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Jennifer Larmore sings Barber, Berlioz, Ravel and Britten -
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'... a compelling disc ...'

Royal Mezzo. Jennifer Larmore. © 2008 Cedille Records

Cedille has an impressive and growing reputation for enlightened, innovative programming devised in tandem with a roster of superlative and adventurous executant musicians to bring their exciting CD programmes to fruition.

In Royal Mezzo we are treated to lyric scenes, cantata excerpts and song cycle texts alluding to mythic Greece and the storied Orient; their dramatic music from Barber, Berlioz, Ravel and Britten -- nonpareil American, French and English composers.

Illuminating sleeve notes by Andrea Lamoreaux (Music Director, WFMT Chicago) provide fuller information.

By any yardstick this is a compelling disc; the more so as it features multi-talented American mezzo, author, broadcaster and humanitarian/UNICEF worker: Atlanta-born Jennifer Larmore -- Chevalier des arts et des lettres (France, 2002).

The two caveats -- (a) Ravel's Shéhérazade is oddly contrasted by the more elemental emotions of Andromache, Cléopâtre and Phaedra; (b) Larmore brings us music formerly and faultlessly recorded by such legendary vocalistes as Regine Crespin (1927-2007) and EMI's peerless Brit, Dame Janet Baker, now in her seventy fifth year.

Larmore's achievements extend over a repertoire from the baroque to the 21st century. Her many recordings on a variety of labels have met with wide acclaim. Indeed she is ideally equipped for a programme of such exacting vocal demands and interpretative scope. She has a striking, powerful dramatic compass and impeccable diction in both languages -- English and French.

Listen -- Berlioz: Ah! Qu'ils sont loin ces jours
(track 3, 2:10-3:12) © 2008 Cedille Records

Hearing her in the glorious, quintessential Berlioz canto Ah! Qu'ils sont loin ces jours is, in itself, worth the price of the disc.

Furthermore the municipal orchestra meets the four composers' many demands with unfailing assurance; added to which the recording has exemplary clarity and spaciousness.

Chicago's Grant Park Orchestra (established 1943, first conductor Nicolai Malko), with its principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, is an ensemble under the umbrella of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Grant Park Orchestral Association.

Barber's grief-laden lyric lament, Andromache's Farewell, befitting the subject, finds him more severe and dissonant than is customary in works from the composer of Knoxville, Summer of 1915 or the ever popular Adagio for Strings.

Listen -- Barber: Andromache's Farewell
(track 1, 3:11-4:13) © 2008 Cedille Records

In Greek mythology, Andromache was the wife of Hector, daughter of Eetion and sister of Podes.

Barber's source material was Euripides' play where Andromache and her child are nearly assassinated by Hermione, Neoptolemus' wife and daughter of Helen.

This is grim stuff, infused with the indelible barbarity of Ancient Grecian drama; the flip side of Plato, Socrates, and much later of Pliny the Elder.

Andromache is also immortalized in a tragedy by French classical playwright Jean Racine (1639-1699) and shows up as a minor character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. She was portrayed by Saffron Burrows in the 2004 film Troy, and by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1971 film version of Euripedes' The Trojan Women.

Some 132 years earlier Berlioz displayed single-minded determination with four attempts at winning the Prix de Rome, finally succeeding in 1830. During the competition entrants had to write a cantata to a text set by examiners. There was a significant revival of audience interest in cantatas in the late twentieth century, and La mort de Cléopâtre has become a favorite showcase for soprano and mezzo.

A Prix de Rome allowed the winner to spend a year studying at the Villa Medici in Rome. It also entitled him to a five-year pension. The prize was adjudicated by the Paris Conservatoire. Entrants had to first submit a fugue as proof of their compositional skills; then four successful candidates were required to write a dramatic cantata.

Berlioz's four cantatas are:

  1. La mort d'Orphée ('The Death of Orpheus', 1827, text by Berton). Berlioz's result: failed.
  2. Herminie ('Erminia', 1828, text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard). Result: second prize. The theme from the first movement was later used as the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique of 1830.
  3. La mort de Cléopâtre ('The Death of Cleopatra', 1829, text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard). Result: no first prize awarded.
  4. Sardanapale ('Sardanapalus', 1830, text by J-F Gail). Result: joint first prize.
    Though he finally suceeded as joint-winner, today nearly all the music for La Mort de Sardanapale is lost.

Berlioz's featured cantata visits Cléopâtre in her last hours; her somber recognition that the Hellenistic line is ending is tempered with a galvanizing remembrance of past glories, resulting in high-impact drama projected by Larmore with commanding power and assurance.

Shéhérazade is the title of two works by the French composer Maurice Ravel. The first is Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie, written in 1898, a work for orchestra. The second is Shéhérazade, written in 1903, a song cycle for soprano or tenor solo and orchestra, after three poems by Tristan Klingsor: Asie, La flûte enchantée, and L'indifférent.

There is not a single extant CD of Ravel's Schéhérazade to fully match Régine Crespin's 1963 Decca recording coupled with Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été.

In Shéhérazade, Crespin's voice is at one with the exotic, languidly oriental atmosphere created by sensuous, glittering orchestration, soaring to her stirring high register, subsiding for the deliquescent flute solo in the second song. The orchestra plays to miraculous effect, exploiting Ravel's imaginative, infinitely nuanced coloration to the full -- an indelible pinnacle of recorded vocal artistry.

Ravel, Shéhérazade, Régine Crespin, soprano, Ernest Ansermet conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Decca 460973.

Last year (2007) Larmore presented Ravel's Shéhérazade with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Jan Pascal Tortelier, to unstinting acclaim. Today one can only speculate about the Michigan performance for with Cedille's CD the Grant Park ensemble falls well short of Ansermet and his OSR.

Phaedra Op 93 is a cantata for soprano-mezzo and orchestra by Benjamin Britten. It was the composer's last vocal work, written in 1975 and first performed by Janet Baker at the Aldeburgh Festival on 16 June 1976. Britten assembled the libretto from parts of a translation of Racine's Phèèdre by Robert Lowell. The work takes around sixteen minutes to perform.

Listen -- Britten: Phaedra
(track 9, 12:16-13:40) © 2008 Cedille Records

Sorry Messrs Larmore and Kalmar; but I doubt if anyone on the planet will surpass Dame Janet's Phaedra: a story of incestuous infatuation and suicide conveyed to chilling effect with the English Chamber Orchestra (conductor Steuart Bedford); the coupling -- Britten's Rape of Lucretia on the London label (USA) -- British Decca records. NB: London is not permitted to use the 'Decca' name in the States.

Ms Larmore admits 'My specialty is singing out dramatically, high in my voice, and that's not how Phaedra is written, for the most part.'

Hitherto Larmore has been largely associated with bel canto and Baroque music. So the tragedian works of Barber (Andromache's Farewell) and Britten (Phaedra) proved somewhat outside the square for this artist. However she is reported to assiduously study the life and times of historical/legendary characters whom she portrays.

In a recent interview she said 'When I perform, I am an actress as well as a singer. I will sacrifice the beauty of my voice any day for the sake of conveying the drama -- it's vital to read between the musical and textual lines.

'Once we came up with these four works, I performed them over the course of two years at Orchestra Hall (2006) and the Harris Theater (2007) in Chicago, and live recordings were made during these performances.' Each piece was sung in performance twice.

This release stands out for its lyric warmth, glowing sensuality and interpretative scholarship. Despite some formidable alternatives Cedille and Larmore offer consistently impressive, meticulously considered performances which serve as a welcome, technologically advanced adjunct to the fine earlier recordings.

Copyright © 14 November 2009 Howard Smith,
Rarotonga, Cook Islands












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