May 02, 2013


Bel Canto Bully: The Musical Legacy of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Naxos. $9.99.

Hidden Handel. Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis. Naïve. $16.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 28—For Ascension Day. Monteverdi Choir and English Bach Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

40 Tracks for 40 Years: Delos’ 40th Anniversary Celebration. Delos. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Solti Centenary Concert. World Orchestra for Peace conducted by Valery Gergiev. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     Here are five novelty items that will be of interest to those with attractions to specific parts of the musical past – recent and distant. The most interesting conceptually is Bel Canto Bully, which includes music by Rossini, Weber, Bellini, Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante – all composers whose work was strongly influenced by the demands of famed (or notorious) 19th-century impresario Domenico Barbaja (1777-1841). The CD is actually a companion to a book of the same title by Philip Eisenbeiss, and will be of greatest interest to those who read the book and want to associate excerpts from operas of Barbaja’s time with the impresario’s life. In fact, the booklet notes for the CD are by Eisenbeiss, just to make the tie-in explicit. Nevertheless, the musical selections themselves are certainly worth hearing, being a cross-section of better-known and less-known works of the bel canto era. They include the overture to Weber’s Euryanthe and a number of vocal excerpts – from Bellini’s Il Pirata, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Mercadante’s Elena da Feltre, and five operas by Rossini: La gazzetta, Otello, Mosè in Egitto, La donna del lago, and Maometto II. Because a number of these works are little-known and infrequently performed today, the musical mixture is an enjoyable one in and of itself; the enjoyment increases when the works are heard in the context of the story of Barbaja’s life and times.

     The attractions of Hidden Handel are similar: Ann Hallenberg here sings excerpts from nine Handel operas, most of them little-known; in fact, of the 17 pieces here, 10 are world première recordings. Of course, there is considerable overlap of elements both instrumental and vocal among Handel’s operas – fostered by the composer himself – so it is not surprising that a number of these works sound rather familiar even if they have never been recorded before. Nevertheless, they are all very well-made – no surprise there –and excellently performed by Hallenberg and Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis. The operas represented are Pirro e Demetrio, Rinaldo (probably the best-known), Ottone, Muzio Scevola, Amadigi, Teseo, Admeto, Berenice and Alessandro. Short instrumental interludes – Hornpipe in C minor, Aria for Winds in F, March in G, March in D and March in F – nicely break up the vocal elements, and the CD as a whole is a treat for Handel fanciers looking for masterly music that they will not have heard before.

     The latest release in SDG’s ongoing series of Bach cantatas conducted by John Eliot Gardiner is at the same high level as previous ones, and stands as a tribute to the composer as well as an ongoing one to Gardiner’s skill in bringing this music to life with suitable seriousness and close attention to period style. Few listeners will likely want this CD on its own – at this point, these releases are clearly intended for people who are collecting them all – but those who want to hear some first-rate performances of the cantatas will enjoy this disc as much as earlier ones. Inevitably, each CD contains works that are better-known and less-known; which are which will depend on each listener’s personal relationship with this element of Bach’s work. The four cantatas here are Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, BWV 43; Wer da gläubet und getauft wird, BWV 37; Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein, BWV 128; and Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11. The four soloists – soprano Lenneke Ruiten, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Andrew Tortise, and bass Dietrich Henschel – are all in fine voice and all thoroughly comfortable with period style; and Gardiner’s conducting is, as usual and as in the prior volumes of this series, poised and careful and idiomatic, resulting in thoroughly satisfying performances of all the cantatas.

     It is not a composer but a company to which 40 Tracks for 40 Years pays tribute – this is Delos complimenting itself for its longevity and the quality of the music it has made available. This is all a bit self-referential and self-important, but Delos is scarcely the first to do this sort of thing: Chandos, for example, produced a handsome 30-CD box for its 30th anniversary in 2009. By that standard, the three-CD Delos offering is quite modest, and it does contain some very fine performances – but it is hard to know why listeners will want to buy it. Although the amount of music on each CD is generous – 76 to 78 minutes – the nature of the enterprise is such that no extended works can be given in full, and no single artist who has recorded for Delos can be fully portrayed. Instead, listeners get a bit of this and a touch of that: some Copland, Verdi, Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Korngold, Hovhaness, Cilea, Handel, Arensky, and others, all jumbled together and none following any other in any particularly compelling sequence. The same is true of the performers. Orchestras include the Seattle, Dallas and New Jersey Symphony Orchestras and others; conductors range from James DePriest and Zdenek Macal to Gerard Schwarz and Alfred Heller; James Earl Jones and Michael York are heard as narrators; among the many soloists are Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dmitri Kogan, Arleen Auger, Ewa Podles, Sandra Lutters, and Gerryck King; chamber groups include the Brazilian and Los Angeles Guitar Quartets, Shanghai Quartet and Yale Cellos; and so on. There is a plethora of fine music-making here, but there is also a huge jumble of largely disorganized presentation, rendering 40 Tracks for 40 Years more of a “vanity production” for those associated with or enamored of Delos than a CD set likely to attract music lovers on the basis of its content.

     Solti Centenary Concert might seem like a vanity production, too, if Sir Georg Solti himself were conducting it, but in fact this DVD is one of a number of recent memorials to him. Solti (1912-1997) was a larger-than-life figure in the musical world, and often a controversial one for the intensity he brought to conducting and the ruthlessness with which he drove his orchestras (he was nicknamed “the screaming skull” in recognition of his baldness and his podium manner). This DVD was recorded live on October 21, 2012, and it contains – like the three-CD Delos offering – a number of well-performed short works that certainly relate to Solti’s career and interests but that are not especially compelling in themselves. However, Valery Gergiev does offer two substantial pieces in full: Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, both of them very well played and the latter a genuine tour de force that does not, however, sound as if Solti himself would have performed it this way (Gergiev has a very different podium manner, with greater flair for drama and a somewhat more mercurial approach to the music). The rest of the concert includes the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (which never really sounds right when taken out of context), and opera excerpts sung by sopranos Angela Gheorghiu and Tereza Gevorgyan, mezzo-soprano Matilda Paulsson, tenor Roberto Gòmez-Ortiz, baritone Ross Ramgobin, and bass René Pape. The operas excerpted are The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, La Traviata and Rigoletto. The DVD also includes, as an encore, Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, and that certainly produces a festive and celebratory conclusion to what is intended as a celebration of Solti’s life and skill. The performances are very fine, and the bonus film about the World Orchestra for Peace – called Solti’s Vision – is a nice extra. But the DVD is more of a souvenir of the concert than a recording worth having in its own right, for the quality of the music-making. Those who did not attend this memorial and do not feel they need to see as well as hear the performers will find equal or better versions of the music elsewhere.

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