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31.3.05

Artists' Squat on the Rue de Rivoli

I have noticed many times on visits over the last several years, en flânant down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris (a couple blocks west of Boulevard de Sébastopol, just up from Châtelet), these large crazy faces attached to the windows of the building at no. 59. As it turns out, it's a sculptural installation made by artists named Sara and BIBI, and it marks the home of the artists' collective Chez Robert-Electron libre, who started squatting at 59, rue de Rivoli, five years ago.

As I learned from an article (A Paris, le squat d'artistes du 59, rue de Rivoli ferme ses portes au public, March 28) by Florence Morice for Le Monde, the collective has made an agreement with the municipal government of Paris, which purchased the building in 2002. According to the schedule of reoccupation of the property, the artists (there are about 30 of them) agreed to close the building to the public as of March 28. They will be allowed to continue working there through the end of 2006, at which point they will be moved by the city to an undisclosed location during the work to renovate the building, so that the collective can occupy it, legally and as a permanent home in the center of Paris, planned to reopen in February 2008.

What will be left of this oasis of artistic freedom? "I have no idea," worries Kalex, a sculptor and a member of KGB (Kalex, Gaspard, and Bruno), the trio who first occupied the site. In 1999, when they decided to take over the building, which had been abandoned for about ten years by Crédit Lyonnais, their intentions were clear: to underscore the struggle of urban cultural politics and draw as large a public as possible, so that "contemporary art would not be limited only to the elite," explains Anita [Savary], a specialist in collage and photography. Like many others, she joined the collective shortly after it was created, after an impromptu visit. "That day, I discovered the place I had been dreaming of for a long time, without even knowing that it existed. And I moved in here."

Very soon, the public also took to the squat, which acquired over the years a level of international fame. Once they had pushed open the multicolored door, the visitor could discover the artists at work, walk around through the studios, enjoy the decoration. With some 40,000 visitors per year, 59, rue de Rivoli, became one of the most visited centers of contemporary art in the capital. "It's thanks to the support of the public that we were able to survive," Anita says.
Some people are afraid that the publicly funded work will "sanitize" the site, destroying what was original about it. The collective has stipulated that the exterior installations had to be preserved, but the interior will require the artists to begin anew. I am very sorry that I did not give in to curiosity one of the times I passed by there, so that I could have seen it before it became officially sponsored.

UPDATE:
The artists who made the sculpture are Sara and BIBI, the latter of whom was omitted in the original form of this post. A comment attached here and an e-mail to the author have urged a correction, which is now noted. See the comments for further information.

30.3.05

La Freni: She's Got It Maid!

Photo by Karin Cooper
Mirella Freni as Joan of Arc
Last Saturday, the Washington National Opera premiered The Maid of Orleans, one of Tchaikovsky's rarely heard operas. For those who do not think that the chance to hear an operatic rarity by a master of the genre is reason enough to purchase a ticket, the WNO put a woman on stage whom no opera lover can resist: Mirella Freni. The woman was considered one of the finest sopranos on stage and record before I was even born. After 50 years of performing—she is now at the tender age of seventy—she can still sing and, as the reviews show, impressively portray a seventeen-year-old.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page (Washington Post)

Bernard Holland (New York Times)

T. L. Ponick (Washington Times)

Clarke Bustard (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Ionarts will review tomorrow's performance and for all the work's shortcomings (T.L. Ponick's review in the Washington Times pretty much sums it up), it is an exciting opportunity we are not wont to miss. Since recordings are very difficult to come by—pirated copies of a 1960s Russian performance may float around, the officially available scrawny 1944 recording seems unavailable, and a 1993 Bolshoi performance has found its way onto video but isn't likely to be carried by your neighborhood record store either—it is likely your first and only chance to hear the work which, although no Eugene Onegin, contains marvelous moments from the tune-smith Tchaikovsky.

And then there is still La Freni, perfectly adept at playing it to the crowd to this day. Remaining performances take place on March 31st (7:30 PM) and April 3rd (2 PM), 5th (7:30 PM), 8th (7:30 PM), and 11th (7 PM).

29.3.05

DG Originals: A Review

DG has reissued a whole slew of their classic LPs on the excellent DG Originals mid-priced label, most of which had also been available as CDs at full price. The line does not have the same hyperbole-laden title as EMI's "Greatest Recordings of the Century," but somewhat more modestly, claims that these are critically acclaimed "milestone recordings" from their vinyl catalogue. That is true for every release that has been reissued. Whether or not they still hold up to today's competition is another question altogether.

Available at Tower Records
R. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, C. Kleiber
One that does is clearly Carlos Kleiber's Tristan und Isolde. Now on three discs instead of four, it still comes with a full libretto (German, French, English) and notes; a wonderful touch. As I have mentioned before, it isn't the first and only Tristan you would want to have and it might not even be as exciting as Kleiber fils's live recording from Bayreuth (Melodram, expensive and not as easily available). But it is definitely an exciting reading and a must for any lover of that finest opera this side of Don Giovanni. Furtwängler (several versions on EMI, and in Europe available on Naxos), Böhm (DG Originals), and Barenboim (my favorite, Teldec) may have more merits as the standard versions, but no one lets the orchestra charge as meaningfully as Kleiber. With him, the orchestral score speaks and acts as dramatically as any of the singers and becomes an active part of the story. Details that cannot be found in other recordings suddenly peek out of a score that Kleiber knew by heart. If the sixty-some dollar price tag had hitherto kept you from adding this to your collection, you now have twenty-odd fewer reasons to resist.

Available at Amazon
C. Debussy, Images, Préludes, A. B. Michelangeli
Another temple to music is the Debussy disc of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's. Combining most of the two full-priced discs previously available on one for less money makes perfect sense. Now the Préludes (book 1) and both books of the Images come together. This is one of the finest possible additions to anyone's Debussy piano collection (speak: Walter Gieseking's complete EMI set) along Mitsuko Uchida’s incandescent Etudes and Krystian Zimerman's complete set of Préludes. Unfortunately, Children's Corner, coupled with the full-priced disc of the Images did not fit onto the disc: a shame, because the semiprofessional Ferrari-driving, airplane-flying, Medical Doctor's recording of that particular piece is one of those pianistic marvels that don't come around often, but in light of what is included, such quibbles seem petty.

Available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven / J. Brahms, Triple, Double Concerti, Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda, Starker, Fricsay
The Beethoven Triple and Brahms Double Concertos, with Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda, and Starker (under Fricsay and the RIAS Berlin), is a more questionable inclusion. Not that their playing isn't gorgeous and in the finest tradition of central European masters of their respective instruments, with grace, humility, and musicality to spare. But the sound is not the freshest, and on occasion intonation goes a bit awry. Listening to it once or twice is a great joy, but the third time around, one cringes in anticipation of those rare moments. Especially the Beethoven is well served with the recent Harnoncourt/Zehetmaier/Aimard/Coe recording on Warner and the classic Karajan/Richter/Rostropovich/Oistrakh (EMI).

Available at Amazon
F. Schubert, Sy. Nos. 5 & 9, E. Jochum
Franz Schubert's 5th and 9th symphonies are well served by Eugen Jochum with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But the 5th, lighter and far more enjoyable than the Karajan reissue I recently reviewed, suffers from a dated sound (excellent mono that it is) and the 9th, sounding better (stereo), could use even more "greatness." Neither version touches my favorite versions, both with Günter Wand on RCA/BMG (5th - 9th).

Available at Amazon
H. Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, Ode to St. Cecilia's Day, Mackerras
Henry Purcell lovers—Ionarts is known to harbor one of them in its midst—will delight at Sir Charles Mackerras's 1968 / 1970 (then not yet an OBE) recording of Dido and Aeneas and the Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day. Many good Dido's exist, and to recommend this Hamburg recording with the North German Radio Chamber Orchestra, Tatiana Troyanos, Barry McDaniel, and Sheila Armstrong over famous Janet Baker (Decca) or Jessye Norman (Philips) recordings might stretch it. But the neatly added Ode with Simon Woolf (treble), Paul Esswood, Roland Tatnell (countertenors), Alex Young (tenor), Michael Rippon, and John Shirley-Quirk (basses) on the second Archiv disc makes this a wonderfully sounding addition to the collection. Mackerras, then as today, sounds fresh and energetic.

Available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Organ Works (3 CDs), Karl Richter
Karl Richter was impressive in pretty much any Bach he did, whether he led his Munich Bach troupe in oratorios, cantatas, and passions or played the old master's organ works. (That always and inevitably reminds me of a precious student paper's first sentence I once read: "Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children. He was an old master of the grand organ.") DG has collected his Richter's recordings on three discs which include some of the most famous and important works. The famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (think movie villain in his castle, laughing maniacally), is there, as is my favorite, Prelude and Fugue, BWV 553 (which has also seen a very smart and catchy orchestration from Arnold Schoenberg). The booklet here is painfully flimsy. The Silberman Organ in Freiburg and the Kopenhagen Organ sound magnificent, the resonance of the churches is well caught in these recordings from late 1965 through 1979 and Richter plays with verve, with near-Romantic dedication but also clarity: in short, without fail. There are too many different works to generalize, but Koopman is generally dryer, Stockmeier (on the complete-complete 20 disc set of Art & Music) more professorial and sometimes labored. The completist, of course, will want to have them all, but stopping short of that insanity, this might be the right fix for your Bach organ needs.

Available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart, String Quintets, Amadeus Quartet
Mozart string quintets with the Amadeus Quartet and the additional viola of Cecil Aronowitz's (who died during a Mozart Quintet performance) are most amiable. Whether or not they surpass the set with the Grumiaux on the inexpensive Philips Trio I cannot say: I haven't listened to that set in too long. But it does add a third wonderful set of the complete quintets to the catalog, even when I think they could hop more light-footedly through some passages. Being squeezed onto two discs as they are (almost 80 minutes each) has obvious economic benefits, but the Philips Trio is less expensive still and offers the String Trio, K563. The third exquisite set comes courtesy of the Talich Quartet (3 discs, Calliope), has the most modern sound, includes the Clarinet Quintet and costs yet even less. The Amadeus recordings are the stereo versions from 1957/68, with the "wrong" finale of K593 (they had used a misedited score in their two previous recordings) substituted with their 1975 "patch." Whichever set it will be, you can't go wrong with what are Mozart's most successful adventures in chamber music.

Available at Amazon
G. Bizet, Carmen, C. Abbado
Claudio Abbado's Carmen with Berganza, Domingo, Cotrubas, and Milnes is an excellent performance that has ranked among the top choices ever since being issued in 1978. With the full libretto, the only difference with the version available until now is the neatly reduced price. If you don't already have Nietzsche's favorite opera, this would not be a bad place to start. Other recommendable versions are Solti with the lithe, agile Troyanos (London), Karajan/Price (perhaps with some reservations regarding Price's singing, on RCA), and Plasson/Gheorghiu/Alagna (EMI), the best modern recording. Domingo's French isn't what a Frenchman would call idiomatic, but he is dramatically more convincing than in his earlier recording with Solti. Abbado uses the Oeser edition and opts for the original dialogue, not the Guiraud-composed recitatives. His tempi have been called "idiosyncratic" by the Penguin Guide's editor, who goes on to mention that thereby the "whole entertainment hangs together with keen compassion." In short: it's fast and furious. Alan Blythe writes an excellent short essay for the new liner notes. The LSO under Abbado plays excellently.

In unrelated Abbado news: he has just renewed his Lucerne Festival contract until 2010, which according to my logic, forbids him from dying for another five years, which is great news for the music world. Thereby heading the best pick-up ensemble in the history of music, too, is an enticing prospect and should yield more stellar performances such as the recent Mahler 2nd / Debussy La Mer (DG).

Available at Amazon
Orchestral bon-bons, Paul Strauss
I briefly sampled Offenbach/Johann Strauss/Berlioz/Dvořák/Auber offerings with American Paul Strauss at the helm of the RIAS Berlin. Not a fan of such hodge-podge recordings, I still succumbed reluctantly to the easygoing charm of Gaîté Parisienne in Manuel Rosenthal's arrangement and assemblage for the Monte Carlo Ballet. The selection of this generous fare of light music had much to do with the restrictions of 10-inch and 12-inch LPs back in the days, but for all the cuts and compromises, this is hardly going to be much of a concern in this repertoire. The purist will cringe just looking at the offerings that offer more joy than musical substance and stay far away.

For me it was a fun tour through all of Offenbach's operas without having to listen to them in full length. La Vie Parisienne, Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Mesdames de la Halle, Le Voyage dans la Lune, Trom-al-Cazar, and Robinson Crusoé all in under half an hour is a splendid ride to that effect. Before I knew it, I was whistling along. Le Beau Danube is a Roger Désormière bastardization of the Blue Danube, turned into a ballet score again and fortified with Fledermaus elements and a slew of other waltzes, some of which apparently are of Johann Strauss I origin. At least it stays in the family, a family of which the conductor is not a member. It's big and swinging and light fun—the sort that has casual crowds swing back and forth in classical music open airs—with children eating roasted almonds and bemused parents drinking beer brought from home. Taking that image as a cue and opening a cold one were one and the same fore me, and sure enough, the disc became even more enjoyable.

Berlioz's Le Corsaire and Auber's Fra Diavolo overtures are left unmolested. The most substantial offering is probably the Dvořák Carnival overture, but here, too, does the pervading Gypsy spirit keep with the theme of lightness and faux exoticism. The recording, taken from 1958, 59, and 60 originals, are stereo and sound marvelous, especially given their age. The Penguin Guide called the Offenbach selections "vivacious" and offering "sheer vitality." This is not familiar musical ground for me, but I heard no evidence to the contrary.

Available at Amazon
M. Ravel, Piano Concertos, etc., M. Haas, P. Paray
Ravel's piano concerto(s) have been well served with recordings. No one plays with the helter-skelter excitement that Argerich brings to her DG recording of the G major concerto (DG Originals, coupled with Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto, Abbado conducting); Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's version on EMI (GRoC, with his unrivaled Rachmaninov 4th piano concerto) is stellar and precise. Krystian Zimerman and Pierre Boulez have had the last word so far, and they give us the concerto for left hand, also. Their sparkle, their precision gives you every note and still all the excitement you could wish for. Add to that Pascal Rogé (who recently recorded the G major again, logically coupled with the Gershwin concerto, in SACD surround sound from Oehms) and now, reissued, Monique Haas in her 1965 recording with Paul Paray and the Orchestre National de la RTF, Paris. The added bonus on this disc is the Sonatine and, for good measure, the Valses nobles et sentimentales. The latter two are from 1956, and their mono sound makes them more "interesting" than indispensable. The sound is, hardly surprising, nothing like the latter versions, especially the crystalline sound of the DG issue with Zimerman. Slightly recessed, it demands more concentration to get to the fierceness of the concerto's movements one and three or the unsurpassed lyrical beauty of the solo that starts the second movement. The concerto for left hand suffers even more from recessed orchestral colors where the pianissimo passages hardly register. Even with the bonus of the extra solo works (especially the beautiful and less often heard Sonatine) and the price advantage, this cannot be a serious challenger to Zimmerman/Boulez which, for both concertos, ought to be the go-to disc.

Who Owns Public Artwork?

Daniel Buren, the French avant-garde artist whose work in the Palais-Royal courtyard (Les Deux Plateaux, 1985–1986) I mentioned yesterday, is all over the news these days. I thought I would follow up on that post with a less recent article about the court finding that Buren has just lost, concerning images of one of his in situ pieces. In 1994, Daniel Buren and Christian Drevet were awarded a commission to redesign the Place des Terreaux, in Lyon, a work they called Déplacement – Jaillissement : D’une fontaine, les autres. According to an article by Michel Guerrin and Florence Morice (La Cour de cassation limite le droit d'auteur de Daniel Buren et Christian Drevet, March 18) for Le Monde, Buren and Drevet sued four publishers for having reproduced images of their work in the Place des Terreaux for commercial postcards, without obtaining the artists' permission and without even mentioning their names on the back of the cards. They lost their case in the court where it was originally brought in 2001, a ruling which was upheld by the appeals court in May 2004 and again this month by the Cour de Cassation.

Although the court recognized that the two artists' redesign constitutes "a work in itself," it still considered that work "to be based on the architectural ensemble of the Place des Terreaux, of which it was only one element" and that "such a lawsuit was therefore unfounded."
In effect, because the real interest of the postcards is the buildings around the square, the images do not impinge on Buren and Drevet's creative rights. The very nature of Buren's signature works, what he has called in situ pieces, means that he gives up some control of them by their location. How timely, then, that there is a new retrospective on Buren's challenging career at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, The Eye of the Storm: Works in Situ by Daniel Buren, until June 8 (reviewed by Artdaily.com and by ArtForum).

Back in 1971, Buren caused quite a stir at the Guggenheim International Exhibition by hanging a huge white-and-black-striped canvas, Peinture-Sculpture (65 by 32 feet in size), in the museum's central atrium, obscuring the display of many of the other artworks in the show. Mostly because of other artists' complaints, Buren's piece was removed from display. There is a great interview with Susan Cross (A Conversation with Daniel Buren) on the museum's Web site, in which I learned that none other than Dan Flavin was one of the principal voices responsible for turning the tide against Buren's piece. The principal new work now being shown at the Guggenheim, Around the Corner, has been installed in the same place as the previous work. It is a large mirrored wall, in two sections, that reflects the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral back upon itself. Read Michael Kimmelman's thoughts on the exhibit (Tall French Visitor Takes Up Residence in the Guggenheim, March 25) and those of Linda Yablonsky (An artist picks up where he left off, March 19) for the New York Times.

28.3.05

Palais-Royal Columns

An article (Buren, le nouveau scandale, March 26) in Le Figaro announces the expensive work that is required for the upkeep of Daniel Buren's public artwork Les Deux Plateaux. That is the title of the installation of columns in the cour d'honneur of the the Palais-Royal in Paris. Cleaning and restoration costs will total 2.6 million €, which adds up to just over twice what it cost to install the piece:

Sure, that was 18 years ago, but inflation does not explain everything, and questions are being asked about the durability of such contemporary architecture, often experimental and fragile, which requires more upkeep than the "temples of millions of years" built by the Egyptian pharaohs 4,000 years ago.

What is so seriously wrong that this has happened? "Under the Palais-Royal main courtyard," [Palais-Royal architect] Alain-Charles Perrault explains, "there was, until the year 1900, a little electric power plant with a smoke stack that poked outside. It was shut down, the ground was covered in concrete, and the place became a parking lot for the Conseil d'Etat, but the foundation remained there and there are still several rooms beneath including one, the Salle Escande, used by the Comédie-Française for rehearsals." When Daniel Buren, after two years of fierce polemic battles, finally completed the project that Jack Lang had commissioned, his architect, Patrick Bouchain, did not dig up this soil but just added another layer of concrete under his flagstones. Plus, no one verified the porosity of this complicated construction, which was a serious error, in that the water, running in little channels covered over with grills, was an integral part of the overall work.

The result: microfissures have appeared, causing water leaks in the Salle Escande. In any case, the water is no longer circulating because the pumps are no longer pumping, and the pumps are no longer working because the electricity is no longer working properly. In short, Alain-Charles Perrault is going to have to take the columns off their bases, to which metal rings are attached, to insert an elastic film under the cover. In other words, he will have to reconstruct the entire main courtyard of the Palais-Royal.
It sounds like a nightmare. I think that, more and more, preservation concerns will and should become a part of the planning for public art commissions.

27.3.05

Easter Wishes

The Risen Christ, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias GrünewaldThis is a brief excerpt of the Troparia for the Lumen Christi, which we sing at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in a plainchant setting by Leo Nestor, every year at the Easter Vigil as the paschal candle is brought into the darkened church. The texts are translations of 2nd-century writings by Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria:

Born as a son, led like a lamb,
Sacrificed like a sheep, buried as a man,
He rises from the dead as God,
Being by nature both God and man.

He is the judge of all things:
When he judges, he is law; when he teaches, word;
When he saves, grace; when he begets, father;
When he is begotten, son; when he suffers, lamb;
When he is buried, man; when he rises, God.

Come, then, all you races of humankind, whom sin has saturated,
And receive the forgiveness of sin.
For it is I who am your forgiveness; I, the saving pasch;
I, the lamb, sacrificed for you; I, your purification; I, your life;
I, your resurrection; I, your light; I, your salvation; I, your king!
It is I who bring you to the heights of heaven:
It is I who shall raise you up here on earth.
I will show you the eternal father, I will raise you with my right hand.
These remarkable texts lead into the proclamation of the Easter Exultet, the ancient chant that was intoned in the Middle Ages from ornately decorated scrolls. When I hear this music, only then do I know it's Easter.

Best wishes for joy in the Easter season!

Image at right:
The Risen Christ, detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515), by Matthias Grünewald

Chopin and Rachmaninov's Sonatas of Death

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonata, op. 35; Berceuse, op. 57; Barcarolle, op. 60; and Rachmaninov, Sonata, op. 36, Hélène Grimaud, piano
I posted last month about the new CD from French pianist Hélène Grimaud, when it was reviewed in Le Monde. (At that point, M. S. Smith, blogging at CultureSpace, had already posted a review of Hélène Grimaud's concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and some thoughts on her new album. We await the return of that blog from its currently suspended state.)

For a performer in her 30s, Ms. Grimaud has had a fairly illustrious career, having already made recordings with Pierre Boulez, playing one of the three Bartók piano concerti, and with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony (Credo, featuring John Corigliano's Fantasia on an Ostinato; Beethoven's Tempest Sonata and Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, op. 80; and Arvo Pärt's Credo for Piano solo, Mixed Choir and Orchestra) for her first album as a Deutsche Grammophon artist. Her list of older recordings includes Ravel and Gershwin with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, the Brahms first piano concerto with Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Brahms op. 116 to 119 pieces (all for Erato), the Rachmaninov second concerto with the London Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Beethoven fourth concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur (both for Teldec).

She has been packaged by all these companies as a beautiful woman playing the piano, since her face, often in closeup, graces all of her album covers. M. S. Smith wrote that his first impression of Grimaud was that she was "far too pretty for her profession; you'd mistake her for an actress before you took her for a classical pianist." The sex appeal of virtuoso musicians is as old as the very concept of the daring solo performer, so why shouldn't Ms. Grimaud's physical appeal be a marketing bonus? It goes without saying that you will buy Ms. Grimaud's recordings because of how she plays, but five or six publicity photos in the CD booklet cannot hurt, as far as I can tell. I might be more sympathetic to the argument that what we could really do without are Ms. Grimaud's rather indulgent liner notes. In a short essay ("Death, Where Is Thy Victory?"), she lays out her feelings about the two sonatas (both no. 2, both in B minor, by Chopin and Rachmaninov):
There is nothing more final than death; and yet, by a striking paradox, it is only death that enables the spirit to find its way back to the central point where life regains its urgency. That urgency was tested by Chopin and Rachmaninov in the extreme with their Second Sonatas, works that open out to infinity: they are masses for the dead, recited by love itself for all who love.
Ms. Grimaud's rather personal thoughts about the pieces she has recorded are followed by an interview, with Michael Church, featuring . . . more of Ms. Grimaud's rather personal thoughts about the pieces she has recorded. I have no problem with this, because performers should have a personal relationship with the music they play, but I doubt I will ever need to consult this particular booklet ever again.

Because of the third movement (Marche funèbre) I can understand associating the Chopin sonata with the theme of death (although the Funeral March was actually composed by itself in 1837, during Chopin's depression after his affair with Maria Wodzinska had ended, and only later inserted into what became the sonata, which was composed during the happy early years of his relationship with George Sand), but not the Rachmaninov. One of the most appealing qualities of instrumental music is that it can mean so many different things to different listeners: a reviewer of Freddy Kampf's performance of the Rachmaninov second sonata noted that "the Romanticism of this movement is red-blooded, with a potent, almost sexually charged dynamism." I understand even less how the theme of death could fit with the two short bon-bons appended to Grimaud's program, the Berceuse (op. 57) and the Barcarolle (op. 60), both from the mid-1840s, before Chopin and Sand really began to hate one another (and both of which, coincidentally, he played for his final concert in Paris, in 1848). Whatever. If it helps Grimaud to think about the music this way, that's great.

It strikes me, after several listenings of this album, that Ms. Grimaud plays the way she thinks about music: personally, directly, radically. There is some roughness around the edges (as opposed to the masterful polish of a Pollini), and Ms. Grimaud's tendency to sigh and even sing does come through occasionally. Her voicing of main lines is admirable, and there are moments of great tenderness contrasted with crashing, almost raucous force (this is at least partly due to the free approach to choice and flexibility of tempo). For the Chopin sonata, however, I will forever be spoiled by the live account from Maurizio Pollini last fall, where there were far more colors in the funeral march and the most daring final movement.

I have to say—and here I feel the same trepidation that Helen Radice felt before she admitted never liking Brahms—that Rachmaninov is one of those composers I could probably do without. I will listen to his music, fine, but I don't have any recordings (except a few cases where there is a piece here and there) and I just don't seek it out. He was a great pianist, and his music can be as difficult as hell, so I admire people who can play it well, but I just don't care for most of it. (This is not to say that I don't like flashy, Romantic music, since I love Liszt's hellish piano pieces.) I admit that it bothers me that one critic could describe Rachmaninov's second sonata (1913/1931) as a continuation of or coda to Chopin's (1837-40). Although I suppose that's true, there is something retrogressive about Rachmaninov that bugs me. His music is just so damned pretty. Ugh. (Give me Prokofiev anyday: his second sonata sounds like it was composed in 1912, and his seventh in the 1940s.) My dislike aside, Grimaud does a great job working her way through the treacle. Her muted, drowsy rendition of Chopin's Berceuse could rock any crabby child to sleep, and her affinity for Rachmaninov comes across well. All in all, this is good work and enjoyable listening, and it will probably not leave you as depressed as you might fear from two "sonatas of death."

26.3.05

Roma 2005: Santa Maria del Popolo

After St. Peter's (see my Good Friday post), on this gorgeous day, we had a few hours free after a long lunch, so a friend and I walked toward the Villa Borghese garden, stopping to see the Ara Pacis and the Piazza del Popolo. As you can see in this photograph, which I took standing on the wall at the edge of the Tiber, the Romans are building a new museum around the Ara Pacis, at its location in the Campus Martius. The building has been designed by American architect Richard Meier, who designed the extraordinary building for the Getty in Los Angeles, but I couldn't make out much yet what his plan is for the building. This picture shows a lot of glass.


The Piazza del Popolo is the far more pleasant alternative—less tourist-infested than the Spanish Steps area, for example—as a place to have a drink, sit outdoors, and watch people. It was here that the Via Flaminia was made to enter Rome, back in the 3rd century, connecting the city to the Adriatic coast. Nanni di Baccio Bigio, commissioned by Pope Pius IV in 1562, built the gate you see behind the obelisk. When Queen Christina renounced the throne of Sweden, because she wanted to remain a Catholic, she moved to Rome in 1655, and in her honor Pope Alexander VII had Bernini provide new relief sculptures for the arch. Augustus first brought the obelisk from Heliopolis, to have it put up in the Circus Maximus. Pope Sixtus V had it moved here in 1589. The piazza's oval layout was fixed in the 19th century when walls were added to mark off the space. Now The Via del Corso, one of the great roads in Rome, begins here.

The church shown here, Santa Maria del Popolo, is only the most famous of several on the piazza. It was built in the 15th century, by Andrea Bregno, but the façade (shown here) is only one part of the building altered in the 1650s by Bernini, at the command of Alexander VII. It was ceded to a monastery of Augustinian monks, who in the early 16th century happened to have hosted a monk from Germany whose name was Martin Luther. He had, they tell me, quite an experience in Rome, which he never forgot. The church is full of exquisite art work, including sculptures by Bernini, Lorenzetto (based on Raphael's designs), a medieval icon of the Madonna del Popolo (in the choir/apse area, redesigned by Bramante), and lots of paintings and mosaics. I was there especially to see the Cerasi chapel (shown here), to the left of the main altar, where there is a painting of The Assumption done by Carracci. That painting is framed by two extraordinary paintings by Caravaggio (shown below), the Crucifixion of St. Peter (left) and the Conversion of St. Paul (right), both done in 1601 to 1602, at about the same time as the Carracci. The dome (shown below) has a beautiful example of trompe-l'œil painting.

The Yellow Barn Road to Chamber Music Excellence

Sunday, April 3rd, at 7 pm, the Peabody Trio will feature in a musical soirée for the benefit of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival Scholarship Fund. A good cause and exquisite enjoyment seldom go hand in hand as much as when you can attend a chamber music concert at the intimate setting of the home of Sasha and Thaïs Mark, local music lovers of the first order.

Having had the immense pleasure of their musical-evening hospitality before, I can attest to the additional excellence of the following wine, cheese, and dessert reception following an evening of Beethoven. The evening will serve as an "insider's look" at the Archduke Trio in B-flat major, op. 97. Both discussed and performed, the event fits neatly into the schedule of the three subsequent performances of the Peabody Trio in Beethoven's Piano Trios at the Corcoran's last Musical Evening Series concerts on April 15th and 29th and May 13th. Washingtonians probably don't need much introduction to the Naumburg Chamber Music Award-winning Peabody Trio, which has performed at the highest musical level for the last 15 years and brought their skill to Washington on numerous occasions.

The Yellow Barn Music School and Festival is an annual gathering of 60 musicians from around the world in Putney, Vermont. For five weeks they explore the riches of the chamber music repertoire and present more than 30 public concerts. World-renowned artists play alongside exceptionally gifted young professionals, and a distinctive and compelling kind of music-making results: fresh, impassioned, and keenly alive. More information can be found at their Web site (www.yellowbarn.org) or at 1-800-639-3819.

A silent auction after the concert (a private concert by the Peabody Trio, excellent vino, weekend getaways to Vermont with Yellow Barn tickets and much more can be attained) will supplement the suggested (and very appreciated) donation of $60. Given the "venue," seating is naturally limited, and if you wish to attend, replying by March 28th is encouraged (Call 202-363-4353 or 1-800-639-3819 x101). What better way to get your classical music and contribute to music's benefit—especially now that we don't know what to do with the money we no longer give to WETA.

25.3.05

Verdi's Requiem at the Kennedy Center


Conductor Stéphane Denève's Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center stopped being special after 35 seconds. In the kernel of Verdi's hushed, almost inaudible ppp beginning lie all the emotions, thrills, and the fire that then supply the rest of the 90-some-minute work. In that sense, I see a kinship with Wagner's Rheingold (may I be spared the wrath of ACD for such a comparison) and Bruckner's 5th and 8th symphonies, only that the latter has about tenfold the spirituality of the Verdi Requiem.)

available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Requiem,
F.Fricsay / RIAS SO
M.Stader, K.Borg, M.Radev, H.Krebs
DG



available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Requiem,
C.M.Giulini / Philharmonia O&C
C.Ludwig, N.Gedda, E.Schwarzkopf, N.Ghiaurov
EMI



available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Requiem,
J.E.Gardiner / ORR / Monteverdi Choir
L.Orgonasova, A.Miles, A.v.Otter, L.Canonici
Philips

The difficultly is to take this awe-inspiring beginning and extend the sense of something special going on, to keep the listener in a state of awe and emotional surrender. Muddled choral entries with fuzzy edges and the basses' and tenors' uninhibited belching out at the first sight of a ff put a quick end to that state, as did incessant and ruthless coughing during the quietest passages.

Daniel Ginsberg's statement about the Choral Arts Society's Matthew Passion—the performance having been more than the sum of its parts—applied then in the sense of good things coming together to form something sublime. It applied to the Requiem this Thursday also, albeit on a different, somewhat lower level.

Among the performers, only mezzo soprano Olga Borodina was beyond reproach. (Her recording of the Verdi Requiem under Gergiev is sadly rendered unlistenable by Andrea Bocelli's horrific performance. He's much better now, actually.) Tenor Marcus Haddock, who enjoys a career that brings him to all the respected opera houses in the world, was very dramatic and had a tendency to substitute loudness for volume, causing passages to sound narrow and forced, especially early on in the work. The MET-hardened Verdi soprano Marina Mescheriakova had a few characteristically glorious moments but unfortunately also many lesser ones. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was consistent and solid.

Robert Shafer's Washington Chorus performed mightily, but without the definition, flexibility and responsiveness that I have heard it display on other occasions. The NSO was blameless, without going beyond the call of duty.

The work is a bear to perform, much less to conduct, so the young French conductor Stéphane Denève, too, cannot be faulted for losing grasp of the many threads. It goes to the credit of all of those involved that the performance still convinced. It had drama to spare: explosive and attention-grabbing moments with brass broadsides, timpani thunder, and trumpet calls from all directions. The NSO and The Washington Chorus will perform again today, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM.

Great recordings exemplify, although without the thrill that a live performance invariably brings, what the Verdi Requiem can be. Fricsay was devilishly good the first time around. Giulini's EMI account radiates and glows since 1964. Gardiner on Philips has a perfect choir (Monteverdi Choir) and modern sound among his many assets. Harnoncourt takes the opera out of it, and gets back to the thrilling basics.


Tim Page's more positive review can be read here.

Charles reviewed the Requiem at the Kennedy Center in 2003. A 2006 performance at the Kennedy Center (with Valery Gergiev) was reviewed here; a 2010 performance of Gergiev with the Munich Philharmonic here.

Roma 2005: St. Peter's

I promised some more photographs from my recent trip to Rome, where I made a recording in Santa Maria Maggiore with the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (see post on March 12). In addition to our late night recording sessions, we sang for daily Masses at several churches around the city. After a first-day Mass at St. Mary Major, we showed up on our second day, very early in the morning, at St. Peter's. Although it was cold, we had what was probably the sunniest, most beautiful weather that day. Look at that light on Carlo Maderno's façade!

The other good thing about wandering into the Vatican so early in the morning was that the church was almost empty, meaning that the line to get through security was almost nonexistent. We walked to the point in the nave of St. Peter's where there is an inscription for our Basilica back in Washington, marked on the floor at the point at which the National Shrine's nave would fit inside that of St. Peter's. (On the previous Shrine Choir tour, in 1993, we sang Palestrina's Alma redemptoris mater in a circle around that inscription.) We proceeded down the stairs at the crossing to the lower level of the church, where there is a simple chapel directly in front of the tomb of St. Peter. The tradition of belief that the site is the final resting place of the apostle Peter goes back to early Christian times (Constantine built the first church at this location), and its symbolic importance to the history of the papacy guided the building and decoration of the new building in the 16th and 17th centuries. The words Jesus speaks to Peter in the Gospels ("You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church") are inscribed in massive capitals around the dome over the crossing (see photo of the words Tu es Petrus).

At the conclusion of Mass, we returned to the nave and sang Lorenzo Perosi's fanfaric setting of the "Tu es Petrus" text (one of the pieces on the recording we made in Rome) in front of Bernini's bronze baldacchino over the tomb. (In 1993, we sang Palestrina's six-part motet on that text, in a private concert for the Holy Father. That's a better piece.) All of this happened before 10 am. It was that kind of trip.


24.3.05

Schubert for Two

available at Amazon
Franz Schubert,
Piano Works for 2 and 4 Hands,
M.J.Pires & R. Castro
DG





I thought Hélène Grimaud's liner notes for her Chopin-Rachmaninoff CD were pretty bad, but Maria João Pires's new CD with fellow pianist Ricardo Castro (Schubert, works for four hands plus sonatas D664, A major, and D784, A minor) takes the cake. The double disc, titled Résonance de l'Originaire, contains the most pretentious, abstruse, impenetrable notes you will ever have encountered. Even the re-retranslation of my non-existent Japan-bought electric shaver's instructions manual seem to make more sense in comparison. ("Extra-zip mini-pulley through lever with, then ready for happy sun-shine...")

The perpetrator, psychoanalyst Loïse Barbey-Caussé, may think me an uneducated ignoramus, but even with two years of psychology (admittedly, many years ago), I cannot make heads or tails out of a sentence/paragraph like:

A primary sensitivity which would be doomed to the fatal lacerations of intensity in all its implacability, were it not entirely surrounded, enfolded, so that it registers any "impact" only as filtered, sifted. It is not yet a "skin" capable of a certain degree of self-defense.

I'd like to quote it all, but it would be excessive and cruel. One preceding and five following such paragraphs (only longer) later, and we get the overdue tie-in with Schubert:
Schubert never stopped emphasizing his dream of "community." He was haunted by it throughout his life. He expresses it directly, consciously in the guise of his almost visceral attachment to all his "brothers and sisters," in a communion of the soul incorporating either explicitly or as a watermark all his ineluctable need for creativity.

I almost understood that one: but what does it really mean to express something "directly, consciously in the guise of [an] almost visceral attachment to all [one's] 'brothers and sisters'?" Do bloggers have an almost visceral attachment to their "brothers and sisters?" Just to make sure that my sometimes shaky English wasn't to blame, I read through the liner notes in German ("Er drückte ihn direkt und bewusst in seiner fast irrationalen Bindung an all seine 'Brüder und Schwestern' aus"). It not better. French and Spanish are also available, because if Loïse Barbey-Caussé gets credited in the same font size as the artists (at least on the booklet cover), you want the world to be able to read her thoughts.

Perhaps she is a good friend of Mme. Pires and her husband, Augustin Dumay, and Mr. Castro—and maybe they indulge in such speculations and discussions on wine- and music-heavy evenings—but I doubt that they help the average (and nonaverage) listener/reader to truly understand how "Maria João Pires and Ricardo Castro allow us to share their inner belief in this inexpressible element . . . enfolded together as in a dyad." But, apparently, it "is there as a real resonance, doubtless awakened individually in each, but unified within the enfolding musical context in which they are immersed together, that of the duetto for four hands."

Couldn't make it up if I wanted to. Fortunately, however, the music is extraordinarily delicious. The two sonatas (D784 and D664), played by Mme. Pires and Mr. Castro, respectively, are fine and musical and insightful, if perhaps lacking a bit in the special (and different) qualities that Mitsuko Uchida, Wilhelm Kempf, or Leif Ove Andsnes bring to those works. But the works for piano, four hands, are truly outstanding. Not only are these gems less often heard and found on record, they are executed with complete dedication and the joy of music making that can only come from collaborative efforts. Whether the Fantasie in F Minor, the Rondo in A, or the Allegro in A Minor, these two discs—sold for the price of one (given a playing time of just over 90 minutes, a wise decision on the part of DG)—are a delightful addition to anyone's collection. And after the initial laugh and disbelief about the liner notes, you don't have to read those again.



Edit: The Fantasie in F Minor is getting short shrift here, given how extraordinary a recording it is. The work has never had want for fine performers, but Pires/Castro indulge in it with a wistful tenderness the like of which I have not before or since. Truly extraordinary and worth seeking the album out for, which is out of print but available as an mp3 or from high-quality download and streaming site Qobuz.