Recent Recordings reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Ann Southam, Pond life, Centrediscs (CD 1318), 2009. Christina Petrowska Quilico, piano.

Ann Southam’s Pond Life is water music. There are four pieces of fast moving water music with titles like “Noisy River,” Commotion Creek,” and “Fidget Creek,” that Southam wrote for virtuoso pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico as a follow-up for the success of their earlier collaboration, Rivers. At the core of this album are 16 works that express the variety of life in still waters.

Intermittent groups of notes like rain drops that collect and fall from needles of pine branches into a pond ripple out sonic waves and fade into silence. The notes are like living beings that cluster and dissolve. One can hear in this music the teeming life on both sides of the water’s surface. Tiny fish dart and hang and dart again, bugs skitter on the shining water skin that breaks when fish lips pop through to swallow a fly. In some pieces, there is the sense of the kind of silent liveliness that appears in a single drop of water put under a microscope.  Miss Southam captures the textures of breezes and the flow of clouds across the waters, the sparkle of light and suffusion of shade.

She achieves an effect of lyrical introspection using minimalist methods that allow the mind to relax into a sense of familiarity with material. Petrowska Quilico’s sensitive touch and grasp of the shifting tempi and rhythms surely guide the listener’s ear through the subtle changes. This is Petrowska Quilico’s 18th CD as a soloist, most of them devoted to the works of living Canadian composers. Anyone interested in living music from this country, or anyone open to being guided by music along a spiritual journey will enjoy this album .

Maria Callas Vissi D’arte: The Puccini Love Songs. 2 CDs Emi Classics: 2 16102 2

When Callas sing Puccini, I hear Callas. Her voice is inescapable. If the tonal qualities of soprano voices are described in terms of precious metals, the richness of gold, the purity of silver, the instrument that Callas possessed is watered steel—the secret metal of edged weapons from Damascus, Toledo and the Katana makers of Japan. Like these weapons, prized for their preternatural  sharpness and polish. Ms. Callas’ voiced is also marked by the characteristic texture of watered steel, a faint wave-pattern  of alternating dark and light stripes that makes it unmistakable.

To honour the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, EMI is re-releasing the best of a collection of the great diva’s studio and live performance recordings: 24 arias on 2 Cds. The 11 studio arias from Manon Lescaut and La Bohème are roles she never actually performed on stage. The 5 Tosca arias are Callas in her best voice. These and the 5 arias from Turandot allow Callas to reveal the tensions coiled within her nature: fiery sensuality, the melting tenderness, the shrewish jealousy, the imperious iciness. Mimi’s death scene in Bohème is made all the more convincing for the shrillness that edges her voice; Callas’ innate sense of drama makes the suicide of Cio-Cio San in Butterfly a singular experience.

There is a softer, gentler, more seductive side to Puccini’s music that we miss here, and we also miss the roundness of stereo on this remastering of mono originals. Nonetheless, for dramatic truth that cuts like a knife through soppy notions of the feminine, the Puccini of Callas remains classic.

Puccini, La Bohème (Live from the Met), Gheorgiu/Vargas, DVD, 2008.

New York audiences have loved Franco Zeffirelli’s La Bohème at the Met for 28 years. Now EMI has put Puccini’s anthem to 20 something singles on DVD for everyone to enjoy. Audiences who followed Seinfeld, and Friends on TV will feel right at home with the romantic life of Puccini’s unmarried urbanites who are short of cash, long on hormones, a combination that puts loyal camaraderies in conflict with sexual disloyalties.

Behind the comfy television stereotypes are Puccini’s gritty ‘bohemian’ stereotypes that make the story even more trenchant because they embody the dreams of middle-class college students who, for a time, want to be starving artists freezing in a garret, loving and losing freely, celebrating life with temporary immunity from long-term consequences. La Bohème says it all about that stage of life as Zeffirelli’s earlier iconic success, Romeo and Juliet, says it all about an earlier stage of life, teenage lovers who live with their parents.

Puccini’s music comes right from the heart, is beautifully orchestrated, and follows the drama of common characters who express larger than life emotions in full lyric flow of melodies as affecting and memorable as any from popular musical theatre. Not surprising that Jonathan Larson borrowed characters, storyline and melodies from Puccini for his 1994 award winning musical, Rent. Puccini, like Charles Dickens, had that combination of common touch and dreams of the heart that bring audience pleasure to the fullness of tears.

The casting is ideal with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas in the principle roles. Both possess truly beautiful voices. Gheorghius’s voice has an opalescent, fragile timbre that conveys a hint of Mimi’s terminal lung disease. Vargas has a bright, lyric sound that lands lightly on the high C in “Che Gelida Manina”. Both artists display musical intelligence and an unmatched chemistry that shows in their acting. It is great to have a camera zoom in to catch the sincerity of emotion in their facial expressions, especially Mimi’s sexiness that ripples through every part of her body as she and Rodolfo prepare to leave for the first time the room in which they fell in love.

Every one of the principals is attractive, sings beautifully, acts well. The sets are monumental, the camera work exemplary, audio is great, and the bonus backstage moments hosted by Renee Fleming round out a recommended without reservation rating.

Kristy. My Romance. 12 tracks. Alma Records(ACD11082).

Kristy Cardinali sings straight. Her voice is clear, she stays within her range, and her phrasing is neat, though she could develop a bit more flow. She respects the songs she’s chosen, and her choices show excellent taste. Ms. Cardinali’s song list is 100% classic. At least four were recorded by Sinatra and Nat King Cole in the ‘50’s.  American Songbook authors include Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Burke and Van Heusen. Backing her are a cream dream team of Metro musicians: on piano, Robi Botos; on bass, Don Thompson; on flugelhorn, Guido Basso; on guitars, Kevin Breit, to name a few. This is a very listenable album and a solid basis for a promising career.

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