On the Record: Latest releases from Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja
You've all heard the lament of music lovers with an ear fixated on the past: "They just don't make 'em like that anymore."
The 'em in question might be pianists one day, conductors the next. But I'd bet that, most days, the moaner-groaner set is referring to singers.
People are forever carping about the dearth of good voices. From what I've read, this was true even during those periods of the past that are now widely considered worthy of a "golden age of singing" tag.
I get in on this game from time to time, especially after wallowing in historic recordings, which seem to prove conclusively that we have been going downhill for decades.
But then, lo and behold, reality gives me a slap, and things don't sound so dearth-y after all. Even though we will not hear the likes of (fill in the blanks with your own personal favorites of yesteryear) again, we'll do OK, because we've got some pretty gifted vocal artists right now.
Two of those artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja, have new (or relatively new) CDs out. I recommend both releases heartily, especially to those who think that quality tenor voices are as unlikely to find today as willing-to-compromise Tea Party members.
What I love first about Kaufmann and Calleja is that ...
they possess such individualistic voices; they don't sound like anyone else on the current scene. Kaufmann's baritonal timbre is especially distinctive. I can't even think of a tenor from the old days who had anything like his sound (you'll tell me if I've overlooked someone). Calleja's sound does remind me a little of past eras, because he has a fast vibrato that was not so unusual long ago, but it is quite uncommon now.
Even more important than how these two tenors produce tone, of course, is what they do with their vocal equipment in the service of music. And what they do can be awfully impressive.
Kaufmann's recording, "Verismo Arias" from Decca, is quite a knock-out. He generates equal levels of macho and poetic sensitivity in a hefty sampling of the repertoire that includes familiar and off-the-beaten-path fare.
Highlights include an enthralling account of an aria from Zandonai's "Giulietta e Romeo"; a full-throated "Vesti la giubba"; melting tones and exquisite phrasing in arias from "Mefistofele"; and a performance of the finale from "Andrea Chenier" with soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek that generates abundant vocal passion and genuine theatricality.
Time and again, the tenor does gorgeous things with dynamic nuance, softening the tone in ways that can be as thrilling as his all-out, super-verismo moments.
There's one non-opera track here, and it is a gem -- "Ombra di nube" by Licinio Refice. This haunting song, which Claudia Muzio recorded so wonderfully in the '30s, inspires some of Kaufmann's most luminous vocalism on the disc. It's the track I found myself returning to most often.
Throughout, the tenor is beautifully supported by conductor Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazioanale di Santa Cecilia.
Calleja's new recording, also from Decca, is called "The Maltese Tenor." Unlike "The Maltese Falcon," there's no confusion over what makes the product worth seeking.
There's something direct and disarming about this singer's approach. The timbre, as I said, has a great deal of character; there's something of sunlight in that vibrato. And Calleja can get to the heart of a text tellingly. He does consistently persuasive work here in a sampling of greatest hits from lyric tenordom. Occasionally, one may wish for just a little more personality, maybe a bit more oomph in spots, or extra lingering over a note. But the recording nonetheless exudes conviction and style.
A great example of the tenor's artistic instincts occurs in "Salut! demeure" from "Faust." Calleja takes the high note head-on, with a big, solid tone, but then tapers that sound beautifully to make a most elegant effect.
Calleja also passes my "Tosca" test handsomely. Tenors who rush and/or belt through the words "disciogliea dai veli" in "E lucevan le stelle" aren't fit to wipe Puccini's boots, IMHO. Calleja caresses that line very tenderly.
He's effective, too, in other Puccini items, as well as some Verdi pieces. Like Kaufmann, he includes the two gentle arias from "Mefistofele" and delivers both of them endearingly. The disc concludes with the gentle duet for Nadir and Leila in Act 2 of "The Pearl Fishers." Calleja is joined here by the very expressive soprano Aleksandra Kurzak; their performance ends with an especially delicious pianissimo.
Marco Armiliato efficiently conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in this attractive recording.