Carl Heinrich Graun isn’t exactly a household name today but he was court composer to the extremely musical Frederick the Great who was fond of both his flute and the opera when he wasn’t too busy being beastly to the Austrians. Anyway, Graun composed a ton of opera and based on the arias on this disk it’s surprising that they are almost completely neglected. The only Graun opera I have seen is Montezuma which got a video recording in Bayreuth about thirty five years ago so I was quite keen to see what else he had done.
All families, they say, have secrets. Few perhaps are as lurid as what came to light at 27 Kintyre Avenue, Toronto (about 2km from here) in the summer of 2007 when a contractor renovating the house discovered the mummified body of an infant wrapped in a 1925 newspaper. Incredibly, the CBC was able to track down the last surviving member of the household from that era, a 92 year old woman living in a retirement home in up-state New York. Her recollections, which formed the subject of a short two part radio documentary, provided a lot of context and background but few hard facts. Who the baby was and how it came to be under the floorboards remains very much a mystery.
Not too many CDs of new opera recordings, at least of mainstream repertoire, come my way these days. Studio recordings have become rare and the usual medium is a video recording, itself a spin off from a live broadcast; TV, cinema or web, of a live performance. This makes sense to me. Just listening to an opera has always seemed a second best. Anyway, that’s all by way of saying that I was a bit surprised to find myself listening to a CD edition of a live recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut from the 2016 Salzburg Festival. How did this recording happen you ask? The answer is on the box, where Anna Netrebko in the title role, gets top billing, even over the composer.
Renée Fleming’s new CD Distant Light is quite unusual for a “diva disc”. It’s definitely not “Opera’s Greatest Hits” territory. Rather, it’s in three quite contrasting parts though all are linked by the idea of “emotional landscapes”. It starts off with Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, follows it with settings of Mark Strand poems by Anders Hillborg and finishes up with arrangements of Björk songs. She’s accompanied throughout by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Sakari Oramo conducting.
The Barber piece sets a text by James Agee which is quite fragmentary and not obviously singable. Barber gives it a setting that varies quite a lot in mood and is full of melodic and rhythmic invention. It’s very Barber actually. Fleming is good here. Her voice is true and clean with no harshness in the upper register and her diction is excellent. It’s not often that the text in a high soprano setting is this comprehensible.
Exultet Terra is a disc of choral works (mostly) by Welsh-American composer Hilary Tann. The first half of the disc consists of shorter works for a cappella female chamber choir bookended by two pieces by Hildegard of Bingen in the latter of which the ladies are joined by the men of the choir. The second half of the disc consists of Exultet Terra; a five movement work for chamber choir, two bassoons, two oboes and cor Anglais.
It’s not often that discs of contemporary a capella choral music come my way but that’s what The Stolen Child: Choral Works of Scott Perkins is. There are three works on the disc exploring the themes of loss of innocence, nature, magic, sleep and death. The first, The Stolen Child (2006), sets texts by WB Yeats, the second, A Word Out of the Sea (2003), is a Whitman setting and the final work, The World of Dream (2016), uses texts by WH Auden and Walter de la Mare. The first is set for tenor, baritone and choir, the second for tenor and choir and the last for choir alone though the sound world Perkins’ creates is such that the solo roles are more or less blended into the overall sound.
All three works are similar in that the emphasis seems to be on the higher voices and everything blending into a conversational, murmury, shimmering sort of sound. It’s hypnotic and intriguing but tends to rather downplay the text which becomes more or less a series of phonemes. A Word Out of the Sea perhaps treats the text in a more conventionally dramatic way with more emphasis on the tenor soloist, Tim Keeler, but it still mostly in a similar sound world to the other two pieces.
The choir is Detroit’s Audivi conducted by the composer. It’s a twelve strong group with three singers on each part. Interestingly the alto line is taken by counter tenors. The group has a very integrated sound which works well for this music. The disc was recorded at St. Joseph Church in New Haven and the sound is quite resonant for such a small group. It suits the music but it doesn’t help make the texts any clearer!
All in all this is an interesting and unusual disc suitable for a contemplative moment. It’s available from Navona Records.
Joyce DiDonato’s latest CD In War and Peace is a compilation of baroque arias on the theme of war and peace, apparently prompted by the terrorist attacks in Paris. The arias are divided, apparently, into the two categories and while I get that Handel’s Scenes of Sorrow, Scenes of Woe from Jeptha is “war” I’m not at all sure how Purcell’s Dido’s Lament finds itself on that side of the balance sheet. No matter there’s lots of Handel; very well done, and quite a bit of Purcell, some of it quite little known; even better, with some Leo, Jommelli and Monteverdi along the way.