Arias by Mozart, Gluck, and Berlioz

Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Southbank Sinfonia/Simon Over (Signum Classics SIGCD189)

7 June 2010 3.5 stars

KennedyThis is an impressive album of challenging arias from relative newcomer, tenor Andrew Kennedy. Judging from his biography as published in the notes to the recording, he may be best known to British audiences, since he studied at both King's College and the Royal College of Music, and was also a member of the Young Artists Program at the Royal Opera House.

It appears that he is now making his mark on the international scene, and his work on this disc is quite impressive. The repertoire is well-chosen, representing the classical period with Gluck and Mozart and moving through to the beginnings of the Romantic movement with Berlioz. Each of the composers is represented by four or five arias, and the overtures to Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and La clemenza di Tito provide welcome variety. Though very obviously an 'English tenor' (pronunciation of the Italian and French texts are good, but not wholly idiomatic), Kennedy has a nice Italianate ring to the voice – a semi-heroic edge to the tone, in fact – and his distinctive, passionate vocal profile makes listening a pleasure. Throughout this very demanding program, he offers solid breath support and an absolutely firm tone that bespeaks formidable technical assurance and interpretive confidence.

It is especially satisfying that Kennedy allows the music to speak for itself by offering direct, unfussy vocalism, preferring to leave a few rough edges in his singing rather than polishing away every hint of individuality. Unlike many current singers who strive for homogeneity, Kennedy seems to trust the composer and simply sings the music on the page, restricting histrionic interjections to a minimum and allowing his voice to flow freely. This approach works especially well for the Mozart and Berlioz selections, although a bit more refinement would be helpful in the arias by Gluck – the French-language selections in particular. The music of Gluck demands that a singer walk a tightrope between extroversion and understatement. Kennedy jumps enthusiastically into the first track on the disc, Achille's aria 'Calchas, d'un trait mortel percé' from Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, and here, as in all the Gluck arias, his approach could benefit from a more expansive, 'Classical' manner. His singing is imbued with a rather overt, informal quality that, while generally pleasing, doesn't quite fit with the reserved elegance of Gluck's vocal lines.

The Southbank Sinfonia offers thoroughly satisfying and professional accounts of the two Mozart overtures, though Simon Over's conducting tends to be a bit stiff. As a result, the effervescent rhythmic impulse of Mozart's music is muted, and the listener longs for more edge and definition within the musical textures. In the arias themselves, Kennedy succeeds best as the lovelorn Belmonte, turning in a wonderfully heartfelt performance of 'Ich baue ganz', replete with accurate passagework and only missing the last degree of elegance. As Tito, he tends to oversing a bit, singing very openly through the passaggio and carrying a good deal of chest resonance into his higher register. While this injects an appropriately 'heroic' quality into his characterization, it comes at the expense of vocal flexibility, and he struggles a bit with the coloratura passages in 'Se all'impero'.

It is in the final four arias by Berlioz that Kennedy truly excels, offering major-league performances of these difficult, vocally treacherous excerpts. The Romanticism inherent in Berlioz's music seems to bring out the best combination of vocal traits from Kennedy, with his extroverted approach and expansive tone suiting the characters very effectively. He also offers greater polish here than earlier in the program, blending his voice into the orchestral textures with skill and beauty. Iopas's aria 'Ô blonde Cérès' from Les Troyens is a highlight of the disc, as is the tricky and seldom heard 'Chant de Bonheur' from Lelio ou le retour à la vie. The harpist, Lucy Haslar, deserves special praise for her outstanding accompaniment in the latter selection. It is a credit to the singer that this program provides an enjoyable hour or so of listening: his artistry makes one eager to hear each new selection, and the tracks flow by smoothly – one into the next. Clearly this is a singer to watch, and his direct approach and vocal earnestness would be welcome in a wide variety of roles. Hopefully he will continue to build his discography, and I look forward to hearing much more from him as his career develops.

By David Laviska