Saturday, December 31, 2011

Music and Feeling it: Patricia Petibon's Melancolia

  When one thinks of Spanish music, the mind is instantly overrun with a variety of textures, thoughts, and words to describe the flair and tradition of Spanish music. What makes music identifiable as Spanish, French Italian, or anything else? In the case of the music from the Iberian peninsula or inspired by that genre, it is filled with passion. We feel intense amounts of emotion when we perform this music, but it is a rare, extraordinary discovery to feel these rapturous feelings when we hear this music, and I am pleased to announce that soprano Patricia Petibon delivers this often neglected aspect with her various interpretations. Her new release from last November 2011 is titled Melancolia, and she is joined by the Orquestra Nacional de Espana under the baton of conductor Josep Pons.

  I think of Spanish music as more exotic than most western music I hear, and I imagine that my association with the mysterious parts of life that we as humans label as unknown and all at once beckoning to us comes from the influences that helped to shape this form of music as we see it in its current state of evolution today. In precisely the same context as Spanish cuisine, art, and architecture have been influenced by the Moors of northern Africa, their music was not immune to such an injection of ideas from their southern neighbors and enemies. Until the time of the Renaissance and the Crusades, music in Europe was written for a cappella arrangements. However, after the Crusades, soldiers returned to their native lands with stringed instruments which were precursors to the lute and the guitar, two prominent makers of music in Spain.

  In the flow of years that came afterward to Europe, a new variety of music exploded on the continent. Spain, being the gateway into the east from the west, attracted some of the most diverse styles in music. In those early days of music's largest achievement in Europe, I cannot think that there must have been much difference or variation between the music of Europe and the music of the Easterners, for the former was in it's infancy, but it has developed into what we have today from those humble beginnings. As we consider Spanish music, we conjure thoughts of spice, warmth, and emotion. It is with the final category that soprano Petibon has sought to identify herself with this release, but she endeavors to open our senses to the area of <i>melancolia</i>, the melancholy, that inhabits much of the musical language of Spain.

  For much of this refreshing album, she achieves her goal. The repertoire she has chosen might easily be classified as mere Spanish art songs, which does not adequately describe the material for my want of precise categorization of the work. To settle for that summation alone, one would be guilty of an inferior classification for a grouping of songs that display many unique qualities that make each of them memorable. In the album's booklet, which is published in four different languages for the benefit of an international audience, Petibon informs how she approached the material to include on this disc.

  "I spent a long time thinking about the programme for this disc, creating a mixture of music, and finally I settled on one unifying idea: the feeling of melancholy, which is a reflection of Spain itself," she says. "The disc is a journey through different styles, but through folk music as well, which has a strong presence on the disc. The theatrical element is very important, too, and at the centre is the character of Salud in Falla's La vida breve. She embodies the melancholy of the title,  the loss of hope. Melancholy is a balance in life, a sadness that binds us to death. Salud represents the darkest side of melancholy that tends toward tragedy. But this sort of melancholy can also depict the radiance of childhood, of joy and laughter. What I wanted to explore through this disc was the journey between these two poles."

  Indeed, as she iterates, melancholy can be used to illustrate a current situation, or the feeling may serve to recall a time of illumination when life was more enjoyable or simpler to our minds. I think the selection that best illustrates the latter definition of melancholy on this disc is Heitor Villa-Lobos' famous Aria (Cantilena).  It has often been recorded by many a popular music artist, Hayley Westenra being a more recent notable one, but Petibon breathes new life into this song. No longer is it simply a progression of notes in her voice's ample range; with her interpretative gifts that I admire so much, she transforms this otherwise common piece that might otherwise suffer from too much exposure at the hands of others into a mournful ballad in which one can find a reference to a time of previous joy that was known. One of the distinct qualities of her voice that I find almost unique to her is her ability to take a piece of music and to convey any sort of emotion in it. I like it best when she throws caution and what many musicologists and musicians might call rigid structure to the wind and sings with an almost reckless abandon. It is then that she shines tremendously, for she places the music and herself in such a vulnerable state. In those instances when she feels the music demands it, she lets every typical convention depart, and she simply lets the music and its sentiments carry her with them. It is a brilliant device, and I wish more singers would take these sorts of urgent chances.

  Our first glimpse of this bold, delicious flavoring from her voice comes from the melodies of Joaquin Nin y Castellanos. In El Vito's musical orchestration and the intuitive flair with which she creates her phrases, we catch a promising view of the folk elements of this disc. While it is certainly not a cause for operatic purists to lament, for Petibon does not fully remove herself from her instinct as a classical vocalist quite yet, as the piece progresses through the solo interlude of the guitar, and the percussion is added, the soprano allows the music to envelop her voice, and we gleefully notice that the ingredients of a truly scintillating performance are evident. The dance that the title indicates slowly forms beyond our broad expectation for such a title devoid of any real description, and the colors we hope to find in the experience of listening to this song initiate their definitions of themselves to our attentions. She never truly loses her classical style here, but we are given a pleasant preview of what is to come in later tracks.

Petibon addresses this facet of the recording in the booklet accompanying the release. She says, "...In terms of sound, I was just as keen to find different vocal colours as instrumental ones. I didn't want to use an operatic voice all the time - sometimes you must forget your training to be able to return to the roots and use your instinct as an interpreter. [...]" She certainly accomplishes this goal admirably on this release, and Spanish music lends itself quite well to this endeavor. Cantares, which is composed by Joaquin Turina, reveals more clearly these intentions and takes the reckless abandon that we hope to find to an almost complete culmination in Petibon's exclamations of "Ay!" They are produced with little attention to classical training beyond the necessary support from the abdominal area of the body, and they contain the desired effect of sufficiently pulling us into the music. Even if a listener does not comprehend the Spanish lyrics, it is impossible to be ignorant of the fact that this is an exuberant, rousing, joyous song. Indeed, if you heard this song without any context from the album, you might be tempted to wonder how it deals with the theme of melancholy. The subject of the song is dealing with the sadness that comes from leaving a happy relationship.

  For all of this disc's merit, which is considerable and quite a nice departure from the standard classical vocal fare, there are two tracks that immediately dampen the tone of the album for my liking. Xavier Montsalvatage's two contributions to the music both sound like pieces from the Romantic era, and one could well mistake the Cancion de cuna for a composition by a contemporary of Puccini's. The Canto negra that is featured in this programme shows some of his predilection for the avant-garde in music at the time, but it generally sounds like it comes from the middle of the previous century, which is not a particularly innovative time in music. Much of it sounds very similar to everything else, and most of the composers outside of Germany and England seemed content to refrain from much experimentation in their creations. These two selections almost seem out of place on this album; indeed, one might expect to find them from a Spanish film of the lately aforementioned period.

  For my review of this disc, I have elected to save one of the most exciting elements of this project for the latter portion of my excursion into the musical landscape of this territory. The final four tracks on the release are a world premiere recording of four songs written for Patricia Petibon. New commissions of music do not usually capture my adoration, nor am I altogether certain that this one shall do so entirely, but composer Nicolas Bacri gives Petibon a cycle of songs entitled Melodias de la melancolia. These songs begin with A la mar. It deals with a person who goes to the sea to sing her sad song so that she does not have to endure the tears that would otherwise reveal themselves if she were forced to confront her sadness alone. Petibon does not allow the opportunity for dramatic or emotional effect to pass her with this inception that is shrouded in mystery. Her voice perfectly connotes the unknown cause of sadness that plagues the protagonist of this episode, and we are left to only imagine what misfortune has befallen this woman. The chords that are formed by the orchestra produce an eerie, anxious atmosphere that only serves to heighten our agitation for this character. What is to become of her? Will this be the final time she visits the sea because she decides that she may find more comfort in allowing it to swallow her than to return to her existence? We are left to ponder this as the agony is slightly revealed in the vocal line.

  The second song is called Silencio mi nino. In this lyrical episode, a mother implores her child to sleep and forget the wrongs of the day as the night visits them. She assures her son that she will not leave him and that she will comfort him in his sorrow. The swells in the orchestra paint a scene of a peaceful night beginning to show itself to the world and help to urge the child to do as his mother bids him and go to sleep.

  Musically, the third piece takes quite a departure from our previous two. The score here sounds much more agitated and discontent than it has previously done, which is the perfect pairing for the text it ushers. In this piece, which has quite a high sustained range that Petibon delivers exquisitely, the narrator expresses disappointment and perhaps even disdain for love. It is clear that love has become a meaningless part of life that is bereft of happiness. This song seems to adopt a true melancholy for its driving force, for sadness is not an appropriate attribution of what this person is feeling.

  The final piece of music is entitled simply Solo, and it is a lonely expression of what qualities a state of melancholy lacks. The music accompanying the voice here betrays no sense of hope for a future improvement of life to a more jovial state. Instead of any wish for happiness in the coming days, it exhibits only the sorrow of life in a state of melancholy, and all that remains is "the sweet and secret melody of my melancholy."

  Throughout this recording's endearing aural pleasures, we are consistently reminded of Petibon's emotional connection to this music through her voice. She intones every phrase with some purpose to illustrate the song with some sense of the theme of melancholy, and it serves to unify the entire disc's material. I am immensely proud of this effort from this soprano, and I think she is often underrated. I maintain every hope that she will be engaged for a recital tour of the United States in the near future, and I would dare to add to that hope that I might attend one of those performances. My immense ingratiation is proffered to Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon for sending me this new release, and I privileged to be able to hear such wonderful artists as this one certainly is.

  I hope that all of you shall enjoy this remarkable new release to the fullest extent, for I certainly think it to be one of the most promising I have heard from this year, and I hope that God continues to bless all of you as this present year vanishes from our lives, and we are greeted with the numerous pleasures that the new year shall bestow upon us. Please accept my humble gratitude for enduring my post, and I hasten to remind everyone of The Metropolitan Opera's pastiche of Baroque works, The Enchanted Island, starring Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, Placido Domingo, and David Daniels among others. It is being streamed from the Met's website on New Year's Eve!


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