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Vocal contradictions


Two of today's foremost female singers are out with new CDs. They are complete contradictions, but that does not mean that it is impossible to appreciate both.

Stylized entertainment

We have previously given the Argentine soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr panegyric criticism for her recording of cantatas by Scarlatti. Kiehr's main interest is the early Baroque. Her collaboration with harpsichordist Jean-Marc Aymes led to the creation of the ensemble Concerto Soave, which specializes in early Italian Baroque music. It is with this ensemble that she has released all her solo albums on Harmonia Mundi.

Her new release is a selection by Claudio Monteverdis Musical Scherzi. Monteverdi (1567-1643) does not use the term here joke in a musical sense, but in the literal sense, as in "joke" or "entertainment". In other words, these are easy, divergent works. The texts of the pieces are mainly written by Gabriello Chiabrero and are in a polite love tradition, where the rejected lover alternates between praising and criticizing the beloved. Kiehr sings in an unaffected way, with a pure voice and with little variation in phrasing and dynamics. One can immediately think that this is a weakness, considering the passionate nature of the text. But the tradition these texts hold within is very artificial and formalized; it is more a literary style than "true love." Therefore, I believe that her approach is valid.

Regardless of whether you like this approach or not, you can't help but be overwhelmed by Kiehr's vocal splendor. I hold her for one of the foremost female singers in the early music field today.

Concerto Soave does a silent job as accompanists. Kiehr also has the bass baritone Stephan MacLeod with whom she sings duet with a couple of the songs. In addition, MacLeod sings four of the songs solo. MacLeod has sung with many of the premier early music ensembles, and he does an excellent job here. The publication is hereby strongly recommended.

Searched concept

Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's latest release on Decca is titled Forbidden work, «Forbidden opera». In the first decade of the 1700th century, opera – all forms of theatrical performance for that matter – was banned in Rome. The ban came as a sign of thanksgiving after Rome was hit by two major earthquakes without any casualties.

Bartoli's somewhat sought-after concept is thus to deal with stage music that was written and performed during the Prohibition years. The way to circumvent the ban was to write oratorios instead. Due to its religious content, the oratory escaped the ban and as a consequence had a heyday in those years. The contents of the oratorio are allegorical stories with biblical themes. On the record, Bartoli sings arias by Handel (1685-1759), Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Antonio Caldara (1670-1736). With her is one of today's foremost early music ensembles, Les Musiciens du Louvre under the direction of Marc Minkowski. As usual, they do an excellent job.

In recent years, Cecilia Bartoli has focused more and more on the baroque repertoire after having previously sung mostly 1800th century opera. Her handling of preclassical music has been met with varying enthusiasm. The biggest objection to her is that she does not adapt the singing style to what is known about performance practice in the Baroque, but sings Handel in the same way as Rossini, for example by applying a constant vibrato to almost all notes. Others, not so purist critics, praise her for the perfect coloratura technique that comes into its own in this repertoire.

The contrast between Kiehr and Bartoli is striking, it's like two different worlds. Bartoli is a passionate, temperamental singer. What makes her a joy to listen to is – in addition to her fabulous technique and velvety voice – the complete commitment to music. She makes each aria become something personal, something about her. Probably her singing style is not authentic in relation to baroque performance practice. But like performance, as a musical result, it is impressive – and beautiful. If that's enough for you, you can safely go to the acquisition of this release.

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