Sarah Aristidou
Sarah Aristidou | Credit: Andrej Grilc

Aether is like few other vocal recordings I’ve encountered. Far more than a showcase for Sarah Aristidou, an astounding French-Cypriot soprano with a strong voice and supremely high coloratura extension, it explores “aether,” the fifth element in Greek cosmology, through repertoire old and new.

Sarah Aristidou - "Aether"

In Aristidou’s conception, “Aether represents an eternal and unlimited substance, which eludes our conception of time; it can be neither perceived nor touched, and it also designates the divine essence of the soul.” Among the Hindi, it is “considered as the original source from which the other four elements [air, fire, water, and earth] were thought to derive. [In] Greek antiquity, it symbolizes the upper regions of the heavens, the purer upper air that the Gods breathe.”

If that sounds mysterious, as in impossible to grasp fully, wait until you hear the repertory. Aristidou claims that her selections speak of the infinite search for another more perfect world. That certainly corresponds with the predominant feeling of much of the music, which speaks of longing and separation — of reaching for something perpetually beyond our grasp. Album photos of the soprano wandering through the mists on rocky mountain peaks only contribute to the sense that what we hear can only, at best, take us part of the way. The rest of the journey must transpire either within ourselves or in spiritual realms.

Aristidou’s selections are as boundary-pushing as her conception. She may start lower in her range, with Edgard Varèse’s “Un grand sommeil noir” (A big black sleep) accompanied on piano by no less than Daniel Barenboim, but it doesn’t take long until, in the first of two selections from Henri Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, she briefly leaps well above the staff. From there, there is no stopping her. Two arias from Leo Delibes’ opera, Lakmé, include a “Bell Song” that ends with a blazing full-throated high E sustained for at least six seconds. Those selections are surrounded by such oddities as Jörg Widmann’s “Labyrinth V” for soprano a cappella, which calls for a singer as versatile as Cathy Berberian; Igor Stravinsky’s haunting “Song of the Nightingale,” which exists in a world all its own; and Udo Zimmermann’s “Einmal, noch einmal” (Once more just once) from Die weiße rose (The white rose), with Emmanuel Pahud as flute soloist.

Freely moving between styles and centuries, Aristidou and the excellent Orchester des Wandels, conducted by Thomas Guggeis, segué from Mélisande’s mysterious “Mes longs cheveux” (My long locks) from Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande to an extremely forthright “Tu del ciel ministro eletto” (You, elected minister of heaven) from Handel’s il trionfo del tempo del disinganno (The triumph of time and truth). Just as Aristidou doesn’t sound remotely like your typical French soprano with bells on, her vocal weight and volume in Handel is light years away from Emma Kirkby, Karina Gauvin, Carolyn Sampson — name your early music soprano of choice. Imagine, if you will, Handel sung by Nancy Sinatra.

Aristidou, whose voice occasionally betrays a slight wobble, seems a glutton for punishment. In one of many vocal triumphs, she successfully sings Thomas Adès’s torturous “Ariel’s Song” from his opera The Tempest without once sounding once like a chicken with its head cut off. It’s challenging music, albeit not as out there as the Widmann piece which calls for screams, sobs, wind sounds, humming, high-pitched trills, laughter, pops, and more. (It’s easy to understand why Widmann has written two pieces for Aristidou.) Balance that repertoire with a fascinating transition from the traditional Swedish folksong, “Näckens Polska,” arranged for soprano and guitar by guitarist Christian Rivet, to “Le voilà, je crois l’entendre,” the aria from Hamlet that it’s based upon, and tell me if you’re still convinced that under all circumstances earthly and beyond, 1+1=2.

Alpha’s customarily airy, transparent, and open sound further enhances a one-of-a-kind recording that I hope you will audition. Aether won’t replace the Joan Sutherland recordings in your collection, but it will take you to realms that Sutherland only touched in her dreams and never dreamed of singing. Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind probably would have fled the house rather than attempt a program such as this.

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