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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Orfeo (highlights) – opera in five acts. (1607)
Libretto by Alessandro Striggio
Orfeo – Lajos Kozma
La Musica, Euridice – Rotraud Hansmann
Messaggiera, Speranza – Cathy Berberian
Caronte – Nikolaus Simkowsky
Ninfa, Proserpina – Eiko Katonosaka
Plutone – Jacques Villisech
Apollo, Pastore IV, Spirito III – Max von Egmond
Spirito I, Pastore II – Nigel Rogers
Spirito II, Pastore III – Kurt Equiluz
Pastore I – Günther Theuring
Capella Antiqua München/Konrad Ruhland
Concentus musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded in the Casino Zögernitz, Vienna, 1968.
WARNER APEX 2564 61516-2 [75:38]

Put simply, Monteverdi’s musical career was nothing less than spectacular: he revolutionized Western harmony, played a major role in the development and dissemination of a new genre — opera — and composed major works still heard regularly. Every time the curtain rises in an opera house or a theory student labels a dominant seventh chord, Monteverdi’s influence is in action.

Premiered in 1607 at the Mantuan court, L’Orfeo stands as one of Monteverdi’s biggest operatic successes. As the liner notes that accompany this recording explain, this work represents a "masterly resolution to the debate between partisans of the text on one hand and of music on the other." In other words, Monteverdi’s writing strikes an incredible balance between intelligibility and expression of words and beautiful musical construction.

This recording, which uses the forces of an army of singers, presents a wonderful reading of Monteverdi’s work. The standouts are, oddly enough, not the solo singers. Instead, Harnoncourt’s period instrument ensembles as well as the Capella Antiqua München give the most riveting performances. Harnoncourt finds a distinctive and captivating sound that fits the music beautifully. The period instruments imbue the music with a fascinating freshness — one is reminded of Harnoncourt’s feelings about period instruments. Instead of using them solely for "historical" purposes, he feels that they are the best instruments on which to play the music. This pragmatic (and non-pedantic) approach is immediately understandable. Harnoncourt has quite a feeling for the rhythmic intricacy that characterizes Monteverdi’s music. His duple to triple shifts are seamless, and the tempi he chooses are invigorating without being rushed. All the details are audible without sounding studied. Monteverdi’s modal harmonies strike listeners as occasionally excruciating; however, under Harnoncourt’s careful leadership, they sound expressive and exquisite. The choruses are performed with utmost precision. Ensemble problems are non-existent, consonants are uniformly executed, and balance is impeccable.

The singers included on this recording are adequate, but somewhat less than stellar. Lajos Kozma, as Orfeo, is unfortunately unsatisfying. His sound is pinched and often over-brightened to the point that diction is unintelligible. Kozma takes some amazing risks with varying vocal color to match the expression required by the text, and many times, they pay off. His performance, however, is one of the weakest here.

The rest of the singers give more than adequate performances. Rotraud Hansmann as Euridice sings beautifully with crisp diction and much attention to inflection. Her singing helps atone for some of the less than spectacular moments provided by her male opposite.

This recording is a mixed bag. Great orchestral playing makes it worth owning. However, collectors interested in a recording notable for its solo singing may be better off looking elsewhere.


Jonathan Rohr



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