May 15, 2014


Corelli: Church Sonatas, Opp. 1 and 3. The Avison Ensemble conducted by Pavlo Beznosiuk. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

Félicien David: Lalla-Roukh. Marianne Fiset, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Nathalie Paulin, Bernard Deletré, David Newman, Andrew Adelsberger; Opera Lafayette conducted by Ryan Brown. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     Trends in music have to start somewhere, and while it may not always be possible to pinpoint the exact first time a particular approach or type of piece was composed, there is frequently a way to discover some of the most influential and very early examples of specific types of music. Corelli’s Op. 1 Church Sonatas are a case in point, Although not the first such set to be published – others had been issued for more than 70 years when Corelli’s appeared in 1681 – these 12 Corelli works became landmarks in Western classical music for their poise, balance, arrangement of movements, harmony, thematic creation and development, and just about all the other characteristics that collectively make music the communicative medium that it is. The first four published groups of works by Corelli alternate in style between Church Sonatas (Op. 1 and Op. 3) and Chamber Sonatas (Op. 2 and Op. 4), although in fact Corelli himself simply called the pieces Sonate a trè. The influence of these works on contemporary and later composers is difficult to overestimate and also difficult to understand from a modern viewpoint that looks back more than 300 years. Corelli essentially perfected forms that later composers drew on, modified, expanded and altered while always keeping one eye, figuratively, on the Corelli model. Corelli’s sense of instrumental elegance, his near-perfect balance among the three melodic instruments and continuo, his methods of connecting certain sonata movements and contrasting others – all these became part and parcel of later musical development and led, inevitably only with hindsight, to sonata-form works by Vivaldi, Bach and later composers. The Avison Ensemble’s excellent, highly idiomatic performances ensure that the music never sounds fusty or old-fashioned – quite the contrary. Pavlo Beznosiuk (who leads and plays violin), Caroline Balding (violin), Richard Tunnicliffe (cello), Paula Chateauneuf (archlute), and Roger Hamilton (harpsichord and organ) collaborate seamlessly in these works in a way that makes the music both elegant and exciting. The excellent SACD sound provides an aura of both intimacy and clarity to the sonatas, and the performances are so well paced and transparently balanced that it is hard to imagine better readings. Classical instrumental music does not really start with these Corelli works, but it certainly grew from them in important ways, and this recording deserves to be a foundation of many listeners’ collections.

     What grew from Félicien David’s 1862 opera Lalla-Roukh was a musical trend that held sway for quite some time, especially in France: the notion of exotic settings and characters, often of what was then considered an “Oriental” type, dominating the stage. Lalla-Roukh was scarcely the first opera premised on the exotic, but it was the one that captivated audiences in its time, being performed nearly 400 times before falling into obscurity at the turn of the 20th century. It is a love story in which the title character, whose name is an endearment meaning “tulip-cheeked,” is on the way to an arranged marriage when she meets and falls in love with a bard – who turns out, at the opera’s conclusion, to be the king to whom she was betrothed in the first place, allowing everything to turn out happily for all. Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette specialize in rediscovering and reviving works like this, and their new Naxos recording is a very fine one (although it unaccountably omits the hyphen in the opera’s title). David’s vocal casting was right in line with operatic expectations in the mid-19th century, with paired soprano and tenor, a soprano confidante for the heroine, and lower male voices in support roles. The six soloists handle their highly tuneful material admirably, and Brown fully brings forth the “Oriental” elements of David’s clever scoring. The work’s Overture, which is still occasionally heard as a concert piece, sets the scene admirably, and its melodies as well as those heard throughout the opera are well-formed and thoroughly winning.  Lalla-Roukh is scarcely a great opera, and in many ways is very much of its time; most listeners who enjoy it will nevertheless give it a (+++) rating, since its melodies and construction do not seem particularly exotic or surprising with hindsight 150 years after its première. It is nevertheless an opera worth hearing, not only because it inspired a host of similar works that drew enthusiastic audiences for decades but also because it is, to put it simply, a very well-made, lyrical and thoroughly attractive work that – despite its dated and naïve elements – provides a refreshing change of pace from what nowadays passes for standard opera repertoire.

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