Che Puro Ciel: The Rise of Classical Opera

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COMPOSERS: Gluck; Mozart; Traetta; Hasse; JC Bach
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Che Puro Ciel
WORKS: Arias by Gluck, Mozart, Traetta, Hasse and JC Bach
PERFORMER: Bejun Mehta (countertenor); Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin; RIAS Kammerchor/Rene Jacobs
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902172

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In this album René Jacobs and Bejun Mehta unleash the primal energies buried in magnificent yet largely forgotten operas. As well as probing the work of Traetta, Hasse, Gluck, Johann Christian Bach and the youthful Mozart, they explode the accepted norms for Classical idioms. Rather than symmetry, the listener hears expansions and interruptions; instead of smooth surfaces, there are explosions of colour and clashing textures. So-called ‘Classical’ opera can be as messy and intriguing as the feelings it explores.

In Bach’s ‘Vo solcando un mar crudele’ from his setting of the era’s favourite libretto, Artaserse, the recitative is punctuated by string motifs that alternately reflect the singer’s torment and seek to calm him. Torment wins out, driving the strings and horn to paint buffeting waves which Mehta then rises above with his towering vocalism. More radical still is Traetta’s scene from Ifigenia in Tauride, in which a chorus of Furies pursues Orestes (Mehta) after he has murdered his mother. Into a slow, gentle counterpoint crashes the chorus, crying for vengeance as hunting horns signify that Orestes is at bay. His pleading causes the music to break; a groaned note in the double bass, mirroring his state, is overwhelmed by a drum roll and the implacable call of the chorus – communicated through deeply textured homophony – for his death. Jacobs’s abrupt tempo twists, the instrumentalists’ boldness and the chorus’s power make such ensemble sections as electrifying as Mehta’s solos. This is a daring and important retelling of the story of Classical opera.

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Berta Joncus