DVORÁK: Biblical Songs, Op. 99. Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53. Te Deum, Op. 103.
Eva Randová, mezzo-soprano (Biblical Songs); Ivan Zenaty, violin; Ivan Kusnjer, baritone; Lívia Ághova, soprano; Prague Philharmonic Choir/Prague Symphony Orch/Jiri Belohlávek, cond.

VERDI: Luisa Miller
Darina Takova (Luisa); Giuseppe Sabbatini (Rodolfo); Alexander Vinogradov (Walter); Damiano Salerno (Miller); Ursula Ferri (Federica); Arutjin Kotchinian (Wurm); Elisabetta Martorano (Laura); Luca Favaron (Un Contadino); Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro La Fenice/Arnaud Bernard, cond.
NAXOS DVD VIDEO 2.110225-26 (2 disks) TT: 108:20 & 49:20

STRAUSS: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64
Dresden State Orch/Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond.
EUROARTS DVD VIDEO 2056138 TT: 56 min. + 30 min. documentary

Arthaus Musik continues their Dvorák series with this intriguing release coupling two lesser-known works, Biblical Songs, Op. 99, and the Te Deum, Op. 103, and the Violin Concerto. Biblical Songs, written in 1894, is a set of ten "prayers to God," composed during a period in which the composer was mourning the death of his father. Dvorák decided to orchestrate five of the songs and these five are heard on this splendid DVD beautifully performed by mezzo-soprano Eva Randova. The premiere January 4, 1896, was given by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by the composer, the first concert ever given by that orchestra. Te Deum, commissioned for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, had its premiere October 21, 1892 in Carnegie Hall again with the composer on the podium. This DVD is completed with a magnificent performance of the Violin Concerto played by Ivan Zenaty, a name perhaps new to most listeners, but a superb artist in every way. During the performance, he often plays along with the orchestra in non-solo sections. This concert was recorded in the Alta Opera Frankfurt in 1993. Sound quality is excellent, as is video. Recommended!

Luisa Miller, Verdi's fifteenth opera, had its premiere in December 1849 in San Carlo. It is one of the composer's most lyric scores, a showcase for the leading soprano and tenor. The plot is operatic melodrama to the extreme. Wurm, an evil courtier, is in love with Luisa, daughter of the retired soldier. Miller—but she, of course, is in love with someone else—Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter. Rodolfo is expected to marry Federica who is madly in love with him. Miller is imprisoned and, in an attempt to win Luisa, Wurm offers her father's freedom if she will write a letter in which she declares her love for Wurm. She does this and when Rodolfo reads the letter, he feels betrayed. In the final act Rodolfo puts poison in a water jug from which both he and Luisa drink. When he asks her if she really wrote the infamous letter, she replies that she did. He then tells her they are both dying, and when she realizes the finality of the situation, she tells him the truth about the letter—but it is too late. The opera ends as Rodolfo stabs Wurm, leaving three bodies onstage. Luisa Miller gives the leading soprano ample opportunity for vocal display, as well as a juicy part for the tenor, including the famous aria from Act II "Quando le sere al placido." . RCA recorded the opera in 1964 with Anna Moffo and Carlo Bergonzi. In 1979 a video was made from the Met with Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo (available on DVD); Domingo also recorded the opera with Katia Ricciarelli, and in 1975 Decca made a glorious recording with Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé. This new DVD was recorded at Teatro La Fenice, Venice in May 2006. Arnaud Bernard directed and the barren set was designed by Alessandro Camera. Bulgarian soprano Darina Takova is superb in the title role; she is a soprano to watch. Ursula Ferri has a splendid voice, but is visually distracting. The remainder of the cast is strong except for tenor Giuseppe Sabbatini as Rodolfo who is decidedly taxed by this demanding role. Video is well done, and the sound is excellent, but this Luisa Miller would not be first choice for a performance.

It seems odd Richard Strauss's An Alpine Symphony would be the subject of two DVD documentaries. The latest offers the Dresden State Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli recorded during a concert September 22, 1998 in Dresden's Semperoper. Sinopoli was appointed principal conductor of the orchestra in 1992 and remained in that position until 2001 when, at the age of 54, he died while conducting a performance of Aida in Berlin. He specialized in music of Wagner and Strauss, making many recordings including all of Mahler's symphonies. His performance of An Alpine Symphony is admirable in many ways, but sonic quality does not do justice to Strauss's huge orchestra. For sure, what we hear is not surround sound—the other Alpine DVD with Kent Nagano and the Berlin German Symphony Orchestra (see REVIEW) is spectacular sonically, marred only by video direction that at one point has the orchestra upside down! Both performances are of highest quality, and both documentaries achieve their purpose. To experience the sonic grandeur of Strauss's opulent orchestration surely Nagano's is the DVD to own—in spite of the bizarre video.

R.E.B. (April 2008)