Sogno Barocco – Anne-Sofie von Otter (Sandrine Piau, Capella Mediterranea, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon)
Prima Donna – Karina Gauvin (Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Wiemann)
Dramma – Simone Kermes (La Magnifica Comunità, Isabella Longo)
Amoretti – Christiane Karg (Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen)
It seems that new CDs by leading singers are like buses. You wait ages and then a slew of them arrive at the same time. In the last few weeks I have bought no less than seven new recital discs. As well as those listed above I also have excellent recital discs by Joyce DiDonato and Soile Isokoski as well as Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s more lacklustre recital of Eighteenth Century arias. The latter bordering, sadly, on the disappointing.
While I will return to Mesdames DiDonato and Isokoski at a later date, the four recital CDs listed above have – to varying degrees – given me many hours of pleasure from repeated listening.
Heading the list – and rather unexpectedly I have to admit – is Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter’s Sogno Barocco. I do not say unexpectedly from any sense that the recital isn’t of the very highest standard but rather this isn’t necessarily music that I more normally delve into.
But I am glad I did. I have always greatly admired Ms von Otter. Her luxuriant and characterful mezzo is combined with an intelligent yet impassioned approach to performance. As well as having many of her performances on CD, I have seen her in recital as well as in a broad range of operatic roles including as Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde.
Following her magnificent disc of French arias, Ombre De Mon Amour with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Ms von Otter steps back further in time to the earliest Baroque opera composers and has created a recital interestingly coincidentally based on music for queens, either fictional or real. Accompanied by the excellent Capella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon the listener is further spoiled – and there is no other word to use – by the appearance of Sandrine Piau in three tracks. As well as Monteverdi, Ms von Otter has built a recital that includes Rossi, Cavalli and a rather boisterous number by Provenzale.
The mood and standard is set immediately by Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ‘l tormento. The strophic structure of this song with it varied instrumental interludes is beguiling in its simplicity.
But the standout highlights of the recital are undoubtedly Pur to miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and her impassioned soliloquy Di misera regina from Il ritorno d’Ulisse. In the first and famous duet, Mesdames Otter and Piau wrap their vocal lines around one another with a sensuality that I’ve not heard matched in other performances, and after a rhythmically alert middle section what can only be described as an almost sexual tension is heightened in the melting beautiful da capo. And in the second, Ms von Otter ensures that each and every word is carefully weighed for its emotional content and woven into a grieving whole.
But while the selections from Monteverdi define the album, this recital disc includes numerous other gems that demand repeated listening. For example Cavalli’s Dolcissimi baci (La Calisto) and Doriclea lamento (Doriclea) or at the other end of the unusual scale, Rossi’s Lamento de la Regina di Suezia with contralto Susanna Sundberg. Here von Otter runs the gamut of a whole range of emotions including a most impressive ‘battaglia’ section. And on a more boisterous note there is Provenzale’s Squaciato appena havea.
Throughout von Otter is brilliantly accompanied by the players of Capella Mediterranea led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon, and they provide a scattering of instrumental pieces throughout the recital alternating vigour with delicacy. Even if – like me – you are not normally an early Baroque enthusiast this is definitely a disc worth listening to.
Next was Karina Gauvin’s Prima Donna with the Arion Baroque Orchestra directed by Alexander Wiemann. All the arias on the disc were written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò and while the bulk of the arias are by Handel there are isolated arias by Vinci and Vivaldi. However it is with Handel that del Pò is mainly associated and for her he wrote key roles including Angelica in Orlando, Adelaida in Lotario and the title role in Partenope. Indeed it seems that Handel was responsible for her career as Charles Burney wrote she was “a singer formed by himself (Handel), and modelled on his own melodies. She came hither a coarse and awkward singer with improve talents, and he at last polished her into reputation and favour”. Sadly Burney cannot resist a rite critical stance on her appearance, writing “she had so little of the Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig”. Not something critics today would dare write methinks.
I tried very hard to love this recital disc as much as I have loved previous recordings by Ms Gauvin as well as her live performances. But after repeated listening – and I am sure I will return to it again and again – all I can admit to is admiring Ms Gauvin’s technical proficiency combined with her bright and sonorous soprano. But bar a few fleeting moments when she almost gets under the skin of the music, these are ‘glossy’ performances.
There’s little ‘bite’ or colour and very little interpretation. But she can throw off the coloratura as witnessed by a rather jaunty Scherza in mar from Lotario and Angelica’s No, non potra dirmi ingrata that opens the recital.
The moments where there are glimpses of what could have been are in the three numbers from Alcina – Ah! Ruggiero, crudel … Ombre pallide, Si, non quella and – what must be one of my favourite of all Handel’s arias – Ah! Mio cor. Here the emotional temperature gets above lukewarm but never to boiling point.
I think it part it is due to the colourless – almost polite and reserved – playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra and direction of Wiemann. Even the orchestral excerpts – including the rather odd decision to throw in a rather scratchy Grave from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in c minor for his Opus 6 collection – are lacklustre.
So in the end a disappointing disc that does very little to demonstrate Ms Gauvin’s very obvious musicianship and vocal brilliance.
Simone Kermes’ album Dramma delves into the world of the castrato with a disc of music of composers Giuseppe de Majo, Porpora, Pergolesi and Leo together with a single yet highly memorable Handel aria with great verve delivered in spades. And many of the arias world-premiere recordings.
Ms Kermes has carved out a place for herself as a coloratura soprano of some standing and this disc reinforces this position with authority. Not only is she in magnificent form but she digs deep to find the emotional dimension in each aria.
I don’t know if it’s my disc but the opening aria, de Majo’s Per trionfar pugnando has a scratchy opening almost as if listening to an old 78 but it doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the orchestral playing – and in particular the trumpets – or Ms Kermes’ vocal security and polished tone.
Indeed Ms Kermes throws out the challenging coloratura of many of the arias with both enviable ease and accuracy. For example in Empi, se mai disciplogo, Leo’s Son qual nave in ria procella with its pinpoint delivery or Pergolesi’s Sul mio cor.
But one of the most beautiful arias on this disc is Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo and coming as the second track underlines the breadth of Ms Kermes talent. The momentum – almost nervous pulse – of the accompaniment belies the beautiful vocal line that Ms Kermes spins above it. Her opening phrase – the simple dynamic control she exerts – is a lesson in musicianship and following the short middle section it’s return is stunning. This is the most wonderful preghiera.
In a similar vein is Porpora’s lilting Le limpid’onde from Ifiginie in Aulide with its luminous wind writing. Charming.
Hasse is represented by two arias and the first, Consola il genitore, has Ms Kermes accompanied only by harpsichord. The sheer simplicity of this aria is in stark contrast after the seven preceding arias yet the exposed vocal line is beautifully delivered. In the scheme of Hasse’s L’Olimpiade from which this is taken, it must have been an incredible moment.
Handel is represented by Lascia ch’io pianga. A difficult aria to carry off normally here it is nothing short of a heart-stopping event in this recital. The hushed da capo, almost totally unadorned in any way, is reason enough to buy this disc.
The orchestral playing under Isabella Longo as I have already said, is of the highest standard. Listen to the bold contrapuntal opening of Vedrà turbato il mare for example or the delicacy of Tace l’augello with its solo string writing complimenting Ms Kermes superbly. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the evident joy of La Magnifica Comunitá is Porpora’s Se dopo ria procella with its nothing less than raunchy but accurate horn playing.
Christiane Karg is new to me but Amoretti – with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry – is a gem.
Ms Karg has a beautifully clear and bell-like soprano combined with very sure technique. The opening aria from La Finta Giardinera – and the title of the album – is beautifully presented and sets the standard for the remaining arias by Mozart as well as the whole disc.
Ferma aspetta … Infelici affetti miei from Ascanio in Alba belies how young Mozart was when he wrote it and Ms Karg invests it with suitable dramatic power. And this emotional investment comes to the fore in the scena from Lucio Silla, Fra i pensier.
Mitridate’s Lunga da te is taken at a daringly measured pace but has both a superb horn obbligato and wonderful elegant legato phrasing from Ms Karg.
And if anyone is in doubt of Ms Karg’s technique then Biancheggia from Il Sogno di Scipione will dispel any concerns as she veritably flings out the divisions with incredible ease.
The selections from Gluck include the rarely performed Soumis au silence from Orphée et Euridice and Sacre Piante from Il Parnasso Confuso but it is the Adieu from Iphigénie en Aulide which stands out. Crystal clear diction and a real sympathy for the rhythmic structure of the vocal line, Ms Karg is a natural Gluckist.
But the real finds of this recital are the arias by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. In my teenage years, rummaging through a second-hand record shop I came across a recording of Grétry’s – I’m pretty sure it was his Richard, Cœur de Lion. At the time I remember trying anything from the Eighteenth century ‘rather than’ Mozart but have to admit that having got it home I was more than a little disappointed.
Having revisited Grétry more than once since it is no small shame that he is not performed more often, especially based in the selections made here. Comme in éclair from La fausse Magpie written in 1775 is an exercise in Galanterie and clearly influenced not only by his time in Italy but by a plethora of Italian contemporaries in its composition. Again the coloratura here holds no fears for Ms Karg and her vocal technique shines through.
Il va venir! … Pardonne o mon Juge from Silvain was a comédie written five years earlier and again clearly owes much to Italian opera. Following a well-crafted accompanied section the subsequent aria with its oboe interjections is almost Mozartian – early Mozart.
The third aria, Au bien supreme from the comédie Lucille was written in 1769 owes something to Gluck in its woodwind colouring.
Perhaps it’s about time that the spotlight was shine more fully on Monsieur Grétry. Any offers?
And throughout Ms Karg is confidently supported by Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. As in their disc with Iestyn Davies Cohen and the players demonstrate their instinctive talent and musicianship.
Another slice anyone?