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Opera & Vocal CD review - 18 January 1999

Self-indulgence and exclusive recording contracts.

Joel Kasow discusses several recent releases while examining both the positive and
negative aspects of self-indulgence that result from exclusive recording contracts.

While artists are often privileged through exclusive recording contracts, occasionally it is the public that suffers from self-indulgence on the part of the performer and the record company. The extremes can be seen in Renée Fleming's two discs under review. "The Beautiful Voice" is a collage of some of the soprano's favorite music, a mixture of operatic arias and soupy arrangements of non-operatic items. The singer's tendency to stretch out a line is only encouraged by Jeffrey Tate doing his imitation of the late John Pritchard, as the almost six-minute-long aria from Louise testifies. After the perfect calling card represented by Fleming's first aria disc with Solti, this is a disappointment. And might one add that the Digipack loses all validity if the section that holds the cd in place is broken.

Fortunately, "I Want Magic" is a wonderful antidote, with its selections from operas by American composers (Stravinsky'sRake dates from his American years) with a single false step when the soprano unwisely attempts a lumbering version of "Glitter and be gay" from Bernstein's Candide, complete with ungodly cackle at the end. The rest of the album could also have been given the title "The Beautiful Voice". Arias from Floyd's Susannah are haunting (a quality lacking in the opera as a whole), while excerpts from Porgy and Bess are as rich and emotional as one might want. An excerpt from Previn's Streetcar Named Desire arouses curiosity to hear the entire work - just premiered in San Francisco - while an aria from Barber's Vanessa makes one want to go back to the complete recording for a rehearing of a much disparaged work. James Levine and the Met Orchestra are perfect companions on this journey through fifty years of American operatic history which at the same time is the soprano's tribute to her valiant predecessors who stamped these roles with their own personalities: Price, Steber, Raskin, Sills, Curtin.

Decca's Entartete Musik series is a fascinating concept that almost invariably comes up with a satisfying experience. It is nonetheless unlikely that Eisler's "Hollywood Songbook" would ever have been recorded had Matthias Goerne not had an exclusive contract with Decca. It is the listener who is the ultimate beneficiary as we become acquainted with a composer who has long been under a cloud. This is song-writing in the main tradition, very clearly a link between the early work of the Viennese trinity and such living composers as Aribert Reimann and Wolfgang Rihm, but far more accessible than either of the latter. Most of the texts are by Eisler's long-time collaborator Bertold Brecht, so that it is interesting to compare the reactions of Eisler and Weill to the poetry of one of pre-war Germany's most important writers. The title of the work should in no way be taken as a reference to Hollywood, the film capital, but Hollywood, the place of exile for many political refugees from the Holocaust. Eisler can offer up suave melodies, but also harsh declamation, both the logical outcome of the fusion of text and music.

Ben Heppner's first recital is fascinating for it is a long time since a singer with such heft has been heard in some of this repertoire, and it is exhilarating to hear the tenor's ringing high notes and rich mezza voce. While the voice doesn't quite flow into the high notes in the opening "Adelaïde", the Strauss shows Heppner in full flight. Schumann shows his delicacy while Liszt allows him overt Italianate emotion. Craig Rutenberg is the perfect partner, offering a wonderful cushion through a wide dynamic range.

"Live in Italy" is not only an audio reminder of a live concert given in the Teatro Olimpico in June 1998, but there will also be a video souvenir. Some of the material has already been recorded on earlier recital discs, but we are here swept up in the ambiance of a live concert, complete with annoying applause at the end of virtually every number, i.e. don't be taken in by the 76-minute duration. It is apparent that a live audience offers a stimulus to which the performer responds, and the wide dynamic range employed is testimony that it is not only the work of the recording engineers. One might voice the standard complaint that Bartoli's pianissimos offer as much breath as sound, or that some of her coloratura sounds almost mechanical, but these quibbles are swept away in the aftermath of the whirlwind. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is at one with the mezzo, so that their shifts of tempo are smoothly executed. And for the early music, there is a baroque string ensemble to offer a more stylish background than the customary piano (see below).

And then we start going downhill. The mish-mash on Angela Gheorghiu's recital resembles the souvenirs accumulated on a voyage, but in this case they have not been discarded. The soprano's operatic flair is lost in this repertoire, where she croons, slows everything down so that the music simply stands still, and her performances of lieder, chansons, Italian songs all run into one another. Sumi Jo's light-voiced traversal of Italian song starts with Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673) and ends with Stefano Donaudy (1879-1925), and includes, among others, Cesti, both Scarlattis, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. We have become too musically sophisticated, one would hope, to accept what used to be considered "warm-up" fare in make-do versions. While we can admire the warm baritone of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the same remarks apply when we listen to some of the soupy arrangements of music that needs a sensuous delivery alongside a reduced instrumentarium. In this instance, most of this music was not written for a low voice so that we are once again being served a mis-representation, however well sung.

The Poulenc recital by Gabriel Bacquier would have been welcome had it been recorded thirty years ago, but while we can admire how well-preserved the voice is at the age of 72, we are all too well aware of the limitations. In this instance, however, we are subdued by the singer's interpretations, almost over the top in the more exuberant numbers but haunting in such items as "Hôtel". It is also curious to hear "La courte paille" interpreted by a male as it is very much a woman's cycle. This curious detour in Maguelone's series entitled Mélodiste français should not deter you from some of their more serious explorations of their chosen terrain as we have commented on earlier occasions (Leguerney, Caplet, Ollone).

The question remains, would the discs by Gheorghiu, Hvorostovsky or Jo have been contemplated had these performers not been under exclusive contract? While it is always pleasant to have a souvenir of a particular artist in concert, was it necessary to duplicate some of Bartoli's slim discography on this live recital, or is this simply the backwash from a planned video? Have the artists "blackmailed" the companies into accommodating their misguided wishes? I'm sure that the fans of these particular singers are buying these albums, but it is music that is being done a disservice.

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