It really is baffling to me that Deutsche Grammophon has fixated on Simone Kermes as an artist who merits major exposure through not one but two vigorously-promoted solo recital discs of Vivaldi arias. I am also at a loss to tell why the first of these discs, Amor Sacro, received such acclaim from the press if the follow-up is any indication of its merits.
It's wonderful that Vivaldi's vocal works are gradually gaining exposure because they really are a treasure trove of absolutely wonderful music, but I cannot rejoice in the appointment of Kermes as their latest evangelist. To my mind, the voice is unremarkable. It is neither particularly beautiful nor particularly interesting and, as far as one can tell from a recording, it is of no great size (though granted, this is not such a crucial issue in Vivaldi).
Regarding Kermes's technique, she appears to have come to terms with her voice in such a way that she can get round the notes with accuracy, and she has facility in coloratura, of which there is a great deal in this repertoire. But the thin, vapid tones in her rather peculiar cadenza at the end of 'Siam navi all'onde algenti' from L'Olimpiade would benefit from a great deal more breath support to allow them to ring and bloom as a voice should if it is to express something to an audience (or, at least, reach their ears). The way her vocal placement slips into her nasal cavity during the melismas on 'beato' and 't'adorerÓ' on the line 'del beato eterno Eliso l'alma mia t'adorerÓ' in 'Sin nel placido soggiorno' from La fede tradita e vendicata is not attractive, the vowel resembling a French 'o' rather than an Italian 'a'; neither are the audible clunks in those same melismas between pitches which are only a third apart. One can't help but feel that this singer is specialising in the baroque out of necessity rather than desire. Unpleasant vocalism is no more acceptable in baroque music than in any other repertoire, but it is, unfortunately, more widely tolerated in the name of authentic performance practice, as if big voices with natural vibrato as a consequence of a healthy breathing mechanism didn't exist in the eighteenth century.
The music selected for this disc is excellently varied and gives a real taste of Vivladi's operatic output. 'Siam navi all'onde' from L'Olimpiade is a spectacularly incisive coloratura explosion, 'Sin nel placido soggiorno' from La fede tradita e vendicata a beautifully limpid, expansive affirmation of love and 'Non m'affligge il tormento di morte' from Tito Manlio an irresistibly dance-like, tongue-in-cheek assertion that the terrors of death are nothing compared to the terrors of the protagonist's beloved. The Venice Baroque Orchestra under Andrea Marcon sounds right at home in this repertoire, as if they have been playing nothing but Vivaldi for years. The continuo playing is of an especially high quality, with a particularly notable contribution from the lutes, played by Ivano Zanenghi and Evangelina Mascardi, who keep the texture full and vivid without being overly fussy. This in turn allows the upper strings to play with rare deftness without losing any impact from the ensemble. Although slightly neglected in the sound engineering which places the voice too far forward throughout, there is some strong timpani and trumpet playing in the orchestral ritornelli of 'Se in campa armato' from Catone in Utica, although the piece has been recorded more satisfactorily from a vocal point of view by Emma Kirkby. Kermes's interpolated top D in this aria would not be vulgar if it were better executed.
Including as it does five world premiere recordings, this disc is worth having because the repertoire is so fantastic, despite being so under-recorded and under-performed. Kermes does nothing to obfuscate the composer's intentions, and people less concerned with sound vocal production will not be disturbed by her. However, as a musician she doesn't touch Bartoli, whose own excellent all-Vivaldi album was released in 1999, or Emma Kirkby, who recorded a disc of Vivaldi opera arias in 1994. Comparison of the numbers which Kermes has recorded in common with either of these artists find the present disc wanting. In general, the standard of the singing on the Na´ve label's Vivaldi series is stronger than here, and as for the composer's output of sacred vocal music, I do not feel moved to check out Amor Sacro as long as the excellent series by the King's Consort (which features some of the most beautiful and exciting baroque singing from the last twenty years) is still available.
By John Woods