Friday, 11 May 2018

Goerne and Brendel in Die Winterreise

Frequently, there are advantages to live recordings: the added frisson of playing before a real audience can add that extra 10% over even a good studio recording, with its many re-takes. The main disadvantage of live recordings is audience noise: clapping, coughing, mobile phone sounds, whatever. I settled back to listen to Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel in Schubert's Die Winterreise song cycle. For some inexplicable reason, the work started with audience applause — not even on a separate track. So every time you wished to enter the world of Die Winterreise, you had to have a burst of audience applause to set the atmosphere. Even worse: the sound engineers had miscalculated the dynamics. In order to hear the recorded pianissimos, you had to turn the volume up. When the next song featured a fortissimo, you were blasted out of your socks. After the fourth or fifth song in the cycle, I gave up. The CD is on the pile destined for a charity shop.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Emmanuelle Haïm in Bach and Handel

In his interesting study of J.S. Bach and his music, Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner makes an interesting case for respecting the dance-like rhythms in Bach's music, even the church music such as the cantatas. He frowns at the tendency in much of northern Europe to imbue Bach's church music with a Protestant reverent piousness. Gardiner would approve of the recording of Bach's Magnificat directed by the ever-talented Emmanuelle Haïm with her Concert D'Astrée. Under Haïm's direction, the music is alive, just as Bach surely intended in this work where he appears to be showing off his prodigious talents. I seem to have nine different recordings of the Magnificat, about the only Bach work apart from the Mass in B minor that uses the Latin language. I love Haïm's recording, and even love the singing of Philippe Jaroussky, the counter-tenor for whom I always make an exception.

On the same CD is one of the few works by Handel in the Latin language, the Dixit Dominus dating from 1707 when Handel was just 22 years old and living in Rome. The work is a veritable tour de force, with the young Handel showing off his prodigious talents. On this CD, Bach and Handel go head-to-head; Bach's music takes just over 25 minutes, Handel's 30 minutes (both as directed by Haïm). Predictably, neither composer is the outright winner, since their music is always as different as chalk and cheese. So ironic that despite being born only six weeks apart in the same region of Germany, the two never met. Anyway, some 300 years later, the music of both composers is still going strong. Oddly enough, I have only one other recording of Dixit Dominus and that is also French, conducted by Marc Minkowski. But Ms Haïm is going to be a hard act to follow, since her performance is a tour de force of Handel's tour de force. And a recording of both works that features Natalie Dessay, Philippe Jaroussky and Laurent Naouri (amongst others) really assembles a lot of first-class talent. The recording was made in Paris in 2006 and is of excellent quality. Ms Haïm, of whom I almost always approve highly, is no follower of the north European pious approach to the church music of Bach, Handel or Vivaldi. I like her L'Orfeo (Monteverdi), Messiah (Handel), La Resurrezione (Handel) and Dido and Aeneas (Purcell) plus many of her other Handel recordings.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Handel Opera Duets

Handel's operas and oratorios are a goldmine of good tunes and memorable arias. Wandering through my collection of recordings this evening, happy chance saw me taking out a CD of operatic duets from Handel's operas, recorded 15 years ago by Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) and Joyce DiDonato (mezzo). The late Alan Curtis directs Il Complesso Barocco, and Virgin turns out a first-class recording. Which is really just what you need for Handel: first-class singers, a first-class band, expert direction, and a well-balanced recording. The music does the rest.

The two singers are superb, and a mezzo-soprano such as DiDonato spares us the embarrassment of a counter-tenor or a castrato. 73 minutes of pure gold. Handel never fails.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Christian Gerhaher sings Schubert's Die Winterreise

Back in the 1950s when I was a teenager, I assiduously copied out and learned the texts of the twenty-four songs that comprise Schubert's Die Winterreise; all of which stood me in good stead for the rest of my life, since I can now sit back and listen to the songs without having recourse to the texts or translations.

It is difficult to imagine what Schubert's small audience back in 1828 would have made of this cycle of songs, where pessimism rules, and where the harmonies of the songs often modulate every few bars (the modulations of Die Krähe always fascinated me). I knew this greatest of all song cycles from my early LPs of Hans Hotter (three LP sides, with the fourth side blank). I then, inevitably, went on to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; since then, there have been many candidates for favourite version, the latest being Jonas Kaufman (tenor). This evening it was back to Christian Gerhaher (baritone) with Gerold Huber at the piano, recorded back in 2001. The pianist is excellent. Gerhaher sings with welcome emotion and really enters into the spirit of this evergreen work; Winterreise is an emotional work — with often quite violent emotions. Thanks to my teenage hard work, I can sit back and enjoy the songs and the words, greatly helped by Gerhaher's clear diction and enunciation. Gerhaher, Goerne, or Kaufman (I never took to Fischer-Dieskau)? Spoilt for choice, but I greatly enjoyed Gerhaher this evening and was completely gripped for 78 minutes.