Thursday, July 18, 2019

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s New Album with ABS

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen on the cover of his new ABS album (from the Web page for this recording)

Those who follow this site regularly probably know by now that countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was the recipient of this year’s Jeffrey Thomas Award, named after the Artistic and Music Director of American Bach Soloists (ABS). He was introduced to ABS audiences this past December 31 at a special concert entitled A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera, a program of arias, duets, and overtures in which he was joined by soprano Mary Wilson. Since the beginning of this year, he has been featured on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House when San Francisco Ballet presented the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s latest ballet, “…two united in a single soul…,” in Herbst Theatre in the role of David when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale performed George Frideric Handel’s HWV 53 oratorio Saul, and again at the Opera House for the San Francisco Opera production of Handel’s HWV 31 opera Orlando.

Cohen will not give his first ABS Subscription Series performance until this coming January. However, at the beginning of this month, ABS released its latest recording, which features Cohen as soloist. As of this writing, is distributing this album only through digital download; but those who still prefer physical media can purchase the CD through a Web page created for ABS.

As might be expected, the content includes selections from Cohen’s New Year’s Eve performance. As was the case at that concert, the featured composers are (in order of appearance on the album) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel. Gluck is represented by only two arias, both on the New Year’s Eve program, the familiar “Che faró senza Euridice?” (what shall I do without Euridice) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the less well-known “Sperai vicino il lido” (I hoped that the harbor was close) from Demofoonte.

The major Vivaldi selection (which concludes the album) was not performed on New Year’s Eve. This is the most extended composition on the album, the RV 621 setting of the Stabat Mater hymn. Vivaldi is also represented by two opera overtures for, respectively, Farnace (RV 711) and La verità in cimento (truth in contention, RV 739). Finally, the album has four Handel opera arias, one of which, “Vivi tiranno, io t’ho scampato” (live tyrant, I escaped you) from HWV 19 Rodelinda, was performed on New Year’s Eve.

I made it a point to frame the content of this new album with my past concert experiences because I seldom have the opportunity to engage in such comparative listening. The fact is that Cohen has already cultivated a strong sense of stage presence, which, at the New Year’s Eve concert, held up just as well in his duet work with the more-experienced Wilson as it did in his solo performances. The recording, on the other hand, is “all about the music.” The good news is that Cohen’s solid and well-polished vocal qualities are as strong on recording as they have been on the stage. However, I would suggest that he still has a way to go before his “recorded presence” can capture rhetorical qualities as well as his physical appearance does.

There is, of course, a tendency to approach opera arias, particularly those preceding the Classical period, as static. The aria reflects the interior passions of the singer; and the “action” of the opera’s scenario is “put on hold” to allow those passions to reveal themselves. However, when the aria is performed out of context, the challenge is to convey some sense of the underlying dramatic qualities without requiring the listener to know all the details of that context. After listening to all of the selections on this album, I must confess that Cohen never quite disclosed rhetorical stances that would make listening a compelling experience, even when the rhetoric of the text was at its most blatant in the Stabat Mater setting.

Many, of course, may be content with this album, particularly as an introduction to the less familiar selections; but, personally, I had hoped for a more vigorous demand for my attention.

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