CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Briefly Noted: Monza String Quartets

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Carlo Monza, Six String Quartets, Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi

(released on May 6, 2022)
Naïve V7541 | 60'28"
Fabio Biondi made this world premiere recording of six string quartets by Carlo Monza (1680-1739) back in 2019, at the Sala Ghislieri of the Accademia Montis Regalis in Mondovì, Italy. Biondi plays the first violin part, joining with three musicians from his ensemble, Europa Galante - violinist Andrea Rognoni, violist Stefano Marcocchi, and cellist Alessandro Andriani. In a liner note, Biondi explains the path that led him to this relatively little-known Milanese composer, related to his attempt to understand what Mozart learned from music popular at the court theater of the Duke of Milan during his travels in Italy.

Biondi discovered a reference to these quartets in the private library of a large residence on Isola Bella, one of the Borromean islands on Lake Maggiore. Although Biondi knew the composer and his music to be of interest, the library refused to authorize the use or even photographing of the manuscript scores. A musicologist friend of his then found a copy of the quartets in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a connection that showed that that score was not a reduction of symphonies but a set of string quartets. Biondi put together a concert juxtaposing these pieces with the quartets Mozart had written during his time in Italy, and now the group has released this excellent recording of the entire set.

The quartets all have descriptive titles, as well as many of the individual movements. Even in the absence of a true program to tell us what the music is attempting to say, the titles make these pieces, in the words of the one title, like "Opera in musica." In that Quartet in D Major, both violins and the viola receive recitatives like opera singers, a convention heard in several of the other quartets as well. This helps make them like little operatic scenes, ranging from 8 to 12 minutes in length. In the String Quartet in C Major ("Gli amanti rivali") we hear two rival lovers at odds with one another. They challenge each other (second movement) and fight a duel (third movement). One of them dies (fourth movement), and the finale depicts the desperation of the women who loved them ("La disperazione delle donne amanti").

The String Quartet in B-Flat Major ("Il giuocatore") follows the misadventures of a gambler, leading up to a sad movement ("La tristezza per la perdita") and a happier conclusion as he repents of his gambling ("Il giuocatore ravveduto," or the repentent gambler). Other vignettes include the String Quartet in F Major ("La fucina di Vulcano," or the Forge of Vulcan, a scene of reconciled jealousy between Vulcan and Venus under Mount Etna), the String Quartet in G Minor ("Divertimento notturno"), and the charming String Quartet in E-Flat Major ("La caccia"). In that last one, one hears a thunderstorm ("Temporale"), the meeting of the hunters ("Unione dei cacciatori"), and rustic music played by shepherds while the hunters have their dinner ("Rondò de' Pastori frattanto che i Cacciatori cenano"). The performances are all top-notch, and these pieces could easily be confused for early Mozart.


Briefly Noted: Tiranno

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Handel / A. Scarlatti / Monteverdi / Monari, Cantatas, K. Lindsey, Arcangelo, J. Cohen

(released on May 28, 2021)
Alpha 736 | 75'34"
The latest solo recital disc from mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, released last year, is just now reaching my ears. She partners again with Jonathan Cohen and the early music ensemble Arcangelo, the same as her previous album, with Ariadne-themed pieces by Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Haydn. This new recording is devoted to the Roman emperor Nero, again with secular cantatas by Handel and Scarlatti père, as well as one by Bartolomeo Monari (1662-1697) and excerpts from Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

The program ingeniously traces an arch between the two Scarlatti cantatas, Il Nerone and La morte di Nerone, which serve as bookends. In between, we get glimpses of the women who loved Nero and were betrayed by him: his mother, Agrippina, whom he had assassinated; his wife, Octavia, foisted on him by the scheming Agrippina, whom he divorced, exiled, and then executed; and his mistress and second wife, Poppea, whose death he caused either by poisoning her or causing her to miscarry a child after he kicked her in the abdomen.

The Richmond-born mezzo-soprano remains in good form in this remarkable disc. The bottom range has become richer, although a few high notes sound squeezed and slightly off in the aria "Veder chi pena" in the first Scarlatti cantata, perhaps intended to show Nero's loss of mental stability as he relishes the suffering of his people while Rome burns. Her voice still displays amazing virtuosity overall; the melismatic technique is in a class of its own, with runs so clearly delineated, as in Handel's showpiece "Orrida, oscura" from the cantata Agrippina condotta a morire. Cohen's ensemble adds outstanding instrumental contributions all around.

In the Monteverdi selections, Lindsey matches well with tenor Andrew Staples's Lucan in "Or che Seneca è morto" and gives dramatic force to Ottavia's lament "Addio Roma!" The duet "Pur ti miro," with soprano Nardus Williams, is a less suitable pairing in some ways, but still lovely. Never has that love duet of emperor and mistress rang more hollow than when it is followed by Bartolomeo Monari's fine cantata La Poppea, on Nero's murder of his great love. The cycle of bad karma comes full circle with Scarlatti's La morte di Nerone - both of these last two cantatas are given world premiere recordings on this disc. Nero finds himself abandoned by all and, depending on the telling, commits suicide or forces someone to kill him, dying on the anniversary of Octavia's death.

Lindsey, who was born in Richmond, has been gracing these pages since 2005, when she was a young artist with Wolf Trap Opera Company. She has returned to the area the last few years mostly with Washington Concert Opera, most recently in Gluck's Orphée last month. She will come back to Wolf Trap this summer, in a recital combining Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben and Fauré's La Chanson d'Ève on July 8.


Briefly Noted: Polish Farewells (CD of the Month)

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Polish Songs, Jakub Józef Orliński, Michał Biel

(released on May 6, 2022)
Erato 0190296269714 | 57'14"
Not surprisingly, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński has recorded largely Baroque music, often in partnership with the historically informed performance ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. For this new album, the Polish singer has partnered with Polish pianist Michał Biel, his longtime friend from their student days in Warsaw and at the Juilliard School. The program is the fruit of their collaboration in song recital repertory by more recent Polish composers, all from the last 150 years, recorded in September 2021 at the Nowa Miodowa Concert Hall in Warsaw.

Some of these composers may be familiar, particularly Karol Szymanowski, although his Songs from Kurpie may not be. The words are folk texts collected by Władysław Skierkowski, a musician and priest who died in 1941 in the Soldau concentration camp. His book, The Kurpian Forest in Song, is based on his time during World War I hiding in the swampy forests of Poland's Kurpie region. Szymanowski composed beautiful musical settings for these often cryptic texts, a sort of Polish counterpart to Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Orliński gives the folk-style cantillation a natural ease of bends and blue notes. In the beautiful bird song (no. 2) his voice reaches effortlessly up to high E.

The other composers are less known outside of Poland and yield fascinating discoveries. Henryk Czyż (1923-2003) may be better known as a conductor, especially for his championing of the music of Penderecki in many recordings. He was also a gifted composer, on display in Pożegnania (Farewells), a set of three gorgeous songs on Pushkin poems translated into Polish by Julian Tuwim. The style is unabashedly Straussian, with lush chromatic turns similar to the delectable music of Joseph Marx. Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) contributes four songs on Shakespeare sonnets translated into Polish, in a pretty, neoclassical style but perhaps with serial techniques underlying it. As a teenager Baird did a period as a forced laborer for the Nazis, eventually surviving internment in a concentration camp. The last of these songs is somber and gorgeous, and Orliński plies his silken voice to the sighed downward portamenti.

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909) is represented by the largest number of songs, a dozen rather short piece, drawn mostly from two sets. His style is late Romantic and poignant, akin to Tchaikovsky, whom he admired. Some are especially fine, as the slow, aching melody of "Na spokojnym, ciemnym morzu." Sadly, Karłowicz died young, a victim of an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains. The only living composer included on this disc, Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968), has one song, "Jesień" (Autumn), on a striking text by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, the "Polish Sappho" active in the years between the two world wars. One hears the autumn rain falling in the long piano introduction, slowly dripping with splashing dissonances rebounding, just one example of Biel's sensitive work at the piano. The stark vocal writing features odd, jagged intervals, humming, portamenti, and other austere effects. The program concludes with two songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), often described as the "father of Polish opera."


Briefly Noted: Alice Coote Schubertiade

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Schubert, Songs, Alice Coote, Julius Drake

(released on May 6, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68169 | 71'36"
At the end of March here in Washington, Alice Coote was the best part of the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The British mezzo-soprano recorded this selection of twenty-one Schubert songs, back in December of 2017, in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, in London. The program is a mixture of rather simple strophic songs and more complex pieces, some relative rarities alongside some of the most often heard songs in performances with new ideas to recommend them.

Coote's wheelhouse is in the dramatic songs where she can open up her considerable vocal power, as in "Der Zwerg," which sets a truly bizarre poem about a dwarf who murders his mistress, a queen, by lowering her into the sea from a ship. Drake supports her with technical assurance, releasing from the Steinway under his fingers a broad swath of sound. Similar examples include a truly thrilling "Rastlose Liebe" and an equally restless "Der Musensohn."

Drake often works with singers to devise ingenious recital selections. In this case the program is a sort of chiasmus in structure, opening with one setting of Goethe's "An den Mond" and ending with another. This quasi-palindromic pattern is extended with other songs or themes heard at the opening of the recital and then in reverse order at the end: Schubert's "Wandrers Nachtlied I" and "Im Frühling," second and third in order, are balanced by "Frühlingsglaube" and "Wandrers Nachtlied II" in antepenultimate and penultimate positions, and so on. Coote's sometimes active vibrato is perhaps less effective in softer, less dramatic songs like these, but she is so musical that they all work.

This clever construction is not as exact beyond that, but the plan does put two famous songs in opposition to one another, yielding interesting results in comparison. In "Der Tod und das Mädchen," Coote summons up radically different vocal qualities for the terrified maiden and the comforting specter of Death. The latter features her extensive and shadowy low register (similar in some ways to her striking "Urlicht" in the NSO's "Resurrection" symphony). "Erlkönig" also involves the confrontation of a young person with the fear of death. Of the multiple vocal characterizations in this dramatic song, the haunted child is the most striking, for whom Coote lightens her tone straightens her vibrato a bit. Drake's accompaniment is not the most steady in those difficult repeated octaves, a rare shortcoming.