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Singer Recitals: Villazón and Bartoli

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Rolando Villazón, Handel, Gabrieli Players, P. McCreesh

(released on March 31, 2009)
Deutsche Grammophon B0012818-02
Tenor Rolando Villazón has been plagued with vocal troubles in the last couple years, making a comeback last year only to withdraw from more performances for the rest of this year and much of the next, reportedly to have a cyst removed from his larynx. Somewhere in the good months (April 2008), he made this album of Handel arias, and happily, with a few noticeable edits here and there, he sounded pretty good. Few would suspect that Villazón would even be interested in singing Handel, but he has been listening to Baroque specialists' recordings since the start of his career. Two years ago, in fact, the French historically informed performance (HIP) conductor Emmanuelle Haïm convinced him to work with her on a recording of Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

Can a voice trained primarily to sound fabulous soaring up to and holding long notes in the stratosphere and pumping out volume work in Handel? Well, yes, in more or less the same way that Plácido Domingo sounded good in Handel's Tamerlano last year. Villazón's voice has greater agility, too, with only the more disjointed passages, especially requiring the voice to bridge its registers rapidly, sounding a little off-kilter. Even the ornamented da capo repeats and occasional cadenza (credited to Jory Vinikour, whose recording of Handel harpsichord suites we admired recently) are well done. Handel would surely have relished writing for this sort of voice, although he would have composed something specifically for its strengths. If Villazón is good enough for Paul McCreesh, whose Gabrieli Players provide stylish backup, then who am I to complain?


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Cecilia Bartoli, La Danza: Melodie italiane, J. Levine

(re-released on March 3, 2009)
Decca 478 1380
One of the singers whose interpretation of Baroque music Rolando Villazón says he admired was Cecilia Bartoli. Bartoli often seems most suited to 17th- and 18th-century music, where the clarity and agility of her voice is best featured. In her recent attempts to claim some of the 19th century, often under the aegis of HIP research, she has not met with approval from some listeners, for the same reasons that Villazón may seem unsuited to Handel, just in reverse. Those who are put off by her vocal mannerisms will never be convinced, but one of Bartoli's virtues is her interest in music off the beaten path. Decca has recently re-released this 1997 recital of rarely heard Italian art songs by opera composers, now available at a pleasantly discounted price if you missed it the first time around.

As the eminent musicologist Philip Gossett wrote at the time in his liner essay, "A vast literature of Italian nineteenth-century song, deposited in libraries and private collections throughout the world, remains to be explored. The music is found in early printed editions as well as in composers' own autograph manuscripts (often unique sources)." (A complete edition of the Rossini songs is planned by Gossett for the University of Chicago complete works.) Gossett points to modern listeners' familiarity with "nostalgic invocations" of this sort of Italian song by northern Europeans although the real thing is mostly forgotten: as part of the "nation-building process accomplished by the Italian Risorgimento," all major Italian composers wrote these sorts of songs. No one is likely to mistake most of these little songs by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini (all but one actually published in modern editions, a fraction of the number known to exist) for great art, but Bartoli, with all of the vocal intensity and agility adored by her fans, makes a case for them as at least very happy listening. A few, like the quietly smoldering setting of the Requiem Mass introit text that Rossini dedicated to his "beautiful mother," deserve to be much better known (many would make brilliant encore pieces). James Levine provides sparkling, sensitive accompaniment at the piano.


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