CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 19

Tosca

Andrea Bocelli, Fiorenza Cedolins, Carlo Guelfi, Zubin Mehta, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Philips 473 710-2

Late last year we described Andrea Bocelli's Sentimento CD as "absolutely stunning" and Bocelli as likely to be "leading the angels in heaven in resplendent tenor solos" (Taipei Times, 29 November 2002).

Unfortunately his Tosca is a major disappointment.

This opera depends above all else on its fiery drama and this is totally lacking here. The entire venture here is presumably viewed as a vehicle for Bocelli, whose innumerable fans will ensure good profits for Universal Music. But this strategy involves three things -- employing a less than stellar soprano in the title role, keeping the orchestra for the most part in the background, and recording Bocelli at louder volume than everyone else.

All of these are serious shortcomings. Bocelli's voice is exciting enough for his role, but dramatic interaction, in this of all operas, is absolutely essential.

This you don't get. Trieste-born Fiorenza Cedolins has a pretty voice, but Tosca is a jealous tiger who kills in an attempt to save her lover, and Cedolins never gets near to portraying this. Critics have expressed surprise at her being cast in leading roles at New York's Metropolitan Opera recently, and it can only be assumed she was put alongside Bocelli for these CDs so that no one matched him vocally.

This is a woeful way to go about organizing an opera recording. Moreover Puccini's music, deemed vulgar by some, is saved by its delicate and original orchestration. Recording the orchestra at half-volume for the benefit of the lead tenor is thus a particularly inappropriate strategy. Carlo Guelfi (Scarpia) is no great voice either.

The best performance is turned in by Aldebrando D'Arcangelo in the tiny role of Angelotti. Most strangely of all, Bocelli too is disappointing. His voice sounds thin except on the high notes, and for some reason he can't summon, even for his two big arias, the lyrical joy he can so readily brings to solo concert items. In essence, this Tosca utterly lacks all fire and dramatic commitment. Mehta's conducting, too, lacks passion. Tension fails to build and pathos is non-existent. Even "Vissi d'arte" comes cold and out of the blue rather than as a result of intolerable pressure as it should.

In fact, this Tosca stumbles at all the great moments and is destined to be written off as a lame effort unable to begin to compete with the many established classic recordings.

The libretto is included on the "enhanced CD" second disc, but Philips have wisely also included a printed version (in Italian and English only).

These CDs have for some reason -- possibly their dubious quality -- been held back for two years since the 2001 recording sessions, just as Bocelli's "Boheme" (again conducted by Mehta and less than enthusiastically received) was released only in 2001 after being recorded in 1999.

Pletnev/Rostropovich

Mikhail Pletnev, piano, Russian National Orchestra, conductor: Mstislav Rostropovich

Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No:3 and Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No: 3,Deutsche Grammophon 471 576-2

The Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev was due to perform in Taiwan but the concert was canceled following the SARS outbreak. This CD was already prepared for release on the local market, however, so here it is in, as it were, its own right.

The performances are fine, especially of the Prokofiev, though for passion it doesn't equal that of Martha Argerich with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon's The Originals series (DGM 447 438-2). The Russian National Orchestra is something Pletnev himself formed and usually directs, and Rostropovich here appears as guest conductor.

Ilya Gringolts: Bach

Ilya Gringolts, violin Partitas Nos:1 and 3, Sonata No:2 Deutsche Grammophon 474 235-2

This CD, which will be available in Taiwan from July, features the 20-year-old Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts in three of Bach's six major works for solo violin, all Himalayas in the solo violin repertoire.

Its most noticeable feature is its exceptional audio quality, as if it's been recorded 2cm from the instrument itself. The result is not entirely pleasant, with a grating, almost snarling intensity characterizing much of the music.

Nonetheless, these are interpretations that grab you by the scruff of the neck and never let you go. This, in other words, is no lyrical, whimsical Bach. If Gringolts sees the music as Himalayan in terms of difficulty and contrapuntal daring, this is a performance of someone scaling a sheer cliff, hanging on by his ice-axe, and kicking away the stones as they shower down around him.

Gringolts comments in a note that the usual Russian way of playing Bach is essentially Romantic, and it sounds here as if the young instrumentalist is going out of his way to do everything in his power (which is considerable) to fly in the face of that tradition. Instead of sweetness we have angst, instead of harmony, an ear-splitting harshness. It's true this music is often cerebral and, for the violinist, very taxing.

Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her)

Original Sound Track of the film by Pedro Almodovar

Milan Music/ Warner Music Taiwan 5050466 3085 2 8

Pedro Almodovar is perhaps the world's greatest living filmmaker, and Talk to Her was a profoundly moving and intelligent movie. It remains unfortunate that European films are still routinely shown in Taiwan's cinemas without English subtitles, but I was still knocked over by this film without understanding a single word of the dialogue. DVD-watchers will have no such problems.

Most of the music in Talk to Her was composed by Alberto Iglesias. His work is hard to find, and many will buy the CD for this track alone. But they will find much else to please them.