Media

Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

Little Richard "Here's Little Richard" Specialty Records SPC-33300

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Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

OMG. Little Richard, the true king of rock 'n roll, is back, and sounding better than ever. Here's Little Richard, his game-changing debut album for Specialty Records, is now beautifully remastered, and enriched for CD with significant bonus material and an illuminating background essay by Lee Hildebrand. (For vinyl lovers, there's also an LP version from Concord Records with sound that puts the original pressing to shame).

Once more, the man whose LPs I used to play at top volume to drive my mother out of the house is whooping it up, hollering, and having a ball. As Little Richard sings "Tutti Frutti," "Ready Teddy," "Long Tall Sally," and the nine other classics he recorded in 1955 and 1956 for his Specialty Records debut, it's impossible not to be caught up by his youthful, all gonads loaded energy. The lyrics may be repetitive, and the piano's even-eight-note patterns very even indeed, but Little Richard's seemingly boundless elation gives notice that a new music is about seize and transform entire generations of listeners in ways their parents and preachers, baby sitters and teachers desperately warned them about.

Eventually, it was Little Richard who heeded the warning. In October 1957, after cutting his final track for Specialty Records, boyfriend threw in the towel for the Gospel, and gave up rock n'roll for Jesus. His renunciations – there was more than one – didn't last that long; as the saying goes, or at the least shall be writ anew, it's easier to rout the devil than rout the devil out of rock 'n roll.

You may have seen Little Richard's many later appearances on TV, including the most recent, the 78-year old's wheelchair-bound 2011 performance on the nationally televised "A Capitol Fourth." You've probably also heard his frequent denunciations of how he was cheated out of royalties by many of the major artists (Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Bill Haley) who subsequently recorded his music. But to hear him in his early '20s prime, with every falsetto yelp, raspy hoot, and high-flying holler intact, there is nothing better under sun and sin than Here's Little Richard.

Especially important is the CD's bonus material. The two audio demos of "Baby" and "All Night Long" that he sent to Specialty Records – the demos that secured his contract – show him in far lighter voice. And the bonus screen test videos, one shot with his eyes darting this way and that as someone was probably shouting things at him while he was lip-synching, prove that it wasn't only Elvis Presley's pelvis that Ed Sullivan and the censors had to be concerned about. I'm not convinced that they're high-definition – they sure look fuzzy when I play them through iTunes – but they're still great to watch.

Equally revealing are audio excerpts of a curious interview with Specialty Records Founder Art Rupe, who offhandedly discusses his singer's gifts and limitations in ways that reveal both admiration and regrets. Don't miss Hildebrand's revelation that the original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti" were far more juicy than Mom and the masses were prepared to accept.

Despite And Still "Melissa Fogarty Sings Samuel Barber" CD Baby 178578

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Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

The following reviews originally appeared at sfcv.org, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice

How wonderful it is to again make Samuel Barber's acquaintance. Despite his fame, due in large part to his unforgettable Adagio for Strings, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the opera Vanessa, precious few recordings are devoted solely to all or part of his 47 songs for voice and piano (and, in the case of Dover Beach, Op. 3, for string quartet).

All the more reason, then, to cheer soprano Melissa Fogarty's just released CD of 23 of Barber's songs. Produced in part by the New York–based soprano herself and her partner, Jennifer Griesbach, the nicely recorded disc receives attentive accompaniment from pianist Marc Peloquin.

Given that Fogarty has become a favored soprano of composer David del Tredici, whose writing for high-flying soprano often approaches the torturous, the technical surety and ease that she brings to Barber's music comes as no surprise. Nuvoletta, Op. 25, a fabulous romp of a song, shows off her quasi-soubrettish timbre to perfection. Although her pace is over a minute slower than Leontyne Price's rendition with Barber during their famed 1953 concert at the Library of Congress, the song bubbles along with carefree delight. Fogarty's enunciation of James Joyce's text from Finnegan's Wake is also exemplary.

Texts for Fogarty's CD, only available online, are crucial for comprehension. Despite and Still, for example, sets poetry by Robert Graves, Theodore Roethke, and Joyce (a favorite of Barber's). Barber's attention to the deeper meaning of words, and to their natural cadence, shows him to be one of the finest 20th-century American art song composers.

Because I find scrolling through online texts less comfortable than sitting with printed words in hand, I called into play texts that come with the Price/Barber disc and the 1991 complete set of Barber songs with soprano Cheryl Studer, baritone Thomas Hampson, and a pianist long associated with Barber, John Browning. This made further comparisons inevitable.

Major portions of Fogarty and Peloquin's recital are devoted to Barber's 10 Hermit Songs, Op. 29, which Price and Barber debuted in 1953, and the five songs of the late-career opus, Despite and Still, Op. 41. The lighter of the Hermit Songs — notably the delightful song "The Monk and His Cat" ("Pangur, white Pangur, how happy we are / Alone together, Scholar and cat") — are treated with an innocent sweetness that Studer misses. If Fogarty can't bring Price's Southern languor to this gem, or her predecessors' weight of tone and wide dynamic modulations to the graver songs, she nonetheless deepens her sound to a most satisfying extent.

As well as Fogarty sings "Solitary Hotel" from Despite and Still, the then-36-year-old Thomas Hampson artfully — perhaps too artfully — uses pauses to further underscore Joyce's and Barber's intentions. Browning also employs far more dynamic contrast to bring the singer's artistry home, and is more resonantly recorded.

No one else can equal Melissa Fogarty's joy and carefree abandon. Her lack of self-conscious artifice and her love of Barber's songs shine throughout this wonderful recital.

Diana Damrau "Liszt Lieder" Virgin Classics 0709282

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Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

This is a wonderful album. Arriving a few months after soprano Diana Damrau's disc of orchestral lieder (songs) by Richard Strauss received the German Phono Akademie's Echo-Klassik award for "Lieder Recording of the Year," this fresh collaboration, with pianist Helmut Deutsch, yields 19 treasurable performances of Liszt lieder. Each is approached with the same passion, care, and respect that distinguish the finest lieder interpretations of the recorded era.

Liszt being Liszt, many of his songs are grand miniatures, filled with soaring lines and dramatic emotional shifts. The pattern is set by the first song, "Der Fischerknabe" (The fisher lad). Taking her lead from Deutsch's rippling arpeggios, Damrau begins with a smile on her voice. Her honeyed tones, produced as if she were a respectful observer coming upon a young lad asleep on the shore of a lake, are perfumed with innocence.

Damrau's flawless, hushed rise to the word Paradise casts its spell, giving no warning of the tragedy that is to follow. As Deutsch's playing becomes more intense, the voice becomes weightier and far more animated. The waters threaten. Then comes silence, a silence that speaks as eloquently as the waves of sound that preceded it. In three short lines, the spell is cast. To an exquisitely floated high A flat, the lad is dragged beneath the waters, and calm returns to the surface.

Equally telling is Liszt's setting of Goethe's "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ru"h (Over every peak there is peace). Schubert famously transformed this verse, which he set as Wanderers Nachtlied II, into an extraordinary testament to the peace that comes with death. Here Liszt is remarkably subdued (for Liszt), but he cannot resist transforming the silence of the birds into the ominous call of death. Where Schubert is content to rest, Liszt chills us with the soft toll of church bells. (To clarify Liszt's worldview, I've included a comparison with what I consider bass-baritone Hans Hotter's finest recording of Schubert's setting, made in 1942 with Michael Raucheisen as accompanist.)

Just occasionally on this CD, as in "Der du von dem Himmel bist" (Thou that art from heaven), Damrau either drops into chest voice or intentionally stresses her tone to the point where it loses its prettiness. All this, though, is done in the service of art. Deutsch is right there with her, providing every pearly tone and billowing flourish that the music demands.

A great deal of intelligence is at work here. "" (I find no peace) from Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets is a must-hear. So are Liszt's two different settings of Goethe's "Freudvoll und leidvoll" (Joyful and sorrowful). Listeners will marvel first at how the composer and Damrau- DIANA DAMRAU: LISZT LIEDERcum-Deutsch make such big drama out of so little, then at how the singer conveys the pensive beginning of the second version with something approaching lazy tone.

With each song, new revelations appear. Can anyone fail to be entranced by the rapt attention with which Damrau weaves the spell of the Loreley? This disc displays lieder singing and playing at their finest.

Maria Callas "The Callas Effect" EMI Classics 84356 (Two CDs + DVD)

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Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

So great is the Callas mythology, and so important her artistic legacy, that 37 years after her death, her many studio and live recordings remain the biggest sellers in EMI's catalogue. Perhaps the desire to capitalize once more on her fame, before copyright laws loosen entirely EMI's monopoly on the recordings she made in and after her prime, is partially responsible for the release of two packages that seem designed to maintain and strengthen the legend.

The first, The Callas Effect, is a thick, hardbound Callas compilation that includes two CDs and a DVD. The CDs' 29 arias, all but one recorded for commercial release, have been issued and reissued many times over.

What is new is an EMI-commissioned DVD that purports to set the record straight on Callas' career. One segment focuses on her most notorious scandal, her walkout after the first act of a performance of Norma, whose audience included the President of Italy. Also of value are a small number of rarely seen photos, and a minimally critical nine-page essay and one-page chronology by the incomparable opera commentator and former drag diva Ira Siff.

As if to prove the existence of The Callas Effect, on its heels comes soprano Angela Gheorghiu's slimmer, hardbound package, Homage to Maria Callas: Favourite Opera Arias. Gheorghiu's first studio recital release in six years, recorded at an age when Callas had already ceased performing in opera productions, includes 13 arias, five of which are also on The Callas Effect. In addition, besides the obligatory glamour shots, Gheorghiu's homage promises a computer-accessible "Habanera" duet between the two divas. While the album has its merits, I find the duet gimmick even more of a ridiculous exercise of ego than I had thought possible.

What is most surprising is how few tracks either album devotes to the bel canto versatility that set the seal on Callas' greatness. The Callas Effect contains just one aria by Rossini and two by Bellini; in addition, there are three coloratura arias by Leo Delibes, Gounod, and Ambroise Thomas. (The album includes Verdi's "Ah, fors'è lui" from the famed live Lisbon performance of Verdi's La Traviata, but omits its "Sempre libera" coloratura cabaletta, undoubtedly because the high E flat climax is short and shaky.) There's nothing from two of Callas' most famous coloratura roles, Bellini's La Sonnambula and Donizetti's Lucia di Lam

Angela Gheorghiu: Homage to Maria Callas

Gheorghiu's homage contains only the Gounod track, one of the two Bellini items, and the scene from La Traviata. While Gheorghiu does include "Sempre libera," she skips the E flat entirely. Callas preferred to abandon roles rather than skip notes that she knew everyone was waiting for.

Gheorghiu sings quite well, and the recording engineers do their best to mask the shallowness of her lower and middle ranges. If nothing on the disc suggests that Callas' supremacy in this repertoire has been equaled — "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" (from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila) is a major misstep, and the "Habanera" from Carmen hardly sounds dangerous — most of Gheorghiu's renditions are expertly done and quite beautiful. "Poveri fiori" from Cilea's Adriana Lecourveur — an opera far more associated with verismo miracle Magda Olivero than Maria Callas — is especially moving.

As I listen to Gheorghiu sing the Jewel Song from Gounod's Faust, and compare it to Callas' 1963 recording, made when she was past her best, I don't think there's any question whose performance contains the most varied, vibrant, and convincing response. Am I alone in feeling that the anticipation and excitement Gheorghiu attempts to inject into her version sound contrived by a diva with every nerve on edge, as if she had drunk far too many cups of coffee? Snarky perhaps, but it accurately describes how the performance strikes me. Of the two, Callas is the artist who my heart declares sings true.

Scott Joplin "Treemonisha" New World Records 80720

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Summer 2012 Secrets CD Reviews

At last, almost four decades since the release of Gunther Schuller's Broadway "original cast" recording of Scott Joplin's nearly lost ragtime opera, Treemonisha, comes a painstakingly researched, long-contemplated alternative. So different is Rick Benjamin's Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers' reconstruction of the opera that it raises the question: Would Joplin have posthumously received the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in music had this version, rather than Schuller's, made its belated premiere on the Big White Way?

Before discussing New World Records' new CD, some historical background is in order. In 1916, one year before Joplin died of syphilis around the time of his 50th birthday, he completed what the contemporaneous publication the Age described as a "music comedy drama." While Benjamin's astoundingly detailed research — beautifully presented in the costly, profusely illustrated 113-page booklet that distinguishes this "hardbound" release — suggests that more than one performance of the opera took place early on, it has only survived in a piano-vocal version. (Benjamin's essay recounts the painful tale of the destruction of what may have been Joplin's original orchestration.)

Ignored, Treemonisha languished until 1970, when Joshua Rifkin's first of three ragtime albums for Nonesuch brought Joplin's gifts to the fore. Two years later, in 1972, T.J. Anderson's new orchestration of the opera received a joint production by the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Shaw and directed by dance great Katherine Dunham.
Schuller's subsequent orchestration and Broadway production featured a distinguished African-American cast (with Carmen Balthrop, Betty Allen, and Willard White among them) and a full-blown orchestra. Well-recorded in a large, resonant venue, it's big and lively, with a superstition-spreading Zodzetrick (Ben Harney) who (inauthentically) sounds like Sportin' Life in the Gershwin brothers' Porgy and Bess. Other accents in the Schuller recording are a mish-mash, with Porgy-like Southern Negro dialect interspersed with European-influenced operatic English.

Benjamin throws all that out the window. In its place comes what he believes to be as close to an authentic reconstruction as we are able to achieve in the absence of Joplin's orchestration. Recorded in a smaller, drier acoustic, the 11-piece Paragon Ragtime Orchestra plays one-to-a part. Gone is Schuller's grand scale, including the instruments -- oboes, bassoons, French horns, tuba, and harp – that Benjamin believes Joplin could not have called upon for his production(s).

Doing the vocal honors are operatically trained African-American singers whose credits include major opera companies here and abroad, but whose accents are uniform and presumably authentic. While Broadway's "darkie dialect" added a lot of color and life to Schuller's performance, Benjamin's milder version of turn-of-the-century Southern Negro dialect is less stereotypical, and far less condescending. At the recording's end comes a most touching bonus, as Joplin's closest living relative, a grandniece, LaErma White of Texarkana, Arkansas, reads Joplin's own Preface/Synopsis to the opera.

As indispensible as Benjamin's recording may be, is it looking a gift horse in the mouth to state that some of his singers are either past their prime or less vocally distinguished than Schuller's, and that the playing too often drags and sounds simplistic? After all, Joplin's early music training in Texarkana came via numerous routes: the church, his musically gifted family, and a German scholar, Julius White. Later in his life, Joplin came under the spell of Wagner's Tannhäuser.

Even though Treemonisha's plot reeks of melodrama, and its music is a historically invaluable amalgam of genuine African-American melodies, ragtime, and vaudeville/music hall minstrel, I wonder whether Joplin's ideal performance — as opposed to the best that he as an oppressed African-American could possibly have achieved in a racially unenlightened age — would have sounded as naive and dramatically inconsequential as this. Having said that, the baggage-removed reconstruction is essential listening, and the liner notes are indispensible.