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MUSICWEB LOG JUNE 2007 - Robert Hugill

Handel operas seem to be doing rather well at the moment. John Eliot Gardiner's recording of Agrippina has reappeared in the Philips classic opera series and I definitely agree that its a classic. Any recording which has a cast that includes Della Jones, Alistair Miles, Derek Lee Ragin and Michael Chance can't be all bad. Ragin is singing the mezzo-soprano role of Nerone, now usually sung by a woman. The set is worth getting for this alone, seeing what a real high counter-tenor can do with the part. Ragin is appearing in the English Touring Opera production of Teseo this autumn.

More unusually, Alan Curtis has recorded Floridante. It has a fine case, a rather better one than Curtis's previous Handel opera recording. This recording also enables Curtis to experiment with the edition of the text. Handel doesn't really give much scope for radical changes to the text for editorial purposes, most of his later changes are not improvements but simply making the piece work with whomsoever he had to sing at the time. In the case of Floridante Curtis has reverted to the planned voice range of Elmira, who was intended to be a soprano but had to be recast when the soprano, Margherita Durastantini, was ill. Rather bizarrely he then casts the role as a mezzo-soprano, but Joyce diDonato has a very bright, soprano-ish voice and is a superb singer, so what the hell. The same goes for Agrippina where the title role was also sung by soprano Margherita Durastantini. Nowadays Agrippina is often sung by mezzos, Della Jones on this disc, Sarah Connolly in the recent ENO production. So perhaps Durastantini had a rather low voice. (Handel:Floridante)

My 3rd Handel was even more curious. Handel's Tobit. In fact a pasticcio made by John Christopher Smith and the Revd Morrell after Handel's death. Alas, Morrell's libretto is no better than the ones he did for Handel, but this time he lacked Handel's genius by his side. So its best thought of as a delightful concert. Morrell succeeds in minimising or omitting the most dramatic elements of the story and Smith seems to have been content to go along with these. Whereas in Theodora Handel deliberately went against the libretto to create a work of genius. (Handel & Smith:Tobit:Naxos)

Performance practice in these Handel pieces is relatively standard; though we do not have lots of information we do have a moderately clear idea of the forces with which he was working. The same cannot be said of Bach where the controversy continues about the exact size of performing forces. I generally align myself to the one to a part school but accept that we must be able to make decisions based on available forces. So performances like the St. Matthew Passion by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra are listened to with open ears, as long as they provide imaginative solutions to the balance and other issues. What I can't abide are performances which try to pretend these works are full scale orchestral/choral music. Do try the new re-issue of Paul McCreesh's recording of the St. John Passion with is Gabrieli Consort, just one to a part recorded in a church with an organ from Bach's time, it sounds just right. (Bach:St. Matthew Passion:Naxos)

Most baroque composers used the cantata as a means of keeping their hand in. Small scale vocal/choral pieces were a good way to experiment with techniques that could be used in the bigger works. And, of course, they were highly portable, saleable items. Bach's sequence of church Cantatas were his staple diet but he wrote secular ones as well. I think that, too often, there is a tendency for performances of these to emulate the rather more staid atmosphere of the church ones. Still, a disc like the new Swiss one gives us the opportunity to hear the delightful name-day cantata Der Zufriedengestellte Aeolus. London Baroque have recorded a selection of Rameau and Campra pieces. Whereas the Bach cantata required serious forces and was a one-off. The Rameau and Campra are truly portable pieces, capable of being performed in the houses of patrons and eminently suitable for publication. After all, publishers only published music that the public wanted to buy, and by and large they wanted to buy piece that they could perform at home. (Bach cantatas)

It is amazing what we don't know about Baroque music and performance, how much information has been lost or simply mislaid. Buxtehude started an influential series of evening concerts each Advent in his church in Lübeck. They were enormously influential and he wrote a series of oratorios for them. Amazingly these have not survived. All we have is a single manuscript, that people can't quite agree whether it is by Buxtehude or just in his style. The other possibility is, of course, that what we have is a cack-handed revision by another hand. Anyway, Ton Koopman has chosen it to open the Vocal Works section of the new Buxtehude Opera Omnia. Personally I can't wait for the next volumes. (Buxtehude Oratorio)

Another Philips Classic Opera set cropped up in my in tray. The famous (infamous) Bonynge/Sutherland Il Trovatore. Its a performance where the winds of later operas don't blow as strong as they usually do; this is Verdi seen through the lens of his predecessors. After all the first Leonora was famous for her singing of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. It would all work well if you like Bonynge's conducting, I'm still in 2 minds about it. By and large I welcome performers moving out of their standard comfort zone. With singers especially going against your fach can be very rewarding, providing you take care of your voice. One of the best Leonora's that I heard was Rita Hunter, who brought a thrilling power and remarkably accuracy to the role. She was a singer who knew the power of a firm musical line, and this was conveyed in all her roles. Sutherland's sense of line is, inevitably, different; you can feel her treating the music as if it was by an earlier composer, adding flexibility and freedom, highlighting some notes at the expense of others. It is a fascinating performance. As a bonus you get the ballet music that Verdi wrote for the Paris performances of the opera. Not Verdi at his strongest I'm afraid, so not much of a bonus. (Verdi:Il trovatore)

Siegfried Wagner suffered the usual problems of having a more famous father, but having a mother like Cosima can't have been easy. I'm not convinced that he was destined to be an opera composer, I can't help feeling that he'd have done well writing orchestral tone poems and the like. Still, getting a better librettist would have helped. He wrote his own for Der Kobold and he tries just too hard. It has some interested dark themes, but I'm sure that his father (or Richard Strauss) could have made more of the suggestions of child abuse, adultery and the killing of illegitimate children. But the composer it really needed was Webern. Siegfried Wagner's mix of middle period Richard W., Marschner and Weber is not quite what is needed. But, then again, perhaps seeing it in performance would change my ideas, not that there is much chance of that.

The release of 1950s discs from copyright means that we are having a rash of delightful re-issues and compilations. Alto give us some lovely Puccini duets sung by the likes of Victoria De Los Angeles, Jussi Bjorling, Renata Tebaldi, Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano. Lovely.(Puccini duets)

Into the more recent century for the final batch of discs. I've long admired the music of Judith Bingham and she has been woefully neglected on disc. This new Naxos disc admirably re-cycles live recording made at the Proms by the BBC Symphony Chorus. The results make a fine disc, based on the talents of the BBC Symphony Chorus but I did wish that we might have had something from the BBC Singers. Perhaps we could have more music from the Proms on disc, after all it would be a good way to promulgate the first performances which take place there. (Judith Bingham choral works)

Naxos have also issued a disc of Laurent Petigirard's music, presumably on the back of his successful Elephant Man opera. Petigirard has a background in film and his scores are always admirably written, often gorgeous to listen to. Like the Bingham this disc seems to re-cycle some earlier material and add some new; one of the tracks being recorded way back in 1992 in Ljubljana. Still the results make a surprisingly coherent and balanced disc. (Petitgirard:Orchestral works)

Charles Jencks's Garden of Cosmic Speculation is a new landscape garden that I've longed to visit. Now we have a disc of music by Stephen Goss which explores the landscape in sound. I loved it. Like Petigirard, Goss manages to make lovely, pleasurable auditory experiences, but Goss adds in to this strength and rigour of construction. Whereas with Petitgirard I simply loved the sound world, with Goss I felt that there was something underneath, the steel beneath the velvet glove. (Goss:Garden of Cosmic Speculation)

Milken's disc of Jewish operas gives you the chance to hear excerpts from 3 more or less contemporary operas. Its a good way of exposing them, even though the disc left me wanting more. It always amazes me how much music comes out of the USA, and how much we never properly hear. After all, how likely are any of these three operas (David Schiff's Gimpel the Fool, Elie Siegmeister's Lady of the Lake and Hugo Weisgall's Esther) to get a UK staging. (Naxos:Jewish operas vol 2)

Finally a disc of choral music by Brian Ferneyhough. Not a composer associated with choral repertoire, the music is challenging. But the BBC Singers respond to the challenges in superb fashion. This is what discs of contemporary music should be like, stretching and challenging us but giving us superbly crafted performances. (Ferneyhough:Choral Music)

Robert Hugill



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