'Bel Canto' and Satie, Shining Brighter Than Bach

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Juan Diego Flórez --

"Bel Canto Spectacular." Daniel Oren, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana [Decca].

Juan Diego Flórez may be today's only tenor superstar, and he's achieved this status in an unlikely repertory. Since his light voice is not suited to the "Bohèmes" and "Pagliaccis" of the dramatic tenor, he has stuck -- wisely -- to a relatively narrow segment of the canon: the bel canto operas of the first part of the 19th century by Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti.

His solo recordings demonstrate how many ways there are to slice and dice this repertory. "Bel Canto Spectacular" touches on some ground covered in previous recordings, like "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's "Elisir d'Amore," or the showpiece aria from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," in which he scored such a big success at the Metropolitan Opera last May. But everything is fresh, with a twist; ornamental embellishments, different versions. The "Daughter of the Regiment" aria, for instance, is sung not in French but (ringingly) in Italian.

The most distinctive twist is the presence of other star singers: Anna Netrebko, excited if a little off-center in a duet from Bellini's "Puritani"; Mariusz Kwiecien, singing well but sounding mechanical in the duet "Venti scudi" from "Elisir"; Patricia Ciofi, with a melting soprano voice, in "Linda di Chamounix," and, as a bonus, Plácido Domingo in a rare tenor-tenor duet from Rossini's "Otello" (Domingo game and downright baritonal against the diamond flashes of Flórez's voice). Less flashy is the journeyman conductor Daniel Oren, who gets the job done.

In the past, I've admired Flórez -- he has one of the best techniques in the business -- more than I've enjoyed his hard-edged sound. But I certainly enjoyed this album, not only because it was full of surprises, but because his singing sounded to me more pliant and nuanced -- even, in the French version of "Spirto gentil" from "La favorita," limpid. He sings from the heart, but doesn't, commendably, sing his heart out, which gives him the debonair flair appropriate to a singer who, in today's opera world, is a true vocal gentleman.

Hélène Grimaud -- Bach [Deutsche Grammophon]

Hélène Grimaud starts each practice session by playing Bach, and Bach has often appeared on her recital programs; yet only now, at 39, has she actually made a Bach recording. It's startling that she's waited this long. Some pieces on this disc -- like Busoni's rendition of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor -- are veritable hallmarks. Furthermore, her straightforward, unsentimental, slightly steely style seems ideal for Bach interpretation.

Yet Grimaud has specialized in romantic music. And there's a romantic touch to this album, not only in her playing or in her deliberate use of a modern instrument, which rounds off the sharp edges of Bach's chains of notes into thickets of shady undergrowth. In what the liner notes portray as a self-appointed quest to show the universality of Bach (an unremarkable goal; few Bach performers aim to show that he has only limited appeal), she includes on the album Bach arrangements by others: Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and the Busoni Chaconne, which moves through Gothic tempests to the weary resignation of its wistful, backward-looking close. The crown jewel is a performance of the D minor concerto, which Bach himself arranged from a work written for violin.

Grimaud has it both ways, with a style neither "period" nor fully "modern." She is certainly not a performer who inflicts herself on the music with heavy emotion; but she does apply gentle interpretive nuances that to some purists will seem anachronistic. A clean passage, with notes darting surely through layers of sound like the steady flicks of a sewing-machine needle, suddenly yields to a moody bit of legato; the openings of fugues tend to strike like chisels, as if seeking to carve the theme out of silence and incise it permanently on the ear. Fortunately, her quest for universality is more about agility than its more common practical manifestation, ponderousness.

Erik Satie: Avant-dernières pensées. Alexandre Tharaud, piano, with Eric Le Sage, Juliette, Isabelle Faust, et al [Harmonia Mundi]

Erik Satie is a kind of Edward Lear of music: the creator of clever little bits of oddness that can seem almost banal but stick quirkily in mind. He's best known for his piano works, which are short, sometimes simple, sometimes dada-esque (like "Trois morceaux en forme de poire," "Three morsels in the shape of a pear," a piece that actually contains seven sections); they are not so much informal as anti-formal, a challenge to convention. He was hugely influential on a number of iconoclasts, from Debussy (his friend) to John Cage. And the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud has set out to give him his due in this handsome two-disc set.

The music is flavored with the bitter, aniseed tinge of modalities that evoke both classical antiquity and smoke rising gently in a beam of sunlight in a cafe. It seduces the listener (with the languid "Gnossiennes," among his best-known works) and then thumbs its nose at him with the tinny ragtime "Piccadilly" or the pounding, lampooning chords that close the three "Embryons dessechés," exclaiming, in effect, "Look, it's over! It's really, really over! Boy, is it ever over!" at the end of a wisp of a piece less than two minutes in length. This extensive set offers one disc of solo works and another of duos, which include not only the "Trois morceaux" and other four-hand piano pieces but also curiosities like the songs Satie wrote when he was playing in cafes-chantants, belted out with the appropriate booze-soaked-sounding breathiness by a singer named Juliette.

Tharaud's beautiful playing represents a classicizing approach: He at once makes a case for the importance of the work and slightly undermines its spirit with his very seriousness. Still, this is an illuminating and valuable recording.

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