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Music Lounge (18)

Rinaldo was the first opera Handel composed to be performed in London. He felt that it was a big opportunity for him and realized he should pull all stops if he were to build a name for him in England. This meant to produce a music-dramatic stravaganza that would not give the audience one second out of awe. The production involved all kinds of stage tricks, extravagant costumes, grandiose sets, you name it. Yet in order to guarantee that the music would be up to the level of the staging, Handel decided to play safe and borrow numbers from earlier works such as Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno or Aci, Galatea and Polifemo. Everybody quotes Dean and Knapp’s book Handel’s Operas (and I won’t be an exception): the score was an anthology of the composer’s best works of his Italian period.

Of course, the libretto was based in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Dramatist Aaron Hill prepared a scenario from which librettist Giacomo Rossi wrote in just a couple of weeks his verses about the adventures of the knight Rinaldo and his beloved Almirena, the daughter of the Commander of the First Crusade, here dealing with the Saracen King of Jerusalem, Argante, and the Sorceress Queen of Damascus, Armida (who else?). The audience is supposed to take the two lovebirds’ side, but this is one of those plots like Lohengrin in which it’s difficult to resist the charms of the bad guys. While with Rinaldo and Almirena are either cooing or woeful, Argante and Armida are having the time of their lives being evil and loving it. And they’re also a bit oversexed too, and they have no problem in finding some time for fun (with each other or with other people) while they devise their wicked plans.

The duet Al trionfo del nostro furore takes place in the third act. Both Argante and Armida have their armies in front of them, ready for battle against the crusaders. They promise they are going to curb their enemies, but as soon this nuisance is over, they can always have some quality time together. Handel spares no detail in musically describing the scene, which cannot help having a touch of comedy in this serious setting. First of all, although there are warriors and weapons everywhere, there is no trumpet to be heard in the orchestra, as the military affetto requires. Oboes, the nickname of which in the baroque era was “corno di camera” (in a very free translation, “indoors trumpets”), are used instead. These commanders in chief are thinking rather of what they intend to do inside rather than in what is going to happen outside in the next minute… So here we are with those telenovela bad guys, eye patches matching the color of their suits trying to inspire motivation in their troops.

Handel was an expert in writing duets in which the vocal parts cross back and forth and Al trionfo del nostro furore is no exception. Actually, this almost guides the stage action. Although they have a common enemy (the crusaders), they don’t sing in parallels for long, as if they were fighting for the microphone only to repeat what has just been said. As we’ve seen, they are totally unfocused and have very little interest in the proceedings. They want to win – but they don’t really want to fight. And they gloat and cackle fabulously. Handel uses the rather nasal sound “on” in the word trionfo (triumph) to produce the musical version of an evil laugh. The more they relish their muahahaha, the more asinine they sound. In the end, they don’t come across as truly evil, but rather beastly. No wonder the B section shows them succumbing to each other’s charms; the military affetto is over and they’re just can’t keep their hands off each other, their melisme sensuously intertwining. That’s the moment they remember that the troops are there just waiting for to march for the battlefield. Then it’s time for the repeat of the A section. They have nothing new to say. Actually, they never had anything to say in the first place. As we see, this is masterly use of the ABA form – it perfectly depicts the dramatic situation, as much as Handel’s vocal writing shows the dynamic between these two characters. In the recording we’re hearing today, both singers deliver their lines unadorned, and I find this more effective in this context.  

One may wonder if Handel did not show these two bad guys as too harmless. Well, in the end they accept their defeat more elegantly than some contemporary world leaders. She breaks her magic wand and both convert to Christianity. The crusaders respond by setting them free and the opera ends in a big celebration.*

Christopher Hogwood’s recording of Handel’s Rinaldo with the Academy of Ancient Music was something of an all-star release with Cecilia Bartoli as the ingénue Almirena and David Daniels (then the reigning countertenor in the operatic scene) in the title role. Bernarda Fink appears as Goffredo and we see the names of Bejun Mehta, Catherine Bott and Mark Padmore in tiny roles. However, reviewers were quite puzzled with the casting of Luba Orgonasová and Gerald Finley as the bad guys. It just felt like an old movie in which Joan Fontaine and James Stewart were playing sexy psychos. That said, both Orgonasová and Finley sing superbly and never exaggerate – and that’s the opposite of what most singers in these roles do. As we’ve seen, Handel does not need any help here – it’s all in the notes. The way Aaron Hill and Handel created this opera, Armida and Argante were supposed to leave a flashing impression in the audience. One would utter the 18th century version of “wow!” every time they were on stage, and having congenial voices here fits the concept.

Luba Orgonasová is a singer I know from recordings only. A Mozart soprano with the right touch of Slavic vibrancy, she was a stylish, musicianly Donna Anna and Konstanze for John Eliot Gardiner and a poised Pamina for Armin Jordan on CDs. One could see in the programs of her recorded recitals that she liked Italian roles, but to my ears her voice lacked the last ounce of Italian brightness and her personality was too discreet for them. Fortunately, she was mostly recorded in suitable parts, such as Agathe in Der Freischütz and many sacred works ranging from Haydn to Dvorak. It is sad, though, that there has not been an official release of her singing R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder.

This recording of Handel’s Rinaldo was one of the first in a series of high profile releases with Gerald Finley, whom I was lucky to see both in concert and in opera, a technically impeccable singer incapable of bad taste. He himself has acknowledged in interviews that it is hard to see him as someone who plays “bad guy” roles, but he has tried nonetheless. He has even recorded the part of Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Yet it is hard to see any evil in his voice, unless we’re speaking of Handel’s edulcorated approach to evil as seen and heard in his Rinaldo.

*To be honest, in the 1731 revision, Armida and Argante refuse to acknowledge the crusaders’ victory and fly away in a dragon-drawn chariot.

Music Lounge (17)

There are voices that seems to be a rule unto themselves – they challenge classification, they impress at the most unexpected turns of phrase, they do not seem to fit any particular role. These are unique voices, which will probably fail to please the first time you hear them, but you will recognise them immediately the minute you hear them again. For instance, Lucia Valentini-Terrani’s smoky mezzo-soprano had a very particular grain. Hers was a voice with many shades, but all of them a little bit hazy, as in a painting by Tiepolo. And yet Valentini-Terrani used her subtle tonal palette with classical discipline. Her first claim to fame was the ease with coloratura that promoted her as a Rossini mezzo, even if she sounded a bit too serious in roles such as Rosina or Angelina. I don’t believe she has ever had an -ina personality, and maybe that is why she ended up singing trouser roles, most especially Arsace in Semiramide. And yet there has always been a very thin layer of varnish in her voice – it was not a diamantine brightness, but rather a pearly sheen, more evident when she was not hard-pressed in heavier roles.

The unusual sound of her voice might have had something to do with the peculiarity of her repertoire. She sang many rare works – and if Mozart did not seem to agree with her voice – she did sing baroque music (most famously in Abbado’s recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) and appeared in Antal Dorati’s recording of Haydn’s La Fedeltà Premiata, one his Esterházy operas.

La Fedeltà Premiata is a very strange work, with tons of recitatives, a large cast and a nonsensical plot. The key figure in this classic Greek setting is Celia (ak.a. Fillide), an ill-fated shepherdess separated by mysterious circumstances from her beloved Fileno. We’re hearing her entrance aria, Placidi Ruscelletti (Peaceful rivulets). She laments her bad luck and, emotionally exhausted, falls asleep, only to be found by…. Fileno! But, of course, things are not going to be easy for them. Every year, a pair of truly faithful lovers are offered in sacrifice to a sea monster (so that it spares the rest of the city inhabitants until the next year). As it seems to be a shortage of a couples that could be described like that, Celia pretends to jilt poor Fileno so that they don’t become the monster’s next snack. Anyway, here Celia doesn’t know all that yet. She is just very unhappy and, as everyone in Arcadian settings, converses with brooks, laurel trees and turtle doves.

The aria opens in full Gluckian glory. This could be a scene in Orphée et Eurydice, and, with one sound, Lucia Valentini Terrani establishes that Celia is the alpha female character in the plot. Almost everybody is in love with her – and the smoky tone is there to spark the attention. You’ll notice that, if the color is exotic, the phrasing is impeccably classic, with every appoggiatura precisely rendered and the line conducted with purity and cleanliness. One extra perk is that, being Italian, she never accents the wrong syllable. You’ll hear her sing “sventuRAto”, “veDESte”. This is not a small detail – not only does this make the text easier to understand, but also gives dynamic profile to phrasing. I am fascinated by the very quality of the sound Valentini-Terrani produces here – it is a tad veiled, but it sparkles somehow in an almost “pianistic” way and it also floats at the same time. This is Haydn and a fussy interpretation would not make sense, but even then there are tiny details. For instance, how she says the word cor (heart) always in a hushed tone. Although she is speaking to the meadows etc, when she thinks of how her heart feels tormented, the voice acquires a subdued quality, exactly as someone would do if he or she would tell you how miserable he is. The voice fails a bit at moments like that, doesn’t it?

The short recitative-like section right in the middle of the aria standing for a b section starts with a slightly darker tone. For an Italian mezzo soprano active in the 1970’s, Valentini-Terrani was very conscious of how to use her chest resonance. The richness is there but she tries to keep it as homogeneous as possible for a matter of style, and the darker color appears right in the only line in the text where nature reflects her misery. Although the brook and the meadows are placid and friendly, the valleys are cloudy and sad like Celia/Fillide. We’re back to the first section, and Valentini-Terrani’s variation in tone colour is very subtle. She sounds a little bit more dejected here, the tone even more appealing in its intriguing colors. Haydn ends the aria with a little bit more energy with an upwards scale and Valentini-Terrani balances it in a way that does not make Celia sound animated. As we’ve seen she is rather depressed here. When she wakes up, however, Fileno will be right in front of her – but then they’ll be in danger too. The libretto, as we know, is awful, but that is undeniably an interesting dramatic situation.

Music lounge (16)

I have the feeling that contraltos must be tired of hearing “I love the contralto voice”, but what can I do but agree? I really adore the contralto voice, the cliché “force of nature” is apt and I won’t resist it. No wonder Wagner chose it for Erda. Who can resist the contralto voice when it rings, amidst magical sonorities and stage smoke, in Weiche, Wotan, weiche! It is indeed a sound that would make a god stop whatever he was about to do. Many mezzos with a spacious low register enjoy the incursion in the contralto repertoire, but it just sounds different when one hears the real thing.

Although I could write a long list of favorite singers in the Fach, if I have to keep one example to show someone from another planet what it was all about, I wouldn’t think twice: Helen Watts. I was listening to the Solti Elektra for the first time and, when I heard her sing Dass die Königin solch einen Dämon frei in Haus und Hof sein Wesen treiben lässt, I just thought “wow!”. Her pitch dark, on-your-face low notes are expected in a singer in that voice category, but the voice had a round, free sound throughout her range that made her successful even when the line required a sustained legato in upper reaches. I sometimes hear “her low notes are a bit too masculine” and – yes, they are written in “bold” – but she was successful too in evoking a motherly gentleness that made her particularly appreciated in Bach. She could phrase with instrumental poise too, with precise divisions and super clear diction.

I hesitated before choosing her recording of one of my favourite songs by Brahms, Sapphische Ode. It is a song of Mozartian simplicity, in which there is not one note too much – and everything is made to sound intimate, warm, it feels like being loved. Maybe because of that, some say that Watts is too imposing in it. Yes, if you compare her to Janet Baker in her recording with André Previn, it is more feminine, dreamier, more “in awe” – and I had to listen to these both recordings for a while to confirm that Watts’s is my favorite. Even if I concede that Watts sounds a bit stately in it. I don’t care – what a sound! In any case, I believe that Dalton Baldwin accompaniment is an important part of this performance – he chooses a flowing tempo that helps Watts sound a bit lighter than she would in Previn’s tempo for Baker. Also, the syncopation makes it difficult for us to hear this song as it should – as a boat gently rocked by waves rather than a horse trot. And the sound of his piano is warm and intimate too. The wear in the LP on the YouTube clip make it even more special.

The first impression of this song is its curious title – actually it has none, for it is rather an explanation of its poetic technique. It is a poem written according to classical standards, in Sapphic style. The reference to Sappho, however, means that it is a text to be sung, as it is believed to be the case the odes written by Sappho. The poet of the text in Sapphische Ode, Hans Schmidt, was a friend of Brahms’s and a composer himself. Here he follows the basic cell of a Sapphic ode: four-line stanzas following a pattern of three Sapphic lines (11 syllables, trochaic with the central foot a dactyl) and an Adonic line (5 syllables, a dactyl and a trochee). As much as the piano accompaniment and its syncopated rhythm, the poetic structure gives an irregular sensation due to the mixed nature of metric feet. For instance: ROsen BRACH ich NACHTS mir am DUNklen HAge. The way Brahms composed it involves not only an irregularity of rhythm – harmony is sometimes ambiguous too – but most importantly it constantly explores the shift between registers. It is not vocally impossibly challenging, but the singer must be an expert in navigating the register break. Otherwise she’ll sink.

The text in Hans Schmidt’s poem itself is rather intriguing too and also has a certain “irregularity”, a strangeness in itself. The poet has gone at night to collect roses from a hedge, they smell sweeter than by day. When he moved the branches, he was showered with dew. When he kisses at night his beloved one, he has been entranced as never before, because moved by her own feelings like the branch of roses, her eyes shed tears on him like the dew before that. In the first stanza, we have a natural, macrocosmic perspective much like the first part of a haiku, the peculiarity being its synesthetic simile: we’re speaking of roses and their perfume and then we end on dew and moisture on one’s skin. The movement dislocates the sensation. Next stanza we’re in an entirely different environment – it is a bedroom and we hear of fragrant kisses and then we’re speaking of tears and the moisture on one’s skin. The feeling (love, passion…) dislocates the sensation.

Brahms tries to recreate this dislocation by the “shape” of melodic lines for each half of both stanzas. The song starts with very regular up-and-down lines, even the harmony is “squarer” in the beginning. When he describes the feeling of the dew, harmony becomes a little bit foggy and the lines sinuous. The Adonic line has an entirely different profile – it is the one with a long note and a grupetto. With small variations that intensify some effects, the second stanza works in the same way.

At first, yes, Helen Watts sounds a bit grand-dame-ish for a song about sensuality. But then the non-title – Sapphic ode – makes me think of something academic, like a group of intellectuals trying to recreate the art of Ancient Greece. And I like the way her voice adds depth and authority to the proceedings. In terms of pure singing, she handles the intervals famously – it is solid, uncomplicated singing. One never stops to think if it is difficult or not, it is just a song. What calls attention is the fact that the lower part of her range is so strong. There is a feeling of two perspectives there, a voice that suddenly has “super powers” – and, maybe I’m being too imaginative here, it increases the text and the music idea of something revealing new dimensions when you come closer to it. Actually, Watts does not seem keen here on showing all the darkness of her low notes at every opportunity. She handles her low register very gently in this song. She starts the song very objectively. She softens her tone at one point, exactly the moment when the poet speaks of the dew, in the word Doch (however) and in the end of the same line in the second syllable of Äste (branches). She has a different tone color for the Adonic line – the way she develops her tone in Tau (dew) is admirable. It gains in color very subtly, the effect is similar to experiencing a sensation, letting it sink in your experience and then she sings the grupetto as a Bach singer, very precisely as it should be: it is the description of the dewdrops. She starts the second stanza in a hushed tone – we’re in an indoors setting now – and she increases dynamic and color when she sings about the kisses in the line Die ich nachts vom Strauch deiner Lippen pflückte (plucked at night from the shrubs that are your lips), this sensation indeed makes the poet’s blood run faster in comparison to picking roses in the garden. She starts the line with Doch softly as in the first stanza, but here Brahms changes it a bit and it ends in a lower note (which Watts sing with gusto, of course). She sings the Adonic line quite the same way in the first stanza – as it should be – that’s the whole point of the song – “Du bist wie eine Blume”

There are many good recordings of Sapphische Ode and I’m not trying to say that this one is the best. It is just very special for the outstanding quality of Helen Watts voice and the way she and the pianist recreate the nightly atmosphere. It may lack the last ounce of sensuousness, but I find that other singers who go that way are either uncomfortable with the register break or even miss the “high culture” connection impression that the poem must evoke.

Music lounge (15)

Among the songs in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, Trockne Blumen is one of the most challenging. The piano accompaniment, in the first part of the song, is limited to dry chords. The second part takes the singer to the most uncomfortable part of the tenor’s range. And there is the text. Die schöne Müllerin is Romanticism at its most passive-aggressive, and Trockne Blumen is something of a self-piety stravaganza. Wilhelm Müller definitely did not see it like that – the feelings experimented by the character in these poems are so vast and so intense that they can only be corresponded by nature etc etc. But Trockne Blumen is as challenging for the tenor in terms of interpretation as Frauenliebe und Leben. If you try to emulate a 19th century mentality there, you are going to sound coy. And again – you are alone in this song. For most of it, the pianist presses a chord then there is a pause and then another chord and another pause and so forth.

Why am I saying “tenor”? Schubert was not specific about the tenor voice. The original tessitura falls in the slot usually called in Lieder repertoire “for high voice” – and the nature of the text “requires” a male singer. Therefore, a tenor. However, Schubert probably imagined that there would soon be an edition “for low voice” and might have even seen baritones sing it. Regardless of how well individual baritones sing it, I find that the music and the poems usually make more sense in the tenor voice. I picture the character in these poems as a very young man, and a high voice helps to create the impression of youth. And the accompaniment benefits from the higher keys too. With Winterreise, it is a whole different story, but anyway – the real reason why I am speaking of tenors is that I wanted to hear a tenor in this week’s Music Lounge. And this was a good opportunity to feature one of my favorite singers.

I first heard Francisco Araiza as a Mozart tenor of unusual tonal warmth and then as the least nasal-toned among Rossini tenors. As much as Margaret Price, there was a moment in his career when he decided to embrace a new repertoire – and I am afraid this has influenced the opinion of younger generations about his work. His Mozart and Haydn were simply immaculate – some may say that there was too much aspiration in his coloratura in Rossini, but I would rather listen to him than most singers who took over the bel canto repertoire from him since then. His is not a voice with the metallic edge for Verdi or Wagner – and the kind of adaptations he made to his vocal production to tackle full Romantic works were not beyond criticism. I personally saw him only once – in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. He sang with utmost musicianship, produced beautiful sounds but struggled with the heroic writing. I cherish this memory nonetheless – and I was lucky enough to bump into him in the airport the next day and say how I was happy for having finally seen him sing in a live performance.

Araiza was born in Mexico but his career gained momentum in Munich. Unlike most bel canto tenors, he always sang German roles, not only the usual suspects such as Tamino or Belmonte but also roles like Henry Morosus in R. Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau. He even recorded Puccini’s La Bohème auf Deutsch with Lucia Popp. I remember an interview in which he said that he always had an interest in German repertoire and that Lieder were an important part of his career – unfortunately poorly documented. I am aware of three Schubert Lieder recordings with Francisco Araiza – a recital in Hohenems (my favorite one), a Winterreise on video and a Schöne Müllerin on Deutsche Grammophon. And that’s where I’ve found the Trockne Blumen for this week’s Music Lounge.

There are many famous recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin – and I am not claiming that Araiza’s is the best. I have listened to a few last week – Schreier, Wunderlich, Bostridge, Prégardien, Heilmann, Kaufmann – and still I find that Araiza holds his own against the formidable competition. Maybe because he grew up in a sunny country, he seems to see this song from a different perspective, both in terms of music and literature. Some singers tend to – and let’s use Roland Barthes’s concept here – a pointillistic approach in a song where the accompaniment is so scarce. Bostridge, for instance, comes across as rather fussy. Not Araiza – he keeps a sensuous legato line that holds the whole structure together. This song requires some difficult use of mezza voce right in the passaggio and many tenors shift to falsetto or to an entirely different tonal quality in these notes. Not him, even in mixed voice, the color remains consistent throughout the whole song. Actually, Araiza is quite discreet in terms of interpretation – there are no small paintbrushes of insight here. His take on this song is built on a large structure that makes sense once you’ve heard it to the end.

When asked if his novels could be considered Latin American beatnik, Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez answered that there is not in Latin America the concept of spiritual deadlock: “If you’re locked in a room without a door, you just look for a window”. And that is what makes Araiza’s Schöne Müllerin so different – the character in the poem at first does not have a death wish at all. He is sexually frustrated, his pride is a bit hurt, in the bottom of his heart he believes in the possibility that the miller’s daughter will see his splendid suffering and realize that she really loves him because of the depth of his feelings. There is nothing pale in this young suitor – that is why his death in the end seems a little bit more shocking. He kills himself rather out of despair than of depression – and because there was such life in him, one feels sadder for him.

But back to Trockne Blumen. Tenors seem to have a special relation with withered flowers – as Don José could tell or even the character in Beethoven’s Adelaide. Here the young man looks at the withered flowers the miller’s daughter once gave him. Actually, he says that the flowers are looking at him. Unlike his beloved one, they will stay with him to the very end, for they will adorn his grave. Suddenly he realizes that they are moist, but those are his own teardrops. However, they won’t bring the flowers back to life. Winter will pass, flowers will bloom again everywhere, but on his grave there will only be the withered flowers he is holding now. Nevertheless, if some day the miller’s daughter walks by the grave and think that there lies a man who really loved her, these flowers will be able to bloom again. This song is the last glimpse of hope in the heart of the young man. In the next song, he does not mention the miller’s daughter at all and the last one is sung by the brook in his imagination as he drowns. That is why the way both Araiza and his pianist Irwin Gage conceive their interpretation is so effective.

In the first part of the song, Gage’s playing is so dry and lifeless that a friend once said “this pianist is killing the whole thing for me”. Well, that is exactly the point. Araiza too sings the opening lines entirely in mezza voce. Most tenors sing them only piano and try to save their mezza voce for the moments when one should scale down a step further – but that is not a problem for him. His tone is intimate but not wane, withered as the flowers. He is still alive and he has this tiny little hope that the miller’s daughter might remember him, he has in his hands an object touched by her hand. In comparison with almost every other tenor in the discography, Araiza sounds a bit objective here, he is not trying to extract the last drop of meaning from every word. He is rather relishing the sensuous, sinuous line of the melody, and it’s all for the better that he is not describing the feeling but letting it happen naturally, in a way that the audience can feel it themselves rather than admire how the singer is dissecting it. The tempo is a bit stodgy, I agree, I would be tempted to sing it a little bit faster, but I would bet Schubert had something like that in mind. This is a Swedish film tempo – you hear the silence between the chords. It seems nothing will ever happen, the young man is sucking every drop of misery – but this is going to swell up and you just have to wait how Araiza and Gage are doing that.

You can hear a warmer color in Araiza’s voice when he speaks directly to the flowers in Ihr Blumen alle (All you flowers) and later when he tells them they are going to lie on his grave. In the remaining lines, he keeps to mezza voce, even more so in the second stanza, when he dwells a little bit more in some words such as Liebe (love) or Grab (grave) and makes his sound even a bit headier. In 2’19”, however, we enter the second part of the song. There is a Mozartian piano figure that most pianists keep cantabile in a correspondingly Mozartian way to the end of the song. But here, when the young man’s fantasy starts to describe what we could call the “flowers’ resurrection”, this figure will gain momentum in a steady crescendo, the very sound of the piano and Araiza’s voice are coming back to life – we feel the blood rushing again through this song’s veins. Especially in the last text’s repetition – there we are almost in operatic land, both singer and pianist over the top, using the energy up. It’s the young man’s last spark of life. After this song – but only after that – it’s death. But not yet. And Araiza does not resent the crescendo; his voice acquires a heroic sound without breaking the cantabile line. The way these musicians make it happen without resorting to added-on effect – and without drawing too much attention to their own artistry but rather to Schubert’s inspiration – is what makes this recording special.

Music lounge (14)

I know people who snob Mozart and feel cleverer than everyone else because of that. If you ask them why they love to hate poor old Wolfgang, they’ll always answer that the harmony is conventional, dissonance added upon only as effect, that the texture lacks complexity and it is too dependant on the soloist to produce the right effect. Well, the last part is not entirely untrue, but Mozart is like a spiritual experience: some people will have it at some point; some are just blind to this other “dimension”. What we’re talking about here is not the hereafter, but phrasing. Mozart was capable of writing complex polyphony, he just thought that its constant use was old-fashioned in terms of expression and chose to operate in a space of increased attention to detail. It is a world measured in millimetres; it requires an immense ability from his soloists to bring to life a recipe with tons of ingredients and very precise procedures. And you can’t load it with seasoning, otherwise the audience won’t be able to capture the perfection of each element. So, in order to see this cornucopia of expressive traits, you have to look in the right place – not vertically (as our snob friends who speak of harmonic and polyphonic complexity) but horizontally. As with everything conceived with microscopic precision, it only works in ideal conditions. A tiny mistake ruins the whole structure.

In terms of singing, Mozart can be seen, on one hand, as a good composer for singers, because he really knew voices, he was surrounded with singers, married to a singer, friend of singers. On the other hand, this meant that he knew everything a singer could do – and he required it all. There is not one single piece of vocal music by Mozart easy to sing. You may look at the score and say – it doesn’t go beyond a high g – and it is going to be the toughest piece of singing that doesn’t go beyond a high g ever composed – tenors who sing the part of Don Ottavio are well aware of that*.

The first thing you notice about a score of a work by Mozart is that there are tons of performance indications, the very way he wrote his solo parts were meant to evoke a wide range of feelings reproduced by mathematical precision of phrasing. He was particularly fond of slurs (probably in all senses of the world), but here we’re speaking of

I had a teacher who said this is the basic “cell” of Mozartian singing, two notes connected by a slur, performed like a trochee, TA-da, even if the second note is higher than the first. True Mozartian singers are able to create this outline of stressing and relaxing inside a legato line. In order to put across this musical ebb and flow, this singer must have a limpid vocal production. If it’s too vibrant or too fixed, too colourful or too grey, then it will be hard to hear the chiaroscuro of tiny emphases and relaxations that are the heartbeat of Mozartian singing. Even the text won’t sound right, for Mozart could really speak the languages he composed in and took profit of the natural rhythm of Italian, German (and even Latin) to create the right effect.

The way Mozart understood “coloration” of the musical phrase goes beyond just stressing the right notes – it involves understanding all kind of technical resources as an expressive element, especially rhythm. No effect – ornamentation and coloratura most of all – can disturb the rhythmic flow. You have to be able to understand the main line and see what is added upon it to realize that a) that this addition is an effect; b) and what it means.

Margaret Price’s international reputation was built on her Mozartian credentials. She was considered the Mozartian soprano not only because she was capable of producing exemplary Mozartian phrasing, but because she performed on stage some of the most demanding Mozart roles – such as Donna Anna, Fiordiligi, the Countess Almaviva and Konstanze – offering a voice of unusual volume for a singer in that repertoire. After a while, Price decided that enough was enough and gradually embraced other composers. She never enjoyed being labelled an “angelic” voice and looked for roles that matched her personality – she had a broad sense of humor, was not known for watching her language and was a very practical person, someone who probably liked her golden retrievers more dearly than the fellow human being. After her retirement, she was invited to sing in a church in her native Wales. She accepted the invitation and her comment about the experience was “I had forgotten how DIFFICULT the whole thing is!”. Actually, the contrast between her outgoing self and her rigorous discipline made her Mozart particularly interesting. It is not a soulless exercise of technical accuracy, you can hear her natural energy leaking through some of the cracks. And that is why I like her recording of Elettra’s Idol mio from Idomeneo.

Elettra is the operatic usual suspect in the List of “hysterical women”. She spends most of the plot of Idomeneo complaining, cursing, threatening, being mean to everybody else, except in one scene. Miraculously, after all her plans seemed to go south, a shift of events made all her dreams come true. She is going on a trip alone with her beloved Idamante by a decision of King Idomeneo, his father. We know that Idamante is in love with Ilia, but Elettra is not wrong when she says that it is easier to seduce someone when you’re physically near him or her. And Ilia is going to be left miles and miles behind them. But Elettra wasn’t born for contentment and happiness – she is not used to it. That is why Idol mio must feel like more than wishful thinking, she herself does not believe in it. It’s too good to be true. So she acts out – it must feel like someone saying “I’m going to be so happy, you’ll see, happier than everybody else – beloved of the man I adore, away from that stupid, poor, boring Ilia”. One must get the picture.

In her collection of Mozart arias with the English Chamber Orchestra, Margaret Price sings all the famous items, including those of characters she did not sing on stage. For example, I am not sure if she ever sang the role of Elettra (I don’t think so). Lockhart was also Price’s vocal coach and, if his conducting is a tad unimaginative here, he knew how to flatter his soloists’s voice and blend orchestra and singer in an aria where the orchestral and vocal lines often mirror themselves. Margaret Price begins the aria with her hallmark cleanliness of tone – one can hear her following Mozart’s instructions and stressing the right notes while keeping an ideally flowing line. In 1’06” onwards Più m’alle-e-etta auste-e-ero amor (“an austere love has more appeal to me”), the rhythmic precision with the tiny melisme is outstanding, you hear them pass through the line without disturbing it, even if Price always aspirated a bit her coloratura in her intent to keep everything a tempo. As the tessitura gradually becomes higher, the purity of tone in her high register never ceases to impress. Here and there, one feels the extra energy, kept in check. In 1’15”, the high note in allEtta, for instance, shows that the voice is not all cream. The balance between purity and punch is better observed from 2’22”: Sè ViCin, each consonant clearly marked, but the legato is always there. The melisma that follows (on l’amante) is an example of accuracy, one feels the impulse in the upward notes with shorter note value and how the serpentine figures up there soar. It feels like playing with air balloons. The repetition of the first material gives the listener the opportunity to realize how unique is the way Price was able to phrased with absolute purity and still it’s not the lifeless kind of purity one finds in some specialists in baroque music – there is a driving force keeping all those notes exactly where Mozart wanted them to be. Even her piano floats on motor power rather than carried by the breeze. The variation of the melisma in 4’40” is a lesson: it is at once delicacy, dreaminess and also mathematical precision. I like the way she does not let it be too sensuous or lost in reverie. She has just said she prefers an “austere love”. Elettra does not really want Idamante at all, she does not want to be loved or love anyone, it is just a matter of pride. Elettra’s real passion appear in her two other arias – when she speaks of revenge, humiliation and how she will join the heroes of her race in Hades and they’ll look down on mankind while suffering eternal torment (there one could add a touch of sensuousness, Mozart certainly implied something like that in the end of D’Oreste, D’Ajace).

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What would you say if you were the director of the Opéra de Paris and a composer, a good one, showed up and told you “You know what? I want to compose an opera with the same libretto Bizet used for Carmen”? This is more of less what Gluck did when he made known that he was using the same libretto Philippe Quinault wrote for Lully roughly 100 years before. Lully’s Armide was considered the model for tragédie lyrique, a revered masterpiece widely admired in Paris. Yet Gluck was confident he could establish his own milestones: his Armide was premièred in 1777 amidst accusations of sacrilege, and if it never became a truly popular opera, it has never sunk into oblivion. I have to say that it is probably my favourite work by Gluck and probably the best opera about this sorceress in Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. Its most famous scene – Enfin il est en ma puissance – comes at the end of act 2. The same scene as composed by Lully was considered by no one other than Rousseau as the most perfect example of the art of recitative in French, and I am sure Gluck made sure his own take would stand the comparison. His Enfin il est en ma puissance anticipates Musikdrama in its powerful declamation, flexible use of melodic structure and the way the orchestra sounds like a character in the plot.

Marc Minkowski’s CDs were not my first encounter with Gluck’s Armide, but they remain my version of choice, not only for Minkowski’s alert conducting and the Musiciens du Louvre’s rich, multicoloured playing, but also because of Mireille Delunsch’s singing in the title role. Delunsch is not a singer one immediately falls in love with. The first time I heard her – singing Enfin il est en ma puissance – I thought she was a Mozart soprano and even imagined she would be an excellent Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. As far as I know, her only official Mozart opera recording is Daniel Harding’s DVDs of Don Giovanni from Aix-en-Provence, in which she has the role of Donna Elvira. Her acting skills were usually praised by critics and her repertoire was frankly eclectic – Rameau’s Platée, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, J. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (as Rosalinde), R. Strauss’s Arabella, Verdi’s La Traviata, Wagner’s Lohengrin… She was naughty about what she could do with her voice and one could feel its texture coming apart at some point. When she sang the title role in Charpentier’s Louise at the Opéra, many critics complained that the voice lacked glamor. I’ve seen the telecast and, yes, she does not wow you at any particular point, but in the long run she was always musically and dramatically quite to the point. I have asked a friend who had seen her sing in Paris how her voice really was. His answer was, “it is a strange voice, it does not flatter the ears, it is a bit ‘green'”.

Well, the character Armide is not exactly someone seeking to please – and the greenness in Mireille Delunsch’s soprano suits it to perfection. It is a voice that can seem beautiful when it needs to be, and also quite chilly and impersonal when necessary too. And you can hear all that in Enfin il est en ma puissance. Moreover – and I love to use that phrase – she knows how to handle her verses like daggers. Every vowel and consonant in Quinault’s text finds here its dramatic purposes. It is a lesson of declamation in the French language, and I am sure Gluck would have approved what she does here. This is a scene with many contrasting moods – almost Wagnerian in its constant shifts of feelings and motivations – and it requires a protean approach to phrasing. Minkowski would conduct the work again in Vienna with an aptly cast Gaëlle Arquez, whose fruity tone and phraseological finesse easily brings to life a seductress. And yet I missed Delunsch’s Swiss-watch precision. She deals with the text and the music as a tennis player; Quinault and Gluck can throw her fast, difficult balls – she hits them all.

The scene we are hearing is almost a fixture of French tragedy – a powerful woman supposed to get revenge on a rival falls in love the moment she sees him for the first time. It never ends well, of course – but the verses are always exquisite. So here we are – the Christian warrior Renaud has fallen asleep and lies defenceless before the sorceress Armide, ready to stab him with a knife. The music begins in dramatic mood, composed in the agitated affetto depicted by the rhythm of horse riding, emotions are unleashed. At first Armide tries to play down the importance of the moment. Delunsch resists the temptation of making a grand entrance and starts with an almost matter-of-fact tonal quality, we notice a note of scorn in the tonic syllable of the word superbe when she says ce superbe vainqueur (“this proud victor”). Her hatred swells gradually up, particularly by the way she pronounces the letter p in the word percer in Je vais percer son invencible coeur (I will pierce his invincible heart). The way the sound explodes in that “p” is just fabulous. I have tried to do it just like her when I sing along, but it is harder than it seems. If you use too much energy in the consonant, the vowel “e” is swallowed in the process. If you don’t use enough, the effect is lost. I invite you all to try it at home – it’s fun even when it doesn’t work at all! From this point on, Armide lets herself go, and Delunsch spits her consonants formidably (and you can understand every word she sings). But then the lady doth protest too much. One feels the hesitation in the music. The singer must balance Armide’s attempts to regain confidence when she says Frappons! (Let me strike!), Achevons! (I must finish this), Vengeons-nous! (Let us get revenge!) with her evident change of heart in Je frémis (I tremble), Je soupire (I sigh). Delunsch’s “green” tone is the opposite of the unfathomable depths of a Jessye Norman – but the energy with which she tries to convince herself is conveyed by sheer intensity of declamation. Her increasing interest in Renaud can be heard in the slight tremor in her tone, the sound is more relaxed when she says Ma colère s’éteint quand j’approche de lui. And here is the end of the recitative.

The aria – Ah, quelle cruauté de lui ravir le jour! (Ah, how cruel it would be to rob him of his life!) – is a different emotional landscape. The hesitating accompanying orchestral figures gradually transform into gentle chords, Delunsch’s voice sounds at its purest-toned, she phrases with absolute classical poise and the way she floats the word amour (love) tells you everything you need to hear to understand what is going on. Here again she balances the conflict in Armide’s heart with a brighter, more piercing tone (which is duty) and a softer, warmer sound (which is love) inside the same phrase sometimes, such as Ne puis-je me venger à moins qu’il ne périsse? (Can’t I get revenge without having him killed?). I particularly like the way she sings Que, s’il se peut, je le haïsse. (If possible, that I may hate him). By the way the sound evolves in the first peut, one can hear there she knows that now it is just impossible to hate him. And it is wonderful that Gluck has the singer repeat the text in a quieter and lower register. She can no longer delude herself. And this is when we go to the second aria, Venez, secondez mes désirs (Come, obey my wishes).

When Armide shows up to kill Renaud, she is surrounded by demons (as we can hear in the orchestral sound in the recitative), but now everything has changed, she can’t deny it anymore. She asks the demons to transform themselves in kind zephyrs and flow them away to the ends of the universe! Gluck shows this transformation in the orchestra, graced with woodwinds and gentle melodies, the flutter of wings, the sweet breeze up among white clouds – and at the same time this is no paradise of chaste feelings, Armide’s singing gradually shows anxiety, she needs to fulfil her desires as fast as possible, she cannot contain herself anymore. Delunsch sings it again with classical poise, but the edge is there in her voice, the “greenness” standing for a certain rawness, the metallic quality radiates the building tension. Again, this is not an exuberant, variegated voice – it is just used with mathematical precision, as music of the Classical era requires, to portray conflicting feelings through the delivery of the text. A richer colour in her soprano would have ruined the perfect balance between text and music. This is the work of a tragédienne enhanced by the subtle technique of the singer. And this is why this is a special recording.

Youtube has the scene exactly as in Deutsche Grammophon’s recording split in three tracks. I have tried to embed a version in which one track is supposed to flow into the next one, but just in case, I’ll have the three of them posted to this page.

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Our music lounge item this week could hardly be considered a “model” recording, and this makes it even more fascinating to my ears. Those in love with the art of Régine Crespin – such as I am – experience love in its purest form; it is for better and for worse. Crespin’s voice was an untamed beast, and the singer herself was not afraid of it, but rather naughty about what she could really do with it. I have heard recordings of Crespin in all kinds of works and it is rare to find a role that vocally really suits her (such as Sieglinde, Kundry, Didon or Cassandre), but still she left her imprint in everything she touched. It was a voice uniquely feminine and powerful, immediately recognisable and likeable in its firmness and sensuous appeal.

Although she was proud of her Italian ancestry, the truth is that it was not a voice for Italian repertoire, the lack of morbidezza in the upper register largely to blame. And yet I have chosen to listen to her recording of the aria Un bel di from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The first time I listened to it, I thought it was not really what Puccini had in mind and yet she caught my attention as nobody else did. The way she sings it, it is really story-telling, not only by the way she enunciates the text, but by how she colors her voice. You can feel all the emotions involved in this scene. Yes, with Crespin, this is a scene, not an aria. It it is the aural opposite of “stand and deliver”. And it is also less obvious than it seems. At this point in the opera, Chocho-san already knows Pinkerton is never coming back. The real problem is: in the moment she acknowledges that, it is the end for her. She never wanted to be a geisha and she bet everything on Pinkerton. She would go to America and leave behind a country that robbed her of all her dreams (starting with her father’s seppuku). She severed all her ties to everyone in Nagasaki but Suzuki. Now she belongs nowhere, and magical thinking is what is left for her. If she pretends Pinkerton is coming back, then she is able to remain in the house, to act as a married woman, to resort to Sharpless as an authority she can respond to. She actually says that in the next scene, in Che tua madre dovrà. She knows exactly what is going on there – but she chose not to act on that knowledge. And that is why Un bel di is such a challenge for an actress – she knows it is a fantasy, it sounds better than reality, it is all plastic sakura, but it is the closest she has to being happy. She is not narrating anything, she delights in every word she says. It is the closest she has to being happy. It is better than reality, for we know what reality reserves for her in the end of the opera.

Crespin transports us to this hanami fantasy just with the sound of her voice, it is a dreamy sound and the way it glides in portamento, it is unreal, it is almost too sweet. With the mezzo-ish depths of her voice, Crespin has no problem with the lower end of the tessitura, but she is always negotiating it because Chocho-san is after all very young and she tries to produce this Japanese “girly” sound. But in the word nave (ship), one sees a graver color there. The ship is where all the problem lies – she has checked every one of them, and Pinkerton is never there. This is how she knew he lied to her. Also, when she says Vedi, egli è venuto (See, he has come back), she sounds a bit more emphatic. It is not like she is overcome by the emotion of his return. She sounds more objective there ,”Suzuki, you are seeing he is back, aren’t you?” Suzuki works for Chocho-san and she is going to answer “yes” whether she sees it or not… The pause between Io (I) and non gli scendo incontro (don’t come down towards him) is the moment that marks the beginning of her reverie. What would she do? He is not coming back, she knows it already, but, if he would? Here we enter the realms of solitary pleasure. We can almost hear the giggle in Crespin’s Io, no (not me). Her voice from this point on is at once girly and meditative. Although she says e aspetto, aspetto gran tempo e non mi pesa la lunga attesa (and I wait, I wait for long time, but waiting for so long doesn’t bother me), one can feel that when she says aspetto, the way she interrupts the flow of the voice before the double t, the portamento in tempo, that she is actually bothered by waiting. But then in “lunga attesa” the voice acquires a sensuous sound, as if she remembered of something she is not sharing with us. Then she is back to telling Suzuki the story – in crystal clear diction (although she makes one mistake there by saying folle instead of folla) and even a sense of suspense by the way she per la colina (through the hill).

When Crespin describes the moment she and Pinkerton meet in their imagination, the girly voice acquires a warmer, more real sound. We’re right in the middle of the moment she has imagined over and over in her mind since Pinkerton left. The conversational way she sings Io, senza dar risposta (I, without answering) sounds almost rehearsed. A Lieder singer, Crespin handles the text with unusual crispness here. The next phrase – the most famous in the aria – is dealt with in an unusual way. Almost every Italian soprano presses down the “turbo” button here, unleashing their voices over the orchestra. But Crespin had a huge voice and did not truly need to go full powers there. So she says per non morir al primo incontro (in order not to die out of meeting him for the first time) in an almost subdued way. She would rather die of happiness than of sorrow (as she later would do). The remaining lines of her description of this encounter she dreamt so much about is full of subtle tone coloring. It is just the final moments that are entirely different in tone. It is when the aria is in what is the less congenial spot in Crespin’s voice, and first I thought it was the part when her whole interpretation was less under control. Now I see it a bit differently – she is not longer describing her dream. This is the part about what is happening now. She has to sound convincing about something which is essentially a lie – she knows he is not coming back. That is why she sounds a bit emphatic here. The microphones resent a bit the sheer size of the voice in the last notes, and the conductor unleashes the orchestra. Anyway, unusual as it is, this is a special recording, an opera within the opera, devised by a singer with a unique voice and a very personal take on everything she sang.

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The aria Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my dearest) is arguably the best-known and -loved number in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It is essentially a lullaby – and Bach’s lovely rocking rhythms and woodwind writing make that very clear. However, the baby to whom it is supposed to be sung is none other than the Baby Jesus. In other words, Maria is here not rocking just her son, but God made man. So, the singer tackling this song has to use a little bit of her imagination – every expecting mother can’t wait the moment when she will finally have her baby in her arms. But here there were special effects involved: she had been visited by an angel who informed her she was chosen among all women to bear this very special child. It is at the same time her son and her saviour. She is supposed to be her mother and her subject. He is supposed to bring her joy and suffering too. It is all really conflicting in terms of feelings, but it is definitely a miracle. And that is the problem of singing this aria – it must be at once really intimate and epic.

The choice of words “really intimate” is no coincidence. Schlafe, mein Liebster was not originally composed for the Christmas Oratorio, but rather to BWV 213, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Let us take care, let us watch over), a secular cantata about the greek hero Hercules (actually, a birthday tribute to the Prince Christian Friedrich of Saxony). In the Hercules cantata, Schlafe, mein Liebster is a soprano aria sung by the character “Sensuousness” who advises Hercules to follow temptation, taste passion and avoid any restraint. Nobody knows why Bach thought that it was a good idea adapting an invitation to sin into a lullaby to the Holy Child, but it is actually very simple – Bach often used the idea of physical intimacy as a symbol of spiritual union. In the case of Mary, it is both physical and spiritual. It is a newborn baby, it is visceral by definition. And it is also her redeemer. Whereas everybody else has to produce that connection through religious feeling, Mary had an umbilical cord to make it very much real.

It is curious that the first person who sang that aria was probably not a woman, but most likely an alto choir boy. Maybe that is why Bach thought that he would need an extra help from the composer to put across this very special feeling – that image of God as one’s own son, the very opposite of what one expects in any religion. It is a very powerful image to make this belief personal, concrete – you take care of it, you watch over it, it is a reflection of your own self. It is intimate. And yet even grown-up professional altos find it very difficult to sing.

I have probably heard every recording of Schlafe, mein Liebster, but no singer has ever come remotely close to the one I first heard sing it – Christa Ludwig in Karl Richter’s studio recording. Karl Richter is, of course, a great Bach specialist who offered outstanding clarity and understanding of expression, but I have always felt that I needed to hear it with the sound picture Bach had in mind when he composed it – and, yes, I am talking about historically informed practices. I don’t want to ramble, but I must explain that I don’t think that “historically informed” performances are superior per se because they are supposed to be “authentic”. It is only that they generally are a good starting point to show conductors the right balance in terms of structural clarity. Once they understand these guidelines, then they’re free to choose what they want to keep and what they want to replace in their view of the piece. So back to Richter, exquisitely balanced as it is, it still sounds a bit solemn and too grand in scale. All the burden of producing Innigkeit is on Christa Ludwig’s shoulders. And maybe that is why it is still works.

So again – I have probably heard every recording of Schlafe, mein Liebster, but no singer comes close to Christa Ludwig in fulfilling all the vocal and expressive requirements of this piece. First, the sound palette entirely in demi tintes. It is a lullaby voice – and at the same time it is a deluxe voice, extra velvety, double chocolate, whipped cream plus vanilla ice cream. Second, she sings as if passaggio did not even exist. When you realize, she is in the bottom of her register oozing darkness – and the sensation is always “whoa? how did that happen?!” Third, there is no constriction of tone whatsoever – the voice floats as a magical mist, it is the sound of a frisson. One can see the mystical awe in her voice. Finally, this is a lesson in legato – one can say that there is a tiny blur between the notes, which is the opposite of what singers specialized in baroque repertoire often do. And yet each phrase has unusual coherence, not even the trills interrupt the flow here.

One does not need to wait to realize that Christa Ludwig is above the competition here. The first phrase is tough, it is cruelly exposed – and it generally is about the mechanics of it. You hear it gradually getting lower and the singer trying to cope with that. With Ludwig, you don’t even hear the onset – the sound just begins as a thread of cashmere, you can feel the gentle warmth wrapping you. It is a temptation for altos trying to produce a fixed, instrumental sound here, and I can tell you: it never really works. Luwig’s steady, absolutely controlled vibrato there not only helps her acrobatically glide through her passaggio, but also embodies the feeling of being rocked against the gentle swelling of a maternal bosom. It is the sound of being surrounded by safety, protection and love. When she shifts to the higher, serpentine phrases that follow, it acquires a fluffy, floaty sound – again at once intimate and spacious. The two upwards leaps from 3’13”are for me the expressive core of this piece, and the way Christa Ludwig’s voice soars there makes you hold your breath, as if it acquired an otherworldly vibration. The fact that she achieves so much in such a restricted dynamic range is a lesson for any singer. The last phrases in the first section show use of portamento that a singer would never indulge in this repertoire today – and maybe it is better this way, for it is very difficult to make it rightly like Christa Ludwig does, as an expressive tool, almost as an ornament.

The B section shows one of Ludwig’s hallmark qualities – it was a voice that shone in every register. It felt like stone skipping, each note bouncing off the surface of water rather than sinking. The words “die Lust” (the joy) or “die Brust” (the breast), generally in the bottom register, firm but not too strongly underlined. In the figures in 5’39”, most singers are keen on being very clear on the rhythm and the result often jars with the rest of the long, legato lines. Not Ludwig, who sings them gently, in the context of the phrase. The effect is almost like soft cooing. The flute doubling the singer’s part is something that some scholars see as an afterthought – Bach indeed only added them later, maybe to help the soloist. But, in the B section, one feels how Richter took the pains of matching instrument and voice. Ludwig’s voice envelopes the flute in a way that both seem a single sound.

In the repeat, Ludwig does not try to make anything really different, and one does not really feels like anything different either. There is not too much of a good thing, and we’re ready for a second serving!

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The Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde is the closest a concert of classic music comes to a rock band show. There is a huge volume of sound, a singer at the top of his lungs, lyrics about booze and death. There is a very important thing missing, though: a microphone. My experience of hearing this music live is that the tenor is red in in his face, screaming as if his life depended on that and yet he rarely pierces through the mass of orchestral sound. And I’m speaking of singers whom I saw sing Wagner and Richard Strauss in huge auditoriums. To tell the truth, the only tenor I heard preside over a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was Johan Botha, singing BEHIND the Münchner Philharmoniker in the Gasteig (I have no idea why James Levine had the soloists behind the drums). I remember that Anne Sofie von Otter spent most part of the concert covering her ears with her hands. But let’s talk about today’s recording.

I am not really capable of being objective about James King. I am a huge fan. My first website ever was a tribute to James King. When he passed away, his son sent me an e-mail informing about his father’s death. In a nutshell: no objectivity here. I first heard King in my desert island recording: Karl Böhm’s Fidelio with the Staatskapelle Dresden. If I had to keep one opera recording, this would be it. I blame all other recordings of Beethoven’s Fidelio for not being Karl Böhm’s recording with Gwyneth Jones and James King. I first thought he was a baritone, but the high notes were all there, not bright as one usually hears with tenors – they exist by sheer force. Although King’s was not the biggest or most powerful among Heldentenors’s voices, it rang heroically. It was not a God given thing – he built it himself. He started indeed as a baritone – the day he realized he was singing in the wrong Fach he had the bass solo part in Handel’s Messiah. And that is why this voice is so special – it was polished for the use of Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, Verdi and Mahler, but it is essentially tough. It is like the string in an archer’s bow – you can feel the strength required for it to be in place. It is a voice incapable of laxity. It is always bursting with energy – and he could drive it further to its very limits. I normally dislike glottal noises in vocal production which tenors are sometimes fonds of, but I make an exception for King. His singing is laden with emotional generosity and you feel that those are the sounds of the violence of his own feelings. For instance, King’s was never the otherworldly voice for the title role in Lohengrin, but nobody sings the farewell to Elsa in act 3 as he does. When the voice threatens to break in the mein in Doch bei dem Ringe soll er mein gedenken, my heart ends up broken too. You cannot fake that. Either you have it or not.

James King was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and his father was the town’s sheriff. This is a city you have heard about if you are into the the “western” genre. And I thank that King knew exactly the mood in Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. Although it is based in a poem by the Chinese poet Li Bai, there is a “desperado” mood in this song whose text is basically “the world a dark place, so get drunk, for everything could be over in the next 10 minutes”. You might say that Mahler and his Chinese poems have nothing to do with America, but I’ll answer that the tenor (and the alto) in the world première of Das Lied von der Erde were both Americans: Sara Cahier and William Miller. But back to our recording.

My first impulse was to choose Bernard Haitink’s recording (with Janet Baker and the Concertgebouw orchestra), in which King is especially eloquent and the recorded sound shows you singers right in the middle of the orchestra, but I finally chose Leonard Bernstein’s with the Vienna Philharmonic and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In its Viennese sophistication, it evokes a fairytale China, what is valid too – Haitink’s is a bit rougher and I find it even apter. Yet King’s voice here retains admirable darkness even in its higher reaches, and that is something to be heard. The score doesn’t allow for a soft opening – and King starts at 100%, spitting his consonants in absolute clarity and opting for a dangerous approach to phrasing. This is not true legato – these phrases are built in chisel strokes, each syllable pushed on sheer muscle power. It could have sounded a bit spotty, almost staccato-ish, but no, he fills them with the impulse and I bet it also helps to project in the auditorium too. But there are surprises ahead too. In Soll auflachend in die Seele euch klingen (it shall laughingly ring in your soul), the word klingen (ring) is unflinchingly attacked – one feels the steel in the voice at its tensest and then… gradually softened. His got your attention, now he is telling you his story, like a boorish drunken patron in a bar at his clingiest and neediest. Whether you like it or not, he is your new best friend. What is admirable about King’s performance is its variety of expression that never sounds subtle. Subtlety has nothing to do with this song – but you can still produce layers of meaning. Here you’ll hear King restrain volume to produce many dynamic levels but never in a self-contained way – even when it is piano, it is a bit at your face.

In the second stanza, he produces a similar effect with the grupetto in goldenen Weins. Ornaments generally suggest something elegant, but here each little note is so forcefully put across that it has the effect of a cackle, almost as if he were being ironic, like “your wine tastes like s***, but I could drink gasoline at this point”. He sings the next lines with over-the-top portamento – bad wine goes to your head very fast and King is unleashed by now. It is almost a caricature of tenor singing. The rush is a bit subdued in the next stanza – Mahler gives the tenor a time to rest and that is the moment when our intoxicated character is deep in his “philosophical” mood. King’s baritonal middle register works to perfection here. The subdued moment does not last long and we go to the climax of the song – the moment when King shows you how he goes beyond 100%. This is pure raw excitement. You’ll have heard singers who ride over an orchestral storm more richly – Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli… – but not in the tightrope devil-may-care way James King does. He is not unwrapping the unfathomable resources of his voice here. No, he is one millimeter away from the edge. This is like driving your motorcycle through a tunnel of fire. There is so much energy here that even the musical phrase cannot withstand it, it veers into parlando. It is almost crude. And you never have the feeling that it is out of control – the character in the poem, yes, definitely. But not the singer – King is a stuntman. He had done far more dangerous things and survived!

Music lounge (9)

We often praise performers when they are able to provide us with what we suppose to be something close to the composer’s intentions. However, it is difficult to say what the composer had in mind other than by reading the score. And the score rarely says everything. Well, thank God! For instance, I am not sure that Handel had the full notion of what he was doing when he wrote Orlando. Although it is supposed to be a “drama per musica”, i.e, an opera seria, the libretto, adapted by an unknown poet from Carlo Capeci’s L’Orlando (after Ariosto, of course), is hardly bona fide serious. The plot involves many farsical episodes and, most important, there is a splash of mezzo carettere in these roles. For instance, the prima donna role, Angelica. Her relationship with Medoro does not entirely follow protocol – and she has no problem in using the gullible Dorinda to her own purposes. Angelica is of royal blood, and one would expect a serious role to be beyond reproach. On the other hand, the shepherdess Dorinda is shown as a very noble character, selfless, innocent and of good nature. The title role, Orlando, has very little heroic quality – here one sees an oafish figure whose sole purpose in life seems to be harassing Angelica. With its high quota of misunderstandings and plot twists and people lying to each other, this could almost seem a baroque Feydeau, but the truth is that almost every character in the plot is miserable at some point and the atmosphere is extremely melancholic. All scenes happen outdoors and characters often muse about nightingales, laurel trees, green meadows, gentle brooks etc etc.

Maybe because the libretto is all over the place and hard to frame, Handel’s music is often puzzling too. It was not an unmitigated success with the audience – even the leading man, the castrato Senesino wasn’t happy with what he had to sing, and Handel and him parted ways after this. Actually, Orlando was the last drop in Handel’s operatic enterprise at the Haymarket theatre. His Orlando was too eccentric and it was the excuse his rivals needed to get rid of him. I wonder if Handel did not make it on purpose. After that, at the Covent Garden, he found almost ideal creative in a more congenial entourage, even if financially the whole thing was even shakier. But back to Orlando. Let’s imagine that we were the original audience, going to the Haymarket to see Orlando. If you want to imagine how they felt, we have to use the première of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as an element of comparison. You are going to see this mystery movie – and you know how it works, Janet Leigh is a star and she will get in some trouble, but, of course, nothing really bad is going to happen to her. You don’t really feel scared, because you know the drill. The film has hardly begun – and there goes Janet Leigh, murdered in the shower. Everything can happen, you’re not so sure you’re not afraid of what comes next. Well, Orlando was almost like that. First, it is very difficult to tell who has the prima donna role – you could almost imagine that Dorinda is a finta pastorella, a princess in disguise. Her arias are almost as expressive as Angelica’s, they even sing together lines that are almost identical in the trio with Medoro. Only in the end of the opera, she gets an aria that shows that she is not an aristocrat. But again – to compensate for her prima donna-ish lines, the irregularities and awkward turns of phrase in that aria are so technically difficult that the seconda donna could just steal the show with it. Angelica could be a character in Law & Order – she is victim of stalking, kidnapping etc, all from her abusive self-appointed fiancé, Orlando. Musically she lives in her own long-lined, absolutely legato-ish world. She clings to it even when reality is screaming at her, never more evidently than in her duet with Orlando, when she keeps changing Orlando’s hellbent tempo to her own “Lascia ch’io pianga”-like routine. And there is Orlando, whose Protean mad scene is one of the jewels of baroque opera.

Most conductors, faced with so many possibilities, like to highlight the brilliant, glittery nonsense with fast tempi, swift accents, while encouraging singers to very pointed, theatrical performances – but not William Christie. In his recording with Les Arts Florissants he seems to believe that Handel had a glimpse of the 19th century here and shows this as a proto-Berliozian opera. His orchestra is warm in sound, the atmosphere is sensual, you feel you are in this magic forest where everything happens and the cast is entirely made of fruity, Mozartian voices, crowned by the dark contralto of Patricia Bardon in the title role rather than the countertenor one often finds in this part. I would say that his boldest move in the whole recording is his lyrical, elegiac approach for the Angelica/Dorinda/Medoro trio, and this is the recording we’re hearing today. With its upward swooping accompaniment and its relatively simple texture, one can hear that this is supposed to be faster, brighter, sprightlier than what we hear here. Actually, this is what you hear in every other recording, most notably Christopher Hogwood with Arleen Augér and Emma Kirkby. Not here – Christie makes it the baroque answer to the final trio of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with its increase in harmonic tension and the soprano voices soaring in exquisite long phrases. Here he takes Dorinda’s point of view, she is genuinely heartbroken. Her misery is so evident that both Angelica and Medoro, who never really cared about her feelings before this moment, feel that they should offer her some solace.

Christie faces here many challenges – in his slower tempo, one can sense that the music does not have substance enough. He relies in a very warm continuo to fill in the blanks and a strong sense of legato of all involved. The up-and-down phrase in the strings that usually gives this number a sense of forward movement here sounds entirely transformed into a gentle rocking, the orchestra itself is embracing the heartbroken Dorinda. One may wonder if cutting against the grain of the music makes sense in the big picture of the score. This is where I have to agree with William Christie. It is said that the first Dorinda, Celeste Gismondi felt more at home in soft affetti and that Handel couldn’t help writing music that agreed to her natural instincts. Dorinda’s first solo after the trio is one of Handel’s most exquisite birdsong arias – Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti – the text of which says “When you detail your torments, lovesick nightingale, it seems that you are singing and weeping at once – this is the accompaniment to my suffering”. Dorinda’s sadness is real – and the trio is the moment when she finally realises that her hope of having Medoro is lost forever. As I have written before, the text here is an example of Italian theatre’s hallmark blend of tragedy and comedy. It has to bring a smile and a tear to our faces – and that is why William Christie’s recording is so special.

It also features an ideal cast, with accordingly special singers. For instance, Rosemary Joshua’s shimmering, glowing soprano is exactly what the role of Angelica requires. Here she often has the upper line, often a long note. In Joshua’s voice these notes flicker like candlelight, you can almost feel the warmth. When both sopranos sing together, the combinations of their vibratos create a frisson in the listener, it is almost a physical sensation. And that is because the role of Dorinda was given to Rosa Mannion, a singer incapable of banality. Mannion always seemed like a full lyric soprano in the making, but it seems her career was shortened by health issues. It is a pity – her Pamina (for William Christie too) and Dorabella (for John Eliot Gardiner) shows that Mozart was becoming her core repertoire. She sings the role of Dorinda with amazing poise and great feeling and almost convinces the audiences that her “awkward” aria is not really awkward. They are joined by contralto Hilary Summers, here probably in her best recording. Medoro is the opposite of a hero – he is 100% lover – and Summers achieves that “in love with love” impression without making it too feminine, what is an admirable achievement.