May 21, 2009


Haydn: The Complete Concertos. Soloists and Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Bruhl. Naxos. $35.99 (6 CDs).

Handel: Tamerlano. Plácido Domingo, Monica Bacelli, Ingela Bohlin, Sara Mingardo, Jennifer Holloway, Luigi de Donato; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real conducted by Paul McCreesh. Opus Arte. $49.99 (3 DVDs).

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen. Elena Tsallagova, Jukka Rasilainen, Michèle Lagrange, Hannah Esther Minutillo, David Kuebler, Roland Bracht, Paul Gay; Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Messiaen: Saint François d’Assise. Camilla Tilling, Rod Gilfry, Hubert Delamboye, Henk Neven, Tom Randle, Donald Kaasch, Armand Arapian; Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera and Hague Philharmonic conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Opus Arte. $49.99 (3 DVDs).

     Music can evoke pictures or patterns even without a visual component, and sometimes it is just as effective when heard as when seen. Certainly the fine Naxos set of Haydn’s concertos requires nothing visual to be a delight to hear – even though Haydn was far less distinguished as a concerto composer than as a symphonist and composer of string quartets. In fact, a number of works on these six CDs may not be by Haydn at all, while a number known to be by him have been lost. As a result, we have what is inevitably a rather disorganized set here, although the use of a single fine conductor and top-notch chamber orchestra does give the set some continuity. On these CDs are three violin concertos (with Augustin Hadelich as soloist), three for cello (with Maria Klegel, who is particularly good), one for horn (with Dmitri Babanov), one for trumpet (with Jürgen Schuster), and one for violin and keyboard (Ariadne Dasalakis on the violin and Harald Hoeren playing fortepiano). Then there are 10 keyboard concertos, assigned rather confusingly to different instruments: three are played on the harpsichord (one by Hoeren and two by Ketil Haugsand), three on the organ (Hoeren again), and four – unfortunately – on a modern piano (by Sebastian Knauer). Finally, there are Haydn’s five surviving concertos for two lire organizzate, presumably from a set of six of which one has been lost. It is fascinating to hear these on the original instrument, which was a kind of hurdy-gurdy with wheel, strings, keyboard and organ pipes – performances of a few movements are available on YouTube – but Haydn himself created versions for other instruments, so it is justifiable (if not ideal) to hear two of these concertos played on two recorders (by Daniel Rothert and Philipp Spätling), one on two flutes (by Benoît Fromanger and Ingo Nelken), and two on flute and oboe (by Fromanger and Christian Hommel). The multipurpose booklet enclosed with this boxed set – it is the same one Naxos is using for Haydn’s complete symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas – does a good job of explaining which concertos are known to be authentic and which are questionable. And the performances, despite the orchestra’s use of modern instruments, are knowledgeable in terms of period style and are nicely played and balanced throughout. This is not a set for everyone or even for all Haydn lovers – individual performances of Haydn’s best and best-known concertos are widely available – but the music is as full of charm as the performances are of enthusiasm.

     There is little charm of plot but much interesting music in Handel’s Tamerlano, one of the composer’s long (four-hour) and often dry (lots of recitative) entries into historical tragedy. A main attraction of the new recording featuring Plácido Domingo is Domingo himself. Now 68, Domingo only recently began singing the role of Bajazet in this opera, and although he has little sense of Baroque style, his verismo passion and impressive death scene make his performance noteworthy. Paul McCreesh leads the orchestra – the Madrid Symphony under a different name – with attentiveness, and Domingo is ably backed by several other very fine soloists, including Monica Bacelli as Tamerlano (a role originally for castrato and now often sung by a countertenor, but effectively communicated here); Ingela Bohlin as Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter and a source of much of his anguish; and Jennifer Holloway as Irene, the spoiled Arab princess determined to wed Tamerlano. The production by Graham Vick is visually arresting, modernistic and not at all in keeping with Handel’s intentions, but it is effective in its own way. Interestingly, Domingo – whose handling of his part is also out of synch with what Handel would have expected and wanted – fits well into Vick’s scenery, his vocal emoting emphasizing the underlying personal drama of the story in a way that might have been unseemly in Handel’s time but that fits quite well into our own. Neither this opera nor this staging nor Domingo’s style will be to all tastes, but all are certainly worth both hearing and seeing.

     The Cunning Little Vixen gets a more traditional staging, by André Engel, on a new Medici Arts DVD. English and German speakers coming to this opera for the first time are often surprised to find that the vixen of the title is not really very cunning at all – the fault of Max Brod’s free translation into German of Janáček’s original title, which is more accurately rendered “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears.” Elena Tsallagova has a pretty voice rather than a highly dramatic one, and it fits well with what is essentially a fable about the cycle of life and death. Jukka Rasilainen is effective as the Forester, and the bass voices of Roland Bracht as the Parson and Paul Gay as Harašta are particularly fine. Dennis Russell Davies is at the top of his form, too, nicely balancing the fairy-tale elements of the story with the genuine pathos and sense of uplift at its end. The balancing of serious and comedic elements is sometimes a bit off – Janáček’s source was a comic strip that he deliberately made more serious, but the opera still contains amusing elements that are worth playing up when they occur. But on the whole, the production, singing and playing all stand up well.

     The new recording of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise stands up well, too, if you like this sort of thing, but it has to be said that many listeners – including confirmed opera fans – will not. This is a very long (four-and-a-half-hour) and very episodic opera written late in the composer’s life, between 1975 and 1982 (Messiaen was born in 1908 and died in 1992). Like Janáček in The Cunning Little Vixen, Messiaen here wrote his own libretto, whose three acts include eight self-contained scenes, with mini-scenes within each one. Large forces are needed to perform the opera – Messiaen called for a 150-voice chorus and 120-member orchestra – and the composer’s fondness for exotic sounds is everywhere apparent (the score includes amplified birdsongs, tuned percussion and three ondes Martenot). Like The Cunning Little Vixen, Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is ultimately about the meaning and purpose of life, but while Janáček emphasizes nature and the cycles affecting humans and animals alike, Messiaen focuses entirely on the faith of the most nature-oriented of saints; in fact, he omits St. Francis’ conflict-strewn early years entirely, confining himself to issues of grace and appreciation of God. The result is a static opera that has the potential to be both monumental and monumentally dull – although Pierre Audi’s elegant staging and Rod Gilfry’s fine singing in the title role keep the proceedings interesting. Equal credit, if not more, goes to the Hague Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher, which presents Messiaen’s sumptuous music with tenderness and understanding. This opera is a lot to take in one sitting – viewers of the DVD set will probably want to give themselves intermissions between the acts – but it has many wonderfully heartfelt moments and some of Messiaen’s loveliest and most elegantly scored music.

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