Songs of Orpheus

Karim Sulayman (ten)
Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell (dir)
63:21
Avie AV 2383

This debut CD from the Lebanese-American tenor Karim Sulayman  is centred around the solos for Orfeo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, a role he has been taking in a US tour of semi-staged performances with Apollo’s Fire under Jeanette Sorrell during the month in which this review was written (April 2018). They include ‘Rosa del ciel’ and ‘Tu se’morta’ (both from act 1), ‘Vi ricorda’ from act 2, and ‘Qual honor’, the recitative from act 4 that leads into the dramatic climax of the opera, the fatal moment at which Orfeo turns to look at Euridice. The ostensibly surprising omission of ‘Possente spirto’ can probably be accounted for by the fact that Sorrell uses only a string ensemble for the recording and that virtuoso song of course demands other obbligato instruments.

It would have been interesting to see the live performance, since on the evidence of the present CD Sulayman seems likely to have been a highly personable Orfeo. His tenor is a pleasing lyric instrument, perhaps a little grainy in the lower baritonal part of the voice, but capable of a range of colour. His greatest asset is an acute awareness of text, an asset so essential in this music. Sulayman uses this awareness to effect with, fluid musical shaping that obeys the demands of the text, while never being slave to the rigidity of the bar line. He has, too, the technique to open ‘Rosa del ciel’ with a true messa di voce  and the intelligence to bring, for example, delicious shaping and a sense of the joy of awakening love at the words ‘Fu ben felice …’ etc (Happy was the day, my love, when first I saw you). If I have a reservation (and this of course applies equally to other items on the CD) it concerns the singer’s reticence regarding ornamentation, especially at cadences, and a tentative approach to some of the more elaborate gorgie  that are such a hallmark of the early baroque. This is especially damaging in strophic songs, of which there are a number here, which surely demand subtle variation if they are to maintain the listener’s full attention.

The Orfeo  extracts, which include several sinfonias, are by no means the whole story and in addition to instrumental pieces by Castello and Cima, Sulayman sings an extract from Giulio Caccini’s Euridice  and songs by Caccini, D’India, Landi, Antonio Brunelli, and the achingly lovely ‘Folle è ben’ by Merula, sung to wonderfully expressive effect.

The dreaded words arr. J. Sorrell (and in a couple of cases R. Schiffer) appended to some items raised alarm bells that were soon stilled, since apart from a couple of questionable moments there is little to upset even the most fastidious of listeners. I do, however, have a problem with the contribution of Jeanette Sorrell’s Apollo’s Fire, not because of the quality of the playing, which is as excellent as ever, but with the resolutely 18th (rather than 17th) century sound of the strings, which – at least in the bass line – tends to sound thick-textured and even at times turgid, possibly at least in part a result of the unsuitable church acoustic. Notwithstanding, the splendid playing of Castello’s Sonata in D minor (from his Sonate concertate in stil moderno  of 1629) by violinist Julie Andrijeski deserves special mention, not least for its sprezzatura.

I’ve seen only an advance copy, but was sent texts and notes by both the singer and Sorrell, those of the former being interestingly personal, of the latter at times somewhat naïve; do we really need reference in 2018 to ‘the great Monteverdi’?

Brian Robins

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