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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 8 September 2005

Brahms: Lieder
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto); Michael McMahon (piano); Nicolò Eugelmi (viola)
Analekta AN 2 9906 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Winning the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Brussels in 2000 was the event that brought Marie-Nicole Lemieux wider recognition. Her list of performances and recordings continues to grow, far beyond the baroque and early classical periods in which she is most widely known. Her Brahms shows considerable thought and conviction in a song repertory that is, in fact, deceptively simple, so that her sumptuous contralto is constantly shown off without showing off. Pianist Michael McMahon and violist Nicolò Eugelmi are thoughtful colleagues, to the point that one wishes that McMahon would make (more) appearances outside Canada. A prize recording.


Gounod: Massenet Arias
Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Evelino Pidò, conductor
Virgin 7243 5 45719 2 3 (texts and translations in French, German and English)

Rolando Villazón has once again come up with a recital winner. His first recital of Italian arias established his credentials, while this second recital of arias by just two composers, Gounod and Massenet, demonstrates a willingness to explore rather than offer yet another standard traversal of the standard French arias. The number of curiosities should in itself justify acquisition – arias from Massenet’s Grisélidis, Roma, Le Roi de Lahore and Le Mage alongside Manon, Werther and Le Cid, and from Gounod’s Polyeucte and La Reine de Saba alongside Faust, Mireille and Roméo et Juliette. Excellent French and attention to dynamics are among the attributes we expect from Villazón and we are not disappointed, but he must watch out for the occasional intrusive sob. Evelino Pidò demonstrates his versatility once again with his accompaniments, while the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France is, of course, at home in this music. Now the discography should be completed with complete recordings of some of these rarities, including one that seems to have been overlooked in establishing the contents of the CD, Gounod’s sparkling Médecin malgré lui which has a charming serenade for tenor.


Handel: Arias
Renée Fleming (soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Harry Bicket, conductor
Decca 475 6186 (notes in English, French and German; texts in Italian and English)

Renée Fleming’s newest recital album is devoted entirely to George Frideric Handel, a composer who until recently has barely featured in the soprano’s repertoire. Performances as Alcina a few years back and Rodelinda this past season indicate Fleming’s desire to expand into a repertoire that fits her like a glove technically and dramatically. This recent CD gives us considerably less of the "blues" element that has hitherto distracted listeners in earlier programs, and we can enjoy the elegiac lines of "Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?" or "Lascia ch’io pianaga" and the pyrotechnics of "Let the bright Seraphim" or "Da tempeste". And then there is the intense drama of "Ah! Crudel" from Rinaldo. Totally puzzling is the inclusion of "Ombra mai fu" which lies uncomfortably low for her, but that is a tiny flaw. Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offer sharp accompaniments so that the singer is always maintained on a wonderful bed of sound.


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Iris Vermilion (mezzo-soprano); Donald Litaker (tenor)
Orchestre National de Montpellier
Armin Jordan, conductor
Accord 476 1484 (texts and translations in German, French and English) 

New recordings of Mahler’s symphony-song cycle must contend with a significant historical output, Bruno Walter’s pre- and post-War Viennese recordings, the latter with the legendary Kathleen Ferrier, to Otto Klemperer’s account with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich to Leonard Bernstein (once with Ludwig, once with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), to mention but a few. A live recording of a second-tier orchestra led by Armin Jordan with two competent soloists, despite some nice touches, simply cannot efface the above-mentioned singers or Brigitte Fassbaender or Jessye Norman or Janet Baker, etc. Donald Litaker’s German is occasionally at fault while Iris Vermilion, already featured in the same work under Giuseppe Sinopoli, still fails to be convincing. What passes in the concert hall (this is a live recording from 2002) does not always stand up under the closer inspection of a recording, as we have already seen with earlier recordings from Montpellier.


Mahler: Symphony No. 4; 3 Songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Daniel Harding, conductor
Virgin 7243 5 45665 2 3 (texts and translatioins in English, French and German)

Daniel Harding continues to show us that he is as masterful in Mahler as in most of the other works he has recorded. His control of rubato, always decisive when evaluating conductors in this repertory, and the ease with which the players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra follow him in this chamber symphony, offer great pleasure. Dorothea Röschmann may not be as childlike as others who have sung the last movement solo, but her sophistication is amply set off by Harding. The three vividly contrasted songs, "Irdische Leben", "Lob des hohen Verstandes" and "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen", again demonstrate the soprano’s fine control and high degree of nuance.


Jonathan Lemalu: Opera Arias
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
James Judd, conductor
EMI 7243 5 57605 2 4 (texts and translations in English, French and German)

Jonathan Lemalu’s first operatic recital – he has already been featured in EMI’s Debut series – offers a curious selection of arias, as if the singers is not yet certain as to the direction in which his voice and career are leading him. The mixture of bass and baritone, not to mention buffo, arias is confusing to the listener, however well they are sung. There is much to enjoy in this CD, though the suavity demanded of Boïto’s and Gounod’s Devil are not entirely present. Prince Gremin’s aria is more successful in this respect. The lighter style required of Papageno or Leoporello , not to mention Mozart’s Figaro, seems to be a more comfortable fit. Falstaff’s Honor Monologue indicates possibilities for the future, as does the Dutchman’s monologue, though both are now promises rather than accomplishments. James Judd and the New Sealand Symphony Orchestra show that excuses no longer need be made on the grounds of antipodean standards.


Classic Recitals

Decca is to be commended for its reissue of several recitals from the 1960s, allowing us once again to be bowled over by the likes of the young Elena Suliotis (475 6235) or pre-Wagnerian Gwyneth Jones (475 6412) or Birgit Nilsson in Verdian mode (475 64132), not to mention early Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi and Donizetti (475 6414). Luigi Alva’s Spanish and Latin American songs are not of major interest except for the tenor’s charm (475 6410) while Giuseppe di Stefano’s 1958 recital (475 6236) comes a bit too late in the tenor’s career. The digipacking gives us the original cover art, while the interior reproduces the notes from the back of the LP, the reduced print requiring a loupe for easy reading. But what are we to make of the first international release on CD of a 1960 (sic) recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing Bach and Handel with Sir Adrian Boult. In fact, the conductor recorded the accompaniments in 1960 that were patched onto a 1952 recording of the contralto. It is Ferrier, which is almost all that counts.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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