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31.12.07

DVD: Die große Stille

available at Amazon
Die grosse Stille (Into Great Silence, 2005), directed by Philip Gröning
(released on October 23, 2007)
When the German film Die große Stille came to Washington for a brief engagement last March, I mentioned it but never got around to writing an actual review. This week, to my great joy, a copy of the DVD release has crossed my desk. Friends near Grenoble took me to visit La Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the Carthusian order, some years ago, but visitors are normally not allowed to come near the cloister where the monks live. In 1984, director Philip Gröning made an official request to film a documentary about monastic life there. Since the pace of modern life does not mean much within a cloister, the monks considered the request and ultimately gave their approval -- 16 years later. The result is unlike anything one could have imagined.


René-Michel Slodtz, St. Bruno (recoiling from the episcopal miter and crozier), marble, 1744, Basilica di San Pietro, Rome
The founder of La Grande Chartreuse, St. Bruno (1030-1101, feast day on October 6), was one of the more remarkable holy men of the Middle Ages. Born in Cologne to a notable family, he rose to prominence in the church of Reims as a teacher and administrator. His reputation for learning and the eloquence of his oratory brought him prominence throughout Europe, and more than one diocese tried to press him into service as their bishop, positions he always refused. Bruno should have been one of Dante's heros, always championing monastic simplicity over the worldliness of prelates, even leading the people of Reims in a successful campaign to unseat their unpopular bishop. When he arrived with his followers at the site of La Grande Chartreuse, he thought he had found his last dwelling, but his former student Eudes of Châtillon was elected to the papacy as Urban II. Bruno answered the call to Rome to serve as papal counselor and remained in Italy, eventually founding another monastery and becoming one of the patron saints of Calabria.

In imitation of St. Bruno, the Carthusians live a semi-eremetical life, meaning that each choir monk lives in an enclosed and mostly self-sufficient hermitage, lined up in a row like little cottages. He lives in silence and isolation, for the most part celebrating the Divine Office and taking his meals alone in his cell. The community comes together for Mass daily and to sing the office, as well as eating a communal meal on Sundays and feast days. There are also lay brothers, whose daily routine is focused more on labor and who live in community. We see them in the movie, for example, walking down a long corridor and placing food or other necessities into each cell through a little door. An alluring feature of the DVD release is an hour-long excerpt from a Matins service at La Grande Chartreuse, the sound of chanting accompanied by visuals of the Latin texts being sung.

Die große Stille, directed by Philip Groening

"Fenced early in this cloistral round
Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,
How should we grow in other ground?
How can we flower in foreign air?
--Pass, banners, pass, and bugles, cease;
And leave our desert to its peace!"

-- Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse
In compliance with the demands of the monastic community, Gröning was essentially a one-man film crew while he shot the film over a six-month period. He introduces no artificial light, creating some stunning vistas of both interiors and exteriors, and he respects the rule of silence within the cloister. The monks do not speak directly to the camera, and we hear their voices only at the appointed times for speech -- when the prior is accepting two young men into the novitiate and during the regular walk of the monks outside the monastery. The result is an astounding immersion into the "cloistral round / Of reverie, of shade, of prayer" at La Grande Chartreuse, as Matthew Arnold put it. We see gardens being planted, water being gathered, meals being prepared, dishes being washed, habits being cut and sewn. Periodically, important monastic texts intersect the sequence of scenes.

One of my favorite verses returns several times: "You have seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced." That is how Jeremiah (Chapter 20) describes the beginning of his vocation from God, a deception, a seduction, that leads him to shout prophecies that cause him to be ridiculed. When he tries to fight against the calling and keep silent, however, "there came in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was wearied, not being able to bear it." The only personalization of the monastic narrative, which is by definition anonymous, is that, to a degree, Gröning follows two novices as they are admitted to the community, installed in a cell, and navigate their new life. He also includes several shots of the faces of monks, which show the range of ages from the young and healthy to the emaciated body of an aged and eerily radiant monk. What is striking is the happiness and joy that pervade the community, so contrary to popular misconceptions about monastic life. This is not a place of gloom but of light-filled solitude: when you see it, one understands that these men are planted in the right place, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold.

30.12.07

In Brief: Goodbye, 2007

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

  • Marcus Plieninger has a pessimistic but on-the-money assessment of the New York Philharmonic's upcoming trip to North Korea, which may not be the feel-good story it is cracked up to be. [Armavirumque]

  • Scott Spiegelberg has worked his Internet magic again this week and published his biannual ranking of the Top 50 Music Blogs this week. Ionarts is still up there in the mix, coming in at No. 7 in the rankings, under both formats. Thanks to everybody who reads and links to us! [Musical Perceptions]

  • Ionarts is calling together the Washington Music League Welcome Wagon for the arrival of Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette to the area. Midgette will be taking up the position of Interim Classical Music Critic at the Washington Post in the New Year. We wish them a happy time down here! [Sandow]

  • Heh. Few writers have critical venom as vitriolic as the Snarkmeister, Norman Lebrecht. Get a good Bah Humbug Christmas laugh as he dismantles bad holiday releases. [Slipped Disc]

  • Sarah Noble has put together an operatic Advent calendar, with a different YouTube video for each day. [Prima la musica, poi le parole]

  • A man calling himself OneManSho has put this video on YouTube. In it he sings a song, backwards, while doing various things at the same time. Then, the video plays backwards so that you can understand what song he is singing. [Via Boing Boing]


  • As regular readers know, I am weary of Handel's Messiah, which in a running joke I usually call the M-Word in print. In an interview with Stephen Moss, conductor Harry Christophers reminds me of all the things there are to love about the work. [The Guardian]

  • On his way out of town, Tim Page left his list of the year's top five area events in classical music. See how his notes compare with ours. We wish Page the best on his sabbatical in California and hope to read him in the paper again soon. [Washington Post]

29.12.07

Feast of St. Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket, stained glass, Canterbury CathedralOn December 29, Thomas Becket (1118-70), Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by soldiers, as described by an eyewitness, Edward Grim. He had been appointed to the position by his old friend, King Henry II, whom he had previously served as Lord Chancellor. A worldly clerk, educated at Merton Abbey and in Paris, who had traveled to Rome and many other places, he took his episcopal appointment to heart and gave up his old pleasure-loving life at court. The king, outraged that his archbishop did not simply approve of his plans for the English church, quickly became frustrated with Becket and may have directly or indirectly provoked the soldiers to murder him.

Becket's grave in Canterbury Cathedral quickly became an important pilgrimage site, drawing the 30 pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. Becket even got an entry in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, popularity that inevitably led to the destruction of the saint's remains and famous tomb at Canterbury by the Protestants. Becket has fascinated modern minds, too, inspiring plays by Lord Tennyson (Becket, 1884), Jean Anouilh (Becket ou l'honneur de Dieu, 1959), and T. S. Eliot's modern masterpiece Murder in the Cathedral. The latter examines Becket's opposition to authority in the month before he was killed (the Burnt Norton part of Four Quartets was originally written as part of the play). Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) even wrote an opera based on Eliot's play, Assassinio nella cattedrale (La Scala, 1958).

Image: Detail of stained glass window, St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral

Opera on DVD: Billy Budd

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Britten, Billy Budd, Philip Langridge, English National Opera (1988)
(DVD release, 2001)
How is it possible that only one DVD version of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd has been released? Although it was available in North America from Naxos for at least some time, it is no longer. While it may be difficult to buy it on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, you can do what I did recently and rent it through Netflix, which acquired a copy when it was available. (Netflix has a fairly impressive collection of operas on DVD, which keeps growing as I feed them suggestions.) Billy Budd is one of my favorite operas (Britten being a particular fascination at Ionarts), certainly in the running, with Peter Grimes, for Britten's greatest opera. After Santa Fe Opera's brilliant staging of Grimes in 2005, we are glad to see that company finally getting around to staging Billy Budd this summer -- an ocean-faring opera staged in the middle of a desert! While the libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier is quintessentially English, it is based on a very American book, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman.

available at Amazon
Billy Budd, P. Langridge, S. Keenlyside, J. Tomlinson, London SO, R. Hickox
Francesca Zambello's 2004 production for Washington National Opera, reviewed by Ionarts in our infancy, remains one of the company's greatest achievements in recent seasons. That success was due in no small part to the conducting of Richard Hickox and the malevolent Claggart of old salt Samuel Ramey. In this 1988 production from English National Opera, tenor Philip Langridge is the main attraction, a handsome and dramatic stage presence with a clarion voice as Captain Vere. Langridge's recording with Simon Keenlyside, who later made quite an impression as Billy in this production at ENO (and whose recent solo CD is under review at the moment), is one of the better performances on CD. Comparison of Langridge with the creator of the role, Peter Pears, is almost inevitable, so let it suffice to say that the role fit Langridge like a glove.

Richard Van Allan is a vampiric Claggart, tall and thin and costumed in black with swept back graying hair -- Claggart as Emperor Palpatine. Van Allan's thick, resonant voice sounds slightly worn and a little weary here and there. (Curiously, the sound seems not to line up with the singer's movements during O Beauty! O Handsomeness!, as if it were edited). Thomas Allen is a piercing Billy, perhaps too old and experienced for the role, especially in closeup, but vocally very effective. Tim Albery’s production is dark, spare, and pointedly effective, while conductor David Atherton puts together a worthy rendition of Britten's gorgeous score. Although well worth watching, it is not the best DVD of Billy Budd one could imagine, making the absence of competition all the stranger.

Arthaus Musik 100278

28.12.07

DVD: Prova d'orchestra

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Prova d'orchestra (Orchestra rehearsal, 1979), directed by Federico Fellini
(DVD release, 1998)
The last collaboration of Federico Fellini and composer Nino Rota was this 1979 television feature, Prova d'orchestra. As such, the production values are sometimes comically bad. The actors who play the musicians and conductor are mostly at odds with the soundtrack in their faked performing gestures (during his melancholy solo, the tuba player takes breaths repeatedly during the uninterrupted sound). In general, the sound is clumsily sequenced with the images, making even the dialogue seem dubbed. That being said, the sense of humor and dramatic candor of this movie are well worth the effort of watching it. We watch a tumultuous rehearsal by a Roman orchestra in the beautiful confines of a medieval oratory. In a meta-fictional self-reference, the rehearsal is being followed by an Italian television crew, who record brief interviews with many of the musicians. (One of the musicians even references Fellini's film .)

Prova d'orchestra, directed by Federico FelliniMusicians are people like anyone else. Like many workplaces, the orchestra causes considerable stress on its members. The stereotypes and petty rivalries of the instruments are played out in Fellini's script with charm and wit (all flutists are not loopy from having exhaled so much wind, Mrs. Ionarts insists), but most of the antagonism that powers the story is between the unionized and politically fractious orchestra and the totalitarian conductor, played by Balduin Baas. When he tries to dominate the orchestra with abusive language, they stage an all-out revolt, complete with Futurist-style anti-cultural rhetoric. In a gesture that every conductor should keep in mind with humility, the musicians knock down the conductor's podium and replace him with a large wooden model of a metronome. The irony of their hatred is that the musicians spend much of their break speaking with reverence of conductors they have worked with in the past, having loved especially those who were the most demanding and vicious.

Whatever forces are at work undermining the harmony of the orchestra, they ultimately crash into the oratory and do real damage. While this tragedy at first appears to unify the musicians once again under the conductor, Fellini immediately undercuts that tidy ending with a final savage twist of the knife. While not a masterpiece, Orchestra Rehearsal remains a worthy and bitingly ironic view of the modern crisis of classical music.

À mon chevet: The 42nd Parallel

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À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
The sea was glassy, with dirty undulating patches of weed and garbage. There were gulls sitting on the water or perched on bits of floating wood. Now and then a gull stretched its wings lazily and flew off crying. The boat's bluff bow cut two even waves through dense glassgreen water. Charley tried to talk to the lookout. He pointed ahead. "East," he said, "France." The lookout paid no attention. Charley pointed back towards the smoky west. "West," he said and tapped himself on the chest. "My home Fargo, North Dakota." But the lookout just shook his head and put his finger to his lips. "France very far east ... submarines ... war," said Charley. The lookout put his hand over his mouth. At last he made Charley understand that he wasn't supposed to talk to him.

-- John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel (1929), "Charley Anderson," p. 323
These are the final words in the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy. In an unusual choice, Dos Passos closed the book, in the opening days of World War I, with a narrative section involving a completely new character, who ultimately is woven into the story, although not without seeming like a stretch. Even so, this is a satisfying read, especially the Janey narrative in its early part, set in Georgetown. On to 1919!

27.12.07

Bach's Mass in B-minor BWV 232

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J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor, Suzkuki / Bach Collegium Japan / Sampson, Nicholls, Blaze, Türk, Kooij
BIS-SACD 1701/02
October 30, 2007

The enemy of excellence is greatness? True, generally – but not when it comes to Bach’s Mass in B-minor which would still be a masterpiece in the least of performances and is a gift to humanity when performed as well as I’ve now had the pleasure of experiencing trice in short succession. First courtesy of the Netherlands Bach Society and Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics, then as I received the newly released Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS, and then just before Christmas when Ton Koopman directed the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Herkulessaal in Munich – which was also broadcast live on radio.

When the work was about to be published around 1820, Hans Georg Nägeli announced it as “the greatest musical work of art of all times and all peoples”. Publisher Nägeli may have aimed more at boosting subscriptions rather than trying to divine the true ramification of the rediscovery of the Mass in B-minor – but unwittingly or not, he was pretty close. I am hardly alone in thinking the B-minor Mass, along with the St. Matthew Passion, as one of the cultural pillars of Western Civilization. Whether it is a complete patch work or put together from pieces with a design in mind (most musicologists strongly suggest the latter), this music is – certainly metaphorically and possibly literally – divine.


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor, van Veldhoven / The Netherlands Bach Society / Mields, Zomer, White, Daniels, Harvey
Channel Classics CCS SA 25007
April 10, 2007

Now I have two “HIP” versions on my desk, both of them on hybrid-SACDs, and both by renown Bach conductors. Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics in the most luxurious CD box imaginable. The accompanying book was produced in collaboration with the Museum Catharijneconvent and boasts near 100 pictures, reprints, and illustrations. The sturdy packaging with the golden imprint makes the space-saving slim box of the Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS look downright humble.

Exteriors and superficialities should not be underestimated – but ultimately it is the content that matters. And here the two recordings are more alike than different. The total timing of van Veldhoven is 105 minutes, Suzuki clocks in at just over 107. That’s similar to Harnoncourt , Brüggen, Rifkin, Koopman, and Gardiner and just a tad speedier than Herreweghe’s wonderful (second) recording on Harmonia Mundi. (Junghänel is the fastest I am aware of, nearly staying below 100 minutes.) But it is a far cry from the 2-hour-plus performances of Karl Richter, Celibidache, Scherchen, Jochum, von Karajan, Shaw, or Klemperer – and for all those who insist on their B-minor masses big-boned and with might choruses, neither Suzuki or van Veldhoven with their two and three ripienists to a part will do. That said, anyone who is not ruling out the “HIP” approach but isn’t quite sold on it yet, will probably be converted by either recording and agree that the historically informed approach can offer some of the finest and most exciting music-making.

The sound and impact of both recordings is similarly excellent, their singers outstanding, and the choral parts that we love in the Kyrie, the Sanctus, or the Gloria come through with surprising opulence and splendor. Yet differences in detail abound between Suzuki and Veldhoven – often a matter of Suzuki taking a marginally more relaxed pace than his Dutch colleague or sounding more restrained even when he is technically a bit faster.

In the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus Suzuki uses the harpsichord as the continuo instrument of choice (with his son, Masato, playing) while van Veldhoven lets the strings free reign to support the bass solo. There is little to chose between the veterans Peter Kooij (BIS) and Peter Harvey (Channel Classics) – the latter perhaps with a more open, regal voice. The horn might be a tad more stable on the Dutch production (Teunis van der Zwart) but clearer and more in front of the bassoons with the Japanese band (Olivier Darbellay).

Dorothee Mields is a lovely soprano for van Veldhoven. But the recording of the Bach Collegium Japan has Carolyn Sampson and there simply isn’t anything better than her tasteful, lean, and full voice - whether it is live (as with Koopman) or on record. The Christe Eleison between Sampson and Rache Nicholls (both also sing in the soprano I and soprano II chorus parts, respectively) is one of those moments that feel like Bach himself is smiling.

Similarly, the countertenors Robin Blaze (BIS) and Matthew White (Channel Classics) turn the alto-oboe duet Qui sedes ad dextram Patris into something that might appease those who would rather hear a mezzo soprano in this role (which might actually be historically accurate, regardless of what the British-influenced Belgio-Flemish-Dutch historical performance tradition has come to accept as the HIP-gospel). Blaze has a slightly more nimble, more feminine voice – White’s a more dramatic ring to it. Masamitsu San’nomiya’s oboe-playing meanwhile, devoid of extraneous noises, air, or hiss and full of sweetness, is exemplary.

Ultimate splendor is achieved in the Sanctus. Suzuki and the BIS engineers make the 14 singers and 20 instrumentalists involved sound like a grand ensemble – and he gives his forces all the time to draw on the sumptuous qualities of the pinnacle of the Mass. Van Veldhoven and the audiophile crew of Channel Classics achieve an equivalent impression (he's given slightly more reverberation; both have ample space around all musicians), and he does it by pushing along at a brisk pace. Different means but with the result every bit as exciting.

The Osanna in Excelsis is a great moment of trumpet, timpani, and chorus imbued splendor – and a highlight among the string of thrilling moments of the Suzuki recording. It may also be one of the few miscalculations on van Veldhoven’s part because his extraordinarily swift take might well be exciting but also sounds a tad rushed.

As regards tempi in general, though, I could put it unkindly thus: Wherever Suzuki is slower than van Veldhoven, he seems to drag (in comparison, only!) – wherever Suzuki is faster, van Velhoven seems to have more momentum. It is this subtle impression that I take away from the two issues more than any of the more obvious little differences – and an impression I would never have gotten from Suzuki had it not been for direct comparison. Either are a match for the best of the HIP B-minor masses out there, whether Herreweghe (II) or Gardiner or whatever else your current preference may be. There’s an embarrassment of riches of great recordings of this work available now – but if pressed, I’d rank both among the handful of best recordings made, regardless of style and alongside Richter and Rilling.



Live Performance


Just how good these recordings are became clear when Ton Koopman's live performance, despite a stupendous performance of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir, Carolyn Sampson, and Charles Daniels (he is also the tenor on the van Veldhoven recording) seemed strangely foursquare. Victim of this rigidity was largely the Kyrie. Matters were starting to gel at around the Ladamus te, where – if my memory serves me right – Mlle. Sampson took the second soprano part (alto/countertenor Daniel Taylor had ably doubled as soprano II in the Christe).

Things were well on there way when – in the Domine Deus, and alongside Sampson and Daniels – Henrik Wiese proved that he is one of the foremost flutists (modern instruments for the reduced forces of the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, of course) any orchestra can count among its ranks. There was not a noise to be heard in the Herkulessaal when the choir took to the Qui tollis peccata mundi, or when the masses of the choir rose to the Cum Sancto Spiritu after the ‘Bullfrog quartet’ of the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. Klaus Mertens, also one of the usual suspects in HIP Bach performances, delivered the Et in Spiritum Sanctum with gentle, unexaggerated nobility.

During the Sanctus, the performance had come from perfunctory all the way to explosive and rousing. Henrik Wiese and Charles Daniels let go in the Benedictus, Daniel Taylor capped an impressive performance with the Agnus Dei, even if the lowest notes on “peccata mundi” were a toil. Although I reckon that many audience members were inspired to their thunderous ovations for the choir by being related to members therein, they would have deserved and gotten an equal amount of appreciation from a neutral crowd as well – not just for the superb closing Dona nobis pacem.



Suzuki - Bach, Mass in B-minor
Agnus Dei
(Robin Blaze)
van Veldhoven - Bach, Mass in B-minor "The making of..."

Top 10 Live Performances, Ionarts at Large

Yesterday's Top 10 Live Performances year-in-review post was limited to music we have reviewed here in the Washington area. In 2007, however, Ionarts also brought you reviews from New York, Santa Fe, France, Italy, Germany, and other places, and here are the best performances we heard during our travels.

Vadim Repin Plays Schnittke (Carnegie Hall, March 27):

What a delight and joy to be presented with the wacky, wild, and wondrous Fourth Violin Concerto by Alfred Schnittke, instead! The musical gods seemed to have smiled upon me, even if many audience members more likely gritted their teeth. They should not have, because this concerto, even if its fourth movement is probably a little too long for its own good, is music to smile about and laugh at... it’s entertainment in the best sense. It toys with beauty and the listeners’ expectations before it irreverently pulls the rug out from underneath them. It’s a creative and unique collage of styles; it is part serene, part surreal. (Jens F. Laurson)
Mitsuko Uchida and Radu Lupu (New York Philharmonic, March 29)
The almost nervously active, entirely playful and animated Mitsuko Uchida on one side, on the other Radu Lupu, understated, relaxed and contributing his part to K.365 with casual flair, leaning back on a regular chair as if only half-involved – that was the curious and utterly delightful sight when these two artists came together on stage for the Concerto for Two Pianos. Lupu had his arms crossed whenever he wasn’t sprinkling and thumping notes from the keyboard into Alice Tully Hall. (Jens F. Laurson)
Wagner, The Flying Dutchman (Munich Staatsoper, May 11):
Traditionally that is achieved by going into the water. But in Konwitschny's set there is no convenient rock to throw herself from. In her increasingly mad state of mind, she topples the barrels that are stored in the port facility. The keen eye sees the explosive sign on them. As she utters her last words - along the lines of "I'll show you how faithful I can be - until death" - she takes a candle and moves suspiciously toward the barrels. In the performance I just had time to think to myself: "Oh, no you're not going to..." And as it became clear that she was, I thought: "Well, you can't possibly can pull it off, realistically, in the theater..." (Jens F. Laurson)
R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier (Munich Staatsoper, June 15, 2007):
With Adrianne Pieczonka, Munich may have found a new favorite Marschallin. Sophie Koch's Octavian was a happy combination of excellent (and believable!) acting and singing. Diana Damrau was the most sublime Sophie. Eike Wilm Schulte as Herr von Faninal (wonderful in the Washington Daphne) and John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs just about held their own against such a formidable female cast. The female trio, in whichever combination, was able to move to tears- to present the highly intelligent libretto in its best and most realistic light- to give the already glorious music that last touch that elevates it to pure genius. The sincerity, the nuances, the clarity, the warmth and melancholia (Pieczonka), the excited, naive yet also knowing (Damrau), the boyishly eager and earnest (Koch) were such, that the characters were recreated in front of the audience, despite the models and idols of the past and all the audience's preconceived notions and expectations. I know that I will consider myself very lucky should I ever hear such a fine female cast in a live Rosenkavalier again. (Jens F. Laurson)
Wagner, Die Walküre, La Fura dels Baus (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, June 29):
The acrobats of the Fura dels Baus troupe did not make an appearance until the third act, when they represented the dead warriors being gathered up during the Ride of the Valkyries. In a powerful image, they were an immobile mass of bodies, swinging back and forth on a huge globe. Some bodies lay on the stage floor, pierced with arrows like pin cushions. In the most stunning display of the cycle thus far, four of the Valkyries soared around the stage on the levitating platforms as they sang. Because the battle-maidens could be extended out over the orchestra, as well as above one another and really into our faces (we were seated this time in a side box with an excellent view), this was truly the most convincingly staged Ride of the Valkyries I have ever seen. (Charles T. Downey)

Video of a rehearsal of Ride of the Valkyries

Berlin Staatskapelle, Mahler Fifth Symphony (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, July 3):
[Barenboim's] conducting, musical approach, and even work at the piano are robust, tending toward emotional outbursts, tense and exciting build-ups, and above all, powerful sound. This was a full-voiced Mahler, with Barenboim massing sound into monolithic blocks. Thrilling moments, dominated by the impressive brass section, abounded in the middle part of the funeral march, and even more in the vehement opening of the second movement and the crushing loudness of the last. At the same time, Barenboim paid careful attention to scaling sections down to bring out unusual voicings and colors. The contrabassoon and triangle popped out of the softer part of the second movement, as did a stunning cello solo, so pure and sweet, leading to that powerful crescendo. Superb solo horn playing was featured in the gently undulating scherzo movement, with those strange stylistic turns -- a little balalaika serenade, a pretty music box aria. (Charles T. Downey)
Monteverdi, Orfeo, Concerto Italiano (Estate Musicale Chigiana di Siena, July 11):
As you might expect from listening to Alessandrini's recordings, he conducts with exciting verve. When not accompanying recitatives or playing on either the portative organ or the harpsichord stacked on top of it, he lunged toward the singers or instrumentalists, indicating with his agitated dancing or gentle gestures the musical spirit he wanted to create. Even for someone familiar with the score, Alessandrini's direction regularly surprised, from the shockingly florid embellishments (by 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) to the sometimes unusual choice of tempo (a very fast opening ritornello to "Io la Musica son," for example, and unexpectedly languid sections in "Lasciate i monti"). (Charles T. Downey)
Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Settimana Musicale Senese, July 14):
The eight singers, the piano, and other instruments were picked up by microphones, which created the appearance of an electronic production, reminiscent of musique concrète. The Swingle Singers mostly created glistening dissonant chords in close harmonic arrangements or added to the chaotic effects of the orchestra by whispering or shouting. The first tenor -- the part sung by Ward Swingle, the group's founder -- recited most of the narration, drawn from Claude-Lévi Strauss's Le cru et le cuit, a study of Brazilian traditional mythology relating to the origin of water, and Samuel Beckett's L'Innommable. From the third movement on, there is also English commentary on the experience of listening to Sinfonia -- "it's a compulsory show," "perhaps it is a recitation, someone reciting selected passages," and "waiting for it to start -- that is the show." The postmodern attitude, deconstructing the work and the listener's possible experiences of it, is made specific with references to the citations of the Resurrection symphony ("there was even for a moment a chance of resurrection") and with the words directed to the conductor at the close of the fourth movement ("Thank you, Mr. Antonio Pappano"). It could be characterized as the dialogue of voices inside a puzzled listener's head or like a berserk color commentary on the action. (Charles T. Downey)
Rameau, Platée (Santa Fe Opera, August 7):
Bicket amusingly gave up his baton to a frog after Act II, when during the long set change a bored-acting frog beside the audience began gesturing for the conductor to begin the introduction to Act III. Bicket finally complied, and the frog strutted through the audience, perched behind the conductor, and began messing with his hair. Bicket lunged after the frog, though the frog escaped, only to return (after grabbing a bass player’s music and handing it to an audience member) to steal Bicket’s baton, cut off the orchestral introduction at its actual end, and take a massive frog bow to applause from the real audience. (Michael Lodico)
Cavalli, La Calisto (Munich Staatsoper, November 7):
One of the last new productions under the auspices of the former General Manager Sir Peter Jonas, it brings together Munich’s “Dream Team” of Baroque opera, director David Alden and Ivor Bolton. The entire team, including the principal singers, have continuously worked on and fine tuned this Calisto. And the continuous work shows. La Calisto is a unity of music, singing, and staging that the composer and librettist (Giovanni Faustini) could never have imagined. The set (Paul Steinberg) and the costumes (Buki Shiff) are a colorful and quirky romp that seduce on the account of their visual appeal and they remove the story from any particular time or period (as should be, in a story about Gods, Demigods, and Nymphs) by means of abstraction. Words won’t quite do justice to the amorphous walls with patterns of bright swirls, or the long bar where the subsidiary characters (Pane, Silvano, Satirino et al.) get together for a drink, accompanied by assorted non-speaking creatures chosen from the signs of the zodiac and a most amusingly realistic, dramatically oversized drink-serving chameleon. (Jens F. Laurson)

26.12.07

Classical Month in Washington (March)

Last month | Next month

Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
New York City Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Ned Rorem, Our Town
Catholic University School of Music

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Directed by François Loup
Opera Bel Cantanti
Randolph Road Theater

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Jonathan Dove, Tobias and the Angel
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Lawrence Brownlee, tenor
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Charlie Chaplin, City Lights
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 1, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
With Amanda Gosier, soprano
George Mason University Center for the Arts

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
1 and 3 pm
Family Concert: Peter and the Wolf
National Symphony Orchestra
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
New York City Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Jonathan Dove, Tobias and the Angel
Opera Vivente (Baltimore, Md.)

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Charlie Chaplin, City Lights
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Quartetto Gelato [FREE]
National Academy of Sciences (2100 C Street NW)

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Directed by François Loup
Opera Bel Cantanti
Randolph Road Theater

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Dominick Argento, Evensong: Of Love and Angels
World premiere (Centennial of Washington National Cathedral)
With Elizabeth Futral, soprano
Cathedral Choral Society
Washington National Cathedral

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Verdehr Trio (violin, clarinet, and piano) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
6 pm
NSO Young Soloists' Competition [FREE]
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
National Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls [FREE]
Music by Gregorio Allegri, Domenico Scarlatti, and Tallis
National Gallery of Art

March 2, 2008 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Tallis Scholars: Masterpieces from Spain and Portugal
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 3, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Joshua Bell (violin) and Jeremy Denk (piano)
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 3, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Lawrence Brownlee, tenor
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

March 3, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Paul Potts, tenor
Lisner Auditorium

March 5, 2008 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Women of the National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Hildegard von Bingen and other women composers
National Gallery of Art

March 5, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Composer in Conversation: Christopher Rouse
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 6, 2008 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Ingrid Fliter (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 6, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Jenny Lin, piano [FREE]
Embassy of Austria

March 6, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Rouse, Beethoven
Music Center at Strathmore

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Directed by François Loup
Opera Bel Cantanti
Randolph Road Theater

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pmIsabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano) and Brian Zeger (piano)
Vocal Arts Society
Embassy of Austria

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mayuko Kamio, violin
Mansion at Strathmore

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Ingrid Fliter (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Rouse, Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Florestan Trio [FREE]
Music by Beethoven, Ives, Arensky
Library of Congress

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Gryphon Trio
Barns at Wolf Trap

March 7, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Morris Palter, percussion [FREE]
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
3 pm
Ji Hye Jung, marimba [FREE]
Shriver Hall Discovery Series
Baltimore Museum of Art

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
3 pm
Max Linder Ciné-Concert [FREE]
Screening of short films, with live music by Octuor de France
National Gallery of Art

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Directed by François Loup
Opera Bel Cantanti
Randolph Road Theater

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Ingrid Fliter (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Rouse, Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 8, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Left Bank Concert Society
Music by Finzi (Oboe Quartet), Kirchner, Janáček
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
The Genesis of Don Giovanni
Excerpts from Gazzaniga, Il Convitato di Pietra; Melani, L'Empio Punito
Opera Lafayette
St. Paul's Lutheran Church (4900 Connecticut Avenue NW)

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Rouse, Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Directed by François Loup
Opera Bel Cantanti
Randolph Road Theater

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Piano Society of Greater Washington: Recital [FREE]
Calvary Lutheran Church (Silver Spring, Md.)

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Jonathan Korth, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Octuor de France [FREE]
Music by Beethoven, Ravel
National Gallery of Art

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Masterworks of Four Centuries
Quartets by Zemlinsky and Schönberg
Smithsonian Chamber Players
Smithsonian Castle

March 9, 2008 (Sun)
8 pm
Fine Arts Quartet and Cristina Ortiz, piano
Friends of Music
Dumbarton Oaks

March 10, 2008 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Daniel Bernard Roumain, violin
Mansion at Strathmore

March 10, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Fine Arts Quartet and Cristina Ortiz, piano
Friends of Music
Dumbarton Oaks

March 11, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
La Maison Française

March 11, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Lang Lang, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 12, 2008 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Kathleen Shimeta, mezzo-soprano [FREE]
Music by Gena Branscome
National Gallery of Art

March 12, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Classical Conversation with Miles Hoffman
Mansion at Strathmore

March 12, 2008 (Wed)
8 pm
Yundi Li, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

March 12, 2008 (Wed)
8 pm
Camerata Interamericana [FREE]
Library of Congress

March 12, 2008 (Wed)
8 pm
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Peabody Chamber Opera
Friedberg Hall, Peabody Institute

March 13, 2008 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Alban Gerhardt, cello
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 13, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Peabody Chamber Opera
Friedberg Hall, Peabody Institute

March 13, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Cuarteto Latinoamericano [FREE]
Library of Congress

March 13, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Daniel Bernard Roumain, One Loss Plus
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 14, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Schubert Festival
Auryn Quartet, Polina Leschenko (piano), and Ferdinand Erblich (viola)
Gaston Hall, Georgetown University

March 14, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Peabody Chamber Opera
Friedberg Hall, Peabody Institute

March 14, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Alban Gerhardt, cello
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 14, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Post-Classical Ensemble [FREE]
Library of Congress

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
7 pm
Wagner, Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Matthias Soucek, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of Austria

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Schubert Festival
Auryn Quartet, Polina Leschenko (piano), and Ferdinand Erblich (viola)
Gaston Hall, Georgetown University

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Death and Resurrection (Music by MacMillan and Schütz)
Cantate Chamber Singers
St. John's Norwood Parish (Chevy Chase, Md.)

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
Peabody Chamber Opera
Friedberg Hall, Peabody Institute

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Amelia Piano Trio
Dumbarton Concerts

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Alban Gerhardt, cello
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 15, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic: Bach, St. Matthew Passion
Music Center at Strathmore

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Dvořák, Stabat Mater
Choral Arts Society
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Mikhail Svetlov, baritone
Mousetrap Concert Series (Washington Grove, Md.)

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
J. S. Bach, St. John Passion
Choirs of Washington National Cathedral
Washington National Cathedral

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Michael Nicolella, guitar [FREE]
Phillips Collection

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Music by Bach, Schoenberg, Beethoven
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Parisii Quartet and Jérôme Corréas (baritone) [FREE]
Fauré, La Bonne chanson
National Gallery of Art

March 16, 2008 (Sun)
8 pm
Schubert Festival
Auryn Quartet, Polina Leschenko (piano), and Ferdinand Erblich (viola)
Gaston Hall, Georgetown University

March 17, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Alfred Brendel, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

March 18, 2008 (Tue)
6:30 pm
Interview with Alfred Brendel
Embassy of Austria

March 18, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Sergey Khachatryan (violin) and Lusine Khachatryan (piano)
WPAS
Sidney Harman Hall

March 18, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Musicians from Marlboro II [FREE]
Carter, Oboe Quartet
Freer Gallery of Art

March 19, 2008 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Tapestry (female vocal quartet) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

March 20, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Wagner, Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 22, 2008 (Sat)
7 pm
The Beggar's Opera (arr. Benjamin Britten)
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton Farms, Va.)

March 23, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
The Beggar's Opera (arr. Benjamin Britten)
Châteauville Foundation (Castleton Farms, Va.)

March 23, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Yuliya Gorenman, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

March 23, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Harvard Glee Club [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

March 25, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Wagner, Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 25, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Nikolaj Znaider (violin) and Robert Kulek (piano)
Tuesday Evening Concert Series
Cabell Hall, University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.)

March 26, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Betty Hauck (viola), Ben Redwine (clarinet), and Carl Banner (piano)
Washington Musica Viva
Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum (Bethesda, Md.)

March 27, 2008 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Louis Lortie, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 27, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Sara Daneshpour, piano
Mansion at Strathmore

March 28, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Louis Lortie, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 28, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Jupiter Quartet
With Roger Tapping and Natasha Brofsky (Mendelssohn, Brahms, Britten)
Corcoran Gallery of Art

March 28, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
A Many-Colored Dream: Music of Franz Schubert
University of Maryland School of Music (Scholarship Benefit)
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
7 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Louis Lortie, piano
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With André Watts (Brahms, 2nd piano concerto)
Music Center at Strathmore

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
University of Maryland Symphony
Music by Mendelssohn and Bruckner (Heinz Fricke, guest conductor)
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Baltimore Opera

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Axelrod Quartet
Music by Haydn, Britten, Beethoven
Grand Salon, Renwick Gallery

March 29, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
East Village Opera Company (rock-opera crossover)
Lisner Auditorium

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Wagner, Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Brooke Evers (soprano) and Michael Gallant (piano)
Vocal Arts Society
Westmoreland Church

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Washington Bach Consort: Many Moods of Bach
Sidney Harman Hall

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Divertimento String Trio
FAES
Congregation Beth-El (Bethesda, Md.)

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Mark Crayton (countertenor), Laura Handler (cello), and James Janssen (piano) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Elina Vähälä (violin) and Mika Rännäli (piano) [FREE]
Music by Copland, Debussy, Fauré, and Stravinsky
National Gallery of Art

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
7 pm
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, The Eroica Effect
With Andrew Manze, conductor
George Mason University Center for the Arts

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Axelrod Quartet
Music by Haydn, Britten, Beethoven
Grand Salon, Renwick Gallery

March 30, 2008 (Sun)
8 pm
Cavani Quartet
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

March 31, 2008 (Mon)
7 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

March 31, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
New Music, University of Maryland [FREE]
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

Top 10 Live Performances

We hear so much good music every year, which makes this annual post difficult to compile. After consultation with my fellow reviewers, we offer this list of the ten best Washington-area concerts we heard in 2007 (a similar list from beyond the region tomorrow). It is pointless to try to rank them from best to least best, so they are listed in chronological order, with a memorable excerpt from our review. As always, your comments about the year in review are welcome.

Deborah Voigt, Salome (Kennedy Center, January 18):

Behind the singers, Maestro Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra churned the lush score out with excellence, impressive brass work (scarcely a mistake and very expressive throughout). In combination with hearing the orchestra from the stage and not the pit, the Straussian orchestral genius was fully revealed and worth the price of admission alone. With the addition of Voigt and Held, this is a concert that ought not be missed by anyone whose pulse has a rhythm. (Jens F. Laurson)
Kirov Opera: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Kennedy Center, February 4):
Tenor Viktor Lutsiuk as Sergey visibly reveled in his part as that indefinably anti-heroic character (the only fitting description for this two-timing, double-crossing, misogynist, cunning, possibly loving – more likely exploiting element is: “scumbag”). A terrific actor of small gestures, he provided all the necessary drama to make one forget that this was not in fact a staged performance. Evgeny Akimov, in the relatively small role of Katerina’s indecisive, ineffectual husband Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov, made his strangulation a truly mourned event. His tenor sounded like the fullest of baritones, his voice rang above the orchestra with clarity and astounding ease. (Jens F. Laurson)
Till Fellner (National Gallery of Art, February 11):
The first half concluded with J. S. Bach, the three-part inventions instead of the Well-Tempered Clavier. These pieces are often relegated to the status of etudes for advanced piano students, but Fellner rethought them as a cycle of character pieces, in a way that harmonized naturally with the way that Bach thought as a composer of encyclopedic collections. No. 5 was a drooping sarabande of beautiful languor, all achieved through tone and articulation -- the tempo never flagged. In no. 9, Fellner wove the tortured harmonic turns of the theme into a delicate web of complicated lace, and in no. 12 he produced an almost machine-like whirr of sound in the supporting voices. (Charles T. Downey)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (George Mason, March 3):
Chailly’s directorship in Leipzig is one of the happiest musical marriages that the east of Germany has had in the last half century. Don Juan, op. 20, was a fine example of that. Razor-sharp, acute, explosive, aggressive even, fine-tuned and in such unison that there was not a single blurred edge, not a smudged climax, nor a single unclean detail. Don Juan usually doesn’t sound this good. The force with which this 1889 tone poem was played was almost unnerving and tempted at least this listener to attempt to buckle his seatbelt. Concertmaster Frank Michael Erben’s solo moments were as exquisite as those torn and wild, ecstatic bits that were played to the hilt, the playful and light parts that came across perfectly dainty, the solemn gloom that was brooding and shuddered lowly with delight. (Jens F. Laurson)
Osmo Vänskä with the National Symphony (Kennedy Center, March 7):
The opening string suite by Sibelius, Rakastava (The Lover) op.14 (originally a work for male choir) brought out the best in the NSO string section I have heard in a long, long time. Discipline, delicacy, detail, and coherence were evident everywhere; dynamic changes from pp to mf sounded like they came at the flick of a switch. The work itself is hushed and whispered here, a fragile dance there, silver-threaded, and with wistful pathos – audibly related to the Karelia Suite from around the same time. (Jens F. Laurson)
Jenůfa (Washington National Opera, May 5):
The lovely, smooth-voiced Patricia Racette captures both Jenůfa's innocent sweetness and her unmeasurable sorrow. Her voice has roundness and power in all registers and ranges from delectable simplicity, as in the heart-breaking setting of the Salve Regina, with quiet harp and glockenspiel, in Act II, to banshee's keen. She was matched in intensity, perhaps exceeded, by the other star of the evening, Catherine Malfitano, who reprised her lauded performance as the Kostelnička. In a severe black dress (costumes by Jon Morrell), she is a terrifying figure, making her unraveling at the end of Act II, where she has a guilt-ridden vision of "death staring me in the face," one of the most dramatic moments of the evening. (Charles T. Downey)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (La Maison Française, May 7)
This was the stunning effect of Aimard's juxtaposition of atonal and tonal selections, so that the end of one dovetailed perfectly with the next, often pivoting on the same note or chord. This was most striking in the third section, Intermezzo zodiacal, where Romantic sublimations of country dances like the Ländler, mostly by Schubert, alternated with movements from Karlheinz Stockhausen's Zodiac. (Was it a coincidence that this suite of pairings ended with the Virgo movements, which happens to be Aimard's astrological sign?) No matter how far toward the fluffy Romantic stereotype the selection went, even Liadov's A Musical Snuffbox and an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, the pattern made Stockhausen seem only a step away. (Charles T. Downey)
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber (Vocal Arts Society, October 11):
The tall Huber, like Gerhaher in formal tails, sat hunched over the embassy's sonorous Bösendorfer, favoring the soft pedal to craft a delicate envelope of sound, like the Lotusblume opening only to the gentle moonlight, perfectly scaled to Gerhaher's voice. The softness of many of the songs honed one's ears, so that we were glad indeed when the performers paused while helicopters passed over the embassy. That sensitivity also made those moments when the full power of Gerhaher's high range and the boom of the Bösendorfer were unleashed even more impressive. My hair literally stood on end when Gerhaher roared at the end of Waldesgespräch and in Frühlingsnacht, both part of a complete performance of Liederkreis, op. 39. (Charles T. Downey)
Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr (Clarice Smith Center, November 4):
As explained by the performers, Egarr sat at a Thomas and Barbara Wolf copy of a fortepiano by Johann Schantz, and Manze played on his historical instrument, a violin reconditioned to 18th-century standards. The result was an extraordinary glimpse into the musical past, in the intimate setting of the sold-out Gildenhorn Recital Hall, with the soft spectrum of these two instruments suited so well to one another and to the smaller hall. The program began with the F major sonata, K. 376, where the second movement (Andante) stood out for its well-chosen tempo and graceful ornamentation, as did the third for its force and folksy, earthy color. The E-flat major sonata, K. 481, featured an Allegretto movement a little, happily, on the plucky, poky side, at the end of which Egarr toyed with listeners who were tempted to clap before he began the capping fourth movement. (Charles T. Downey)
Leipzig Quartet, Beethoven Anniversary (National Gallery of Art, December 16):
As a celebration of Beethoven's life, it is hard to imagine a better choice for a late-period quartet than the mysterious, quasi-liturgical op. 132 ("Heiliger Dankgesang," from 1825). Its third movement, a Lydian-mode song of thanksgiving for Beethoven's recovery from illness, became the psalm of solemn gratitude from the hearts of generations of Beethoven's devoted listeners. The Leipzig Quartet played a perfectly tuned, pure, and unified rendition. With almost no vibrato and careful attention to each note and line, its celestial ending left the quartet visibly exhausted. The bubbly, joyous second movement contained an enigmatic contrast with its own drone-based trio, a moment of Arcadian repose. (Charles T. Downey)
HONORABLE MENTION:

25.12.07

Merry Christmas 2007

Methinks I see an Heav'nly Host
of angels on the wing;
methinks I hear their cheerful notes,
so merrily they sing.

    Let all your fears be banished hence,
    glad tidings I proclaim;
    for there's a Savior born today
    and Jesus is his name.

Lay down your crooks and quit your flocks,
to Bethlehem repair;
and let your wandering steps be squared
By yonder shining star.

Then learn from hence, ye rural swains,
the meekness of your God,
who left the boundless realms of joy,
to ransom you with blood.

    The master of the Inn refused
    A more commodious place;
    Ungen'rous soul of savage mould
    And destitute of grace.

Exult ye oxen, low for joy,
ye tenants of the stall;
Pay your obeisance;
on your knees unanimously fall.

    The Royal Guest you entertain
    is not of common birth,
    But second to the Great I Am,
    The God of Heav'n and earth.

Then suddenly a Heav'nly Host
around the shepherds throng,
exulting in the Three-fold God,
and thus addressed their song.

-- SHILOH, tune by William Billings (The Suffolk Harmony, 1786)
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Life of the Virgin: 9. The Adoration of the Shepherds. (The Nativity), 1504-05, woodcut, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich

Ionarts Gift Ideas, 2007

If you are still looking for a present, here are some ideas from the many good things we have reviewed or mentioned this year (which can be cross-referenced with my write-up of the classical Grammy nominations). If you click on the picture link and buy something, part of the profit will go to Ionarts. Happy New Year!

OPERA:

available at Amazon
Antonio Vivaldi, Atenaide, Sandrine Piau, Vivica Genaux, Guillemette Laurens, Modo Antiquo, F. M. Sardelli (October 30, 2007)

You surely cannot go wrong with any recording that features Sandrine Piau, Vivica Genaux, Guillemette Laurens, Romina Basso, and Nathalie Stutzmann. All of them give performances that are consistently impressive and, more often than not, exemplary. (Charles T. Downey)
[Continue reading the review]

available at Amazon
Claudio Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, Furio Zanasi, Anna Simboli, Sara Mingardo, Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini (October 30, 2007)

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. (CTD)
[Continue reading the review]

available at Amazon
G. F. Handel, Floridante, Marijana Mijanović, Joyce DiDonato, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (April 10, 2007)

This is a singular recording, of exceptional musicological interest and beautifully sung and played. Curtis draws another fine performance from his instrumental ensemble (this opera's overture is a gem) and plays the harpsichord for the recitatives. His style is more judicious than the flashier Christophe Rousset and not as intellectual as the distant (but glorious) William Christie. (CTD)
[Continue reading the review]

available at Amazon
Erich Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, RSO Berlin, John Mauceri (re-released, April 10, 2007)

Heliane was composed during the first two years of the composer's marriage, to a woman hated by his controlling parents. Korngold's father was a celebrated and ultra-conservative music critic in Vienna, the literal successor of Eduard Hanslick, and he attempted to use his son as a pawn in his critical tirade against atonal modernism. The libretto, Hans Müller's adaptation of a mystery play (Die Heilige) by Hans Kaltneker, could be interpreted as the struggle of Julius Korngold (the Ruler) and Erich Korngold (the Stranger) for the love of Music (Heliane). (CTD)
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Rudi Stephan, Die ersten Menschen, Orchestre National de France, Mikko Franck (May 29, 2007)

The story is a post-Freudian re-imagining of the aftermath of the fall of man, based on the erotic mystery play of Otto Borngräber, a sort of cross-fertilization of Genesis with the Oedipus myth. One of the strangest love duets ever conceived, between mother and son (and you thought Salome's lust was indecent), is interrupted by the arrival of Kajin, accompanied by saxophone solo. It is the envy from this incestuous love triangle that leads to the first murder. (CTD)
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SOLO VOCAL:
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Abendbilder (Schubert Lieder), Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber (March 6, 2007)

This is more than simply good listening; it is a new way to think about the songs of Schubert. The poems return again and again to images of night, the title of the CD, which was taken from the Lied on a poem by Johann Peter Silbert: fragrant breezes, cool groves, moonlit churches. The tolling of the bells calling monks to Vespers is memorably echoed in Huber's piano in the third verse of that poem. Gerhaher's care for the words is precise but in no way pedantic, and Huber's delicate approach to the piano allows a broad space for Gerhaher's supple and subtle voice to spread itself. (CTD)
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Maria, Cecilia Bartoli, Orchestra La Scintilla, Adam Fischer (October 16, 2007)

Bartoli is as effervescent, radiant, and intense in tone in this recording as she ever was. However, those who have not been won over by her voice previously will not likely change their minds after hearing this disc. Her vocal tics still stand out, her sometimes odd vowels in incredibly athletic passage work and swallowed, peculiar trills. That being said, Bartoli is to be congratulated for attempting to reveal early 19th-century opera with some of the varnish removed. (CTD)
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As Steals the Morn (Handel arias), Mark Padmore, English Concert, Andrew Manze (June 12, 2007)

Padmore shines in the calm and placid moments but has convincing strength on the more virile pieces, like the Samson selections. For a luscious example of the former, listen to Waft Her, Angels. This is one of the most drop-dead gorgeous and affecting pieces Handel ever wrote (also the last aria for tenor composed by Handel before his death), sung by the distraught general, Jephtha, as he realizes he must sacrifice his beloved daughter. (CTD)
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INSTRUMENTAL:
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Jean-Philippe Rameau, Overtures, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (remastered, October 9, 2007)

Rousset's crack ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, brings an extraordinary range of color and texture to this survey -- 17 tracks of nothing but overtures! The playing is crisp and the textures clear, without too much of the ultrafast approach sometimes criticized in Rousset's work. These are festive, colorful works, worthy of the same broad appreciation given to the works of Handel, who drew upon many of the same French influences in his overtures. (CTD)
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J. Haydn, Keyboard Sonatas, Fazil Say (March 27, 2007)

His playing reminds a little bit of Mikhail Pletnev’s. Odd accents, changes of meter on a whim, impetuous all the way. No harm done to Haydn (although the best of all Haydn interpreters on disc, Alfred Brendel, does none of this and still makes these works sparkle with wit and life), and the added twinkle had me listen again and again. Sadly, beyond the accents, Mr. Say intrudes upon the listener with his humming. It’s difficult to believe that this is anything other than the conceit of a self-styled Gould-wannabe, an overt rebel who points at himself and proclaims: “There, look, here you have it, I’m completely rebellious!” (Jens F. Laurson)
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Tic toc choc (Couperin), Alexandre Tharaud, piano (May 8, 2007)

The uniformity of the Hewitt recordings, cut from the same sublime cloth, is contrasted by Tharaud's chasse aux couleurs, a greater contrast of sound made possible by a freer use of the sustaining pedal and a willingness to stray from the score. Where Hewitt's reading, the only comparable choice for Couperin on the piano, is gentle, tastefully embellished, and rhythmically propelled, Tharaud is angular, at times frenetic, spirituel, perhaps a little over the edge. (CTD)
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Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concertos 1 & 3, Mikhail Pletnev, Russian National Orchestra, Christian Gansch (March 13, 2007)

The performances appear faster than they already are – impetuous at times. And amid general beauty and excitement, Pletnev does have a few surprises to offer. The stuttering breakdown in the cadenza of the C-major concerto’s third movement is accentuated in such a way that it sounds like a genuinely different piece of music. Yet, these overly vigorous accents, syncopations, and the shifting of balances are supposed to be the soloist’s realm of fancy and they contribute rather than distract... and they make you listen closely to the music… something which isn't always a given in such warhorses. (JFL)
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CONTEMPORARY:
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Magnus Lindberg, Violin Concerto, Lisa Batiashvili, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (October 2, 2007)

Although Batiashvili has said publicly that the New York premiere did not come together optimally, she continued to play the Lindberg concerto, and this recording contains the extraordinary results of another year of living with the score. The piece weaves together a host of sounds and styles, both unswervingly modern and looking backwards to Sibelius. Although restricted to strings and pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns, Lindberg creates an impressive range of textures. (CTD)
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Karlheinz Stockhausen, Stimmung, Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier (September 11, 2007)

The piece involves six unaccompanied, amplified singers, seated in a circle, experimenting with the sonorities of the overtone series (in this case, built over the fundamental note of B-flat), using random syllables, the names of the weekdays, mysterious names of deities, and some English and German text. Is it a coincidence that Sesame Street and the Muppets were pioneered in the same era? With a few subtle changes, portions of Stimmung could easily morph into a Sesame spot ("M-, Mi-, Mitt ... W-, Wo-, Woch ... Mittwoch!"). (CTD)
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Stephen Hartke, The Greater Good, Glimmerglass Opera (June 26, 2007)

The literary source of the libretto, first adapted as a play by Philip Littell and then in operatic form by the composer, is a short story by Guy de Maupassant, an author whom more composers should consider for musical setting. Boule de Suif is a biting social commentary about the divide between rich and poor, in the guise of a comic travel story with the clearly etched and economic characterization at which Maupassant excelled. (CTD)
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ELSEWHERE: