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Royal Mezzo
Samuel BARBER
(1910–1981)
Andromache’s Farewell, Op. 39 (1962) [13.10]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
La mort de Cléopâtre (1829) [21.32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875–1937)
Shéherazade (1903) [17.23]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)
Phaedra, Op. 93 (1976) [14.43]
Jennifer Larmore (mezzo)
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 4-5 August 2006 (Barber and Berlioz); Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millenium Park, Chicago, 29-30 June 2007 (Ravel and Britten)
CEDILLE RECORDS CDR90000 104 [67.15]
Experience Classicsonline

Jennifer Larmore’s latest recital record moves away from the territory for which she is best known in the UK, namely Handel and Rossini. Instead she gives us three cantatas all loosely linked by the theme of tragic Queens. The cantatas range from Berlioz’s Death of Cleopatra to Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell and Britten’s Phaedra. Along the way she also includes Ravel’s Shéherezade, neither Royal nor a cantata but nonetheless welcome.
 
The problem with this programme is that the pieces are all rather intimately linked to other notable singers. It is difficult to think of Britten’s Phaedra without calling up the voice of Janet Baker for whom the work was written. Baker also made a very fine recording of the Berlioz cantata. Similarly Shéherezade is rather dominated in the catalogues by the inimitable recording of Régine Crespin. And Andromache’s Farewell was written for Martina Arroyo. But we must try to forget all this and concentrate on the present recital.
 
Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell was written for the New York Philharmonic’s first season in the Lincoln Center. The text, translated by John Patrick Creagh, comes from Euripides’s The Trojan Women and deals with Andromache’s harrowing farewell to her young son as she goes into slavery. The piece could almost be seen as a dummy run for Antony and Cleopatra, which he wrote shortly afterwards. Barber consciously tried to modernise his language for the piece. Though it probably sounded a little old-fashioned in some circles in the 1960s it now comes over as a powerful slice of music-making. The form is quite traditional, a cantata as understood by Berlioz. Barber’s skill is in the direct way he addresses the emotions of the piece.
 
Larmore does not have a grand Romantic voice. Hers is a very warm but direct instrument perhaps shaped by her skill in bel canto and Baroque music. This is certainly no bad thing and she creates a direct and powerful impression as Andromache. But there were moments when I wanted more, something of a searing intensity rather than the powerful control which Larmore gives us.
 
She follows this with the Berlioz cantata, which was written in 1829 as Berlioz’s entry for the Prix de Rome. On this occasion Berlioz failed to win the prize. Cleopatra was too dramatic and too new in style, though he would go on to win it another year. Larmore’s voice with, its good line and classical overtones, is a good match for Berlioz’s neo-classical yet dramatic piece. But we still come back to comparisons. Larmore, good though she is, does not eclipse memories of Janet Baker, especially as their voices have elements of timbre in common. Larmore never seems to be able to quite let go the way Baker does in this music.
 
Larmore seems more at home in the Britten cantata, perhaps because she is less called upon to use pure bel canto techniques. The cantata was written at the end of Britten’s life for Janet Baker. Britten had it in mind to write an opera based on Phaedra but was too ill to contemplate such an exercise. Instead he wrote this brilliant opera in miniature, based on lines taken from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. He modelled the piece on Handel’s cantatas, partly as a tribute to Janet Baker who was a fine Handel interpreter. Larmore does not quite capture the feeling of the crazed middle-aged woman that other interpreters have. If you are really looking for a recording of this cantata, then I would advise you to consider Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Elatus).
 
Instead of a fourth Queenly cantata, Larmore has opted for a performance of Ravel’s Shéherezade. Here again, it is difficult to listen to her fine line and perfectly reasonable French without remembering the gorgeous tone and verbal subtleties of Régine Crespin. I know that it is notoriously unfair to complain that one performer’s work is not like another. But here I find that, for me, Larmore fails to eclipse the earlier recording. She is not Crespin and, competent though the recording is, she does not quite give us anything new and different.
 
I would have preferred to like this recording more, but instead I found that none of the tracks quite moved me the way I wanted. Larmore always seems a little too in control. She is well supported by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. The orchestra is the resident one for the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago; the Festival was founded in 1935 and the orchestra in 1943. The accompaniment is not quite as luxuriant as some of the other recordings that I have mentioned but the players are confident in the various styles of music that Larmore has chosen.
 
The CD booklet includes and informative article about the four pieces and full texts and translations. It states in the booklet that the pieces were recorded in concert, but there is no evidence of a live audience.
 
If you like the particular combination of pieces on this disc then look no further. These performances will certainly not disappoint even if they don’t quite inspire.
 
Robert Hugill
 

 


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