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Mozart and the Voice

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Mozart Arias, Magdalena Kožená, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Simon Rattle (released on November 14, 2006)
We have been generally quite impressed here at Ionarts with the voice of Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, in my review of her anthology CD, Enchantment (September 17, 2006), and Jens's review of her extraordinary Bach disc, Lamento (September 27, 2005). Not surprisingly, Kožená has gotten on the Mozart bandwagon this year, singing the role of Idamante in productions of Idomeneo, at the Salzburg Festival this summer and at the Met this month (where she has earned raves from the Wellsungs and slightly moderated praise from some of the other New York bloggers). Kožená was also part of the generally excellent Mozart anniversary concert at the Salzburg Festival, where she sang Sesto's "Parto, ma tu ben mio" from La Clemenza di Tito (with the Vienna Philharmonic and an extraordinary young British conductor, Daniel Harding, a protegé of Simon Rattle). I have enjoyed watching it several times through the wonders of Tivo. WETA, for all their (considerable) deficiencies, did manage to broadcast that one.

Kožená's superb new Mozart CD is a delicious way to conclude the Mozart year, with a historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (who will be performing at the Library of Congress in a free concert on Thursday), and Simon Rattle. Sometimes, listeners get stuck with one soundtrack of favorite operas or other music in their heads, and Mozart's music is so familiar in its many performances that he is susceptible to that attitude. Any deviation from that internal version of the music raises flags. The value of this recording is that it attempts to shake those assumptions loose, with excellent ornamentation, for example. The embellished Voi che sapete (Cherubino's aria from Marriage of Figaro), recorded as notated by Italian composer Domenico Corri (1746-1825), is my new favorite version of that aria. Just when you think you will never hear a piece as new again, it gets recast by Corri, who was the author of a manual on vocal ornamentation when he lived in Great Britain.

Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano
Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano
The best parts of the Mozart centenary have been those concerts and recordings that have illumined the dark corners of the composer's catalogue, like the Salzburg Festival all-opera extravaganza and the Paris performance of a little-known ballet. On this disc, we get the aria Mozart wrote to replace Deh vieni non tardar for a revival Susanna (bookending this disc with Deh vieni), as well as two arias he wrote as replacements in operas by Martín y Soler and Cimarosa.

The sounds of the OAE, too, with breathy flutes, razor-sharp violins, and fresh tempi make this a graceful and entertaining listen. Alternate versions of some selections bring further vitality, like the revision of Ch'io mi scordi di te (from Idomeneo), made for Nancy Storace's farewell recital in Vienna. Jos van Immerseel plays the fortepiano part that Mozart wrote for himself to play with the English soprano, with whom he may have been in love (he was certainly in love with her voice). In my previous review, I suggested that Kožená's voice is not as earthy and dark as you might expect from a mezzo-soprano. For this disc, she has selected not only mezzo roles, many of which she has sung to acclaim, but soprano roles, even Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito. All in all, this is a winner.

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Tutto Mozart!, Bryn Terfel, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras (released on September 7, 2006)
Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel bounded to fame in the 1990s, after appearances in operas like the Die Frau ohne Schatten I reviewed on DVD. In spite of extensive trouble with a herniated disc and back surgery, Terfel's star has only continued to rise: last year, Norman Lebrecht pegged him to succeed Pavarotti in international success, given Terfel's tendency toward the mainstream and popular. Also last year, there was published speculation that Terfel wanted to take a year-long sabbatical from performing on opera stages around the world, possibly in 2008.

Terfel's solo contribution to the Mozart Year (actually, he sings several tracks with soprano Miah Persson and/or mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, who comfortably play second fiddle) is more for the traditionalists. Those who want exactly what they expect from a singer like Bryn Terfel will get it, a gorgeous and largely proportioned voice admirable both for its extreme power and the singer's careful sense of characterization. Terfel's blockbuster appearance at the concert commemorating the reopening of the Vienna State Opera earlier this year (also saved in my Tivo) is a good example, in a magisterial performance of Hans Sach's monologue from Meistersinger, with the superb Christian Thielemann at the podium. Pronunciation, in Italian especially, is something else: no language coach is credited in the booklet, and it might have been a good idea.

The selection of arias is largely predictable, although there are a few interesting lesser-known concert and replacement arias. Particular treats are the silly duet Nun, liebes Weibchen, in which Terfel plays the male counterpart to a woman under a spell that allows her only to meow like a cat, and Diggi, daggi, schurry, murry, a nonsense-texted magic spell from Bastien und Bastienne (at 1:28 and exceedingly silly, this would be a fine encore piece). Charles Mackerras, who turned 81 last month, leads a fine performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Although the conductor has become known more for his work with Czech opera, he was a pioneer in the attempt to restore elements of 18th-century performance practice and instrumentation to Handel, Mozart, and others. In spite of the use of harpsichord, this disc, although pleasing, has few surprises.

Archiv 00289 477 6272 / Deutsche Grammophon B0007194-02

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