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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CLASSICAL NOTES (article first published : 2007-01-1)

Looking back at the classical music releases that have come my way over the year, it is difficult to decide if the predicted take-over of DVDs has seen a significant fall-off of exciting new CDs entering the market. Perhaps it is my stubborn anti-faddist streak, but I remain dedicated to the latter as my preferred medium for enjoying canned music, not least opera.

The pros and cons are much the same as those of radio versus television. CDs allow one’s imagination to roam unfettered by a specific director or designer’s view or (heaven forbid) agenda. In the case of opera, this is usually a blessing.

Two Opus Arte releases of recent Glyndebourne festival opera productions illustrate this. Both have been highly praised in the international music press, each recording a celebrated staging of an accredited masterwork, Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

The former, conducted by William Christie, is directed by David McVicar. It stars charismatic new American soprano, Danielle de Niese, vocally top notch, visually a glamorous, kittenish Cleopatra. She is the perfect foil opposite one of Britain’s leading Handelians, Sarah Connelly, whose heroic portrayal of the opera’s hugely demanding title role is one of the most compelling on disc.

With the production’s strong supporting cast and Christie’s trademark musical pulse driving things forward unerringly, it is easy to see why this staging became such a sensation in the UK. But McVicar is on a mission to underscore Handel extraordinary skill as an entertainer (this we know, I mutter). His efforts to win friends and influence people as newborn recruits, targeting the corporate toffs who flock to Glyndebourne for the same reason they go to Wimbledon, become tiresome.

Yes, the choreography is unfailingly inventive, not to say unpredictable. And yes the switches from one historic period to another keep you on your toes (if you need that sort of prompting). But it’s a case of ‘enough already, for heaven’s sake let the piece speak for itself’. One’s eventually tempted to hit the ‘aural only’ button and revel in the marvellous music making, sans Mr McVicar.

Still, the DVD format does give one the right to choose, and the other release mentioned is certainly another matter. This 2005 production by one of Britain’s legendary stage directors, Sir Peter Hall, has strong musical direction by hot property conductor Vladimir Jurowski. In every sense it captures Rossini’s take on the Cinderella legend in one breath-taking frame after another.

Each frame is presented superbly in sync with the wonderful score. Each might be mistaken for a detail from a Goya painting as this extraordinarily fine release transfers the stage action to screen, preserving for posterity a production that is a joy to behold, unashamedly conservative, faithfully in period, and happy to let Rossini do the talking.

No starry names here, but Ruxandra Donose in the title role and Russian lyric tenor Maxim Mirronov as her prince, are ideally cast. So is the rest of the ensemble. In one of the special features that accompany this release Maestro Jurowski is interviewed and is as persuasive in his passionate appraisal of this great ensemble opera as he is in the pit. A must have release.

So too are a pair of CD’s, each new to the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue, issued as part of the Mozart year. It is not fanciful to say that star mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena’s professional teaming with her life partner, conductor Sir Simon Rattle, carries the nuances of their close personal relationship.

Their disc of Mozart arias, made with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, is set to become a classic. It is imbued with a tenderness that is rare even among the greats of each musical generation.

Baritone Bryn Terfel’s new disc, Tutto Mozart, is also the result of a fabulous collaboration, here with the veteran conductor Sir Charles MacKerras and his regular band, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. A masterpiece of programming, this serves up a mix of well-known and rare Mozart vocal items that is a joy to listen to.

Next fortnight we’ll explore more new releases, notably Renee Fleming’s remarkable new disc Homage, released last month on the Decca label.– William Charlton-Perkins




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