Wednesday 5 February 2020

Monteverdi to Italian contemporary music by way of Cage, Berio & Glass: Highlands and Sea from Laura Catrani and Claudio Astronio

Highlands and Sea - Ulysses Arts - Laura Catrani, Claudio Astronio
Highlands & Sea - Monteverdi, Jean-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, Massimo Botter, Henry Purcell, John Cage, Antonio Vivaldi, Philip Glass, Alessandro Solbiati, Alessandro Stradella, Olli Mustonen, Emanuele Casale, Handel, Arvo Pärt; Laura Catrani, Claudio Astronio; Ulysses Arts
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Contemporary meets Baroque in this recital from Italian duo soprano Laura Catrani and harpsichordist/organist Claudio Astronio

Singers moving between the worlds of Baroque and contemporary music is surprisingly common, one thinks of a singer like Cathy Berberian performing music by John Cage, Luciano Berio (her ex-husband) and herself alongside music by Monteverdi. This new disc from Ulysses Arts, Highlands & Sea, is an encounter between contemporary and Baroque created by soprano Laura Catrani (best known for her performances of contemporary music) and harpsichordist Claudio Astronio (best known for his performances of Baroque repertoire). They have assembled a sequence of music by Monteverdi, Jean-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, Massimo Botter, Henry Purcell, John Cage, Antonio Vivaldi, Philip Glass, Alessandro Solbiati, Alessandro Stradella, Olli Mustonen, Emanuele Casale, Handel, and Arvo Pärt, which looks at how composers have reacted to the natural world and used it as a metaphor for human emotions.

We begin with Monteverdi, his canzonetta Ohime ch'io cado, ohime where the angular vocal line reflects the tumbling emotions. Laura Catrani has a bright, beautifully focused voice and the expressive accuracy needed for contemporary music certainly finds a place here. The engaging performance certainly captures you, though I would have liked her to make more of the words particularly as the CD booklet does not include them. What follows is a harpsichord piece by the 18th century French composer Royer (no, I hadn't heard of him before either). Le Vertigo is a vivid piece with a striking use of repeated chords, and Royer creates a surprisingly large-scale work.

We move to the 21st century next for Il mare antico (The Ancient Sea) by the Italian contemporary composer Massimo Botter. For unaccompanied voice, the piece uses a highly angular vocal line to create a sense of keening, verging at times on anger. Catrani is wonderfully adept at making the awkward intervals in the music sound profoundly expressive.

Henry Purcell's The Cold Song from his 1691 semi-opera King Arthur comes as something of a surprise, with Catrani being accompanied by Astronio on the organ [the recording was made in Bolzano at the Radio Kapelle of the Kloster Muri Gries but the booklet gives no clue about the organ used]. This is surprisingly effective, with Catrani venturing some creditable English, though text here is less important than the effects in the vocal line.

I have vivid memories of Cathy Berberian performing John Cage's James Joyce setting, The wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs accompanying herself. The accompaniment is not pitched but simply rhythmic tapping, and Cage's vocal line is surprisingly conventional but strikingly effective. Catrani's plangent voice gives the piece a timeless feel.

Vivaldi's aria 'Fra le procelle', sung by the title role in his 1719 opera Tito Manlio is the classic example of a High Baroque simile aria, the storm being sung about being a metaphor for the storm in the character's soul. This is quite a lively almost perky piece, but Catrani's performance is not quite bravura enough. Her passage-work is a touch on the careful side, as if she were unused to singing this type of repertoire.

Philip Glass' Mad Rush is a work for solo organ which juxtaposes a series of throbbing and undulating textures, at first to striking effect but at over 13 minutes long I am afraid the work rather outstayed its welcome.

'Terzo Haiku' (Third Haiku) from contemporary Italian composer Alessandro Solbiati's 2004 Otto canti was originally written for voice and cimbalom but is here performed with harpsichord accompaniment. We start with just voice, aetherial and angular, then just hints of harpsichord are added. Often the vocal line sounds as if Catrani is singing to herself, the voice and the harpsichord seem to operate entirely independently, to create a strikingly uneasy atmosphere.

Alessandro Stradella's oratorio Susanna was composed in 1681 for the Duke of Mantua, and in the aria 'Da chi spero aita, o cieli' we hear the heroine desperate because her beauty condemns her to die. Stradella reflects this in some striking chromaticisms in the vocal line over an accompaniment which is almost a ground bass. Catrani's performance here is lovely, expressive and plangent, the high vocal line clearly suits her.

Olli Mustonen's Sielulintu (Soul Bird) is a 2009 work for piano or harpsichord (the latter here). Tonal with spare arpeggiated textures, the work gradually develops in intensity and drama. And there are intriguing hints of neo-Baroque textures too. Emmanuele Casale's 1997 work for solo voice, Cielu Niuru, which seems to be about a woman mourning the death of her children, has an incantatory feel to it, with Casale's music moving between complex pitched passages and sprechgesang. Catrani's performance is superb, and she brings off the stabbing high notes brilliantly.

Handel's 'Crude furie degli orridi abissi' comes from his 1738 opera Xerxes and again we are in the world of the metaphor, the vocal line mirroring the mental alienation of Xerxes who asks for death. Catrani and Astronio bring a sense of vivid energy to the work, but again Catrani's runs sound a little over careful.

For the final work on the disc we return to the contemporary with Arvo Pärt's 2000 version of the Burns song, My Heart's in the Highlands, with Catrani and Astronio (on organ) creating something profoundly hypnotic (it lasts a whopping 7 minutes).

I am not quite certain about some of the linkages between the pieces, but in the absence of printed texts we must simply listen to the music and Catrani and Astronio have created a fascinating journey through shared emotions expressed with very different means. Both have set themselves a great challenge, none of the music on the disc is easy, and it is to both their credits that the resulting recital is both engaging and intriguing.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) - Ohime ch'io cado, ohime (1624)
Jean-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (1703-1755) - Le Vertigo (1746)
Massimo Botter (born 1965) - Il mare antico (2010)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - The Cold Song (King Arthur) (1691)
John Cage (1912-1992) - The wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - Fra le procelle del mar tubato (Tito Manlio) (1719)
Philip Glass (born 1937) - Mad Rush (1989)
Alessandro Solbiati (born 1956) - Terzo Haiku (Otto canti) (2004)
Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) - Da chi spero aita, o cieli (La Susanna) (1681)
Olli Mustonen (born 1967) - Sielulintu (2009)
Emmanuele Casale (born 1974) - Cielu niuru (1997)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Crude furie degli orridi abissi (Xerxes) (1738)
Arvo Part (born 1935) - My heart's in the Highlands (2000)
Laura Catrani (soprano)
Claudio Astronio (harpsichord/organ)
Recorded in Bolzano at the Radio Kapelle of the Kloster Muri Gries, 14-16 January 2019
Available from Amazon.

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