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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 5 February-March 1998
Brahms: Songs Without Words
Mischa Maisky, cello
Pavel Galilov, piano (Deutsche Grammophon 453-424)

Transcriptions of Brahms songs are common enough, but I’ve never heard any as beautiful as these for cello and piano. As with Maisky’s earlier Schubert Songs Without Words (DG 449-817), he has chosen only the lieder that best suit the cello’s special sound quality. Maisky is quite simply an interpreter of genius, caressing an astonishingly tender and expressive sound from his instrument. The cello sings the vocal line and Galilov’s piano faithfully follows like a shadow. The recording technicians have captured every warm detail and delicate nuance. A masterpiece.

Rossini: La Cenerentola
Riccardo Chailly / Teatro Comunale di Bologna (London 436-902-2)

This 1992 studio La Cenerentola with superstar mezzo Cecilia Bartoli remains one of the most thoroughly satisfying opera recording projects of our time. The cast is generally top-notch, with good Italian diction and phrasing and a genuine understanding of Rossini’s style. Bartoli is the star, her small but exquisite voice captured at its artful best. Her two nasty step-sisters are funny but, most importantly, their voices are well matched for the important duets. Michele Pertusi’s rich, steady bass is impressive as Alidoro. In the pivotal role of Dandini, baritone Alessandro Corbelli aspirates his rusty runs but is otherwise competent. The high tenor role of Ramiro is almost impossible to cast today. William Matteuzi huffs and bleats his way through the coloratura runs: an E for Effort. Chailly’s conducting of the superb Bologna orchestra and chorus is both precise and atmospheric. Strongly recommended. L'Opéra de Montréal stages Rossini’s La Cenerentola March 21, 23, 26, 28, April 1,4, 1998. Tel: 985-2258.

Alban Berg: Wozzeck
Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung
Dmitri Mitropoulos / New York Philharmonic (MH2K 62759)

Another exciting installment in Sony’s Masterworks Heritage series is Dmitri Mitropoulos’s uncanny 1951 recording — the first ever made — of Berg’s Expressionist opera Wozzeck. Mitropoulos is second to none in his comprehension of Berg’s intentions, and the subtle playing he wrings from the New York Philharmonic remains admirable by today’s standards. The string section’s brilliant work is especially well defined in this digital remastering. The singing and acting of the principals (Eileen Farrell as Marie, Mack Harrell as Wozzeck, Ralph Herbert as the Doctor, Joseph Mordino as the Captain) are convincing, despite expressive liberties taken with Berg’s notation and their vague American-German diction. This two-disc set also includes the first recording ever made of Schoenberg’s Erwartung (sung rather placidly by Dorothy Day) and Ernst Krenek’s gripping Symphonic Elegy, apparently the only CD recording available. Don’t be deterred by the mono sound: this is a rich, multi-dimensional performance.

Four Great Italian Tenors
Lebendige Vergangenheit (Preiser / Pelleas)

Preiser, the foremost label for historic vocal recordings, offers a new series sampling legendary singers of the past, grouped according to voice category or nationality or both. "Four Great Italian Tenors" is representative of the excellence of the series from both the technical and artistic points of view. Listening to these arias by vocal lions Beniamino Gigli, Aureliano Pertile, Giovanni Martinelli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi immediately puts our Three Tenors into perspective. These four are different and yet complementary in their greatness. Gigli’s  legato, vocal velvet and ease is contrasted with Pertile’s theatricality and vocal intensity, while Martinelli’s scrupulous and modern musicality is balanced by Lauri-Volpi’s individual timbre and way with a phrase. All recordings date from the period 1926 to 1930, emphasizing the riches available during the interwar period. This series is of value both in its own right and as a starting point for further investigation. Essential.

Arias. Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano
Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera / Carlo Rizzi
(Philips 446-663)

With her lush, brilliant tone, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina offers listeners an astonishing variety of arias in this recording of operatic gems. From the world of bel canto, the arias from Les Huguenots and Semiramide find her coloratura fluid and clear. Only the occasional passage in the treacherous aria "Nacqui all’affanno" from Cenerentola reveals an aspirate run or two. What a thrill to hear a big voice manage bravura! Rizzi commands his orchestra in fine style, allowing Borodina to shine, particularly in her three arias from Samson et Dalila. She becomes the seductress, filling "Printemps qui commence" with a wonderful sense of line and expansiveness. She sings "Succombera sous mes efforts" and we succumb indeed. Borodina’s handling of the two baroque arias on this disc is weaker. We find Handel’s "Ombra mai fu" and Purcell’s "When I am laid" marred by the occasional strange vowel in Borodina’s otherwise passable English. Perhaps the most marvelous track on this disc is Joan of Arc's aria from The Maid of Orleans. In this brilliant piece Borodina matches Tchaikovsky at the height of his musical and dramatic sensibilities. The orchestra sounds rich and Borodina sounds particularly stunning, with sweeping phrases and gorgeous tone throughout. Highly recommended. – Peter Phoa

Bolero: A Spanish Songbook
Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano
Semyon Skigi, piano (Philips 446-708-2)

Borodina’s second solo recital album is an unexpected foray into the Spanish repertoire. About half the disc is devoted to "real" Spanish songs: de Falla’s 7 Canciones Populaires and melodies by Granados and Ravel. The rest of the program is more bizarre: Shostakovich’s cycle of Spanish Songs, Op. 100, set to Russian poems and sung in Russian, and similar hybrids from Glinka, Rubenstein and Dargomyzhsky. Of these Russian-Spanish songs, I can only quote Dr. Johnson’s remark when he saw a dog walking on its hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all. Who would have guessed that Russian and Soviet composers would have dabbled in the Spanish idiom, especially since few had ever travelled to Spain? So the curiosity value of this repertoire is high but the musical value is modest and the pleasure minimal. Olga Borodina is the best of Gergiev’s new wave of Russian singers but her hard, monotonous timbre, limited expressive palette and imperfect diction leave me cold.

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations
Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord (BIS-CD-819 / SRI)

The latest in the flood of recent recordings of this monumental work is from Masaaki Suzuki, who studied organ and harpsichord with Ton Koopman and Piet Kee in Amsterdam. Mr. Suzuki starts off with a sensitive interpretation of the opening aria. The 30 ensuing variations are all technically clean and precise. However, it is an almost too intellectual performance: the notes are there but the joyful exuberance that should be present is not. This CD lacks that magical spark that makes the difference between a good recording and a great one. Mr. Suzuki has the technical prowess to pull it off (note Variations 5, 14, 23, 26), but one wishes that he were a little less cautiously correct. Even so, a likeable CD. -Casey Ann Reinke

F. & L. Couperin: Works for Harpsichord
Dom André Laberge (Analekta FL 2 3090)

Among the many hats he wears, Dom André Laberge is a harpsichordist who studied with Gustav Leonhardt. On offer here is the music of the illustrious Louis and François Couperin. Dom Laberge's performance is restrained yet elegant, controlled but oh-so style galant. Standouts include (in the Sixth Order, 2nd Book of François Couperin, surnamed "le Grand") "Les Langueurs-Tendres", which is appropriately languid and the oft-heard "Les Barricades mistérieuses", which is good fun all round, as well as an exquisite "La Ménetou", from the Seventh Order, 2nd book (supposedly evoking child prodigy Françoise-Charlotte de Mennetoud). However, it is in the music of Louis Couperin that Laberge outdoes himself. The lushly rich harmonies of the opening "Prélude non mésuré" with its contrasting middle section and the movements which follow are pleasing to the listener, everything is carefully articulated but not square, and the labyrinth of ornaments and unwritten code of conduct of French clavecin music is masterfully navigated by Dom Laberge. -Casey Ann Reinke

Verdi: Il Trovatore
Herbert von Karajan / La Scala (EMI 5563332)

Callas’s only commercial Il Trovatore (there are pirates from Mexico City 1950, Naples 1951 and La Scala 1953) is not one of the better Il Trovatore’s on the market. Von Karajan, the La Scala forces and the chorus are hard to fault, though recorded sound quality is typical for 1956, i.e., Verdi’s great choruses and orchestral fortes are blurred. Callas herself is in very good shape, sailing through the arias and easily hitting her high notes. But her voice is metallic, lacking the warmth that makes Leontyne Price’s Leonora so sympathetic. The Azucena of Fedora Barbieri is impressive, sung in the rather polite style of the day. The rest of the cast is a washout. Di Stefano is too light for Manrico and that leads to unnerving patches of forced production. Panerai is downright awful and Zaccaria’s oldish Ferrando is ho-hum. Better to check out Price with Basile or Mehta (both RCA) or even Karajan (EMI).

Verdi: Il Trovatore
James Levine / Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Sony S2K 48070)

There haven’t been many great Il Trovatore's recorded since the immortal sets by Price and Tebaldi 30 years ago. Levine’s lively and compelling 1991 studio version showcases several of today’s top singers in their best roles. Aprile Millo’s covered, mezzoish soprano can be shrill at the top, but she does a perfectly respectable job as Leonora. Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov’s Di Luna gets better and better as the opera progresses, culminating in a superb Act 2 "Il balen del suo sorriso." Placido Domingo’s third recorded Manrico is generally exquisite, though here and there the voice falters as if tired. Mezzo Dolores Zajick’s stunning Azucena is of a uniformly high quality. She is the undisputed star of the opera and makes this recording a valuable document. Levine enforces zippy tempos and exacts a precise performance from his choir and orchestra. Sony engineering guarantees accuracy over atmosphere: the sound is highly detailed, even tinny at times. This is a recording representative of the state of the art, well worth owning for repeated listening. The Opéra de Montréal performs Il Trovatore on February 14, 16, 19, 21, 25, 28 at 20h00. Tel. 985-2258.

Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy
Alma Mahler: Lieder
Riccardo Chailly
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
(London 455-122-2)

The Zemlinsky resurgence has reintroduced us to many forgotten masterpieces, none more fascinating than his one-act opera A Florentine Tragedy (1915-16). London/Decca’s new recording is irresistible: fifty minutes of lushly scored Straussian conversation dramatically bracketed by a mouthwatering overture and a spellbinding final murder. Iris Vermilion (here called a mezzo but elsewhere billed as a soprano) is a deliberately hard-edged Bianca. Baritone Heinz Cruse sounds old (deliberately?) as the cuckolded Simone. Albert Dohmen brings a clean, natural sound and superb diction to his portrayal of Guido. Riccardo Chailly and the Concertbegouw give a luxury performance of Zemlinsky’s irridescent score. Six rather ho-hum songs by Alma Mahler fill out the disc.

La Diva II: Natalie Choquette, soprano,
The New Philharmonia Orchestra, St-Petersbourg, Russie, Eric Lagacé, chef
ISBA Classic ISBCD 5043

Dans son deuxième disque-récital, Natalie Choquette nous offre onze airs d'opéra, un duo chanté avec elle-même, et une mélodie, tous des morceaux célèbres, en cinq langues.

C'est une chanteuse naturelle. On entend l'amour du chant. On n'entend pas l'estampe académique. Sa voix est belle, ses aigus superbes, pas de vibrato excessif ni d'''harmoniques" agressantes. Par contre, elle manque de richesse et de puissance; son ton est souvent trop doux ou retenu; et ses coloratures manquent parfois de précision et d'agilité (e.g. "Je veux vivre" de Roméo et Juliette, pour lequel elle a pourtant une couleur vocale idéale).

Les airs lyriques lui conviennent bien mieux que "Vissi d'arte" de Tosca et "Ave Maria" de l'Otello de Verdi. Il en va de même pour les deux airs pour ténor: l'air lyrique de l'Indien de Sadko est charmant, mais le "Nessun dorma" de Turandot manque de puissance.

L'accompagnement orchestral est de meilleure qualité que dans "Diva I". (N.B. Il ne s'agit pas du même New Philharmonia que l'orchestre anglais des années 70.) Malheureusement, ces 13 pistes ne remplissent le disque qu'à 60% de sa capacité. C'est inacceptable! Et le livret, qui est plutôt une affiche, ne contient aucun détail sur les oeuvres. C'est regrettable. Néanmoins ce disque, comme son prédécesseur, est une introduction amusante au monde de l'opéra et de La Diva.

- Eric Legault

Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Jon Nakamatsu, piano, Médaillé d’or
Harmonia Mundi - HMU 907219

Depuis sa première édition en 1962, le Concours International de piano Van Cliburn ne cesse de promouvoir les jeunes talents du monde entier. Ce disque regroupe les interprétations du médaillé d’or de la dixième édition du concours en 1997. L’américain Jon Nakamatsu a choisi les 4 études opus 7 de Stravinsky, la Sonate en do majeur opus 1 de Brahms, l’Andante Spianato et la Grande Polonaise opus 22 de Chopin ainsi que les Neuf Bagatelles du compositeur américain William Bolcom. Ces bagatelles avaient été spécialement commandées pour la dixième édition du concours Van Cliburn.

En écoutant les études de Stravinsky, on ne peut que corroborer le travail du jury. L’attention extrême apportée aux nuances changeantes de ces pièces nous montre la sensibilité de Nakamatsu. L’Andante Spianato de Chopin est adroitement interprété, joué d’un bout à l’autre sans excès. Le jeu franc de Nakamatsu est imparable. Cette humilité et paradoxalement, cette grandiloquence qui transpire dans l’interprétation de I évoque les intentions d’un jeune Chopin qui misait à l’époque sur cette pièce pour séduire d’emblée les salles de concert et salons où il se produisait.

Les Bagatelles de Bolcom sont des pages d’une grande virtuosité, rappelant parfois le post-romantisme de certains compositeurs français. Le jeu à la fois puissant et furtif de Nakamatsu nous donne un aperçu de son savoir-faire techniquement parlant.

Enregistré en public (ce qui est notable par les applaudissements en début et fin de programme), ce DC qu'accompagne un livret détaillé présente un artiste prometteur. Il s’adresse tant aux mordus qu’aux audiophiles à la recherche d’une interprétation neuve. - Claudio A. Nerraü

Eileen Farrell Sings Verdi
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Max Rudolf, Fausto Cleva.
Sony MHK62358

La soprano dramatique américaine Eileen Farrell fut l'une des plus grandes artistes lyriques des années 50-60. Elle fut applaudie dans les plus grands théâtres lyriques du monde, mais elle ne raffollait pas particulièrement de l'opéra. Elle préférait le récital, où elle pouvait varier les styles. Sa discographie, bien que trop courte, réflète cet ecclectisme: Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Berg, Schubert, Fauré, Gershwin, Berlin, etc. En 1955, elle a chanté et enregistré Medea (version remaniée post-1850) de Cherubini, avec le ténor canadien André Turp. Les airs inclus sur ce disque, qui vont d'Il Trovatore à Otello, enregistrés en 1960, sont excellents. Elle a une belle voix solide, chaleureuse, libre, un registre étendu qui comprend une voix de poitrine bien développée, capable d'un grand éventail d'expression. Elle a même l'agilité requise pour chanter les deux airs de Leonora (Il Trovatore), trilles compris. Sa maîtrise de l'italien et son sens dramatique sont excellents. Par contre, son partenaire, le ténor populaire américain Richard Tucker, vient enlaidir les duos, enregistrés en 1961, par son chant maniéré, forcé et rauque. La partie récital solo représente toutefois le chant verdien à son meilleur.

- Eric Legault

Opera Arias. Leonie Rysanek.
Orchestres divers/Arturo Basile, Erich Leinsdorf, Tullio Serafin
RCA 09026-68920-2 BMG

Bien que la soprano dramatique autrichienne Leonie Rysanek soit reconnue pour ses interprétations de Wagner et de Strauss, on la retrouve ici dans un répertoire italien en début de carrière. Constitué principalement d'un récital réalisé en 1958, ce disque est complété par deux airs et un duo (avec Jon Vickers) tirés des intégrales de Macbeth et d'Otello. La voix est belle et puissante, légèrement voilée, "crémeuse", les aigus tranchants mais les graves faibles (du moins en 1958). Elle a une voix idéale pour Aïda et Turandot. Son chant est expressif, malgré sa tendance bizarre à omettre les "n". Elle manque d'agilité pour le rôle de Lady Macbeth, mais elle compense par son sens dramatique. Le livret ne contient pas le texte des airs, ni la biographie de la chanteuse.

- Eric Legault

Boito: Mefistofele
Riccardo Muti / Teatro alla Scala
RCA Red Seal 090226-68284-2

This live Mefistofele, assembled from three performances at La Scala in 1995, is passable but not great. Sam Ramey had recorded the title role better a few years previously (his 1992 video of the Ponnelle production in San Francisco is infinitely more impressive). Sicilian tenor Vicenzo la Scola is about as good a Faust as one gets these days, with a pleasant Italianate sound but forced high notes. Michèle Crider’s thick dramatic soprano, metallic and choppy, is all wrong for the vulnerable young Margherita. Ernesto Gavazzi is a sweet-voiced Wagner. Orchestra and chorus are splendid, ambient noise is negligible, but one feels this wasn’t one of La Scala’s more memorable weeks. Rudel’s recently reissued mid-price EMI recording with Triegle, Caballe and Domingo beats Muti hands down.

China Girl: The Classical Album 2
Vanessa-Mae, violin (EMI)

British violinist Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson (Vanessa-Mae, for short) recorded three classical albums before her first pop album, the multi-platinum The Violin Player (1995), featuring wet T-shirt contest type photos and ditzy, oddly suggestive liner notes ("I have had fun stretching myself and both my violins working on this album ..."), launched her as the latest underdressed fiddling babe (à la Ofra Harnoy, Lara St. John, et al.). One year later Vanessa-Mae’s Classical Album 1 (actually her fourth classical album) supposedly sold over half a million copies in a fortnight. Now Vanessa-Mae discovers her roots with China Girl: The Classical Album 2. Actually, there is no classical music on this crossover album. The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto is basically dim sum music, a schmaltzy westernized orchestration of a few Shao-shing opera themes. Naxos sold millions of its Butterfly Lovers recording (only $7!), and no doubt EMI dreams of similar success.

Bach: L’Art de la Fugue
Quatuor de Saxophones Nelligan
Oratorio ORCD-4106 / Interdisc

This version of Bach’s Art of the Fugue for saxophone quartet richly deserves a hearing. This is not a jazzy crossover album but a serious musical adventure. The scoring for four saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and bartone) is at times indistinguishable from an organ or an accordion, but the saxophones have greater delicacy and individuality. The Quatuor Nelligan’s playing is smooth and soothing with a lyrical and noble style befitting Bach.

(c) La Scena Musicale