OF THE MONTH
Dvorak Opera Premiere
Log: February 2007
Reviewer: Robert Hugill
Artists who move between modern performances and period
performance practice can sometimes make assessing a recording
difficult. After all, much baroque music was written for
the greatest performers of the day, which means we often
have to compromise. Either we hear a great voice singing,
but not in period style; or we hear period style performance
with voices not quite in the great category. Admittedly there
are exceptions. But it seems to have been exceptionally brave
of Emanuelle Haim to work with Rolando Villazon on Monteverdi’s Il
Combatimento. Villazon had never done any early music
before and has taken on board much period practice, though
his voice production is still firmly based in the 19th century.
The results are mixed but fascinating (see review).
Anne Sofie von Otter is a singer who has always seemed
to be able to flit from Handel to the present day and back,
adjusting her style accordingly. Proprius are to be commended
for releasing her first solo recital. It is amazing to hear
how much of the mature singer was present on that 1983 disc.
Though this seems to be the second time in a few months when
I’ve come across a high voice singing Handel’s ‘Where’er
you walk’. I don’t think the transposition works that well
and it’s not as if Handel didn’t write some wonderful music
for the alto voice (see review).
Catherine Bott is another singer whose career has spanned
various styles, in her case this even includes a stint singing
with the New Swingle Singers. Bott is a national treasure
and her fabulously communicative style can be heard regularly
on Radio 3. It was with much pleasure that I came across
her new disc, on the slightly oddly named Fred Label. The
label has been set up by an Art Gallery owner and has an
eclectic mix of performers. Bott’s disc is equally eclectic
in its own way as she mixes period performers with contemporary
Arab ones to shed some light on the various influences in
Spanish music. For me the best pieces were when the performers
threw away the rule book and improvised together, I just
hope that we can look forward to another disc with much more
of the same (see review).
discs appear on my reviewing pile which, for whatever reason,
have been around a while. Perhaps because the recording has
been sitting in a vault somewhere or perhaps because the
disc is being re-launched. For whatever reason, this month
I came across a disc by the German Ensemble Armarcord which
was recorded in 1998 and issued in 2001. This sort of time
span means that, no matter how much you like the group, you
are aware that they might have changed immensely in the intervening
years. Still, all you can do is listen and report (see review).
records is not always a profitable business and some of the
smaller labels get assistance from foundations etc to help
produce music of interest. This is usually reported on the ‘sleeve’.
But you sometimes come across discs where you wonder at the
reasons for their release and have guilty thoughts about
money changing hands and subsidies being provided. This is
especially true when the work in question is not in the ‘fascinating
but neglected’ box. I must confess that all sort of thoughts
passed through my mind when I heard Cho-Liang Lin’s new recording
of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on Naxos. The violinist
has been concentrating on more contemporary repertoire recently,
so there are any number of reasons for postulating why he
might want to record the work. In this case, some sort of
explanation in the CD booklet would not go amiss rather than
the usual PR speak (see review).
now for something completely different. Really. I’d never
heard of Sacchini and until listening to his music had presumed
that he fitted into the early 19th century Italian
pre-Rossini school. Not a bit. His last opera, Oedipe,
was written for Queen Marie Antoinette and out-Gluck’s Gluck
in the classical French nobility of the music. This is definitely
an opera that I’d like to see performed. Not much chance
of that I suspect as Gluck’s French operas are hardly ten
a penny (see review).
Pärt is one of those composers who seem to mine the same
seam repeatedly, always finding something new. Well, nearly
always. There are moments when I listen to a piece and think
that he’s written that before, but then you come across another
of such transcendent beauty that you forgive him. Many of
his choral pieces are deceptively simple, if you’ve ever
tried to sing any then you’ll know how difficult they are
to bring off. The sort of clarity and ease that the pieces
need are tricky to achieve. All the more reason to commend
the achievement of the Elora Festival Singers on their new
disc. Naxos do seem to have a gift for digging out these
fine groups and giving them a chance to show what they can
do (see review).
new disc of Nicholas Maw’s music is one of those recordings
that seems to have been sitting on someone’s shelf; the recording
was made in 2000. Still, that makes it all the more welcome.
Maw was born the same year as Pärt but the two composers’ catalogues
are pretty different. Maw has written a distinguished body
of choral music, much for amateurs and it is good to have
such an attractive selection on disc. I think Maw makes the
listener work more than Pärt does, but that is no bad thing.
Again, from personal experience, I can testify to how satisfying
Maw’s music is to sing; last year I sang the solo quartet
tenor part in Maw’s lovely ‘One Foot in Eden still I stand’ (see
Stevenson is another composer whose output on disc does not
really reflect his real output as a composer. Stevenson is
a prolific composer and has written much fine piano music,
a lot of it for himself to play. Now Dunelm have issued a
recital by long-time Stevenson supporter and friend, Sheena
Nicoll. Part of me wanted to hear some of Stevenson’s bigger
more bravura pieces, but Nicoll’s recital is beautifully
put together and should win the composer new friends. Stevenson
was himself a fine recitalist; evidently the BBC have many
fine performances of his locked in the archives. For anyone
interested in hearing the composer himself, a new disc consists
of a 1976 recital that Stevenson gave for Canadian Radio,
full of transcriptions including the composer’s own Peter
Grimes Fantasia and the Bach/Busoni Chaconne.
I heard Stevenson give similar recitals in Scotland in the
late 1970s and can testify that his playing was magnetic.
The only thing missing from the disc is the sound of his
voice; Stevenson played a mean lecture recital (see the review by my colleague, Jonathan Woolf).
back to period performance debates; this time the great Bach
choral music question; how many singers to a part do we use?
I doubt that consensus will ever be achieved, but there is
no reason why it should. After all Bach’s music is great
enough to cope with a variety of performance styles and practices.
But a couple of issues repeatedly come up when I listen to
this music. The first is that many conductors seem to have
a blind spot when it comes to balancing this music; too often
the balance is wrong. And this leads into the second point:
no matter what forces you are using, or you think Bach used,
you must remember that his background was the Lutheran organ
loft where single voices to a part was the norm. This raises
all sorts of issues when it comes to balance and structure.
Frieder Bernius’s new recording does not solve all the issues,
but he seems at least to have thought about them and the
result is highly recommendable.
Classical Editor Rob Barnett Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
Stan Metzger MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger
from previous months Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the
discs reviewed. details We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to
which you refer.