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White As Lilies
Antonio VIVALDI (1676-1741)
Sposa son disprezzata [4:59]
Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade [7:09]
Il mio core a chi la diede [5:27]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
In darkness let me dwell [4:09]
Weep you no more sad fountains [2:53]
White as lilies was her face [3.55]
Go, crystal tears [3.44]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
I attempt from love’s sickness to fly [1:48]
O let me weep [7:53]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750)
Care selve [3:25]
V’adoro pupille [5:19]
Da tempeste il legno infranto [6:03]
Claude LE JEUNE (c.1528-1600)
Elegy [2:07]
Amanda Forbes (soprano)
Lucy Wakeford (harp), Fiona McCapra (violin), Adrian Bradbury (cello)
rec. May 2015, Porcupine Studios, London, UK

At the end of most concerts and recitals, it’s often usual practice for the artist to have some CDs available for purchase in foyer. It makes good sense, as the majority of the audience has immediate memories of the performance they’ve just heard. The chance to take something of this away with them can prove an easy attraction – especially when there’s sometimes a financial incentive and no postage to pay.

It’s not quite as easy for the artist when, for example, they have been part of a much larger production, or perhaps opera, and there are other artists’ CDs also vying for attention from the departing audience. The CD needs to be visually engaging – but then most will be – but more importantly it needs to feature works and repertoire that stands out from the crowd, and that wouldn’t otherwise merely send a potential buyer off in the direction of an established big name. In that area alone, this debut CD does represent something different in terms of repertoire overall, and the way it’s presented musically.

Born in Germany, soprano Amanda Forbes first studied at the University of Melbourne where her major awards included winner of the Australian National Operatic Aria Competition, and recipient of the Joan Sutherland Society of Sydney Vocal Scholarship. This was before relocating to the UK to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music and National Opera Studio.

Forbes recently created the roles of Leni and Fräulein Bürstner in the world premiere of Philip Glass’s opera ‘The Trial’, and her passion for new and intricate contemporary works came to further fruition in the UK premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera ‘The Killing Flower’, which no doubt made this CD’s closing-track a sine qua non. She has also been principal artist with major opera houses and touring companies across the UK, where her roles have included Gilda in ‘Rigoletto’, Papagena in ‘The Magic Flute’, and Mimi in ‘La bohème’.

With this clearly eclectic background, we might have expected Forbes’ debut CD to be along the lines of a ‘Best of …’ collection of her most successful operatic roles to date but White as lilies is a far cry from that. In fact, it reflects her other love for music of the Renaissance and Baroque, and composers like Vivaldi, Dowland, Purcell, Handel and Claude Le Jeune.

In her sleeve-notes, Forbes explains: ‘The arias and songs on the album predominantly deal with love and/or death … I chose ‘White as Lilies’ as the title of this album because of the lily’s significance – its association with love, death and purity’. On the important issue of supporting the voice, Forbes adds: ‘I replaced the traditional lute with harp and cello accompaniment to match the higher timbre of my voice and keys in which I recorded them’. The violin also appears on three tracks, while the other instruments are used in different combinations, depending on the perceived requirements of each piece.

So as you set the CD to play, you won’t immediately be pinned back in your seat by a virtuoso performance of a bel canto cabaletta complete with death-defying runs, leaps and top Cs. Instead you’ll hear a plaintive arpeggio pattern from the harp – the cello essentially sustaining the bass line, before the voice enters. In fact, the start is no less stunning for all this. The opening Sposa son disprezzata comes from Vivaldi’s pasticcio ‘Bajazet’, and is an adaptation from the aria ‘Sposa non mi conosci’ by Geminiano Giacomelli. It was common practice in Vivaldi’s time to compile opera from your own work, and that of other composers. In many ways this aria sets the scene for what is to come – accomplished breath control, well-rounded tone especially on long notes, good dynamic range, true intonation and, most importantly, expressive delivery with just the right amount of vibrato in place.

Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell draws a heartfelt, wistful performance from Forbes, and where the augmented accompaniment (harp and cello) works particularly well. The half-close (imperfect cadence) with which the English composer’s piece ends, links seamlessly with the next Vivaldi offering – Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade from his opera ‘Tito Manlio’. This works well, although the oboe obbligato heard in one of Cecilia Bartoli’s performances of the aria, does engender a little more interplay, even if there isn’t really a great deal otherwise to set the readings apart.

More Dowland follows, with Weep you no more sad fountains where linear control is impressive on long-note crescendos. White as lillies was her face has a special starkness at the opening, where the solo cello sometimes provides just a simple one-note-drone, before the harp enters, and the harmonic texture can begin to blossom effectively. Vocal ornamentation is simple, but effective enough in holding the listener’s attention.

The mood, and tempo now change with Vivaldi’s Il mio core a chi la diede from ‘La fida ninfa’, where Forbes shows herself equally adept at coping with the decorative writing, and exhibits a particularly impressive ability in the long phrases to ensure that any necessary breaths are never intrusive, while ensuring there is still sufficient in the tank to sustain each phrase musically. Also, the higher tessitura, here up to top C, causes absolutely no strain.

Back again in Renaissance England for Dowland’s Go, crystal tears, the inclusion of the cello produces an effective counterpoint to the voice, which captures the mood of the text to perfection. Purcell’s familiar I attempt from love’s sickness to fly again brings about a change of vocal timbre, with a greater fullness of tone, but again which well matches the sentiments of Dryden’s words.

Care Selve from Handel’s opera ‘Atalanta’ is the first of three consecutive offerings by the composer, and here Forbes is in the exalted company of such great artists as Te Kanawa, Price, Sutherland, Caballé – even Pavarotti and Gigli – but who all still literally to rise to the challenge of that octave leap to top B flat two minutes or so into the aria. For me, Leontyne Price wins the trophy, with Te Kanawa a very close second, but Forbes still acquits herself well here, and given a slightly slower tempo to boot.

V’adoro pupille and Da tempeste il legno infranto are both from the opera, ‘Giulio Cesare’. These two arias are more in the vocal territory of Popp, Sills, Sutherland, Bartoli, Sumi Jo and Dessay, especially the second aria with its rapid coloratura passages. Again Forbes’s performance is up there with the best, although, my outright winner would have to be Beverly Sills. That's simply because of the virtually flawless coloratura, inventiveness of the ornamentation, especially in the da capo return – and all despatched at a breath-taking tempo, which, while never intended to be a race is well over a minute quicker than the other contenders. Whether adding the harp to the two string instruments here might have given Forbes a tad greater support underneath – not that there is any suggestion that she needed it – is perhaps the only slight downside on what is, arguably, one of the true highlights of the entire CD. At times it just cried out harmonically for three real parts, rather than just two, but extra musicians don’t come cheap, when a CD like this is, of necessity, self-financed. On the previous Handel track, there seemed to be a blend of some nifty double-stopping, or double-tracking, but this equally still eats into studio recording time and the budget overall.

There could hardly be a greater contrast than the starkness of the ground-bass at the start of Purcell’s well-known O let me weep from ‘The Fairy Queen’. Once again Forbes shows as great an empathy with this genre, as with any other, and can bring real operatic drama into the vocal delivery. That said, what she brings is always totally appropriate to the style and period.

Elegy by Claude Le Jeune, a leading Franco-Flemish composer of the late Renaissance, which ends the CD, is a real find. Hauntingly simple, for unaccompanied voice, as mentioned above, it featured as the prologue to Sciarrino’s bewitching opera ‘The Killing Flower’ (2013), based on the true story of Renaissance madrigal-master and murderer Carlo Gesualdo. With an almost timeless quality that could place it as easily in the twenty-first as the sixteenth century, it seems the perfect way for Forbes to take her musical leave.

Despite the sleeve-note’s small text-size being somewhat difficult to read, this is a most attractive, compelling, and extremely-well-put-together debut album. It has a lot to commend it and not just its somewhat niche repertoire. The recording is excellent and the three instrumentalists work hard throughout to provide the fullest of backing, though with the minimum resources.

Philip R Buttall



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