Mozart: Arias and Orchestral Music

Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Ola Rudner conductor
ABC Classics 476 5098
Reviewed by , June 8th, 2014

[This review compares two recordings by the Tasmanian Symphony: the Mozart: Arias and Orchestral Music and the recording Schubert: Symphony No. 8 ‘Unfinished’ and Incidental Music to Rosamunde — Selections,.]

These two recordings present a superb opportunity to examine the work of a single orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony, over almost a decade in its life and in the hands of two conductors of evidently quite different temperament. Mozart: Arias and Orchestral Works is a re-release of a much-lauded recording of 2003 (sessions from the year before), the Schubert a release of last year (sessions of 2009 and 2010).

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bass-baritone

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bass-baritone

The Mozart recording brings together three bass/baritone arias from each of Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, pairing them with the Minuet in C major (KV 409), the Six German Dances (KV 571) and the Adagio and Fugue in C minor (KV 546). Each of the brackets of arias presents the best known aria from each of four operas, with the exception of the rarely heard Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo, intended for Così fan tutte but removed by Mozart in the interests of obtaining proper balance at the end of the first act of the opera. In general, the choice of aria material is unobjectionable, although one is reminded by the case of Non siate ritrosi, which gives way abruptly to the trio of Guglielmo, Ferrando and Don Alfonso, that the musical sense of such a brief paragraph is actually revealed only by the whole context of the end of Act 1: excising it as an ‘aria’ for a recording makes little sense.

The task of recording a sequence of arias excerpted from operas in the manner of this recording must, frankly, be a thankless task, and it is one by which Rhodes is worsted. The Figaro and Don Giovanni brackets have him singing the music of characters of quite different mind set and, while the Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte brackets allow him to explore a single character at length, it is through the lens of that character at different moments in his development as a character. There is, however, no real attempt to engage with music, character or text in anything but the most cursory way — a Don Giovanni aria could stand in for a Leporello aria, a Count Almaviva aria, or a Papageno aria.

It would be churlish not to award bouquets where they are deserved: Rhodes’ is an attractive voice, unforced at the top and full enough at the bottom, possessed of a fine legato and excellent enunciation, particularly of Italian text. But it is — at least as far as this recording demonstrates — a voice of a single colour and lacking in penetrating insight into vocal characterisation.

The Tasmanian Symphony plays precisely but somewhat coldly in accompaniment, but shines in the delightfully eccentric Six German Dances, with their abrupt textural changes and wayward instrumentation. A regrettable inclusion is the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, Mozart’s own orchestration of what was partly originally a two-piano work. Even a brief acquaintance with the score reveals the rather leaden instrumental conception of this work, firmly trapped by its fascination with contrapuntal procedure, and scarcely ever taking flight from its obsession with a low, murky tessitura and dense, relieved texture. The orchestra rewards Mozart with a performance reminiscent of Stokowski.

[Here follows the review of the Schubert recording.]

Much more rewarding a listen is the more recent recording of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony (if that is what it is — there is some argument about exactly how unfinished it is), a work not lacking for competitors in recordings. The orchestra makes a compelling case for the symphony, with lucid, tightly-argued playing.

It’s been some time since I’ve been quite so struck by the sheer relentlessness of the first movement of this symphony, with its obsessive concentration on the first three scale degrees of B minor, and the way in which the mood of this movement looks straight back at the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The alternation of sun and storm in the second movement is finely judged, without histrionics. Indeed, this judiciousness is a real hallmark of the recording — everything is in its place, accents are just right, juxtapositions are played and not over played. Schubert’s conception speaks clearly from each passage.

After the symphony, the overture to Die Zauberharfe and three movements from the incidental music to Rosamunde seem pendantic, but it is somewhat surprising that the orchestra did not choose to record the entr’acte from Rosamunde that has been posited as the lost fourth movement of the symphony to round out what has been such an insightful account of it. All in all, this is a fine recording that speaks of a fine orchestra in highly capable hands.

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