The year 2021 may have been a frustrating one for most performers and concertgoers, but CDs (and downloads, etc.) kept being released, mostly using studio and “live” recordings that had been made a year or two before—or sometimes much longer ago. These releases included some fascinating operas and other vocal works that were, until now, little known. And, given that streaming is now so easy and inexpensive (Spotify, Naxos Music Library, Apple Music, and so on), nearly all these items can be easily heard without one’s having to make a special purchase. Though often, for opera and vocal works, purchasing the item as a CD or download is the only way to gain access to the booklet containing texts and translations. (Some record companies thoughtfully make such materials available for free, on their website.)
Here were the highlights of my year of listening.
Medieval music: The Orlando Consort continued their remarkable series of the complete works of Guillaume de Machaut with a CD called “The Lion of Nobility.” The four male voices sing beautifully and enunciate the text clearly. (Machaut was almost more important as a poet than as a composer!) Particularly remarkable is a lai that was long thought to be monophonic; but recent scholars have shown that several strophes can be sung simultaneously, producing—here—remarkably engaging harmonies.
Baroque and Classical: I was struck again and again by the high quality of singing in most of the early-opera recordings that I got to review, including Cesti’s La Dori, Vivaldi’s Tamerlano, Hasse’s Enea in Catonia, and Gluck’s Demofoonte.
A fascinating “sampler” was put together by the renowned Canadian lyric soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian: arias for the “other” Cleopatra, princess of Pontus (which is located in what is today Turkey) and future queen of Armenia. All three operas are called Tigrane, after the prince that Cleopatra will marry; the composers are three of the aforementioned: Hasse, Vivaldi, and Gluck. The singing and conducting follow “mainstream” rather than “early music” norms and may appeal to listeners who sometimes find Historically Informed Performance a bit intense or frantic (or, in the string playing, scratchy).
A second “candy-box” CD is called Nuits blanches (White Nights). It features another remarkable Canadian soprano, Karina Gauvin, in little-known operatic excerpts from Russia. Most of these are in Italian or French, and one of the composers is familiar (though from other works): Gluck. But we get to hear, as well, from Ukrainian and Russian composers Berezovsky, Bortniansky, and Fomin. The quality of the music, and of the performances, is remarkably high.
Rameau’s Les Indes galantes got a fine new recording by La Chapelle Harmonique, conducted by Valentin Tournet. It uses a version of the opera that was performed in 1761 and eliminates one of the four acts or “entrées” (the dance-heavy Les Fleurs). The performance is quite lovely, but a better first choice still would be William Christie’s famous CD recording of the entire work, or his DVD version (despite some awful stage directing and choreography in the final entrée).
Speaking of performance-practice issues, a Spanish early-music group has brought out the world-premiere recording of a 1765 opera by Pedro António Avondano, based on Carlo Goldoni’s famous libretto Il mondo della luna (Life on the Moon). The musical numbers tend to be brief and attractive. I was put off, though, by the half-spoken manner in which recitatives are delivered: the resulting pitches often conflicted distractingly with the chords of the continuo group.
Boston’s centuries-old Handel and Haydn Society adds to its extensive recorded repertory with two works by Haydn: the “Lord Nelson” Mass and the so-called “Military” Symphony (No. 100), all under its renowned conductor Harry Christophers. Special percussion instruments were built for use in the symphony recording, based on surviving examples in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Anton Reicha was a friend of the young Beethoven. He composed a very effective setting (for three soloists, chorus and orchestra) of a poem that was wildly popular at the time: Gottfried August Bürger’s Leonore. The cantata has just been recorded again, this time in clear and straightforward rather than dramatically intense fashion, by Czech performers under American conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Here’s a case where having the full text and translation in the booklet is an enormous help!
Another work with an interesting Beethoven connection: Ferdinando Paër’s Leonora, an extremely effective Italian opera using an adaptation of the same French libretto that served as the primary basis, in German, for Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Rossini to Puccini and Beyond: The opera world has come to realize that there are real advantages to not asking singers to force their voices beyond what is a natural level. In Europe, especially, opera festivals have thrived by choosing smallish venues (e.g., an old palace courtyard) and choosing works that a small or medium-sized voice that can handle coloratura gracefully. Many of these productions get recorded (sometimes by the regional radio station, for broadcast) and then find their way out into the home-listening world. The singers are nearly all very appropriate to the assigned tasks, even if we’re unlikely to hear most of them at the Met.
This past year, I greatly enjoyed Elena, which is an opera semiseria by Donizetti’s Bavarian-born teacher G. S. Mayr, and three Rossini releases: Matilde di Shabran (though the new recording is outshone by previous ones featuring Juan-Diego Flórez); Moïse [et Pharaon]; and a CD of two-tenor duets splendidly sung by high-flying Lawrence Brownlee (a regular at the Met) and amazing “baritenor” Michael Spyres.
From Meyerbeer, we get his early Romilda e Costanza (and also his even earlier German opera Alimelek, a comic opera based on the tale of “the sleeper awakened,” from the 1001 Nights).
Donizetti’s marvelous Il paria (The Pariah) finally got a first recording, and a superb one (as is so often the case with releases from Opera Rara), and I greatly enjoyed two Mascagni operas: I Rantzau and Iris (though the latter was done more convincingly in a now-classic recording that features Plácido Domingo).
How effective Italian opera can be even when done in another language was shown by a German-language recording of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I quatro rusteghi, or, rather, Die vier Grobiane. The singers are almost all native German-speakers, which makes all the difference: the dramatic interchanges leap out of the loudspeaker! (Interestingly, the German translation is the one used at the work’s premiere production, in Munich. Wolf-Ferrari was himself half-German and half-Italian and split his career between the two sides of the Alps.)
French works are always special, and this year was no exception, with four major revelations: the first complete recording of Gounod’s La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), with a glorious cast; the first recording (at all) of Saint-Saëns’s Le Timbre d’argent (The Silver Bell), a fantastical work somewhat similar to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann; and two wildly different works by Reynaldo Hahn, a French (though Venezuelan-born) composer and close friend of Proust. Hahn’s early L’Île du rêve (1898) is a brief Polynesian idyll, sweet-sad in tone and gorgeously written for the voice (and for the orchestra). Ô mon bel inconnu (1933) is a French comédie-musicale, analogous to other urban-life musical comedies being written at the time in England and the US. As is common with recordings of Broadway shows, the musical numbers are recorded complete but the extensive spoken dialogue is omitted. (You can speak it yourself with friends if you like, using the libretto and its fine translation, provided in the accompanying small book.) Saint-Saëns’s glittering La Princese jaune finally gets the first-class recording that it deserves, featuring soprano Judith van Wanroij and tenor Mathias Vidal. The CD is fleshed out with a recording of Mélodies persanes, Op. 26, using Saint-Saëns’s rarely heard orchestral accompaniments instead of the original ones for piano.
While I’m mentioning French works, there’s a fine new recording of organ and sacred vocal pieces by world-renowned organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant and his students and friends. Many of the tracks are world-premiere recordings, and organist Robert Stove and his singers give straightforward and nicely phrased accounts that help us notice how highly accomplished many now-forgotten composers were in France in the late nineteenth century (for example: Bonnet, Cellier, and Chauvet).
Opera in Other Languages: It’s hard to find good recordings of 19th– and early 20th-century operas in English, or in Scandinavian or Slavic languages (other than Russian). But this year Richard Bonynge brought us Edward J. Loder’s highly accomplished Raymond and Agnes (1855), and we got some fine renderings of two Danish operas: August Enna’s Kleopatra (1894, based on the English novel by H. Rider Haggard) and Peter Heise’s Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal, 1878). We got a fine new recording of the best-known Polish opera, Moniuszko’s Halka and of the Croatian national opera: Ivan Zajc’s Nikola Šubić Zrinjski. Two forgotten German operas from the early twentieth century received splendid realizations: Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) and Egon Wellesz’s Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Prisoner, Sacrificed [to the Gods]).
Recent American and British operas: Oh, what a delight to hear new or somewhat recent operas written in our own language, and sung by people who can put the words across with zest and feeling! I was also intrigued by two new works: Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen, about Joan of Arc; Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson, about the “scandalous” relationship between Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton; and Scott Wheeler’s mythology-drenched Naga, about a serpent-goddess who is in love with a human who has wandered off from his pregnant wife in order to find spiritual enlightenment. (Wheeler teaches music theater and songwriting at Emerson College.) A special delight: conductor Marin Alsop leads a newly released recording of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. The operetta genre can be tricky, as it requires “legit” singing but also pointed, often rapid, delivery of the sung and spoken words. All members of the cast, including coloratura soprano Jane Archibald as Cunegonde, manage this balancing act with consummate ease. Veteran baritone Thomas Allen plays Pangloss and also reads, winningly, an alert new narration that allows the spoken dialogue to be kept to a minimum.
Other American music: I was delighted to get to know two new works, performed by the Lowell (Mass.) Chamber Orchestra: one by African-American composer Anthony R. Green (The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite), the other by Venezuelan-born José Elizondo (Recuerdos estivos). And by the re-release of songs and chamber and piano-solo works by Virgil Thomson (who was one of Scott Wheeler’s teachers). And by an astonishingly vital recording of three new song cycles for soprano and piano, all on texts (sometimes reflective, sometimes comical) about birds. The composers are Eric Kitchen, Andrew Earle Simpson, and Gabriel Thibaudeau. Acclaimed Washington DC-area soprano Deborah Sternberg gives these three cycles the grace and richness that they deserve, never pushing her voice into harshness. Simpson accompanies his own cycle; Mark Vogel plays in the other two, with equal fervor and precision. The CD borrow its title from that of Simpson’s cycle: Birds of Love and Prey.
An award and an experiment (both based in Boston): Gramophone magazine, in the UK, gave a special commendation last month to Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a lean-but-highly-skilled outfit that has made pathbreaking recordings of numerous important orchestral works. BMOP is also the pit orchestra for Boston’s Odyssey Opera, which made the important recording of Gounod’s La Reine de Saba mentioned earlier. Other recent releases include Samuel Barber’s complete Medea ballet, the ever-eloquent Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the spiffy, sometimes snarky ten-minute opera A Hand of Bridge; the first performance anywhere of Arnold Rosner’s The Chronicle of Nine; and Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, based on the famous novel by Salman Rushdie. The Covid restrictions that shuttered opera houses didn’t stop Boston Lyric Opera, which created a “for video-streaming” production of Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It introduced imaginative visual animation and a new wrap-around plot (about the travails of a refugee girl from Central America). I reported on the project and also did a short interview with the opera’s librettist Arthur Yorinks.
And not to forget…. There were also very fine recital-type CDs by baritone Will Liverman (focusing on songs to texts by African-American poets such as Langston Hughes) and Janinah Burnett (songs and opera arias, done with imaginative jazz accompaniment). Two remarkable piano-solo CDs show how beautifully a piano can be made to sing. On one of these, Kenneth Hamilton plays some of his favorite encores. On the other, the young Chelsea Guo (who is still an undergraduate at Juilliard), teases much magic out of the melodic lines of Chopin’s complete Preludes and several other pieces, in part by slightly anticipating the beat rather than, as pianists often do, lagging slightly behind it.
Finally, masterful saxophonist Paul Cohen has released his second CD of new and forgotten works for that immensely flexible, eloquent instrument, including works by Ingolf Dahl, Marguerite Roesgen-Champion (well remembered for her recordings as a harpsichordist back in the days of monophonic LPs), Charles Martin Loeffler, and Steve Cohen (no relation to the performer). Each work is a real find!
Who said that classical music is stuck in a rut?! It all depends what you choose to listen to.