La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Les Violons du Roi with Guilmette a Royal Treat!

by Paul E. Robinson
The excitement of the opening weekend has died down and the crowds have thinned but the Knowlton Festival (Québec) continues with music-making of the highest order. Our own period music specialist ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, based in Québec City, took the stage last night and filled the air with the sounds of Handel.

In a festival that focuses on bel canto, it makes perfect sense to give some exposure to vocal literature which was an important forerunner. With the participation of Les Violons du Roy, organizers have significantly broadened the repertoire covered by the Knowlton Festival. I hope we will hear more baroque music next year.

Historically informed performances are now fairly commonplace, but Les Violons du Roy have been at it for nearly twenty-five years and their authority in this repertoire is palpable. Much of the credit must go to its conductor Bernard Labadie (photo: right). He gives us not only scholarly work but joyous, exciting and often surprising performances. No wonder he is now in demand all over the world as a guest conductor.

In addition to his early music expertise, Labadie has served a long apprenticeship in the opera house and will make his debut at the Met later this year leading performances of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. He is a fine all-round musician and the whole world is now discovering how good he is.

In praising Labadie I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of his players. There were twenty-five of them in the Chapiteau (tent) and each one of them made important contributions. Best of all, they functioned as a well-rehearsed ensemble. They had obviously taken great care to coordinate their phrasing, dynamics, length of the notes and bow strokes. The heart of this orchestra is the string section and it demonstrated a whole range of musical virtues from subtlety to virtuosity. Yes, this is a remarkable band of musicians. One wished their names had appeared in the programme!

The major work this evening was Handel’s Water Music. This music was written in 1717 for King George I to enjoy as he sailed down the Thames. Some of it is appropriately regal and festive but there are also more intimate pieces. The orchestration is one of the glories of the work – actually three suites joined together – and Les Violons du Roy made the most of its opportunities. We had a sensuous oboe solo, a perky recorder solo, lusty horn fanfares and trills and exciting timpani riffs.

As Labadie pointed out in his introductory remarks, the Water Music is rarely played complete. The reason, one might suggest, is that it can wear out its welcome - but not in this performance. Labadie not only varied dynamics within movements; he also dared to speed up and slow down when he thought the music would benefit from such alterations. Handel left no such instructions for the Water Music, but by now Labadie feels so confident in this style that he can permit himself imaginative embellishments. It’s called ‘interpretive freedom’ and in going down this road, Labadie is following in the footsteps of early music pioneers of the order of Harnoncourt, Christie and Gardiner.

Incidentally, Labadie and Les Violons du Roy have made a recording of the Water Music for Analekta.

In the first half of the programme, we heard an orchestral suite from Armida and a group of arias from Handel’s operas Alcina and Giulio Cesare. The fine soprano soloist was Hélène Guilmette (photo: right). Her youthful, lyric voice was well-suited to the music and she tossed off the ornamentation with the greatest of ease. I must confess that I prefer a more darkly romantic interpretation of ‘Piangerò la sorte mia.” This performance was a little too artful for my taste and the choice of ornamentation ornate rather than expressive. Still, I came away from these performances looking forward to hearing more from Guilmette.

As an aside, I feel compelled to point out once again that in a festival, the focus of which is vocal music, it is a gross oversight not to provide the audience with texts and translations either in the printed programme or as surtitles.

Coming Next: Tonight’s concert in the Chapiteau features the wonderful pianist Stephen Kovacevich making a rare appearance in Canada. He will play Beethoven’s massive Diabelli Variations. Tomorrow night Nagano and the OSM resume their Brahms cycle with the Third Symphony. Joining them will be American baritone Thomas Hampson in a group of songs by Richard Strauss. For more information visit the festival website.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Rising Stars and Heroic Strauss

By Paul E. Robinson

Knowlton was awash with tourists and classical music-lovers this weekend. The tourists are a familiar sight in these parts, drawn by the beauty of the location, the antique stores and boutiques selling lavender products and a tempting variety of other country fare. The music-lovers, however, are a relatively new phenomenon, attracted by the Knowlton Festival. On the basis of what I have heard so far I don’t think they would be disappointed.

At its Saturday evening concert in the Chapiteau (photo above: bar area) the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) under Kent Nagano offered another lyrical and transparent Brahms performance – this time the Fourth Symphony – and earlier in the day there was some fine singing to be heard in two different locations.

Cagli's Master Class an Education in Bel Canto Technique
The morning event was held in the charming Old Brick Church in West Brome. Bruno Cagli (photo: right), the president of the distinguished Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, presented a master class in bel canto with some young singers he had brought with him from Italy. In fact, these singers were already pretty accomplished in bel canto and Cagli spent less time teaching them and more time educating the audience of about 200 – a full house in this intimate setting – in the “rules” of bel canto.

Cagli took his captivated audience through the history of singing, with particular emphasis on nineteenth century composers, including Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Tosti, and some of the most renowned singers from that period. There was also considerable talk about breathing and ‘proper’ voice production. Each of the singers contributed very good performances. One of them, tenor Antonio Poli, sounded like a major talent. All of them will be heard again during the festival in a concert with the Festival Orchestra on Monday night.

Domingo's Rising Stars Take the Stage
Later, I dropped by the Saint Édouard Chapel in Knowlton to hear a recital by winners of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition.

This concert was announced in the programme as featuring “Winners Operalia 2008” (Québec City). Only Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva (photo: above left), who took “The People’s Prize” there, fits that description. The other soloists are fairly recent Operalia winners in other countries. All were well worth hearing and have deservedly advanced beyond the promising ‘student stage’ to become busy professional artists.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would Kramaryeva. She is a genuine Verdi dramatic soprano with presence, richness of tone and considerable dramatic skills. Kramaryeva and her Operalia colleagues will all be featured again during the festival on Friday August 15. Kent Nagano will conduct excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin and Massimilliano Murrali will lead excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

And From Ben Heppner - An Almost Perfect Set of Strauss Songs
The founders of the Knowlton Festival – Marco Genoni and Kent Nagano – based their new venture on the glories of the Italian bel canto tradition. While the content of the festival has shifted somewhat in the second season, singing in general and bel canto in particular remains a major component; it is, therefore, entirely within the concept of the festival that one of the world’s great heldentenors should be featured in orchestral songs by Richard Strauss.

Canada’s own Ben Heppner is in constant demand at all the top opera houses in the world and it was a coup for the festival to be able bring him here. He chose for his programme a group of six songs by Strauss, including the beloved Zueignung, along with some less popular pieces.

In the opening bars of Cäcilie we heard Heppner’s effortless purity of sound and beauty of phrasing. The darkly imaginative Ruhe meine Seele was also given a fine performance with Nagano taking care over every detail and the members of the OSM playing beautifully. We heard five Strauss songs presented as well as one is likely ever to hear them.

Then came Befreit. Suddenly, Heppner’s voice simply failed him. It was painful to hear and undoubtedly most painful for Heppner himself. One could only reflect on the vagaries of the human voice.

Texts, Translations, Projections?
As a festival grows, it learns from its mistakes and tries to improve things that need improvement. For any festival that makes vocal music the core of its mission, great care must be taken to provide the audience with texts for songs, operatic excerpts and complete operas being performed. This can be accomplished by means of texts and translations in the printed programmes or through the use of modern technology with projections on screens situated around the auditorium. Whatever the means used, it is not only important – some might add ‘respectful’ - to provide audience members a comfortable way into a full appreciation of the music they are hearing.

The Knowlton Festival continues on Sunday with the first of two performances of Bellini’s La Sonnambula starring Sumi Jo with Nagano conducting. More bel canto follows on Monday night, with an all-Handel programme by the period instrument orchestra Les Violin du Roy under Bernard Labadie on Tuesday night.

The concert on Tuesday will include, in addition to a group of opera arias featuring soprano Hélène Guilmette, Handel’s very popular Water Music.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Handel: Chandos Anthems

Emma Kirkby, soprano; Iestyn Davies, alto; james Gilchrist, tenor; Neal Davies, bass
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA67737 (66 min 9 s)
***** $$$

Le duc de Chandos, immensément riche, se fit construire, comme le faisaient les aristocrates de l’époque, une gigantesque demeure à la mesure de sa fortune. Sauf qu’il décida de se payer également un ensemble musical personnel et un lieu magnifique pour y entendre les concerts de la plus belle musique existante. C’est comme si un milliardaire d’aujourd’hui se faisait ériger une salle de concert ou une maison d’opéra avec grand orchestre. Fantasme ? Oui, mais à une certaine époque pas si lointaine, et dans un autre pays, cela relevait de la réalité. Les Hymnes, ou Anthems, composés par Haendel pour le duc sont des exemples de la vitalité haendelienne à son plus brillant et admirablement contagieux. Pour ceux qui aiment les Coronation Anthems, le plaisir sera vite retrouvé dans ces œuvres irrésistibles. Les solistes sont impeccables. Emma Kirkby est toujours aussi lumineuse et la basse puissante et gracile de Neal Davies est particulièrement séduisante. La direction solide et précise de Stephen Layton contribuent fortement à la force de cette musique. Une très belle réussite.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

GF Handel: Tamerlano

Plácido Domingo (Bajazet), Monica Bacelli (Tamerlano), Ingela Bohlin (Asteria), Sara Mingardo (Andronico), Jennifer Holloway (Iren), Luigi De Donato (Leone)
Orchestra of the Teatro Real (Madrid Symphony Orchestra)/Paul McCreesh
Stage Director: Graham Vick
Video Director: Ferenc van Damme
Opus Arte OA 1006 D (3 DVD – 241 min)
***** $$$$

Here is Plácido Domingo at the age of 70 giving the performance of a lifetime. The voice may no longer be the immaculate instrument of the past but Domingo has lost nothing of his ability to project a character on stage. This appearance, in Handel’s most dramatic tenor role, amply confirms his standing as the commanding singer-actor of the era. Tamerlano is a work of annihilating gloom. Bajazet is the Ottoman sultan taken captive by the Oriental tyrant Tamerlano. In the first scene, he is anguished and seeking death (which will take him most of three acts to find). The plot is thickened by a diabolical love quadrangle, the mutually destructive devotion of a father and daughter and attempted regicide. Domingo’s performance is remarkable, yet it is Monica Bacelli, in the title role, who really steals the show. She delivers inspired singing (with an impressive lower register so important in a ‘trousers’ role) in a strikingly kinetic manner. This lady can move to awesome effect. The remainder of the cast is excellent. The sets and costumes designed by Richard Hudson are gorgeous. Paul McCreesh directs a fine account of the orchestral score (on modern instruments), which supplements the momentum created by Graham Vick. An informative interview with McCreesh is included as a special feature on disc 1.

The general entertainment value of baroque opera in general and Handel in particular on DVD has escalated sharply in the past few years. Tamerlano as produced by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Trevor Pinnock in 2001 (Arthaus DVD) looks static and seems a lot longer than four hours when compared to this exciting Madrid production. The trend for the small screen was set in 2005 with David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare (Opus Arte) and continued with a sophisticated Zurich staging of Handel’s Orlando (Arthaus) last year. William Christie conducted both and returned to Zurich with Cecilia Bartoli for Semele, which is being released by Decca. The key point to remember is that Handel illustrated everlasting characters and timeless relationships with his music. The new wave of baroque opera films has taken the works out of dusty archives for presentation in your home theatre.

- Stephen Habington

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Handel: Rodrigo

María Bayo, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, Anne-Catherine Gillet, soprano; Maria Riccarda Wesseling, mezzo-soprano; Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor; Kobi van Rensburg, tenor; Al Ayre Español/Eduardo Lopez Banzo
Ambroisie AM 132 (3CD)
****** $$$$
Rodrigo est le premier opéra qu’écrivit Haendel lors de son séjour de formation en Italie, et on y retrouve la fougue et la fraîcheur qui caractérisent les plus belles œuvres de cette période, comme le Dixit dominus et la Résurrection. Les airs de Rodrigo sont généralement courts, mais toujours finement caractérisés et souvent virtuoses. C’est toute la palette des affects baroques dont s’empare ici le jeune Haendel, avec une assurance qu’auraient pu lui envier bien des compositeurs italiens. L’œuvre avait déjà été enregistrée par Alan Curtis en 1999, mais la présente version s’avère infiniment supérieure. Eduardo Lopez Banzo dirige un orchestre sensationnel, dont la vigueur et la précision ne sont pas sans rappeler les Musiciens du Louvre, qui servaient jadis si bien ce répertoire. Sous la baguette du chef espagnol, même les récitatifs prennent vie et n’ennuient jamais, soutenus par un magnifique clavecin de facture italienne. Exception faite du chant un peu maniéré de Maria Bayo, la distribution est plus que satisfaisante. Si le Rodrigo de Maria Riccarda Wesseling séduit dès le premier air, on aura tôt fait d’apprécier aussi l’agilité d’Anne-Catherine Gillet, le timbre androgyne de Max Emanuel Cencic et la bravoure du ténor Kobie van Rensburg, très sollicité ici. Un incontournable pour tout amateur de Haendel.

- Philippe Gervais

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Handel: Water Music / Music for the Royal Fireworks

L’arte dell’Arco / Federico Guglielmo
Cpo 777 312-2 (66 min 5 s)
Cette toute nouvelle version des deux œuvres les plus populaires de Haendel est, en théorie, « authentique ». Cependant, et bien qu’admirablement rendue par l’ensemble italien L’Arte dell’Arco, elle soulève des questions sur le sens du terme « authentique ». Une interprétation est-elle authentique parce qu'elle fait appel aux instruments anciens ? Assurément pas. Ou encore parce que les forces d’exécution de l'œuvre sont réduites ? Le doute s'accroît. Federico Guglielmo dirige ici un ensemble de 26 musiciens; or, Water Music et Fireworks ont été composés pour de vastes, voire monumentaux déploiements extérieurs… Cela dit, l’interprétation extrêmement vive et dépouillée proposée ici de ces icônes de la musique anciennes vient rafraîchir, dépoussiérer les sentiers de l'orthodoxie post-baroque. Elle met en relief des textures nouvelles, des lignes discursives souvent noyées, ou simplement oubliées. Je ne voudrais pas me départir de mes enregistrements « épiques » de Haendel, mais suis maintenant heureux d'en posséder une surprenante révision. Je crois que vous le serez aussi.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Bach : Magnificat / Handel : Dixit dominus

Natalie Dessay; Karine Deshayes; Philippe Jaroussky; Toby Spence; Larent Naouri; Le Concert d'Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
Virgin Classics 00946395241 2 9 (56 min 6 s)
***** $$$

Leur latinité, leur contemporanéité, une certaine construction en boucle, leur durée équivalente, la large part accordée aux chœurs, l'absence de récitatifs : tout cela justifie amplement la juxtaposition discographique de ces deux oratorios. Le Magnificat débute joyeusement, tel un concerto brandebourgeois, mais retrouve vite la solennité caractéristique des œuvres sacrées du cantor de Leipzig. Sans atteindre les sommets architectoniques de la Messe en si ou de la Passion selon saint Matthieu, le Magnificat renferme des moments de pure grâce, comme le Quia respexit, où soprano et hautbois entretiennent un dialogue mélodique délicieux – ah ! le hautbois chez Bach ! Œuvre de jeunesse, Dixit dominus déborde d'une vitalité contagieuse. Inspiré par le psaume, Haendel a su exploiter au mieux les effectifs vocaux et orchestraux utilisés. Ce disque est une belle réussite. Fondé en 2000 par Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert d'Astrée a connu une progression fulgurante et figure aujourd'hui parmi les meilleurs orchestres baroques. De l'excellente équipe de solistes ici réunis, se distingue le contre-ténor Philippe Jaroussky et sa voix céleste. En insérant le CD dans son ordi, on peut, via Internet, accéder au club de Virgin Classics et EMI et avoir droit à des exclusivités, de la musique en ligne et autres privilèges.

-Pierre Demers

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: February 23 (Handel)

1685 - George Frideric Handel - Halle, Germany; composer

Wiki entry

"The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from Solomon

Xerxes "Ombra mai fu" sung by Kathleen Ferrier

Messiah, Hallelujah Chorus (Bethany College Choir, West Virginia, 2006)

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Handel Water Music

Les Violons du Roy
Bernard Labadie, dir.

ATMA Classique
ACD2 2569

Les trois suites pour orchestre qui composent la Water Music de George Frideric Handel font partie de ces pièces qui, par le génie de leur construction et l'énergie irrésistible qui s'en dégage, connaissent une popularité qui ne s'est jamais essoufflée depuis sa création. La quantité énorme de versions endisquées en fait foi. On en trouve de toutes les sortes et pour tous les goûts : instruments d'époque ou modernes, grand ensemble ou orchestre de chambre, esthétique baroque ou romantique, etc.

Handel, nouvellement arrivé en Angleterre, reçoit en 1717 une commande particulière : on lui demande de la musique festive, devant être jouée sur la Tamise à l'occasion d'un trajet nocturne du roi George 1er entre Whitehall et Chelsea. Le compositeur concocte alors un amalgame de pièces nouvelles et anciennes, qu'il groupe en trois suites de tonalités différentes; elles constituent de bons exemples de suite pour orchestre, genre dont la forme n'était pas fixée à l'époque. On y trouve une ouverture d'inspiration française, diverses danses et des mouvements lents. Handel fait appel, en plus des cordes, à des instruments à vent pouvant être entendus à grande distance, notamment des hautbois, des cors et des trompettes. Des comptes rendus de l'époque indiquent que le roi a tellement aimé l'oeuvre qu'il demanda aux musiciens de la rejouer entièrement deux autres fois le même soir !

Cette version des fameuses suites de la Water Music s'avère, un véritable coup de coeur dès les premières secondes d'écoute. Pour cette nouvelle collaboration entre les Violons du Roy et Atma classique, l'ensemble de Québec revient au répertoire baroque qui est sa spécialité. Les Violons, en alliant une interprétation stylistiquement rigoureuse à la perfection de son des instruments modernes, parviennent encore une fois à des sommets d'inspiration et de vitalité. Son ensemble a beau être relativement restreint (28 musiciens), Labadie en tire une fougue absolument incroyable ! Les bois nous offrent des solos inspirés, les cuivres sont retentissants, les cordes nerveuses et inspirées. Voici certainement un ensemble dont la capitale peut être fière. Cet enregistrement, qui propose également deux extraits de l'oratorio Solomon, est le tout premier réalisé dans la nouvelle salle Raoul-Jobin du Palais-Montcalm, un lieu à l'acoustique vivante qui convient parfaitement à cette musique composée pour les grands espaces.

-Louis-Pierre Bergeron

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