The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Friday, January 05, 2007

Discovering new pieces

One of the great joys of classical music is its practically limitless nature. Although I frequently go to concerts and buy up CD's, I still regularly have the pleasure of discovering truly great pieces of music. The best is that period of time where you're just getting to know a piece well enough to hum along.

I'm in that honeymoon period with a couple of works right now. One is Handel's oratorio Semele. I of course love Handel in general, so bored a few weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon looking for potentially good recordings of oratorios I don't know. I generally ignore the operas -- it's not Handel's fault, I'll just come out and say it: opera seria is dull by nature, despite the sudden, recent movement to establish otherwise; it's like an emperor-with-no-clothes situation.

The piece I found actually proves this: Semele is very dramatic, basically an opera, but since he wasn't constrained by the opera seria straightjacket, Handel was able to let loose. Unlike some of his oratorios, which often have their boring sections, the music here is almost uniformly excellent. It contains some typically great Handelian choruses, but also some really inventive, moving arias and duets. The duet "You've undone me" in Act I merits the "back" button on my ipod for a repeat listen pretty much every time.

The name on the box that enticed me to grab the set was, of course, John Eliot Gardiner. The performance is typically excellent. It dates from the very early days of the Monteverdi Choir (1981), when Gardiner had not quite yet polished the group into the model of precision, clarity, and expressiveness it became a few years later. But they're still very good. And the cast of soloists is top notch: deserving special mention is the ever-reliable tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who is just so darn good in this kind of thing. Even better, though, is the mezzo Della Jones, who brings down the virtual house in the thrilling aria, "Hence, Iris, hence away!"

I'm generally not a huge fan of Papa Haydn. I admire his tremendous skills, but his music (especially the symphonies and quartets) usually fails to give me the deep pleasures that are ultimately what I'm looking for in great music. There's something cold and overly ironic and clever about much of his music. Just when you think something is building to a gorgeous melody or climax, it suddenly shifts to something else. Every tender moment is so fleeting it is barely there. It so often seems like a giant tease, as if Papa is saying: "You can see I could blow your mind with great music; but I'm just gonna mess with it instead."

One exception to this, I've always felt, is the Creation, where Haydn finally really seems to be letting lose and reveling in the pure beauty and ecstasy of nature. Well, casually browsing my uncle's CD collection on a Thanksgiving visit, I found another Haydn work to embrace: the Nelson Mass. It helps that the performance, on this Trevor Pinnock recording, is absolutely sublime. The pacing, the chorus, the sound, the soloists are all absolutely perfect. Felicity Lott is especially brilliant. The piece still doesn't take place among my very favorite masses, but it is full of wonderful and exciting moments. As if to prove it's not just the exceptional performance that's carrying the day, I was completely unimpressed with the Te Deum, which is at intervals either dumb and cheesy or just weird.


Blogger hannah rivka said...

You should also check out, for comparison's sake, the Deutsche Gramophon recording of "Semele" with Kathleen Battle and Marilyn Horne. I think Battle is gorgeous throughout, but Horne is a little past her prime.

9:07 PM  

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