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Classical Music Reviews - No. 47 - June, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Review #36.

 
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BRAHMS’ GREAT PIANO TRIOS


BRAHMS: PIANO TRIOS

NICHOLAS ANGELICH, RENAUD CAPUCON, GAUTIER CAPUCON

VIRGIN CLASSICS 72435 4565328

 

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BRAHMS: COMPLETE TRIOS

BEAUX ARTS TRIO

PHILIPS DUO 438 365-2

 

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BRAHMS: COMPLETE TRIOS

FLORESTAN TRIO

HYPERION CDA67251/2

 

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What is it about the music of Johannes Brahms that so often elicits sighs and tears? Wherein lie the roots of his almost magical ability to create simple progressions of notes that strike such universal chords within us?

Such questions arose upon revisiting Brahms’ early Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8. Paired with the two other Brahms Trios for violin, cello & piano, the works have just been recorded anew by the trio of Renaud & Gautier Capucon and Nicholas Angelich and issued by EMI’s Virgin Classics in a two for the price of one set.

As soon as the opening theme of Brahms’ early piano trio of 1854 reached my ears, I could do nothing more than sit still and capitulate. Even in his youth, the man was filled with such longing, such a need for love, that his later “autumnal” works seem but a natural outgrowth of a youthful temperament that so frequently weeps amidst joy.

Gray bearded and wizened at the end of his 64 years, Brahms began composing and playing the piano as a child. At 13, he turned to playing in taverns and brothels to earn money. Some biographers suggest the experience forever soured the handsome young man to the idea of marriage. Whatever the real story, Brahms eventually relinquished hopes of uniting with another in sustained physical relationship.

Instead, he chose to channel the bulk of his passion into composition. Brahms was only 20 when in 1853 he met the great composer Robert Schumann and Robert’s “child bride” Clara. Robert became his great champion, Clara his great love. Although some suggest otherwise, it is commonly believed that even after Robert descended into the incapacitating mental illness that led to his death in 1856, Brahms expressed his love for Clara solely through friendship and musical inspiration.

Despite occasional breaks in their friendship, Clara Schumann (a pianist and composer in her own rite) remained Brahms’ life-long supporter and confidante. To her he dedicated one of his many expressions of melancholic, unconsummated love, the slow movement of his revised Op. 25 Piano Quartet. When Brahms sent the music to her, he wrote that she would understand its meaning like no other listener.

Brahms often consulted Clara, rewriting music according to her preferences. An exception occurred in 1880, when he simultaneously began work on two piano trios. After completing the opening movement of each, he showed them to Clara. Despite her preference for what might have become the Piano Trio in E flat major, he destroyed it. Two years later, he returned to the other movement, completing the Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87 in 1882.

Destroying a single movement was hardly an isolated occurrence. Brahms completely destroyed many of his chamber works before publication. That only 24 chamber works eventually saw the light of day is testament to the man’s perfectionism. Indeed, besides those 24, the great Requiem, four symphonies, two piano concertos, one violin concerto, one double concerto, and a number of works for solo piano, the bulk of Brahms’ writing consisted of songs. Many are infrequently performed because of their unrelenting darkness of tone.

Brahms’ piano trios may not be jolly, but they are consistently accessible, deeply moving, and beautiful beyond words. The Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, completed before the revised Op. 8 heard on this recording was published in 1889, is the shortest and most intense of the three. The C minor begins with great force, its themes hurled at us with orchestral-like power. Despite the beauty of its slow movement, it is the vigor of its emphatic finale that remains with us after the work concludes.

Touched by their rendition of the opening Allegro of the B major, I initially held much hope for Virgin’s new offering from violinist Renaud Capucon, his cellist brother Gautier, and pianist Nicholas Angelich. In addition to being terminally cute, Gautier and Renaud have already given us several superb recordings.

The young trio approaches Brahms in an undeniably modern manner. No grand tugs on the heart, no churning ebb and flow or dramatic chiaroscuro; rather, relatively even, judiciously paced playing. Emotional expression seems more a consequence of tempo choice, consistently the slowest of the three versions of the trios I auditioned than of deep deliberation. Some may prefer this “let the music do the talking” approach to that encountered on the faster paced, far more emphatic classic recordings by the Beaux Arts Trio or the very different but equally nuanced 1997 versions by the Florestan Trio. But to these ears, les deux Capucons et Angelich touch neither heart nor heaven.

Take the intense C minor trio. Critic Donald Francis Tovey described its marvelous second movement scherzo as one that “hurries by, like a frightened child.” The Florestans indeed scamper along, their sprightly touch lending the music a haunted quality. The Beaux Arts do the same, the writing’s mystery heightened by a strikingly beautiful interplay between violin and cello. No such detail from the cuties. Pianist Angelich doesn’t seem to get it at all; rarely does he offer noteworthy softening or rhythmic crispness. Perhaps as a result, the brothers play equally understated, failing to make a distinct impression. Most of Brahms’ instrumental dialogue, so much a reflection of his emotional state, passes unnoticed by these players.

Les Capucons et Angelich certainly remain consistent in their approach. In the C major’s andante, the piano line fails to rise, fall and sigh as it should. (The contrast between Angelich’s straightforward playing and that of the Beaux Arts’ fabled Menahim Pressler reveals that only Pressler catches the heart; his intensity of line sets the stage for much beautiful interplay between the string players). Rather than upstage their reticent pianist, the Virgin Capucons seem content to rein themselves in, rarely striking out on their own or drawing attention to their playing.

In the B major’s opening Allegro, the new kids on the block offer a lovely, even blend, albeit marred by frequent borderline astringency from violinist Renaud’s Stradivarius. But once we hear the heart-warming treatment by the Florestans, or the dramatic, even intentionally gritty tugs from Beaux Arts cellist Bernard Greenhouse in a rendition that emphasizes struggle over resignation, les Capucons et Angelich sound more like a warm up act than the real thing.

The Virgins’ lukewarm approach is reinforced by relatively flat, undistinguished instrumental tone. The richness of the Florestans’ Susan Tomes’ piano, the sweetness of Anthony Marwood’s violin, and the overall warmth and energetic charge of their blend seems far more in keeping with Brahms’ intent than the uniform, slightly acidic sound of les Capucons et Angelich. Surely Brahms had more than tea and toast in mind when he composed these master works.


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JORDI SAVALL AND HESPERION XXI


ANTONIO VIVALDI; LA VIOLA DA GAMBA IN CONCERTO

 JORDI SAVALL, LES CONCERT DES NATIONS

ALIA VOX 9835

 

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VILLANCICOS Y DANZAS CRIOLLAS DE LA IBERIA ANTIGUA AL NUEVO MUNDO 1550-1750

LA CAPELLA REIAL DE CATALUNYA, HESPERION XXI, JORDI SAVALL

ALIA VOX 9834

 

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ARIANNA SAVALL: BELLA TERRA

ALIA VOX 9833

 

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Early music virtuoso and conductor Jordi Savall is largely responsible for the modern rebirth of the stringed viola da gamba. He is especially known for his performances of Marin Marais’ music in the 1992 movie “Tous les matins du monde” starring GÈrard Depardieu.

Born in 1941, Jordi Savall has founded three award-winning ensembles since 1974. The first, Hesperion XXI, features his wife and ensemble co-founder soprano Montserrat Figueras. Figueras is especially prized for the pure, plaintive quality of her voice and the self-effacing sincerity with which she negotiates the filigreed twists and turns of baroque music. It is with Hesperion XXI that the couple frequently tours the United States.

Savall’s other ensembles include La Capella Reial de Catalunya, a vocal and instrumental ensemble dedicated to performance of Hispanic and Mediterranean music; and Le Concert des Nations, dedicated to the presentation of baroque music in the French manner.

Irrepressible in his explorations of rarely performed early music, Jordi Savall has over 80 discs to his credit. The latest three out of an astounding 35 CDs released since 1998 on the Alia Vox label founded by Savall and Figueras, confirms the family’s place in the early music pantheon.

I dare not count the number of times people have answered the question, “Do you enjoy classical music,” with the response, “Well, I love Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’” Here freshly seasoned novitiates can widen their appreciation through The Concert of Nations’ authentic, period instrument performances of seven of Antonio Vivaldi’s over 800 surviving compositions.

Distinguished by a palette of colors that can be fully appreciated only when played on the instruments for which they were intended, Vivaldi’s spirited concertos for violin, viola da gamba, violoncello and diverse instruments are alternatively rousing and evocative. If not as immediately memorable as “The Four Seasons,” they are nonetheless consistently tuneful and enjoyable. Savall’s musicianship, complete with the occasional little blip and scratch that some record companies unfailingly edit out, is everywhere compelling, evidencing the imaginative shading that make his mastery of the viola da gamba so prized.

On Savall and Figueras’ other recent release, Hesperion XXI and La Capella Reial join forces for Villancicos y Danzas Criollas 1550-1750. A meeting of musical traditions and cultures of the Iberian Peninsula and Ibero-America, Savall terms the collection “an essential hymn to the unity between people. These [songs and dances] are, in the final analysis, hymns of life and spirituality, of love and joy, which bring us a little closer to the living history of the men and women of that now distant New World and make us dream of and long for a more just and humane (New) World in Harmony.

While just how much these pieces will make you long for world peace is open to conjecture, the collection does include a number of sacred invocations. Many of the secular works summon forth the requisite gusto, but the softer, more inward works such as Juan Perez Bocanegra’s processional hymn “Hanacpachap cussicuinin” -- sung in the Quechua language of Peru and the first example of polyphony printed in the Americas -- display the consummate refinement and grace for which Savall, Figueras and their musicians are especially prized. Figueras gives Juan Hidalgo’s spirited “Ay que me rÌo de amor” (“Oh, how I laugh at love”) her all, but it’s in the more plaintive works that her voice truly shines.

Hesperion XXI’s recently completed North American tour was unique in that in some cities it united mother and father with their grown children Arianna and Ferran. A trio composed of Jordi and Arianna on medieval and renaissance harps and Hesperion XXI’s Pedro Estevan on percussion performed “La Lira d’Esperia” in Boston, Victoria, BC and Seattle. Montreal, San Diego, and Berkeley were treated to a quintet that featured Jordi, Montserrat, Arianna, Pedro, and multi-instrumentalist son Ferran Savall. Jordi Savall also offers solo viola da gamba recitals in several cities.

Having attended the Berkeley presentation by the entire clan plus Estevan, I can state unequivocally that theirs is amongst the most subtle and refined music-making I have experienced in many a year. Estevan was a marvel. Looking like a cross between a hermit and an eccentric scholar, his fingers moved like water over his percussion instruments. The touch was light, the coloration ideal, and the choice of percussion instruments brilliant. Figueras’ voice cut through the air like fine etched glass, with a special glean ontop. As expected, Savall’s viola da gamba playing was nothing short of amazing. Daughter Arianna Savall was lighter of voice than her mother but equally refined and extraordinary on harp. Son Ferran proved the most reticent of the lot, his solo stint suggesting that if his writing does not mature, he would better off as an ensemble player.

Soprano and harpist Arianna Savall’s release, Bella Terra, whets the appetite for more. Her exquisite collection of twelve ancient and modern poems set to her own music is, to quote the artist, “born out of my hope for a world where there will be more light, love and mystery, a more open and Mediterranean world.” The texts speak of “living the present moment here and now, the tenderness and passion of love, the almost lost innocence of the child-adult, the strength and evocative power of the sea.” And when sung by Savall, they take on a transcendent beauty that transports us to a place of emotional truth.

Arianna’s skill in shading her crystalline, slightly spicy voice evidences her mother’s teaching. Supported by her soulful harp and the instrumental mastery of three other musicians (including percussionist Pedro Estevan), Savall communicates a gentle longing and earthy nostalgia that have totally won me over. The words may be in Spanish, but the feelings are universal. With texts that include an anonymous Sephardic poem and an excerpt from the 1000-year old Rubaiyat of the Persian Omar Khayyam, this is an exquisite offering that I have found myself playing over and over. Absolutely get this disc.


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ROLANDO VILLAZN: ITALIAN OPERA ARIAS

 MNCHNER RUNDFUNKORCHESTER, MARCELLO VIOTTI

VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 456262 4

 

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JOSEPH CALLEJA: TENOR ARIA * ORCHESTRA SINFONICA E CORO DI MILAN GIUSEEPE VERDI, RICCARDO CHAILLY

 DECCA B0002140-02

 

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THE VERY BEST OF JUSSI BJORLING

EMI CLASSICS 7243 575900 2 0

 

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ENRICO CARUSO: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS, VOL. 2

 NAXOS 8.110704

 

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TENOR HOPES FOR OPERA

Pavarotti has just limped off the stage, the Carreras voice of old is long gone, and Domingo remains a slowly declining but still marvelous presence on operatic stages. Yet the decline and eventual retirement of “The Three Tenors” need not cause opera lovers to dress in black. Fresh, wonderful voices offer hope for decades more thrilling performances.

To our current embarrassment of mezzo and countertenor riches, we can now add the voices of three very different, relatively young tenors: Juan Diego Florez, Rolando Villazon, and Joseph Calleja. With the lighter-voiced Rossini specialist Florez already well covered by the media, this review will focus on the latest two arrivals on the scene.

Villazon’s debut disc was released in February. Initial impulses toward objectivity on my part were abandoned as soon as I played the opening aria, “E la solita storia” from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. Here we encounter an enviably virile instrument, under impeccable control as it smoothly swells from sweet (if not overly honeyed) piano utterances to full-blooded, ringing forte. The sound, distinguished by an unforced, masculine squillo on high, is produced with a grace and refinement that elevate performances far above the commonplace. In this aria, at least, Villazon lingers over notes, stretching out phrases for emotional effect without ever lapsing into ego gratifying self-indulgence. Thanks to the palpable and credible emotion of the voice, the result is an undeniably moving performance of a kind last encountered from the likes of di Stefano, Corelli, and Bjorling.

Villazon was born in Mexico City in 1972. At the age of 11, he entered the Espacios Academy for the Performing Arts where he studied music, acting, contemporary dance and ballet. Seven years later, he met baritone Arturo Nieto who introduced him to the world of opera.

At age 20, Villazon entered the National Conservatory of Music. After singing in several operas and winning two national contests, he launched an international career. In 1998 came enrollment in San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, whose list of graduates includes many of the today’s top-flight singers. Then came the Pittsburg Opera’s Young Artists Program. By 1999, the tenor had won Prize of the Public, the Zarzuela Prize, and second prize overall in Placido Domingo's Operalia competition.

Rolando Villazon’s European debut came as Des Grieux in Manon in Genoa in March 1999. Debuts at Opera Bastille, Bavarian State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berline, Hamburg State Opera, Berlin State Opera, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Opera de Lyon, Opera de Montpellier, New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and the Met followed. San Franciscans eagerly await his forthcoming Alfredo in La Traviata, a role he first sang as a Merola artist back in 1998.

Joseph Calleja is younger still. Dressed like a sunglass-sporting Mafioso on the disc’s back cover, the 26-year old Maltese sensation was a pre-teenager singing pop songs when he saw Mario Lanza’s cinematic performance in The Great Caruso. Blown away, he tried imitating Lanza until he went hoarse. After next hearing the disc Essential Pavarotti 2, he followed an aunt’s suggestion and began studying singing. Soon he joined a choir. After adding piano and theory lessons to his studies, he appeared as a second tenor in the chorus of Verdi’s Rigoletto in Malta’s National Theatre, Valletta’s Teatru Manoel.

Calleja then began study with Paul Asciak, a Maltese tenor who was a regular at Covent Garden in the 1950s. Asciak developed Calleja as a light-lyric tenor and exposed him to the great recordings of tenors of earlier generations.

In 1997, at age 19, Calleja debuted in the role of Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and was a prizewinner of the Belvedere Competition in Vienna. A year later, he won the Caruso Competition in Milan and appeared in Pesaro and Ireland. Since then have come performances in Brussels, LiËge, Toronto, Dresden, Bologna, Welsh national Opera, Covent Garden, Frankfurt, Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera.

Because his sound is so focused and pure on disc, it’s impossible to deduce with certainty the size of Calleja’s voice. It may be slighter than Villazon’s, more along the lines of Florez’s but with a true Italianate ring and ability to move into heavier if still essentially lyric repertoire. It’s also a wonderfully controlled instrument. Calleja can be very sweet in the manner of Gigli when singing with honeyed softness, but he’s equally capable of a ringing, full voice. The very top sounds a little tremulous, with the tenor wisely avoiding some of the roles Villazon has already undertaken. Nonetheless, the voice is gorgeous. Within the confines of repertoire right for his sound, the man is potentially one of the great tenors of the 21st century.

Both tenors undertake the Cilea aria. (Calleja has assayed it only on disc, finding the role as yet too heavy for his voice). They also both sing Macduff’s “Ah! La paterna mano” from Verdi’s Macbeth, “Parmi veder le lagrime” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Edgardo’s tomb scene from Donizetti’s Lucia, and “Quanto e bella” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Beyond that, Calleja stays with lighter repertoire, while Villazon undertakes heavier tenor arias from La Boheme, Tosca, and Don Carlo, as well as the Traviata Alfredo they have both performed.

Because we’re dealing with debut discs, ultimate assessments are impossible. But careful listening to individual performances, combined with comparisons with the some of the great tenors of the 20th century, does provide some enlightening insight.

First, a strong acknowledgement of operatic reissues from Naxos, EMI, Universal and other labels. There is no way any lover of opera, or anyone wishing to understand the greatness of the medium, can fully appreciate the range and possibilities of the tenor voice without listening to the recordings of singers from an earlier generation.

NAXOS has done us all a tremendous service by reissuing Mark Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston’s bargain price digital remasterings of pressings from Jussi Bjorling, Beniamino Gigli, and Enrico Caruso. Even though EMI owns many of the original Bjoerling masters from the early part of his career, their reissues have often been heavily filtered, with truncated highs that destroy the beauty and emotional impact of the man’s voice. (Their horrible Bjoerling Heroes disc is a case in point). BMG/RCA committed a travesty when they most recently reissued Caruso mated a modern orchestra. NAXOS may often have access to pressings as opposed to masters, but what Marston and Obert-Thorn do with those pressings is light years ahead of anything else you will hear. The NAXOS Bjoerling series is up to four, Gigli to three, and Caruso to eleven. These discs are indispensable.

Equally indispensable is EMI’s recent 2-disc The Very Best of series. For once, these selections frequently present an excellent cross sampling of repertoire from a singer’s prime years. The Very Best of Jussi Bjorling, The Very Best of Franco Corelli, The Very Best of Giuseppi Di Stefano, The Very Best of Fritz Wunderlich and The Very Best of Jose Carreras belong on every opera lover’s shelf. Throw in some Melchior, Martinelli, Schipa, de Lucia, Bonci, Tauber (also from Naxos), and Schiotz for starters, and you’ve got impeccable criteria by which to judge any new tenor on the scene.

Doing so, we make some interesting discoveries. To these ears, two men stand out singing Rodolfo “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La Boheme. Bjorling has an innate longing in his voice, the kind of natural, heart-tugging throb and passion that makes us believe his every utterance. The sound is also gorgeous, with its vibrant head voice and impetuously hurled top notes.

Corelli, on the other hand, phrases far less impeccably, with heavy aspiration that upon occasion can border on bull-in-a-china-shop production. But he is so thrilling. Listening to his “Che gelida manina” on EMI’s recent The Unreleased Franco Corelli. Even the fact that only the last half of the performance survives cannot detract from the simple reality that he is the one tenor who, when he declares his love in a blazing high C, sounds so sensual and real that some listeners must actively resist the temptation to tear their clothes off and throw themselves at his feet. The man’s sound is the epitome of greatness.

Villazon is not at this point either a Bjorling or Corelli. His top does not ring as vibrantly on “Che gelida manina.” Nor is the tone (while certainly distinctive) as ardent. For that matter, neither tenor’s phrasing of “Questa o quella” from Verdi’s Rigoletto or Villazon’s rendition of “La donna e mobile” from the same opera impresses with the variety and verve of Caruso’s (although that great tenor’s “Che gelida manina” comes up disappointingly prosaic). But the voices of these two new tenors are nonetheless extremely beautiful, and their performances imaginative and deeply felt.

Listening to older tenors, or to a soprano such as Montserrat Caballe who is still singing, one cannot help lament the modern tendency to perform arias in strict time. We only hear rubato occasionally at the end of phrases or in certain commonly accepted, idiomatic places. Think what more Calleja could do with his honeyed diminuendo if only he would slow down more and stretch things out for effect. Listen to how Bjorling stretches out high notes and key transitions in his incomparable “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, or how Corelli and Callas turn a simple recitative into a major musical statement. The lack of elasticity with tempo is a problem that afflicts instrumental interpretatiions as well (modern renditions of recently reviewed Brahms’ Piano trios beings a case in point).

Music is a living, breathing organism. Artists must be allowed to breathe life into it at their own pace. We do not have to stick to the beat in all cases. The heart has its own rhythm and will show the way.

Villazon and Calleja are certainly pointing the way ahead. Depending upon how they proceed, how they husband their resources, and how they develop and deepen their artistry, we will have a lot to look forward to.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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