Royal Mezzo

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Barber,Berlioz,Britten,Ravel
LABELS: Cedille
ALBUM TITLE: Royal Mezzo
WORKS: Barber: Andromache’s Farewell; Berlioz: La mort de Cléopâtre;
Ravel: Shéhérazade; Britten: Phaedra
PERFORMER: Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano); Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar


The cantata form has remained popular with composers over the years, though increasingly less for prima donna display than for its potential for introspective psychodrama. Three composers here follow the classical model, occasionally to the point of near-pastiche; classical tragic heroines declaim their sorrows in sequences of recitative and arioso – often closely blended – enhanced and illustrated by the orchestral score. Sometimes all too effectively; Berlioz’s tormented sonorities notoriously cost him the Prix de Rome, although, as he pointed out, you’d expect torments in somebody dying of snakebite! Cleopatra foreshadows Dido in Les Troyens, particularly her death scene, and Dame Janet Baker’s searing recordings of both are rightly coupled by EMI; Jennifer Larmore lacks her unique capacity for suffering, but in this live recital her clearer diction and more natural French make a fine impression. She delivers Barber’s Andromache, rather forced in its discordant rhetoric, with appropriate passion. Since its premiere I’ve found Britten’s not dissimilar Phaedra striking but stiffly unfeminine; such a spitfire should be more passionately involving than this! Those who like it more will find Larmore a clearer, fiercer interpreter than Baker, but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is finer still. For me Larmore is best in the Ravel, more of a song-cycle than a cantata; the long line brings out some unsteadiness, but she and Carlos Kalmar catch the sensuous atmosphere quite seductively – without, though, eclipsing Frederica von Stade, Régine Crespin or, despite poor French, Janet Baker. Altogether this would be a first-rate concert evening, but doesn’t compete with the best on disc. Michael Scott Rohan