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Mozart
Mozart
Offered by jim-exselecky
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars One of Mozart's finest piano concertos just as effective on the harp., 13 Nov 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Mozart (Audio CD)
Nicholas Kenyon in his generally excellent "Pocket Guide to Mozart" says of the F major Piano Concerto K.459 that "it never ceases to amaze with its depth and power". "It is", he says, "a work of the highest seriousness". Well, everyone is entitled to his opinion but, I have to say, I have always thought of this concerto as one of the most lighthearted and emotionally direct of Mozart's concertos. From its strutting opening theme to its irrepressible finale, it is entirely delightful. Only the minor mode episodes in the slow movement cast a momentary shadow. I wonder if Mozart would have chosen this concerto to play at a concert he gave in October 1790 to mark the coronation of Leopold II as Holy Roman Emperor if he had shared Kenyon's view. When he was searching for a Mozart concerto to play, then, I am not surprised that Xavier de Maistre, principal harpist with the Vienna Philharmonic, chose K. 459. Maistre adds that this concerto "tends to exploit the upper end of the keyboard, a register in which the harp sounds strikingly clear and bell-like in tone."

Maistre also says that the first two movements of K. 459 "are easier to play than is the case with the concerto for flute and harp", implying that the finale caused a few problems. That is the impression that the performance on this disc gives. The first two movements go splendidly but the finale is taken a little more slowly than is ideal (it is marked "allegro assai"...very fast) and those wonderful contrapuntal passages for the orchestra do sound a little laboured. The harp also sounds underpowered when it enters with the low-lying split octaves after the central contrapuntal section. These reservations, however, are of no importance in the face of such superb music-making.

The disc continues with the well-known Concerto for flute and harp, K.299. Tempi are fast and the whole performance is delightfully light on its feet. A particularly attractive feature is the imaginative cadenzas by Sylvain Blassel. I wasn't myself convinced by the rather fussy treatment of the appoggiaturas, in the finale in particular, but this may not worry you. What did give me a jolt, however, was a sudden jump in the volume level at 6 mins 51 secs in the first movement. The engineers really should have spotted this.

The famous C major piano sonata K.545, again sounding very well on the harp, completes a disc which deserves the highest recommendation. It would make a wonderful Christmas present for any Mozartian!


Violin Concertos 3: Nos 6 & 7
Violin Concertos 3: Nos 6 & 7
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £10.26

5.0 out of 5 stars Get it for the Seventh Violin Concerto., 5 Nov 2013
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As well as the five indisputably authentic violin concertos, the last three of which are staples of the concert hall, three other violin concertos have been attributed to Mozart. One of these is now known to be a fake. In 1977, Marius Casadesus finally admitted to having forged the so-called "Adelaide" concerto (K. Anh. 294a). After it had been published in 1933, many had been fooled and Yehudi Menuhin even recorded it. It has, I think, only ever had one other recording.

There is also a Concerto (No. 6) in E flat major, K.268. The outer movements were probably started by Mozart but completed after his death by another hand. The slow movement, which uses only a string accompaniment, is probably completely inauthentic. No autograph for this concerto survives and it is only known from an edition published in 1835. There was supposed to have been a first edition published in 1799 but no copy has come to light.

The Violin Concerto No. 7 in D major, K.271a, on the other hand, is almost certainly by Mozart although minor alterations to the violin part may have been made by 19th century arrangers. It is a much finer work that the E flat concerto and is well worth getting to know. The wealth of melodic material, particularly in the first and third movements, is a clear indication of Mozart's authorship. The Sixth Concerto seems thematically barren by comparison.

I have given this brief summary of the situation with regard to Mozart's violin concertos because the writer of the booklet note for this disc, Uwe Kraemer, seems unaware that three concertos exist. He confuses the "Adelaide" Concerto with the Seventh Violin Concerto, probably because they are both in D major, and so half of his article is about music which is not included on the disc.

I don't return to the Sixth Concerto often but I would recommend this disc for the sake of the Seventh Concerto which has had few recordings and doesn't deserve its neglect. The performances on this disc are excellent as is the recording so, as this C.D. can often be had very cheaply, it is well worth picking up.


Massenet: Le Mage
Massenet: Le Mage
Price: £26.37

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Grand Opera in a committed though sometimes charmless performance., 30 Oct 2013
This review is from: Massenet: Le Mage (Hardcover)
"Le Mage", the eighth of Massenet's twenty-five operas, was first produced at the Opera in Paris in 1891. "Esclarmonde" had first been heard in 1889 and "Werther", Massenet's most enduring work, was to follow in 1892. The composer, however, had been working on all three operas almost simultaneously. "Le Mage" ran for 31 performances and was revived at the Hague in 1896 but, after that, it disappeared and this is its first recording.

The Turanians have been defeated in battle by the Persians, led by Zarastra, founder of the religion. He is loved by Varedha, daughter of the treacherous high-priest Amru, but is only interested in Anahita, the Turanian queen. She, however, rejects him because of the conflict between their two nations. Varedha, in league with her father, takes revenge by announcing that she is already betrothed to Zarastra and so, he cannot marry Anahita. Zarastra, furious at this deceit, goes into self-imposed exile.

Varedha visits Zarastra and again declares her love. Zarastra rejects her. Spitefully, Varedha tells him that Anahita is about to be married to the Persian king.

The king insists on marrying Anahita but, just as Varedha is savouring her revenge, the Turanians burst in and kill the king and Amru. Varedha is left dying. Zarastra arrives and, exploring, the ruins finds Anahita. They declare their love. Varedha curses them and calls on the goddess Jahi to engulf them in flames. However, Zarastra prays to his god, Mazda, who stops the flames. Varedha curses the lovers as she dies.

"Le Mage", then, is very much in the tradition of French Grand Opera. It is full of scenes of confrontation, both personal and military, processions, incantations and wild weather. Characterisation is rudimentary and the opera is not well paced, becoming less involving dramatically as it progresses. There is, of course, a long ballet sequence in Act 4. All in all, "Le Mage" must have seemed more than a little old-fashioned in 1891 and some of the audience must have felt that Massenet had cynically produced only what he believed would be a guaranteed commercial success.

However, "Le Mage" is not to be written off. Musically, there are many fine passages and a few lovely melodies. Highlights include Varedha's Act 2 aria "Descendons plus bas" (Disc 1, Track 10), Zarastra's very characteristic aria "Souleve l'ombre de ces voiles" (Disc 1, Track 15) and, above all, the sequence for Zarastra which begins at the words "Heureux celui dont la vie" (Disc 2, Track 3) and which includes, as the music switches to compound time at a moment of bliss ("Quel extase!"), a fine melody for a solo violin soon to be taken up by the tenor.

This is not the performance of your dreams. None of the soloists is ideal. Kate Aldrich as Varedha has a vibrato so wide that it's not always easy to be sure of which note she's singing. Some of the music lies too low for her. Luca Lombarda as Zarastra is not the sweetest of tenors and there are many lyrical passages where a more caressing manner would have paid dividends. However, none of the singing is unacceptable and there is plenty of commitment on display. Furthermore, the opera is well conducted and the recording rich and full.

The discs come tucked inside the covers of a handsome book which won't fit on your C.D. shelf. The book contains several interesting articles in French and English although the one by the conductor, Laurent Campellone, is hardly necessary. Entitled ""Le Mage": a Nietzschean Opera?" it concludes, unsurprisingly, that it isn't. A full libretto is included.

"Le Mage" is not a neglected masterpiece but it is well worth getting to know. The critic Alfred Ernst thought it superior to "Le Cid" but below "Esclarmonde". That seems about right. I, for one, wouldn't want to be without these discs.


Hummel: Piano Concerto in A, L'Enchantment d'Oberon, Le Retour a Londres
Hummel: Piano Concerto in A, L'Enchantment d'Oberon, Le Retour a Londres
Price: £14.88

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and tuneful virtuoso music., 24 Oct 2013
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The main work on this disc is Hummel's early Piano Concerto in A major, S.5. As a boy, Hummel had been a pupil of Mozart and this concerto, which probably dates from the 1790s, shows the influence of the master. The orchestration, with its high horn parts, is very Mozartian and, as I listened, it often seemed that the piano part was almost a compendium of passages from Mozart's concertos. The soloist's entry will at once remind you of the equivalent passage in Mozart's great C major concerto, K. 503, for example. However, there are also many flashy passages which could not have been written by Mozart. Hummel was a superb virtuoso (people would stand on their chairs to watch his trills)and his piano music was principally written as a vehicle for him to demonstrate his prowess.

Hummel also cannot equal Mozart's extraordinary melodic richness or the inevitability of his musical thought. Structurally, too, he is less confident. The development section in the first movement is, as usual in virtuoso concertos of this period, somewhat vacuous (there are some references to motifs from the second subject) and the full statement of the second theme (in C major) before the recapitulation is something Mozart would not have done.

The ternary slow movement is, as so often, pleasant but not memorable. The melodic material is highly decorated by the soloist whenever it appears but that does little to disguise the music's essential lack of distinction.

The finale, perhaps the best movement, is an entertaining rondo. The cut of its main theme suggested to me an emasculated version of that of the finale of Mozart's Bb major concerto, K. 450.

All in all, I enjoyed getting to know this concerto but don't investigate it before you know all Mozart's mature concertos. It is no substitute for any of those!

"L'Enchantment d'Oberon" is a Konzertstuck for piano and orchestra in the manner of Weber's well known example. It was suggested by Weber's opera "Oberon" and follows some of the main episodes in that work. There are many dramatic and effective passages, including a representation of a storm, but there is also a fair amount of virtuoso padding. As usual, once the tempo picks up (with the perky woodwind tune at 8 mins 36 secs) so does the level of interest.

"Le Retour a Londres" is an "Introduction and Rondeau", both "grand" and "brilliant" of course. Although there is, if anything, even more virtuoso padding than in the "L'Enchantment d'Oberon", it is melodically richer and is the better piece.

The disc concludes with a set of eight variation on "O du lieber Augustin", a tune familiar to everyone, for orchestra alone. The tune is never far away, its harmonic framework being always easily discernible. There is plenty of variety and colour in the instrumentation and, all in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining piece. You may feel that it is the highlight of the disc.

Howard Shelley is, as always, a superb soloist. The London Mozart players are in fine form and the recording is excellent.


Bloch: Symphony In C Sharp Minor [Dalia Atlas, London Symphony Orchestra] [Naxos: 8573241]
Bloch: Symphony In C Sharp Minor [Dalia Atlas, London Symphony Orchestra] [Naxos: 8573241]
Price: £7.40

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb and enormously attractive Symphony in a fine performance., 2 Oct 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
There was a time when the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was as highly regarded as any composer of the time. His chamber music was particularly highly valued; the Pelican book on "Chamber Music", first published in 1957, devotes a whole chapter to him. Bloch's music is now less often played ("Schelomo" for 'cello and orchestra, his best known piece, has not been heard at the London Proms for nearly twenty years) but recently there has been a resurgence of interest in his music on disc.

The Symphony in C# minor was completed in 1903. As an early work, it shows the influence of the leading composers of the day, in particular Richard Strauss. To modern ears the influence of Mahler is also apparent although, it seems, Bloch had not heard any Mahler when he wrote his symphony. When the second and third movements were first performed at the Basle Festival of Swiss-German music under the direction of the composer they caused a storm. One critic suggested that the "concert police" should be employed to lock up composers guilty of such prolonged torture. Nobody would respond in this way now, though. Indeed, the symphony turns out to be an attractive and approachable work which I can confidently recommend. This is because its many pages of impressive symphonic argument are built on real tunes which you will pick up even at a first hearing. The first movement, Dalia Atlas says in the informal notes she has written for this disc, is divided into three parts "which leave their mark owing to the deep and strong emotional expression, ranging from the dark abyss and sorrow to peaks of sweeping force and then back to the dark abyss". More technically, it is a sonata structure (the recapitulation begins at 15 mins 31 secs) with an extended introduction and a coda. In this movement there is an enormous contrast between Stephen Gunzenhauser's old recording for Marco Polo and Atlas's new disc. She squeezes every ounce of "emotional expression" she can out of the piece while Gunzenhauser, adopting much faster tempi, takes a far more classical and dispassionate view. Both approaches work well though it is, perhaps, Lev Markis with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra on BIS who gets the balance right and who may, in the long run, be the easiest to live with.

The slow movement is built on a fine melody stated at the beginning by the brass. Surprisingly, Atlas takes this movement rather faster than do Gunzenhauser or Markiz, transforming it almost into a march. Atlas's performance receives the most vivid recording and this pays dividends in this movement in particular.

The scherzo is another very attractive movement, vital and full of colour. The trio is built on a folk-like tune. There is not a great deal to choose between the three recordings in this movement.

The symphony is cyclic and, in common with so many Romantic symphonies, its finale is slightly less satisfying. It begins with a fugue (often a sign that a composer is running short of ideas!) and later on there is another fugato. Eventually the counterpoint gives way to a passage of dominant preparation which ushers in a full-scale statement of the slow movement's march theme. The main theme from the first movement also returns. Eventually, after the march has been heard one last time, this splendid symphony ends quietly.

All three currently available performances of this symphony have their merits then but, if I had to choose one, it would be the new Naxos disc. You may, though, find Atlas's approach to the first movement somewhat overwrought in which case the BIS recording would be the one to go for. That disc also has the advantage of including a fine performance of "Schelomo". Atlas's disc has the "Poems of the Sea", an attractive Impressionistic piece whose finale would have benefited from a slightly faster tempo.


Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame - Roberto Alagna (2CD)
Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame - Roberto Alagna (2CD)
Price: £17.21

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful opera but this recording is no match for the one on EMI., 27 Sep 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
While he was composing it, Massenet thought that "Le Jongleur de Notre Dame" might turn out to be his masterpiece. He could well have been right. Musically and dramatically it never puts a foot wrong. Full of interest from beginning to end, "Le Jongleur" shows Massenet at the height of his powers. Like "Werther", it is musically inspired throughout so that, after a few hearings, you will find that it has lodged itself permanently in your memory. At first you may feel that it is less rich melodically than many of Massenet's other operas but this impression is deceptive. With the interest equally distributed between the voices and the orchestra "Le Jongleur" is almost a symphonic poem with voices in the manner of Puccini. What counts against it commercially is that it includes no female role. Operas on religious themes also do not make good box office but, even if you are neither a Catholic nor even a Christian, you cannot fail to be touched by the story of the simple juggler who becomes a monk but who feels that his skills can never be as acceptable as those of his more learned and talented brothers. A miraculous event proves otherwise. "Heureux les simples car ils verront Dieu."

This is a live recording, made in Montpellier in 2007. It may be something of a cliche, but it is probably true to say that only the French are completely convincing in Massenet. Apart from Alagna himself, there is only one French singer in the cast and, with a Mexican in the pit, this performance starts at a distinct disadvantage. The opera tells a simple story and it needs to be told simply. Too many of the voices here are overburdened with vibrato and there is too much emphasis on expressive point-making at the expense of the music's lyrical flow. Tempi tend to drag and there is little real sense of the authentic Massenet style. You won't have to listen for long to the superbly cast EMI recording conducted by Roger Boutry to know what is missing from the new one. There, Alain Vanzo is outstanding as Jean but Jules Bastin as Boniface is even finer. If you are a fan of Roberto Alagna (he is in fine voice) you will want the new recording but, if you want to get to know one of Massenet's greatest operas in a stylish and completely convincing interpretation, then the EMI recording remains the one to go for. It is also more cleanly recorded. Indeed, it is a classic recording which will almost certainly never be surpassed.

If this recording is not a complete success, then, it is encouraging to see Alagna taking an interest in this wonderful opera and DG recording it.


Amadis
Amadis

4.0 out of 5 stars An also-ran but, like all Massenet, well worth hearing., 11 Sep 2013
This review is from: Amadis (Audio CD)
Massenet started "Amadis" in the early 1890s, between "Esclarmonde" and "Werther". He then put it aside and didn't return to it until 1910, two years before his death. Jacques Bourgeois, in the notes which come with this recording, is sure that Massenet's determination to complete "Amadis" meant that "the composer regarded it as his musical testament". However, James Harding, in his biography, suggests otherwise. He says that Massenet, "vacillated perpetually about releasing it for production. Eventually he sealed up the score in a parcel and wrote on it: "To be opened after my death in the presence of my friends Jules Claretie and Heugel", naming his librettist and his publisher." "Amadis" was the last of Massenet's operas to be premiered. It was eventually heard at Monte-Carlo and Bordeaux in 1922.

At the beginning of the new century, Massenet's popularity was beginning to wane and he must have been starting to consider his posthumous reputation. He had always been able to adapt his style to keep up with trends in operatic composition and many of his works clearly showed the influence of popular successes of the time. Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" had been premiered in 1902 and "Amadis" shows its influence, though only at a superficial level. By 1922, the First World War had come and gone and "Amadis" seemed rather out outmoded. "Pelleas et Melisande" itself also seemed considerably less relevant than it had been.

The opera is set in legendary times. Galaor and Amadis, the twin sons of Princess Elisene, are fleeing from the King of Brittany's soldiers. Elisene is dying and places some magic stones around the boys' necks as a means of recognition.

Amadis and Galaor, unaware that they are brothers (presumably they're not identical!) are taking part in a tournament. The winner will marry King Raimbert's daughter, Floriane, and inherit the throne. Galaor defeats Amadis and is about to kill him when Floriane, who is in love with him, intervenes. Amadis, humiliated, flees into exile.

Amadis, haunted by memories of the princess, returns and tries to win her by challenging Galaor. The two men fight and this time Amadis is victorious. Galaor is killed. Amadis realizes he has killed his brother when he discovers the magic stones around Galaor's neck.

Act 1 is a melodrama. There is no singing at all. A hunter tells the story, acted out on stage, over an orchestral accompaniment. Massenet was not an innovator harmonically or tonally but the opening of this act immediately creates a magical atmosphere with the augmented fourth interval in the melody obscuring the F tonality. A Wagnerian passage accompanies Elisene as she places the magic stones around her sons' necks but the final lullaby, heard as Elisene dies, is pure Massenet.

The rest of the opera is written as music drama, there being no set-piece arias. The musical interest is spread equally between the orchestra and the voices. Act 2 takes place at the tournament. As usual, Massenet is most at home in the lyrical passages but there is plenty of interest in the orchestral writing during the more dramatic episodes. The chorus has very little to do. Surprisingly, Amadis turns out to be a travesti role. The melodic highlight of this act is Amadis's declaration that, if he had one foot in Paradise and another in Raimbert's castle, he would remove the one in Paradise and place it on Floriane's doorstep. The melody returns at the end of the act. It is a lovely and very characteristic tune, though not quite out of Massenet's top drawer.

Act 3 begins with Amadis lamenting that he has lost Floriane. "O Madone du ciel" is as close as Massenet comes to a self-contained aria in the opera but it is, perhaps, not well enough sustained melodically to be detachable. The fairies try unsuccessfully to dissuade Amadis from trying to win Floriane's heart. Massenet was always superb at conjuring up an atmosphere and in this act he unerringly creates a magical sound world.

Act 4, in which Amadis kills Galaor and then discovers that they are brothers, is the least compelling. Set at Christmas there is a fair amount of seasonal padding. You may find you attention wandering but, as the story works itself out, Massenet is able to bring back some of the best music from Act 1.

By "Amadis" Massenet's melodic well was running dry. Characterisation is also rudimentary. However, largely as a result of the composer's extraordinary mastery of orchestral colour, the piece creates a striking atmosphere. It is also quite compelling dramatically, at least until the final act. This performance has been underrated in certain quarters. The only weakness in the cast is the unsteady King Raimbert of Antoine Garcin. Helene Perraguin is superb in the title role. The recording is rich and full. If you know the best of Massenet's operas and can find these discs at a sensible price, you can proceed with confidence but I can't imagine the composer meant "Amadis" to be his "testament".


Amadis-""""
Amadis-""""

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An also-ran but, like all Massenet, well worth hearing., 11 Sep 2013
This review is from: Amadis-"""" (Audio CD)
Massenet started "Amadis" in the early 1890s, between "Esclarmonde" and "Werther". He then put it aside and didn't return to it until 1910, two years before his death. Jacques Bourgeois, in the notes which come with this recording, is sure that Massenet's determination to complete "Amadis" meant that "the composer regarded it as his musical testament". However, James Harding, in his biography, suggests otherwise. He says that Massenet, "vacillated perpetually about releasing it for production. Eventually he sealed up the score in a parcel and wrote on it: "To be opened after my death in the presence of my friends Jules Claretie and Heugel", naming his librettist and his publisher." "Amadis" was the last of Massenet's operas to be premiered. It was eventually heard at Monte-Carlo and Bordeaux in 1922.

At the beginning of the new century, Massenet's popularity was beginning to wane and he must have been starting to consider his posthumous reputation. He had always been able to adapt his style to keep up with trends in operatic composition and many of his works clearly showed the influence of popular successes of the time. Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" had been premiered in 1902 and "Amadis" shows its influence, though only at a superficial level. By 1922, the First World War had come and gone and "Amadis" seemed rather out outmoded. "Pelleas et Melisande" itself also seemed considerably less relevant than it had been.

The opera is set in legendary times. Galaor and Amadis, the twin sons of Princess Elisene, are fleeing from the King of Brittany's soldiers. Elisene is dying and places some magic stones around the boys' necks as a means of recognition.

Amadis and Galaor, unaware that they are brothers (presumably they're not identical!) are taking part in a tournament. The winner will marry King Raimbert's daughter, Floriane, and inherit the throne. Galaor defeats Amadis and is about to kill him when Floriane, who is in love with him, intervenes. Amadis, humiliated, flees into exile.

Amadis, haunted by memories of the princess, returns and tries to win her by challenging Galaor. The two men fight and this time Amadis is victorious. Galaor is killed. Amadis realizes he has killed his brother when he discovers the magic stones around Galaor's neck.

Act 1 is a melodrama. There is no singing at all. A hunter tells the story, acted out on stage, over an orchestral accompaniment. Massenet was not an innovator harmonically or tonally but the opening of this act immediately creates a magical atmosphere with the augmented fourth interval in the melody obscuring the F tonality. A Wagnerian passage accompanies Elisene as she places the magic stones around her sons' necks but the final lullaby, heard as Elisene dies, is pure Massenet.

The rest of the opera is written as music drama, there being no set-piece arias. The musical interest is spread equally between the orchestra and the voices. Act 2 takes place at the tournament. As usual, Massenet is most at home in the lyrical passages but there is plenty of interest in the orchestral writing during the more dramatic episodes. The chorus has very little to do. Surprisingly, Amadis turns out to be a travesti role. The melodic highlight of this act is Amadis's declaration that, if he had one foot in Paradise and another in Raimbert's castle, he would remove the one in Paradise and place it on Floriane's doorstep. The melody returns at the end of the act. It is a lovely and very characteristic tune, though not quite out of Massenet's top drawer.

Act 3 begins with Amadis lamenting that he has lost Floriane. "O Madone du ciel" is as close as Massenet comes to a self-contained aria in the opera but it is, perhaps, not well enough sustained melodically to be detachable. The fairies try unsuccessfully to dissuade Amadis from trying to win Floriane's heart. Massenet was always superb at conjuring up an atmosphere and in this act he unerringly creates a magical sound world.

Act 4, in which Amadis kills Galaor and then discovers that they are brothers, is the least compelling. Set at Christmas there is a fair amount of seasonal padding. You may find you attention wandering but, as the story works itself out, Massenet is able to bring back some of the best music from Act 1.

By "Amadis" Massenet's melodic well was running dry. Characterisation is also rudimentary. However, largely as a result of the composer's extraordinary mastery of orchestral colour, the piece creates a striking atmosphere. It is also quite compelling dramatically, at least until the final act. This performance has been underrated in certain quarters. The only weakness in the cast is the unsteady King Raimbert of Antoine Garcin. Helene Perraguin is superb in the title role. The recording is rich and full. If you know the best of Massenet's operas and can find these discs at a sensible price, you can proceed with confidence but I can't imagine the composer meant "Amadis" to be his "testament".


Massenet: Amadis
Massenet: Amadis

4.0 out of 5 stars An also-ran but, like all Massenet, well worth hearing., 11 Sep 2013
This review is from: Massenet: Amadis (Audio CD)
Massenet started "Amadis" in the early 1890s, between "Esclarmonde" and "Werther". He then put it aside and didn't return to it until 1910, two years before his death. Jacques Bourgeois, in the notes which come with this recording, is sure that Massenet's determination to complete "Amadis" meant that "the composer regarded it as his musical testament". However, James Harding, in his biography, suggests otherwise. He says that Massenet, "vacillated perpetually about releasing it for production. Eventually he sealed up the score in a parcel and wrote on it: "To be opened after my death in the presence of my friends Jules Claretie and Heugel", naming his librettist and his publisher." "Amadis" was the last of Massenet's operas to be premiered. It was eventually heard at Monte-Carlo and Bordeaux in 1922.

At the beginning of the new century, Massenet's popularity was beginning to wane and he must have been starting to consider his posthumous reputation. He had always been able to adapt his style to keep up with trends in operatic composition and many of his works clearly showed the influence of popular successes of the time. Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" had been premiered in 1902 and "Amadis" shows its influence, though only at a superficial level. By 1922, the First World War had come and gone and "Amadis" seemed rather out outmoded. "Pelleas et Melisande" itself also seemed considerably less relevant than it had been.

The opera is set in legendary times. Galaor and Amadis, the twin sons of Princess Elisene, are fleeing from the King of Brittany's soldiers. Elisene is dying and places some magic stones around the boys' necks as a means of recognition.

Amadis and Galaor, unaware that they are brothers (presumably they're not identical!) are taking part in a tournament. The winner will marry King Raimbert's daughter, Floriane, and inherit the throne. Galaor defeats Amadis and is about to kill him when Floriane, who is in love with him, intervenes. Amadis, humiliated, flees into exile.

Amadis, haunted by memories of the princess, returns and tries to win her by challenging Galaor. The two men fight and this time Amadis is victorious. Galaor is killed. Amadis realizes he has killed his brother when he discovers the magic stones around Galaor's neck.

Act 1 is a melodrama. There is no singing at all. A hunter tells the story, acted out on stage, over an orchestral accompaniment. Massenet was not an innovator harmonically or tonally but the opening of this act immediately creates a magical atmosphere with the augmented fourth interval in the melody obscuring the F tonality. A Wagnerian passage accompanies Elisene as she places the magic stones around her sons' necks but the final lullaby, heard as Elisene dies, is pure Massenet.

The rest of the opera is written as music drama, there being no set-piece arias. The musical interest is spread equally between the orchestra and the voices. Act 2 takes place at the tournament. As usual, Massenet is most at home in the lyrical passages but there is plenty of interest in the orchestral writing during the more dramatic episodes. The chorus has very little to do. Surprisingly, Amadis turns out to be a travesti role. The melodic highlight of this act is Amadis's declaration that, if he had one foot in Paradise and another in Raimbert's castle, he would remove the one in Paradise and place it on Floriane's doorstep. The melody returns at the end of the act. It is a lovely and very characteristic tune, though not quite out of Massenet's top drawer.

Act 3 begins with Amadis lamenting that he has lost Floriane. "O Madone du ciel" is as close as Massenet comes to a self-contained aria in the opera but it is, perhaps, not well enough sustained melodically to be detachable. The fairies try unsuccessfully to dissuade Amadis from trying to win Floriane's heart. Massenet was always superb at conjuring up an atmosphere and in this act he unerringly creates a magical sound world.

Act 4, in which Amadis kills Galaor and then discovers that they are brothers, is the least compelling. Set at Christmas there is a fair amount of seasonal padding. You may find you attention wandering but, as the story works itself out, Massenet is able to bring back some of the best music from Act 1.

By "Amadis" Massenet's melodic well was running dry. Characterisation is also rudimentary. However, largely as a result of the composer's extraordinary mastery of orchestral colour, the piece creates a striking atmosphere. It is also quite compelling dramatically, at least until the final act. This performance has been underrated in certain quarters. The only weakness in the cast is the unsteady King Raimbert of Antoine Garcin. Helene Perraguin is superb in the title role. The recording is rich and full. If you know the best of Massenet's operas and can find these discs at a sensible price, you can proceed with confidence but I can't imagine the composer meant "Amadis" to be his "testament".


Pecheurs De Saint-Jean Cello Concerto Symphony 2
Pecheurs De Saint-Jean Cello Concerto Symphony 2
Price: £16.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A highly enjoyable, lyrical 'Cello Concerto but the outstanding work is the Symphony., 3 Sep 2013
Although best known as a composer for the organ, in particular the ubiquitous "Toccata", the French composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) also wrote a substantial body of orchestral, chamber and stage music.

This disc is the second of a series devoted to Widor's music. The first contained the two piano concertos and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. The earliest work on the new disc, dating from 1878, is the 'Cello Concerto. Discreetly orchestrated so that the soloist can always be heard, this highly attractive work begins with a clearly structured sonata form movement. Its two themes, the second of which is first heard in the dominant rather than the relative major, are lyrical and memorable though the repeated note linking material is less distinctive. The fine development section is again lyrical. It is largely based on the first theme. A rhythmical coda contributes to the success of a very well sustained movement.

The rest of the concerto is not quite as impressive. The slow movement, a clear ternary structure, is not unattractive melodically but doesn't amount to very much while the 13 minute finale is too loosely constructed to be completely satisfying. Its two principal ideas are the main theme of the first movement and a fine, swinging, string-led tune. If you want to give this movement a structural label, it comes closest to being a sonata rondo.(A brief development section begins at 6 mins 22 secs.) Towards the end, Widor introduces a passionate new idea (just as Saint-Saens does in both his 'cello concertos) but the music ends quietly, the soloist accompanied by a rippling harp.

The Second Symphony dates from 1882 and is a very fine work indeed. Concise, tightly argued and built on strong, epigrammatic material it is a real symphony. The booklet suggests that, after the disastrous French defeat in the 1870-1871 war with Prussia, Widor's symphony was written as part of an attempt to establish a distinctly French tradition in instrumental music. Until then, French music had been dominated by frivolous operettas and vocal music (Offenbach was the main culprit, of course) which were now seen as symptomatic of cultural decay.

There is no trace of Brahms's influence in this symphony, then, but, ironically, the music's incisiveness and strength may remind you of Beethoven. Whatever the booklet says, the 6 1/2 minute first movement, marked "Allegro vivace", opens with more than a flourish. This is the most important idea in the movement; it generates much of the movement's thematic material and recurs in the finale. The sweeping second theme, first heard on the oboe and, in the recapitulation, on the strings, is not allowed to interrupt the music's headlong rush for a moment. This superb movement is characterized by crystal-clear orchestration and clean, imitative writing. Not a note is wasted.

The highly imaginative 4 minute second movement, built on a catchy woodwind idea, although marked "Moderato", is the symphony's scherzo. There is no proper trio but a more lyrical theme for the strings contrasts with the main idea.

The well sustained slow movement is dominated by a strong melody, heard after a short introduction. There are a number of other ideas but the central climax is dominated by the movement's main theme.

The finale is lighter in tone and has three tempo indications ("Vivace...Scherzando...Allegro con brio".) I found it difficult to differentiate between the different sections, however. Certainly the music is as well sustained as is that of the previous movements. This finale opens by referring to material from the first movement. That movement's lyrical subsidiary theme is now transformed into a jaunty march for the bassoon and then the strings and woodwind announce what is to be the ensuing allegro's second theme. The main theme of this movement is a joyful march tune, often decorated by rushing downward chromatic scales in the manner of "Tannhauser". The music is lithe and exciting and reaches a resounding conclusion.

The disc also includes three orchestral preludes from Widor's 1905 opera "Les Pecheurs de Saint-Jean". Wagner's ( and even Strauss's) influence is clearly apparent in this music although the booklet suggest that the opera itself is in the style of a "drama lyrique". The overture is clearly intended to suggest the turbulence of the sea but there is a consoling subsidiary theme which, when it returns, is given a Wagnerian murmuring string accompaniment.

The second piece, "Le Calme de la Mer", creates an appropriate mood by interweaving lyrical lines for the strings and various woodwind soloists. Later there is a poetic violin solo. A three-note horn motif acts binds the music together.

The last piece is an irresistibly catchy Christmas march, complete with side-drum accompaniment.

All this music is very well played and recorded. The only minor reservation you may have is that the upper strings do sound a little thin in the operatic excerpts. A slightly more ample acoustic would have benefited this music. Don't let this tiny reservation put you off investigating an excellent issue of music which is not otherwise available, however. The symphony in particular should not be missed.


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