Category Archives: Opera (Baroque)

Operas from the Baroque era

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part II): Baroque Vocal

The Gramophone Awards 2016

Following yesterday’s post on the Gramophone Awards Nominees in the Concerto category, let’s attack another one: Baroque Vocal. Again, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review of the nominated albums, but just a couple of comments and reflections, as usually I’ll know quite a number of the recommendations well.

And if I don’t, I’ll try to find out (or shut up).

Baroque Vocal

Baroque vocal is not surprisingly one of my favorite categories. As written previously, you can never have enough Bach.

The good thing is, this year’s Gramophone award nominees in this category feature 3 times this great composer, even twice with his outstanding b-minor mass (sorry for all the superlatives here, but what else can you call this?).

Bach: Magnificat – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Gramophone starts very appropriately for this hot summer season with… Christmas Music.

Well, actually, the title piece is the Magnificat BWV 243a, which is as magnificent as the name implies. I’ve praised John Butt and his Dunedin consort several times here on this blog (e.g. his fantastic St Matthew Passion), and this album keeps the very high level of playing of this great ensemble (plus the beautiful recording quality of the Scottish label Linn, known for their turntables, and more recently, excellent digital hifi).

Bach: Magnificat Christmas Cantata 63 John Butt Dunedin Consort Linn Records

You also get a Christmas cantata plus some other church music (this is trying to recreate Bach’s first Christmas Vespers as he could have performed them), so make sure you get this excellent album under your Christmas tree this year (side note: this is one of the downside of the virtual download era, a FLAC file doesn’t look that pretty even wrapped).

My rating: 5 stars

Bach: B-minor Mass by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

Already reviewed here, so no need to repeat my four star rating. Very well done, but I still prefer Herreweghe (no matter which version, see also here).

 

Bach: B-minor Mass by the Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the Concerto Copenhagen

Bach: Mass in B Minor Lars Ulrik Mortensen Concerto Copenhagen CPO

Yes, another version of the masterpiece. And admittedly one I haven’t heard. This is mainly due to the fact that this SACD release doesn’t seem to be available on my streaming provide of choice.

Mortensen’s recordings of the Bach keyboard concertos are, and I’m not a big fan. However, the couple of snippets of this b-minor I was able to find on the internet sound interesting. The couple of reviews I’ve read speak of a lot of transparency. Once this becomes available on a streaming site I’ll have another look, and if you have an SACD player, you may even want to check it out right now.

 

Händel: Partenope – Riccardo Minasi – Il Pomo d’Oro

From baroque giant no. 1 to no. 2, Händel.

Händel: Partenope - Riccardo Minasi - Il Pomo d'Oro - Gauvin - Jaroussky Erato 2016

No idea why I haven’t purchased this one yet. I’m usually a big fan of the countertenor Philippe Jarrousky, and Riccardo Minasi is very reliably producing high level baroque productions.

And Erato (in spite of being part of Warner these days) is also a gauge of quality.

In spite of this album being available on Qobuz, I haven’t spent a lot of time on this recording yet, so I’m not going to offer any judgment beyond that I like what I’ve heard so far.

 

Monteverdi: Madrigali Vol. 1 – Cremona – Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissants

First of all, reading “Les Arts Florissants” and not seeing William Christie in the same entry is a bit weird. They have been associated for so many years (and I’m looking forward to seeing him live again in the soon to open Hamburg Elbphilharmonie early next year).

But Paul Agnew, his disciple, does an outstanding job there.

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

I must admit I listen to Monteverdi less than I should. While my musical brain feels immediately at home in the harmonic world of a Bach and Händel, the 100+ years between them and Monteverdi, the very beginning of what can be called baroque music, makes is much less immediately approachable to me.

However, when I’m in the mood and have the patience, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Again, I haven’t spent enough time with this album for proper judgment, but my initial impressions are very positive.

Le Concert Royal De La Nuit: Sebastian Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances

From Germany via England (Händel) and Italy now to France (Well to be fair, of the previous mentioned countries, only France and England actually were countries, Germany and Italy still had to wait for a couple of centuries for this pleasure).

And directly to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Why haven’t I written about this fantastic album yet, although I purchased it months ago? No idea, shame on me. This is putting you directly into the front row at Versailles, into a musical spectacle of first order.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: Sébastian Daucé - Ensemble Correspondances Harmonia Mundi 2016

I must admit, I didn’t know any of the composers previously (I’m not a great expert in French music in the first place), but the booklet quotes them as:  Cambefort, Boesset, Constantin, Lambert, Cavalli and Rossi.

Never mind, just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music!

By the way, this was also a Choc Classica in addition to the Gramophone Editors choice. It is rare that these two magazines agree, but if they do, it’s usually on something rather outstanding.

My rating: 5 stars

Now, the tricky question, who should win this year’s Gramophone Awards? My guess is Gardiner will make it, as a sort of lifetime award (and having seen him live earlier this year, he’d certainly deserve it).

But my personal call would go for the outsider: Sébastian Daucés account of a night at Versailles. Let’s see.

Who would you choose?

 

UPDATE Aug 18: Gramophone has just communicated the three finalists for each category. For this one, still in the running are the Dunedin Magnificat, the Monteverdi, and the Concert Royal. So my personal favorite has a one in 3 chance of winning. Nice!

 

You can find the recordings here:

Bach Magnificat Dunedin

Bach B-minor Mass Gardiner

Bach B-Minor mass Mortensen

Händel: Partenope

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit

 

 

 

 

Rameau’s Zaïs – Beautiful French Baroque Opera by Christophe Rousset

Jean-Philippe Rameau

As mentioned previously, I’m anything but a French baroque expert. I’m a big fan of Bach, love Händel’s operas and oratorios, but my main encounter with Rameau has so far been two excellent “best of” albums, the 2014 Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau by the brilliant William Christie, and the equally beautiful 2013 album by the young soprano Sabine Devielhe with Alexis Kossenko, Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour.

Zaïs (Aparté 2015)

So I had a vague idea of what to expect when I purchased the latest release by Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques.

By the way, I’m not the only one who will discover the beauty of this opera. Unlike many of Händel’s operas that have seen major revivals in the last 30 years, the last time this has been recorded was 40 years ago by one of the fathers of the historically informed practice, Gustav Leonhard.

Whether the story is worth following is up for debate. Luckily I speak French so I am able to follow the singing, but whether you’re actually interested in understanding what the genie Zaïs is up to, well your call. Basically, not surprisingly, he’s after a woman (Zélide), disguises himself as a shepard, and eventually is willing to give up his magic powers to be able to marry her. Luckily, his boss, Oromazès, king of the genies, is so impressed by the sacrifice that he’s ok to immortalize them both. Nice, isn’t it? What is interesting to note is that apparently, similar to Mozart’s Zauberflöte, this is a work inspired by freemasonry, the booklet tells me.

Rameau Zais Christophe Rousset Les Talens Lyriques 24 96 2015

Rousset is  well known for his recordings of Rameau’s harpsichord works. He does a brilliant job leading his baroque ensemble, there is power and drive (check out the dramatic overture), but also always the right level of nuance if required.

Some great singers as well. Sandrine Piau (love her), Julien Prégardien (son of Christophe), and their colleagues, if unknown to me, all do a great job.

This album has been awarded “Choc de l’Année” (their equivalent of album of the year) by Classica Magazine and 5 stars by Diapason d’or.

I wouldn’t go just as far. On my personal scale, Rameau still comes behind Bach and Händel, but he’s climbed some serious steps on my personal appreciation ladder with this album.

My rating: 4 stars (true 5 star playing, but as said above, I still prefer other baroque composers). But you won’t regret buying it, I guarantee!

You can download it here (Qobuz, hoping they survive their current financial difficulties), or here (Prestoclassical)

Cavalli: L’Amore Innamorato – Christina Pluhar’s new album

Francesco Cavalli

I actually thought I knew my composers reasonably well, even more obscure ones, but Cavalli was new to me. I’m probably not the only one, this is one of the composers that was known only to early music

So I was a bit surprised to see two new  recordings on this Venetian composer coming out at pretty much the same time, Mariana Flores Heroines of the Venetian Baroque (which good excellent reviews in the French press by the way), and also from Christina Pluhar’s early music ensemble Arpeggiata.

Cavalli was a singer and Monteverdi protégée who later started writing his own operas. At his time, he was famous enough tube noticed by Louis XIV’s Cardinal Mazarin to play his operas at the wedding of the Sun King.  (That’s probably relatively speaking even better than being invited to play at Kimye’s wedding these days. But I digress.)

L’amore innamorato (Erato 2015)

Christina Pluhar’s ensemble L’Arpeggiata has released some great albums, although the recent ones, especially the “jazzy” Purcell, were reviewed rather controversially.

Cavalli: l'Amore Innamorato Christina Pluhar l'Amore Innamorato Christina Pluhar L'Arpeggiata Erato 2015

I haven’t yet seen any reviews on this new Cavalli album, but I think this will be less controversial, as was their initial Monteverdi Teatro d’Amore album from 2009.

It is basically a lot of fun. The beautiful voice of the Spanish soprano Nuria Rial (helped by Hana Blažíková) is a big part of the fun, but Pluhar’s early music ensemble really is playing with a lot of dedication here.

The program is a best-of of Cavalli’s operas (apparently he wrote at least 24), and this is probably a good thing, as following a full early baroque opera seria can sometimes be a bit tedious.

No boredom here, this is thoroughly enjoyable. I suggest you check it out! I’ve added a Youtube sample below.

My rating: 4 stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (HDtracks).

UPDATE November 22: Alexandra Coghlan reviewed this album on Sinfinimusic and gave it 5 stars.

Let Me Weep – Rinaldo, Händel’s First Major Opera

In my post some time ago on The Top 10 Music That Gives Me Goose Bumps, I mentioned the famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep).

Georg Friedrich Händel

I still haven’t written about this piece, or actually about Georg Friedrich Händel  (I still prefer his German spelling, although in later years he became one of the first “expats” of all times in London and the English spelling of George Frideric may be more familiar to you) in general

Rinaldo, as its HWV number of 7 indicates, is one of the earlier Händel works, but in spite of this, Lascia is what we’d call recycling today, as it has been used twice before in other works, once without words in his op. 1, the opera Almira (rarely played these days), and also in the oratorio Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno (which in spite of its HWV number of 71 is also really early, but was reworked).

This kind of recycling in the baroque area was very common, even Bach used it all over the place, by the way. Many cantatas all over sudden will remind you of the Christmas Oratorio, or have a piece of the Brandenburg concertos.

Rinaldo HWV7

But back to Rinaldo. This was probably the first of his London operas. The story, is based during the first crusade near Jerusalem, and based on an epic by Torquato Tasso.

In spite of the great success of Lascia, the entire opera hasn’t been recorded that often. These days you basically have the choice between three versions (plus some DVD editions).

The oldest one is Jean-Claude Malgoires 1977 recording on Sony, still quite nice.

The to more recent ones are René Jacobs that I haven’t written about a lot yet, and Christopher Hogwood, both from the first decade of this century. Between the two I have a preference for Hogwood, thanks to its outstanding cast, in spite of the fact that Cecilia Bartoli sometimes is a bit heavy in terms of vibrato (I prefer the cleaner singing of the modern “historically informed performance” style).

This recording should be on every collectors shelf (or these days more likely, hard drive).

My rating: 4 stars (as beautiful as it is, I still think this can be bettered in a future version).

Handel Rinaldo Christopher Hogwood Cecilia Bartoli Decca

Recitals or “Best Of Compilations”

When I was younger, I was very snobby towards Best Of or “Highlight” versions of operas, I always wanted to get the full opera. With operas of the classical period, I’m still that way, however, for baroque opera, that are usually very long, have rather complex and/or weird stories I must admit I don’t always have the patience for 3h plus of Opera seria. Luckily you’ll find the most popular (and outstandingly beautiful) arias of Händel et al quite often on recital albums by individual soloist.

Let me recommend two very beautiful ones here that feature Lascia, by Patricia Petibon and Simone Kermes, respectively called Rosso and Drama, and both highly recommended. They offer an excellent entry into baroque opera.

Patricia Petitbon Rosso Andrea Marcon Venice Baroque Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon

Simone Kermes Dramma Sony

And finally, let me mention another beautiful version of Lascia, in a Jazz version this time, by the amazing trumpet player Paolo Fresu, on the album Kosmopolites:

Download Sources:

Hogwood’s Rinaldo: here (Qobuz)

Patricia Petitbon: Rosso: here (Qobuz)

Simone Kermes: here (Qobuz)

Paolo Fresu: Kosmopolites: here (Qobuz)