NUITS BLANCHES / BORTNIANSKI: Le Faucon: Overture; Ne me parlez point. DALL’OGLIO: Sinfonia Cossica: Allegro. GLUCK: Almide: Enfin, il est enma puissance…Ah! Si la liberté; Oh ciel, quell horrible menace…Gratioso…Le perfide Renaud. Alcide: Mi sorprende; In qual mar…Dei clementi. FOMINE: Les Cochers au relais. BEREZOVSKI: Demofoonte: Mentre il cor; Misero pargoletto / Karina Gauvin, sop; Pacific Baroque Orch., Alexander Weimann, fp/cond / Atma Classique ACD2 2791
With the sterling voice and obviously high artistic intelligence that she possesses, one would think that, now several years into her international career, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin would begin using her great talent in the service of 20th and/or 21st-century music that she could sing like no one else. Instead, what we have here is another dip into the good ol’ Barococo that classical music radio stations have been pushing since the mid-1950s.
It remains the great blight of most classical artists today that they refuse to play or sing the music of today. When one considers what Bethany Beardslee, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Mack Harrell, Sylvia Marlowe, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sarah Maria Sun and Rohan de Saram did in the past or continue to do today, combining great classics with contemporary works in their repertoires, it saddens one to see a retrenchment towards the old music and only the old music. I have nothing against the very best of the older composers and in fact have reviewed much of their music on my blog, but it does not predominate for two very good reasons. 1) Most modern performances of older music cannot hold a candle to the ones already recorded, and 2), perhaps more importantly, it’s time for classical audiences to start weaning themselves off a steady diet of the old stuff and start paying attention to music of their time.
Even during my formative years as a classical listener, when I was indeed filling many hours listening to Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, I was also listening to the then-new and current works of Shostakovich, Britten, Segerstam, Stravinsky (who didn’t die until I was 20 years old), Schuman, Piston, Roy Harris and Copland. That was the contemporary music of my time, and I reveled in it. And even today, I heartily enjoy and celebrate the discovery of such modern masters as Kalevi Aho, Sorabji (now long gone, but his music didn’t even begin to be recorded until the mid-1970s), Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Karałow and Seabourne, not to mention some composers I missed in my earlier years like Julián Carrillo and Harry Partch. How I wish that Gauvin would emulate the career path of a soprano like Sarah Maria Sun!
But here she is, presenting an album titled, in English, Sleepless Nights: Opera tunes in the heart of Russia in the 18th century. And “tunes” is clearly the operative word, because except for the truly great music of Gluck, one of my 18th-century idols, the music here is routine and formulaic. We get the arias (and, sadly, orchestral music) of such also-ran composers as Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski (1751-1825), Domenico Dall’Oglio, Evstignei Ipatievich Fomine (1761-1800) and Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). And why? Just because it’s not usually recorded? There’s a reason it’s not usually recorded. These composers just studied the scores of Handel and wrote imitative music with no originality and little interest.
To their credit, the HIP orchestra of the Pacific Baroque plays not only with great energy but also with a fine legato, something most HIP orchestras—even some very famous ones—do not. But as soon as you hear the first notes of the recitative from Gluck’s Armide, you realize that you’re in another world, a world of great art and not just of entertainment, and to her credit Gauvin rips into this music with the full magnificence of her vocal and histrionic powers. Oh, how I wish that Atma Classique had given us a new complete Armide with Gauvin, a really fine tenor, and this orchestra! I would have reveled in it, listened with rapt attention from start to finish, and (hopefully) given it a rave review, if these excerpts are any indication. Gauvin’s assumption of the sorceress is absolutely first-rate. Everything is perfectly sung and interpreted, even better than Mireille Delunsch in the complete recording with Marc Minkowski on DGG. These excerpts, as well as the ones from Gluck’s Alcide, are clearly the high-water-marks of this album. In addition to Gauvin’s high musicianship and sense of drama, the orchestra follows her in every subtle touch and gesture that she imparts to the music, almost as if she herself were conducting it. Their joint performance of “Ah! Sí la liberté” is a masterpiece of subtle gestures, the music emerging as touching without spilling over into pathos or bathos. It is a perfect reading, as is the more dramatic aria, “Le perfide Renaud me fuit.” I was completely enthralled by these pieces from start to finish.
Yet no sooner has Gluck finished than we get a kind of Gluck-imitation in Bortnianski’s overture to Le Faucon, which quickly turns into a sort of pseudo-Handel rather quickly. And this is the best of the other pieces on this CD.
Incidentally, the liner notes open with something I hadn’t known but wasn’t terribly surprised by, that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote to his old school friend, Georg Erdmann who was consul of Danzig to the Empress Catherine I of Russia, asking about a possible position at her court. It wasn’t so much that he was dying to work in Russia in and of itself, but he knew that the Russian royalty had much greater funds at their disposal to perform his music than the miserable misers of Leipzig, who nickel-and-dimed Bach throughout his career there, forcing him to use substandard forces for the performances of his larger works. This, folks, is the reason he sometimes had to resort to “one-to-a-part” choruses, not because he liked them, the reason he had to play that wheezy old organ, which he heartily disliked, much preferring the larger, more colorful organs of other cities, and also the reason he was forced to use severely cut-down orchestras. When his son Carl Philipp presented large excerpts from his Mass in b minor in the late 18th century, he used an orchestra of some 70 or 80 players and a chorus close to 100 voices. THAT was what his father wanted. And they didn’t sing or play in constant straight tone, either. One more lesson for all of you HIP Nazis out there.
Gauvin is equally superb in the brief excerpts from Gluck’s Alcide, one of the few Gluck operas I haven’t heard much of. Perhaps Atma Classique can give us a complete Alcide with Gauvin someday…though I’d much rather hear her sing The Rake’s Progress or Messiaen’s Harawi.
But hey, just listen! After the excerpts from Alcide, we get Fomine’s overture to The Postal Coachman at the Railway Station! Whoopee-i-yo-ki-yay! Let’s all party! Just listen to those up-and-down-the-scale runs by the strings! How…ordinary! Gauvin follows this with one of those whoops-doopsy Baroque arias with all the runs and trills, some folderol from Berezovski’s Demofoonte (which Google Translate tells me means “Demo Phone” in English).
So there you have it. Two great islands of art courtesy of Christoph Willibald Gluck in a sea of Barococo. If you’re a Gauvin fan, however, you will surely want to hear her sing the Gluck. I know I would.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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