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30.9.06

Ionarts Film Agenda

Out of FrameHIRSHHORN MUSEUM OF ART:
For films off the beaten path this week, we start with the free screening of Terry Gilliam's new film, Tideland, this Thursday (October 5, 7 pm) at the Hirshhorn. Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, the movie delves into the imagination of a young girl (Jodelle Ferland) and her talking Barbie doll heads, while her father (Jeff Bridges) remains "on vacation," shooting up in an abandoned farmhouse. Terry Gilliam will introduce his movie in person.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS:
On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (October 3 and 4), the NMWA will host the D.C. Asian Pacific American Film Festival with early screenings at 6:30 pm of groups of recent short films, leading up to 8 pm screenings of two feature-length movies: Sita, a Girl from Jambu, Kathleen Man's "narrative documentary" about a street performance describing a Nepalese girl sold into sexual slavery, and Kieu, Vu T. Thu Ha's film based on the Vietnamese epic poem, Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu). Tickets: $5.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART:
As part of Borderless Sounds, a film series devoted to Swiss documentaries, the NGA will give a free screening of A Tickle in the Heart on Saturday (October 7, 4:30 pm), Stefan Schwietert's 1996 documentary about the Epstein Brothers of Brooklyn, kings of klezmer. On Sunday (October 8, 4:30 pm), it will show Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's Step across the Border (1990), a look at the work of experimental composer Fred Frith. Look for a cameo appearance by John Zorn, one of the winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation genius grants. It will be followed by a bonus screening of Stefan Schwietert's Das Alphorn, a documentary about the past and present lives of the legendary instrument of Switzerland, the alpine horn.

AVALON THEATER:
I should have mentioned this before, but a recent film by Patrice Chéreau, Gabrielle, opened at the Avalon on Friday. It stars Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory.

E STREET CINEMA:
Opening on October 6 at E Street is the latest installment by a team of British filmmakers, 49 Up. Director Michael Apted has interviewed the same group of English children, first when they were seven years old and every seven years after that up to this movie, when they are 49. The trailers looked fascinating. Also opening this Friday is John Cameron Mitchell's latest feature, Shortbus, about the participants in a weekly quasi-artistic, orgiastic salon. Mitchell's previous film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, should tell you all you need to know.

AFI SILVER THEATER:
At the AFI in Silver Spring, the Pedro Almodóvar Retrospective continues this week, with screenings of La ley del deseo (1987, The law of desire), with Antonio Banderas (October 6 to 9); La Flor de Mi Secreto (1995, The flower of my secret); and Carne tremula (1997, Live flesh), with Penélope Cruz. The latter two close on October 5. Also at AFI, the XVII Washington Latin American Film Festival continues through October 8.

Shostakovich and Temirkanov Open the BSO Season

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D. Shostakovich, Symphonies Nos.5 & 6, St.PetersburgNewPhil / Temirkanov
Yuri TemirkanovAfter difficult contract negotiations that were just recently resolved, it was very good to welcome the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra back in time for their season opener at Strathmore last Thursday. Indeed, it was an entire evening of welcome returns: Yuri Temirkanov, now no longer the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, came back for this concert - and for the Mahler Kindertotenlieder that now occupied the first half of an originally all-Shostakovich program the audience welcomed Nancy Maultsby (last heard in Temirkanov’s farewell concert of Mahler’s Second) back. It was a rousing affair.

Visibly more at ease now that he does not have to be in Baltimore, the diminutive, wiry Maestro led an amiable if not very idiomatic performance of the Mahler. Nancy Maultsby (whose return seemed like her wish to show her talent in a better light better than in last season’s Mahler where illness hampered her) impressed with sonorous low notes and dedication to these songs. I wish I had liked it better, still, but the singing was too dense, too mealy to be really enjoyable. The poems by Friedrich Rückert need not be understood for the Kindertotenlieder to be enjoyed (otherwise even most native speakers would get little out of them) but with the text open, they should at least be possible to follow for the audience members. Moreso, the way of pronouncing and vocally shaping a text influences the sound and I suppose Ms. Maultsby’s tone might not have seemed to come from somewhere between above he gum and behind her upper cheekbones had she sung Barber or Duparc. Still, with those low sounds and her wide range she proceeded to get well beyond these reservations and, together with the determined orchestral contribution behind her, wooed on Mahler’s behalf for more frequent performances of the “Children Death Songs”.

If the second half of the 2005/2006 season was Mozart-mania, the first half of the 2006/2007 season will be Shostakovich-salacity. “DSCH-5” was Temirkanov’s contribution to the celebrations – and a celebration it was!

Dmitri ShostakovichShostakovich’s music is one of the prime examples of how extra-musical elements determine our appreciation of music itself. There are of course hundreds of those elements that influence our enjoyment of music: from the way we slept the night before to our particular mood that moment or whether we had that espresso or glass of wine before listening… But unlike these ephemeral events that make us like one thing today but not tomorrow (vice versa rarely happens because an associated negative impression keeps us from returning to that particular work or version thereof), the “Shostakovich Factor” is one that has influenced critical and public perception at large and has lasted for many decades.

The idea: Shostakovich is the wily anti-totalitarian writer who was cowed into writing superficially propagandistic and conformist music that secretly sticks it to the Soviet dictators. Propagated by such figures as Solomon Volkov in his “authentic biography” of Shostakovich, “Testament”, and immediately taken up by the (Russian-émigré) champions of Dmitri Dmitrievich’s cause in the west once they realized how marketable this image was, this idea of Shostakovich has been the single most important factor for the popularity of his music in the West – and I include his music itself among those factors. Assume the opposite situation: That this moral white-washing of his music didn't exist and we thought his works mere propaganda-bombast cranked out to the greater glory of Stalin & Co., all by a good Soviet citizen, informer, and apparatchik. We would condemn it to the furthest reaches of the repertory the way we hail a 'secret freedom-fighter' in every of his third movements. In all this DSCH’s music would only be the ball in a moral-political game; not always good enough to assert itself against defamation, nor so bad as not being loveable with the correct ideology attached.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith Compelling pairing opens BSO season (Baltimore Sun, September 30)
Instead of trying to figure out whether Volkov et al. have it right or Ms. Laurel Fay (one of the foremost critics of the probably fraudulent work of Volkov’s e.g. in her book “Shostakovich: A Life” – no secret which direction I lean toward), it is better to try to face Shostakovich’s music as absolute and then either be enthralled or reject it as hollow and modestly inspired kitsch and spectacle. Here I lean toward the former. I need no biographies to decipher the emotion and meaning of his string quartets and I’d rather not have prescribed how I am to feel about his symphonies, either. Rather than being told that his subtitle for the Fifth Symphony – “ A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism” – is of course secretly sarcastic (something I don’t actually believe), I shall content myself with the onslaught of music, the church-like calm of intermittent sections, and the come-hell-or-high-water finale. Anyone who is into “big” will love the Fifth (or, for that matter, most of his symphonies – whether overly propagandistic (No.12, No.3) or subversive (the Fourth, to my ears).

Temirkanov, calm and understated on the outside (not quite in the regal, stern manner of Mravinsky but a far cry from the animated style that was Bernstein’s or the hopping and bopping that is Slatkin’s), conjured a rousing, but not over-the-top Fifth Symphony. The lower strings sounded particularly great in the opening of the second movement, the brass as good as ever under him, and the rhythms were almost delicately accentuated amid the noise-assault. The orchestra visibly played their hearts out for him and the result sounded accordingly great.

The program will be performed again at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight, Saturday, at 8PM and tomorrow, Sunday, at 3PM.

Music between Friends

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Violin Sonatas by Franck and Debussy, Schumann Fantasiestücke, Dora Schwarzberg and Martha Argerich (released on July 25, 2006)
Many people would buy just about any track that Argentine pianist Martha Argerich chooses to lay down, and I myself am inclined in that direction. On this new disc from the small label Avanti, her playing is captured for only the second time in the SACD format. Argerich recorded these three selections last December in a Brussels studio with a frequent partner from her very own Lugano Festival, Russian violinist Dora Schwarzberg, a highly respected teacher of the instrument and a fine player in her own right. The result is personal and idiosyncratic, with some performances I have enjoyed listening to more than others. The finest playing is lavished on the Debussy violin sonata, the last of the monumental solo sonatas that the composer completed at the end of his life. The performance is not appealing for its flawlessness, but for its tenderness, its gossamer arabesques and ghostly recitative, its enigmatic questions.

Three movements from Schumann's Fantasiestücke conclude this disc in a similar, dreamlike and arch-Romantic tone, a nice tribute to the composer who died 150 years ago this year. The longest piece on this rather brief recording, the Franck sonata (about half the CD's duration), is given a tortuous, emotionally agonizing reading that emphasizes the work's contrasts. Some flaws appear in faster passages when Schwarzberg's sense of intonation becomes approximate and her tone a little raw. However, in these pieces by three of the great keyboard virtuoso composers, all of them with parts that suit her flair and technique, Argerich's explosive playing is a wonder, from her booming left hand to her feathery filigrees. This is probably still not enough to overcome the problem of this release's pricing, quite expensive at around $20 (it is available only as an SACD) for less than an hour of music. If it is any consolation, the packaging features artwork by George Condo.

avanticlassic 5414706 10232

29.9.06

More on Shostakovich

In my brief Shostakovich centennial post in honor of the composer's birthday on Monday, I noted that the blog coverage of the anniversary was almost non-existent. Here are two more links relating to DSCH that have appeared since, beginning with an article by James Barron (At Long Last, a Shostakovich Premiere, September 27) in the New York Times:

Forty-four years later, an audience will finally hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 the way the Soviet censors heard it. Weeks before its premiere in December 1962, the censors listened not to the version for orchestra, chorus and bass that has been performed ever since, but to a two-piano version. Shostakovich had reduced the orchestral score because the censors, charged with deciding whether to approve the piece, did not need to hear a full-strength orchestra or chorus. They approved it. But the two-piano score was all but forgotten in the uproar about the first performance and was never published.

The piece, which some critics have suggested is more like a cantata than a symphony, opens with a setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” about a notorious mass grave near Kiev. In 36 hours beginning on Sept. 29, 1941 — 65 years ago Friday — the Nazis killed more than 33,000 Jews there. More than 100,000 Russians and Ukrainians were also killed there, as World War II ground on. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan focused on the anniversary of the massacre when it began planning tonight’s performance, which will feature the first movement of the symphony with the husband-and-wife pianists Misha and Cipa Dichter, the bass Valentin Peytchinov and a chorus conducted by Patrick Gardner. (The Dichters will also play Shostakovich’s Concertino for Two Pianos, and Mr. Peytchinov and Mr. Dichter will perform the first of the four Opus 91 Monologues on texts of Pushkin.)
Allan Kozinn reviews that concert in today's newspaper (Music of Rage for 34,000 Silenced Voices, September 29) and dismisses the significance of the recovered 2-piano version rather curtly.

UPDATE:
Alex Ross gets on the bandwagon today, too.

27.9.06

Caprice Corrected

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Vicente Martín y Soler, La Capricciosa Corretta, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (released on May 18, 2004)
After a well-known collaboration with Mozart, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was driven out of Vienna, settling in London for a short period before ending up in New York. While in London, he wrote the libretto for La Capricciosa Corretta, o sia la scuola de' maritati, an opera composed for the soprano Anna Bosello Morichelli. In a few weeks, da Ponte worked directly with the composer Vicente Martín y Soler, who came to London from St. Petersburg to do the work, to adapt the text to music. The opera was premiered to audience acclaim in Janury 1795 and then reprised, in constantly changing forms, in theaters in Italy and elsewhere for many years afterward. For this recording, Christophe Rousset had to sift through many layers of revisions, in an attempt to recreate the work as it was given at the London premiere.

The opera reminds me of Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto (Vienna, 1792), made during the same period and also benefitting from what Mozart had done with Italian comic opera, in particular, with the treatment of ensembles. It is hardly a work for the ages, but it has an entertaining story centered around a bitch on wheels (the eponymous capricious woman whose outrageous behavior against her husband and stepchildren must be corrected). The music is lifted out of a sometimes pedestrian style by a number of good arias and a few charming ensembles, like the laughing terzetto "Vadasi via di qua," from the end of Act I, a little minute-long trifle, for soprano and two baritones, that could make a nice encore piece for a group recital. You can listen to the first act online here, thanks to the folks at Naïve (track 25 for the terzetto).

This studio recording was made by the same forces that mounted the opera in a production at the Opéra de Lausanne in December 2002, Les Talens Lyriques and a cast of talented but relatively unknown singers. Quite appropriately, either music director Christophe Rousset or his colleague, Marie-Cécile Bertheau, accompanies the recitatives on pianoforte. The orchestra, tuned in the Vallotti temperament (a well-tempered rather than equal spacing of the scale) with A at 430, sounds its expected best, even the horns. The lovely soprano Marguerite Krull has a sound hovering between sweet and shrill as Ciprigna, the brazen second wife of Bonario (baritone Enrique Baquerizo). They have a funny duet scene in the second act, in which she pretends to want to make up but they end up hurling barbs at one another.

The family's two clever servants, Fiuta (baritone Josep Miquel Ramon) and Cilia (soprano Raffaella Milanesi), manage to solve their master's problem so that they can be married in peace (is this sounding familiar?). There are Mozart moments, Rossini-esque flavors (Ciprigna's big second act aria "La donna ha bello il core," a cabaletta-like polacca), a pleasant duet for two baritones ("In questo secolo," for Bonario and Don Giglio, Ciprigna's lover, in Act II), and an ultimate scheme involving the servant Fiuta disguised as an oriental ambassador straight out of Molière (the ambassador names himself "Irco Berlico, nephew of Alibec, Scanderbec, Salamalec"). The Act II finale is a series of pleasing numbers, in the confusion of the night to frighten and chastise Ciprigna into submission, including a janissary march for the final appearance of the oriental ambassador. The whole thing is over in 2 hours and 15 minutes, which might make this an attractive option for collegiate productions or small opera companies (eight roles, with no chorus) looking for something off the beaten path. Contact Christophe Rousset for information about using the edition he put together. Hooray, musicology!

naïve E 8887

The World Tunes to WRGW - 3

Classical Radio

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Bach - Herreweghe


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Handel - Manze, Egarr (limited Budget Version)


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Mahler - Boulez
The George Washington University radio station's WRGW classical segment continues tomorrow - Friday - at 10AM. On the program are Bach's Cantata "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir" BWV (in the glorious Philip Herreweghe recording that was Ionarts' favorite Cantata disc of the last two years) and Mahler's grand "Resurrection" Symphony No.2 in the version that Pierre Boulez recently recorded. Critics and listeners have been divided on its merits - and ClassicToday's David Hurwitz, whose Mahler reviews I generally cherish, did one of his 'profile-heightening' wack job's on this disc. (Usually the victim is Simon Rattle...) The review starts, characteristically, with this sentence: "The Vienna Philharmonic never has played Mahler particularly well, or with evident enthusiasm." I myself found almost everything splendid with this recording and interpretation. Listen for yourself tomorrow. Betwixt the Mahler and the Bach are a few Handel Violin Sonatas expertly played by Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr and available for $9 and less on an HMU special 'HMU Cataloge' budget issue.

François-Frédéric Guy

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Prokofiev


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Excellent Beethoven Cello Sonatas!


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Brahms 2nd PC
“Les Grands Pianistes” is an audacious name for the recital series organized jointly by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and La Maison Française. But for anyone who scrapes a little deeper in the world of classical pianists will find that beyond the biggest names like Andsnes, Brendel, Fleisher, Perahia (who will not likely perform again due to a recurrent hand injury), Pollini, Uchida, Zimerman, and (I cringe to include him in such rarified company) Lang-Lang, there are many artists of all ages revered either in particular repertory or by a small but devoted group of aficionados. Among them consider such pianists as Håkon Austbø, Paul Badura-Skoda, Ivan Moravec, Evgeni Koroliov, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Richard Goode, Arcadi Volodos, Idil Beret, Alexei Lubimov, Konstantin Sherbakov, Boris Berezovsky (not this guy) – and the three grands pianists of the Corcoran: François-Frédéric Guy, Nicolas Angelich, and of course the Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud. From what I have heard about and from these artists, they are indeed Les Grands Pianistes if you add the caveat “of their generation” and be certain to say it in French.

François-Frédéric Guy made the start with his recital at the Corcoran Gallery on Monday and will give a slightly different one today, Wednesday, at the Maison Française (MF). Those who missed FFG at the sparsely filled Hammer Auditorium ought to consider the Maison Française concert which will feature Beethoven’s op.27 no.2 (“Moonlight”), Brahms’ op.116 Fantasies, and Brahms’ Sonata No.3, op.5 as well as a superior piano in the MF’s Bösendorfer.

The Corcoran Gallery, hailed by us and everyone else as “the greatest venue for chamber music in Washington” and consistently offering the finest chamber programs and groups in town, has only one flaw I know of… but that flaw can torpedo any decent or good musical performance and at least dampen the enjoyment of an excellent one: The piano of the Corcoran (once in possession of one of the best in town), even when freshly voiced as I suspect it had been for this concert, is a dreadful instrument in the hand of a mediocre player and can’t achieve brilliance even under the most talented paws.

To discern how much effort FFG had to invest into making the piano sound decent and how that came at the expense of detail, voicing, or nuance that could otherwise have been employed, is difficult to estimate. It was astounding enough that FFG turned the usually clanky box into a rather warm if fuzzy and murky instrument. The performance at the MF may give clues as to which elements of his playing were stylistic choice and which ones demands of circumstance.

Beethoven’s Sonata No.7, op.10, no.3 was powerfully driven in the first movement, heavily pedaled, had individuality through clipped accents, and was generally tackled like one of the “big”, later sonatas. Tempi were pulled to interesting effect in the slow second movement and he offered a surprisingly slow Allegro in the Menuetto before blazing through the third movement (Trio). The last movement’s little “tail” trickled cutely, softly, and swiftly to the floor.

If that was able and satisfactory Beethoven, the following piece turned the table in favor of a very memorable concert: I have no idea who the composer Hugues Dufourt – a friend of the artist’s – is, but now I wish I did. Allegedly of the Darmstadt School of composing, I have never heard such a beautiful, naturally evocative, and warmhearted work by a composer with that label. Dufourt’s Rastlose Liebe does not attempt to shock or abuse with abrasive surfaces, hard corners, and sharp edges. It’s modernism that ‘doesn’t bite’, immediately making a friendly impression. It charms as a whole without necessarily revealing the individual parts as orderly or making sense. The river’s bubbles, little currents, and swirls might seem like chaos upon close inspection but the direction of the streamlet describes a clear and logical progression from one place to another.

It wasn’t just FFG’s short, passionate, highly welcome introduction for such easily misunderstood music that made it shine as a warm, heartfelt piece of obscure, yet great, beauty. It was a work that, better than any other descriptively named work I know, evoked the feeling that I would associate with its name: “Restless Love”.

Brahm’s sonatas, like Brahms’ string quartets, are notable especially for their lack of noteworthiness. Not, presumably, because they are inherently modest works – but mostly because Brahms’ genius is so much more forcefully displayed in other piano and chamber works. In short: It’s no shame to admit that none of these pieces (including the third sonata op.5 in F-minor) do much for me. That is, unless they are played live, with complete abandon, and superior musicality.

Such a surprise is possible as happened last May when Angela Hewitt played the same work with plenty wrong notes but all the right feeling. Beauteous ramble rather than good Germanic structure is what the ear perceives in the first movement (though be assured that master-craftsman Brahms crosses all the “t’s” and dots all the “i'’s” when it comes to structure) – but in the hands of FFG this made for a sumptuous romantic impression and underscored the mark that the Dufourt piece left: That FFG is an extraordinary Romantic pianist… concerned with wider swaths of sound, perhaps less so with the inner voices of a work or the minutiae that make it up. At any rate a pianist deserving to be heard again and again.

26.9.06

Remembering Thomas Stewart: Wotan, Wanderer, Gunther, Sachs, Dutchman, Telramund, Amfortas extraordinaire

In Memoriam: Thomas Stewart

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Wotan, Wanderer, Gunther - Karajan


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Sachs - Kubelik


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Telramund - Kubelik


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Amfortas - Boulez


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Gunther - Böhm


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Dutchman - Böhm
Thomas Stewart, one of the great bass-baritones of the last half century just died at the age of 79. There will be many in Washington D.C. who knew him and his wife, Evelyn Lear. I did not, but just like anyone else even remotely interested in Opera – and particular Wagner – I have cherished many of his recordings.

Perhaps it does Mr. Stewart injustice to remember him only by his Wagner, because part of what made him such an extraordinary musician was his versatility and success in varied repertoire. Alas, to the extent he will be remembered, it is likely as a Wagnerian. What made him so remarkable in his field was his care and respect for the text, giving it the necessary effort to enunciate and express the words. Assuming that you can follow the German of a Wagner opera (difficult as it can be), you can understand every word of his. In this, he resembled Fischer-Dieskau or Kurt Moll, resisting the epidemic laziness among Wagner singers to ‘assume not to be understood, anyway’. Today there are even fewer exponents of such painstakingly clear diction – Waltraud Meier is the only one that comes to mind.

Reactions elsewhere:

Tim Page, Thomas Stewart, A Singer and Man As Grand as Opera (Washington Post, September 26)

Allan Kozinn, Thomas Stewart, 78, Baritone on Opera Stage, Dies (New York Times, September 26)

Opera's Thomas Stewart Dies (AP via Washington Post, September 26)
Thomas Stewart's voice was more nuance than heft, more lyric than stentorian... a singer whose “sung” Wagner is more pleasing to my ears than the belted, barked, pushed, and screamed Wagner one all-too often hears. No other Wagner bass comes to mind that was quite like him… but Wolfgang Windgassen does, of whom Stewart might be said to have been a lower-register version.

We are being left by a generation of singers: Ghiaurov, Hotter, Nilsson, Schwarzkopf, Varnay all died over the last few years – and although all of them had had enough time to give us all that their active careers could have, they will be missed. Thomas Stewart has now joined them. He, too, will be missed. Our thoughts are with Mrs. Evelyn Lear.

Something Difficult About Sophie's Choice

Rod Gilfry and Angelika Kirchschlager; Photo by Karin CooperSophie’s Choice, first a book by William Styron, then a film with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, is now an opera… and a most welcome American premiere by the Washington National Opera, which is taking a fair amount of risk whenever it mounts productions of challenging and modern work.

Fortunately Nicholas Maw is a fairly well-known and much-liked composer (and neighbor) here in the Washington region; Sophie’s Choice a well-known – though perhaps too disturbing to say: popular – sujet and the cost of the new production defrayed by the partnership with the Berlin and Vienna opera houses that staged it before Washington did. It premiered at Covent Garden under Simon Rattle in a Trevor Nunn staging in late 2002 to rather mixed reviews.

Other Reviews, Washington Production:

Tim Page, A Searing 'Sophie's Choice' (Washington Post, September 23)

Tim Smith, Affecting premiere of 'Sophie's Choice' (Baltimore Sun, September 23)

T. L. Ponick, A 'Choice' not for the faint of heart (Washington Times, September 23)

Justin Davidson, Being noble may not be 'Sophie's' best choice (Newsday, September 25)

Charles T. Downey, Nicholas Maw's Choice (DCist, September 26)


Other Reviews, Covent Garden Production

Anna Picard, Guilt, genocide, madness, masochism, sexual obsession ... and schlock (The Independent, December 15, 2002)

Tim Ashley, Sophie's Choice' (The Guardian, December 9, 2002)

Alex Ross, Opera As History (The New Yorker via "The Rest is Noise", January 6, 2003)
The reaction to the Washington National Opera’s performance will not be much different. Maw’s music throws few bones to the very conservative listener and fewer bones still to the unrepentant modernism-loving listener. It occupies a realm that is hard to define – not exactly neo-Romantic but certainly not abstract. An unkind soul might suggest that a lot of it sounds like a collection of scraps from Benjamin Britten’s cutting room floor. If that sounds too unkind, add to it that most of Sophie’s Choice is high-quality work with a good story that, despite minor misgivings, works very well in the theater (less so of you know the film or the book – which is why I won’t spoil the story for the lucky ones who don’t know what Sophie’s “choice” is) and captivates. Wonderful singers, a clever, resourceful staging, much good music combine for an opera that one very much wants to like. But it’s not so easy.

Anyone who has seen or will see Sophie’s Choice will be utterly thankful to the über-competent Marin Alsop (the WNO orchestra played like a well-oiled machine under her leadership) who went ahead and cut a bit over an hour from the original opera. Even without having seen it, I instinctively greeted the news with “probably for the better” and “thank God.” Little did I know that these cuts brought the opera down to ‘l-o-n-g’ from what would otherwise have been ‘near unbearable’.

(Curious that we should appreciate a conductor’s incisions of contemporary work with preemptive laud – but are going through a phase where we feign outrage if a record company might serve us anything less than the ‘complete-complete’ Hippolyte et Aricie or La Didone or even Die Frau ohne Schatten or Rienzi. All works that no sane music director would have tried to shove down his clientele’s throats uncut. Perhaps our earnestness about Werktreue combined with the completists’ urge works against an otherwise more lighthearted enjoyment of classical works?)

Unless you simply don’t like modern opera without recognizable tunes and arias (starting with Wagner, really – although I am mostly thinking Peter Grimes and Billy Budd), it’s not so easy to put your finger on what’s missing in Sophie’s Choice that makes the whole a good deal less than the sum of its parts. Is it the libretto (Nicholas Maw himself) that seems to try too hard at times, with forced joviality and forced seriousness? I prefer to ascribe the most outrageously clunky phrases to the characters and not the librettist’s lack of subtlety. Sophie’s “I am the avatar of menteuses” for example is a quote from the book… though meaningless without the context the book gives. A ‘showtune’ scene (replete with spotlight) that ends up praising nothing more than the importance of iron in a good diet (try calf liver, leeks, and creamed spinach) and adds “a plain little salad”, is cute if we think of it as poking fun at itself and ‘all-too-serious’ opera. Even, I suppose, an opera that has the Holocaust at its much unspoken-about center.

I don’t think the problem lies in the story, now smacking of a ‘domestic abuse’ drama between Nathan and Sophie (but neutered of Stingo’s – their roommate and the opera’s narrator – very sexual interest in Sophie), instead of delicately unraveling the complex character of Nathan. Nor are the moments where the dramatic development comes to a crashing halt anything more than unfortunate. When the old, narrating Stingo tells of Sophie’s confession about the true nature of her father, his rhetorical questions (“Was her father really such a good guy?”) are highly unnecessary – hence ‘rhetorical’ – since we are shown that he obviously wasn’t, anyway.

Gordon Gietz and Angelika Kirchschlager; Photo by Karin CooperThe main problem I see with Sophie’s Choice is its relentlessness: there is so much story that needs to be told in this opera that there isn’t a moment where the push to tell it can rest. The music is relentless in its often beautiful but hard-working assault on our senses. The characters’ vocal characterizations are persistently similar to each other, the style of singing unyielding and a permanent stentorian push. There is scarcely a moment that the characters can let their voice sail on… even the smallest phrase becomes vocally demanding. And despite the very mindful, voice-friendly conducting of Marin Alsop, this constant pushing had as a result that especially Rod Gilfry (Nathan Landau) and Dale Duesing (Narrator / old Stingo) sounded very strained by the second performance already, with a good number of – admittedly small – cracks here and there. Problems that apparently did not exist on opening night – nor, for that matter, during the final rehearsal.

The music, too, is unrelenting. It offers too few notable contrasts, too little in variation. In short, it’s far too monotonous. The orchestral score, rich and varied in itself, cannot assert itself against the singers and stays curiously muted for most of the opera. Listening to Lulu – in many ways a more modern opera – for contrast makes clear that Lulu has moments that dance, moments that radiate, shocking beauty, recessed elements, whirls gaily about. Sophie’s Choice drives and drives the same – generous – music on and on. It’s like an organ grinder fed his machine with Albert Herring and grinds away without mercy. Only with Nathan’s recital of an Emily Dickinson poem comes a break with very different music – in this case an extraordinarily beautiful lyric it. Not even the “Iron-Showtime-Song” varies from the rest. Charles Downey may have repeated in his review the point he made to me: “The opera comes across as three hours of modern recitative”. A violin solo at the end, an English horn solo a little before that, the orchestral postlude all hint at how this music – tonal but not always comfortably so – can hide warmth and greatness… but it’s too little spread over too much.

C. E. Rotz and Angelika Kirchschlager; Photo by Karin CooperThe above does admittedly not read like a glowing endorsement. I cannot leave it at that. Sophie’s Choice is an opera that I not only want to like, it is a drama that I was very glad to have experienced. I was, for all the distractions or the gritty procession of the story, captivated by what was unfolding on stage and moved, if not downright shocked, at the dramatic climax, even the second time I saw it. Sophie’s Choice is an opera that will grip the audience sufficiently to merit being seen by anyone who does not mind theater on stage with the lines all sung. At just over three hours it is now of a very reasonable length (although the second time around the third and fourth acts became longer and longer as they went on) and can be handled even by those who may not like the music but are interested in the drama. The staging and direction (Robert Schweer and Markus Bothe, respectively) ensure that the imagination of the viewer automatically fills everything in that they don’t prescribe. It works extraordinarily well and goes a long way in accentuating what is good about this opera, hiding some of its weaknesses.

Finally, the singing (and acting), with the above-mentioned caveat, is extraordinarily good. Angelika Kirchschlager – an ever-popular Cherubino or Octavian – is rarely heard in music like this, her characterization (including her accent) superb. Gordon Gietz may seem unimposing next to Rod Gilfry but sang without any sign of weakness throughout the opera and impressed thoroughly. Dale Duesing was a little pale on Sunday while Gilfry’s odd moments hardly distracted from a more-than-solid vocal- and excellent dramatic performance. These four singers all created and premiered their characters. From the supporting cast it was Corey Evan Rotz (a happy Froh in last season’s Rheingold) who made for an excellent concentration camp Kommandant, Rudolph Franz Höss, and once again proved that he is much more than just “a convenient patch for an unfilled role” at the WNO.

Sophie's Choice is so welcome a premiere at the WNO, not because it is an unalloyed success (it isn't) - but because without companies staging contemporary works, opera would no longer be a living art form. And if modern works do not get a fair share of repeat performances, they could never enter the repertory. Even if not every production or work is a winner itself, Opera as such - and the company performing it - is a winner. The next performance takes place tomorrow, Wednesday, September 27th. The performance on September 30th will be the last one with Rod Gilfry as Nathan Landau: Scott Hendricks will take over for the remaining two on October 5th and 9th.

25.9.06

Happy Birthday, Dmitri Dmitrievich

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975One hundred years ago today was born one of the best composers of the Soviet Union, indeed of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich. There was an excellent article on the composer on the French news from France 2 last night, with excellent pictures and an interview with Irina Shostakovich (the composer's third wife); the BBC has been all over the story, with another interview with Irina; ITAR-TASS reports that the town of Samara has renamed a street after Shostakovich; NPR had a piece on Saturday and another today. The Guardian has a great little quiz on Shostakovich, which we dare you to take. I scored 9 out of 10. Check out my Classical Music Agenda at DCist for some Shostakovich concerts to catch here in the Washington area this week.

We will be writing a lot over the next couple months about the observance of this important centenary, but today seemed like a good opportunity to look back at what we have written about DSCH at Ionarts over the past three years. We hope all our readers listened to some of his music today. I am listening to Valery Gergiev's recordings of Symphonies 4, 5, and 9 as I write this. Strangely, I do not recall reading a single blog entry devoted to Shostakovich today, but as they turn up, I will add them here.

Symphonies:
First -- Temirkanov, Baltimore Symphony

Second -- Jansons

Fourth -- Jansons / Gergiev

Seventh -- Bernstein

Eighth -- Rostropovich / Wigglesworth / Gergiev

Eleventh -- Slatkin, National Symphony

Twelfth -- Jansons

Fifteenth -- Kremerata Baltica

String Quartets:
Third -- Belcea Quartet

Fourth -- National Gallery Quartet

Eighth -- Jerusalem Quartet

Ninth -- St. Petersburg Quartet

Tenth -- Jerusalem Quartet

Fifteenth -- Emerson Quartet (The Noise of Time)

Miscellaneous:
Collection of Shostakovich Recordings in Danger
Concertos and Orchestral:
First Violin Concerto -- Gidon Kremer, Baltimore Symphony

Festive Overture -- Baltimore Symphony

Piano and Other Chamber Music:
24 Preludes and Fugues -- Keith Jarrett

Second Sonata -- Alexei Lubimov

Sonata for Viola and Piano -- Kremerata Baltica

Piano Trio No. 1 -- Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

Piano Trio No. 2 -- Natalia Gutman and friends / Beaux Arts Trio / Amadeus Trio

Duets for Violins with Piano -- Perlman/Zukerman

Operas:
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk -- De Nederlandse Opera (2006) / Bolshoi (2004) / Petr Weigl film (1992)

Moscow, Cheryomushki -- Opéra National de Lyon (2004)

The Nose -- Mariinsky Theater

Solstice in NYC

West on HoustonI don’t quite know where to begin this post, having seen an amazing amount of art this past weekend in NYC; some of it was actually amazing. I missed the openings at the begining of the fall season but have been following some of the reviews and blog chatter. What better time to see the new season than the new year/solstice weekend?

Working my way through Chelsea, I started at the David Zwirner empire growing on 19th Street. The gallery must have tripled its size this year, expanding in both directions, including a very spacious open garage, which could handle some very big installations or a nice party rental. Of the three current exhibits, Jockum Nordström’s large collage on paper and graphite drawings are of note. Across the street Frank Gehry’s latest structure continues to take shape.

Elizabeth HueyI’ll give my first amazing nod to the Elizabeth Huey exhibit at Feigen Contemporary. The Kirkbride Plan is an exploration of Thomas Story Kirkbride, who was an innovator in the psychiatric field of the 19th century. He believed in the curative effects of a bucolic environment. Hence the creepy, ornate buildings that sprang up across the country, Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore is a good example. The front gallery has a bizarre send up of a treatment room complete with period tools of the trade, some from fantasy; like an electric chair from hell. Huey’s corresponding paintings are in the main gallery.

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Brian CalvinOK, I give, Brian Calvin’s simplified portraits at Anton Kern have grown on me. They remind me of the quirkiness of George Condo’s work. Robert Feintuch, uses himself as the model for his paintings at CRG Gallery; he's a very good painter.

Down the street, Protest Space has opened in a tiny space, showing Ellen Levin’s America For Sale installation; a portion of the proceeds go to activist organizations. Isca Greenfield-Sanders has been getting some attention for her paintings at Goff+Rosenthal. They’re derived from a complex process of manipulating found photographs by scanning, painting, scanning again, printing them as 7” squares and applying them to the canvas, then finishing. I like the imagery, and the resulting quality is interesting but at times muddled with too much emphasis on the technique; sales are brisk no matter. As for brisk sales four of Chie Fueki’s strange superhero-like paintings at Mary Boone have sold at $35,000 each, one for 50 remains; those are nice numbers.

Mathew RitchieThere is a very cool Mathew Ritchie installation at Andrea Rosen, The Universal Adversary, a row of illuminated images topped by a folded black latticework sky complete with elevated viewing platform; quite a production. More collage and mixed media on canvas from Donald Baechler at Cheim Read and Roberto Juarez at Charles Cowles. Both get some fabulous color through their individual techniques. Bring your own popcorn to view Lucas Samras, at Pace Wildenstein: also iMovies is an impressive and pricey row of iMacs, running for several minutes at a time with some well-known faces, such as Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg. A definite nod to Andy Warhol.

Another exhibit that rises to amazing is a sound-based work, Harmonichaos, by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at Paula Cooper. Imagine a darkened space, with thirteen vacuum cleaners (assuming a French brand). Each of the cleaners has a harmonica attached along with some sort of electronic gear. In random sequence air blows through the harmonica, creating some very interesting sounds. Kind of like Janet Cardiff, but cleaner (sorry, I had to). This show put a big smile on my face.

Alison Elizabeth TaylorAt James Cohan, Alison Elizabeth Taylor has a show of intricately assembled wood veneer compositions. I’ll give this an amazing nod, too: they’re extremely well-crafted and imaginative compositions, but once past the wow factor of the process, I’m left wondering, why bother?

As always, it’s a treat to make it to W. 27th. At John Connelly, Gerald Davis’s 1986 is a series of autobiographical drawings from a pivotal year in the artist's life, dealing with sex, death, hazing, and entertainment involving penis and vacuum cleaner; careful dude. Also of note, Street Poets and Visionaries at Oliver Kamm, posters and ephemeral Writings from the streets of NYC.

Jennifer DaltonJennifer Dalton's Would You Rather Be a Loser or a Pig is at the newly renamed, Winkleman Plus Ultra Gallery. For the record I’m a proud pig. In this exhibit Dalton continues her investigation into the haves and have nots in society and the art world. How many men vs. women get shows in Chelsea, to the earning power of males with children to women; some surprising answers.

Michel GondryI spent most of the weekend in some seriously sweaty backbends at a yoga workshop atop the beautiful Puck building in Soho, which allowed me, in between sessions, to take in some of what remains of the art scene down there. I’m not quite sure what was going on at Deitch Projects, but the gallery was full and the work was a cathartic spewing of some sort by Michel Gondry (see Charles's review of Gondry's new movie, The Science of Sleep, at DCist), some of it using flat screen monitors in a very clever way. But he really needs to clean his room.

The Drawing Center has to be one of the best places to exhibit in the city. They always display work with such respect. Next door Spencer Brownstone has Jane South’s cut and painted constructions of elaborate fantasy machines; so complex and beautiful to observe yet ultimately of no functional value. I know a few people like that.

24.9.06

9 Parts of Desire, Arena Stage

Other Reviews:

Jackie McGlone, Looking for Layla (The Scotsman, July 24, 2003)

Dolan Cummings, Nine Parts of Desire, Edinburgh (Culture Wars, August 1, 2003)

Michael Billington, Nine Parts of Desire (The Guardian, August 5, 2003)

Lisa Zapol, Nine Parts of Desire, London (Curtain Up, September 14, 2003)

Charles Isherwood, A Solitary Woman, Embodying All of Iraq (New York Times, October 14, 2004)

Lauren Sandler, An American and Her Nine Iraqi Sisters (New York Times, October 17, 2004)

Jorge Morales, Smart Bombs: Raffo stirringly documents the 'collateral damage' in Iraq (Village Voice, October 26, 2004)

Simi Horwitz, Heather Raffo: Exploring the Complexity of Identity (BackStage.com, November 2, 2004)

John Lahr, The Fury and the Jury (The New Yorker, November 8, 2004)

Deborah Amos, One-Woman Show on Iraq Draws Accolades (NPR, November 26, 2004)

Emily Botein, 3 Parts of Desire (The Next Big Thing, December 10, 2004)

Victoria Linchon, Nine parts of desire (theater2k.com, December 13, 2004)

Charles T. Downey, 9 Parts of Desire (Ionarts, December 13, 2004)

Barbara Schoetzau, Iraqi-American Actress Scores Big Off-Broadway (VOA News, December 14, 2004)

Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, Playing Nine Parts (Ionarts, January 22, 2005)
Heather Raffo will perform her one-woman play 9 Parts of Desire here in Washington at the Arena Stage this fall, opening on September 29 and running through November 12. When Raffo performed it in London in 2003, The Independent listed it as one of the best five plays in London, and The Times said it was the best play there that season. After the 2004-05 extended run in New York at Manhattan Ensemble Theater, where I saw 9 Parts in January 2005, Heather Raffo received a Special Commendation for the play from the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to best new play written by a woman. Raffo has performed the play all over the English-speaking world, and her Web site announces that it is being translated into other languages for productions in other countries.

9 Parts is a taut, energetic 75 minutes of intense monologue, which shows how economy of style is superlatively incisive. Every word has been carefully measured, and there is little time for one's mind to wander until, with no intermission break for a rest, it's over. At least part of the attention the play has received comes from the timeliness, politically speaking, of its subject, because of that American military action grafted, through what has been revealed as little more than a sleight-of-hand trick, onto the "War on Terror," the Liberation of Iraq. Raffo's father is an Iraqi immigrant to the United States, and she has many family members still living in Iraq, whose names she calls out during the play in a sort of protective mantra. What she reveals in her creation of nine Iraqi women's voices is the multifaceted nature of the problem we have created in that country. The rule of Saddam Hussein is depicted in the only way it can be, as brutal and oppressive. "How can we expect these people to liberate themselves?" one character asks.

No less brutal is the candid assessment of the American military's intervention, such as the effects of a bunker-blasting two-bomb system dropped by an American plane on an Iraqi target, leaving only "the silhouette of a woman vaporized by the heat" on the wall. Perhaps worse than the killing of civilians is the cavalier attitude in which we are implicit. The character closest to Raffo herself, an American woman with Iraqi roots watching the television coverage of the war (CNN is mentioned by more than one character), cries out, "Why don't we count the Iraqi dead?" Because we don't really care about them, terrible as that is, is the only answer that makes sense. Why don't we count them, indeed? Doing so would make us more honest.

Heather Raffo, 9 Parts of DesireTechnically speaking, what Raffo does for these 75 minutes on the stage is virtuosic. With a simple twist of her abaya, the black robe that sometimes covers her body or head, she rapidly shifts among her range of characters under the distracting sound of booming music. She has created characters who remain in Iraq: a doctor dealing with the cancers and birth defects caused by traces of uranium left behind by decades of war; Umm Ghada, the mother who saw all her children die in a bombing raid and lives in the ruin of the shelter; a teenager who thinks that the American soldiers look like the members of her favorite band, 'N Sync; Amal, a Bedouin woman who describes her ex-husbands; Nanna, a woman trying to sell junk; the Mulaya, a mourner who feeds old shoes to the river; and the real source of all the characters, based on a rather famous Iraqi artist, Layal Attar, former curator of the Saddam Arts Center (she died in 1993). She also incarnates expatriate women, like Hooda, living in exile in London and perpetually nursing her Scotch, and the American woman watching CNN in dismay. At one point, all the characters are juxtaposed in a wild tumult. As I listened to all of those voices and scenes again, mixed together, I realized how alive the characters were. We care about them, and that's the point.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Heather Raffo and I went to high school together in Michigan. She was an intelligent and talented actress even then. I am hardly surprised that she has succeeded to the degree she has, and I am thrilled to get the chance to see 9 Parts of Desire a second time.

Dimanche des Rameaux

When I heard Angela Hewitt play one of the Rameau suites (Suite en La, from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, c. 1728) at Shriver Hall in May (Angela Hewitt: She of Supreme Tastefulness, May 17), it was her first public performance of the work. Not only was a major concert artist playing Rameau, Hewitt announced that she was going to record three of the Rameau suites for Hyperion, a recording that she has indeed finished (in the Dolomites this June), set for release next January. In anticipation of that joyous event, I have been listening to a handful of recent recordings of the Rameau suites, two made on piano and two on harpsichord.

Available at Amazon:
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A Basket of Wild Strawberries, keyboard works by Rameau, Tzimon Barto (released on April 18, 2006)
The most recent one, by American pianist Tzimon Barto takes its title, A Basket of Wild Strawberries, from the Chardin painting featured on its cover, Le panier de fraises des bois (1760/61, currently in the possession of a private collector in Paris). When we lived in France, I liked to buy fraises des bois at markets: they are an explosion of goodness in a very small package, and that pile of them in Chardin's little painting is mouth-watering. This disc, recorded in Finland for Ondine, gives a similar impression, as Barto mines selections from four suites for their most striking savors. The playing is wildly fanciful, with tempi stretched with abandon, for dramatic effect and in a way that has not annoyed me. For dance pieces, I tend to favor a fairly regular rhythmic approach that reflects what the music is supposed to be accompanying. However, so many of the Rameau pieces are descriptive miniatures with colorful titles, even though they still often refer to dance types.

Barto profits fully from the major advantage offered by the piano over the harpsichord for these pieces, a wide range of dynamics and articulations. In "Le Rappel des oiseaux" (Suite en Mi, Pièces de clavecin, 1724/31), he captures a delightful twittering of birds back and forth in antiphonal cacophony. The "Tambourin" from the same suite is likewise full of evocatively percussive sounds. He also gives the shortest (0:59), most exciting reading of "La Joyeuse" (Suite en Ré from the same book), that whirls up to a crashing fff, a massive crescendo that is just not possible on the harpsichord.

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Alexandre Tharaud joue Rameau (released on February 12, 2002)
Alexandre Tharaud released a popular Rameau recital in 2002, in which he played the two suites (in A and in G) from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, c. 1728, on a Steinway. Where Tzimon Barto uses the piano for its pianism, Tharaud creates something much more Baroque in style. In an interview with Christian Girardin in the CD booklet, Tharaud acknowledged his appreciation for the work of Baroque specialists: "It's obvious that today, after the phenomenal work of many musicologists and of musicians like William Christie, Christophe Rousset, Scott Ross, and Olivier Baumont, we play Rameau with a much more profound sense of the style. [...] I no longer play Bach and Scarlatti in the same way as before. I think that nowadays it's essential for a pianist to immerse himself in Baroque music."

Tharaud sounds like he is trying to make the piano mimic a harpsichord, with rolls and ornaments and an often percussive articulation. He scrupulously and gracefully observes the agréments Rameau placed in the scores, and he adds dots to make notes inégales in some of the movements (as in the A minor allemande). He creates such fine voicings, with each line of the polyphonic texture delineated in the A minor courante (La Hewitt achieved a similar layering of voices). Tharaud's rendition of the Gavotte and its famous doubles -- recorded on all four of the discs under review -- is the best at capturing the stateliness of the gavotte and the rhythmic vitality and differences in texture among the six ornamented versions. The sixième double is a toe-tapper.

The characters in the Suite en Sol are quite individual, like the dry, bumpy "Les Tricotets" (a dance so named because the rapid movement of the feet back and forth was similar to the clicking of knitting needles) and hennish "La Poule." Tharaud also gives a nice nod to the nationalistic embrace of Rameau's music by French composers in the 19th and 20th centuries, by ending with Debussy's lovely Hommage à Rameau. Vincent d'Indy even went so far, in his edition of the complete works of Rameau, as falsifying the quality of Rameau's orchestration, to enhance the French composer's reputation in that musical area.

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Rameau: Les Cyclopes - Pièces de Clavecin, Trevor Pinnock, harpsichord (released on April 5, 2005)
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William Christie, harpsichord (2003)


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Gilbert Rowland, harpsichord (1995)
Of the two recordings made on harpsichords, Trevor Pinnock's disc Les Cyclopes from last year is the better one. Pinnock played an 18th-century harpsichord that was made by Jean Goernens (Paris, 1764) and kept there. It now belongs to a collection of historical instruments at the University of Edinburgh, where it has been lovingly restored (with new quills and so on) and preserved. It seems plausible to believe that a contemporary of Rameau played his suites on this very instrument. The fine quality and upkeep of the instrument, combined with Pinnock's extraordinary technique, allow him to give some remarkably fast and virtuosic performances, even moreso than on his recording of the complete Rameau suites in the 1970s. His readings of some movements are even faster on the harpsichord than those on piano: "La Poule" clucks and pecks in frenetically at 4:56 (compared to 5:47 from Tharaud and 7:01 from Michel Kiener), and the delicate, lute-stopped "Fanfarinette" at 2:05 beats out Kiener (2:31) and Tharaud (2:46). However, Pinnock's Gavotte and doubles sound a little lethargic.

Pinnock's "Le Rappel des Oiseaux" from the E minor suite is extremely evocative, with the only use of the harpsichord's 4' stop to create the contrast of high-voiced birds with deeper sounds. Again, he is much faster (2:43) than Kiener (3:20), although Tzimon Barto's version (1:23) is the most wildly avian in sound. Apparently, Hector Berlioz, an early riser, liked to play this conversation of birds first thing in the morning on his old harpsichord, to the annoyance of the people who lived near his apartment. The Pinnock CD is a most enjoyable recording, with some very exciting playing.

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Intégrale des pièces de clavecin, Michel Kiener, harpsichord (released on November 11, 2003)
The only recording of the complete Rameau keyboard works under review is Michel Kiener's 2-CD set on harpsichord. By contrast to the Pinnock disc, Kiener's instrument (a William Dowd copy of a Nicolas Blanchet harpsichord) sounds loud and clumsy, and Kiener's playing is generally too square and timid by comparison. That is not to say that there are not things to be enjoyed on this disc. Not least are those pieces that are not on any of the other recordings, including most of the movements from Rameau's first book of pieces for the keyboard, from 1706 (Barto recorded only half of them, and the others preferred the later works). Actually, the square style of playing is suited to the folksy, bagpipe sounds of the peasant movements ("Musette en Rondeau," "Tambourin," and "La Villageoise") that end the Suite en Mi. Kiener is the only one of the four to record Rameau's final piece for keyboard, "La Dauphine" (1747), a rather mediocre piece composed in honor of the marriage of the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, and dedicated to his new wife.

Ondine ODE 1067-2 / Harmonia Mundi HMI 987039.40 / Avie AV 2056 / Harmonia Mundi HMC 901754

23.9.06

Gianni Bluebeard - WNO's Unlikely Winners

Sam Ramey and Denyce Graves in the WNO Bluebeard, photo by Karin CooperThat the Washington National Opera opens its 2006/2007 season with a double bill of two 20th-century operas followed by an American premiere of a 21st-century work might be hard to believe but it is very easy to accept. Given the restrictions that a company with only seven different productions in a season faces in a conservative town, the inclusion of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle – part of a double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (both premiered in 1918) – and the American premiere of Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice (premiered in 2002 at Covent Garden) is gutsy and laudable.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (“A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára” in the original) is an opera revered by perhaps more music lovers than opera lovers. It is one of the few operas where the libretto is not only not a dramatic embarrassment but indeed all-important. Although not the most easily accessible opera upon first listening, Bluebeard rewards repeat experiences by revealing one of the most gorgeous musical scores in all of opera; one of the most dramatic scores. It’s eminently cinematic music, and perhaps for that reason specially appealed to director William Friedkin of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” fame.

Directing Bluebeard must be either very difficult or very easy – as little to nothing actually happens on stage. Project seven doors on a wall and be done with it; the rest is the characters’ to tell: Judith, Bluebeard’s doomed bride, and her gloomy groom in an hour-long dialogue. As a result the action of Bluebeard happens entirely in the listener’s imagination – predestining this opera for concert versions like last year’s at Strathmore Hall.

William Friedkin, who approaches opera direction with much humility, if not trepidation (“I am only the fourth person in line during a production – after the composer, the librettists, and the music director…”), produced the current double bill for Los Angeles upon Plácido Domingo’s suggestion. If you don’t know what the dark, brooding Bluebeard has in common with the commedia dell’arte goofiness of Gianni Schicchhi (apart from the year of their premiere, that is), it’s probably because they haven't anything in common. This production likes to turn this into a virtue, billing it as a study in contrast. For a more realistic explanation I’d suggest that Bluebeard represents the ambition to do something artistically valuable and Gianni Schicchi is enough of a crowd-pleaser to lure in those that find little to like about the idea of hearing a Bartók opera and less still seeing it coupled with Schoenberg’s Erwartung or perhaps Strauss's Salome. The result of this mix is expectedly awkward; a little bit something for everyone in the audience – but with few fully delighting in both. For many who take Bluebeard seriously, Schicchi must seem an awful trifle; for those who primarily come to hear “O mio babbino caro,” the Bartók might be too grim.

Continue reading this article.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Pair of Aces (Washington Post, September 18)

Charles T. Downey, O Mio Bluebeardo Caro (DCist, September 18)

Anonymous?, WNO opens with broodish 'Bluebeard' (Washington Times, September 18)

Geraldine Fabrikant, At the Opera House, the Friedkin Connection (New York Times, September 20)
Friedkin’s production features a black stage with scrims in the background, colored light, projected paintings, and photos for the different doors, a dilapidated metal spiral staircase on the left, and a fallen, half-defunct chandelier on the stage-floor to the right. Both items, polished, fully functioning, and restored to perfect shape offer visual connections between the productions when they appear again in Schicchi. The prologue – often cut from performances – was spoken by a white-faced, black leather clad Neno Pervan who floated in mid air before a black stage. Dramatic recital of this monologue can add significantly to the spooky atmosphere. If it is still able to do that when translated into English, however, I don’t know. So performed at the WNO I found the effect mostly awkward, akin to a country-fair freak announcing “Gee, folks… you won’t believe what y’all see tonight!” Compare to that the ominous clicking and clacking of the impenetrable Hungarian and you might agree that convenient supertitles would have been a better solution here. At the end of the opera another quibble: the three bed-sheet ghosts with three-dimensional flight patterns across stage representing the previous Bluebeard wives might have been more impressive had they been more subtle; less “Caspar.” Why Friedkin's Bluebeard has to physically strangle Judith for her to join her predecessors is not entirely clear. (Would he drown Kundry?)

Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves were Bluebeard and Judith in L.A. during the first run of the production, and they were welcomed back to D.C. as a pair. Denyce Graves could sing on the Washington stage until she stoops over from old age: her ‘hometown girl’ popularity will always guarantee a very warm welcome. But it is obvious that her voice is not what it used to be, especially towards the top of her range. Fortunately Judith is mostly about characterization, less about pure beauty… and especially with some of her haunting low notes she can still beguile. Samuel Ramey, a fabulous singer and actor, may not be getting any younger, either, but once he got beyond the somewhat worrying low notes at the very beginning of the opera (you say “vibrato,” I say “wobble”), he went on to make the role his. Non-Hungarians might not be in a position to pass judgment on the singers’ mastery of the language, but it sounded notably softer and less consonant-driven than performances I have heard by native speakers.

Bluebeard's dilemma is that of a good book being turned into a film: where the imagination once could run wild, it is now restricted to the visual representation. If you have always thought of the Lake of Tears behind door #6 to bee an underground lake, black with only little white reflections indicating the presence of the water, then you might find a blue Scandinavian seascape limiting. If you have had bloody little-house-of-horrors visions about the sanguinary flowers behind door #4, drenching a Henri Rousseau jungle painting in red light might be too ‘cute’. This caveat to Bluebeard-watching goes for every production, though – and Friedkin’s hybrid approach, somewhere between sparse and traditional, isn’t overly intrusive. If anything limited the enjoyment of this gem it was the faultless but also listless orchestral contribution under Maestro Giovanni Reggioli’s baton who filled in for the indisposed Heinz Fricke.

Sam Ramey in the WNO Gianni Schicchi, photo by Karin CooperWilliam Friedkin thinks of Gianni Schicchi as the operatic equivalent of a Marx Brothers film. (Groucho and Harpo even made cameos in smaller roles.) There are operas that are sillier than Puccini’s only comedy, but he has a point. He also succeeded in modeling his Schicchi after a Marx Brothers film, and here audiences will divide neatly into those who like both and those who like neither. I admit that I can’t sit through an entire Marx Brothers film; it’s just not the kind of comedy to which I respond. But subjective taste aside, this treatment might not do Schicchi any favors. Played out on a stage set that espoused conventionalism bound by economic constraints (Zeffirelli minus the pizzazz) it descended into fun-house camp that undermined the last sentiments of drama left in the libretto. With tales from Dante’s Inferno at its distant root, the opera tells of the Donati family who wants to get its collective and individual set of hands on their relative Signore Buoso’s estate. His will bequeaths everything to the local monks. To change that ‘injustice’ the Donati's require the services of the cunning and wily local country bumpkin Gianni Schicchi, whose daughter Lauretta wants to marry her sweetheart Rinuccio Donati, nephew of the diseased. The comedy of the whole thing is that the supposed urban sophisticates – in their blind greed – are being had by the supposedly primitive rural type, Gianni Schicchi. Any direction that opts to turn this into slapstick and makes the Donati family a bunch of hapless buffoons and daft caricatures from the start undermines that humoristic point and sacrifices the element of surprise in favor of ‘silliness-in-motion’. The happy-end speech that was tacked onto the end for Sam Ramey’s Gianni Schicchi further undermined any last subtleties of the opera; an opera that does not necessarily end on an unequivocally happy and morally unambiguous note.

A troupe of local singers (think “economy”) plus Ramey still made much of this light fare. Most pleasing were those that resisted the temptation to ham their parts up. Samuel Ramey, always aware of the thin and indefinable line between funny and stupid, did this best – very much like Gene Hackman as the monk in “Young Frankenstein.” Leslie Mutchler (La Ciesca) led the rest of the cast in acting (i.e. non-buffoonery) – ahead of Elizabeth Bishop (Zita) and perhaps Valeriano Lanchas’s “Uncle Simone.” These four were also vocally the most impressive… to the extent their variously limited roles allowed. Antonio Gandia, who played the love-struck Rinuccio, had trouble making himself heard over the orchestra but offered occasional beauty. Beauty is Amanda Squitieri’s main asset – although more the physical than vocal kind. I would have expected her voice to have developed more since making a strong impression in Democracy, in January of 2005. She must be a dream to cast, though, offering convincing youth and infinite charm - and her tone was perfect for a believable, lightweight, sweetly innocent “O mio babbino caro.” It was also in Democracy where Robert Baker gave Baron Jacobi’s character a memorable performance. Since then I’ve only seen the same, overplayed ‘comedic’ shtick from him. Perfect for the Swan in Carmina, dreadful everywhere else. Except, of course, to those who love Marx Bros. films, fake stumbles, and gestures and mimicry that make a mime look subtle.

For all these objections – some trivial, many subjective - it is surprising just how enjoyable the evening out at the opera with this double bill is. Maybe the contrast works well, after all. If nothing else, the brevity of it all is refreshing. And if new Bluebeard lovers are forged in the process, all the better. The remaining performances take place on September 25th, 28th, October 1st (matinee), 3rd, and 7th.

22.9.06

Gil Shaham and the NSO in Brahms

If the Tchaikovsky bonanza two weeks ago was an NSO prelude, it’s this week’s batch of concerts that really get the season under way. A star soloist (Gil Shaham) and the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner were just two clues at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Slatkin and The NSO, Still Playing Well Together (Washington Post, September 21)

Charles T. Downey, Gil Shaham Opens NSO Season (DCist, September 21)
Opening night had been moved to Wednesday to avoid a clash with the American premiere of Sophie’s Choice next door; this reviewer, Bluebeard-bound yesterday, was at the Thursday performance of this concert.

The Partita for Orchestra by Walton (ToccataPastorale sicilianaGiga burlesca) not only befits the opening slot of a night at the symphony, it also suits Leonard Slatkin (who predictably excels in Anglo repertoire) very well. The seasoned way the NSO and Slatkin had with the score belied the fact that this was the orchestra’s premiere performance of the Partita.

On with a piece of quintessential American classical music: Aaron Copland’s sedative Appalachian Spring… which reached unsuspected heights of serene beauty under Slatkin’s subtle and relaxed direction. This, like the Walton (i.e. ‘anything he truly cares about’), is the stuff Slatkin is best at and where he can still motivate the orchestra to give particularly fine performances. Sonorous and with a steady pulse, the ensemble played like the summer holidays had been a shot in the arm for orchestra and conductor.

Johannes BrahmsGil Shaham, waiting on the second half of the program, is one of the most popular violinists in the region and hearing him in the Brahms concerto is an exciting proposition, even when we have Mr. Shaham in town at least once every year. This concerto and its ‘uncle’, the Beethoven concerto, are the two concertos against the violin. The phrase was coined by the dedicatee Joseph Joachim noting the difficulty of the solo part but better still befits that element in either concerto that concerns itself surprisingly little with giving melody or sweeping themes to the soloist in its quest for general grandeur. Pablo de Sarasate famously rejected the idea of playing a work ‘in which the only melody went to the oboe’.

Gil Shaham – fixated on Maestro Slatkin like an eager schoolboy waiting for a reward (music to play, in his case) – handles the lyrical and bravura passages in equal measure, displaying fiery virtuosity and calm passion side by side. Little imperfections, or here and there a small group of notes shaded slightly flat, did not affect the positive impression he left with this staple concerto. His support from the NSO was hearty and generous, aiming for glorious heft more than elasticity or transparency. What the audience lacked in numbers it made up in decibels during the ovations.

There will be one more performance today – Friday – at 1:30PM.