Tuesday 2 May 2023

Casta Diva: trumpeter Matilda Lloyd showing just what her instrument can do with elegant yet dazzling accounts of Italian bel canto arias

Casta Diva: Operatic arias arranged for trumpet - Mercadante, Bellini, Arban, Ricci, Rossini, Viardo, Donizetti; Matilda Lloyd, Britten Sinfonia, Rumon Gamba; Chandos Records
Casta Diva: Donizetti, Viardot, Arban, Rossini, Bellini; Matilda Lloyd, Britten Sinfonia Soloists; Wigmore Hall
   Reviewed 27 April 2023
Casta Diva: Operatic arias arranged for trumpet - Mercadante, Bellini, Arban, Ricci, Rossini, Viardo, Donizetti; Matilda Lloyd, Britten Sinfonia, Rumon Gamba; Chandos Records
   Record Review

An elegant sense of line and some nice bravura moments make trumpeter Matilda Lloyd's recasting of Italian bel canto arias a surprising delight

French cornet player, pedagogue and composer Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-1889) was the first virtuoso of the cornet à pistons. When the valved cornet developed using piston valves in Paris in the 1830s it gave players access to a full chromatic range and Arban, inspired by the example of violin virtuoso Paganini, demonstrated that the cornet could be a virtuoso instrument. His complete method was published in 1864. Trumpets were slower to adopt the modern valve technology, hence some mid-19th century orchestral works have parts for both trumpets and cornets. But now, Arban's method is regarded as the trumpeter's bible.

At the back of the book are 12 sets of variations on well-known melodies. One of these, Alban's Variations on Bellini's 'Norma' (Casta Diva), suggested to trumpeter Matilda Lloyd the idea of a disc of Italian bel canto operatic arias transcribed for trumpet. 

It is not that the trumpet and cornet were not in the opera house, but the technology available to the instruments in early 19th-century Italian opera houses was limited, the instruments' use was restricted. But outside the opera house, they were let loose in bands playing arrangements of popular operatic airs.

Matilda Lloyd has joined forces with arranger William Foster, the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Rumon Gamba to record a disc, Casta Diva: Operatic airs transcribed for trumpet on the Chandos label. This features transcriptions of arias from Mercadante's Zaira, Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda and I Capuleti e Montecchi, Rossini's Semiramide, and Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and Don Pasquale, plus Arban's Variations on a Cavatina from Bellini's 'Beatrice di Tenda' and Variations on Bellini's 'Norma' (Casta Diva), a tarantella by Luigi Ricci, two songs by Pauline Viardot and Rossini's Prelude, Theme and Variations.

To launch the album, Matilda Lloyd and the Britten Sinfonia Soloists (Hannah Perowne and Miranda Dale, violins, Daisy Speirs, viola, Caroline Dearnley, cello, Joseph Cowle, double bass, Tomos Xerri, harp) performed a selection from the album at Wigmore Hall on Thursday, 27 April 2023.

We heard the prelude to Act 2 of Donizetti's Don Pasquale (the only work in the programme where the trumpet played the original instrumental line), Pauline Viardot's Chanson de la pluie from Le Dernier Sorcier and Havanaise, Arban's Norma variations, Rossini's Sonata a quattro No. 1 in G (played by the Britten Sinfonia Soloists alone), Juliet's aria Oh! quante volte from Bellini's I Capuleti e Montecchi, and Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti's Don Pasquale. They ended with Rossini's Prelude, Theme and Variations originally written in 1830 for horn and piano, Rossini paying homage to his horn-playing father, with Lloyd playing William Foster's transcription for flugelhorn.

The result was completely delightful. In Arban's Norma variations, Lloyd showed her technical dazzle as Arban wrote showy variations on the cabaletta (the slower Casta Diva melody was left alone). But more than that, she has a lovely elegant, stylish sense of line. Playing the melody lines with flexible phrasing and a lovely even tone that is bright but a world away from the military trumpet. In the arias, she gave some stylish ornamentation, particularly notable in her elegant account of Juliet's aria from Bellini's opera.

The same is true of the disc, where Lloyd is supported by the full forces of the Britten Sinfonia (strings, woodwind, horns, harp but no brass). I enjoyed the fact that on the disc, the repertoire is far from obvious, with two arias from Mercadante's opera Zaira (from 1831), an early work that reused the libretto from Bellini's failed opera of the same name, Arsace's Act One cavatina from Rossini's Semiramide, the Tarantella from Luigi Ricci's La festa di piedigrotta (1852) and of course the two Viardot items including the song from her operetta Le Dernier Sorcier, premiered in 1867 with a libretto by Turgenev.

The disc is a surprising delight, notably because of Lloyd's elegant sense of line combined with the necessary bravura dazzle in the showier moment. This is transcription at its best, preserving the original yet transmuting it into something new. Rumon Gamba and the Britten Sinfonia provide fine support.

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