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on 22 August 2011
Understandably, most compilations of Mozart arias contain versions of well-known arias from Mozart's later and best known operas which is why this disc is particularly rewarding. Mozart's early masterpieces such as 'Lucio Silla', 'Mitridate' and 'Il Re Pastore'are all represented here in vivid and thrilling performances that highlight the virtuosity that Mozart was able to put into his vocal writing in his teenage years. Sandrine Piau's singing is focused and enthusiastic and the orchestral playing is as important as the singer in these songs. The disc closes in a more reflective mood with one of Mozart's most beautiful ever melodies from his incomplete opera, 'Zaide'. This was a brave venture that should be rewarded so I would recommend you to dive in and treat yourself!
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on 13 November 2015
I was preparing to listen to this disc when mail arrived. Much to my surprise, it included a postcard from my old friend, Father Melchizedek OP, the High Priest of Period Practice. “What’s the bugger getting up to?” I asked myself. Last thing I had heard, he’d survived a series of assassination attempts (you know, the usual stuff: exploding recorders, cyanide-on-mouthpieces, remastered Karajan boxes). The post-stamp indicated that it came from the hollowed-out volcano, the headquarters of SPECTRE (Sinister Period Practice Enacted to Counter Traditional Readings Everlastingly). Anyway, this is what it said:

“Get your tickets ready for the coronation . . . of Sandrine Piau as the Queen of Sopranos in the first decade of the 21st Century. Just think, that she started her music studies intending to be a harpist! Other reviewers have already paid proper obeisance to Paiu's technique, so fervently that I have nothing to add. Instead I want to praise (her) recitals as such; the assortment of arias and recitativos . . . (are) brilliantly selected to reveal the full spectrum of Piau's artistry, from frenzied agility to lapidary control of text to simmering emotiveness to serene beauty of timbre.”

It all sounded rather celestial, if not ethereal to me. Nor did the controversial and flamboyant cleric make any sort of reference to sensuality whatsoever – and this is a baseline requirement, for me at least, in any soprano. Upon reflection, I suspect that fire-water underwrote his opening sentence – but who am I to moralize as the President of the Australian Knappertsbusch Association?

To business. Even her most zealous of supporters acknowledge that Piau has a small, thin voice, even if that recognition is dressed up in niceties such as “clear”, “delicate”, “cleanly articulated”. It’s dispassionate too, if not sexless. This really hurts when crash and bash are required, as in ‘Al destin chela minaccia’ from Mitridate where her limitations are broadcast (cf Augér in Mozart: Mitridate (Philips Complete Mozart Edition, Vol. 29) or Yvonne Kenny in Harnoncourt’s stupendous production on DG Mozart - Mitridate, Re di Ponto). Piau offers a lean, clipped ‘Ach, ich fühl's’ which desperately requires a fuller voice; I ask you this: is it anything special? Considering all the great voices that have sung it over time, why should this be anywhere near the front of the queue? Percentile-wise, does not talent belong closer to the mean than the lip of the bell-curve? Much like XY chromosomers, a woman’s gotta know her limitations; at least Piau avoided ‘Martern aller Arten’ and ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio’. Imagine how underwhelming they would have been. No wonder she runs with these secondary, less showy selections for the most part (such as ‘S'altro che lagrime’, ‘Barbaro! oh Dio! mi vedi’ and ‘Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose’). They are nicely done but so what? Have we come so far to feast on so little?

Needless to say, the Freiburg Barockorchestra is its usual weedy self. Again, a comparison with the Concentus Musicus Wein in Mitridate is not to its advantage. Why does Mozart have to be so wimpy? Other considerations aside . . . give me Sabine Devieilhe any day. At least she has torque and plushness to her voice (Mozart: The Weber Sisters).

Somewhat listless, I ventured down to the beach for a stroll. Much to my surprise, a message-in-a-bottle had washed up on the shoreline. It had been penned by Alfred Deller in his last days. It prophesised that the day would come when concert-halls and recording studios would be ruled by counter-tenors and their faux-equivalents, female-wise. I did not need to check my watch: the time was apparent.
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