composer who, according to RCA's liner notes, spent six to eight hour stretches in the late 1960s providing electric guitar accompaniment for his older brothers during their extended LSD explorations? Include in your fantasies that, after an international upbringing, he eventually settled in northern California at the time when the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, Jimi Hendrix, et al were the voice of the land.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who has championed Steven Mackey's music for years, describes it as "wacky." Mackey not only embraces the appellation, but expands its definition to include weird, quirky and offbeat composition that features humorous material with a "mercurial continuity." If those words don't throw a curve ball at your sensibilities, Mackey's music most certainly will.

This music is young and brash, the journey filled with adventure, the orchestral color as startlingly seductive as all those colors and patterns that come upon you when you drop. And it's a good trip. "Tuck and Roll," an electric guitar concerto featuring Mackey as soloist, is all over the place, its influences extending from classic car upholstery to Latin music. Eating Greens, a large symphonic work, contains seven movements with such titles as (Lethargical) Reformation, Whim and Rigor (Homage to Henri Matisse), and Ouija (wee-gee) Baby. In between comes "Lost and Found," a short, spicy toccata and fanfare.

This music is perfect for MTT's youthful New World Symphony. Tilson Thomas, whose San Francisco Symphony Mavericks Festival once offered duo improvisations with the Grateful Dead's Vince Welnick scented with marijuana smoke coming from the second tier, established the New World Symphony in Miami Beach in 1987 as a training academy for gifted graduates of distinguished music schools. Their playing suggests that they have come of age. Hats off to the recording and mixing engineers responsible for this offbeat excursion.




Here's a delightful disc of baroque music from Musica Pacifica. Composed of some of North America's finest Early Music specialists, the group includes Elizabeth Blumenstock, quite possibly the most "in demand" baroque violinist in the country; Judith Linsenberg on recorder, David Morris on cello, Michael Eagan on Archlute, and Byron Schenkman on harpsichord and organ. All play in two world-renowned Bay Area ensembles: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and American Bach Soloists.

The icing on the cake is delivered by soprano Christine Brandes and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane. Their voices are wonderful and free, their technique so accomplished that the most florid of passages are sung with ease.

The two sonatas and five cantatas on this well-recorded 77-minute disc derive from the first 15 years that Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) worked for the city of Hamburg. During this period, he had to produce at least 140 cantatas a year for five churches, plus numerous other compositions. Many were assembled into volumes which Telemann published and distributed on a subscription basis.

This is the kind of baroque music on which the Musical Heritage Society built its catalogue. A far cry from Telemann's more elaborate and complex pieces, the works are simple in form, alternating joyful movements with those of a more serious nature. It's not music as profound as Bach's; it's doubtful that it will change your life. But if you are in the mood for a treat, or for background music to an intimate dinner by candlelight, this will surely fit the bill.




When music is as sweet and delightful as this, it's possible to forget all the talk of good and evil that has been so blindly bandied about of late. Sumi Jo has one of the most appealing, floridly accomplished soprano voices on today's opera stage. Her sound, remarkably pure, flows out perfectly formed, its freshness a healing balm amidst an atmosphere of hatred and righteousness. And her expression, for the most part as simple as the music she sings, comes as a blessed relief after insufferable weeks of righteous posturing and cries of hatred.

Besides Sumi Jo's wonderful voice, this generous original instrument recording of vocal and instrumental works by Mozart, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Bach, Crüger, Scheidt and others offers the orchestra the Capplla Coloniensis des WDR, conducted by Michael Schneider. To this are added VokalEnsemble Köln, Max Ciolek choirmaster, contralto Barbara Ochs, violinist Hiro Kurosaki, and fortepianist/organist Gottfried Bach.

A five star highlight is one of the finest performances yet encountered of Mozart's youthful motet, Exsultate, jubilate, K165. Ending with the famed Alleluja, Sumi Jo manages to sing the challenging coloratura at a remarkably fast clip without in the least sounding rushed. Her "O Holy Night" offers one of the sweetest high Cs you'll ever hear. Also included are two versions of Gruber's "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!", one an extended duet with alto, and a second in English for soprano, violin and fortepiano. In between come a Scarlatti cantata, the traditional Appalachian "I wonder as I wander," the andante from Mozart's Symphony No. 19 in E flat, K132, Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in E major, and the choir singing Praetorius. Truly a joyous offering.




This is a gorgeous album. Upon first glance, it seems for the most part a curious compilation of various Bach vocal chorales and vocal excerpts interspersed with selections from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004. But upon scratching the surface, one discovers an underlay of mathematics and metaphysics that makes for a truly mystical listening experience.

ECM's liner notes and 80-page booklet reveal that it was common to use numbers (represented by letters and keys) to encode riddles and hidden messages in baroque music. In particular, according to Professor Helga Thoene of the University of Düsseldorf, no less than a veritable theology in numbers and notes was hidden in the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1994, Prof. Thoene published an article claiming that Bach's famous Chaconne from his Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin was meant as an "epitaph in music" for Maria Barbara Bach. After violinist Christoph Poppen read Thoene's article, he proposed to ECM producer Manfred Eicher a collaboration between himself and the famed Hilliard Ensemble; the goal was to make the "hidden chorales" of the Chaconne audible to listeners. The result is the present recording, which uses vocal works sung one voice to a part (soprano, countertenor, tenor and baritone) as links between the five movements of the Partita. The recording climaxes with a unique 14-minute version of the Chaconne for Violin and Voice, in which the augmented Hilliard Ensemble sings verses in parallel with Poppen's solo violin.

Beyond Professor Thoene's research, this deeply spiritual music, enhanced by exceptional musicianship and ECM's usual highly atmospheric sonics,, is so beautiful that one "gets" Bach's extra levels of meaning even without reading the liner notes. Turn off the lights and listen. This is wonderful music.



Performances on both:

Sonics on both:

These simultaneous releases, featuring definite performances by artists who debuted most of these works, promises further acceptance of the music of fascinating Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Born in 1952, Ms. Saariaho became known in the eighties for her work in electro-acoustics. Her more recent compositions, seven of which are offered on these discs, are characterized by a sometimes dark, frequently haunting air of all- enveloping mystery.

The Sony disc features three works written expressly for the soloists. Singing in French to texts inexplicably omitted, Dawn Upshaw offers the Château de L'âme cycle of five love songs to ancient Hindu and Egyptian texts; three are drawn from spells for love and healing. Upshaw is fantastic, her characteristic freshness and gorgeous vibrato providing contrast to the otherworldly nature of these songs. The opening Graal Thèâtre, written for violinist Gidon Kremer, contains eerie moments of darkness and horror that seem disturbingly appropriate for these times. And Amers, for cellist Anssi Karttunen and accompaniment, was written with the composer imagining, in her own words, "the cello being a kind of boat moving in different directions in this sea of sound of electronics and ensemble."

Naïve, distributed by Harmonia Mundi, offers a two-disc set. The CD contains four gripping electronic works, variously featuring for the soprano, cellist and flutist soloists who contributed to their first performances. Thankfully, the vocal work, Lohn, written for Dawn Upshaw, comes complete with translations. Most compelling is the Six Japanese Gardens cycle for percussion and electronics, which realistically conveys the composer's "series of impressions" experienced while seeing sacred gardens in Kyoto. The bonus Macintosh/PC readable CD-Rom offers a deeper understanding of Saariaho's work via discussions with instrumental soloists and musicologists, an interactive music game composed specially for the disc, and an accessible analysis of the Sony disc's Amers. Great music which unites ancient mystery and ritual with a thoroughly modern acoustic landscape.

NOTE: Optional 8th CD review. This review was supposed to end the last set. You posted the cover scan, but not the review. I think the error was mine. I pasted it into the wrong review set, and didn't send it along.

Preference? Keep the scan in the last set, and add the review to that one. Keep this one at 7 CDs.



(live performance)

This distinguished live recording captures a June 25, 1957 Florence May Festival performance of Verdi's early opera Ernani. The performance features an all-star cast: soprano Anita Cerquetti, tenor Mario Del Monaco, bass Boris Christoff, and conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. The disc's value is enhanced by the fact that both Cerquetti and Mitropoulos had brief careers, leaving far too few recordings.

The star of the show is Cerquetti. A huge woman blessed with one of the most extraordinary Verdi voices on record, she sings an "Ernani, involami" for the ages. It is hardly the fastest; nor does it boast a trill. But Cerquetti offers a power, grace, and strength of expression that have rarely been matched by sopranos who dare to venture into this repertoire. The voice is absolutely solid from top to bottom, as strong as steel, yet remarkably beautiful. And the feeling of drama and suffering at its core is absolutely ideal for Verdi.

Mitropoulos, too, is wonderful. One is aware of the lightest of accompaniments under Cerquetti, allowing her the freedom to express herself as she wishes.

The great Boris Christoff is, of course, excellent. Some may prefer Christoff more in Russian repertoire than Verdi, but there is no denying the power and beauty of the voice. As for Del Monaco, he is very much Del Monaco, alternately singing, bullying and aspirating his way through the music. Some people love this approach; others, this reviewer included, find it trying.

But it is for Cerquetti and the conducting that one will want to own this disc. Any hardcore Verdi fans who are not familiar with Cerquetti are urged to snap this one up. You won't get text and translations - you won't even get biographies of the singing - but you will get a great performance and quite good sound at a reasonable price.

 - Jason Serinus -


© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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