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31.10.07

Punishing the Rake


Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni, Washington National Opera, 2007,
photo by Karin Cooper
Before the curtain of the second performance of Washington National Opera's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni on Monday night, conductor Plácido Domingo made an announcement. Happily, it was not to announce a cast change, but to draw the audience's attention to the fact, pointed out in my preview article, that it was the 220th anniversary of the opera's first performance in Prague (October 29, 1787). This production is not likely to rank high on anyone's list of noteworthy versions of Don Giovanni, in spite of the auspicious occasion, but the singing was generally good, sometimes excellent.

Director John Pascoe has rethought his 2003 production with different costumes and sets. Pascoe has said that his new concept revolves around the idea that Don Giovanni "has to be an incredibly seductive figure . . . looking like a magnificent sexually driven animal in the first act." While the fanciful costume designs gave the impression of Don Giovanni transported to the world of The Crow or X-Men, on the stage it is much tamer. Pascoe draws an axis of opposition between two central characters, Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, costuming them similarly in a cross between light bondage fetish (tight leather pants for him, leather bustier for her) and 19th-century fashion (Napoleonic military uniforms, Victorian dresses).

Anja Kampe as Donna Elvira, Washington National Opera, 2007,
photo by Karin Cooper
The sets evoke a warm climate of palm trees, with Spanish dancers in the peasant scene at the end of Act I and neoclassical architecture made of riveted steel girders (the Don's "prison," according to Pascoe's Director's Note). The staging, with its references to Franco's Spain, adds little to the story, and far more importantly it mostly does not detract from it.

The casting is much more in line with expectations for the company than the season opener, La Bohème. Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott reprises his 2003 Washington appearance in the title role, with vocal and dramatic appeal beyond his smarmy, bare-shirted physical presence. He owns the role in many ways, even eying up women in the audience to put across his status as universal seducer. The only false note of the evening -- presumably the choice of the director -- was in the graveyard scene, where the statue of Il Commendatore nods one final time, to Don Giovanni and not to Leporello (something that is pointedly not in the libretto -- also available in English translation), making Schrott's Don squeal and take to his heels. It seems unlikely that Don Giovanni would ever lower himself to appearing scared of his own damnation, even if he were actually scared. Lorenzo da Ponte reportedly hit on the idea to adapt the Don Juan story into an opera after reading Dante's Inferno. Dante's concept of the contrapasso is that the sinners in hell love their sins more than anything else: God's love simply grants them the chance to live out the sins they love for eternity.

Other Reviews:

Matthew Westphal, Don Giovanni Starring Erwin Schrott Opens at Washington National Opera (Playbill Arts, October 25)

Tim Page, This 'Don Giovanni' Is More Parry Than Thrust (Washington Post, October 27)

T. L. Ponick, A dark 'Giovanni' of depth, beauty (Washington Times, October 27)

Tim Smith, 'Don Giovanni' gets vivid treatment in D.C. (Critical Mass, October 31)

Karren Alenier, Don Giovanni at Halloween (The Dressing, October 31)
Ildar Abdrazakov was spot on as the Don's servant, Leporello. His timing was impeccable, as with his moments of patter, and his comic sense was finely honed. Erin Wall was a noble and iridescent Donna Anna, her lyric voice tiring only at a few moments near the end of the second act. Anja Kampe reigned triumphant as the vengeful Donna Elvira, cast perhaps as a nod to the Fricka-like qualities of the role. The sexy costumes did not flatter her as much as they did Schrott, and it is hard to know what to make of the fact that she appeared to have given birth to Don Giovanni's baby, shown in the clumsy dumb show unfortunately staged during the overture. Twice, she hands the child off to nuns who appear to be following her around. Are we to understand that she is a disgraced nun herself? According to the libretto, Donna Elvira resolves to enter the religious life in the final scene, a line that would make no sense if she were already a nun.

The supporting roles were sung capably by lesser singers. Morris Robinson had a lumbering stage presence but slightly swallowed tone as Il Commendatore, and Shawn Mathey was a pleasant but hardly shimmering Don Ottavio. Amanda Squitieri and Trevor Scheunemann were charmingly annoying as Masetto and Zerlina, the lower-class rubes scammed by the suave patrician. There is unfortunately no other explanation for the raggedness of the orchestral sound and the lack of coordination between singers and pit than the deficiencies of the conductor, Plácido Domingo. Domingo lends a much needed aura of stardom to anything he touches, but it generally comes at a cost to the finished quality of the music when he is on the podium.

There are six performances of Don Giovanni remaining, from November 1 to 16, all of them already sold out so buy your ticket now! Note the changes in personnel for the later performances, including a second cast (not all roles change) and two nights without Domingo conducting.

30.10.07

Opera Vivente’s Alcina

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Opera Vivente's 'Alcina': It's groovy, baby (Baltimore Sun, October 30)

Tim Smith, Free to be (Baltimore Sun, October 22)
Opera Vivente’s pleasing production of Handel’s Alcina was presented intimately as a chamber opera in the parish hall of Baltimore’s Emmanuel Church. The space’s vast wooden ceiling, beams, and floor provided a favorable acoustic for the singers, while the Harmonious Blacksmith Ensemble, situated on the right side of the room, were distant for neither the audience nor the singers. Stage director (and General Director of the company) John Bowen’s update of Alcina’s already exotic setting -- a magical island -- proved entertainingly clever and logical: the island’s inhabitants were now frisky hippies dressed in colorful garb (thanks to costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny) with siren-like Alcina (Colleen Daly) their stunning leader.

The Chorus of Hippies introduced early in Act I lounging on floor cushions, getting stoned, helped reinforce the tropical, beyond-reality atmosphere of this opera. Having attracted a multitude of lovers to her island only to turn them into rocks, trees, streams, and so on, after seducing them, Alcina believes she has found her true love, the strayed fiancé of Bradamante (Monica Reinagel), who is intent to win back her future husband Ruggiero (Elspeth Franks). Let the schemes and competitions begin…

Colleen Daly as Alcina, Opera Vivente, 2007, photo by Cory Weaver
Colleen Daly as Alcina, Opera Vivente, 2007
photo by Cory Weaver
Morgana (soprano Ah Hong), Alcina’s attendant, provided the most persuasive singing by merging musical wit with strong acting and facial expressions, all while showcasing superbly clear text and vocal agility. Having the most strenuous role, Ruggiero (mezzo Elspeth Franks) met the challenge formidably by powerfully conveying the confusion caused by Alcina’s spell that was eventually broken. The rich tone of soprano Colleen Daly as Alcina was sometimes compromised by rhythmic uncertainty and a constant lack of consonances leading to muddled diction; bass Christopher Austin's commanding sound, as Melisso, at times lacked the dexterity to tackle Handel’s twists and turns. What one at first might imagine as a pun, turned out not quite to be so: the Chorus of Hippies lacked coordination of text, which at first appeared intentional because they were stoned in Act I. The Chorus exults in the opera’s happy ending by singing “after all the bitter sadness, our souls have been rewarded” as Alcina’s former lovers become again human.

Conductor Joseph Gascho provided exceptionally stylish leadership, though frequently failed to impose his demands on both singers and instrumentalists alike. The strings were perpetually out-of-tune, while the basso continuo lacked enough “oomph” to ground the work securely, thus leading to recurring coordination issues. All this could have been easily remedied by being unfailingly strict, as there is no room for sloppiness of any kind in such a cozy environment. Interestingly, the most complex material (lots of invertible counterpoint) often fully locked and must have been sufficiently rehearsed making it disappointing to hear simpler bits less than ideal. Take the opportunity to experience the remarkable work by an impressive company.

Opera Vivente will repeat this production on Thursday (November 1, 7:30 pm) and Saturday (November 3, 7:30 pm).

Perahia Plays the Three B's

Murray Perahia:

available at Amazon
Chopin Ballades


available at Amazon
Schubert Impromptus


available at Amazon
Brahms op. 118


available at Amazon
Chopin Etudes
No one who loves the piano would have missed Murray Perahia's sold-out recital on Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Perahia had to cancel his 2006 WPAS recital, because of renewed pain from a thumb injury in the 1990s that nearly ended his career. Indeed, Jens worried that we might never hear Perahia play again. Happily, there he was, modest and unassuming, bowing politely and then sitting at the Steinway for a survey of music from his past triumphs and favorite composers. The joy of listening to Perahia is not only for his virtuosity, still in those hands if slightly faded, but in the endlessly subtle shading of each phrase and note.

The concert opened with Bach, music that some Perahia fans do not think suits him, but these ears have been fans at least since hearing his take on the Goldberg Variations, one of the best versions on piano. In this case, it was a stylistically sensitive performance of the fourth keyboard partita (D major, BWV 828). Although there were a few nervous-making finger slips in the dotted section of the French ouverture first movement, the fugal section was brisk and crisply marked, with a confident, lute-like rolled chord at the end. The Allemande had a languid, porcelain sheen to it, but the Sarabande had a strong pulse. Rather than slowing down the entire Sarabande (as in the recording by Cédric Tiberghien), Perahia singled out the quirky intonation with tail of the first couple bars of each section, slowing it down, letting it unwind but immediately resuming the pulse afterward. (The way that music is written -- the high tessitura, the fivelet or sixlet that trails upward to nothing -- disconnect it from what follows.) The sprightly Courante made a jagged gesture of the bubbling main rhythmic motif (groupings of two sixteenth notes and one eighth note), and the Gigue was an impressive tour de force, its B section treated like a rattling moto perpetuo.

Other Reviews:

Allan Kozinn, It’s Familiar but Just a Little Different (New York Times, November 6)

Tim Page, Murray Perahia's Truly Grand Piano (Washington Post, October 30)

Andrew Patner, Murray Perahia brings passion to recital (Chicago Sun-Times, October 23)

Melinda Bargreen, Recital showed the hands' facility and the heart's passion (Seattle Times, October 18)

R. M. Campbell, Perahia returns in first-rate form (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17)

Robert Coleman, Pianist woos next generation of fans (Salt Lake Tribune, October 15)
A Beethoven sonata, no. 15 or op. 28 ("Pastoral"), had a first movement that seemed just on the slow side of Allegro. Perahia has a way of grasping form in sound, as in his skillful handling of the false return to the recap here, with its major and minor statement played not like a joke but as if tenderly savoring a beloved memory. His left hand gave a crisply defined walking bass sound to the opening of the second movement, with playful variations of the theme later. The third movement was a bouncy reading of the concise but fun scherzo and trio, while the fourth movement started out gently but ended with a ferocious coda, like a dance that turned savage.

While the first half was technically strong after a momentarily uncertain opening, Perahia did seem to tire toward the end of the second half of this rather long program. The Brahms op. 118 was played with all of the passion kept under wraps, a great way to play this composer. Having removed most of the sentimental varnish, Perahia allowed the tempo to roll along without too much rubato, even in the crushingly beautiful A major intermezzo. (A young pianist plays the piece in this YouTube video in a master class, with Perahia looking over her shoulder!) There were moments of forthright solidity (the ballade), spidery wispiness (the F minor intermezzo), and mysterious ambiguity (the troubling conclusion of the E-flat minor intermezzo).

The concluding Chopin set was troubled by more than a few finger slips in the two etudes, problems delineating the melody of the Aeolian harp (op. 25/1) and a torrent on the edge of firm control in the C# sharp minor (op. 10/4). The third ballade was much more to Perahia's strength in voicing, not without some flaws but with a balletic slow section. Two encores seemed to revive Perahia, first the tangled dreams of Schumann's Traumes Wirren (from Fantasiestücke, op. 12/7) and, most impressively, the crystal cascade of Schubert's E-flat impromptu (op. 90/2), shown in the YouTube video below.

The next WPAS classical concert will feature cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott, including sonatas by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Franck (November 12, Kennedy Center). The next recital in the Piano Masters series will feature Gabriela Montero, including some of her famous improvisations (December 15, Sydney Harman Hall).


Franz Schubert, Impromptu in E-flat (op. 90/2),
played by Murray Perahia

Salome Uncaged (Don’t Bring the Kids)

When Kent Nagano asked Wolfgang Rihm to compose an opera for the National State Opera in Munich – as and ‘opening act’ to Salome, Rihm immediately had a sujet in mind and was only too happy to oblige. The double bill was conceived as a statement of the renewal of tradition by way of metamorphosis – the theme under which Kent Nagano took on the general directorship of the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2006.

The subject of Das Gehege is the last scene of the third and final act of Botho Strauss’ Schlusschor: Gruppenbilder mit Dame und Adler (“Concluding Chorus: Group Portraits with a Lady and an Eagle”). One of the most prolific and important German writers of the last thirty years, Botho Strauss’ art of poignant imprecision takes on German Reunification in this play, ladden with symbolism. The title riffs of Heinrich Böll’s war/post-war novel “Gruppenbild mit Dame” and the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Coping with Germany’s past and future is roughly the thread that keeps three very different acts together – and knowing the play migh help understand some references in Das Gehege, but it is hardly necessary to experiencing Rihms’ opera. The composer might like it just like that – after all he’s on record suggesting that the artist explaining his art is not only unnecessary but even counterproductive to bringing about greater clarity. (Art always contains its own measure of understandability.)

Rihm’s monodrama, with acknowledged similarities to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, begins when ‘The woman’ (Anita von Scharstorf in the play) enters the stage on the center of which William Friedkin (yes, he of The Excorsist and The French Connection fame) places an abstract gleaming white cage that contains the winged creature that we need not need be able to identify as Botho Strauss’ Golden Eagle. To the music of Rihm – abstract here, twistedly literal there – the opening lines may make little sense on their own. (“Yes, I hear your rotten screeching, Yes I can see your ashen-green eyes. Limp strings of saliva dangle from your suppurative mouth. I see the black teeth and your mold covered throat… and your cheeks, covered with ancient lichens that are themselves a growth from an earth of decayed faces…”)

But they give rise to a very personal interpretation of what is going on in Das Gehege. It need now no longer be the story of Anita von Scharstorf, daughter of an officer who was killed in the war when he plotted against the Nazis, who breaks into the Zoo in Berlin on the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The beast in the cage need no longer be a literal eagle. The analogy about Germany and German symbols can be reinterpreted at will (given sufficient, liberating ignorance) – with the strange role of the ‘griffin’ and the sexual/aggressive tension between the him/it and Anita taking on a rather more disturbing quality.

This is just one of numerous flights of the imaginations’ fancy that can take place to Rihm’s music and Friedkin’s set (which seems to support a less literal interpretation). Not the least because of Gabriele Schnaut’s dramatic (a formidable Elektra in recent Dresden and Munich productions), the mutely danced and hauntingly present performance of Steven Barrett as the eagle/beast (choreography David Bridel), and the dramatic lighting (Mark Jonathan), this monodrama actually manages to be compelling as a story (no matter the amount of background knowledge) in which you wanted to know what would happen next. (Feathered, castrated, and killed – the bird does not fare well.)

How does “Das Gehege” fit with Salome? Different as they are, similarities abound – and they are to be found in the music, the story, and the staging. William Friedkin is neither a stranger to opera, nor combining two individual operas into one evening of coherent drama.

Friedkin, who came to opera through the former music director of the Bavarian State Opera, Zubin Mehta, has Wozzek, Aida, Samson and Dalila und his belt, and in Los Angeles and at the Washington National Opera he put the odd double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Gianni Schicci on stage. Combining the uncombinable was a challenge not only met with success, but Friedkin’s approach to such a project got honed. And with the infinitely greater means that the Bavarian opera can offer its directors, as well as the greater similarities between the operas, he succeeded spectacularly in the Rihm/Strauss production.

Two women who kill (or have killed) the object of their desire; both of which were chained and at their mercy. The symbolism and references of winged death in Salome – and the Eagle, symbol of a (bygone) power and – ultimately – mortality in Das Gehege. The Eagle’s doom is his lack of prowess and power. Perhaps this, too, could be linked to Strauss’ opera. If Jochanaan had had the strength to look at Salome he may likely have lived. (Whether or not he had consequently loved Salome, as she herself suggests wistfully.) But his frantic rejection of Salome more than hints at inner uncertainty; at a religious fanaticism not rooted in inner strength but inherent weakness. Knowing Richards Strauss’ atheism and his appreciation of Nietzsche only underscores this interpretation. Indeed, his portrayal of Jochaanan is subtly more damning than the comedic relief of the squabbling Jews that run through the opera like imported from a Marx Brothers film.

Musical connections are made in that Rihm not only references Beethoven’s Ninth but includes at least two audibly Straussian moments in his score; moments that sounds as if a modern painter added his own abstract interpretation on top of a representational piece of art. The sharp edged and contorted marches that make for orchestral interludes will tip the listener in the know of to the thematic background of ‘Germanness’.



Strongest are the visual connections with which Friedkin links the two operas. The staging is essentially the same – with movable U-shaped elements that make for the shiny white floor and walls. Two such units and the similarly constructed cage set the stage for Das Gehege and seven or eight are arranged and rearranged in Salome to give the opening the appearance of the outside of a gigantic palace’s rotunda, receding nearly into infinity and showing off the immense stage-depth of the Staatsoper. Jochanaan, first heard through the cracks in the floor, appears from beneath as the floor yields to the left and right – sitting under a gigantic petrified tree-trunk. Further visual cues are given: The cage is also the throne of Herod from which he orders the killing of Salome in the last scene. (In this production Salome receives death at the hands of a group of black-clad religious men who, in a near cathartic move and timed to the last chord, present the cut head of Salome. Since Oscar Wilde himself had reflected on Jochanaan’s revenge being that Salome beheaded herself in desperation, this is not so far fetched.) Finally the “Angel of Death” appears physically – in the form of Steven Barrett’s grim griffin/eagle. He throws Salome her vails, he dances ominously along with her, he takes Herod’s ring from Herodias as paypment and then beheads (sight unseen) Jochanaan. (Not unlike the figure of Cherub in the Claus Guth/Nikolaus Harnoncourt Marriage of Figaro from the 2006 Salzburg Festival – and similarly easy to find an asset or distraction.)

All this would have sufficed to make for an impressive production. Kent Nagano’s propulsive, angular, never sweet orchestral contribution assured it was musically a treat, also. Better still was the singing and acting. Wolfgang Schmidt, whose oddly compelling Siegfried can be enjoyed in the recently released Levine/Kirchner Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth’s “Designer” Ring, gave a compellingly lecherous Herod and offered more vocal prowess than expected until near the end. Iris Vermillion as Salome’s whore of a mother (no, this really isn’t a kids’ opera) growled to harrowing effect. Morten Frank Larsen as Jochanaan boomed magnificently through the house but may have given a bit too much, too early, as his decline was most notable. Kevin Conners, the trusty man for everything at the Staatsoper, sang as well as he usually does, but might be a little miscast in the figure of the young and beautiful captain of the guard, Narraboth.

Outstanding, in most ways, was Angela Denoke’s Salome. If anything could be criticized in her portrayal it was a hint too much confidence, being a touch too calculating in her seduction. Salome’s intrigue with her own sexual powers and at the same time her disgust with the effects it has on men was not as played as vividly as might have been desirable. Her singing, though remarkable overall, was marked by effort in louder passages and the vocal sleigh-ride up to the high notes could benevolently be called “old fashioned”. But who cares after this most racy, cruelly seductive, virulently sexual Salome! Denoke does with technique what others may (or may not) be able to do with aura. The way she gets Narraboth to do her bidding alone was ruthless in its application of sexual allure (it had just the air of desperation, joy and disgust that you find in the school-scene where Nabokov has his Humpert pay Lolita off for a hand-job under the table).

Denoke, who appears half her age on stage, then (pace Shirley Apthorp) went on to deliver a superbly choreographed and executed dance of the seven veils that would have been considered steamy even in the seediest of adult clubs. The unhealthy staring that is the theme of the opera itself (Narraboth and Herod unto Salome, Salome unto Jochanaan) now took place on part of the audience. If any kids were present, they probably had their eyes covered by concerned mothers. And that was before Salome/Denoke strips down to stand bare breasted before her stepfather.

The resulting “Wundervoll, wundervoll!” on Herod’s part thereby attained a quality and color that immediately drove home the point that this was not just gratuitous baring of flesh (Denoke remained half naked until she gets killed) but baring of flesh with a dramatic point to make. A dramatic point that, admittedly, may have been lost on some (male) audience members due to the aesthetic pleasure that Denoke’s visual performance added to the reasonably impressive vocal contribution.

In international comparison, the Munich opera crowd could certainly not be called conservative. It willingly exposes itself to modern works and modern productions, and so long as you don’t mess with a few holy classics they will accept much without demurring. But in an inner-German comparison, it certainly is traditionalist. The unanimous and thunderous applause (and the many “Ticket sought” signs in front of the opera house) were thus not only a deserved tribute to Denoke’s performance but also proof that the Munich audience noted that what they had seen was not a wilful or gratuitously warped modern interpretation of Wilde an Strauss. Instead it came very close to the shocking, decadent, saucy, and twisted intent of its creators. An (a)rousing affair, indeed.

29.10.07

Don Giovanni

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Mozart, Don Giovanni, Freiburger Barockorchester, R. Jacobs
(released on October 9, 2007)

available at Amazon
Mozart, Don Giovanni, S. Ramey, A. Tomowa-Sintow, Berlin Philharmonic, H. von Karajan
(1990)
When pressed on the identity of my favorite opera (a question, like that of "favorite composer," impossible to answer), Mozart's Don Giovanni would usually come first to mind. It is perfectly constructed, never allowing the listener's attention to wane and occasionally blowing his mind. The libretto, the greatest of Mozart's collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, is at once comic and tragic, providing both pleasing divertissement and a myth of universal significance. The opera holds together when interpreted as composer autobiography, socio-political commentary, or just entertaining drama. In short, Washington National Opera's new production of Don Giovanni, which opened Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House (see my preview at DCist), is most welcome. To paraphrase Mae West, even if it's bad, it will still be pretty good. Ionarts will review the second performance of the production, this evening, on what happens to be the anniversary of the world premiere, in Prague's Gräflich Nostitzsches Nazionaltheater, on October 29, 1787, two hundred twenty years ago.

WNO Reviews:

Tim Page, This 'Don Giovanni' Is More Parry Than Thrust (Washington Post, October 27)

T. L. Ponick, A dark 'Giovanni' of depth, beauty (Washington Times, October 27)
Chez Ionarts the recording of choice for Don Giovanni has generally been Samuel Ramey with Herbert von Karajan, but two recent recordings present worthy new choices, beginning with the latest installment in the unofficial Mozart cycle by René Jacobs (most recently, La Clemenza di Tito, the Ionarts Best of 2004 Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte before that). The Jacobs Don Giovanni, created for a staged production at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival in August 2006, is generally in line with those recordings, instrumentally strong and challenging to ear and mind, in terms of removing the shellac of centuries of performance. The Freiburger Barockorchester is captured in beautiful sound, with the brass and percussion cutting through powerfully and the soft flutes and other winds adding subtle colors.

Sometimes the unconventional tempo choices work, but the Stone Guest scene just comes off as too fast, with the singers almost stumbling over the words. (Jacobs does marshal some convincing evidence in his booklet essay for his rapid tempo.) The recitatives, brilliantly accompanied by Giorgio Paronuzzi at a pianoforte, have frankly never sounded better. In general with such a strong and exciting instrumental component to this recording, one cannot help but think that Jacobs has miscalculated by not using more recognized singers than this cast list. In his essay, Jacobs makes a point of noting that the singer who premiered the title role in Prague, Luigi Bassi, was only 21 years old, and Johannes Weisser is about the same age. Da Ponte identified the Don as a libertine youth (Un giovane estremamente licenzioso), or "a sort of Cherubino five years older" as Jacobs puts it. Adding to the case that this recording is a must-hear, however, is its completeness. Jacobs has opted for the Vienna revision, so that all of the favorites added there are included, with an appendix of four tracks containing everything performed only in the Prague premiere.


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Mozart, Don Giovanni, directed by Joseph Losey


available at Amazon
Mozart, Don Giovanni, R. Raimondi, K. Te Kanawa, Opéra National de Paris, L. Maazel
(released on August 29, 2006)
There may be one or two readers who have not seen Joseph Losey's spectacular 1979 film version of Don Giovanni. Some do not like the freer treatment of the story, in which the director added some supernumerary characters and symbolism not found in the libretto, but it is one of the most successful productions of the opera. There are a few clips on YouTube, but the best one is embedded at the bottom of this post, the unforgettable Catalogue Aria, in which Leporello and his assistants spread out the carefully noted list of Don Giovanni's conquests, carrying the connected pages across the lawn and down a street, before the horrified eyes of Kiri Te Kanawa's Donna Elvira.

Last year, Sony released a remastered version of the soundtrack used in that film, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchestra of the Paris Opéra. The sound is indeed improved, and this is an astounding cast, with Ruggiero Raimondi in the title role, the thundering John Macurday as Il Commendatore, and Teresa Berganza (!) as Zerlina joining Van Dam and Te Kanawa. However, one of the risks of listening to the Jacobs version of the opera is that your ears will become sensitized to the shellac built up on a version like this. Where is the crisp sense of ensemble among the instruments and with the singers? Why are some of the numbers so slow, in contrast with the tempo markings? Still, that Stone Guest scene makes my skin crawl every time.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901964-66 / Sony Classical 82876-87758-2


Catalogue Aria ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo"),
José Van Dam, film directed by Joseph Losey

Paging through Ambrosian Chant

A friend has just attended a conference at Harvard, relating to the Houghton Library's recent acquisition of two important manuscript sources of Ambrosian chant, the body of music in the use of Milan before the Gregorian reform. These manuscripts go with a fragment the library has owned for a while, recently identified as Ambrosian chant. Not only are these books in Cambridge, the library has made high-quality digital scans of each page, recto and verso, and put them on the Internet. Click on the images below to get your virtual hands on some medieval vellum. No library card or white gloves required.

 
MS. Lat. 388 (antiphoner)
 
MS. Lat. 389 (antiphoner, summer only)
 
MS. Typ. 299 (antiphoner fragment)
 

28.10.07

Babi Yar and Sibelius

Conductor James Ross understands the privilege of his position, conducting an excellent collegiate orchestra, the University of Maryland Symphony. The combination offered by the youthful energy and enthusiasm of apprentice musicians and the lack of conventional repertoire expectations that come with dependence on ticket revenue (the house at the Clarice Smith Center was full on Friday night) brings an important programming opportunity. By choosing to perform under-represented works, the didactic benefit is multiplied: the musical expertise of the students is extended, and audiences can learn that there is good listening beyond a limited repertoire. Both musicians and audience will then hopefully carry that knowledge into the professional concert world.

Jean Sibelius, like Leoš Janáček and Richard Strauss, is one of those composers with roots in the Romantic style whose music ended up being thoroughly representative of the early 20th century. Sibelius's seventh symphony, from 1925, is a sweeping, glacial single movement, based in C major but overcast by folk inflections and other clouds of tonal contrasts. (It is also, although I had not made the connection before, the source of the little sonic tag that plays when you open the older versions of the music notation software that bears the Finnish composer's name.) Ross led his musicians through a stately performance, with a slow, gray opening featuring broad crescendos to climactic points. There were minor problems of intonation, especially from the reeds, and ensemble in the faster scherzo-like section, but this was a pleasing performance, particularly from the solid trombone and other low brass, so important to that cold, somber Sibelius atmosphere.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, poetThe meat of the evening, however, was on the second half, a moving performance of Shostakovich's 13th symphony ("Babi Yar"), a monumental and awe-inspiring song cycle. Texts from the impassioned poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko are set for a bass-concentrated ensemble of orchestra, baritone soloist, and male chorus. In 1961, Yevtushenko drew public attention to the Nazi massacre of Jews at a place called Babi Yar in Ukraine, a part of history that the Soviet government wanted to ignore. (Yevtushenko is still a kind of pop cultural star in Russia. A new rock opera based on his poetry will be premiered this December, in honor of his 75th birthday.) As Yevtushenko has done on several recent performances of the 13th symphony (at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in the two-piano version, and with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), the poet was on hand to give an introduction and read the poem set by Shostakovich in the first movement. So much of the strength of the work rests on the baritone soloist, a role that would benefit from a larger voice than what was heard from David Brundage, generally capable but not overwhelming.

The piece is a chimeric combination of moods, from the chiming bells to martial violence, and from the baritone's otherworldly duet with the celesta and circus-like march -- all in the first movement. The Men of the University of Maryland Choirs, seated in the rear balcony, had been well prepared by chorusmaster Gary Seighman, with clear diction and stentorian presence even at a distance. The orchestra moved with facility through the shifting landscape, able to create spectral colors as well as crisp, rhythmic definition. The second movement's irony, set to Yevtushenko's poem Humor, came through in clownish riffs from the piccolo, sneering winds, and snorting contrabassoon and trombones. The third movement ("In the Store") was oppressive and sober, with the barren woodblock clicking mindless as the accompaniment of weary women at their shopping, and the fourth movement ("Fears") incarnated the gnawing menace of terror, especially in the soft, heart-rumbling trio of tuba, gong, and bass drum. Shostakovich managed to capture the sardonic tone of Yevtushenko's poem Career, with music that is at once pastoral and beautiful, yet undermined with sarcasm. All-around top-notch playing was capped by fine contributions from the opening flute duet and an incredibly suave pizzicato string serenade.

Hear another collegiate orchestra playing an all-20th-century program this week, when Marin Alsop, as part of her new community initiative at the BSO, conducts the Peabody Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday (October 31, 8 pm). When else are you likely to hear John Adams (Short Ride in a Fast Machine), Leonard Bernstein (Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”), and Dmitri Shostakovich (Symphony No. 5 in D Minor).

In Brief

LinksHere is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • Tim Page will be taking a sabbatical from The Washington Post. Anne Midgette will be imported from New York as interim music critic. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • Having already put myself on the record as admiring the incisive writing of many British critics, the review by Jonathan Jones of the British National Gallery's Siena exhibit takes the cake. "This show is a delicious detour, but it's still a detour. Where can they go from here? You know, there were some really terrific miniaturists in 17th-century Copenhagen ... and the English sporting print deserves a second look ... and why, oh why, have we never done an exhibition dedicated to Florentine art in the age of the Risorgimento? Someone at the National Gallery should be listening politely to great ideas like this, and putting them at the bottom of a drawer." The emphasis (mine) shows where I nearly spit coffee onto my computer keyboard. [The Guardian]

  • For some balance on that Siena exhibit, read Éric Biétry-Rivierre's review (my translation): "Siena continued to shine in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, surely because of the Florentine Giorgio Vasari and his Lives of the Artists, the first art history text, it did not hold first place in the grand history of the Renaissance. Rome and, to be sure, Florence, its eternal rival, the city of Donatello, Leonardo, and Botticelli, made that impossible. Is that to be regretted? When you visit this exhibit, you think to yourself that it needs a grander throne." [Le Figaro]

  • The Vatican Museum not only unearthed the 14th-century transcript of the trial of the Knights Templar, it has published a facsimile edition. Dante, who had nothing good to say about either King Philip IV or Pope Clement V, must be so happy to know that we know the truth. [The Independent]

  • Check out my quick preview of the rest of the Washington National Opera season. [DCist]

  • Richard Taruskin is a musicologist whose writing reaches far beyond academe, and his latest article -- purportedly a review of three books about the changing fortunes of classical music -- is a whopper. Besides trashing those three books (and several others) -- even comparing one author's logic to that of Richard Wagner in his infamous tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (actually apt, but way over the top) -- Taruskin takes aim at classical music snobs for helping to marginalize classical music by insisting on its exclusivity. For my money, the most striking indictment is against highbrow critics who took on a cool aura by writing about more lowbrow, popular music, what he calls in his laser-precise language a "trahison des clercs." Some prominent critics do not even write write less about classical music, by their own choice, and some newspapers publish more rock reviews than classical ones (or hide the classical reviews somewhere behind the main Style page). It's not that clear-cut, of course, but Taruskin's argument is a good one. [The New Republic]

  • At www.haltadefinizione.com, you can see a 16 billion pixel image of Leonardo's Last Supper. [Associated Press]

27.10.07

French Museums Try Free Admission

We are so spoiled in Washington because the Smithsonian museums are free. It makes going to another museum where they charge you to enter almost offensive. The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum finally followed suit about a year ago. While the New York museums keep charging more and more outrageous entrance fees, now fourteen French museums will offer free admission, around the clock, for a trial period of six months (January 1 through June 30, 2008). This covers only the museums' permanent collections (you will still have to pay for any special exhibits), and a study will be made of how the offer affects attendance. Marie-Douce Albert had an article about the decision (Six mois de gratuité dans quatorze musées, October 24) for Le Figaro (my translation):

This concerns Parisian institutions, like the Musée de Cluny and the Musée Guimet, as well as in the provinces, like the Palais du Tau in Reims. The measure also concerns various artistic disciplines, like contemporary design at the Château d'Oiron or Renaissance history in Écouen. Furthermore, museums such as Air and Space at Le Bourget or Paris's Arts et métiers, which are controlled by the Ministries of Defense and Higher Education, have been enrolled in the program. While the major cultural institutions, already known for drawing large numbers of visitors, have been left out of the test, limited free admission offers will be tested in some Parisian museums. So, as the Louvre already does on Friday evening, the Musée national d'art moderne in the Centre Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée du Quai Branly will welcome 18- to 25-year-olds for free one time per week, between 6 and 9 pm.
So, if you are traveling in France during this period, don't trust your guide book. There may be a free entrance option at some point, and the way to let museum directors know that free admission is a good strategy is to go as much as you can during the free period. In particular, the museum of medieval art, in the Hôtel de Cluny (entrance shown in picture), is one of the most fabulous museums in the world, both for its site and building and its collection. To see that for free? If you are in Paris, you must go.

Ionarts at Large: Strauss with Thielemann

The first thing that impresses the ears in an orchestral concert is – ideally – the sound. Especially so when the piece being played has as impressive an opening as Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. Christian Thielemann can get that sound and the Munich Philharmonic, his principal toy for Germanic, late-romantic musical excursions (does he do any other ones?) can deliver it.

And so they did in this run of all-Strauss concerts, the first to be conducted by Generalmusikdirektor Christian Thielemann this season and the last before the Orchestra goes on their Japan tour.

Preparing for a tour also means having an encore ready, and so the Munich audience was treated to this rare event.

Wagner’s prelude to Die Meistersinger snarled and caroused about to the delight of the crowd. Thielemann too, enjoyed himself visibly, conducting with passion, tender care, and ebullient energy. He seems to fall in love every time he conducts Wagner, though whether with himself or the music, I cannot tell.

But before Wagnerian frivolities could begin, there was work to be done. And this came in form of Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, and Also sprach Zarathustra. The aggressive and abrupt opening of Don Juan had the angular, tight, and clear cut ’pang’ that Thielemann is great at giving Strauss. There was nothing muddled here, details were clearly audible, and the structure wasn’t lost under rounded edges or a flabby musical midriff.

This is not to say that Thielemann is averse to luxuriating and basking in the sumptuousness of the score. The boldly impressive Don Juan offered all that, too. Thielemann’s extreme fluctuations of tempi never seem obvious or gratuitous with the rallentandi being well hidden within the diminuendi. Even though he and the Philharmonic seemed somewhat more cohesive - or at least impressive - when the music got quicker and louder, many of the slower and calmer passages benefited tremendously from Thielemann's stubborn and determined refusal to let the orchestra's energy slacken at any point.

Whenever a 'resting phase' was just temporary, there was always a bit of tension and restlessness in the undercurrents which allowed the players to catapult themselves into the next climax with ease. I suspect few smiles went into the making of this Don Juan, but many came out of it, as far as the audience was concerned.

While the trumpet work was outstanding in Don Juan, a glaring trombone glitch here and other, minor, infelicities later in the concert suggested that it was probably a good idea to play these pieces through a few more times before taking them on tour.

Tod und Verklärung sounds more like the work of an old(er) man, not a 24 year old Strauss who had not even finished his first opera (Guntram). I cannot help but wanting to hear in it some of the wisened efficiency and tautness of Metarmophosen, or the condensed ethereal yet whispy nature that the 25 year old Schönberg created with Verklärte Nacht. But consiseness is not yet a virtue of Tod und Verklärung which errs on the side of sprawl and can be a tad maudlin at times. Especially if the tension slackens , as it did here, the mind is quickly elsewhere. This was a performance beautiful in detail, but with room for improvement as far as the long lines and cohesiveness go.

Also sprach Zarathustra, burdened by one of the three most famous openings in classical music, fascinated early on (the first notes of the excellent double bass section sounded like hovering helicopters) with its gradual ratcheting up of tension. The violas and cellos accompanying the first violin solo ("Of the Great Longing") made a beautiful articular, harmonium-like noise. The entry of the strings in the "Song of Science" - from bottom to top, assisted with assorted woodwinds - felt like watching a haunting silent film of a slow-motion ballet of an extinct species. Then the Philharmonic gently (and not always as impeccably as in Don Juan) waltzed into the Dance- than the Night-Song sections that foreshadow most of the Rosenkavalier's language.

The - sometimes interminable – "Night Wanderer’s Song" (which Nietzsche later changed to ”The drunken Song”) and its non-ending was very nicely done but could not hide the fact that Also sprach Zarathustra is probably not the most entertaining of Strauss' tone poems, and certainly not the most shameless one. (Which is why we love them so much, in the first place.)

The constant tension between two keys (B Major and C Major, depicting Man and Nature, respectively) makes for that subtly uneasy feeling. That irritating, waiting, expecting (and never quite getting) last chord, however, is vicious genius. But if Strauss didn't give us the tonic, that's just what Thielemann and his orchestra provided for the Strauss-loving crowd in Munich.

26.10.07

Alsop Leads Ohlsson and the BSO

Marin AlsopMarin Alsop is back in town to lead this weekend’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts. Judging from Thursday evening’s performance at the Meyerhoff, the musicians are becoming better able to read Alsop’s gestures and mind. Whereas previous performances often had Alsop persistently demanding output from the orchestra, last night’s performance showed that with time, the musicians will eagerly respond to a lighter touch. We are pleased to report further good news in that attendance was exceptional, with a large amount of good will felt from the audience, especially during Garrick Ohlsson’s encore. There was a traffic jam of concert-goers leading to the Meyerhoff before the concert, and a boisterous crowd having a chat and drink during intermission.

The concert opened with Brahms’s Tragic Overture, written as a companion to the Academic Festival Overture, which featured excellent balance and dynamic gradations. Garrick Ohlsson’s performance of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto left one desiring a more unified composition. The outer movements of the work are very similar and constantly switch back and forth between technical, modern material and Barber’s characteristic neo-Romantic style. By adding a multitude of ideas, one after another, instead of expanding on just a few, Barber’s concerto lacks cohesion as a whole and seems to be generally missing something. In fairness, the Rachmaninov-like passagework here and bitonality there is appealing on the surface. Ohlsson, appearing as a giant on stage when standing near Alsop, played very well and took over where the orchestra left off in the second movement (Canzone) by impressively matching their volume and texture so perfectly one was almost fooled. Ohlsson’s encore, Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor was enjoyable, though with rather jolting aberrations of tempo.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Stirring, engaging program from BSO, Alsop (Baltimore Sun, October 27)
Is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor one of the BSO’s war horses? Their fluency was remarkable. The bar has been raised even higher from their opening concert last month at Strathmore. The symphony begins with a clarinet leading a chorale-like tune containing many deceptive cadences, thus giving the audience an anxious sense of a long journey ahead. Throughout the work, smooth wind lines rise through the texture and the final movement conveyed the affect of nobleness. The oboe solos of Katherine Needleman were always warm and full. One shortcoming of this ensemble is the low brass, which have a recurring tendency to splat any note above piano. Tuesday’s performance by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic featured smoother, rounder brass playing that was still full. Gentler, more beautiful attacks by the BSO brass would be generally welcome, and when there is an appropriate time to splat, it will be all the more effective.

This concert will be repeated this evening (October 26, 8 pm) and Sunday afternoon (October 28, 3 pm) at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, as well as Saturday evening (October 27, 8 pm) in the Music Center at Strathmore.

Let Me Sing You a Waltz

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Brahms, Liebeslieder-Walzer, M. Petersen, S. Doufexis, W. Güra, K. Jarnot, C. Berner, C. Radicke
(released on September 11, 2007)
The repertory for piano, four hands, is a delight to play, but it almost seems a shame to record it. If this music were not available in recordings, one could hear it only as it was intended, among a small gathering around the family piano or, even better, only by playing it yourself. (Think of that scene in Richard Taruskin's favorite composer biopic Impromptu where Liszt and Chopin, played by Julian Sands and Hugh Grant, play a four-hands arrangement of a Beethoven symphony.) The same is true of the vocal quartet genre favored by Johannes Brahms, a rarefied kind of Hausmusik and rarely more memorably accomplished than in the Liebeslieder-Walzer, op. 52, eighteen miniatures for various combinations of SATB voices and piano, four hands (later grudgingly released by Brahms in a piano-only version).

This recent release comes about as close to a perfect interpretation of these songs as one might reasonably expect. The quartet is a balanced group, four tasteful and independent voices but no one overpowering, with only the excellent tenor Werner Güra perhaps obtruding slightly from the ensemble by a vibrato-heavy sound. Soprano Marlis Petersen has a light, bell-like tone and floats on top of the ensemble with ethereal presence. Mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis and baritone Konrad Jarnot round out the quartet with rich colors and somber varnish. Jarnot, who is featured alone on only one song, is a fine Lieder singer who will give a Vocal Arts Society recital later this year (Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, December 3). The piano playing by the duo of Christoph Berner and Camillo Radicke is full-bodied and impressively virtuosic. To round out the disc, the pianists split two other quartet sets by Brahms, the Drei Lieder, op. 64 (Berner), and the Neue Liebeslieder, op. 65 (Radicke). In particular, An die Heimat (To the homeland), from the former set, will not leave a dry German eye in the house.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901945

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor


I myself have done sculpture as the complement of my studies. I did sculpture when I was tired
of painting...But I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor. Sculpture
does not say what painting says... They are parallel ways, but you can’t confuse them.

Henri Matisse, 1951

If there is any one artist to whom I most relate, it has to be Henri Matisse. Not because of a particular subject matter but because of process, the process of working through ideas of and about painting. The subject is of interest, of course, but it is often just the beginning, with no end. The middle is one great excuse to push, scrape, wipe, and mold paint, the same with drawing and printing and in the case of Matisse, clay.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, explores this process in great depth by juxtaposing some 160 sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as the work of a few contemporaries, such as Rodin, Degas, Cézanne, and Picasso. This exhibit is a rare studio visit allowing us, as closely as possible, to envision a work in progress, step by step.

This exhibit exposes a Matisse seemingly in perpetual exploration of singular themes, whether it’s a reclining nude, a standing nude, or a series of heads; he pursues a continuous flow from drawings to paintings to the sculpted form and back. Always adjusting and simplifying. The process could carry on for years, often returning again and again, moving us from the classical figure of the Serf to the flattened forms in the painting Large Reclining Pink Nude and eventually to his paper cutouts.


In between all of that is pure joy, and this exhibit has many fine examples, including a generous loan from the collection of the Hammer Museum at UCLA, an edition of the four Backs (shown above). This is a perfect example of Matisse returning to and refining an image, and it's a very interesting story. BackI was produced in 1909 but not cast until 1965, while BackII was produced in 1913 and cast in 1962; BackIII was produced in 1916 while WWI was in progress and Matisse was forced to give up his home to soldiers. Luckily, he had a plaster cast made and after the war he returned to it, filling the mold with clay slab and reworking the image: even in the plaster form he gouged and chiseled away, making adjustments until it was cast in 1964. The last version, Back IV, was made in 1930 and then cast in 1964. All the same image and format but an incredible transition to the smooth simplified form of the final version.

Matisse never saw these cast versions; he traditionally would cast his work only after there was an order from a patron and rarely exceeding an edition of ten. The casting of the series in this exhibit was undertaken by his heirs, as there was a burgeoning market for outdoor sculpture gardens in the late 50s and 60s, such as the Hirshhorn Museum’s.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
D. Kosinski, A. Boulton, S. Nash, and O. Shell, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor
Another aspect to this exhibit is that the staff of the BMA undertook a process known as technical art history, during which conservators and curators examined more than 120 sculptures at 13 different institutions, recording casting methods, mold lines, tool marks, and surface finish. They also did a laser scan to analyze structural variations. It kinda takes the fun out of pushing clay around, but it is interesting to see the results. A hands/mouse-on computer program developed in association with UMBC, How to Look at Sculpture, and a video display of the scanning of Reclining Nude (Aurora) are available for study.

Matisse: Painter as Sculptor opens this Sunday, October 28 (free admission on opening day!), and runs through February 3, 2008. I recommend the exhibit catalogue (available through Amazon via the link at right) and my Flickr site for more exhibit images and details.

The BMA also announced a gift this past week, of 77 Matisse prints from the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Foundation. In addition to the Cone Collection, this will make the museum one of the finest collections of the artist's work in the country. The new prints are expected to go on view in 2009.

25.10.07

Concerto Italiano: L'Orfeo

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, F. Zanasi, A. Simboli, S. Mingardo, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini
(released on October 30, 2007)
On February 24, the world's first real opera, Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, had its 400th birthday. Sitting in the audience for the live performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo in Siena this past July, the hope for a recording of Concerto Italiano's version was paramount in my mind. This recording was put down in February at Rome's Accademia di Santa Cecilia, just before the group undertook a tour of concert performances of Orfeo, including the one that I heard in Siena. As one might expect from Concerto Italiano's recordings of the Four Seasons or Monteverdi's madrigals (see my reviews of Book 6 and Book 8), this is an interpretation of one of the most famous and beloved pieces of music designed to keep you at the edge of your seat and occasionally knock you off it altogether.

Monteverdi, Orfeo:
available at Amazon
Le Concert d'Astrée
($17.97)

available at Amazon
English Baroque Soloists
($33.98)

available at Amazon
Concerto Vocale
($43.98)
For years, the version in my CD player has been John Eliot Gardiner's from 1985, which has been remarkable ever since it came out for combining excellent voices with fine playing (English Baroque Soloists and His Majesties Sagbutts -- *snicker* -- and Cornetts). Rinaldo Alessandrini's jagged exploration of the unexpected makes Gardiner seem almost disappointingly complacent and placid. Not that the Gardiner is not worth owning, which it certainly is, but if you are going to own only one of the two (at the moment, they are at the same prize from Amazon), Concerto Italiano is more exciting listening. If you are going to buy only one Orfeo (why would anyone do that?), then the recording by Le Concert d'Astrée is the best value for the price, almost half of either Gardiner or Alessandrini. It has the most impressive cast list, too: Ian Bostridge, Patrizia Ciofi, Natalie Dessay, Véronique Gens, with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting. The Concerto Vocale recording, with René Jacobs at the podium, has nice turns by Jennifer Larmore and Andreas Scholl. At its prohibitively high price, however, one would hope for a better Orfeo than Laurence Dale provides.

Alessandrini does not approach any measure in the score with anything but the greatest care for texture, ensemble, and verve. With a care for impelling the recitation of the text, he accompanies recitatives that are never dull or limp. Seeing him conduct in Siena helped me to understand how he gets his musicians to make such exciting sounds, by lunging toward the singers or instrumentalists, indicating with his agitated dancing or gentle gestures the musical spirit he wanted to create. A vivid sense of florid embellishment further decorates the score, shocking an ear familiar with the melodies, by the the awe-inspiring cornetti, played by Doron Sherwin and Fiona Russell, in the famous opening toccata or by singers, as in La Musica's strophic prologue by Monica Piccinini. Tempi are often either unexpectedly fast (the opening ritornello to "Io la Musica son") or surprisingly languid (sections in "Lasciate i monti"). Alessandrini shaves off three to four minutes from the overall performance time set down by Gardiner.


Sara Mingardo, contralto
The cast is generally extraordinary and, at worst, very good. Contralto Sara Mingardo is a steely messenger (who announces the news of Euridice's death) and La Speranza (who accompanies Orfeo to the gate of hell, where he must obey Dante's inscription and abandon her -- a thrilling moment at the top of Mingardo's range). With an equally attractive voice, tenor Furio Zanasi is a potent and suave Orfeo. His rendition of the celebrated serenade of Charon ("Possente spirto" in Act III) is heart-meltingly beautiful, especially as accompanied by different combinations of instruments, including a lovely section for harpist Loredana Gintoli. The crescendo to full volume on the repeated line "Rendetemi il mio ben, tartarei Numi!" (Give me back my love, gods of Tartarus) can raise the hair on my arms. Just a few times, the goat trills and shuddering runs by Zanasi and the other male singers edge uncomfortably close to ludicrous in sound.

Monica Piccinini is a lyrical La Musica in the prologue, and Anna Simboli is subtle and luscious as Euridice and Proserpina. Among the men, bass Sergio Foresti stood out as a terrifying and resonant Caronte, with projection that slices nicely through the thick accompaniment of trombones and regale. Tenor Luca Dordolo is appropriately celestial as Apollo in the astrological duet that follows Orfeo's echo aria in the fifth act. The bound booklet features a fascinating and over-complete essay by Alessandrini, which in laying out the conductor's reasons for scoring the performance as he did, surveys all of the relevant sources of information about L'Orfeo. Accompanying it is a puzzling piece by Camille Laurens, its psychological speculations irksome in inverse relationship to the interest of Alessandrini's essay. Do not even bother reading it. There are more than a few favorite performances in my concert-going experience that I would love to be able to replay all the time. Here is one example of a recording that actually makes that possible. Pre-order your copy from Amazon for its release next week.

Naïve OP 30439


Furio Zanasi as Orfeo, Liceu, directed by Jordi Savall

Julia Fischer and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Julia Fischer, violinistWashington Performing Arts Society’s presentation of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Julia Fischer, Gramophone’s new Artist of the Year, was indeed memorable. At the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night, Yuri Temirkanov provided Fischer support in the Beethoven Violin Concerto by neither allowing textures to become overly heavy nor fast. With sparklingly clear tone and a fast, narrow vibrato, Fischer acted as an extension of the exceptionally earthy string sound supplied by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. However, in the first movement (Allegro non troppo), Fischer’s intonation was near the limit of being too high. Each of the concerto’s three movements contained satisfying motifs that were repeated three times, either expanding upward or, in the case of the third movement, containing two repetitions with a tail. Fischer’s phrasing possessed lots of fantasy by using both dynamics and time to exploit this material – the orchestra followed her every step of the way. Indeed, the orchestra and conductor appeared to be listening equally as much as playing. Fischer’s chords in the final cadenza locked remarkably well.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, The Temirkanov Touch (Baltimore Sun, October 25)

Robert Battey, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, A Program of High Notes (Washington Post, October 25)

Jens F. Laurson, Setting the Perfect Tone: Julia Fischer with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Ionarts, May 26, 2006)
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 (1945) provided Temirkanov a platform for more creative conducting, as what had been observed prior to it were mainly large horizontal gestures. Thus, the wry Russian humor and pointed clarinet solos of the second movement (Allegro marcato) stood out, while the third movement’s stern, cold Adagio character warmed up – perhaps by passing around a bottle of vodka – near the end of the movement and became sentimental. The final movement’s positive theme (Allegro giacoso) flipped around in an amusing way while the entire symphony ended with the entire ensemble in a bright, upward run. The ensemble virtuously never sounded loud, just powerfully full and wide.

The audience was treated to a well-orchestrated encore by Elgar. One wishes success to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, especially since, according to a Russian friend, not so long ago its musicians were rarely paid.

The next concert sponsored by WPAS is a recital by Murray Perahia (October 28, at Strathmore), which inaugurates the new Piano Masters series.

Julia Fischer on Disc:
available at Amazon
Bach, Sonatas / Partitas
available at Amazon
Glazunov, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Violin Concertos
available at Amazon
Mozart, Violin Concertos 1,2&5
available at Amazon
Mozart, Violin Concertos 3&4
available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto

24.10.07

Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra @ LOC

This Auditorium for Chamber Music is the Gift of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 1925
This Auditorium for Chamber Music is the Gift of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 1925
It has taken until this week for Ionarts to review a concert on the Library of Congress series, although I would have liked to attend the concert by the Moscow Sretensky Chorus last month. While the venue's winter-spring schedule is full, with 21 events we hope to review, the fall is a little sparse (I count 8 worth attending). True, there are three string quartets on the roster before Christmas: the Quatuor Ysaÿe (November 16), the Jerusalem Quartet (December 8) -- both admired by Ionarts in the past -- and the Formosa Quartet (December 14). Even better, the lineup of top historically informed performance ensembles continues this season, with Café Zimmermann and Céline Frisch (November 3), followed by Concerto Copenhagen (February 1), Ensemble Matheus and Jennifer Larmore (February 9), Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante (April 16), and John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen (April 17). The total of 29 concerts is a marked improvement over last season's 21 review-worthy concerts, but other than the great early music lineup, there are fewer must-see concerts on their schedule. Today also happens to bring the disturbing news that the Library has lost track of an alarming portion of its vast collection.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (Washington Post, October 24)

John Terauds, Czech orchestra falls flat on first Canadian tour (Toronto Star, October 16)
What finally drew me to the Library was Monday night's concert by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. The score of musicians, playing without a conductor, got a rough start on the opening work, Antonio Rosetti's Sinfonia in G Minor. This was a welcome discovery from the ensemble's homeland (it turns out that Rosetti was born in Bohemia as Franz Anton Rössler), with fast and sinuous outer movements that often reminded me of Mozart's 25th symphony. The third movement has a charmingly rustic Fresco B section, featuring the fine playing of the group's principal oboist, Jana Brožková. She also appeared as soloist in Alessandro Marcello's D minor oboe concerto on the second half, with grace, accuracy, and bubbling embellishments.

Mozart Violin Concerti:
available at Amazon
Leonidas Kavakos


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Christian Tetzlaff
The rest of the program consisted of much more mainstream Classical repertoire, none the less welcome for it. Young violinist Barbora Kolářová, not coincidentally a student of the CPCO's concertmaster and director, Pavel Prantl, had an amiable outing in Mozart's third violin concerto. She played well, but her tone was nondescript, making the performance come off as a little polite, capable certainly but hardly memorable. The CPCO's playing was the best in the final selection, Haydn's 8th symphony (G major, "Le Soir"), especially in the brisk and perky first movement with noteworthy solos by flutist Jiři Valek, as well as the windswept encore, the fourth movement of Mozart's 29th symphony. All of this promise was overwhelmed by decidedly unpolished playing from the ensemble overall, including far too common intonation issues and missed notes, splats in the horns, and sometimes dolorous E string playing from concertmaster Pavel Prantl in the Haydn. This was not a concert that lived up to the group's reputation.

You are advised not to miss the upcoming concert at the Library of Congress by Café Zimmermann and harpsichordist Céline Frisch (November 3).

23.10.07

Maxwell Davies Concludes Naxos Cycle

Naxos Quartets:

available at Amazon
1 and 2
(2004)

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3 and 4
(2005)

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5 and 6
(2006)

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7 and 8
(2007)
We have been enjoying the Maggini Quartet's complete cycle of Naxos Quartets, composed for them by Peter Maxwell Davies, whose pre-eminence among British composers was recognized when he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 2004. (Maxwell Davies dedicated no. 8 to the Queen.) The cycle of ten string quartets was the commission of Naxos's founder Klaus Heyneman, and the regular installments on recording were recommended by Jens as among the best discs of the year in 2005 and 2004. The news has come from London that the cycle has been completed. Once the discs are all together on my desk (or Jens's), it will be time for a complete assessment. Andrew Clark has a review of no. 10, premiered at Wigmore Hall last week (Maxwell Davies’ 10th Naxos Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, October 17) for the Financial Times:
With the premiere on Tuesday of his 10th and final Naxos String Quartet, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies came to the end of what must surely rank as one of the most impressive musical statements of our time. From the intimate exchanges of four string players Max has drawn a language that contradicts the prevailing notion of music as a medium that needs size and/or volume to make an impact. He has gone back to the classic models, Haydn and Beethoven, and somehow found within himself a creative wellspring that can withstand comparison with theirs. No mean achievement.

For those of us who have followed this journey, it has been an immensely rewarding experience. Naxos is to be congratulated for its enterprise – the CDs of each successive quartet-pairing have followed soon after the premiere – and the Maggini Quartet deserves equal recognition for learning so much new and often complex music. The finale, nevertheless, was an anti-climax, with Max himself apparently at a loss to know how to round off the series. His conclusion – to draw a temporary line, with the intention of returning to a medium that has stimulated so many creative juices – seems appropriate, but the 10th Naxos Quartet finds him hovering uneasily, as if his mind is already impatient to move on.
Also see the review from Andrew Clements (Maggini Quartet, October 19) for The Guardian. The end of the series is further complicated by a recent personnel change in the Maggini Quartet, in the person of their new first violinist Lorraine McAslan (recently enough that her predecessor, Laurence Jackson, is still listed in the group's Naxos biography). She will presumably be on the recording of no. 10, too.