April 27, 2017


Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Celebrating the completion of the recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantatas. Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $29.99 (Blu-ray Disc).

Puccini: Complete Songs for Soprano and Piano. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Maria Prinz, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Verismo: Arias by Puccini, Cilea, Mascagni, Catalani, and Giordano. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Pavel Baleff. BR Klassik. $22.99.

     There are ways to package an excellent general-interest recording to turn it into an excellent limited-interest one. That is what BIS has done with a Blu-ray release called Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The centerpiece and the glory of this release is its offering of the last three Bach cantatas to be recorded by Bach Collegium Japan under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki. They are Gloria in excelsis deo, BWV 191; Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69; and Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30. All three get poised, beautifully balanced readings, with considerable attention to detail. In Part I of BWV 30, the brilliant bass aria and alto aria on the same basic motive are highlights, with bass Peter Kooij and countertenor Robin Blaze quite impressive (as are soprano Hana Blažíková and tenor Gerd Türk in their appearances). A highlight of BWV 69 is the expressive tenor recitative, with its unexpected dissonant and chromatic passage in the middle. And in BWV 191, Bach’s only cantata to a Latin text, the work’s overall festivity is thoroughly winning. Any listener interested in Bach’s cantatas will find these readings more than worthwhile – but they are not the reason-for-being of the release. Instead, this is a documentary, made in 2013, that marks the completion of the performers’ 18-year musical odyssey through all the Bach cantatas, with interviews with Suzuki and various singers, plus behind-the-scenes footage, intended as primary attractions. They will be – but only for a rarefied audience whose interests are as much in these specific performers and this specific cycle as in Bach’s actual music. The result is a nicely presented visual production in which the cantatas, although important, are not the sole point and in some ways not even the most-central one. The recording is for fans of the performers and for people interested in and impressed by the major undertaking of recording all Bach’s cantatas. This is a release about a journey through time, not so much one of a journey through music, and certainly not one focused on the spiritual journey through which Bach’s music has taken listeners for three centuries.

     A group-performance-centered classical-music release is somewhat rarer than one focused on an individual performer and aimed at that person’s fans. The single-performer focus is especially common when it comes to singers, and is designed to give fans a heaping helping of one particular artist’s approach to material of greater or lesser familiarity. The new Naxos CD featuring soprano Krassimira Stoyanova would be a straightforward case in point were it not for the repertoire. Yes, everything here is by Puccini, and that is scarcely a surprise – but all 19 tracks on the CD are Puccini songs, which are very infrequently performed and which it is fair to say that most listeners will find unfamiliar. Whether they will find them congenial is another matter: the songs are more conventional and less emotive than the Puccini arias to which listeners generally come, and while there are a couple of fascinating items here – especially two songs in Latin for soprano and mezzo-soprano, with Stoyanova singing both parts through the miracle of engineering and the flexibility of her voice – for the most part the songs are rather ordinary. Accompaniments are straightforward and, by and large, so are the comparatively restrained emotions expressed in these short works. The topics are typical for Puccini’s time, especially for his early career, when many of these pieces were written: they include life and death, love and faith, nature and home. Stoyanova seems comfortable with the songs’ simplicity, and in her mid-50s (she was born in 1962) also appears content with the somewhat limited vocal range required by most of the works. Pianist Maria Prinz provides fine backup, but there is not all that much for her to do: the piano parts are generally even more straightforward than the lyrics. Fans of Stoyanova are clearly the target audience for hearing this unusual but rather formulaic music – the fact that the CD lasts just over 46 minutes makes it even more of a for-fans-only offering.

     Stoyanova’s fans will get more music (70 minutes), albeit at a significantly higher price, and will find a great deal more emotional expressiveness on another new CD, this one from BR Klassik and titled Verismo. Stoyanova, who is especially well-known for her work in La Juive, is in her element here in 15 tracks – the longest of which, and one of the most impressive, is a real rarity: the death-scene aria of the protagonist of Mascagni’s Lodoletta, in which Stoyanova works effectively with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Pavel Baleff to extract every possible bit of wrenching emotion from the highly melodramatic material. One other Mascagni track, from L’amico Fritz, is fine but does not hold a candle to the extended scene. Much of this CD is devoted to Puccini – the familiar, deeply emotional, lyrical and even overdone Puccini, not the one heard in his songs. Manon Lescaut (twice), Turandot (also twice), Madama Butterfly (again, twice), Suor Angelica, Edgar and Tosca are all here – it seems inevitable that the CD will end, after the Lodoletta scene, with Vissi d’arte, and it does. Also on display here are two arias from Cilea’s Andrea Lecouvreur, one from Catalani’s La Wally, and one from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier – none of them the slightest bit surprising in an extended recital by a soprano, and all sung with skill, a resonant vocal tone, and a fine sense of nuance. These excerpts require more of a voice than do the Puccini songs, and Stoyanova has what they need: her middle range is deep and sonorous, her attacks on high notes are elegantly handled, and her overall vocal sound is pleasingly resonant. She is well accompanied throughout the disc, and her fans will surely enjoy hearing how she handles so many examples of operatic hyper-emotion. Even those who do not yet know Stoyanova’s considerable abilities may enjoy hearing her perform this material – but the disc does give a rather one-sided view of her singing, and therefore remains more likely to be a “fan” recording than a really good introduction to a first-rate soprano voice. In truth, not everything here is verismo in the traditional sense, but the level of emotional expression is such that the CD’s title is understandable – and the material downplays Stoyanova’s abilities in other types of opera, notably bel canto. For listeners who know her other work, though, this focus on a particular form of scene-setting will be quite enjoyable.

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