The subject is daunting, even over the space of one year. These lists usually rely on the collective determination of a group of critics. In this case, however, Jason Serinus solo shall attempt to get by with more than a little help from his friends. I have surveyed the lists of other respected publications, but this one comes from my own distinctly idiosyncratic inner voice. Any one of these is a pleasure, and all have been nearly universally acclaimed.
One of the recordings that deserves a place on anyone’s “Best of” list has already been reviewed here: Beethoven’s Fidelio (Decca). This performance stands out, most of all, for the brilliance of its conductor, Claudio Abbado, and of its lead tenor, Jonas Kaufmann (singing the role of Florestan). And even though Nina Stemme is not in best voice, her inner conviction elevates her singing.
Theirs is a profoundly spiritual interpretation, one that embraces the notions of liberation and selfless devotion with such an open heart as to convince us unseeing listeners that history-changing events are unfolding before us. Every note is impassioned, and sounded with an understanding of the import of Beethoven’s vision of freedom and brotherhood or sisterhood.
Equally eye- and ear-opening is René Jacobs’ recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Dialogue is presented as we’ve never before heard it, with characters sometimes talking over each other, breaking into melody, or conversing over improvised instrumental commentary (by Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin’s fortepiano player, Christian Koch). From the surprising unison trills of the Three Ladies to an unusually light-voiced Sarastro, Jacobs’ idiosyncratic understanding of period practice and of Mozart’s ideas makes its mark. Even for an unredeemable romantic such as me, who treasures the much slower, unabashedly romantic interpretation of Thomas Beecham, this recording is a revelation.
Several Baroque opera recordings from Virgin Classics are equally deserving of attention: Vivaldi’s Ercole, with Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi, whose incredible cast includes Rolando Villazón, Romina Basso, Patrizia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, and Topi Lehtipuu; Vivaldi’s Farnace with I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis, whose cast includes the superb Karina Gauvin and the also-superb Daniel Behle, who sings Tamino for Jacobs; Handel’s Ariodante (Alan Curtis), with DiDonato, Gauvin, and Lehtipuu joining Marie-Nicole Lemieux and others; and, lastly, Handel’s Agrippina (Harmonia Mundi) with AAM Berlin conducted by René Jacobs, whose cast includes the light-voiced Sunhae Im, Marcos Fink, Daniel Schmutzhard, and Behle.
Finally, accolades must go to Sony’s ongoing reissue series of historic Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Not all of these are gems, by any means. Nor do they come with librettos. But the chance to hear Price, Corelli, and Dalis in Il trovatore; Nilsson, Vickers, Rysanek, and Stewart in Die Walküre; Marian Anderson’s end-of-career, boundary-breaking assumption of Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera; and, oh my God, Bidu Sayao and Jussi Björling in Roméo et Juliette, should start you salivating.
Operatic Vocal Recitals
Jonas Kaufmann: Come un bel di di maggio (Giordano: Andrea Chénier)
Jussi Björling: Come un bel di di maggio (Giordano: Andrea Chénier)
Diana Damrau: Richard Strauss: Freundliche Vision
Elisabeth Schumann: Henry Carey: Pastorale: Flocks are sporting
You have already read the names of the three singers whose single-disc opera recitals vied for pride of place on my list: Jonas Kaufmann: Verismo Arias; Joyce DiDonato: Diva/Divo; and Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Ne me refuse pas. Each disc is, in its own way, splendid. But if I had to choose only one, it would be DiDonato’s.
She is astounding. The recital opens with her in outgoing pants mode, as Massenet’s Chérubin gets drunk with an exuberance and passion that excite the “wow!” factor. Then DiDonato softens and become more inward, as she transforms into Mozart’s Susanna. Throughout the recital, classical lyricism alternates with gushing romanticism and astonishing coloratura. The latter is dispensed on the two Rossini arias with a bel canto sensibility, technical mastery and breadth of imagination that allow for utmost flexibility of phrasing and tempo. (Conductor Kazushi Ono everywhere scores high marks.)
DiDonato may not be the most vulnerable singer on the planet — memories of the great Frederica von Stade in some of the same repertoire are not effaced — yet she gives so much that we never come up short. This recital contains the 21st century’s counterpart to Golden Age vocalism, and includes a variety of repertoire that holds interest through an extremely generous 80 minutes.
Lemieux has a gorgeous voice, and her ability to let loose is second to none. One aria after the other gets the full-throttle treatment. There are some brilliant insights: Her renditions of several familiar arias, including “Premiers transports” from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette; the “Habanera” from Carmen; and, most of all, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila — all are exceptional. And the passion is intense. If only she would soften a bit. Compare her rendition of the Berlioz with DiDonato’s and you’ll know why DiDonato gets my vote.
Kaufmann launches into his collection with unfettered voice and no-holds-barred passion. Verismo is about blood, guts, and heart spilling all over, and Kaufmann pours it out with a unique combination of throaty, dark-hued lower notes; a brightly gleaming top; and dramatic insight. My only reservations are with conductor Antonio Pappano’s sometimes surprisingly metronomic approach, not to mention the compilation’s almost unremitting tone of suffering. As with Lemieux’s disc, you may wish to pause for oxygen midway through.
In addition, I found myself listening to some of the classic arias in Kaufmann’s collection with the voices of Enrico Caruso and Jussi Björling resounding in my head. There were moments when Pappano urged Kaufmann forward — as in “Un di all’azzurro spazio” and “Come un bel di di Maggio” from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier — when I kept hearing the earlier artists lingering on crucial phrases and “money notes” in echt Italian fashion. I also longed for some of the sweetness that Björling unfailingly delivered.
This leads to one of the more important historic reissues of this or any year, the 14-disc Sony Classical box set of Jussi Björling: The Complete RCA Album Collection. Issued to commemorate the centenary of the birth of the “Swedish Caruso,” it includes a bonus disc of excerpts from the aforementioned 1947 Met broadcast of Roméo et Juliette with Sayao.
Among the countless gems in this collection are the two CDs devoted to great tenor arias, recorded between 1951 and 1957. If this collection, which includes excerpts from all of Björling’s complete opera sets for RCA, does not send you on a quest to hunt down his earlier recordings, you clearly do not have opera in your blood.
Diana Damrau or Diana Damrau? The only question is: Which of her song recitals is “best” — Poesie (Richard Strauss Lieder) with Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic, or Liszt Lieder with pianist Helmut Deutsch? Given that I’ve already waxed ecstatic in a review of her recent Liszt disc, which will undoubtedly be in the running for someone’s 2012 “Best of” list (no pun intended), it’s the Strauss disc’s turn.
In a word, it’s fantastic. Have you ever heard another soprano dispense the rapid, high-lying coloratura of “Amor” with such lightness and ease, or sing “Morgen” with such freshness? Contrast the lighter songs with the combination of gravity, wistfulness, and rapture that Damrau and Thielemann bring to “Allerseelen,” “Freundliche Vision,” and “Traum durch die Dämmerung.” The variety of phrasing and shading bespeaks two artists of the highest order.
Talk of Strauss leads to the other must historic compilation of the year, the six-CD EMI Icon box, Elisabeth Schumann: Silver Thread of Song. Richard Strauss toured the U.S. accompanying Schumann in 1921 — her delightfully unpretentious diary of the tour is available online in English translation. He also wrote for her the six “Brentano-Lieder,” Op. 68, which Damrau includes on Poesie, and orchestrated a number of his songs with Schumann in mind.
While Schumann left us only 13 recordings of a dozen Strauss songs, those recordings are priceless. Damrau sings seven of these, and the contrast between their very different interpretations is revelatory. Revelatory, not because one version is “better” than the other, but because their very different interpretations are equally valid. Both singers give us extremely artful interpretations miraculously free of the artifice that sometimes intrudes into the Strauss recordings of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Schumann is so charming, her translucent high notes so filled with golden light, that she is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight. Listening to her Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, I can only marvel at how miraculously she alters tone and vibrato to express diverse emotions. No, she is not as perfect a singer as Damrau. She has more than her fair share of mannerisms, her coloratura technique is anything but impeccable, and her dynamic range became increasingly limited as she aged. Still, her ability to reach to the heart of the matter in repertoire best suited to her light lyric instrument is second to none.
The Schumann compilation includes EMI’s first CD transfers of English and German songs. Some of the wonderfully accented English songs are so filled with joy and sacred beauty as to defy description. You’ll be all the better for having spent several blissful hours immersing yourself in the intimate romance of Schumann and Damrau.
Here’s a short plug for Baker, a relatively bargain-priced box containing three of mezzo-soprano Janet Baker’s live recital compilations for BBC Legends. What’s especially wonderful is to play Baker’s 1975 performance of Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été, recorded in London’s Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, alongside the magnificent 1995 live performance of the work by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded right in the Bay Area with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan. Taken together, these four discs serve as priceless mementos of two great mezzos who were equally at home on the concert platform and in the opera house.
With apologies to all the fine artists whose recital discs I had neither time to audition nor space to critique, here’s to a new year filled with health, peace, and wonderful music.