Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some good news & some bad...

The bad news not being news as such, but rather an apology. Obviously I've been posting less and less here, it doesn't mean that music has a less important place in my life now, even if my mind is mostly busy with the art/art history field. I'm still a very devoted listener and I love to discover new music - though sometimes (...most of the time) when I try to put my feelings on these discoveries into words, my courage fails me. Especially when it comes to classical music.

What classical training do I have in music? None.
Do I play any instrument? Nope.
Can I read music? Nope.
Do I have the vocabulary and trained ear of the experienced opera tourist? Sadly, no.
Because of this I feel that my so-called reviews - ie ravings - of my personal classical music discoveries fall short of the many good opera blogs out there, so much so that I would be embarrassed to publish it online, even though this blog doesn't have many readers.

On the other hand I've had this blog for many years now and it would indeed be sad to let it go, so I will continue to post my discoveries and recommendations, but perhaps more in the form of links and videos instead of words.

Now on to the good news:
It seems that a handful of the singers I like have albums coming out within the first months of this year - mostly in the classical category.

First up we have no less than three countertenors: Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic and Valer Barna-Sabadus.

I've heard and seen all of these singers in action in various operas (sadly, not live!) - their paths also cross in that they have been in some productions together. In the case of Cencic and Barna-Sabadus it's Vinci's Artaserse, recorded both on CD and filmed in Nancy last year, that comes to mind, not least because Valer Barna-Sabadus was completely unknown to me until then.
Sabata's disc was scheduled for release today, however iTunes may be a little behind as I couldn't find it this morning (that left me quite disappointed actually); in the case of Cencic's Venezia I've heard both January 25 and February 4, whereas I'll have to wait until January 25 to hear Valer Barna-Sabadus sing Purcell.

And the line of angelic voices continues with Julia Lezhneva, whose second album comes out March 4. It never ceases to amaze me how young she is and how her voice combines elements of maturity and innocence.

And in between there is also a new CD from Jonas Kaufmann - a Wagner disc, appropriately enough, it being the "Wagner & Verdi year" 2013. Had you asked me a few years ago if I would have looked forward to such a release with excitement, I would have said NO.... However, Kaufmann is the main reason why Wagner became first tolerable and then actually enjoyable for me, after I saw the DVD of Lohengrin. (His Gralerzählung is a wow-moment)

In addition to Julia Lezhneva, March also brings a new album from L'Arpeggiata, seemingly in the vein of the previous South American project, but with a different geographical center: It's entitled Mediterraneo and features collaborations with Vincenzo Capezzuto , among others.

Of the albums scheduled to be released the first half of this year we also find Barbara Furtuna, a group dedicated to the art of traditional Corsican polyphony. However this album, whose title is yet to be announced, doesn't have a set release date - but their facebook page states it will be released within the first half of the year if all goes to plan.

And this year really seems to be the year of CD releases for countertenors, because internet sources say Franco Fagioli (who was also in the brilliant cast of Vinci's Artaserse) has signed a recording contract with Naive and will release a CD in September, centered around works written for the castrato Caffarelli. I'm growing impatient already!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Giving it a Fauré chance...

..not that I normally need to be persuaded to buy a CD with Philippe Jaroussky's name on the cover. However certain choral works and especially requiems have always had an emotionally negative effect on me. My first memory of Fauré's requiem was sitting through a performance at the local church, not understanding much of the music but feeling overcome with sadness and focusing on the knitted sweater of the woman in front of me to keep me from crying. When I heard another church performance of it in my teens, it was to hear a friend of the family sing in the choir and as my musical tastes were stuck in the top 20 charts at the time, I probably couldn't have cared less about the music - or I remembered all too well how I'd felt the last time I'd heard it, and wanted to distance myself.

So I was a little skeptical about this one, despite the fact that I knew Philippe Jaroussky was involved in the project. Curiously, EMI/Virgin classics seems to market it as Philippe Jaroussky's solo album even though he only lends his vocals to a single track, namely the famous Pie Jesu. As I didn't remember anything of the piece as a whole since I heard it 10-12 years ago, I must admit I had expected a few more solo parts or even a duet (Matthias Goerne is the other soloist) - instead my inexperience with listening to choir works made me long for something to stand out from that blurry mass of blending voices (which is also probably the reason why I prefer concertos to symphonies). Then again, my inexperience (or as it were, bad experience) with the piece could also be the reason, as the additional pieces on the album (Cantique de Jean Racine, Elégie for cello and orchestra, Pavane for orchestra and mixed choir, and Super flumina Babylonis) left me feeling a lot more positive about my recent purchase.

As for the Pie Jesu, which is, I suppose the hit single of the piece (EMI/Virgin even released it as a digital single), Philippe Jaroussky makes a great effort. In the EPK video he explains that it's difficult to sing mainly because it's very high and you can really tell from the recording that it reaches up towards the limit of Philippe's higher register. I suppose we all have different tastes when it comes to tone in a voice and personally I've always been more partial to Philippe's lower register, as when he did Vivaldi's Stabat Mater - I felt the highest notes of Pie Jesu seemed kind of laboured compared to the rest, whereas the last note which seems to be suspended in mid air is nothing short of perfection.

Conductor Paavo Järvi mentions in the EPK that this is the first time a countertenor has recorded Pie Jesu as part of Fauré's Requiem, so in this sense it's a kind of controversial recording. There are probably those who think it's a bad decision, almost like a sacrilege, and I can see their side too (as I get upset when contraltos are cast as Giulio Cesare or Nerone). However, keeping in mind Philippe's statement that his voice sounds like more like a child than a woman and that he uses his voice as means of holding on to a childlike side of himself, the so-called controversial decision makes sense. The vocal quality of a countertenor and that of a boy treble are very different, but both convey a sense of purity and innocence. To compare and decide for yourself, I'll leave you with Philippe Jaroussky's recent version along with Aled Jones' version from the mid 80's.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The first cut is the deepest...

Christine Schäfer in the title role as Theodora.

That’s what came to my mind after I watched the DVD release of the Salzburg Festival’s staged production of Theodora. It’s my favourite Händel piece, and I saw and heard it for the first time on youtube of all places, in the form of a magnificent Glyndebourne production from the mid 90’s. The story, the staging, the singers, the acting, everything seemed to have an emotional impact on me. So when I heard of the new DVD I knew I just had to have it, if only to quench my curiosity. And it is indeed difficult to not compare the two.

In terms of overall singing I still might favour the earlier version – however Bejun Mehta makes a very convincing Didymus and can certainly fill the shoes of David Daniels (amusingly, Bejun Mehta credits Daniels for indirectly kick-starting his adult singing career), and Bernarda Fink sings the role of Irene with a kind of maternal stage authority. I find Christine Schäfer in the title role sometimes sings more dramatically staccato than is required – somehow the Italian Bel Canto passion seems out of place in this oratorio – and a rather thick accent sadly doesn’t help the flowing of lines along.
As for Didymus’ friend Septimius, Joseph Kaiser does a pretty good job. The fast coloratura sometimes gets the better of him, but his tone is pleasant, powerful but still restrained, and his acting is superb.

My initial disappointment for omitting Irene’s aria ”Bane of virtue” was replaced by the breathtaking rendition of Didymus’ aria ”Deeds of kindness”, which had been just another ”good aria” in the previous version, but here it really stands out. Bejun Mehta can sometimes overdo things a little with his powerful vibrato and creative ornamentation, but in this he held back and the piano parts were deliciously soft and subtle.

No other big arias were excluded as far as I can remember (although a few small ones were turned into recits) but they did however add an organ concerto in the middle of act 3. I was a little confused at the idea at first but it did add another nuance to the acting as, during the four movements of the concerto, the psychological tension between the characters was highlighted and a shift in psychological power from Valens to Theodora was even implied.

The end of the third act, where Theodora and Didymus are given their death sentences and even executed in the Glyndebourne production, has always been among my favourite moments. This version seemed to play more on the couple’s strength and their contentment with their fate, underlining a victorious ending to the oratorio instead of a merely tragic one. The final duet is powerful and beautiful, but in this production, even more so the last chorus, where the camera focuses on the crying Septimius, who previously torn between loyalty towards the separate parties, now realises what he allowed to happen.

I watched this last night and already I want to watch it again. And because I’ve already spent a good hour trying to find the right words to describe my listening and watching experience, I’ll let you watch the final duet ”Streams of pleasure ever flowing” and make your own judgements.

Friday, May 27, 2011

These are a few of my favourite things...

...well, in this case, favourite songs.

Ever since I was little I've had a special feeling about my favourite songs. I would play them over and over and it seemed like they were some kind of magic shield against whatever negativity going on in my life. I still feel the same way about some songs.
Here are some of my new and older favourites:

Corsican vocal group Barbara Furtuna also does a lot of religious/sacral music and it was difficult to pick one favourite track, however the melancholy and passion in this one is beyond description.

The first time I heard this I had to play it over and over. It seemed like a little vulnerable bubble of perfection.

An old favourite. Odd Nordstoga made his big break with the album Luring which this track is taken from, there's a lot of up-tempo fun tracks on it but I always liked the quiet ballads better. This song still has the magic..although it's even better in acoustic live versions.


And now for a couple of classical favourites (again):

An aria that I first heard when I started to get interested in classical music and I've heard numerous renditions and recordings since. This one is at the very top of my list. Note: the aria itself starts a couple of minutes into the clip.

I've heard several versions of this as well, but this is by far my favourite - Of course I'm a little biased as a Philippe Jaroussky fan, but I also love the "real" quality to the recording. I love to turn up the volume during the intro to hear creaking of chairs or floorboards, rustling of papers in the score and other subtle background sounds. But when the vocal starts to soar it's like a piece of divinity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Maintaining the balance

An album of sacred arias released just in time for early Christmas shopping, recorded by a top notch tenor who also got his fair share in the looks department, initially sounds like a recipe for commercially calculated schmaltz. However, a lot of albums that fit this description have a kind of standard tracklist with no big surprises, while Juan Diego Florez' Santo includes Rossini and Bellini, crowned by a self-penned composition (which is the title track).

That's not to say it makes the music less available to a listener who may not listen to opera on a regular basis - "The" Ave Marias (Schubert & Bach/Gonoud), Panis Angelicus, Adeste Fideles and O Holy Night make sure of that. But the balance is kept - keeping in mind that it is a sacred arias CD and not strictly a Christmas album - by including a variety of other works that range from the well-known (Messiah) to the relatively obscure and more folk-inspired (Missa Criolla). The latter comes across as touchingly sincere, and lends the whole recording a charming feel that doesn't tend towards the too folksy or too schmaltzy side. It also works in the CD's favour that the Rossini tracks have great similarities with the same composer's opera arias - sprayed with intricate coloratura, high-spirited and enthusiastic - and so do not seem sentimental either.

One could argue that the contemplative side isn't well enough represented since the Ave Marias would be the best examples and they have lost a lot of their original value due to overexposure, but I think Kyrie from Missa Criolla and Santo have a contemplative quality in their earnestness and quiet charm.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sorry, but...

...I just downloaded Josh Groban's new single - the first new track from him in years - and I think it will end up "hidden away" and forgotten in my music folder.

It's a strange feeling for me to review this because I jumped off the Groban train a while back, and had I still been on it I'd have been over the moon and through the roof at the mere thought of a new (finally!) song. For once I'm able to see it all from the outside, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.

Good because I know my fangirl approach isn't clouding my judgment, bad because a lot of people will probably not like the following.

I did know that Josh proclaimed that he'd never been more proud of any of his albums than the upcoming "Illuminations" (due out in November), that it is supposedly a more toned down album, not overproduced and glossy, but with a more intimate setting. From the single "Hidden away", however, none of that is evident.

More than anything it comes across as a confusing few minutes of musical chaos. It starts promising, with just piano and vocals, but then builds up with an orchestral arrangement that by now must be his trademark, although in this song it sounds more cheesy and misplaced. The effects and instrumental layers pile up gradually (I swear I heard a banjo paired with the orchestra at the end) and as a result it becomes perhaps Groban's most evident musical identity crisis yet.

Which also has a lot to do with the vocals, that are based on his semi-classical-musical-theatre voice, but this time it sounds like he's really trying to sound like a singer-songwriter with no operatic style - like he's grown tired of his voice and wants to have a new one. To my ears it just sounds desperate, as if he's denying his god-given gift (which he at least initially had) to fit into a more conventional singer songwriter box. Nowhere is it more evident that in his little "yooohooo"s at the end in a not particularly strong falsetto. It makes you want to ask "who are you really?"

Knowing his background - he has actually worked with several vocal coaches and is said to have had a repertoire of several arias already in his teens - it makes you wonder what National Opera would have hired him today had it not been for his other career choice. If he'd suddenly appear in Cosi fan tutte I'd hop back on the Groban train any minute.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sex & Violence...

..and opera? (photo: Erik Berg)

Yesterday I had a chance to watch the last ever performance of Den Norske Opera's modern production of L'incoronazione di Poppea. It's only the 2nd opera I've been fortunate enough to see live, but by far the best - although the element of shock value was perhaps taken a little too far (in my innocent and prim opinion....)

The staging was spare, with only a concave shape covering most of the stage, which reminded me a bit of the Salzburg festival production of La Traviata (with Netrebko & Villazon) - but it made a nice aesthetic effect along with the splashes of blood in the 2nd and 3rd act. This was part of the reason why the tickets and ads warned about graphic content; the other being the frequent and direct sexual references. I thought that sometimes a hint or subtle reference would be enough; at one point I thought they were past acting and that they would actually do it on the stage, which was a little unsettling. It did cause some mumbling and giggling in the audience, especially as the situation was "saved" by a comic twist.

Now for the singers, or voices I should say, which as you probably know by now interest me just as much as the staging. For once both of Poppea's suitors were played by men - Nerone was portrayed by Jacek Laszczkowski and Ottone by Tim Mead. I have to say that the latter impressed me more, but then again I may have favoured him from the beginning - I was more unsure of Jacek because I thought his voice sounded rather breathy and I couldn't make out a word of the recits. It should be said however that on the really high, powerful notes, his projection was like that of a female soprano, quite unbelievable. Tim Mead performed evenly well, and personally I think his opening monologue "E pur io torno qui" with its effortless ornamentation was sublime.

Of the rest of the cast, which was overall good, I found that Marita Sølberg as Drusilla had one of the strongest voices. Birgitte Christensen in the title role was also worth mentioning.

This was the very last performance of this production, and in that occasion it was filmed for television, hopefully to be broadcast internationally. I was relieved to not only see the possibility of reliving this great performance on TV (or DVD?), but also at the thought of opera lovers all over the world being able to see it.