Posts Tagged ‘CD’

Fall Discs

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Recommended CDs and DVDs

Published: November 26, 2017

MUNICH — Post is under revision.

Photos © Arthaus, BelAir Classiques, Querstand, Supraphon, Warner Classics

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Magelone-Romanzen on Disc

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Brahms, Tieck, Gerhaher, Huber and Walser

Published: October 16, 2017

MUNICH — Sony has released a remarkable recording of Brahms’s Magelone-Romanzen, Op. 33, complete with Zwischentexte prepared by German author Martin Walser. Christian Gerhaher sings the fifteen songs and recites two of the other three poems (the 1st, 16th and 17th) from Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 narrative not set to music. Walser, 87 at the time of the recording, reads his own choice of eloquent, plain words, condensing Tieck’s eighteen-section prose while still advancing the tale and earmarking each song, as Brahms would have expected. Between the two of them, the German language has never sounded more beautiful. Gerold Huber accompanies. Sessions stretched over five days, at Bayerischer Rundfunk here, an indication of the care taken. This 93-minute, 2-CD release, with booklet essay and Romanze texts in German only, has EAN 088985 3110223 and ASIN B01NA7L2AN and must be distinguished from the widely reviewed single-disc issue omitting Walser’s work. Essential listening.

Images © StadtMuseum Bonn, 1865 wood engraving after a drawing (Brahms); 1838 oil on canvas by Joseph Karl Stieler (Tieck); Gregor Hohenberg (Gerhaher); Marion Koell (Huber); Philippe Matsas (Walser)

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Two Quartets for Mendelssohn

Monday, October 16th, 2017

August Everding Saal in Grünwald, south of Munich

Published: October 16, 2017

GRÜNWALD — In mixing-bowl terms, Berlin’s Armida Quartett and Paris’s Quatuor Modigliani combined rather than blended in a standing-room-only concert Oct. 11 here at the August Everding Saal. That is as required for some recipes, possibly including Mendelssohn’s E-flat String Octet (1825), which received a convulsive, unnuanced performance that seemed to want to come apart in loud, fragmentary gestures, pleasing the crowd anyway. More enlightening were the program’s two other half-hour works, before the break: the Mozart String Quintet in G Minor, K516 (1787), staffed by the Modigliani, and Brahms’s B-flat String Sextet, Opus 18 (1860), centered on the Armida, with the violas and fine Modigliani cellist François Kieffer doing triple duty. The French group, now in its fourteenth year, had the tighter, more reserved ensemble and sound, suiting the Mozart; the German quartet, new in 2006 and adept at winning prizes, offered more character (violist Teresa Schwamm), resonance (cellist Peter-Philipp Staemmler on a larger instrument than Kieffer’s 1706 Goffriller) and visceral abandon (first violin Martin Funda), enhancing the Brahms. Not that anyone was competing. The sextet flowed with boldness and conviction, opulent tones throughout, a warm, lyrical traversal, swept along by Funda. The cellists delighted in each other’s timbral contrasts. In the Mozart, a precise rapport among the Modigliani musicians produced intriguing balances, with Schwamm adding gradated charm. But here, as in the concluding Mendelssohn, Amaury Coeytaux’s pacing and deft fingerwork drew attention. He is the Modigliani’s new first violin: at 33 the only man on stage with a pot belly, and apparently traveling without a hairbrush. (Coeytaux joined ten months ago, in time to lead the group’s probing, pliant survey of the Schumann quartets recorded by Mirare at Evian in April. Although written together in 1842, the three Opus 41 pieces go their separate ways in terms of form and even style, something conveyed with discernment on the 79-minute disc.) Gemeinde Grünwald itself presented the concert. This leafy little city on Munich’s southern fringe, home to Bavaria Film and once home to Carlos Kleiber as well as stage director Everding, boasts a median personal income of U.S. $147,000, as compared to $64,000 for Landkreis München and $45,000 statewide. Enough for the fanciest mixing bowls.

Photo © Richie Müller

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Tonhalle Lights Up the Beyond

Friday, January 27th, 2017

View from the Balkon inside the Tonhalle in Zurich

Published: January 27, 2017

ZURICH — It was not the most natural of programs. Beethoven’s familiar C-Major Piano Concerto (1795) prepared nobody for Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà … , or Lightning Over the Beyond … , the 65-minute theological ornithological astronomical would-be symphony Messiaen finished in 1991. Wary of the exotic fare ahead, many in the Tonhalle-Orchester’s subscription audience here Jan. 7 left at intermission. Others returned to their seats only to grow restless as Éclairs unfolded, and they then feet-shuffled and door-slammed between its movements. Maestro and program architect Kent Nagano maintained his serenity nonetheless, all the way through.

Daniil Trifonov turned in a leaden, joylessly intense reading of the concerto, nowhere near Beethoven’s world. He reduced the solo part to a stilted struggle of his own devising, albeit a sincere one masterfully played. He overstated dynamic contrasts within phrases, creating alien shapes. The first movement, played slowly, essentially lacked a pulse; Nagano began it in that manner, evidently at his soloist’s behest. As Trifonov’s sweaty bangs swished near Steinway’s S&S logo and his chin hovered just above the backs of his hands, he telegraphed a crazily forced disquiet. The second movement sounded numb. Life emerged, somewhat, in the crowd-pleasing Rondo.

Messiaen’s opus summum in its Zurich premiere wound up defying the defectors and sent most listeners home with the spiritual boost its writer must have intended — at least if their spirited applause was any sign. The performance confirmed Messiaen’s wisdom in scoring, sequencing, and above all timing his material so as to build a coherent and moving structure, even as he sought the most divergent attributes for his eleven movements.

There is no climax. Instead, the eighth movement, employing 128 musicians, anchors Éclairs by recognizing every strand of thought it possesses, and the plush string harmonies of the last movement bring the composer to his point (and his title): a glimpse of the Celestial City, the Au-Delà, made possible by shafts of lightning, the Éclairs. It is a “journey,” one decorated in seven of the movements with birdsong from 48 species — a trait that separates it from its closest cousin in Messiaen’s canon, the Turangalîla-Symphonie, which is somewhat longer with one movement less.

The Tonhalle-Orchester balanced an astonishing range of sonorities, neatly intoning the unison passages, diligently tracing the glissandos and melismas, and somehow preventing the textural lurches between movements — and between ideas within them — from undermining Messiaen’s last, vast statement on mortality. Nagano favored a brisk pace overall and cued the vital bird entrances with fanatical clarity.

Tempo can be conjectural in Messaien, properties varying, and Éclairs has been no exception over the years. Nagano on this occasion came close to Simon Rattle’s workaday 61 minutes, as recorded in Berlin in 2004. But Sylvain Cambreling’s diligent 2002 Freiburg recording spreads to 75 minutes. Myung-Whun Chung, who worked with Messiaen on a benchmark 1990 recording of Turangalîla, taking 78 minutes for that work, completes Éclairs in a middling 65 minutes on his 1993 Paris disc, yet his view is not especially compelling.

There is one great recording of Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà … . In fact it is an essential disc for any Messiaen collection: a live 2008 performance complete with coughs and moments of shaky brass intonation on the Kairos label. Listening, one cannot imagine that anyone walked out in the middle, such is the joy and focus in the Vienna Philharmonic’s music-making. Ingo Metzmacher adopts moderate tempos (running to 67 minutes) and allows the intervals of silence to tell, but he presses on between movements, creating a palpable sense of urgency and spontaneity. His third movement, devoted to birdsong, is exhilarating. In the fifth, the Vienna strings flatter Messiaen’s long and soaring lines. Metzmacher seems to channel Mussorgsky in the fully scored eighth, and in the ninth he secures the most vivid demonstration — possibly ever recorded — of Messiaen birdsong. From his abode in the Celestial City, the composer will have been pleased.

Photo © Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich

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MPhil Launches Own Label

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Provisional album art for 2016 Munich Philharmonic CDs

Published: July 18, 2016

MUNICH — Late to an unprofitable game, the Munich Philharmonic on Friday announced a new recording label of its own, “MPhil,” in partnership with Warner Classics.

Its purpose? To broaden the audience.

Content will be sourced live, mainly from concerts at the orchestra’s Gasteig home. But archive releases are promised too, as are “celebrity” conductors. Distribution: physical media, downloads, and streaming offers.

The label will issue up to six titles yearly with emphasis “on the abundant German repertory and works by composers with whom the ensemble has been closely connected since its founding 125 years ago.”

Exactly how MPhil Chefdirigent Valery Gergiev fits this artistic focus is unclear. Anyway, the first titles appear in September: a symphony each by Bruckner and Mahler with provisional album art showing Gergiev’s name twice the size of the orchestra’s.

Which begs a question, given the maestro’s affinities and the hopelessly saturated market. Who in their right mind would want a Gergiev recording of any Bruckner or Mahler symphony? The MPhil’s archivist?

To be sure, the new imprint will expose the Munich Philharmonic’s work in the way BR Klassik and Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings already do for its “competitors,” to cite only German examples.

But such ventures nowadays hemorrhage serious euros.

MPhil releases will follow, after a delay of at least a year, broadcasts of the same performances via outlets like Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Warner’s Erato label, meanwhile, has recently issued live recordings from 2013 and 2014 of Gergiev’s Mariinsky Orchestra: the Shostakovich Cello Concertos as expansively shaped by Gautier Capuçon.

Image © Warner Classics

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St John Passion Streams

Friday, May 27th, 2016

BR Chor’s St John Passion filmed in Nuremberg in June 2015

Published: May 27, 2016

NUREMBERG — Tired of paying for digitized concert-hall privileges? Here is a sumptuously sung, gloriously gratis (for the moment*) St John Passion from this city’s Lutheran Lorenzkirche, filmed in June 2015 as part of a drawn-out Bavarian Broadcasting project to mark “500 Years of the Reformation”:


Maximilian Schmitt is the Evangelist. Tareq Nazmi sings Jesus. Christina Landshamer, Anke Vondung, Tilman Lichdi and Krešimir Stražanac make up the SATB quartet for the arias. The BR Chor and Concerto Köln are conducted by Peter Dijkstra.

The corresponding Munich performances of Bach’s favorite work, from three months earlier, have merged their way onto an excellent BR Klassik CD set, but with Julian Prégardien as the Evangelist and Ulrike Malotta singing the alto arias.

[*As of May 17, 2017, this remained the case, although in early 2017 the video was issued as a BR Klassik DVD set that went on to win the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik.]

Still image from video © Bayerischer Rundfunk

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BR’s Full-Bodied Vin Herbé

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Prinzregententheater in Munich

Published: March 18, 2016

MUNICH — It would be a novelty to hear Le vin herbé the way composer Frank Martin conceived it. The 1940 secular chamber oratorio reportedly soars when realized in concert by twelve French-singing voices, double string trio, double bass and piano — its lean forces yet complex harmony producing intriguing shafts of color; its drama predicated on shuffling the voices, used one-to-a-part and as a chorus. But a listener could wait decades for the chance. When Martin’s 100-minute Tristan et Iseut saga shows up at all, it has either morphed into an opera (Katie Mitchell’s realist concept for Berlin as example) or, more often, been puffed up for standard choral forces. This was its fate in a Bayerischer Rundfunk outing Jan. 23 here at the Prinz-Regenten-Theater, a missed opportunity given the broadcaster’s resources and artistic umbrella.

BR Chor artistic leader Peter Dijkstra kept Martin’s instrumentation but fielded 38 singers, blocking entry to the planned sound world and permitting only sporadic drama. Martin’s varied commentaries took on a sameness, so that for instance no urgency accompanied the waking of Gorvenal and the “last night-flight through the beloved woods.” Still, tenor Marcel Reijans’ keen and heroic Tristan injected vitality, and with good French. In support: soprano Johanna Winkel’s sensitive Iseut, soprano Barbara Fleckenstein’s clearly worried Branghien, and the unruffled, oaky Marc of baritone Andreas Burkhart. Refined choral contributions only emphasized what was amiss texturally, despite peppy punctuation from members of the Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and Dijkstra’s conducting brought out the intriguing harmonies at reverential speeds.

This project should have benefitted from the intervention of Mariss Jansons in his supposed joint capacity as chief conductor of the BR Chor and the BRSO, to ensure forces were cast in line with Martin’s wishes and to properly serve the broadcaster’s listeners. The charismatic Dutchman, meanwhile, is closing out his 11-year BR Chor tenure. He has not been the most imaginative musician in Romantic and Modern works, but Bach he conducts naturally and lyrically. His St Matthew Passion three years ago deserved its plaudits, and his St John Passion, with the mellifluous Kuwaiti bass Tareq Nazmi as Jesus, has just appeared in a neatly documented BR Klassik CD set. Dijkstra’s farewell actually comes soon, with the B-Minor Mass here and in Baden-Baden, Nuremberg and Ingolstadt. Replacing him in September will be British conductor Howard Arman, while Jansons remains chief conductor, for what that is worth. As for Le vin herbé, Victor Desarzens’ 1961 recording with Eric Tappy as Tristan and Frank Martin at the piano (on the Westminster label) provides an authentic path through the score.

Photo (modified) © Martina Bogdahn for BR

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Guillaume Tells

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Bryan Hymel in 2014 hits ‘Asile héréditaire … Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ right out of Munich’s ballpark

Published: September 23, 2015

MUNICH — Post is under revision.

Still image from video © Bayerische Staatsoper

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When Is A Plumber Worth More Than A Violinist?

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.   

We spent a lot of money making a CD to promote our orchestra. Now the composer’s publisher wants mechanical royalties. I just don’t understand why I have to pay mechanical royalties for a CD I am not selling, just giving to donors. Doesn’t the Composer want people to listen to his music?

Does your orchestra sell tickets to its concerts? Why? Don’t you want people to come and listen to the music?

While everyone in the performing arts end of the entertainment industry appreciates the importance of music, not as many appreciate or understand its value. In fact, many don’t like discussing commercial or business concepts like “value” at all. However, an artist’s time and talent is the artist’s service. It’s no less of a commodity that any other service like a plumber or electrician. While many would argue, and I would agree, that an artist is worth even more, when a pipe once burst in my house in the middle of the night, I was far more relieved to see a plumber show up than a violinist!

Whether a musician’s performance is enjoyed live or on a recording, the musician needs to be paid for providing his or her talent. Musicians have bills to pay just like everyone else. For the same reason, when a composer’s composition is performed, either live or on a recording, he or she needs to be paid for providing his or her talent in creating the composition in the first place. While it’s true that some composers receive commissions to create a work, not all do, and a commission fee only pays for the creation of the work itself. Just like an author gets a royalty every time her book is sold and a playwright gets a royalty every time his play is produced, a composer gets a royalty every time her music is performed or a recording made of the performance. When a composition is performed, the performer must pay a performance royalty, most often by obtaining a performance license from ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. When a composition is recorded, the performer must pay a “mechanical royalty” (an outdated term for a “recording royalty”) directly to the composer or the composer’s publisher. The mechanical royalty is based on the length of the composition and how many copies are made of the recording of the performance of the composition.

I appreciate your frustration in having to pay mechanical royalties for CDs that are given away, but that’s like saying that musicians should be paid less if a concert is free or only based on the number of tickets sold. Whether or not you choose to sell the recordings does not change the fact that you recorded a performance of the composer’s composition. Just because you want to purchase a television to donate to an orphanage doesn’t mean that Best Buy is going to let you walk out of the store with it for free.  While many artists do graciously give freely of their time and talents in promoting the performing arts, that decision is not yours to make for them. Largesse and munificence should be offered, never presumed. If yours is the first recording of this particular work and the composer is not already widely performed and listed to, I bet the composer would consider receiving a number of free CDs in lieu of mechanical royalties.


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Winter Discs

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2012

Published: March 31, 2015

MUNICH — Arts projects in Europe with any visual aspect to them nowadays migrate to DVD whether or not there is a need, partly to justify public subsidy through distribution. Many are operas filmed too often, like Nationaltheater Mannheim’s just-released Der Ring des Nibelungen, which joins DVD tetralogies from Barcelona, Copenhagen, Erl, Frankfurt, Milan, Stuttgart, Valencia and Weimar issued since 2002. (The same staging nearly bankrupted Los Angeles Opera yet could not be filmed in the movie capital for lack of funds.) Others are more worthy or at least cover rarer material, and generally record labels can license their adventurous content with only modest investment. Here are seven such DVD releases along with some live or live-related European CDs, mostly from recent seasons.

Ivan Alexandre’s staging of Hippolyte et Aricie premiered in 2009 in the intimate Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. Its fluid interweaving of Rameau’s vocal and dance elements and credible Personenregie adapted to the composer’s pace earned it a transfer to Paris in 2012, now viewable on a 2-DVD Erato set. Alexandre approaches scenography using methods consistent with period practice and potential. Helped by handsome flat designs and tight control of color, the effects were intriguing and refreshing to watch in both cities’ theaters, and happily they advance the story equally well through the camera lens. Indeed the project is of a quality to set beside Jean-Marie Villégier’s legendary Montpellier production of Lully’s Atys and faithful to Rameau’s tragédie lyrique in a way the modish competing Glyndebourne DVD of 2013 could be only in its audio. Dynamic musicianship underpins the effort, with an admirable cast, notably Stéphane Degout as a mellifluous Thésée (pictured, right, aux enfers). Emmanuelle Haïm’s conducting, all elbows and fists, apparently suits her orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée.

Warner Classics, the new EMI, has issued a Berlin Philharmonic CD pairing live 2012 and 2010 performances of Rachmaninoff’s Kolokola (Bells) and Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle’s urbane and at times sultry reading of the cantata — the composer called it a choral symphony — disappoints, with his veteran soprano thin-voiced and only Mikhail Petrenko, his bass in the concluding Mournful Iron Bells, injecting much Russian flavor. But in the dances the conductor’s refinement creates an enthralling balance of power and grace, and he presents a progression from the bucolic first movement, through a hardened Andante con moto, to the contrasts and drama of the suite’s lengthy third part. The string sound has bloom and the woodwinds find a huge range of expression and character.

The Pergolesi tricentennial of 2010 did the Jesi-born Neapolitan composer proud, prompting Claudio Abbado’s priceless 3-CD survey of his choral music as well as a 12-DVD “tutto” collection of the operas, filmed in Jesi. Perhaps the richest single work is the comedy Lo frate ’nnamorato, written at the same time as Hippolyte et Aricie but a world away from it (and pointing forwards to Mozart rather than back at Lully). It is ably led by Fabio Biondi in the big set, but Teatro alla Scala in 1989 had a cast for this opera of charming da capo arias that won’t soon be equaled in technique or liveliness, and their RAI-televised work is currently an Opus Arte DVD. Several Italian singers at the start of good careers — Nuccia Focile, Luciana d’Intino, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, Alessandro Corbelli — energize the story of Ascanio (Focile), “the brother enamored” unknowingly of his two sisters and, luckily, a third woman too. It is unavoidably a larger-scale staging than the piece wants, but Roberto de Simone directs the action neatly on a revolving unit set. The orchestral playing has poise and discipline even if Riccardo Muti propels the score at a tad slower pace than would be ideal.

Twelve years after Cecilia Bartoli’s exploratory Decca disc of rare Gluck arias, the label has issued a companion CD introducing German lyric tenor Daniel Behle. Recorded under sponsorship in Athens in 2013, it leaps out of the loudspeakers. The Bavarian composer’s pre-reform music, now more familiar, can still startle in its inventive turns and loose palettes, and Behle, who sang a riveting Tito in the Mozart opera last fall here at the Staatsoper, opts for several pieces that lie high. In two contrasted arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta he copes manfully with technical demands while keeping power in reserve, as he did on stage. Se povero il ruscello from Ezio brings relaxed lyricism and a mellow timbre that caresses the line. The stunning scena that opens La contesa de’ Numi is duly dramatic. But who oversaw this project? Everything is closely miked. Period orchestra Armonia Atenea accompanies vigorously as led by George Petrou, right in your ear. Misplaced vowel sounds from Behle, in the context of generally accurate delivery, were not fixed. And we jump to French arias at the end, familiar ones, including a bizarrely jovial J’ai perdu mon Eurydice. Producers matter.

Stage director Pierre Audi in 2009 combined Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Christophe Rousset conducted imaginatively over an extended evening as Euripides’ heroine appeared first as teenager in a Greek port and then as adult exile somewhere in Crimea. Two years later Audi’s literally clunky conception — on metal steps and without backdrop — resurfaced in Amsterdam with a mostly changed cast and, alas, Marc Minkowski defining the music through irksome rhythmic stresses, missing much beauty. There it was filmed. Unenhanceable by camera blocking and with Aulide cut by thirty fine minutes, the production is now an Opus Arte 2-DVD set. Gluck’s first opera has the more lyrically inspired and stately score, with a terrific overture; in Tauride his musical frame is tauter and more overtly theatrical. Véronique Gens and Nicolas Testé excel as the young Iphigénie and her father, while Anne Sofie von Otter returns affectingly to Clytemnestre, a role she recorded 24 years earlier; Frédéric Antoun contributes a credible, unstraining Achille. Tauride revolves around the smart Mireille Delunsch, abetted by Yann Beuron (Pylade), Jean-François Lapointe (Oreste) and Laurent Alvaro (Thoas); all sing with imposing dedication.

The less rare Werther received an uncommonly strong cast at the Bastille home of the Opéra National de Paris in 2010, resulting in a 2-DVD Decca set that is reportedly selling well. Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann impersonate Goethe’s awkward soulmates, both fresh of voice. Originally created for London, Benoît Jacquot’s innocuous yet intriguing, glum and sparse production presents the characters faithfully, the action plainly. Unusually Jacquot serves as video director too, lending style by shooting from behind the scenes and above the proscenium as well as from out front. These angles provide glimpses of the conductor, Michel Plasson, who unfortunately blunts the contrasts in Massenet’s score and weighs it down.

When the French, or at least the Franks, helped the Roman Church standardize chant cycles and structures for worship in order to make the liturgy operable and enforceable across regions, their effort left out Milan. Charlemagne’s 8th-century directives invoking St Gregory encouraged steps to document if not yet notate chants, but in the city where St Ambrose had promoted the Church’s adoption of Latin — his small corpse still lies there wondrously on display — a divergent liturgy prevailed. Canto ambrosiano has accordingly stood apart, its manuscripts complete in one place, unlike the scattered repositories of Gregorian chant. In 2010 the Arcidiocesi di Milano, manager of this legacy, commissioned a book and recordings to survey and better disseminate the chants.

The resulting Antifonale Ambrosiano is invaluable. It reproduces scores in early and modern notation. It details Milan’s chant practices in italiano and truly spans the subject: chants for the Ordinary of the Mass and for the Hours (Vigilie, Lodi, Prima, Terza, Sesta, Nona, Vespri, Compieta), chants proper to seasons and saints, chants with psalm and canticle texts — each in one musical line, most to be sung antiphonally. Although not free of audible splices, the recordings are vivid yet with a resonant aura. Italian women and men sing in glorious Latin (and the vernacular), a joy in itself. The three CDs hold about as much music as Parsifal and are issued, with the book, by Libreria Musicale Italiana, an academic body whose website offers a handy carrello and U.S. shipping.

Then there is Bejun Mehta’s Orlando. The countertenor first personified the mad soldier at Glimmerglass in 2003 and must relish the vocal fireworks and range Händel gives him. A performance in Brussels leaked onto video, but in 2013 the same team reconvened in Bruges for a studio recording that Forum Opéra justly hails as an “Orlando d’une époustouflante intensité.” Mehta rises to every ornamental challenge, adjusts his tone to paint words, sings with evenness from bottom to top, and sounds so believably on the fringes of sanity that a Zoroastrian mend is only logical. Senesino lives. But it is not a one-man show. The other principals likewise inhabit their roles even if they crush countless Italian consonants. Sophie Karthäuser: super trills, too closely miked. Sunhae Im: charm in the voice, sweet-sounding. Kristina Hammarström: a focused alto with smooth, masculine tones. Konstantin Wolff: assured and agile. The conducting lacks subtlety but René Jacobs does support his singers, and Ah! Stigie larve! … Vaghe pupille, the accompagnato climax to Act II, properly showcases Mehta. Engineers of the 2-CD Archiv set alas place the B’Rock Orchestra Ghent far forward, so that even the expertly played harpsichord can grate. Fine, fleet woodwinds announce themselves in the overture.

Equally brilliant on a 2012 disc of seldom-heard Mozart concert arias is Rolando Villazón, the tenor whose voice and career were supposedly kaputt. After streamed (and moving) portrayals of Offenbach’s Hoffmann here at the Staatsoper in late 2011, he went to Abbey Road to make this Deutsche Grammophon CD with the London Symphony Orchestra. There the sound engineers proved that the art of balancing musicians hasn’t been totally lost, and conductor Antonio Pappano proved a resilient foil in the bold, precocious, clever, sad, amusing scores, even gracing one aria with a dryly comic bass voice. The results are essential listening, largely because Villazón gets straight to the heart of every piece and finds all the color, truth and humanity anyone could wish for. Even the juvenile work sounds masterly.

Alexander Pereira’s long years as Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich (1991–2012) brought a wave of sponsors for the company and, significantly, its “cantonization,” making it the charge not just of the city but of a wealthy catchment area reaching to the German border. Pereira had a confident ear for talent, built an ensemble, and gave lead roles to unknown singers like the tenors Piotr Beczala (from 1997), Kaufmann (1999) and Javier Camarena (2007). Working with a quintet of conductors — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie, Nello Santi, Ádám Fischer and Franz Welser-Möst — he widened the audience for the small house through DVDs, ahead of a trend. Two such projects late in the tenure were Rossini operas led by veteran Muhai Tang, with Bartoli, Liliana Nikiteanu, and Camarena in stagings by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. These are now out on Decca after a delay, poles apart in nature but both vividly impressive.

Stendhal described Rossini’s Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia, as “volcanic”; certainly it is an unsettling score and a contrast in sensibility to the other heroic operas. Zurich’s staging straddles the line between tragedy and melodrama, with credible interactions and an inner focus that does not let up. Sparse but graphically textured sets lend a tension of their own. Otello needs three tenors who can cope with a high tessitura and sing accurately through wild embellishments, and these it received when filmed in 2012. John Osborn is a duly martial moro, while the romantic role of Rodrigo is ardently taken by Camarena. The two are phenomenal in Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue, their bilious Act II clash. Edgardo Rocha is skilled as Iago (strictly “Jago”), a smaller role. Bass-baritone Peter Kálmán makes an imposing Elmiro (and Graham Chapman lookalike), but the capable women come across less ideally: Bartoli’s Desdemona machine-gun in delivery and Nikiteanu’s Emilia a deer in the headlights. Tang has the mood of the piece and conducts it with unfailing propulsion.

Great fun is Le comte Ory, a farce that brought down the Swiss house when premiered in Jan. 2011. Anyone who knows it through Bartlett Sher’s misfiring production for the Metropolitan Opera owes it to themselves to see Decca’s DVD: it is full of joie de vivre, keenly observed in its humor by the directing partners despite a seven-century advance in the action to 1950s France. Carlos Chausson sang hilariously at the premiere as the Gouverneur, who has a smug early scene, but he is alas replaced in the video (filmed later) by a discomfited Ugo Guagliardo. That said — and the Gouverneur does fade from the plot — there are outstanding musical turns from the other principals and all play the comedy straight. Bartoli moves from Isolier, the suitor role she sang in Milan long ago, to Adèle, Comtesse de Formoutiers, and is a stitch, literally, as directed, exuding dignity except where circumstance overtakes her. Rebeca Olvera essays a chain-smoking warrior of an Isolier. Nikiteanu is deadpan as Ragonde, making sparing use of emotive poses. Camarena smirks sweetly as the “ermite” but upholds due gravity as “Soeur Colette”; he and Oliver Widmer, the excellent Raimbaud, parade the virtues of ensemble acting as well as singing, not to mention comic timing. Tang and the orchestra breezily convey the score’s spirit.

Against the odds, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (1964) has become a repertory opera in German-speaking lands. The visionary magnum opus with its depraved storyline sanctions a grab bag of what are now Regietheater clichés, magnified by pluralism, simultaneous scenes and surround sound. Its 110 minutes embrace various musical forms and want a massive orchestra, plus jazz combo, such that, all told, the composer’s concept remains barely feasible. Recent stagings in Salzburg (2012), Zurich (2013*) and Munich (2014*) inevitably went their separate ways; the first, by Alvis Hermanis, is now a EuroArts DVD. Filmed in the Felsenreitschule and presenting a row of arched vignettes mimicking the venue’s rock-carved backdrop, it is preset for simultaneous drama. But once adjusted to the tritone stills of vintage porn backed by live-action images of walking horses, masturbating soldiers and Peeping Toms, the viewer tires of the left-and-right back-and-forth. A striking cast is headed by Laura Aikin as Marie; Ingo Metzmacher works magically with a somewhat backwardly balanced Vienna Philharmonic, not heard with the impact experienced at the venue.

[*Presumably in the DVD pipeline, worth or not worth the wait. Zurich’s has Marc Albrecht conducting a Calixto Bieito concept (less refinement, more degradation, spatially restricted and with lesser musical forces); Munich’s offers Kirill Petrenko on the podium and Andreas Kriegenburg directing traffic (less sex, more clichés). John Rhodes on the Swiss show: “Most sexual perversions and some torture were presented quite graphically … . Marie was in a constant state of undress. At the end she poured blood on herself and stood … as though crucified at the front of the stage.” In Munich the opening scene was overplayed, weakening what followed. Kriegenburg’s box-based staging offered unedifying and in the end unenlightening views, but Petrenko presided over an inflamed Bavarian State Orchestra and a superb cast centered on Barbara Hannigan’s Marie.]

Still image from video © Warner Classics

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