Friday, 30 May 2008
Performers: Les Arts Florissants, Anne Sofie Von Otter, et al.
Director: William Christie
Length: 2 hours 40 minutes
Another Handel Opera, the last one on the list, and another version by William Christie, undeniable king of Baroque opera. Still, Serse, despite its occasional moments of brilliance does not stand out enough in Handel's repertoire to be up there with Cesare.
Serse starts very well indeed with a couple of great moments in Fronde Tenere and Ombra Mai Fu but then as the music develops there are little more interesting moments, although there are telling differences in this opera. Handel is most obviously taking notes from people like Rameau, his arias are considerably shorter, gone are the 9 minute 'da capos', some of the arias do not even repeat the first part at the end.
Then Handel is raising his number of choirs in an opera from 1 at the end, and 2 at most as in Cesare to having at least one in each Act and two in the last Act, for a grand total of 4 choral scenes! This is unprecedented in Handel. That and the inclusion of a purely comic relief character like Elviro show a more populist move from Handel. And then the plot is the usual non-sense of mistaken identities and silliness, even if it is more comedic than usual.
The opening aria, "Ombra mai fu", a love song sung by Xerxes to a tree (Platanus orientalis), is set to one of Handel's best-known melodies, and is often played in an orchestral arrangement, known as Handel's "largo" (despite being marked "larghetto" in the score).
Frondi Tenere followed by Ombra Mai Fu, from here on out it's all downhill:
Monday, 26 May 2008
Title: Castor & Pollux
Performer: Les Arts Florissants
Director: William Christie
Length: 2 hours 48 minutes
Another opera by Rameau, and this one was one that I didn't get the chance to see, I did read the libretto while listening to it but it is not the same thing. William Christie as always does an excellent job in this opera taking advantage of the extreme drama of Rameau's choirs.
Still, it is not one of the most exciting operas to pass through here, some of the recitatives are very extensive, particularly in Act IV which might make for interesting watching but to listen to it is a bit dull.
There are some quite innovative choirs in this, like the very impressive funeral one at the start of Act II or the powerful Choir Of Demons in Act III or the amazing Choir of Planets at the end of Act V. But these work very much as highlights, Rameau's arias are never of the standard of Handel's, but Rameau compensates for it with the amazing Choirs which are absent from Handel.
Castor et Pollux appeared in 1737 while the controversy ignited by Rameau's first opera Hippolyte et Aricie was still raging. Conservative critics held the works of the "father of French opera", Jean-Baptiste Lully, to be unsurpassable. They saw Rameau's radical musical innovations as an attack on all they held dear and a war of words broke out between these Lullistes and the supporters of the new composer, the so-called Rameauneurs. This controversy ensured that the premiere of Castor would be a noteworthy event. As it turned out, the opera was a success. It received twenty performances in late 1737 but did not reappear until the substantially revised version took to the stage in 1754. This time there were thirty performances and ten in 1755. Graham Sadler writes that "It was [...] Castor et Pollux that was regarded as Rameau's crowning achievement, at least from the time of its first revival (1754) onwards."
Revivals followed in 1764, 1765, 1772, 1773, 1778, 1779 and 1780. The taste for Rameau's operas did not long outlive the French Revolution but extracts from Castor et Pollux were still being performed in Paris as late as 1792. During the nineteenth century, the work did not appear on the French stage, though its fame survived the general obscurity into which Rameau's works had sunk; Hector Berlioz admiringly mentioned the aria Tristes apprêts. The first modern revival took place at the Schola Cantorum in Paris in 1903. Among the audience was Claude Debussy.
Always trust geeks to give you something interesting, someone made a video of Final Fantasy X-2 mixed with Que Tout Gemisse, the funeral choir from the first act:
Thursday, 22 May 2008
Title: Stabat Mater/ Salve Regina
Performers: Jorg Waschinski, Michael Chance
Director: Helmut Muller-Bruhl
Length: 43 minutes
Now we go back to religious music after a little hiatus, but there is some difference to it here, one can tell that Pergolesi is trying to do something different here, but not different enough.
Pergolesi brings elements of opera and profane music into the world of sacred vocal works, it is an interesting transition that makes this recording a worthy one, but then it is a bit top heavy with a great first movement, and lags quite a bit in the middle.
Pergolesi died when he was my age, 26, and had he lived many good things could have come from him, this is a promising work, but nothing that blows me out of the water. Still, an interesting and influential work that is worth listening to more than having in your library.
Pergolesi also wrote sacred music, including a Mass in F. It is his Stabat Mater (1736), however, for male soprano, male alto and orchestra, which is his best known sacred work. It was commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo (the monks of the brotherhood of San Luigi di Palazzo) as a replacement for the rather old-fashioned one by Alessandro Scarlatti for identical forces which had been performed each Good Friday in Naples. Whilst classical in scope, the opening section of the setting demonstrates Pergolesi's mastery of the Italian baroque 'durezze e ligature' style, characterized by numerous suspensions over a faster, conjunct bassline. The work remained popular, becoming the most frequently printed work of the 18th century, and being arranged by a number of other composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach, who used it as the basis for his psalm Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083.
Stabat Mater (1st movement):
Wednesday, 21 May 2008
Title: Les Indes Galantes
Performers: Les Arts Florissants
Director: William Christie
Length: 3 hours 20 minutes
I am still debating with myself how much I like this opera, after having heard it three times and seen it on DVD I am still uncertain. There certainly are problems with it, but then the good bits are so good that it is impossible to dislike it.
Rameau is a radically different Opera composer to Handel for example, the arias never take as long, he makes great use of choirs and he inserts dances and ballets into the opera. The problem is that the opera is divided into 5 parts, a prologue and 4 entrées, which are like acts with independent stories. The fact that each act has a story makes them all pretty crap plot-wise, with very fast exposition of the problem followed by even faster resolution to leave some time for the amazing choirs and dance pieces. This is definitely a move from Opera as theatre to opera as visual and auditory spectacle.
Then even the way the plot is exposed (mostly in long recitatives at the beginning of each act) is not the most attractive one, but when the music kicks into gear, and Rameau explores the amazing set-pieces for each act it is so joyous and accomplished that you forgive the sins of the opera. Still, it is an immensely enjoyable but very far from perfect piece of music, you feel that Rameau is not that comfortable with having to put dialogue across, and feels much better when he is given some musical freedom, so he gets done with the recitatives and does his thing brilliantly.
At the revival of Les Indes galantes on 10 March 1736, the 30th performance of the work, a Fourth entrée was added, with Mme Pélissier as Zima, Jelyotte as Damon and Dun as don Alvar. The complete work was played for the 185th and last time in 1761.
Nevertheless, parts of it were revived from time to time: the Prologue in 1762 (20 performances) and 1771 (26 performances); the Entrée des Incas in 1771 (11 performances) and the Entrée des Sauvages in 1773 (22 performances). Thereafter, the Académie Royale (Paris Opéra) abandoned this work for 179 years. Nevertheless, the Opéra-Comique did present the Third entrée, the Entrée des Fleurs, with a new orchestration by Paul Dukas, on 30 May 1925, with Yvonne Brothier as Zaïre, Antoinette Reville as Fatima, Miguel Villabella as Tacmas and Emile Rousseau as Ali, and Maurice Frigara conducting.
Finally, there was a reprise at the Opéra itself, the Salle Garnier of the Académie Nationale de Musique et Danse, with the Dukas orchestration supplemented for the other entrées with music by Henri Busser, the 186th performance, on 18 June 1952, with sets by Arbus, Jacques Dupont, Wakhévitch, Carzou, Fost, Moulène and Chapelain-Midy for a production by the Académie's own director, Maurice Lehmann.
The very danceable Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix followed by Forets Plaisibles:
Friday, 16 May 2008
Title: Organ Concertos
Performers: The Brandenburg Consort, Paul Nicholson (organ), Frances Kelly (harp)
Director: Roy Goodman
Length: 2 hours 34 minutes
These Handel concertos make organ bearable to me, while usually it is one of most reviled instruments when it is being played against a tutti it feels much better, there is none of the usual dullness associated with the organ and these end up being quite good concertos.
If you are like me and aren't the greatest organ fan this is definitely something you should check out, it won't change your ideas about what it sounds like solo but it will make it bearable.
Some of the pieces here are particularly interesting, the first movement of the Harp concerto on the collection is perhaps one of the most famous harp pieces ever, even if it now sounds like hotel lobby music. The concerto that follows it D Minor, Op.7 no.4 has a particularly classical opening adagio, which sounds quite ahead of its time. An impressive collection based around my most reviled instrument of all, so I can't give it a 9 or 10 but a very solid 8.
Like all types of instrumental concertos, an organ concerto is a piece of music for an pipe organ soloist with an orchestra. The form's heyday was in the 18th century, when composers such as George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach among others wrote organ concertos, with a small orchestra, and solo parts which rarely call for the organ pedal board. Although the organ concerto repertoire was hardly expanded during the Classical and Romantic periods, there are some 20th- and 21st-century examples, of which the concerto by Francis Poulenc has entered the repertoire, and is quite frequently played.
The organ concerto form is not usually taken to include orchestral works that call for an organ used as an extra orchestral section, examples of which include the Third Symphony of Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustav Holst's The Planets or Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra.
Hotel Lobby Music extraordinarie, the Harp concerto Op.4 No 6:
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Performers: Anne Sofie Von Otter, Lynne Dawson, Musiciens du Louvre etc.
Director: Mark Minkowski
Length: 2 hours 40 minutes
Handel's operas are all quite interesting, but some are a bit hit and miss, and none of them on this list until now has hit the greatness of Giulio Cesare. Ariodante is more on the level with Rodelinda than Cesare, which was such an amazing opera.
Actually Ariodante is possibly slightly more interesting than Rodelinda, the character of the play is less dark, the resolution is faster and there is quite deep exploration of the characters' psyche. Even so the resolution is too fast, feeling quite rushed while the first act does little more than introducing the characters, feeling too long.
So there is a problem of pacing in the opera, Handel has shortened the arias considerably with very few going over the 6 minute mark, and while this is good considering they are da capo arias that tend to sprawl, it kind of limits their emotional impact on the listener. Still a pretty good opera, but nothing to write home about.
The opera was first performed in the Covent Garden Theatre, London, on 8 January 1735. Ariodante opened Handel's first season at Covent Garden and successfully competed against the rival Opera of the Nobility, supported by the Prince of Wales. Handel had the tacit and financial support of the King and Queen and, more vocally, of the Princess Royal. The opera received 11 performances during its premiere season at Covent Garden.
Like Handel's other works in the opera seria genre, Ariodante, despite its initial success, fell into oblivion for more than two hundred years. An edition of the score was published in the early 1960s, from the Hallische Händel Ausgabe. In the 1970s, the work began to be revived, and has come to be considered one of Handel's finest operas.
Con L'ali di costanza:
Friday, 9 May 2008
Title: Weihnachtsoratorium. Christmas Oratorio
Performer: Collegium Aureum
Director: Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden
Length: 2 hours 40 minutes (3 CDs)
Again we have a choral work by Bach, this time an oratorium, and it is also a pretty good one, but again not on the scale of the passions. In the present day we all seem to give a lot more importance to the Christmas period than the Easter one, but in religious terms what happens is very much the opposite, and that might explain why this isn't as inspired as the Passions.
Bach is of course still a prize composer and the six cantatas that compose the oratorio are all pretty good. The fact that it is divided into six cantatas kind of keeps the attention of the listener, the different cantatas have different moods, themes and sound quite different.
So, not the best of Bach, but still pretty great Bach. listen to it for the great choral ensembles more than anything.
It is likely that the text was written by Picander. It is in six parts, each part being a cantata intended for performance on one of the Twelve Days of Christmas (although the work is nowadays often performed as a whole). It is narrated by a Tenor Evangelist, and also makes extensive use of Lutheran hymns.
The first cantata, for the first day of Christmas, focuses on Mary, (sung by the alto) in the period around the birth of Jesus; the second, for the second day of Christmas, the appearance of the angel to the shepherds; the third, for the third day of Christmas, the visit of the shepherds to Jesus in the stable; the fourth, for New Year's Day, the Circumcision of Christ; the fifth, for the Sunday after New Year's Day, the arrival of the Three Wise Men at Herod's palace in Jerusalem; and the last, for the Feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem and the Flight into Egypt.
The opening of this all-male version of the Oratorio: