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Counter-Productive

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 2, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Review – Rokoko (Max Emanuel Cencic, Armonia Atenea, George Patrou) & Alto Arias by Leonardo Vinci (Filippo Mineccia, Stile Galante, Stefano Aresi)

Recent recital discs by countertenors have focused on two of the leading castrati of the day but here are two that focus exclusively on specific composers with opposing degrees of success.

Hasse seems – like the tide – to ebb and flow in popularity with labels. 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 Handel cycle – would embark on recording Hasse’s (major) operas.

Il caro sassone, Hasse defines a generation of composers and the Rococo style. Charles Burney referred to him his ‘Apollo’ – “the most natural, elegant and judicious composer of vocal music”.

And the same can be said of this Max Emanuel Cencic’s recital disc.

Most naturally performed and elegantly sung, with a judicious choice of individual arias from both operas and oratorios this disc demonstrates the talents of composer and singer alike.

Countertenors each possess a unique timbre. Some like Jaroussky and Hansen have finely balanced, ethereal voices of incredible agility and range; others like Fagioli have a more liquid and limpid tone while the leading countertenors such as Iestyn Davies, David Daniels and Bejun Mehta combine agility and range with depth of timbre that enables them to most effectively convey incredible emotion and colour.

Cencic falls into the latter category and I have enjoyed his performances in Curtis’ Handel as well as in Petrou’s Alessandro. Here he continues to demonstrate he is an intelligent and sensitive performer with incredible technique and a voice of individual character.

The opening aria is ravishing not only in terms of the Cencic’s performance but also the orchestral ambiance. Unexpectedly, Notte amica is taken from the oratorio Il Cantico de’ Tre Fanciulli. The opening section, above gently murmuring strings and warm woodwind and horns, demonstrates Cencic’s ability to spin out a beautifully controlled legato line, with an enviable evenness of tone throughout his range. The faster middle section – with its almost-Haydnesque quality – enables the singer to showcase his articulate and fluid coloratura as well as a sensitivity to dynamics. And while this might be from an oratorio, Hasse the opera composer is always there – just listen to the word painting and orchestral palette at il silenzio tuo profondo.

I am not convinced that arie di sostenuto is an accepted genre but the remaining arias in this vein are also well crafted and for me sum up the greatest elements of Hasse’s style – elegantly scored with melodies that seem to capture the emotional intelligence of the stylised prose. One common criticism of Hasse was that the length of his arias all but diminished the dramatic momentum of the narrative. Personally when they are as beautiful as these arias, I am quite happy for the drama to stop.

But Hasse is sensitive to both the dramatic action and the text. Returning da capos often emerge seamlessly without the opening ritornello and there is word painting as mentioned above and in La sorte mia tiranna of the in the delicate ‘galanterie’ of the strophic Ma rendi pur contento. Here Hasse employs unusual chromatic progressions as the protagonist sings of his own emotional torment.

And I don’t think there is a more noble melody than that penned for Dei di Roma, ah, perdonate from Il Trionfo di Clelia. It unfolds simply yet with a sense of both dignity and eloquence as you would expect for this character.

The recital also contains numerous examples of arie di bravura and more often Metastasian simile arias. Cadrò ma qual si mira, with its wide leaps and extensive coloratura passages for example; Opprimete i contumaci with its rushing strings literally smiting the enemy or De’ folgori di Giove with its brass colour providing a sense of those very thunderbolts – typical of the period but in Hasse’s hands are elevated.

But of all these arias three stand out – Siam navi all’onde algenti (L’Olimpiade), Solca il mar e nel periglio (Tigrane) and Sesto’s Vo disperato a morte from Tito Vespesiano.

Furious orchestral writing marks out the first aria – probably one of Hasse’s most famous – with bassoon colouring conjuring up the text most effectively. In Solca il mar listen again to how Hasse underlines the words Giunto poi nel caro lido amid the general momentum and coloratura of the rest of the vocal line and above the busy string writing. And as throughout this recital, Cencic’s intelligent ornamentation in the returning da capo doesn’t undermine the sentiment on its repeat.

And Sesto’s Vo disperato a morte provides a fitting ending to this excellent recital especially with its memorable, simple yet effective middle section.

Throughout, George Petrou and Armonia Atenea provide excellent support to Cencic with well-judged tempi and confident, gutsy playing. The inclusion of a Mandolin concerto by Hasse was refreshing – almost like a sorbet between rich courses – but I have to admit that I am glad that Hasse focused primarily on writing exceptional vocal music.

I just wish that they hadn’t chosen that ridiculous Elvis-Meets-Hasse-Meets-Rockstar cover. Marketing people are classical music’s worst enemy.

In contrast to Cencic’s intelligent and beautifully performed recital it is therefore a real tragedy that Filippo Mineccia’s disc of Vinci arias simply doesn’t pass muster.

An opportunity to further the cause of this oft-neglected composer – as with the excellent complete recording of his Artaserse soon to be released on DVD as well – has been missed.

It’s not often that I listen to a recital and think that the standards of performance are this disappointing. I have to admit that Minnecia didn’t impress on Curtis’ recording of Giulio Cesare. But then that entire recording was a rather hit-and-miss affair and if I am honest more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’.

I’d like to say that perhaps if more time and thought had gone into the recital it could have been better, but the simple fact is that Vinci’s music is beyond Mineccia’s talents from the outset. His technique is uneven as is his vocal range and as a result Vinci’s music suffers. Most distracting is that unevenness of strength and tone across his range – lower notes are very underpowered and at times seem to disappear all together while at the top of his range notes seemed barked or forced. There are some definite problems in terms of sustaining the vocal line as evidenced in Sotto il peso where he breaks even the opening phrase before the final word and cadence for example. In the faster numbers his handling of both coloratura and trills is messy with a lack of articulation or definition. Se soffia irato il vento for example and most evident in the final aria in the recital from Eraclea, In questa mia tempesta.

Similarly, any sense of dynamic range is incredibly basic – soft (very rarely) and loud (most of the time). This is most in evidence in Vinci’s beautiful aria from Medo, Taci, o di morte which suffers from simply being bland in this recital.

As disappointing is the playing by Stile Galante directed Stefano Aresi – polite at best, lacklustre at worse.

As I said, a wasted opportunity and all the sadder when recital discs such as Cencic’s demonstrate what can be achieved.

Now all we need is someone to start recording complete operas by Hasse.

Any takers?

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  1. […] Max Emanuel Cencic gives us Galuppi and Bertoni. From Galuppi’s Penelope and performed in London he sings Telemacco’s aria A questa bianca mano, a well-crafted aria set apart by its somewhat memorable rhythmic accompaniment and scoring for oboe. If Addio, o miei sospire from Bertoni’s Tancredi sounds somewhat familiar then it’s because it is often accredited to Gluck and inserted in Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s a jolly aria and performed with panache – coloratura and all – by Cencic. […]

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