Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Early Music Blog Archive: 2003 to June 2005
26 June 2005
Henceforth, the Early Music Blog will be written with Blogger software for automatic archiving (though inferior formatting). Click HERE for subsequent entries.
22 June 2005
See this message by John Howell on ChoralNet about the Texas Music Educators Association's refusal to allow a countertenor to audition for the annual state choral competition on grounds that men may audition only for "men's parts". In light of the indisputable proof that Texan Bush is a lying war criminal in addition to being a dry drunk imbecile who can't even pronounce "nuclear", despite having purchased degrees from Yale and Harvard, one would think that Texas organizations would seek to avoid controversies that perpetuate the world view of the state as reservoir of backward, bible-thumping loonies.
Having seen it only once in a theater that was too dark to follow the libretto or write notes, I'm in no position to post a detailed review of the Boston Early Music Festival production of Johann Mattheson's Boris Goudenow. My overall impression of the score, in the performing version with gaps filled by movements from other Mattheson operas, is that it is very good and especially suitable for a HIP staging. Ensembles, choruses and dances outnumber arias, and the arias are mainly simple and not difficult to sing effectively. As in French opera, diction and acting ability take precedence in this sort of score over pure vocal prowess.
Mattheson's overture, dances, battle sinfonia and march sounded as if they might have been composed by Handel. The dance movements are not overtly French, like many of Telemann's dances, but Italianate versions of French forms. Mattheson's arias and ensembles, on the other hand, more often reminded me of Keiser than Handel, although at least one aria, "Io felice e fortunato" (Boris), brought to mind Alessandro Scarlatti and another, "Sei crudele e pur t'adoro" (Fedro), Vivaldi, with its "Four Seasons" string accompaniment with back and forth jumps between fifths. Many of the arias accompanied by the orchestra begin with a ritornello, followed by the character singing the first line of text once, then a reprise by the orchestra, only then followed by vocal development. There are a disproportionate number of continuo arias, and four arias feature solo violin and continuo. Several choruses and one tenor aria are accompanied by trumpets and drums, which were added by editors, who believe that "their participation seems to be implied, based on the style of several of the movements."
The highlights, as usual at the BEMF, were the magnificent costumes, scenery, dances, and stage gestures. The BEMF team created entirely new costumes and scenes to depict the exotic locale -- Moscow in the 16th Century. I hope that the BEMF will post photos of the costumes online, as they are among the most impressive designed for an early opera staging.
The dances included a minor key sarabande, a derivative of La Follia, danced at the end of Act I before the dead Czar on this throne by two couples in what appeared to be Spanish-influenced attire -- all dressed in black, the women wearing veils. The music from this and other dances actually was taken from other Mattheson operas, as the original dances were either lost or never composed. The dances at the end of Act II began with a menuet danced by children, a loure and rigadoun danced by old men, ending with a Handelian gigue danced by all, with the comic servant Bodga in the center. There were also several Entrées for dancers throughout the opera, and the extended finale included both singing and dancing, with the dancers dressed more typically French than most of the rest of the cast other than Gavust, a foreign prince who might have come from Paris.
The musical performances were first rate, and no doubt reflected the experience of three prior performances within a week. None of the vocal music was beyond the capabilities of the performers, and they all did quite well, generally with fine diction and ornamentation. The instrumental playing was excellent, with violinist Robert Mealy capably handling the primary solo role. Besides strings, oboes and bassoons, Mattheson apparently called for recorders, traverso, viola d'amore (which I missed), and bells. The percussionist played a set of eight hanging bells in the finale.
I would single out one instrument for special praise -- the diminutive but surprisingly robust Italian harpsichord built by David Sutherland. With this instrument in the continuo section, no one will ever complain about not being able to hear the harpsichord.
I found the choice of continuo instruments to be rather odd. A harp played throughout, and a baroque guitar accompanied about half of the arias and choruses, bringing to mind Anthony Hicks' "silly pluckers" review of Peter Holman's "Handel in Hamburg" CD in Early Music Review. With such a fine cembalino in the continuo section, I would have preferred more harpsichord continuo and a lot less strumming. I suppose harp continuo, like the virginal used in the recent recording of Ferrandini's Catone in Utica, may reflect a response to the perception that many people do not like the sound of harpsichords. Yet the perpetrators also want the perceived benefit of claiming that their performances are "historically-informed", when they really aren't.
My only serious reservation with the production was the vulgar portrayal of the comic servant Bogda. As depicted in the crude, Hollywood-influenced staging script, the character simply was not funny. (I have no reservations about the fine performance of Bogda by William Hite, whose diction was especially clear and precise.) Here's an idea for a thesis, if it hasn't been done already: The comic servant in Hamburg opera, 1678-1738.
The major problem at the Boston performances is that the auditorium was kept dark so that supertitles in English could be projected over the stage. The darkness made it impossible to follow the text being sung, as audiences in the 18th Century would have done. In the article "Designing Boris Goudenow in 2005" in the BEMF Exhibition Book, David Cockayne and Lenore Doxsee wrote:
Like scrolling text found on the clunkiest websites, supertitles require extended attention to capture the meaning and context of the snippets of text displayed. To get any benefit, you have watch them exclusively, waiting for the next blurb to appear to grasp complete ideas. This is painfully boring if you can read without moving your lips. Supertitles are aimed at the lowest common denominator in the audience -- the people who are there because of social obligations and who would rather blab mindlessly on their cell phones than follow an opera in a language they don't understand and who may read too slowly to follow a bi-lingual printed libretto. To a real opera fan, English supertitles are worse than useless. The supertitle machine should be tossed into Boston harbor.
I would add that, schedule permitting, if I lived in the Boston area, I would have attended all four performances of Boris, the symposia on 18th Century opera houses, Rediscovering Boris Goudenow, and Performing Baroque Music According to Mattheson, and the recital of Mattheson harpsichord music by Team Mattheson -- Matilda Butkas and William Carragan, who are recording Mattheson's complete harpsichord works.
13 June 2005
The libretto of Mattheson's Boris Goudenow with English translation is now available on the Boston Early Music Festival website in MS Word Doc format. The German/Italian text is right-aligned, making it difficult to read, but you can easily left-align the entire text with Edit / Select All, then Format / Paragraph / Alignment: Left. There are several misalignments of text with translation, which can be corrected by adding or deleting lines of space.
4 June 2005
The June Early Music Review, which arrived yesterday, obviously transported by air mail (as usual) despite the surface mail postage, is an especially useful issue. I was particularly impressed by the contributions by Richard Maunder, the early keyboard expert. He contributed a full-page review of the 14-CD set of Haydn's complete keyboard works by Christine Schornsheim, praising it in great detail in contrast to the "dull uniformity of a certain rival set", undoubtedly the mostly lackluster 10-CD Brilliant Classics set. Other contributions by Mr. Maunder include a review of Richard Burnett's Company of Pianos, a lavish catalogue of the early pianos at Finchcocks with accompanying CD, a critical review of a disk of Haydn keyboard concertos by Ronald Brautigan ("I deplore the current trend away from HIP towards HUP . . ."), and a long review of the Boydell Press volume of essays in honor of Stanley Sadie.
In the latter, Mr. Maunder summarizes Cliff Eisen's article on Mozart's keyboard concertos. Eisen "points out that . . . there is a whole spectrum of textures between fully solo passages on the one hand and those where the soloist plays continuo on the other." As Mr. Maunder notes, this "makes nonsense of the idea, still current in some quarters, that the soloist should not play continuo in the tuttis. . . ."
There's much more, including a cartoon based on Sawkins v. Hyperion Records and a successor column to the annual Byrd newsletter. Anyone who enjoys early music and reads English should subscribe to Early Music Review.
1 June 2005
Taylor & Boody are building a meantone organ with split accidentals for Marquand Chapel, Yale University, inspired by Schnitger and the North German organ school. (Specifications.)
31 May 2005
A letter from the BEMF reports that their recording of Conradi's Ariadne on cpo will be released in time for this year's Festival in a few weeks.
19 May 2005
Here's an opinion piece by Charles T. Downey on ionarts with which I fully concur: Kill NPR and PBS.
Although mainstream classical radio in the US never reached the high standards of the best European stations or Australia's ABC-FM, there were a few stations in the major cities that carried worthwhile syndicated concerts and festivals. As recently as 1985, the entire Boston Early Music Festival could be heard on WBUR and WNYC-FM. Now, almost all classical radio here is in a freefall to the bottom. Classical music has been replaced with dull talk shows featuring the same guests and issues that can be found on commercial broadcasts. As Mr. Downey notes, the only competent high power classical station left along the East Coast is WBJC in Baltimore.
19 May 2005
As I predicted, Sawkins v. Hyperion Records Ltd. has been affirmed, according to a self-serving blurb on Hyperion's website. Lionel Sawkins, an authority on the music of Delalande, prepared modern, performing editions of Delalande grands motets, which were performed by Ex Cathedra and recorded by Hyperion on CDA 67325. However, Hyperion refused to pay Sawkins the appropriate, statutory copyright royalties because their CEO contended that modern editions of old music should not be copyrightable. Since the relevant authorities set forth in the trial court's opinion clearly supported Sawkins' claim for royalties, the only surprise was that Hyperion threw more good money after bad on a pointless appeal. If at some time in the past they received an opinion letter from counsel advising them that their unique interpretation of UK copyright law was meritorious, I suppose they can now sue for legal malpractice. However, it seems highly improbable that any reputable solicitor would have provided an opinion contrary to the well-settled and well-known law, which other record companies take into account when they issue recordings of performances from modern editions not in the public domain.
19 May 2005
The performance of Sacchini's Oedipe à Colone by Ryan Brown and Opera Lafayette in Maryland last weekend was recorded for release on Naxos. See the review by Charles T. Downey on ionarts, the Washington arts blog.
18 May 2005
Following a link from a thread on the excellent Site Lully Forum (French language), I found that the entire issue of the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music devoted to Lully's Persée is now available online: Le Thà Tre de sa Gloire: Essays on Persée, tragédie en Musique by Quinault and Lully. Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, Volume 10 (2004) Number 1.
I found especially interesting the article by Ken Pierce and Jennifer Thorpe, The Dances in Lully's Persée. It describes the research conducted by the authors to piece together the dances in Persée and the reasons for the choices they made when faced with imprecise historical information. Antonia Banducci's article, The Opera Atelier Performance of Persée: The Spirit of Lully on the Modern Stage, will be essential background reading for anyone who purchases the new DVD of the production -- the first historically-staged early opera available on DVD.
15 May 2005
One only need to look at early music groups' websites to see how far behind Europe remains in web usability. It's not simply clunk websites built years ago, but brand new sites in which large quantities of time and money obviously have been invested. For a good example of how to waste money building a bad website, see the new Ars Antiqua Austria site. Only the most dedicated fan would tolerate this atrocity long enough to find anything.
The home page is a barely legible splash screen that presents a choice of html or Flash versions in reddish-brown text on a reddish-brown background. Since I always will take plain html over Flash when given a choice, I chose html. This leads to a page titled "aaaFrameSet" -- how useful -- consisting of a top frame with navigation, a middle frame with choice of languages, and multi-language boilerplate in the bottom frame with links to an unspecified "Word Document" and "PDF Document". Thus the web designer has brought up all four of the most despised formats within only two pages: Flash, Frames, Word Doc and pdf.
Clicking on a language in the middle frame simply rearranges the boilerplate in the bottom frame. It does not carry over to choices from the top frame. Thus, it's a misleading and useless option.
I'm interested in the group's discography, so I click on "Discography" in the top frame. This leads to another three-frame display, with thumbnails of CD covers in the middle frame and a chronological list of CDs in the bottom frame. The page title remains "aaaFrameSet". When I right-click on the bottom frame and select "Open Frame in New Window", this finally leads to what should have been accessible in one click from the home page: a list of CDs showing the contents and covers with links to audio excerpts and reviews. This page has the title "CDs".
It would be easy to write a significantly more usable website than this in Notepad in a couple of hours. The time and money that was wasted on web design might better have been spent on writing and updating substantive content and adding translations.
23 April 2005
I still don't own a DVD player, but after my VHS VCR failed yesterday, I did some Internet research and discovered that DVRs that record to hard disk or DVD have virtually supplanted VCRs as the basic hardware for television time shifting. I'm tentatively planning to get one of the new Panasonic DIGA models, probably the DMR-EH50, when the version with ATSC digital tuner arrives this summer. Like all DVD decks, it will be region locked (to Region 1 when sold in the U.S). However, most DVD players, including the new Panasonics, can be unlocked with a special, pre-programmed remote control available from MultiregionUpgrades.com for about £25. Since future DVDs of historic stagings may be locked to Region 2 (Europe), the multi-region service probably will be a worthwhile investment.
12 April 2005
Today, I replied as follows to an inquiry about why NewOlde.com does not mention a recent DVD release of a Handel opera production:
I'm not planning to list modern stagings on DVD regardless of the nature of the musical performances. Vast sums are spent on modern stagings every year, none of which adds anything to our understanding of the operas. The major festivals and opera companies seem to be in a competition to see who can put on the most shocking and disgusting production. Meanwhile, with a couple of exceptions such as the BEMF, historical stagings have to be done on a shoestring with little government or corporate support or interest from the record companies. Unfortunately, most people who buy the DVDs will assume that they are seeing a Handel (or Rameau, Lully, etc.) opera, when in fact they are seeing a Sellars, etc. opera superimposed on old music and text.
It's easy to understand why the festivals have no interest in historical stagings. First, the friends and families of management would not be able to do it, so unknown, politically unconnected outsiders would have to be engaged. Rather than the usual opera company ballet, baroque dancers would have to be hired, along with a gesture coach and a period costume specialist. Furthermore, only singers willing to accept coaching could be engaged. That excludes many of the "name" singers preferred by the festivals. Most importantly, the providers of funding are satisfied with the status quo. The fact that an historical staging probably would receive caustic reviews from the mainstream press might also have some impact.
10 April 2005
Food Fraud: Today's New York Times reports that some of the most expensive gourmet stores in New York City defraud consumers by mislabeling cheap farm-raised salmon as wild caught. "Stores say wild salmon, but tests say farm bred" by Marian Burros. The Times's experts tested "fresh wild salmon" from eight stores and found that six were selling mislabeled farm-raised salmon (Dean & Delucca, Grace's Marketplace, Leonard's, M. Slavin & Sons Fulton Fish Market, M. Slavin & Sons Brooklyn, and Wild Edibles at the Grand Central Market), one was selling a fish that apparently was farm-raised at one time but escaped into the wild (Whole Food Markets), and one was selling true wild salmon (Eli's Manhattan). Farm-raised salmon, catfish, tilapia, and other fish are fed ground up menhaden that are so loaded with PCB's and other contaminants that consuming them is hazardous to one's health.
Furthermore, fish farming threatens the dwindling wild salmon populations, as farmed salmon spread parasites and disease to wild salmon. Finally, the flavor of wild salmon is clearly superior to the flavor of farm-raised salmon. Consequently, farm-raised salmon is cheap, and fresh wild salmon is expensive.
All "fresh wild salmon" should be considered fraudulently labeled in the absence of regular random testing by independent authorities or unless you are sure that a store is trustworthy.
7 April 2005
In a suit involving Naxos reissues of historical classical recordings made in England in the 1930s, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has ruled unanimously that recordings made before February 15, 1972 are protected by common law copyright until February 15, 2067, when the works will enter the public domain pursuant to 17 U.S.C. ?301(c). Capitol Records, Inc. v. Naxos of America, Inc., 2005 NY Slip Op 02570 (April 5, 2005). Naxos remastered the recordings, including Pablo Casals' Bach cello suites and Edwin Fischer's Bach Well Tempered Clavier, from shellac 78's after expiration of the UK's 50-year period of copyright protection. Even though the works are in the public domain in their country of origin, they continue to be protected by common law copyright in New York. Since the Court of Appeals' decision will not be applicable in civil law jurisdictions, the UK, and many other common law jurisdictions, unauthorized reissues of recordings too old to be protected by statutory copyright law will be banned in New York and states that follow the New York decision (probably most) but possibly nowhere else in the world.
6 April 2005
This week I went to see two recent films, Downfall and the latest Merchant of Venice. Downfall is best film yet about WWII and has the my favorite kind of musical soundtrack -- none. The only music other than music in the play -- when the Goebbels children sing traditional songs and Eva Braun plays pop music on the phonograph -- is an instrumental arrangement of Dido's Lament played when Eva dictates her final letter to her sister and during the suicides of Hitler and Eva. The Merchant of Venice suffers from a typical Hollywood score. The studio hired various early music performers, including Andreas Scholl, but might just as well have used a synthesizer to perform the pseudo early music soundtrack that sounds like any other recent film score or a Ford commercial. It's as out of place as the Australian Black Swan and helps make the movie inferior to a competent stage production. There are a few notable exceptions, including a march for cornets and trombones played by His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts.
27 March 2005
I expanded the 2004 NewOlde.com CD awards, giving awards to Skip Sempé's disc of Louis (maybe) Couperin harpsichord music and duplicate awards for best classical opera CD to Christopher Mould's recording of Gluck's L'Innocenza giustificata and to Marc Minkowski's recording of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice.
22 March 2005
I read the archives of some of the early music Yahoo! Groups Sunday night, just in the knick of time. For the past few weeks, there had been discussion in the Natural Trumpet group about Crispian Steele-Perkins's American tour, which covered much of the Deep South, from Louisiana across Alabama, to the Carolina mountains and eventually to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, with final programs in eastern Connecticut on Sunday and at Yale University yesterday. Having read a glowing description of Crispian's program from someone who had risked his life driving through thick fog in the Great Smoky Mountains to reach the North Carolina venue, I didn't hesitate to change plans for the day and join the perpetual convoy of heavy trucks on I95 en route to New Haven, a seedy port town with a great university at its center.
When I arrived at Hendrie Hall, Crispian was unpacking his apparatus, a piano technician was adjusting the piano, and interested students were taking seats. Allan Dean, Yale's distinguished professor of trumpet and early brass, welcomed me, the only outsider to attend, and introduced the three members of the tour: Crispian, his accompanist, a young Russian woman, Irina Feoktistova from St. Petersburg -- a piano teacher who now lives in Evanston, Illinois -- and Sharon Stine, who organized the tour, a professional trumpeter and publisher of music for brass instruments from a Chicago suburb. The three of them had driven the entire circuit, sharing time behind the wheel on up to 12-hour marathons from one concert to the next.
Despite the grueling auto tour, Crispian was still in top form. Not only is he a great musician, probably the world's finest natural trumpet player, but a humorous speaker with a well-polished program that anyone interested in music, whether or not a brass player, will surely enjoy. I've never blown a note on a brass instrument (excluding saxophones), but Crispian's program was one of the highlights of my lifelong concert-going experience.
If possible, you should attend one of his lectures. I can't possibly remember or convey all the material he covered, and certainly not with his wit and style, but will list some of most interesting points:
He began by blowing through a mouthpiece, then added the shortest bell -- the English hunting horn, which plays only a single note. Nevertheless, a late 19th Century booklet on how to play the hunting horn included more than 15 different "tunes". I should note that Crispian had no opportunity to warm up, yet he played flawlessly throughout.
Next up was the ancient Egyptian trumpet. Crispian told the story of the trumpet's discovery. Preserved for thousands of years in the tomb of King Tut, it was destroyed when a British army bugler crammed in a mouthpiece, causing it to shatter. Fortunately, a second, all-silver trumpet of very thin gauge was found in the tomb. At twice the length of the English hunting horn, the Egyptian trumpet can play two notes. The sound it makes was described by Herodotus as the braying of a donkey, which Crispian demonstrated.
Next, he played the longer, four-foot Roman trumpet, which offers a greater range of notes though not a complete scale. One instrument that does is the garden house in the length of a natural trumpet. With mouthpiece attached, Crispian played Handel's "Water Music" through the hose.
At some point in the early going, Crispian demonstrated the modern piccolo trumpet, then compared the softer pocket cornet typically used by brass bands. (E.g., Brassed Off.) His instrument was a "preacher's cornet", made by the Salvation Army in the early 20th Century. Later, he played the late 19th Century "Handel trumpet", a long, straight instrument with two valves.
Then he got to the really interesting part for early music enthusiasts, demonstrating a number of variants on the natural trumpet with music by Stradella, Jeremiah Clarke and Handel. The natural trumpet as we know it could not be made until metallurgists discovered how to bend tubing by filling it with molten lead, bending the tube, then heating the tube to liquefy and remove the lead. Instruments have been dated back to 1385.
For hundreds of years, a trumpet was a simple folded tube. When playing a scale, two of the eight notes sound out of tune, unless lipped into tune. Since it is impossible to blow loudly while bending the wolf notes into tune, the lack of mechanical corrective mechanisms confirms that trumpets probably were not played at loud volumes during the baroque era when attempting to execute passages using the 11th and 13th harmonics.
Thousands of people participated in the famous 1784 Handel Centenary performance of Messiah at Westminster Abbey, and the volumes consequently had to have exceeded historical levels. A commentator (Burney, I think) remarked on the out-of-tune playing of the trumpeter in "The Trumpet Shall Sound", an indication that he was playing at too loud a volume to lip notes into tune.
One of the earliest solutions was a single hole with a rotatable inner sleeve that could leave it open or closed. With the hole open, the trumpet was raised by a fifth, allowing the wolf notes to sound in tune. A trumpet of this nature was built by Shaw in England and used at a 1791 performance of "Messiah" at Westminster Abbey attended by both Franz Joseph Haydn and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the first of whom doubtlessly relayed the information concerning the trumpet to his good friend, the Viennese court trumpeter Anton Weidinger.
Weidinger took it a step further, building a trumpet with three holes and keys over the holes -- the keyed trumpet. Crispian explained that the trumpet must have had only three keys because Haydn's trumpet concerto of 1796 does not include a low B. Crispian played excerpts from Haydn's trumpet concerto on a keyed trumpet built by Robert Vanryne, the first time I had ever seen a keyed trumpet played up close, although I have a number of keyed trumpet recordings, including the superb Steele-Perkins recording of classical trumpet concertos with the King's Consort on Hyperion.
Hummel took the keyed trumpet to the next level with his concerto of 1802. Crispian noted that the 12-year-old Hummel had turned pages for the organist at the 1791 Messiah performance at Westminster Abbey, where he would have had an opportunity to observe the holed trumpet. Hummel's concerto includes waves over four notes without the customary "tr". These are single-note trills, to be executed on the trumpet using a rapidly alternating fingering. Since there are four notes with one-note trills, Hummel clearly wrote for a trumpet with four keys. Crispian played excerpts from Hummel's trumpet concerto, demonstrating the single-note key trill.
Meanwhile, an English builder invented a spring-loaded slide mechanism that enabled the player to change the length of a natural trumpet briefly to correct the out of tune notes. Trumpets such as this continued to be offered in the Boosey and Hawkes catalogues as late as 1910. (Crispian didn't bring a flatt trumpet, an earlier slide instrument apparently used in Purcell's funeral music for Queen Mary.)
Crispian demonstrated his own garage-built, modern English vented natural trumpet with several finger holes, showing how the holes are used to play in tune. He also demonstrated the effect of changing crooks in the trumpet in order to change its length and key and played with and without mute ("closed trumpet"). I'm not sure of the date and place he gave for the earliest surviving mutes but believe it may have been 15th Century Scotland.
Sadly, Crispian confirmed what Mike Diprose reported in last month's Early Music Review about the near complete lack of interest in authentic trumpet performance by many of the prima donna early music conductors. He said that they want him to play loudly for extended periods with something that looks vaguely historic. He had nothing but praise, however, for Andrew Parrott, who was so interested in early trumpets that he flew over for the historic brass conference at Sarah Lawrence University in Yonkers, NY in the 1980s.
An extremely important point that never had occurred to me is that playing with finger holes adversely changes the posture of the trumpeter, limiting his lung capacity. With both hands on the vented trumpet, the trumpeter necessarily constricts his upper body, limiting his ability to take a deep breath. However, with a ventless trumpet held in the classic trumpeter's posture, ie with the instrument held in the right hand only and the head turned to the right, full chest capacity is available for superior control and power.
In response to a query from Allan Dean about natural trumpets suitable for purchase by the Yale music department, Crispian recommend trumpets by Frank Tomes, which come with interchangeable parts with and without holes.
To conclude the program, Crispian played each of the full-range instruments in (Charles) John Stanley's Trumpet Voluntary, switching trumpets during the tutti passages played by the accompanist.
[Thanks to natural trumpeter Bob Goodman for his corrections to my initial version of the above.]
3 March 2005
I finally received most of my order from the December 2004 Naxos/cpo sale on Amazon.ca, along with another box of CDs ordered from the BMG Club on a 60% off with free shipping coupon some helpful participant posted on rec.music.classical.recordings. I started by listening to the recent DG-Archiv recording of Andromeda Liberata, a pasticcio serenata with one aria known to have been composed by Vivaldi. It is marketed as by "VIVALDI and others". Ulrike Benning wrote on the DG website that "Michael Talbot has found unmistakable signs that some of Vivaldi's contemporaries - for example, Giovanni Porta and Tomaso Albinoni - were involved in the composition." In an article in the NY Times on 21 November 2004, Michael White reported that Talbot "insists . . . that Vivaldi's part in it was small: perhaps no more than one aria." Talbot added that "it's almost fraudulent" for DG to put Vivaldi's name up front. A video interview (in English) with Andrea Marcon, the director, with musical excerpts from the recording and accompanying transcript, is online here.
This is an outstanding recording that I highly recommend. Microphone placement, balance, and room acoustics couldn't have been better. The soloists range from very good to excellent, and the continuo playing is superb.
I doubt that Vivaldi composed anything besides Perseo's aria "Sovvente il sole", but that hardly matters. The music is considerably more interesting that if it had simply consisted of a pasticcio of arias from prior Vivaldi operas. More than one style is represented in the other arias, suggesting a pasticcio of music by at least three composers. Indeed, the serenata reminds me of Albinoni's Il Concilio de'Pianeti, which also sounds like a pasticcio of music by more than one composer, possibly including Vivaldi. The prevailing style in both serenatas is conservative and contrapunctal, from the Alessandro Scarlatti / Gasparini / Handel circle, although almost certainly not including music by Scarlatti or Handel. A couple of arias feature an ending common in Hasse's music -- a descending quick triplet leading to a trill starting at the high note of the triplet, perhaps reflecting Neapolitan involvement.
After listening to Andromeda liberata, I played the first CD of Vivaldi's Arsilda, but could barely concentrate on the music as I scanned the bizarrely incompetent machine translation of the notes and libretto into "English". Although translators were engaged for the French and German versions, the English version was "Translated by ar.pege-translations (Brussels)". It appears that no English speaker, and possibly no human, reviewed the "English" text. (Or the other languages for that matter, e.g., "Francesca Bordoni" in the original French version of Frédéric Delaméa's essay.) For example, nume/numi (god/gods) was translated throughout as Nume/Numen/Numina, ie: "This is the Numen of all realms." ". . . the guardian Numina of Cilicia . . . ." In another place, "ò ciel" is translated as "go0od heavens", not only throwing in a stray zero but blowing the simple translation to "O heaven". There is little life in the translation, which reads like a Babelfish version of a website.
The notes are quite difficult to comprehend. Besides stilted, obsolete language (i.e., "systematic divulgation of Vivaldi's operas"), scrambled phrases, botched translations of common terminology (i.e., "inquisitors" instead of "censors"), and trivial errors (Corelly instead of Corelli), the Belgian machine was unable to conjugate the verb "to sing", repeatedly using "sung" where "sang" was called for.
This was totally unnecessary, as I.A. Portner prepared a competent English translation of the libretto and Eric Cross wrote program notes in English for the New York performance of Arsilda. The cost of licensing their work product presumably would have been competitive with hiring a computer service in Brussels to generate 151 pages of rubbish. At least the Belgians should have fed the French translation into their primitive machine, since the computer must be used primarily for translations to and from French. I'm sure it could have gotten "dieux" where it bungled "nume".
The recording is serviceable, but boring. With so many bad Vivaldi opera recordings on the market (e.g., Orlando Furioso & La Verità in Cimento by Spinosi at the very bottom, Savall's better but nevertheless abominable Farnace, Rosmira Fedele, etc.) I would rank Arsilda above average. The main problem was the engineering, rather than the performance. It sounds like a live recording from a single pair of mics suspended over the stage in a large, reverberant hall. The soloists stand out reasonably well, but the orchestra sounds muddy and distant. At least it covers up the obnoxious, strumming guitar. While there are some odd mannerisms, they are relatively trivial in comparison to what's on some other recordings. Thus, there is a dramatic crescendo in the opening sinfonia of the sort invented by Jommelli, who was born two years before Arsilda was staged. Some historically-informed performance! Fortunately, the extreme loud and soft contrasts in the sinfonia are not carried over to the arias. Sardelli performs Arsilda's aria "Io sento in questo seno", which Vivaldi used in other operas, staccato. This sounds unusual in comparison with the various normal recordings of the aria. More comments will follow when I have a chance to listen to CDs 2 and 3. They may sound better if I don't begin by listening to Andromeda liberata.
5 February 2005
The February 2005 issue of Early Music Review includes a 2-page article by Mike Diprose entitled "Partial Success: Natural Trumpet - the march forward." Diprose, who studied holeless natural trumpet with Jean-François Madeuf at the Schola Cantorum Basilensis, is an advocate for historically correct holeless trumpets and for trumpet friendly temperaments. Here are some excerpts:
"Because of the similarities of the holed nat to modern trumpets, even if it is played without using the holes, the player lacks the freedom to bend notes sufficiently in the upper clarino register. For this, we need a trumpet built for the purpose, with smaller, lighter hand-made tubing and a large mouthpiece, some 10mm bigger . . . .
. . .
"Players may be worried about the possible adverse effects of using such a radically different mouthpiece. It took Madeuf about five years to adjust at the leading edge. I had about five months of hard labour with Madeuf's enlightened guidance and a couple of students at Basel managed it virtually overnight.
. . .
"According to Altenburg (publ 1795), organs were originally, at times, tuned
to the trumpet and other musicians would obviously then adjust to the ambient
intonation. With this trombacentric system, woodwind players had simpler
fingering than is required today to adapt to the industry standard Vallotti,
which, ironically, was first published in 1779. As late as 1756, in Leopold
Mozart's Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing,
fiddlers were encouraged to practice pure tuning.
Trumpet builder Francisco Pérez de la Olla posted (on a URL that has gone dead) the following note about his holeless trumpets versus the prevailing industry standard:
"A NATURAL TRUMPET is, basically, a seven or eight foot tube, usually folded twice, on which different notes are produced using only the lips and breath control of the player.
"This type of instrument was used from about [the Middle Ages] to about 1840 . . . .
"Most modern performances and recordings of natural trumpet music are actually played on instruments which do not really resemble originals from this era. Since the notes are very close together, notably the F/F# and A, it's easy to hit a neighboring note instead of the intended one. Since even the best professional players of the instrument find it so difficult to play to today's standards of perfection, most makers of reproductions have taken to compromising historical integrity by using machine made tubing and bells, soldered butt joins, tapered lead pipes (and modern mouthpieces), and worst of all, vent holes. At first, one hole was drilled to correct the F and A by shortening the tube, but then additional holes were introduced to increase the security of players. While these systems slightly improve the intonation and accuracy of the players, the tone of the instruments suffers (harmonics are removed or shifted) and there is also a whiff of fraud when these instruments are described as authentic. I believe that this music should be played with instruments and techniques as close as possible to those used when the music was new. That's the reason I don't make trumpets with holes or modern [technology]. . . ."
5 February 2005
Since 2005 might be the 400th anniversary of the birth of Giacomo Carissimi, I have just posted a brief Carissimi page listing recent recordings, none of which I have heard. There undoubtedly will be many performances of Carissimi's music during the year.
7 January 2005
A previously unknown 1790 portrait believed to be of Mozart (by some commentators but not others) has been discovered. See Berliner Morgenpost article for an image.
23 December 2004
Yet another reason to admire Charles II:
23 December 2004
Here's one of the finest blog pieces I have come across: The Coincidence Theorist's Guide to 9/11.
13 December 2004
I spent yesterday afternoon listening to a variety of German Christmas oratorios and cantatas by Telemann, Stölzel, J.C.F. Bach and Rolle. Rolle's Christmas Oratorio is one of the finest, at least on par with Telemann's setting of Die Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem. Consequently, I have just posted a page for Rolle, listing the only three recordings of Rolle's works that I have.
10 December 2004
More from the fellow who was ripped off when Andante Boutique went titsup.com:
"1. The Andante website lists a toll free number (it's hard to find, but it's
there) that no longer belongs to them.
I suspect that a simple "Andante Boutique Sucks" website might have provoked a quick response and maybe even an offer of a bunch of free CDs in return for taking it down. A "sucks" website usually is much more effective in resolving small consumer disputes than the threat of litigation.
9 December 2004
There is a report on the Usenet today that Andante Boutique charged a customer's credit card but did not ship the CD he ordered. When he attempted to contact them, he discovered that they bounce email as undeliverable, Andante's parent Naïve does not respond to email, and the 800 number shown on Andante's website has been reassigned to an unrelated real estate consultant. I hope this is not the first indication of serious financial difficulties at Naïve, which controls the Astrée and Opus 111 early music labels.
29 November 2004
Paul McCreesh's Theodora (DG-Archiv 2000) is such a fine recording that I didn't rush to acquire William Christie's version (Erato 2003, recorded in 2000) when it came out last year and instead waited for a cheap copy to turn up. The day finally came, and I have just finished listening to the complete Christie recording, followed by the last disc of McCreesh for comparison.
Aside from Messiah, I can think of no Handel oratorio boasting two commercial recordings of such high overall quality. Yet they sound so different that I would not want to part with either. The sound on Archiv is spacious but not too distant. It's large hall sound but with excellent balance among the orchestra, choir, soloists and continuo instruments. The organ used is an unusually large (by current performance standards) 5-stop instrument dating from about 1800.
In contrast, the Erato recording is intimate, with prominent lute continuo in most movements. The balance is biased more toward the soloists, and there is much less reverberation than on Archiv.
I prefer the sound of the McCreesh performance, but on many occasions I will choose to listen to Christie. The soloists are excellent on both sets, and it would be difficult to pick favorites (other than Susan Bickley as Irene on Archiv) without more extended comparative listening.
With only the corrupt HG score at hand, I did not attempt to pick out the differences between the versions performed. Christie used the Watkins Shaw edition (Novello 1985), while McCreesh performed a new unpublished edition by Timothy Roberts and Clifford Bartlett with libretto edited by Ruth Smith, and included an alternative version of Part II Scene 2. McCreesh performed the arioso "Ye Ministers of Justice" (Valens, Act III) that is in the HG appendix, but Christie did not.
29 November 2004
A new French film, Le pont des arts, by Eugene Green, an alienated American ex-pat and expert in baroque theatre, has received a very favorable review on Cinema Scope. It is set in Paris during the early years of the baroque music revival, 1979-80, with musical performances by Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique, with whom Green has collaborated on several Alpha CDs. Here are the pages about the film on IMDB and Yahoo! Cinéma. I suppose we'll be lucky if it's shown here once, as it apparently does not contain explosions, car chases, or animated sharks. [Update August 2006: It's available on DVD from Amazon.fr - Here.]
22 November 2004
OT but very interesting: Undoing the Industrial Revolution by Jakob Nielsen.
The changes predicted by Internet usability guru Jakob Nielsen have already overtaken the early music business. Scholarly work is proceeding at an unprecedented pace, aided by advances in technology; the quality of performances continues to improve and overall exceeds what anyone would have predicted as recently as 15 years ago; early music festivals have become surprisingly common around the world; more good recordings are issued every year, despite well-publicized moaning by the big shots at the big record companies who consider classical music to be worthless "small shit" (Sony Classical President Gelb - see next section below); the glossy classical magazines that invariably praise the very recordings featured in their advertisements are losing readers while specialist websites such as NewOlde.com are growing and already rank higher than large, corporate sites in Google search results.
16 November 2004
Those of us who have been waiting for the overfunded monstrosity known as the Metropolitan Opera to go over the cliff it has been approaching for many years may not have to wait much longer. The new manager of the Met is Peter Gelb, one of the foremost enemies of classical music who is best known for running Sony Classical into the ground.
15 November 2004
Dorian Recordings has gone titsup.com. This is not surprising, as their website was "under construction" for years, and the final product was hardly worth the wait. They issued a few interesting early music recordings, including a CD of music for two pardessus de viole by Barthélemy de Caix.
13 November 2004
Having just listened to William Christie's new live recording of Handel's Serse for the first time, I have the following comments:
Overall, Nicolas McGegan's 1998 studio recording is superior. The sound is spacious and vibrant, whereas the live recording has a somewhat restricted soundstage. In addition, the balance between voices and instruments in the live recording could be better. Christie's orchestra sounds muted, and it is almost impossible to hear the harpsichord. However, the theorbo can be heard clearly throughout. A dedicated microphone must have been placed quite close by. EMI has done a good job of filtering out stage noise, but some remains, as well as some audience noise in the finale.
In perhaps the most important respect, however, the casting of Serse, Christie is the clear winner. The performances of Serse's great arias by Anne Sofie von Otter are alone worth the price of the set. The performances by McGegan's Serse, Judith Malafronte, were quite acceptable -- until I heard von Otter's. The only other role with a significant difference in quality of performance is Amastre. Christie's Amastre, Silvia Tro Santafé, sounds as if she swallowed a vibrator, whereas McGegan's Amastre, Susan Bickley, sings beautifully. I prefer Christie's Arsamene, Lawrence Zazzo, but Brian Asawa also sings very well on the McGegan recording.
Unfortunately, neither Romilda is even adequate. They obviously were not selected for pure tones and precise ornamentation. The best bet for Romilda may be the 1997 Halle Handel Festival recording with Julia Gooding, which supposedly is going to be released by Mondo Musica. There are too many sustained high notes on both recordings, but probably more on Christie's.
While David Thomas was superb as the comic servant Elviro on McGegan's recording, Antonio Abete offers a much different but equivalently amusing and satisfying rendition. When Elviro appears as an old woman selling flowers, Abete takes the ariosos up an octave in falsetto, dropping back to his normal bass register in the recitatives, reminding me of Telemann's Pimpinone.
The Christie recording reproduces the same English and French translations done for the McGegan recording but omits the German translation included by Conifer. With more space and a different typeface, the Italian and English versions are easier to read in the Virgin booklet.
The only reorchestration by Christie that I noticed was rather innocuous -- recorders doubling violins in two arias. This is in welcome contrast to the non-HIP strumming guitars and organ continuo heard on many baroque opera recordings.
I'm happy that I bought the Christie recording and can recommend it along with McGegan's. The 1979 Malgoire recording sounds dated today and suffers from the Malgoire swell and fade, an odd mannerism that he subsequently abandoned.
12 November 2004
The beta version of the forthcoming all-new MSN search has much improved coverage of NewOlde.com and almost everything else. It's clearly not as good as Google (yet), but it's much better than the current MSN search, which mirrors Yahoo.
12 November 2004
I was in Washington this week and went to hear Le Concert Spirituel at the Library of Congress. A large group is on tour, including 11 singers, 2 theorbos, 4 woodwind players, and 2 trumpets and drums. The small auditorium was an excellent venue for the all-Charpentier program, which included the Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, two trumpet symphonies, and the famous Te Deum, H.146. If the tour is coming to a city near you, I highly recommend it. The performances were polished and spirited. The only hiccup was a stuck bass note on the positive organ, which was resolved simply by removing the music desk.
29 October 2004
NewOlde.com now averages more than 250 unique visitors per day, despite very poor coverage by lesser search engines such as Yahoo and MSN. Fortunately, all pages are in Google, the source of most referrals. There was a sharp drop-off earlier this year when Yahoo dropped Google, but the decline was short-lived, as many long-time Yahoo users having been dumping Yahoo search in favor of Google.
It's interesting to see that NewOlde.com ranks first in a Google search for "best early opera award", well ahead of Gramophone. Goldberg magazine doesn't come up in the first 100 results. (Goldberg gave an award in 2003 to what I consider to be the worst recording of the year, Spinosi's unbearable performance of Vivaldi's La Verità in Cimento!)
22 October 2004
Here's an interesting product: TV-B-Gone, a universal remote control that turns off about 1,000 different models of TV sets. When you find yourself stuck near a blaring idiot box in an airport or restaurant, this small device may offer temporary relief. The manufacturer offers two models -- one for American and Asian TVs and another for European TVs.
14 October 2004
Naïve têteàtête reissues of Opus 111 and Astrée CDs lack the original texts, but contain the following representation: "The complete programme notes are on www.naiveclassique.com." In fact, Naïve never posted the texts online, although this series and the above-quoted representation date at least from 2002. One correspondent reports however, that in response to his request, Naïve mailed him photocopies of the libretti to Alessandro Scarlatti's Humanità e Lucifero and La Maddalena. Accordingly, purchasers of têteàtête reissues should email Naïve to request copies of the promised libretti.
5 October 2004
From the SECM list:
The Society for Eighteenth-Century Music will hold its annual session at the Seattle meeting of the American Musicological Society on Friday evening 12 November beginning at 7:00 p.m. We are delighted to announce that this year's talk will be given by Daniel Heartz. The title of Professor Heartz's presentation is "A Pilgrim's Progress Report," and he has provided the following abstract of his remarks:
The London Handel Society is seeking financial support to issue the first recording of the 1732 version of Handel's Esther on the SOMM label.
From the Fortepiano Yahoo! Group: "The movie Vanity Fair which opened recently features some reasonable English FP work and a selection of Clementi, Broadwood, and what appears to be a Tomkinson grand instruments from late 18th, early 19th centuries."
A thief at The Hague Central Station stole Bart Kuijken's bag containing four transverse flutes and other items. Details.
27 June 2004
Tickets for individual concerts at the Carnegie Hall complex went on sale this week. Before ordering tickets to Vivaldi's Andromeda Liberata at the new Zankel Hall this November, I attempted without success to find a seating chart online. The Carnegie Hall website sucks big time. The home page is written in Flash, which slows loading to present an annoying display of rotating pictures surrounded by tiny text and enormous margins. There is no link to seating charts on the ridiculous home page, but site search leads to a page entitled "Carnegie Hall - Seating Charts". However, this page does not contain any seating charts, but simply presents small pictures of the three halls that vaguely identify the different levels. It is totally useless. [Update 24 December 2005: The Carnegie Hall website has been redesigned, but it still sucks. They obviously spend a great deal of money on their website, but none goes to a usability expert. Their Seating Charts page now offers a seating chart of the main hall, but it still lacks charts for Zankel and Weill Halls.]
A Google search for "Zankel Hall" failed to turn up a seating chart, but it did produce important information that led me to discontinue my search and change my plans to attend Andromeda Liberata. An online review by Philip Anson reports that intrusive subway noise every two minutes spoils concerts at Zankel Hall: ". . . during a concert of Handel and Bach by German countertenor Andreas Scholl and the Orchestra of St. Luke's (heard Sept. 19, 2003), the subway's rumbling made it impossible to focus on details or to get into the mood of the music. Audience members grumbled and even the musicians seemed unnerved."
If Carnegie Hall had a competent website with seating charts, I would have ordered tickets and learned about Zankel Hall's subway noise problem through trial and error. As a result of their incompetence, I discovered the problem in time to avoid wasting money on what surely would have been an unpleasant experience.
I listened to Christoph Spering's new recording of Handel's Siroe for the first time today. While an enormous improvement over the amateurish 1992 recording on Newport Classics, it easily could have been better. Much recitative was cut to fit the opera onto 2 CDs, saving Harmonia Mundi about 20 cents per copy. However, in light of the accents of the non-Italian cast, this is not a great loss. Unfortunately, the missing recitative was not included in the supplied texts, so you will need to consult a facsimile to see the complete libretto.
The Newport recording includes most of the missing recitative. However, it omits without mention Laodice's aria at the end of Act I, "Or mi perdo di speranza", no doubt due to the extremely limited capabilities of the Laodice, as there are only about 55 minutes of music on the first CD. While the aria is included by Harmonia Mundi, the legato performance with heavy vibrato by Sunhae Im is abysmal. Spering added a pair of recorders in two other arias by Laodice and one by Medarse. While this may divert attention from the lackluster singing, it effectively turns a serious opera into a pastoral. He also added recorders in Imeneo, but at least it was a pastoral opera. There is no mention of recorders in the booklets accompanying Spering's two recordings. Notes stating that the operas had been reorchestrated by Spering to add a pair of recorders played by _____ should have been included, as it is a misrepresentation to imply by omission that this is Handel's work.
Despite its serious shortcomings, Spering's Siroe is quite a pleasant recording that I can recommend with reservations. Commendations should go to the orchestra and recording engineers, as both the instrumental performance and recording are excellent. The singing by two of the three principals, Ann Hallenberg and Johanna Stojkovic is quite good, particularly in comparison to the remainder of the cast. Comparing Stojkovic's performance of "Vedeste mai sul prato" with the performance by Julianne Baird on Newport demonstrates that hiring the better soloist is no guarantee of producing the better recording. Julianne Baird is a master of ornaments and cadenzas, in contrast to Stojkovic, who struggles with simple trills. Given the same supporting cast and recording engineers, I would no doubt prefer Baird. However, the out of tune orchestra and severely constricted and distant recording of the orchestra on Newport compares poorly with the fine playing and full soundstage on Harmonia Mundi. The Stojkovic version is clearly preferable for listening, although Baird's version is worth having for study and analysis.
The casting of Im as Laodice is the most glaring weakness of this recording. Her romantic, legato style with heavy vibrato is not suited to early music. Furthermore, she sings what seem to be the longest and most tedious cadenzas, possibly because of this listener's desire to move on quickly to the next movement in the hope of hearing something better. (It's no consolation that Newport's Laodice is even worse.) Siroe is one of five operas written for the two prima donnas, Faustina and Cuzzoni. Their parts are nearly equal in extent and difficulty and require the casting of comparable singers.
The performers in the lesser parts of Medarse, countertenor Gunther Schmid, and Cosroe, baritone Sebastian Noack, also detract from the recording. They both needed to have someone write out suitable ornaments and cadenzas, but that obviously was not done.
Grades: Hallenberg: B+; Stojkovic: B-; Im: F; Schmid: C; Noack: D; orchestra: A-; recording: A-; libretto: C; value: C; overall: B-. Newport Classics recording: F.
27 April 2004
This evening I began listening to a batch of CDs just received from Amazon.de. Either they had an unannounced sale or someone made a mistake, because quite a few recent early opera and oratorio sets were priced at EUR 6.99 when I looked at the site last month. While I had been boycotting the copy-protected 2003 Virgin recording of Handel's Deidamia directed by Alan Curtis, at that price it was irresistible. Fortunately, it played without any problem on my 10-year-old CD deck. It is a superb recording of a superb performance, and I would highly recommend it if it were available on Red Book CDs that would work properly on all equipment. (The other Handel opera in which Andreotti starred, Imeneo, also is out in a fine new recording by Christoph Spering on cpo.)
Next I played the 2003 dhm recording of Schuster's Demofoonte, another first class production. The libretto may be the most ridiculous creation of Metastasio, but at least there is no battle with a sea monster. This opera was composed in Italy in 1776, about midway between Mozart's Mitridate (1770) and Idomeneo (1781). I doubt that anyone would claim that Schuster's Demofoonte is equal to or superior in overall quality to Idomeneo, Mozart's greatest dramma per musica, but it nevertheless is quite interesting in its own right. Indeed, the seconda donna role of Creusa includes two arias with high leaps similar to those of Mozart's Queen of the Night. I hope that Marie Melnitzki didn't leave some of her voice behind! The prima donna role, Dircea, performed to perfection by Dorothee Mields, also contains some challenging music. I particularly enjoyed the joint accompagnato and following duet with Mields and sopranist Jörg Washchinski (Timante).
Finally, I played the first CD of volume 15 of the Koopman Bach Cantatas cycle. The first two cantatas on the disk, BWV 110 and 146, begin with movements derived from familiar instrumental works, an orchestral suite (110) and a violin/harpsichord concerto (146). Highlights included Koopman's virtuoso performance on a chamber organ in 146, the bass trumpet aria in 110 with Klaus Mertens, and the soprano aria in BWV 28 with Deborah York. This excellent series would be even better with one-to-a-part choruses and a large, historic organ.
While in Washington last week, I attended a concert by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques Wednesday night at the Library of Congress and a harpsichord recital by Olivier Baumont at the same venue on Friday night. Both were excellent. Fortunately for out-of-towners, early music is so little appreciated in the nation's capital that there were numerous empty seats at both concerts, even though admission was free. I did have some difficulty finding a parking place Wednesday, since Congressmen and lobbyists were still fundraising at 7:50 pm. I double parked around the corner on Independence, and when a lobbyist pulled out in his S-class Benz, I snagged the place -- behind an enormous SUV with "Member of Congress" license plates and a Bush/Cheney bumper strip. In contrast, the block was nearly free of parked cars when I arrived at the same time on Friday, as most Congressmen had already departed for weekend politicking in their home districts.
I only discovered on Friday that the Library of Congress puts out a sampling of original scores of music to be performed in display cases in an anteroom just outside the concert hall. The collection included the original issue of Couperin's L'art de toucher le clavecin, two different editions of the same J.C. Bach sonata, and the engraved cover of the first edition of James Hewitt's Battle of Trenton.
Christophe Rousset brought an international group of virtuosi perfectly suited to the 500-seat hall, consisting of six violins, cello, double bass, and harpsichord, with operatic soprano Gaëlle Le Roi. Mr. Rousset sat at the harpsichord in the center, with his back to the audience. The violins were seated to the left, and Ms. Le Roi stood to the right in front of the continuo instruments. The harpsichord was a nice German double built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf, who live in the Washington area. It obviously had been on site long enough to stabilize, and stayed in quite good tune throughout.
The program consisted of an exciting survey of dramatic French and Italian baroque vocal works, interspersed with a few concerti. Mr. Rousset announced at the outset that all the music performed could be found in the Library of Congress.
The program began with four Airs de cour by Michel Lambert, preceded by ritornellos for strings presumably arranged by Mr. Rousset. This was the best performance of music by Lambert I have ever heard. Hopefully, a recording will be forthcoming. Next came excerpts from Lully's Ballet des Amours déguisés (1664), including the monologue d'Armida, an exciting, dramatic work in Italian that also should be recorded.
Next, the group performed the ouverture, sarabande, chaconne and tambourin from Leclair's Deuxième Récréation de musique, op. VIII, French movements in Leclair's Italian style. Then Ms. Le Roi returned for another dramatic performance, Montéclair's Morte di Lucretia, a superb Italian cantata that I had not heard previously, although it has been recorded by Monique Zanetti with William Christie on HM (~1988) and more recently by Salomé Haller with Martin Gester on Assai 207 202 (1999).
Following an intermission, Ms. Le Roi performed Alessandro Scarlatti's cantata Arianna. This is one of my favorites among the Scarlatti cantatas I have heard, and may be found on the first CD in the now discontinued series of Scarlatti cantatas by Nicholas McGegan on Conifer.
Next came two works by Handel, starting with three movements from the trio sonata opus 5 no. 4. The highlight was expressive yet precise solo violin playing by Stefano Montanari, principal violinist of Accademia Bizantina, including a perfectly executed cadenza. The program ended with Handel's cantata "Notte placida e cheta", which featured a brilliant performance by cellist Atsushi Sakaï in the continuo aria. The group rewarded the enthusiastic audience with an encore consisting of an aria from Scarlatti's cantata "Orfeo".
Not often seen here but in accord with historic practice were the frets tied on the fingerboard of Joe Carver's double bass. As noted in this Brief History of the Double Bass, it was not until about 1800 that the frets were removed.
My only criticism of a wonderful evening is that the program contained no original texts, but only English translations.
Two nights later, I had the pleasure of hearing another of the world's great harpsichordists at the Library of Congress. Olivier Baumont performed on a copy of the 1707 Dumont harpsichord by the Wolfs. Despite a severe thunderstorm just before the recital, the instrument did not go unreasonably out of tune. The first half of the program consisted of French music, including suites by Chambonnières and Daquin, two composers whose complete works Mr. Baumont has recently recorded. In between he played the eight preludes from François Couperin's L'art de toucher le clavecin. After the intermission, Mr. Baumont played a suite by Handel from the 1733 collection, a London sonata by J.C. Bach, and music composed in America by Reinagle and Hewitt. Hewitt's Battle of Trenton is program music borrowed in part from Natale Corri's The Siege and Surrender of Valenciennes (ca. 1792). [Notes in the program by Henry J. Grossi, Music Division, Library of Congress.] A narrator from the Library assisted by reading the titles as the work progressed. The effect was not unlike reading the texts in a silent movie.
Mr. Baumont rewarded the audience with two encores, by Michel Corrette and Jacques Duphly.
6 September 2003
See my ongoing, aria-by-aria comparison of the new Minkowski recording of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto with earlier recordings by Jacobs and Malgoire.
10 June 2003
Arias for Farinelli. Harmonia Mundi HMC 901778 (1 CD 2002). Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano, René Jacobs, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Arias by Hasse, Porpora, Giacomelli & Riccardo Broschi. One aria, Giacomelli's "Quell'usignolo che innamorato", was performed with the ornaments and cadenzas written out by Farinelli, and the others with ornamentation and cadenzas after Hiller (1778) (six ornamented arias) and Hiller (1780) (instructions for ornamented musical singing). There is also a brief concerto by Galuppi. The booklet includes interesting, original articles by Reinhard Strohm and René Jacobs.
This is the first disk to my knowledge comprised entirely of arias performed as ornamented by the original performer or contemporary authorities. Although numerous ornamented arias and cadenzas survive, they are for the most part neither performed nor even studied by modern singers. In the words of René Jacobs:
Farinelli's ornamentation was extravagant by the standards of his time. (E.g., Tosi 1723). In "Embellishing Eighteenth-Century Arias: On Cadenzas" (in Opera & Vivaldi (1984)), Howard Mayer Brown compared Farinelli's cadenzas for "Quell'usignolo che innamorato" (in Merope, Venice 1734) (included on this CD) with cadenzas written out by Faustina Bordoni for an aria in Vignati's Ambeto (Milan 1719). While Faustina's cadenzas are few (2), brief, and simple, Farinelli's are many (7), lengthy, and elaborate. Brown concluded that they represented "two extremes of practice in the first half of the eighteenth century". The leading contemporary authority (Tosi) preferred the more conservative extreme, as represented by Faustina and Cuzzoni.
While the instant recording probably is not representative of prevailing performance practice in the early 18th Century, it is easily worth the price of the CD to hear a performance of an example of Farinelli's own ornamentation. These ornamented arias differ at least as much from the styles often heard today (see Jacobs, quoted above) as they do from Faustina Bordoni's ornamented aria. There are runs, trills, and many added notes, but no octave transpositions or sustained high notes.
Jacobs, a pioneering countertenor in the 1970s, levels blunt though accurate criticism at the casting of falsettists in castrato roles, citing historic sources, including Hiller (1780), for the necessity of a large and powerful low register -- which falsettists inherently lack. Unfortunately, the soloist on this disk does not approach the paradigm.
The finest performance in the low register that I have heard is that by Monica Groop as Ottone, a role written for the "contralto musico" Diana Vico, in Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa. Chandos 0614(2). Skip forward to track 5 on the first CD to "Frema pur, si lagni Roma" for a most impressive display of the contralto's low register in fast and slow passages.
15 April 2003
Handel. The Choice of Hercules. (HWV 69, London 1751). Plus Hearken Unto Me, Ye Holy Children by Maurice Greene. Hyperion CDA 67298 (1 CD 2002), reissued on MHS 5168536 (2003). Details. Robert King, The King's Consort. Pleasure: Susan Gritton; Virtue: Alice Coote; Hercules: Robin Blaze; An Attendant on Pleasure: Charles Daniels. Additional soloist in the Greene anthem: Peter Harvey, bass. Sleeve notes by Anthony Hicks.
This is a fine performance of a late work incorporating much of the music written for Alceste. Handel cut back and transposed down the finest aria in Alceste, Calliope's "Gentle Morpheus", written for Cecilia Arne, reducing it to one A section only as "Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay" for Guadagni (Hercules) in The Choice of Hercules. The Maurice Greene anthem on this recording fills up the disk but is not particularly appealing or memorable. The 1980 Hogwood recording of Alceste with Emma Kirkby (DSLO 581) should be a higher priority than this.
Many of Robert King's Handel recordings have been reissued in the US by Musical Heritage Society. I own three of the MHS issues and detect no substantive differences from the original Hyperion editions. Both Hyperion and MHS include full English texts, the same liner notes, and the same cover art. Only the French and German translations have been omitted by MHS. The current high quality of MHS releases obviously is not well appreciated, as most used record shops price MHS review copies as budget disks. It may be a vestige of MHS's unfortunate former practice of pressing LPs on poor quality, recycled vinyl.
Purchasing CDs from MHS, a record club, involves a level of nuisance that I am unwilling to tolerate. To join, one must purchase six CDs from a list of losers for $.99 each, and thereafter return a postcard every month to avoid automatic shipment of a CD. Their website formerly was accessible to non-members, but now is restricted to members only.
3 March 2003
Telemann. Serenata Eroica. Funeral music for Friedrich August of Saxony TWV 4:7 (1733). Capriccio 67 004/5 (2 CDs 2002). Hermann Max, Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert. Sachsen (Saxony): Barbara Schlick, Weisheit (Wisdom): Veronika Winter, Zeit (Time): Hans Jörg Mammel, Majestät (Majesty): Andreas Post, Tapferkeit (Heroism): Klaus Mertens, Groβmut (Magnanimity): Ekkehard Abele.
I wish someone would explain the historical basis for accompanying all arias and recitatives with organ continuo. In 1762, CPE Bach wrote that recitatives and arias were to accompanied by harpsichord, not organ. The practical reasons on this live recording are obvious. There was a squeaky door that, despite the heavy organ sound, could still be heard periodically except during choruses. Furthermore, the string parts were thinly supported, and those few present sometimes played out of tune.
Performance notwithstanding, this is a fine work by Telemann. Although the majority of the movements are loud, often with trumpets and drums, the most interesting to me are arias for the two sopranos. Saxony's aria "Beströme dein gerechtes Klagen", a slow, minor key siciliana, sounds strikingly similar to "But who may abide", composed eight years later by Handel. Wisdom's virtuosic aria "Des Freidens holde Stille" moves from the A section to a recitative, then on to a contrasting B section, then back to an A section da capo.
Capriccio should have priced this as a one-disk set, since the 2 CDs combined hold only about 83 minutes of music and are packaged in a thinline jewelbox. It's currently available from BRO. The English text translations by J & M Berridge are very well written.
1 March 2003
Handel in Hamburg. Hyperion CDA 67053 (1998). Peter Holman, The Parley of Instruments. This CD may represent the peak of the fad to have guitars strum along in baroque orchestral music. Anthony Hicks referred to them as "silly pluckers" in his review in Early Music Review. The pluckers are so closely miked that they are impossible to ignore. They are most objectionable in the sarabandes, where the strumming overrides the dotted sarabande rhythm. A guitar also enters prominently in the repeats of allemandes. Perhaps ten years from now performers will look back disparagingly at strumming guitar continuo as they do today at the early Malgoire swell and fade style of "baroque" string playing.
26 February 2003
Michel-Richard De Lalande. Leçons de Ténèbres (1730). Astrée E 8592 (1996). Isabelle Desrochers (soprano), Mauricio Buraglia (theorbo), Nima Ben David (viol), Pierre Trocellier (harpsichord & organ). This is one of the finest tenebrae programs I have heard. The three surviving Leçons by De Lalande are interspersed among tombeaus for viol, theorbo, and harpsichord respectively by Marais (Lully & Sainte-Colombe), de Visée (his daughters) and Louis Couperin (Blancrocher). Isabelle Desrochers sings with a clear, pure tone and excellent diction.
Bach, CPE. Lieder & Oden. cpo 999 549-2 (1998). Klaus Mertens (baritone) & Ludger Rémy (Martin Skowroneck fortepiano after Walther). I had not been particularly impressed with CPE Bach songs I had heard previously, but what a difference this recording makes. The survey of 21 varied songs from different periods of his life demonstrates that Emanuel was an overlooked master of lieder whose work often is on a par with Schubert's, though composed in earlier styles. The fortepiano sound is rich and particularly well-recorded.
Bach, CPE. Sacred Songs. cpo 999 708-2 (2000). Klaus Mertens & Ludger R?y. I'll be listening to it for the first time sometime this week.
Bach, CPE. Magnificat Wq 215 (1749). Bach, JC. Magnificat T 207/3 (1760) & Tantum ergo T 209/7 (1759). Capriccio 67 003 (2002). Michael Schneider, La Stagione, Dresdner Kammerchor. Elisabeth Scholl (soprano), Ruth Sandhoff (contralto), Andreas Karasiak (tenor), Gotthold Schwarz (bass). The CPE Bach Magnificat is a familiar work from pre-HIP days, but it never sounded as exciting as it does here. Schneider really steps up the pace over the dreary old recordings. The long soprano aria in the Tantum ergo is of similar quality to the soprano arias on the superb Emma Kirkby JC Bach disk. JC Bach's Magnificat parodies his older half-brother's work at the very beginning, then moves far away from it in his modern, operatic style.
Bach, CPE. Oboe Concertos Wq 164 & 165 & Sinfonia Wq 177. Vanguard Classics (Passacaille Collection) 99718 (1997). Paul Dombrecht, Oboe & Director. Il Fondamento. Of the current select group of CPE Bach disks, this may be the best, and it may be the best of the fine Passacaille Collection. (Many are currently available cheap from BRO.) Dombrecht has a distinctive sound that is difficult to explain. Perhaps he plays a bit flatter than some other hautboy players, but whatever the reason, he blends extremely well with the polished Flemish baroque orchestra.
23 February 2003
Although held up by only the second complete closure of the New Jersey Turnpike (due to fog), I arrived at the Flint residence in the country north of Wilmington, DE just as Jacques Ogg sat down at the exquisite 1707 Dumont harpsichord. It certainly was worth the hectic trip to hear one of the world's great keyboard instruments. Ogg is an enthusiastic performer who communicates well with his audience. His program of French music -- D'Anglebert, Geoffroy, Clérambault, Forqueray -- demonstrated all the strengths of the richly-voiced harpsichord. In the well-controlled environment at the Flints, the instrument stayed in perfect tune throughout. After hearing this harpsichord, I question whether any modern builder can duplicate the sound of the best original instruments throughout the entire 5-octave range. While the harpsichords at 99% of local recitals sound worse than the instrument I play at home (Willard Martin French double in stable environment), there is a vast difference between a fine modern harpsichord like the Martin and the original Dumont. At least to my ear, the differences are much easier to hear than the differences between original and modern violins. Comment on the music: the Italianate gigue in the Clérambault suite played by Ogg sounds remarkably similar to the gigue following the overture in Handel's Siroe.
Noted while listening to the car CD player: There is a bass aria in the final act of Telemann's Socrates that sounds suspiciously similar to Handel's later aria, "Si spietà", sung by Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare in Egitto.
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