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Archive for January, 2021

Music lounge (27)

When I’ve finally made my mind about the item for this week’s Music Lounge, I was faced with a problem: I had never heard a recording of the famous bass aria from the Matthäus-Passion Mache dich, mein Herze rein that fulfilled all my expectations about how it should be performed. It is a piece of music usually mentioned as an example of Bach’s ability to create surpassing spiritual beauty, but my usual experience is of frustration. Mache dich is a piece of music that relies in so many interdependent elements to take off – and the sad truth is that there usually is a weak link somewhere. I know, there are uncountable examples of complex music everywhere, but the problem with this particular one is that, for some reason, the spiritual dimension only appears when every little piece of the puzzle is well aligned. When that doesn’t happen, the music still sounds beautiful if earthbound. And here one wants to be transported to other dimension.

The first challenge in Mache dich is the text. From the content, we infer that the singer is voicing the thoughts of Joseph of Arimathea, mentioned by the Evangelist in his recitative previous to the aria, the text of which is: Make yourself pure, my heart/I myself am burying Jesus/For He will from now on/forever and ever/ Have in me His sweet repose/World, go out/ let Jesus in. So, as we see, there are two dimensions here: first, Joseph informs that he will take care of the funeral rites (and expenses, for he was a rich man); but then he says to himself that he will also let all worldly matters behind for he is carrying Jesus inside himself, now that He is not physically present in this world. The text does not deal with the subject of resurrection (it is a bit early in the story for that), but it makes it seem also irrelevant: Jesus is forever alive in the hearts of those who believe in him. And I bet that this is Bach’s point-of-view just by the tempo he chose to set these words: a 12/8 siciliano, i.e., a dance rhythm with a noticeable lilt. It was associated to pastorale life during the baroque, and evokes an atmosphere of a mild, simple, pleasant life. So very distant from any solemnity or gloominess. On the other hand, the siciliano is no gigue – it isn’t supposed to show any exhilaration or animation. This seems obvious, but what we usually hear is conductors that are either trying to make Mache dich more “serious” than it should be or really carried away by the dance rhythm and the “trochaic” phrases with repeated notes. As always, virtue is in the middle – Joseph of Arimathea is not bouncing and twirling in his intent of keeping Jesus alive in his heart, but the aria must suggest a genuine sense of joy derived from PURITY. On leaving all worldly matters behind, one finds again the lightness of childhood and innocence in one’s heart. And that is why the word rein (pure) is so important in this piece. A singer who does not understand that is not going to succeed in this aria. Unfortunately, most basses try to make it a momentous statement and adopt an “important” adult tone, often too heavy, too dark, too vibrant, too serious, certainly jarring with everything the siciliano rhythm is supposed to suggest.

Then you’ll ask me – why the bass voice then? “Because Joseph of Arimathea is a man” is not the right answer here. Since the Matthäus-Passion has only a few pre-established characters (such as “Jesus” or “Pontius Pilate”), many texts that could be attributed to a biblical figure are simply sung by any soloist or even the congregation (in the “chorale” passages). Bach could have used the soprano voice to suggest the purity the text speaks about, but that would not illustrate the true content of this aria – this is not about being innocent and pure, but rather about MAKING ONESELF innocent and pure. It is a decision, a choice, it is about changing one’s life. And that is why it has be sung by the bass voice (also, an aria for the soprano would have been performed by a child in St. Thomas Church). However, that poses an extra challenge for the soloist – one has to hear that purity, that innocence in the singer’s voice. It is not an ordinary bass voice – it is a voice transformed, made something new. One must hear a child-like, clear-eyed quality in the singing. And that rules out almost every singer in the discography. One may point out that there are very clear-toned baritones – especially in historically informed performances – that sing it in a pop-like, almost tenor-ish tone. I would call it marginally preferable to the gravitas of a Wotan lost in Bach-land, but it does not translate the idea behind the music, which is hearing a full, dark voice made light and angelic by the effect of a spiritual transformation.

The writing for the voice in Mache dich is ambiguous on purpose – the aria can be too low for singers in the baritone range and too high for singers in the bass range. We often hear baritones almost whispering the lower end of the tessitura and basses that tense up in higher reaches. Bach does not make their lives easy there – we must hear someone in a state of grace. If he sounds strained in his high notes, woolly or short in resonance in his low notes, nasal in his melisme, caprine in his trills, the thrill is all gone. That is why it was so frustrating for me the experience of hearing twenty, twenty five recordings and – in spite of all talents involved – finding at best vocally solid performances church-like in their austerity but entirely devoid of any true sense of spirituality. It is never enough to remember: this is the LAST aria in the Matthäus-passion, the last time a solo voice (apart from the Evangelist’s narration) expresses an inner thought about the passion of the Christ in a long work. You have to hear the EFFECT of the experience in it, the transformation has to be immediately hearable. Again: I had never heard a performance to my satisfaction until recently. I won’t say it is perfect (nobody is in this particular aria) – one must point out that there are more breathing pauses than with many singers, to start with – but this singer goes straight to the heart of the matter in terms of interpretation and tone colouring. He also masters the ambiguous tessitura as few others – his voice rings with bass-like resonance in the low notes and yet his high notes float with extreme purity of tone.

German bass Michael Schopper is a specialist in baroque music and Lieder. I have never heard him live, but one can hear him in recordings with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Matthäus-Passion), René Jacobs (L’Incoronazione di Poppea) and Gustav Leonhard (Cantata BWV 56). He started his career as a choir boy with the Regensburger Domchor, and his first concert appearance (in 1968) was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio under the baton of Karl Richter. It seems that he first sang all kinds of role such as Osmin, Ochs and maybe even Wotan, but he would later concentrate in baroque opera and sacred music. Here we hear him in mysterious circumstances – the clip on YouTube seems to be taken by filming a TV screen. I’ve looked everywhere for this video in better quality but in vain. There is no information about venue and performers, but the orchestra is the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and, therefore, we would guess Ton Koopman is the conductor. After a bit detective work, I can tell you that, yes, it was been recorded in Aardenberg’s St. Bavo’s Church on March 18th, 1989 and the soloists were Barbara Schlick, Ulla Groenewold, Ian Honeyman, Guy de Mey, Peter Kooy and, of course, Michael Schopper. As far as I understand, this performance was never officially released, but rather one recorded six years later in Amersfoort’s St. George’s Church with Jörg Dürmüller and Klaus Mertens. I feel sad for not being able to keep a memento of Schopper’s performance in decent recorded sound.

As it is, the video shows us not only the aria, but the beautiful recitative too – In the evening, as it was cool/ Adam’s fall was made known/ In the evening, the saviour overwhelmed him./In the evening, the dove returned/and brought an olive leaf in its mouth/A beautiful time it was the evening hour!/The pact of peace has been made with God/for Jesus fulfilled his cross. His body comes to rest/Ah, dear soul, pray go, let them give you the dead Jesus/O salutary, precious memento! Schopper sings it with disarming simplicity. He does not try to make any point there and trust the meaning of the words, while singing with instrumental poise and crystalline diction. One line shows all his vocal credentials – O schöne Zeit! O Abendstunde! (A beautiful time it was the evening hour!). In the first part he soars in absolute cleanliness of tone to his high register just to sink with absolute ease and chocolate-y resonance to his low notes in the second part.

For the aria itself, Koopman chooses the ideal tempo, the siciliano is not overdriven, the lilt is gentle and reassuring, the trochaic repeated notes subtly and smoothly articulated, the pastoral atmosphere is immediately established, we’re in the Christian version of Arcadia. From the first phrase, one can see if the singer is up to the task. We have to hear the rich resonance in the dich from Mache dich (make yourself) so that the contrast to the purity of tone of rein (pure) make any sense. This is the expressive cell of the whole aria – we hear that voice rise from its depth and then float in absolute purity. Schopper finds the choir boy in himself to sing it with such disarming, instrumental clarity there. This may sound exaggerated, but believe me – this note can go awry in many different ways. Many singers cover it excessively and we almost hear the muscular effort (and they do not sound “pure” at all); a few just cannot control the vibrato; others go for vibrato-less only to loose control of it in the end; many just loose focus in the process. It usually is the beginning of a bumpy ride! The next line – Ich will Jesum selbst begraben (I myself am burying Jesus) – has a bit of a ping-pong outline between registers – almost as the aural description of the movement of shovelling. It has to be sung with absolute accuracy, including in what regards the syllables that need to be stressed: JE-esum beGRA-aben. As before, Schopper is at ease both in his low and high notes, stresses the right syllables smoothly (some singers sound strained with the high notes, others hard to hear in the low notes and there are those who stress the rhythm too strongly, making the phrase graceless). The next phrase – with the ornament that takes the singer to a high e flat on dich – may be problematic for some singers, some do away with the ornament, others resort to voix mixte to deliver it smoothly. Schopper does not make much of it and focus on the next rein, which he sings more strongly and firmly, almost as a proud statement of his intent of being pure. We’ll hear that he sings all the reinstatements of the thematic material already presented in extremely unproblematic voice – it all sounds velvety, rich and gentle. There is not one moment when the listener hears anything grandiloquent, overstated or vocally narcissistic there. We hear a dark, resonant voice at its lightest – made pure – warm, reassuring at all times, für und für, to quote the text. A few singers do the long melisma on begraben on the breath, what is quite a feat. Schopper is not one of them, he makes himself even an extra breath pause at some point. Old-timers may find that frustrating, but what we see is that baroque specialists tend to prefer it this way, often making the pause right in the beginning, as in begra-aaaaaaben. In Bach, that doesn’t bother me personally (especially because I doubt any of his malnourished singers in St. Thomas would actually be able of singing such kilometric phrases in one breath). If the singer has the control to go to the end of a long phrase with consistent tonal quality, then bravo/a. But I’d rather hear a breath pause than constriction, discolouring and poor intonation in the end of the breath.

In the B section, Schopper goes a step further in terms of lightness, dangerously close to a “white” tone. It is admirable that the voice still retains some velvet and one can see in the video how he negotiates nasal resonance to focus his high notes. The result is conversational, light but instrumental in sound, especially in the upper register. Only from Welt, hinaus (World, go out), his voice gains roundness again. This is a passage where many singers – to produce some contrast with the previous moments, when the key word is “repose” – adopt a more imposing tone, as if the text implied that the text were directed to the world, as if he were saying “keep away” to a crowd or something like that. I like better the way Schopper does, he is not speaking to the WORLD here, but rather to himself. The idea is to make his soul focus entirely in spiritual matters from that point on. In the repeat, there is not much difference from the beginning in terms of tone, except in the very end, when, instead of making his last statement of “I myself want to bury Jesus” more emphatic, Schopper sings with the sweetest and lightest of tones. I find it particularly convincing in the way it shows some sort of hushed enthusiasm. It is a performance that has a dignified, serene, unpretentious quality that goes straight to the heart of the imaginary “congregation” in its lack of affectation or portentousness. It is a testimony rather than a sermon.

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Music Lounge (26)

Goethe’s encyclopedic amount of writing alone would have made him a famous writer. I can only wonder what he would have accomplished if he could have used a laptop computer! For instance, the West-östlicher Divan, a collection of poems inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafiz, has twelve books plus an extra volume of “notes and queries”! Hafiz wasn’t, however, Goethe’s single source of inspiration when he wrote it. He had met in 1814 the young Marianne von Willemer, the wife of an acquaintance of his. Although he was 45 years older than her, he could not help falling in love, especially after reading her poem Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe (later set to music by Hugo Wolf). As a romance was impossible, he left for Heidelberg. Nonetheless, Willemer and her husband followed Goethe there. On her way, she wrote one poem, called Ostwind (East Wind). Back home, she would send him another poem, Westwind (West Wind). Those were love poems, and the titles make reference to the fact that they lived in opposite parts of the German speaking world: he, in Thuringia; she, in Frankfurt. At the time, Goethe showed great interest in Asian culture and had the idea of writing a collection of poems (a “diwan”, as they were called in Hafez’s days) relating values from both Western and Eastern civilizations. The eighth book, which comprise love poems, is called “Zuleika” and documents the exchange of feelings between Zuleika and her beloved Hatem. One can find there both Ostwind and Westwind. As it is, only after Marianne von Willemer’s death, the true authorship of these poems was made known.

Schubert set both Ostwind and Westwind to music, and one usually calls them Suleika I and Suleika II (Goethe did not use Willemer’s titles). Both are well-loved items, usually appearing in recitals of “Goethe-Lieder”, but it is Suleika I the one considered by Brahms as the “loveliest song ever written”. It seems that Marianne von Willemer herself liked the song; in a letter written in 1825 she mentions a setting of Ostwind she thought to be “really lovely”. Willemer’s poem is indeed the kind of text that inspired Schubert’s best writing in its colorful imagery and symbology. Zuleika is separated from Hatem and she sees in a sudden gush of wind some sort of sign, but what could it be? It must be a good omen, for her heart first feels relieved. The wind caresses the vines and whispers greetings from her beloved in her ear. All she thinks now is meeting him, there in the high citadel/castle/burg where she is going to meet him. But the prospect of seeing him is not as enchanting as his actual physical presence – only the words formed from his breath can carry the love he feels for her. There is a jeu de mot here – his name is Hatem and, in the old German spelling, breath is written Athem, an anagram. So, Hatem is dear to Zuleika as the very air she breathes.

Ostwind is not the single “Goethe-Lied” by Schubert that describes the sensation of seeing and feeling the beloved one in nature. For instance, in Nähe des Geliebten (Nearness of the beloved one), a woman sees her beloved whenever the dust rises in the road, hears him in the roll of waves, until she finally realizes he is by her side, no matter how far he is. In Willemer’s poem, Zuleika feels the opposite: thinking of Hatem first makes her feel well, but it is only a shadow of what really being with him is. This is an oriental setting and Europeans cannot really resist the idea of intense passion – and that is why we have the wind, not a gentle zephyr. Zuleika’s first line is “What does this agitation mean?”. Then Willemer speaks of swarms of insects, vine-covered hillsides and, of course, the burning heat of the sun. We’re speaking of hot-blooded people. And yet Schubert is no Schumann – he is not going to describe the intensity of this feeling, first he will describe the intensity of the setting. The piano depicts all kinds of aeolian activity here: the song starts with a sudden gush. Zuleika feels that the weather has changed – and then the wind blasts at full force. Accordingly, the rhythm in the piano first shows a subtle agitation. When the dusts is swirled up, leaves and insects blown around, the single-note rhythm develops into a more playful up-and-down figure.

The song is written is written in bar-form. The second Stollen is a subtly altered version of the first one. Here the more regular rhythmic pattern of the first stanza relates to how the wind freshens Zuleika’s cheeks and seems to play with the vines in the hills. The playful figure now goes to the stanza when she seems to hear the wind whispering in her ear and how she will soon kiss Hatem when she sees him. The melody shows more alteration in the fourth stanza and harmony is subtly tenser too – we are getting an extra stanza, the climax of the song, a transition to the Abgesang. Here she sees herself on top of the burg/citadel/castle with her beloved. Harmony is more complex, chromaticism abounds, the tessitura is higher, the dynamic is louder, we hear the “regular” wind rhythm at its most percussive. Gradually the wind subsides and we’re finally in the last section. The emotional atmosphere sounds entirely different now – the Aufgesang was based on a rhythmic pattern, we gravitated around B minor*, whereas now we are in B major and we have a gentle repeated pulsation on F sharp in the left hand and a simple rhythmic pattern in the right hand – one long note, two higher short notes. The world outside is now in repose, but in Zuleika’s chest her heart beats with agitation. She realizes that no proxy is going to quench the longing, the desire. So, yes, here Schubert is – atypically – less interested in the description of nature and illustrative effects, but rather in recreating the emotional landscape. This is still descriptive of the poem, but, hey!, doesn’t it sound like Schumann? I would bet that this is why Brahms liked the song so much – it is an almost unique summary of early and intermediate style of Romantic Lieder writing in one single song. Schubert is again extremely accurate in recreating the sensation; the music does not gradually sink to repose – there are peaks and valleys in this descending curve – just like when we feel when we try to calm ourselves down. It is an internal “dialogue”. In the end, Zuleika is quieter, but probably even more frustrated by the separation, because she had a sample of reunion in her imagination.

Although Suleika I and II are often sung by sopranos, the oriental setting, with its whirlwinds, scorching sunlight and unmitigated passions make them an ideal item for a mezzo soprano. And the right woman for the job is the Slovenian mezzo Marjana Lipovsek. First, Lipovsek is one of the rare recitalists who felt equally at home both in Schubert and in Schumann. We can hear how she instinctively shifts from the most instrumental, rhythmically precise mood of the Aufgesang into the most flexible – both in terms of rhythm and dynamic – atmosphere of the Abgesang. We can hear in this fifth stanza that Lipovsek was also a successful opera singer, for she holds nothing at the climax, she makes it a mini Widmung. If you hear this song attentively you’ll even suspect that Wagner had it in mind when he composed the opening of the second act of Tristan and Isolde.

Lipovsek’s Janus-like abilities are also reflected in the very sound of her voice. I had a friend who said “there are mezzos who are indeed ‘half-sopranos’, but some of them should be called ‘mezzo contraltos'”. I would file Lipovsek in the second category – her voice sank with exceptional naturalness in her low notes and always had a bright, focused sound, never matronly or too somber – one doesn’t even feel that these notes are low as they really are. She had her high notes too, but – especially in some dramatic roles (such as Amneris or Azucena) she experimented with mostly in smaller opera houses, they could sound pinched or a tad strained. Never in baroque music or Lieder, in which she displayed almost instrumental poise and a fruity, appealing sound. In Suleika I, not only her crystal-clear diction but also the precision of her phrasing are entirely in keeping with flowing legato. I particularly appreciate how she handles the triplets in the first and third stanzas. Some singers articulate them too heavily, some smudge them – Lipovsek make them clear yet smoothly connected. The Aufgesang is a bit wordy and the tempi rather fast, so it is difficult to be fussy in interpretation here. She works here rather through word-pointing – one senses the anxiety in the first line by a slight tremor in the voice and we understand how she feels refreshed by the good news she perceives in the air by the sunny quality her voice soon acquires. The second stanza has an almost conversational tone – she is looking around, seeing good signs in anything, clouds of dusts, flying insects – the singer shouldn’t try to make too much of any of these lines, Zuleika is just taking in everything around her, not really processing anything. Lipovsek opens the third stanza in a slightly more hushed tone, she feels the caressing warmth of sunlight on her face, but it’s all very subtle. What she offers in the first part is something almost “classical” in its cleanliness, clarity and precision. It is in the Abgesang that she explores a wider palette – here we’re really speaking of tone colouring. Here Lipovsek paints – rather than depicts – the ambiguous moods in Zuleika’s heart as she realizes that, yes, anticipation may be wonderful in the way it fills the void of absence, but it also makes absence clear as we fill it with fantasy. In the end, it is all as thin as air.

* Being a mezzo soprano, Lipovsek sings the song transposed “for a lower voice” in F minor.

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Music lounge (25)

I had decided that the music lounge would feature a tenor this week and after some consideration, I thought that Nicolai Gedda should be the one. Gedda has an extensive discography and was very much the tenor or choice in the 60’s and 70’s, including in repertoire really above his limits of facility, such as the role of Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani and Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. He even toyed with the title role in Wagner’s Lohengrin but at some point he realized he was risking his vocal health and chose to behave more “wisely”. Unfortunately, the heavy duty had an effect in many recordings of roles entirely within his vast possibilities. For instance, I wouldn’t consider any of his complete Mozart opera recordings as representative of his legendary legato, ductibility and flexibility. In any case, even if the microphone exposed the fatigue in a voice that nonetheless withstood as few the test of time and wear, there are plenty of examples of Gedda’s artistry undeniably above the competition, such as the romance in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. My original plan here was to post his recording of Rachmaninov’s op. 21 n. 7 (Zdes choroso) where he can rival any soprano with his high mezza voce, but then I remembered that I always think of Gedda when I see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and I decided that this would be it.

I have to be honest: it took me a while to get used to Russian music. I remember that I even disliked Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin the first time I heard it, an opera that later would never fail to please me live in the theatre or in home listening. So you can only imagine my first reaction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And again – this is an opera that has always proved effective the theatre in my experience. It is a difficult work to pull off if all involved lack a sense of humor, in spite of the opera’s bleak ending. This is particularly so in the case of the leading tenor part, Sergey. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge is a tough cookie of a role. First, he is a total jerk and yet there must be some charm in him. Second, the writing almost stands for a parody of heroic singing and can be a bit demanding on the voice – and the acting requirements are not negligible. Third, the writing is a bit wordy and it is difficult to keep a shadow of cantabile in these circumstances. My experience in the theatre is finding a Siegmund tenor in the role fighting with high notes and a bit rough in terms of legato. And that is why I always remember Mstislav Rostropovich’s studio recording, in which Gedda – a surprising piece of casting – is so effective in a part entirely distant to his gentlemanly personality. Although he was Swedish, Gedda’s grandfather was Russian and so was his adoptive father, what made him comfortable with the Russian language. I’ve first heard Lady Macbeth in Petr Weigl’s film in which actors lip-synch to Rostropovich’s recording – and I was almost shocked to discover that the tenor who sang with such alpha-male quality and wryness was the 53-year old debonair, Mozartian Gedda. I don’t think he would have sung the role in a stage performance – we have to remember that the libretto was considered distasteful and that the opera was vetoed in the USSR for a long while. The original version wouldn’t be performed again in Russia until twenty years later after Rostropovich’s studio recording. Also, if Gedda had an advantage on almost every other tenor in terms of ease with high notes, it was indeed a voice a couple of sizes smaller than what we tend to hear in the theatre in that part. I have the impression that a lyric tenor with bright high notes and some heft (à la Pavarotti) could be the ideal choice for Sergey, but that is a hypothesis I still have to test. The lightest Sergey I have seen was Pavel Cernoch, who lacks Gedda’s fluency in his upper register and struggled a bit.

In any case, Gedda is, in Rostropovich’s recording, the aural image of Sergey – there are the high testosterone levels, the shamelessness, the sexiness and the boorishness. He is gross and charming at the same time. Although I cannot speak Russian, Gedda’s tonal palette is so wide and the word pointing so effective that I can understand exactly what he means in every utterance just by the sound of his voice. He is ideally partnered by Galina Vishnevskaya, whose acidic soprano is the aural image of Katerina in her explosive femininity. She denies this music nothing and lives her part with surprisingly unladylike sincerity. And Rostropovich sees all the musical jokes and innuendos in the score and shows it in all its garish colors (as it should be).

We’re obviously hearing one of the most “distasteful” scenes in the opera, in which both Vishnevskaya and Gedda score subtle points in the absolutely unsubtlety of their characters one after the other with unfailing mastery. It is late at night, Katerina Izmailova is alone at her apartments, her husband is out in a business trip, when someone knocks at her door. It is Sergey, an employee of the Izmailovs. Katarina had seen him sexually assault a female colleague, Aksinya, and, when she tried to intervene, by saying that women are as brave and strong as men, he simply challenged her to wrestle him. Katerina did not feel intimidated and consented. When her father-in-law saw the situation, she said she had tripped and Sergey ended up falling too when trying to help her up. So, at this point, when he knocks at her door at night, one can easily guess his intentions. The scene starts very conversationally, almost parlando. She speaks in a hushed tone, her father-in-law is always keeping an eye on her. It is Gedda’s tone that begins the scene with a genius touch – he adopts a boyish, exaggeratedly innocent voice: he just wants “to borrow a book”. These two, however, are no Paolo and Francesca – she can’t read, they don’t have books. When the door is finally open, we hear Gedda’s full tenor voice: he is dying of boredom. It is an entirely different voice, a bit rough-edged. She responds in her full soprano, the sound is stingy: why doesn’t he get a wife? To answer it, Gedda employs a firm, bright sound, stressing every word, some notes a tiny little bit off-pitch, his phrasing rhythmically crispy, almost buoyant: he is a man of noble feelings, but no well-born girl would care for him. That is why he is bored. The way Gedda sings it, it is clear that he is being absolutely cynical here. It is more than he is lying – he is making a point of showing that he doesn’t mean anything he is saying, because he knows what she’ll answer in the end. But they have to play a little bit before getting to that point.

Shostakovich makes it very clear that what we’re hearing here is no Wagnerian “philosophical” sexuality with chromaticism, ambiguous chords and suspended orchestration. The band-like, dance rhythms, woodwind staccato comments, they all show us that we’re not dealing here with the loftiest parts of human behavior, to put it that way. Ekaterina is bored too, if she only had a child to keep her busy… Here we get to an arioso-like section in which Sergey tries to explain that, in order to have a baby, there are certain things she would have to do first. The problem would rather be how to find someone to help her with that. He, for instance, has seen how hard life is for women – and he is a helpful guy. Gedda was always a tenor with a smile in his voice – and the way he uses it here is just brilliant. He sounds at the same time a tad drunk and seductive in a very cheap way, you can here him winking and performing his little macho routine in the sound of his voice, the way he opens his vowels, lingers a bit to end of phrases, overpronounces some consonants, everything has a suggestive glint to it. The strings join in in almost tango-like accompanying figures. The tessitura is lower now and one feels Sergey relaxing his efforts, he is almost getting there. He is not totally wrong, Vishnevskaya’s Katerina responds, in a warmer tonal quality, the kind of “go away” that a lawyer would consider ripe for further clarification. He says he is going, but he doesn’t move and reminds her of their wrestling – the orchestra is now more alert, there is an athletic anticipation of what is happening next. Gedda’s tone is now at its edgiest and brightest – from this point on he’s taking no prisoners. We’re having the drums, the brass – now there is no more room for tone colouring.

The following orchestral passage is one of the most famous in the score – the moaning trombones, rhythmic upward string glissandos make it clear what is being described there. Rostropovich’s orchestra makes it all even clearer than in any other recordings. Vishneskaya’s and Gedda’s languid comments after things calm down add a final touch to the moment. We will still hear Katerina’s father-in-law asking from outside if everything is all right. The scene is almost over, but the couple decide that the night is young and there is no reason yet to say good-bye over the excited background of almost circus-like music.

As said above, we’ll never know how Gedda would have fared live in a staged performance. I would bet that the voice would have been light for it – especially if he had to follow the very complex stage instructions. In any case, this recording shows a lots of musical possibilities for the tenor part that usually remain unused by the singers cast in the role of Sergey. Knowing this recording, I keep hearing his voice in my mind whenever I see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the theatre. It also shows another side of Nicolai Gedda’s abilities as an artist and also as a singer. It is not unusual that anyone with a vast discography ultimately has a larger sample of less than ideal recordings than someone caught only in his or her key roles. Therefore, one tends to relativize the strengths of singers in the first group. That is not really the case with Gedda – who was a favorite with reviewers appreciative of his solid technique and the fact that he found himself at home in Italian, German, French… and Russian roles, not to mention the fact that he did sing in English and Swedish.

The scene we’re hearing is split in two tracks. YouTube has each track in its own video. Although they are supposed to flow continuously to the end of the disc, I’ll post both tracks below just to make sure everyone is able to hear it properly.

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Music lounge (24)

When I published here a review of the Berlin première of Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie, a reader, Meredith, asked me “Why do you think Hippolyte et Aricie has not become more popular with opera lovers? And why do the operas of Handel get so much more attention?”. That was a tricky question, and it took me a while to answer. I wrote then that “While Handel was dealing with Italian opera outside Italy (i.e., not the country’s national repertoire), Rameau was in the epicenter of French opera, having to respond to patrons who felt really authoritative about what he was doing. On the other hand, Handel’s transgressions were validated exclusively by London’s opera-goers. And most of them found Italian opera in its purest form stuffy and boring. This means that Handel had to flatter the tastes of his paying audiences. Otherwise, he would just go bankrupt. So, yes, this explains a lot why Handel travels better than Rameau: the whole enterprise was more cosmopolitan (he was German, in England, making Italian music with international casts) and he was trying to lure people into paying tickets. It is, therefore, more alluring and more open than Rameau’s ultra-French project by definition.” So, yes, Rameau was subject to a stricter code and there is a lot of fluff in his complete operas. And yet – and this is a big “yet” – when he was given the chance, he was able to go beyond the boundaries of baroque music. So, no final answer here – I find watching a complete opera by Handel is a more rewarding experience than sitting through a full opera by Rameau, but the best moments in a Rameau opera are really worth the detour. And that is what we’re doing today, by listening one number of Rameau’s most nonsensical work – the opéra-ballet (or as he called it, “ballet héroïque“) Les Indes Galantes (usually translated as “The Amorous Indies”). In its final form, it comprises a prologue and four entrées (a fully independent scene) the “plots” of which involve a very peculiar propaganda for Europeans in which the colonies are shown as a place where one can find “love”. Of course, the whole thing would be highly questionable (to say the least) in the age of Internet, but back then it was an excuse for exotic costumes, complex sets, percussion instruments and coloratura.

The quartet Tendre amour (‘Tender love”) is one of the many highlights in the score of Les Indes Galantes and comes in the end of the third entrée, Les Fleurs (The Flowers), which is considered the weakest part of a libretto not famous for its quality. The “action” takes place in Persia and, of course, involves seraglios, where both… I’ll let you guess the names… yes, Zaïre et Fatime are… how can we call them?… “guests”. The set shows a harem belonging to Ali, the best friend of Prince Tacmas. Tacmas loves Zaïre, who… is “sojourning” there and disguises himself to get inside and check if she loves him back. Predictably, Ali loves Fatime, who happens to be under the “protection” of Tacmas in his own palace. After a lot, I mean, A LOT of misunderstandings, all of them realize that they are corresponded. That is the moment when they sing “Tender love, we hope that your chains will hold us forever”. So, as you see, nobody thought of slavery when they wrote that one… In order to illustrate the whole romantic imbroglio, Rameau naturally uses imitative writing. So we can hear the irresistible serpentine theme that depicts the never-ending chain go back and forth between the soloists (two sopranos, an haute-contre and a bass). The counterpoint is no novelty in baroque style, but the building harmonic tension that makes us almost breathless, this is what makes this number special.

Until a couple of years ago, there weren’t many complete recordings of Les Indes Galantes, but suddenly production popped up everywhere in Europe and now there is a choice of DVDs from Paris, Glyndebourne, Munich etc. You can even find distinguished soloists, as in the video with Malin Hartelius and Richard Croft or the gala in which the quartet is sung by Magali Léger, Magdalena Kozena, Cyril Auvity and Jean-Sébastien Bou, but I have to be honest: all these performance pale compared to William Christie’s recording in his academy for young singers “Le Jardin des Voix” in 2013. There, both sopranos (Daniela Skorka and Émilie Renard) have warmer tone than the competition and tenor Zachary Wilder holds his haute-contre functions more firmly and with superior legato and a more dulcet tone than everyone else. Bass Cyril Costanzo completes the quartet commendably. More than that, Christie fills the texture with orchestral sound and makes it even more compelling by enveloping these singers’ voices in sensuous strings, very much like the tender chains they sing about.

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Music lounge (23)

Coincidences exist, we see them everyday, but I can picture Debussy’s dismay when he found out that Ravel had the very same idea of setting music to poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. There was some unease, but in the end all involved were very civilized and we could have both major French composers of their age working simultaneously in almost identical projects. Debussy was the first to finish, and only one year later Ravel premièred his Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé with soprano Rose Féart and a chamber ensemble conducted by Désiré-Émile Ingelbrecht in the Salle Érard in Paris. Both Debussy and Ravel chose Soupir (sigh) to open their collection of three songs, but here I must be honest about my preference for Ravel’s setting. In my opinion, Soupir is a brilliant piece of music. It sounds like an extremely innovative piece of composition, but if you think that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had been composed two years before for basically the same forces (singer, string quartet, piano, flutes and clarinets), it comes across as rather conventional in comparison. And yet it sounds unique in its sound palette.

Actually, Mallarmé’s poem is not the kind of text one would imagine set to music at all. Songs tend to have very personal texts about people experiencing deep feelings, like love/hatred, joy/gloom, hope/hopelessness, but the only reference to a person in Soupir happens in the first line with the vocative ô calme soeur (“o calm sister”). And yet the poem is not even about her. In symbolist style, the poem rather tries to describe a state of mind. It is autumn, trees are turning red here and there, the poet thinks of this woman he calls “sister” whose angelic eyes his soul yearns to see. This yearning is similar to a white fountain that sighs towards the blue sky. Yet again, it is autumn, and the sky is pale this time of the year, and also the fountain is too small to mirror it in its full scale like seas and lakes do. It contents itself in reflecting a single, long sunbeam on its waters full of dry leaves slowly decaying. That said, the reader understand what it is about: the end of youth and a future increasingly laden with recollection from the past. Mallarmé did have a sister, Marie, who died at the age of 13 in 1857, ten years after their mother passed. According to her portrait, Marie did not have blue eyes, though. In any case, Marie died on August 31st, less than a month before the beginning of autumn and still in the springtime of her own life. Still, Soupir is not about Marie.

One may wonder if a poem like Soupir would inspire a depressing song, but that is not how Ravel composed it. It is a melancholic song in a good sense. It is about life experienced in an “inner landscape”, nourished by the reflection of memories on the outside world rather than in the objective world outside. In Ravel’s musical depiction, this does not sound gloomy at all. This “happy place” has an advantage over the real world – it is timeless and you can find there everything you’ve lost, it is a fantastic place. There is a garden – like the paradise – and there is a fountain, like the fountain of youth. And Ravel makes that clear with the otherworldly arpeggi in the strings. They sparkle, yes, like water (as much as in the opening of Der Rheingold), but also stand for glint of youth. It is not the world of nature as in Der Rheingold – it is a world of fantasy. The piano enters very subtly in Et vers le ciel errant de ton œil angélique (“And towards the wandering sky of your angelic eyes”) and we gradually feel an increase in intensity, the tessitura in the vocal part is rising, a flute appear in a slow upward scale with the word angélique until singer and flute merge in a high f# only to repose in the word Azur (“blue”), when they are joined by the clarinets. The song seems to have attained a point of balance and repose. That’s the moment when we reach the second part. The sparkling arpeggi are gone, only the clarinet remains until the string quartet comes in a more conventionally “Romantic” approach. The vocal part now sounds like a recitative. The image of blue skies and a clear fountain are now mitigated – the skies are not really blue in autumn, and the fountain is now full of dead leaves. We reach a moment of transition when the text says Qui mire aux grands bassins sa langueur infinie (“Which mirrors its infinite languor in the great bodies of water”): the singer sustains a long high e in mezza voce while the piano paints a series of harmonically ambiguous chords. The recitative-like lines and the strings insist in descending phrases with a splash of chromaticism, the song here seems languorous, matte, almost lifeless. Only the reference to the lazy, golden bean of sunlight on the water (Se traîner le soleil jaune d’un long rayon) brings an intermittent spark of warmth with the return of isolated arpeggi from the beginning of the song.

As we see, although the text is rather abstract, Ravel tells its story with the sounds of instruments, among which the voice is the most important one. So, yes, this song requires a voice capable of instrumental purity. And absolute coolness. If you feel any glitch in the sound, then the spell is broken. Rose Féart sang roles like Brangäne and I can only imagine how she sounded it in the première. There are many good recordings of the three songs, with singers very distant of a Wagnerian mezzo. I felt tempted to choose Janet Baker with the Melos Ensemble and Bernard Keeffe, because the balance is ideally natural and Baker sings with the ideal mix of fairytale-like brightness and her subtle use of portamento brings a sense of inebriation that really fits the atmosphere of the song. It is really lovely, but her French, well pronounced as it is, sounds artificial. Another British singer, Felicity Lott, is far more spontaneous in her French and sings very well indeed with the soloists of the Orchestre de Paris and Michel Plasson. Yet, I find her mezza voce, if one could say that, so ethereal, but so ethereal that it almost sound as if she were singing from another room. That and a less than ideal balance ruled it out for our Musical Lounge (but again, it is worth the while). Then there is Anne Sofie von Otter with a group of Swedish musicians. She, of course, has excellent French and sings with the sexiest tone in the whole discography – a little bit too sexy for this song about lukewarm pleasures. It could have been my choice, but I finally went for Elly Ameling, soloists of the Orchestre National de France and Rudolf Jansen. I myself was surprised with this decision, because – I have to be fair – for all her finesse and musicianship, I am not a great fan of Elly Ameling. I find her great-auntly in her approach in everything she sings, and her middle and low registers have a slightly grainy quality that I find the opposite of appealing. Yet here she has the edge on her competition for the crispy quality of her French. Baker, Lott, Von Otter, even Upshaw are all of them convincing in the first part of the song – the recitative-like second part is where Baker sounds as if she were speaking random words and Von Otter, if idiomatic, does not seem connected to the meaning of them. It all has a melancholic all-purpose feeling. Not Ameling – one feel she is really reciting Mallarmé’s poem here. And, with her, one has not the feeling that the first part “is more beautiful’. To Ameling’s advantage there is also her costumery coolness that makes her transverse this song with Bach-ian poise. And, to make things better, the studio balance is almost artificially perfect in laboratory-like precision. If that makes the song less glowing and mysterious, it makes it sound at its most modern. Curiously, Ameling is less convincing in the remaining songs, whereas Von Otter rises to the occasion, making hers arguably the best recording for the three songs.

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