Just as the economy's at an all-time low, the classical music record business is at its most productive in a long time. Not a week goes by without another one dropping through my letterbox, and the range of repertoire, artists and styles is encouraging. Space and time don't permit for fuller reviews of some of these items, so this article brings together summaries of two new opera recordings, an operetta, an opera recital and three song recital discs.
Far be it for me to criticise a major record label funding a new studio recording of a complete opera, but did we really need another Porgy and Bess just now? Of all the Gershwin stage works, this has been by far the most recorded, and although no performance is ever definitive, this piece has been unusually well represented in the catalogue. Lorin Maazel did his complete set in the 1970s, supposedly returning the work to its original form; and then Simon Rattle addressed the work in the 1980s, again under a banner of textual authenticity. And only a couple of years ago, Jon Mauceri stirred things up again, this time supposedly representing 'the composer's final thoughts' on the work.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new recording is not, therefore, filling any particular gap in the catalogue with his new recording, especially since his cast is no competition for many previous ones. His choice of numbers is based on personal taste rather than scholarly logic, so we get neither a 'complete' version nor a version sanctioned by Gershwin. The playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is often exquisite and is by far the best thing about the performance: although outside his natural repertoire, Harnoncourt really does seem to be inside this music, and coaxes the players to play with stylistic awareness.
The problem for me is that none of the major soloists is all that good. Jonathan Lemalu is a fine artist, but he sounds too light and lyrical for the role of Porgy. Nor can he quite escape his operatic background. Isabelle Kabatu, meanwhile, makes heavy weather of Bess's music. The supporting cast is adequate, but given the final product I'm a little surprised Sony threw money into this project.
By contrast, I'm delighted the Peter Moores Foundation has once again backed an Opera in English title on the Chandos label. Last year, Opera North staged a superb revival of Verdi's Don Carlos that had all the intensity of Schiller and Verdi combined. Here, Richard Farnes brings back most of the original cast (with John Tomlinson taking over as the Inquisitor, a role he sang at Covent Garden in the latter's inferior revival in September) with the accompaniment of the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North.
The results are very good, especially for those of us who love Verdi. Julian Gavin's rich, ardent Carlos, Janice Watson's heartfelt Elizabeth and William Dazeley's noble Rodrigo make a satisfying trio. Having said that, Watson's voice comes under strain at the top and Dazeley lacks the final edge of Italianate velvet one wants for this role, and it has to be said that overall the recording isn't a competition for Giulini, Santini and co. Jane Dutton's Eboli, which was dramatically gripping in the theatre, here comes across as too heavy and awkward during the Veil Song, and I have to confess that I'd rather hear the work in French or Italian, the excellence of Andrew Porter's translation notwithstanding. I'm thrilled to have a memento of the production, however, and Chandos provides excellent texts and sound quality as always.
Opera Rara has just announced plans for 2010, including releases of Rossini's Ermione and Mercadante's I Normanni a Parigi, as well as plans to record Il pirata and Aureliano in Palmira, which will be given in concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Annick Massis in October. However, their latest catalogue contains a worrying reference to how the Peter Moores Foundation (which has underwritten so many projects in the past) 'is reducing its funding programmes', suggesting that the company is in urgent need of financial support.
Nonetheless, their latest recording is as good as ever – indeed, I'm getting quite addicted to Vert-Vert, a cute operetta by Offenbach. Based on a 1734 poem, the piece was one of the composer's last. Vert-Vert was a much-loved parrot kept by nuns as the convent mascot. He was taken around the world with them, but on one voyage was exposed to such bad language from the sailors that he came away repeating their foul phrases! The operetta is set in a girls' boarding school and begins with Vert-Vert's death, which is followed by a solemn ceremony in which the people congregate to bury him. Valentin, the nephew of the headmistress, adopts the name Vert-Vert and will now be spoilt until the end of his days, as the parrot was.
The piece has a typically silly plot of mistaken identities and ends in marriage, but Offenbach's score is so much more than a soufflé, as David Parry's performance proves. A stellar cast, including Toby Spence, Lucy Crowe and Jennifer Larmore, are all in fine voice, and all that's needed now is a full staging.
A couple of months ago, Cecilia Bartoli released an album called Sacrificium. It's a typical Bartoli concoction in which she's brought together a collection of almost entirely unknown music (Handel's 'Ombra mai fu' is included on the bonus disc) under a particular concept, this time being the music of the castrati superstars from Naples. The arias are fine, on the whole, if not particularly memorable, but what's surprising is that Bartoli makes little attempt to adapt her instrument towards anything approaching period performance practice, or – more importantly – to emulate something like the peculiar timbre of the castrati.
After all, at the time castrati were (ironically) seen as highly masculine figures, but Bartoli's expressive approach to the music is notably feminine and full of pathos. Indeed, having her head superimposed onto statues of ancient Greek men in the photos illustrating the (very handsome) CD booklet is about all she does to reference the album's concept in her actual performances. Naturally, there's much to admire about her singing here – she's always an intelligent performer, even if she has become more vocally mannered over the years – but this isn't one of her more compelling products.
One of the most interesting CDs I've come across recently is Signum Classics's new Liszt Abroad recital, which brings together songs written in six languages. The distinguished Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, who has just completed a run as Mimi at Covent Garden, is the star of the set, spreading her wings in seven of the twenty tracks, but the former ROH Young Artists Andrew Kennedy and Matthew Rose also make excellent contributions. Iain Burnside is the fine accompanist, and the disc has much to recommend it. Wigmore Hall Live has also recently released two interesting discs of leading baritones performing Lieder. The first has Wolfgang Holzmair in twenty-seven songs by Hugo Wolf, all of them impeccably performed in collaboration with Imogen Cooper (could one find a better accompanist?). Nevertheless, the real pleaser here is Simon Keenlyside's recital of Schubert, Wolf, Faure, Ravel and Poulenc, repertoire that this ever-reliable artist inhabits with a wide range of colours.
All the releases are available now, apart from Vert-Vert, which is due out on 1 February 2010.
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