Calandra Turns Up the Heat in “Erotica Antiqua”

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EROTICA ANTIQUA / DELL’ARPA: Villanella che all-acqua vai. Vorria crudel tornare. ANONYMOUS: Boccuccia d’uno persic’ aperturo. Madonna tu mi fai lo scorrucciato. Tu sai che la cornacchia. Che sia malditta l’acqua. La morte di marito. Oi ricculina. Vurria ca fosse ciaola. DA NOLA: Fontana che dai acqua. Fuggit’ Amore. AZZAIOLO: Girometta senza to non viverò. DI LASSO: Matona mia cara. Sto core mio. Madonna mia, pietà. O occhi manza mia. DONATO: Chi la gagliarda. FALCONIERI: O belissimi capelli. Vezzosette e care pupillette ardenti. Occhietti amati / Letizia Calandra, sop; Ensemble Arte Musica; Francesco Cera, hpd/dir / Brilliant Classics 95448

This is a rarity for me, a CD I chose to review based on someone else’s review. Going through the Brilliant Classics website I chanced upon this disc and was intrigued by the review posted there, so I took a chance on it. I’m glad I did.

Soprano Letizia Calandra is an utterly remarkable singer whose voice combines sensuality with a folk-singer-like sound. In the latter respect she reminded me of Jantina Noorman, the great Dutch folk singer whose voice was so good that she crossed over and did several classical recordings. My regular readers will know, as I stated in my long review of Gabriel Garrido’s Monteverdi operas, that early “classical singers” were most often not trained voices, that many of them were popular or folk singers of their time who crossed over to perform this music. Calandra certainly fits into this category.

In fact, I will give you fair warning. If you’re a man, you are going to be seduced by Calandra’s voice, so much so that you may want to marry her! It’s that sensuous, and no lie. As for the music, it mostly dates from the early to mid-16th century, which is pre-Baroque, so “Antiqua” is indeed an appropriate title for this music. Since the CD booklet has no song texts, I’ve included them here, courtesy of Brilliant Classics, albeit in Italian only. Once you know what some of the lyrics are, you come to appreciate her interpretations all the better. Unfortunately, Google Translate has a hard time with early Italian, but I think your eyes may pop out of your head when you see lyrics like this pop up:

Beloved eyes
You’re fucking me
Why ruthless
Henceforth your
Gorgeous serenity
Of full joy
Your splendor
Flames of the Choirs
Vermilion mouth

The best description I can give of Calendra’s voice is that it is simultaneously bright in timbre and sensuous in its well-shaded delivery. She almost sounds like a female counterpart to Italian tenor/folk singer Pino di Vittorio, whose recordings of early music on the Glossa album Canto della Sirena (Glossa 922603) I raved about in Fanfare magazine several years ago. THIS is how you sing this material, with life and feeling and earthiness, not like it’s a vocal exercise to be produced by well-placed but boring tones. I also need to lavish praise on her accompanists, Ensemble Arte Musica, who play the music as enthusiastically as Calendra sings it. There is absolutely no comparison one can make of this record to the majority of “early music” dead-heads out there; they remind me of the once-famous early music group Kalenda Maya, whose recordings of the 1980s garnered short-lived but enthusiastic critical acclaim.

You may not believe your ears when listening to the songs by Orlando di Lasso, as these are miles removed from his normal stuffy religious music. Apparently, these were the kinds of songs he wrote when he wasn’t in church!

This is, quite simply, a fun recording!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Thierry Fischer’s Mind-Boggling Mahler Eighth

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand” / Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer, Amy Owens, sop; Charlotte Hellekant, Tamara Mumford, mezzos; Barry Banks, ten; Markus Werba, bar; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; The Madeleine Choir School; Utah Symphony Orchestra; Thierry Fischer, cond / Reference Recordings FR-725 SACD

This is, without question, the most sheerly beautiful recording of the Mahler Eighth I’ve ever heard. and I’ve heard a bunch of them. Up until now, I would have given the nod for beauty to the 1980s recording conducted by Bernard Haitink, but comparing the two is like comparing luminescent 2-D color to a 3-D ViewMaster slide. Even without surround sound (and bear in mind that, since I review most recordings from downloads, I’m not even playing them on my good system speakers but on my computer’s Klipsch speakers), you feel totally immersed in the chorus and orchestra from the very first note.

In addition, all of the singers are quite good, although the only two names I recognized were that of tenor Barry Banks, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. This is not insignificant. The singers carry a goodly portion of the music, more so in the second half than the first, and Mahler wrote these vocal parts in “Italian opera style,” meaning very high up in their tessitura or average range. In short, the music calls not just for singers with good voices but singers who can literally “live” in their upper registers. Even very fine singers on past recordings failed the test. I’ve only heard four recordings of this work where the singers could hold their own properly: the old 1950 mono broadcast by Leopold Stokowski, the Rafael Kubelik and Michael Gielen recordings, and this one. I was particularly impressed by baritone Markus Werba’s rich, resonant voice. Banks gets by but is a tad brittle; the sopranos, so key to the ensemble blend, all have wonderful voices.

Whether due to Fischer’s conducting, the engineering of the recording or both, one also hears a great deal of orchestral detail, so essential in Mahler but not always achieved, particularly in this monster of a symphony. The participation of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir almost guaranteed that the choral music would be performed to perfection from a technical standpoint, but Fischer literally outdid himself in pushing them to give more of themselves emotionally: listen, for instance, to the “Accende lumen sensibus” section in the first part. There is tremendous energy and dynamism here, so much so that I would not recommend putting this CD on for your Sunday “clah-ssical” brunch. You might blow your brunch guests out the windows.

Fischer also understands the importance of rhythmic drive, even in slow sections. His orchestra responds with playing so luminous and breathtaking that they literally compete with the Georg Solti-era Chicago Symphony. I heard that orchestra in person back in the 1980s, and folks, let me tell you, they were everything you heard on the records and then some. Every musician in every section plays their little hearts out in this performance. It’s almost mind-boggling.

In the subtler and, for some, more interesting second part of the symphony, Fischer delicately limns the music like a master painter. The luminous sound, then, is not just for the louder and more extroverted first part. Here, with the lone exception of Barry Banks, the solo singers don’t seem to be interpreting the words so much as just singing—gloriously, I admit, but just singing. A bit of a disappointment, but my only one in this stupendous performance. Fischer keeps the music moving at a good pace, however, and this is certainly no real cause for a negative review, just a fair warning that it’s a bit glib. I still find that the singers on the Kubelik performance, particularly tenor Donald Grobe and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are tops in this respect.

I had one niggling complaint, though: since this entire performance runs only 79:41, why put it on two CDs? A CD isn’t like an LP; the music doesn’t sound better or more spacious if you give it more “groove room” on the disc. Yet I still find it excellent. It could easily be your only Mahler Eighth if you so choose, though I’d personally also recommend Kubelik and Gielen. It does, however, supersede the historic Stokowski version by a wide margin. This is the “surround sound” Eighth par excellence.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The “Other” Mendelssohn’s Complete Songs

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F. MENDELSSOHN: Morgenständchen.1 Ich kann wohl manchmal singen.3 Im herbst.4 Vorwurf.3 Traurige wege.4 Der Eichwald brauset.2 Gegenwart.3 Gleich Merlin, dem eitlen Weisen.4 Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus.4 Fichtenbaum und Palme.4 Ach, die Augen sind es wieder.3 Die fruhen Gräber.2 Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß.1 Harfner’s Lied.4 Dämmerung sentke sich von oben.4 Suleika.1 Die Schiffende.1 Kein Blick der Hoffnung.3 Die Mainacht.2 Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.4 Wanderers Nachtlied.4 Nach Süden.1 Wanderlied.1 Bergeslust1 / 1Susana Gaspar, sop; 2Kitty Whately, mezzo; 3Gary Griffiths, 4Manuel Walser, bar; Malcolm Martineau, pn / Champs Hill CHRCD124

Fanny Mendelssohn, often known by her married name of Hensel, was Felix’s sister and, by all accounts, just as precocious and brilliant musically as he. During their childhood and adolescence, they bounced ideas off each other, gave constructive criticism, praised when appropriate, and essentially developed together. Yes, their music was tonal, but it was also kissed by genius: brilliantly constructed, never too long, and almost always appropriate to the format. But as we all know, Fanny married, had children, and was then told by Felix to stop composing and tend to raising her family. She bristled but eventually obeyed. Towards the end of her brief life she couldn’t take it any more and began writing music again. But that is why her output is so much smaller than her brother’s.

This album of her complete songs is something of a mixed bag, but the quality of the music isn’t the problem. It was the decision to use not one, not two, but four different singers, and they are of uneven gifts. Soprano Susana Gaspar, who has but five songs, has a bright, clear voice that is pleasant to listen to and our second baritone, Manuel Walser, has a dark voice that slightly resembles that of Hermann Prey and is an outstanding interpreter. Our first baritone, however, Gary Griffiths, has an unsteady flutter in the voice that, despite a nice timbre, mars his singing pretty consistently, and mezzo Kitty Whately just gets by, also showing an uneven vibrato.

So much for a review of the singers. As for the songs, they are consistently excellent. Were you to play this CD for someone and tell them that these were little-known songs by Mendelssohn (which is technically true), they would be delighted by them. Like her brother Felix, Fanny wrote in a melodic but dramatic style, seldom using a strophic style as Schubert did in his most dramatic songs (Erlkönig, Der tod und das Mädchen, and several of the songs in Winterreise), but did use dramatic pauses in the musical flow to emphasize changes of mood. Traurige wege, a song based on the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau about lovers in the wood who pass by tombstones, is particularly excellent, but nearly all of these songs have their moments. She was a master of mood-setting and word-painting. Pianist Malcolm Martineau, who pushed for these songs to be recorded, is consistently excellent from start to finish, supporting his singers brilliantly and bringing out the flavor of the music with tasteful dynamics and phrasing.

In some of the songs Fanny alternates the major and minor with ease, i.e. in Fichtenbaum und Palme, and none of these songs lack interest. A virtuoso pianist like her brother, she could write for that instrument in her sleep and knew how to bring out its best side. In Die fruhen Gräber (The Early Gaves), a slow, moody song based on a poem by Friedrich Klopstock, she brings out mood and color superbly, as she also does in Heinrich Heine’s Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß? Interestingly, Fanny knew Heine personally and mostly disliked him. “He’s too affected,” she wrote, “speaks endlessly about himself…but if one has felt contempt for him ten times in a row, the eleventh tim he forces one to recognize that he’s a poet, a true poet!”

In addition to the songs being excellent, they are also programmed quite well. My only complaint was with the packaging. Nowhere on the CD cover, inlay or booklet were the singers for each song identified. I had to go to YouTube and listen to the two baritones in order to tell them apart, and took an educated guess as to which was singing what song, so if I made any errors don’t blame me, blame Champs Hill Records. Otherwise, this is a first-rate album that every lover of classical song should own.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Yoncheva’s “Norma” a Mixed Bag

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BELLINI: Norma / Sonya Yoncheva, sop (Norma); Sonia Ganassi, mezzo (Adalgisa); Joseph Calleja, ten (Pollione); Brindley Sherratt, bass (Oroveso); David Junghoon Kim, ten (Flavio); Vlada Borovko, mezzo (Clotilde); Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Antonio Pappano, cond; Àlex Ollé, dir / Opus Arte DVD OA 1247D (also available as a Blu-Ray DVD)

If my readers wonder why I’ve never reviewed an opera DVD before on my blog, I’ll tell you. It’s for two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, most of them coming out nowadays are only available as Blu-Ray discs, and I don’t own one of those stupid players. For one thing, they’re just a gimmick, and for another, they’re too expensive for someone like me who lives on Social Security. But secondly, it’s because modern opera productions are so freaking ugly, perverted and unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent that I take one look at the covers and don’t even bother asking for them.

This one, however, didn’t look too bad—a rarity, even for the Royal Opera House nowadays—so I decided to take a chance on it. Another reason I chose to review it was that the cast choices were obviously geared towards a more appropriate and authentic cast for the era in which the opera first appeared (1831). None of the three principals, Yoncheva, Calleja or Ganassi, have cannon-sized voices, which is pretty much what we had singing Norma throughout most of the 20th century (Maria Callas’ modest-sized lyric voice being a rare exception). Unfortunately, we became so used to such Normas as Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna and Cristina Deutkeom, Polliones like Mario del Monaco, Robleto Merolla and Jon Vickers, and Adalgisas like Giulietta Simionato that people began to expect the big voices and the similarly huge orchestras that went with them. Now, I’m not averse to a really well-sung “big” Norma—one of my top recommendations in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music is the Deutekom-Troyanos-Merolla Norma from San Francisco in the 1970s—but once you’ve heard a smaller-scaled version like that of Cecilia Bartoli and Sumi Jo, the added intimacy of a small orchestra and voices makes a lot of sense.

In this production, we have some strangeness in the costuming, concocted by some idiot named Lluc Castrells who I think should be Castrellated, such as Oroveso dressed like the Dean of a University and the male chorus looking like acolytes at Midnight Christmas Mass at your local church (and a few inexplicably dressed like Army Generals, go figure), and way too many Christian crosses representing the pagan Druids, but compared to the average run of productions nowadays it at least passes muster. The booklet touts this production as representing “A Norma trapped by society’s norms,” with the following explaining some of the drivel you see:

Themes such as the fear of God, processions, ritual, celibacy, chastity and confession are woven from start to finish…Religion is the glue that holds society together, an unconscious way of ordering the known world, but it is also the means to repress anyone who dares deviate from the “norm.” This is religion as fanaticism, an intolerant,unbending law, a blind, intimidating and terrible instrument of power.

Well, I could name a religion other than Christianity that should have been used to represent this aesthetic, but even that would have been wrong. Just portray them as Druids. That’s what they are, not ersatz Christians.

Some guy they picked out of a police lineup, Brindley Sherratt, sings Oroveso with a stifled, forced and quite ugly bass voice, but thankfully the opening scene is his biggest exposure and we can move on from there. Pollione and Flavio appear dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, which they then remove to reveal modern-day business suits. Like I said, unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent. Ah, but who cares nowadays? Obviously there are Hipsters out there who love this crap or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Calleja is in excellent voice, firm and brilliant, as is the secondary tenor, Kim, as Flavio. But you would have thought that Calleja could at least have shaved his scruffy face before appearing before a paid audience, wouldn’t you? I would. But he does sing superbly; his tone has darkened a bit over the years, and his breath control is nothing short of phenomenal. Del Monaco and Merolla could never sing the role this well; they were all muscle and stress. And Pappano’s conducting is simply fabulous, taut yet lyrical, even more exciting than Giovanni Antonini on the Bartoli set. Calleja’s high notes are so perfectly placed that they sound as if they’re right in the middle of his voice. I only wish he wasn’t just singing to the audience and outstretching his arms so much. Couldn’t he at least have watched Vickers’ Pollione, even if he didn’t want to emulate the huge sound of Vickers’ voice? I did, however, question as to whether or not a lighting director was used. The stage is so dark that only a few candles provide what little light there is. Opera by candlelight…oh well, that does hark back to the early 19th century, all right. More Ku Kluc Klan figures show up to walk across the stage, this time wearing black hoods with their white robes. Must be a Democratic Convention (look it up on Google, boys & girls, under the title “Klanbake,” the 1924 Democratic Convention).

But then Yoncheva begins singing, and acting, and all the folderol of this production falls away. This is a GREAT Norma voice, strong and bold, and interestingly she has a bit of Maria Callas’ smoldering sulfur sound in her timbre. And she is a great actress, her facial expressions matching her body language to perfection. Unfortunately, there’s too much motion on the stage just as “Casta diva” starts…Dancin’ Druids in the background, their arms outstretched and veils over their faces, who happily stop moving once the aria proper begins. Yoncheva never really achieves a real piano tone during the aria, though she does sing somewhat softly, but with phrasing and interpretation this good, who cares? She’s got the character down pat, as did Deutekom who was a LOUSY actress (physically, not vocally). The great Lilli Lehmann (not Lotte) once said that Norma was harder to sing than all three Brünnhildes, and she was right. It calls for almost ungoldly breath control in addition to dramatic fire plus coloratura technique, and Yoncheva has all of that. Not to say hers is a Brünnhilde voice by any means, but for this opera it’s perfect. Not surprisingly, the audience goes berserk, applauding between the aria and the cabaletta, but I don’t blame them. You just don’t hear singing like this often enough nowadays. Her sustained phrasing in “Bello a me ritorna” is absolutely mind-boggling, no joke. You have to hear it to believe it. And she sings variations in the second verse, simple, tasteful variations, with absolute ease. What’s more, it’s interesting to hear a Norma whose voice not only has all the requisite qualities for the role but who also sounds relatively youthful. Deutekom was great in 1975, but sounded mature.

During the orchestral interlude following the cabaletta, Ganassi snuffs out the candles on stage, leaving us in total darkness. Maybe this lighting director was impressed by Herbert von Karajan. When she starts singing, one is underwhelmed to say the least. Her voice is all wobble and flutter; there is no central core to it. Oh God, I hope she warms up before her big scenes. PLEASE let her warm up! But at least she’s a good stage actress, which helps a little bit, though Calleja literally sings her off the stage in their ensuing duet (with a little light coming down from stage right over Calleja’s shoulder, through a group of Christian crosses). When Norma reappears, she’s dressed like an altar boy with rosary beads wrapped around her right hand. Pollione, on the other hand, just keeps going in his gray business suit. Ganassi never really warms up her flawed voice, but is a shade better by the time of the dramatic trio near the end of Act 1. Fortunately, the other two are so rock-solid that they mask her deficiencies.

Act 2 begins with a modern-day apartment setting. Stark, square, stylized modern furniture, including a “bed” that I first thought was a space-aged sofa, a huge red exercise ball with a grinning cow face on it, a table lamp and a small plasma screen that moves somewhere at stage right. Who designed this scene? Is this Druid chic? Later on, while Norma sings with a huge knife in her hand, the picture on the screen changes to cartoon bunny rabbits and we see a boxed Monopoly game on the table behind her. Symbolism, folks, symbolism! In their long duet Yoncheva is superb, Ganassi close to awful. During the cabaletta to their duet, Norma is hugging one child close to her while another, oblivious that Mom and someone else are singing, is playing with blocks. Later, the same kid bounces on the exercise ball in rhythm with the music. The next scene has bodies and Christian crosses swathed in a dark blue light, with ten or twelve of them holding their arms up as if being crucified. Then they all start singing softly, even the crucified ones. Shades of Life of Brian!

Then the College Dean (Oroveso), now dressed like Fearless Leader, appears with two Generals to announce the war. Oddly, however, our intrepid director seems to have run out of nutty ideas, because nothing much changes after this. The stage remains very dark with just a little bluish light, the principals sing in front of all the crosses and crucifixes, Oroveso remains donned as Fearless Leader, and they just sort of block their movements (with Yoncheva doing the lion’s share of the acting) and finish singing the opera as a giant cross, in fake orange flames, burns in the background. The perfect Christmas gift for your Christian friends.

So there you have it. Yoncheva, Calleja and Pappano, all excellent. Sherratt crummy to start with, but he warms up a bit. Ganassi bad from start to finish, and the production quirky, overly busy and offensive to Christians. Stage lighting, In Darkness Let Me Dwell. I give it a B-. Better than most Normas out there on DVD, but caveat emptor.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Poulenc’s Complete Chamber Music Released

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POULENC: Capriccio après le “Bal Masque.” L’Embarquement pour Cythère. Elégie en accords alternés. Sonata for Two Pianos / Matteo Fossi, Marco Gaggini, pn / Sonata for Piano Four Hands / Federica Ferrati, Matteo Fossi, pn 4 hands / Sonata for Violin & Piano. Bagatelle d’après le “Bal Masque” / Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for Cello & Piano. Suite française, d’après Claude Gervaise / Vittorio Ceccanti, cel; Matteo Fossi, pn / Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon. Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn. Sonata for Flute & Piano. Villanelle for Recorder & Piano. Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Sonata for Clarinet & Piano. Elégie for Horn & Piano / Domenico Orlando, oboe; Claudia Bucchini, fl/recorder; Calogero Palmero, cl; Andrea Zucco, bsn; Geremia Iezzi, Fr hn; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for 2 Clarinets / Palmero, Jean-Luc Voltano, cl / Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon / Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn / Sonata for Horn, Trumpet & Trombone / Iezzi, Fr hn; Claudio Quintavalla, tpt; Fabiano Fiorenzani, tb / Trois movements perpétuels (vers. for chamber ensemble) / Orlando, oboe; Bucchini, fl; Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn; Iezzi, Fr hn; Stefano Rava, Eng hn; Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Edoardo Rosadini, vla; Lorenzo Cosi, cel; Petru L. Horvath, bs; Matteo Fossi, cond / Brilliant Classics 95351

This surprising and quite wonderful set of Poulenc’s chamber music features a bevy of relatively unknown performers, all quite excellent, under the general leadership of 39-year-old Italian pianist Matteo Fossi. Whatever it was that prompted all this music to be recorded and issued was clearly an inspired idea, for there is not a mediocre or uninteresting track on this set.

Prior to hearing this, I was mostly familiar with Poulenc through his songs, his ballet score Les Biches, his Gloria, Organ Concerto, the operas La Voix Humaine and Dialogues of the Carmelites, and just a few chamber works like the Violin Sonata, the wonderful Sextet and the Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon. Thus I was enthralled to hear all these wonderful pieces, so many of which have the same lively, energetic feel of his songs (many of them splendidly recorded by baritone Holger Falk) and none of them overstaying their welcome. Fossi and his compatriots bring tremendous energy to these performances, but also a fine sensitivity. They never allow the music to bog down or become bland in its presentation, but rather give their all. Some of these are so good that you’d almost swear they were live performances, but they’re not.

Those familiar with Poulenc, and I would assume that most classical aficionados are, will not need an introduction to his music. With the sole exception of Dialogues of the Carmelites, his music tends to be written in brief, terse musical statements, full of rhythm and color and staying within a relatively narrow harmonic range, at least as compared to most 20th-century composers. But it is also superbly crafted, mostly entertaining in the best sense of the word, and lacking in pretension. Poulenc, as someone once described him, was “an amusing man who speaks through his nose,” but in his music he spoke through notes. What I found interesting was that this man who had such a gift for lightness and humor in music was in fact a fairly melancholy personality who put on a happy face for his friends but was always lonely and suffering inside.

Piano music, particularly duo-piano and piano four hands, dominates the first CD and is largely in his most attractive, almost popular-music, style with the exception of the moving Elégie for 2 pianos. Fossi and his duet partner, Marco Gaggini, are both excellent pianists with a good feel for the give-and-take of this music. They employ subtle but noticeable tempo rubato in their performances, giving one a good impression of Poulenc’s music; the forward propulsion is always tempered by their good taste in phrasing and dynamics.

Interestingly, the string players, particularly violinist Duccio Ceccanti, have a very Italianate sound and sensibility quite different from the usual French-styled violinists who one would think might play Poulenc’s music. This means a very bright timbre and a passionate, almost visceral bow attack on the strings that remind one of Enrico Gatti, Salvatore Accardo or Ruggiero Ricci. But “authentic” or not, I loved it! As it turned out, I already had two outstanding recordings of this particular sonata, one by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the other by Arabella Steinbacher, both superb, but Ceccanti definitely gives them a run for their money. Ceccanti also plays the brief Bagatelle d’après le “Bal Masque” with similar energy—and wit. Never forget that wit is an important element in Poulenc’s music!

This joie-de-vivre also spills over into his cello music, surely the least moody and pensive ever written for that instrument, and Vittorio Ceccanti is fully up to the task, playing with a light tone and a style full of little portamento touches and insouciant upward sweeps. The second movement, however, is clearly one of Poulenc’s most sincere and moving expressions, not so much serious in the sense that Brahms is serious but more in the way someone you love is serious when they speak to you with truth in their heart and honesty in their voice, and Ceccanti plays it perfectly. In the last movement Poulenc pushes the cello as if it were a violin—not so much in range (that would be more like the Chopin Polonaise Brillante) as in technical fleetness, writing looping, daring triplets for the instrument to swing through. The Suite Française, though decidedly lighter in form, is equally virtuosic and fun to play, and some of its interior movements, i.e. the Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne, are surprisingly heartfelt pieces quite different from his usual semi-comic façade. Although Ceccanti is good in these, I felt that his tone was just a bit thin, making me wonder what Zuill Bailey or Steven Isserlis might sound like playing them.

The fairly brief (12 minute) Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano is a kissing cousin of Françaix’s chamber music, light and effervescent with some really demanding virtuoso passages, and here the Italian musicians are really quite outstanding in both tone and technique, blowing through the music as if they could play it in their sleep. Surely they have an absolute ball with the Sextet, possibly Poulenc’s most famous and certainly his most-played piece of chamber music. The notes literally explode out of your speakers, the performance being bucolic and ebullient, so full of humor that at certain moments it makes you laugh out loud.

The Flute Sonata is surprisingly tonal, almost post-Romantic in feeling, resembling some of the works of Paul Taffenel. It is played with just the right combination of brio and sensitivity (particularly the latter) by Claudia Bucchini. Listening to it, I could just imagine that some teenaged wunderkind will ruin it sooner or later on NPR’s Saturday-morning showcase trained robots, From the Top. I can hardly wait. Surely none of them will be able to match Fossi’s lively yet delicately-chiseled piano accompaniment, which is full of shade and light. The Villanelle for recorder and piano, though brief, is more modern in its harmonic changes and surprisingly sensitive in feeling. The Oboe Sonata, too, begins in a somewhat serene and reflective mood. After a lively but quite odd Scherzo, the music becomes reflective once again in “Déploration: Très calme,” in which Poulenc explores the full range of the instrument, exploiting both its highest and lowest notes.

Perhaps because of its brighter character, the clarinet sonata is generally more energetic, yet even here Poulenc has written some surprisingly reflective passages, even in the midst of the fast opening movement. One thing I particularly liked about the performance was the penny-bright tone that clarinetist, not dissimilar from Benny Goodman’s. How typical; throughout his lifetime, most classical clarinetists and clarinet pedagogues hated Goodman’s sound, dumped on him for his “reedy” top range and “woody” low range, but now that he’s dead, many modern-day players of that instrument emulate his sound (see my previous article, Hating on Benny).

In the Elégie for Horn & Piano, Geremia Iezzi displays a slightly clouded tone but plays with tremendous sensitivity and a flawless legato. The piece itself is surely one of Poulenc’s most serious and emotional, and once again Fossi’s pianism is simply wonderful, dramatic and sad in turn. In the two-clarinet sonata, we get not one but two bright-toned clarinetists, engaging in Poulenc’s quirky yet entertaining style, which is carried over into the equally odd sonata for clarinet and bassoon. Being more of a brass fan by nature, however, I was really enchanted by the lively yet beautifully-crafted Sonata for Trumpet, Trombone and French Horn. Who else but Polenc could even have conceived this music? And the performance is simply wonderful, thanks in large measure to the “soft” trumpet tone of Claudio Quintavalla.

The set wraps up with a surprisingly understated (albeit lively) performance of the chamber group arrangement of Trois movements perpétuels. This wonderfully subtle piece is obviously early Poulenc—it’s his FP14 (Poulenc’s equivalent of opus numbers)—yet no one else, even at that time, could possibly have written it.

All in all, an excellently-played, highly entertaining and simply fun album to listen to!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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De Niese Astounds in Baroque & Renaissance Music

De Niese

BEAUTY OF THE BAROQUE / DOWLAND: Come Again, Sweet Love. What If I Never Speed? HANDEL: Serse: Ombra mai fu. Samson: Let the Bright Seraphim. Acis and Galatea: Heart, the Seat of Soft Delight. Rodelinda: Io t’abbraccio.* The Triumph of Time and Truth: Guardian Angels. PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas: Thy hand, Belinda…When I am Laid in Earth. MONTEVERDI: L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Pur ti miro.* Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater: Stabat mater dolorosa.* BACH: Wedding Cantata: Sich üben im Leben. Hunt Cantata: Schafe konnen sicher weiden / Danielle de Niese, sop; *Andreas Scholl, ct; English Concert; Harry Bicket, cond / Decca 28947822608

Perusing the new releases in the Naxos Music Library, I was directed towards a recital of coloratura bel canto arias by one Pretty Yende. So I listened to Juliet’s waltz song from Roméo et Juliette, and heard a small, fluttery voice slithering and sliding through the runs, smudging and faking as she went along. I shut it off.

But then, going back to New Releases, I saw a magical name that had deeply impressed me some six years ago: Danielle de Niese. So I clicked on it. WOW, what singing! And better yet, what artistry!

The web page on which the sound files were stored for listening said that this album was released in June of 2011, but this was the first I had seen or heard of it, and this is the first time Naxos has promoted it. This is vocal gold, folks. De Niese has a sweet, vibrant voice, with perfect placement, superb intonation, a flawless technique, excellent diction and, best of all, real interpretive sensibility. Just listen to the opening selection, John Dowland’s Come Again, Sweet Love, and you’ll be hooked. This is as great a performance as you will ever hear in your life. Engaging and perfectly sung from start to finish. My lone complaint is that the lutenist is unidentified on the album’s cover and inlay. I had to go to the English Concert’s website to discover that their principal lute player is American-born William Carter. Since only “English Concert” is credited, I have to assume that he is the player on this CD.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that de Niese’s voice reminds me strongly of Kathleen Battle’s. They don’t sound exactly alike, but close enough that they could be sisters; they’re certainly sisters-in-artistry. Like Battle, de Niese has that kind of crystalline quality that is exceedingly rare, and she is her equal as musician, interpterer and technician. Nor does it hurt that she is accompanied by Harry Bicket, one of the very few Baroque-era conductors who truly understands musical style and conducts with both brio and sensitivity. One of my few disappointments was that her rendition of “Ombra mai fu” from Serse does not include the opening recitative, which for some reason is generally omitted in modern recordings of the aria. But listen to the way de Niese sings the high note, entering with a pure “straight” tone and then slowly adding a touch of vibrato.

Another amazing quality of de Niese’s singing, like Battle’s, is that the vocal timbre is equal and consistent from the bottom to the top of her range. Every note is round and lovely; the oft-feared “break” in the voice does not exist for her because her placement is so well-grounded. Each note is struck like a bell, the pitch flawless. This gives her the luxury of flying through whatever music she sings as if she were sight-reading it, with not a care in the world as to vocal placement. In timbre, her voice sounds like a cross between Battle and Sylvia McNair, but I still insist she is closer to Battle because of the ravishing tonal quality, which has a sound like fresh merlot grapes. There is a slight purple tinge to her sound, but a purple that glistens in the sun.

And if you had any doubts about de Niese’s interpretive qualities, listen to her deeply-felt performance of “When I am laid in earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Why hasn’t Decca recorded a complete performance of this opera with de Niese in the title role? Daniel Behle would make a great partner for her as Aeneas. Come on, Decca, get off your fat rears and do it for us…with Bicket conducting. And maybe Patricia Petibon as the Witch.

From a personal standpoint, I was very happy to see the arias from Acis and Galatea and Rodelinda, surely two of Handel’s best operas, included here. De Niese sings them to perfection; indeed, I can’t recall hearing anyone else sing the former aria as well as she, and Bicket’s conducting is the perfect complement to her finely-detailed performance. Pay close attention, please, to all those little grace notes that she tosses off so insouciantly, as if they were easy. They’re not. They require not only great placement but also flawless breath control. Likewise, her rendition of the final duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Andreas Scholl, one of only two countertenors now singing whose voices I really like (the other is Philippe Jaroussky), is absolutely exquisite, reminding me of my two favorite Poppeas, Carole Bogard and Rachel Yakar.

But I could go on and on about every track on this album because each one is so good. De Niese is an artistic chameleon, shifting not just moods but characters as the text of each song and aria demands. The only piece on here with which I was unfamiliar was “Guardian Angels” from Handel’s The Triumph of Time and Truth, nice but a bit too much like many other Handel arias. Ah, but then we get the wonderful duet from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, again with Scholl, and this is so good as to almost make time stand still.

The recital ends with two superb arias from Bach’s secular cantatas, and the one from the Wedding Cantata immediately put me in mind of Battle as this was the first piece I ever heard by her on record (a 1977 performance on RCA Victor with James Levine conducting). Sprightly and engaging, they are among Bach’s most appealing compositions, and de Niese sings them with juicy enthusiasm in her voice.

Bottom line: Danielle de Neise can sing the phone book (if they still make them…I think they do, I just had one delivered to my house) and stir your heart and mind. She’s that good.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Liebman-Murley Quartet’s Live Set Released

Version 2

LIVE AT U OF T / VIVIAN: Split or Whole. MURLEY: YSBN. Open Spaces.2,3 LIEBMAN: Off a Bird. Small One.4 Nebula.2 Missing Persons.4 ELMAN-MERCER: And the Angels Sing.2 LOVANO: Blackwell’s Message / Dave Liebman, 1s-sax/2t-sax/3fl; Mike Murley, t-sax/4s-sax; Jim Vivian, bs; Terry Clarke, dm / No label name or number, available at iTunes (live: Toronto, January 6, 2017)

Veteran saxophonists Dave Liebman and Mike Murley have played together for more than a decade, and in fact Murley studied with Liebman at the Banff Jazz Workshop back in the 1980s, but this is only the second album by this specific quartet.

It is a stunner.

Drawing on a variety of big-name influences, both players have a powerhouse drive and attack and both have vivid musical imaginations. Imagine, if you will, a post-bop, more modern counterpart to Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and you have Liebman and Murley. The rhythm of their tunes is more conventional than their harmonic approach, sticking to a normal 4/4, but make no mistake, these are adventurous players. At times Murley will sound like Sonny Rollins, at other times a bit like Stan Getz (more so in his sparseness of note-choices than actual sound) while Liebman, particularly on soprano sax, channels Coltrane and a bit of Steve Lacy. What I found particularly interesting in this set was that neither of these exceptional reed players ever overblow or go so far out on a tangent that neither they nor their audience quite knows where they are, despite taking several risks. This is playing at its highest level.

Version 2

Liebman & Murley

The rhythm section is solid and dependable, with drummer Clarke taking a fine solo at the beginning of Off a Bird which, oddly enough, sounds more like a piece by Ornette Coleman than Parker, though it keeps to a recognizable harmonic base. Liebman is at his most abstract here, spitting out atonal lines with impunity while still leaving “space” in his solo. A nifty little quote from Bird’s Now’s the Time comes and goes so quickly that you might miss it. Bassist Jim Vivian is also quite busy here, contributing a splendid Charlie Haden-type solo in the middle, just before Murley comes roaring in on tenor sax.

On Small One, Murley joins Liebman on soprano sax, playing a lovely if rather abstract tune in harmony. In the improv section they take turns; the liner notes don’t say, but it sounds like Murley up first. I say this only because his playing tends to be somewhat more lyrical than his mentor-partner. Clarke tosses in a few really nice press rolls behind Liebman’s solo when he takes over the reins. Towards the end there is a nice passage where the rhythm changes and the duo plays some nifty interlocking phrases before reiterating the theme to the end.

Liebman plays both flute and tenor sax on Open Spaces. Oddly, his flute sounds more like an ocarina, but that’s fitting in the context of this quasi-Latin-sounding piece. His tenor playing has the same tone as his soprano, somewhat dry and “flat” like several of the hard-bop players of the 1950s and ‘60s. Vivian contributes a nice, dry bass solo, picking the strings cleanly as if it were a big guitar. Towards the end Liebman returns to his ocarina-like flute for the rideout. An out-of-tempo bowed bass solo opens Nebula, setting the tone for a particularly “spacey” performance. When the two saxists enter, they are playing sparsely in thirds, breaking up both line and rhythm as they proceed. Most of the composition and performance, in fact, consists of just these elements, with the music becoming even more spacey and the two reeds exchanging metaphoric takes on the sparse theme. Eventually they whimper like two wounded space birds from Alpha Centauri.

Next we get the one old-time standard on this set, Ziggy Elman’s And the Angels Sing which was the vocal version of his previously-recorded Frahlich in Swing. It gives the listener a chance to hear and understand what these two great artists can do with a song, in material that almost everyone knows. Both men are on tenor here, and it sounds to me as if that’s Liebman up first, playing a particularly adventurous solo before Murley comes in with his quasi-Getz sound and ideas. Missing Persons starts out with an out-of-tempo a cappella passage by the two saxists at a medium slow tempo, again channeling Ornette somewhat. Audience applause comes immediately after, followed by a rumbling drum solo which introduces Joe Lovano’s Blackwell’s Message. This, too, turns into a somewhat abstract performance, particularly in Liebman’s twisting, pretzel-shaped solo. Murley does his level best to catch up, though, and eventually they come together, again in thirds, to wrap the set up.

Really, really nice music from start to finish.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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