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Highly Reviewed Recordings

December 12 - December 25, 2012

Opera Arias (Soprano): Gauvin, Karina - HANDEL, G.F. / VIVALDI, A. / VINCI, L. (Prima Donna)
(ATMA Classique: ACD22648)

Opera Arias (Soprano): Gauvin, Karina - HANDEL, G.F. / VIVALDI, A. / VINCI, L. (Prima Donna)

By now Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has appeared on a couple of dozen recordings and she always impresses. Aside from some Mozart, Britten, Barber, and another composer or two, her repertoire has been solidly based in the Baroque. We’ve come a long way from the HIP sounds of Emma Kirkby and Judith Nelson—not that I’m criticizing or denigrating them—and Gauvin’s rich sound has nothing of the boy treble in it; it is a full lyric soprano. It isn’t merely that she sings with vibrato—she simply has vibrato that she will occasionally eschew for effect; it is her echt womanliness that comes across so vividly.

Except for Meleagro in Handel’s Atalanta, a male role written for soprano castrato, all of the arias on this CD are women’s roles. And “Care selve” from that opera has been sung by everyone, from Leontyne Price to Pavarotti, with Kiri Te Kanawa in between. This CD pays homage to Anna Maria Strada del Po, who sang works by Vivaldi and Vinci before moving to London and performing in no less than 24 of Handel’s operas beginning in 1729 and until 1737. (The composer was relieved not to have the “dueling divas” Cuzzoni and Bordoni to referee anymore.)

Strada was one of three singers for whom Handel wrote a high C. Her dramatic range must have been great as well: he created Alcina for her. On this CD, Gauvin sings three of Alcina’s arias: the wandering, picturesque “Ombre pallide”; the sad, introspective “Si son quella”; and the emotionally complicated, self-pitying, angry “Ah! mio cor”. For these alone, with all their mood swings and varying vocal styles and dynamic ranges, this CD is worth buying.

“Scherza il mar” from Lotario dazzles to start the program, and Elmira’s “Dite pace” (from Sosarme), with a helpless character questioning the heavens, is marvelous as well. In fact, each interpretation here takes on the character of the person and situation, a feat even more remarkable when you consider that Gauvin’s voice is not a complex instrument: it is silky-smooth and luscious. Her innate musicality and perfect pitch create the thrills. “Care selve”, correctly accompanied by continuo alone, is a gorgeous, long-lined poem. And what a trill!

There are three well-spaced and brief orchestral interludes included, with the Adagio from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 1 being the most stunning. And throughout, the Arion Orchestre Baroque, playing on period instruments under Alexander Weidman, is never less than ideal. This is a stunner.

Robert Levine, © 2012

Orchestral Music - ELGAR, E. / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R. / BRITTEN, B. (This England) (Oregon Symphony, Kalmar)
(PentaTone: PTC5186471)

Orchestral Music - ELGAR, E. / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R. / BRITTEN, B. (This England) (Oregon Symphony, Kalmar)

This week, in an event guaranteed to lighten the burden of Portland's early winter drizzle, the Oregon Symphony releases their second album with music director Carlos Kalmar at the helm. Entitled This England, the all-British record kicks off in grand style with Sir Edward Elgar's euphoric and energetic Cockaigne Overture. Essentially an urban tone poem, the street-smart music serves as a snappy appetizer of percussion and brass, painting many vivid images of a merrily bustling London.

What follows is a respite from city life in the form of Ralph Vaughan Williams' lush Symphony No. 5. Rather surprisingly, every single impressionistic movement begins and ends in gentle smoothness, a musical watercolor where melodies and chords and entire orchestral sections blend and bleed into each other with bittersweet beauty. Double-basses provide an undercurrent of warmth throughout the performance, as well as a solid foundation for the higher strings to sing and soar, especially for concertmaster Sarah Kwak, whose brief but dreamy solo in the gorgeous third movement is a single candle atop a dense, rich cake.

The album concludes with instrumental selections from Peter Grimes, the most successful opera Benjamin Britten ever wrote and arguably the most famous English opera ever written. What's not at all debatable is the Oregon Symphony's knockout performance of Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia on this new recording. Violins set the stage for Britten's scene-changing music, introducing his first interlude with an ethereal melody that transforms into an unanswered question repeated over a beefy-yet-restrained orchestra, evoking the beauty of sunrise with a hint of warning. Sunday Morning, the second interlude, sharply depicts villagers as church-going automatons urged to action by bells and rollicking buoys through the pure, unadulterated magic of a 14-foot chime. And then there's interlude #3, simply titled Moonlight. Indeed, what a little moonlight can do. Deeply resonating string sections, a smattering of woodwinds, crisp percussive accents... So help me God, it just might be four of the most brilliant minutes ever written for orchestra.

These moonlit whitecaps are followed by Britten's Passacaglia - a disturbing interlude amongst interludes in which Joël Belgique's haunting viola creepily traces the unraveling mind of Peter Grimes. Percussive thuds and subterranean growls help to color the rough-and-tumble fisherman's desperately tragic situation with fairly dark shades of gray. The interludes end stormily, blowing the listener out of the proverbial water by chugging to a capsizing climax. Last year, the Oregon Symphony released their highly praised Music for a Time of War which (in addition to being a serious contender in next month's classical Grammy nominations) featured Britten's forceful Sinfonia da Requiem. That album, along with this newest release on the Pentatone label, showcase Kalmar and his band as supreme interpreters of Benjamin Britten's amazingly colorful brand of orchestral anxiety, inviting the listener to delve ever deeper into painful, yet rewarding, symphonic ambivalence.

Brian Horay, Huffington Post

MIGNONE, F.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / 3 Spanish Songs / 2 Essays (Brasileiro: Works of Francisco Mignone) (Cuarteto Latinoamericano)
(Dorian Sono Luminus: DSL-92147)

MIGNONE, F.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / 3 Spanish Songs / 2 Essays (Brasileiro: Works of Francisco Mignone) (Cuarteto Latinoamericano)  Latin GRAMMY winner

Mignone was a secondary composer, exhibiting all the good points of that species, such as highly refined craftsmanship, a working knowledge of instruments, and a solid sense of form. His music for string quartet is by no means groundbreaking, either technically (Bartók) or expressively (Shostakovich—or, nearer to home, Revueltas), yet while it may lack individuality, the composer’s incorporation of Latin American rhythms and bluesy harmonies into his work does give it a distinctively nationalistic voice. A breeziness to his music invokes an idealized Brazilian countryside...

The masterpiece is the Second Quartet, which opens the disc. Its first movement contains flowing melodic writing, with a cheeky use of portamento, while the concluding third movement has a bracing rhythmic zest. The slow movement, however, is the real gem; beginning with a soulful Villa-Lobos type theme from the cello, it progresses to an agitated middle section (featuring slithery chromatic harmony) to close on a beguiling jazz-flavored cadence.

The Latinoamericano plays this program to perfection. We owe the group so much for its tireless investigation of Latin repertoire, of which this disc is yet another shining example. I would recommend it for those times when Bartók feels too aggressive or Shostakovich too melancholy. In fact, in terms of melodic flow and expressivity, the quartet composer who comes to mind as a yardstick is Borodin.

Sound quality is excellent.

Phillip Scott, Fanfare, September 01, 2012
© 2012 Fanfare

JANACEK, L.: Taras Bulba / Lachian Dances / Moravian Dances (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
(Naxos: 8.572695)

JANACEK, L.: Taras Bulba / Lachian Dances / Moravian Dances (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)

Here we have Lachian and Moravian dances…all played with evident exhilaration by a Polish conductor and orchestra. The sound in general is warm and vivid, and Antoni Wit has a sure hand with all Janáček’s demands.

The six Lachian Dances (1924) are a selection from an earlier set of Valachian Dances (1889–91), music from neighbouring regions, and are vivid arrangements for full orchestra; the six Moravian Dances…have much to indicate the direction Janáček’s thoughts were taking with the folk music of his native region. Fascinating to hear as versions of material that was feeding into his mature idiom, they are in their own right colourful and highly enjoyable pieces, relished here by the Polish players.

John Warrack
© 2012 Gramophone

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