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Aria For … Friday – Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (Heinrich Schütz)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music on February 7, 2014 at 10:50 am

Not an aria and not the more famous chorus by JS Bach. But rather the version for double choir by Heinrich Schütz but just as impressive.

Schütz travelled to Italy at least twice. First to study with Gabrieli – the master of polychoral composition – and then with Monteverdi and their influence is very much in evidence in this beautiful chorus. The more Italianate style – including the use of infectious dance-like rhythms – had a lasting effect on Germany music and I imagine must have caused a few raised eyebrows even back in more worldly Dresden. It’s also worth noting that he spent some time in Copenhagen during the reign of Christian IV, one of the most Renaissance of monarchs who’s love of music even included his employment for a time of John Dowland.

Like his Italian contemporaries, Schütz is every bit the dramatist, deploying the chorus and playing with the sonorities with incredible effect. The opening is deceptive, the first entry of full chorus and orchestra delayed until the repeat of the first line – almost as if the penitents in the church first declare the honour of God before the ‘Heavens’ join with them.

And this juxtaposition with smaller groupings within the choir gives this chorus a real sense not only of tension but jubilation.

And there’s some effective word painting. When the text refers to no part of the world being immune to God’s preaching, the chorus builds in in contrapuntal complexity to convey a sense of scale to this. Or listen to how the chorus merrily trip along at wie ein Held zu laufen den Weg. You can almost imagine them running.

And at the end, for those most important words – Ehre sei dem Vater, und dem Sohn und auch dem Heil’gen Geiste, wie es war im Anfang, jetzt und immerdar und von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit – we find Schütz at his most reverent. He effectively slows down the momentum and punches out the words, ending on a simple yet majestic Amen.

Written and published in the 1640s this is Heinrich Schütz at his finest – majestic, inspired yet still devotional and sung most marvellously by the Monteverdi Choir under John Elliot Gardiner.

Aria For … Thursday – Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Mozart)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart on January 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

This is a gem of an aria. Written by Mozart for Aloysia Lange née Weber, she was Costanze’s sister and Mozart’s original love if reports are to be believed.

Even though his love was never reciprocated, Mozart wrote some of his most stunning and heartfelt arias– both concert and operatic – for Aloysia who clearly had formidable talent. She was his Vienna Donna Anna for example as well as the recipient of concert arias including Popoli di Tessaglia and Verrei spiegarvi. Oh Dio!.

Yet compared to those arias, Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! seems beguiling simple and belies the obvious talents that Ms Weber possessed.

Written in 1782 the text portrays an artist thanking her patrons for their support. It’s not clear why the aria was written, some have speculated it was for a benefit concert by Ms Lange as an encore piece and others have speculate that it was an insertion aria for a German performance of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.

I lean toward the first option and sung here by Miah Persson – with such grace and delicacy – and accompanied with elegant simplicity by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle, I can see why it often features as an encore for today’s recitalists.

The two-verse aria doesn’t attempt to plumb the emotional depths of some other Mozart aria but charms with its simplicity – the pizzicato strings, the added warmth provided by the woodwind, above which Mozart’s creates an almost lieder-like melody.

And Mozart skilfully constructs this aria to provide ample opportunity for embellishment by the singer. I have no doubt that Ms Weber would perhaps have indulged in more ornamentation but the restrained and simple additions by Ms Persson fit the music perfectly.

Nehmt meinen Dank always raises a smile with me and is a great way to start the day.

Aria for … Monday – Bella mia fiamma, addio … Resta, Oh cara (K. 528)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on October 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm

It’s been a while but what better way to return than with Gundula Janowitz? Possibly one of the greatest Mozartian singers of her generation, it’s a mantle she can still hold amongst today’s newer singers. Indeed, it’s hard to believe it’s just just over a decade since she stopped giving recitals.

Like her compatriot Edda Moser, the level of musicianship she achieved – the interpretive power of her singing – combined with her faultless technique and radiant soprano, make her one of the pre-eminent interpreters not only of Mozart but of Strauss.

And here, her performance of Bella mia fiamma, addio … Resta, Oh Cara – one of Mozart’s greatest concert arias – is second to none. Not only in its impassioned performance and technical brilliance, but the depth and luminosity of her singing.

The story of this aria’s composition – the composer locked in a room by famous soprano Josepha Duschek until he wrote said aria, and in revenge composing something that would challenge the abilities of the singer – is a historical anecdote that all too often creates a charming smokescreen for one of Mozart’s most beautifully and dramatically constructed concert arias.

The text – written by the obscure Michele Sarcone – is your typical emotionally-stylised Metastasian-type aria. But Mozart’s genius elevates those emotions contained therein to a new level.

Without getting too technical while the aria itself is in C major, the opening vacillates between e minor and a minor. Both these minor keys – if memory serves me correctly – featured in music written at the time of his mother’s death in Paris which affected him so deeply. As well as a piano sonata and a violin sonata in this key, Mozart also penned his Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat , with its sublime slow movement.

In fact, is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that when Mozart read this text he was reminded somehow of his mother? Or is that just my fanciful imagination?

The unison opening, the hesitant, sighing phrases, the syncopations all work together to immediately create that sense of loss, of desolation.

It’s been acknowledged that the Eighteen Century audience was more sensitive to music – the keys used, the modulations, the phrases and rhythms – than the modern audience. Stories of people fainting as a result of opera arias, laughing at the in-built musical humour in the symphonies of Haydn are commonplace because people were more emotionally attuned and composers – and especially Mozart – used this to great effect.

So after an accompagnato that had already heightened the emotions of the audience at the time, while the subsequent aria opens conventionally, almost immediately Mozart plunges the listener into more uncertain territory with a slip into the minor key at acerba morte (cruel death).

But nothing would have prepared them for the chromaticism Mozart writes at Quest’affano, questo passo è terrible per me (This distressing situation is hard for me to bear). The vocal line – jagged in its leaps to what for the audience would have been unexpected notes – communicates the distress so perfectly. And if once wasn’t enough, when the line is repeated, Mozart develops those chromatic phrases even further.

The audience – knowing full well that a faster section was to inevitably follow – must have been on the edge of their seats by this point.

And while the ensuing Allegro returns the listener to the home key, Mozart cannot resist some further chromaticism and orchestral sfzorzandi around Ah, questa vita così amara più soffribilé non è (Ah, a life as bitter as this can be borne no longer) continuing to wring the audience almost the final bars.

And what further lifts this aria even further are the sonorities – reminiscent of Gluck – that Mozart weaves out of the simplest of orchestra of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and strings.

In the Eighteenth Century arias, concert or otherwise – of which Mozart wrote many – were composed to showcase the brilliance of a specific singer. Here Mozart went further than anyone else. Not only did he write an aria that showcased Signora Duschek’s talents, but also an emotionally charged piece of music that would have left the audience drained.

That’s genius.

Aria For … Thursday – El bajel que no recela

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on June 20, 2013 at 9:33 am

It was in a dusty CD shop tucked behind the Ramblas that I first discovered Nebra and Maria Bayo.

José de Nebra – who lived in the 1760s – is kind of a big deal in Spain. He is seen as the ‘father’ of Zarzuela, and this aria from a dedicated recital disc by Ms Bayo and original instrument ensemble Al Ayre Español – who champion his music – reveals a composer who shouldn’t be overlooked, and not only if you like early Eighteenth century opera.

If my Spanish is up to scratch, El bajel que no recela – from Vendado es amor, no es ciego – with its preceding accompagnato is very clearly a simile aria in the best Metastasian tradition.

This beautifully crafted aria shows what an accomplished composer Nebra was. The expansive introduction with its surging strings and colourful horn writing leads into an aria that stands comparison with any written at the time by those composers being increasingly performed today. Take for example Joyce DiDonato’s excellent Drama Queens recital disc. Yet Nebra lifts it further beyond just being a run-of-the-mill aria with an attention to little details like the delicate scoring for oboe.

And just like Nebra himself, Maria Bayo was a find in that dusty shop all those years ago. She has a finely balanced and clean soprano. In this aria she skilfully negotiates the wide leaps and occasional coloratura with ease while shading the vocal line subtly in the middle section. And in the returning da capo, her ornamentation is both skilful and tasteful.

In fact this disc led me to hunt out all her recordings and I am surprised that we don’t see more of her here in the UK.

This aria brings the entire album back into mind. Somewhere on the disc is an aria with castanets.

Now to hunt it out.

Aria for … Thursday – Marie Theres! … Hab’ mir’s gelobt

In Aria For ..., Opera, Richard Strauss on June 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

Belatedly, my own celebration of Richard Strauss’ birthday (June 11 1864).

A deliberate but obvious choice.

The trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

I think it is the most beautiful moment in all of Strauss’ music. While I admit to bias as it is my favourite of all his operas, I also seem to remember reading that it was sung at his funeral at his request.

And here, sung by Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney, it is perfection.

The overlapping counterpoint of the three voices after the Marschallin’s initial opening phrase – itself so full of regret – builds inexorably towards what can only be described as a most amazing wall of sound before it recedes for the duet for Octavian and Sophie.

It’s so tempting just to sit back and just wallow in the glorious music that Strauss wrote for this trio. But while the music is sublime it always raises in my mind the ‘what if’?

With its resplendent horn scoring as the voices soar higher and higher, it seems the older aristocrat seemingly accepts her fate with ‘…als wie halt Manner das Gliicklichsein verstehen. In Gottes Namen’.

But does she? After many years and many, many performances I have come to the conclusion that – for me – the entire opera hinges on two words.

Just two words.

After the duet between the two young lovers the Marschallin returns with Faninal. As they spy Octavian and Sophie he comments ‘Sind halt aso, die jungen Leut’!’. To which Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg replies ‘Ja, ja’.

How those words are delivered, almost spoken, is critical. They define the Marschallin herself.

This might seem like a gross over simplification and don’t get me wrong, Der Rosenkavalier is the most magnificent opera in every sense of the word.

But for me throughout the opera it has been the Marschallin who has pulled the strings. Perhaps Octavian’s newfound love has always been on her terms from the start? She entered into the plot right at the beginning when she suggested Rofrano as the Rosenkavalier. It’s not too far a supposition to suggest that she would know of – if not met – Faninal. And therefore knows he was seeking a husband for his daughter.

And doesn’t the music of the returning duet hint at a less than happy ending for the couple with the almost bittersweet piquancy of the descending motif in the flutes?

Perhaps in Sophie the Marschallin sees her younger self? Perhaps she is simply replaying a scene that happened to her in her own youth?

History repeating itself.

And each and every time, it is at precisely at that moment that I hear myself catch my breath. Most productions play this trio very traditionally, rarely finding the balance between the young lovers and the actual closing moments of the opera.

But the production tat sticks most in my mind as it seemed to hint at that very point was at Cologne Opera. It was the production where Kiri Te Kanawa decided to perform on stage for the last time in this. As one of her signature roles it couldn’t be missed. The production itself was a mish-mash of ideas but at the then it wasn’t her page that returned to pick up the handerkerchief.

It was the Marshallin – rushing back to retrieve this token in an almost desperate manner as the music finished and the curtain fell.

I think Strauss and Hoffmansthal would have approved.

Aria for … Saturday – Nacht und Träume

In Aria For ..., Classical Music on June 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm

This piece I have not heard for a very long time. So long in fact that I had forgotten it as on my iPod.

But here wending my way home by train it seems to fit my mood.

This is not Schubert’s original lied by the orchestrated version by Max Reger, a lieder composer himself. Indeed composers as diverse as Britten, Brahms and even Webern orchestrated some of Franz’s songs as well. And this disc is well worth a listen.

It’s a gem of a song and Reger’s orchestration in no way undermines the beauty of Schubert’s original. In fact the subtlety of the orchestral – almost earthy – writing adds to the song’s beauty.

In some ways it is a song where nothing actually happens. The sustained vocal line drifts – like the subject matter – above the murmuring accompaniment.

But Schubert knew what he was doing. It is this very simplicity that makes this song so very effective. No note is wasted or extraneous to the mood he creates.

And here, Anne Sofie von Otter, with Abbado at the helm spins out the vocal line with great poise and beauty.

As I said, a real gem.

Aria for … Friday – O del mio dolce ardor (Paride ed Elena)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on May 31, 2013 at 6:11 am

What better way to start a Friday? Me. An empty office. And Dame Janet Baker.

Perhaps unusually my first Dame Janet Baker disc was her recital of Gluck arias on tape. I also have a hazy recollection that her Julius Caesar was also the first televised opera I watched. But I could be wrong about that.

But with this recital I was hooked on Gluck and Dame Baker – it’s been a life long love affair ever since.

In a time before period instruments and performance and even since these performances set the standard.

And this aria from Paride ed Elena – possibly almost unknown at the time of original recording to many people – is a little gem.

Above the gentle pulsating accompaniment of the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard, Janet Baker imbues the vocal line with an intensity that is hard to match.

Each phrase is beautifully shaped, spun out and given the space to breath.

Each word carefully and clearly placed.

Listen for example to “Cerco te, chiamo te” and then the delicacy of the glissando at ‘sospiro’ – it literally sends shivers down the spine. And then with the reprise she ratchets up the emotional intensity up a notch.

Definitely a desert island disc.

Aria for … Monday – Vissi d’arte

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on April 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Pilar Lorengar isn’t a name you hear very often these days.

And frankly it’s a shame.

I was introduced to her by a very good friend – who has sadly since passed away – at a time when I was singing the praises of the usual canon of sopranos. He let me finish and simply told me to “hunt out” Pilar Lorengar, simply saying that she was one of the few sopranos who “just got on with the job of singing”.

And I know exactly what he means. There is no sense of artifice with Pilar Lorengar. Whereas some singers – past and present – ‘demonstrate’ technique like something that can be turned on and off, Lorengar’s technique is firmly embedded in natural talent, incredible musicianship and an innate ability to capture the nuance of what she is singing. Not just the character and the emotion, but the nuance. Singers can often do the first two, but few can muster all three.

Pilar Lorengar can. And does it naturally.

And here in Vissi d’arte it’s evident from the opening phrase. That first note is not forced as it often it. It emerges effortlessly, almost like speech. And each subsequent note is carefully yet simply placed.

Indeed, Ms Lorengar makes simplicity the single most important effect in this aria. With telling effect.

By avoiding any tendency to weigh in on every note and phrase but rather singing right through to the final note, rarely has Vissi d’arte sounded more convincing.

Indeed of Pilar Lorengar you can honestly say ha vissuto per l’arte.

Aria for … Monday – Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on April 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm

One of the most frustrating things is not always having the time to write up and give due justice when a notable new recital disc is released.

On this occasion it was Christopher Purves’ disc of Handel arias for bass with the marvellous ensemble Arcangelo.

Sadly work and travel got in the way.

Again it’s nice when shuffle throws up something unexpected. And especially after a long day in the office and Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori from Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo was a perfect antidote to commuter-dom.

I have to admit that I prefer this, Handel’s earlier Italian version – by a decade – to the English version of 1718. As well as this aria there is the heart-stopping Verso gia l’alma col sangue and generally the music is beautifully original.

Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori shares the same sentiment and warm instrumental colouring of the aforementioned but there the similarity ends. This is possibly one of the bleakest simile arias ever written – the dying moth burnt from the lure of the flame drawing a parallel with a soul that will never know either hope nor pleasure of love.

And Handel writes an aria of great yet simple poignancy completely at odds – you would think – with the inhumanity of Polifemo. But personally, I prefer to think that Handel wished to make the giant less a monster and more a man as witnessed by the music written for the role over and above this aria.

With the distinct colouring of a flute – so often associated with death and tomb scenes in Handel’s operas and melancholy in general in Baroque music – the range required of the singer is vast. And married to this is the requirement for the singer to have absolute technical virtuosity and control to deliver and sustain the vocal line.

And Christopher Purves has it in spades. Of course I still have burned into my memory his incredible performance as The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin. Here his resonant and richly coloured bass effortlessly manages both the wide tessitura required but sung with complete mastery, never once letting the vocal line sag.

Purves’ performance in this aria – and the entire disc – only reaffirms him as a remarkable talent and one of the leading basses performing today.

And as ever, sympathetically supported by Arcangelo directed by Jonathan Cohen.

This aria would be reason enough to purchase this disc if it wasn’t for the fact that the entire disc is magnificent.

Aria For … Wednesday – Se il mar promette calma (Lotario)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Handel, Opera on April 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

What I love about hitting shuffle on the iPod is that way it can throw out not only something that I haven’t heard in a long time but something that I don’t know that well.

Se il mar promette calma from Handel’s Lotario is an example. It’s not an opera I know at all well and this aria – for bass – doesn’t even ring the most distant memory.

A shame as it’s a jaunty number for the remarkably named character Clodomiro and here sung by Vito Priante accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis.

From what I can understand it’s one of those typical simile arias about crossing a stormy sea, which in baroque terms is all about overcoming adversity. You can’t beat a good simile aria and I love Metastasio’s perfect model.

The aria itself is incredibly simple yet both elegant and effective. The string accompaniment and running bass in the continuo are clearly meant to refer to the sea and wind and the playing of Il Complesso is both exemplary and exhilarating.

The vocal line itself is surprisingly florid for a bass aria and from what I can gather for a secondary character but Priante delivers the aria with both gusto and incredible musicianship. Not only are the more florid passages managed with great skill and a beautiful legato line but also his voice is both mellifluous and resonant through his entire range. And the returning da capo is tastefully decorated.

This is an aria that shouldn’t be anything less than a recital item for bass singers.

As I said, I love it when something like this happens and now I am off to listen to the entire opera.

Marvellous.

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