Peaceful, serene, soothing … this is how this week’s honourable mention makes me feel when listening to it: “L’heure excuse” by Reynaldo Hahn, a Venezuelan composer and a prodigy child (he entered the Paris Conservatoire when he was ten years old), best known for his songs. Naturally, when it comes to a voice composition, you need a great voice to portray the beauty of the song, and Susan Graham does this superbly.
At number 3 we have the single orchestral work of this week’s favourites, namely “Echorus” by Philip Glass, a composer of “music with repetitive structures” (widely labelled as “minimalist music”), being the originator of this style. In his own words, “The music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace” (source), having been composed especially for two violinists: Edna Mitchell and Yehudi Menuhin. The score is for two solo violins and string orchestra, and while I’m not a big fan of the second violin melody, the first violin (which plays the main background theme) is the reason I have this piece in the top.
An opera comes strong at number 2. Not any opera, but the oldest one composed by a woman: Francesca Caccini, the highest paid musician at the Medici court in the 17th century. She was a prolific composer, having written music for at least sixteen staged works, although most it is now lost. “La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina” is the only one preserved. It’s a comic opera written in the style of Claudio Monteverdi, and what sets it apart is its unique association of flat keys for the feminine roles and shark keys for the masculine ones, and the absence of a castrato (a rare occurrence for that period). I like both Monteverdi and the renascent style, so naturally I enjoyed this work quite a lot. There are few recordings of this, but you can find these 2 versions of it on Spotify (1, 2).
And at number 1, Giacomo Puccini strikes again with another great aria, “Che gelida manina”, from his famous opera “La Boheme”. This one captures the moment when Rodolfo meets Mimi and tells her about his life as a penniless poet (I would advise you to go through at least one listening with the lyrics in front of you, translated here). Although “La Boheme” is one of the most beloved and popular operas of all times, that was not the case for me when I first listened to it. It took a modern reinterpretation, a movie version and a classic one to make me genuinely enjoy the opera, but that’s a story for another time. I had a tough time narrowing down what to include here, as this is one of the most performed aria in the operatic repertoire.
The first two were no brainers for me: a young Pavarotti performing this in Russia in back in 1964 and Giuseppe di Stefano. Two powerful, beautiful voices which for me are in a league above all others (when it comes to this aria at least), with an outstanding performance. Many people are particularly interested in how the singers execute the high C towards the end. Two words best describe the sequence for Pavarotti and di Stefano in these clips: effortless perfection. (check this for another top dominated by Di Stefano).
Next comes a set of three tenors with softer performances, not so powerful when it comes to the climax of the aria. However, their strength lies in their elegant voices and graceful portrayal of Rodolfo. In no particular order: Jussi Bjorling, Giuseppe Sabbatini and Vasile Moldoveanu.
A surprise for me, since this is the first I’ve heard of him, Marcelo Alvarez is a charming Rodolfo. His voice is beautiful, the dramatic elements are subtle, and the focus is all on emotions.
Lastly, the opposite of effortless when it comes to the high C is Roberto Alagna, who’s turning red in the face trying to further elongate the note. However, it’s worth listening to the rest of the aria simply for his awesome younger voice.
Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of all the works curated by Clemency Burton-Hill in the book “Year of Wonder: Classical music for every day”. To enjoy the full catalogue of pieces proposed by the author along with her comments on the composers and the music itself, feel free to pick up her awesome book here (not affiliated, nor sponsored).