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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567–1643)
L’Orfeo (1607)
Ensemble Lundabarock:
Orfeo – Johan Linderoth (tenor)
La Musica, Proserpina – Kristina Hellgren (soprano)
Euridice, Ninfa 1 – Christine Nonbo Andersen (soprano)
Messaggiera – Maria Forsström (mezzo-soprano)
Speranza, Pastore 1 – Anna Zander (mezzo-soprano)
Pastore 2, Apollo – Adam Riis (tenor)
Spirito infernale 2, Pastore 3 – Daniel Åberg (baritone)
Caronte – Steffen Bruun (bass)
Plutone, Pastore 4 – Karl Peter Eriksson (baritone)
Ninfa 2 – Ann-Margret Nyberg (soprano)
Spirito infernale 1 – Rasmus Gravers Nielsen (tenor)
Spirito infernale 3 – Staffan Alveteg (bass)
Hedvig von Schantz (soprano)
Staffan Solén (tenor)
Petter Östberg (tenor)
All the singers, except Johan Linderoth and Steffen Bruun, also sing in the choir.
Höör Barock; Ensemble Altapunta/Fredrik Malmberg (organ)
rec. Eslövs Church, Sweden July/August 2019. DDD/DSD.
Libretto with English translation included, together with extensive notes in English, German and French.
Reviewed as stereo download from Also available as surround sound download and on SACD.
BIS BIS-2519 SACD [47:19 + 58:20]

Times change. In a record buyer’s guide, issued in July 1951, covering what was available on the Swedish market then, there were only two entries on Monteverdi. One was a collection of madrigals and other vocal works, performed by a vocal- and instrumental ensemble directed by Nadia Boulanger (HMV DB 5038 / 42), a legendary set, recorded about a dozen years earlier. The other was more recent: Arianna’s Lament, sung by Gabriella Gatti (HMV DB 6515). The arrival of the long-playing record, which was still in its infancy, meant that the possibilities to introduce previously unrecorded music increased, and in 1955 Deutsche Grammophon’s early music label Archiv Produktion presented the first recording of L’Orfeo under the direction of the pioneer August Wenzinger. I believe it was a revelation then, and it reigned supreme for many years. It is no exaggeration to state that for a whole generation it put Monteverdi on the operatic map. It is still available (DG Archiv 4531762 or 4777088, both download only) and well worth hearing for, among other things, Helmut Krebs’s Orfeo and, not least, for the young Fritz Wunderlich’s Apollo and Pastore 2. This was, as far as I know, his first commercial recording.

Today the situation is totally different, with roughly thirty different recordings available – and not counting a handful of DVDs – which surely makes L’Orfeo the most recorded baroque opera. With such a plethora of recordings, prospective buyers are spoilt for choice and one can pose the question: is there really need for one more? The relevant answer is: as long as it is good it is a valuable addition to the catalogue.

Swedish BIS Records, who in two years’ time will celebrate their 50th anniversary, have become synonymous with high technical standard, discriminating choice of repertoire and high demands on artistic excellence. Opera has not been high on their priority list but of late there have appeared a couple of productions that attracted much attention. I’m thinking of Sebastian Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata (based on Ingmar Bergman’s film, BIS-2357 - review) and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov from Gothenburg (BIS-2320 - review - review- Autumn 2019/1).

Monteverdi is at the opposite of the time axis, but Sweden has a lot of ensembles specialising in baroque music, and here three groups of singers and instrumentalists active in the southernmost region of Sweden, Skåne, have joined forces, which also include several Danish members. All of them are deeply committed and experienced in the field of early baroque. Suffice it to mention trombonist Ole-Kristian Andersen, who also wrote the liner notes, who “has performed L’Orfeo on some hundred occasions and has previously participated on no less than four recordings of the work”.

Recording the opera over a period of two months, the participants have obviously had time to be welded together and hone the performance. From the knock-out opening Toccata and all through the myriad of sinfonias and ritornellos, there is vitality and playfulness, and the rhythmic acuity is tangible. This is to a great extent a swinging Orfeo. The effect is enhanced through the excellent recording. It is SACD, but even listening in conventional two-channel stereo conveyed a vivid picture of the aural landscape. Apropos the Toccata Andersen brings out the hypothesis that it doesn’t ‘belong’ to the opera, but instead was the personal trumpet call of Monteverdi’s employers, the Gonzaga family. If so, it could have been played as a salute to the Duke when he arrived before the performance. Be that as it may, it is a riveting start of the evening, and few early baroque pieces have become so well-known.

When it comes to the singing, the soloists – most of them – also constitute the chorus, which probably was common practice in the olden days. The singers here are, as a rule, experienced choristers and their voices blend well in the many choral passages – further proof that this production is a true teamwork. The heaviest burden of the soloists rests naturally on the shoulders of Orfeo himself, and Johan Linderoth is well-equipped to encompass all the varied moods and emotions in the full-size mental portrait of the hero. The approach is from a lieder singer’s point of view, and Linderoth is today well-established in the lieder repertoire, where the word-meaning is so central. If you want to sample him, Rosa del Ciel (SACD 1 tr. 8) is a good starting point. The opening of act II (SACD 1 tr.14) is another highlight with tremendous rhythmic forward drive, while in the same act (tr. 17) his reaction to Messaggiera’s mournful news, Tu se’ morta, is heart-rending. In sharp contrast to this lament is his longest solo, the heavily embellished Possente Spirto in act III (SACD 2 tr. 8), skilfully executed. Any performance of this opera stands or falls with the capacity of the title character, and this performance certainly stands!

But Johan Linderoth is also surrounded by excellent co-singers. To international readers – and perhaps also to many Swedish – their names may be unknown. The best-known is probably Maria Forsström, with a wide repertoire far away from the baroque, where Mahler is one of her specialities. Some readers may have across her recital Kaleidoscope , to which I awarded a Recording of The Month back in 2011. Here she sings Messaggiera with a conviction and involvement that challenges Cathy Berberian (Harnoncourt, see below) and Anne Sofie von Otter (Gardiner, see below).

The first solo voice we encounter is La Musica in the Prologue, and she is excellently sung by Kristina Hellgren. She later is a brilliant Proserpina. Christine Nonbo Andersen is a bright Euridice, and before she appears (SACD 1 tr. 9), Ms Nonbo Andersen has already made her mark with a fine Ninfa 1 (SACD 1 tr. 5). Adam Riis is agreeable as Pastore 2 and Apollo, Karl Peter Eriksson is a sturdy Plutone and Steffen Bruun impresses as a black-voiced Caronte. And there is no weak link among the rest of the cast.

How does it stand comparison with existing recordings? Very well indeed! My two favourites are Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner Classics 2564696458, super-budget price) and John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv 4192502), with more starry casts, the latter almost over-the-top with Bayreuth’s then reigning Wotan, John Tomlinson, as Caronte. Malmberg’s more intimate and small-scale version on the new BIS is a worthy alternative and arguably more historically correct. I am happy now to have all three (plus a number of other versions that don’t quite qualify). Readers who are contemplating buying their first L’Orfeo are well advised to choose this one and those who already have a couple of favourite sets on their shelves, probably need it as a corrective.

Göran Forsling

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