Thursday, 1 May 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, May 2014)

Orchestra la Scintilla / Giovanni Antonini
Decca 478 3517 (2 CDs) / *****

Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, arguably the greatest bel canto opera ever written, has often been associated with dramatic sopranos like Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland in the title role. Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s extraordinary portrayal of the ill-fated Druid priestess has historical precedent. The part was written for the great 19th century diva Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), legendary for singing the great mezzo roles of today. This recording, accompanied on period instruments by the Zurich-based Orchestra la Scintilla, thus returns to the opera’s original conception. More than just convincing, it is an artistic triumph.

The indefatigable Bartoli lives and breathes the conflicted world and double lives of Norma, and her famous aria Casta Diva has an otherworldly feel despite sporting a darker tonal colour. Opposite her, the virginal Adalgisa is served by no less than Korean coloratura soprano Sumi Jo. Together, they are spectacular in the ecstatically charged duets Ah! Si, fa core e abbraciami and Mira, O Norma. Joined by tenor John Osborne’s Pollione (Norma’s lover) and Michele Pertusi’s Oroveso (father), the ensemble conjures up a near-definitive reading of enterprise and spirit that is pleasure from start to end. 

HINDEMITH Piano Sonatas
Hyperion 67977 / ****

The German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote sonatas for every instrument of the orchestra, but he held a great affection for the piano. His three piano sonatas (all composed in 1936) are definitely more than Gebrauschmusik, or “utility music” written for the purpose of didactic study or exercise. Despite a tendency to astringency on the surface, all three are gifted with thematic coherence that makes them rather listenable. The First Sonata, the longest and in 5 movements, may seem the toughest to crack, but its lyricism gradually comes through.

The Second Sonata, also the shortest, falls within the hands of gifted amateur pianists. It is the Third Sonata, a bona fide concert piece, which taxes the virtuoso most. Its fugal finale is true contrapuntal paradise, topped by subversive humour with a wink in the eye that looks forward to Shostakovich’s more riotous fugues. German pianist Markus Becker gives very good performances, even if he misses out on Glenn Gould’s manic edge and mischief-making. As a bonus, a discarded set of variations from the First Sonata have been included. Lovers of counterpoint should not be hesitant.    

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