Baltimore Sun, July 29, 2011
Tim Smith
On the Record: Latest releases from Jonas Kaufmann, (Joseph Calleja)

You've all heard the lament of music lovers with an ear fixated on the past: "They just don't make 'em like that anymore."

The 'em in question might be pianists one day, conductors the next. But I'd bet that, most days, the moaner-groaner set is referring to singers.

People are forever carping about the dearth of good voices. From what I've read, this was true even during those periods of the past that are now widely considered worthy of a "golden age of singing" tag.

I get in on this game from time to time, especially after wallowing in historic recordings, which seem to prove conclusively that we have been going downhill for decades.

But then, lo and behold, reality gives me a slap, and things don't sound so dearth-y after all. Even though we will not hear the likes of (fill in the blanks with your own personal favorites of yesteryear) again, we'll do OK, because we've got some pretty gifted vocal artists right now.

Two of those artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja, have new (or relatively new) CDs out. I recommend both releases heartily, especially to those who think that quality tenor voices are as unlikely to find today as willing-to-compromise Tea Party members.

What I love first about Kaufmann and Calleja is that ...

they possess such individualistic voices; they don't sound like anyone else on the current scene. Kaufmann's baritonal timbre is especially distinctive. I can't even think of a tenor from the old days who had anything like his sound (you'll tell me if I've overlooked someone). Calleja's sound does remind me a little of past eras, because he has a fast vibrato that was not so unusual long ago, but it is quite uncommon now.

Even more important than how these two tenors produce tone, of course, is what they do with their vocal equipment in the service of music. And what they do can be awfully impressive.

Kaufmann's recording, "Verismo Arias" from Decca, is quite a knock-out. He generates equal levels of macho and poetic sensitivity in a hefty sampling of the repertoire that includes familiar and off-the-beaten-path fare.

Highlights include an enthralling account of an aria from Zandonai's "Giulietta e Romeo"; a full-throated "Vesti la giubba"; melting tones and exquisite phrasing in arias from "Mefistofele"; and a performance of the finale from "Andrea Chenier" with soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek that generates abundant vocal passion and genuine theatricality.

Time and again, the tenor does gorgeous things with dynamic nuance, softening the tone in ways that can be as thrilling as his all-out, super-verismo moments.

There's one non-opera track here, and it is a gem -- "Ombra di nube" by Licinio Refice. This haunting song, which Claudia Muzio recorded so wonderfully in the '30s, inspires some of Kaufmann's most luminous vocalism on the disc. It's the track I found myself returning to most often.

Throughout, the tenor is beautifully supported by conductor Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazioanale di Santa Cecilia.


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