Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cecilia's La Sonnambula

Could anything be sweeter than Cecilia Bartoli's recording of Bellini's La Sonnambula? Especially sweet and sinuous are the duets with Juan Diego Florez. I am very pleased that he is singing with her. It is the path to increased expressiveness. I like them together very much.

Alessandro De Marchi is the conductor.

When I listened to Cecilia Bartoli's new recording of La Sonnambula, the word Spieloper came into my mind, 1830-50 being the great era for the Spieloper, but unfortunately things seem to come out in my brain in German instead of Italian. I am reminded by Gramophone Magazine that in Italian this is opera semi-seria. Or is that really Italian? My Italian is quite primitive. This is a style of opera not exactly serious and not exactly comical with less than fully dramatic music. The use of period instruments emphasizes this effect.

Gramophone's favorite tracks and mine were the same: the extended first act duet with Bartoli and Florez. "Son geloso del zefiro erranre" and "Ah!costante nel tutto" duet is also astounding. Together they are golden.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cecilia Bartoli at Zellerbach

It is impossible to explain a Cecilia Bartoli performance. I systems analyze everything so why not this? All I can say is the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I have all of Cecilia's recordings and have listened to them all many times. For years I longed for them like food. And I think it was often these very songs I longed for and not the more impressive and popular coloratura. It was a pleasure to hear them again Sunday on the Cal Performances series in Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

The repertoire is in three languages: Italian, French and Spanish. Cecilia is fabulous in all three, but I find her Spanish especially sexy. "Havanaise" by Pauline Viardot-Garcia is one of the songs in Spanish.

There was a little bit of comic business associated with this song. They went for a short break and someone opened a door backstage, and a gust of wind blew some of the music onto the floor. The pianist, Sergio Ciomei, picked up the music from the floor and put it back on the piano but didn't really look to see what he was doing. Then for some reason he tossed some pages back onto the floor. Then in the middle of "Havanaise" he noticed that one of the pages of the piece he was currently playing was missing, retrieved it from the floor and went right on playing without missing a beat. This was very impressive and everyone clapped, including Cecilia.

I was discussing record sales by classical singers with my friend D, and we discussed crossover, something Cecilia has never done. She is second only to Callas for sales by a female classical singer.

I told him about my idea that she should do a Flamenco album, and at first he hated the idea. Toward the end of the program he changed his mind.

Another piece of comic business that was obviously planned came during the performance of "Rataplan," a piece that normally comes with a drum accompaniment. Ciomei put a piece of paper on the strings of the piano (prepared piano?), making it sound a little like a very quiet drum. Cute, I thought, but other people I talked to couldn't figure out what was going on.

People in Berkeley love Cecilia, and she responds with an outpouring of warmth and openness that exceeds what I have seen in other venues. It is truly a love feast.

Besides the Seguidilla, the other three encores were the same as LA: "Ti voglio tanto bene" by de Curtis, "Canto negro" by Montsalvatge, and "Non ti scordar di me" by de Curtis. The encores were the only part of the program that I hadn't heard her sing before.

La Sonnambula CDs were on sale in the lobby along with DVDs for Maria, but no Semele.


Son has pointed out contrast between my review of the Symphony concert and Kosman's. He's writing what reviewers normally write. I've discovered I can't actually do that. I'm trying to tell anyone what this sort of piece sounds like. Golijov sometimes sounds like Klesmer, a fact I find hilarious and pleasing. Classical music that sounds like Klesmer. How could you beat that? The point is that the musical content derives from somewhere recognizably musical.

The connections to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms for my ears are now completely broken. Schoenberg would probably have liked this. Son thinks she connects to Shostakovitch. Perhaps if I knew him better, I could hear the connection.


My son likes Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced "goo-bye-DOO-lee-nah"), the composer in residence for the San Francisco Symphony, so I dropped in to the Saturday night performance at the symphony of her The Light of the End. The guest conductor for this performance was Kurt Masur, who used a score for this piece.

I came early to hear the interview with the composer before the performance, which consisted of Susan Key, the lecturing musicologist, Sofia Gubaidulina and her translator Laurel E. Fay. Susan asked questions, the composer answered in Russian and the translator tried to repeat what she said in English. There was a lot of talk about mysticism. I am assuming that the title of the piece refers to the often described white light that people see just before they die.

The only thing I completely understood was the description of an effect that would be heard during the playing of the piece: a flute and a horn would play in unison and to the listener it would sound out of tune. Both players would play their standard modern orchestral instruments, but the flute would play in modern equal temperament while the horn would play open notes without keying, such as would be heard if the notes were played by a natural or Wald horn. How out of tune this would sound would depend entirely on which notes were chosen.

I definitely heard this when the piece came to this effect. I thought to myself, "This is just the sort of nonsense my son would like. He loves to talk about temperament all the time."

Please note in the picture above the piece of plastic attached to the horn player's chair. This is something new for me. The horns are positioned directly in front of the trumpets, and I assume the plastic plates are intended to direct the blast of sound they produce away from the ears of the horn players.

The picture below is a shot of the percussion used for the piece. I have left it in its original form so you can click on it and see what these instruments are in some detail. There were quite a lot of cymbal rolls, e.g.

Orchestral composition in the modern world is often something more like a sound scape than a musical piece. It is a symphonic composition because it is played by a standard set of orchestral musicians. The program includes statements like, "The chromatic glissandi of the strings remove the fundamental conflict." [How could you possibly tell if a glissando was chromatic or diatonic? Forgive me. My mind has wandered.] The piece is a rather interesting and not unpleasant series of sounds that will not ever remind you of any musical style you have ever heard. Except perhaps while at the movies.

The second half of the program was the Bruckner Symphony Number 4. I sat in the tiers behind the orchestra and enjoyed my view of Maestro Masur standing facing me without a podium to block the view. He conducts without a stick with his hands held very low against his body. He has a slight palsy. He's in his 80's after all. His conducting is economical and extremely effective. I wish I liked Bruckner more.

I sang in the Symphony Chorus during the reign of Bloomstedt and listened to hear any changes in the basic sound of the symphony. The retirement of Dave Krebel as first horn is a great loss. There is now a more overall crispness in the sound, making the tone really more suitable for Gubaidulina than Bruckner.

Cecilia does Carmen

Cecilia Bartoli's third encore at Zellerbach was the Seguidilla from Carmen. It was worth the very high price of admission just for that. As usual, it was like no one else's. For everyone out there who hasn't heard this: Neah neah neah!!!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn, the soul of Decca records, has died. He was Cecilia Bartoli's discoverer and producer. Read more here.

Here he is with some artists.

These are: Raeburn, Hans Hotter, Christa Ludwig. I believe they're recording the Ring.

These are Raeburn, Evans Mirageas, Riccardo Chailly.

Charles Castronovo

Here is a lovely picture of Charles Castronovo.

And here is an interview in German. We think he's lovely, but not lovely enough to translate the interview.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I have a lot of free time. That means I can sit around and listen to stuff like Karlheinz Stockhausen's (1928–2007) Hymnen, a piece from 1966-67. This is in four channels. I listen to things through earphones, so I get a definite stereo effect. It is supposed to be made up of national anthems, some sung by choruses, with a lot of electronic manipulation.

The first comment says "The problem with all these 60's electronic piece is that they sound dated now as technology has progressed." Some of it sounds like needles on vinyl. That would definitely date it. There are 22 pages of comments.

I've never been in a situation where I could actually listen to this stuff.

Another landmark of the twentieth century is Yannis Xenakis' (1922-2001) Metastasis (1953-4) which created patterns from mathematical probability theory. He studied with Messiaen. I like the way this is displayed in YouTube, but it's pretty tedious. I generally think Messiaen is rather bizarre but interesting. Einstein is blamed.

One is supposed to know about these things.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Chest Voice

La Cieca has this thing going about chest voice.

I have my own opinions, of course. There are two things: chest mechanism which cannot be avoided no matter how hard you try, and chest resonance which is what the usually quoted sopranos are talking about. Heavy mezzos all use chest resonance. They would be idiots not to.

Eileen Farrell when she was teaching at IU used to claim she never used chest voice, and the other voice teachers would laugh at her. She meant one thing and they meant another. I have to say she bridged into her chest voice better than anyone I've ever heard. Perhaps it was the complete invisibility of the transition that made her think she didn't use it.

Singing and History

In school I studied music history with the great musicologist Hans Tischler. He had it all organized, and I have created a reflection of this organization in the link to my history book on the left. It lacks an accompanying narrative, but so did it in its original incarnation. Tischler gave only cursory descriptions of the styles he was discussing.

I think it would make a book, but book publishers have never agreed with my opinion. For me the conceptual framework of changes in style through the ages was far more valuable than any far more trivial narrative could be. But then systems analysis is always what interests me. For me that's what it is--a systems analysis of the history of western music that allows you to understand any specific piece in the context to which it belongs. The music never exists without the context.

It was a natural following idea that these shifts in musical style also were accompanied by changes in the idea of singing and its technique. For me there is an interplay between the music and the expected technique. Sometimes this is reflected in the actual technique that singers employ to produce the work and sometimes it isn't.

  • One key concept is the idea of articulation--what kind of connection exists between one note and another. This changes as time passes and the music changes.
  • The other key concept is weight, or more accurately laryngeal position, how the voice is held in the throat, how much tension is applied, etc. This also changes as the music changes. As a general rule, the lower the larynx is held in the throat, the heavier the voice sounds and the more difficult it is to execute coloratura.
If you are listening, you can hear this.

To be effective heaviness of technique must be matched with actual heaviness in the voice. Many voice teachers—apparently virtually all of those living in modern Italy—teach a single position which they apply to everyone regardless of the physical nature of the voice.

The same singer doesn't usually employ completely different styles of articulation or completely different laryngeal positions. These are key elements of any individual's technique and tend to remain constant across repertoire. If you are listening, you can hear this, too.

  • Weight is to be distinguished from color. The color of a specific voice will come from a wide variety of sources: the voice itself, the size of the pharynx, texture of the soft surfaces, etc. The color or timbre of the voice can be manipulated by the singer without changing the laryngeal position.

The greatest composers for voice had in their minds the style of singing they expected to hear their particular music performed in. This is still true for people composing today. Or at least it ought to be.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Leggiero Tenor

While I'm on the subject of technique, here is an interesting article about leggiero tenors. At the end he discusses the technique of Juan Diego Florez, the preeminent living example of this style.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Singing Verdi

Singing Verdi is next in my historical singing survey after bel canto I and II. I will try not to humiliate myself.

Bellini died in 1835, and Donizetti died in 1848, leaving the field free for Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901). By the time of Donizetti's death Verdi was already famous for composing Nabucco (1842). I think fully mature Verdi is assumed to begin with Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata and Il Trovatore (1853).

Verdi is always a bit more crisp, a bit more dramatic than Donizetti, a bit heavier on the bass drum, but I would like to argue that La Traviata is still basically in the bel canto style. Bel canto singers could still sing it. We would expect by this time to hear only tenors singing in the heavy style, and this would be reflected in the writing for tenor.

In our time we are accustomed to hearing the very heavy technique of late Verdi singing carried back into the earlier pieces, even occasionally into bel canto, but there is no reason to suppose that in 1850 you would have heard anything like that. Juan Diego Florez's excursion into Rigoletto would not have sounded odd to them as it undoubtedly does to us. However, he would already have been heard as old fashioned. The technical shift toward heavy singing came first with tenors.

Gilda (1851) is fully leggiero. Aida (1869) is fully legato. Between these dates was a complete revolution in singing. Leggiero technique disappeared completely and was replaced by a fully legato, heavy style. The most significant change was in the soprano voice.

Professor Gossett and I discussed the problems in singing Macbeth, an opera that was composed originally in 1847 and revised in 1865. It is an opera that spans two very different eras and embodies fully the technique of both.

Here's what he actually said. "Good. I understand what you are saying, and I do agree. The other night I heard a recording on the RAI of Franco Corelli singing "Quando le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller. I swear to you it sounded as if I was listening to [Mozart's] "Esultate!" This is not to say anything bad about Corelli as a voice and as a singer, but the style seemed to me totally wrong for Luisa Miller. Perhaps that experience prepared me also for enjoying the very very different approach that Florez took to music from that same period.

"Macbeth is a complicated example, because what we usually hear is a mixture of 1847 and 1865, so that it is hard for a singer to know WHAT kind of vocalism he or she should employ!!"

This was a response to my email "I am very interested in your views about styles of singing, in particular as it relates to your specialties. It is now extremely common for very heavy singers to take on all of Verdi and substantial parts of Donizetti and Bellini. It might be possible to assume that heavy style developed gradually. I didn't really care for La Favorite to be sung so heavy when I heard it in Vienna.

"I think by Forza and Aida it is supposed to be heavy, but maybe that's what is wrong with Macbeth. She was imagined to be lighter. This is a subject in which I am very much interested. I see no reason Florez shouldn't sing Rigoletto. I'd like to hear it some time."

Happy Birthday

Next Saturday February 14 Renée Fleming will be 50. This is hard to believe.

It's today. Happy birthday.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I received an announcement this morning of the launching of the Gramophone archive. Find it here at This covers every issue of the magazine since 1923.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Occasionally there is something interesting to read in Gramophone magazine, like this review of Sento Brillar, a Handel collection by Vesselina Kasarova. "Volatile or excitable dramatic situations suit Kasarova's bulging mannerisms better than the slower, gentler arias, which are spoilt by excessive rubato and lumpy articulation (eg the ghastliest 'Scherza Infida' on record)." It's always fun to read stuff like this. On my iPod I have two recordings of "Scherza Infida," one by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the other from Furore with Joyce DiDonato. They are quite different, but both are interesting. Lorraine attacks the aria with great vehemence and focuses on her tone and emotion to make her effects. That is what you want her for. She shines especially in heavier, sadder repertoire. This performance with piano is weighty. Joyce is new for me. There is a bright clarity to her singing that is very attractive. Her tempo is slower, her concept sweeter. I like a singer who can achieve a dark color and bright vowels together. Yes, I know this is too technical. One can't really help hearing how it is done. For me Furore is highly recommended.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No Crashing and Burning

I detected a complete lack of crashing and burning in today's Lucia di Lammermoor in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. Where to begin?

How about the production by Mary Zimmerman? She talked about traveling around in Scotland for the look of the scenes and told where each one took place. I would place the date around the American Civil War. Photography was invented, but women still wore long dresses. Mary added ghosts to the scenes to great effect. When Lucia sings about the death at the fountain, the ghost is there. And at the end when Edgardo learns that Lucia is dead, she appears as a ghost. The production filled my criterion for a good production--it clarified the action extremely well. I loved every bit of it. Brava!

How about Natalie Dessay as host? She was enthusiastic about Anna Netrebko, today's Lucia, but was eager for us to know that it was she who opened the production. I thought this was less than high class. The interviews with everyone else except Anna were good. She and Marco Armiliato, today's conductor, agreed that the Metropolitan Opera orchestra are the best in the world.

How about the orchestra? There was the fabulous harp solo and wonderful glass harmonica. The effect of a glass harmonica is like nothing else.

And the singing? I loved all of them. Anna, I have decided, has a legato technique rather than a leggiero technique, such as one would hear with Beverly Sills, or maybe Natalie Dessay. But I love her. I think I enjoy this style more than the other one. She has put on a few pounds, it's true, but her voice sounded fabulous. We will all have to argue later about whether these two things are related. She did an excellent trill. Welcome back!

The replacement tenor, Piotr Beczala, was very fine, very Italian sounding, though he obviously isn't Italian. He's also cute. In the act break the baritone, Mariusz Kwiecien, discussed the fact that the third act duet between Edgardo and Enrico was left uncut in this production, and pointed out how heavy it is. At the point where it was decided to cast Rolando, it should also have been decided to cut this scene. He probably could have gotten through the rest of it.

Am I supposed to complain about more? Lucia's ghost helps Edgardo commit suicide. Weird.

My bunch of audience seemed very happy.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Messiaen - Oiseaux Exotiques

I am going to do some posts on avant-garde music starting with this one on Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques (exotic birds) from 1955-56.

I have always had an interest in the avant-garde and would like to know more about it. For me blogging is a learning experience.

The curious thing about Olivier Messiaen's bird music is that it's supposed to be made up of the songs of actual birds. Perhaps it is a different experience to hear this if you are familiar with European bird calls. Perhaps not.

Would it enhance the experience to learn which birds these are and then find them in the composition? It would be a little bit like memorizing the leitmotivs for Wagner's Ring, something I have certainly never done. The effect of the leitmotiv is supposed to work whether you have memorized it or not. When I am offered the opportunity not to memorize something, I always accept.

I always find the chaotic effect of Messiaen's music pleasurable.