CD and Other Review

Review: SCHUMANN Dichterliebe, Liederkreis (tenor: Werner Gura, piano: Jan Schultz)

The same is true, in a way, of great paintings, and of most Baroque and classical music. But there is something different about art song: while the works of the old masters now carry a patina of age, the stripped-back nature of the song-cycles means they have defied the years. On this recording, the words of the German poets Joseph von Eichendorff (Liederkreis) and Heinrich Heine (Dichterliebe) are brought to us with their freshness untouched by time. These compositions speak to us as a friend would in the most intimate conversation. Schumann’s songs of the joys of love and the anguish of unrequited yearnings are given a lucid and heartfelt reading by German tenor Werner Gura, who specialises in Lieder and oratorio. Although a tenor, he is reminiscent of the youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – this is a light voice, never strained, and with a flexible baritonal extension. His accompanist Jan Schultsz (who is also a horn-player and conductor) is supportive at all times, but very much the partner. Everyone has their favourites in this repertoire, but this one is a worthy rival for the most celebrated Lieder recordings. A recital for the ages.

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Lettere Amorose (mezzo: Magdalena Kožená; Private Musicke/Pitzl)

Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená. Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her…

January 12, 2011
CD and Other Review

Review: Officium Novum (sop saxophone: Jan Garbarek; The Hilliard Ensemble)

Sadly I was forever turned off the soprano saxophone by smooth jazz superstar Kenny G. Not by his success – any instrumentalist who sells more than 75 million albums earns my awe, if not respect. No, it was his effortless frippery and shinily sugared tone that soundly nailed the coffin. Which brings me to that other soprano sax superstar, Jan Garbarek, and his latest pairing with The Hilliard Ensemble. On this, the second follow up to the phenomenally successfully 1994 collaboration Officium, they dovetail what they individually do best – liquefied saxophone improvisations and crisply sung early music – to create a gentle atmospheric fusion. The comparison that springs to mind is of a graffiti artist wandering through the Sistine Chapel and tagging at will. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for breaking down genres. No, it’s the slack aesthetic and overall lack of purpose that I have a problem with. On the plus side, the recording itself is superb. Like the first two CDs, it was recorded in a richly reverberant Benedictine monastery in the Austrian mountains. Likewise, I cannot fault the technique and expressivity – they are, frankly, sublime. It’s just that overall the venture feels inconsequential.

January 12, 2011