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Star tenor Andrew Kennedy is accompanied by Southbank Sinfonia in this collection of arias by three unique Classical-era composers. This disc showcases some of the best in young British musical talent, with rising star tenor Andrew Kennedy and Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Simon Over. Their programme explores three phases of the Classical era, with early arias from Gluck, later classical works by Mozart, and the beginnings of Romanticism with Berlioz. Andrew’s previous releases with Signum Records have been greeted with exceptionally good reviews from music magazines and national newspapers and we have every confidence his latest release will be as successful.
In 1745 he came to London, as house composer to the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. In London he met David Garrick, one of whose protégés, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, was Gluck’s original Orfeo. He also encountered Handel, whose opinion of the music he was then composing was reportedly negative. According to Burney, Gluck nearly thirty years later maintained ‘that he owed entirely to England the study of nature in his dramatic compositions’. Life as an ‘itinerant maestro di cappella’—with prestigious productions in Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Vienna, Prague (where in 1750 he married the wealthy Maria Anna Bergin [Pergin], nearly twenty years younger), and Naples—led finally to his appointment in 1755 as director and composer of Vienna’s francophile Burgtheater. During the 1770s his association with the Paris stage enjoyed the patronage of Marie Antoinette, a former pupil.
Inspiring the generations from Salieri, Mozart, Cherubini and Méhul to Beethoven, Weber, Berlioz and Wagner, Gluck—rough-hewn realist, imaginative dreamer by turn, a man of ‘fire, but mad’ according to Metastasio writing to Farinelli in 1751—was one of the grand opera reformers of history. Wagner edited his Iphigénie en Aulide (1847), Berlioz his Orfeo (1859), Richard Strauss his Iphigénie en Tauride (1890). The 1769 preface to Alceste, dedicated to the Duke of Tuscany, set out his new age philosophy, influenced somewhat by Francesco Algarotti’s Essay on Opera (1735), which proposed that drama should ‘delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense’. There should be no da capo arias, no extended melismata, an absence of personally interjected ‘caprice’, fewer recitatives, and less word repetition. Syllabic setting, simple melody, the importance of the chorus (Greek classical style), and ‘clarity before difficulty’ was placed at a premium. Similarly the importance of the overture as a dramatic preparation distinct from curtain-raiser. ‘My purpose was to restrict music to its true office, that of ministering to the expression of the poetry and to the situation of the plot, without interrupting that action and smothering it by superfluous ornamentation […] animating the figures without distorting their contours […] I have striven to banish the abuses against which reason and good sense have so long protested in vain […] and to replace] flowery descriptions, superfluous similes, and cold, sententious morality by the language of the heart, by strong passions, interesting situations, and an ever-varying spectacle […] simplicity, truth and nature are the great touchstones of the beautiful in all artistic creation’. Four years later we see him elaborating his ideas in the Mercure de France: ‘Imitation of nature is the acknowledged aim which all ought to seek […] I do not employ those shakes, passages and cadences which Italians use so lavishly [in opera seria and opera buffa]. Their language, which suits this style, is by no means suitable for me; no doubt it has many other merits, but I was born in Germany and do not consider that any study on my part either of Italian or French entitles me to appreciate the delicate shades which cause a preference for one language rather than another, and I think that a foreigner ought to refrain from judging between them […] the language which suits me best is the one which enables the poet to furnish me with the most varied means of expressing the passions’ (1 February 1773).
‘He innovated in almost every field,’ extolled Berlioz, ‘though in so doing he was only following the irresistible impulse of his dramatic genius. I do not think that his primary goal was to expand the art of music. But he was gifted with an extraordinary feeling for expression and a rare understanding of the human heart, and his sole aim was to give passions a true, profound and powerful language, and he used all available musical resources for this sole purpose. When rules did not stand in the way of his inspiration he followed them, but he discarded them when they became an obstacle. Only his harmonic language remained restricted; he only knew a limited number of chords, which he would often use in the same way. On the other hand he introduced many new rhythms, which Mozart subsequently adopted. Several of these have found their way into modern compositions, and musicians of our time have not been able to avoid them. They are still subject to the tyranny that this dark and powerful genius exercises over all forms of expressive music. He was the first to make this art a genuine poetic language’ (Le Correspondant, 22 October 1830).
Iphigénie en Aulide (1774), to a three-act libretto by Leblanc du Roullet after Racine’s Alexandrine-verse tragedy Iphigénie (Versailles, 1674), was Gluck’s first work for the Paris stage, produced at the Opéra, 19 April 1774. ‘I do not know whether this is song, but perhaps it is much more than that. I forget the opera and find myself in a Greek tragedy’ (Friedrich Grimm). The story tells of Iphigénie, daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and Argos, and Clitemnestre, who is about to marry Achilles, the greatest, handsomest of the warrior-heroes in the Iliad. The goddess Diana demands that Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigénie in return for fair winds on his fleet’s journey to Troy. Achilles is falsely accused of infidelity, Iphigénie resigns herself to her fate, Diana intervenes, withdrawing her demands and presiding over the union of the young lovers. Achilles’s rôle was created originally by Joseph Legros, the leading Parisian haute-contre or high tenor of the day. Haute-contres, with their ‘modal’/‘speaking’ voices and extended top registers, probably falsetto-generated, customarily took the male lead in French operas of the baroque/early classical period. In ‘Calchas, d’un trait mortel percé’ (Act III), a gallant aria, with horns, trumpets and drums imparting vibrant imagery, Achilles sings of his determination to save Iphigénie.
Alceste (1767/76) was staged at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 December 1767, with a French revision following in Paris, 23 April 1776. Both versions set three-act libretti (by Ranieri de Calzabigi and du Roullet respectively) based on Euripides’s tragedy Alcestis (Dionysia Festival, 438 BC), treated also by Lully and Handel. ‘I have lived with the Muses/And on lofty heights:/Many doctrines have I learned;/But Fate is above us all’. The rôle of Admeto/Admetus, King of Thessaly—whose wife, Alceste, is willing to take his place before Death—was created in Vienna by Giuseppe Tibaldi, and in Paris by Legros.
The first of Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762/74), ‘symbol of the modern music drama’ (Paul Henry Láng), received its premiere at the Burgtheater, 5 October 1762, marking the name-day festivities of Francis I. Setting an Italian libretto by Calzabigi, including dancing in the action, the later French expansion, as Orphée et Eurydice, to a libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline and with the castrato part of Orfeo (Guadagni) re-allocated to haute-contre (Legros), was produced at the Académie-Royale de Musique, 2 August 1774. The three-act story, from Greek mythology, relates how Orfeo the poet-musician braves the Furies to bring back his wife Euridice from the Underworld. In saving her, part of the contract is that he will not look at her until she is back on earth. But, succumbing to her sadness that he apparently no longer loves her, he does. She dies. He sings of his grief in ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’/‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ (Act III)—wondrously beautiful music that has never lost its power to grip the heart.
The four-act tragedy Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), culmination of Gluck’s ‘reform’ style, was given in Paris at the Académie-Royale de Musique, 18 May 1779, a German version being staged at the Burgtheater, 23 October 1781, marking the visit of Grand Duke Paul of Russia (Catherine the Great’s son) to the Habsburg capital. Set in Tauris (modern Crimea), the libretto, by Nicolas-François Guillard, was based on Euripides. The part of Pylades, friend of Iphigénie’s brother Oreste, was created originally by Legros. In Act 4 Thoas, king of the Scythians, orders the sacrifice of Iphigénie and Oreste who have just been re-united. Pylades and a band of Greeks enter. Thoas is cut down. Iphigénie en Tauride was the first Gluck opera Berlioz saw, at the Paris Opéra in 1821. The following year he copied out a number of pages in full score (together with passages from Iphigénie en Aulide).
‘Berlioz,’ the young George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘could never quite forgive [Mozart] for possessing all the great qualities of his idol Gluck, and many others of which Gluck was destitute, besides surpassing him in technical skill’ (The Dramatic Review, 6 June 1885). Eventually he came around, admiring especially Idomeneo and Don Giovanni, though not Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart’s operas—spanning nearly a quarter of a century from Apollo et Hyacinthus in 1767 to Die Zauberflöte in 1791—cast tenor singers in different ways, dependent on linguistic context. The German settings (Singspiel: set numbers, ensembles, spoken dialogue) identify the register with romantic leads; the Italian ones (seria/buffa) with (usually) secondary or comic roles. ‘In an opera,’ Mozart believed, ‘the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why do Italian comic operas please everywhere—in spite of the miserable libretti—even in Paris, where I myself witnessed their success? […] because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten […] an opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme […] The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause even of the ignorant’ (letter to his father, 13 October 1781).
Produced at the Burgtheater, 16 July 1782, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1781-82) sets a three-act libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger, adapted from Christoph Friedrich Bretzner’s Belmont und Constanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Berlin 1781)—not that good a text, as Mozart readily admitted, but with enough of a fashionably oriental ingredient to ensure quick success. Admired by Gluck, the work swept Europe, with productions in Prague, Warsaw, Bonn, Leipzig, Mannheim, Salzburg, Dresden, Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam and elsewhere. ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail is full of beauties […] and surpassed the expectations of the public, and the author’s taste and new ideas, which were enchanting, received the fullest and most general applause’ (Cramer’s Magazin, December 1782). Pre-Revolution music-theatre at its most scintillating. The plot is simple. A Spanish nobleman, Belmonte (tenor), with the help of his servant Pedrillo (tenor), sets out to rescue his sweetheart Konstanze (soprano) who’s been sold by corsairs to Pasha Selim, Ottoman despot turned Western forgiver (spoken part). The ternary-plan C major Overture sets the stage, a brilliant panoply of energised/lyricised paragraphs, gender allusions, Vienna tutti and Constantinople janissary band. ‘Hier soll ich dich den sehen’, created originally by Valentin Adamberger, ‘the favourite singer of softer hearts’ and a notable Gluckian, is Belmont’s opening aria (Act I) as he searches for his stolen love. ‘Ich baue ganz auf deinem stärke’ comes from Act III as he’s about to rescue her from Selim’s sequestered harem.
An opera seria in two acts and the first of the Mozart canon to reach London (in 1806), La Clemenza di Tito, written within a month, was first performed at the National Theatre in Prague, 6 September 1791, the day of the coronation of Leopold II, the Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. The libretto, by Caterino Mazzolà, adapted from Metastasio and set previously by Caldara and Gluck, draws on incidents in the life of the Flavian Emperor Titus, ‘the delight and darling of the human race’, told by Suetonius in the eleventh chapter of his Lives of the Caesars. Flanked by imperial flourishes, the Overture, a sonata essay in C, is scored for the standard ‘Beethoven’ orchestra of the late Classical period. ‘Del più sublime soglio’ (Act I), ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al throno’ (Act I), and ‘Se’all impero’ (Act II) are all arias associated with Titus, first created by Antonio Baglioni—reputedly ‘a man of perfect taste and great musical knowledge’ (Giulietta da Ponte), responsible for the original Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni.
‘An opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention […] the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world [re-captured]’ (David Cairns). On finishing Les Troyens (1856-58, rev 1859-60), by a long way his most ambitious work, vast in conception and cast, Berlioz believed that ‘if Gluck were to return, he would say: “this is my son”’. He based the libretto on the second and fourth books of Virgils’ poem The Aeneid, relating the story of Aeneis, the legendary Trojan who journeyed to Italy to become an ancestor of the Romans. Planned, we read in his Memoirs, as ‘a grand opera on the Shakespearean model’, the whole is divided into two parts—‘The Capture of Troy’ (Acts I-II) and ‘The Trojans at Carthage’ (Acts III-V). Part II, with various cuts, received its Paris premiere at the Théâtre-Lyrique du Châtelet, 4 November 1863. The 1957 Covent Garden revival, under Kubelik and directed by Sir John Gielgud, marked a significant turning point in the work’s otherwise mixed fortunes. ‘Ô blonde Cérès’ comes from the second scene of Act IV, sung by Iopas, a Tyrian poet at the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage.
Béatrice et Bénédict (1860-62, two acts), based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, was the last of Berlioz’s operas, produced at the Theater der Stadt, Baden-Baden, 9 August 1862. ‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’, he called it. Bénédict’s ‘Ah, je vais l’aimer’—music of Mozartean nuance—comes from the penultimate scene of Act I.
Bound by a celebrated idée fixe, the Symphonie fantastique, ‘Episodes in the Life of an Artist’ (1830), and its sequel, the ‘monodrame lyrique’ Lélio, ‘The Return to Life’ (1831-32), grew out of Berlioz’s passion for, respectively, the actress Harriet Smithson (unbeknown to her) and the pianist Camille Moke (unrequited). Narrated by an actor who speaks his lines before a curtain concealing the orchestra, Lélio was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire, 9 December 1832. A hymn in praise of recovered happiness, with a prominent harp part, Chant de bonheur – Souvenirs (‘Ô mon bonheur ma vie’), the fourth movement (of six), draws on material from the failed Prix de Rome cantata, Le Mort d’Orphée (1827).
Berlioz read Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust Part I, illustrated by Delacroix, some time in 1828, subsequently introducing it to Liszt. Divided into four parts and an epilogue, the ‘légende dramatique’ La damnation de Faust (1845-46), incorporating material composed in the late 1820s, was premiered at the Opéra-Comique, 6 December 1846—to critical indifference, public apathy, and financial embarrassment. ‘The Damnation of Faust,’ says David Cairns (1969) is the great text-book of romantic defeat, of romantic man “lost in a universe that cannot answer his desperate longings, ‘a speck of flesh upon an empty planet’ […]”, the episodes of which are “not a string of lurid or touching vignettes but a dramatisation of the soul’s condition” (quoting John Warrack). Expressively shaped and scored, the Air de Faust (‘Merci, doux crepuscule!’) opens Part III. Night. Marguerite’s room. The girl in whom Faust will find his ideal of innocence and purity.
Ates Orga © 2010