Archive for October, 2020

Music lounge (13)

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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Music lounge (12)

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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Music lounge (11)

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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Music lounge (10)

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!

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