Maria Weiss: favola in musica

New old music
51:16
1607 Records RC171114
Music by Bach, Caldara, Durón, Handel, Kapsberger, Machaut, Mitterer , Monteverdi, Purcell & Vivaldi

One outcome of the fragmentation of the Classical record industry has been the rise of artist-driven recording projects. Often highly personal, sometimes crowd-funded, I suppose they are the equivalent of so-called ‘vanity publishing’. Yet at their best such recordings can provide thought-provoking new insights into the music we listen to. This CD from the Austrian mezzo and actress Maria Weiss certainly falls into that category. To start with, it looks good, being superbly presented in a 216-page hardcover book that includes German and English texts in addition to dozens of sumptuous colour photographs of the singer’s native Carinthia and the artists. EMR readers will recognise the title of the CD as the subtitle of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, ‘a fable (or as Weiss prefers, ‘fairy tale’) in music, and this is indeed Maria Weiss’ own story in music.

Her voice is distinctive, a beautifully burnished and rounded mezzo that at the same time remains fundamentally pure in tone, vibrato being sparingly used for expressive purpose. All this can be heard on the opening track Machaut’s famous unaccompanied virelai ‘Foy porter’, which is perfectly pitched throughout and sung with arresting attention to the sense of the words. This close attention to text, doubtless a spin off from the singer’s other career as an actress, is a feature of the whole disc, on which Weiss sings in no fewer than six languages. Given that, it is hardly surprising that diction is not always perfectly clear.

Much of the repertoire is familiar, in this category tracks that deserve special mention including a well projected and appropriately ornamented account of La Musica’s Prologue to Orfeo  and an elegantly shaped ‘Qui d’Amor’ from Handel’s Ariodante  (though both here and certainly in the da capo  of ‘Cara speme’ (Giulio Cesare) I’d ideally have liked a few more ornaments and sadly Weiss does not appear to own to a trill.) The ‘Qui d’Amor’, by the way, is also included on an evocatively filmed video bonus, though I had problems finding it on my PC. There is also a touching account of Bach’s ‘Bist du bei mir’.

‘New old music’ is represented by premiere recordings of three extracts from Sebastian Durón’s Italianate zarzuela El imposible mayor en amor, le vence Amor  (1710), Jupiter’s arietta ‘Otro adora’ being a real charmer, especially when sung in such beguiling fashion as it is here. Finally there are two items by the contemporary composer Wolfgang Mitterer that take their inspiration from early music and Maria Weiss’ voice. The first, ‘Remember Me’ is a take on Dido’s Lament (which Weiss also sings in Purcell’s version), uses a range of instrumental and electronic devices against the voice singing (largely) the original vocal line to create an impression of ever-growing melancholy and fragmentation. The effect is curiously compelling. But the second, ‘Niemand falle’ – which takes text from act 2 of Orfeo  rendered by Weiss in what I in my old-fashioned innocence would call Sprechgesang, but which I gather from the notes is an example of hip hop – left me struggling, I fear.

Adept accompaniments are provided by the rather tortuously named Milleseicentosette, from among whom theorbist Rasario Conte emerges to give intimate and technically proficient performances of two Kapsberger pieces. The whole CD is somehow immensely compelling in an at times ethereal way, drawing the listener into a sense of the other-worldly only enhanced by the church acoustic. It is certainly different and despite the rather short playing time I urge readers to hear it.

Brian Robins