Classical CD Reviews: Listening During COVID, Part 6 — Fresh Music-Making from Three Splendid Singers and One Amazing Pianist-Who-Also-Sings

By Ralph P. Locke

Chopin masterpieces, Rossini duets, and songs, spirituals, and arias — all performed in ways that make the music dazzle.

Chopin in My Voice: Piano and Vocal Works of Chopin.
Chelsea Guo, piano and (in three numbers) soprano.
Orchid ORC100167—73 minutes

Love the Color of Your Butterfly: Songs and arias done in a new way.
Janinah Burnett, soprano, and assisting jazz and pop musicians.
Clazz Records—66 minutes.

Amici e rivali (Friends and Rivals): Duets and more by Rossini.
Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres, tenors.
I virtuosi italiani, cond. Corrado Rovaris. 80 minutes.

I was sure that the arrival of vaccinations would make continuation of this series unnecessary. But, given the current surge (Delta), the widespread, politicized resistance to vaccination, and the ongoing risks of public performances in many locations, I am still listening to music solely at home and in the car, not “live.” Many readers may find themselves in a similar situation.

With that in mind, I want to share another threesome of new and recent CDs that have come my way. This batch, like the previous five, has freshened the air around me, and awakened lots of synapses in my brain, as I listened (while awaiting the day when we can all feel safe returning to a concert hall or opera house).

Chelsea Guo, an undergraduate (!) pianist at Juilliard has released her first CD, Chopin in My Voice. I was prepared to hate this one, because it seems built on a gimmick: Guo not only plays the complete Preludes, Op. 28, and two other masterworks (the Fantasy in F Minor and the Barcarolle) but also sings three numbers, playing the piano while she sings. Still, lots of singers have accompanied themselves on the piano, including Pauline Viardot, Reynaldo Hahn, and, more recently, Jessye Norman. It’s a natural way for singers to practice at home — an option not available to string or wind players, whose hands are already busily engaged.

Well, Guo is really good! Her singing voice is a light soprano, clear and steady — a soubrette type, to use the categories of the world of opera and music theater. A little thin in the lowest notes but ringing and bright everywhere else. She phrases winningly and seems to understand the words she is singing, whether in German, Italian, or Polish.

Best of all, this cantabile approach carries over into her performances of the solo-piano pieces. She tapers phrases sensitively, never barreling through. She responds, just enough, to harmonic surprises. And, most unusually, she has the melodic line (usually in the right hand) anticipate the accompaniment (in the left), whereas we’re more accustomed to non-simultaneous piano playing that has bass anticipate the melody. I look forward to following the growth of this multi-talented young musician.

Janinah Burnett, an experienced operatic soprano (who already wowed me years ago when she was in a student production of La boheme), has now brought out a CD containing some of her favorite songs and arias, performed in a largely jazz- and gospel-inspired manner, with seven backup musicians led by Tereon Gully. I found it refreshing to hear Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” (from Tosca) performed by these immensely inventive musicians, and enjoyed the extra intensity that Burnett’s flexible and wide-ranging operatic voice brought to the spiritual “Hold On” (“Keep your eyes on the prize”) and Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” (Further details here.) Here’s a video of the “Hold On” arrangement:

Third and last: guys of course can sing, too. They sing about a desired woman, or about a man they hate (maybe because he wants the same woman). They can even sing duets sometimes: duets of friendship or duets of enmity and conflict. In an amazing CD of duets and a few trios, two of today’s leading coloratura tenors, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres, sing in alternation and together, covering a wide range of emotions and styles.

The CD consists almost entirely of numbers from serious operas by Rossini, including La donna del lago (a work made famous again in recent years in productions and recordings featuring such major artists as Joyce DiDonato and Juan-Diego Flórez), Le siège de Corinthe, and Otello (which was written decades earlier than Verdi’s now-better-known work on the same subject). There’s also the comic conspiratorial duet for the barber Figaro and Count Almaviva from Rossini’s best-known opera, The Barber of Seville.

Brownlee and Spyres are both tenors, but very different in vocal quality. Though Spyres can soar high and peal off coloratura passages, his basic tone is rather dark, and, on the low end, he can sing comfortably some notes in baritone territory. Indeed, the role of Figaro, which Spyres takes in the Barber duet, is normally assigned to a baritone. Brownlee’s voice is lighter, and he handles coloratura even more astonishingly than Spyres, which is saying a lot.

They were typecast for these excerpts, most of which were written to feature two specific renowned tenors. One of those, Giovanni David, was lighter in voice; the other, Andrea Nozzari, fuller and deeper. Part of the fun lies in hearing the different ways in which Rossini wrote for each of the two singers, and also the different ways in which our two tenors approach musical lines, even or especially when they are given similar, rather than contrasting, material to sing.

Further fun comes in noticing whether, for example, Spyres will get to be the nasty guy in a given opera (as in La donna del lago) or a well-intentioned victim (as in Otello). The recording loosens things up by including an aria (for Brownlee) and three trios. In two duets and the three trios, assisting parts are taken by fine young singers Tara Erraught, mezzo, and Xabier Anduaga, yet another tenor, whom I described as “marvelously gifted” in my review of a somewhat later two-tenor opera, Donizetti’s Il castello di Kenilworth.

All three CDs remind us how expressive and impressive singing, piano playing, and musical artistry can be. Listening to all this wonderful music, whether familiar or novel, performed with such adroitness and imagination, I can momentarily feel privileged, despite all the frustrations of this Age of Covid.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).





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