courtesy of Sony Music
Last Friday Sony Classical released its latest album featuring the Catalan soprano Nuria Rial. The title of the album is Vocalise, and all accompaniment is provided by eight cellists, who are members of the Sinfonieorchester Basel. Those musicians also frame Rial’s performances with a prelude, interlude, and postlude, all featuring a single composer.
My guess is that just about anyone with listening experience knows what to expect when you combine a soprano with eight cellists. These are the resources required to perform the fifth of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras compositions. This is a relatively short piece in two movements. The first movement is entitled “Aria” and is structured in ternary form. The middle portion is a setting of a text by Ruth V. Corrêa, while the outer sections are wordless (thus constituting a vocalise). The second movement is a vigorous “Dança,” setting a text by Manuel Bandeira in which the poet poses questions to a variety of birds, all of which reply only by singing.
Rial brings a finely polished reading to Villa-Lobos’ vocal lines. Indeed, if anything, she is a bit too polished for music that has a decidedly indigenous character. In both of the movements, it frequently sounds as if the cellists have mustered more Brazilian spirit than the soprano. However, this will probably not surprise those who know that Villa-Lobos was, himself, a cellist.
While the birds are only described in Bandeira’s text, they play a more active role, so to speak, later in the album with an account of the Catalan Christmas song and lullaby “El cant dels ocells.” Here in San Francisco cello fans have been exposed to two arrangements of this song, the first, played by Gautier Capuçon, arranged by Pablo Casals for solo cello and low strings, and the second, played by Steven Isserlis, by Sally Beamish for solo cello alone. On the Vocalise album we get to hear the words of the song delivered by Rial, accompanied by not only the Basel cellists but also tape recordings of the birds themselves, all in an arrangement prepared by Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos.
The album also includes the world premiere recording of an original Vivancos composition, which he dedicated to all nine of the performers. This is a “complete” vocalise piece in contrast to the first movement of the Villa-Lobos work at the beginning of this album. Ironically, he gave the work a punning title, which probably only works in English: “Vocal Ice.” He claims that the music was inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà carving, which would make punning feel a bit awkwardly out of place. Fortunately, anyone familiar with Michelangelo’s sculpture will appreciate the presence of the artist’s spirit in both the soprano line and the cello accompaniment.
To provide a context for these selections, the cellists perform the four Estaciones Porteñas, usually translated into English as “the four seasons of Buenos Aires,” by Astor Piazzolla. The album opens in the summer and concludes in the spring. Autumn and winter provide a “spacer” between Villa-Lobos and Vivancos.
Those who have heard this music in ensemble setting are most likely to have encountered the all-strings arrangement that Leonid Desyatnikov made for Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. Desyatnikov went for very raw sonorities, including some really scratchy work on the bridge; and then he threw in a few references to Antonio Vivaldi for good measure. The arrangement on this recording is by cellist James Barralet. It is far more polite, but it definitely keeps the cellists in check from trying to upstage Rial!