This new disc from the Zurich Opera presents just about as thoughtful and coherent account of Rossini's Otello as one could hope for. This isn't the first time the company has made something of a splash with the bel canto repertory. Some will remember their CD release, a few years back, of Bellini's Norma, also featuring Bartoli. That set got very mixed reviews, and those who hated that will probably hate this too, no doubt before they even watch it. But for those not initiated in the trench warfare that music loving often attracts, this disc will be most welcome. The world class cast, led by Cecilia Bartoli and tenor John Osborn, are (mostly) young, committed and talented. They deliver, here, an intense performance that makes a very strong case for this neglected opera… By Stephen McLeod
Soprano Sandrine Piau writes in the program notes that there is no narrative or theme unifying the songs on this album, only the quality they share of being evocative of something beyond themselves. The late Romantic songs are indeed understated and suggestive rather than emphatic, many written in elegiac moods of hushed happiness or subdued yearning. The centerpiece is Richard Strauss' four song cycle, Madchenblumen, written when the composer was 26, which provided Piau with the initial inspiration for this collection. It's immensely appealing, and its generous lyricism makes it a work that deserves to be widely sung and known.
Weber’s chamber music – just these three pieces if you don’t count the duos – clearly shows him on the cusp between Classical and Romantic. The Quartet for piano and strings, written in his early twenties between 1807 and 1809, begins with a Haydnesque gracefulness and politeness which is gradually invaded by more unruly harmonies and textures; the dramatic slow movement looks ahead to Schumann, while the closing fugue of the finale dresses 18th-century procedures in 19th-century colours. Then there’s the element of virtuosity which is a hallmark of the early Romantic era, in the showy piano part of the Quartet, which Weber wrote for himself, the concerto-like clarinet part in the Quintet with strings, designed for the pioneering Heinrich Baermann, and all three parts of the tuneful Trio for flute, cello and piano. The talented members of the pan-European Gaudier Ensemble are perfectly equipped to convey these different aspects of Weber’s musical personality, with the fleet-fingered pianist Susan Tomes leading the way in the Quartet and Trio, and Richard Hosford in the Clarinet Quintet recalling contemporary descriptions of Baermann’s own effortless brilliance.
Listening to the music on this two-disc set, you may wonder why the chamber works of Swedish Romantic composer Franz Berwald are not more frequently recorded. It can't be because of his themes, which are strong, sweet, and distinctive; or because of his harmonies, which are powerful, rich, and cogent; or because of his forms, which are innovative, inventive, and indestructible. The only possible reason for this music's neglect is that there's only so much room in the world for great music, and unfortunately, Berwald, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvorák have apparently already occupied all the space allocated to chamber music of the Romantic period. Still, anyone listening to the music on this two-disc set will have to wonder if there's not enough room for Berwald, too. Scottish pianist Susan Tomes and the English Gaudier Ensemble are wonderfully persuasive advocates for Berwald, performing his music with the same dedication and enthusiasm that other performers bring to the music of his more popular contemporaries.
Perhaps I should begin by reminding readers that Krysia Osostowicz (of Polish descent) and the Edinburgh-born Susan Tomes are founder members of Domus—the group whose debut recording of Faure's two piano quartets won them the Gramophone Chamber award in 1986. And once again these two artists affirm their very special affinity with this French composer. It is a record I can recommend without reservations for its style and conviction, as also for wholly natural tonal reproduction (Andrew Keener and Antony Howell) and discerning programme-notes (Richard Wigmore).