Caterina Mancini, a true ‘Voce Verdiana’

Have you ever heard of Catarina Mancini (10 November 1924 – 21 January 2011)? This soprano, born at Genzano di Roma had the true ’voce Verdiana’: she combined a beautiful height and pure coloratura with a drama that even La Divina might have envied her for.


Never heard of her? Then it’s time to make up for the damage, because I promise you a voice out of thousands. And this is exactly how her Leonora sounds in the recording from 1951 Rome (Warner Fonit 2564661890). Extraordinary.

Her Manrico was sung by the very heroic sounding (then already nearly 60 years old) Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and a very charismatic Carlo Tagliabue sang the role of di Luna. Miriam Pirazzini (Azucena) completed the cast and the whole was very impressively conducted  by Fernando Previtali.

Here are Mancini, Lauri-Volpi and Tagliabue in the trio of the first act:

Highlights on Spotify:

Mancini sings “Santo di patria… Da te questo m’è concesso” from Attila by Verdi:

Mancini made her debut in 1948 in Florence, as Giselda in I Lombardi. In 1950, she appeared in Bologna and Venice, in Norma and made her at La Scala in Milan, in Lucrezia Borgia, in 1951. Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini are not lacking in her repertoire.

The Italian label Cetra has recorded a lot with her; difficult to obtain, but so very worthwhile to look for! At her best I find her as Lida in La Battaglia di Legnano by Verdi. Below a fragment of it:

Andrea Chenier with Caterina Mancini, recorded live in Dublin 1957:

Mancini’s career lasted only a short time. People talked about health problems, but what really happened? The fact is that the soprano, born in 1924, stopped working as early as 1960. Although her name can still be found in 1963, as contralto (!) at the concert in memory of Kennedy.

Chamber works by Paul Ben-Haim


Slowly, much too slowly and actually much too late, but the music world is waking up.
One gap after another is finally being filled and the (consciously or unconsciously) ‘forgotten’ composers are at long last coming to our CD players.

Paul Ben-Haim's Evocation: what a discovery | Basia con fuoco
Paul Ben-Haim

Who among you has ever heard of Paul Ben-Haim? If not, why not?
The composer was born as Paul Frankenburger in Munich in 1897 and died in Tel Aviv almost 90 years later. And he left behind a really spectacular oeuvre.

Many vocal works, orchestral pieces, chamber music…. What not, actually?
Most of his works are influenced and inspired by Jewish, Israeli and Arab melodies, so you may call his music “nationalistic”. Nothing wrong with that word.

Just take the opening of his 1941 clarinet quintet! The dancing clarinet part reminds one of swinging klezmer, but in a Brahmsian way.

The ARC Ensemble perform the opening movement of Paul Ben-Haim’s Clarinet Quintet at the Enav Center, Tel Aviv:

This is even more pronounced in his “Two Landscapes” for viola and piano, in which he sings the praises of his new homeland’s beauty.

Steven Dann and Dianne Werner prepare to record The Landscapes for viola and piano:

The “Improvisation and Dance”, dedicated to Zino Francescati, betrays influences from Yemeni folklore and only his oldest work on the CD, the Piano Quartet from 1920, does not yet have its own “face”.

The (very infectious playing!) members of the Canadian ARC Ensemble all work at the Glenn Gould Conservatory in daily life. A CD to cherish.

Paul Ben-Haim
Clarinet Quintet, Two Lanscapes, Canzonetta, Improvisation and Dance,
Piano Quartet
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 10769

Sly by Wolf-Ferrari: have your handkerchief ready!

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-atribuut; de bestandsnaam is sly.jpg

The operas of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) are still rarely performed. We do not even need to guess at the reason. That it is not because of the quality, is proven by the recording of Sly ovvero La leggenda del dormiente risvegliato (Sly or the legend of the awakened sleeper), released in 2001 on Koch Schwann.

The tragicomic story tells us about a poor poet who, blind drunk, is brought to the palace of the Count of Westmoreland to be made a fool of. He is dressed up in expensive clothes and, as soon as he comes to, he is led to believe that he is the earl and that he has just recovered from a long illness. The Count’s lover Dolly pretends to be his wife but gradually falls in love with him.

“No, io non sono un buffone” (No, I am not a fool) he sings at the end and cuts his wrists with a broken bottle. His beloved Dolly, like Charlotte in Werther, arrives too late. The music is a cross between opera buffa, surrealism and mainly verism, although one should not forget the Wagnerian influences.

There was already a recording of the opera in German (Accanta) with Deborah Polaski, and the Italian original was eagerly awaited. This recording was made live in Barcelona. The lead role is sung by José Carreras, who celebrated his 30th anniversary with it. He is a very moving Sly. His voice sounds very fragile and his performance leaves you in tears.

Sherill Milnes once again proves his reputation as the interpreter of villainous roles, but the greatest praise goes to the Zairean soprano Isabelle Kabatu. Her voice is a little reminiscent of Leontyne Price’s: velvety and slightly shrouded.

Rita Streich: Queen of the coloraturas


High coloratura soprano is one of the most admired voice types. It’s only logical, because what these ladies do falls a bit into the category of “nightingale on a trapeze”. Sometimes it really is a bit like a circus; there are those ladies who have made it their profession to perform tricks, forgetting that their high notes should also be music.

Not so Rita Streich, for me the very best and most beautiful coloratura soprano ever. Of course, her voice is light as a feather and her embellishments impeccable, but in contrast to many of her colleagues, her repertoire is actually unlimited: opera, operetta, songs, oratorios…

She is not equally good at everything. I find her Schubert a little too light-hearted, so that much of the text is lost. But in the opera genre she is much more in her element. I am referring, of course, to her unearthly Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte, Mozart) and to her other showpiece: Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos, Strauss).

Streich sings the role of Zerbinetta in such a superior way that you do not even notice its virtuosity; it sounds so natural. Just listen to her performance of  ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’. Where many of her colleagues in that aria remind you of someone juggling notes, Streich manages to add the most important element: feeling. Note also the warm glow of her singing, which does not lose its lustre even at the highest notes.


Have you ever heard her performance of the Moon Song from Dvořak’s Rusalka? As volatile and elusive as sea foam, but filled with the desires of an adolescent girl in love:

I find Streich at her very best in light songs by Saint-Saëns, Delibes and Eva Dell’Acqua, among others. With the light golden sheen to her voice, she reminds me of an old-fashioned porcelain dancer.

Below, as an example, is ‘The Nightingale’ by Alabiev. She sings it in perfect Russian, a language that she, as a Russian-born daughter of a Russian mother and a German father, has mastered well.

Various composers
Rita Streich
Königin der Koloratur: Das Beste aus Oper und Konzert
The Intense Media 600

Feinberg: to appreciate this music, a little  effort is needed

Samuïl  Feinberg. Who still knows him? Once a world-famous piano virtuoso, he was the first in the USSR to perform Bach’s complete ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’. As a composer he was also quite famous in his time and that despite the travel ban.

In total, Feinberg wrote twelve piano sonatas, all composed between 1915 and 1923. And all of them were performed and published at that time. With one exception: the third. The composer himself prevented its publication. Why? According to Nicolo-Alexander Figowy (himself a pianist and a Feinberg expert, who provided us with all the important insider information in the accompanying textbook) Feinberg thought his composition went a bit too far. He thought the world was not yet ready for it.

Personally, I do not find his third sonata less approachable than the other five. None of them are easy pieces that you can just absorb;  they all require the listener to pay some very concentrated attention.

And you need a really good performer to make that happen. I can think of no better ‘guide’ than the Canadian master pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who is one of the greatest advocates of unknown repertoire, forgotten works and their creators. His playing is unequalled in its grandeur. It is not easy music, you really have to make an effort, but the effort pays off.

Polish or not Polish: this CD is a must

No, there is no such thing as a ‘Polish violin’. British violinist Jennifer Pike plays a Guarneri del Gesù from 1733 and there is nothing Polish about it. But the four composers on her album are Polish. At least as far as nationality is concerned, because their works, apart from Wieniawski’s Polonaise de concert (who was Jewish, nota bene) are not ‘Polish’.

Not that it matters. A CD has to sell and a catchy title is always a bonus. But if not only the repertoire but also the performance is truly phenomenal, I will not complain.

For anyone who loves violin concerts, Henryk Wieniawski is a well-known name, although these days he is not being performed very often. Szymanowski, after years of silence and ridicule, has become one of the most played composers today. His Myths, for me one of his most beautiful compositions, is also appearing more and more often in recitals. And even the arrangement of Roxane’s song from Król Roger has been recorded before.

Moritz Moszkowski is probably still known here and there for his piano concerto, but you just never hear Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Why? Who knows? This composer, who was born in December 1876 and died in February 1909 (he was caught in an avalanche during a skiing trip in the high Tatra mountains), left behind a large oeuvre of brilliant works: symphonies, concertos, chamber music and irresistible songs. So it is a pity that the duo Jennifer Pike and Petr Limonov have only recorded one piece by Karlowicz. Especially since they have an audible affinity with it. Something for the future?

But anyway: this CD is a must for all violin, chamber music or just music lovers. Everything about it is beautiful. Really everything. Pike’s phrasing is sensual, even almost erotic , which  fits the music like a glove. Petr Limonov is her best ‘partner in crime’ and together they provide a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. Don’t miss this CD!

Szymanowski, Moszkowski, Karlowicz, Wieniawski
Jennifer Pike (violin), Petr Limonov (piano)
Chandos CHAN  20082

Petit bourgeois verismo recognisably displayed in Zazà


Leoncavallo is often seen as a one-day-wonder: after his opera debut with I Pagliacci, he did not achieve any lasting success. And because of the content of that one-acter, Leoncavallo is of course easily dismissed as a verismo composer.

In his La Bohème from 1897, there is still some verismo, but Zazà, with which the composer was successful for a while after its premiere in 1900, is no more than a small middle-class drama. Albeit with a singer as instigator which makes it a bit bohemian and thus we are already moving towards the harsh reality of life. In 2020, the work was on the programme of Theater an der Wien and a DVD recording was made of it, with Svetlana Aksenova in the title role.

In the end, nothing terrible happens in Zazà, nobody dies and the main character does not succumb to heartbreak, at least on stage. She is the star of a small musical theatre in Saint Etienne and has set her sights set on Milio, an unremarkable businessman who likes to hang around the dressing room to get a flavour of the artistic life. Milio is not looking for an affair which only makes him more attractive to Zazà. During a scene in which she is alone with him for the first time, she sets off an assault in which she literally climbs the man.

The delightful Svetlana Aksenova shows a completely different side here than I was used to seeing. In Amsterdam, she played some modest sweet girls like Fevronja, Lisa and Elisabeth, but here she is a tigress on the warpath. She acts so naturally and moves so easily that it is fun to watch. Seductress and comedienne all in one and of course, in the meantime, she just keeps on singing.

Milio manages to prolong his presence in Saint Etienne for six months during which he has a stormy affair with Zazà. But he must return to his family in Paris and then emigrate to America. When Zazà is tipped off by her former lover and colleague Cascart that Milio is married, she hurries to Paris to try and disprove the story. Or to confirm it, but then of course with the expectation to hear that he has for a long time wanted to get rid of his wife and that he only loves her, Zazà. But, alas, things turn out differently.

She manages to get hold of the address and pays a visit, just as Milio’s wife is taking her husband to the station for a final business trip to Saint Etienne. But their daughter Totò is at home and by talking to her, Zazà realises that she is in the process of upsetting a happy marriage.

Nevertheless, on her return she tries to make Milio choose her after all, but when she announces that she has spoken to his wife and child and told them everything, Milio goes crazy. Zazà knows enough, her great love has chosen for his family, it is over. In a real verismo opera, this last scene would, of course, be accompanied by the necessary violence, with one of the two stabbing the other. But here we are dealing with bourgeois verismo and thus the drama is limited to distress and grief. It is quite exciting, by the way, and it is very intense.

The stage setting is simple, a few scantily furnished rooms on a revolving stage, that are supposed to represent the dressing room, the love nest and the living room of Milio’s Parisian flat. The costuming is fairly contemporary and Zazà in particular is given a series of beautiful dresses which, of course, always have to be taken off with the help of a man. She wants to be the centre of attention, as a singer on stage and as a woman behind the scenes. Lack of attention from her mother has scarred this fatherless girl for life.

Aksenova is on stage singing for about 100 minutes, an absolute marathon that she seems to be able to complete with ease. Not showing a trace of fatigue from beginning to end, she is in excellent voice and gives a wonderful interpretation of the title heroine.

Nikolai Schukoff has considerably less to sing as Milio, but he certainly makes his mark on the scenes in which he is present. His aria at the beginning of the third act is moving: ‘O mio piccolo tavolo….Mai più, Zazà’.

Christopher Maltman attracts attention with his interpretation of Cascart, beautifully acted and beautifully sung. For a moment, he is on stage together with Zazà when the audience asks for ‘The Kiss’ as an encore. It is a playful scene with a different musical idiom, sounding something like Léhar. In the rest of the opera, with some imagination, we can hear short fragments of Pagliacci and musical lines reminiscent of Leoncavallo’s Bohème. It is all very pleasant but the music does not stick.

This recording is not one of a forgotten masterpiece but rather it is a curiosity and as such highly recommended. And if not because of Leoncavallo, then definitely because of Aksenova’s interpretation!

My ‘old friend’ Stefan Soltesz is the musical director. I have sat in the audience countless times in Antwerp and Essen when he was conducting there. I always held him in high esteem and it is a pleasure to hear him again.

Photo’s © Monica Rittershaus

Interview with Svetlana Aksenova from 2016

A century of songwriting, like an EU avant la lettre

In part four of what is to become ‘A Century of Song Art 1810-1910’, divided into decades, we find songs composed between 1840 and 1850. The fact that the best singers of the present day are involved, makes this project one of the best publications of recent years in this field.

The programme is very varied and knows no borders or genres, and the emotions alternate rapidly. Sweden, Russia, France, Germany and Italy stand brotherly side by side, a kind of EU avant la lettre in which each country retains its individual characteristics.

This very exciting and surprising ‘journey’ starts in 1840, which means that we begin with Liederkreis op. 24 by Schumann. The bittersweet cycle based on Heine’s poems is still one of the most beautiful and best composed in the art of song.

The performance by Florian Boesch is exactly what I expected. Less lyrical perhaps than many of his fellow singers, but with so much empathy that it hurts. In his interpretation you can hear the bitter and the sweet: it hurts but it is also poetic and therefore very impressive.

Anush Hovhannisyan and Alexey Gusev enchant us with the songs that Dargomyzsky wrote for his students, and Ida Eveline Ränzlöv is convincing in Lindblad’s light and trivial songs.

Malcolm Martineau, to whom we owe the project, has for years been one of the best singer-pianists in the world. He effortlessly conveys the various emotions and it is undoubtedly to his credit that the publication is extremely captivating from the first to the last note.

All texts are printed in the original language and in English translation, and the introduction by Professor Susan Youens is very interesting to read. Buy the CD and be surprised!

Decades. A Century of Song volume 4
Liederen van Schumann, Dargomyzsky, Donizetti, Franck, Geijer, Josephson, Lindblad, Mendelssohn
Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano), Ida Eveline Ränzlöv (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor); Oliver Johnston (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), Alexey Gusev (baritone), Samuel Hasselhorn (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano); Vivat 119

part 2:

My love-hate relationship with Fidelio by Beethoven


I have a love-hate relationship with ‘Fidelio’. On the one hand, I think it is a whole lot of rubbish, but on the other hand, I love the overture. And the quartet in the first act – a heavenly piece of music, if performed well.

Harnoncourt (Teldec 4509-94560-2)

Fidelio Harnoncourt cd

I particularly like the recording Nikolaus Harnoncourt made in 1995 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Charlotte Margiono is a fantastic Leonore and Peter Seiffert (Florestan) sounds like a young god. Also the young (yes, make no mistake! Don Ferrando is young!) Bo Skovhus sings the noble minister in a very natural way. Sergei Leiferkus (Don Pizarro) is also much more at home here than in Verdi’s operas.

I become a little sad when I see the names of László Polgár (Rocco) and Deon van der Walt (Jaquino) again: Polgár, a much beloved singer (not only in Amsterdam), died suddenly in September 2010. And Deon van der Walt was shot dead by his own father in November 2005 (who says life is not like opera?). The orchestra is very transparent and wonderfully light-hearted, something I enjoy very much.

Barenboim (Teldec 3984-25249-2)

fidelio barenboim

Now you may say: Fidelio light-hearted? I want thunder and lightning! In that case, your choice should be Daniel Barenboim. Here, not only is the orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin) of almost Wagnerian proportions, so are the singers: Waltraud Meier (Leonore), Plácido Domingo (Florestan), Falk Struckman (Don Pizarrro), René Pape (Rocco), Kwangchul Youn (Don Fernando).
On the other hand the roles of Jaquino (Werner Güra) and Marzelline (Soile Isokoski) are wonderfully lyrical (although more heavily cast than usual). The tempi are solid but never punishing, and Barenboim conducts with verve.

Elder (GFOCD 004-06)

Fidelio Eldet

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the 2006 performance, recorded live in Glyndebourne for the Festival’s own label. Anja Kampe made her enthusiastically received debut there as Leonore. And rightly so. Rarely, if ever, has this role been sung with such beautiful lyricism and such fragility, making Leonore even more deserving of our respect for her heroic actions. In the spoken dialogues, moreover, Kampe shows herself to be an outstanding actress.

I am not a big fan of Torsten Kerl (Florestan), but the way he sings his great aria is outstanding. Lisa Milne (Marzelline) has stolen my heart with her lovely soprano and the rest of the cast is also fantastic. Mark Elder conducts the beautifully playing London Philharmonic Orchestra with great intensity.
It is a great pity that the production has not appeared on DVD, because all the reviews praised Deborah Warner’s direction. But even without seeing it, there is still a lot to enjoy.

The packaging is also very attractive: the two CDs are enclosed in a kind of booklet with a hard cover, with, besides the libretto, many rehearsal and performance photographs.

Harnoncourt (Arthouse 107111)

Fidelio kaufmann

On DVD the choice is also quite large and out of necessity I will limit myself to two recordings.

Already in 2004 (!) Jonas Kaufmann sang Florestan, in Zurich, conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt. The conductor has changed his vision audibly and the orchestra sounds heavier than on Teldec. He conducts with a firm hand and starts very quickly, only to calm down afterwards. I find it all too measured, too tight … At least it is for me.

Jürgen Flimm directed the film and he gives us, for him, rather realistic images, sometimes maybe even ‘too’ realistic. A fun fact: Flimm also directed and supervised the dialogues for the 1994 Teldec recording.

Lászlo Pólgár is a wonderful Rocco. I doubt if he is a perfect match for the role (physically then), especially with a (very weak) Elisabeth Magnus as his daughter, but just to be able to see that man again!

Camilla Nylund is a rather unemotional Leonore, but Kaufmann is an irresistible Florestan.

Haitink (Opus Arte BD OA7040)

Fidelio Haitink

Again in Zurich, but four years later in 2008, a new production of ‘Fidelio’ (they apparently love it there) was presented. The orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich is conducted very affectionately by Bernard Haitink, but then again – he has pretty much identified himself with Beethoven’s works.

He has also really thought about it: he finds the ideas behind the music much stronger than any political labels. He doesn’t care about updating, because the music itself is translucent, transparent and warm.

Harking back to the Mahlerian tradition, he puts “Leonore III” in the second act. However, he is a bit on the slow side.

Katharina Thalbach’s direction and Ezzio Tofolutti’s furnishings are very realistic, which is in line with Haitink’s ideas, but the costumes are a bit of everything. The dialogues are somewhat abbreviated, which I do not really consider a lack.

Lucio Gallo is a misfit for me. He portrays Don Pizzaro as an Italian mafia boss, but as the sort you’ll only see in the cinema. It is  all very exaggerated and his voice does not have the right timbre for the role.

Alfred Muff is better suited as Rocco than as Pizzaro four years earlier, but he too has had his day. Melanie Diener (Leonore) sings very adequately, and I have little to say about her acting, but she is not at all convincing as a man!

Robberto Saccà  is a great Florestan. More lyrical than we are used to, but I do not mind that at all. And although he does not look gaunt, his fantastic acting skills are enough to suggest his great suffering. I have also come to appreciate this singer more and more.

Valentina Levko: Star of the Bolshoi


How is it possible that I have never heard of Valentina Levko before? How could a singer of her calibre remain so unknown? Now that I have listened to the CD box set of her recordings, released by Brilliant Classics, I can only shake my head. Such beauty!

No matter who I asked, nobody had ever heard of Valentina Levko (1926). If it weren’t for the recordings, YouTube videos and reviews, you would almost doubt whether she even existed at all. Fortunately, there is now a CD box; 11 CDs packed into one simple box.

As a Russian, Levko was mainly cast in the Russian standard repertoire at the Bolshoi Theatre. But she had so much more to offer! At her ‘own’ concerts, she sang the entire ‘world literature’ of music: operas, but also songs, old music, folk music and popular songs. And all that usually in the original language.

“I prefer to sing Bach”, she is reported to have said. And Bach is certainly not lacking here: her “Erbarme dich” is accompanied by Mark Lubotsky on the violin in an unprecedented way. Old-fashioned? Yes, it is. So what?

She was an opera singer and that can really be heard, especially in a very heavy Schubert. But it has its merits, because even nostalgia is not what it used to be.

She is at her best as Dalila and Carmen, but the Spanish songs also suit her well. However, what struck me most was “O Mensch, gib acht”, from Mahler’s third symphony, in Russian. It was recorded in 1961, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

Levko as Dalila:

But that this mezzo was and is a Russian, is beyond dispute. Seven of the eleven CDs therefore contain the Russian repertoire: Russian opera arias, songs by Tchaikowski and twentieth-century Russian songs. You should not take the latter too literally; because, except for Prokofiev, the songs almost all sound like ordinary Russian songs. Very melodious, with a (for those who understand the lyrics) high “Soviet content”. I myself have nothing against it, I just like them.

Her way of singing is very subdued and she lacks the ugly breast tones that mar many a Slavic mezzo. Her interpretations are subdued, graceful and very moving. At times, she even reminds me of Fiorenza Cossotto.

As Mistress Quickly:

She is also irresistible in Russian folk songs. It is amazing how she  shakes off her classical training here and in all simplicity manages to move us. She sings the old romance “The Old Lemon Tree”, as the Russians say, “dusjostjipatjelno”, soul-searching – it will bring tears to your eyes.

In addition to studio recordings, there are also live recordings, e.g. from DRA (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv). Among them is a cycle by Sviridov that I do not know, to the texts of Avetik Isaakyan, it is fascinating.

Valentina Levko sings Lyubasha’s aria from act II of “Tsar’s Bride” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov

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I also find the way she performs Marfa’s aria from Khovavnshchina by Mussorgsky incredibly beautiful. Very visionary and the threat is palpable. The sound is a little dull and poor, but you will soon forget that, thanks to the phenominally playing Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Kurt Masur. Marfa’s Prophecy’ was recorded in 1976, together with Ratmir’s aria from Ruslan and Ludmilla (Glinka).

Marfa: studio recording from 1974:

I am going to cherish this box as a great treasure.