The Crown: Coronation anthems by Handel & Purcell

Choeur & Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal, conducted by Gaétan Jarry
Versailles Spectacles CVS110

For anyone wanting a souvenir of the Coronation, here is the perfect answer, at least so far as the musical part is concerned. And it comes from an unexpected source. For this sumptuously produced CD – entirely performed by French forces (nearly 100 musicians) – was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in the palace of Versailles, taking full advantage of its resplendent acoustic. Not only does it include the anthems Purcell composed for the coronation of James II in 1685 and Handel wrote for that of George II (1727), but we also have the introductory procession and recession along with fanfares interposed between the anthems and gleamingly enhanced by the resonance of the chapel. There are even the ‘Vivats’ and perhaps most touchingly of all the final shouts of ‘God save King Charles’. One can almost sense the French, albeit probably temporarily, regretting republicanism!

It would have been relatively straightforward for a project of this kind to have been achieved simply by making the right sort of noise – of which there is of course plenty – but there was no likelihood of that with Gaétan Jarry at the helm. One of the most outstanding of France’s present golden generation of early music musicians, Jarry here leads performances not only of magnificence in the celebratory, fully scored anthems, but which show every sign of care in more reflective music. It is evident that much attention has been paid not just only to the choir’s diction and articulation of English, but nuances of expressive word painting. I love, for example, the little nudge on the word ‘strong’ in the chorus ‘Praise the Lord’ for the oratorio Solomon, a worthy and fitting encore to the anthems at the end of the programme. Admirable too is the obvious care taken over the contrapuntal verses of the Purcell ‘My heart is inditing’, which are not only beautifully interwoven by the soloists but also sung with a true sense of understanding of the text. The final ‘Allelujah’ of the same anthem brings one of the rare moments of choral untidiness, the ensemble and precision being for the most part admirable.

The more extrovert anthems need little detailed comment. All make their due effect, with ‘Zadok the Priest’ producing the ‘hairs-on-the-back-of the-neck’ effect it should. Another memorable moment comes with the verse ‘Exceeding Glad Shall He Be’ from Handel’s ‘The King Shall Rejoice’, where the dancing melody is treated to joyous imitative expression between parts, while the entries at the opening of his setting of ‘My Heart is inditing’ are superbly judged.

In keeping with Versailles Spectacles’ high standards, the presentation is outstanding, with a 127pp booklet with articles and illustrations, a number of them in colour. With the credits on the last page comes the legend ‘In honour of his Majesty King Charles III’. Given that the CD is a more than worthy tribute to the King, it is greatly to be hoped it will be brought to his attention.

Brian Robins


Charpentier: Auprès du feu l’on fait l’amour

Airs serieux & à boire
Les Épopées, directed by Stéphane Fuget
Versailles Spectacles CVS 089

The history of the French air de cour goes back to the end of the 16th century, when it played an important role in the lavish ballets mounted by the court. Later it would be taken over as a major component in Lully’s creation of French opera and still later would form a separate, though related genre that played an important role in salon life and in its more bucolic form other perhaps less salubrious gatherings. While usually written for a solo voice and continuo, airs for two or three voices are also found.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s contribution to the repertoire includes nearly forty extant examples of which some three-quarters are gathered on this appealing CD. They are found in three major sources: the famous political and cultural publication Mercure de France, with whose editor Charpentier enjoyed an excellent relationship and which were issued under the title Airs serieux et à boire; pieces issued posthumously by the publisher Ballard; and various unpublished manuscripts found in other sources, in particular the Bibliothèque Nationale.

While the drinking songs basically speak for themselves, being straightforward drunken ditties (‘Veux-tu, compère Grégoire’) or satirical (‘Beaux petits yeux l’écarlate’ is a particularly vicious example), the serious airs cover a wide range of topics, with pastoral love and its vicissitudes a favourite topic, but here also including two panegyrics to Louis XIV. While many of the airs are simple strophic songs, occasionally with a refrain, some follow a more complex course. That applies to none more than ‘Non, non, je ne l’aime plus’, one of the most sophisticated and extended (most last an average of barely two or three minutes). It is virtually an operatic scène, opening with a strongly declamatory air before proceeding to an alternation of récits and airs of which ‘Je pense au temps heureux’, a bitter-sweet reflection on happier days has a special beauty, the air as a whole an affecting expression of conflicting emotions. It is outstandingly, even passionately sung by haute-contre Cyril Auvity, the busiest singer in the programme, unsurprisingly given the composer himself was an haute-contre and must have often taken part in performances of this repertoire. Equally as memorable is the following air, ‘Ah! Laissez-moi rêver’, unusually termed aire tendre, it is the lament of a shepherdess for her lost love. Consisting of only a sestet with the opening words acting as a refrain, the constant repetition demands artistry of the highest order if it is to make an impression, the variants of colour and heartrending expressivity found by soprano Claire Lefilliâtre in the simple opening word ‘Ah!’ alone a masterclass in interpretative subtlety.

Such standards are common to the performances of these exquisite little gems, with the drinking songs given a great sense of character by Auvity and his two male colleagues, Marc Mauillon, perhaps best described by the modern term ‘baritenor’, and baritone Geoffroy Buffière – try the aforementioned ‘Veux-tu, compère Grégoire’ to get a sense of the bucolic fun at one extreme of these airs. The second soprano Gwendoline Blondeel is well contrasted with Lefilliâtre, having a less bright and marginally heavier voice, but her diction is not always as good as those of the other singers. The continuo accompanying instruments are bass violin, bass viol, theorbo or guitar and harpsichord, the last named played by director Stéphane Fuget.

Versailles Spectacles’ presentation is as stylish as usual and includes an excellent essay on the songs by Charpentier expert, Catherine Cessac. Less laudable is the lack of identification of the singer(s) of each item, so easily done just by putting initials against the number concerned. (Please don’t write in to tell me there are two ‘GB’s; the second would be ‘GBu’!)

Brian Robins


Nuit à Venise

Ensemble Les Surprises, directed by Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Alpha Classics 927

In an interview included in the booklet the conductor (henceforth Camboulas to avoid repetition of his unusually complex name) tells us in typically imaginative French style that he wanted on this disc to ‘reimagine a large-scale evening of festivities not only on the Piazza San Marco and in the Basilica, but also in the gardens and salons of the city’s palaces’. If this suggests the CD is aiming at an unspecialised audience, such suspicions are enhanced by the total omission of any source references or even context, where it exists, there being no notes other than the interview.  Such sloppy presentation is unforgivable in this day and age, ‘Cavalli – Agnus Dei’ being of little help to anyone (it comes from the Missa Concertata, published in Musiche sacra, 1656).

It is all the more regrettable given that the music is exceptionally well performed and largely avoids more obvious choices, Lotti’s famous 8-part Crucifixus being perhaps the only real exception to that. That searing piece can also be used as an illustration of one of the real strengths of the vocal performances, which to their great benefit are performed one voice to a part. The strength referred to is the unfailing sweetness of tone of the two sopranos of Les Surprises, Jehanne Amzal and Eugénie Lefebvre, which is complemented by the fine voices and excellent ensemble of the remaining six voices. The ensemble as a whole seems equally at home with the athletic vocal agility required for the bravura writing in items such as Monteverdi’s ‘Dixit Dominus secondo’, SV 264 (from the Selva morale e spirituali, 1641) or ‘Laudate Dominum primo’ from the same collection, though the latter is a rare instance where I don’t agree with Camboulas’ tempo, it sounding to me too rushed to allow the singers to articulate the text with the necessary clarity. 

Among the lesser-known works included two brief pieces, ‘Ingemisco’ and ‘Oro supplex’ from Giovanni Legrenzi’s 8-part Prosa pro Mortuis (Dies Irae) particularly stand out for their exquisite penitential dissonance, the former for full choir based on falling sequences, the latter an alto solo. The Cavalli ‘Agnus Dei’ is another jewel, alternating homophony and polyphony, and here sung with wonderful breadth and rapt inner spirituality.

Despite Camboulas’ intimation of a mixture of sacred and profane, there are no secular vocal items included, though the presence of a couple of settings of typically sensual texts from the Song of Song’s (Alessandro Grandi’s 3-part ‘O quam tu pulchra es’ and Monteverdi’s ‘Pulchrae sunt genae tuae’, a contrafactum (not by Monteverdi) of the madrigal ‘Ferir quel petto, Silvio?’ from the Fifth Book might be thought compensation, and we are also given an instrumental arrangement of another madrigal from Book 5, ‘Troppo ben puo’. Otherwise, instrumental items are liberally scattered throughout the selection, making for a nicely contrasted programme that would make for an excellent introduction to 17th-century Venetian repertoire. In case my above admonishments about presentation have aroused concerns about texts, full texts and translations are included and the recording in the Abbaye aux Dames at Saintes is atmospheric.  

Brian Robins


Die Befreiung Israels

Telemann: Das befreite Israel (1759)
Rolle: Die Befreiung Israels (1774)

Miriam Feuersinger, Elvira Bill, Daniel Johannsen, André Morsch, Sebastian Myrus SmSTBB, Il Gardellino Baroque Orchestra, directed by Peter van Heygen
Passacaille 1132

This is an excellent and fascinating placement of two settings around the same subject on this CD, offering two very distinctive stylistic approaches presented by these composers side by side, and yet set some 15 years apart! There are some bold strokes of musical pictorialism, drama, and délicatesse on display from both. One should not underestimate Telemann’s ability to find a compact and cogent form here, we are in very similar compositional territory to the fervour and flexibility found in his remarkable “Donner-Ode” (TVWV6:3a/b). Interestingly, the two librettos do also partially overlap, J .F. W. Zachariae’s original poetry was expanded by the second preacher at Telemann’s baptismal Church, Heilig-Geist-Kirche in Magdeburg, one Christoph Christian Sturm, a prominent member of the Magdeburg Scholar’s club, who went on to write for C. P. E. Bach, Telemann’s godson.

The rich instrumentation is equally telling, Telemann in that vintage late-Baroque mould, Johann Heinrich Rolle of course in more Empfindsamer mode, as espoused by C. H. Graun. Telemann’s setting is concise and compact, dispensing with recitatives, which keeps the dramatic narrative flowing. The Rolle, having extra characters, including Moses, has eight recitatives, to as it were “tee-up” the following movement! Telemann’s highly imaginative orchestral movement (Track 9) is an unbounded flood of surging tones with trumpets and horns depicting the great swell of the waves, engulfing the Pharoh’s chasing army, here played with tremendous gusto! Turning to the singers now, there are some very solid performances all around. Miriam Feuersinger is sublime in the aria Pflanze sie, Herr auf den Huegeln (Track 12). Oddly, the inclusion of recitatives in the Rolle setting seemed to take it back to the Baroque, but the opening bars strike out, and the beautifully constructed arias, and arias with chorus move us to the expressive musical language of C. H. Graun, perhaps even beyond to C. P. E. Bach himself? Track 20 takes us through the stormy torrents at some pace, showing that Rolle also knew a thing or two about musical pictorialism.

It is towards the end of the Rolle work that the J. F. W. Zachariae poetry appears, and completes this juxtaposition of stylistic approaches making them truly salient in their differences! The soloists give expressive and cogent performances, which neither founder in excesses nor under-powering wilt. Il Gardellino lend an ever-bright and impressive sheen to these two fine works, especially the brass section of horns and trumpets (drums adding extra impact).

The final chorus gives the means and measure of both composers in a potent nutshell; do I detect a slightly veiled emulation by Rolle?

The recorded sound is amazing (Bruges 16-19th August 2022) and adds to the vibrancy of this warmly recommended recording moving past the more familiar Handelian work. The CD notes are most informative on the backgrounds to these two fine settings.

David Bellinger


Handel: Solomon

Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Millenium Orchestra, directed by Leonardo García Alarcón
152:08 (2 CDs)
Ricercar RIC 449

By 1748 Handel was becoming increasingly affected by age, yet for one last time he managed to complete two oratorios for the forthcoming season, Solomon, first given at Covent Garden in March 1749 and the contrasting Susanna, premiered the previous month. If Handel was feeling the effects of old age by the time he came to compose Solomon, the oratorio shows no sign of it, being one of the most infectiously exuberant works he had composed since his early Italian sojourn.

Solomon is unusual in several respects. Although it ostensibly has a biblical setting, writers have not been slow to find metaphor in its anonymous libretto. Not the least of them is that for Solomon we might read George II, a view advanced by the writer of the notes for the present set and one not so far removed from Christopher Hogwood’s suggestion that the work is a pageant, a celebration of Georgian England. That was an idea modified and expanded to include political discourse in the scholarly essay by Ruth Smith that accompanies Paul McCreesh’s outstanding Archive recording (1998).

Whatever the intentions of the work or otherwise, it was not especially successful for reasons that do not include the quality of the music, much of which can be accounted as being some of the greatest Handel wrote. One conceivable explanation is that the work is less religious in tenor than some of the other oratorios. While the opening numbers praise God on the occasion of the completion of the Temple, the second scene is a glorification of human love between Solomon and his Queen (or just one of them; he is said to have had 700 wives, not to mention 300 concubines!), a celebration expressed in ecstatic terms not least by the Queen (‘On my bosom as he lay, when he call’d my charms divine’) and here given added sensual allure by the quasi-coquettish performance of soprano Gwendoline Blondeel. This was not the kind of thing to which Handel’s oratorio audiences were accustomed and it is perhaps unsurprising that Solomon not only was dropped quickly from the London repertoire, but never made it to the provincial festivals that voraciously lapped up Handel oratorios. Act 2 is largely given over to further eulogies to Solomon, this time within the context of praising his wisdom, illustrated by the story of the two harlots seeking his judgment. This episode is the dramatic core of the work and Handel drew on his long operatic experience to create splendidly differentiated portrayals of the women, the mother in deeply touching terms, the pretender in brittle, shallow utterances. It is perhaps regrettable that the present recording uses the same sopranos as for Solomon’s queen and the Queen of Sheba, though since both are outstanding it does ensure this pivotal episode is heard to the best advantage. Indeed the wonderful pastoral simplicity of the mother’s siciliano enchantingly sung by Ana Marie Labin is one of the set’s highlights. Labin is also a radiant Queen of Sheba in act 3, also largely devoted to praise of Solomon, this time as a mentor of the queen. Not until the overwhelming double chorus ‘Praise the Lord’, one of Handel’s very grandest does God get much of a look in during this act. Incidentally, like McCreesh but not Eliot Gardiner, who moves ‘Praise the Lord’ to the final number, Alarcón correctly keeps it in the published order, where it makes more sense following Zadok’s preceding aria.

Following on from his superb Semele, Alarcón’s Solomon is magnificent. A live performance given in Namur in July 2022, it is from the outset characterised by an irresistible joie de vivre in which contemplation and sensitivity are also given due recognition. Not the least of reasons for its success are the excellent orchestral playing (the legato playing of the strings is ravishing) and the quite magnificent choral singing of the Namur Chamber Choir, now surely the finest of its kind anywhere. The big choruses with brass and timpani are overwhelming in their impact, particularly given some truly thunderous, yet precise timpani playing. There is no weak link among the soloists. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey is an outstanding Solomon (a role Handel wrote for a female alto), encompassing the many aspects of the role in a commanding performance. Andreas Wolf brings unusual precision and a magnificently black bass to the role of the Levite, while American-born tenor Matthew Newlin copes well if not flawlessly with the demanding writing Handel gave to Zadok the High Priest. Mention has already been made of the two outstanding sopranos, but I must return to Labin to praise her outstanding technique and in particular her impressive chest notes and trill, extended, deep and beautifully articulated. Suffice it to say that is not emulated by the other singers, but ornamentation is generally stylishly applied, if conservative in conception. The superfluous addition of an archlute to the continuo is here not too damaging, it being kept more under control than is often the case.

While not displacing the McCreesh recording, which features an outstanding Solomon in Andreas Scholl, there is a special life-enhancing quality about Alarcón’s Solomon that makes it irresistible, essential listening for anyone that loves this music and a must-hear for those yet to fall under its spell.

Brian Robins


Baroque Music in Prague

Musica Antiqua Praha, Pavel Klikar
Animal Music ANI 108-2

When the record company got in touch about this recording, I was simultaneously intrigued and delighted; thirty years ago, a German friend invited me to join her on a trip to Prague, and one of the many exciting things we did was attend a concert in the beautifully restored Waldstein Palace (apologies to Czech readers for giving its name in translation!) by a group I’d never heard of, Musica Antiqua Praha. I was so impressed by the recital (including music by Grandi and Rovetta – and possibly the first time I’d ever encountered sonatas by Bertali!) that I bought the CDs that were available and later reached out to their director, Pavel Klikar, who kindly sent two more and one by his “other group” (the Original Prague Syncopation Orchestra!) Later, he also shared copies of his transcriptions as well as plans for future recordings which included, after a wonderful CD of previously unrecorded music by one of my favourite composers, Giovanni Legrenzi, and others devoted to Rigatti and Grandi (who are also on that list!) Just as suddenly as it had begun, the correspondence dried up and I haven’t heard anything for (or about) the group since. Until now!

This new disc of music from the archive of the Monastery of the Order of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star (it’s even more of a mouthful in Czech!) is – like its predecessors – an absolute delight. Six vocal pieces and one instrumental sonata by composers who scarcely make it into the “also ran” category, all of them beautifully shaped and carefully crafted. The sessions may have been recorded in May 1996 but the sound is as crisp and bright as if they’d taken place yesterday. The booklet notes give insight into the history and activities of the Order, and describe each of the pieces with a brief biographical sketch of the four composers: Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Ferdinand Tobias Richter, Georg Reutter (the Older) and Benedikt Anton Aufschnaiter. Each of the pieces is cast in the familiar patchwork style with solos accompanied by strings, voices engaging in melodic duos and trios, and beautifully flowing contrapuntal Amens and Alleluias. The singing (as it always was with this group) combines lustre and clarity with warmth when required, and the playing complements it perfectly. A second note pays tribute to Klikar and the pivotal part that he played in putting Czech musicians at the forefront of the Early Music revival, and notes that the remarkable sound quality of these recordings is down to his decision to use only two well-placed microphones.

This beautiful disc filled me with joy (despite not understanding the Latin texts), tinged with a little sadness that there are no further tapes in the archive, so although the Grandi disc did appear, I’ll never hear their Rigatti performances.

If you’ve never heard of the group, I recommend you get hold of this and look for their other recordings (there is an absolutely beautiful Bohemian Christmas disc) – you won’t be sorry you did!

Brian Clark



Saint-Georges: L’Amant anonyme

Haymarket Opera Company, conducted by Craig Trompeter
170:31 (3 CDs)
Cedille CDR 90000 217

The Afro-French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, then a French colony, around 1745, the son of a local mother and a wealthy planter and nobleman. Little is known about his earlier life other than that he received an all-round education befitting his status. This included not only music but swordsmanship, at which he became one of the most noted exponents of his day. Again we know little of his musical training but he was a fine violinist, good enough to take over the directorship of Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs in 1773, three years later unsuccessfully attempting to become a leader of the Paris Opéra.

It is as an instrumental composer that  Saint-Georges is today best remembered, but he also composed four (and possibly more) opéras comiques, three of which were written for the Comédie Italienne and are now wholly or partly lost. The fourth was L’Amant Anonyme, here receiving its first recording. It differs from Saint-Georges’ other operas in that it was composed in 1780 for the private theatre of Madame de Montesson, the mistress (later wife) of the Duke of Orleans. Cast in two acts, it is a curiously hybrid work. The use of French, the spoken dialogue and the inclusion of ballets all point firmly to the kind of opéra comique developed by Philidor and Grétry. Yet musically the style is decidedly Italianate, as a couple of minutes spent with the quasi-Mozartian overture will reveal. Arias are in a variety of forms; it is interesting to find da capo arias termed ‘ariette’, following the pattern established in the tragedies lyriques of composers such as Rameau.

L’Amant Anonyme has a libretto drawn from a play of the same name by the prolific writer the Comtesse de Genlis. The simple plot involves the intrigues of Valcour, the anonymous lover of the title to win the love of the young widow Léontine, who he has loved in silence for four years but who has finally decided to ‘come out’. The only other characters are their confidants, respectively Ophémon and Dorothée (a non-singing role that the notes suggest may have been played by Madame de Montesson herself) and a young peasant couple, Jeannette and Colin, who are on the cusp of marriage. A certain faux-naiveté informs both the plot and much of the music.

The recording stems from the Haymarket Opera Company, which is based in Chicago and specialises in period productions; the pictures in Cedille’s splendidly produced booklet suggest spectacularly lavish costumes. The performance is pleasant enough but in truth lacking any real distinction. The potted biographies of the singers reveal that none are early music specialists – a curious anomaly for a company devoted to HIP – as is readily revealed by the amount of continuous vibrato on show. The best of them is the Léontine, Nicole Cabell, who does well by the score’s finest and most extended number, the act 2 ariette ‘Du tendre amour’, but is elsewhere apt to become shrill in her upper range. The French dialogue is spoken with varying degrees of success, but if you don’t want to hear it the third CD contains just the musical numbers.  

This a brave effort that deserves praise simply on the grounds that it is an ambitious project – even the music needed editing – executed honestly and with integrity. I’m not convinced that it reveals Saint-Georges to be more than a talented secondary composer and don’t think the note writer’s hyperbole helps his cause any more than the occasionally used lazy appendage, ‘the black Mozart’. Among other things he asks us to look on L’amant anonyme as some kind of trailblazer, remembering that in 1780 Mozart had yet to write any of his, quote, ‘major’ operas. True, but La finta giardiniera predates L’amant by five years and the comparison is invidious. Case dismissed.

Brian Robins


Ein Deutsches Barockrequiem

Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
Ricercar RIC445

This characteristic CD from Vox Luminis is the result of a reflection on the tradition of providing a set of scriptural settings of passages that might be suitable to provide music for a funeral, as was the case in Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis had recorded Schütz’s Musicalische Exequiem in 2010 – and it was one of the recordings which helped make their name. Here they have done something different. They have searched out texts that are either similar to or the same as those used by Brahms around two hundred years later, and the result is a well-constructed series of motets and Psalm settings from 17th-century German composers, some of which I knew, but many of whom I had never heard before. While some of them are for voices and continuo, in combinations for two equal cori, others are coloured by a five-part string ensemble with continuo, and one – by Christian Geist – voices with two tenor and one bass viol with continuo.

As might be expected, this scoring provides a sombre overall feel to the disc, which is the perfect vehicle for the clear sonorities of Vox Luminis. The attention to each other’s vocal lines, and their expert tuning in the clean temperament provided by the fine organ by Dominique Thomas in the north transept of the Église Notre-Dame de la Nativité at Gedinne in Belgium make it difficult to imagine a better performance. Singers and organ, with instrumental colouring at times, is the foundational sound with which Bach and his musical forebears grew up. And this CD is important in locking this sound into our minds as we get used to hearing just the same kind of sounds in J. S. Bach’s pre-Leipzig cantatas.

Many people record their favourite Bach, but in spite of using period instruments, not many use the right kind of organ with a substantial sound in the hands of an expert like Bart Jacobs. And few have adult singers that can set aside their modern vocal techniques and sing together like the boys from the German Lutheran boys’ choirs still do.

So this is another CD to savour, and to marvel at the similarities and the differences in the choice of texts and the manner of setting them that this admirable recording does in these works by Scharmann, Selle, Schein, Geist, Tobias Michael, Briegel, Hammerschmidt, Schwemmer and Förtsch. A CD to treasure for many reasons, but especially for the outstanding sense of group ownership.

David Stancliffe


Tears from Babylon

J. S. Bach: Piano Transcriptions
Alexandra Papastefanou
FHR 141

This is an unlikely CD to come my way, and I would not normally think myself qualified to make any comment on the style and performance of such an unashamedly pianistic collection. But Alexandra Papastefanou is a celebrated Greek pianist and takes her jumping off point from the well-known and popular transcription by Dame Myra Hess of the cantata movement from BWV 147 known as ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, with which this CD ends.

But Papastefanou’s skill is shown by the opening two tracks – transcriptions of the first two movements of the Trio Sonata for organ BWV 529 – in which she demonstrates not only her technique as a performer, but also as an arranger. The majority of her CD is given to arrangements of cantata movements, but there are also versions of the chorale preludes BWV 711 and 653. BVW comes off well where the instrumental obligato part dovetails with the alto vocal line in a way that is reminiscent of Bach’s own arrangement of BWV 6.iii as the fifth of the Schübler Chorales for organ. It was nice to hear a version of the Chorale in BWV 22.iv that formed another of the older favourite transcriptions along with ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ that sat on my childhood piano.

If you like piano transcriptions of Bach’s music – and many listeners to Radio 3’s ‘Bach before Seven’ seem to – then you will enjoy this collection.

David Stancliffe


Dorothea Link: The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna

University of Illinois Press, 472 pp.
ISBN 9780252044649 (cloth) – £112:00; ISBN 9780252053658 (ebook) – £32.38 on Kindle.

The story of the Italian opera company formed in Vienna by the Emperor Joseph II might have remained an interesting byway in the history of opera but for one rather significant fact. It happened to be the birthplace of two of the three operas Mozart composed in collaboration with the court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, all three operas of course standing among the supreme achievements of the genre. Both Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte were commissions for Vienna, though the libretto of the latter only came to Mozart after Antonio Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, had declared it unworthy of being set. Don Giovanni was not a Viennese opera, having been composed for Prague in 1787, but it transferred to Vienna with a few changes the following year.

Josephine opera starts in 1783, two years after Mozart took up permanent residence in Vienna, and concludes when it was transformed in 1791, shortly after the emperor’s death the previous year. One of the remarkable aspects is that the company was run as a commercial enterprise by Joseph, who oversaw every aspect of its functioning – including the hiring (and firing) of the contracted singers, the majority of whom were Italian – over most of the course of the company’s existence. Only at the end of the period, when he was away fighting another of the endless wars with the Turks, did Joseph loosen his grip. Many of those contracted were among the leading singers of the day, a highly important asset since the success or otherwise of an opera most likely depended not so much on the composer or work but the singers, above all the prima donna (or leading lady).

It is this milieu that is thoroughly investigated in The Italian Opera Singers in Mozart’s Vienna by Dorothea Link, Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia. As the name suggests her principal topic is the careers of the Italian singers that were engaged in Vienna; one of the most valuable sections of the book is an appendix in which the roles taken by the most significant of these singers not just in Vienna but in other major centres are charted. This in itself leads to some fascinating information that will not only be of great value to scholars but of interest to a more general readership. Who, for example, will not find questions coming to mind about the type of singer that created the well-known roles in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas when we discover the first Contessa in Figaro, Luisa Laschi was also the first Viennese Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Few today would think of casting a Zerlina as the Countess, at least not until she’d matured a bit. And who will argue with Link, having seen her argument that the role of Despina in Così is intended for a mezzo, not the soprano we generally hear? Link’s plan has been to treat each season as a separate chapter in which the comings and goings of contracted singers are recorded along with local reaction to them, leaning heavily on the formidable Count Karl Zinzendorf, a government officer and diarist, who attended virtually every opera, sometimes on multiple occasions. Zinzendorf was something of a ‘groupie’ follower of Nancy Storace, creator of the role of Susanna in Figaro, and the prima donna that dominates the earlier chapters (she was at the Burgtheater, the Viennese home of Italian opera, from 1783 to 1787. Incidentally, it is also fascinating to learn that had Figaro been premiered a few months earlier Storace would have sung the Countess, since the role of Susanna would have been sung by Storace’s co-prima-donna Celeste Coltellini had the latter not left for Naples earlier in the year. More food for thought, given that the high-spirited Storace is often thought of as the archetypal  Susanna.

The question of identifying the voice types that created the familiar roles in Mozart’s operas of this period is arguably the most valuable single topic in the book, since of course it plays a part in how we view these characters when we go to these operas today, not to mention how we identify with the manner in which in the role is played or produced. A good example is Francesco Benucci (c.1745-1824), the creator of Figaro and Guglielmo (Così),  and of Leporello in the Viennese Don Giovanni. Described as a buffo caricato, a complex vocal identification applied to baritones or basses, we know from the Irish tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Basilio) that Mozart greatly admired Benucci’s singing, but it is extracts from several reviews quoted by Link that should set the Mozart enthusiast pondering: ‘Benucci combines unaffected, excellent acting with an exceptional round, full and beautiful voice… He has a rare habit that few Italians share: he never exaggerates.  Even when he brings his acting to the highest extremes, he maintains propriety and secure limits, which hold him back from absurd, vulgar comedy’. Another report speaks of his ‘inimitable polish and comic naturalness’ and his ability to convey, ‘the ridiculous with decorum in every, in every word, in every gesture, in every look, in every movement …’  These are words that should set modern directors, singers and audiences thinking about the way in which we play these – and other comic bass characters – today.

There is so much valuable detail of this kind in these pages that in that sense the book is self-recommending to anyone that would better understand the opera of the period, and not just in Vienna. Regrettably, for the general reader, the book is written in an academic style that makes it difficult to read and will likely restrict it to being a reference tool. Link’s prose lacks style, but above all she has a tendency to incorporate long lists of facts that would have been far better put into tabulated form, leaving her prose to flow more naturally. There are also a number of typographical errors and several instances of carelessness, such as that on p 312, where we are told a proposal to invite Francesco Bussoni, the creator of the role of Don Alfonso (Così) to sing ‘Haydn’s oratorio was rejected …’ Which Haydn oratorio is not identified (it was Il ritorno di Tobia).

Such caveats do not detract from the academic achievement of The Italian Opera Singers, which is considerable and laudable. The book is an important addition to our knowledge and understanding of opera in Mozart’s Vienna, not just the operas of Mozart himself, but of many other composers such as Salieri, with the focus very much on those that performed them.

Brian Robins