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2004 Early Music CD Awards

2005 Early Music CD Awards

The overall quality of early music performances and recordings now surpasses what the most optimistic enthusiasts could have foreseen as recently as 25 years ago. Even in the current environment, in which most baroque CDs meet or exceed expectations, a few recordings stand out and will receive special recognition through the CD Awards, without the commercial considerations that taint some existing award programs. 2004 Best Baroque Opera Recording

Vivaldi. Orlando finto pazzo (1714). Opus 111 OP 30392 (3 CDs, April 2004). Alessandro De Marchi, Academia Montis Regalis. Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino, Claudio Marino Moretti, maestro del coro. Enrico Onofri, solo violin. Orlando: Antonio Abete, bass; Ersilla: Gemma Bertagnolli, soprano; Tigrinda: Marina Comparato, mezzo-soprano; Origille: Sonia Prina, contralto; Argillano: Manuela Custer, mezzo-soprano; Grifone: Martín Oro, countertenor; Brandimarte: Marianna Pizzolato, mezzo-soprano. US | FR | UK | DE | CA | JP

This CD set is exceptional in every respect: direction, performances, recording, musical edition, libretto, and liner notes. As the owner of nearly every commercial Vivaldi opera recording produced in the past 30 years, I would rank it at the very top, even ahead of such highly recommendable CDs as Rinaldo Alessandrini's L'Olimpiade (Opus 111) and Richard Hickox's Ottone in Villa (Chandos).

The Libretto and Score

Orlando finto pazzo, Vivaldi's second known opera, was his first for Venice. Unlike more familiar Orlando operas, the libretto by Grazio Braccioli is not derived from Ariosto, but from Boiardo's Orlando innamorato. Familiar characters such as Medoro, Alcina, and Ruggiero are absent, while Angelica appears only as an apparition created by the sorceress Ersilla to trick Orlando. Moreover, in this libretto, Orlando merely feigns madness to deceive Ersilla.

The score includes many cross-outs and substitute arias, most of which are included in Eric Cross's directory of Vivaldi opera incipits. (in The Late Operas of Antonio Vivaldi, vol. 2.) Alessandro Borin prepared a critical edition recreating as best possible a version actually performed in 1714, as explained in his liner note. To the good fortune of listeners, all nine surviving alternate arias rejected for inclusion in this ultimate edition have been recorded and appended at the end of the third CD. [Vivaldi wrote at the bottom of the third version of an aria for prima donna Margherita Gualandi "If you don't like this one, I'll stop writing music!" (Translation by Frédéric Delaméa in his liner notes.)] As no sinfonia is included with the score, Alessandro De Marchi selected the sinfonia RV 112, which has a theme identical to the ritornello of one of Bradamarte's arias. (De Marchi's liner notes.)

Unique in my experience is a helpful flowchart in the booklet plotting the romantic interests of the characters:

Similar flowcharts providing an instant overview of the characters and their relationships should be included with all recordings of complicated drammi per musica.

Orlando finto pazzo is a strong libretto containing minimal fluff. As in the underlying epic, magic plays a significant role in the drama, culminating as in Alcina with the freeing of imprisoned knights when Orlando breaks the spell of Ersilla.

One interesting feature is a parody of librettos in which characters disguised as the opposite sex go unrecognized by their lovers (as in Ottone in Villa, Vivaldi's first opera). At the beginning of Act II, Origille emerges disguised as a man, Ordauro, and Grifone is disguised as a woman. They immediately see through each other's disguises and tell the audience, but not the other characters [English translations]:

Grifone Aside: (This Ordauro must be Origille's twin.)

Origille Aside: The traitor has disguised himself.

There are other comic elements and comic arias in this mostly serious libretto, not the least of which is Orlando's "mad" recitative.

Vivaldi's Performers

The original cast included three castrati, the best known of whom was Andrea Pacini (Argillano), who later appeared in Handel's Tamerlano (Tamerlano) and Rodelinda (Unolfo) and in the 1725 revival of Giulio Cesare (Tolomeo). The other castrati were Francesco Natali (Grifone) and Andrea Guerri (Brandimarte). The first man was a bass, however, the renowned Anton Francesco Carli, who had sung the exceedingly difficult bass roles in Handel's Agrippina (Claudio), La Resurrezione (Lucifero) and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (Polifemo).

Gualandi, who starred in many Vivaldi operas, was the original Ersilla, while Anna Maria Fabri -- apparently the wife of the famous tenor and opera composer Annibale Pio Fabri -- was cast as Origille. The Fabris later appeared together in Vivaldi's Arsilda, L'incorinazione di Dario, and L'Atenaide, but only Annibale was in Handel's cast during the 1730-31 seasons in London. The third woman was Elisabetta Denzio (Tigrinda).

The Music

Much of the music of Orlando finto pazzo is new to me. Perhaps the most familiar is "Sentire che nel sen" (Origille, I:7), which is quite similar to arias in Giustino (III:7, also "Sentire", transposed up to B-flat from F), Gloria e Imeneo and other works. Flutes were added in later versions but are absent here. The A section of Brandimarte's "Scenderei" (alternative aria, I:2), is similar to "Gelosia" from Ottone in Villa, though transposed down from F to D. The B section is different, however. Two arias, Origille's virtuosic "Anderò, volerò, grideròquot; (Presto, III:12) and Ersilla's "Sventurata navicella" (alternative aria, III:7), were included in Cecilia Bartoli's Vivaldi Album.

I spotted one minor error in the booklet. The texts for the arias on CD 3, Nos. 9 and 29 were switched, probably because of a late decision as to which aria should be included in the opera and which in the addendum. It is an indication of the interchangeability of Italian aria texts that an aria about a ship in distress can replace an aria about a Nightingale.

Particularly noteworthy arias, aside from those mentioned above, include Origille's "Vedi spietato", a sarabanda that does not sound like "La Folia". It is reproduced in full by in Cross volume 2. Also of special interest is the scene in which Ersilla seeks the identify of Orlando from the chorus of ministers of Pluto and priestesses of Hecate and creates the apparition of Angelica (III:6). It begins with a contrasting arioso, followed by simple recitative, a harp cadenza,  accompagnato, a chorus, more recitative, then a reprise of the chorus, ending with another recitative by Ersilla.

An exceedingly difficult violin cadenza, as might have been performed by Vivaldi, was played by Enrico Onofri in I:5.

The Performance

Unlike many baroque opera recordings, this performance comes across as a unified drama rather than a patchwork of arias. The appeal of proceeding on with the story usually outweighs a desire to press the repeat button after many of the outstanding individual vocal performances.

It was clear even before reading his liner note that Alessandro De Marchi had become intimately familiar with the work and had formed firm opinions as to how he wanted it to sound. The result is a pleasure to hear. There are many strengths, but no obvious weaknesses. Following is an excerpt from De Marchi's note:

"I had to try to tell the story of Orlando using every means known at the time, always looking for maximum theatrical effect. I had to write cadenzas and ornaments for all the arias in the style of the time, but then leave the soloists free to improvise here and there, tolerating egocentrism (differences of style between the soloists, fermatas, gratuitous high notes), grammatical errors (clashes with the violin parts, parallel fifths and so on) and oddities (changes of tempo, the cadenzas for violin and harp) in order to reconstruct, albeit in moderation, the atmosphere of the Sant'Angelo so pitilessly described in Il teatro alla moda."

Furthermore, the exquisite performance of recitatives by the mostly Italian cast may be the greatest strength of this recording.

The Recording

I was relieved to discover a state-of-the-art studio recording rather than a live recording with substandard, bootleg quality sound, as, for example, in the disappointing recordings of Vivaldi's Rosmira Fedele by Dynamic and Farnace by Alia Vox. Indeed, Orlando finto pazzo has about the best recorded sound I have heard on a baroque opera CD. At least seven microphones were used by the recording engineer, Pierre-Antoine Signoret of Le Grenier à Son, to create outstanding balance among the singers and players. I detected no overloading, for which one important reason is that the singers avoided high, screeching cadenzas as found on so many recordings.

(One minor complaint: Given the timings, I wonder why acts were split between CDs?)


This CD set is an outstanding value. I ordered it from at the VAT-free export price of Eur 19.58. (For best value on overseas postage, it is advisable to order several CDs.) The set comes in a plastic jewel box inside a cardboard slipcase, which also encloses the booklet. The booklet provides a complete Italian libretto with French and English translations, a synopsis of the plot, and articles by De Marchi, Borin and Delaméa, all in three languages. 2004 Best Classical Opera Recording (Two awards)

Gluck. L' Innocenza giustificata (Festa teatra, Vienna 1755). dhm 8287658796-2 (2 CDs, March 2004). Christopher Moulds, Cappella Coloniensis, ChorWerk Ruhr. Claudia: Maria Bayo, soprano; Valerio: Andreas Karasiak, tenor; Flaminia: Marina De Liso, mezzo-soprano; Flavio: Verónica Cangemi, soprano. US | UK | DE | FR | CA | JP

This is an outstanding recording in virtually every respect of a work intermediate between Gluck's traditional and reform periods. Durazzo lifted the texts of eight arias and one chorus from works of Metastasio, thus implying that they were freely interchangeable. The two arias for Flavio were spectacular displays for the soprano castrato Tommaso Guarducci, described by Burney as "the plainest and most simple singer of the first class I ever heard", performed very nicely here by Cangemi. Bayo in the other major role of Claudia sounds sufficiently different that there is little chance of confusing the two sopranos. Her habit of sliding into notes is a minor distraction. The part of Claudia, chief vestal virgin, was written for Caterina Gabrielli, "detta la chochetta, bella voce di soprano". Daniel Heartz writes that this "must have raised a smile, since she was widely rumored to bestow her favors with liberality." (Haydn, Mozart etc., p. 156).

Gluck enthusiasts will note some similarities to his better known works, including the descending, contrapunctal brass in Gluck's parody of J.S. Bach's gigue from the first partita in Iphigénie en Tauride. It appears here in an aria for Valerio, and in an aria from an earlier opera on the Bartoli CD. Claudia's arietta in the finale sounds suspiciously similar to "Cara speme" (Sesto) in Handel's Giulio Cesare. There are at least two documented examples of Gluck's borrowing from Handel -- both slow arias. (See John Roberts, "The Sweet Song in Demofoonte: a Gluck borrowing from Handel" in Bauman & McClymonds, Opera and the Enlightenment.)

Gluck. Orphée et Eurydice (Paris 1774). DG-Archiv 471 582-2 (2 CDs 2004), 474 993-2 (2 SACD Hybrids) & 474 994-2 (2 SACDs). Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre. Orphée: Richard Croft, tenor; Euridyce: Mireille Delunsch, soprano; Amour: Marion Harousseau, soprano. CD: US | UK | DE | FR | CA | JP || SACD Hybrid: US | UK | DE | FR | CA | JP

I personally prefer the familiar, original Italian version -- probably a minority view -- but the French version is worth getting for the additional music, including the dance of the blessed spirits and a bravura da capo aria for Orphée. Notwithstanding, this superb recording is arguably superior to any available recording of the Vienna version. As in Minkowski's earlier recordings of Iphigénie en Tauride and Armide, the engineering couldn't be better. I failed to detect any overloading, despite the thunderous responses of the furies, in which Gluck demanded the dancers join contrary to accepted practice at the Opéra. 2004 Best Baroque Chamber Music Recording

Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755). Violin Sonatas. cpo 999 982-2 (1 CD 2004). Anton Steck, violin; Christian Rieger, harpsichord. [Review by Johann van Veen]. US | UK | DE | FR | CA | JP

This is an exceptional recording of sonatas for violin and harpsichord and one sonata for unaccompanied violin. Of known composers, Pisendel may be closest stylistically to Heinichen. These sonatas are contrapunctal but melodic, with a healthy dose of Venetian influence that instantly differentiates them from Handel's music. Pisendel was highly regarded as a performer, composer and leader of Dresden court orchestra. Telemann included works by Pisendel in Der Getreue Music-Meister. 2004 Best Baroque Keyboard Recording

Louis Couperin. Pièces de clavecin. Alpha 066 (1 CD, September 2004). Details. Skip Sempé, French double harpsichord by Bruce Kennedy. US | FR | UK | DE | CA | JP

This is an exceptional harpsichord recording, comparable in recorded sound quality to Sempé's deutsche harmonia mundi CDs from the early 1990s. The performances, while very fine indeed, are not necessarily definitive, as the surviving manuscripts contain minimal contemporaneous ornamentation, and tempos are likewise uncertain. Personally, I like Sempé's brisk performances of LC's unmeasured preludes, but prefer the f-sharp minor pavanne at a slower pace. Noëlle Spieth, whose complete recordings of LC's harpsichord music (on Adès) I highly recommend, takes it at 9'03, whereas Sempé,rushes through (comparatively) at 6'08.

You can read his interesting liner notes here. Excerpt: "Believe it or not, we do not really know for sure whether this Couperin is Louis or another member of the Couperin family. Louis Couperin was a known viol player and organist: it was his brother Charles who had an outstanding reputation as a harpsichordist. Charles Couperin was the father of François Couperin 'Le Grand', which may lead us to wonder if the finest eighteenth century French harpsichordist was actually trained by his father, rather than his uncle? As a further complication of the issue, the organ pieces of 'Louis Couperin' have recently been published, and it has been suggested that the manuscript source of these organ works represents an autograph of Louis Couperin. There is some disagreement on this matter. However, the harpsichord works are so much more interesting on grounds of musical content and finesse of style that I find it hard to imagine that these organ pieces are the work of the same composer. I have suggested that even if Louis Couperin was the scribe, does this lend real certainty as the composer of the music he was transmitting in his own hand? Perhaps we will never know."

Archive 2007 Early Music CD Awards 2006 Early Music CD Awards 2005 Early Music CD Awards

Keywords: Récompenses classiques disques grand prix musique

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