- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Need some last-minute stocking stuffers for the classical music fan in your house? Well, 2003 is your lucky year, particularly if that highbrow aficionado is into opera or choral music. We’re not talking the same old chestnuts, either. There’s some adventurous new stuff in the bins at Tower, Olsson’s, Borders, and Barnes & Noble as well as in the vast virtual library of Amazon.com.

Cecilia Bartoli

Cecilia Bartoli: The Salieri Album

Decca

At the top of our Christmas list is a surprising new disc by popular diva Cecilia Bartoli. Here’s a scintillating mezzo-soprano who easily could peddle Rossini’s or Mozart’s greatest hits and make a bundle. But her last time out the recording gate, she laid down an entire album of Vivaldi opera tracks. Vivaldi, an opera composer? Turns out he was, and quite a good one. Before you knew it, Miss Bartoli had a smash on her hands.

On “The Salieri Album,” she’s hitting unfamiliar territory again, with everyone’s favorite 18th-century composer, Antonio Salieri. Yep, that’s right, Mozart’s pal, Beethoven’s occasional teacher and legendary musical villain. Roundly dissed as a third-rate hack in “Amadeus” (the play and the film), Salieri was indeed no Mozart, but as Miss Bartoli delightfully proves, he was no hack, either. Her CD is chock-full of tricky, interesting and, yes, witty coloratura party pieces, all culled from popular Salieri operas that no one has ever heard of. Miss Bartoli herself retrieved some of them from manuscripts that have never been published. Few listeners will be familiar with any of the tracks on this disc, but most will enjoy every one of them. The extensive program notes inside the handsome packaging are an added bonus that provide welcome context. It’s a charming album and a great Christmas gift.

Vivica Genaux

Bel Canto Arias

Virgin Classics

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who sang the lead trouser role here in the Washington Opera’s production of Handel’s “Julio Caesare” a few seasons back, has a deeper, darker voice than Miss Bartoli’s, and the arias on her new CD, “Bel Canto Arias,” reflect that. Featuring slightly less-performed arias of Rossini and Donizetti, this album, too, highlights the patented breathtaking leaps and figures that make coloratura singing popular with opera buffs. It’s a nice collection by an underrated singer and will find a good home with discriminating opera fans.

Ben Heppner

Airs Francais

Deutsche Grammophon

For something completely different, how about a CD brimming with wild and woolly French operatic stuff you don’t often get to hear? Try on tenor Ben Heppner’s “Airs Francais” for size. Filled with bold, showy material from colorful romantics like edgy Hector Berlioz and once wildly popular Giacomo Meyerbeer, this is one rousing recording highlighting male singing at its showiest and most dramatic.

Included are tracks from Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”), “Benvenuto Cellini,” and “La Damnation de Faust” as well as selections from Massenet, Meyerbeer and Halevy. And just when you think you’ve had enough French heroics, Mr. Heppner wraps up this disc with Hector B’s over-the-top re-imagining of the “Marseillaise.” This stirring performance could wake the dead — and persuade even the staunchest Republican to head down to Sutton Place to pick up a wheel of brie and a slightly impertinent bottle of vintage Bordeaux. Mon Dieu.

Washington Chorus

Glorious Splendor

Gothic Records

For shoppers desiring something a bit more in the Christmas vein, one can’t do better than “Glorious Splendor,” a new CD recorded recently by the Washington Chorus in McLean’s acoustically sumptuous St. Luke’s Catholic Church. Featuring the National Brass and Percussion, soprano Laura Lewis and Paul Skevington on the organ and conducted by Robert Shafer, this disc features new arrangements of some old favorites but also highlights a number of truly inspired contemporary composers. (The only drawback to this recording is the engineers’ occasional bad habit of bringing the brass a little too far in front of the choir.)

The album’s most interesting tracks are John Gardner’s sprightly “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” “Of Love Begotten” by Catholic University’s Leo Nestor, and the pick hit of the whole CD, the “Magnificat” of young British-born organist and composer Nicholas White, who presides over the music program in New York’s St. Michael’s Church. Veering from Roman bombast to jazz to riffs on John Ritter, this is a joyously contemporary reflection on one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith as well as a terrific example of the recent revival in liturgical music.


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