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GRAMOPHONE (03/2022)
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Reviewer: Mark Seow

We begin high up in the atmosphere with a chord that shimmers into being like the opening of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. But it lasts for much longer, seemingly resistant to gravity. The strings are sad even when the harmonies are major. Then Joyce DiDonato sings a wordless siren, a part traditionally played by trumpet. It’s an eerie alternative: the sound of a future in which ambulances have lungs and sing towards the cries for help they seek to heal. Il Pomo d’Oro under the direction of Maxim Emelyanychev bring us a spectacularly bleak version of Ives’s The Unanswered Question. The dissonant clamour of winds is so far fronted in the mix that they bite, and the simultaneous tempo planes are made into something timbral and spatial, too.

There’s a lovely flow from the Ives through Rachel Portman’s The First Morning of the World into Mahler, which is then gloriously punctuated by the thrum of Baroque guitar and pattering of percussion in Marini’s ‘Con le stelle in Ciel che mai’. But then I’m left feeling a bit stranded by the side of the road. The juncture between the Marini and Myslive∂ek, for these ears, is particularly uncomfortable. Indeed, Myslive∂ek’s aria from Adamo ed Eva is so exuberantly chirpy that surely it does not belong here. Of course, it’s difficult to argue with DiDonato’s crystalline coloratura, and in many ways the thrilling accompaniment is Il Pomo d’Oro at their best, too. The individual performances are sensational. But as a journey in which the chasms of centuries between the Baroque and the late Romantic are reduced to a skip-hop over the Bächle of Freiburg, the outer thirds of the album accomplish this far more successfully. I do not quite believe that Myslive∂ek’s aria unfurls out of the blue and silver oxygen of Ives’s Creation chord.

We return to an excellent and invigorating flow with the strange harmonic universe of Valentini’s Sonata enharmonica. Emelyanychev’s harpsichord is enjoyably on the front of the beat, driving the music through its unexpected turns. It’s a quality that pleasingly pervades the continuo-playing in Handel’s ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ from Theodora. DiDonato presents an intoxicating vulnerability, particularly as she curls through the air in melisma-like pea shoots in spring. The mix is particularly special; consonants touch the hair on my neck and her breath is the faintest breeze on my cheeks.

When Mahler returns, there’s a glorious sense of home (has a cor anglais ever sounded so lonely?). Then, when this moves into the angsty churning of ‘Schmerzen’ from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, I couldn’t be happier. This feeling, however, doesn’t last: I’m brought to tearful wonder by the album’s close. DiDonato’s farewell, ‘Ombra mai fù’ from Handel’s Serse, is a performance so beautiful that it makes your insides ache.

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