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Intersection: Jazz Meets Classical Song. Patrice Michaels, soprano; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Zach Brock, violin; Nicholas Photinos, cello. (Cedille CDR 90000 149; 43:58, 57:28)

Tibor Harsanyi: "Vocalise." Francis Poulenc: "Violon" (Fiancailles pour rire). Laurie Altman: Two Re-Imaginings: "Per la gloria d'adorarvi," "Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile." Gig Songs: "I Didn't Know What Time It Was/Where Or When," "Always," "While We're Young," "Come Rain or Come Shine." Nikolai Kapustin: "Prelude in Jazz Style," "Prelude, opus 53, no. 4," "Prelude, op. 53, no. 19." George Gershwin: "Liza." Duke Ellington: "Paris Blues." Lee Hoiby: "Insomnia" (Three Ages of Women). John Musto: "Penelope's Lament" (Penelope). Patrice Michaels: "Anita's Story." Nils Lindberg: "As You Are," "Shall I Compare Thee." Chuck Israels: "He's Gone Away," "Balm in Gilead," "Frankie and Johnny." Andres Beeuwsaert: "Sonora." Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Lamento no morro." Billy Strayhorn: Suite Strayhorn: "Chelsea Bridge," "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." Randall Bauer: Neighborhood Music: "Where Has He Gone," "Rossini's Got Nothin' On Us," "The Local Record Producer," "When I could Hear the Train Again."

Chicago-based Cedille Records is a nonprofit recording company that seems incapable of producing anything other than exemplary releases combining innovative concepts, intriguing repertoire, and outstanding performances. In a commercial classical landscape that seems to grow more barren and bleak by the day, one must be grateful that this company exists at all and that it does what it does so exceedingly well. But even by the sterling standards of Cedille Records, this most recent release is an exceptional triumph both for the label and for soprano Patrice Michaels. Her spectacular and diverse gifts have been showcased in a dozen different recordings, featuring everything from thundering arias by Salieri to exquisite delicacies by Boulanger. Amazingly, this newest release represents almost as much versatility in itself as do all of Ms. Michaels's previous recordings combined. Indeed, although Intersection is billed as a blending of classical music and jazz elements, it's just as much the intersection of the soprano's many and varied talents and interests.

That's just one of many intriguing points in Neil Tesser's superb program notes about this "eclectic but cohesive program" with its fusion of disparate musical elements and styles. Tesser quite rightly points out that these kind of blended programs, whether in live performance or recordings, are relatively rare and often unsuccessful ventures. He further asserts that the difficulty is not so much that the genres of jazz and classical music are themselves inherently incompatible, but rather that issues of awkwardness, misunderstanding, or even outright disrespect can so often emerge between musicians who come to such collaborations with their own priorities and perspectives, as well as their own distinct language. It is somewhat uncommon to find musicians who are confidently grounded in their own world, yet fully open to and appreciative of other musical genres that approach the matter of performance practice and style very differently. Another way to say it is that the problem is not so much the incompatibility of the music as much as of the musicians themselves.

That is most emphatically not the problem with the brilliant musicians who are collaborating here. In her lovely Personal Note which is included in the CD booklet, Ms. Michaels refers to pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, violinist Zach Brock, and cellist Nicholas Photinos as her "Dream Team," and thanks them for their "virtuosity, expressivity, and personal warmth which has encouraged and challenged me to further integrate my own forms of expression--so much that my range of vocal 'behaviors' turned out to be even broader than I initially intended." Listeners are served up a spectacular example of such musical daring in the opening track of the release, Tibor Harsanyi's "Vocalise." As the soprano first begins singing this playful piece, one hears a voice that is rich, warm, and clearly "classical" in its training and ever-so-slightly out of place, even if her sense of rhythm and style is perfect. It's lovely and fun, but one wonders if all the performances that are to follow will serve up a similar impression of a classical singer trying to make herself at home in another sphere. But in a matter of a few seconds, Ms. Michaels begins to break free of the constraints of a so-called classical sound and by the end she is joyously imitating trumpet growls and cup mutes with stunning dexterity. By the end of this remarkable gem from 1930, one realizes that the soprano and her collaborators have taken us on a carefully conceived journey across the divide between classical music and jazz, and in doing so have also set the stage for the spectacular program that follows. Incidentally, Tesser's liner notes indicate that Harsanyi's score for "Vocalise" includes scarcely more than the melodic line with no syllables or sound effects specified at all. The kaleidoscope of wild and wonderful sounds we hear from the soprano sprang from her own rich and daring imagination, which in turn underscores the friendly and even loving atmosphere in which these memorable collaborations took place.

There is nothing accidental whatsoever about the program that is presented here. As Neil Tesser's liner notes explain, "Michaels has organized Intersection with a keen attention to detail and balance." This includes not only the selection of the actual pieces, but also the way in which they are gathered into sets and balanced off one another. Certain pieces involve all four musicians, while others are performed by the soprano and pianist only. There are also four delectable piano preludes by Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin that are scattered throughout the two disks and serve as lovely interludes, especially when played as seductively as they are by Kuang-Hao Huang. Zach Brock is an astonishingly versatile violinist, and his work on this project is most impressive. One especially appreciates his soulful playing on Francis Poulenc's "Violon," a chanson that actually includes no violin part at all. The performance captured here expands the song to include a restatement of its main section with the soprano offering up a wordless vocalise that she improvised in tandem with the violinist. The effect is stunning while also staying true to the song's text and original intent.

It's difficult to single out specific high points in such a carefully conceived and superbly performed program, but mention must be made of Two Re-Imaginings by Laurie Altman, a composer born in 1944 who has helped blaze the trail for jazz and classical musicians to come together in exciting and revelatory collaborations. Ms. Michaels is quoted in the liner notes as calling Altman's approach in these songs as well as his Gig Songs as "the 'native tongue' of this project." In the first set, Altman takes two of the best known Italian ariettas of the eighteenth century, "Per la gloria" and "Danza, Danza," and radically recasts them within a jazz framework. In the case of the Bononcini song, the original melodic line is largely retained (albeit with some modest amendments), but laid atop a bed of unmistakably jazzy chords. When the singer reaches the first "si" in the text, she is off on a rhapsodic riff that really captures the joy of the original song, even if it's in a way that Bononcini might have found bewildering. "Danza, Danza" strays a bit more drastically from Durante's original song, particularly by adopting a rather muted and pensive approach, especially right off the bat. But almost every single familiar melodic line is here in one way or another, and the song becomes more and more beguiling as it proceeds from one intriguing surprise after another.

Altman's Gig Songs, unlike the Two Re-Imaginings, utilize the talents of all four musicians in sharply daring yet deeply affecting treatments of songs such as "Where or When" or "Come Rain or Come Shine." These songs also present Ms. Michaels with some of the sternest vocal challenges in the whole program, but she has the intelligence and technical solidity to surmount them with astonishing ease. The three jazz arrangements of three American songs by Chuck Israels, including the touching Appalachian ballad "He's Gone Away," are more straightforward in approach but no less touching or refreshing.

Space permits only the briefest mention of some of the other treasures here, including Randall Bauer's striking Neighborhood Music, Lee Hoiby's haunting "Insomnia," and an original song by the soprano, "Anitra's Story," that leaves us hungry for more. Perhaps the most beautiful singing of all is heard in two absolutely choice songs by Swedish composer Nils Lindberg. We're told that the soprano actually accompanied herself on the first of the two, which serves as yet another reminder of just how extraordinarily diverse are the talents of Patrice Michaels. May she have many more opportunities like this one to share those talents with the world.

Schubert: Winterreise. Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano. (Sony 3795652; 70:16)

Winterreise: "Gute Nacht," "Die Wetterfahne," "Gefrorne Tranen," Erstarrung," "Der Lindenbaum," "Wasserflut," "Auf dem Flusse," "Ruckblick," "Irrlicht," "Rast," "Fruhlingstraum," "Einsamkeit," "Die Post," "Der greise Kopf," "Die Krahe," "Letzte Hoffnung," "Im Dorfe," "Der sturmische Morgen," "Tauschung," "Der Wegweiser," "Das Wirtshaus," "Mut!" "Die Nebensonnen," "Der Leiermann."

Schubert's final song cycle is one of those masterpieces that both demands and reveals true excellence from those who would perform it. Winterreise requires a singer with an arresting instrument, pristine technique, and compelling expressivity to carry him through every step of this work's arduous journey. It demands every bit as much integrity and excellence from the pianist, who must be equal artistic partner rather than mere accompanist. The work is also a steep challenge for those who experience it from the presumed safety and comfort of the audience. If one is truly open to all it has to offer and appreciative of what it demands, hearing and seeing it performed can be one of the most harrowing and haunting experiences of one's life. Your writer was privileged to be in the audience for remarkable performances of Winterreise by Jon Vickers and Christa Ludwig. Both were exciting occasions for which there was an extraordinary sense of electricity in the air, but I did not begin to understand (at least at the time) what this journey was really about. It was only a decade later, with a heartfelt and eloquent performance of this same cycle by the editor-in-chief of this journal, that a generic sort of appreciation for a job well done gave way to a more profound sense of what is possible when great words and music are perfectly wed and then performed with care and sensitivity.

The recording at hand is actually the sixth Winterreise recording to be reviewed in this column over the last thirteen years, by far the most of any major work. Each of those six releases was revelatory in its own way, but no single recording, however superb, can be considered definitive. This work is simply too monumental in scope, requiring such a plethora of interpretive choices from the musicians courageous enough to confront it. There is something both intimidating and liberating about approaching Winterreise with that perspective. If no single performance of it can possibly be considered "the last word," then there is always something more to be said; there is always another revelation to be found in Schubert's astonishing music or Wilhelm Muller's powerful texts. It's one reason why an artist like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau could return to Winterreise again and again through the course his long career and always find something new, even after recording the work for the sixth time or performing it for the hundredth time.

It's unlikely that tenor Jonas Kaufmann will manage to explore this masterpiece nearly as often or as extensively as Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, given the tenor's understandable focus on what has become one of the most remarkable operatic careers in recent years. His virile good looks, theatrical passion, abiding intelligence, technical assuredness, exceptional musicality, and stunning vocal endowment have made Kaufmann perhaps the single most compelling operatic artist before the public today. The essential sound of his voice is utterly unique, although its dark resonance and ringing power is reminiscent of the legendary Jon Vickers. What is so extraordinary about Kaufmann is that his mastery extends from the exquisite Gallic lyricism of Gounod's Faust and Massenet's des Grieux from Manon to such thundering Wagnerian roles as Siegmund and Parsifal. The only tenor in recent memory who could even approach Kaufmann's versatility was Placido Domingo, but he achieved his renowned breadth of repertoire only over the course of a long and busy career, wisely shifting from higher lyric roles to lower dramatic ones as his voice changed correspondingly. Kaufmann is managing to demonstrate this kind of astonishing range and reach within the moment, so to speak. The result is the kind of operatic resume that has not been seen in more than a century, and one hopes that Kaufmann's overall and specifically vocal health will allow this exciting career to spin on for a long time to come.

With only so many hours in a day, a major artist like Kaufmann cannot possibly satisfy the needs and desires of the world's leading operatic impresarios (to say nothing of the opera public they serve) and still devote ample time and attention to the rich world of art song. Nevertheless, the tenor has carved out a fairly significant place in his professional life for song recitals, and his growing discography includes recordings of lieder by Richard Strauss as well as Schubert's other great song cycle, Die schone Mullerin. In both of those releases, Kaufmann convincingly demonstrates his wholeheartedly theatrical approach to lieder that closely mirrors what he does with his operatic roles. Consequently, one never senses that Kaufmann is skimming the surface, vocally or expressively, when singing art songs; there is every bit as much emotional investment and intensity as when he sings one of his signature roles such as Don Jose. With Winterreise, Kaufmann achieves this level of intensity to an even more remarkable degree, and this recording may very well go down in history as one of the most compelling ever made. Which is not to say that there is unanimous praise for this sort of approach. To some it may seem overblown or melodramatic, especially for those who are drawn to lieder singing as a study in subtle shadings. Kaufmann tends to work with bolder color combinations, but that does not mean that his choices are sloppy or unfounded.

The bleak and sorrowful world of Winterreise sometimes leads one to think of it as a world-weary journey by someone worn down by a lifetime's worth of defeats and disappointments. In fact, this is the story of a young man reeling from a shattered romantic relationship, in search of clarity and a reason to go on. Muller was in his late twenties when he penned these powerful poems, and Schubert was scarcely older than that when he set them to music in the waning weeks of his life. If one is mindful of the youth of the two men who created this work, then Kaufmann's rather vigorous and emotionally extroverted approach makes more sense than it otherwise might. It is also important to note that the tenor does not succumb to the trap of unleashing the full splendor of his instrument at every turn. If anything, he takes the matter of dynamic contrast almost farther than is necessary or appropriate, although one has to marvel at the ease with which he scales down this massive voice to a most delicate yet still resonant pianissimo. One of the most striking things about Kaufmann's voice is how the voice boasts dramatically contrasting timbres, from warm baritone richness in the lower and middle register to honey-colored brilliance on top. Yet almost miraculously, these colors fit together beautifully. They are not two separate voices fused together, but rather one voice boasting a contrasting yet coherent contrast of colors. And in a work as lengthy as this, that array of colors is something to appreciate and even cherish.

One matter that Kaufmann handles superbly, for the most part, is the challenge of delivering German text with vivid, aggressive energy in the consonants without going so far as to sabotage the integrity of the melodic line. The first song of the cycle, "Gute Nacht," demonstrates the tenor's consummate skill with this. The text spins out relentlessly and almost busily, and delivering it clearly yet with flowing ease is a challenge that Kaufmann beautifully surmounts. The surging turbulence of "Erstarrung" can sound clumsy, but the tenor rides each and with astonishing poise, which in turn allows him to soar to rather than snatch at the many high A-flats. The air of mystery and spookiness in "Irrlicht" poses a different interpretive challenge for the singer, and Kaufmann delivers this irregularly paced, highly descriptive text with a generous sense of theatricality. His dramatic gifts are also on impressive display in the sharply shifting moods of "Fruhlingstraum." In the hands of an overly anxious artist, this song can veer into the realm of melodrama; Kaufmann's performance is solidly grounded, yet incredibly intense and alive.

If there are any disappointments through the course of the cycle, it's in a couple of songs that call for sourness and bitterness. "Die Wetterfahne" should be one of the moments when we sense the full ferocity of this young man's sorrow, but Kaufmann seems to skirt past the emotional heart of the song without ever fully engaging it. Given his penchant for unbridled intensity, this performance is oddly muted and emotionally disengaged. So also is the tenor's treatment of "Die Krahe," although one cannot quarrel with the thrilling sounds he unleashes at the climactic phrase "Treue bis zum Grabe," which almost compensates for the rather tepid singing that preceded it. Perhaps these relatively isolated points are underwhelming only because so much of this performance is of the highest caliber.

A traversal of the cycle eventually brings us to "Der Wegweiser," the bleak sign post that points the young man to take the loneliest of roads, even as it signals the final descent of the cycle into deepening depths of sadness and resignation. This song and those that follow it must be sung with simplicity and eloquence so as to allow the stark beauty of Schubert's music to have its full impact. It may seem needlessly lavish to use terms like perfection here, but Kaufmann comes very close to achieving exactly that. To hear a voice of Wagnerian dimensions scaled back to a delicate and exquisite thread is breathtaking, in and of itself. Add Kaufmann's unfailing sensitivity to these texts and his masterful musicality and the result is some of the most haunting singing ever to be committed to disk.

Of course, not a moment of Kaufmann's breathtaking performance would be possible without the brilliant pianist who joins him for this harrowing journey. Helmut Deutsch has been playing for major singers for over a half century, and has been among the most heralded and respected teachers and clinicians of this generation. He has shared the recital stage with such legendary luminaries as Irmgard Seefried, Hermann Prey, Grace Bumbry and Hans Hotter, as well as such current stars as Diana Damrau, Bo Skovhus, and Anne Sofie von Otter. He and Jonas Kaufmann are close friends and colleagues who have collaborated in numerous recitals and in two previous recordings, but this latest effort surely marks the summit of their artistic partnership. Winterreise is an epic challenge for singer and pianist alike, and Deutsch is just the kind of highly responsive partner that an intense artist like Kaufmann needs in order to fully flourish. He also manages to dispatch the fierce challenges of a song like "Ruckblick" with the vigor and clarity of a pianist half his age. Equally impressive, however, is the care and understanding with which he plays the simpler songs of the cycle. One can scarcely imagine the accompaniment of "Der Lindenbaum" being played with more sense of poetic tenderness. And it is Deutsch's playing even more than Kaufmann's singing that leaves us completely transfixed by the sound of the hurdy-gurdy droning on in "Der Leiermann." It is thanks to him that one feels the cold of the wind, the hopelessness of the old man, and the weary resignation of the young man whose winter journey has become our own. It may be Kaufmann's voice we are following, but it is Deutsch's assured playing that truly leads the way.

Sony has included full texts and translations as well as excerpts from an engaging interview that Thomas Voigt conducted with both singer and pianist. Both speak warmly and perceptively of the experience of performing this remarkable cycle, which Kaufmann says "can have the same sort of cathartic effect as a Greek drama; the emotional experience purges the soul." It's also fascinating to read about the slightly different takes that Kaufmann and Deutsch have about how the cycle ends and what is likely to become of the young man in question. It's a reminder that the most fruitful and exciting artistic collaborations are those that allow for a rich and lively exchange of differing opinions.

One curious matter earns a mild complaint. The booklet makes brief mention of the fact that Kaufmann and Deutsch made some of their musical choices based upon what they found in the autograph score rather than the existing Urtext editions. A careful comparison of the recorded performance with the Peters edition in hand revealed no significant differences between them. There were, however, quite a few instances in which either stylistic markings in the published score were summarily ignored by Kaufmann and Deutsch, or stylistic gestures were employed (such as a dramatic adjustment in tempo) despite no such indication being in the score. One of the most dramatic instances is in the introduction to "Der Lindenbaum," where Deutsch seems to ignore pretty much all of the crescendo and diminuendo markings laid out in the score. His plainer approach has its own sort of charm, but we're still left wondering if the choice was his own or based on the aforementioned autograph score. It's a shame that some clarification couldn't have been given somewhere in the booklet, or (better yet) within the context of the interview with the artists, where they could have explained the matter quite thoroughly.

Aside from that modest complaint, this release emphatically takes his place alongside the most distinctive Winterreise recordings ever made. It also makes one hope that Jonas Kaufmann, for all his extravagant operatic gifts, will find a way to devote even more of his precious time and prodigious talents to the art song.
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Author:Berg, Gregory
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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