October 27, 2016


Aksel! Arias by Bach, Handel and Mozart. Aksel Rykkvin, treble; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Nigel Short. Signum Classics. $17.99.

Donizetti: Arias from “Rita,” “La Favorite,” “Don Pasquale,” “Dom Sebastien,” “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “La Fille du Regiment”; Bellini: Arias from “I Puritani.” Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Kansas State Choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $16.99.

So Many Things. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello). Naïve. $16.99.

Mohammed Fairouz: Zabur. Dann Coakwell, tenor; Michael Kelly, baritone; Indianapolis Children’s Choir, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Stark. Naxos. $12.99.

     Performer-focused vocal recordings are all about the sound of a particular voice – that sound generally matters more than the specific music in which it is heard. These are usually “fan” recordings, offering listeners familiar with the singer a chance to hear him or her at length without giving any particular thought to musical or dramatic continuity. Once in a while, though, a performer-focused recording also sheds new light on the music performed, and in so doing may bring a previously unknown singer to a much wider audience. That is the case with the Signum Classics release called Aksel! Aksel Rykkvin is a 13-year-old Norwegian boy soprano who sings in a way that few listeners are likely to have heard. Boy sopranos are not quite as rare in classical music as the long-gone castrati, whose voices were somewhat similar – but they are rare enough. Leonard Bernstein once used a boy soprano as soloist in the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which is a child’s view of heaven, producing an interesting experiment – however, Mahler wrote the movement for a female soprano quite deliberately. Most of the time, boy sopranos are heard within choral works or in short recitals, and their careers are quite short, limited by the reality of male vocal changes during the teenage years. All of this makes the material sung by Aksel Rykkvin that much more precious. The CD features almost an hour of his singing and includes six works by Bach, nine by Handel and three by Mozart. The purity of Rykkvin’s voice is quite wonderful, and his assuredness in negotiating the very high register and complexities of musical lines – notably in the Handel arias – is exceptional. The biggest surprise here, though, is the very high degree of musical intelligence underlying these performances. Despite his age, Rykkvin has been thoroughly trained in the structure and emotions of classical music, and while he may lack the life experience to relate personally to some of the material, his sensitivity to its strictly musical nuances is considerable. This is especially noticeable in his handling of the two arias sung by Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro: Rykkvin brings just the right blend of naïveté and enthusiasm to Voi, che sapete and Non so più cosa son. But these are only two of the highlights here; in fact, the whole CD is nothing but highlights. Rykkvin shows himself able to sing and emote in multiple languages: Italian, Latin, German and English – the Messiah arias, How beautiful are the feet and Thou art gone up on high, are especially effective, although immediately following them with Let the bright Seraphim from Samson is a bit odd. Actually, the sequence of material here is the only real negative: there is little textual or musical reason for hearing these particular pieces in this particular order. That fact, however, speaks to the “vocal showcase” element of the disc: this release introduces a remarkable young voice, one that listeners will find captivating, but the specific pieces Rykkvin sings matter less than the fact that he is the one singing them.

     Something similar may be said of tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s new Delos CD, which features nine arias by Donizetti and two by Bellini. Brownlee is firmly in mid-career – he was born in 1973 – and well-established as a master of the bel canto repertoire. Thus, there is nothing surprising about the selection of material on this disc, the purpose of which is simply to give Brownlee fans a chance to hear him performing the sort of material in which he excels. The fans will not be disappointed: Brownlee’s full, rich tone is everywhere apparent in these mostly well-known arias, and his pinpoint accuracy extends throughout his vocal range – there is no sense of strain even at the top. The result is a very fine exploration of material that has been sung very well by very many tenors over the years. Brownlee does bring a sense of heightened emotion to a number of the arias in operas that are, after all, melodramas, in which emotion is supposed to run at fever pitch; and he humanizes characters effectively, as in Una furtiva lagrima from L’Elisir d’Amore. Unfortunately, one of Brownlee’s remarkable accomplishments is missing here: the two arias from Bellini’s I Puritani are A te, o cara and Son salvo, and he certainly handles both of them well, but it is Credeasi, misera, with its near-impossible high F, that Brownlee has mastered to exceptional effect (the note used to be sung falsetto, at a time when tenors used their voices differently from the way they use them today). Of course, anyone unfamiliar with Brownlee will not know what is absent here and will be more than satisfied with the vocal quality he brings to all the material that he does present. This is nevertheless a (+++) CD, simply because it offers a spate of well-known material sung by a very fine but scarcely unknown singer. None of this will matter to fans, however: they will want the disc as further evidence of the consistently high quality of Brownlee’s performances.

     Fans of Anne Sofie von Otter may be the target audience for the mezzo-soprano’s (+++) CD with the quartet known as Brooklyn Rider, but it is far from certain that fans will find the recording congenial. This Naïve release is neither more nor less than a crossover disc, using elements of vocal and instrumental classical music to present material that is all over the musical map: two works by Björk, one by Sting, one by Elvis Costello, one by John Adams, and others by Kate Bush, Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Anders Hillborg, Brad Mehldau and Rufus Wainwright – plus one by quartet member Colin Jacobsen. The quality of the musical material is also all over the place. The sort of listener who will be attracted to this disc is one who not only wants to hear music by the specific composers represented – in arrangements for voice and string quartet – but also wants to listen as von Otter presents herself in various vocal guises. Thus, her operatic self shows up in Am I in Your Light? from Adams’ Doctor Atomic – which is juxtaposed with Bush’s Pi, in which von Otter more or less channels her inner Lotte Lenya. Later, Costello’s Speak Darkly, My Angel comes across with considerable tenderness and proves to be the most moving track on the disc. There is less to the two new works heard here, Shaw’s Cant voi l’aube and Jacobsen’s For Sixty Cents. Von Otter has done crossover before, and clearly finds it a pleasant break from the exigencies of opera: there is little here that calls fully on the richness of her vocal capabilities. A fine presentation for fans of both the singer and the quartet, the CD makes no attempt to reach out beyond that core group: it is neither a very good or serious introduction to von Otter’s very considerable vocal talents nor an especially attractive or well-organized collection from a musical standpoint.

     The seriousness of Mohammed Fairouz’ latest oratorio, Zabur, is beyond doubt: indeed, the nearly unending gloom of this hour-long work insists again and again that listeners pay attention and share in the doom-laden atmosphere. Written in 2015 to a libretto by Najla Said, Zabur (Arabic for “Psalms”) pulls the Biblical David and Gabriel into the modern age of unceasing war in the Middle East and showcases the Psalms against the background of a doomed group of refugees in a soon-to-be-destroyed temporary shelter (Fairouz’ music starts with the destruction, backpedals, then moves forward until the destruction happens again – as gloomy a structure as he and Said can imagine).  The unremittingly dour setting is sometimes reflected in David’s songs and poetry, which he and the other refugees sing and chant; at other times, David reaches out, through his Psalms, for a sense of wonder, beauty and meaning beyond the everyday terrors of death and destruction. Fairouz clearly wants there to be something positive here to prevent the oratorio from being unremittingly depressive, but the attempt does not work: the eventual destruction, foretold at the beginning, hangs over the entire oratorio and permeates even the more-uplifting poetry and song. What Fairouz is doing is seeking timelessness for his message by combining Biblical elements with a contemporary setting – but it is not entirely clear what his and Said’s message is intended to be. If it is one of enduring the travails of the world despite everything, a notion that somehow something (art? poetry?) survives even when the human creators of that something are dead and gone, then it is a fine concept, if scarcely a new one. But there remains discordance between the war-requiem aspects of Zabur and its attempts to find some way to provide some semblance of some sort of hope. This world première recording is well-paced, well-sung and sensitively played by all concerned – the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir actually commissioned the work. But while those who admire Fairouz’ music will find what he does here in line with his other work, others will likely discover that this (+++) CD never quite seems to gel either musically or as an attempt to garner emotional outreach that transcends the unending wars around which it is conceptually built.

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