It's no longer possible to shrug off the early-music
movement as a playground for specialists and narrow-minded
dogmatics. Nor would you want to when encountering the
thrilling reconstructions of major musical events from the
Renaissance and baroque that Paul McCreesh has made. A flood
of U.S. releases this year further demonstrates the
conductor's versatility and creative vision.
Mozart: "Cosi fan tutte"
Veronique Gens, Werner Gura, et al.; Concerto Koln; Rene Jacobs, conductor
Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" is one of the ultimate schools for lovers: tender, cynical, and ultimately quite deeply moving. This period-instrument version is one of the most exciting Mozart opera recordings in some time. Rene Jacobs offers a magnificently bracing interpretation that's like restoring a fresco to its original colors. It also includes a bonus interactive CD-ROM crowded with information about the opera and its cultural background.
Messiaen: "Saint Francois d'Assise"
Jose Van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, et al.; Halle Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Kent Nagano, conductor
Olivier Messiaen lavished loving detail on his opera "St. Francis of Assisi," an enormous meditation on suffering and redemption that ignited this maverick composer's unique imagination. The four-hour opera includes the famous legend of preaching to the birds, in which the composer's own long-term fascination with the dazzling variety of bird music takes center stage. This spectacular live recording from Salzburg reveals the work as a profoundly moving summation of a lifetime of discovery.
Schnittke: "Psalms of Repentance"
Of German-Jewish heritage, Alfred Schnittke converted to Catholicism yet drew upon Russian Orthodox musical traditions among many others for his collage-like "polystylism." This characteristic permeates Schnittke's religious works--such as the great "Choir Concerto"--but reaches a new level of severe, awe-inspiring beauty in the a cappella "Psalms of Repentance," given here in a superb recording by the Swedish Radio Choir. Schnittke weaves the old with the new in these ethereal settings of 12 psalms from Old Russian writings.
Popular vocal selections from the list of customer favorites include:
"Voice of an Angel"
Charlotte Church's phenomenal debut album put her in the "Guinness Book of Records" as the youngest artist ever to have an album at No. 1 on the classical charts.
"Paul Hillier: Home to Thanksgiving"
Paul Hillier, Theatre of Voices, His Majesties' Clerkes
The impulse to take stock and give thanks has inspired music from the earliest times, and it lies behind some of our most enduring musical traditions. Gathered together from contemporary troubadour Paul Hillier's visionary recordings, "Home to Thanksgiving" presents a fascinating collection of centuries of thanksgiving.
"Handel: Acis and Galatea"
Sophie Daneman, Paul Agnew, Alan Ewing, Patricia Petibon, et al.; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor
The combination of William Christie and French baroque opera always promises a remarkable result, but his account of Handel's delightful English-language pastorale is equally felicitous. Gathered together here is a splendid cast of early-music specialists who add vitality to the composer's mythical cast of nymph, shepherd, and villainous giant.
Renee Fleming, Barbara Bonney, Susan Graham; Vienna Philharmonic; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Richard Strauss has few peers when it comes to writing for the female voice, and his operas present a field day for serious artists interested in using vocal beauty to portray richly human characters. Renee Fleming's sensuous intelligence makes her a natural for the "Strauss Heroines" she brings to life on her new disc, on which she is joined by Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham.
"Szymanowski: King Roger"
Thomas Hampson, Elzbieta Szmytka, et al.; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Simon Rattle, conductor
If you haven't yet discovered the music of Karol Szymanowski, you're in for a special treat with the shimmering, fragile beauty of this neglected masterpiece from 1926. Characterized by thinly veiled homoeroticism, lush impressionist scoring, and a philosophical take on the story line of Euripides's "Bacchae," "King Roger" is more oratorio than opera but a work of unique vision in Simon Rattle's cogent interpretation.
"Monteverdi, Vivaldi, et al.: Lamenti"
Anne Sofie von Otter, Jakob Lindberg, et al.; Musica Antiqua Koln; Reinhard Goebel, conductor
Possibly the best solo recording Anne Sofie von Otter has yet made, "Lamenti" is a breathtaking compendium of mostly 17th-century music centered around the topics of grief and loss. Otter's sensuous mezzo conveys both the virtuosity and pensive dignity of these pieces by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Purcell, and others, while the period-instrument Musica Antiqua Koln plays with exquisite grace.
Jose Cura; Philharmonia Orchestra; Jose Cura, conductor
The controversial tenor from Argentina has come out with an exceptionally impressive solo album of selections by Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Puccini, and other great "verismo" composers, just in time for his much-anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in "Cavalleria Rusticana." Cura also appears in a dual role as conductor, and this off-the-beaten track program is replete with enjoyable singing.
"Legends of St. Nicholas"
As one of the most popular saints throughout the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas--better known today as Santa Claus--inspired supremely beautiful musical settings of poems recounting his miracles. Anonymous 4 bring these "Legends of St. Nicholas" to life with their customary brand of ethereal vocals in their latest release. If you're tired of the same old holiday fare, this is for you.
"Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress"
Anne Sofie von Otter, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, et al.; London
Symphony Orchestra, Monteverdi Choir; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
"The Rake's Progress," which was inspired by Hogarth's morality-tale paintings of 18th-century decadence, features a particularly brilliant libretto by poet W.H. Auden and some of its composer's most engaging music. John Eliot Gardiner proves himself the stylistic polymath yet again in a recording on which everything comes together, including a splendid cast featuring Anne Sofie von Otter, Deborah York, Ian Bostridge, and Bryn Terfel (as the chilling Nick Shadow).
"Messiaen: Saint Francois d'Assise"
Jose Van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, et al. Halle Orchestra, Arnold
Schoenberg Choir; Kent Nagano,conductor
Visionary French composer Olivier Messiaen spent nearly a decade writing "Saint Francis of Assisi," his four-hour opera inspired by the saint's life--including the famous legend of preaching to the birds, in which the composer's own long-term fascination with the dazzling variety of bird music takes center stage. This spectacular live recording from Salzburg reveals the work as a profoundly moving summation of a lifetime of discovery.
"Denyce Graves: Voce di Donna"
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves has captured attention for her sumptous, velvety sound and for emotionally charged portrayals of Carmen and Dalila. This young artist's latest solo disc features, in addition to arias from those two operas, a nice selection ranging from Purcell to Barber.
"Puccini: La Boheme"
Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, et al.; Riccardo Chailly,
Even though Puccini's most beloved opera has fared marvelously well on disc, it requires--like all masterpieces--a significant new interpretation for each generation. Going back to Puccini's own observations on performance and using a new critical edition of the score, Riccardo Chailly here performs a work of deeply moving restoration. And the chemistry conveyed by the young, vital cast makes this nothing less than a "Boheme" for our time.
BOOKS ABOUT MUSIC
"Opera: Desire, Disease, Death"
by Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon
About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters, but it's the sociological implications of illness as metaphor that are the focus of this fascinating work of cultural study. Many of the famous operas link disease to emphatic sexuality, with moral overtones that still have resonance in contemporary culture.
"Schoenberg and His World"
ed. by Walter Frisch
From a distance, the controversies that once swirled around Arnold Schoenberg's radical new music can now be seen as distractions from the true nature of that music, not to mention of the man. This collection of essays and documentary sources considers the many facets of Schoenberg's talents as a teacher, painter, and Jewish thinker.
"Text and Act"
by Richard Taruskin
This seminal series of essays on the significance of the historically informed performance movement has surely caused some readers to hurl the book against a wall. But for all his reputation as a flamethrower, Taruskin covers the issues for anyone interested in what the early-music revival is all about and the intense passions it arouses.
Renee Fleming "Strauss Heroines"
G. Puccini "Boheme-Comp Opera"
Jose Cura "Verismo"
"In Paradisum: Faure and Durufle Requiems"
Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Santa Cecilia Academy of Rome Orchestra; Myung-Whun Chung, conductor
The ritual farewell that is part of the Requiem's function has inspired its share of intensely dramatic scores, but Faure's composition stands out for its gentleness and peaceful vision. Chung understands that its pleasures are more subtle than lapel-grabbing in this sensitive account of the later, fully orchestrated version. It features stunning solo contributions by Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel. The coupling of the increasingly popular and beloved Durufle Requiem makes a perfect complement.
"Monteverdi: Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria"
Gloria Banditelli, Maria Cristina Kiehr, et al.; Ensemble Elyma; Gabriel Garrido, conductor
Opera pioneer Claudio Monteverdi's late work "The Return of Ulysses" is a very different creature from the more famous "L'Orfeo," presenting instead of the lavish pageantry of the latter a real drama particularly involving in its scope. Gabriel Garrido brings this drama to life with an unusually colorful and imaginative continuo ensemble (including several lutes, regal, harp, and lyra-viol) and an expert cast of idiomatic Monteverdian singers.
"Haydn: Lord Nelson Mass"
Collegium Musicum; Richard Hickox, conductor
Haydn's Masses represent a significant and musically potent aspect of his legacy. In Richard Hickox's ongoing series of recordings for Chandos, these works can be heard with both period-instrument precision and dramatic verve. The "Lord Nelson Mass" in particular comes through as the supremely beautiful statement that it is, filled with tension, richly contrapuntal webbings, and ultimate affirmation.
"The Face on the Barroom Floor"
David Holloway, Leanne McGiffin, Barry McCauley; Central City Opera
Henry Mollicone's pocket opera (lasting about 25 minutes) about an explosive love triangle in the Old West, "The Face on the Barroom Floor," has shown remarkable staying power since it was commissioned in 1978. With its tight economy of scale and vivid story line, "Face" has become a frequently performed contemporary American opera. This is the work's first reissue on CD, and the cast of three singers, together with an ensemble of piano, cello, and flute, packs a memorable dramatic punch.
"Vivaldi et al.: Music from the Venetian Ospedali"
San Francisco Girls Chorus; Sharon Paul, conductor
Here's a stunning account of one of Vivaldi's greatest works (the Gloria), one that sounds fresh by going back to the practices of the composer's time. The Gloria, like the other works on this disc, was written for all-girl choruses in Venetian orphanages. The San Francisco Girls Chorus sings with a marvelous variety of expression and power: soon it becomes clear how the apparent limitations of such ensembles actually provided a source of inspiration to Vivaldi and other contemporaries.
"Jean Catoire and Hildegard
of Bingen: Extasia"
Harrogate Ladies' College Chapel Choir; Harvey Brough, conductor
This fascinating fusion of ancient and modern involves a "collaboration" between 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and contemporary French composer Jean Catoire. Here music of austere, simple beauty reaches across the centuries and finds an echo in the searching spirituality of today's "holy minimalists."
"Mozart: Die Entfuhrung aus
Ian Bostridge, Christine Schafer, et al.; Les Arts
Florissants; William Christie, conductor
Here's another exciting period-instrument performance of the operatic Mozart, all beautifully held together by the tasteful and intelligent William Christie. In spite of the silly complications--and then-fashionable Turkish setting--of the libretto, Mozart displays his astonishing facility for characterizing nuance and situation through music. If you know only Mozart's later collaborations with Da Ponte, this is an opera you will likely find delightfully seductive.
"Ockeghem: Missa Cuiusvis
The Clerks' Group; Edward Wickham, conductor
Ockeghem was known as the great Renaissance puzzlemaster thanks to such works as the Missa Cuiusvis Toni ("Mass in whatever mode you'd like"). Depending on where the singers start, the score can be sung in different modes. In their account, the Gramophone Award-winning Clerks' Group--which has made a specialty of Ockeghem--gives us a vigorous and lively portrait of this highly influential master.
"Glass: the CIVIL warS"
Denyce Graves, Giuseppe Sabbatini, et al.; American
Composers Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
Since his epoch-making "Einstein on the Beach," Philip Glass has redefined the face of contemporary musical theater. This premier recording of his contribution to Robert Wilson's gargantuan, multinational "the CIVIL warS" project shows Glass at his most "operatic." The score features lush voices and full-bodied orchestrations that bind together a number of haunting images inspired by Matthew Brady's photographs of the American Civil War.