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31.10.04

When the Gods Call... (Pollini at the Kennedy Center)

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Piano Sonatas opp.54, 57, 78, 90
DG

On his Hamburg Steinway—tuned exactly to the Kennedy Center's Orchestra Hall—Maurizio Pollini descended upon the audience to give it Beethoven (corresponding to his latest DG release) and Chopin. Maestro Pollini, who first appeared in Washington 30 years ago with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is to my generation what Artur Schnabel must have been to my grandparents, and correspondingly I waited like a teenager, giddy and nervous to see my hero appear on stage. He waited... we waited... anticipation rose... turned into mild anxiety... where was he? I was reduced to a groupie waiting for his rock star, until the door opened and soft and gentle, as he smileth, he stepped onto the stage, headed to the gorgeous grand, and started with Beethoven's Sonata No. 24, op. 78, in F# major.

His hands just purled off notes in all shapes and forms. Larger clusters of notes were churned out with such precision that every note had the same value, length, and force, making it seem like a sort of mechanical toy, falling perfectly in place and giving coherence otherwise unachievable. Involved as he was, there was some humming on his part during a few excitable moments.

The inhumanly perfect Pollini showed in the opening of Beethoven's 23rd sonata, the "Appassionata" (op. 57, in F minor) that he is still earthbound, and the rare moment of a few mistakes occurred, seemingly against all odds with a man who can play for two hours and drop four notes. For all but those three, four notes, one could have issued the performance directly as a recording, so staggering were his command and expression. The performance of op. 57—polished for sure—had me, for better or worse, in a trance-like state and did, for whichever reasons, not quite match the excitement of its successor.

After the Beethoven (either making you want to pick up playing the piano or go home and burn it, if one already plays) Chopin's Nocturnes (nos. 1 and 2) came out to play. With a (non sequitur?) rubato of steel and his perpetuum mobile fingers, the lightness of a stalking panther, ready to pounce at any moment, Pollini sounded magnificent. While they were certainly not the most lyrical accounts (I have a big soft spot for Maria João Pires’ and Claudio Arrau’s accounts of the Nocturnes) and while his singing wasn't perfect, either, they were still rather gorgeous!

Ballade no. 3 had the heft that some players are afraid of giving to the "sickly Pole." With Pollini on (key)board, Chopin and Liszt move closer together, rather than being the imaginary opposite poles they probably never were. My innards were dancing with his perfectly balanced and weighed 15-note see-saw leaps in the work.

The now 62-year old Italian continued to mesmerize with the Chopin B-flat minor sonata (no. 2, op. 35), which was the final and perhaps the finest piece. Murmurs, undercurrents, and maybe the first time I enjoyed the work without any reservations: everything was in place. Flawless "attacca," one musical life slipping away, giving way to a newborn idea forcefully claiming reign... magically seamless shifts, and a plethora of other gawking adjectives on my part would well have described the performance. A New Orleans lilt marked the dark Marcia Funèbre and then there was an apotheosis. Pure light and delicacy with the shift of a key. Perhaps it isn't appropriate to remark upon "trills to die for" in a funeral march—but there, I did it—and the audience was spellbound.

The applause that started long before the last note stopped reverberating was and always is highly annoying, especially since this, if any performance, should and could have stunned the audience into a momentary silence. The encore that followed, Chopin again with his 15th prelude (the "Raindrop"), was brooding and sublime, delicious and almost frightening in its mood shifts. Philistines thought it more important to get to their cars and dinner reservations than listening to Pollini's second encore, one of Chopin's ballades. They left their seats, pushing me half out of the way: I have a few unpublishable words reserved for such audience members. Meanwhile Pollini's spider-fingers evoked all kinds of beautiful things from a grand piano that must count itself lucky.

A third encore followed—stunning, especially given the fact that Pollini is not prone to be liberal with his encores. Wow! This time it was one of the Nocturnes. And then, unbelievably, he gave another encore, Etude, op. 10, no. 8 at break-neck speed. He played like a motor running, well oiled and on all 10 cylinders. One wanted to say: "Children, don't try this at home: it's a professional driver on a closed course."

With that and much more applause by a thankful audience, an evening came to a close that was as magical as any I have witnessed as far as piano recitals are concerned. It was everything that is good about Pollini, nothing of what is less. The high lasted 24 hours, easily. In fact, I am still a bit dizzy. A better way to celebrate Ionarts' newborn daughter (courtesy of Charles and Mme. Downey) could not have been imagined. Congratulations!



available at Amazon Various, 20th Century
DG

UK | DE | FR

From amid Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Prokoviev, (Petrushka movements, op.27 Variations, Piano Sonata #2, Piano Sonata #7 "Stalingrad"), pick especially the Stravinsky, because Maurizio Pollini's dozen or so minutes of the Petrushka movements are perhaps the best pianism ever caught on record—full stop.

available at Amazon F.Chopin, Preludes, Etudes, Polonaises
UK | DE | FR

This package of three, still full-priced, Pollini Chopin CDs is a wonderful deal. His Preludes may be coldish, not unlike Argerich (who gives you pianistic flaws galore on top of it in her 'one-take' recording from the 60s) and his Polonaises may not convert Rubinstein-lovers, but both are enormously well done and plenty exciting. But turn to his Etudes and be bowled over. It's like throwing a bowl of pearls down a marble staircase. Cristalline but with enough emotion, not a trace of effort—perfection that can intimidate but is more likely to awe and stun. Even if you already have Ashkenazy's recording from the 50s, this is a must-have.

available at Amazon R.Schumann, Kreisleriana, Gesang der Frühe
UK | DE | FR

Often Pollini is criticized for being too cold. This is one his (few) later recordings where he is actually burning with feeling. As far as Kreisleriana's are concerned, go no further. Do not cross STOP, do not collect...

available at Amazon Liszt, Sonata in B minor et al.
UK | DE | FR

Liszt with a dash of academia? Perfection pays in these works, and it's essential to hear them next to the Chopin.

Beethoven, Late Sonatas: I've waxed rhapsodic elsewhere about this recording: if you don't have it, you may not like (classical) music...

available at Amazon Schubert, Schumann,Wanderer-Fantasie, Fantasie op.17
UK | DE | FR

Finally, this staggering coupling. Want the big picture about these works? Want to go beyond the dismal key-pushing of a Lang Lang? Musicality and skill in an unholy combination—and highly, most enthusiastically recommended!







Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey

I think that the author of this review (Tom Huizenga, At Pollini Recital, a Chill in the Air, October 29) in the Washington Post must have been at a different recital, where "one was awestruck by the design, but the heart of the music was missing." Maybe it's a fault, but I actually like performances that are intellectual, precise, and technically masterful, and that's why I have always idolized Maurizio Pollini since I first heard him. What he released on the stage Wednesday night (October 27—the evening after the birth of my daughter, which was an excellent coda to a miraculous day) was the closest thing to a perfect performance one may reasonably expect, not really marred but made more human by the tiny chinks in the Pollini armor that appeared in the "Appassionata."

In fact, Pollini's rigorous control of voicing, tone, dynamics, and color was what made the performance so fascinating, not just the fact that he could play extraordinarily difficult music at dazzling tempos and nearly flawlessly. That is what "heart" means for me, if it means anything at all in terms of a musical performance. Every moment was carefully considered, and the full orchestral range of Pollini's touch on the keyboard was put to use. The first of the three sonatas on the program, Beethoven's no. 24, was delicate, melodically shaded, charming, and calm, with only the short final movement showing off any technical flair.

If you program something like no. 23 ("Appassionata"), which is almost overplayed, you are obliged to say something with it that sets you apart. Pollini's basic approach, it seemed to me, was to play up the ultradramatic contrast of loud and soft to the greatest possible effect. The first theme, heavily pedaled, was the barest whisper of an outlined minor triad. I had a flashback to lessons with one of my teachers, a student of Alfredo Casella in her youth, who used to stop me every lesson after about 5 seconds of each piece with the words, "You must think about how you begin." Pollini has definitely thought about that. For the recapitulation of the first movement, Beethoven has his main F minor theme return over a pulsating dominant pedal point, which sort of telescopes the preparation of the recapitulation with the recapitulation itself. The 6/4 harmony that is created is one of the least stable sounds in the tonal vocabulary, a chord that wants to collapse into something else. The effect is meant to be unsettling, and I found Pollini's rendition of it to be tinged with menace, which was perfect. The coda was blindingly fast.

What struck me about the selection of Chopin works on the second half was that especially the third ballade and the sonata are excellent examples of the Romantic rethinking of what Beethoven did with thematic development and musical form. The two nocturnes were understated miniatures that showed off Pollini's mastery of multiple voicing in Chopin's intertwined melodic lines, unwoven like strands of gauze from a tiny spool. His rendition of the third ballade was one of the most dancelike I have ever heard, with the lilt that can make you feel weightless and thus in the mood for dancing.

The Chopin sonata is up there with the Liszt sonata as one of the two greatest examples of the Romantic rethinking of the classical sonata form. Near the end of the very fast conclusion to the first movement, in one of the most humorous and horrifying moments of my entire concert-going life, a water bottle rolled noisily down the left aisle for what seemed like ten minutes. The scherzo, also extremely rapid in tempo, was contrasted with a noticeably slower trio, which returns after the return of the scherzo (in a moment that recalls, among other things, the scherzo and trio of Beethoven's seventh symphony). For the first time, thanks to Pollini's masterfully voiced rendition of the 3rd movement funeral march, with its brass-like sections echoed by distant winds, I heard those low trills as the roll of martial tympani, which makes such good sense.

Needless to say, we greeted the chance to hear four Pollini encores, each more demanding than the last, with great enthusiasm. (Actually, we were shortchanged, since according to Keith Powers writing for the Boston Herald, at a recital with the same program in Boston, he played five encores there. Anthony Tommasini heard four after the slightly different program Pollini played in New York.) The second one he played here, Chopin's first ballade, in G minor, is perhaps more substantial than most encore fare, but it was truly enjoyable to hear Pollini play this piece that is alternately melancholy and manic. I extend my thanks to Neale Perl, President of the Washington Performing Arts Society, who introduced the recital by announcing that Pollini had scheduled only six concerts in four American cities. Thanks to WPAS for bringing him to our neck of the woods. CTD

30.10.04

I ♥ Huckabees...or Do You?

I remember sitting around in a friend's college dorm room at Michigan State while she was entertaining one of her intellectual friends. Insisting on riffing on any subject he thought would elude my conversational parameters of intelligence (not all that difficult, really) he didn't find it beneath him to tell a joke. "How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?" There was a silence and then he answered himself. "Fish."

They both rolled over with laughter in appreciation while I sat there wondering if there was more to the joke than I realized. This very sensation came back to me while I was watching I ♥ Huckabees, David O. Russell's current cinematic outing, in the theater. I have enjoyed Russell's films in the past, starting with Spanking the Monkey and then Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings (the latter proving to be my favorite). His movies always risk pushing some indecipherable edge and toppling into pure chaos and yet manage to hedge the line close enough to deliver as a solid movie.

Huckabees is no different. Russell is attempting to deliver perhaps the first existential comedy the world has ever seen. In contrast to films such as this year's What the *bleep* do we know?, Russell doesn't want simply to analyze or pontificate on metaphysics and reality, he wants to balloon it into a joke with wacky characters, gumball color schemes, and a lot of physical comedy. The result is a somewhat muddled, yet quite trackable, series of sugarcoated philosophical quandaries that go down like chocolate-covered fish. Russell has always had a penchant for rambling and overlapping characters. In Flirting with Disaster, half the fun is watching it again and picking up so many of the thrown-away lines that were either buried or simply mumbled in the first viewing. The danger in this type of ensemble rant is that you distance the audience from individual relationships with each character. The lack of close-ups and isolating lines is that you lose specificity.

My feeling throughout Huckabees was one of removed amusement. I was in constant appreciation of the writer/director's ability to embrace absurdity and a nonlinear story and simply trudge forward without asking the audience's permission. The story centers around Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), who begins the film in an expletive-jammed inner rant of self-doubt. (Somehow one gets the feeling this comes directly from the director's own mental wellspring, as reports have had him having and causing recurring mental breakdowns on sets.) He is the head of an organization titled "Open Spaces" (get it?), which was started to prevent the overwhelming and pervading onslaught of urban sprawl. Albert has decided to stand his ground on a rock by reading a poem ("You rock, rock.") but is filled with such a quandary of purpose he immediately dashes to the Existential Detectives (played goofily and lovingly by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin).

There Albert meets Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who is a firefighter in existential torture of meaninglessness after "that September thing." Together they struggle to embrace the idea of universal "connectedness" while the detectives follow them through their lives to see what their disconnect derives from. Along the way they meet adversity in the form of Brad (Jude Law), a philosophical poser and also the head of I ♥ Huckabees industries (a large corporation of board rooms and glossy commerciality, as well as a big contributor to urban sprawl). Brad thinks he can outsmart his adversaries by adopting faux-existential dilemmas and using the detectives against Albert until they have served his purpose.

When "the answers" of the detectives do not provide results as Albert and Tommy desire, they decide to go to the other side. Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) preys upon Albert and Tommy in their moment of doubt and sways them to the philosophy of the "disconnect," that each moment has no relation to the next. She is an ex-student of the detectives and their arch enemy. The three will battle for the boys' philosophical futures and perhaps explain the nature of their existence.

Russell uses existentialism like many people in Hollywood use eastern philosophy. The words Zen, Buddhism, and Tao are tossed around like buzzwords in a corporate strategy guide. Embracing the shallowness of materialism while simultaneously spouting the virtues of nothingness is ridiculous. The problem here is that while the joke is very clever and to be lauded for its loftiness in ambition, it doesn't make you laugh.

29.10.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 15 (Barenboim's Tannhäuser)

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tannhäuser,
D.Barenboim / Staatskapelle Berlin /
J.Eaglen, W.Meier, R.Pape, P.Seifert
Teldec



available at Amazon
Warner budget re-issue
(without libretto)


Daniel Barenboim, one of the finest Wagnerians alive, has given us one outstanding Wagner-recording after another – notably his Parsifal and Tristan! This 2001 Tannhäuser follows that line. Like the rival Sinopoli recording (DG, Paris Version, 1989), it benefits from state-of-the-art sound quality and a stupendous cast. The female leads Jeane Eaglen and Waltraut Meier might well be the best on record and Peter Seifert, Rene Pape and Thomas Hampson don’t need to shy away from any competition, either. Like Wagner’s wife, I prefer the Dresden version without the excessive Venusberg-mystery-music – and Barenboim’s subtle amalgamation seems to combine the best of both worlds. With his fine band in top form and the conducting sure-handed and emotionally charged, this Sängerkrieg is a clear winner – and not just among modern recordings.

28.10.04

Robert Merrill Dies

I am busy with a new arrival, a daughter born yesterday, so I'm sending you to the blogroll to the right. (Apparently, it's a time of miracles in other places, too.) Also, you can read the tributes to opera singer Robert Merrill. As one comes in, another goes out.

Also, again, this story is absolutely amazing, the discovery in Indonesia of skeletons of a small pre-Homo sapiens cousin of our species.

27.10.04

Dip Your Ears, No. 14

cover
E. Bloch, String Quartets 1-4, The Griller Quartet
I can't honestly say that I knew that Ernest Bloch had written string quartets. Violin Concerto, Israel Symphony, the cello-evergreen Schelomo: yes. And good; all of it. But I was not prepared for this stunning discovery. In his four (of five—the fifth having been composed after this record was made) string quartets—the 2nd perhaps the primus inter pares—he gives Shostakovich a run for his money with his ravishingly rhythmic, increasingly chromatic style. Composed in 1916, 1945, 1952, and 1953, this music has a kick to it that belies the mellow style of Schelomo and the age of these 1954 mono recordings. Anyone wondering where the famous "Decca sound" came from might well start here. Anyone with even the faintest interest in 20th-century chamber music has a duty to him/herself to explore this budget-priced double CD. Dedicated to one composer, unearthing masterpieces, splendidly played, eerily good sound: this is my favorite of the Decca Original Masters series.

[The Griller String Quartet – Decca 475 6071]

26.10.04

Upcoming Concerts

Washington is not a cultural Mecca, but it ain't half-bad, either—if you make use of some of its finer offerings. A mix between the big and the small, "events" and intimate gatherings, expensive and free concerts can give you at least as much music and culture as you could possibly enjoy.

One of the most interesting programs I have ever seen will sadly coincide with tomorrow's performance of Maurizio Pollini, and thus I cannot go. (When the gods call, you heed the call... there's no 'not-seeing' Pollini.) It is held by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, by far the most daring and imaginative cultural programmers out there... the only ones not yet daunted by Washington's overwhelming cultural conservatism when it comes to music and art. Under the title From Chance to Hyper-Determination, they will offer a short panel discussion on chance and order with professors Marcello Buiatti (Professor of Genetics, University of Florence) and Fabrizio Luccio (Professor of Computer Science, University of Pisa) followed by a piano recital of aleatory music.

Emanuele Arciuli is a reputable interpreter of contemporary (and Baroque) music and will dish out modern delicacies like the Morton Feldman Intermission VI, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen, John Adams's Phrygian Gates, and a piece by Alessandro Sbordoni (unknown to me) that was comissioned by the Italian Embassy in Washington and will receive its world premiere. (Unfortunately, I forgot the name of it.) To attend this concert (with following reception) on Wednesday, October 27, 6:30 PM, call (202) 223 9800, ext. 1. The Italian Embassy is at 3000 Whitehaven Street N.W., right off Massachusetts Avenue, 15 walking minutes from Dupont Circle.

The Embassy Series will feature the delightful, Anne Schein-tutored Mendelssohn Piano Trio at the Austrian Embassy (3524 International Court, N.W., 10 walking minutes from the UDC-Metro Station) this Friday, the 29th at 8:00 PM. Apart from the Schubert B-flat, they will also play a Korngold and Goldmark trio—neglected Viennese marvels in their own right. The receptions at the Austrian Embassy usually include little home- and staff-made treats... the last time I got sick, I ate so many Hildabrötchen.

Ivo Pogorelich (a fallen hero rising?) will show his always unique talent at the George Mason Univsersity this Sunday, October 31, at 4:00 PM. Beethoven's Sonata in D Minor, op. 31/2 ("Der Sturm"), the Sonata in E Minor, op. 90, and Rondo a cappriccio in G Major, op. 129; Sibelius's tone poem Valse Triste, op. 44/2, and Rachmaninoff's Moments Musicaux are on the menu. (For more information, click here.)

The Trio Solisti will perform on November 2, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater (given to the American people by the people of Japan—as the entire Kennedy Center seems to have been cobbled up of gifts from other countries... Italian marble, hideous Austrian chandeliers, etc.) by the Washington Performing Arts Society. (Tickets available here.) The ladies look sexy, which is of course enough to satisfy this shallow reviewer, and I desperately want to hear Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec's Mood Swings. Throw in the Brahms Trio in B Major, op. 8, and the Ravel Trio and it should be a fine night.

I love Duparc's songs, and François Le Roux will do a few at La Maison Française on Wednesday, November 3, 8:00 PM. (Call the Duparc-lover hotline at (202) 944 6091 for reservations.) If you hated it, get drunk at the wine reception that follows.

Pentatonic Scale? So Gay!

In an article (What's So Gay About American Music?, October 24) for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini has posed some good questions about the latest salvo from the Queer Theory ("Queory" could be catchy) wing of musicology, a new book by Nadine Hubbs, who teaches music and women's studies at the University of Michigan (The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music and National Identity, University of California Press). Tommasini, you may recall, wrote a book on the life of Virgil Thomson (Virgil Thomson: Composer On The Aisle, published by W. W. Norton in 1997), one of the gay composers Prof. Hubbs cites as having created the American sound. Terry Teachout has already responded to the article at About Last Night, as did Alex Ross at The Rest Is Noise, and both had excellent thoughts. Both of them were thinking of writing reviews of the book themselves.

My take on this sort of musicological research—feminist and queer studies—is no different than the way I assess any other viewpoint. I think it's very helpful to learn about the lives of composers, male or female, gay or straight. It's interesting to know about the gay dynamics of the group of Forster-Pears-Britten while they were working on Billy Budd and arguing about what sort of love aria to have Claggart sing to Billy, just as our understanding of Kát'a Kabanová is improved by knowing something about Janáček's unhappy marriage and his affair with the woman to whom the opera is dedicated. You don't need to know these things to enjoy either opera, of course, but it is illuminating. You can usually tell when that sort of research crosses the line into something more purely speculative. I am not surprised at Tommasini's assessment of the book, that the author "is least convincing when discussing the particulars of the music in question." Right.

25.10.04

Reunited with Il Trovatore

Articles in the Washington Post

Neely Tucker, Denyce Graves, After the Low Notes (Washington Post, October 24).

Tim Page, 'Ill Trovatore,' Done In By the Advil Chorus (Washington Post, October 25)
Five years ago I saw the first production of Il Trovatore in many years that the Washington (not then "National") Opera staged. It was conducted by Plácido Domingo, had a fine cast, and a staging that was conservative but evocative and avoided—as much as (conservative) stagings can—clichés.

The Trovatore this year still comes in the same Stephen Lawless production, which came across as rather more impressive and imaginative than half a decade ago. Looking at it from the third tier, rather than the orchestra seating, too, helped in most scenes to get a new, better impression. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are a bit too traditional for my taste: I believe the production would improve with a bit more of a minimalist approach to gypsy rags and soldiers' uniforms. Benoit Dugardyn's set design works, together with Mr. Lawless's grim and dark production, heavy on the symbolic side. Damocles' swords hang above pro- and antagonists, themselves crosses as are the swords sticking in the floor. In case that was too subtle, there's always a massive, 10' x 3' cross that descends from above in the third act. With the play of light, they also paint crosses of light onto the floor, shining from behind open doors in the movable walls.

The awfully popular anvil scene was mercifully transposed into sword-fight practicing, though better coordination among the participants could have made that far more impressive while the choreography in Act I made up in quality for the lack of realism in the portrayal of the characters. (Ever notice how grown men huddle with imbecilic excitement around a leading character telling a story for the umpteenth time, all while heavily nodding with their heads and affirmatively looking at each other? Yikes.)

The cast, of dubious quality on the night I saw them, included Mikhail Davidoff, who did Manrico well but had a voice that offered no real center of gravity. That Count di Luna's baritone was twice as loud, even though Wolfgang Brendel didn't put too much effort into it, wasn't helpful to his character. Brendel, despite a gorgeous and strong tone, had significant problems with intonation at times and was a bit wobbly. Nothing compared to Ferrando's mother, Azucena, sung by Denyce Graves. Even though this was a dress rehearsal, she must have been ill: otherwise, her disturbing vocal problems (higher regions garbled and wobbly like a ripped tape) are inexplicable. Towards the end I felt bad for her and wished the night just to be over so that she may get some rest. Mikhail Kazakov (Ferrando) did a fine job. "Alerta" can be more realistically alarming, though.

Heinz Fricke and his orchestra were, apart from the staging, the best offerings of the night. Even if he may not have been entirely happy with his team's efforts, their continuous development under Fricke (a much better conductor and orchestra builder than Domingo) is noticeable. Worth seeing? Yes. But not on the same level as either Andrea Chénier (Ionarts reviews) or Billy Budd (Ionarts reviews).

P.S. Concerns about Brendel's somewhat uninvolved performance that was right only with regard to the size of his voice can be put aside: he was yanked (or withdrew) from the production before opening night. His replacement, Carlos Archuleta, hasn't nearly the voice of Brendel or, for that matter, Davidoff... but perhaps he sang with more zest?

Spanish Portraits at the Prado

Other Reviews:

"The Spanish Portrait from El Greco to Picasso" (absolutearts.com, October 22)

The Spanish Portrait: From El Greco to Picasso Opens (Artdaily.com, October 25)

El Greco, Portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino
A little article from France 2 Cultural News (Du Greco à Picasso: expo au Prado, October 18) described a new exhibit at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. El Retrato Español del Greco a Picasso (The Spanish portrait from El Greco to Picasso) brings together 87 paintings from the end of the 15th century up to 1920: "Spanish nobles, courtisans, and common people captured by Titian, Ribera, Murillo, Velazquez, Zurbaran, Goya, El Greco, Miro, and Picasso," among others (here's a list, but it's not complete):
The first painters shown are devoted solely to monarchs, the nobility, and rich bourgeois. "The female portrait becomes important only from the 18th century onward, and we have to wait many years for other subjects to be undertaken," says the curator, Javier Portús. Through the centuries and styles, the exhibit tries to answer the question of whether there is a typically Spanish portrait. "It is characterized by subjects like jesters and dwarves," says Javier Portús. [...] Numerous works shown by the largest Spanish museum have been loaned by foreign museums. Some, like Velázquez's Infanta Margarita in blue and Goya's Duchess of Alba are on exhibit in Spain for the first time.
Hervé Gauville's review (Le Prado de faces, October 22) for Libération singles out what is probably the highlight of the exhibit:
Far from fencing itself in along nationalist lines, the exhibit crosses geographic as well as historical boundaries. One room is devoted to a comparative presentation of Velázquez and Goya. Each painting is confronted by its counterpart: Philip IV on horseback (V.) versus Charles IV on horseback (G.), Prince Baltasar Carlos hunting (V.) versus Charles III hunting (G.), etc.
Gauville's other article (Le Greco, avec grâce et en toute liberté, October 22) for Libération is an appreciation of one painting in the exhibit, El Greco's Portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), shown here.

El Retrato Español del Greco a Picasso will be at the Museo del Prado, in Madrid, until February 6, 2005. If you will not be able to make it to Madrid, the museum's Web site has many high-quality images.

24.10.04

Monteverdi in the House

As a Baroque specialist, I follow with great delight new productions that appear to be expanding the core repertory of opera theaters backward in time into the Baroque era. Handel and, to a lesser degree, Monteverdi are the composers who have benefitted most. I have been reading the reviews on the new production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea led by René Jacobs, with the Concerto Vocale, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris (two pictures here). Marie-Aude Roux's review (Monteverdi et Sénèque transposés au temps de la télé-réalité, October 16) for Le Monde called it "a hip Poppea":

This Nerone like a Latino pop star, with dreadlocks, torn jeans, santiags, coke, and leg kicks à la James Brown; this new-rich Poppea, a Lolita of luxury call girl bad taste; this 1960s Seneca, wan and ridiculous; this menopausal and bourgeois Octavia; not even mentioning the transsexual nurses, somewhere between Mrs Doubtfire and Miss Fine, the CNN news report after the attempted murder of Poppea, the mafioso bodyguards, the night-club employees. In short, a very hip bunch of nothing. Should Love be no longer an "enfant de bohème" but a ghetto rapper? Does this story essentially take place below the waist? Of course! Beyond that, it transforms Monteverdi into a racy American vaudeville comedy.
She doesn't care much for the production design, by David McVicar, and her assessment of the music is not much more positive. Patrizia Ciofi (Poppea) "did not seem unforgettable" (a classic French double negative putdown). Anne Sofie von Otter (Ottavia) "seemed stripped of color and nuance." She does praise the two nurses (Tom Allen and Dominique Visse), who were "on top of their roles," and Lawrence Zazzo (Ottone), a role often reduced in modern productions but which was restored by René Jacobs. Gilles Macassar's review (Poppée de sang, October 15) for Télérama goes into the history of Monteverdi's opera to see if McVicar's production is justified:
"I cannot imitate language that is not spoken," Monteverdi complained to the librettist who had given him an allegorical poem on the south winds. "Ariadne moves listeners because she is a woman, and Orpheus because he is a man, but not a zephyr!" It was indeed creatures of flesh and blood that were confronted, in 1643, by the maestro di capella of the Basilica of San Marco, in a new libretto authored by a Venitian diplomat, L'Incoronazione di Poppea. The Roman emperor Nero pulls himself from the arms of his mistress Poppea, before having her proclaimed empress; Ottone and Ottavia, the legitimate but frustrated spouses, spout their vengeance, while the philosopher Seneca stoically opens his veins in his bath, by imperial command. A marriage of sex and blood in the shadow of the Campidoglio.
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Claudio Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Concerto Vocale, dir. René Jacobs
There is no orchestration for the opera, just a figured bass line in the manuscripts. René Jacobs has changed some of the registration of instruments he used in his recording with this group, which is more than 10 years old, fluctuating "between a sobre polychromatic continuo and larger textures."

Nicolas Blanmont's review (Le retour à Néron et Poppée, October 22) for La Libre Belgique makes note of the same oddities of the McVicar production but has a different take on the musical quality:
Bergonzi or Vickers as Nerone, Christoff or Ghiaurov as Seneca, Van Dam as Ottone, Bumbry or Lott as Poppea: many great singers have tried L'Incoronazione di Poppea, but the novelty here is that they are doing it with an original instruments group (the excellent Concerto Vocale), with a conductor experienced in this repertoire. Here, the stage is dominated by the stunning Nerone of Anna Caterina Antonacci, surrounded by the excellent Patrizia Ciofi (Poppea) and a vocally grandiose Anne Sofie Von Otter (Ottavia), even if she seems to have more difficulty fitting in with the direction. The latter two also camp it up as Fortune and Virtue in the prologue.
He calls Lawrence Zazzo "one of the best countertenors at this moment" and has good things to say about the rest of the cast. However, the Agence France-Presse review of the premiere (Un "Couronnement de Poppée" de Monteverdi canaille et contesté au TCE, October 14) said that "part of the audience booed vigorously after the premiere" because of the "production of British director David McVicar, which gave a particularly dirty taint to this opera dedicated to Love."

The last performance of Poppea was last night (October 23), but if you live in France, the opera will be broadcast on France Musiques, on November 8 at 8 pm. The production will then be mounted in the three houses that cosponsored it: the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, the Staatsoper under den Linden in Berlin, and the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.

Domestic Dispute about Strauss

The National Symphony Orchestra featured three concerts with cellist Han-Na Chang under Leonard Slatkin. Daniel Ginsberg reviewed the Beethoven-Prokofiev-Strauss concert more or less enthusiastically in the Washington Post, though he obviously couldn't stand Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica, which he didn't deem worth the effort or time of a performance.

Unfortunately, it defied imagination that the conductor would put the orchestra through so much time and energy to perform Strauss's "Symphonia Domestica," Op. 53. [...] To modern listeners [...] the score of more than 40 minutes paints a picture of musical sprawl. Though filled with some pleasingly lush instrumental writing, this is one of the composer's most disjointed works.

As the NSO invested its skills in this repetitive and saccharine score, one pleaded for something else. [...] With playing this fine, the Strauss by no means torpedoed the whole evening. Still, it seemed that the NSO's abilities would have been better spent on other music.



The Concert Hall was only three quarters or two thirds full, but those who were there got a good start with the Leonore Overture #3 (op. 72a), which was done with lavish feeling and in a highly evocative manner. Still, it felt too slow to be a cohesive whole in the first half of the work. Once Slatkin stepped a bit on the pedal, it worked out very nicely and the trumpet call from the wings was at least a cute idea. The gradations of tone, the changes of undercurrent, however, were excellent and betray the fact that the NSO continues to improve. That it also needs to improve is no secret, nor is the fact that Mr. Slatkin is probably one of the dozen of best conductors for specifically that job.

Maestro Slatkin's 60 years don't keep him from getting excited, either, as proven by little leaps on the podium that accompanied the final of Leonore 3.

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S. Prokofiev, Sinfonia Concertante, Han-Na Chang, Pappano
The Sinfonia Concertante, op. 125, Prokofiev's first of two pseudo-cello concertos (the Concertino for Cello and Orchestra, op. 132, is the other one) was, for all its limitations, rather smashing. Han-Na Chang has a very clean, almost lithe tone that's laden with the tension and energy so often found in young female string players. She skates on the cello with passion: others (not necessarily to lesser effect) dig. Both styles can be impressive when done well, and Han-Na Chang did her work very well. (The horns could have been more in tune on a few rare occasions in this relatively plush Prokofiev work.)

The beautiful and fragile looking Han-Na Chang, whose only fault tonight may have been a tone that was ultimately not involving enough, attacked her cello in the more furious passages that belied nonsensical ideas such as attributing fragility to her. True to her style, even in those movements she was more a wild gazelle than a stampeding rhinoceros.

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R. Strauss, Complete Orchestral Works, Rudolf Kempe
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R. Strauss, Sinfonia Domestica, Parergon, David Zinman
The Sinfonia Domestica, played directly in front of oneself, is (pace Daniel Ginsberg) a most pleasing thing. First of all, it's Strauss. Not yet the Strauss of the light textures that make Capriccio one of the greatest works in music, but the harmonies are all there. Of course, the work always tempts us to deduce exactly what part of the music represents what element in Strauss's home life... alas this curiosity, this drive to "understand" the work is—at least according to Strauss himself—counterproductive to the enjoyment of the music. In a way he, like Mahler, concocted some of the most programmatic music ever written, only then to demand it be listened to as (quasi-) absolute music. If you can, the rewards are high indeed.

Gentler, more lighthearted, and with a healthy dose of irony and friendly self-deprecation, the Sinfonia Domestica lacks the bombast of Ein Heldenleben but makes up for it with charm. Rereading Mr. Ginsberg's excerpt makes me want to denounce his Strauss-bashing as rubbish. To convince yourself of the work's qualities, try it (on headphones!) in the just about definitive version (as are all of Strauss's orchestral works) with Rudolf Kempe on EMI. If the complete set seems a bit too much (though it's all worth it), you can find a good budget version in David Zinmann's Arte Nova recording. (He, too, has a dirt-cheap complete Strauss box set.) Or you might wait for Christian Thielemann to do it with the Munich or Vienna Philharmonic, which should not be to far off in the future (on DG). The evening was worth it, then, not despite but in part because of the Strauss. Had, however, Han-Na Chung stuck around and participated in Strauss's Don Quixote, I too, would have gladly seen the Sinfonia off the program.

23.10.04

Washington National Opera on the Radio

Hasmik Papian as Norma, Washington National Opera, October 2003This is a reminder of what I announced here on September 19, for readers living in the Washington area. On Saturdays for the next seven weeks, operas from last year's season of the Washington National Opera will be broadcast on WETA (90.9 FM), leading up to the opening of the live broadcast season from the Met. Right now, I am listening to their production of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, the first in the broadcast schedule.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted a cast including Irina Mishura (Adalgisa), Richard Margison (Pollione), Kyle Ketelsen (Oroveso), and most spectacularly Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian in the ultimately demanding title role, which requires some two hours of almost constant singing presence on the stage. Here are some reviews of the production, staged in DAR Constitution Hall in Fall 2003:

George Sand Exhibit

George Sand, L'œuvre-vie, La Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de ParisAn article (Dans l'intimité de George Sand, October 21) in Le Figaro briefly reviewed an exhibit of photographs, manuscripts, and other material related to novelist George Sand, called George Sand, L'œuvre-vie, at La Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris until November 14. This exhibit is part of the George Sand Year (see my posts on July 7 and February 6).

Little by little, visitors discover an intimate relationship with Sand. He is submerged in her life through four important periods. First, there is her childhood with her father's family: the jealous opposition of her grandmother to the marriage of George's parents and her early separation from her mother. Next, we see the literary beginnings of she who was not yet George Sand. The young Aurore Dupin, who made her debut in Le Figaro, makes efforts in the novel, the theater, and soon is bound by friendship with the greatest names in literature: Sainte-Beuve, Dumas, Hugo, Flaubert. Everyone fell under the young woman's charm. "No living person can dare be so insolent as to be parallel to you: you are destined to a success like that of Lamartine. [...] Balzac and Mérimée died under Indiana," the critic Henri de Latouche wrote to her. Then come the political activities, her shadowy collaboration with the socialist Ledru-Rollin, the preparation of future popular revolts and battles for women's rights. The exhibit concludes in the family home at Nohant. At the end of her life, Sand devoted herself to the theater and to marionnettes with her beloved son, at last found again.
One major part of the exhibit is the display of her manuscripts and corrected publication proofs, by which "the mystery of literary work is illuminated." Her personal life is connected to the stories in her works, likes La Petite Fadette and La Mare au diable. Unfortunately, there is no Web site for the exhibit. However, you can read most of her work online at Gallica, the excellent collection of electronic texts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Opera by Film Directors

In an article (Lights, camera, Ariadne, October 17) for The Guardian, Allan Ulrich takes a look at how many film directors are getting into the opera act. Among recent examples, he mentions especially William Friedkin's production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos for the Los Angeles Opera (under Domingo's leadership), Julie Taymor's Magic Flute for the Met, Robert Altman's production of the world premiere of William Bolcom's A Wedding for Lyric Opera of Chicago (Arnold Weinstein's libretto adapts Altman's own 1978 film). To put this into historical context, he mentions operatic productions by Rouben Mamoulian (Porgy and Bess, 1935), Francis Ford Coppola (von Einem, The Visit of the Old Lady for the San Francisco Opera), Visconti, Schlesinger. Then, he looks toward the future:

The LA Opera has now commissioned productions by Herbert Ross, Bruce Beresford and Maximilian Schell, who returns for a new Rosenkavalier in May. [...] For LA's next season's opening, Garry Marshall's penchant for comedies like Pretty Woman and TV's Laverne and Shirley will be applied to Offenbach's satiric La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein. Friedkin is now insatiable. He has already signed on for a new Los Angeles Samson and Delilah and the premiere in 2006 of Unsuk Chin's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Domingo's one failure? Attempting to coax George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic team into producing a 21st-century version of Wagner's Ring.
I also think that a Merchant Ivory production of a 19th-century opera—say, Massenet's Manon Lescaut—could be interesting.

22.10.04

From Schade and Braun, A Rich Mix of Song

This review was originally published in the Washington Post (From Schade and Braun, A Rich Mix of Song, October 21).

In a varied and well-balanced Vocal Arts Society program of duets, arias, lieder, and mélodies for tenor and baritone, Michael Schade and Russell Braun, husband to accompanist Carolyn Maule, started with Monteverdi madrigals. Both singers delved headlong into Tornate, O Cari Baci with much gusto and energy and to great effect with the audience. Monteverdi, I am sad to say, did not survive that treatment. Carolyn Maule's clear and precise but rather timid playing was drowned out and the texture that makes Monteverdi so unique and ahead of his time was lost.

Next Schade got to display Mozart's earthy wit in songs that hinted at known melodies without actually quoting any. In these four seldom heard songs Schade seemed like a tenor version of the lesser aspects of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's art: mannered, slightly stilted, and impeccable—literally to a fault. His instrument is strong, very focused and clean, and almost piercing, and with it he conducts precision operations in music. What I missed was a bit more inviting, open quality.

The torch was then passed on to Russell Braun and Schubert. An assortment of four songs, the highlight of which was Doppelgänger, was done with just the right mix of eeriness and panache. Carolyn Maule, too, found some more energy that she injected into these as well as the following Schumann pieces.

The Schumann offered five duets—three songs from op. 43, the Intermezzo (op. 74, no. 2), and Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen (op. 138, no. 9)—all of which were true marvels. As the valuable Vocal Arts Society program supplement to the worthless (informationless) Playbill pointed out, these Schumann works are better described as trios for two voices and piano. The piano part was not only notably more challenging to Carolyn Maule but also plays an active part in the songs. Utterly enjoyable, sung with much verve, and all too rarely heard, they brought the first half of the program to an outstanding end.

Gabriel Fauré's last and short song cycle L'Horizon Chimérique was a welcome treat of little song paintings, movingly depicted by Braun. Schade was impressive in Ravel's Cinq mélodies popularies grecques. The songs themselves—short, faux-exotic, and lithe—are a delight, and suddenly Schade showed subtleties and pianos and his tone seemed perfectly suited to the French text. Splendid, indeed. A little gaffe when he started the long, unaccompanied section of "Quel galant m'est comparable" in the wrong key, only to catch himself within seconds, was disarming and amusing alike.

What followed were all duets: Saint Saëns's El desdichado (very well done) and Fauré's Puisqu'ici-bas, beautifully set to a Victor Hugo poem which is itself a bit ironic, given that Hugo hated music. Again, Schade and Braun excelled as the evening got progressively more enjoyable.

John Greer's setting of Québecois folk songs, introduced by Schade with slightly self-deprecating charm and wit (thanking the audience for being so Canada-friendly), were fine closing statements. Folk or popular songs sung by operatic voices can often be overkill and more embarrassment than entertainment, but "Les Raftsmen" & Co. were gaudy and fun without ever being cheesy or saccharine.

Another Canadian, Geoffry O'Hara's song (and Enrico Caruso favorite) "Your Eyes Have Told Me What I Did Not Know" was Russell Braun's encore—"sung in a different key" as he said, thereby coyly poking fun at his colleague's earlier mishap. A French piece was announced by Schade as the second encore—and promised to be "still pretty good," even without being Canadian. It was the most famous tenor-baritone duet there is, Bizet's "Au fond du temple saint" from Les Pêcheurs de perles. Gorgeous and with plenty of opportunities for the singers to let their voices boom, it brought the crowd in the Terrace Theater to their feet.

Palestrina Choir

This review was first published in the Washington Post (Palestrina Choir, October 20).

The Tuesday Concert Series at The Church of the Epiphany, the only original pre-Civil War downtown church building to have survived to this day, featured four soloists of The Palestrina Choir in a program of selected motets by Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus, who worked in Munich for most of his 62 productive years. The eight pieces selected from the 1579 work Altera pars selectissimarum cantionum were well chosen and thankful vehicles for Joellen Brassfield (soprano), who really warmed up after a few motets, Marjorie Bunday, the wonderful alto, Michael Harrison (tenor and founder of the 18 year old choir), and bass Darrel Sampson.

The Palestrina Choir devotes itself to Renaissance music of composers like Tomas Luis de Victoria, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Clemens non Papa, and of course their namesake, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. If the four soloists allow for any judgment on the full choir's performance, their concert on Saturday, October 23rd at St. Peter's Catholic Church or the day thereafter at St. Luke in McLean will be an aural treat no one with even the faintest interest in pre-Baroque music should like to miss.

What counts in the "one to a part" pieces by Lassus is less vocal brilliance than cohesiveness, teamwork, and a deep understanding for the subject matter, all of which the four soloists possess in sheer abundance. The concert, starting just after twelve noon, was a perfect respite and provided an oasis of calm and elusive beauty amid the stress and hectic goings-on of work and city life. Well attended as it was, the free concert had plenty of room still for downtowners with better plans for lunch than a fast food sandwich.

Dip Your Ears, No. 13 (Maurizio Pollini's Late Beethoven Sonatas)

available at Amazon
Ludwig van Beethoven, The Late Piano Sonatas,
Maurizio Pollini
DG


Granite and White Gold

This disc contains what is without a doubt some of the best Beethoven playing ever caught on record. Actually, it contains some of the best piano playing—period. Maurizio Pollini, sometimes brilliant to a fault, makes more out of these sonatas than his colleagues current and past, and he brings enough emotional charge to his already technically flawless articulation. The Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106, is monumental, thundering, grandiose. Others, like Sviatoslav Richter, Willhelm Kempf, Rudolf Serkin, or Richard Goode, are more concerned with working out the melody, but at the cost of the mountainous quality.

In the slow movement of op.111 Pollini is lyrical and gentle, after having just climbed its first movement with vigor. Thomas Mann spent a whole chapter in Dr. Faustus on op. 111: if you hear it on this recording, you might wonder why not an entire book. This is a performance of five masterpieces that you must have if you like the genre, and if you don't, you will after listening to this!


Maurizio Pollini will be playing in Washington on October 27th at the Kennedy Center.

21.10.04

Wal-Mart at Teotihuacan

TeotihuacanA disturbing article (Mexique: le supermarché et les pyramides, October 18) from France 2 Cultural News informed me that a Wal-Mart superstore will open, on November 15, only 2.5 km (1.55 miles) from the site of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, not far from Mexico City. (I have since seen some coverage in the English-language press. Cronaca mentioned the story on September 10.) Teotihuacan, a name meaning "city of the gods," is the ruin of a vast city and sacred precinct, revered by all of the Mesoamerican cultures living in that part of the world from the time it was created, starting around the time of the birth of Christ. According to the article (my translation), the Wal-Mart superstore:

is located within the perimeter of the site classified as part of the World's Patrimony of Humanity, in the center of the village of San Juan Teotihuacan, where many houses and businesses have sprung up over the last few decades. Furthermore, an automobile dealership and a hotel will allegedly be opened next within a short time. The activism of those opposed to the project has thus been of no use. On October 14, 63 Mexican artists and intellectual leaders sent an open letter out of desperation to the Mexican President, Vicente Fox, asking for an immediate halt to the work and for a new location to be found.
Very depressing. Can Disneyhuacan be far behind?

20.10.04

Truffaut Anniversary

François Truffaut

Other Newspaper Articles:

Jean-Pierre Dufreigne, François Truffaut (L'Express, October 18)

Jean-Luc Douin, Les secrets de fabrication, les rages et les indiscrétions de François Truffaut (Le Monde, October 19)

Fernand Denis, Truffaut: La Cinémathèque d'à côté (La Libre Belgique, October 19)
I was alerted by an article (Truffaut ou l'adolescence du cinéma, October 12) by Dominique Borde for Le Figaro that, twenty years ago today (October 21, 1984), French director François Truffaut died at the age of 52. Here is a translated excerpt:
Twenty years later, Antoine Doinel is still here. Not in Truffaut's shadow but next to him, as his double, and ultimately in front of him like the herald announcing a new battle, preceding the work and the creator, the better to accompany him and define him, to reveal and mask him. And Doinel is Jean-Pierre Léaud who has aged with his character. There is a little bit of all of us in Léaud in the four films and one short film: the misunderstood and neglected child, the clumsy teenager, a lover shut out in the cold, a deceiving husband, the indecisive lady's man. Several slices of life that reflect the director and his viewers from 1959 to 1979, from Les 400 Coups to L'Amour en fuite.
Another article in the same issue (Regards croisés, October 12), by the same author, also sadly disappeared into the archives too quickly. It described the tribute that will be given to Truffaut at this year's edition of France Cinéma in Florence, from November 1 to 7: Retrospettiva François Truffaut (an exhibit and showing of the complete films) and the publication of unknown interviews of Truffaut, made by Aldo Tassone between 1975 and 1981.
We see him first as "viewer and critic." "I love directors who give an impression of logic, meaning harmony. For me, a bad film is an incoherent film, a film where the direction contradicts the story, pulls it in another direction." He wanted movies to tell stories animated by an internal energy rather than by pretty images: "For me, a film must move like music, it should make us think of a concerto, with his meditative and agitated moments, rather than of a series of paintings in a museum. I think that cinema has a lot in common with music because it's an art of duration." That's why he preferred Orson Welles, "whose images flow unpretentiously, having no value in themselves but only by their sequence, their relationship one to the next," over Visconti who often shows "an excessive visual ambition."
France Cinéma 2004Another article in the same issue («Les 400 Coups» restaurés, October 12) announced that the Scanlab laboratories in Saint-Cloud, with a grant from the Fondation Gan pour le cinéma, have restored the original negative of Les 400 Coups in a high-definition digital version (available in French stores on October 20).
The density and contrast of each image have been equilibrated so that, when projected, the whole thing looks like it was shot continuously. At the same time, cuts and imperfections have been reduced when tears spread out sometimes over five to ten images. The missing frames have been completely restored by computer graphics, with the result that the new copies are top-quality. Ninety-three minutes of happiness in 35mm.
Dominique Borde's final article in the series for Le Figaro (Quelques livres, October 12) gives some brief information on books that every Truffaut fan will want to own: Antoine de Baecque and Arnaud Guigue, Le Dictionnaire Truffaut (Edition de La Martinière, buy it from amazon.fr), with all the information you need, from A to Z; Dominique Auzel, Paroles de François Truffaut (Albin Michel, buy it from amazon.fr), with all the screenplays; Dominique Rabourdin, ed., Truffaut par Truffaut (Editions du Chêne, buy it from amazon.fr), with interviews and other things in Truffaut's own voice.

Panocha Quartet at the Library of Congress

Last night, I happily went to a nice event in my neighborhood, the first of the free Concerts from the Library of Congress that I have been able to attend this season. The Panocha Quartet, from the Czech Republic, presented three pieces from the repertories for which they have become known: Haydn and two Czech composers, Smetana and Dvořák. This is appropriate since we are in the "Year of Czech Music," a year with important anniversaries for Janáček (b. 1854) and Dvořák (d. 1904). From here they will go to New York, where they will be performing two Janáček quartets at Zankel Hall this Friday, and András Schiff will join them for Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, op. 81.

Panocha QuartetThe quartet took the stage of Coolidge Auditorium in matching black slacks, gray shirts, and maroon bowties. They created a restrained, delicate rendition of Haydn's String Quartet no. 2 in D Major (op. 33, no. 6), from the first group of pieces for this combination of instruments that the composer called quartets. The group's approach to Haydn took full advantage of their beautiful piano tone, which enhanced the contrasts of each movement, especially in the subdued solos for the violins in the Andante. By restrained, I do not mean to imply anything jejune in the Panocha's sound, because they had full volume available in the scherzo, a quick triple-meter romp that features nice outbursts from the cello (Jaroslav Kulhan) and a humorous longer-note ending for the viola (Miroslav Sehnoutka). The last movement, marked Allegretto, showed off the Panocha Quartet's remarkable virtuosity, especially the E-string purity and accuracy of the first violinist, who gave his name to the group, Jiří Panocha.

Available at Amazon:

cover
Smetana, String Quartets no. 1 and no. 2, Panocha Quartet
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Dvořák, "Slavonic" String Quartet and Cypresses, Panocha Quartet
Of course, the Panocha Quartet is known for its renditions of Czech composers, and they ended the first half with Smetana's String Quartet no. 2 in D Minor, the briefer and lesser-known late quartet that followed the "From My Life" quartet in 1882 to 1883. (See David Hurwitz's brief review of the first two Smetana quartets, performed by the Panocha Quartet.) The four movements of this quartet are unified by their openings, which are all dramatic unisono melodies. The Panocha Quartet attacked the first movement unisono crisply and warmed it into a slow, luscious homophony, a sound which alternated with very turbulent moments. The second movement is a duple folksy dance with a warm viola melody, balanced by the Panocha's blindingly, buzzingly fast third movement, with its fugal entries. Here, the Panocha Quartet showed its full hand in terms of breadth of sound, which had been perhaps intentionally restrained in the Haydn. The only sound that seemed lacking was a full bass in some large textures, from the tone of cellist Jaroslav Kulhan.

At intermission, people checked the score of the Yankees-Red Sox game on their cell phones and generously shared the information with their neighbors. (I can't help but think that at least some of the empty seats in the auditorium had been reserved by baseball fans who decided to stay at home. Congratulations to Boston!) The program concluded with a substantial work, Dvořák's String Quartet in E♭ Major, op. 51, nicknamed the "Slavonic." This was a piece the quartet knew quite well, having recorded the complete chamber works of this composer. The first movement has a somewhat ametrical, folksy feel to it, which was played to great effect. However, it was in the second movement that the Panocha Quartet truly excelled. It is a gorgeous piece based on the Dumka, a mournful type of Czech folk tune. The first violin's elegiac melody was answered by an impossibly muted viola, over the mandolin-like pizzicato cello. Folk music returns in the fourth movement, Allegro assai, a rondo based on the Czech reel, the skočna, which again featured the extraordinarily fast and accurate playing of the Panocha Quartet.

Although I called out "Janáček" when the quartet took a second curtain call to acknowledge our applause, the second violinist announced, in heavily accented English, "waltz by Dvořák." They gave a tantalizing performance of one of that composer's Two Waltzes for String Quartet. (I mentioned discovering these pieces when they were played by the Bartók Quartet at the National Gallery last March, as reviewed on Ionarts.) It was a superlative musical amuse-gueule to end an evening of listening.