Too Much Tchaikovsky

Voices

 

Whenever people talk seriously about recorded music, sooner or later the matter of scale comes up. Some musics and musical experiences get big. Others win by staying small. So, public versus intimate. Meta vs. miniature. Universal vs. individual. Recordings invite confusion: who actually expects to actually hear the actual Berlioz Requiem in her living room?

Live performance offers fewer confusions. Yet I can’t help thinking of a night I spent in Chicago thirty-odd years ago: we had taken our teenage daughter to a Madonna performance. Quite an evening. Soldier Field was packed with fans, who did ‘80s fan things: The Wave. The Bic Lighters. Assorted cheers, screams, and swoons. The stage was filled by two enormous video screens offering visuals of the artist as a forty-foot-tall creature in a bustier. The sound? Also forty feet tall.

Here’s the weird part: even as we beheld those forty-foot Madonnas, we could see a tiny actual person onstage, wearing a little sequined outfit and moving awkwardly but energetically through some sort of dance routine. Between numbers she would collapse, gasping for breath and cursing like a sailor (a tiny, awkward, but fully sequined sailor) while she asked us if we were having a good time. (Apparently pop artists frequently pose this question. I can’t imagine Martha Argerich ever asking it, but who knows?) The performance proceeded in this way for much of the evening. Everyone had a certifiable good time, as far as I could tell.

Was it meta, or miniature? That night we beheld a surreal combination of Galactic Fantasy Madonna and a tiny Actual Person who said she was Madonna.

But wait: this column is titled “Voices.” All righty then! We’re talking about singers, who learn to operate in all sorts of space. Their operations are inevitably affected by the recording process. With an eye on that, we’ll begin today with Tiny Actual Persons and conclude—I hope—in the next issue with Galactic Fantasy Divas.

Lately my favorite voices—real, individual, intimate—belong to soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies. Their duet album, Lost Is My Quiet (BIS-2279; SACD and downloads) is just about the most fun you can have with two singers and a pianist, the excellent Joseph Middleton. The program happily ranges from Henry Purcell (1659–95, as “realized” by Benjamin Britten) to Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Roger Quilter (1877–1953). Throughout, their mood is personal, relaxed, and altogether joyful. Regardless of the text, Sampson and Davies communicate ceaseless joy as they turn each song’s sentiments into near-corporeal form. Here’s a bit of Purcell’s “No, resistance is but vain”:

No, no, no, no, Resistance is but vain,
And only adds new weight to Cupid’s Chain:
A Thousand Ways, a Thousand Arts,
The Tyrant knows to Captivate our Hearts . . .

The album’s more earnest German songs are leavened by those naïve and folk-like qualities the Romantics so loved, as in Mendelssohn’s “Volkslied” to a Ferdinand Freiligrath translation of Robert Burns:

Ah, could I but see you there on the heath,
In the storm, in the storm!
I’d shelter you, shelter you
From the storm with my cloak!

Ah, if misfortune, if misfortune
Should ever storm around you,
This heart shall be your refuge,
Which I’d gladly, gladly share with you. . . .

Nearly thirty songs are collected herein, which enables the singers to change mood frequently and on a dime:

The lily-of-the-valley rings out in the valley,
Resounding bright and clear:
Gather round and dance,
All you darling little flowers!

Wait, there’s more: In 2017 both singers released solo albums, in each case collections of Bach cantatas. Sampson’s (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902252) includes the delectable wedding cantata “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten” BWV 202. Here’s a sample:

Begone now, gloomy shadows;
Frost and winds, away with you!
Flora’s joys
Will grant our breasts
Naught but cheerful good fortune. . . .

This grand yet intimate succession of nine recitatives and arias heralds the coming of spring (and the return of Cupid to the fields of love) in music that grows increasingly lively:

To indulge in love,
To dally amid caresses,
Is better than Flora’s fleeting joys. . . .

The excellent oboist in both selections is Katharina Arfken of the Freiburger Barockorchester, provider of sterling accompaniments throughout. Even when the repertoire turns toward sober-minded church music, as with “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” BWV 199, Sampson imbues the concluding moments with all the transformative bliss implied by text and music:

How joyful is my heart,
For God is propitiated,
And after my suffering and repentance
No longer excludes me from bliss
Nor from His heart.

Davies’ effort (Hyperion CDA68111) is nearly as fine. He has one of the very finest male alto voices out there right now, and he is ably abetted by a good British Baroque group, Arcangelo. The listener probably gets a better overall view of Bach’s sacred cantata output from this album, in fact, because a number of the texts are pompously, self-consciously pious. But as Richard Wigmore reminds us in his program notes, the more mawkish the words, the more likely Bach was to respond with “music of overwhelming beauty and spiritual force.” As in this aria from BWV 170, “Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust”:

How those perverted hearts grieve me,
Who have, my God, so offended thee;
I tremble, in truth, and feel a thousand torments,
When they merely rejoice in revenge and hate.

Davies’ expressive phrasing claims the foreground in these settings, rightly so given the relatively dry accompaniments offered by Arcangelo. In that regard I can’t help mentioning another recent recording of two of the same cantatas, “Vergnügte Ruh’” and “Ich habe genug” (BWV82), from Philippe Jaroussky and (!) the Freiburger Barockorchester (Erato 557659). Here’s the same snippet of music from BWV 170 as they deliver it:

Jaroussky benefits from having a slightly larger band on hand, and a more favorable recorded balance, but it’s his performance that seals the deal. The tortured instrumental writing—meager, hesitant bass line, chromatically writhing organ lines above it—becomes a tortured personal commentary via this artist’s more fluid, honeyed vocalism. Album-wise, I also think it helps to have Bach’s complex, unremittingly somber music broken up by a bit of Telemann, as it is here.

And that brings us to dessert. Crazy Girl Crazy (Alpha 293), soprano Barbara Hannigan’s recording debut as a conductor, got lots of attention toward the end of 2017. It’s on our menu today because of the way it plays with scale. CGC is sort of a three-act drama. Act One consists of Luciano Berio’s landmark Sequenza III for solo female voice, a nine-minute catalog of unaccompanied vocal effects, some of them extreme but all of them resonant with symbolism, since, as Berio said, “the voice always refers beyond itself.” Ultimately Sequenza III tells a story, exploring a soloist’s journey as she discovers and bonds with her voice.

It is this element that Hannigan emphasizes, because she means for CGC to “revolve around a woman called Lulu,” the eponymous heroine of Berg’s opera and the Wedekind plays that inspired it. For Hannigan, Lulu is not a femme fatale but rather the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of eternally creative female freedom. The vocal material is transposed upward to suggest a 15-year-old Lulu’s rite of passage.

 

If you turn up the volume on this track, Lulu will fill your room, becoming Berio’s own Forty-Foot Madonna. If you don’t touch that knob, Lulu will remain 15, but you may miss a few exquisite details. What’ll it be? Meta or miniature?

Berg was definitely after the former in Lulu, unfinished at his death in 1935. By then, he had arranged a Lulu Suite to serve “as a trailer of sorts,” as Hannigan puts it, and in CGC it serves as Act Two. This is the weaker part of the album, in part because of its massive demands in scale. Berg wrote for a large orchestra, one capable of handling hyper-expressive, post-Wagnerian counterpoint. The music must roil and seethe, explode yet sing. It takes an ensemble with Berg’s style in its very bones, and a conductor more experienced in shaping its energies, to pull off gestures of such enormity. Someday Hannigan will be that conductor; when she is, I hope they make the Wiener Philharmoniker available to her.

Act Three belongs to another suite, this one built from Gershwin’s music for Girl Crazy. It’s a genuine treat, arranged by Hannigan and master orchestrator Bill Elliott in a way that reconciles Berg’s Expressionism with Gershwin’s own knowing take on 20th-century romance—here convincingly tinged with melancholy. (Imagine Countess Geschwitz singing “But Not For Me” and you’ll get it.) This brilliant ending makes Acts One and Three reason enough to get the recording. A DVD documentary of the album’s recording process is also provided (check out the Sennheiser HD 6xx’s).

Next: opera. Happy New Year, everyone!