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No. 57 - September, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus

 

CD/DVD of the Month:

* HOLLY NEAR: SHOW UP * CALICO TRACKS MUSIC

Other CDs/DVDs Reviewed this Month:

* PATRICIA BARBER: MYTHOLOGIE

* MOZART PIANO TRIOS * THE FLORESTAN TRIO

* VARIOUS OPERA SINGERS: THE MOZART ALBUM

* AEOLIAH: REALMS OF GRACE, AN ANGELIC EXPERIENCE

* PHANTASM: JOHN JENKINS, SIX-PART CONSORTS

* JOYCE DIDONATO: FAUR…/HAHN/HEAD/ROSSINI/HANDEL

* JOAN SUTHERLAND: THE COMPLETE BELL TELEPHONE HOUR PERFORMANCES 1961-1968

* STRAUSS: ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (Original 1912 Version)

* MICHAEL JONES: ECHOES OF CHILDHOOD

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PATRICIA BARBER: MYTHOLOGIES * BLUE NOTE RECORDS 09463 5956429

 

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Jazz singer Patricia Barber is her own animal. Just when you may think that her deep voice is locked in a cycle of unrelenting coldness, she pens and performs lyrics that sizzle with sensuality. Such is the case with this all-Barber journey in which ancient gods and goddesses collide with the mythological sophistication of the jet set and nouveau riche. Backed by the Patricia Barber Quartet, which includes Barber on piano and lead vocals, the disc offers a fascinating fusion of ultra-refined musicianship and uncommon directness. Even on "Persephone," where guest vocalists and instrumentalists contribute an unmistakable pop touch, the accompaniment is haunting. Without disclosing exactly what happens musically on "Orpheus," let's just say that I wondering if I was experiencing yet another police action on my block or previously unheard sounds from the smoke alarm.

 There are at least two love songs with lesbian overtones – "Pygmalion" and "Narcissus" – both of which I suspect will hypnotize people of all persuasions. From such seduction we go to the unyielding realities of "Whiteworld." ("I arrive in the jungle in my new khaki clothes * I'm a gangster in a Hummer and this culture will yield to me * I like the perfectly primitive cause they desperately need my sovereignty * and Mother Earth is down on her knees"). Even as we discover that no lyrics are printed for parts of the equally provocative "Phaeton," we understand why.

If Patricia Barber takes no prisoners, she also takes care to uncover pain rather than inflict it. Mythologies' combination of stunning percussion, penetrating lyrics, and uncompromising vision deserve the accolade brilliant. Brava to a diva on her own terms. 

 

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MOZART: GREAT AND NOT SO

MOZART PIANO TRIOS * THE FLORESTAN TRIO * HYPERION CDA67556

 

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One of the great bounties of the year long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth comes from The Florestan Trio, whose recording of Mozart Piano Trios proves an unmitigated delight. Although they perform on modern instruments, pianist Susan Tomes, violinist Anthony Marwood, and cellist Richard Lester cultivate a lightness of touch that reflects the influence of early music performance practice. The music is the winner, with the earliest work on the CD, the Piano Trio in B flat major K502 bubbling over with refinement and delight. Written in 1786, right after the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro, this mature work treats us to Mozart at his happiest.

High spirits also abound in the Piano Trio in E major K542, written shortly after Don Giovanni reached Vienna. Volume and intensity step up a notch in the final movement's Allegro, providing welcome contrast to the movements that precede it. Then, in the final work on the disc, the Piano Trio in G major K564's striking first chord immediately seizes one's attention. With its occasional, brief peregrinations into sadness and minor keys seeming like clouds passing briefly over a sunny landscape, this final piano trio in Mozart's oeuvre simultaneously manages to seem light and filled with import. Mozart miraculously takes Haydn's elegance and grace to another level, reaching an astounding level of clarity and joy.

 

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VARIOUS OPERA SINGERS: THE MOZART ALBUM * DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0006730-02

 

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One of the biggest powerhouses in classical recording, Universal Classics, pulls out all the stops on The Mozart Album. Featuring a host of big name vocalists, the compilation immediately stumbles as Anna Netrebko and Claudio Abbado present one of the fastest and least charming renditions of "Deh vieni, non tardar" on record. Contrast Netrebko's singing with that of Patrizia Ciofi on RenÈ Jacobs' recent, award-winning period instrument rendition of Le Nozze di Figaro, let alone versions from a host of other sopranos, to hear lighter voices more appropriate for Susannah.

Netrebko thankfully redeems herself in a thrilling, impassioned version of "Oh smania! Oh furie ä D'Oreste, d'Aiace" from Idomeneo, and an equally impassioned duet, "Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!" from Don Giovanni. But ask her to sound simple, innocent, and/or fragile in the duet "L‡ ci darem la mano" from the same opera, or in "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" from Idomeneo, and her singing is far from ingratiating.

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca contributes a potent, rich voiced "Parto, parto," marred only by an occasional tendency to hit a note slightly below pitch and then correct it. Bass RenÈ Pape sings a fine albeit undistinguished "In diesen heil'gen Hallen," more egalitarian than patrician, that lamentably lacks the low E that Alexander Kipnis and others have brought to it.

Highest marks go to the great Thomas Quasthoff, who even in slightly shaky form is a delight, especially in Papageno's bird handler aria from Die Zauberflˆte; and to Bryn Terfel, whose "Ho gi‡ vinto la causa!" combines classical restraint with character galore. Terfel's participation (with Miah Perrson and Christine Rice) in the exquisite trio from Cosi fan tutte, "Soave sia il vento" also shows him in softest and most caressing form. If only Sir Charles Mackerras had conducted this gem one notch slower, allowing singers more space to float their sound, and us to sink deeper into some of Mozart's most sublime vocal writing. While Mackerras' performance may never replace Schwarzkopf and crew's miraculous renditions with Karajan and Bˆhm, RenË Jacobs' gorgeous recent period instrument version, or a wonderful English language performance from Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, and Lorenzo Alvary conducted by Fritz Stiedry, it will undoubtedly have its partisans. Even when some of these tracks only hint at the glory, they provide stimulus to search for better.

 

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AEOLIAH: REALMS OF GRACE, AN ANGELIC EXPERIENCE * OREADE MUSIC ORM 62752

 

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It is time to revise the categories. There is no way to lump together the celestial music of Aeoliah, Deuter, and other New Age pioneers with the visionless shlock that so often passes for New Age music. The term New Age refers to a time in human history – either close at hand or forever out of reach – when division and war are replaced by unit (the so-called "thousand years of sisterhood and brotherhood"); it does not refer to a musical equivalent of Prozac or a modern day Lawrence Welk.

Aeoliah's music is about something far more transcendent than the Top 40. Realms of Grace's liner notes include the admonition to play between 13-15 decibels for optimal results; this renders it far more private than what people blast from their vehicles these days. A tribute to Aeoliah's classic recording from the 1970s, Angel Love, which I found ideal to accompany healing meditations at the former Castro Street Healing Group, this completion of the Angel Love trilogy is designed to bring us back to our own inner silence and inner peace. Aeoliah likens silence to a blank canvas, a place of stillness and receptiveness from which healing/wholeness can flow. Certainly the peaceful, inner quality of this magnetic music will prove ideal for meditation, deep relaxation, reiki, bodywork, and intuitive reverie. Those who may complain that Aeoliah's music goes nowhere fail to comprehend its essential message: we are already there. Resisting this truth has gotten us into the global mess we're in. The transcendent sounds of Realms of Grace helps us return to what's real.

 

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PHANTASM: JOHN JENKINS, SIX-PART CONSORTS * AVIE AV2009

 

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Early music ensemble Phantasm, which has already won a coveted Gramophone Award, here performs six-part consorts by John Jenkins. Most likely these 12 Fantasys and other works date from the 1620s, when the long-breathed phrases of English polyphony and the lighter, shorter statements of Italian Chamber music began to collide. Here, polyphony triumphs, with six interdependent instrumental lines perpetually dancing and weaving in, out, and around each other. The music is everywhere tuneful and inventive; it is often filled with joy. Occasionally Jenkins borrows from his predecessors, such as in his lengthy reflection on John Dowland's Lachrymae verae (1599) found in his Fantasy 5 (not an island).

Phantasm favor a smoother, more even blend in this music than some players. Unless you pay close attention, you may not want to take in the entire 16-track disc in one sitting, lest everything seem to sound alike (which it doesn't). In modest doses, to be sure, Jenkins' music is a joy.

 

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JOYCE DIDONATO: FAUR/ HAHN/ HEAD/ROSSINI/HANDEL * WIGMORE HALL LIVE 0009

 

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Turning her attention from opera to art song, fabulous young American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato travels overseas to a fabled city whose sinking is compounded by rising sea levels. On her new recital disc, recorded live by the BBC on January 16, the duration of her visit comes at a happier time in Venice's history, from 1858 through 1977, when composers as diverse as Giaochino Rossini, Michael Head, Gabriel Fauré, and Reynaldo Hahn wrote Venetian-linked romantic serenades.

DiDonato may, like Cecilia Bartoli, excel in the florid operatic roles of Rossini, Mozart, and Handel, but their voices and personalities cast very different lights on similar repertoire. Where Bartoli's larger-than-life presentation of Rossini's three-part "La regatta veneziana" expresses all the breathless, naÔve excitement of a young woman rooting for her lover as he competes in a gondola race, DiDonato's vocal personality offers more weight and less charm. She's certainly more convincing than soprano Renata Tebaldi, who in a 1965 Concerto Italiano performance (Renata Tebaldi: A Portrait – VAI DVD) is grand enough to be the mother of gondolier Momolo, but DiDonato's vocal production is a bit too rich for Rossini's elementary sentiments.

The mezzo fares considerably better in Fauré's justly beloved Cinq MÈlodies de Venise, settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine. DiDonato's "Mandoline" may lack the ultimate lightness and gaiety that singers as diverse as Ameling and Teyte have brought to it, but her quieter singing captures a fair share of the song's specialness. She also produces some lovely, soft singing and subtle shading in "En Sourdine" (Muted), a song remarkable for the way it melds love's rapture with twilight's diaphanous mystery. DiDonato certainly seems to understand FaurÈ's intentions, but she does not yet know how to communicate the special magic so exquisitely conveyed by Janet Baker's heart-arresting half voice and Gerard Souzay's caressing sweetness.

Those wishing for the lightness and charm appropriate for Reynaldo Hahn's Songs in Venetian Dialect, which he first sang to Madame de BÈarn while playing a piano on a gondola, surrounded by several other gondolas intentionally positioned where three canals met beneath three bridges, will have difficulty visualizing the crowds that spontaneously gathered on those charming bridges and cried out for more. This is not to suggest that DiDonato is anything other than a first rank, award-winning vocalist. Her final encore, Rossini's "Non pi˘ mesta" from La Cenerentola, rivals the finest on record. Her technique is fabulous, her voice stunning, and the seemingly unbounded visceral energy irresistible. Operatic mastery such as this, captured in more lively sound than her performance of the aria on the recent Naxos release of the complete opera, is more than worth the price of admission.

DiDonato's much-anticipated first outing as Octavian in San Francisco's June 2007 production of Der Rosenkavalier, may indeed prove a triumph. She certainly has the range and technique for the role. Yet as accomplished as she may be, for those oft-illusive, magical gifts that makes for a mesmerizing recitalist, you will have to turn your ears elsewhere.

have difficulty visualizing the crowds that spontaneously gathered on those charming bridges and cried out for more. Again, this is not to suggest that DiDonato is anything other than a first rank, award-winning vocalist. Her final encore, Rossini's "Non pi˘ mesta" from La Cenerentola rivals the finest on record. Fabulous. More than worth the price of admission. But for that oft-illusive, magical gift that makes for a superb recitalist, you will have to turn your ears elsewhere. 

 

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SUTHERLAND AND SILLS AT THEIR BEST

The two greatest operatic experiences of my youth were attending Joan Sutherland's 1961 Met debut in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor while still in high school, and attending Beverly Sills' 1971 New York City Opera performance in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Hence, I jumped at the opportunity to see priceless DVDs of both singers in their prime years.

JOAN SUTHERLAND: THE COMPLETE BELL TELEPHONE HOUR PERFORMANCES 1961-1968 * VAI DVD 4206

 

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Though sound and picture are not always pristine – there's audible tape overload in scattered places throughout, and the sound is compressed for TV – the musical value of the footage trumps technical limitations.

Vocal limitations were never a concern at the start of coloratura Joan Sutherland's international career. Heard in the 14 scenes and arias that she performed on the Bell Telephone Hour during her prime years, the voice is everywhere secure and magnificent.

The first two selections, 1961's Mad Scene from Thomas' Hamlet and the "Willow Song" from Verdi's Otello (devoid, alas, of the "Ave Maria"), find La Stupenda in brightest and clearest voice. These early, elaborately staged performances allow us to hear Joanie before her desire to add roundness to her innately bright sound resulted in increasingly mealy-mouthed enunciation.

Costumes, gestures, and movements are, to judge from old photos and artwork, authentic to the period if nonetheless overly stylized and stock.

Once you get past Sutherland's tendency to move like a heavyweight ballerina and continually cock her head back in order to spin her high notes with ease, you're left with some of the finest, most thrilling coloratura displays you will ever encounter. Yes, the voice is captured best on LP/CD, but they're devoid of the Bell stage settings, some of which are a hoot.

Donald Voohees and the Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra are hardly the subtlest of partners, but La Stupenda knows how to get past such stumbling blocks to grace her singing with always musical rubato, superb embellishments, and thrilling high E flats. Even if one tires of the same shtick in scene after scene, and cannot help noticing that Joanie would have served Tosca best by leaving it to Callas, Sutherland's vocalism is in a class by itself.

 

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STRAUSS: ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (Original 1912 Version) * VAI 4363

 

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I couldn't believe the news. A DVD featuring Beverly Sill's fabled performance of the torturously difficult, original 1912 version of Zerbinetta's aria from Richard Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, had just been released by VAI! I immediately dispatched an email to the label, proclaiming that if they did not send a review copy forthwith, there was a great likelihood that I would die from anticipation.

This DVD preserves the Boston Symphony Orchestra's January 7, 1969 concert presentation of the original 1912 version of Strauss's delightful opus. The performance was originally telecast live in living color on the WGBH network. Not since the Cleveland Orchestra issued Sills' December 28, 1967 concert performance of Handel's Semele in its 2004 four-CD box set, The Robert Shaw Legacy (1956-1997), have Sills lovers had it as good.

Almost. While color and focus are excellent, cameras seem to have been located far from the stage, with facial close-ups beyond the director's capabilities. The overall effect, compounded by a recording in which voices lack the clarity and focus of the instruments under Erich Leinsdorf's direction, distances viewers from the heart of the experience.

Still, Sills is a marvel. Less than three years after her assumption of the role of Cleopatra in New York City Opera's production of Handel's Julius Caesar belatedly catapulted her to international stardom, the almost 40-year old diva tosses off most of the high Fs in Strauss's impossibly long original version of Zerbinetta's tour-de-force with aplomb. Smiling through the bulk of the performance, appearing unbelievably at ease in an aria that Strauss later shortened and lowered a whole step because of its difficulty, she demonstrates why the woman from Brooklyn born Belle Miram Silverman was affectionately known as Bubbles.

Yes, there is occasional evidence of the spreading vibrato, hastened by Sills' assumption of the role of Queen Elisabeth in Donizetti's Roberto Devereaux the following year that signaled Sills' decline in the '70s. But for 98% of the performance, the dazzling lightness, iridescence, and accuracy of Sills' mesmerizing high range transcend all criticism.

As for the rest of the cast, handsome John Reardon's well-sung Harlekin and the three Nymphs of Benita Valente, Eunice Alberts and Carole Bogard stand out. Although the under-recorded Claire Watson does not offer the most alluringly voiced Ariadne on record, her passion, commitment, and strong high range win deserved cheers. Andrew Raeburn promises surprises when he appears to speak the part of M. Jourdain.

The chance to see/hear the American premiere of Strauss's first version of the opera should not be missed. You'll find no trace of the final 1916 version's 40-minute Prologue; Hugo Von Hofmannsthal had yet to create the role of the Composer. Though the libretto and plot development prove less compelling than in the later version, the chance to hear Sills sing additional music for Zerbinetta that Strauss later excised provides significant compensation. As for Bubbles's black and white patterned dress, big red hair, and floppy curls, words cannot begin to tell the tale.

 

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MICHAEL JONES: ECHOES OF CHILDHOOD * NARADA 83040

 

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Michael Jones's first CD, Pianoscapes, was the Narada label's first release in the prophetic year of 1984. Narada has since grown into a major presence, while Michael has produced an additional 13 well-selling albums while becoming a respected presenter of leadership seminars.

Michael Jones is certainly not out to tax your mind or stretch your boundaries with his music. His consistently lovely, non-stop lyricism, evident on every track of his Echoes of Childhood, reflects a timeless spirit light years away from the post-Orwellian falsehoods that would enslave hearts and minds in the name of ephemeral security. The disc's waves of gentle melody simultaneously resonate in the present moment and reach back to a time of unspoiled purity. If there are revelations to be had, none can be more profound than the awareness that beauty births unchecked amidst fear and fascism.

 

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HOLLY NEAR: SHOW UP * CALICO TRACKS MUSIC

 

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Holly Near has been singing of life, love, and freedom for a good 30 years. Now 57, and recently back from performing at the Gay Games in Chicago, she continues to share messages of social change, feminism, gay & lesbian freedom, and the joy of life with a freshness of voice and spirit that bring a smile to one's face and a fist to one's hand. Life isn't a simple case of black and white, and Holly Near doesn't pretend otherwise.

Performing in a variety of styles, including rockabilly, rock, and classic folk, Holly knows how to mix humor and showmanship into her songs. My husband just ran down the stairs, grabbed me in the middle of the fabulous title song, "Show Up," and spontaneously danced me around the room. Such is the power of Holly's invitation to show our beliefs rather than sitting on them. After that great song comes another Near original, the plaintive and haunting "It's About Time." Next follows her unique arrangement of "Drunken Sailor," unexpectedly powerful thanks to new words that bring home the pain of addiction and Jackeline Rago's arresting percussion. Other standout tracks include Holly's unforgettable, anthem-quality "Somebody's Jail" and "I am Willing" ("So lift me up to the light of change"), a sweet cover of Cheryl Wheeler's heart-opening "Gandhi/Buddha," and a driving rendition of Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance." This is a great, spirit-enriching album.


- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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