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CD Reviews: Joseph Calleja misses mark, Nicola Benedetti hits bulls-eye in film-tribute albums

By John Terauds on September 18, 2012

Violinist Nicola Benedetti’s new Silver Violin album is a guilty pleasure.

Two big fall releases from Decca use big younger stars — tenor Joseph Calleja and violinist Nicola Benedetti — to bridge the gap betwen art music and more popular forms made famous by Hollywood films. Only one finds the magic sweet spot that makes for compelling listening.

For all the details on each album, click on the artist’s name.

Be My Love, A Tribute to Mario Lanza (Decca)

Make no mistake, Malta’s Joseph Calleja is a fine tenor. But in putting out an album in tribute to Mario Lanza, he begs comparisons that don’t necessarily work in his favour.

Philadelphian Mario Lanza (1921-1959) was the Judy Garland of classical tenors. He was technically (and personally) flawed, but when he opened his mouth on the silver screen, it was as if he was offering his soul up on a gilded platter.

He also happened to have one of those once-a-generation full, golden voices that wouldn’t quit.

Lanza, whose albums spent a lot of time at the top of the sales charts in the early 1950s, had a popular touch, mixing favourite opera arias with art song, Broadway and pop with unselfconscious ease.

Anyone wanting to re-trace this musical path has to tread carefully yet boldly. It’s something Calleja fails to do, even with the fine support of the BBC Concert Orchestra and accomplished popera conductor Steven Mercurio.

Unlike the often reckless singing of old, Calleja is careful to stick to what the composer wrote. He has a completely different voice from Lanza’s; it’s more like Luciano Pavarotti’s — thinner, more lyrical, yet wielded with good technique.

But that’s not what makes for a magnetic performance.

Calleja is too controlled, too much in possession of his soul as he sings “The loveliest night of the year,” or Rossini’s “La danza” or Paolo Tosti’s Marechiare. Even the old warhorse “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot could use an extra dash of plain-old abandon.

If you want to sample the hits of Midcentury Modern America, there is nothing wrong with Calleja’s 16-track tasting menu, but with Lanza’s recordings widely available, you should realise this is more pale imitation than the real thing.

To illustrate what I mean, here is Joseph Calleja in concert at the Roman theatre of the Chorégies d’Orange festival in July, singing “Vesti la giubba” from I Pagliacci, followed by Mario Lanza singing the aria in his last film, For the First Time:

The Silver Violin (Decca)

Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has, at age 25, the looks, talent and personality that have made her a classical darling in the U.K. Above all, she manages to express the soul of whatever she touches with her bow.

It’s a magic that is likely to earn her a lot of fans on this side of the Atlantic with a new album devoted to music that has some sort of connection to movies.

The album’s title is a bit of a gimmick, because the anchor piece is Austrian-born Hollywood composer Erich Korngold’s non-film 1945 Violin Concerto, which has become a favourite among younger performers. It also includes a violin transcription of one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera, “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

What isn’t a gimmick is the beauty of Benedetti’s playing. Her technique is flawless and she shapes a phrase as if her violin were the world’s most sensuous opera diva. This attention to detail extends to every nuance as well as the silence between notes.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kirill Karabits and a variety of other collaborators are all excellent accompanists.

There are some actual movie treats among the easy-listening tracks here, too, including three beautiful miniatures by Dmitri Shostakovich.

A little stamp of Canadian content comes from a two-movement Concertino by Howard Shore, from the film Eastern Promises. And the album wouldn’t be complete without its title track, the aching main theme from Schindler’s List, by John Williams.

For serious classical music fans, this album is a legitimate guilty pleasure, because this is violin playing at its most enchanting.

Here is Benedetti in Decca’s official release video:

John Terauds

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