CLASSICAL LOST AND FOUND
FORGOTTEN MUSIC BY GREAT COMPOSERS AND GREAT MUSIC BY FORGOTTEN COMPOSERS
7 OCTOBER 2011
The albums below are "Classical Releases Of Current Key Significance," or "CROCKS", if you will. To purchase an album, simply click on one of the Web site retail outlets given in the "AVAILABILITY" table under the write-up.
Bliss, A.; Bowen, Y.; Davies, H.W.; Vn Sons; Marshall-Luck/Rickard [EM]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
It's a pleasure to welcome Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) back to these pages (see the newsletter of 6 December 2006), along with two of his fellow English composers, York Bowen (1884-1961, see the newsletter of 31 August 2011) and Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941), for three little-known, romantic violin sonatas. And as of this writing, these are the only currently available recordings of these superb works.
Sir Arthur's sonata (no date given) [track-1] is in a single eleven-minute movement, and was never published. Our violin soloist, Rupert Luck, tells us the version he plays here incorporates a couple of revisions that only recently came to light. Accordingly he feels it represents the composer's final thoughts on the piece.
It opens with an attractive extended idea, which during the course of the work undergoes a series of developmental transformations, giving rise to several other memorable themes. A sense of drama, compact structure and colorful harmonic scheme make this a significant romantic chamber music discovery you won't want to pass up.
York Bowen's sonata of 1945 [tracks-6 through 8] is a virtuosic undertaking much in keeping with the composer's past reputation as one of Britain’s most celebrated pianists. In three movements, the first is a gorgeous outpouring with an auburn chromatic glow bordering on impressionism. The slow movement is a dreamy reverie for the violin made all the more entrancing by a pensive piano accompaniment, and may bring Cyril Scott's (1879-1970) chamber music (see the newsletter of 28 February 2010) to mind.
The infectious concluding allegro is an infectious bravura romp for both players. Youthful vigor characterizes this fiddle-fireworks-filled finale which will not disappoint, making this another Bowen triumph that's taken far too long to surface.
The album notes don't tell us which of Sir Henry's five violin sonatas is included here [tracks-2 through 5] other than to say it was written in 1893 (revised 1895). But with a little detective work it would appear to be one of the first two. In four movements, it begins with a captivating two-part theme (CT1 and CT2) that will serve as a unifying element throughout the piece. During the first movement CT1 and CT2 undergo a series of ingenious transformations, making a wistful reappearance at its conclusion.
The following scherzo juxtaposes a fast anxious theme with a soothing lyrical one to great effect. Both are derived from CT1, as is the extended melody which dominates the next movement entitled "The Monk and The Warrior." No explanation is given for this moniker, but it would seem related to the alternating pious and martial passages that make up this beautiful largo.
The rondo finale begins with a scurrying insistent theme based on CT1. This recurs between variants of CT2, ultimately having the last say and ending the sonata energetically. The sonata may bring to mind the urbane chamber creations of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924, see the newsletter of 17 August 2011), which is not surprising considering he was one of Davies' teachers. And if you haven't already done so, you might want to investigate Davies' fourth sonata (date unknown), which was incorrectly designated as number two when published in the early 1900s (see the Holbrooke recommendation below.
Violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck and pianist Matthew Rickard, give dedicated performances of all three works. We also have Mr. Luck to thank for editing the unpublished Bliss and Davies works. It should be noted there are some squirrely sounding violin passages, but they’re few and far enough apart not to detract from the overall effect of these vivacious scores.
The recordings are musical, and project a convincing soundstage in a rich acoustic that romanticizes these works all the more. The violin tone is silky to the point where some may find it sounds a bit rolled off, while the piano is well rounded and perfectly balanced against it.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y111007)
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Godard, B.: Pno Conc 1; Intro... (pno & orch); Sym orientale; Sangiorgio/Yates/RScotNa O [Dutton]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Although he died relatively early at forty-five, French composer Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) left a significant amount of music. It includes eight operas, five symphonies, quite a few concertante works for violin (see the newsletter of 30 April 2008) as well as piano, and a considerable number of chamber pieces (see the newsletter of 31 May 2010), in addition to some one hundred songs.
The piano is featured in two of the three symphonic world premiere recordings on this new release from Dutton. The disc starts with the first of his two piano concertos, which dates from 1875 and is in four movements.
The opening sonata form allegro begins with a somber orchestral introduction hinting at the first main theme soon stated by the piano. This is a forceful tragic idea (FT) [track-1, beginning at 01:09], followed by a second lyrically optimistic melody [track-1, beginning at 03:11]. These are dramatically developed and recapitulated in virtuosic fashion with FT dominating the powerful final coda.
A delightful antsy scherzo worthy of Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is next, and then a pensive andante with a lovely main theme. This builds to an emotional climax that gives way to a wistful recollection of the opening measures as the movement ends.
The spirited final allegro may bring to mind the more flamboyant moments in Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) piano concertos (1858-1896). With stunning rhythmically accented melodies tossed back and forth between soloist and tutti, it grabs the listener's attention and won't let go. Hyperion sure got scooped in their great "Romantic Piano Concerto" series with this one!
Written about ten years later the Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra (1880) is a magnificent showpiece that must be one of Godard's most engaging works! The stately introduction is extremely moving with powerfully stated orchestral passages embellished by some pianistic “ruffles and flourishes.”
It sets the stage for the allegro that begins with an apprehensive exchange between the orchestra and soloist. Next the piano launches into a proud prancing theme (PP) [track-6, beginning at 01:11] that would make a terrific circus march. Godard then subjects PP to some tuneful transformations. It reappears in rondo fashion after each of these, and is the lifeblood of the thrilling closing measures.
Godard never numbered his symphonies, preferring to give them subtitles. Our concert ends with his next to last, Symphonie orientale (Oriental Symphony), of 1884. Like Glazunov's (1865-1936) Five Novelettes (1885-86, see the newsletter of 21 September 2011), it’s a travelogue that takes its cue from the "French Orientalism" that was so popular during the 1800s. But Godard avoids obvious references to folk material, preferring to borrow stylistic elements from it to come up with his own version of Eastern exotica.
Each of the symphony's five movements has been given a programmatic sobriquet, and is prefaced by a poem on its title page. Our first stop is Arabia for "Les éléphants" inspired by Leconte de Lisle's (1818-1894) poem of 1855. It could be considered the Godard equivalent of Borodin's (1833-1887) In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). But the setting here is the Arabian Desert, and the crossing caravan a ponderous parade of pachyderms.
Next we journey eastwards for some "Chinoiserie" after a poem (no name given in the album notes) by Auguste de Châtillon (1808-1881). In it he describes the festive sounds of people returning home from a celebration in Peking. Light and lively, Godard's brilliant scoring may remind you of the "Queen Mab Scherzo" from Hector Berlioz' (1803-1869) dramatic symphony Romeo et Juliette (1839).
Then it's off to Greece for "Sara la baigneuse," or as some would have it, "Sara in the Bathtub," based on Victor Hugo's (1882-1885) poem of 1829. Also the subject for Berlioz’ ballad of the same name (1834, revised 1850), Godard limns this young lady's lithe aquatic activities in graceful undulating triple time. It somewhat anticipates "Valse of the Gemini" in Constant Lambert's (1905-1951) Horoscope ballet (1937).
Persia is next for "Le ręve de la Nikia" ("Nikia's Reverie") after a poem by the composer himself. This is the symphony's most affecting movement with a beginning that's pensive and melancholy. It builds in waves to a couple of monumental, short-lived, emotionally charged crescendos, only to end in much the same mood it began.
Our final stop is Turkey for a march ("Marche Turque"), again prefaced with a Godard poem. The composer alternates combative massively scored passages with more subdued ones, creating a sense of tension and release in the listener. A final militaristic coda with blazing trumpets and pounding drums ends the symphony on a belligerent note.
Italian pianist Victor Sangiorgio has received increasing acclaim for his growing discography, and this release will add all the more to it. Highly proficient technically, he plays the two concertante works to perfection, deftly handling Godard's idiosyncratic rhythmically segmented melodies.
Conductor Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) provide him with ideal support, and make a strong case for all of this music. They instill it with that little extra je ne sais quoi which turns something good into extra special.
The recordings were done at the RSNO Center, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, and project a broad, deep soundstage in a reverberant acoustic that should appeal to those liking wetter sonics. The piano is ideally placed and balanced with a tone that’s well rounded to the point where some liking a livelier high-end may find it a bit veiled.
The orchestral timbre is just the opposite with a few bright spots. But the extended frequency and dynamic ranges arising from these colorful scores should make this disc a favorite with audiophile romantics.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y111006)
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Herbert, V.: Seren for Stgs; 7 Pcs (vc & stgs), 3 Pcs (stgs); Hornung/Tewinkel/PforzSWG ChO [CPO]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Irish-born Victor Herbert (1859-1924) grew up and received his musical education in London as well as Stuttgart, where he became a cello virtuoso. In 1886 he moved to New York City, and it wasn't long before he was principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In addition to performing he also conducted, and was a highly prolific composer with a remarkable gift for melody. This is reflected in his operettas, which he's best remembered for today, and orchestral works such as the ones for strings on this new release from CPO.
The program begins with his Serenade for Strings of 1884, written during his years in Germany. This appeared last year on a Dutton disc (see the newsletter of 28 February 2010); however, those preferring a more laid-back Germanic touch will prefer the new version. It also has the added advantage of being filled out with some additional rare "Herbertalia," which American light music fans won't want to be without.
In five movements, the serenade opens with a quickstep that portends the "March of the Toys" from his Babes in Toyland (1903, complete version currently unavailable on disc), and a Tzigane-inflected polonaise which anticipates The Fortune Teller (1896). It's followed by a moving love scene that's one of Herbert's finest melodic inventions, and a playful canzonetta, setting the stage for the flighty finale. The latter serves up another memorable Herbert melody [track-5, beginning at 01:25], and ends the piece excitedly with a big "smiley."
Victor was a fecund tunesmith who wrote many short instrumental pieces. During the early 1900s a great number of these frequently appeared in arrangements popularized by such leading bands of the day as Paul Whiteman's (1890-1967, see the newsletter of 10 March 2011). The two remaining selections are good examples of this.
Seven Pieces for Cello and Strings is a suite of arrangements drawn from Herbert's Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (3P) of 1900-06 (currently unavailable on disc), and Six Piano Pieces (6P) from 1900 (currently unavailable on disc). The opening "Yesterthoughts" (6P) is a nostalgic aria, while there's a coquettish naiveté about "Pensée Amoureuse" (3P). "Punchinello" (6P). "Romance" (3P) and "Petite Valse" (3P) are sequentially waggish, ardent and balletic.
If the music is any indication, the penultimate "Ghazel" (6P) must refer to a ghazal, or poem expressing the emotional pain of losing someone dear, and conciliatory remembrance of love once shared. It's Herbert at his most heartrending, as opposed to "The Mountain Brook" (6p), which ends this set of miniatures in a rushing, bubbling stream of notes.
The concluding Three Pieces for Strings (1912-1922) with its programmatically titled sections would seem to be of similar origin to the preceding work. The lead-off "Air de Ballet" inspires images of a graceful pas de deux worthy of Delibes' (1836-1891) Sylvia (1876) or Coppelia (1870). While the atmospheric "Forget-me-not" is an ear-catching pizzicato-speckled posy. There's something of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) in the closing "Sunset," whose ever dimming russet rays bring this tiny suite to a satisfying reconciled ending.
The Pforzheim Southwest German Chamber Orchestra and its principal conductor Sebastian Tewinkel deliver refined performances of all three works. They take a more conservative Germanic approach rather than treating them as "popsicles," which seems in keeping with the circumstances surrounding Serenade's creation. Cellist Maximilian Hornung has already been praised in these pages (see the newsletter of 11 May 2009), and his solo work in Seven Pieces is equally meritorious.
Done in the Matthäuskirche, Pforzheim, Germany, the recordings are superb, creating a generous soundstage in a warm ideally reverberant acoustic that makes this music sound all the richer. The string tone is more golden than silvery, and the solo cello perfectly placed, captured and balanced against the tutti. Those with systems going down to rock-bottom may notice occasional hints of outside traffic rumble. But that should not deter romantics and the majority of audiophiles from loving this endearing release.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y111005)
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Holbrooke: Vn Sons 1 & 2 ("Grasshopper" Conc vers), Hn Trio, etc; Peacock/Smith/Stevenson [Naxos]
AUDIOPHILE (1 CD)
Conceit, stubbornness and irascibility on the part of English composer Josef Holbrooke (1878-1958, first name sometimes spelled Joseph) along with an adherence to romantic principles contributed to his music’s eventually falling out of favor. And it's only been with the advent of modern day recordings that a few of his many works have begun to resurface.
We've already told you about some of the symphonic ones (see the newsletters of 31 July 2009 and 13 December 2010), and here's a welcome new sampling of his considerable chamber output. It includes the first two of his three violin sonatas, a horn trio, and a short piece for violin and piano. The versions presented here are all world premiere recordings
Confusion over conception dates, myriad revisions and opus numbers associated with many of Holbrooke's works abounds. Unfortunately that applies to all of the ones on this CD. But rather than going into more detail here, you're advised to see our pianist Robert Stevenson's extensive album notes on the subject..
It would appear the first sonata [tracks-1 through 4] may have originated around the late 1890s, and underwent several changes possibly as late as 1906. While it's not profound music, it falls easily on the ear, and as Mr. Stevenson (see above) so rightly points out, there's a stylistic affinity with similar pieces written between 1865 and 1893 by Dvorák (1841-1904) and Grieg (1843-1907).
In four movements, it opens with a tune-swept allegro followed by a yearning nocturne and scurrying mouselike scherzo. The concluding rondo would seem to reflect the composer's early experiences as a sometimes music hall pianist. In that regard, there's a naughty cancan air about it that suggests the world of Offenbach (1819-1890), Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and the Moulin Rouge.
Holbrooke's second sonata [tracks-8 through 10] is a reduction (c. 1917) of a three-movement violin concerto he'd written in the 1906-16 timeframe (currently unavailable on disc), which he called "The Grasshopper." Accordingly it comes off as more of a concerto for violin and piano than a sonata. Its nickname would seem to reflect frequent intervalic leaps executed by the violin in the first and last movements. Incidentally the version of the concluding one presented here is a piano reduction of the concerto’s original orchestral accompaniment. It’s consequently much more technically demanding than the later more simplified one Holbrooke came up with for his sonata version of the concerto (see the album notes).
In modified sonata form, the first allegro opens with a deceptive, dark throwaway motif on the piano that suddenly gives way to a sunlit statement by both instruments. It contains a couple of refreshingly optimistic ideas that undergo a virtuosic development. The recapitulation is notable for an ingenious cadenza-coda with a smattering of fairy dust high notes on the violin, and a lovable final "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" cadence.
There's a hint of Delius (1862-1934) in the rapturous adagio, which contains a couple of comely themes. It gives the listener a breather before the antic finale, which challenges the skills of both players. This is a binary rondo with a pair of recurring ideas. The first is an infectious hopping tune (IH) [track-10, beginning at 00:35], and the second, a well-grounded lyrical idea (WL) [track-10, beginning at 01:28]. There's also more of that fairy dust as well as a killer cadenza for the violin. The movement concludes with soothing afterthoughts of WL brought up short by reminiscences of IH, which end this concerto-sonata as the grasshopper heads for greener fields!
Horn trios are few and far between, making this outstanding one by Holbrooke [tracks-5 through 6] an all the more significant contribution to the genre. Probably composed in 1904 and revised possibly as early as 1912, its progenitor is the one by Brahms (1833-1897) from 1865, while it anticipates György Ligeti's (1923-2006) of 1982. All three of our featured artists felt Holbrooke's later version inferior to the original, and therefore chose to record the earlier one (see the album notes for specific details).
Said to be considerably more difficult than the Brahms, the first of its three movements gets off to a languid start. But it soon shifts into high gear with a piquant idea elaborated by the horn and violin to a bustling piano accompaniment. The closing coda is a horny delight, so to speak.
In the rhapsodic adagio which follows the composer spins out a couple of moving melodies, again on the horn and violin. Occasionally there are some more of those fairy dust high notes on the violin (see above) that add some sparkle to the somber horn part.
The spirited finale gives everyone a chance to strut their stuff in a lively modern day gavotte. It ends an exceptional sonata for this rare combination of instruments in a state of jubilant optimism.
In 1913 the composer began a cycle of short pieces for clarinet or violin with piano accompaniment, which he called Mezzo-Tints. Like Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) The Seasons (1875-76, see versions 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) there were to be twelve selections representing the months of the year. However, he'd only completed eight by 1918, and the project was to go no further. The second of these, "L'Extase" ("Ecstasy") as done here with violin [track-11], makes for an ideal encore. It ends this enterprising disc of discovery on a nostalgic note, and reminds us what an accomplished melodist Holbrooke could be.
Our soloists on this CD are violinist Kerenza Peacock, hornist Mark Smith and pianist Robert Stevenson, whom we've already introduced you to above. All of them are exceptional performers who play this music with a commitment and sensitivity that would probably have even pleased the peevish composer. A special round of applause goes to Ms. Peacock for some stunning fiddling, and Mr. Smith for an impeccable performance on a notoriously unpredictable instrument.
Both receive ideal support from pianist Stevenson, who conjures up an impressive keyboard equivalent of an orchestra in the concerto-sonata. If you haven't already done so, you might want to investigate his recording of Holbrooke's third violin sonata from a couple of years ago. It also includes the Davies fourth sonata (date unknown, and incorrectly designated as number two when published) alluded to in the lead recommendation above.
The recordings were made in Menuhin Hall, Surrey, England, which would appear to be wood-paneled. This probably helps explain the magnificent sonics, which project a soundstage commensurate with these small chamber groups in an ideally reverberant acoustic. All of the instruments are perfectly captured and balanced, except for a couple of spots where one might want Ms. Peacock a bit more in the spotlight. Silky violin tone, a honeyed horn, and immaculate well-rounded piano sound make for a demonstration quality disc.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, Y111004)
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Lehár: Frasquita (cpte opera); Soloists/Praxmarer/LehárFest C/FrLehár O [CPO]
RECOMMENDED BEST FIND (2 CDs)
CPO's survey of Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár's (1870-1948) lesser known stage works (see the newsletter of 12 March 2009) continues here with Frasquita (1922) from his middle period. It has all the melodic invention of Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905) as well as an exoticism like that in Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles, 1929), except here it's Iberian and Tzygany rather than Eastern.
More chromatic and orchestrally opulent than his earlier operettas, there's a hint of that late lush romanticism found in Franz Schreker (1878-1934, see the newsletter of 20 November 2006) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). It's sometimes been referred to as the Lehár counterpart of Bizet's (1838-1875) Carmen (1875), and has a story distantly related to Pierre Lou˙s' (1870-1925) erotic novel La femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet, 1898). But Lehár's librettists (Arthur Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert) managed to keep it at the “soft porn” level.
In three acts, the central character is a femme fatale Spanish-Gypsy dancer named Frasquita. And instead of going any further here into the rather predictable plot, you'll find a synopsis of it in the album notes. Incidentally there is no libretto, nor any online reference to one.
The prelude to the first act, which takes place in front of a pub in Barcelona, is at first of sunny disposition, but the mood soon turns more serious as the composer introduces some Spanish and Hungarian elements. Then an invigorating jolly dance sequence (IJ) breaks out [CD-1, track-1, beginning at 02:20], segueing into a lively attention-getting ensemble number [CD-1, tracks-2].
A rhythmically catchy aria for Frasquita [CD-1, track-3] and some dialogue [CD-1, track-4] follow, setting the stage for the amorous intrigues to come. And in regard to the spoken parts, as done here the operetta has ninety-nine minutes of music to thirty-three of dialogue. The latter is rigorously banded, making it easy for those disliking chatter to program it out.
Highlights of this act include an introductory killer aria (IK) for the male protagonist, who’s a wealthy young Parisian named Armand [CD-1, track-7, beginning at 01:55]. He then sings a duet with the opera's little rich girl Dolly [CD-1, track-9], set to one of those Lehár Ohrwurm (Earworm) melodies. There's also a captivating Spanish waltz [CD-1, track-13], and then the act concludes in an amatory finale [CD-1, track-17] with moments of melodic bliss.
Act two takes place in the Alhambra nightclub. It begins with one of those perky Lehár waltz numbers [CD-1, track-18], after which Frasquita does a delightful Spanish song and dance [CD-1, track-20]. A lovely waltz duet (LW) with Armand [CD-1, track-22] follows, for which the timing of 0'00 printed in the album notes should be 6'49.
A frolicsome polka-duet for Dolly and Armand's private tutor Hippolyt is next [CD-2, track-2]. Then Armand sings the operetta’s hit tune (HT), "Hab' ein blaues Himmelbett!" (“I Have a Blue Canopy Bed!") [CD-2, track-4], which remains one of Lehár's best loved songs to this day.
This was the first of the so called "Tauberlieder" ("Tauber Songs"), named after the great Austrian tenor Richard Tauber (1891-1948). He had a commanding stage presence as well as a great voice, and the composer wrote several of his later works specifically for him. They would always include one of these arias, usually in the second act. And it was a wise move on Lehár's part, because his operettas had begun to fall out of favor, but Tauber's presence restored their popularity.
Returning to Frasquita, a high-stepping ensemble march [CD-2, track-6] not too far removed from the first of Schubert's (1797-1828) Three Marches Militaires (Op. 51, D733, 1818) leads up to the second act finale [CD-2, track-8], which at almost twenty minutes is an exhilarating embarrassment of Lehár riches. It recalls IK as well as IJ and contains some colorful Spanish-Magyar touches. But it ends sadly as Frasquita throws herself into the arms of a nearby Gypsy male companion, thereby rejecting Armand, who leaves declaring, "Cosi fan tutte!" ("Women are like that!").
Armand's home in Paris is the setting for the third and final act, which opens with an entr'acte [CD-2, track-9] built around HT. Ebullient carnival festivities (EC) with chorus are heard next [CD-2, track-10], and then Frasquita appears. In a tender duet [CD-2, track-12] she professes her love for Armand, who at this point distrusts her, telling her to get out!. There's a reference to IK as well as some sprechgesang, and the scene ends in a spirited choral dance number with EC afterthoughts.
A trippingly animated duet for the recently married Dolly and Hippolyt [CD-2, track-14] follows. And having finally been reconciled, Armand and Frasquita then sing a blissfully passionate one. This ends with memories of LW, and as the final act curtain comes down, the two presumably retire to that "Blue Canopy Bed" (HT).
Done at the 2010 Lehár Festival in Bad Ischl, Austria, the performance is quite good, and with repertoire this rare we're lucky to have it! Sopranos Romana Noack (Frasquita) and Laura Scherwitzl (Dolly) along with tenors Vincent Schirrmacher (Armand) and Robert Maszl (Hippolyt) are in good voice, and take to their roles enthusiastically. The Lehár Festival Chorus and Franz Lehár Orchestra under conductor Vinzenz Praxmarer provide equally spirited support.
Although the notes don't say this album was taken from a live performance (or performances), there is at least one cough and some isolated stage action sounds that indicate otherwise. That said it should also be noted there's no applause, which must mean the audience was well behaved, and recording skillfully edited. The soundstage is quite convincing, and in a warm acoustic, while the soloists and chorus are well balanced in relation to the orchestra.
In closing, the voice quality is a bit edgy, but the orchestral timbre, quite pleasing. And as we've noted before, the singing would probably have sounded better in SACD had this been a hybrid album.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P111003)
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Lucas, R.: Confession (cpte opera); Soloists/Murphy/Purch Op&SO [Albany]
RECOMMENDED (1 CD)
With this one-act opera the only entry in current CD catalogs for contemporary French composer Raphaël Lucas (birth date not given), his name will be new to most. But that may soon change considering Confession was the 2010-12 winner of the National Opera Association's chamber opera competition.
He began his career as a percussionist with the Montpellier Symphony Orchestra, but soon decided to become a full-time composer. After some initial training in France, where he was a prize-winning student, he moved to the U.S. in 2007. He's since gotten a Bachelor's Degree from SUNY Purchase College, and is currently pursuing a Master's at the Manhattan School of Music.
During his years as an undergraduate he wrote some songs which greatly impressed the director of the Purchase Opera, Jacque Trussel. This led to his being asked to write the music for an opera based on an idea Trussel had. The outcome was Confession, which was completed in 2009, and makes its recording debut here. You’ll find a complete libretto and informative synopsis in the album notes.
In one act and six scenes, there’s a late romantic air about it which makes it highly accessible. Set in the latter part of the seventeenth century, it opens with a brief tension-building prelude that anticipates the emotionally charged drama to follow. There's a tubular chime motif (TC) in the first few measures [track-1, beginning at 00:18], which should sound familiar to some -- but more about that later!
As the curtain goes up we see a combination solarium and drawing room in a palatial home belonging to royalty. A nubile young girl, Sophie, enters with a basket containing some herbs, which she proceeds to crush, and put in a goblet with some water. She's about to drink this potion when her younger sister Anna Viola runs in [track-2], thereby distracting her from doing so.
In a beautifully written aria for Anna we learn it's Sunday, and she's just returned from church. We also find out Sophie has not been feeling well, and has missed attending services with her for a number of weeks. Anna then goes on to sing ecstatically about the presiding priest, Father Francis, whom she obviously has a crush on.
As she finishes, the head of the household, who's the girls' Uncle -- and a dirty old man at that -- enters [track-3], sending Anna away for her riding lesson. In a dramatic aria he tells how the sisters came to live with him and his frigid, barren Princess of a wife, who could care less about them. Then he makes a pass at Sophie! Appalled, she forcefully rejects him.
The youngster is saved from further humiliation as the Princess walks in [track-4]. She's suspicious that something funny's been going on, and sings in a cold authoritative manner about the impending arrival of Father Francis. We're told he's making a house call to hear Sophie's confession as she hasn't been to church in some time.
The opera's emotional bombshell goes off shortly after his arrival [tracks-5 through 8] in a stunning duet of revelation and confession (thus the title of the opera) with Sophie. We learn she's in love with him, carrying his child, and was about to kill herself, despite the baby, with that concoction she'd made.
Totally overwhelmed by this disclosure, Francis rushes out, and the Princess hurries back in, demanding to know why he's left. The composer then gives us a powerfully written, dramatically orchestrated exchange between the two women [tracks-9 and 10], in which Sophie tells her about the child. Auntie of course assumes that it was fathered by her philandering husband, and Sophie wishing to protect Francis says nothing.
In closing, the Princess informs Sophie she'll be sent away in the morning to have the baby elsewhere, thereby avoiding any scandal. She then leaves her alone, setting the stage for another one of those great operatic letter scenes [tracks-10 and 11]. In this exquisitely moving one, Sophie writes her sister about the child, asking her to care for it. After finishing she puts the letter in Anna's bible, and places it at the feet of a nearby statue of the Virgin Mary.
A shaft of light slowly appears through the solarium windows, illuminating Sophie and the Madonna figure. Sophie then sings a haunting disembodied [track-12] "Hail Mary" to shimmering violin octaves followed by remembrances of TC.
Does all this give you a déjŕ vu feeling? Well, it should because the opera was written as a prequel to an all-time favorite. Can you name it [see answer]?
In the first scene of the opera sopranos Catherine Webber (Sophie) and Molly Davey (Anna Viola) imbue their roles with an endearing sense of girlish charm. Ms. Webber then goes on to deliver an emotionally filled portrayal of Sophie, made all the more intense in contrast to soprano Diana Wangerin's aloof characterization of the icy Princess.
Bass-baritone Robert Balonek as Father Francis gives a convincing portrayal of a man torn between religious convictions and desires of the flesh. While tenor Joshua Benevento sings the role of the Uncle with a self-indulgence quite in keeping with the character he’s portraying. All of the soloists receive superb support from the Purchase Symphony Orchestra under their conductor Hugh Murphy. If you like this release you might also want to investigate their album of Lee Hoiby's (1926-2011) opera The Tempest (1986).
A Purchase Opera production, this studio recording was made at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music Recital Hall. The soloists are well placed and balanced against the orchestra across a generous soundstage in an ideal acoustic. They're captured with exceptional clarity, making it easy to understand every line. However, as with the Lehár album recommended above, the voice quality has an edge to it. Again this would probably not have been the case in SACD had this been a hybrid disc. On the other hand, the orchestral timbre is quite natural.
-- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com, P111002)
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