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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Giacomo Meyerbeer was born in Berlin into a wealthy German-Jewish family. As a young man he visited Italy and wrote five operas in Rossinian style. He returned to Berlin where he held several important posts. It was however in Paris that he was most successful with his grand operas, the most famous of which was Les Huguenots. He also wrote songs throughout his life and the twenty-six examples recorded here cover a period of thirty-seven years, from the six Italian canzonette from 1810, when he was still a teenager, to Frühling im Versteck from 1847. A majority of them are from the late 1830s, which seem to have been his Lieder-years. Meyerbeer’s songs are relatively rare birds in the concert halls but there have been a number of recordings. Among them Anne Sofie von Otter, Thomas Hampson and mezzo-soprano Ning Liang can be mentioned. Further back in time Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded fourteen songs for Archiv Produktion. No fewer than nine of the songs on the present disc are world premiere recordings so this is a valuable addition to the catalogue. Naxos are certainly doing a lot to amend the recorded repertoire.

Sivan Rotem, born in Buenos Aires but trained in Haifa and Tel Aviv, is an accomplished singer—and beautiful! A couple of years ago, when I reviewed a mixed recital with her, a reader wrote to me: ‘I could buy the record just for her eyes!’ But that’s not her only attribute. She has a beautiful voice as well, slightly worn today but skilfully and expressively used. She has an accompanist that is among the most experienced pianists now before the public. Jonathan Zak was one of the founders of the world famous Yuval Trio which has toured the world for decades and recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, CBS and other premium labels. The accompaniments are not always very sophisticated but with the sensitive playing Zak bestows upon them they stand out as nobler than they are. The songs themselves are hardly on the level of Schubert, Schumann or Mendelssohn but they are melodious and attractive on a more modest plane. There is very often a sense of the opera house about them.

The poems, in Italian, French and German, are mostly by writers long since forgotten. Metastasius is the master behind the Sei canzonette italiano, there is a single Goethe text (Suleika), a single text by Wilhelm Müller (Der Garten des Herzens), and three Heine poems (trs. 18-20) of which two also appear in Schumann’sDichterliebe. Actually Meyerbeer set them a couple of years before Schumann but they can hardly be mentioned on the same day as Schumann’s. In their own right they are well worth hearing but don’t play Schumann directly afterwards. I did, which I regret.

Nella (tr. 17) is one of my favourites and Goethe obviously inspired Meyerbeer to such an extent that it is probably the gem of the whole collection. Also the Müller setting (tr. 24) is worth hearing, not least for the accompaniment with a fugue-inspired intro and interlude. This is followed by two further highlights and thus the recital ends on the highest possible level. Committed singing throughout, slightly marred by a vibrato that is wider than one ideally wants—but her beautiful eyes are the same as before!

David Shengold
Opera News, June 2011

Though immensely successful in his own era and indisputably influential on such greater opera masters as Verdi, Gounod, Wagner and Mussorgsky, Giacomo Meyerbeer is today like some largely sunken continent: we barely experience his peaks—surely Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849)—let alone the rest of his oeuvre. This Naxos CD, while hardly a vocal triumph, helps form a fuller picture of his overall output. It should prove interesting to major music libraries and also to singers searching for off-the-beaten-path recital repertory. The seventy-two-minute program includes songs in all three languages in which Meyerbeer wrote operas: in the order performed here, that yields eight in Italian, ten in French and nine in German. Nine cuts represent world-premiere recordings.

From 1810—when Meyerbeer was all of nineteen—comes a group of six canzone to Metastasian texts, musically full of pleasant but forgettable proto-bel canto tropes (think Cimarosa and Paisiello). “Le ricordanze” (1833) proves more like a Bellinian scena but is still pretty much a trifle. Some of the French pieces are good salon fare, but in light of Meyerbeer’s biography it’s interesting to hear 1834’s Old Testament-based romance biblique “Rachel a Napthali,” side by side with several Christian settings including an affecting 1837 “La Folle de St Joseph.” Meyerbeer must be one of few composers (before Jake Heggie) to set a text by a figure—Marguerite de Valois—whom he also set as an opera character. Meyerbeer experimented in various extant forms of the lied, some Goethe or Heine settings. The most delightful is the Gondolierlied “Mina,” with lyrics penned by the composer’s brother Michael Beer.

Argentine-born soprano Sivan Rotem’s career centers in Israel. Besides gigs with several major West Coast orchestras (including Los Angeles, San Diego and Vancouver), she jumped into Seattle Opera’s 1996 Traviata, returning later as Mozart’s Susanna. She and very solid pianist Jonathan Zak recorded this program in Jerusalem in 2009. In recording her, the engineers deployed a very resonant acoustic, as if to cushion us from the harsh, glaring quality of the voice at full tilt (which she takes some cautions to avoid). Rotem is obviously a highly trained musician, but she does not offer an attractive basic tone. She has a hooded timbre with—at full volume—the kind of dark, static-y edge that crept into Edda Moser’s late-career singing. What can be accomplished with phrasing, she accomplishes, and when not hard-pressed, she lightens dynamics and shows some agility. Linguistically she fares better and more expressively in French than in Italian or German, but her vocal production works against verbal clarity. Texts and English translations are downloadable from Naxos’s website as a nine-page PDF file.

James L. Zychowicz
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Known best for his operas, with, perhaps, only Les Huguenots (1836) universally familiar, Giacomo Meyerbeer remains an important figure in nineteenth-century music. His legacy includes works in other genres, including songs. Meyerbeer’s songs connect directly to his operas and this recent Naxos recording makes a generous and accessible selection composed songs throughout his career. They set texts in various languages, including, French, Italian, and German. This Naxos disc begins with Italian canzonas that offer a sense of the composer’s approach to the idiom, with expansive vocal lines supported most often by a discreet accompaniment that neither overwhelms nor competes with the voice. This is as found in “Il nascere e il fiorire d’una rosa,” a piece that stands apart from the set of Sei canzonette italiane (1810), also included in this recording. The latter set of six songs stands out as the product of the nineteen-year-old composer.

With the French songs, Meyerbeer touches upon salon music, as found in “La Ballade de la Reine Marguérite de Valois” (1829), a piece that also relates to his operatic efforts by giving voice to an historic figure. Some of the chansons tend toward nineteenth-century convention, as found in the vocal line of “Sur le balcon” (1845), which is nonetheless effective with its use of short, expressive motifs to convey the text, and occasional melismas that seem like cadenzas for the singer to build into the performance.

Of Meyerbeer’s Lieder, the accompaniments are sometimes predictable in the voicing and patterning. Even so, they offer some engaging melodies that make then stand well with other songs of the era. “Komm, du schönes Fischermädchen” (1837) resembles some of the Humoresken of Löwe and yet does not sound derivative, with its evocation of popular-sounding elements. “Mina” (1837), with its subtitle that associates the piece with the songs of Venetian gondoliers, contains some vocalism reminiscent of Meyerbeer’s operatic work.

In approaching this unexplored literature, Sivan Rotem is effective. Her voice fits the demands of the music, which can be challenging, both in terms of register and also declamation. As a performer, she succeeds in creating the various moods and styles involved in this selection of pieces. She works well with Jonathan Zak. He must similarly execute a variety of accompaniments that sometimes require moments of pianism which alternate with more perfunctory supporting passages. His ability to support the voice is evident in the result, which is a unified effort in this persuasive set of performances. Through their efforts, Rotem and Zak make a case for performing Meyerbeer’s songs more often. They are good pieces that offer not only insights into the composer’s legacy but also add to our knowledge of solo song in the first half of the nineteenth century.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

When compared with other composers of the time, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s eighteen operas were a modest attainment, though they were to completely change the style of French opera. He had been born into an immensely wealthy family in Berlin, and much of his early career was taken up as a prodigy pianist. He was later to create operatic spectacles never previously seen on the Paris stage, his operas being dramatic and often of substantial length. Much less is known of his song output, and though he used them to provide entertainment in the wealthy Paris houses, they were lieder rather than the fashionable ballades. That largely stemmed from the fact that the famous lieder composer, Carl Zeller, was among his mentors, and it was his influence that provided much inspiration for his vocal writing. Written through much of his life, they used Italian, German and French texts by famous poets including Thierry, Heine and Goethe. Unlike Schubert or Schumann, his piano writing was mostly in support of the voice and only seldom adding something of importance in shaping the song. That he was gifted in this genre is soon evident in the very likeable Sei canzonette italiane composed in 1810 when he was still only nineteen. In mood his songs moved between the joys of love to the pain of sin, many containing a religious flavour. Nine are here receiving their first showing on disc. They are sung by the Argentinean soprano, Sivan Rotem, now living in Israel and enjoying a career in the opera house and concert stage. It is a big voice that moves effortlessly around the songs and the language used, but seems mostly at home in Meyerbeer’s smooth French idiom. Her attentive partner, Jonathan Zak, was born in Israel and now divides his time between the concert platform and teaching in Tel-Aviv.

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