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Verdi: I Lombardi

It is easy to see why I Lombardi - Verdi's fourth opera - has always languished in the shadow cast not only by its predecessor, Nabucco, and also its successor, Ernani, for both of the surrounding works are a good deal more concentrated than the sprawling tale of Crusaders. There are nonetheless more than enough exciting moments to justify occasional outings, while this recording should make the work accessible to new audiences. The fact that there are two tenor roles means that neither Pavarotti as the nominal hero nor Leech as the father has much to do, so that we can focus on Ramey's villain and Anderson's heroine, both of whom are more central to the action and have much more to do. Anderson's expanding vocal and dramatic range easily takes to Verdi, but this very bel canto role is in the line that follows on late Donizetti. Ramey's voice now begins to show signs of wear, but he is the only one in the cast to decorate the second verse of his cabaletta. Pavarotti's honeyed tones are still in evidence while Leech's (unwritten) high Cs are not enough to convince us of his heroic stature. James Levine's reading too often emphasizes the blustery aspects of early Verdi and brushes aside the gentler moments. This is nonetheless the recording to be preferred, as its flaws, such as they are, are not in the same class as the two earlier versions (Philips, Hungaroton).

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Handel: Italian Secular Cantatas

Anne Murray continues to follow in Janet Baker's footsteps but always sufficiently individual to trace her own path. We have not been spoiled with multiple, if any, recordings of the many cantatas left by Handel, and this is a vein in which he can be fascinating as he adopts the local color of his hosts, while at the same time we can see the seeds of ideas which will come to fruition once he comes to England. These are works which make heavy demands on performers, and Murray's excursion into soprano territory is here much happier than her Elvira for Solti. A direct comparison with Baker in "Armida" reveals that Baker is more overtly dramatic, even incendiary, making Murray seem a bit tame, but then we realize that Murray's way is valid if not as inflammatory. The other two cantatas, with their lamenting shepherds, are in fact better suited to Murray and she makes the most of the opportunities, dramatic and vocal, with which these works are strewn.

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The dark is my delight and other 16th century lute songs

Anyone venturing into this territory must be able to stand up to the recorded legacy of Alfred Deller. Brian Asawa's intelligence and powerful voice have already been heard in the Davis recording of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, where the contrast was already noticeable: the ethereal Deller against the more solid Asawa. A full disc of lute songs may not be everybody's cup of tea, but in small doses can be satisfying. The close miking in the church acoustic occasionally makes it difficult to appreciate what the singer is doing, but his wholesome approach to this music is salutary. The prevailing melancholy is sometimes broken by a merry song, but the majority of the literature is evidently of a pensive nature. Yes, Deller is inimitable, but we must recognize the new generation on its own considerable merits.

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Walton: Songs

Volume 2 of The English Song Series is devoted to Sir William Walton, whose song production was in proportion to the rest of his musical output. The youthful settings are eminently more lyrical than the two cycles dating from the late 50s and early 60s, while Dame Edith Sitwell's Façade brought forth the composer's first masterpiece. Three settings of that work were later discarded - including a jazzy "Old Sir Faulk" and a very Spanish "Through Gilded Trellises" - while we also are given three of the better known numbers as arranged for voice and piano by Christopher Palmer: these offer a panache missing elsewhere on this disc. The songs are equally divided between Felicity Lott whose explicit sophistication matches that of the composer and the much undervalued Martyn Hill, both of whom present this music in the best possible light, much aided by the indefatigable Graham Johnson, along with guitarist Craig Ogden for the cycle "Anon. in Love".

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Memories of Love: Russian Romances

Galina Gorchakova's exploration of Russian song finds her in much more comfortable estate than her recent excursions on disc into the Italian repertoire. The deep attraction of Spain manifested by many of the 19th century Russian composers also works for the soprano, the extravagance and extoversion both being aspects she easily encompasses. There are many good things on this disc, most of them in an outgoing vein, such as the Glinka "Bolero" or Dargomyzhsky's "Sixteen Years" to a mazurka rhythm, and even the Glinka "Lark" is largely successful despite the difficulty in fining down the voice. Larissa Gergieva's mastery of some not always easy piano parts is evident, even under the too close miking of the soloist. .

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The EMI Centenary Gala at Glyndebourne

EMI celebrated its 100th birthday with a gala performance at Glyndebourne, featuring many of its cherished artists, old and new. What is sometimes a wonderful evening in one's mind, however, does not always live up to the cold light of the recording engineer. Nicolai Gedda's rendition of Danilo's entrance from the Merry Widow is sufficient to almost make us forget his age, while Felicity Lott's extract from an operetta by André Messager has the chic for which this artist is known. Natalie Dessay makes light of Cunégonde's aria from Candide, and we are certainly not disappointed by Bär's Papageno or Willard White's "Old Man River". Thomas Hampson as Ford and Alison Hagley as Nanetta would grace just about any performance of Falstaff, which is also true of Alagna's Des Grieux (Massenet) where he is partnered by Angela Gheorghiu whose French leaves much to be desired. Ann Murray's wavering tone on sustained notes is compensated by her velocity through the runs of a difficult Handel aria from Alcina, while Bostridge and Ainsley are adequate. But what can be said of Amanda Roocroft's painful singing of Rusalka's invocation to the moon and Barbara Hendricks' massacre of an extract from Lehar's Giuditta for which she is manifestly unsuited vocally and temperamentally. Each of the conductors gets an overture to himself and the orchestral playing is supportive without ever being intrusive.

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Rebecca Evans: Debut

EMI has launched a new bargain series, Debut, to introduce new artists. Of the initial nine releases, three are devoted to vocal music including the above disc. Rebecca Evans is a young Welsh soprano with some impressive operatic credits. The Resphigi and Wolf-Ferrari are sufficiently rare, which increases the value of this disc in terms of repertoire. The soprano's voice seems not to have a wide range of color, but her ability to compensate for this lack is exceptional, her use of dynamics something to be envied by other young sopranos active today. Michael Pollock's accompaniments are serviceable. The absence of texts is regrettable - one might think that young artists should be introduced in the best of circumstances. It is further unfortunate that this generally praiseworthy disc comes so soon in the wake of Cecilia Bartoli's recent, intoxicating recital with James Levine.

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Rossini: L'inganno felice

Of Rossini's five early one-act farsas, L'inganno felice has always been the ugly duckling, despite the craftsmanship displayed which explains the high ranking given by certain experts. The lack of farcical elements, other than a buffo duet in which the good-hearted peasant and the villain's henchman try to outsmart one another, may be a contributing factor to this neglect, the sentimental, almost larmoyant, tone of the story may be another, but listening to the above cd is enough to prove us wrong, as the music scintillates from start to finish. Soprano, tenor and bass have arias of great beauty requiring a high degree of skill, while the ensembles fizz. Newcomer Annick Massis displays the confidence of a seasoned veteran, already admired in her recording of Handel's Risurezzione, while Raúl Giménez is a long-familiar quantity but no less welcome. Rodney Gilfry is totally out of his depth in a role written for Filippo Galli, the Samuel Ramey of his day, requiring an impeccable coloratura technique. Pietro Spagnoli and Lorenzo Regazzo in lesser roles display the necessary verve, but it is conductor Marc Minkowski who once again demonstrates that there is no need to cordon him off in a limited repertoire because Rossini, like Offenbach, fits him like a glove. Le Concert de Tuileries is yet another baroque orchestra, this one including instrumentalists from Minkowski's other group. Their playing, individually and collectively, is another indication of the conductor's mastery.

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L'Opéra français - a new series on Philips

Boieldieu: Ma tante Aurore (highlights)
Hérold: Le Pré-aux-Clercs (highlights)
Massenet: Manon (highlights)
Verdi: Rigoletto (sung in French)

Philips is continuing to pillage its attics and storerooms, and those of its colleagues, especially Vega, with the result that we are being (re)introduced to some of the byways of French opera and operetta and also some of the singers of the 50s and 60s who have been forgotten. Yes, a complete Rigoletto in French does not rank high on one's "must" list unless you are a diehard fan of Robert Massard, a much under-recorded baritone who gives pleasure with the sheer sound of his voice. But there is also Alain Vanzo, a scandalously neglected tenor, and Renée Doria a soprano worth getting to know. She is typically French, but a recording of Thaïs from the same period (with Massard, which we can only hope will be reissued in this series) and the Manon highlights indicate a singer who is exemplary in this repertoire, with her understanding of and communion with the Massenet idiom. Vanzo's approach to the French repertoire is also on the verge of becoming a lost art, thus rendering the Manon disc doubly valuable. The Boieldieu and Hérold are essential issues for those wishing to know more about early 19th century French opera, a domain of which we are still too much in ignorance.. These performances may not be to contemporary taste, but they are nonetheless valuable for the perpetuation of a certain tradition from which certain lessons should be taken, such as the crystal-clear diction that almost obviates the need for texts, which Philips has in any event not provided. Notes are provided, but only in French.

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