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Aria For … Wednesday – Marten Aller Arten (Die Entführung aus sem Serail)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on February 27, 2013 at 9:46 am

An admission. Die Entführung is one of two Mozart ‘major’ operas that I struggle with in its totality. The other is Così Fan Tutte which is strange as I chose Soave il vento as one of the pieces for my recent civil ceremony.

But this aria – and in particular being sung by the late Dame Joan Sutherland – is one that I love. Of course it’s the music itself, the way that Mozart combines the concertante instruments – flute, oboe, violin and cello – with the vocal line but in particular it’s this performance.

This was the first time that I heard Joan Sutherland, sitting cross-legged in the bedroom of a school friend whose mother was a semi-professional opera singer herself.

I think I have said before that in my adolescence I went through a phase of ‘anything but Mozart opera seria’. This put an end to that pretty much.

Of course it’s not an ‘authentic’ performance. To be honest I am not overly keen on the more ‘authentic’ performances with their fermata’d phrases or extra bars.

And of course Joan Sutherland doesn’t quite get into the meat or meaning of the aria itself – there’s no sense of her about to endure ‘tortures of all kinds’ but by golly she sings every note with both pinpoint accuracy and effortless switching vocally from guts and gusto to delicacy and grace.

The orchestra of Covent Garden conducted by Franceso Molinari-Pradelli – and in particular the four soloists – play with impeccable grace and lightness; the tempo is very well judged and everything is beautifully articulated and phrased.

Sutherland herself produces a wonderfully liquid and even tone throughout and across her range and demonstrates the most amazing breath control. She literally glides through the notes, cleaving her way through the coloratura to the great extant she becomes the fifth concertante instrument.

Girds me for any tough day ahead.

Aria For … Friday – Vieni ov’amor t’invita (Lucio Silla)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on February 8, 2013 at 8:01 am

I have a soft spot for Mozart’s Lucio Silla. I spent many an hour as an adolescent trying to convince my then-best-friend that Mozart’s opera seria, and particularly this work written in 1772 far-surpassed anything that Mozart was to later write.

I think it was the drama of being an adolescent as well as the allure of the coloratura arias for a teenager trying to find his own identity that had more to do with this stance than anything.

But you cannot discount that Lucio Silla is a great opera. Each aria is perfectly crafted and – within the confines of the straight-jacketed genre that Mozart was writing in – he achieved an level of emotional sophistication that outstripped his contemporaries.

Cinna’s opening Vieni ov’amor t’invita might not exactly plumb the emotional depths but it is a very fine aria. And here, sung by Susanne Elmark for Adam Fischer and the Danish Radio Sinfonia, is a real gem.

Adam Fischer is a consummate Mozartian and he judges the tempo perfectly. Every moving part of the orchestra is transparent and articulated. The wind and brass punch through with just enough brass to add that martial dash to Cinna’s character. And the tempo allows Ms Elmark’s clean and beautifully balanced voice to deliver well paced singing. There is no rushing through the coloratura with each individual division clear and each phrase is intelligently sung with no cadence clipped. And her diction is excellent.

And of course this traditional aria doesn’t prepare the listener for what follows. Not only the other formidable arias but also the quality of the accompanied recitatives and the wonderful tomb scene.

All this when he was just sixteen.

Aria For … Wednesday – Io t’abbraccio (Rodelinda)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Harry Bickett, Opera on January 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Handel’s Rodelinda contains some of his most ravishing music and nothing more beautiful that the duet that closes the Second Act – Io t’abbracio – here sung by Sarah Connolly and Rosemary Joshua.

Written in 1719, for me this is a greater “fare thee well” duet than the one composed by Handel for the closing of the second act of Giulio Cesare.

It’s the utter simplicity of this duet that makes is so effective. The dropping vocal phrases, juxtaposed and contrasted with an independent instrumental line – which with any other composer would just be textbook Doctrine of Affections technique – are here molded by Handel into something wonderful and poignant. And in the middle section, Handel reverses the direction of the vocal line, again a simple textbook technique, but done with such style.

The music is further heightened by the impassioned performance of Mesdames Connolly and Joshua – possibly two of the greatest Handel interpreters on the stage today. And what makes this a great performance is their delicate, intelligent and emotionally sensitive embellishments in the returning da capo.

And this duet is only one small part of an excellent album of opera and oratorio duets with the bright and alert accompaniment of The English Concert conducted by the ever brilliant Harry Bickett.

Aria For … Wednesday – Casta Diva (Maria Callas)

In Aria For ..., Opera on January 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm

This choice of aria is a bit of a cheat. Sometimes I wake up and I know exactly what aria or piece of music I want to listen to at the start of my day.

It’s nearly always evoked by a memory. And nearly always something either sad or poignant. Perhaps it’s me.

It’s a cliché but my mother introduced me to Maria Callas at an early age. And by introduce I don’t mean that she sat me down, made me listen to her endlessly or told me that Callas was the greatest soprano that ever lived.

No.

Maria Callas wasn’t even playing in the background as I grew up. My mother only ever went to the opera once. And saw Callas. Then life took over and she has never been to the opera since. Despite even my best efforts.

It was just the way my mother talked about Callas that had me intrigued. But it was still some time before I purchased a Callas recording.

It’s also a cliché that the aria I most associate with her is Callas singing Casta Diva.

But it is. It’s not the first aria I remember hearing Callas sing. That was Ritorna Vincitor.

It’s simply because my mother remembers seeing Callas sing Casta Diva. And when she talks about it she doesn’t talk about technique, or diction, or any of the things that I – and others – write and talk about. She uses a single word.

‘Passion’.

Now some would argue that Callas didn’t have the most beautiful voice. It isn’t always pretty and sometimes she doesn’t quite manage what’s written on the stave, but you can’t deny the passion of her singing. And I can’t help by being drawn into her performance completely.

There is a magnetism to her voice that is enthralling. Even when the recording isn’t the best quality her singing cuts through you.

I can’t think of many – if any – singers today that have that effect.

So today – for a very specific reason – I searched out Casta Diva on my iPod and let Maria Callas cut through me. As I sat there on the bus listening to it a whole gamut of emotions and memories – good and bad – raced through my mind.

But by the end, as the aria drew to a close, I knew everything was going to be fine.

That’s the power of music. Memory. And Callas.

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.

Aria for … Saturday – Ecco l’orrido campo (Un Ballo in maschera)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on November 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

Whatever happened to Susan Dunn? A soprano in the spinto tradition I have two discs of her singing. The first, from which this aria comes, is a disc of Wagner and Verdi together with Beethoven’s Ah, Perfido! conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The second is the First Act only – sadly as it is a brilliant recording – of Die Walküre in the role of Sieglinde with Klaus König and Peter Meven conducted by Maazel who surprisingly is an intuitive Wagnerian.

Ms Dunn has both formidable technique and a formidable instrument. Her voice is bright and evenly controlled throughout its range. What’s more she has a thrilling burr – almost a growl in fact – at the lower end of her register that she uses with telling effect. And all this is coupled with strong diction.

In this particular aria from Un Ballo in maschera – as well as throughout the recital CD – she deploys all these skills and her innate musicianship to amazing effect. This can be a cruel aria to perform and on more than one occasion I have seen a soprano catch themselves by failing to navigate it with due care as in parts the vocal line is cruelly exposed. This isn’t the case with Ms Dunn. Not only does she ride effortlessly above the orchestra switching when required to a most dramatic effective mezze voce with incredible ease, but she sings each note with due diligence with intense care given to phrasing and the overall arc of the vocal line with masterfully dynamic shading.

And as ever while it’s impossible in excerpts to generate real dramatic tension, Chailly leads the orchestra with due attention to detail, driving the music forward while sympathetically supporting Ms Dunn throughout.

Time to dig out more Dunn.

Aria For … Tuesday – Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité (Les Troyens)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on November 20, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Régine Crespin. A great. And as Didon she has no rival. Only a few weeks ago I saw Anna Caterina Antonacci sing this very aria and while it was a mesmerising and musically intelligent performance, Ms Crespin’s performance is in a league of it’s own.

Again I wouldn’t say that Ms Crespin has a “beautiful” voice but it has character and presence and is coupled with incredible technique. From the opening bars she projects Didon’s frustration and sadness. Have the words “mourir” and “immense” ever been said with such conviction and with such weight and clarity for example? And throughout her single-minded focus on the words is vital and alive with dramatic intensity, moving Berlioz’ recitative forward inextricably forward.

The subsequent aria, Adieu, fière cite opens with a wistful, almost nostalgic lilt as I have never heard since. Each and every “adieu” is invested with real emotional weight. Each and every phrase is beautifully moulded and rendered as if by a skilled craftsman culminating in the closing section, again the lilt as Aux nuits d’ivresse and the final floating “finie”.

This isn’t just a memorable and immensely enjoyable moment of the highest standard of music making. It’s a masterclass in great performance.

Aria For … Monday – Träume (Wesendonck Lieder)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Review on November 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

I have many recordings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder on my iPod so it’s always a surprise when shuffle churns up a version I do not often listen to and then wonder why ever not.

And this is a case in point, Danish soprano Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe who performs the lieder alongside excerpts from Wagner and Strauss’s Vier Letzte lieder.

There is clearly something in the water in Scandinavia that produces such a high standard of singing. Ms Meyer-Topsøe has a rich and warm voice with a beautiful bloom at the top of her range. And this is coupled with a very sure and confident technique and excellent diction.

What is refreshing about this recital is the old-fashioned manner of the performance and I mean that in a very good way. Sometimes new performers try to hard and labour against the music itself it seems. Here, Ms Meyer-Topsøe delivers a solid yet nuanced performance. The drama of the words not overdone but every word carefully placed.

Just listen, for example to the closing lines. They are beautifully floated with just the right touch of emphasis on the words themselves – Und dann sinken in die Gruft leading us back to the world of Tristan und Isolde.

And in this song, as well as throughout the recital, she is sensitively accompanied by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Norbert Bihlmaier.

Now excuse me while I return and listen to the Ms Meyer-Topsøe’s entire recital from the top.

Aria for … Friday – Tace la notte! (Il Trovatore)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on November 16, 2012 at 8:56 am

Ah! if only Ms Sondra Rodvanovsky (here with the Philharmonic of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian) had sung this wonderful aria from Il Trovatore like this when I saw McVicar’s production at the Met. Sadly neither she nor the rest of the cast were on anything close to good form on that night but here she knocks it out of the ball park.

If nothing else this single aria on a rather remarkable recital disc reminds me that this soprano is a formidable soprano. She soars with a richness and beauty of tone through the opening section even if her sense of vocal and dynamics is more starkly black and white that shades of any particular colour. And although perhaps I would prefer a little more finesse in the cadenza before the allegro, her pinpoint accuracy and vocal swagger in the second section makes up for it.

Not a bad start for a Friday …

Aria For … Wednesday – Lascia ch’io pianga (Rinaldo)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on November 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Every morning I hit random on my iPod and listen to the first aria that it delivers. It not only sets me up for the day but also more often than not reveals a piece that I have not heard or self-selected for a while.

So my first Aria … For Wednesday this morning was Lascia ch’io pianga.

It might be the most ‘common hackney’d’,, but it remains – for me – one of the most beautiful arias Handel ever wrote. And this particular performance by Yvonne Kenny is beautifully poignant.

Sensitively accompanied by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra conducted by Paul Dyer, this is a performance of the utmost simplicity that finds Ms Kenny in superb voice. But what makes it all the more beautiful is the elegant and tasteful ornamention of the returning da capo. Some might argue that this aria – of all Handel’s arias – doesn’t require ornamentation in the da capo (For example Ms Kermes’ recent performance) but here Ms Kenny’s vocal flourishes are not only intelligent but underline the pathos of the aria.

Simply stunning.

What’s yours?

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