February 28, 2019
(++++) VOCAL EXPLORATIONS
Vivaldi: Il Giustino. Delphine Galou, contralto; Emőke Baráth, Verónica Cangemi, Arianna Vendittelli and Rahel Maas, sopranos; Silke Gäng, mezzo-soprano; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, tenor; Alessandro Giangrande, countertenor; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $33.99. (3 CDs).
David Carpenter: From the Valley of Baca; Trio; Sonata. Lawrence Indik, baritone; Charles Abramovic, piano; Rebecca Harris, violin; Myanna Harvey, viola; Cassia Harvey, cello; Katelyn Bouska, piano. Navona. $14.99.
The remarkable Vivaldi Edition from Naïve, which began in 2000, has now reached its penultimate opera offering with Il Giustino; only Arsilda remains to be released. Like so many of the earlier once-lost Vivaldi works found at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin that form the basis of this series, Il Giustino is filled with interesting material even though it will certainly not lead to a reconsideration or rethinking of Vivaldi as a composer, or of his strengths and weaknesses. The opera is typically complex, filled with a huge number of arias – more than three dozen – and typically overstated and contrived. And, as is typical specifically for Vivaldi, it shows that the composer had a far stronger feeling for instrumental music than for vocals: the arias, although often highly attractive, are one and all superficial, and the expressions of happiness, sadness, love, and other emotions are stylized and one-dimensional – as, indeed, are the characters themselves. Indeed, this lack of depth may explain Tartini’s famous observation that Vivaldi’s vocal works were not successful. The characters’ rather uninteresting personalities may help explain why the secco recitatives in this recording are generally just plain dull – and sound rather cartoonish when they are livelier. But the music of Il Giustino shines forth despite the lackluster plotting and characterization; indeed, Vivaldi’s vocal writing has something instrumental about it. Under Ottavio Dantone, the Accademia Bizantina proffers virtuoso commitment throughout, with an overture that pulls listeners in from the start and a series of accompaniments that tend to outshine the vocal passages for which they provide the foundation. Dating to 1724, Il Giustino is set in the time of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (sixth century C.E.), and revolves around the accession of a modest ploughman to the role of co-emperor. It is a kind of semi-historical fairy tale, full of allegories, deities, court intrigue, love and love-related misunderstandings, mistaken identities, even a ghost – none of which elements matters as much as the music that Vivaldi produced in support of his own libretto. The wind writing is especially felicitous, the horn playing in particular is first-rate, and there are some lovely string effects as well, as in Sento in seno, which features two solo violins against a larger complement playing pizzicato. Vivaldi also calls here for a psaltery (a sort of dulcimer, although played differently), and uses it to lovely effect. The three primary soloists are all of very high quality: Silke Gäng as Anastasio, the smoothest singer of all; Emőke Baráth as Arianna; and Delphine Galou as Giustino. It is worth noting that even close attention to historical performance practices does not and cannot deliver the opera as Vivaldi’s audiences heard it: women were not allowed on stage at the time, and nearly the entire cast of Il Giustino in Vivaldi’s era consisted of castrati. The necessary deviation from casting aside, this recording adheres very carefully to correct performance practices of its time, and the excellent accompanying booklet – containing texts and translations as well as a synopsis of the complicated plot – makes the three-CD set a real pleasure to hear and experience. There is, however, one element that may not be to the taste of all lovers of Baroque music: the ornamentation of the A section repeats in arias. This is unusually extensive here, perhaps too much so, and in a few cases so overdone that the singers seem to have trouble handling the material. Some listeners will find the extensive ornamentation thrilling, while others will consider it over-the-top. But anyone intrigued by the rediscovery of interesting Baroque material, and of Vivaldi’s works in particular, will find a great deal to enjoy, even celebrate, in this new recording of Il Giustino.
It can be fascinating to hear the ways in which contemporary composers come to terms with the vocal material of the past – and with ancient texts. An intriguing song cycle written by David Carpenter in 2016, From the Valley of Baca, is a case in point. Carpenter reaches back to the Hebrew Bible, and even to the Hebrew language, in this cycle, having previously created an Old Testament work – also for baritone and piano – based on the book of Job. In From the Valley of Baca he turns to Biblical material both directly and indirectly, in the latter case through the poetry of Emma Lazarus. There are nine songs in the grouping, four taken from Psalm 84 and the balance from Lazarus’ poetry: Not While the Snow-Shroud; Across the Eastern Sky; I Saw a Youth Pass Down That Vale of Tears; What, Can These Dead Bones Live; and I Saw in Dream. On a new Navona CD, baritone Lawrence Indik sings everything with depth and feeling, and pianist Charles Abramovic provides sensitive, nuanced accompaniment. The result is a multilayered tribute to and adaptation of material from the past – not so much in musical style, which is primarily tonal but never slavishly so, as in the consideration of Lazarus not only as the author of The New Colossus (inscribed at the Statue of Liberty) but also as a Jew who was deeply concerned and troubled by European anti-Semitism in her own time (the 19th century) and before. The intricacy of Carpenter’s cycle, so different from the rather affected arrangement of material in Il Giustino, does share with Vivaldi’s opera a certain sense of structural artificiality, indeed of artifice. But Carpenter seeks to plumb real-world emotional depth in ways with which Vivaldi, his attention on a largely made-up version of the past, is never concerned. Carpenter’s approach is creative in a manner very different from Vivaldi’s and is used for different purposes, yet its use of intermingled vocal and instrumental elements is drawn from many of the same impulses. And in the other, purely instrumental works on this (+++) CD, Carpenter harks directly back to music and composers of the recent and not-so-recent past. Trio (2014) shares many sensibilities with the music of Shostakovich, even to the point of incorporating the DSCH motive that the great 20th-century Russian composer frequently used to highlight personal elements of his musical communication during the repressive Soviet era. Although not slavishly imitative of Shostakovich in any way, this string piece feels like an updated presentation of many of the wide-ranging emotions that the earlier composer packed into his music. And Sonata (2015) reaches back further, to the 19th century, being directly inspired by Chopin’s B minor piano sonata: Carpenter consciously uses the opening of the Chopin to start his own solo-piano piece. There is no further Chopin quotation in Carpenter’s music, although the work’s overall emotional arc shares something of the feeling of Romantic-era piano compositions. All the works recorded here receive strong performances, and all offer connections with the musical past that give them resonance beyond what the notes themselves provide.