February 18, 2016
(++++) VOCAL EXPLORATIONS
Carl Michael Ziehrer: Die Landstreicher. Daniel Behle, Thomas Dewald, Maria Leyer, Karl Fäth, Anneli Pfeffer, Boris Leisenheimer, Dominik Wortig, Caroline Stein, Kay Stiefermann, Espen Fegran, Arndt Schumacher; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Funkhausorchester Köln conducted by Helmuth Froschauer. Capriccio. $16.99.
Simon Mayr: Saffo. Andrea Lauren Brown, Jaewon Yun, Markus Schäfer, Marie Sande Papenmeyer, Katharina Ruckgaber, Daniel Preis; Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus and Concerto de Bassus conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Ravel: L’Heure espagnole; Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Luca Lombardo, Isabelle Druet, Frédéric Antoun, Marc Barrard, Nicolas Courjal, François Le Roux; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Choral Works. Kühn Choir conducted by Marek Vorlíček. Navona. $14.99.
Carl Michael Ziehrer (1843-1922) was something of a scamp, if you like him, or an outright thief, if you do not. Either way, he would seem to be just the right composer to set to music a libretto by Leopold Krenn and Carl Lindau called Die Landstreicher. That translates as “The Vagabonds,” but the meaning is a bit different from that of “tramps” in the Depression era and Charlie Chaplin films. These vagabonds are essentially itinerant ne’er-do-wells and occasional thieves, as necessary and as opportunities present themselves. They sound a bit like the composer himself: Ziehrer, who in his first concert with his own band passed off music by his teacher as his own, created in Die Landstreicher a lovely lied called Sei gepriesen, du lauschige Nacht that used the tune of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Spirals waltz. The waltz long predated Die Landstreicher, and Ziehrer probably thought no one would notice; besides, Die Landstreicher itself had its première only three weeks after Strauss’ death in 1899, so Viennese audiences presumably had Strauss on their minds in ways unconnected to Ziehrer’s work (which was quite successful and was hailed at the time as a worthy successor to those by Strauss himself). The plot of Die Landstreicher involves a typically operetta-ish set of complex trifles in which the vagabonds find a valuable necklace, are arrested for having stolen it (which they actually did not), and encounter everyone from a judge more concerned with his mistress (for whom he wants the necklace) than with justice – and a prince who wants the necklace for his mistress but intends to swap it for a cheap copy because, although he loves her and all that, he does not love her to that degree. Through a series of machinations and misunderstandings, the prince’s lady eventually gets the copy and the prince gets the original – which, it turns out, is also a fake, since the prince had been swindled in buying the necklace well before the operetta began. The joie de vivre and sentimentality of fin de siècle Vienna are very much in evidence in Die Landstreicher, and the performance on Capriccio is a very fine one, led by Helmuth Froschauer with considerable verve and style. All the singers are fine if scarcely outstanding: they fill their roles very well, with the interplay between two feckless lieutenants (Boris Leisenheimer and Dominik Wortig), whose uniforms are stolen by the vagabonds (Thomas Dewald and Maria Leyer), being particularly well done. The only major disappointment here is an all-too-typical one: there is no libretto and no link to one online – and the 20-page booklet spends 11 pages detailing the background of the performers, space that would have been much better used, if not for a full libretto, then for a more-extensive plot summary than is in fact provided. Operetta plots, it is true, tend to be both complicated and inconsequential, and certainly Ziehrer’s tuneful handling of Die Landstreicher is highly enjoyable even if one cannot understand the words. But really, vocal works offered without words are in their own way a bit of a theft of enjoyment from listeners – even when the pieces are by somewhat shady characters such as Ziehrer.
The latest Naxos recording of a major work by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) fares better on the word-offering front: the libretto in German, with English translation, is available online. Bravo! And a bravo is in order for this world première recording of Saffo as well. This was Mayr’s first opera (dating to 1794) and had many elements of opera seria despite its happy ending, which may seem forced to modern audiences but which helped Mayr gain popularity in his own time. Mayr, like Hummel, has a style that bridges the Classical and Romantic periods – one reason both composers have long been neglected, as transitional figures often are – but Saffo ossia I riti d'Apollo Leucadio has many original touches, notably in orchestration, at which Mayr was quite skilled. If the characters and melodies are by and large formulaic, the work’s development is handled very adeptly, and the title role gives a soprano plenty of opportunities to hold forth with genuine bel canto enthusiasm. Andrea Lauren Brown is not quite equal to all the challenges, but for the most part she emotes with feeling and skill even when her vocal gifts fall short in some of the more-florid, more-challenging passages. The story primarily involves Saffo’s love for the hunter Faone – a castrato role that is here sung by soprano Jaewon Yun. Initially rebuffed by Faone, who still mourns the death of his wife, Cirene, Saffo is ready to climb a rock from which unhappy lovers cast themselves into the sea. Then Faone has a dream in which Cirene asks him to have pity on Saffo, and so the two are united at the end. There are several impressive voices here, notably those of tenor Markus Schäfer as Alceo (whose singing of the male version of bel canto elements is unusually good), soprano Katharine Ruckgaber as Laodamia, and tenor Daniel Preis as Euricleo. These are small supporting roles, but are handled so nicely that they give Saffo a sense of depth and solidity – one that the chorus and orchestra enhance through their excellent performances under the sure-handed and intelligent direction of Franz Hauk, a strong advocate of Mayr’s work. Like much of Mayr’s music – and much of Ziehrer’s, for that matter – Saffo is well worth discovering or rediscovering.
There is rediscovery to be had as well in the latest first-rate Leonard Slatkin recording of music by Ravel. The discovery lies not in the comparatively well-known one-act opera L’Heure espagnole but in Ravel’s much less frequently heard final work, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, whose fluidity and lyricism contrast strongly and elegantly with the wry comedy of the opera buffa. Ravel is most often noted for his colorful orchestration and his highly personal handling of harmony, but the works on this new Naxos CD impress more with the very fine vocal writing and the composer’s ability to bring poignancy and a sense of human foibles to material that could, in other hands, simply be presented as farce. Part of Ravel’s effectiveness here is traceable to his own Spanish roots: his mother was Spanish, and Ravel himself was born in Basque country. L’Heure espagnole is unusual in numerous ways. Driven not by arias but by conversations among the characters – yet lacking the character of a Singspiel – the opera is notable for the care and delicacy with which Ravel handles the orchestration, which gives almost all the musicians chances to show their abilities. And the concluding quintet here is simply a joy to hear, combining amusement with subtlety and delivering the mixture with real cleverness (half kudos to Naxos for making this libretto too available online – half because it is given in French but without translation). All five singers handle the quintet music, and indeed the entire opera, with bounce and flair and just the right amount of piquancy – further credit to Slatkin’s exceptional way with Ravel. As for Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, this is a small set of character pieces originally intended for a film (Ravel was too ill to complete the project), and they are sung by baritone François Le Roux with empathy, comprehension and an understated tenderness that is altogether winning. For lovers of Ravel, lovers of opera and lovers of some less-known 20th-century vocal works, this disc will be a real joy.
Matters are considerably more serious in the choral music of Michael G. Cunningham on a new Navona release. The CD bears the title “Wisdom, Love, Eternity,” and is every bit as somber as those words indicate. From spare settings of Christian liturgy in Memorial Concert Mass and Come Holy Spirit to choral elaborations of the poetry of Shakespeare (Shall I Compare Thee?), Petrarch (The Nightingale), Longfellow (A Psalm of Life), Burns (Posies, with the chorus accompanied by a harp) and Shelley (The West Wind), Cunningham considers death, love, the ever-continuing search for understanding of God, and equally fraught topics. Christopher Pearse Cranch’s Gnosis, with its lines about “spirits clad in veils” and “what the dim-eyed world hath taught,” is here, along with Robert Herrick’s To Daffodils (“We have short time to stay, as you,/ We have as short a Spring!”). The most interesting piece on the CD, because it is the most varied in its poetic selections, is Analects, its eight very short movements offering works by poets ranging from Sir Walter Raleigh to Edgar Allan Poe. The reality is that nearly an hour and a quarter of these Cunningham vocal works is quite a lot, even though the settings are very well sung by the Kühn Choir under Marek Vorlíček. The CD’s insistence, and the composer’s, on the high level of seriousness and importance of the material lead to a sense of a listener being preached to, or talked down to, rather than accompanying Cunningham on a joint journey of emotional and spiritual exploration. The settings and the CD’s overall thoughtfulness earn it a (+++) rating even though there is a certain sameness to the choral writing. But the experience offered here, although not exactly gloomy, is somewhat too portentous – and occasionally pretentious – to be embraceable to the extent that Cunningham clearly wants it to be.