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In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Review – Vienna, The Window To Modernity (The Barbican, Sunday 9 December 2012)

Renée Fleming (Soprano)
Maciej Pikulski (Piano)

Wolf – Goethe Lieder
Mahler – Rückert Lieder
Schoenberg – Ewartung Op. 2 No.1; Jane Grey, Op. 12 No. 1
Zemlinsky – Fünf lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel
Korngold – Selected lieder & Walzer aus Wien, Frag mich aft

Richard Strauss – Zueignung
Delibes – Les filles de Cadix
Korngold – Marietta’s lied

Concentrating on the period between 1888 and 1933, Renée Fleming’s recital underlined how the tectonic plates of harmony and structure that had underpinned music for literally centuries were slowly disintegrating.

The first half was devoted to the music of Wolf and Mahler and I quite fancied that her outfit, with its muted tartan pattern was reminiscent in some way of the final years of that century.

Ms Fleming is an accomplished recitalist and all-round performer. She draws the listener in not only with the beauty of her voice but also with the depth of her interpretation.

However at the Barbican it took longer than expected. Despite professing to a cold there was no drop in the quality or intensity of her singing, rather – I feel – it was her choice of opening lieder.

I am not convinced that her voice is suited to Wolf’s Goethe lieder. Without a doubt they were performed well – technically to say the least – but the never felt fully invested in. I did wonder, in fact, had she performed his Mörike Lieder would they, with their dark toned hues, been more successful as Anakreons Grab – with its Mörike leanings – was the most successful of the quintet.

However she was definitely on top form for Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I hope that at some point soon Ms Fleming captures these songs on disc. Her voice, as I have mentioned before, has developed a richer, more burnished hue, combined with her continued ability to spin the most liquid vocal line, that are so important for these songs. The opening song, with its almost limpid line, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! floated out across the audience, beautifully accompanied by Pikulski. Similarly the control she displayed in Liebst do um Schönheit, modulating her voice through the dynamics, was breathtaking. Um Mitternacht showed off Ms Fleming’s polished lower range as she carefully placed each and every word of the text and in sharp relief to the sparkling, almost deliberately brittle jauntiness of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder.

But the preceding four songs were but a warm up. Ich bin der Welt adhanden gekommen was a coup in terms of a performance that had everything in terms of the highest level musicianship, interpretation and mesmerising singing. A song of resignation, never have the final two lines sounded so beautifully poignant.

A recording please.

Ms Fleming returned for the second half and delivered a theatrical coup even before she began to sing. Wrapped head to toe in shimmering gold – a quality and colour that could easily be used to describe her own voice – she was a literal embodiment of a Gustav Klimt character. And her reference to the artist was not lost on the audience.

Indeed, was Ms Fleming’s greater engagement with the audience in the second half a realisation that perhaps she had not enraptured them sufficiently before the interval? If so, it was a masterstroke. I recently read in an interview with Opera News how Susan Graham also talks to her audience. I think it’s a great advantage to engage the audience in a lieder recital and I see that Mesdames Graham and Fleming are “recitaling” together which should make for a chatty evening.

The composers of the second half – Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Korngold – inhabited a Vienna on the edge of the tonality and Ms Fleming delivered the selection from each composer not only with great poise but again an underlying technical precision and burnished tone that was remarkable.

Indeed it is her touchstone relationship with the lieder of Richard Strauss that informed the brilliance of her performances.

The rarely performed Jane Grey by Schoenberg for example was imbued with great drama. It was almost as if Ms Fleming could see the execution of this hapless young girl before her very eyes.

Similarly she captured the symbolism of Dehmel’s verse and the music it inspired from Zemlinsky beautifully. The abrupt ending of Auf see never ceases to catch my breath.

While it was clear that Korngold’s Was die mir bist? – written for his mother – was the clear favourite for Ms Fleming, personally it was Sterbelied which was my favourite in this final selection. Again, Ms Fleming has over the years become more than adept at colouring individual words that is so perfectly suited to the lieder of this period.

The recital proper ended with Walzer am Wien by Korngold – a fitting glittering, skittering end piece to a brilliant recital.

However, no Fleming recital would be complete with a selection of encores that didn’t include Richard Strauss. At the Barbican she gave us a beautifully rendered, impassioned Zueignung. This was followed – by her own admission – with a piece she had never performed before, Delibes’ Les filles de Cadix. Despite a humorous fluff halfway through it more than demonstrated that Ms Fleming can do vocal fizz with the best of them.

But she ended the evening with a masterful performance of Marietta’s lied. Again her voice has developed a richer, bronzed toned that now makes her performance of this simply magical.

Throughout the recital she was intuitively and sensitively accompanied by Maciej Pikulski. He matched every single mood she sought to convey with elegant and intelligent playing.

I hope it is a recital relationship that continues.

So, all in all a successful evening. Despite a somewhat cool start, Ms Fleming delivered an exceptional evening of lieder that are clearly close to her own heart that resulted in a well-deserved ovation.

An evening as vocally golden as her gown.



Viva La Regina DiDonato

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

Drama Queens – Joyce DiDonato (Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Album of the year.

There I said it.

Joyce DiDonato’s new album, Drama Queens is – in terms of its high standards of musicianship, exuberant performance and clear passion to perform previously unperformed and undiscovered arias – quite simply the most enjoyable and extraordinary album released this year.

Superlatives over. For now.

It must be a remarkable feeling not only to find – in my romantic mind’s eye – among stacks of dusty manuscripts in the corners of remote libraries arias by unknown composers but then also to perform them.

It’s clearly a trend. Recently Ms Kermes performed arias by composers such as de Mayo and Porpora who are – to a greater extent than before – known to the audience. But on her new recital disc Ms DiDonato delves deeper to bring to life the music of composers who have effectively been forgotten for centuries.

Giuseppe Maria Orlandini. Giovanni Porta. Geminiano Giacomelli. And to a lesser extent Reinhard Keiser. Names much forgotten until now.

And their juxtaposition with the likes of Handel, Hasse, Gluck and Haydn reveals something more startling – that the common perception that they simply ‘weren’t very good’ is not necessarily true. I am not saying that the quality of their music consistently reached the standard of the aforementioned but neither can I believe that these individual arias are simply creative flukes.

And granted it takes a singer of the calibre of Ms DiDonato supported by the excellent Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis to make this music, quite literally, sing.

There is not a weak link in the recital either in terms of the arias chosen or the performances. Yet personally some of the arias stand out more than others.

The opening aria, Da torbida procella from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Berenice, with its overtones of Vivaldi and balance of declamatory phrases and florid passages is a fitting opening track to the recital and Ms DiDonato sets a standard that keeps on rising. The second aria taken from Berenice is another vocal tour de force, the incredibly florid vocal writing holding absolutely no terrors for the singer.

Keiser is possibly the most exciting composer on the disc. Fredegunda’s Lasciami piangere is simply haunting and it is the sonority of the orchestral writing as well as the poignancy of the in-built pauses which are, in some ways, as surprising as Ms DiDonato’s heartfelt delivering of the lilting vocal line. Similarly, the deceptively simple Geloso, sospetto from his opera Octavia with its multiple bassoon obbligato is a real gem.

More Keiser please.

Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope reveals Sposa, son disprezzata. Again its almost Vivaldian shading and orchestral writing support a vocal line spun out above, and in the da capo Ms Donato finds just the right balance of ornamentation to create an greater emotional impact.

Ms Donato also delves right back to Monteverdi and Cesti with style and expertise, modulating the richness of her voice to this earlier music and finding the right colours to bring this music to life. And all with perfect clarity of diction, a trademark of the entire disc in fact.

Ms Donato also includes selections from Handel Hasse. They are beautiful sung with panache but – and perhaps – because they are better known, they do not grab me in the same way as the other arias. But they do serve a purpose, as I have already said, to demonstrate that the other composers on this disc deserve a better place.

The last two selections on the disc are by Haydn and Gluck respectively but drawn from their operas based on the story of Armida. I remember first hearing Vedi, se t’amo … Odio, furor, dispetto on the Dorati set with Jessye Norman and beginning a life-long love of Haydn’s operas. Here Ms Donato delivers an impassioned performance, breathless and fiery in equal measure. The flip side of the emotional coin is Gluck’s Ah! Si la liberte me doit etre ravie sung with a simplicity that packs quite a punch.

However, it is the Giovanni Porta’s haunting preghiera Madre diletta from Iphigenia in Aulide, the second track on the disc, which steals the show in the entire recital. Ms Donato and the players relentlessly drive this siciliana forward. Again the singer and players finds the perfect balance in the returning da capo in terms of ornamentation – the return of Madre, spun out is breathtaking. I cannot believe there was a dry eye in the house when this aria was first performed. It has become a favourite.

Ms Donato is in London in the New Year as part of her tour to promote this album. In reality while I may wax lyrical about the brilliance of this album, don’t take it from me, listen to Joyce DiDonato herself.

Listen. You won’t be disappointed. At all.

This is musical greatness.

Aria For … Tuesday – Vengo … Aspettate … Sesto! (La Clemenza di Tito)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on December 4, 2012 at 9:23 pm

A bit of a cheat as I haven’t been able to listen to any music all day for today’s Aria For … ends my day instead of starting it.

And what better way to end the day than with Mozart’s final burst of genius in already tired genre – opera seria – with one of the greatest singers ever, Dame Janet Baker.

I find something quite ironic that having eschewed the traditional world of courtly patronage, his penultimate opera was for the epitome of aristocratic life – the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791.

La Clemenza di Tito is more than a swansong to the genre. Mozart had spent his early life writing great opera seria – Mitridate, re di Ponto, Lucio Silla and Idomeneo – but there is a nobility and breadth in the music of Tito that is unsurpassed. And I don’t only mean in terms of the solo arias. Marvellous as they are, Mozart deviated from the norm and wrote more than the normal number of excepted ensemble pieces that are beautifully crafted in their own right.

I remember the very first time I heard this opera. Nothing prepared me for this trio just before the closing scene of Act One. Coming straight after the wonderful Parto, ma tu ben mio with its basset horn obbligato, Mozart doesn’t allow the audience to rest and continues to pile on the drama with Vengo … Aspettate … Sesto!

In this tightly written trio we have it all – panic, indecision, misunderstanding and misplaced joy.

Whoosh! Suddenly the dramatic intensity is raised by more than a few notches.

The manic, agitated string writing, the almost breathless, hesitant vocal phrases of Vitellia who cannot work out whether to run after Sesto or not, hints at the potential for a magnificent aria. But when Vitellia is joined by Publio and Annio the magic is made. The pair of them misinterpreting her indecision as joy that she has been chosen as empress by Tito, in stark contrast to her own emotional turmoil, is a musical tour de force

This is, in my mind, one of those perfect moments in Mozart opera that is hard to beat.

And when the trio is performed by the incredible cast of Dame Janet Baker as Vitellia, Robert Lloyd as Publio and the Annio of Frederica von Stade, conducted by Sir Colin Davis then you have, quite simply, perfection. This recording is, by any comparison, the best out there. A superlative cast is conducted with careful attention to detail in a recording that is well paced yet constantly driven forward, beautiful sung and played and always with an eye on the drama contained in the music.

And this trio is just a warm up for the thrilling closing scene with its perfect ensemble and choral writing and, if you listen carefully, more than a hint of the requiem that Mozart had in his head.

What a way to end the day.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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