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Telemann: Orpheus

What a wonderful surprise when I placed the first disc in my player - the most wonderful music started to emerge and I was spellbound for two hours, 39 minutes and 24 seconds. We too often tend to relegate Telemann to the limbo for composers who are not quite Bach or not quite Handel. Yes, these influences are readily apparent, but the composer succeeds in forging a voice of his own. This recently rediscovered work had once been thought to be a pastiche because of the number of arias in Italian and French, alongside the basic German of the libretto, but research has proven that it is pure Telemann. The long cast list might be puzzling to a potential audience, but that has to do with the French opera by Lully's son from which the libretto is taken. Euridice is a subsidiary role, as Orasia, Queen of Thrace, takes over center stage with her unrequited love for Orpheus. Dorothea Röschmann makes the most of every considerable opportunity granted her. The music is exciting in its difficulties, all easily overcome by a cast that revels in the music, and at the same time touching the heart in the many laments, all under the enchanted baton of René Jacobs. Stage performances in 1994, in which only Trekel and Köhler participated, must have been an enormous help in finding the requisite dynamic for a work and performance pulsing with life at every moment.

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Verdi: Ernani

The twi mysteries surrounding this release are why this recording made in May 1987 was never previously issued, and why has it suddenly found grace in the ears of whomever was standing in the way until now? Let it be said that the tenor is in reasonable shape, and that the soprano - already past her 60th birthday - is not in such reasonable shape, with wavery high notes, a less easy top than she used to muster. Leo Nucci is not the most elegant of Verdi baritones while Paata Burchuladze's Slavic bass is not exactly what is required for the role of Silva, notwithstanding such exponents as Christoff and Ghiaurov. Add to that Richard Bonynge who conducts much of the music as if it were by Minkus - which is perfectly all right in its place - or else imparts a jaunty or sometimes circus aspect which other conductors who have ventured into this repertory have known how to avoid, not to mention too many little blemishes that should have been corrected, and you have the perfect example of a useless recording. The extra tenor aria that Verdi wrote for a protege of Rossini terminates the third act, but you can hear it better sung by Pavarotti himself, conducted by Abbado, in an older disc of Verdi rarities still available on Sony.

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Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette

Philips has not lacked for outstanding performances of Berlioz's Dramatic Symphony, both the Davis versions displaying the affinity of conductor and composer, the second even surpassing the first as we pointed out last year. John Eliot Gardiner's credentials in this area manifested themselves as early as the late 1960s, continuing with a number of more recent recordings of Berlioz with the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The sound of snarling ophicleides and slightly more piercing winds is particularly appropriate to Berlioz, and Gardiner's pacing and sense of color allow each element its place in the narrative. Where we complained last year that the Davis recording placed the soloists too far forward, here they are placed in the midst of the choral mass, so that Frère Laurent's sermon lacks the incisiveness that Gilles Cachemaille is able to give it in live performance. If you are looking for a recording of Berlioz at his best, however, you could do much worse than this version by Gardiner at his best. A bonus is the unearthing of Berlioz's first thoughts so that you can program the traditional version, the first version or Gardiner's choice which offers a composite.

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Adam: Le Toréador

Richard Bonynge is much more in his element in this piece of 19th century French fluff than in early Verdi, but that is something we have known for a long time. And this is certainly fluff, albeit charming from start to finish, with a part for the solo flutist that almost establishes him as a fourth principal. Sumi Jo dazzles her way through some difficult music, including variations on "Ah vous dirai-je maman" that turn out here to be a trio and a show-stopper of an aria. An actress inobtrusively takes over the extensive dialogue, some of it in mélodrame over the music, while Aler and Trempont are responsible for their own lines. Aler comes fairly close to what is required for this music, while Trempont's understanding of the style unfortunately does not entirely compensate for the prevailing gruffness of his tone. Excellent notes by Jeremy Commons are an additional plus. The only question we might ask of the producer concerns the high note concluding the soprano's air - was this the correct "take"?

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American Songs

Barbara Bonney is to be congratulated on both program and execution of a remarkable disc featuring world premiere recordings of works by André Previn and Dominick Argento, as well as "more familiar" cycles by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Previn's "Salie Chisum remembers Billy the Kid" was written for the soprano, whose family history says that the Bonneys are related to William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. In fact, these are the memories of a prostitute who knew both Billy and Pat Garrett, and the music is in Barber's "Knoxville" vein, which is not too bad. Bonney manages to overcome memories of Leontyne Price in the Hermit Songs, a difficult task, but she has her own ideas about the music which are equally pertinent. Copland's settings of Emily Dickinson match the poet's concision while Dominick Argento's Six Elizabethan Songs are the surprise if the set, far more tuneful than his discmates. Indispensable for a new view of repertory in need of varied interpretations.

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Poulenc: Mélodies

Continuing his exploration of Poulenc's songs, Pascal Rogé has chosen Felicity Lott for his third venture into a repertory far more challenging than many would admit. Greatly admired by the French, Dame Felicity has here bitten off a bit more than she can comfortably digest, her voice lacking the weight for "Les Ponts de C", the insouciance necessary to make Cocteau's Toréador - which is not even part of the canon according to Pierre Bernac - a viable proposition, the gravity for "Priez pour paix". Songs which are "cute" become even more so in her treatment, where a more straight-faced approach might result in something closer to the composer's intentions: we should not forget that he wished for scrupulous attention to musical values. The soprano is too often stretched at either extreme of her range, leading to just the exaggerations that the composer disliked. Rogé's impeccable pianism, as throughout this series, remains exemplary.

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Rachmaninov: Aleko; The Miserly Knight; Francesca da Rimini

Rachmaninov's operas have often been relegated to the category of minor or unimportant works in his catalogue: these new versions easily replace the stopgap Russian-based recordings now available on a mid-price reissue from Harmonia Mundi. Earlier recordings remain stubbornly unavailable, making Järvi's inflamed readings more than welcome. While we may regret the absence of Chaliapin-like singers, the casts more than fulfill their tasks, not always easy when Leiferkus is attempting to produce a darker sound than is his by nature or Guleghina is kept at an uncomfortably high tessitura for longer than is comfortable, but singers on earlier recordings suffered similarly. These are minor flaws in an otherwise stunning recording. It is Järvi, however, who is the hero, almost convincing us of the power of these one-acters, all of which suffer from libretto problems. But there are enough moments when we begin to regret that the composer never had a decent text to work with, because it is clear that he would probably have added significantly to the modern Russian repertory. Nor should we forget a word of thanks to Volvo who supported the project. The discs are for the moment being sold as a single package, but the fact that each comes with its own booklet augurs an eventual separate release.

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Weill: Johnny Johnson

Johnny Johnson was Weill's first Broadway musical, not an enormous success, but that may more likely be attributed to Paul Green's book, the tale of a reluctant soldier who is destroyed by the war. We can see that it was precisely the book that must have attracted the newly-arrived Weill with its anti-militaristic leanings, to which the composer offered his customary mélange of bittersweet love songs and acid commentary. Too often disparaged for his supposed "sell-out" to the commercialism of America, we should not forget that it was Weill himself who maintained that if ever opera should emerge as an American art form it would emanate from the Broadway musical comedy, a point well-sustained by many of the works of the American period as was demonstrated last year in an EMI release featuring Thomas Hampson and entitled Kurt Weill on Broadway (7243 5 55563 2 5), which we warmly welcomed at the time. The songs here are short and pithy, never outstaying their welcome, and linked by short dialogue passages to give the necessary context. In any vein, Weill finds an appropriate manner so that listeners will be easily drawn in to a work that might profitably be programmed in strife-torn areas. A word about Lys Symonette's performing edition might have clarified how much she deviated from Weill's original,

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Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress

How do we know when an opera has entered the standard repertoire? One criterion might perhaps be the existence of more than two or three recorded versions. The Rake's Progress has been fortunate, with Kent Nagano and Seiji Ozawa at the helm of, respectively, the fourth (Erato) and fifth (Philips) commercial recordings, and a sixth underway from John Eliot Gardiner (DGG). Although both the new recordings are excellent, neither significantly alters the landscape. Both Nagano with his forces from the Opéra de Lyon and Ozawa with his Saito Kinen Orchestra and the Tokyo Opera Singers offer crisp readings, but I suspect that the latter was recorded in a more resonant or reverberant environment than the former, rounding off some of the sharper edges and asperities we tend to associate with Stravinsky's writing. Both sets audibly originate from stage performances which preceded the actual sessions, and you can immediately hear, for example, on the Erato that Grace Bumbry was a late addition for the recording only, her pedestrian contribution almost sounding like sight reading. Comparison with the other set shows Jane Henschel to be the clear winner, far more alive to verbal nuance and sounding more natural. On the other hand, Samuel Ramey's Nick Shadow is far more polished, especially vocally, than Paul Plishka's for Ozawa. After that, it becomes a question of individual taste, Dawn Upshaw (Erato) or Sylvia McNair (Philips) both touching as Anne, capable of bravura at the end of Act One but also having the control for the Lullaby. (Upshaw has probably sung more different productions of the work than any other soprano.) But when is someone going to give us a more substantial soprano such as Schwarzkopf who created the role or Gueden who first sang it at the Met. Jerry Hadley has made a specialty of the title role and was captured at just the right moment by Erato, while it might have been just a shade too late for Anthony Rolfe-Johnson despite his greater verbal felicity. I preferred Trulove and Mother Goose (Robert Lloyd and Anne Collins) on the Nagano set, Sellem (Ian Bostridge) for Ozawa. All of this leaves potential purchasers in the lurch, with no clear recommendation, particularly as Chailly's 1984 recording suffers from an inexplicably cast heroine. Stravinsky's first version (1953) has never been issued on CD in deference to the composer's second go in 1962, which is for the moment the best buy as it is the only available version at mid-price. And the singers are excellent: Alexander Young's Rake may be the best all round, with John Reardon a lighter-voiced Nick than is usually the case today; I have fewer problems with Judith Raskin (Anne) and Regina Sarfaty (Baba) than many other listeners, finding them a good deal more than just merely acceptable. A reissue of the composer's first version would be welcome for Hilde Gueden's Anne, sung with a fuller tone than has today become the rule, while Blanche Thebom's Baba remains exemplary. Eugene Conley's ringing tones are something Tom has been deprived of recently. Only the impeccably sung Nick of Mack Harrell lacks character. If the cast of Gardiner's concert version turns out to be that for the recording, we may still have some problems with an undercast Anne in the person of Deborah York. Anne Sofie von Otter, Ian Bostridge and Bryn Terfel, on the other hand, sound promising as Baba, Tom and Nick.

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