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Mozart: Piano concertos K503 & K595

Robert Levin fortepiano, Louise Alder soprano, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Richard Egarr
66:39
AAM AAM045

This is a significant issue which finally brings to a close a series that was started thirty years ago but was brought to a halt after the AAM’s contract with Universal (Decca) ended. In 2023 the series was resumed on the AAM’s own label, the five CDs needed to complete the series now issued and reviewed by EMR. It is perhaps a piece of serendipity that this final CD is to my mind the most satisfying of the series since its resumption. I think there are three definable reasons: firstly, the restricted sound quality of several of the previous discs has concerned me. Here the venue is for the first time St John’s Smith Square and for whatever reason the quality is more open and spacious than other recent discs; also the fortepiano Robert Levin uses here is a beautifully-toned copy of a Viennese Anton Walter instrument of 1795 by Chris Maene of Ruiselede, Belgium. Warmly and roundly characterful across its range, it responds to Robert Levin’s fluent passage work to often mesmerizing effect. Finally, former AAM director Richard Egarr’s lively, positive direction seems to me a step up from that on other recent recordings in the series.  

A further reason to celebrate this issue is of course that the CD includes not only two of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos but also one of his finest concert arias. The scena consists of an accompanied recitative and aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te? … Non temer amato ben, K505, the reason it is included here being that it includes an elaborate concertante part for keyboard. It was written for Nancy Storace, his first Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, on the occasion of her final concert in Vienna in 1786. Mozart’s catalogue of works records that it was written for ‘Mlle Storace and me’, underlining suspicions that the relationship may have been more than simply a professional one.  More importantly, it is sung with affectionate warmth by Louise Alder, who displays some fine chest notes and whose ornamentation is excellent with the exception of the absence of cadential (or any other) trills.

It has long been known that the oft-referred to ‘valedictory’ qualities of Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K595 belong to the imagination, since it is now known to have been composed earlier, probably between 1787 and 1789, than was once believed. However, Cliff Eisen’s notes advance an argument for the same thing applying to Concerto No. 25 in C, K503 an idea new to me. Eisen argues that at least in part it may date from between 1784 and 1786, thus making it one of the works Mozart is known to have started and then put aside for completion when he wanted a new work. More importantly, as noted above, both works are among the greatest Mozart composed in a genre that he transformed over the course of his lifetime. For sheer grandeur he never excelled the opening Allegro maestoso of K503, the contrast with the reflective opening movement of K595 here underlined by the gentle, almost understated treatment of the latter.

Detailed comment on the individual concertos can be restricted to a few points. The opening of K503 might have benefitted from a little more ceremonial pomp, though that impression does not apply to its return after the development. The secondary idea in the same movement might be considered a bit brisk and inflexible. The ornamented entry by the piano in the central Andante of the same concerto is magical and the final Allegretto has a nice sense of operatic bustle. In K595 the unexpected restlessness that develops in the central Larghetto is well brought out, while the solo oboe’s beautifully played lead-back to the main theme can serve as a special example of the high quality of the AAMs playing.

Overall, the merits of Robert Levin’s playing by now need little further rehearsing. His ability to shape Mozart’s lines with equal idiomatic insight in both passaggi and cantabile is a joy, while his imaginative ornamentation never exceeds the bounds of stylish decoration. As already made clear this is a truly fitting conclusion to a series that for long looked as if it would remain a torso. Congratulations to all that oversaw its completion are very much in order.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Smock Alley

Irlandiani
61:15
FHR 144

This delightful CD juxtaposes traditional Irish music with the music of Italian masters, some of whom worked in Ireland. At the heart of the programme are the six duos for two cellos by Tommaso Giordani, who spent long periods of his life in Dublin as musical director of the Theatre in Smock Alley, and in whose music can be heard the influence of the traditional music he would have heard around him. Born in Dublin, the organist Thomas Roseingrave provides a further link with Italian music, travelling to Venice and encountering the Scarlatti family and becoming obsessed with the music of Domenico Scarlatti, which he published with a charming musical introduction of his own composition – it is recorded here followed by two of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Francesco Geminiani lived in Dublin several times and indeed died there in 1762 – he is represented by a cello sonata op 5/1. It is fascinating to have confirmed the extent to which Dublin was an international musical crucible in the years following Handel’s Messiah performances there. Irlandiani play all this music with an elegant musicality, and wisely don’t overplay the ‘celtic’ aspects of the traditional music, even when they are joined by Irish flautist Eimear McGeown. The inclusion of a composition by the group’s lead cellist Carina Drury, lovely as it is, is maybe a bit of an indulgence with its completely different idiom – better maybe to have ended the CD with the spirited account of The Rakes of Westermeath? On the other hand, one of the highlights for me was Drury’s imaginative arrangement of a glee by Francis Ireland (Hutcheson) To Sleep  – Hutcheson was indeed a lad o’ pairts, a lecturer in chemistry at Trinity Dublin and a consultant physician as well as clearly a competent composer. I very much enjoyed this CD, the result of much revelatory research and a paragon of tasteful and expressive performance.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Legros : Haute-contre de Gluck

Reinoud de Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
72:19
Alpha 992

This CD brings together repertoire by a variety of composers for the uniquely French haute-contre or high tenor voice, personified here by the excellent soloist Reinoud van Mechelen. Also directing the ensemble A Nocte Temporis, van Mechelen presents a selection of haute-contre arias which would have been sung by the operatic tenor Joseph Legros who dominated the Paris Opéra for twenty years from his appointment in 1764. During his tenure, he sang the music of still familiar composers such as Gluck and JC Bach, as well as now less familiar composers such as François-Joseph Gossec, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry and Niccoló Piccinni and practically forgotten musicians such as Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, Pierre-Montan Berton, Jean-Claude Trial and Joseph Legros himself. Reinoud van Mechelen has a lovely effortless high tenor voice, instantly accounting for the enduring popularity of Legros. Supported by a superb instrumental ensemble, he wisely lets them occasionally play a purely instrumental piece for variety, but the main virtue of this CD is his lovely vocal interpretation of this unfamiliar repertoire. Perhaps inevitably, the musical standards take a marked upturn with the advent of Gluck, just as his arrival at the Paris Opéra in 1774 seems to have well and truly shaken things up. The reported tension between Legros and Gluck may have been largely confected, and certainly the music Gluck wrote for Legros to sing exploited his gifts in a thorough and musically imaginative way. An aria composed by Legros for himself to sing has an insouciant charm, but he was probably right to keep on the day job, singing the music of his compositional betters! This CD, the third in a series exploring music written for haute-contres and preceded by Lully and Rameau’s star tenors, very usefully and stylishly brings together some beautiful music, and I feel a singer who also directs his accompanying ensemble brings a further dimension to this fascinating and enjoyable repertoire.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Gluck: Echo & Narcisse

Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet
102:19 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS095

The excellent Versailles Spectacle concert and recording series brings us this intriguing recording of Gluck’s last opera, Echo and Narcissus, a light pastoral which turns out to be of much more significance than first appearances would suggest. As a result of a mixture of bad luck, bad timing and bad casting the work was a comprehensive failure at its first performances, much to the chagrin of its composer, who clearly felt it deserved a better reception. On the basis of this delightfully understated performance, I can see why Gluck was so frustrated by its lack of popular success. Not always known for understatement, on this occasion Niquet has astutely cast the piece with appropriately light voices and allowed the music to speak for itself. One particular virtue of the work is Gluck’s imaginative orchestral writing, making particularly imaginative use of horns and clarinets. He also largely succeeds in his aim to blend the French and Italian operatic styles – the ‘extras’ are given music with a light Italianate charm while the central characters’ more profound music recalls the music of Rameau – while you would have thought the generally undemanding musical idiom and the episodic nature of the piece would have appealed to the short musical attention span of the French court in 1779. None of these virtues nor even the patronage of Marie Antoinette herself would save the work from failure and obscurity until it was ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century. The precise and tasteful playing and singing of Le Concert Spiritual bring this little gem to vivid life, and while the positioning, with the chorus and soloists onstage and the orchestra down on the flat tends to flatten out the orchestral colours a little, the overall sound and balance are pleasing, and the acoustic of the Opéra Royal de Versailles provides just the right amount of resonance, reflecting the sound Gluck would have been writing for. It was probably much too late for the self-obsessed and hopelessly superficial court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to learn any valuable lessons from Gluck’s pastoral – in any case, Gluck never returned to opera in the last decade of his life, while just a couple of years after his death the entire edifice of the French Court was swept away in revolution. In many ways, the innocent simplicity of Gluck’s Echo & Narcisse evokes a whole era of French music, part of a culture blissfully unaware of its shortcomings and the gruesome fate that awaited it.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Hélène de Montgeroult

Portrait d’une compositrice visionnaire
Marcia Hadjimarkos fortepiano, Beth Taylor mS, Nicolas Mazzolini violin
61:51
Seulétoile SE09

The composer and pianist Hélène de Nervo, Marquise de Montgeroult by marriage, 1764-1836) lived through tumultuous times in her native France. With such a colourful career and such characterful music as the performers have found here, it is remarkable that she has passed below the radar for so long. A student of Dussek and Clementi, Montgeroult benefited from the rapid development of the piano-forte during her lifetime, a process she was able to take full advantage of during her years in Paris. Pianist Hadjimarkos also takes full advantage of the developing pianoforte in her choice of some striking stops in her performances of the solo Etudes (1812 and 1816) and accompanying Beth Taylor’s powerful accounts of the Nocturnes (1807). She plays a beautiful 1817 pianoforte by Antoine Neuhaus. The piano works appear as an appendix to a Complete Method for Piano, and while seven of the Etudes recorded here are for both hands, a further three focus more intently on the right hand and yet another on the left – presumably Montgeroult’s intention was to strengthen both hands of the performer independently and to build up their distinctive roles. Given their very practical purpose, these Etudes are remarkably imaginative and effective, and are given superbly expressive performances here. The subtitle of the CD is ‘Portrait d’une compositrice visionnaire’ and this aspect of Montgeroult’s strikingly individual musical style is very much to the fore in the performers’ minds. Mezzosoprano Beth Taylor gives beautifully eloquent accounts of the six short Nocturnes op 6 for solo voice and piano accompaniment. In the style of the time, the opus 2 Sonata no 6 (1800) for piano with accompaniment by the violin is just that, a piece very much led by the piano with fairly restrained commentary from the violin. It too is imaginatively presented by Hadjimarkkos with violinist Nicolas Mazzoleni. Montgeroult’s biographer Jérôme Dorival considers her the missing link between Mozart and Chopin, and while she might not be the only deserving candidate for this title, she is clearly an important composer who thoroughly deserves a place in the history of the early piano and in composition generally. These performers have done us all a great service in shining such a musically convincing spotlight on a composer who clearly merits much more attention.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos

Philippe Grisvard, Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
77:45
Audax Records ADX11211

This is a welcome recording of some unjustly neglected music.  Great composers cast long shadows and, in this case, those who overlapped with J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. have not always had much of a look in. Grisvard and the Ensemble Diderot make an impressive start at remedying that situation with this recording of concertos by four composers who had strong connections to the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. They have deliberately avoided C.P.E. Bach in favour of introducing music by his near contemporaries. Peter Wollny’s very informative sleeve notes give short biographies and provide the context for the music. Christoph Nichelmann, Carl Heinrich Graun and Christoph Schaffrath were close contemporaries of C.P.E.; Ernst Wilhelm Wolf was twenty years younger. Nichelmann was a pupil in the Leipzig Thomasschule in the early 1730s and later served as second harpsichordist in Berlin for a time, until a personality clash with C.P.E. led to him leaving that court. Graun is mainly known for his operas and a Passion composed for Berlin. Schaffrath worked for Frederick as crown prince, and later for his sister Anna Amalia. Wolf did not actually work in Berlin – he served in Leipzig and Weimar – but came under the Prussian capital’s musical influence through the mediation of Georg Benda. 

The music draws clear inspiration from both Bachs, with a strong sense of Sturm und Drang clear from the first movement of Nichelmann’s D minor concerto which opens the disc. Schaffrath’s first movement is a muscular fugue in C minor, starting in the strings but later developed in an extended solo passage by the keyboard. Ritornello form predominates throughout these works, with extended solo passages for harpsichord, especially so in Wolf’s somewhat later concerto. The dialogue between soloist and strings is greatly assisted by the recording engineers, who have produced an excellent balance. Although there are only five string players, their playing and the recording quality tricks the ear into thinking that there are several more players in ripieno passages. Grisvard plays on a Mietke copy by Christoph Kern which has a full rich sound and good registrational capabilities. Cadenzas survive for the Nichelmann and Schaffrath works; Grisvard has developed his own for the other two which sound entirely idiomatic.  His playing throughout is both confident and nuanced, showing a real understanding of the style of this transitional period, with its predictabilities and idiosyncrasies. This comes across as very attractive music, played with energy and plenty of forward drive. These performances really whet the appetite for more of this music and the recording can be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Marc’Antonio Ziani: La Morte vinta sul Calvario

Les Traversées Baroques, directed by Etienne Meyer & Judith Pacquier
73:18
Accent ACC 24402

Often confused with oratorios, the sepolcro is a peculiarly Viennese form best thought of as a cross between opera and oratorio. The genre flourished at the Hapsburg court during the reign of the highly musical and deeply religious Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705), its best-known practitioners being Antonio Draghi (1634-1700) and Marc’Antonio Ziani (1658-1715). Sepolcri can be defined as semi-staged dramatic works performed on Good Friday in either spectacular fashion in the Hofkapelle or more intimately in the private chapel of one of the senior members of the Imperial family. The characters depicted were nearly exclusively allegorical, thus similar to the type of libretto familiar today from Handel’s early Roman oratorio La resurrezione (1708).

The Venetian opera composer Ziani arrived in Vienna in the wake of Draghi’s death, appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1700. For the Viennese court he composed operas, oratorios and eight sepolcri. His La Morte vinta sul Calvario dates from 1706, when it was given in the Hofkapelle on the evening of Good Friday and has for its subject matter Christ’s triumph over death as a result of his dying on the Cross at Calvary. The topic is explored in P A Bernardoni’s libretto by five allegorical characters: Il Demonio (Satan), La Morte (Death), La Natura Umana (Human Nature), La Fede (Faith) and L’Anima d’Adamo (the Soul of Adam). The ‘action’ is carried on through alternating brief da capo arias and recitative, a typical sequence being aria-recitative-aria for the same character. There is also a duet (for Il Demonio and La Morte) and a final madrigalian chorus. A number of the arias are fairly florid, Il Demonio opening the work with a particularly bravura piece in a role sung at the first performance by the bass Rainaldo Borrini, one of the most highly paid singers at the Viennese court. The taste for contrapuntal writing at the court is much in evidence, with chromatic seasoning also strongly featured in Ziani’s score. Some of the cantabile arias have considerable beauty, La Natura Umana’s ‘Io languia’ (no. 30) being a particularly winning example. Accompaniments feature a rich assortment of brass and wind – pairs of cornetti, recorders, sackbuts and bassoons in addition to the strings, which include violas da gamba. It is a weakness of the present recording that only single strings to a part are employed, since we know sepolcri employed the substantial forces available at the Viennese court, which just a few years later is recorded as employing over 30 string players.

The demands made on the singers are in the main too great for the present performers, though the performance is obviously one of great integrity. Yannis François’s is a lightish bass-baritone whose voice carries neither sufficient authority nor personality for Il Demonio. La Natura Umana is sung by Vincent Bouchot, listed as a tenor but who, particularly in his first aria, sounds more like an haute-contre. La Morte, a countertenor part, is sung by Maximiliano Baños pleasingly enough but without making any significant impression. Much the most satisfying performances come from the two sopranos, Dagmar Šašková’s in particular bringing to the role of La Fede a sense of real commitment lacking elsewhere, along with some highly impressive chest notes in her angry recitative exchange with Il Demonio (no. 25). However, both she and the charmingly fresh-sounding L’Anima d’Adamo of Capucine Keller had difficulty controlling a few notes above the stave. The instrumental playing is good.

Although the performance is not ideal it is praiseworthy for its honesty and intentions. Les traversées Baroques deserve praise for reviving a splendid example of a repertoire little known today.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Ockeghem: Complete Songs volume 2

Blue Heron, director Scott Metcalfe; Dark Horse Consort
Blue Heron BHCD 1013
70:27

To say that Blue Heron’s second and final disc of Ockeghem’s songs has been awaited eagerly is an understatement. My review of the first volume (BHCD 1010) is dated 21 February 2020, and shortly afterwards (15 October 2020) I reviewed a double album of all Les Chansons released by another American ensemble Cut Circle (Musique en Wallonie MEW 1995). Both of these releases are superb and in their different ways whetted the appetite for Blue Heron’s second excursion into this repertory. Has the wait – four years – been worthwhile?

Back in 1993 I attended the 21st Annual Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Music at Bangor University. I was giving a paper on Byrd – who in those days we still thought had been born in 1543 – and he shared much of the programme with papers about Ockeghem, the quincentenary of whose death was imminent (1997) and the subject of eager preparations. Knowing nothing of the composer except by reputation, I attended these sessions, some of which were illustrated by excerpts from those commercial recordings of his music – on this occasion his masses – then available. To me, compared with how well Byrd was beginning to be performed on disc, these recordings were atrocious (think postwar close harmony groups with crewcuts, clicking fingers and chortling “shoobie-doobie-doobie-doo-WAAAHHH”), and in one lecture I started to guffaw, stifling my contempt when I realised that my fellow attendees were listening without adverse reaction. Before long I was in the bookshop at Lincoln Cathedral, still pursuing Byrd. In lieu of simply making a donation, I impulsively bought a disc of The Clerks’ Group version of his Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, partly by way of contributing to the Cathedral’s funds, and partly remembering Bangor and thinking that there must be more to Ockeghem than the racket that I had heard there.

And so there is. More wonderful recordings of Ockeghem’s masses by Edward Wickham’s excellent ensemble have been followed by, amongst others, two recordings of his complete secular songs which I mentioned above, made by a couple of outstanding American vocal groups with not a crewcut in sight and no clicking of fingers. Suffice to say this second disc by Blue Heron continues the good work of the first. The quality of Ockeghem’s songs is such that they deserve to be performed and recorded by the best ensembles after the indignities his masses suffered on disc during the latter decades of the previous century.

Unlike Cut Circle, Blue Heron employ instruments on some tracks, more so on this second disc than on their first. This is always done sensitively, and the reasons for doing so are given clearly in the accompanying booklet. For instance, Cut Circle perform La despourveue as a vocal trio whereas Blue Heron give it as a solo song accompanied by two stringed instruments, a fourth higher, so that the soprano Sophie Michaux (where do these amazing singers keep coming from?) does not have to descend so far into her mezzo range as did the differently impressive Sonja DuToit Tengblad. And on Ung aultre l’a the “intriguing downward octave scale in the [sung] bass part”, to which I referred in my review of Cut Circle, is played sweepingly on the harp. Throughout this recording, Blue Heron sing with the ideal balance of intensity and engagement – an engagement with the songs themselves and also an engagement with the listener: in other words, this engagement not only extends from the musicians to the music, but also reaches out and embraces the listener – they penetrate the meanings of the songs but also project these meanings outward to their audience. This is expressed as well as anywhere in Baisies moi in which the three singers achieve an ideal balance of intimacy and animation.

Three of the works on this disc are not by Ockeghem himself. The Dark Horse Consort, a quartet of brass instruments, plays an anonymous arrangement of the almost heartbreaking Je n’ay deuil of which the singers perform the four-part version on the preceding track. Of the other two songs, one is by Binchois and the other is by the Spaniard Juan Cornago, but their links to Ockeghem and his music are explained in the booklet, a most helpful and illuminating document written by director Scott Metcalfe and musicologist Sean Gallagher.  Scott himself participates on the harp and fiddle and, as on the first disc, is joined by Laura Jeppesen also playing the fiddle. Cornago’s lovely song for three voices Qu’es mi vida is the penultimate track, and the disc, indeed the project, is brought to a close by Ockeghem’s four-part transformation, given here by Sophie Michaux and three instruments: the fiddle played by Scott plus a doucaine and – as a nod to the song’s Spanish provenance – a vihuela de arco. It is difficult to imagine anything more beautiful.

Richard Turbet

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Recording

Haydn: Symphonies 15 – La Reine

Kammerorchester Basel conducted by Giovanni Antonini
66:29
Alpha Classics Alpha 696

Most enthusiasts will by now surely need no introduction to this treasurable series of the complete Haydn symphonies, a project planned to reach completion by 2032, thus marking the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For those that might be making their first acquaintance with the series, the recordings are divided between the Kammerorchester Basel and Giovanni Antonini’s own Il Giardino Armonico and is intended to eventually include Haydn’s entire symphonic output.

From the outset, the performances have been marked by a rare and felicitous combination of strongly incisive playing of diamantine clarity combined with warm sensitivity.  In the present set of performances one need only, for example, bring to mind the celebratory opening movement of Symphony No 50, with its trumpets and timpani cutting through the texture like a sabre to illustrate the first point, while the delicacy of the light-footed Romance of No. 85 serves ideally as an example of just how sensitive and elegant Antonini’s direction can be.

The symphonies on the present CD most obviously have in common that all three have a slow introduction, but there are more subtle links, too.  The earliest is No 50 in C, a fully scored work with a pair of trumpets and timpani dating from 1773. Its first two movements are believed to have originally formed  part of the now-lost incidental music for Der Götterrath, which forms the prologue to Philemon und Baucis, first given in the marionette theatre at Esterháza for the Empress Maria Theresa. The Andante moderato (ii) is notable for its richly warm colouring – here beautifully captured – with obbligato cello doubling the melodic line, while the Minuet brings back the trumpets and drums for one of those dance movements you find it difficult to imagine being actually danced.  Symphony No 62 in D probably owes its existence to a familiar modern problem – building works overrunning their completion date. In this case, it was the new theatre at Esterháza that opened in 1780 on St Theresa’s Day, the name day of the empress. It had been intended to open with Haydn’s new La fedelta premiata but the elaborate stage machinery not having been installed it was replaced with a play. In order that his Kapellmeister should still be represented, Prince Nicolaus apparently asked Haydn for a new symphony. Haydn obliged with the present hybrid work, one with a history too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say the unusual Allegretto that forms its second movement is a remarkably individual passage that proceeds into curiously mysterious territory.

Much the best known of these symphonies is No. 85 in B flat, one of the six so-called ‘Paris Symphonies’ (no’s 82-87) probably written in 1785 as a commission from the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique. It acquired its nickname ‘La Reine’ very early on, a reference often mistakenly attributed to Maria Theresa, but in fact referring to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who had become Queen of France in 1774. The opening Adagio – Vivace provides a perfect example of the supreme merits of the mix of robust energy and lyricism Antonini brings to his Haydn, the lovely cantabile oboe solo that dominates the secondary idea here splendidly played. And there could be no better illustration of the deliciously featherweight lightness of touch he obtains from his players than the opening of the Presto finale before it bursts into forceful operatic drama to carry the symphony surging to its conclusion.

This is quite simply another splendid addition to a series at present bidding fair to be the set of Haydn symphonies.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Charpentier: Médée

Véronique Gens (Médée), Cyrille Dubois(Jason), David Witczak (Oronte), Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet
170:43 (3 CDs)
Alpha 1020

It is nearly 50 years since William Christie’s first recording of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (harmonia mundi) vividly illustrated that French Baroque opera meant more than Rameau and the occasional nod in Lully’s direction. Since then Médée has become firmly established and acknowledged not only as Charpentier’s operatic masterpiece – though I would argue that David et Jonathas (1688) should be considered its equal – but one of the peaks of the repertoire.  First performed at the Paris Opéra (Académie Royale de Musique) in 1693 it was one of the first operas given there after Lully’s monopoly was ended by his death six years earlier. Despite the presence of Louis XIV at the premiere, the opera was not a success, receiving ten performances before being withdrawn and not revived until the 20th century.

Cast in five acts with the usual prologue, Médée is a tragédie en musique that for once lives up its genre, a feature that may have some bearing in its contemporary unpopularity. By the end of the opera not only are Créon, King of Corinth and his daughter Créusa, the new amour of Jason dead, but in her fury at Jason’s treachery the sorceress Médée (Medea) has committed filicide. Yet it is measure of the quality of Thomas Corneille’s libretto that far from being simply an irredeemable villain poisoned by jealousy, Médée emerges as a deeply ambivalent character driven to madness by the ingratitude of Jason. The picture becomes more opaque still if her earlier services (the Golden Fleece) to Jason are taken into account. And it is more than just the text, for Charpentier gives to Médée not only music that is highly dramatic but in her act three air ‘Quel prix mon amour’ the most touchingly beautiful music in the score. Musing on whether she should murder her sons, the product of her love for Jason, also give momentary relief from the derangement from which Médée  now suffers, her servant Nérine a little earlier having spoken of her ‘Eyes staring wildly, her steps unsteady’. The role is one tailor-made for Véronique Gens, one of the great tragediennes of our day and a singer to compare with the creator of the role, Marthe Le Rochois, the creator of all the leading female roles in Lully’s tragedies lyriques and who was considered without parallel for her mastery of the declamatory styleGens’s mastery of the role ranges from the imperious in the infernale scene at which she is at her most powerful, displaying some awesome chest notes, to the sheer, pure beauty of her singing in the air noted above.

Her errant husband is given a poor hand by comparison, at his best in the tenderness he displays toward his new love Créuse, its cynical political implications drowned out in the exquisitely sensitive music Charpentier gives the couple in their scenes together (act 1, sc 5 and act 4, sc 2). The experienced Judith Van Wanroij (the cast listing spelling is used in the heading but here the more usual spelling is adopted) is at her best in this kind of gentle heroine role and here she is utterly engaging. There are, too, few finer stylists in haute-contre heroic roles than Cyrille Dubois, though here the fast vibrato that is a part of his voice does occasionally threaten to be a distraction. The only other significant role is that of Creon, which asks for little more than Thomas Dolie’s richly authoritative baritone until the great scene in which he is made mad by Médée (act 4, sc 8/9). Then considerable vocal acting powers are called upon, a demand met admirably by Dolié. 

Among smaller roles baritone David Witczak’s Oronte, the deposed suitor of Créuse, should be noted, as should the enchantingly fresh soprano of Jehanne Amzal in several comprimario roles. Her singing of the Italian air included in the act 2 divertissement is one of the delights of the set. Hervé Niquet’s direction of the prologue, the customary panegyric dedicated to Louis XIV with Glory, Victory and Bellone (goddess of war) doing the honours, is curiously – if arguably understandably – briskly uninvolved. Thereafter it improves significantly without ever becoming one of his finest achievements. Notwithstanding the set is required listening for all Gens’s many fans, who will also encounter a great opera and much excellent singing.

Brian Robins