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Hommage à trois

William Berger (baritone), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: July 2012
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: November 2013
Total duration: 66 minutes 59 seconds

Soprano Carolyn Sampson guest stars on several duets whilst the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which has won several awards for its performances of Mozart, provides sterling support throughout. Following a 2012 performance by Berger, the SCO and McGegan, The Herald commented that Cimarosa's 1792 cantata Il Maestro di Capello would be ‘a highlight of [the] upcoming Linn disc this team is making'.

The programme encompasses arias from all of Haydn and Mozart's best-loved operas; Berger's stage portrayal of Papageno was praised by The Arts Desk: ‘Berger is also a deft, musicianly baritone, and a communicator who has the audience eating out of his hand.'

Berger's debut album was chosen by Guardian critics as one of the ‘Best Classical Albums of 2012' and by David Mellor as his ‘Album of the Week' on Classic FM.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The ‘three' in question are Haydn, Mozart and—courtesy of a large chunk from Il maestro di cappella—Cimarosa. It's a varied, unclichéd programme, ranging from the ultra-familiar to the barely known. The rising South African baritone William Berger immediately sets out his stall in the opening aria from Haydn's L'isola disabitata, singing with firm, mellow tone, bright, ringing top notes and a care for evenness of line. Choosing an expansive tempo, he gives Creonte's lyrical ‘Il pensier sta negli ogetti' an unusually elegiac tinge. At the other end of the spectrum, Berger brings a vivid ‘face' to the absurd Villotto's ‘Non sparate' (La vera costanza), abetted by rhythmically zestful playing from the SCO … a beautifully recorded recital that enhances the young baritone's credentials as fine Classical stylist' (Gramophone)

'The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's characterful accompaniments under Nicholas McGegan's expert baton prove advantageous at every turn. Berger's agile lyrical high baritone is also impressive, with top notes almost tenorially easy. His quick intelligence and alert musicianship is most clearly on display in the gentle cantabile of Creon's 'Il pensiero sta negli oggetti' from Haydn's L'anima del filosofo' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'A discreetly sexy disc, engagingly witty and stylish, and, for the most part, cleverly put together … Haydn's wide-ranging arias show off Berger's coloratura and the beauty of his upper registers to perfection. Soprano Carolyn Sampson joins him for a handful of duets—the best of which, from Haydn's Orlando Paladino, is gloriously suggestive—while the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are on terrific form for Nicholas McGegan' (The Guardian)» More

'With its ‘nudge nudge, wink wink' cover and booklet photos suggesting more ménage than homage, this disc turns out to represent three composers—Mozart, Haydn and Cimarosa … [William Berger's] voice is true and the top secure. Just as importantly, he is able to use it to build character and his Count, Giovanni, Guglielmo and Papageno are all deftly differentiated … he also makes a success of Cimarosa's Il maestro di cappella … Nicholas McGegan's conducting is hugely supportive and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on good form. This disc is a pleasant surprise and, if you'd like a break from the recent crop of releases featuring big names trotting out the usual warhorses, I highly recommend it' (Opera Now)

Hommage à Franz Joseph Haydn
Opera played some part in Franz Joseph Haydn’s life for much of his career, but during the years 1776–90 it dominated his existence as an employee of the aristocratic Esterházy family. Esterháza, the family’s wonderful summer palace situated in the Hungarian countryside about fifty miles south-east of Vienna, soon became known as the Hungarian Versailles. Haydn was employed by the family from 1761 until his death in 1809, although his position became merely nominal after the death of Prince Nikolaus II in 1790.

Prince Nikolaus II’s great love of music inspired the building of two opera houses, one for Italian opera and the other a German marionette theatre. The Esterháza opera house was completed in 1768, however it was eight years later that Prince Nikolaus II established a regular opera season. When the Italian opera house burnt down in 1779, it was rebuilt in two years.

At Esterháza during the 1780s, seventy-three different operas received a total of more than one thousand performances. Haydn was responsible for most rehearsals and performances and he composed ten operas himself, about half of his total output, for Esterháza. However, he never made a significant impact as an operatic composer and even 100 years after his death this area of his music remained almost unknown. Even now that Haydn’s stage works are rather more widely-known, the received opinion of their shortcomings – most libretti undistinguished, lack of dramatic pace, under-developed characterisation when compared with Mozart’s, etc. – is stubbornly entrenched. While these criticisms are not completely unjustified, they are too general to be helpful. One obvious advantage of recordings is that they minimise any dramatic shortcomings which would normally be obvious in the theatre. Apart from theatrical considerations, the purely musical merits of Haydn’s operatic works shine through, with particular arias, scenes and the occasional ensemble achieving an outstanding quality. Many arias in later operas are enhanced by the masterly deployment of sonata-form elements more usually associated with Haydn the symphonist.

L’isola disabitata (The uninhabited island), one of Haydn’s two predominantly serious operas, was premiered in December 1779. Due to the fire at Esterháza, the marionette theatre had to be used. A desert island is the setting in which Enrico, who has returned after his escape from pirates, sings ‘Chi nel cammin d’onore’, a heroic aria with some colourful horn-writing. Silvia, a child of nature and deeply suspicious of men, sees him only from a distance, but immediately falls in love.

Haydn’s very last opera, L’anima del filosofo (The spirit of the philosopher, subtitled Orfeo ed Eurydice), dates from the time of his first triumphantly successful visit to England. Its premiere was scheduled for the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London in May 1791, but intense rivalry between the Prince of Wales (who supported the King’s Theatre) and George III (who favoured the Pantheon) led to the invasion of an early rehearsal by royal emissaries! The eventual premiere – with Maria Callas and Boris Christoff, conducted by Erich Kleiber – was given in Florence in 1951. ‘Il pensier sta negli oggetti’ (Act One), in which King Creonte gives royal approval to the marriage between Orfeo and Eurydice, includes a delightful flute obligato.

Armida, first produced in February 1784, was the last opera Haydn composed for Esterháza and his only full-length opera seria. The plot is derived from Tasso’s Crusade epic Gerusalemme liberata, a subject which inspired well over a hundred operas in the Baroque and Classical periods, later works by Dvořák and Brahms, and more recently, an opera by Judith Weir. This story of the Saracen princess/sorceress Armida and her lover, the Christian knight Rinaldo, highlights the archetypal conflict between love and duty. The other, equally timeless theme is East versus West. In Act Two, Ubaldo has demanded the release of all crusaders, but in the aria ‘Teco lo guida al campo’ (scored with trumpets), King Idreno insists that Rinaldo is not captive, but is staying at the castle of his own free will.

Orlando paladino was premiered in December 1782 and quickly became one of Haydn’s most popular stage works, but then suffered total neglect until a 1982 revival in Vienna. Derived from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, this ‘dramma eroicomico’ parodies operatic conventions. ‘Quel tuo visetto amabile’, which became the opera’s most celebrated number, is a comic love-duet for the tongue-tied Pasquale, Orlando’s squire, and Eurilla, his shepherdess girlfriend.

La vera costanza (True constancy) was premiered at Esterháza in April 1779. In Act Two the mentally unbalanced Count Errico orders the cowardly buffoon Villotto to kill Rosina. His own life threatened by this madman, Villotto evokes the prospect of death in ‘Già la morte in manto nero’ before finally escaping. ‘Non sparate … mi disdico …’ comes from Act One, this scene being the previous occasion on which Villotto finds his life threatened by Errico’s pistol. This type of ‘aria of indecision’ was a popular feature of many libretti of the period.

Hommage à Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
It is often said that Mozart was a ‘perfecter’ of established forms, such as the piano concerto, rather than an innovator, but in relation to his great comic operas this tells only half the story. In Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Mozart completely transcends the conventions and stereotyped characters of opera buffa. Such are the emotional depth, complexity and understanding of human nature displayed in these comic operas that the genre was transformed from mere frivolity and farce into a more substantial art-form altogether. In the words of Spike Hughes, Mozart created ‘characters great and small, who moved, thought and breathed musically like human beings.’ Mozart’s last four great operas all postdate Haydn’s final comic opera, Orlando paladino. Le nozze di Figaro, the first of Mozart’s three brilliantly successful collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, was premiered in Vienna on 1 May 1786. The subject matter stirred up a famous controversy on account of the disturbing social ideas in Beaumarchais’ original play. In Vienna the play was prohibited and Emperor Joseph II himself insisted that the sharpest passages of political satire must be removed from the opera libretto. Mozart’s collaboration with Ponte was so skilful that they succeeded brilliantly without completely destroying the subversive subtleties of the text. In the duet ‘Crudel! perché finora’ from Act Three, the eager advances of Count Almaviva, keen to rendez-vous in the garden, are answered by Susanna’s coolness. After overhearing a brief exchange between Susanna and Figaro, the Count expresses his anger in ‘Hai già vinta la causa!’ with trumpets and timpani contributing to the fierce Allegro maestoso of the ensuing aria ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’.

Don Giovanni was first staged in October 1787 in Prague, where Le nozze di Figaro had recently created such a sensation that its melodies were heard everywhere in the streets. Delighted with his reception by the truly appreciative Prague audiences, especially after Figaro’s relatively short-lived success in Vienna, Mozart was immediately commissioned by the Prague National Theatre to compose Don Giovanni for the following winter season. ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’– widely-known as the ‘Champagne Aria’ (although the text has ‘vino’, not specifically champagne) – is sung by the Don in Act One. In this exuberant aria Don Giovanni instructs his servant Leporello to round up guests for a party; ‘some dancing the minuet, others the Follia, yet others the Allemande’. He boasts that by the morning his catalogue of female conquests will be extended by a dozen or more. Richly scored – including divided violas – this aria is nevertheless a miracle of orchestral clarity. ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, in which the Don accompanies himself on the mandolin, is from Act Two. Here, in disguise after exchanging cloaks with Leporello, he serenades Donna Elvira’s maid (a silent role).

Mozart composed Così fan tutte during the latter half of 1789 and the opera was first staged in Vienna on 26 January the following year. In February, Emperor Joseph II died and the Burgtheater Wien was closed for two months. Così was subsequently revived, but lasted only five more performances. In the nineteenth century, while Le nozze di Figaro maintained its position in the repertoire, Così fan tutte was deemed to be immoral. Perceived as a connoisseur’s opera, it was generally misunderstood until as late as the mid twentieth-century.

Così fan tutte is in many ways the most remarkable of Mozart’s operas (Don Basilio expresses this same sentiment in Act One of Le nozze di Figaro). His treatment of an apparently frivolous idea – two men depart from their loved ones then return in disguise to test their ladies’ faithfulness – is transcendently beautiful. At the same time the listener may well be confused between what is sincerely meant and what is not. ‘Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo’ was originally part of Così fan tutte but was replaced before the premiere with a shorter number – ‘Non siate ritrosi’. Guglielmo (Ponte used the old Italian name Guilelmo) and his fellow officer Ferrando have returned disguised as Albanian noblemen. Guglielmo, in love with Fiordiligi, sings these lines to her in the first version of Act One, Scene III. Apparently Ponte was not totally convinced of the effectiveness of ‘Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo’ in context, but how difficult it must have been to discard this fine aria.

Die Zauberflöte is a singspiel and vehicle for Masonic principles combining fairy-tale, pantomime and allegory. It was commissioned by Emanuel Schikaneder, proprietor of the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, singer, actor and an old friend of Mozart’s. The premiere was given on 30 September 1791, only nine weeks before Mozart’s death. At some stage Mozart and Schikaneder decided to emphasise the Masonic element by means of widely understood musical symbolism. At this time, Austrian political repression of any kind of secret society was again gathering strength, but regardless the opera proved to be a great success. Die Zauberflöte remained in the repertoire even when the Viennese lodges were closed down. Its Masonic element hasn’t hindered the sustained popularity of an opera which may be enjoyed on different levels. Alfred Einstein described the libretto as ‘one of those literary works which delight children and at the same time move the most experienced men of the world to tears, uplift the wisest of men; only the merely learned or the totally barbarian fail to perceive its message.’ The touching duet ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’, an ode to love, is sung by Pamina, the child of nature, and that equally uncomplicated soul, Papageno. The radiant, unaffected simplicity of the music itself is typical of Die Zauberflöte and equally representative of what proved to be Mozart’s ‘late style’. The economical scoring here includes clarinets, which Mozart uses sparingly throughout the opera. Pamina’s vocal line becomes more florid at the end and includes a leap of a minor thirteenth from low C to high A-flat. ‘Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena!’ near the end of the opera, is a charming number for the bird-catcher Papageno and his sweetheart Papagena. Papageno, suicidal at having lost his Papagena, has been urged by the three boys to play his magic bells (which he had stupidly overlooked) in order to regain her. In this breathless duet, the reunited pair are overcome with happiness and even begin to plan their family.

Hommage à Domenico Cimarosa
Domenico Cimarosa composed more than eighty operas, but of these, only Il matrimonio segreto (The secret marriage, premiered 1792) and Il maestro di cappella (The music director) have retained their popularity. Cimarosa’s first two examples of opera buffa, composed in his early twenties, enjoyed some success and established his reputation across Italy. At Esterháza in the 1780s Haydn conducted thirteen of Cimarosa’s operas. Cimarosa also composed a requiem, eighty-eight keyboard sonatas, concertos and a handful of chamber works. The first definite record of a performance of Il maestro di cappella was July 1793 in Berlin. Both the date of its actual premiere and the name of the librettist have proved elusive to scholars. Cimarosa himself had experienced life as a maestro di cappella in Venice, and later (1787) worked in the same capacity at the St Petersburg court of Catherine II. When his Republican sympathies landed him in trouble in 1799, his attempts to appease King Ferdinand merely exacerbated the situation. Arrested and detained in prison for four months, he escaped the death sentence only through the representations of influential friends including Lady Hamilton and two cardinals.

In the one-act operatic intermezzo or comic monologue Il maestro di cappella, which has always been a favourite of buffo baritones, the maestro rehearses his orchestra. Following a sparkling Sinfonia, ‘Se mi dànno il permesso’ is an extended section of orchestrally accompanied recitative. Here the pompous maestro (‘If you permit me …’) insults his players, exhorts them to count accurately, mimics the various instruments – oboes, double basses, horns – and finally approves (‘Bravi!’). This brilliant send-up of opera buffa conventions, and of the potentially fraught relationship between a conductor and his musicians, makes one curious about Cimarosa’s numerous other comic operas.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2013

What I enjoy most about being a singer is that no performance is created truly alone. There is always a need to collaborate, whether with one pianist or an entire opera company, and I am constantly influenced by the incredibly talented people who surround me. So too it was with this album. Hommage à Trois became the recording that it is as a result of my being fortunate to have so many inspiring friends. It seems only right and proper to thank them publicly, albeit probably too briefly, here:

To Nic McGegan, my musical champion and friend: you gave me my professional stage debut at twenty-one and I have learnt from you ever since. If it weren’t for you, I would never have discovered Il maestro di cappella. Making music with you is pure pleasure. To the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Carolyn Sampson: you made our first-time collaboration feel like a reunion with familiar musical friends. To Philip Hobbs at Linn: thank you for your smiles, patience and ‘magical ears’. To all the donors without whose support and encouragement this recording and many other performances would never have seen the light of day. To my teachers (past and present), vocal coaches, musical colleagues and my first operatic home, the English National Opera: a piece of every single one of you is captured here. My biggest thanks undoubtedly go to FHH: your support, unwavering belief, guidance and friendship mean the world to me. This recording and much of what I have achieved in the past few years would not have been possible without you being a part of my life.
By way of atonement for an album portraying so many musical misogynists, I would like to thank the important women in my life. To my mother, Arina: you are my rock and my guiding star and there will never be anyone like you. To my ‘surrogate moms’: Carole Keep, Jenny Arthur and Judy Donner: thank you for taking care of me when I have been far away from home. To the rest of my family, Dad and Lu-Anne: even though you’re far away, your love is also encapsulated here.
Whereas Insomnia: A Nocturnal Voyage in Song was a deeply personal and semi-biographical memoir of my own heartbreak, Hommage à Trois teasingly portrays the fun, jocular and happy time in my life that I currently enjoy as expressed by the Lotharios, hedonists, lovers and jokers portrayed by three of the Classical period’s most popular composers. I hope that you enjoy listening to it, even more than I enjoyed making it.
I dedicate this recording to the memory of my great-aunt ‘Tannie Enna’, another formidable woman, who, shortly after her 92nd birthday, left behind a unique and inspiring life.

William Berger © 2013

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