This month’s release highlights from the Naxos Music Group include Stefan Herheim’s staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors; Francesco Cavalli’s opera Il Xerse presented by the Orchestra Barocca Modo Antiquo under Federico Maria Sardelli; Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma presenting Giovanni Sgambati’s Piano Concerto in G minor, together with pianist Massimiliano Damerini; Vol. 4 in Johannes Brahm’s Complete Songs series presented by pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr, soprano Alina Wunderlin and tenor Kieran Carrel, and more. Klaus Heymann, founding chairman of Naxos, puts the spotlight on his personal picks.
First performed in 1951, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera specifically composed for television. Subsequent commercial audiovisual recordings of the work, however, are thin on the ground, so the release of this splendid new production will certainly chime with its seasonal popularity as a Christmas treat. It relates the magical story of Amahl, a disabled boy who befriends the Three Kings when they stop at his house on their journey to see the new-born Jesus. This is a recording of a new production by Stefan Herheim for Vienna’s Theater an der Wien; it’s sung in German with subtitles in German, English, Japanese and Korean. With musical direction in the hands of the widely experienced Norwegian conductor, Magnus Loddgard, Bachtrack gave a resounding thumbs-up to the performance: ‘There was magic aplenty in director Stefan Herheim’s bold recontextualization of the tale, magically and skilfully done ... Musically there is not a complaint to be had [and] the Wiener Symphoniker played beautifully … I certainly was not expecting to be brought to tears during a 50-minute children’s holiday opera.’
Also available on Blu-ray Video (NBD0175V)
Francesco Cavalli succeeded Monteverdi as the most influential opera composer in Venice during the mid-17th century. His Il Xerse is an example of commedia dell’arte theatre that creates an exotic world to inspire awe in its audiences, the whole enhanced by music that conveys an avalanche of emotions. This release is the audio version of the DVD recording released earlier this year on the Dynamic label (37983/57983) that represented the first performance in the new Bärenreiter critical edition of the work. Collectors should also note that there are very few alternative recordings that can compete with this production and its strong cast of singers, which is led by countertenor Carlo Vistoli (Xerse), who has worked closely with conductors such as William Christie and John Eliot Gardiner. Federico Maria Sardelli conducts his Modo Antiquo, one of the best early music ensembles on the international scene; both are making their debut appearance on the Naxos label with this release.
Giovanni Sgambati may be an unfamiliar name to many reading this newsletter, but he’s undoubtedly deserving of a wider audience. As a leading composer in the revival of Italian orchestral music during the late 19th century, Sgambati was both admired by Wagner and a favourite student of Liszt. He proved to be pivotal in emancipating Italy’s music from the dominance of bel canto opera, and this programme will serve as an excellent introduction for newcomers to his style and output. The main item is the Piano Concerto in G minor, a stirring and inventive work that signalled a new beginning for Italian piano music on the international stage. Our recording of Sgambati's Symphony No.1 (8.573007) featured the same conductor and orchestra as on this new release: ‘These performances by Francesco La Vecchia and the Symphony Orchestra of Rome are nothing short of magnificent and are guaranteed to stimulate the appetite of anyone who acquires this [disc] for more Sgambati. It’s urgently recommended to all.’ (Fanfare)
The programme on this fourth volume in our edition of Brahms’ Complete Songs features both the exuberance of the composer’s early output in the genre and the more melancholy mood of his later sets. The two singers are Alina Wunderlin (‘a wonderfully pure-voiced soprano’, Classical Explorer on Vol. 3, 8.574346) and tenor Kieran Carrel, whose ‘voice as clear and sweet as an Austrian Eiswein’ was noted by The Spectator at his Wigmore Hall recital with pianist András Schiff. While different singers are featured across the volumes, pianist and renowned Lieder accompanist Ulrich Eisenlohr is the constant thread: ‘Eisenlohr is a sympathetic and observant partner, rhythmically firm yet supple, with a natural feeling for Brahmsian rubato.’ (Gramophone on Vol. 1, 8.574268) The even better news is that Vol. 5 is following very shortly!