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CD Reviews in Brief

Bartok : Bluebeards' Castle

Anne Sofie von Otter (Judith); John Tomlinson (Bluebeard). Bernard Haitink conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Recorded live 1, 3 and 4 February 1996. EMI 7243 5 56162 2 7.

Although not welcomed with open arms into the active operatic repertory, Bartok's musical drama is no stranger to the concert halls. Bernard Haitink has long demonstrated his affinities with the composer in excellent recordings of a number of the orchestral works, and the colors he draws from the Berliners are irridescent in this recording. Anne Sofie von Otter, at least on records, is an exceptional Judith, the recording giving her voice an amplitude which is not naturally hers. The music sounds as if it were her daily fare. John Tomlinson, by comparison, sounds somewhat in retreat, but it is not his role which is vocally prominent. Highly recommended for anyone who wishes an up-to-date recording of the sole operatic composition of a 20th century master.

Falla : Atlántida; El sombrero de tres picos

Enriqueta Tarres, soprano (Isabella), Anna Ricci, mezzo-soprano (Pirene); Eduardo Giménez, tenor (Archangel); Vincente Sardinero, baritone (Narrator); Victoria de los Angeles, soprano (Sombrero). Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra (Sombrero) (2 cds). EMI 7243 5 65997 2 7.

EMI has placed us in its debt with this magnificent reissue of Falla's unfinished last work, the massive oratorio Atlántida. Not only has the work been restored to currency, but at a price which makes it difficult to resist: a twofer in the Matrix series. And you get a complete Three-Cornered Hat with de los Angeles to boot, not the greatest ever recorded but more than honorable. All this to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Falla's death. EMI has more than done itself proud by the composer; earlier this year they issued a 4-CD set of 50s recordings of Falla's music in their "Introuvables" series.

It is true that a second, more modern recording of <:>Atlá:ntida is in the catalogues, and while the female soloists on the Auvidis are glamorous, Tarrés is virtually in the same league. And the Narrator, who in fact has the most to sing, is in the capable hands of Sardinero who has a full range of vowel sounds, unlike the competition. This is not a work in the same line as Falla's most popular and best-known creations, but more in the line of the Harpsichord Concerto or the Homenjaes. The chorus and the Narrator sustain an enormous burden, and that no major orchestra (to our knowledge) has thought to give us a performance this year is astonishing. I know the textual problems are enormous, but the latest Ricordi score has pared away the sections which were mostly written by Ernesto Halffter - there is a good 20 minutes of music on the recording which isn't even in the score I consulted. More than 30 years after my first encounter with the work - the Met orchestra and chorus conducted by Ernest Ansermet, with Eileen Farrell, Jean Madeira and George London at the 1962 festivities opening what was then known as Philharmonic Hall - I remain thunderstruck by the beauty of a troubled piece, one which merits more than just an occasional hearing in the concert hall.

Offenbach : Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Roberto Alagna (Hoffmann); José van Dam (Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto); Natalie Dessay (Olympia); Leontina Vaduva (Antonia); Sumi Jo (Giulietta); Juanita Lascarro (Stella); Catherine Dubosc (Nicklausse/Muse); Gilles Ragon (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio); Michel Sénéchal (Spalanzani); Gabriel Bacquier (Crespel); Doris Lamprecht (La Mère); and Ludovic Tézier, Jean-Marie Frémeau, Benoît Boutet, Jean Delescluse, Gérard Théruel, Christophe Lacassagne and Marc Fournier. Kent Nagano conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Lyon (3 cds). ERATO 0630-14330-2.

Contes d'Hoffmann is by any stretch of the imagination a problem opera. Offenbach died before the premiere and the work was shorn of the Giulietta Act along with other cuts to keep the performance within reasonable limits. The revival in Monte Carlo early this century under the aegis of Raoul Gunsbourg (also the man responsible for the notion that Berlioz' Damnation de Faust could be staged) produced the version most familiar to us today, with certain pieces not even by Offenbach. When much of the original material became available, Fritz Oeser prepared an edition said to be in conformity with the composer's intentions. (Why he was ever selected is one of the musical world's unelucidated mysteries considering the botched job he did with Carmen.) It is the assiduous research of Michael Kaye which has given us the performance under review, the second to make use of his work. If you wish to know as much as there is to be known about the Hoffmann material, look at the issue of L'Avant-Scène Opéra devoted to Hoffmann, which includes an explanatory table of the material included in the various performing versions.

Hoffmann is much more a work in which conductor and producer have a free hand, as they must decide between a dialogue and a recitative version, how much of the Prologue to restore, how important to make the role of Nicklausse. The other major problem is the Giulietta act which is the least "authentic" of the three. If we follow Kaye and even Oeser in their proposals, it is much more apparent that the three female roles were to be sung by a single soprano. In the Erato recording, made over an 18-month period, Alagna is in good shape, possibly the only tenor since Nicolai Gedda able to sing the role with style and panache. He is well surrounded by an impeccable José van Dam as the villain, Natalie Dessay, Leontina Vaduva and Sumi Jo as his three loves and such stalwarts as Gabriel Bacquier, Michel Sénéchal and Gilles Ragon. Only the Nicklausse of Catherine Dubosc poses a problem, her voice totally colorless in a role which demands a greater presence than she is able to provide. Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra offer excellent support, Nagano maintaining a light touch throughout. Sumi Jo is especially naughty, copying Natalie Dessay's cadenza note for note, both extraordinary as they hit an unwritten high A flat, Jo having a fuller role in which to make an even greater impact. Vaduva is not impeccable vocally, but her commitment makes this an excellent rendition of a role which has rarely been well served on recording.

Kurt Weill on Broadway

Thomas Hampson (baritone) with Elizabeth Futral, Jerry Hadley and Jeanne Lehmann. John McGlinn conducting the London Sinfonietta Chorus and the London Sinfonietta. EMI 5 55563 2.

A must recording, to convince the partisans of the European Weill that the American Weill is every bit as important, and at the same time to remind us that there is a great deal of excellent musical material languishing in someone's archives because unsuccessful Broadway musicals are unfortunately condemned to oblivion. Conductor John McGlinn is his customary persuasive self so that one can only echo the cry of Miles Krueger, writer of the magnificent accompanying notes, give us more. Krueger's descriptions of the works make me want to hear The Firebrand of Florence or Love Life in their entirety. The selections here include ballads, love songs, rousing ensembles, proof that Weill was inspired by such collaborators as Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner and Paul Green to unsuspected heights. No expense has been spared to ensure the success of this disc: for the selections from Firebrand of Florence, 16 soloists are required, including such well-known British singers as Donald Maxwell, Simon Keenlyside, Justin Lavender, Stuart Kale and Richard Van Allan. Weill's own orchestrations are to be heard, he evidently refusing the ministrations of an arranger.

Richard Wagner: scenes from Tannhäuser (Act 2), Lohengrin (Act 3, scene 1) and Die Walküre (Act 1, scene 3)

Julia Varady (soprano), Peter Seiffert (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conducting the Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Bavarian Staatsorchester. EMI 5 56138 2.

Any recording featuring Julia Varady cannot be dismissed out of hand, there being so few documents concerning one of the more fascinating performers of our time. While her contributions to this disc cannot be faulted, and while one can generally enjoy the lyric effusions of Peter Seiffert despite an occasional tendency to sing under the note, it is F-D the conductor who is the major problem. Tempi too often drag while, more important, there is no rhythmic lift to carry the singers so that they too often are left on their own in music which needs impetus. While I can understand the wish to present complete blocks of music, I would have easily done without the Act 3 Prelude and Wedding Chorus from Lohengrin and extended the scene between Elsa and Lohengrin to its logical conclusion, as printed in the accompanying booklet.

Puccini : La Bohème

Leontina Vaduva (Mimi); Ruth Ann Swenson (Musetta); Roberto Alagna (Rodolfo); Thomas Hampson (Marcello); Simon Keenlyside (Schaunard); Samuel Ramey (Colline); Enrico Fissore (Benoit, Alcindoro). Antonio Pappano conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and London Voices (2 discs). EMI 7243 5 56120 2 1.

To celebrate the centennial of Puccini's Bohemians, EMI has issued a new recording of the composer's masterpiece. It is no easy task to compete with all the previous EMI versions - Gigli-Albanese, Bjoerling-de los Angeles-Beecham, Gedda-Freni-Schippers, Callas-di Stefano, Scotto-Kraus-Levine, among others - but the newest recruit holds its own, thanks to conductor Antonio Pappano who delivers a rapid but never unfeeling reading of the score. Roberto Alagna is in peak form and the duo he formed with his former partner, Leontina Vaduva, is perpetuated. She may be a surprise to many listeners as her name has not become a household word, but her delicate singing places her among the top ranking Mimis on record. A supporting cast which sports such names as Ruth Ann Swenson, Thomas Hampson, Simon Keenlyside and Samuel Ramey is an additional positive factor, especially as they have welded into a tight ensemble, not always the case in studio recordings.

A further interesting feature is that the discs have also been CD-ROM encoded, so that you can follow the libretto (in your choice of English, French or Italian) on your computer screen as you listen through your computer's speakers (but why would anyone with a decent sound system subject him or herself to such inadequate sound reproduction). The hitch is that you need a 100% multisession-enabled CD-ROM and at least octuple speed. Only one of my friends had such a creature and even then I was not able to access every part of the disc. What I did see seemed to be merely a replacement for material which used to be included in the accompanying booklets - biographies of the performers, an essay about the composer and his work and a libretto. The spoken descriptions by the conductor of the various characters remained stubbornly inaccessible. Even with that plus, this seems to be more of a gimmick than an inventive use of the CD-ROM's resources. This should not, however, prevent you from acquiring the sole centennial celebration of durable artistic quality, unlike the Erato and Koch versions which were issued one year ago.

Rossini : Stabat Mater

Luba Orgonasova, soprano; Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Raul Gimenez, tenor; Roberto Scandiuzzi, bass. Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. DGG 449 178-2.

Rossini's post-operatic production is notable for a series of smaller pieces and two major religious works, the Petite Messe Solennelle and the Stabat Mater. The latter has not always had a good press, as several of its solo numbers became too well-known during the Victorian era. Heard in context, however, both the tenor and soprano arias can be given the fervor which is necessary, something which happens in the course of Maestro Chung's rendition. He is graced with an excellent quartet, all contending for top musicianship awards, the Vienna Opera Chorus in sterling condition and a responsive Vienna Philharmonic. Under these circumstances, nothing can go wrong so that we have a performance which ranks among the best of a work which is not easy to bring off. Orgonasova and Bartoli are delectable in their duet, while their solo interventions are marvels, particularly the soprano's "Inflammatus" for which she does not possess the power of Voight or Arroyo, but Orgonasova's voice is probably closer to that for which Rossini wrote the music. Gimenez has not only the high note - a d flat on which many tenors have strangled - but also the requisite grace while the sonority of Scandiuzzi's bass is more than just another pretty sound.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron

Chris Merritt, tenor (Aron); David Pittman-Jennings, baritone (Moses); Gabriele Fontana, Yvonne Naef, John Graham Hall, Per Lindskog, Siegfried Lorenz, Michael Devlin, Laszlo Polgar. Pierre Boulez conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Chorus of the Nederlandse Opera (2 cds). DGG 449 174-2.

More than twenty years after the Sony recording of Boulez' version of Schoenberg's sole opera, DGG profited from a production by the Netherlands Opera to give us the conductor's latest thoughts on the work. Boulez himself states in an interview in the accompanying booklet that he found his concept had changed somewhat because this was the first time he had conducted a staged performance of the work, the previous occasion having been a concert performance. Boulez' timings are now more relaxed, more than five minutes longer, which is to the benefit of the score. David Pittman-Jennings in the sprechstimme role of Moses gives a large-scale performance, as coached by Peter Stein. The baritone told me (in an interview published in the September/October issue of Fanfare) that the goal was not to duplicate exactly the notation in the score but use it as a guideline; the result is something that most likely approaches the turn-of the-century declamatory style of acting familiar to Schoenberg. Chris Merritt gives an excellent performance, even if not always perfectly steady in tone, of what may be one of the more excruciatingly difficult tenor roles. The amount of orchestral detail to be heard on these discs is another pleasurable element, while the chorus of the Netherlands Opera shows the results of the lengthy rehearsal time from which they benefited.

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