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Rameau: Les Fêtes d'Hébé

We are beginning to be spoiled with the constant additions to the catalogue of the operatic Rameau, each time increasingly respectful and amazed at the never-ending resources of a composer still misunderstood in many circles - we are often reminded by various commentators that had Rameau been Italian or German there would be no doubt as to his status today. William Christie has long been a chamption of the composer, from his 1960s traversal of the harpsichord music to his more recent recordings of the "big" operas, soon we hope to be joined by Zoroastre. Les Fêtes d'Hébé was one of Rameau's most popular works during his lifetime, and receives the highest praise from one of this century's foremost Ramellians, Cuthbert Girdlestone. The generally light tone of this "opéra-ballet" is easily captured by Christie, but at the same time the deeper emotions that surface from time to time are also encompassed. The extraordinary Jean-Paul Fouchécourt demonstrates both vocal agility and presence in his interventions, while Thierry Félix (whose voice is not always audible in the theater) makes it clear why he is so valued in this repertory. While none of the women is well-known, both the clear-voiced Sophie Daneman and the riper-toned Sarah Connolly are incisive and aware. The French diction is near perfect, an essential element for the flow of this music. Christie includes musettes and a galoubet among the instruments and their popular character imparts a new dimension to some of the dance music. The only fault to be found is that there is an error in the accompanying book: it is not Le Ruisseau who sings the virtuoso air in Act 1 but the Naiad.

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Messaien: Poèmes pour Mi; Le Réveil des oiseaux; Sept Haïkaï

Much of Messiaen's music has found an interpreter of choice in the composer's erstwhile pupil, and this disc is one in which the listener can revel. Pierre-Laurent Aimard in "Le Réveil des oiseaux" and Joela Jones in "Sept Haïkaï" are in the line of succession to Yvonne Loriod, making light of the difficult music, the "literal" transcription of the bird calls in "Le Réveil" evoking the conductor's legendary accuracy, something the Cleveland Orchestra can supply without turning a hair. The orchestral version of the "Poèmes pour Mi" has not fared well on disc, with perhaps only one competitor from the LP era never reissued on cd, that too conducted by Boulez but with Felicity Palmer in her soprano heyday 25 years ago. Mme Pollet's navigational skills in this complicated music are legendary, and she brings to it the burnished tone that is called for, along with the Wagnerian breadth Messiaen had in mind.

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Weber: Oberon

Oberon has always suffered from a bad press as a dramatic hodgepodge - which it is - but few have taken the trouble to take it seriously. This is only the fourth complete recording, but the first to include some of the dialogue so that there is some degree of dramatic continuity. Other recordings have made use of a narrator, which is probably the least effective solution, and at least one has used Mahler's edition of the score. The fact that there is no singer of superstar status in the main roles may be a contributory factor to the success of this venture, everyone working together in a collaborative spirit. Inga Nielsen's coloratura origins help her negotiate the difficulties of Rezia's music with ease, while Peter Seiffert's Huon tackles all the considerable hurdles set by the composer with considerable nonchalance. Veselina Kasarova and Bo Skovhus as the secondary pair have much less to do, but are nonetheless very present. Only Deon von der Walt's strained appearances in the title role leave us perplexed. While lacking the imaginative approach of a Kubelik (DGG), Marek Janowski is so at home with the romantic idiom that he can conjure up a wealth of color and atmosphere with a Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in fine form. Now, how about someone giving us a recording in the original language of the work, English?

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Shostakovich: Moskva, Cheremushki

One of the least-known aspects of Shostakovich's creativity is his popular music, whether in the form of patriotic songs or, as here, musical comedy. And make no mistake about it, this is a musical comedy. Written at a time when satire was permitted, however slight, the social commentary concerns a group of Muscovites who are allotted new apartments in the Cheremushki district but have to deal with the machinations of two bureaucrats. There are fantastic elements such as the magic garden containing a magic bench which constrains those sitting upon it to tell the truth. All of this is set to music which would just as easily have graced a Broadway musical comedy of the 40s or 50s, orchestrated in a fashion to rival the work of Hershy Kay or Robert Russell Bennett. The eight-member all-Russian cast sound like they are enjoying themselves in both dialogue and song, tackling several roles each. Other than a tenor whose upper register is not integrated with the rest of his voice, the remainder of the mostly young cast offer further proof that there are some impressive talents still to be found in the former Soviet Union. Those who appreciate the creator of some of this century's most significant symphonic and chamber-music will have to reconstruct their image of the composer to encompass this new facet of his work that has little to do with the "serious" in any sense. Echoes of Viennese operetta, Offenbach, 19th century Russian opera and ballet are among the influences described in Gerard McBurney's excellent accompanying notes, alongside some further self-citations that are politically devastating.

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Bach: Mass in B minor

Philippe Herreweghe's reading of Bach's B minor Mass has been available for the last ten years on the Virgin label, but this 1996 model was thought to be necessary by someone. The performance offers no surprises other than an extremely reverberant acoustic with voices and instruments recorded extremely close up, so that one can hear the keys clacking on some of the instruments, the flautist breathing in the "Domine deus", the sibilance as the chorus exaggerates its "s". It is surprising how much the white-voiced sopranos sound like boys, and how two countertenors succeed in masking three female altos. Soloists are excellent aside from Peter Kooy who is too effortful in what is admittedly difficult music, with special praise for Andreas Scholl. Herreweghe's reading is on a par with Leonhardt and Brüggen or his earlier self, but the awkward acoustic relegates this to a distant fourth place - among "baroquist" versions.

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Chausson: Mélodies

If ever there was a composer in need of championing, it is Ernest Chausson. His mélodies form a large portion of his output, from his early years up to his last work. Nathalie Stutzmann presents the works in order of opus number, starting with the best known op. 2, but going on to include such rarely performed and even more rarely recorded works as "La Caravane" and "Les serres chaudes" before ending with the "Chanson Perpétuelle", here with its previously unrecorded accompaniment for piano alone. The singer's deep contralto is not the type of voice normally associated with this literature, but her verbal intensity and projection ultimately make this a rewarding disc. The presence of pianist Inger Södergren is a major factor in the success for she is not merely an accompanist but a full partner, capable of evoking a full orchestra in "La Caravane" and at the same time the half tints of the Maeterlinck settings. Perhaps the sole reproach we can offer concerning this ultimately satisfying disc is the absence of a string quartet for the "Chanson Perpétuelle", as the version for piano alone lacks the sombre quality essential to the piece.

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Bolero: A Spanish Songbook

A curious disc, with Russian composers in Spanish mode alongside the real thing. Shostakovich's Op. 100 seems to have been written to justify this recording, for it has few merits of its own. The well-known mezzo Zara Doloukhanova noted the songs and texts as sung by a Spanish singer resident in Moscow and the composer arranged them. The most Spanish-sounding among them seem more parody than anything else. The Seven Popular Songs of Falla don't sit comfortably on Borodina's lush voice, and she is totally ill at ease in Granados. Fortunately, the Russian portion of the disc is better conceived, a noteworthy discovery being the "young" Russian composer Mark Minkov, born in 1944, whose "Landscape" is proof that it is still possible to compose songs today. Glinka and Dargomyzhsky show the singer at her best, while Semyon Skigin's accompaniments show him to be a true partner.

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Sumi Jo: Bel Canto

Sumi Jo's second recital album for Erato shows a return to the past, with a nightingale approach to Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. We now know that much of this music was in fact written for voices with somewhat more body, but the soprano's vitality and charm almost succeed in convincing us that she is capable of assuming such roles as Bellini's Amina and Giulietta and perhaps even Elvira, Verdi's Nanetta, Donizetti's Linda. The excerpt from Semiramide is here rendered as a showpiece, which is only part of the story. An excerpt from Tancredi is unnecessary as we already have the soprano on a complete recording of the work, while Traviata is another example of perhaps over-stretching, but then in the old days even Galli-Curci or Pons sang Violetta. Annetta's aria from Crispino e la comare by the brothers Ricci is the rarety here, though other coloratura sopranos have also had fun with this show-off piece. Now that she has once again demonstrated that she has few rivals today in a no-longer crowded field, perhaps Sumi Jo will now give us an out and out display record, or - even better - explore some little known byways so that there is some meat on which to chew.

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Warlock: Songs

Volume 3 of The English Song Series is devoted to the often misunderstood and under-appreciated Peter Warlock, perhaps a British equivalent of Hugo Wolf in that the bulk of his production was vocal. As usual, Collins has astutely chosen the interpreters, with Adrian Thompson's not always beautiful tenor voice absolutely apt for "The Curlew", a cycle with string quartet, flute and English horn. The rest of the disc is shared with the warm-toned baritone Christopher Maltman, one of the revelations of last year's vocal competition in Cardiff, and John Constable as pianist instead of the ubiquitous Graham Johnson. The variety of material belies Warlock's reputation as a one-mood composer, from the boisterous "Fancies" (drinking songs) and "Peterisms" to the folklike "Lillygay" to the expected bittersweet quality of the "Saudades", his first composition. The disc is full of gems and should be acquired by lovers of the song literature eager for discovery of a (minor) master, one who indicates that there was indeed some worthwhile musical activity between Purcell and Britten.

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Bach: Complete cantatas, Vol. 4 &Complete cantatas, Vol. 5

The new Erato series of Bach cantata recordings has now reached the point where the major corpus of sacred works will be attacked, Vols. 4 and 5 finishing off the secular works. The initital enthusiasm of many listeners may be waning, not through any lack of communicativeness or enthusiasm on the part of the conductor and driving force, Ton Koopman, but because of his choice of female singers. Barbara Schlick in the early volumes may not have been ideal, but her mastery was never in question. The bright-but-shallow-toned sopranos who have succeeded her have neither interpretative nor vocal qualities in any way compensatory, whether the sopranos from the chorus or Lisa Larsson, the soloist in the major solo soprano cantatas, BWV 202, 204 209, 210. The same applies to Elisabeth von Magnus, the alto who took over from the countertenors in Vols. 1 and 2; her colorless voice may possess a certain velocity, but the absence of warmth is a common fault among the women. The festive cantatas with trumpets and drums (BWV 214, 215) seem to bring out the best among the performers, while even the funeral cantata (BWV 198) is impressive, but that is the exception among the more devotional works. The "Coffee" and "Peasant" Cantatas are charming, which is about all one can ask of them. The fugitive appearance of Andreas Scholl in Vol. 3 to sing BWV 54 was a rare treat, allowing us to hope that other singers will also be engaged.

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Tippett: The Rose Lake; The Vision of St. Augustine

Sir Michael Tippett, who died only the other day as this is being written, spent many of his years in the shadow of his friend and contemporary, Benjamin Britten, but the last 30 years or so have seen him emerge into the limelight on his own considerable merits. Premiered in 1965, recorded in 1971 and only now reissued on cd, The Vision of St. Augustine has languished too long in oblivion, until a recording of the concert given for the composer's 80th birthday in 1985 was recently issued on the BBC label. The earlier recording, however, has the advantage of soloist and composer-conductor being 14 years younger, not a disadvantage in this complicated score which repays the listener upon repeated hearings. The composer has always been one of his own best advocates and this performance is no exception. The Rose Lake is one of the composer's last works, premiered only in 1995 and inspired by a visit to a lake in Sénégal which literally turns rose in the midday sun. Tippett's undiminished inspiration is burnished by Colin Davis, one of the composer's earliest and most long-standing champions, leading the London Symphony Orchestra which is as persuasive in 1997 as it was in 1971. What a fitting tribute to a composer whose output was not prolific but always significant, composer of one of this century's most lyrical operas that unfortunately has yet to find its place. It would be a fitting tribute if Midsummer Marriage were at last to join the works of Britten, Janacek and Berg as part of the standard repertoire.

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Caplet: Mélodies

France may be the country that most neglects its cultural heritage. Only recently have the smaller record labels started to explore with a degree of consistency this enormous continent: Maguelone is issuing a series of cds entitled Mélodiste français, which has already given us Massenet and Leguerney and promises even more neglected musicians such as Max d'Ollone. André Caplet, like Messager, was equally well-known in his time as a conductor, and his name remains in the catalogues as the person who orchestrated certain works of Debussy. His songs are fascinating, more wide-ranging than many others of the period, closely following the texts yet always remaining strongly focussed. All the works but one on this disc come from the composer's maturity, and his approach to La Fontaine is vastly different from his reaction to his contemporaries like Paul Fort or Rémy de Gourmont. Dominique Favat is a persuasive interpreter when the music remains below a mezzo forte when her voice turns harsh, while Line Marand is an equal partner in music that is not always easy to bring off. A series to be followed with interest.

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