Il Divino Valer Barna-Sabadus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Review – Hasse RELOADED. Valer Barna-Sabadus, Hofkapelle München & Michael Hoffstetter.

If you purchase this album skip straight to the fifth track and listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Valer Barna-Sabadus is the latest in a line of distinguished and talented countertenors from Alfred Deller and James Bowman to David Daniels and Andreas Scholl through to the new ‘generation’ of Philippe Jaroussky, Max-Emmanuel Cencic and the UK’s very own Iestyn Davies and Robin Blaze.

Again I have to take slight issue with the marketing slant of the album – Hasse RELOADED. Not “Reloaded” which would be bad enough, but “RELOADED”. According to the sleeve notes by Barna-Sabadus himself, the title intends to “get rid of – once and for all – any and all prejudices about the supposedly contrived and dusty court music of the eighteenth century! With Johann Adolph Hasse I have selected a composer who couldn’t possibly have been more esteemed during his lifetime, but who nowadays has slipped into oblivion.”

My first encounter with Johann Adolph Hasse was William Christie’s superlative recording of Cleofide with a cast that included Emma Kirkby, Dominque Visse and Derek Lee Ragin. I think that the dust was well and truly blown away with that recording – not only for me but a great many others – and it led to a renewed interest in the music of Il Divino Sassone – as he was known – at the court of Dresden. Since then there have been a number of recordings of either Hasse’s arias from his extensive operatic output as well as complete operas and serenatas as well as his church music. Each and every one of them demonstrates Hasse’s originality and talent.

So it’s just a tad disingenuous for Signor Barna-Sabadus to make this claim but there is no doubt that this disc reinforces the fact as to why Hasse was considered a leading composer of his day and should have more prominence today. Something which I would like to hope is slowly happening.

Some people may disagree – and pace if you do – but countertenors are never ‘bland’. They all have a distinctive vocal timbre unlike some of their colleagues – from soprano to bass – who might display great technique but whose actual voice has a flat and almost “so what?” and one dimensional quality.

Not so the countertenor.

Valer Barna-Sabadus has a voice that is clarion-clear and well-rounded, with an even tone through his entire range that is well matched by its flexibility and impressive dynamic control. If I had to draw it – it would be a sphere. Listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere and you will see what I mean.

Hasse was, in my opinion, the greatest exponent of the Metastasian opera ethic – grand and often historical-based opera serie more often than not also serving as a specific allegory for whomever it was written for. And to quote my nom de plume, there was always a “lieto fine” – or happy ending. The unjust were punished, the hero could display magnanimity, lovers were united and Enlightenment and Reason triumphed.

And as Order was the fundamental principle of polite society at that time then the basic but rigorously followed format was of a succession of da capo arias with clearly placed duets and a closing chorus. In fact the structure had remained the same for decades – the format of Vivaldi and Handel but suddenly across the staves of Hasse and his contemporaries such as Leo and Jommelli, it became even more a vehicle of the individual singer and opera serie reached the limits of its creative straitjacket. The heroes, heroines and villains described their changing moods through vocally custom-fitted music that displayed their unique talents from flights of impressive coloratura, stunning breath control and dynamics domination and hid their weaknesses. These arias were their calling cards and were designed to display their virtuosic abilities and inspired some composers – such as Hasse – to some incredible beautiful and impressive music.

Ultimately however, the reaction to this elegant and manufactured emotional artifice was the emergence of opera buffa and it would take a genius like Mozart to breathe real life into opera seria once again with his final opera, La Clemenza di Tito.

Returning again to the sleeve note, the singer refers to Hasse’s “suspenseful connection between Handelian drama and the instrumental virtuosity of a Vivaldi” and while this is just a little over-written, it’s evident from the opening sinfonia and throughout the entire disc.

Barna-Sabadus selects his arias from Didone abbandonata (1742/43), the serenata La Gelosia (1762 aka Perdono, amata Nice, bella Nice) and Artaserse (1730; subsequently revised in 1740 & 1760).

The first four arias are for Iarba from Didone abbandonata, a role that Barna-Sabadus has performed in Munich with the same ensemble under Hofstetter and more recently at the opera house at the Chateau of Versailles.

I believe that the original role was written for the famous castrato Farinelli who was famous – according to Charles Burney – for his breath control, vocal agility and his three-octave range.

The arias selected clearly show how Hasse wrote with the specific artist in mind. Tu mi disarmi il fianco for example starts with a furious ritornello which is immediately quelled with Barnus-Sabada’s first entry, literally the “disarmi” of the opening sentence with it’s charming sforzandi Lombardic rhythm. The return of the allegro sees a vocal line that leaps across the stave and well-executed coloratura. The alternation of slow-fast continues with increasing elaboration as would have been expected by the audience. And all performed with vocal aplomb by this soloist.

Leon ch’errando vada with its hunting horns is a beautifully crafted ‘galanterie’ gem with an arching vocal line and Scottish snap rhythms and Chiama mi pur cosi with its flights of coloratura clearly demonstrates how agile Farinelli’s voice was across it’s wide range.

However clearly Cadrà fra poco in cenere would have had the audience holding its breath. A beguiling simple vocal line spanning an impressive range spins itself out above a delicate accompaniment with increasing ornamentation. These days countertenors often rely on speed of vocal agility to ‘wow’ but Barna-Sabadus’ performance of this aria is a total show-stopper – combining a beautifully controlled and even vocal line, impressive dynamic contrast and tasteful ornamentation.

The arias taken from La Gelosia, written for private performance are similarly well-crafted vehicles for the respective original performer. Bei labbri che Amore is typically Galant in terms of its melodic structure, rhythmic gesture and delicate ornamentation as well as its brief minor-mode middle section. With Giura il nocchier you can clearly hear the “Hasse-hints” that had an impact on Mozart and his own early opera serie although clearly Hasse’s style was but one of the stylistic launch pads that Mozart absorbed and synthesised.

The final aria on the disc is to all extent and purpose an insertion aria by Porpora written superficially for Farinelli for a performance of Hasse’s Artaserse in London. With its charming roulades and lilting ‘galanterie’ it is a delightful -if unusual – end to a beautifully performed album.

Hofstetter and his ensemble, the Hofkapelle München, are accomplished in their support of Barna-Sabadus. They provide perfectly balanced and nuanced accompaniments with a real sense of both the rhythmic verve and bite or delicacy and liltingly quality required of music of this period which captures the mood of the individual arias.

From beginning to end this is a brilliantly performed disc. The fact that some of the arias are what some people might call ‘lengthy’ is dispelled by the quality of both Hasse’s music and the musicians one and all.

I recommend that even if you haven’t ventured into the music of Hasse before you should take the plunge, listen to and savour this remarkable set of performances.

  1. The reviewers at seem to agree with you!

    I shall put this on my ” please buy for my birthday ” list.

  2. maybe we expect too much historical sense in the young. After all valer was born after christies cleofide.

    • Indeed. I don’t hold him responsible at all. Sometimes I just think the marketing people go to far and try to oversell something. A shame as his talent is more than enough to make anyone buy this album.

  3. […] has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not […]

  4. […] I remember Christie’s recording of Cleofide and of course there have been some remarkably fine recital discs since then. But I do wish that perhaps someone – perhaps Alan Curtis once he has finished his […]

  5. […] the performances by Valer Sabadus are at the top of my list. Both the arias he performs here – by Jomelli and Gluck – were […]

  6. […] I’ve a real soft spot for Hasse -especially his slower arias. Valer Sabadus’ performance of Cadra fra poco in cenere remains an absolutely favourite of mine. Here, Hasse writes a similarly exposed vocal line, which […]

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