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CD of the Week – Portuguese Love Songs

18th Century Portuguese Love Songs
Hyperion

Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that the last Lebrecht CD of the Week shot straight to the top of the UK charts. This week’s is designed for a more intimate purpose.

Described by an 18th century English traveller as ‘the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable,’ the music of the Portuguese ruling classes appeared to cross all mortal barriers. It is, wrote William Beckford, ‘the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and inspire profane deliriums.’ Do not say you have not been warned.

It offers two points of musical reference. The first is courtly Europe in the last years before the French Revolution. Some of the melodies could be passed off for very young Haydn or Rossini. Italian influence is pervasive and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, who lived in Lisbon for ten years, does not feel at all out of place.

But beneath the delicate bobs and bows surge the powerful motives of love and betrayal that one hears in modern Portuguese fado – the eternal yearning for love, allied to a weary recognition that it must fail. This expression of love’s futility is not cynical, as it might be in other cultures. On the contrary, love emerges all the stronger for its black-eyed realism.

The diversity of the music holds your attention from start to finish, whether it is a soprano serenade with guitar-led ensemble or a lonely harpsichord plucking away in the noonday sun. Impatient listeners should skip to the second track, where they will be assaulted by duet virtuosity of a feline, Rossinian felicity. Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seara are the stunning sopranos; Zak Ozmo directs L’Avventura London. This, wrote Beckford, is ‘an original sort of music, different from any I ever heard.’ Two centuries later, that estimate still holds true.

Three opera CD sets

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Decca

The American soprano Renee Fleming and the German conductor Christian Thielemann are unassailable in this sweetmeat opera. Franz Hawlata is the bullish Ochs, Diana Damrau the silky Sophie. My only cavil is the playing of the Munich Philharmonic at the Baden-Baden Festival, fifty calories less sweet than the Viennese.

Mozart: Don Giovanni
DG

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is the rampaging Don, Rolando Villazon the Ottavio, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato the two Donnas in another Baden-Baden production. Much of the singing is thrilling (DiDonati with added chill). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra offer slightly sterile accompaniment under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It may have worked better on stage than on record.

Smetana: The Bartered Bride
Harmonia Mundi

One of Mahler’s favourite operas has lost its foothold in the regular repertoire, perhaps due to its bucolic naivety. Jiri Behlolavek conducts an all-Czech cast – Dana Buresova outstanding as Marenka – in a London concert performance at the Barbican with the BBC orchestra and chorus. The sound is rather dry, but the enthusiasm is infectious. You’ll be whistling it for weeks.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.

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