December 14, 2017


Verdi: Rigoletto. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nadine Sierra, Francesco Demuro, Andrea Mastroni, Oksana Volkova; Men of the Kansas State Choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; Italian Concerto in F, BWV 971; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I—Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 847; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II—Preludes and Fugues in C-Sharp, BWV 872, and D Minor, BWV 875; Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Simone Leitão, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Terry Riley: The Palmian Chord Ryddle; At the Royal Majestic. Tracy Silverman, electric violin; Todd Wilson, Martin Foundation concert organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.

     It is often the highly personal connection of some recordings to the performers and/or composers that represents their biggest attraction. The primary reason for having the new Delos recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto is to hear baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role – especially so now that the release stands as a memorial to the much-admired singer. Hvorostovsky, who recently died of brain cancer, had officially retired from the opera stage in 2016, a year after the brain-tumor diagnosis was made. As a result, this two-CD set – his only complete recording of Rigoletto – must be seen as a major event for his fans. That would be so even if he gave a less-than-stellar performance in the tile role. But in fact, if Hvorostovsky is not quite at his best here, he is very close to it, in part because he is willing to sing against the usual super-mellow vocal sound that his fans knew and loved. His very first appearance, in which he snarlingly mocks the cuckolded Count Ceprano, is so coarse that listeners may wonder what happened to the Hvorostovsky smoothness. It turns out, though, that he is simply holding it for the right time – that being his tender and feelingly sung duet with his daughter, Gilda (Nadine Sierra, whose voice is delicate but has enough body to stand up to Hvorostovsky in that duet and to punch through the orchestra when necessary). If there remains any doubt about Hvorostovsky’s command of the Rigoletto role, it is dispelled in the second act with his strong, impassioned Cortigiani, vil razza dannata. However, when Hvorostovsky is not front-and-center in this production, the performance, while fine, lacks a certain sparkle. Francesco Demuro has a rather thin and nasal tenor sound as the Duke of Mantua, certainly not unpleasant but scarcely compelling – except at one crucial moment, when he actually hits the high D in his cabaletta, Possente amor mi chiama. Bass Andrea Mastroni is a one-dimensional hulk of an assassin as Sparafucile, and mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova is alluring but rather characterless as his sister, Maddalena. The choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra are rather characterless, too, or perhaps “colorless” describes the fairly bland sound better. Whichever it is, the issue appears to be conductor Constantine Orbelian, whose long association with Hvorostovsky here leads to so intense a focus on the baritone that pretty much everything else about Rigoletto fades toward the background. This recording will bring Hvorostovsky’s fans a great deal of pleasure, all the more so as a memorial release. But it is scarcely an ideal presentation of Verdi’s hyper-melodramatic opera, whose original title of La maledizione ideally would inform all the activity.

     There is nothing cursed – quite the opposite – in the Bach recital by Simone Leitão on a new MSR Classics CD. In fact, the playing here is blessedly sensitive and rhythmically aware, and there is no question that Leitão feels the music deeply. Indeed, Leitão says that the works she plays here are among the ones she has known and loved for many years, and often uses in her recitals. Under the circumstances, the fact that she takes a somewhat Romantic view of the music is entirely understandable, as is her willingness often to employ dynamic shadings on the piano that did not exist on the harpsichord, for which the music was actually written. And this brings up the eternal and ultimately unanswerable question of whether there is a “right” way to perform Bach’s keyboard works and, if so, what it is. Leitão would surely argue that her handling of the music is emotionally correct and in line with her feelings about it and the way she has grown with it over the years. And certainly Leitão is very, very far from the first pianist to take this music to heart and handle it pianistically – in fact, the version she plays of the Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 is by Busoni. In terms of specific performances here, that of the Italian Concerto is especially fine, rhythmically strong and with well-thought-out contrasts among the three movements. The three preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, on the other hand, are somewhat less successful, being sturdy and solid but not as involving as some of the other music on the disc. And the fact remains that Bach’s keyboard sound world was not that of the piano: whatever the truth of the common statement that Bach’s music is so “purely musical” that it can be played on any instrument, that is not the same as saying that it sounds as it should on any instrument. There is a richness and emotional involvement to Leitão’s performances of Bach on this disc that will draw in listeners who, like the pianist herself, believe that the music transcends its time and the circumstances of its composition. But as good as the performances are, they are not of Bach’s time, not even of the emotions of that time, and lack a certain level of essential purity that comes through when Bach’s keyboard works are played on the keyboards for which he intended them.

     The personal elements on a new Naxos CD of the music of Terry Riley (born 1935) are of a different sort, involving the composer himself as much as the performers. The Palmian Chord Ryddle (2011) is actually intended by Riley as a somewhat autobiographical work, displaying his exploratory minimalism (now so common as to be trite, but scarcely so when Riley began employing it) and incorporating into it the continuing experimentation of Tracy Silverman, a significant developer and advocate of the six-string electric violin. The Palmian Chord Ryddle is in eight sections played without pause, and it is long, or seems so despite an overall time of a fairly modest 35 minutes. The electric violin does not possess the exceptional tonal variety of the traditional acoustic instrument, or at least such variety is not much in evidence here; and while Silverman certainly plays his instrument with skill, the sounds that emerge from it tend to be quite similar throughout its range and tend to deaden the ear over time instead of involving it. Part of the issue here is Riley’s carefully spare orchestration, which keeps any emotionalism at a distance in a work that has enough conceptual evenness to come across as trying to assert its modernity without ever having a particularly good reason for doing so. The other piece on the CD – both the works here are receiving their world première recordings – is more interesting. At the Royal Majestic (2013) is a three-movement tribute to the “mighty Wurlitzer” organs used in movie houses – really movie palaces – in the days of silent films. This work is nearly as long as The Palmian Chord Ryddle, and two of the three movements of At the Royal Majestic are very extended indeed, but here the music pulls listeners along on a journey that is intriguing, even enthralling, despite the fact that its eventual destination is nowhere exceptional. Organist Todd Wilson shows thorough familiarity and comfort with the many musical styles that Riley employs here, including jazz, boogie, ragtime, gospel, and even Baroque chorales. There may be no particular expectation that such a combinatorial clash of material would come across successfully, but in this case it does more often than not; and Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony show themselves to be involved and enthusiastic throughout – indeed, they make the most of both works on the CD. At the Royal Majestic may not have any particular meaning in the autobiographical way that The Palmian Chord Ryddle is intended to have, but for audiences at large rather than for the composer himself, it is a more intriguing work that better repays the time spent listening to it.

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