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Briefly Noted: Sunhae Im's Orpheus Cantatas

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Pergolesi / A. Scarlatti / Clérambault / Rameau, Orfeo, S. Im, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

(released on March 10, 2015)
HMC 902189 | 69'12"
The legend of Orpheus is central to music history, most famously in Monteverdi's opera on the subject. Many other composers have set the story of the most famous musician in Greek mythology, and this debut recital disc by Sunhae Im for Harmonia Mundi brings together four less-known examples, all cantatas. The four texts, half in Italian and the other half in French, take up different parts of the story and often switch between the voice of the narrator and those of various characters, including but not limited to Orpheus.

We have reviewed South Korean soprano Sunhae Im live only once, as part of the last local appearance of Les Arts Florissants, sadly back in 2004. My impression of her voice from recordings -- light, butterfly-fluttery, wilting and slightly acidic at the very top -- was not changed much by this recording, which has some beautiful moments. She can float her voice to pleasing effect in slow arias, like the first of two in Pergolesi's Orfeo, which ends with Orpheus resolving strongly to descend into hell. By contrast, Alessandro Scarlatti's L'Orfeo opens with Orpheus leading Eurydice back to earth's surface (as does Rameau's Orphée), and he sings the plaintive Chi m'invola la cara Euridice when he sees her taken away from him. The gleaming paired violins of the always fine Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin soar in searing suspensions, but Im's voice is not quite so nice at the top. This cantata's gorgeous slow aria Sordo il tronco, though, is exceptional, with its accompaniment of whispering low strings.

Im is at her best in Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's Orphée, a piece well worth hearing, which begins with a slow aria depicting Orpheus's sadness. When Orpheus decides to enter Hell, the narrator encourages him on his way, but the musical centerpiece is a slow aria (marked "Fort lent et fort tendre") with high, tinkly harpsichord and breathy solo traverso, delicate and beautiful playing to help Orpheus charm Pluto's ear. This aria is a worthy successor to the tradition of such pieces for that dramatic confrontation, beginning with Monteverdi's Possente spirto.

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