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Cherubini: Cantatas / Michael Alexander Willens, Cologne Academy

Cherubini / De Villoutreys / Koelner Akademie
Release Date: 01/28/2014 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777776   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Maïlys de VilloutreysNicolas BoulangerUrsula EttingerAndreas Karasiak
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHERUBINI Clytemnestre. 1 Circé. 2 Amphion 3. La Mort de Mirabeau: Trois chœurs 4 Michael Alexander Willens, cond; 1 Maïlys de Villoutreys (s); 2 Ursula Eittinger (a); 3 Andreas Karasiak (t); Read more class="SUPER12">4 Nicolas Boulanger (speaker); 4 François Eckert (speaker); Kölner Akademie CPO 777776-2 (65:50 Text and Translation)

Cherubini is so familiar to us as a composer of operas (and, lest we forget, a superb Requiem—the C-Minor—that Toscanini must be given credit for reviving in our lifetimes) that it may come as a bit of a shock to discover that he also wrote cantatas. Unlike his operas, some of which were trivial (like Ali Bana ) and some of which were groundbreaking (like Medée, Les deux journées, Lodoïska, and Gli Abencerragi ), his cantatas tend to be dramatic in the style of Gluck, much of whose work preceded his, allied to the cantata structure established by Handel and continued by Haydn. These multiple influences are especially notable in Clytemnestre, composed in 1794, whose text concerns Iphigenia’s impending wedding to Achilles. The tempestuous moods of her mother are reflected well in the ever-shifting melodic structure of the music and “stabbing” strings of the orchestra as well as the eventually “broken” melodic line of the singer. A great deal of drama is expected and extracted from the singer. De Villoutreys, who possesses a light, bright soprano, achieves these effects by means of vocal coloration and accent, occasionally draining the voice of vibrato but chiefly using vibrato as an expressive device in order to emphasize the text. Considering the basic lightness of her instrument, de Villoutreys’s performance is simply astonishing in its emotional and dramatic range, and the lean but expressive playing of the Cologne Academy orchestra makes for a tremendously interesting listening experience.


The composer’s Three Choruses, written as incidental music for a play by Pujoulx (an author of whom I know nothing) titled La Mort de Mirabeau, are allied to the French Revolution. Mirabeau, one of the leading figures of the Revolution, became President of the National Assembly in 1791 but died in April of that year—a demise so sudden, the notes tell us, that many suspected murder. Pujoulx’s play is as much a propaganda piece for the glorious revolutionaries of France as so many such works extolling Lenin were in the 20th century. The third chorus was, to me, the most fascinating musically and dramatically, particularly in its dramatic use of speakers who interrupt the musical flow, but they are all somewhat interesting. Once again Cherubini seems to be channeling Gluck in his musical construction, the music broken up stylistically between lyrical and strongly rhythmic passages, sometimes using portions of the chorus to play off one another. It is altogether remarkable.


Circé and Amphion were written for the Loge Olympique, Paris’s leading concert society, which presented Circé in 1789. Amphion, though written three years earlier (1786), was for some reason never performed. Circé is slightly less Gluckian than Clytemnestre, and the extraordinarily unusual contralto voice of Eittinger, which fits the music like a glove, has not only depth of tone but also an almost masculine sound. In nearly all of her low passages, Eittinger sounds like a male tenor; the fact that she sings with the voice almost entirely drained of vibrato adds to its fascination. I simply could not get over this voice; in several passages, she reminded me strongly of Ruby Helder, the female tenor who recorded in the early years of the 20th century. (One of the more interesting aspects of this recording is that de Villoutreys and Eittinger are also listed as members of the chorus when they are not singing their solo roles!)


Amphion, the notes say, was composed by Cherubini to introduce himself to the Parisian musical world. Perhaps ironically, the text was written by the same Mirabeau for whom Cherubini later wrote the choruses, and dwells on “the uncertainty of human existence” and ways in which these conditions “might be changed,” and unusually combines a solo tenor voice with chorus. All things being equal, I found this to be the most musically conventional and least dramatic piece on the CD, nicely written but, to my ears, lacking inspiration except in the recitative “Tout est possible aux Dieux,” and parts of “Du monde et du temps,” which sound like the style he would later use in Medée. Karasiak, however, has an outstanding light tenor voice with a good tight focus and pleasant timbre, and sings his music as well as can be expected.


All in all, then, a fascinating disc, one which discloses hitherto lesser-known music of this sometimes enigmatic composer.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

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CHERUBINI Clytemnestre. La Mort de Mirabeau : Three Choruses. Circé. Amphion Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Mailys de Villoutreys ( Clytemnestre ); Ursula Eittinger ( Circé ); Andreas Karasiak ( Amphion ); Kolner Akademie CPO 777 776-2 (65:50 Text and Translation)

The disc is titled Cherubini: Cantatas , but it also includes three choruses composed for a play by Jean-Baptiste Pujoulx mourning the death of Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de Mirabeau, an early hero of the French Revolution. These were current events: The play and the music were written in 1791, the year of his death. The choruses are a formal lamentation, a hopeful prayer, and a cry of grief (including spoken lines) at the moment of death. A contrapuntal finale hints at Cherubini’s great 1816 Requiem in C Minor.


The 1794 Clytemnestre , for solo soprano and strings, is Cherubini at his finest; it also echoes the troubled times in Paris, couched in classical myth. Two recitatives are each followed by an aria. In the first pair, Clytemnestre rejoices in her daughter Iphigenia’s marriage to Achilles; in the second, she learns that an oracle has decreed that Iphigenia must be sacrificed to the gods, and she rages in anger and grief. The vocal lines are sleek and beautiful; the dramatic arc leads to a wild climax: Clytemnestre pulls a knife and swears to follow her daughter into the grave. The only music I know that resembles this stunning work is Arriaga’s Agar , written some 30 years later. Clytemnestre demands a lyric soprano with an extraordinary range who can deliver a dramatic punch; it has found a spectacular one in Mailys de Villoutreys. The period strings have a lovely sweet-and-sour flavor.


Circé too is in a bad way; having been abandoned by her lover Ulysses, she is now contemplating death and raising hell in Hell, so that “Pluto himself trembles in his gloomy retreat.” The deep alto solo is supported by full chorus and a large orchestra (three trombones). Circé was written in the late 1780s; the young Cherubini was feeling his oats, already writing music that anticipated Beethoven. Contralto Ursula Ettinger is also excellent, albeit in a less sensational role than de Villoutreys’s Clytemnestre.


Amphion is an even earlier work, written by the 26-year-old composer to introduce himself to Paris. For reasons political as well musical, it was never performed (its text, by Mirabeau, is gently revolutionary, addressing the human condition and suggesting ways to improve it). The premiere was given by these forces in 2012, days before this recording. Cherubini reused the main theme—to far better effect—in his overture to Anacreon . The solo tenor is joined by chorus and full orchestra, this time with trumpets instead of trombones. Knowing Cherubini’s later music, one can hear him feeling his way, searching for his style. Amphion is longer than Clytemnestre and Circé put together, but not half as interesting as either—until an extended aria, “Du monde et du temps, débris inutiles,” gorgeously sung by tenor Andreas Karasiak, and a rousing final chorus.


CPO’s recorded sound is crystal clear, in a warm acoustic setting. All the elements of the music are ideally balanced. The booklet identifies every performer, with superscript notations which can be decoded to find out who sings or plays what. Full texts for these unknown works are printed in side-by-side French, German, and English. I hereby disclaim several promises for Want List 2014; nothing can keep this stunning, revelatory disc from an honored position thereon.

FANFARE: James H. North
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Works on This Recording

1.
Clytemnestre by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Maïlys de Villoutreys (Soprano)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
2.
Le mort de Mirabeau by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Nicolas Boulanger (Bass)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
3.
Circé by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Ursula Ettinger (Alto)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy
4.
Amphion by Luigi Cherubini
Performer:  Andreas Karasiak (Tenor)
Conductor:  Michael Alexander Willens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Academy

Sound Samples

Clytemnestre: Recitative: Aux lois d'Agamemnon
Clytemnestre: Air: Plein de la tendre impatience
Clytemnestre: Recitative: Cet hymen est l'objet de leurs voeux
Clytemnestre: Air: Mais si ma fureur est un crime
La mort de Mirabeau: Choeur I: Lent
La mort de Mirabeau: Choeur II: Andantino con moto
La mort de Mirabeau: Choeur III: Allegro
Circe: Introduction
Circe: Recitative: Sur un rocher desert
Circe: Air: Cruel auteur des troubles de mon ame
Circe: Recitative: C'est ainsi qu'en regrets sa douleur se declare
Circe: Interlude
Circe: Recitative: Sur un autel sanglant
Circe: Air: Inutiles efforts! Amante infortunee
Amphion: Ouverture
Amphion: Recitative: Peuple vous n'avez point d'asyles
Amphion: Chorus: D'une esperance vaine
Amphion: Recitative: Tout est possible aux Dieux
Amphion: Air: Dieu bienfaisant
Amphion: Air - Chorus: Du monde et du temps
Amphion: Dernier Chorus: A ce heros au dessus

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