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Opera & Vocal CD review - 7 February 2000

By Joel Kasow

"Young" Conductors Rising to The Challenge

Berg: Wozzeck
Angela Denoke (Marie); Renate Spingler (Margret); Jan Blinkhof (Tambourmajor); Chris Merritt (Hauptmann); Jürgen Sacher (Andres); Bo Skovhus (Wozzeck); Frode Olsen (Doktor); Konra Rupf (1. Handwerksbursch); Kay Stiefermann (2. Handwerksbursch); Frieder Stricker (Der Narr)
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Chor der Hamburischen Staatsoper
Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56865 2 7 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Bernstein: Wonderful Town
Kim Criswell (Ruth); Audra McDonald (Eileen); Thomas Hampson (Robert Baker); Brent Barrett (Wreck); Rodney Gilfry, Karl Daymond, Timothy Robinson, Robert Fardell, Lynton Atkinson, Michael Dore
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
London Voices
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56753 2 3
Texts in English

Britten: Young Apollo, Op. 16; Double Concerto; Two Portraits; Sinfonietta, Op. 1
Gidon Kremer, violin; Yuri Bashmet, viola; Nikolai Lugansky, piano
Hallé Orchestra
Kent Nagano, conductor
Erato 3984-25502-2

Busoni: Doktor Faust
Eva Jenis (Herzogin von Parma); Kim Begley (Mephistopheles); Torsten Kerl (Herzog von Parma); Dietrich Hensel (Doktor Faust); Detlef Roth (Des Mädchens Bruder); William Dazeley (Naturgelehrter); Markus Hollop (Wagner/Zeremonienmeister); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Poet)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Lyon
Kent Nagano, conductorErato 3984-25501-2 (3 CDs)
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French and English

Eötvös: Three Sisters:
Alain Aubin (Olga); Vyatcheslav Kagan-Paley (Masha); Oleg Riabets (Irina); Gary Boyce (Natasha); Albert Schagidullin (Andrei); Nikita Storojev (Kulygin); Wojtek Drabowicz (Vershinin); Dietrich Henschel (Tuzenbach); Denis Sedov (Soliony); Peter Hall (Doctor); Marc Duguay (Fedotik); Ivan Matiakh (Rodé); Jan Alofs (Anfisa)
Orchestra of the Opéra National de Lyon
Kent Nagano, Peter Eötvös, conductorsDGG 459 694-2 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German plus transliteration of Russian

Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise
Dawn Upshaw (Ange); John Aler (Frère Massée); Chris Merritt (Le Lépreux); Guy Renard (Frère Elie); José van Dam (Saint François); Akos Banlaky (Frère Sylvestre); Dirk D'Ase (Frère Rufin); Tom Krause (Frère Bernard); Urban Malmberg (Frère Léon)
Hallé Orchestra
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Kent Nagano, conductor
DGG 445 176-2 (4 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Stravinsky: Le Rossignol
Natalie Dessay (Nightingale); Marie McLaughlin (Cook); Violeta Urmana (Death); Vsevolod Grivnov (Fisherman); Albert Schagidullin (Emperor); Laurent Naouri (Chamberlain); Maxime Mikhailov (Bonze) Renard Ian Caley, Vsevolod Grivnov (tenors); Laurent Naouri, Maxime Mikhailov (basses)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
James Conlon, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56874 2 5
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Szymanowski: Król Roger; Symphony No. 4 (Sinfonia concertante)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Roxana); Jadwiga Rappé (Deaconess); Philip Langridge (Edrisi); Ryszard Minkiewicz (Shepherd); Thomas Hampson (Roger); Robert Gierlach (Archbishop)
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56823 2 1 (2 CDs)
Texts and translations in English, French, German and Polish

My facetious title notwithstanding, it is good to see a younger generation of conductors taking the spotlight, and, more important, simultaneously making worthwhile contributions to the catalogues.

Let us start with Kent Nagano (b. 1951), whose career has been carefully managed and considered from the start, not forgetting some of the opportunities that came his way, such as working with Olivier Messiaen during the preparations for the world premiere of Saint François d'Assise. Concert performances in the 1980s made him a logical choice for the revival of Peter Sellars's tv-monitor-ridden staging at Salzburg, receiving such acclaim that DGG hurriedly arranged to record the production live. One is barely aware of this provenance, as Nagano's own Hallé Orchestra makes the most of the composer's riotous colors while José van Dam in the title role is authoritative. The work is typical of Messiaen in its inordinate length (almost four hours) and those not attuned to the composer's idiom may find it hard going, but, for the persistent, the rewards are many.

The roles of the various monks are well-defined musically, and encountering Chris Merritt in a new repertoire is an indication of his artistic growth. Dawn Upshaw's Angel is far more impressive on a solely auditory level than onstage in this production where she was dressed in a business suit and was required to accompany her words with the gestures of sign language.

Nagano is now totally at home with this mammoth work, far more than in a no longer available recording from the Dutch radio or than Seiji Ozawa during the work's premiere run in 1983 (once available on the now defunct Cybelia label).

Nagano's work at the Opéra de Lyon has been documented from the start on either Erato or Virgin, but his two final recordings are exceedingly welcome additions to any library. Busoni's Doktor Faust has only been recorded once, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for DGG under the direction of Ferdinand Leitner. Nagano's recording scores immediately in that the opera is given complete whereas the earlier version made niggling little cuts of ten measures here, ten measures there, throughout the work. In addition, Nagano allows us to hear two scenes as completed by Anthony Beaumont on the basis of the composer's sketches rather than the work of one of Busoni's students, Philip Jarnach, who was entrusted with preparing the unfinished work.

Fischer-Dieskau is on hand to declaim the Prologue and Epilogue, while a former student, Dietrich Henschel, takes the title role, sometimes sounding uncannily like his mentor. Kim Begley's Mephistopheles makes light of the role's difficulties, only Eva Jenis lacking vocal seductiveness. Smaller roles have all been carefully cast, so all we have to do is listen attentively to one of the more philosophic operas ever written.

Peter Eötvös's first full-length opera is an adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, with the recording made during the work's first run of performances. Rather than a linear adaptation, the composer has chosen to give us various incidents seen from the perspective of three of the characters. More curiously, all the women's roles are played by men, four countertenors for the younger women and a bass for the old servant.

Even without the atmospheric staging, the conceit works marvelously well on disc, from the opening ensemble for the sisters to the various arias for the men, not to mention the interventions of Gary Boyce as the sister-in-law, Natasha. One hears the stage noises but they are not distracting, though one is aware of a certain lack of musical continuity that was not the case in the theater. At the time, I wondered how it would all work with women instead of countertenors, but the composer himself has already acquiesced to this option for performances in Germany and Hungary. The number of modern operas that bear repeated listening is distinctly limited, but Three Sisters certainly belongs in that category.

As a farewell to the Hallé Orchestra, Nagano has recorded an all- Britten disc, including three firsts: a Double Concerto for violin and viola (realized by Colin Matthews from Britten's short score), Two Portraits and the version for small orchestra of the Sinfonietta, op. 1. Again, this is where Nagano scores, with his curiosity concerning a composer, in this case Britten's early works that were pushed aside in the rush to continue working on ever-newer compositions, or showing how intertwined are the Double Concerto and the almost contemporaneous Sinfonietta.

Sir Simon Rattle (born 1955) has long worked under the advantage of an EMI recording conctract, but this new batch of releases allows us to enjoy two diametrically opposed facets of his work. Szymanowski has clearly been one of the conductor's preoccupations, but his devotion to the composer becomes the listener's reward with Król Roger, the lush orientalisms bordering on the erotic standing up well under modern recording techniques, something we have until now been deprived of.

Thomas Hampson may not have the smooth command of the Polish language available to his competitors, but his stylistic comprehension is once again something to marvel at. While Ryszard Minkiewicz's Shepherd may not be as vocally appealing as others who have sung the role, his understanding of his part in the drama is unsurpassed. Elzbieta Szmytka's Roxana is not perhaps far enough offstage for her aria, but that is a minor complaint in the face of a total accomplishment that will be difficult to beat. The Sinfonia Concertante for Piano and Orchestra fills out the set so that the 95 minute opera does not become an extravagant acquisition.

Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town has never received the acclaim accorded to West Side Story or Candide, but its spontaneity easily raises it to the level of its siblings. The sisters' duets, "Ohio" and "Wrong Note Rag", illuminate two facets of their relation, while the solos remain extraordinary, especially "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man". Kim Criswell's vocal range may be more extensive than was that of Rosalind Russell, but she is almost as expressive, while Audra McDonald's Eileen is worthy of the Policeman's tribute. Thomas Hampson, Rodney Gilfry and Brent Barrett all offer healthy baritones, but each is appropriately differentiated. Far more worthwhile than prima donnas offering ethnic material or hyped-up, under-voiced tenors singing religious material or a pale imitation thereof.

James Conlon (born 1950) offers his first recording with the Paris Opera forces, an all-Stravinsky disc made after a concert. Natalie Dessay is justifiably accorded top billing as the Nightingale, her spectacular performance only one factor inciting enthusiasm. Conlon places the music squarely in the context of its time, eschewing the picturesque element deriving from Rimsky-Korsakov and also playing down the modern element. While none of the other performers has much to do, each makes his mark, especially Violeta Urmana's Death.

Renard is another cup of tea, more or less contemporaneous with Les Noces and as difficult to cherish despite one's admiration for the composer's novel approach. In both works, the non-Russian singers sometimes sound uncomfortable next to their Russian-speaking colleagues, but this is a defect magnified by the recording process and the manner in which we listen. And why is there no Russian text to accompany the translations?

Ingo Metzmacher is the baby of this group, barely 40, but his recordings for EMI of the symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, each accompanied by contrasting music by other contemporary composers, has already indicated a talent to be watched. His Hamburg appointment has increased his power base, but he has steadily demonstrated that it is his talent that is responsible for his advance.

Recording Wozzeck is dangerous enough, but a live recording indicates the level of confidence of the conductor in his performing forces and also the confidence of the record company in its artists. While the balance is very much in favor of the singers, we can hear that Metzmacher is playing down the romantic element while stressing the chamber music qualities of Berg's writing. Bo Skovhus and Angela Denoke provide sufficient drama in the leading roles to compensate for what looks like a strange staging in the accompanying photographs. Chris Merritt once again shows how much at home he has become in the contemporary repertoire, while Frode Olsen demonstrates that the role of the Doctor need not be barked.

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