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CD Reviews: Rautavaara's 'Rubáiyát' / Stenz's Henze

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Late works by late composers Rautavaara, Henze
Washington Post, August 26

available at Amazon
E. Rautavaara, Rubáiyát (inter alia), G. Finley, M. Pohjonen, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Helsinki Music Centre Choir, J. Storgårds

(released on May 13, 2016)
Ondine ODE1274-2 | 59'29"
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finland’s leading composer, died in July. This new disc from the Ondine label, which has produced more than 40 recordings of Rautavaara’s music, contains some of his final works. If the death of Pierre Boulez earlier this year signaled the end of serialism’s attempted stranglehold on composition, Rautavaara had already found one way around that dogmatic dead end. Having experimented with the 12-tone technique and other modernist approaches, he changed direction after his fourth symphony (“Arabescata”) and, more convincingly than some other more purely neo-Romantic composers (Pärt, Tavener, Górecki), sought a mixture of tonal harmony and melodic dissonance.

The oldest piece on this release is four choral excerpts from Rautavaara’s last opera, “Rasputin.” They are some of the best parts of that unwieldy and fascinating work, premiered in Helsinki in 2003. In particular, the last of them, “Loista, Siion, Loista!” (“Shine, Zion, shine!”), is a riotous orgy of sound, with litany-like repetitions and apocalyptic clatter of percussion. “Into the Heart of Light” (Canto V), premiered in 2012, was the last of Rautavaara’s Canto string orchestra pieces, a series of compositional self-portraits he had been creating since the 1960s. While Canto V opens in lush tonal harmony, the frequency of dissonance is heightened, until in the last four minutes, the violins soar together in an arching series of chromatic clusters. Clashing minor seconds suggest the intensity of bright light.

John Storgards leads loving, informed performances by the Helsinki Philharmonic and Helsinki Music Center Choir. In “Balada,” premiered in 2015, Rautavaara set surrealist Spanish poetry by Federico García Lorca, somewhat awkwardly and monotonously, in a work — sung here by tenor Mika Pohjonen — that was originally conceived as an opera but that perhaps should have been left in Rautavaara’s desk drawer.

The baritone Gerald Finley and London’s Wigmore Hall played a crucial role in Rautavaara’s completion of a long-planned song cycle on the hedonistic verse of medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Finley premiered the version for piano in 2014, using the rhymed English translation by Edward FitzGerald, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and he is the skilled soloist here in the orchestral version. Instrumental interludes flow from the ends of the first four songs, as if, in the composer’s words, “this music did not want to stop and simply should flow onward,” like the wine that yields miracles.

available at Amazon
H. W. Henze, Symphony No. 7 (inter alia), Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, M. Stenz

(released on June 10, 2016)
Oehms Classics OC446| 65'46"
The German composer Hans Werner Henze was a brilliant orchestral colorist. The best parts of his late opera “L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe” (“Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love”), for example, were the intricate, gorgeous combinations of wind instruments, delicate tinkling percussion, and recorded sounds of bird wings and birdsongs. The German conductor Markus Stenz, now the principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who conducted the world premiere of “L’Upupa” at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2003, has recorded two collections of Henze’s orchestral music with his former group, the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, the second released this summer.

The new disc centers on Henze’s seventh symphony, composed from 1983 to 1984. Henze conceived the work’s four movements in homage to the traditional Germanic symphony. The first movement, “Tanz,” is rhythmically effervescent. Masses of chaotic dissonance rise up here and in the otherwise lush “mourning ode” movement that follows. Henze connected the symphony to the life of Friedrich Hölderlin, a poet who had a mental breakdown in Tübingen, living his last 36 years in a tower room overlooking the Neckar river. The finale, an instrumental rendition of Hölderlin’s poem “Hälfte des Lebens” (“Half of Life”), is the best part of this often too-cacophonous symphony; here, Henze’s orchestration is at its most colorful, somehow sheltered from total chaos. Stenz delivers one of the fastest recordings of this work on record.

Henze was even more effective in smaller orchestral pieces. The “Seven Boleros” are short, evocative pieces for a large orchestra, originally written for Henze’s opera “Venus and Adonis.” Fandango and other Latin rhythms enliven the texture. Fun saxophone solos are complemented by traces of castanets and snare drum. Any conductor thinking of programming Ravel’s “Boléro” should instead put this in its place, while still calling the program “Boleros” to get people to buy tickets.

Two miniatures round out the selection. “L’Heure Bleue,” a chamber arrangement of music from “L’Upupa,” is a musical tribute to the infinite changing shades of blue at dusk on the Mediterranean coast, as Henze saw it from his home in Italy. “Overture for a Theater” was commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin to mark its 100th anniversary, in 2012; it’s a barnburner that ends with an apocalyptic clamor. It turned out to be the last piece Henze completed; he died only a few days after he attended the performance.
Charles T. Downey, Opera on DVD: 'Rasputin' (Ionarts, November 29, 2006)

Michael Hoffmann, The unquenchable spirit (The Guardian, November 19, 2004)

Friedrich Hölderlin, Hälfte des Lebens (Half of Life)

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

Summer Night, for strings and solo violin, is of almost disturbing beauty for having been written in 1945, but with tiny wistful fissures that hint at its time…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Schoecking Beauty From Switzerland


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…Kodály’s two quartets are exactly contemporaries of Bartók’s first two attempts in the genre. Had he kept writing such inspired and especially idiomatic quartets, we would speak of him in one breath with Shostakovich and Bartók (and perhaps Villa-Lobos) as a seminal composer of string quartets.…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Bartók & Kodály, Toothsome Hungarian Twosome


Suspicious Cheese Lords

Tanti auguri di buon compleanno to Friends of Ionarts the Suspicious Cheese Lords. The group was founded twenty years ago this July, and on Saturday the Washington-based all-male vocal ensemble celebrated with an anniversary concert in the gorgeous acoustic of the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes downtown. As I learned when I broke bread with the Lords a few years ago, the group is a way of life. Many former Lords were also in the audience on Saturday afternoon, and a number of them joined the current members for a few numbers. With their normal roster of about a dozen doubled by alumni, on the first two pieces from Tallis's settings of the Lamentations, for example, the group had a much richer, more complex sound. Perhaps the Lords should think about taking a "reunion tour" with that mix of singers.

The program began with the first piece the group ever learned, Francesco Landini's L'alma mia piange, and continued through many of the Renaissance rarities the Lords have revived and recorded over the years, including Ludwig Senfl, Jean Mouton, and Elzéar Genet. The Lords also remained true to their secondary interest, the championing of new music for male choir, with the top three pieces given awards in their first composition contest. While Andrew Robinson's setting of Psalm 141 received first place, the piece struck me as largely rehashing the popular tropes of far too much recent choral music (think Eric Whitacre, for example). Of far greater interest was a setting of the Benedictus canticle by Adam Taylor (b. 1989), which won second place. (After the composition contest, Taylor ended up joining the Lords, so he actually sang in his own work.) Taylor studied composition rather than vocal performance, and his score displayed an excellent grasp of counterpoint and textural interest in a believably late Renaissance style. Catholic music directors looking for music that is both current and traditional should check out some of Taylor's music at his Web site.


Perchance to Stream: Books, Dirty Looks Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • The Vienna Philharmonic performs Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae at the Salzburg Festival, with Franz Welser Möst conducting a cast starring Krassaimira Stoyanova (Danae), Tomasz Konieczny (Jupiter), and Norbert Ernst (Mercury). [France Musique]

  • Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and pianist Daniel Blumenthal perform mélodies by Fauré, Lekeu, Hahn, Koechlin, Debussy, and Duparc at the Festival Palazzetto Bru Zane in Paris 2016. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Handel's Saul, staged by Barrie Kosky, from the Glyndebourne Festival. [ARTE]

  • From the Salzburg Festival, Mariss Jansons conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart's E-flat major piano concerto, with Emanuel Ax as soloist, plus Bruckner's sixth symphony. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • Bertrand de Billy conducts Halévy's opera La Juive, starring Robert Alagna, recorded last June at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. [Ö1]

  • Watch Gautier Capuçon join the Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille for a concert at the Bad Kissinger Sommer. [ARTE]

  • From the Festival de musique de La Chaise-Dieu 2016, a concert by the Orchestre National d'Ile-de-France recreating the opening concert of the festival in 1966, with music by Georges Hugon, Franck, Liszt, and Schubert, recorded in the abbey church of Saint-Robert. [France Musique]

  • The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin plays a selection of concertos for multiple instruments by Georg Philipp Telemann, recorded last May at the Arolsen Baroque Festival. [Ö1]

  • Piano quartets by Brahms performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris by violinist Christian Tetzlaff, violist Tabea Zimmermann, cellist Clemens Hagen, and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. [France Musique]

  • Have a listen to what was on at the Proms this past week, including Stile Antico and Fretwork at Cadogan Hall, Augustin Hadelich and Steven Isserlis with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Thomas Adès, Alice Coote and Gregory Kunde with the Hallé, the Sixteen in Bach motets, Jiří Bělohlávek leading a concert performance of Janacek's Makrupulos Case with Karita Mattila, and more. [BBC Proms]

  • Watch an outdoor concert by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, under the baton of Andrés Orozco-Estrada. [ARTE]

  • Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in the closing concert of the Bad Kissinger Sommer. [ARTE]
  • Watch Martin Grubinger and Vilde Frang join the Orchestre National de Lyon for a concert at the Bad Kissinger Sommer. [ARTE]

  • The Altenberg Trio plays the Carinthischer Sommer Festival, with music by Beethoven, Lera Auerbach, and Brahms. [Ö1]

  • From the Lugano Festival, Alexander Vedernikov leads the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, with violinist Renaud Capuçon, pianist Polina Leschenko, and cellist Mischa Maisky. [Ö1]

  • Riccardo Muti leads the Vienna Philharmonic in a matinee concert at the Salzburg Festival, with Gerhard Oppitz as piano soloist, in a program including Bruckner's second symphony. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • From this past March, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius's second symphony, plus Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with Emanuel Ax as soloist. [CSO]

  • Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in music by Wagenaar, Korngold, and Beethoven. [NY Phil]

  • Music by Schubert recorded at the Styriarte Festival with tenor Markus Schäfer and friends. [Ö1]

  • The Bavarian Radio Choir, under Howard Arman, performs Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [Ö1]

  • Music by Josquin Desprez, Anoine Busnoys, and Johannes Ockeghem from Cut Circle, recorded last May at the Dominican church in Regensburg for the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg. [Ö1]

  • Music by Kurt Schwertsik, HK Gruber, and Friedrich Cerha performed by the österreichisches ensemble für neue musik at the Salzburg Festival. [Ö1]

  • From La Roque d'Anthéron recital programs by pianists Nathalia Milstein and Ran Jia. [France Musique]

  • A piano recital by Christian Zacharias recorded at the Château de Florans for the La Roque d'Anthéron Festival, with music by Scarlatti, Ravel, Soler, and Chopin. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the recording of Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland, with Hans Zanotelli conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded in 1963 in Berlin. [Ö1]


Announcing Washington Classical Review

Ionarts quietly celebrated its 13th anniversary last month. This site was born in the heyday of the blog, a form that has come and gone in the last decade. Most bloggers, including those who made Ionarts happen, have moved into other areas of the new media. You may have noticed that the daily posting here at Ionarts has lapsed in the last few weeks, as I have devoted a good part of my summer writing hours to a couple book projects (more about those, hopefully, at a later date). Furthermore, it has not escaped our notice that fewer and fewer people actually come to this Web site — any Web site, for that matter — every day to read a regular post.

At the end of this month, most of the regular features of this site will be transferred to a new publication called Washington Classical Review. It is the most recent addition to The Classical Review network, led by Lawrence A. Johnson, and I will serve as Associate Editor and critic. WCR will cover all major classical events in Washington, D.C., as well as selected events in Baltimore and Virginia. Prominent Ionarts features such as the concert calendar, season and monthly concert picks, the Sunday streaming audio and video roundup (Perchance to Stream), and concert and dance reviews will instead appear at WCR starting in September.

Ionarts will not disappear. The archived posts from the last 13 years will remain exactly where they are. Jens and I will likely continue cross-posting our work published by other outlets. Occasional posts on art, theater, film, and recordings will appear here from time to time.

The alchemy of how any writing accrues hits online relies on a mysterious and apparently random series of events, as people link to it on various social media. If there are ways you think that classical music coverage might reach you more conveniently or if there are ways to improve your digital access to our content, please send me a message: ionarts (at) gmail dot com.


Perchance to Stream: Assumpta est Maria Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • From the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2016, listen to Beethoven cello sonatas performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. [France Musique]

  • Emmanuelle Haïm leads a Monteverdi gala concert, with Le Concert d'Astrée and soloists including Rolando Villazón, Magdalena Kožená, and Topi Lehtipuu, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. [ARTE]

  • Riccardo Chailly opens the Lucerne Festival with a performance of Mahler's eighth symphony. [ARTE]

  • From the Bregenz Festival, Enrique Mazzola leads the Vienna Symphony in Donizetti's Requiem Mass. [Ö1]

  • Alfredo Bernardini conducts Concerto Copenhagen and soprano Julia Doyle in music by Handel, recorded at the Tivoli Festival. [Ö1]

  • From the Lugano Festival, Stephen Kovacevich, Martha Argerich, and friends perform music by Fauré, Mozart, and Ravel. [Ö1]

  • Listen to a performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra from the Sydney Opera House. [ABC Classic]

  • Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa play music for two pianos, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [Ö1]

  • From the Styriarte Festival, Concentus Musicus Wien and conductor Andrés Oroczo-Estrada perform symphonies 4 and 5 by Beethoven, recorded last month. [Ö1]

  • Soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist Susan Manoff perform songs by Fauré, Wolf, Chausson, and others, recorded last May at the Schwetzinger Festival. [Ö1]

  • Watch the performance of Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict from the Glyndebourne Festival. [Glyndebourne]

  • Listen to the concerts from this week at the Proms in London. [BBC Proms]
  • The Vienna Philharmonic plays a concert in the Schönbrunn Gardens, with Zubin Mehta conducting music of Richard Strauss, Nielsen, Grieg, and others. [France Musique]

  • Helene Grimaud joins the Australian Youth Orchestra and conductor Manfred Honeck at their homecoming concert at Hamer Hall in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, performs in Perth, Australia. [ABC Classic]

  • Listen to Jaap van Zweden conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and Shostakovich's eighth symphony. [NY Phil]

  • The Sinfonia Orchestra plays Mozart concertos with Frank Braley and Anne Keffélec, recorded at the La Roque d'Anthéron Festival. [France Musique]

  • Also from La Roque d'Anthéron 2016, a recital by pianist Nikolai Lugansky. [France Musique]

  • Watch more concerts from the Verbier Festival. []

  • From the Salzburg Festival, Ivor Bolton leads the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg in music by Mozart. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • Cornelius Meister leads the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in music by Ravel and Friedrich Cerha, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [Ö1]

  • Charles Richard-Hamelin and Seong-Jin Cho perform concertos by Mozart and Chopin with the Sinfonia Varsovia, at La Roque d'Anthéron. [France Musique]

  • From the Août Musical de Deauville, music by Schubert, Debussy, and Schumann from pianist Ismaël Margain and friends. [France Musique]


CD Review: Egarr's French Suites

Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: A cellist’s solo “Trance.” / Egarr's French Suites
Washington Post, August 14

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, French Suites R. Egarr (harpsichord)

(released on May 27, 2016)
HMU907583.84 | 105'33"
J.S. Bach’s keyboard suites should leap off the page and tickle the ear. The challenges are more pronounced on the harpsichord than on its modern equivalent, and one of the best at making the older instrument sparkle is Richard Egarr. Continuing to work his way through Bach’s keyboard works, Egarr has released a new recording of Bach’s “French Suites.” The poor cousins of the longer, more complex “Partitas” and “English Suites,” these “little” pieces, Egarr says, “are simply a collection brought together with no particular through story.”

Egarr takes considerable rhythmic freedom. He adds ornamentation, and not only on the repeats, making this a fine primer for pianists in how to embellish. Furthermore, the disc offers a mini-lesson in how to create a performing edition. The dances gathered in this collection probably began life as educational pieces for members of the Bach family. Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, his sons and his students copied some of them into their notebooks, providing a range of variants to be chosen from and studied. Following the “straight” versions of the six suites, Egarr has recorded four alternative tracks for the C Minor Suite, one variation of the Menuet and three versions of the Courante.

If this sounds like a dry academic exercise, it’s not. Egarr plays on a relatively new instrument, built by Joel Katzman in the Netherlands, modeled on the Joseph Johannes Couchet harpsichord owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a broad range of possible registrations, all beautiful, increased because the player can divide the sound between the treble and bass halves of each keyboard, and Egarr seems to use all of them. Aficionados may be interested to know that in his tuning, Egarr has backed away from the Bradley Lehman “hidden temperament” that he used in his recordings of the “Goldberg Variations” and “Well-Tempered Clavier” in favor of his own modification of the Vallotti temperament, although the difference is probably imperceptible to most listeners.

Most important, Egarr’s interpretative choices follow the sunny arc of Bach’s set, in which three suites in minor keys are succeeded by three in major keys. Bach creates a sort of crescendo of variety in the dances, increasing the number of optional dances (those falling between the sarabande and the gigue) from one in the first suite to an eclectically diverse four in the sixth suite. Egarr’s approach becomes more virtuosic and varied as he nears that final piece, especially in the ebullient gigues of the last two suites.
Harpsichord by Joseph Johannes Couchet (undated), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Goldberg Variations
Well-Tempered Clavier
English Suites