OFFENBACH: Gaîte Parisienne (compiled & edited by M. Rosenthal) / Boston Pops Orchestra; Arthur Fiedler, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
OFFENBACH: Gaîte Parisienne (compiled & edited by M. Rosenthal) / New Philharmonia Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Many people enjoy the Offenbach operettas. I don’t. I find the music gauche and cheap and the usually ribald plots offensive and stereotypical. But I do enjoy the orchestral suite that Manuel Rosenthal compiled and scored in 1938 for the ballet by Leonid Massine. Here are two versions of it, both superb in their own way. The Fiedler recording, from 1954, was an early stereo classic that stayed in the catalog for generations. It still holds up extremely well, although to my ears the tempi are just a shade fast for a ballet. The Munch recording, made in spectacular Phase 4 Stereo sound 14 years later (it was one of his very last recordings) may lack some of the manic feel of the Fiedler but has more realistic sound and better tempi for dancing. The choice is yours.
OFFENBACH: Les contes d’Hoffmann
Neil Shicoff, tenor (Hoffmann); Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano (Muse/Micklausse); José van Dam, bass-baritone (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Dr. Miracle); Luciana Serra, soprano (Olympia); Rosalind Plowright, soprano (Antonia); Jessye Norman, soprano (Giulietta); Kurt Rydl, bass (Luther/Crespel); Alexander Oliver, tenor (Spalanzani); Robert Tear, tenor (Andrès/Cochenille/Pitichinaccio/Frantz); Dale Duesing, baritone (Schlemil); Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels Chorus & Orchestra; Sylvain Cambreling, conductor / EMI 58613, also available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
or (see below)
Rolando Villazón, tenor (Hoffmann); Angela Brower, mezzo-soprano (Muse/Nicklausse); John Relyea, bass-baritone (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Dr. Miracle); Diana Damrau, soprano (Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta); Christoph Stephinger, bass (Luther/Crespel); Kevin Connors, tenor (Andrés/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio); Ulrich Reß, tenor (Spalanzani); Christian Rieger, baritone (Schlemil); Bavarian State Chorus & Orchestra; Constantinos Carydis, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube (live performance, November 2011)
“Poor Hoffmann!” bewails Nicklausse/the Muse in Offenbach’s strange masterpiece, and I echo the sentiment but for different reasons. Left unfinished at the composer’s death, it was tidied up for production by good old Ernest Giuraud, the same man who wrote those nasty, unauthentic recitatives for Bizet’s Carmen (which I happen to like). In 1907, some guy named Choudens cobbled together a different version for a performance in Monte Carlo, and this was the one that was performed for most of the next 65 years. It was given in the order of the Prologue, Act I Olympia, Act II Giulietta, Act III Antonia and an Epilogue. It ran a little over two hours (normal for most operas) and included such inauthentic but popular numbers as Dappertutto’s aria “Scintille, diamant” and a sextet in the same act (sometimes called a septet because the chorus is counted as an unnamed character—don’t ask). Everyone loved it. It worked.
The first change—a minor one—came about in the early 1970s when conductor Richard Bonynge decided to drop the Guiraud recitatives and revert to spoken dialogue. Well, OK, people had already done this with Carmen, so I guess that’s OK. But then here came the musicolologists (yes, I purposely misspelled that) with newly-found music that they decided to stick into the opera. One of the first was Oeser, and for the most part I really did like everything he put back in except for a superfluous aria for Giulietta that was obviously inferior music and didn’t fit. But in the process people lost “Scintille, diamant” and instead had to listen to “Tourneau, tourneau diamant” which is a much shorter and less lyrical aria that Offenbach actually wrote, and the beloved sextet/septet was replaced by an authentic one. This is the version performed and recorded by Sylvain Cambreling (more on that later). But this wasn’t all. Then came a new edition by Michael Kaye with even more different music, including a (to me) apocryphal aria for Giulietta which, as sung here by Sumi Jo with buckets of coloratura nonsense thrown in, was even worse than the one Oeser came up with. Then more music was found in the late 1990s, so of course THAT had to be stuck in as well. After a while, Hoffmann became the operatic equivalent of Mr. Potato Head, with eyes, ears, arms and legs added and subtracted at whim. It just seems to get nuttier all the time.
The first is a studio recording of the Oeser version from 1988 with a superlative cast—only Robert Tear seems wrong as Franz, as he sings with no humor—all of whom really seem into their roles. The drawback is Cambreling’s unbelievably slow conducting. He drags through the opera like Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Parsifal, which puts a damper on the proceedings. So why do I recommend it? Because we now live in the age of digital downloads, and if you also have an audio editor on your computer you can use it to speed up each track by three to six percent (the “Barcarolle” and the final scene should be sped up by 12 percent). Once you do this, you’ll discover one of the greatest performances of the opera ever preserved, which is why this recording has the rare distinction of getting not one but two ratings (4 ½ fish as is, 6 fish if sped up). This recording also has the advantage of including both “Scintille, diamant” and “Tourneau diamant” as well as both the ersatz sextet (as a bonus track) and the authentic scene in the body of the act.
The second is a live performance from Bavaria in 2011 that has assumed legendary proportions, partly due to the remarkable singing of Brower as Nicklausse and Villazón as Hoffmann but mostly because of Diana Damrau’s stupendous singing of the three heroines (if you can accurately use that term for a life-sized female robot and a Satanic courtesan as two of them). She also performs the mute role of Stella to round out the proceedings. Damrau’s achievement is nothing short of miraculous, although it may have been performance like these that led to the decline of her vocal powers six years later. The one downside to this performance is John Relyea as the four villains (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, Dappertutto). Once the possessor of a wonderfully firm, rounded voice, by 2011 he sang with a good amount of loose vibrato, especially in the high range under pressure, but I really like his dark tone—somewhat like that of Gustav Neidlinger, the great Alberich of the 1950s and ‘60s—and his sinister interpretation is spot-on. The version used here seems to be a compromise between all of the existing versions, including Choudens. Dappertutto’s “Scintille, diamant” is preserved, and for whatever reason Relyea marshals his vocal forces to give a splendid performance of this, but Giulietta sings the Michael Kaye-discovered aria. Happily, Damrau does not over-gild the lily here with too much coloratura fireworks as Sumi Jo did in the Alagna-Nagano recording, so it comes out well. But neither the original sextet nor the new scene are given, so the act runs rather short. So too does the Epilogue, although it does end with the gorgeous aria “Des cendres de ton cœur.” Brower is absolutely the finest Nicklausse/Muse I’ve ever heard and Damrau ditto as the three female foils. Constantinos Carydis, a name unfamiliar to me, conducts fairly well except for the famous “Barcarolle,” which he rushes in the introduction and then slows down too much for the singing.
So there you go. The choice is up to you, but I would put by two cents in by saying that once I downloaded and genetically modified the Cambreling recording I got rid of the Peter Maag live performance I had with Sandor Konya as Hoffmann, Gabriel Bacquier as the villains, and a trio of sopranos. Why? Well, one because of the sound quality; two because Ann Murray is a far greater Nicklausse than Souza, third because van Dam is surprisingly sinister here as the villains (much more so than in the later Erato set with Roberto Alagna of the Kaye edition), and fourth because most of the extra music (except for the aforementioned aria) in the Giulietta act makes a lot more sense to me than the Choudens edition. Every time I heard Hoffmann in the old edition I always felt that most of the music following Dappertutto’s aria sounded disjointed, as if it didn’t really fit or as if the various numbers didn’t fit together. In the Oeser version, most of it makes perfect sense to me. Another reason I like it is that “Scintille, diamant” and the original, inauthentic version of the sextet are included as appendices. So all in all, you get more than your money’s worth of Offenbach’s music.
ONSLOW: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Maria Kliegel, cellist; Nina Tichman, pianist / Naxos 8.572830 or available in small bits on YouTube.
George Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer of English descent who was heavily influenced by the Austrian Beethoven. His cello sonatas are well-written, exciting and elegant all at the same time. There are also recordings of these works available by cellist Emmanuel Jacques and pianist Maude Gratton, but the tempi are far too slow and Gratton plays on a crappy-sounding 1822 Broadwood piano of the kind Beethoven pushed out of his house once the “Hammerklavier” came along. Kliegel and Tichman are absolutely riveting in this music.
ORFF: Antigonae / Martha Mödl, soprano (Antigonae); Carlos Alexander, baritone (Creon); William Dooley, baritone (Chorus Leader); Fritz Uhl, tenor (Haemon); Marianne Radev, soprano (Ismene); Paul Kuen, tenor (Guard); Joseph Traxel, tenor (Tiresias); Kurt Böhme, bass (Messenger); Lilian Benningsen, alto (Eurydice); Bavarian Radio Chorus & Orch. Percussion Section; Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor / Profil 09066 or available for streaming in small bits on YouTube
Known primarily for his triad of Roman-influenced cantatas (Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite), Carl Orff wrote some very good music both before and after this trilogy. The Greek drama Antigonae inspired him to some of his most powerful and dramatic music. Although there is an earlier recording of this work out there with Martha Mödl in the title role, in which she is in fresher voice, neither her performance nor the conducting of Ferdinand Leitner are a match for this red-hot powerhouse recording, and the sound is a sort of “half-breed” ambient stereo that wears its age very well indeed.
ORFF: Carmina Burana / Arleen Augér, soprano; John van Kesteren, tenor; Jonathan Summers, baritone; Southend Boys’ Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus; Riccardo Muti, conductor / EMI 47100 or available for free streaming on YouTube or Spotify
For many people, “the” recording of this masterwork is the old Seiji Ozawa recording on RCA with Evelyn Mandac, baritone Sherrill Milnes and the Boston Symphony, but although I like it I do not love it. Ozawa is, for me, a bit too glib and heavy-handed, missing much of the detail and railroading his musical forces, and Milnes’ voice, great though it was, just sounds wrong. This recording goes a long way towards fulfilling what Orff actually wrote, and both Arleen Augér and Jonathan Summers are better than their counterparts on the RCA recording.
ORFF: Gisei – Der Opfer / Kathryn Lewek, soprano (Kwan Shusai); Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone (Genzo); Ulrike Helzel, mezzo-soprano (Tonami); Markus Brück, baritone (Matsuo); Elena Zhidkova, soprano (Chiyo); Jana Kurucová, mezzo (Kataro); Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Gemba); Deutschen Oper Berlin Chorus & Orchestra; Jacques Lacombe, conductor / CPO 777819-2, also available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits.
As I pointed out in my review of this recording when it was first issued, Gisei – Der Opfer owes as much if not more to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande than to Wagner’s Parsifal which inspired both works. The plot concerns the temple schoolteacher Genzo (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny) who instructs peasant boys and his own eight-year-old Kwan Shusai (soprano Kathryn Lewek) in geography. The secret, however, is that Kwan Shusai is not their biological son but but the progeny of the Chancellor of the Right, banished following an intrigue by his opponents in exile. The adherents of the Chancellor, however, have found Kwan, realizing that he is the last hope of the country as the heir of the banished leader.
I’ve only given this recording four and a half fish due to the incipient wobbles in the voices of Ryan McKinny and Markus Brück, though the rest of the cast is fine and Lacombe conducts with considerable passion.
ORFF: Die Kluge / Thomas Stewart, baritone (King); Gottlob Frick, bass (Farmer); Lucia Popp, soprano (Farmer’s daughter); Richard Kogel, bass (Jailer); Manfred Schmidt, tenor (Donkey man); Claudio Nicolai, baritone (Mule man); Ferry Gruber, tenor (Vagabond 1); Heinz Friedrich, baritone (Vagabond 2); Kurt Böhme, bass (Vagabond 3); Munich Radio Orchestra; Kurt Eichhorn, conductor / RCA 74321 24792 2 (also includes Der Mond), or available for streaming in small bits on YouTube
Orff’s 1943 satirical opera Die Kluge has a rather convoluted plot. A poor peasant finds on his land a mortar made of gold and decides to take it to the king, thinking that he will be rewarded for being a loyal subject. His wise daughter, however, tells him not to, because the king will throw him in the dungeons thinking that he has stolen the pestle, which in truth he didn’t find. And this is what happens, starting a chain of improbable events into motion.
There are other very fine recordings of this opera—see the Orff Collection listed below—but this one has the most outstanding cast and most energetic and involved singing, and the vastly underrated Kurt Eichhorn conducts with brio.
ORFF: Carmina Burana / Celestina Casapietra, soprano; Horst Hiestermann, tenor; Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone; Dresden Boys’ Chorus; Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor / part of Berlin Classics set 0300927BC or available for free streaming on YouTube
ORFF: Catulli Carmina / Ute Mai, soprano (Lesbia); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Catullus); Jutta Czapski, Günter Philipp, Wolfgang Wappler, Gerhard Erber, pianists; Rundfunkchor Leipzig; Sinfonieorchester Leipzig Percussion; Herbert Kegel, conductor / part of Berlin Classics set 0300927BC or available for free streaming on YouTube
ORFF: Trionfo di Afrodite / Isabella Nawe, soprano (La Sposa); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (La Sposo); Renate Krahmer, soprano (Corifea/Soprano I) Horst Hiesterman, tenor (Corifeo); Reiner Süss, bass (Corifeo); Regina Werner, soprano (Soprano II); Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (Baritone solo); Rundfunkchor Leipzig & Berlin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor / part of Berlin Classics set 0300927BC or available for free streaming on YouTube
Although I still have a slight preference for the Muti Carmina Burana, this is clearly the finest recording of the three works of the Triofi because they are the best versions of Catulli Carmina and Trionfo you will ever hear (yes, even better than the Eugen Jochum recordings made in the presence of the composer). The only caveat I have is of Heinz Stryczek’s rather light, almost comprimario-sounding baritone in the Carmina Burana, yet he points up the rhythm of the music better than anyone else. Kegel had a fine ear for the overall structure of these works and did an outstanding job of pulling them together.
ORFF: Die Kluge / Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone (King); Reiner Süss, bass (Peasant); Magdalena Falewicz, soprano (Peasant’s Daughter); Horand Friedrich, bass (Jailer); Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Man with Donkey); Siegfried Lorenz, baritone (Man with Mule); Harald Neukirch, tenor (1st Vagabond); Wolfgang Hellmich, baritone (2nd Vagabond); Hermann Christian Polster, bass (3rd Vagabond); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor / part of Berlin Classics set 0300927BC; available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits.
ORFF: Der Mond / Eberhard Büchner, tenor (Narrator); Fred Teschler, bass (Young Man 1); Horst Lunow, baritone (Young Man 2); Helmut Klotz, tenor (Young Man 3); Armin Terzibaschian, bass (Young Man 4); Wilfried Schaal, baritone (Peasant); Hans-Joachim Hegewald, speaker (Mayor); Paul Glahn, speaker (Innkeeper); Reiner Süss, bass (St. Peter); Rundfunkchor & Sinfonirorchester Leipzig; Herbert Kegel, conductor / part of Berlin Classics set 0300927BC; available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits.
These are the remaining performances from Herbert Kegel’s great Orff collection. Although I slightly prefer the Eichhorn version of Die Kluge, this recording is mesmerizing in its own way and Kegel’s Der Mond, a satiric comedy about four young men who steal the moon, has an almost magical aura about it that makes it, for me, the finest of all performances.
ORNSTEIN: Cossack Impressions, s55; Four Impromptus, s300A; In the Country, s63; Piano Sonata No. 4 / Arsentiy Kharitonov, pianist / Toccata Classics 141 or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits.
The music of Leo Ornstein is late-Romantic, somewhat in the school of Rachmaninov but to my ears even more advanced and imaginative. This CD is a wonderful introduction to his unique sound world.
ORTIZ: Coralaia. Cuban Cubism. Density. Dominant Force. Inrtervals [Closer to the Edge]. Louverture, Op. 1 [Château de Joux]. Monochrome [Yubá]. Passage. Sacred Chronology. Yambú / Arúan Ortiz, pianist / Intakt CD 290
Arúan Ortiz is a phenomenal Cuban pianist who works primarily in the jazz field, yet whose deep love and knowledge of classical form leads him to consistently work within that framework. The end result is music that sounds both structured and improvised, and you’ll have a hard time figuring out where the first leaves off and the second begins! This is superb music in every respect, essentially tonal but with such unusual harmonic leanings, using rootless chords and other harmonies borrowed from the jazz vernacular, that you’ll be entranced from first to last.