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Wolfgang Rihm, Violin Concerto No.6 World Premiere

Poème du Peintre

Wolfgang Rihm is on—minimally—fire. He knocks out new, major works at a rate that it makes you wonder if anybody else is still composing at all, in Germany. A Horn Concerto in Lucerne, a Triple Concerto, the "Second" Piano Concerto (terrific, yet be reported on!) in Salzburg, and now his Sixth Violin Concerto*, written for and dedicated to Renaud Capuçon, performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra [on Twitter] under Philippe Jordan and played in their new “Fridays@7” concert series at the Wiener Konzerthaus.

available at Amazon
W.Rihm (+A.Berg), Time Chant (+ VC),
A.S.Mutter / J.Levine / CSO

available at Amazon
W.Rihm (+S.Currier), WORK_in_QUESTION (+Time Machines etc.),
A.S.Mutter / NYPhil / M.Francis, A.Gilbert

That series is a stab at the short-form concert, aiming at about an hour’s length, without an intermission. So far that hour-thing has not quite worked out, as concert length is predictably, habitually underestimated… but whereas the first time around the concert was a whole work too long, this time it was just one movement too long. In any case, if that aimed-at-brevity weren’t laudable enough, the concert series also comes with booze and music at the optional long tail in the foyer downstairs, with a VSO band playing and/or soloists and the conductor performing in a reasonably relaxed atmosphere. On this occasion, the format meant that Schubert’s Fifth—part of the laudable Schubert Cycle of the VSO—was axed from the program also containing Dvořák’s Eight.

Having had a chance to watch the violin concerto come together throughout three rehearsals, it was enormous how much the work had developed by the time it hit the stage at prime time. Wolfgang Rihm took himself back for the first rehearsal, even though what he heard must have been a good deal from what he might have imagined. Only when orchestra and conductor had made the natural progress that occurs in rehearsal, did he more frequently interject, questioning stray notes that were either wrong in the printed score or the parts, and suggesting occasional interpretative adjustments. Repeated timpani notes toward the end of the concerto weren’t quite right to him. Helpfully, Jordan interpreted his request: “Oh, advancing like a steam engine?” Rihm, whose gigantic cranium makes him look like his own bobble-head figure, shook said head: “No—breathing, hovering, advancing. Like a thing, a being, like a creature.” Jordan: “Ok. One more time; this time more like a Thing!”

Just as Rihm has written the Piano Concerto specifically for and around Tzimon Barto, or violin concertos for the specific talents of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Carolin Widmann, Poème du Peintre is tailored to Renaud Capuçon. After the first rehearsal, the soloist suggested that it was really his language. It’s hard to say for me what that exactly is, not knowing Capuçon’s playing and style intimately enough. Perhaps it is the nervous, or rather: alert energy that is woven through the concert like a silver thread. The concerto’s name, “Painter’s Poem”, stems from the idea of composing a work that is to Max Beckmann’s portrait of Max Reger a concerto to portray Ysaÿe. Rihm and Capuçon both adore Ysaÿe (well beyond the—rightly—hailed solo violin sonatas), which might serve as the basis for the French violinist so taking to the work. The clichéd description of his performance, without any fear of saying something controvertible would be, and is: “totally committed”.

Other Reviews:

Chanda VanderHart, Pleasing Rihm and Dvorak from Capuçon and the Symphoniker, but 'concept' falters (bachtrack, January 11, 2015)
The concerto begins tentatively. On the surface it is considerably less French than the Piano Concerto from Salzburg (with its overt Chopin references and subtle air of Debussy creeping in). It is less overtly romantic and also a good deal less intuitively comprehensible. That’s not to say that it doesn’t come around and enchant the willing listener. The orchestra, for much of the almost continuous violin part, engages in color and contrast work, breathing and heaving and rhythmically advancing things to a searing solo-part. The general tone is, a few eruptions apart, and in spite of the tenacious soloist, soft-hued; the dissonances plush and more feathered than in-your-face. Then, a bit more than half-way through the 17-some minute work, there are crackling, gnarling, brassy chord that would open the gates to Mordor in a movie. There comes a short moment where it feels like a famous quotation (that on-the-tip-of-the-tongue-feeling); melting away, off to the side, Schnittke-style. Perhaps it’s one of the many presumed Ysaÿe-references and the only one that pierced the level of my awareness—just not wholly. The claves’ click-click solo of the percussionist was meant as an impulse for the soloist to take and play off it, but it did not quite yet come across as presumably intended. At least not in this first performance. But with any optimism, the work will get a decent amount of repeat performances (if less likely so as the repertoire-suitable piano concerto) and claves and violin will forevermore work in perfect


For Your Consideration: 'Selma'

Ellen DeGeneres's best joke at the Academy Awards ceremony last year was to tell the assembled members that there were two possibilities that night: either 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, or "you're all racists." It did win, of course, but the joke zeroed in on the role of politics in the Academy Awards. It does not seem likely that the same concerns will come into play this year with Selma, Ava DuVernay's feature about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in the period surrounding the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The King family has expressed its opposition to the film's portrayal of the civil rights leader, in a strong performance by David Oyelowo, and the screenplay by first-time writer Paul Webb therefore does not use any actual words spoken by King, out of fear of the family's unrelenting copyright control. The film has too many weaknesses to win Best Film, but it might win the only other award for which it was nominated, Best Original Song for Glory, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, as consolation prize.

The story opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and follows him through the struggle to convince President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act. Without a doubt, the film's most powerful moments are the crowd-scene dramatizations of the iconic struggles of that year, none more than the fight to be allowed to have a march walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma and take the road to Montgomery. DuVernay trades away some of that power in the inclusion of some big names in small cameo roles: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, trying to register to vote in Alabama and being turned away, only later to clock the local sheriff in the head; Tim Roth as the unbending, bigoted governor, George Wallace; Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the civil rights attorney Fred Gray. The runaway performance of the film is the towering, foul-mouthed Lyndon Johnson of Tom Wilkinson (The Debt), who manages to make the viewer understand and even sympathize with the concessions necessary in politics. Carmen Ejogo brings a certain dignity to the role of King's long-suffering wife, but without much to distinguish the performance.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | Los Angeles Times | Variety
The Atlantic | NPR | TIME | Village Voice | Rolling Stone | Hollywood Reporter

What the film and its star, David Oyelowo, do well is to bring King back down from the pedestal, the pharaonic leader depicted on his monument on the National Mall. We see him cracking jokes, smoking a cigarette, doubting himself and others, and there is no cover given to his own weaknesses, sexual and otherwise, that come close to destroying him. One of the more authentic touches is to narrate the film through the device of type-set notices from the FBI surveillance of King, all part of J. Edgar Hoover's preparation of a case that could be launched against King, whom he saw as a degenerate agitator, in the court of public opinion. So much was riding on an imperfect organization and on imperfect leaders, making the man's achievements all the more remarkable.


Mariinsky Ballet's 'Rite of Spring'

Everyone knows about the debacle caused by The Rite of Spring. In spite of having caused a riot, the score quickly became not only accepted but beloved, with a section even used by Walt Disney in Fantasia less than thirty years after the controversial Paris premiere. The uproar was caused not only by the music, which was hard for the musicians to understand and reportedly not played very well, but by the daring choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky. Although we have the score, we do not have the choreography, which was performed as Nijinsky created it for fewer than ten performances and then lost. What we do have is a scholarly reconstruction, by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, premiered by the Joffrey Ballet back in 1987. True, this version is far from perfect: dance historian Jennifer Homans, in her book Apollo's Angels, dismisses it as "American postmodern dance masquerading as a seminal modernist work." Even so, the Mariinsky Ballet leads off its current program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, seen on Tuesday night, with it.

Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, 1911
While the reconstruction may be a "travesty," as Homans put it, "a radical and shocking dance rendered tame and kitschy, a souvenir from an exotic past," it is the closest we are going to get to one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. (The choreography for Debussy's Jeux is also on my wishlist.) The experience of watching it live, with the music performed by an expanded Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, brought home the raw power of the work -- dance, music, artistic designs -- in a way that was not clear to me before. The music, conducted here by Gavriel Heine, was not always in top form and neither was the dancing, but when you see the movements -- or, at least, Hodson and Archer's most educated guess at the movements -- line up with the music, it makes sense in a way it did not before. A few striking moments will suffice as explanation. The stillness and then ecstatic writhing of the tribesmen incited by the music that accompanies the Cortège du Sage is followed by the agonized lowering of the Sage's body to the ground as he kisses the earth (L'Adoration de la Terre). The night vigil of the Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes reveals the selection of the Chosen One, standing in the center as if planted in the ground, danced here in the final scenes with crazed agitation, all flying braids and anguished shudders, by Daria Pavlenko.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s lush, bright and visually spectacular ‘Rite of Spring’ (Washington Post, January 29)

---, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Rite of Spring’: Ode to the human savage, still untamed (Washington Post, January 23)

Alastair Macaulay, Tweaking an Illustrious Tradition to Incorporate Western Notions (New York Times, January 26)

---, An Age-Old Romantic Introduction, With Revitalizing Touches (New York Times, January 19)

Gia Kourlas, Young Performers Spreading Their Wings (New York Times, January 23)
It was hard to imagine anything following such a performance, but the Mariinsky pulled some surprises out of their bag of tricks, with a middle act of two short but celebrated Michel Fokine choreographies. The first, Le spectre de la rose, was created by Vaslav Nijinsky, as the spirit of a rose brought home by a young woman returning from her first ball, made memorable by the bepetaled dancer's triumphant entrance and exit (costumes designed by Léon Bakst), both made by leaps through large windows. Vladimir Shklyarov, last seen in the Mariinsky Romeo and Juliet, was androgynous in the title role, both strong and delicate as, unseen but smelled and remembered by the girl, he wafted the lovely Kristina Shapran around the stage, to Berlioz's orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance. This paired elegantly with Fokine's solo choreography The Swan, set to Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne, with Ulyana Lopatkina, trembling en pointe and with undulating, graceful arms, taking the role created by Anna Pavlova.

The final act was given over to Paquita Grand Pas, a lengthy divertissement by Marius Petipa inserted into Paquita. Set to largely undistinguished music by Ludwig Minkus, it ran the risk of anticlimax, and indeed many empty seats were left after second intermission. For the energetic Pas de Trois, the variation of Kristina Shapran (a dancer to watch), and the lovely return of Ulyana Lopatkina, it was worth the wait.

This program repeats all week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through February 1, but with different casts.


Alexandre Tharaud's Crushing Fortissimo Power

available at Amazon
Bach / Rameau / Couperin, A. Tharaud
(3-CD re-release, Harmonia Mundi)

available at Amazon
Scarlatti, A. Tharaud
(Erato, 2011)
Alexandre Tharaud continues to surprise me. At his latest recital here, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, it was not surprising to hear him play jewel-like Couperin (his opening set) or a delightful Scarlatti sonata as an encore (the guitar-like K. 141). The bulk of the program, though, showed the French pianist going in new directions, with composers not previously associated with him, at least by these ears.

Even in the set of eight Couperin pieces, drawn from all over the place, Tharaud seemed to be questing after new sounds and approaches, adding many changes and embellishments on repeats, not afraid to use the pedals copiously, strongly differentiating polyphonic voices, even hammering out some accents for percussive effect. His Les calotines clicked and clacked, as if with mechanical sounds, and he stretched Les rozeaux and the gorgeous Les barricades mistérieuses with taffy-like rubato. The pairing of Les ombres errantes and La triomphante was played for maximal contrast, delicate and ultra-slow for the former, trumpeted motifs bustling with agitation for the latter. After the clanging, sonorous bells of Le Carillon de Cythère (an effect easier to produce on the modern piano than on the harpsichord), the rhythmic infusion of Le tic-toc-choc, now synonymous with Tharaud, was played with more force than in his recording (or his 2008 recital at the French Embassy).

Mozart's A major sonata (K. 331) followed, the variations on its gentle lullaby theme given accented wrong-note grace notes and expertly voiced hand crossings. The menuetto was organized around its big orchestral unison motif, which set off more fast and delicate music, the trio a little slower and warmer in tone. Tharaud took the piece's famous finale, Alla Turca, at a perfect Allegretto tempo, not too fast, which allowed him to make strongly marked dynamic contrasts and apply a hard-biting touch in the loud Janissary sections, enlivened by percussive attacks. Tharaud's last performance of Schubert, the Moments musicaux at his 2010 recital at the Library of Congress with Jean-Guihen Queyras, was somewhat disappointing. Here he dove into that composer's set of sixteen German dances, D. 783, with much more variety of interpretation, from big and gutsy to forlorn and enigmatic, technically solid in the many challenges (parallel thirds, filigree rising scales, and so on) but with that free, lovely sense of rubato applied in the slow pieces.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A limited program and an inscrutable pianist at the Phillips (Washington Post, January 27)
The program was designed as a long crescendo toward the final piece, Beethoven's sonata in A-flat major, op. 110, or really toward that sonata's finale. Tharaud took the first movement at a slow, expressive tempo, emphasizing the music's delicate side and telling a compelling story with it through gradations of color in sound. The middle movement, marked Allegro molto, was taken at a rather slow speed, startling at first and perhaps not right for the joking quotations of folk songs (snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt, or 'Our cat has had kittens', and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, or 'I'm a slob, you're a slob'), but again with the payoff of being able to make maximal dynamic contrasts and to exaggerate sforzando attacks, as well giving the piece a more legato feel than it usually has. The Klagender Gesang section was steeped in tragic gloom, through which the fugue subject pierced like a ray of sunshine. The tempo of the fugue was perfect, floating weightlessly, allowing all the voices to be delineated cleanly, even in the stretto sections, and making possible a furious cranking up of tempo as the piece rocketed to its conclusion. One of the remarks I made about Tharaud's 2012 recital at the French Embassy was that "crushing fortissimo power is the only weapon missing from [his] arsenal." The exultant hammered chords at the conclusion of the Beethoven made clear that this reservation was no longer justified.

The next recital not to be missed at the Phillips Collection will feature violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov (February 8).


Rest in Peace, Jennifer Holbrook

The news of the tragic death of the gifted young soprano Jennifer Holbrook rippled through the community of singers and musicians who knew her in Baltimore and Washington this past week. Described by her colleagues as "a beautiful and outrageously talented singer and mother" and a "wonderful colleague and friend," Jennifer was an accomplished alumna of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

While I did not have the privilege of knowing her personally, I do remember quite well some of the outstanding performances I heard her give in the area in the last several years. She was beyond radiant as the soloist in the Cantilena from Villa-Lobos's Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 with the cello section of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at their season-opening gala in 2010, which I reviewed for the Washington Post, and she gave what I called "the standout performance of the evening" in the lead role of Catherine Reid's new opera The Yellow Wallpaper, which I reviewed from the Peabody Chamber Opera in 2008. She was singled out in many other performances by Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith and others, in performances with Baltimore Concert Opera, Chesapeake Chamber Opera, and Opera Bel Cantanti, among others.

On behalf of Jennifer's friends and colleagues, as well as all those who have listened to her sing over the years, we extend our deepest condolences to her family, especially her partner, Billy Davenport, and their two-year-old daughter, Eleanor.


Perchance to Stream: Alberta Clipper 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.

  • In a concert from Amsterdam, Ivan Fischer conducts the sixth and seventh symphonies of Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • A rare performance of Bellini's La Straniera, starring Marlis Petersen, Norman Reinhardt, and Franco Vassallo, recorded at the Theater an der Wien, with Paolo Arrivabeni conducting the ORF RSO Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor. [ORF]

  • Listen to the Jerusalem Quartet play music by Haydn, Elias, and Schumann at the Wigmore Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and Verdi's Requiem, from the Royal Festival Hall. [BBC3]

  • Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and conductor Daniel Harding join the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for music by Beethoven and Berg. [France Musique]

  • Mozart's Idomeneo, recorded at the Vienna Staatsoper last fall, with Chen Reiss, Michael Schade, and Maria Bengtson, under conductor Christoph Eschenbach. [RTBF]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen leads a performance of Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa in Copenhagen, starring Sine Bundgaard, Sonia Prina, Deborah York, and others, recorded last September. [Radio Clásica]

  • From the Wigmore Hall in London, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough perform music by Josef Suk, Edvard Grieg, and Stephen Hough. [France Musique]

  • Chamber music of Berg and Beethoven, performed by pianist Lars Vogt, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. [France Musique]

  • Jonathan Nott conducts the Vienna Symphony in a concert recorded in Graz, with music by Bartók (the first violin concerto, with Vilde Frang as soloist) and Bruckner (third symphony). [ORF | Part 2]

  • Andras Schiff leads a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, recorded last April in Lucerne, with the Capella Andrea Barca and the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor. [Radio Clásica]

  • Songs and dances by Schubert with tenor Julian Prégardien, flutist Marc Hantai, and others. [ORF]

  • Listen to Wolfgang Rihm's Nähe fern 2, performed by the ORF RSO, plus Schumann's piano concerto (with Lars Vogt) and Martinu's fifth symphony, recorded at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • A concert by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Hannu Lintu, performing music by Magnus Lindberg, Beethoven, and Berg (the violin concerto with Alina Ibragimova, recorded in 2013 in Helsinki. [ORF]

  • Dirk Snellings leads La Capilla Flamenca in Renaissance music by Lassus and others at the Pieterskerk in Utrecht, recorded in 2013. [France Musique]

  • Paul Daniel conducts the Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine in music of Brett Dean and Beethoven, with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. [France Musique]

  • A concert of Vivaldi concertos performed by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, directed by Andrea Marcon and recorded in 1997. [ORF]

  • Pianist Philippe Bianconi and the Orchestre National de Lille play music by Honegger, Dutilleux, and Brahms under conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus. [France Musique]

  • Daniele Gatti leads the Orchestre National de France, with Sarah Nemtanu and Nicolas Bône, in music by Schumann and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Emmanuel Pahud joins the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for the world premiere of a new flute concerto by Simon Holt, plus Durufle's Requiem with Ruby Hughes and Gerald Finley as soloists. [RTBF]

  • A selection of chamber music by Laurent Lefrançois, performed by the Quatuor Parisii and friends. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Nicholas Angelich joins the Orchestre Royal Philharmonique de Liège, under director Christian Arming. [RTBF]

  • Anne Marie Dragosits leads a performance by Vivante, devoted to music by Girolamo Kapsberger and others, recorded in the Wiener Konzerthaus for the Resonanzen Festival. [ORF]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Nicholas Angelich, playing music by Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann, recorded last June at the Cully Festival in Switzerland. [ORF]

  • The first anniversary of the death of Claudio Abbado was this past week. Celebrate his memory with three concerts he conducted, in Vienna and Salzburg, in the late 1980s. [ORF]

  • The Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille music by Berlioz, Henri Tomasi, Debussy, and others. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the recording of Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore, starring Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes and conducted by Richard Bonynge, made in London in 1979. [ORF]


Ionarts-at-Large: Two Concertos for the Price of One!

Kirill Gerstein & James Gaffigan in Vienna

If the Konzerthaus presents the cream of the crop among orchestras in its own orchestral cycle, the Jeunesse concert organizer—active in all of Austria but incidentally based out of the Konzerthaus—brings that second tier that has less clout with the finicky Viennese concert-goers but means no necessary decrease in quality and often a considerable increase in programming-finesse. Orchestras like the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra (on October 18th with Markus Stenz and Vilde Frang in the Korngold Violin Concerto) or, on this occasion, Gürzenich Orchestra (where Markus Stenz is music director until 2015) under its principal guest conductor James Gaffigan (on Twitter) with pianist Kirill Gerstein (who only recently knocked out a stunning Enoch Arden together with Bruno Ganz at the Konzerthaus).

The program featured to Piano Concertos-by-another-name: Richard Strauss’ difficult Burleske and Carl Maria von Weber’s bravura-pianistic (= more-difficult-sounding-than-it-is) Konzertstück. These right-before-and-right-after intermission works were bracketed by Schumann’s Genoveva Overture and his Fourth Symphony. A string of influences—Schumann influences Weber, Weber influences Strauss—and topical relations—Genoveva sees her lover part and return; ditto the dame in the Konzertstück—gave the arrangement a bit of appreciated dramaturgical backbone. Add to that that both concertos were rebellious, because-no-one-likes-them favorites of Glenn Gould which he both recorded.

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Burleske et al.,
M.Argerich / C.Abbado / BPh

available at Amazon
C.M.v.Weber, Konzertztück et al.,
M.Pletnev / RNO

available at Amazon
F.Liszt, R.Schumann, O.Knussen, Sonata in B-minor et al.,

The Konzertstück sounds like it must be lovely for audience (evidently) and the performers (surmisedly) alike. As Gerstein pointed out during a pre-concert chat about the new, cleaned-up edition of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, all the big pianists of bygone days used to have the Konzertstück ready to pull out at every opportune moment that called for a little dainty flash and a bang. “But have you ever heard it live?” Indeed, I had not. Now I have. And you can really hear the story, to the point of almost-cringe-worthy, when the march-music of the returning crusaders sounds rather like a cheap toy punched out of tin: ‘Obvious’ at least, if not outright cheap.

Before it got there, the Genoveva Overture had to be sat through which the Gürzenich and Gaffigan made a distinctively pleasant affair. Because James Gaffigan is younger than I (if not by much), I think of him as “disgustingly young”—that coquettish-envious compliment I pull out reflexively at these occasions. Turns out he isn’t all that young anymore, though he was, when I was first impressed with him stepping in for an indisposed James Conlon with the Munich Philharmonic in 2009. Fastidious and with a clear and elegant beat, a confident and assured demeanor, he looks like nothing comes more naturally to him than conducting. (What a contrast!)

Kirill Gerstein (on Twitter) takes the Strauss-Anniversary quite seriously. First Enoch Arden, now the Burleske, neither standard repertoire works he can expect to play every season. All that despite Gerstein not even being a Straussian: “I just happen to find something in these pieces… and of course to be able to do Enoch Arden with someone Ganz, why wouldn’t you!” From his sensitive playing, alongside and with a well-balanced orchestra, one could never have told that he isn’t a particular Strauss-appréciateur. The work has some regularly occurring Straussianisms, but relatively few, actually, for a composer with such a recognizable idiom. Perhaps that contributes to its middling popularity and also to why it is so refreshing to hear when it does pop up on the menu. As if to pay homage to Gould, who happily embraced the work, Gerstein happily hummed along; more in tune than the Canadian master, but still to arguable benefit of the presentation. His liberal rubato let Strauss breathe, traded the music back and forth with the orchestra, all of which suited the piece well (as did the excellent piano/pianissimo solo passages) and gave it a more understated tone, rather than hearing it banged out, all athletically.

To have another symphony after these three works, which so far (if unwittingly) celebrated brevity, struck as a bit much at first. Still, it had to be done, and so the ears readied themselves for a Schuman Fourth Symphony: Shaped with oceanic movements, cohesive enough without setting new records, sounding good without sounding great, it was the kind of performance above-average enough to give the listener-with-pen neither chance to criticize nor the opportunity to trip over him or herself with joyous raving. In short: Critic’s Hell!

The swift tempi after the gorgeous-but-portentous opening were invigorating, the vigor and momentum of it uplifting, the concertmistress elegant and gorgeous-toned, with a darkish weightlessness to her playing, perfectly nimble and on-pitch. The brass was sure-footed and never blared, even in the loud bits. The zip of the finale was catchy, the whole symphony feeling much shorter than it actually is. Some achievement for a finale that is perpetually finishing up: much like a guest in the door forever saying “I must really go home now”. (Or the Duddley Moore Beethoven joke.) As it turned out, the performance was a good many notches above average, after all. Which in the case of any partnership, musical or otherwise, should be the stated aim: A few notches above average. Everything else (more) would be indecent to ask for and must simply be enjoyed when it occurs.

Dip Your Ears, No. 191 (Corelli Concerti Grossi)

available at Amazon
A.Corelli, Concerto Grossi (complete)
A.Beyer / Gli Incogniti
Zig-Zag Territoires

The Mother of Concerti Grossi

All twelve Concerti Grossi of Arcangelo Corelli—plus two unpublished rarities—from the freewheeling, rollicking Gli Incogniti with Amandine Beyer are bound to attract any baroque lover’s attention. The group and soloist’s playing fits right into the currently and happily popular type that emphasizes wallop, liveliness, and punch over courtly mien. Along with his Sonatas (which the Avison Ensemble has recorded splendidly for Linn), these concerti—themselves magnificent—were models for just about any great (or minor) baroque composers to follow in these genres. Especially in energetic yet warm performances like these, they rank alongside Handel and Vivaldi and Geminiani and perhaps even the Brandenburg Concertos


NSO's Drab Tchaikovsky-Fest

If you looked at this week's underwhelming program from the National Symphony Orchestra and wondered if it would be worth hearing, don't bother. Fans of Tchaikovsky, who is the sole composer represented this week and next week, will not be dissuaded by anything I write, nor will those who want to hear the ensemble's fine concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, take the platform as soloist. For those who were already on the fence, though, you can stay home.

My distaste for Tchaikovsky's music, when his propensity for long-windedness was not limited by an opera libretto or a ballet choreographer, is (probably too) well known. He was a prodigiously talented composer, and music director Christoph Eschenbach is to be congratulated for choosing mostly Tchaikovsky never before played by his orchestra or at least not in some time. The execution, however, did not put this less familiar music in the best light. The fantasy-overture Hamlet, last heard in 1990 under Mstislav Rostropovich, had a bland opening in Elsinore (all that unison playing left a little tedious) and the fast sections underscored their own banality. The playing of assistant principal oboist Jamie Roberts, on the forlorn theme associated with Ophelia, saved the middle section, even when Tchaikovsky's writing for the instrument, into the occasionally unreliable lower range, caused some inevitable intonation issues.

The situation did not improve much for the youthful first symphony, last heard on much better terms in 2009 under Andrew Litton. "A sin of my sweet youth," Tchaikovsky reportedly said of the work, with the better orchestrational and melodic ideas reworked in more effective form in the score for The Nutcracker. Eschenbach and the musicians got the most out of the slow movement, which oozed along and had some fine mistiness in the soft playing, but while the scherzo was warm and genial, the tempo was perhaps on the slow side. Eschenbach pushed a little too much for bluster and speed in the finale, which made the often absurd fugal sections something of a jumble.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach starts two-week Tchaikovsky focus at NSO with unusual repertoire (Washington Post, January 23)
In the middle came two slender pieces, the Sérénade mélancolique and Valse-Scherzo, mini-showpieces for violin that received their first NSO performances here. Nurit Bar-Josef does what she does as the NSO's concertmaster extremely well, but parts of Tchaikovsky's more demanding writing put her in a not so excellent light. Her vibrato-heavy, buzzing tone on the G string was electrifying on the opening of the Sérénade, and her octaves were clean and strong, but little about the phrasing or musical choices struck me as all that remarkable. The more challenging Valse-Scherzo also had plenty of energy and flawless spiccato technique, but the passages in double-stops not so much. Even the audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which routinely gives a standing ovation for any soloist, stayed firmly in its seats.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.


Briefly Noted: Suzuki's Requiem

available at Amazon
Mozart, Requiem / Vesperae solennes de confessore, C. Sampson, M.B. Kielland, M. Sakurada, C. Immler, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki

(released on January 13, 2015)
BIS-2091 | 74'34"
We are admirers of the work of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan here at Ionarts. With the group's fine traversal of Bach's cantatas now complete, Suzuki has turned his attention to Mozart's setting of the Latin Requiem Mass. Not surprisingly, he has made a recording that is beautiful to listen to and forces the listener to confront the scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood work. Because the composer's death prevented him from completing it, Romantic imaginations have often run wild concerning the genesis and meaning of this Requiem. This recording's supremely informed program essay, by scholar Christoph Wolff, ends on the description of the composer's sister-in-law Sophie's memory of Mozart's final moments on earth: "The last thing he did was to try to mouth the sound of the timpani in his Requiem -- this I remember even now." Wolff also observes that in 1791, the year he died, Mozart was expecting to be appointed Domkapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and that he sought to make his Requiem a piece that could be used in an actual liturgy.

Suzuki performs every note Mozart actually wrote down just as he wrote it, and he also tries to honor the intentions of both of the early completions of the work, by Franz Xaver Süßmayr and Joseph Eybler. The edition he uses, by Masato Suzuki (the conductor's son and the organist of the ensemble), makes a few corrections to the sometimes clumsy writing and instrumentation of the Süßmayr completion. This includes a second version of the Tuba mirum movement, one that follows Mozart's indication that the trombone play only the opening fanfare figure, with the rest of that part going to a bassoon (not how it is usually performed now). Most interestingly, Suzuki has added an Amen fugue to the end of the sequence, based on a fragment in Mozart's hand written around the same time (discovered in Berlin in 1960).

The tempo of the opening movement is paced so that the soprano's statement of the psalm, quite rightly, sounds more or less like a psalm tone. The luscious Carolyn Sampson sings both phrases each in a single breath and is matched in beauty by mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland. The male voices are less suited, with the tenor not always on the money pitch-wise (more when he is on his own), and the bass a little woolly. The only curious tempo choice was in the Recordare movement, so fast that the intertwining instrumental lines are a chaotic tangle. The focus in Mozart's life on sacred music makes the pairing here, with the Vesperae solennes de confessore (K. 339, composed in 1780 for the Cathedral of Salzburg), particularly appropriate, albeit in a middling performance, La Sampson's Laudate dominum aside. In fact, not noticed by me before, the "Qui habitare" fugue at the end of the Laudate pueri movement seems to be echoed in the "Sed signifer sanctus Michael" fugue in the Requiem Mass.


À mon chevet: 'The Museum of Innocence'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Except for my years in America, I had spent my whole life in this big apartment whose sitting room and wide balcony overlooked Teşvikiye Mosque, where one or two funerals took place every day, and when I was a child, these spectacles initiated us into the fearful mystery of death. Not just Istanbul's rich but also famous politicians, generals, journalists, singers, and artists had their funeral prayers said at the mosque, considered a prestigious point of departure for the "final journey," whereby the coffin was carried slowly on shoulders to Nişantaşi Square -- the procession accompanied, depending on the rank of the deceased, by a military band or the city council ensemble playing Chopin's Funeral March.

[...] Just before a funeral of broad public interest -- if the deceased was a prime minister, a famous tycoon, or a singer -- the doorbell would ring and unexpected guests would appear, saying, "I was just passing by, and I thought I'd drop in," and though my mother would never let her manners lapse, later on she would say, "They didn't come to see us but to see the funeral." And so we began to think of the ceremony not as a comfort against the sting of death or a chance to pay one's last respects to the deceased, but as an amusing diversion. [...]

Like everyone else Füsun was wearing the photograph of Belkis on her collar. It had become commonplace at funerals following political assassinations (so frequent in those days), and the custom had quickly gained currency among the Istanbul bourgeoisie. Many years later I was able to assemble a small collection of these tokens, and I display them here. When crowds of sighing (but inwardly content) socialites sporting sunglasses took to such displays, like so many right- and left-wing militants, these photographs would give an ordinary lighthearted society funeral intimations of an ideal that might be worth dying for, a hint of common purpose, and a certain gravitas. In imitation of the Western conceit, the photograph was framed in black, by which formerly happy images appropriated for death notices assumed the cast of mourning, and the most frivolous images could attain in death the somber dignity usually reserved for victims of political assassination.

I left without coming eye to eye with anyone, rushing off to the Merhamet Apartments, where I impatiently awaited Füsun. Every now and then I glanced at my watch. Much later, and without giving it much thought, I found myself parting the dusty curtains to look through the always closed window that gave onto Teşvikiye Avenue, and I saw Belkis's coffin pass below slowly in the funeral car.

Some people spend their entire lives in pain, owing to the misfortune of being poor, stupid, or outcast from society -- this thought passed through me, gliding by with the measured pace of the coffin, then disappeared. Since the age of twenty I had felt myself protected by an invisible armor from all variety of trouble and misery. And so it followed that to spend too much time thinking about other people's misery might make me unhappy, too, and in so doing, pierce my armor.

-- Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (translation by Maureen Freely), pp. 81-83
Lovely people keep buying me books, and so the detour from my Balzac reading project continues. So, after loving My Name Is Red and, to a lesser extent, Snow, I have been more than happy to dive into the Orhan Pamuk book that followed them, The Museum of Innocence. This book also has an unusual narrative structure, as the presentation of a tour guide leading you through an actual museum, filled with artifacts handled by the characters in the story or significantly placed within their lives. Pamuk published this book after winning the Nobel Prize, in 2006, and he then went and bought a house in Istanbul, turning it into an actual Museum of Innocence that opened to the public in 2012. In the last few pages of the book is a ticket to the "Museum of Innocence," which one can use to gain entry to the actual museum.


Trifonov and Kremer in Charm City

available at Amazon
M. Weinberg, Symphony No. 10 (inter alia), Kremerata Baltica, G. Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2014)
While Daniil Trifonov has dazzled in solo recital, the Russian pianist's appearances with orchestras, most recently with the NSO, showed the same daring but not always a natural aptitude in ensemble situations. This did not augur well for Trifonov's local debut as a chamber musician, at Shriver Hall on Sunday night, doubts that were borne out in an otherwise intriguing selection of music performed with violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė.

There were no questions about Trifonov's technical accomplishment, although what he did with the first piece, Mozart's slender D minor fantasia (K. 397), was not really about that. Faced with a lack of technical challenge, Trifonov pushed and pulled the music in every which direction, with enigmatic and slow arpeggiation followed by a poignant rendition of the tragic arioso, the contrasting sections shifting moods on a dime. Kremer, who was last in Baltimore ten years ago (but with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011), did similar things with Mieczysław Weinberg's second solo violin sonata, op. 95. Each of the seven short movements received a different emphasis of tone: a deliberate, even clumsy straightness in Monody, frenetic sawing attacks in Interval, a gorgeous vibrato-heavy sound in Repliques, and a fragile deference in Accompaniment. Kremer hit his stride in the last two movements, producing that full-throated biting sound in the intense, even strident Invocation and giving a folk-flavored fiddle drive to the final movement, Syncopations.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Gidon Kremer, Daniil Trifonov in brilliant form at Shriver Hall (Baltimore Sun, January 21)

Niels Swinkels, Kremer and Trifonov Deliver Rewards with Challenging Program (San Francisco Classical Voice, January 18)

Mark Swed, Gidon Kremer shares a performance of a lifetime (Los Angeles Times, January 15)
Schubert's C major fantasy, D. 934, is a bear of a piece, especially for the pianist, most recently heard from James Ehnes and Orion Weiss last year. Trifonov was astounding from a technical point of view, although ensemble challenges like balances and a shared rubato were not always in hand. He achieved some remarkable lightness of tone, although not everywhere he needed to do so, while Kremer floated on his arching lines in the first movement, although his high flautando sound was a little perilous at times. There was one moment in the second movement that sounded like a misalignment, although the duo quickly recovered from it, but the variations were sentimental in nature, without turning overly sappy.

The low point of the concert was Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque No. 2 (D minor, op. 9), a youthful work composed just after hearing the news of Tchaikovsky's death. The performance was appropriately steeped in gloom, with songful playing from Dirvanauskaitė, but the obsessive repetition of motivic cells in the melodic themes of the first movement, for example, made me wonder if the popularity of Rachmaninoff's music might not be due to the same qualities observed in successful pop songs. The theme at the heart of the middle variations movement is truly banal, and the qualities the composer harps on in each variation did not make things any better. The piece is centered almost exclusively on the keyboard pyrotechnics, and at this Trifonov excelled. Two encores rewarded strong ovations: a Scherzo by Shostakovich (the second movement from the second piano trio, I think), and the second of Rodion Shchedrin's Three Funny Pieces, titled Let's Play an Opera by Rossini.

The fine season at Shriver Hall continues next month with a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet (February 15, 5:30 pm), playing music by Haydn, Schulhoff, and Schubert.