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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 19, No. 5


February 1, 2014

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Donizetti: Belisario
Nicola Alaimo, Joyce El-Khoury, Camilla Robert, Russell Thomas, Alastair Miles / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder, conductor
Opera Rara ORC49 (CD1-60m 16s / CD2-64m 37s)

Of the 70 operas composed by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Belisaro falls in the middle of the composer’s œuvre. Premiered in 1836, five months after Lucia di Lammermoor, it was overshadowed by the hugely successful Lucia, despite some lovely music. Part of the problem is the convoluted and improbable libretto, not to mention the lack of a central love story. Set in 600 AD in the court of Byzantium, Belisaro is a general beloved by the populace, but his wife Antonina thinks he has had their son killed. She plots revenge, only to find out too late that Belisario is innocent. He is wounded in battle and dies, with Antonina mourning his death. Its discography is understandably thin, the most important being a live 1969 performance from La Fenice, starring the great Turkish diva Leyla Gencer as Antonina.
Thanks to Opera Rara, we now have the first modern studio recording of this neglected work, and a definitive one it is. Top vocal honours go to Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. Like Gencer, El-Khoury possesses a spinto voice of beauty, volume, and a cutting edge that is capable of riding the orchestra in big dramatic moments. She’s also capable of an exquisite high pianissimo, one that recalls Montserrat Caballe and Gencer herself. Antonina is a perfect role to show off the El-Khoury voice – whether it is fiery music or quiet moments, everything is dispatched with aplomb and beauty of tone. (It’s no wonder that the soprano has been re-engaged by Opera Rara this coming November for the recording of another Donizetti rarity, Les Martyrs, in the role of Pauline, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment). The rest of the Belisaro cast is mostly fine, with Russell Thomas (COC’s Hoffmann two seasons ago) a clarion-voiced Alamiro and Nicola Alaimo as a sympathetic Belisario. English bass Alastair Miles offers the requisite gravitas as Giustiniano. The only weak link is soprano Camilla Roberts (Irene), sounding shrill at the top and raspy at the bottom – it’s just as well her last-act aria is cut. Sir Mark Elder conducts with incisiveness, not very subtle perhaps, but it goes with the territory! The nicely produced package contains a beautiful booklet with production photos, historical illustrations, English libretto, and an excellent essay by Jeremy Commons. The recorded sound is fine. Joseph So

“Shelter” Songs for Soprano and Cello. Music by Previn, Tavener, Honstein, Heggie and Rachmaninov.
Mela Dailey, soprano; Scott Kluksdahl, cello; Rick Rowley, piano
Pierian 0047 (64 m 44 s)

Recital albums featuring young sopranos are not uncommon. But what makes this new release exceptional is the unusual choice of repertoire and the high quality of the performances.
Who would have thought of putting together an album of contemporary music for soprano and cello? And who would have thought that the music for this combination could be of such high quality?
Andre Previn’s Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano of 1994 are settings of poems by Toni Morrison. These are beautiful songs, recalling Britten in their transparency, and Previn has captured the essence of Morrison’s heartfelt expression of the black experience. One of these songs is called “Shelter”, hence the title of the album.
Throughout the CD Mela Dailey sings with wonderful purity and control and Scott Kluksdahl supports her with playing of richness and nobility. The combination is especially successful in John Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs, dating from 1993. The poems are preoccupied with death and manage to be deeply probing in a few words.
The CD opens and closes with a vocalise, the first by Previn and the second the very familiar one by Rachmaninov but in a fresh new version for soprano, cello and piano by conductor – and Mela Dailey’s husband - Peter Bay. Paul E. Robinson


Leonard Bernstein: Historical Recordings 1941-1961
Schumann: Symphony No. 2/Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 7/Mahler: Symphony No. 2/Beethoven: Symphony No. 9/Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring/Chavez: Symphony No. 4/Harris: American Creed, etc.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
Audio Restoration: Lani Spahr
West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6048 (11 CDs)

Bernstein has been dead for over 22 years and nearly everything he recorded has been released and re-released. Dozens of broadcasts have been made available too. But there are still treasures to be found. This latest release contains invaluable rehearsal excerpts and some wonderful broadcasts with the Boston Symphony.
Bernstein was a protégé of BSO music director Serge Koussevitsky and Bernstein often conducted the orchestra, especially in the 1940s. Here we have a complete Mahler Second Symphony, a Shostakovich Seventh and a Beethoven Ninth. We also have Bernstein as soloist and conductor in Ravel, Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos. An unusual item is Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion, with Laurence Olivier as narrator, from a live BSO concert given in Carnegie Hall in 1949.
The set also includes Bernstein’s first commercial recording. He plays David Diamond’s piano piece Prelude and Fugue in C#, a 78 rpm recording from 1941. Throughout his life Bernstein championed the music of Diamond, who was one of his oldest friends. Diamond’s Symphony No. 8 is also included in this set in a performance conducted by Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in 1961.
There is lots of adrenalin flowing in these performances – Bernstein was a conductor who readily let his emotions run away with him – and some of the performances indicate a lack of preparation. In the rehearsal for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 on November 21, 1949, Bernstein can be heard muttering about “not practicing the piano all summer.” Throughout this rehearsal Bernstein seems to have a terrible time controlling the tempo. There are also some Mahler songs with Jennie Tourel from 1960. She was well past her prime, and these performances should never have been released.
Among the truly historic performances is the Blitzstein version of Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera in its world premiere performance at Brandeis University June 14, 1952. Lotte Lenya plays Jenny.
In many cases, Bernstein went on to make commercial recordings of these pieces, and they are far superior in terms of recording quality. But it significantly enriches our understanding of Bernstein to have so many early performances available.
There are 11 CDs in this boxed set and one of them is devoted entirely to excellent, detailed program notes by Nigel Simeone. The set is marked “Not available in the U.S,” presumably for copyright reasons. Paul E. Robinson

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski 90th Birthday Collection
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos 1-9, Symphony in F minor, Symphony in D minor
Beethoven:  Symphonies 1-9
Schumann: Symphonies Nos 1-4
Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1-4
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Divertimento for String Orchestra
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Love Scene from Romeo and Juliette
Chopin: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 (Ewa Kupiec, piano)
Skrowaczewski: Music at Night, Fantasie per Flauto ed Orchestra Il Piffero della Notte (Roswitha Staege, flute), Symphony (2003) in memory of Ken Dayton
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Oehms Classics OC 090 (28 CDs)

This deluxe drop-bottom coffret documents Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s collaboration with a very fine orchestra as recorded by Oehms Classics since 1995, issued in 2013, in honour of the conductor’s 90th birthday. The symphony cycles here earned wide critical acclaim upon first release. The collection is a well-deserved tribute to a stalwart, supremely gifted musician and composer.  Skrowaczewski always knew what he wanted and how to get it. The performances recorded here are uniformly outstanding. The set includes a lavishly illustrated booklet of 67 pages.  Listen and discover why the Germans call him, Stanislove. W. Stephen Habington

Johannes Brahms: Symphonies 1-4
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
C Major 715108 (2 DVD- 208 min)
Bonus Disc Discovering Brahms Christian Thielemann on Brahms’ Symphonies (52 min)

A few years ago, Christian Thielemann expressed pleasure at the prospect of taking command of the renowned Dresden Staatskapelle by remarking that it was almost as great as the Vienna Philharmonic (or words to that effect). In the performances recorded here, the Dresdeners are second to none. This set will be an essential acquisition for the conductor’s legion of admirers, most of whom were thrilled by Thielemann’s Beethoven cycle with the VPO. And yet, on the evidence here, the conclusion is inescapable that Thielemann does Brahms better in Dresden than he did Beethoven in Vienna.  Symphonies 1 and 3 were presented in concert in Tokyo while 2 and 4 were staged on home turf in Dresden’s Semperoper. These are performances that deserve to be seen as well as heard for the dedicated playing and enthusiasm of the musicians. The bonus disc is worthwhile if explanations of the interpretations are called for. Thielemann forgoes the fawning interlocutor who appeared on the Beethoven DVD cycle and the presentation is all the better for it. There are splendid imagery and sound despite the changes of concert venue and video directors. As with Thielemann’s first recorded Brahms cycle, it will almost certainly be issued on CD within six months. W. Stephen Habington

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