La Donna del Lago, Santa Fe Opera 2013

This year's Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago (based on Sir Walter Scott's 1810 novel The Lady of the Lake) was a treat.  Musically, quite a nice piece.  I don't feel like giving a very definite appraisal of the opera itself without hearing it more, but it has plenty of excellent arias along with some that were less striking, some really nice orchestral parts (the opening scene, for instance), and good choral sections, along with what feels, at times, like more pedestrian sections (hardly unheard-of in Rossini).  Unquestionably worth seeing in a good production like this one.

Joyce DiDonato is a fascinating singer and convincingly characterized the main female role of Elena.  She has a very flexible mezzo with an extended high end, perhaps somewhere between a soprano and mezzo in tone, and great agility in coloratura.  Ornamentation and fancy passagework is all there, not approximated, although very occasionally I felt like this was getting in the way of natural phrasing.  Moreover she can usually do this while remaining relaxed, which probably contributes to her effectiveness as a vocal actress.  There was a lot for her to do in this opera, besides the last-act showstopper Tanti affetti, and she did it all (including Tanti affetti) masterfully.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as King James of Scotland (disguised as one "Uberto" during the first act), gave a solid performance but his voice, while clear and reliable, seemed a bit overmatched, in volume and projection, by Ms. DiDonato's at times; indeed, I occasionally  wondered if she was holding back a bit so as not to overpower him.  (On the other hand, she had a lot of singing to do over the course of the evening, so could have been pacing herself.)  His singing came across as slightly reserved, perhaps a little stiff, although this was perhaps not completely out of character for a king.  His voice seemed smooth, refined, his tone a bit burnished.  I will definitely be interested in checking out his work in other settings.  I thought he came into his own a bit more in the final scene, where he is king in his court, rather than disguised to investigate the situation in his realm (and court Elena).

Tenor René Barbera was superb as Rodrigo di Dhu, the leader of another clan, whom Elena's father Duglas (Douglas) intends for Elena to marry.  His voice had a lot of color and texture to it, and projected well into the house.  And he sang with plenty of power and passion.  His voice showed no stress in climactic moments, and he did a good job of musically shaping phrases and whole arias, and of portraying Rodrigo as a vigorous, passionate young leader, not used to being thwarted.  I'd keep on the lookout for opera's he's in---his participation is a reason to go.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was also superb as Elena's father Duglas.  He managed to convey real fatherly affection along with dictatorial control over his daughter's life, including the attempt to impose a marriage on her for reasons in part political and military.  Both his appearance (tall, with tousled dirty-blond hair) and his singing, in a clear, flexible but not soft, somewhat commanding but not bellowing voice, contributed to the picture of a fairly rough-hewn Scottish clan-leader, whose character mixes some nobility with some crudeness and violence.

As Malcolm Groeme, Elena's own choice for a main squeeze, mezzo Marianna Pizzolato sang beautifully, and her somewhat darker mezzo worked well with DiDonato.  She too was very solid in complex passagework.  Their duet cavatina Vivere io non potro was a highlight of the evening, and one of the high points of Rossini's opera.  She perhaps did not match DiDonato in acting skill; her long Act 2, scene 2 aria came off as a bit static.  But she is an excellent singer.

Seeing Maometto II last year, and now La Donna, makes me think that Rossini had a particular interest in the theme of romantic love reaching across the divide of military conflict.  In this opera, it ultimately succeeds in bringing peace.  The quick peacemaking in the court scene at the end is perhaps a little bit unconvincing, but maybe further experience with the opera will clarify that aspect of the plot.

Last season, I began to wonder if Santa Fe plans each season to have a theme running through several operas.  Last season, it would have been the damage caused to people seeking to live lives of love, art, peaceful spirituality, by the alliance of religion with state power.  This year, I'd say it was romantic love and powerful women against patriarchy.  This was the obvious theme of Rossini's opera, and I think the director underlined it by having some of the men behave extra-badly: some pretty aggressive come-ons by King James to Elena in the first act, violent treatment of women by clansmen in some of the choral scenes.

Some of the staging was perhaps a bit static, but the production did well to keep the original setting, and the sets were excellent, emphasizing rusticity and desolation over romantic lochs.  (In fact, the lake seemed to have gone missing.)  The chorus and orchestra were both very strong.

Overall, a good opera with moments of magic, extremely well produced and cast, and with a thought-provoking theme.  Lots of excellent music, though sometimes padded out with lesser music, and with a story providing food for thought, and mostly effective drama, though probably not up with the best operas in the dramatic department.  An opera I'd definitely see again, and hope to see done this well.




Poulenc --- Complete Works (EMI)

Over the last few weeks I've been listening to "Francis Poulenc:  Oeuvres Complètes"  on EMI Classics (972165 2).  The short take: if you like classical music, buy it.  Amazing value at $44 for 20CDs  (prices vary but $50ish for the new set seems about par).  These are mostly, perhaps entirely, French performances, in many cases by artists (like pianists Gabriel Tacchino and Jacques Février) long associated with Poulenc.  There's a lot of superb music here and it's fascinating to have all of Poulenc's music in one place, sorted by genre (piano music first, then chamber music, then orchestral works, then sacred music, then dramatic vocal and other choral works, then songs).

Some highlights:  lots of superb piano music.  The "15 Improvisations", on disc 1, is a good place to start.  All of the chamber music is interesting; highlights include the wonderful 1926 Trio for piano, oboe, and bassoon. I was familiar with this from an excellent Deutsche Grammophon recording ("Francis Poulenc: Chamber Music") with the Ensemble Wien-Berlin on winds and James Levine on piano. The French EMI recording, with Robert Casier on oboe, Gérard Faisandier on bassoon, and Jacques Février on piano seems --- I could be influenced by the fact that the performers are French, but I think this is a real musical difference --- to have an earthier, perhaps Gallic, flair to it, with the winds sounding reedier, the phrasing more influenced by popular music.  The piece seems to blend influences from Classical and perhaps also rococo periods in music, with ones from the music-hall and popular traditions, and the more Germanic ensemble on DG seems to give a smoother, more ornamental sound emphasizing the classical connections more; the French one certainly doesn't overemphasize the popular elements (which are subtly infused into the music in any case), but does bring them out more.  Both performances bring out the humorous element that is usually essential to Poulenc, alongside expressiveness and singing beauty, but the French performers seem to fuse these two elements more closely and the result somehow seems a bit more sincerely felt, whereas the humorous aspects of the DG version have a bit more of the feel of parody.  Levine's piano playing is of course excellent, but seems a bit "blocky" at times compared to Février's.  I'm glad that I have both versions.  If I had to have only one, it would be the EMI one.

The Sonata for cello and piano is a masterpiece, that for violin and piano probably is also.  Poulenc worked on both over a good portion of the 1940s.   The latter is a bit more agitated in feeling (perhaps relatively chromatic for Poulenc?), the cello sonata more majestic, mellow, and songful.  The 1918 sonata for two clarinets and 1922 sonata for clarinet and bassoon are wonderful; they and the 1922 sonata for horn, trumpet, and trombone handle the unusual instrumentation masterfully.  The 1957 Elegy for horn and piano, dedicated to the memory of English French horn player Dennis Brain, is another masterpiece, with Février on piano and Alain Civil getting wonderful timbres from his horn.

I was less familiar with Poulenc's orchestral music before getting this box set, and it has been fascinating to get to know.  The ballet Les Biches, written for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and premiered in Monte Carlo in 1924, is probably the place to start.  Another wonderful piece, with lighthearted eighteenth-century-influenced pieces alternating with more avant-garde sounds and some very effective, more somber-sounding movements with chorus.  The choral movements are omitted in a later orchestral suite, which I have not heard; to me they are essential to the impact of the work heard here.

The piano-and-orchestra works have so far been a bit harder for me to wholeheartedly commit to... the Aubade starts very interestingly, but becomes rather bombastic-sounding, which even if intended humorously, doesn't quite draw me in.  I liked the earlier Concerto for piano and orchestra better, but will have to do some more listening to develop a real opinion.  Some of the pieces have a lot of music that sounds closely related to lush 1930s movie music, interesting but perhaps a bit too much.  The organ concerto has some really effective parts but I'll have to listen more carefully.  (Listening while cooking or doing dishes, which has been the situation for some of this orchestral music so far, doesn't really count as a fair hearing...).  Much of the orchestral music is conducted by the superb and very idiomatically French Georges Prêtre, and it is hard to imagine it better played.

Of the vocal works with orchestra on these discs, I have so far listened only to the first act of the opera Dialogues des Carmélites, which seems superb as a work of music, and probably of drama, and superbly sung and played; the choir and orchestra are those of the Paris Opera, under the excellent Pierre Dervaux.  (Dervaux' recording of Bizet's Pearl Fishers  with Nicolai Gedda as Nadir is one of the reference recordings of that piece, discussed elsewhere on this blog; it evidences the clarity of texture and line, and the restrained but expressive approach to tempo variation and phrasing, that one might think of as characteristically French, and which are shared by Prêtre's conducting here and elsewhere.)  The musical language seems quite influenced, at times, by the more modal side of Debussy and Ravel (and probably also by centuries of church music), and this language provides a superb vehicle for maintaining musical interest during the kind of dialogue that has often been scored, over the course of operatic history, as stereotyped recitative.  I am moved to go back to Débussy's Pélleas et Mélisande to see if it is a source for this style in opera (I have to admit that I never quite got into Pélleas, as conducted by Boulez, but probably didn't give it enough of a chance.)  Parts of the first act already have a stunning musical and dramatic impact, so I'm looking forward to finishing listening to this work.  I have listened, in other versions, to other vocal works by Poulenc, but it's been a long time, so I'm looking forward to getting familiar with them again.

I haven't yet delved into the five discs of songs, mostly for solo voice and piano but sometimes for vocal ensembles, that cap off the set.  Many involve one of my favorite singers, baritone Gérard Souzay accompanied by Dalton Baldwin (their Débussy songs on DG are sublime), and I suspect the less familiar singers will be wonderful discoveries.

The booklet contains discographic information in French and a valuable essay, discussing Poulenc and general and covering each piece briefly.   It's unfortunate that it doesn't include librettos for the dramatic pieces and lyrics for the songs, although that probably would have made the booklet unmanageably large.  I would guess that for most pieces you can find lyrics on the web, but that is not nearly as nice as having them all in one place stored with the relevant CDs.  The central section of the booklet features wonderful historic photos of Poulenc with friends and colleagues.

This set is an amazing value, of a sort that seems to be increasingly available from major record companies.  It contains many, many works that seem to me essential to any lover of classical music, in performances that it's hard to imagine improving upon.

The Marriage of Figaro, Santa Fe 2013

The 2013 opera season at Santa Fe ended last night (well, two nights ago as this is posted) with a performance of Offenbach's comic operetta The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.  I went to all five operas, and thought this one of the strongest seasons I've been to at Santa Fe.  As the first installment of a report on the season, I'll cover the August 20th performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

This was the first time I've seen this opera, though I have a video of it I used to enjoy.  Figaro is well known to be one of the greatest and most enjoyable operas so I won't cover the basics; if you think you might be interested in opera, it is one of the first ones you should get to know, particularly if you are looking for something combining melodic beauty, at times soaring, at times restrained, with elegance and lightness of spirit. (If you're looking for more consistently over-the-top emotion and big tunes, like perhaps if you're into metal or arena rock and looking to explore opera, the "big three" operas of Verdi's middle period (La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore), or even more over-the-top, the big Puccinis (especially Tosca or Madama Butterfly, also Turandot) are probably the ticket for an introduction to opera.)   All elements of this production were top-notch.  In Phillips, Fons, Oropesa, and Nelson, and probably several others, it featured some of the best singers I've heard at Santa Fe.  Susanna Phillips as the Countess and Emily Fons as Susanna were in beautiful form, both with strong, sweet voices, Phillips a soprano, Fons a very lyric mezzo.  The opera moves from the first act's exposition, silly business and plotting into more serious emotional territory with the Countess' first appearance, in the opening scene of Act II, in the beautiful lament Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Give me, love, some solace). Phillips portrayed the Countess' emotion superbly, with great dynamic control and plenty of power and projection when necessary without forcing the voice or losing sweetness of tone. Another in our party disliked the somewhat broad vibrato she unleashed at times, but I thought it was just right, part of a classic powerful operatic soprano presentation that still remained controlled and appropriate for Mozart. She was also superb in ensembles, and in her other major aria, the third act's Dove sono i bei momenti (Where are those beautiful moments?), especially the allegro section (Ah! se almen la mia costanza... (Oh! If only my constancy...)) that ends it. (I'm not sure if the notion of a fast cabaletta to cap off a broad aria had developed by this time, or if Mozart was helping to invent it here.) If I have any minor complaint about Phillips' singing, it might be that although her pianissimo singing can be incredibly sweet, it occasionally was so soft, the dynamic contrast so great, that it seemed a bit mannered, especially when used to end a phrase on a high note (more difficult, to be sure, than a loud high note, and achieved here with perfect control). But this is a very minor cavil and could be completely baseless, not even apparent from a different seat with different acoustics. (The member of our party who objected to Phillips' vibrato singled out her piano singing for special praise.) Overall, I thought this was opera singing of the highest caliber, in which the musicality of Phillips' phrasing and the beauty of her voice were inseparable from the communication of emotion and through it, her part in the the development of the drama.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, in a glowing review of the June 29th performance, wrote that

Phillips took a while to settle in, as Countesses often do, but she arrived at a firm, full-throated performance. Her voice has been evolving impressively in recent years, and one senses that she may be on the verge of the vocal luxuriance that has marked the most memorable Countesses over the years.

Her relationship with the role must have continued evolving in the month and a half since that early performance, because vocal luxuriance was abundantly, though not overbearingly, present, she needed no time to settle in, but had me by the heartstrings from the first notes of "Porgi, amor", and her performance will certainly live in my memory.

In the "trouser role" of Cherubino, soprano Emily Fons was equally superb. She did a good job with the comic elements of the character (a young boy discovering the delights of love with various local girls, and infatuated with the Countess as well---"Narciseto, Adoncino de amor", as Figaro characterizes him in the famous aria "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d'intorno girando, delle belle turbando il riposo" (No longer will you go, amorous butterfly, running around night and day disturbing the peace of pretty girls" ) with which he bids him goodbye as the Count attempts (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to send him away to join the army). The comedy was perhaps a bit muggy and telegraphed, the makeup a bit heavy viewed with binoculars, but that's probably part of such a role, and Fons kept it light and flitty, like an amorous butterfly indeed. Her voice is as good as Phillips', just slightly smoother and lighter in tone, and with a bit less prominent vibrato, but still quite full and sweet, definitely a sweetly lyric rather than a throaty mezzo, hence perfect, in my judgement, for this role. Her Voi che sapete, che cosa e l'amore ("You who know what love is"), yet another of the many classic arias you probably know even if you've never attended the opera or listened to it on your stereo (or phone, pad, pod, or computer), was as good as I can imagine. I will count either of these artists, Fons or Phillips, as among the best women singing today and reason enough to attend any opera they're in; keep a lookout for them if you follow opera. As Susanna, Lisette Oropesa's performance was of similar caliber; I don't remember specific moments as moving as the abovementioned arias of the Contessa and of Cherubino, but find myself wishing I could attend another performance to focus more on Susanna; her acting and singing were, as far as I can recall, flawless and her voice, like the other women's, clear, unstrained and musical, and carried well in what may be a slightly difficult (because open at the sides) theater.

Zachary Nelson did a superb job as Figaro. He is clearly---and with reason---rising very fast in the world of opera, as he was in the apprentice singer program last summer (2012) at Santa Fe. His performance was completely assured, his acting and musicality top-notch, with nothing to indicate anything but a seasoned and confident singer. Strangely, before looking in the program and finding out how recently he'd been an apprentice, I got the impression, just from his very pleasing tone, of a relatively young voice, perhaps in transition to a fuller, darker voice. That's arguably quite appropriate for Figaro, who is already quite competent and arguably making a similar transition from youthful adulthood to maturity, with marriage in view. He had plenty of power, never oversung or forced and achieved good projection, with perhaps occasional slight loss of power on the very lowest notes, or just slightly falling in the shadow of one of the sopranos (always a bit difficult for a baritone to balance with a powerful soprano, I suspect). But again, I could be off-base with such minor cavils, and overall this was a consistently excellent performance, probably the best by a baritone that I heard this season at Santa Fe, with excellent musicality and control in both solo and ensemble situations, a very interesting voice with some color and texture to it (making me think of walnut with a natural oil finish, maybe very fine tweed) but also a kind of clarion, though not cutting or harsh, quality that helps it stand out and project.  Wonderful, balanced characterization of Figaro, carried through ensemble, recitative and conversational duets and also solo arias,  lighthearted and witty, yet competent and with seriousness of purpose.  Se vuol ballare, signor contino ("If you want to dance, little Mr. Count") was a perfect example, with an overall affect of restrained glee at the prospect of teaching the Count a lesson, but not completely without menace and genuine outrage, either.  Non piu andrai was similarly deftly done.  Nelson is definitely another singer to go out of your way to hear.

Daniel Okulitch's Count was also extremely well sung and acted.  Though it still has some depth, his voice is perhaps is a little harder-edged and more brilliant than Nelson's, which seemed to suit his more authoritarian and rigid character.  The part doesn't offer as many star turns as does Figaro, but Okulitch played it perfectly.

I would have had to attend multiple times (I know a guy who goes to multiple performances of each opera, getting standing room to make it affordable) in order to evaluate the supporting singers with any accuracy; such evaluation is not really what I want to focus when I'm going once to enjoy an opera. What I can say is that overall the supporting singers were very solid, with no weaknesses that I noticed.  Keith Jameson, as the music master Basilio, stood out not only because he was a tenor (the heroic or lead-lover tenor was perhaps less established in Mozart's day, especially, I guess, in comic opera), but for the excellence and clarity of his voice and pacing, and Rachel Hall as Barbarina had a noticeably pleasing voice and sang well also.  A really excellent ensemble cast and chorus.

The production was excellent too, true to the original setting of the play and beautifully detailed, doing a wonderful job of creating a believable setting in an eighteenth-century aristocratic estate without needing to go over the top, fitting seamlessly with the particular requirements of Santa Fe's stage. The (presumably artificial) bunches of flowers planted all over the stage, and removed by topcoated and bewigged aristocrats from the front portion of the stage during the latter part of the overture, leaving the ones in back to serve as the garden exterior to the house when appropriate, were a spectacular and creative touch. Costumes were period-appropriate, with luxurious detail where appropriate but still lively and fresh rather than stodgy.

I didn't focus too hard on the orchestra's performance, conducted by John Nelson, but can say that it was light, lively, elegant, and integrated well with the vocal work. Obviously, no flaws drew unwanted attention to it. An instance of particularly memorable and perfectly-executed orchestral playing was the eighteen bars before the Count's famous plea for forgiveness "Contessa, perdono" , accompanying the Count's realization of the last of many deceptions that have been played on him ("O cielo, che veggio...", Oh heavens, what do I see...", sung by the Count, Dr. Bartolo the music teacher, Basilio, and Antonio the gardener.  (This passage begins with the second system on page 343 in the BMG/Ricordi piano/vocal score, or on page 48 of the pdf (390 of the original) of the full score from Peters, other sections downloadable here.)  The orchestra takes off in with running eight notes, scalar passages with frequent direction changes and turn-like flourishes, rapidly modulating through major and minor keys, including some fairly remote ones like Eb major (the ambient key signature is G major although the section starts in G minor), with a cascade down the cycle of fifths from G to Bb in the middle of the section, for a somewhat unearthly, magical, flying feeling creating an atmosphere like that in parts of the Magic Flute.  There is some baroque influence evident especially when the line does something ornamental, but it is not pastiche, definitely something new and probably uniquely Mozartean.  The passage is also reminiscent of a recurrent motif in Mozart's next opera on a Da Ponte libretto, Don Giovanni, which however features somewhat more regular ascending and then descending scales in minor, the whole ascending descending figure repeating in higher and higher keys, for a similar effect of suddenly becoming unmoored from ordinary reality and gliding through an eerily magical realm, but in a more tension-building, and definitely ominous, way. These eighteen bars are one of the many pinnacles of Mozartean magic reached in this opera. I recently read (it would have been in a collection "Other Entertainment" of Ned Rorem's essays, or in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's memoirs or Gerald Moore's book The Schubert Song Cycles) an approvingly quoted aphorism along the lines of "The only thing that matters in music is that which cannot be explained", and it is tempting to think of this passage as an example of such inexplicable magic, except that I think that while it's absolutely magical, it's mostly quite explicable---some of the discussion above is a start, and the passage would clearly repay more careful analysis, which I may do and post separately. Such analysis is probably more important to one who wants to understand how to achieve similar effects, rather than one who just wants to enjoy the magic... Mozart and a good opera orchestra like Santa Fe's are enough to ensure the latter. With a superb vocal cast and excellence in all aspects of production, this added up to a production that --- although I've not seen another live Figaro --- would be hard to top, an evening filled with all manner of Mozartean magic.

Rorem on Bizet... and Gedda and Vanzo in "Je crois entendre encore"

Reading Ned Rorem's essay on Bizet's Carmen, I can understand how he can say, even while admitting that Carmen is a "chef d'oeuvre", that it "does not make my mouth water. (No offense, neither does Schubert.) I like everything about it but it. .... One can admit to the fact of, and even cheer, certain universal marvels without needing them, while in the private heart one elevates to Parnassus lesser works which merely (merely?) satisfy."  I'm not sure I'd join him in this, although it's true I haven't sought out the opera very actively, except for a recent listen to the unusual recording (Prêtre conducting) with Callas late in her career.   The movie with Plácido Domingo as José, though, is memorable even though I haven't seen it since its first release, several decades ago now.  But I definitely can't join Rorem in his opinion that "There are no flukes in art.  Yet Carmen is a fluke.  Its high quality, if not its style, is incongruous in Bizet's catalogue."  Bizet was in his 37th year when he died of a heart attack (three months after the premiere of Carmen).  It's just as likely that Carmen was Bizet breaking through, not all that late, to his full power as composer, a power amply presaged by the best moments in his early work.  Rorem says that "Even his best works---the young Symphony, Jeux d'Enfants, parts of The Pearl Fishers---are in the salonistic genre of his period."  Well, I'm motivated to get to know the Symphony and Jeux by this.  And I suppose there is something salonistic, perhaps occasionally slightly cheesy, in parts of the Pearl Fishers.  More seriously, not all of Pearl Fishers is inspired...although good, transparent conducting, well recorded like Dervaux' in the 1960 Paris studio version with Nicolai Gedda as Nadir, Charles Blanc as Zurga, and Janine Micheau as Leila reveals plenty of beauty throughout.  And I guess my taste is somewhat more tolerant than Rorem's for the "salonistic" in music, and especially French music where Rorem admits "my taste buds crave a Frenchness that did not yet exist, a longing for the almost edible sadness that resides in the sharp seventh recipes of Debussy and Ravel."  Well, I find these delectable too (as I do the recipes with ninths thrown in, or a dash of pentatonicism), although not only when sadness is at issue.  But I sense that the modal moods of Debussy and Ravel show light, but important, traces of nineteenth-century "salonistic" influences, even, I think, of the Bizet of Carmen and the Pearl Fishers. I'll admit that the prismatic aperçus and pellucid vistas of Debussy and Ravel usually surpass the slightly overripe, though oh-so-tasty, sensuality of a Reynaldo Hahn, or even of Fauré in his early songs---Aprés un Rêve, which I do love, being just the most obvious example.  The great thing, of course, is that we don't need to choose between the two, except as a matter of allocating limited listening time---we can have both.

With the best of Pearl Fishers, though, Bizet makes it clear that Carmen was no fluke, but just the first mature fruit of a genius that was already perfectly evident, indeed in places perfectly realized, in the earlier work.  The tenor-baritone duet Au fond du temple saint, and the tenor romance Je crois entendre encore, both from Act I, are generally considered the greatest moments of Pearl Fishers.  Au fond is indeed wonderful, but after repeated listening to many versions of both (as they both do make my mouth water), I think Je crois is the greater of the two.   Salonistic, sentimental, whatever, it is the kind of aria that most composers can only dream of writing, nearly divine in its perfection and beauty.

The two singers I like best in this are Alain Vanzo and Nicolai Gedda.  I've linked some Youtubes of Vanzo singing this earlier, but I'll link another below.  Vanzo, in the second video below, uses the voix mixte to great effect, with a certain airiness in his timbre where Gedda's, in the first video, is smoother, probably a bit louder and more standardly operatic, with great clarity and perhaps slightly more control (they both have good control, though, and shape the line beautifully).  The last video, however, is of a 1953 recital performance by Gedda, whose timbre here is much closer to Vanzo's, and perhaps a bit more expressive too.  As is common in recital (for those uncommon singers who can do it), Gedda takes the final line that in the operatic arrangement is allotted to the English horn (over the singer's held note), going up to a piano high C.  (Vanzo can do this beautifully too, as he does in the video linked in an earlier post.)

Gedda, 1960:


Gedda, 1953 recital:

Essential listening: Alicia de Larrocha plays Granados

Alicia de Larrocha plays Enrique Granados' piano music on RCA Red Seal (BMG) CD 09026-6814-2.  Music and performance are perfection.  Can't imagine it done better.  Truly essential listening.  The musical equivalent of a Catalonian monastery, a Tuscan hilltop town, a Campanian fishing village.  Understated, picturesque, quotidian, unforgettable.

Essential listening: the Guarneri play Janácek

On a 1998 Philips CD, number 456 574-2, the Guarneri quartet plays both of Leoš Janácek's string quartets:  the 1923 "Kreutzer Sonata" and the 1928 "Intimate Letters".  This is wonderful music, tonal but not staidly so, beautifully played (in 1996) by the Guarneri.  Plenty of melodic and harmonic beauty, deeply felt but not sloppy or over-the-top.  Excellent recording captures the rosiny, woody aspects of string tone, and a bit of astringence but not too much.  Good acoustic ambience...fairly reverberant, but the sound is very clear.  Possibly more closely-miked than is completely realistic, but that gives a clear insight into the separate lines without sounding glaringly close up.  I don't know the other recordings of this piece, so can't comment on which others one might entertain in addition to, or instead of, this one.  Doesn't really matter:  this is essential music, beautifully rendered.  I will say no more except that every music lover would be well-advised to listen to these pieces, in this or some equally good recording if one exists, and to go hear them live if the opportunity arises.


Sorry for the lack of correct Czech diacritical marks.  A computing issue I will work on.

Readings: Titta Ruffo, "My Parabola" / Video "Credo in un Dio crudel"

I recently read the autobiography of Titta Ruffo, an operatic baritone who was one of the greatest singers of all time.  Fascinating reading, very evocative of the atmosphere of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  A tough childhood, deeply in conflict with his father, in whose metalworking shop he was apprenticed.  Apparently quite forthcoming about some aspects of his life, such as this conflict, an early affair with a married woman (he claims to have resisted on moral grounds until she assures him it is a loveless marriage that she never wanted), and very reticent on other matters, such as his own marriage, the identity of the female singer who was his muse and professional advisor for many years, and the nature of the news that required his abrupt return from a triumphal tour in South America, with which the book abruptly ends.  This news was the murder of his brother in-law, the antifascist Italian politician Giacomo Matteotti, by fascists.  The book seems a bit self-absorbed at times, but I don't find it as self-aggrandizing as some have:  the wonderful voice and worldwide triumphs are, after all, just the facts.  Besides a fascinating portrait of Italian life at the time, interesting insight into the life of a world-traveling musician at the time, and into worldwide musical culture.

As just one sample of why Ruffo is so important, I'll embed his performance of Iago's aria, "Credo in un Dio crudel" ("I believe in a cruel God") from Verdi's Otello.  I will admit to not being very familiar with this opera (I know, I know, how can I claim to love music and Verdi, etc...), and this aria.  I had listened to a few versions of this on Youtube, as it's considered one of the major baritone arias,  but although I could imagine it could be powerful, it had never quite gelled.  With Ruffo it does.   Interpretive power and vocal beauty...some of the long-held notes are amazing in their sustained, consistent sound that perfectly combines darkness, brilliance, and richness.  But even more significant is his characterization of Iago, whose implacable hatred of the world and determination to sow evil are audible.

Gerald Finley sings Donne set by Adams

My attention was drawn to Canadian-born baritone Gerald Finley by hearing (on CBC radio while visiting Kitchener-Waterloo for the Quantum Landscape conference at PI) his rendition of the aria "Batter my heart...", a setting of the John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic, about the creation of the atomic bomb.  A few years back I found the opera, on DVD, to be pretty good, though with some weak points.  Hearing Finley sing it reminds me that this aria was one of the strong points. He has a wonderful voice, clear, ringing at times, flexible but still with plenty of power when needed, and he gives meaning and drama to the words he sings.

Short listening notes: Janácek, Hindemith, Khaled, Steely Dan, Macy Gray, Handel

In lieu, for the moment at least, of longer reviews, I'll note a few things I've been listening to with great enjoyment recently:

Janácek's piano music.  Both the Sonata and the series of short pieces called "On an Overgrown Path" are major masterpieces.  Lyrical, evocative, often passionate.  Tonal, but with Janácek's sometimes unusual harmonic colors, which however are completely natural and expressive, not self-consciously displayed.  Both Rudolf Firkusný on Deutsch Grammophon and Alain Planès on Harmonia Mundi are excellent.  I give the slight edge to Planès for a softer-edged, more atmospheric piano sound, but you can't go wrong with either.  This music really should not be missed.

Paul Hindemith, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd  and Requiem, "Für die, die wir lieben" ("For those we love").   Annelies Burmeister, mezzo-soprano, Günther Leib, baritone, Soloists and chorus of the Berliner Rundfunks, and Berliner Rundfunks Symphony Orchestra.  Deep feeling here; this is not what I'd think of as "gebrauchmusik" ("use-music", a term probably from an earlier phase of Hindemith's career).  These pieces are post-World War II.  I need to listen to this CD again, but recall my first listen, about a month back, as a wonderful discovery.

Khaled, Liberté.  Khaled, for those who don't know, has long been perhaps the greatest star of the North African (especially Algerian) popular music called Rai.  In the Arabic-speaking world, he's a superstar.  When I first put this on, I was not paying much attention, and thought it not as good as the earlier, essential N'Issi N'Issi and Sahra.  Played it again last night, and revised my opinion:  it's superb.  His voice is as good as ever, his command of swirling North African melisma as secure as ever, and the material, a substantial amount of which he writes himself, is mostly excellent.  Overall, though it features electric bass and some synths, the sound is "rootsier" than the other two albums I mentioned, with lots of instrumental interludes featuring traditional North African instruments and a string section recorded in Cairo.  Reminiscent of some of his stuff from even earlier than N'Issi and Sahra, when he was more of a rising regional star than an international superstar.

Steely Dan, Katy Lied.  I wasn't really familiar with this album, which apparently predates the essential classic Aja, but it's solid.  Great to discover another 10 mostly excellent songs from the Dan, in the same vein as Aja, if perhaps a bit more varied and not as consistently great.  If you like jazzy chords with your pop-rock, lots of possibly tongue-in-cheek 70's-beatnik/hipster lyrical attitudinizing, and the occasional sax solo, the Dan is for you.  But you already know that from Aja, and the hits (Rikki, Do it Again, etc...) that still make classic-rock radio.  Excellent listening.

I Try: The Macy Gray Collection This is some kind of Greatest Hits CD I picked up cheaply.  Solid neo-soul and R&B singing from Ms. Gray.  Her voice is nice, a bit lighter than those of the gutsiest, earthiest female soul singers (e.g. Aretha), but with a slightly smoky texture, too.  That's a description, not a criticism.  Mostly very good material, some written by Gray herself.  Highly recommended.

G. F. Handel, The Messiah (oratorio).  Elly Ameling, soprano; Anna Reynolds, alto; Philip Langridge, tenor; Gwynne Howell, bass.  Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, conductor.  (London 444 824-2).  Excellent soloists, very clear recording, with relatively light instrumental forces and a reasonably light-footed, baroque feel, but probably not original instruments or finicky attention to baroque stylistics.  With some of the sweetness (compared to many original-instruments treatments) that I tend to associate with Marriner/St.Martin's productions.  Beautiful.  The music is of course profound and essential listening.  Sir Colin Davis, leading the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Heather Harper, soprano, Helen Watts, contralto, John Wakefield, tenor, and John Shirley-Quirk, bass, is also excellent, with a fairly similar overall feel (perhaps a somewhat less lush and sweet, more severe feel overall).  Unfortunately it seems to be marred by some kind of constant scratchy background noise, not extremely loud, but annoying once heard.  I have no idea what this is; if it's the result of a poor digital transfer in the early days of CD, then a remaster from analogue tape is in order; otherwise, let's hope there's a better master tape around somewhere because this performance is good enough that it deserves a noise-free reissue if possible.

Learning "rootless" voicings for jazz piano from Earl MacDonald

[Understanding this post probably requires a basic knowledge of seventh and related chords and extensions and alterations as used in "straight-ahead" (swing, bebop) jazz and mid-twentieth century American popular song harmony.  The highlighted (and recommended) links will tell you what they are, and something of how they function in jazz harmony, though not the full story.]

A basic component of most jazz pianists' toolbox is the so-called "Bill Evans" or "rootless" or sometimes "left-hand" voicings.  Each of the three terms is inaccurate.  These were to some extent used before Evans came on the scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, but he perhaps used them more extensively than others.  (Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Ahmad Jamal are among those also cited as inclined to use them.)  Along with McCoy Tyner, Evans also was a pioneer in using quartal voicings, which would probably be equally good candidates for associating with his name, but are not our topic here.   A few of the "rootless voicings" contain the root of the chord, though most do not.  And although they are commonly used in the left hand while the right plays melody, they may also appear in the right hand.  "Four-note voicings" might be another term one sees used, though I'm not sure if that's as specific.

In some of the classic books on jazz piano playing (like Mark Levine's highly recommended "The Jazz Piano Book"), these may be introduced a bit too early, and some teachers may overemphasize them early on (especially to students who are already fairly aware of the basics of jazz harmony).  Working pianists, who usually play in a rhythm section in which the bass takes care of stating the roots, like to use these voicings in order to stay out of the way of the bass line, and because they allow for more "color" tones, as found for example in standard extensions of 7th chords to include 9ths, 11ths, 13ths.  (Some of these may be called "alterations", a term whose appropriate application I'm not completely clear about and am not going to get into here; it usually refers to a #11, b5 (enharmonically the same as a #11), b6=b13, b9 or #9, but precisely which notes are "altered" and which are just extensions depends on (what is considered to be) the harmonic context.)  For learning jazz theory in a way that gets it into your ear (and fingers, if playing piano and not just hearing jazz harmony is your ultimate goal), I think it's best to practice four-note voicings with roots first.  These can work for elementary solo piano playing, and for getting the sound of a tune including the roots fixed in your mind (play the "rooty" voicings in the LH, and the melody or an improvisation (yours, or a transcribed one) in the RH).  Of course you can use these same possibilities with the Evans voicings, and you will find that many of them are the same as "rooty" four-note voicings for chords a third higher, so practicing the rooty ones first also helps with the Evans ones.  I'll post on rooty voicings at some point, but here I'll discuss learning the more advanced Evans voicings, something I am in the middle of doing.

I'm using pianist Earl MacDonald's excellent post on how to learn these voicings.  I recommend printing out both his post, and his pdf file with music notation and taking them to the piano.  I won't go into detail, but just say a few things that might be a useful supplement.  Two voicings, labeled "A" and "B", are given for each chord type.  Frequently, though not always, the B voicing just involves taking the bottom two notes of the A voicing and making them the top two notes.  For example, the first two chord types he considers (minor 9th, and  [dominant] 13th) work that way.  I tend to think of these kinds of four-note voicings as a pair of intervals (that between the bottom two notes, and that between the top two), separated by the interval between notes 2 and 3 (top of the bottom interval, and bottom of the top interval).  Then I just think of the move to the other voicing as moving the bottom interval up an octave (or the top one down an octave, depending which way I'm moving it).  It can help to keep in mind how the middle interval will change when you do that:  e.g., for the minor 9th voicings, from a minor third for the A voicing (I don't think explicitly about this in this case, because the A voicing here is just a root position major seventh starting on the third of the chord we are voicing, e.g. Cm9 is voiced as EbMaj7)  to a half step, or vice versa.  The cool thing about these voicings is that when you want to move from, say, a B voicing  to a voicing for the same type chord with the root down a fifth (very common root movement, with or without a change in chord type), you just keep the top two notes the same and move the bottom ones down a half step or a whole step.  So again, thinking about the chord as a pair of intervals helps.  Of course ultimately you want to get this into your fingers, and not "think" too explicitly.  For example, to move the minor 9th B voicing to a minor 9th a fifth down, you go to the A voicing of the new chord, by keeping the top two notes the same as in the previous chord, and dropping each of the bottom two by a whole step.  When you start incorporating the voicings into chord progressions, the chord type will often change, but since root movement down by fifths is common and important, you can frequently negotiate these progressions effectively by going from an A voicing for the first chord to a B voicing for the second, or vice versa, keeping track of which notes change and which stay the same.  Often  you will just move the bottom interval, or just move the top interval, which is nice.  And if you've practiced root-included 7th-chord progressions, you might find some of the movements are similar, or the same, just used over a different root.  I haven't done much along these lines yet, but obviously ii V7 I  or the minor homologue, iiø V7 i, are the first ones to work on.

The basic construction principle for most of the voicings can be understood starting from the example of the minor 9th chord.  The chord tones used are 3, 5, 7, and 9 (3 and 7 of course refer a minor third and minor seventh relative to the root, since this is a 9th chord; the 9th here is major).  The A voicing is [3 5 7 9], B voicing is [7 9 3 5] (left to right going low to high in pitch).  When a voicing has a natural 11th (enharmonically, 4th) it appears instead of the 3rd.  (This happens with one chord type, the half-diminished chord with natural 11th.)   When it has a 13th (= 6th) it usually appears instead of the 5th, in the above constructions.  There is an exception to the 5 goes to 6 rule for the A form of the standard major (no 11th) voicing:  the A form is a 6 9 voiced [3 5 6 9] (so one can think of the 6 as having been substituted for the 7th).  A #11th, on the other hand (one chord type: the Maj7#11), is substituted for the 5 (the boppers used to think of the sharp 11 as a flatted fifth; thinking that way there is no substitution going on here; then again I don't think the boppers often added a sharp 11th to major chords).  The Maj7#11 is also an exception to the rootless rule: it is voiced  A: [1 3 11 7] and B: [11 7 1 3].  The other exception to the rootless rule is the B form of the standard (eleventh-less) major chord: it is a Maj7 with root, voiced [7 1 3 5], i.e. the major 7th and then the root-position triad, starting a half-step above the 7th.  This pair of major voicings is the only one that doesn't obey the rule of putting the bottom interval on top while keeping the top interval as the bottom of the new voicing, to go from A to B voicing.  Rather, the bottom goes on top, but the formerly top interval shrinks (if you must think this way) from 6 9 (a fourth) to 7 1 (a half-step) as it becomes the new bottom interval.

One could probably understand a bit more about the choice of particular types of voicings from the voice-leading properties they give rise to in common progressions (primarily major and minor ii V I or i type progressions).  Curious is the omission of a voicing for the dominant 7th #11.  This was a very important chord starting with bebop.  If this reflects Evans' practice and not just MacDonald's predilections, I wonder if it's because Evans usually used a different type of voicing (quartal?) for this chord type?

If MacDonald's exercises seem time-consuming and difficult, let me just say that you can progress fairly quickly, and it's worth it.  Here's a point from MacDonald that I really appreciate his emphasizing; it's crucial to remember, not just about this but about many, many exercises involved in learning to play jazz (and other musics, for that matter, e.g. scale practice):

Learning voicings is similar to learning to ride a bike.  At first it is difficult, frustrating, and at times, painful.  But once it is learned correctly, you never look back, and you can do it instinctually ever after.

A few comments on MacDonald's suggested learning routine. For all of the exercises, I've done them sometimes without sounding the root, but frequently with the root sounded in the bass. I think this is important to get the proper harmonic function of the voicing in your ear. Less crucially, I've done some of them with the right hand as well. Exercise number 8, taking the voicings down the circle of fifths with metronome (he refers to it as the circle of fourths; up a fourth is down a fifth, modulo octaves) is particularly crucial; I think this is where you'll really get the voicings memorized. Besides sometimes doing it with sounded roots, when I don't sound the root, I've been saying its letter name out loud. This also helps in better memorizing the circle of fifths, which anyone playing any music with essentially Western tempered harmony will want to do. Another point is that before working on each chord type, it is good to sound out the full chords, in root position, stack-of-(usually)-thirds configuration, and then compare this sound to the rootless voicing sounded with the root in the bass. You'll really start getting an idea of how extensions and alterations sound by doing this (especially if you sound out the lower seventh chord before adding extensions). You don't have to do this for every root (I haven't been), but it might be worthwhile too.

I have not yet made flash cards and done the "random roots"  exercise.  I've tried going up by fifths, as preliminary step toward getting away from the reliance on "muscle memory" and explicit thinking about the "lower the bottom two notes" trick for moving the root down a fifth while going from an A to B voicing, and I recommend it, as it's a cool sound as well.  I'm ignoring his suggestion about completely mastering one chord type before going on to the next, in that I've worked quite a bit on the 13th chord without complete mastery of the minor 9th, but I think that's OK as long as you don't mix things up to much and really push on each type focusing primarily on one at a time.

Finally, the observation he asks you to try to ignore, that five of the chord types share the same voicing (just with a different root), is quite neat and important, an example of the general phenomenon that putting a different bass note under a given set of pitches in the middle or upper register can make an enormous change in the way they sound. Not only could it be used for reharmonization of a given melody, but I imagine it could be used (and probably is used) in composition, not just jazz but classical composition (many of these 7th, 9th, 13th, 11th, and 6th chords appear in classical music, especially Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Copland) to effect modulations, by changing the root under a given voicing and then treating it as if it has the new harmonic function, resolving it in some standard way. It would be neat to find---or create---examples of this.