Arias by Verdi, Mozart, Berlioz, Gounod and Meyerbeer

Erwin Schrott, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Riccardo Frizza (Decca 478 0473)

9 August 2008 2.5 stars

Erwin SchrottAs much as Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott has wowed audiences with his abilities in the theatre – though I must confess I've never been much of a fan – his debut album is a disappointment by any standards.

Some of the repertoire choices are odd; the way the arias, eras and styles are mixed up is far from effective; and the accompaniment of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana under Riccardo Frizza is indifferent to say the least.

But what comes across more than anything is the fact that Schrott's instrument isn't an especially good recording voice. The studio requires a particular talent, one which combines natural beauty and character with sensitivity, interpretative imagination, and above all else, rigid control of the voice. Schrott has some of these things, but he's far from the complete package at the moment.

Too often there are blemishes, hints of strain, notes which stand out as if by accident; and the honest truth is that Schrott's renditions of the oft-recorded Mozart and Verdi items in particular are bland compared to those of various great singers of the past.

The album opens with Leporello's aria and also includes both Don Giovanni's 'Fin ch'han dal vino' and 'Deh, vieni alla finestra'. Schrott seems not to have the elegance of line or depth of character for these pieces, rather hard pushed in the Catalogue Aria and Champagne Aria and just not beautiful enough for the exposing Serenade. The wit, irony and humanity of Figaro are missed in his 'Se vuol ballare', 'Non più andrai' and 'Aprite un po' quegl'occhi', though one can sense the singer engaging more vividly with the words in these items. It's strange, though, that Schrott doesn't excel more in these roles for which he has won such acclaim on the stage. I don't think he's helped by the close recording of the voice or the four-square conducting of Frizza; a more active, imaginative collaborator might have enabled better results and encouraged a less mannered mode of singing.

It doesn't help the progress of the album that the Mozart items are dotted around between pieces by Verdi and Berlioz (though admittedly, there doesn't seem much difference in the approach of either singer or orchestra in these arias). I'm very much taken with Schrott's rendition of 'Et toi, Palerme' from Les Vêpres siciliennes: here he applies more tone, creates longer legato phrases and engages with the character. But Philippe's aria from Don Carlos is very ill-suited to him. The voice is simply not deep and gravelly enough for the aria, and Schrott does not bring the world-weariness of the solitary king to the piece; nor is the conductor's pacing of this complicatedly-constructed monologue anywhere near good enough. Banquo's aria was the means for Schrott's winning the Plácido Domingo Operalia competition in 1998 and he clearly enjoys singing it, but again there isn't the nobility and gravity of, say, Nicolai Ghiaurov's rendition in Abbado's complete recording of Macbeth. In all these Verdi pieces, the singer doesn't have the resonance of tone at the top of the voice to provide the requisite thrills.

The French items are a little more successful than the others, especially a beautifully controlled 'Voici des roses' from Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust and a lively account of Mephistopheles' serenade from Gounod's Faust (though I find the laughter in the latter exaggerated rather than sinister). Bertram's aria from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable is a weak ending to the disc, however – far too unevenly phrased and lacking a sheer beauty of sound.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for the project, Schrott's many devoted admirers will probably be happy with his album, though at fifty-two minutes it's on the short side. If there's ever a follow-up project, I hope there's greater investment in the quantity of the material, the quality of the collaborators and a more imaginative concept.

By Dominic McHugh