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Music Media Review

(Palazzetto) Bru Zane; A Label With A Large and Very Worthy Mission

November 6, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:

Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Songs With Orchestra, Nicole Car, soprano, Jodie Devos, soprano, Cyrille Dubois, tenor, Étienne Dupuis, baritone, Véronique Gens, soprano, Chantal Santon Jeffrey, soprano, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, Hervé Niquet, conductor, Bru Zane BZ 2004, © 2022, 66:40, $15.50, via Presto.

(Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), Complete Songs, Cyrille Dubois, tenor, Tristan Raës, piano (Steinway D, date and serial # not given), Aparté AP 284, © 2022, 3 hrs 32 mins (CD 1 76:00, CD 2 78:00, CD 3 78:00), $28.00 via Presto).

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), Robert le Diable, Soloists : John Osborn (Robert), Nicolas Courjal (Bertram), Amina Edris (Alice), Erin Morley (Isabelle), Nico Darmanin (Raimbaut), Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Chœur de l'Opéra National de Bordeaux, Marc Minkowski, dir., Bru Zane BZ 1049, © 2022, 3 hrs, 52 mins, 3 CDs (I: 78:36, II: 80:17, III: 58:15), in a 168-pp. hard-covered book, $35.50 via Presto.

This remarkable, unusual, and unique independent label is based in the former Casino Zane, a restored small palace on a canal in Venice (address: San Polo 2368 – 30125) that was a venue for music, now home of the « Centre de musique romantique française »; its mission is to record French Romantic music from 1790-1920, the ('very') long 19th century – term that is generally used for the calendar one + 10 years on both sides. It is financed by a foundation managed by the heiress of a family that owned a French pharmaceutical company (check out the different sections/tabs of the home page, and find its motto at the bottom of 'Actions/Heritage'), created in 2013 (the label dates from 2009) with HQ in Geneva, Switzerland; it chooses to use its wealth for this purpose. Most Americans know nothing about it, but I, a francophone by education and profession, am thrilled with its existence, and own all (to date) of its products; they are all extraordinary in content and quality, and the works are recorded, many of them world-première ones, nowhere else. These three are its most recent releases, the opera its 33rd, many of which I had never heard, and all are terrific.

The parentheses around the second listing are to show that it also supports other 'indy' French labels: Aparté is a member of the independent label consortium "out there music" – yes, English, and with all lower case letters, that also includes some Belgian, German, Italian, and Netherlandish labels. Recordings occur in various locations; the Fauré is recorded in the Salle Colonne (a concert hall) in Paris. Needless to say, I own a lot of its/their issues, too…, and BRO is often the source from which I acquire those. There are live recitals in the Palezzetto, some of them live-streamed; I watched a few during the pandemic. It also has a monthly e-newsletter, with issues in the two languages (French and English) + Italian, to which you can subscribe online. Previously, in 1987, they supported the creation of Le Concert Spirituel, conceived by Hervé Niquet, and named for a similar organization in the 18th century, and still support it. Is that good support of classical music or what? How many American industrialists do such underwritings?

It has several product lines, and most of its own products include the complete lists of all products in all of them: box sets (« coffret » in French; like the Massenet, # 4; # 1 is a 10-CD set compilation: The French Romantic Experience that I do not own, but is likely a good introduction at a good price: $49.00, now on special sale for $34.25), operas (now 33), composer "Portraits" (now 5), and « Prix de Rome » winners (now 6: 3 books, and 3 2-CD sets, for 6 different composers); the books are 5 1'/4" w x 8 1/8" h, (thickness varying with the text) individually numbered copies of hardcover books printed in Venice, with complete librettos for the operas. Essay texts are all thoroughly researched by credentialed scholars, accompanied by period b&w photographs and sketches; the operas have an introduction, an essay by a specialist, a summary (with quotes) of the reviews in the period press, and another essay on a specific related topic, often the author of the libretto, or the literary work that inspired it, by a different specialist, followed by the librettos; the CDs are in pockets on the insides of their covers. I own virtually all of these, but have not read all of the texts, because they are numerous, and I am not a scholar (or interested in being one) for all operas; you don't have to be, either, to be able to appreciate and enjoy them. The individual issues on other labels like the Fauré set also include a paragraph about it and its mission in French and English, and German in the single products, in different orders according to the nation of distribution of the individual product. All are attractive and 'classy', tasteful products, with sleeves (few or no jewel cases) bearing appropriate colored period images or artist photographs on their covers. I own quite a few of these, but don't have a complete list to know if they are all of them; everything I own is excellent. These are products that will last and are fine documentations of the period's music and its context.

All but 4 of the 25 Massenet Songs, are world première recordings; if you want to hear them, you'll need to acquire this. He taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire 1878-1896, so had a great influence on French Romantic music, but is largely forgotten, especially outside of France, today. But this recording was conceived because this genre of work, other than Berlioz' Nuits d'été, has even disappeared from the concert halls in France, and from recordings as well, and many more, "probably more than a thousand," remain unpublished (pp. 14 [Eng], 26 [French]); it was very popular in the 19th century, when a more disparate mix of genres/works in a performance was more common, and orchestras and concert halls were smaller (ibid).

That is not the case for Fauré, of course, who was the head of the Conservatoire 1905-1920, and transformed it, but this is a very different performance of his mélodies in that all are performed by the same duo, with their scores arranged to make that possible; they were composed for numerous different original singers with varying voice ranges. They (other than the cycles/sets) are also grouped as three recitals, selected by things that connect them, such as content, context, etc., including pairing by contrast of early and late time frames, rather than strict chronological order as is often the case. It's a very pleasing and successful set, "immersion" undertaken with the centennial of his death approaching (pp. 9-10 [Eng], 11-12 [French]), smoother to hear as a result, and these are excellent performers; the tenor appears in both listings. Fauré is the French equivalent of Schubert in many ways, a century later.

Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831) is the first of a trilogy; the second is Les Huguenots (1836), the third, Le Prophète (1849), all based on history, legend, and literature that Théophile Gautier in his Histoire de l'art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans Paris, Hetzel, 1859, describes (vol. 6, p. 82) as "the fairytale," "the chronicle," and "the satire" (pp.3 [Fr], 65 [Eng]; I read all of this one. The history is that of Robert le Magnifique, sixth duc de Normandie, father of William the Conqueror, said to have been violent and cruel, as recounted in a 13th-century Romance (the literature: a poetic form, not its subject); his parents were childless until his mother made a pact with the devil (the legend) and Robert was born. It is also permeated with that era's interest in the Middle Ages, all things Gothic, and the works of Sir Walter Scott, and the beginning of interest in the mind, imagination, and the psyche.

The dramatic Good-and-Evil thematic conflict is the influence of Bertram, the demon father, and that of the angelic nursemaid, Alice (Jenny Lind played this role in London in 1847), representative of the mother, and Isabelle, Robert's love interest. Encounters occur in the odd-numbered Acts, culminating in Act V, with the most powerful music, overwhelming the dramatic force, with the sacrament of marriage in the Palermo cathedral. The even-numbered acts focus on the interactions and interrelations of Robert with the two sides; he grows through adolescence to maturity, breaking the magic branch that ends the evil magic spell at the end of Act IV.

Its significance is that it was the very first opera of the new regime after the 1830 Revolution (that brought Chopin to Paris; it occurred all over Europe). It premièred on 21 November 1831; point of reference: Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, the first Romantic symphony, premièred on 4 December 1830, less than a year earlier, so this is the first Romantic opera, and part of the beginning of French Romantic music that prevailed for over 50 years. It was also Meyerbeer's first "Grand Opera," and its music made a huge impact, beautiful, full of captivating and memorable melodies that became popular, making them like folk tunes – some may be derived from real ones that he collected in his early years in Italy – that suited various situations, with their varied orchestrations. Choruses are numerous and prominently placed, things flow seamlessly, captivating the listeners. It was staged by Louis-Désiré Véron (1798-1867), with sets designed by Pierre-Luc-Charles Cicéri (1782-1868) that also captured the audience's eyes and interest; some of his set sketches are reproduced in the book. Its libretto was written jointly by Eugene Scribe and Casimir Delavigne, both famous writers. Its singers were also famous at the time, the tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839), the most famous of all; a b&w photo of a sculpture of him as Robert in the Musée Carnavalet appears on p. 15.

The melodramatic plot led to theatrical music, harmonies, and its orchestration, that made a strong impact on the audience; many melodies became popular, one becoming a popular folk tune. From the founding of the Paris Opera by Louis XIV, under Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), ballets were required in operas performed there, some of which were added after the original composition, the most famous such being the Dance of the Blessed Spirits of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice in 1774, now one of the most famous 'tunes' in classical music – it takes place on the original Champs-Élysées [Elysian Fields], not the boulevard in Paris. Robert le Diable has five acts, like many Shakespeare plays, and many operas of that period, so some had more than one ballet, some as Interludes. The choreographer was Filippo Taglioni (1777-1871); its most famous and popular here is the Act III one in which deceased nuns in white robes rise from their graves in the church to dance in the cloister in the moonlight; their leader was Filippo's daughter, Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) – both were major players in the history of ballet; it's not an interlude, but part of the action. A b&w photo of a performance is reproduced on p. 50; and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) made a painting (1871) of it that is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC (reproduced in b&w on p. 46). The production was lauded in the press.

This was the first opera ever of what Wagner, two decades later, referred to as a Gesamtkunstwerk, in French: « l'oeuvre d'art totale », term first used in the French press in reviews of this opera – a totally different history, of which Americans are not aware – they always think it was Wagner's invention. Wagner was an anti-Semite and viciously attacked Meyerbeer (which didn't help keep him in the limelight that he had and still deserves), a Berlin-born Jew who schooled all over Italy (where Jacob became Giacomo, and where there were opera houses, for which he composed; this work is set in Palermo, Sicily: the sketch for a costume for Isabelle, Princess of Sicily, is reproduced on p. 51) and settled in Paris. His works are rarely, if ever, performed in the US; Americans don't know what they are missing out on! This music is stunningly gorgeous, and you can enjoy it on your stereo in your home with this fine set. Its performers may not be 'big names,' but they are very big talents, several will be well worth following. This opera was statistically one of the most successful French operas in the history of the genre. You should make its acquaintance. I supply URL links to make it easy for you to learn things that you likely weren't taught, and therefore couldn't learn, in or out of school, and my reviews are thus "total art and history" ones. You should take advantage of them; although it does require some time, it'll reward you...

An Important and Enrapturing New Release from Aparté

Violin Concertos: Benda (1709-1786), Graun (c. 1703-1771), Sirmen (1745-1818), Saint-Georges (c.1745-1799), + Mozart (1756-1791), Rondo in C major, K 373, Zefira Valova, violin (Lorenzo and Tomaso Carcassi, Florence, 1760, on loan by the Jumpstart Jr Foundation), and dir., Il Pomo d'Oro, Aparté AP 291, © 2022, 68:37, $14.75 via Presto; $21.98 via Amazon.

I ordered this CD soon after it was released on 19 August in the UK (It had been released in May in the EU, and is scheduled for release on 4 November in the USA.), but it wasn't shipped till 21 September, took over a week to reach me, and I didn't get to listen to it till mid-October, but it captured my ears instantly, and I have listened to it numerous (probably at least 8) times since. The four concertos were all composed before the Mozart, which is treated as the pinnacle of the style placed last on the disk. The violin concerto was born in Italy, primarily in the Fererra-Bologne-Venice region, and spread out northwards, but only one of these composers, Sirmen, is Italian: Maddalena Lombardi, who left the ospedale (orphanage for upper-class girls), where she was a student of Tartini (1692-1770), married the violinist Lodovico Sirmen (1738-1812), and ended up in London in 1770. Bologne/Saint-Georges is African-French, b. in Guadeloupe, ended up in Paris, and is the first African composer to be successful, well-known for his 14 violin concertos (of which this was the first, in 1773, this being its first recording; I own recordings of at least 6 others), as well as being an accomplished fencer. Benda is Bohemian, and was a student of Graun, who was German, b. near Dresden, and served for Frederick II (1712-1786), the Great in Prussia, a 'prime mover' of the Enlightenment, a lover of French culture (he knew Voltaire), and of music – he played the flute. The Graun is also a first recording, making about half of the CD world premières, so not available elsewhere.

Valova is an amazing musician; you'll likely be captivated by her playing as well. The program is lively and interesting, mostly typically upbeat, and varied in spite of all the works being from the same time period, and also distinctly different from Italian works like Vivaldi's. This CD has had good reviews, as have many other recordings by this orchestra of mostly Italian musicians; I have quite a few, so know it's trustworthy. Its focus on overlooked concertos is the notable plus; this label has the good habit of issuing excellent unique CDs.

An important and significant element is the orchestra: it has only 20 musicians – concertmaster and soloist, four each of first and second violins, two violists and 'cellists, one (double) bass, two oboes, one bassoon, two horns, and one harpsichordist. It results in a very pleasant blend, with no one dominating, but a wonderfully balanced, musical, warm, and intimate sound. It records for other labels, too; I have one on the (French) Erato label (now under the Warner umbrella) that arrived on Saturday 29 October (released 16 September) and hadn't yet heard, Roma Travestita, 0190296619809, © 2022, 73:45, $17.25 via Presto, $18.98 via Amazon, of a sopranist ('a unique male soprano voice' – it's not a falsetto), Brazilian (now seemingly living somewhere in Europe) Bruno de Sá (b. 1978; a singer and a sports director – his two brothers are soccer players), singing 18th century opera arias by Italian composers (and one Spaniard, called 'Lo Spagnoletto') for castrati. Valova is the principal first violinist in it, and its personnel is shuffled a bit and slightly expanded, with a (different) harpsichordist being the conductor: one more violist, a second bassoonist, and four more different instruments: theorbo, organ, psaltery, and two traversos (flutes) to make 26 – I couldn't resist and listened to it immediately for the first time – impressive, and not at all strange, as you might think/expect, and again numerous (11) world première recordings, some by five composers of whom I'd never heard!

The two opening arias are from Alessandro Scarlatti's (1660-1725, father of Domenico) 115th (and last) opera, Griselda, which featured three castrati and a tenor, and whose lead role was written for and sung by the castrato Farfallino (= little butterfly), of whom I had also never heard, story that, like Robert le Diable, takes place in Sicily, and on which I did research and a report in 1978 when working on my Ph.D. at UNC-CH, an opera, of which the first DVD was just issued (my copy is in the same order I just received), because a scholastic critical edition (one in which every remaining copy is consulted to establish the text – I did one of those for another story written in 1395 that had never been thoroughly examined as my dissertation) of the libretto was just published in 2021. If readers think that I seek out things I've never heard, they are correct; there's so much unknown beautiful music and marvelous (in multiple senses) musicians out there! This program was specifically developed for De Sá by Yannis François, author of the program notes (also a baritone and a ballet dancer, but the notes say 'football', the French word [perhaps also the Portuguese one?; both are Romance languages, derived/evolved from Latin, the language of the Romans, and are somewhat closer to each other than they are to Spanish, the differences having been determined by mountains and the languages and cultures of indigenous/native peoples] for soccer; he was, like Bologne de Saint-Georges, b. in Guadeloupe, and is now living in Lausanne, CH [Switzerland]). Talk about interconnections and diversity. Amazing! You'll likely be impressed too.