Suppé: Pique Dame. Anjara Ingrid Bartz, mezzo-soprano; Mojca Erdman and Anneli Pfeffer, sopranos; Thomas Dewald, tenor; Tom Erik Lie, baritone; WDR Rundfunkchor and WDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Michail Jurowski. CPO. $16.99.
Nielsen: Cantatas. Jens Albinus, reciter; Ditte Højgaard Andersen, soprano; Mathias Hedegaard, tenor; Palle Knudsen, baritone; Aarhus Cathedral Choir, Danish National Opera Chorus, Vox Aros and Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bo Holten. Dacapo. $16.99.
It is always a pleasure to discover that Franz von Suppé did not just write operetta overtures – he wrote the works themselves. The overtures are such light-classical staples that it is easy to forget that they were meant to introduce full-length stage performances (Rossini’s overtures are in a similar situation). In the case of Pique Dame, though, listeners will likely approach the full operetta – actually a one-act work – with some trepidation. Could Suppé really be making light of the same Pushkin story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s dark and doom-laden Pique Dame? The answer is yes – and no. The genesis of Suppé’s work is complex and ties to Pushkin only in part; it also ties to the composer’s earlier Die Kartenschlägerin, Suppé’s unsuccessful second operetta, which in turn did tie to Pushkin but which the composer subsequently reworked. Little of this matters to the music, although CPO’s booklet notes do help sort out the background. What Michail Jurowski leads is a rousing performance of all nine numbers of the score, plus the justly familiar overture – whose tunes, it turns out, are all taken from the vocal pieces, which they fit beautifully. CPO provides neither a libretto nor a link to one online, which is deeply unfortunate but has become the standard of a label that once cared about such things. Listeners familiar with German will not have a problem – the singers’ voices are particularly clear, and they enunciate unusually well. But English speakers will have to be content with a rather confused and too-brief summary of the action. Much of the plot unfolds in dialogue, which is not included on the CD; in fact, the second portion of this one-act work contains only three vocal numbers. But, again, the music itself is quite wonderful, and the singers bring considerable expressiveness to it, effectively changing intonation to indicate their emotions. This is especially well done in the attempted-seduction scene – boldly labeled “Orgy” in the score – in which the sort-of-bad guy is shown to be an unprincipled rake (although he becomes a better person at the operetta’s very end). Jurowski does a fine job throughout, except for overdoing some of the tempo changes in the overture. Suppé is underrated as an operetta composer – it would be good to have more of his works available. But they really, really need libretti – and preferably dialogue – to have their full effect.
Unlike CPO, Dacapo is meticulous in providing texts and multilingual translations for its CDs of vocal works, such as the first-ever recording of three occasional cantatas by Carl Nielsen. The difficulty here is not with the elegant presentation but with the music itself, which is why this release gets a (+++) rating. Nielsen was as capable as any artist of rising to a well-paid occasion and producing a work to order. But being inspired on command is quite another thing. Not even Mozart could manage it, as his many Mass settings show. In Nielsen’s case, the longest work here is the blandest: Cantata for the Opening Ceremony of the National Exhibition in Aarhus 1909 is all major-key triumphalism, supporting words of stunning mediocrity: “God-given beauty of form is ever-present, like a grub unfolding its color in the sun as a poem does in words.” Nielsen actually wrote only half of this cantata, sharing the chore with his pupil Emilius Bangert, who did a fine job of imitating Nielsen’s style here – although it is more a case of Nielsen removing most of his own unique stylistic elements and Bangert then producing similarly uninspired music. There is a certain rousing enthusiasm to this cantata, and the performers give it their all, but it has little pure musical value. The other works here are at least marginally more interesting. Music for Hans Hartvig Seedorff Pedersen’s Homage to Holberg (1923) has a bit of the flavor of Maskarade, which Nielsen based on a Holberg comedy. Nielsen was no longer writing in Maskarade style by the time he composed this work, but he returned to his earlier approach with some success, although the piece remains slight. Cantata for the Annual University Commemoration (1908) is broader and more effective than the National Exhibition cantata, with some darker tone painting and a marginally (if only marginally) better text. Again, the performers bring enthusiasm to the music, and a sense of importance that is somewhat beyond what it deserves. Also on this CD is a very short piece – the only work here that has been recorded before: “Ariel’s Song” for tenor and orchestra from Music for Helge Rode’s Prologue “Shakespeare” (1916). It is moody and flowing and over quickly. It cannot be denied that this disc is a valuable addition to the Nielsen discography, but it mostly shows that even a first-rate composer will willingly step down from the musical heights when he has a chance to fulfill paying commissions.