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31.1.08

Ionarts at Large: Repin's Beethoven and Bychkov's Shostakovich


When the “Heldenleben-orchestra” stops at the Philharmonic Hall in Munich, home of the Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann – Straussians of the first order – it is only natural to bring repertoire that isn’t also one of the home team’s hallmarks.

Of course Semyon Bychkov and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra Cologne (WDR SO) are capable of much more than just Richard Strauss’ famous tone poem the frequent performance of which has resulted in the above nickname.

On record he has recently displayed his mastery of Mahler, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Strauss operas (Elektra, Daphne) on the Avie and Hänssler Profil labels and some may remember when he was one of Philips’ star-conductors in the early 90’s.


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Violin Cto., Kreutzer Sonata,
V.Repin / R.Muti / WPh
DG

For Avie Bychkov has also recorded five of the big Shostakovich symphonies – Nos. 4, 10, 11, 8, and 7 and it was Shostakovich’s powerful, probably underrated Fourth Symphony that they brought to Munich. It came coupled with the Beethoven Violin Concerto for which they brought along none less a violinist than Vadim Repin. (Somehow, even the arguably greatest active violinist was not draw enough to fill all seats in this Concerto Winderstein organized concert.)

Elegance, feeling, and perfection are a given with Repin’s performances – and his rendition at the Gasteig was no different from that. He plays his Beethoven with brio, confidence, and stateliness. He does not give into the work or surrender to its mysteries, he subdues it with sheer skill and the forcefulness of his musicality. It’s not as infinitely pure as Julia Fischer’s approach, nor with the same stern delicacy, but Repin offers an abundance of moods and hues (if less of the shades than he is capable of). There is little that is hushed, ethereal (Fischer), or – on the other end of the interpretive spectrum – bold, aggressively lean, with premeditated freshness Zehetmair).

Vadim Repin’s is a middle of the road romantic approach – and just about the best in that spectrum. His tone, like a needle through leather – round, strong, steady, reminded more than once of Nathan Milstein, even though Repin professes to “always thinks about Menuhin in terms of this work”. (Apparently Repin had briefly considered the Beethoven/Schneiderhan cadenza from op.61a – the Piano version of the concerto – but opted for the traditional Kreisler-cadenza in performances and recording, after all; a missed opportunity to my ears, but hardly a serious quibble.) The WDR SO matched his excellence step by step with finely honed, well controlled playing.

The clearly delighted audience was then treated to the highly entertaining Paganini Variations for violin and orchestra on the folk ditty "O Mamma, mamma cara" op. 10 - which all Germans are familiar with as the children's song "Mein Hut, der hat Drei Ecken" (My hat, it has three corners). Like relief from the stern Beethoven - and a shot of high octane virtuosity that the concerto doesn't offer, the encore predictably brought the house down.



available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Symphony No.4,
S.Bychkov / WDR SO
Avie


What followed might have, nay: should have been the highlight of the concert – except that an audience largely in attendance to hear Repin and Beethoven did not seem to agree. Instead they left either right after the Beethoven of as soon as the last note had stopped resounding in the Philharmonic. (A hard core of enthusiasts made up for it with extra vigorous, 10-minute applause.)

Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was done a tremendous service by Bychkov and his orchestra. Right off the bat with maximum aggression, high octane and decibel levels, an incredible energy and from 0 to 60 in two bars.

Bychkov did not slowly wake the beast (like Gergiev who needs 20-some minutes to get the momentum going in his Philips recording) nor did he engage in the ghastly and lean dances of a Barshai (Brilliant Classics). He went for maximum contrast and worked his orchestra like he stood at the console of a miraculously wondrous cacophonium. He managed to shock some audience members right with the first chord and continued to do so until the end. The ensemble-work of the strings – the first violins primi inter pares – had reference quality. The four flutes and two piccolos that worked their heart out in the first movement were shrill and lovely in being so. The climax of the first movement turned out a thing of thunderous beauty, demented hordes galloping hellward – without any false sense of sophistication, just raw emotion, coagulated blood, vodka, and gunpowder. The held flute notes after it were all the more unearthly with their high frequency flutters. The ensuing silence around trumpets and timpani more threatening.

Beautiful the tic-tocs into the false calm of the third movement’s opening – only to proceed to delve deeply into this strange, enervating, beautifully bizarre world that makes the Mahler-influenced first movement seem perfectly normal. Bychkov managed to tighten the music’s thumbscrews anew at every new start after an intermittent lull or (faux-) lyrical passage.

If someone ever felt compelled to make a film of Griffins having S&M sex, this would be the soundtrack for it: The shrieks, the brutality, the claws, the exhaustion, the climaxes and the pounding, and the relentlessness are harrowing and were particularly so in this performance. There could not be a more appropriate description of it, even if it risks being clichéd: Bychkov and orchestra were playing the hell out of the finale. But more distressing still, because of all that which preceded it,was the ensuing dreamy delicacy of the ticking-away of the symphony... the final breath and that mourning trumpet that sounded like a death knell ringing over a blood soaked battlefield on a Winter dawn … a comment on a victory everyone knows was a defeat.

No wonder Shostakovich kept the symphony in the drawer until de-Stalinization was under way. It would otherwise not only have been his fourth, but also his last symphony.

Les Journaux

Music and art news from the European press.

Sandrine Piau is singing Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Théâtre royal de la Monnaie in Brussels (sharing the role with Danielle de Niese). René Jacobs conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester. Piau gave an interview to Martine Mergeay (Sandrine Piau, de la harpe au trône, January 18) in La Libre Belgique. Her answers to questions about how she came to specialize in Baroque music are priceless (my translation):

What did you know about the Baroque repertoire?

What all musicians knew about it, namely, precious little. I was coming from much more recent music, tougher, more tortured, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Bartók, and as a harpist I was giving premieres. It was engaging musical work, but obscure. With Christie, I was suddenly thrown into the light about which I knew nothing.

And bel canto?

Bel canto is wonderful, marvelous, and I have the greatest respect for those who sing it -- I am thinking of Natalie Dessay -- but bel canto does nothing for me, it does not interest me. I prefer the voice to rise up out of the text, out of the story.
If you have heard of the French town of Cateau-Cambrésis at all, it is because you read at some point that Matisse was born there. As related in an article by Françoise Dargent (Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti sous le soleil du Nord, January 29) for Le Figaro, the late Alice Tériade, the wife of Efstrathios Elefheriades (dit Tériade), the art editor and founder of Minotaure and Verve, has just donated a staggering collection of modern art to the Musée Matisse there, being described as one of the largest donations given to a French museum in 20 years.

Incredibly, it includes the entire dining room from the Tériade villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, completely decorated by Matisse, Giacometti, and Henri Laurens. The other thirty-some paintings and sculptures are all being described as major works, too. If you think you knew the work of Matisse but had never heard of the Tériade dining room, join the club. The Tériades only let a few close friends and artists see it, and few people had even heard about it. Mme Tériade promised her late husband that she would not allow the collection to be sold off piece by piece, and she had fond memories of the Cateau-Cambrésis museum since a 1986 exhibit about Matisse and her husband. We all have a new cultural destination to visit in northern France.

30.1.08

Dip Your Ears, No. 89

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, String Quartets 2 & 4 (arr.String Orchestra), Amsterdam Sinfonietta
The last recording of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, issued by Channel Classics in 2006, contained Walton’s Sonata for Strings and the souped-up Beethoven String Quartet op.135. An odd mix perhaps, and the Beethoven of questionable (though not without) musical merit. But the disc impressed all ears that heard it – and the reference quality surround sound on the hybrid SACD had much to do with it.

It’s not surprising that the Amsterdam Sinfonietta (AS) is the only professional string orchestra in the Netherlands (as the liner notes helpfully point out), because there is apparently so little repertoire to play that the 22-head strong group has to scavenge Shostakovich string quartets for their latest recording project. Whether they qualify as “highly neglected” or “rediscovered works” (that’s the repertoire the AS aims at presenting), I don’t know.

Having already recorded the 8th Quartet (in the famous Barshai orchestration) and the 10th, they turn their eye to the Second and Fourth Quartets which might well be two more of the ‘least untranscribable’ DSCH-quartets. (The liner notes admit readily that not all his quartets are equally well suited to be played by a string orchestra – a statement as refreshingly candid as it is true.)

The transmogrification in the present case consists of little more than having the quartet parts taken by more players (6 – 6 – 3 – 4) and adding a bass part which AS bassist Marijn van Prooij achieved to do in a very unintrusive manner.

The breadth and the slow sweeping element that the 19 players achieve expectedly resonates more with the slow(er) movements of the quartets, the Allegretto and the Andantino of Quartet No.4 in D, op.83 and the ‘Recitative & Romance’ of No.2, op.68. Sonorous humming lulls the ears into audial complacency, more effectively than four players ever could – in those moments where lull is actually desired. In the Romance the quality is almost that of a contemplative violin concerto. Beautiful!

The only problem after all that pliable playing: The ‘big band’ can’t quite jolt you back out of it, when necessary, either. That’s to the detriment especially of the Second Quartet – where the waltz loses all of its demonically dancing quality. The lean string quartet sound has a way of being acerbic and biting that a superbly drilled string orchestra just doesn’t.

For Shostakovich fans with SACD-players and surround sound set-up, this is going to be a very attractive release… for all others it won’t likely be a very urgent acquisition.


Channel Classics Hybrid SACD CCS SA 26007

What Next for Elliott Carter?

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Elliott Carter and Paul Griffiths, What Next? / Asko Concerto, Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, Peter Eötvös
(2003)
ECM New Series 1817
As noted here earlier this month, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter were both born 100 years ago this year, on December 10 and 11, respectively. The latter happens to be still alive to celebrate his centenary, and we will be featuring their music as much as possible all year long. (Also note Alex Ross's mini-capsule on the two composers for the February 4 issue of The New Yorker.) Although my tastes are skewed much more toward Messiaen than Carter, the American occasionally pens something that my ears actually want to hear again. At the top of the Elliott Carter essential (the wags will surely add "mercifully short") listening list is the composer's only opera, an existentialistic black comedy of a chamber opera called What Next?.

Set to a libretto by the music critic Paul Griffiths, its six characters have just emerged from a car crash (depicted in a clatter of percussion in the opening measures), an idea that Carter said was inspired by Jacques Tati's movie Trafic. The injuries are serious enough to have left them a little hazy on how they all ended up in this situation. For whatever reason, they all speak as if they are characters in a Gertrude Stein novel ("The spider in the lane is a spider in the lane"). Judging by the music they are hearing in their heads, Dr. Oliver Sacks will soon be compiling their case histories for a future book on head trauma and madness among opera characters. After the opera's 1999 premiere under Daniel Barenboim and this 2003 CD release, the work has seen a flurry of performances, at Tanglewood in 2006 (reviewed by Richard Dyer for the Boston Globe) and just last month at Columbia (reviewed by Martin Bernheimer for the Financial Times).

Elliott Carter, composer, photo from William Gedney Collection, Duke University LibraryOn one level, the work is about performance, a facet especially contained in the character of Rose (Valdine Anderson), a soprano eternally in search of listeners ("Why did they go? / There has to be an audience"). One can hear Carter entertaining himself with the traditional tools of operatic writing, in the coloratura exercise for Rose in the introduction to Other Worlds (no. 23) and her extended virtuosic aria -- there is no other word for it -- The Story Continues ("she begins to make sounds, to make sounds, once again her voice has escaped / It goes on out in front of her / You rush to catch up"). This is odd since Carter's outlook seems mostly removed from opera and even from the voice altogether.

Buried among Paul Griffiths' journal entries relating to the genesis of What Next?, reprinted in the liner notes, is the following gem: "I put forward the idea that we need an ending which is a real ending within the story, but also open, like the ending of Così. Elliott asks me to remind him how that opera ends." (Jens will be happy to know that Carter did not even hear Puccini's La Bohème until he was almost 70 -- and disliked it.) Among the same notes are Carter's thoughts on the role of Rose: "Rose will sing throughout, in her role as performer; the whole thing will be, for her, a performance in which she tries out various parts. 'And of course the meaning of this', Elliott says, 'is that it's like music: nobody knows what it means, but it goes on and on without stopping'." One of the hallmarks of Carter's mature style is concision, and the storyline and texts, no matter how nonsensical, help the mind to unpack the music in a way that his more abstract works do not always allow. That difference is immediately made clear by comparison of this 40-minute opera with a 12-minute concerto composed for the ASKO Ensemble around the time of this live recording (Amsterdam, 2000).

Classical Month in Washington (April)

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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!

April 1, 2008 (Tue)
12 noon
Noontime Cantata: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) [FREE]
With organist Todd Fickley (Prelude, Largo and Fugue in C Major, BWV 545)
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

April 1, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 1, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Beaux Arts Trio [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 1, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Music Center at Strathmore

April 2, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Baltimore Opera

April 2, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Wagner, The Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 2, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Composers in Conversation: James MacMillan
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 3, 2008 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Mahler, 2nd Symphony (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 3, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 3, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Lynn Harrell, cello [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 3, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With James MacMillan, guest conductor
Music Center at Strathmore

April 4, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Ilya Petrov, piano
Embassy Series
Embassy of the Russian Federation (2650 Wisconsin Avenue NW)

April 4, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With James MacMillan, guest conductor
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 4, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Mahler, 2nd Symphony (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 4, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
30th Anniversary: My Spirit Sang All Day
Chanticleer
George Mason University Center for the Arts

April 4, 2008 (Fri)
8:15 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Baltimore Opera

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
7 pm
Wagner, The Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Pacifica Quartet (includes Carter, Quartet No. 5)
Candlelight Concert Society
Wilde Lake Interfaith Center (Columbia, Md.)

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Vogler String Quartet with Daniel Mueller-Schott (cello)
Dumbarton Concerts

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With James MacMillan, guest conductor
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
Mahler, 2nd Symphony (Iván Fischer, conductor)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
With cellist Carter Brey
Music Center at Strathmore

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
With Lynn Harrell, cello
Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall

April 5, 2008 (Sat)
8:30 pm
JCCGW Symphony Orchestra
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Post-Classical Ensemble: Artists in Exile
With Left Bank String Quartet
Clarice Smith Center

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Gounod, Roméo et Juliette
Baltimore Opera

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With James MacMillan, guest conductor
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra
With Lynn Harrell, cello
Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Brooke Evers (soprano) and Michael Gallant (tenor) [FREE]
Art Song Discovery Series
Vocal Arts Society
Temple Tikvat Israel (Rockville, Md.)

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Tomkins Zivian Duo (cello and piano) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
5 pm
Dame Gillian Weir, organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
6 pm
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) and Russel Ryan (piano)
FAES
Congregation Beth-El (Bethesda, Md.)

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Chatham Baroque and Rosa Lamoreaux (soprano) [FREE]
La cetra amorosa: songs and sonatas of Baroque Italy
National Gallery of Art

April 6, 2008 (Sun)
7 pm
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 7, 2008 (Mon)
7 pm
Wagner, The Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 8, 2008 (Tue)
6 pm
Brooke Evers (soprano) and Michael Gallant (tenor) [FREE]
Art Song Discovery Series
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

April 8, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Benjamin Moser, piano
Young Concert Artists
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 8, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 9, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 9, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Rita Dokshitsky, piano [FREE]
National Museum of Women in the Arts

April 10, 2008 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) and Julian Rachlin (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 10, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Pro Musica Hebraica
Juilliard Players (Itzhak Perlman, violin)
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 10, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Wagner, The Flying Dutchman
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 11, 2008 (Fri)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) and Julian Rachlin (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 11, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mendelssohn Piano Trio
Embassy Series
Embassy of Hungary (2950 Spring of Freedom NW)

April 11, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Benno Schollum (baritone) and Russell Ryan (piano) [FREE]
Austrian Cultural Forum
Embassy of Austria

April 11, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Škampa Quartet with Iva Bittová (vocals/violin) [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 11, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Calder Quartet
The Barns at Wolf Trap

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
11 am
Cinderella
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Bob Brown Puppets
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
1 pm
Master Class with Pacifica Quartet [FREE]
Kreeger Museum

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
2 pm
Sergio Tiempo, piano
WPAS
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
7 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) and Julian Rachlin (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Pacifica Quartet (Carter, fifth quartet)
Kreeger Museum

April 12, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Sublime and Ridiculous Songs
Great Noise Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Verdi, Rigoletto
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Irish Chamber Orchestra
Clarice Smith Center

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Russian Chamber Orchestra
Mousetrap Concert Series (Washington Grove, Md.)

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Brooke Evers (soprano) and Michael Gallant (tenor) [FREE]
Art Song Discovery Series
Vocal Arts Society
St. Patrick's Episcopal Church (Falls Church, Va.)

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Eric Himy, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
5 pm
Inscape Chamber Music Project
Stravinsky, Histoire du Soldat; new work by Hallman
Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (Bethesda, Md.)

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
6 pm
Rossini, Bianca e Falliero
With Vivica Genaux, Anna Christy, Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Kate Hearden (soprano) and Marcio Botelho (cello) [FREE]
Music by Chausson, Debussy, Franck, and Massenet
National Gallery of Art

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
7 pm
Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel
Austria and Hungary – Captivating Continentals
George Mason University Center for the Arts

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Efe Baltacigil, cello
Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (Rockville, Md.)

April 13, 2008 (Sun)
8 pm
Altenberg Trio
Friends of Music Series
Dumbarton Oaks

April 14, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Altenberg Trio
Friends of Music Series
Dumbarton Oaks

April 16, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Composers in Conversation: John Corigliano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 16, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Musicians from Marlboro III [FREE]
Freer Gallery of Art

April 16, 2008 (Wed)
8 pm
Europa Galante with Fabio Biondi [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 16, 2008 (Wed)
8 pm
Emerson Quartet and Wu Han, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

April 17, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
John Holloway (violin), Jaap ter Linden (cello), Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord) [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 17, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Corigliano and Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 17, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610
City Choir of Washington
Music Center at Strathmore

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Pavel Haas Quartet [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Folger Consort: Highland Ayres
Folger Shakespeare Library

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Guarneri String Quartet (postponed from February 29)
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor
Virginia Opera
George Mason University Center for the Arts

April 18, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Music by Corigliano and Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 19, 2008 (Sat)
5 and 8 pm
Folger Consort: Highland Ayres
Folger Shakespeare Library

April 19, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Casual Concert)
Music by Corigliano and Beethoven
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 19, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Music of Philippe de Monte
Chantry
St. Paul's K Street

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Folger Consort: Highland Ayres
Folger Shakespeare Library

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor
Virginia Opera
George Mason University Center for the Arts

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Let My People Go! - A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad
Master Chorale of Washington
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
MarcOlivia with Gregory Sioles (violin, viola, piano) [FREE]
Phillips Collection

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
5 pm
David Hurd, organ [FREE]
Washington National Cathedral

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
6 pm
Music of Philippe de Monte
Chantry
St. Bernadette (Silver Spring, Md.)

April 20, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Davidson Fine Arts Chorale [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

April 21, 2008 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Ariel String Quartet
Haydn, Beethoven, and Kurtág (Six Moments Musicaux Dédies à Mon Fils)
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 22, 2008 (Tue)
7:30 pm
New York Festival of Song (with Steven Blier)
Vocal Arts Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 22, 2008 (Tue)
8 pm
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

April 23, 2008 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 24, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Camerata Pacifica [FREE]
Library of Congress

April 24, 2008 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Shanghai Quartet [FREE]
Freer Gallery of Art

April 24, 2008 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor) and Yuja Wang (piano)
Music by Prokofiev, Berlioz, Yardumian
Music Center at Strathmore

April 25, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 25, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Ensemble Aleph
Music by Crumb, Antheil, others
La Maison Française

April 25, 2008 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Countertop Quartet
Grace and Saint Peter’s Parish (Baltimore, Md.)

April 25, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor) and Yuja Wang (piano)
Music by Prokofiev, Berlioz, Yardumian
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 25, 2008 (Fri)
8 pm
David Finckel (cello) and Wu Han (piano)
The Barns at Wolf Trap

April 26, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 26, 2008 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Pavel Haas Quartet (all-Czech program)
Candlelight Concert Society
Wilde Lake Interfaith Center (Columbia, Md.)

April 26, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
George Mason University Center for the Arts

April 26, 2008 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor) and Yuja Wang (piano)
Music by Prokofiev, Berlioz, Yardumian
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
2 pm
Women in Opera: Strauss' Elektra
Washington National Opera
National Museum of Women in the Arts

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor) and Yuja Wang (piano)
Music by Prokofiev, Berlioz, Yardumian
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
3 pm
Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Michael Mizrahi, piano [FREE]
Phillips Collection

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
4 pm
Amadeus Orchestra: La Belle France
St. Luke Catholic Church (McLean, Va.)

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
4:30 pm
Contemporary Music Forum
Corcoran Gallery of Art

April 27, 2008 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Zuill Bailey (cello) and Simone Dinnerstein (piano) [FREE]
All-Beethoven program
National Gallery of Art

April 28, 2008 (Mon)
8 pm
Orchestre National de France
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

April 30, 2008 (Wed)
5 pm
Guarneri Quartet: Open Rehearsal
Clarice Smith Center

29.1.08

Ensō Quartet @ NAS

Ensō String Quartet -- Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello -- photo by David Mehr
Ensō String Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello), photo by David Mehr
Are the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Library of Congress enough for one city? No, when it comes to free concerts, there can never be too many, and so the National Academy of Sciences also presents a half-dozen free concerts each season. On Sunday afternoon, a large audience gathered in the geodesic dome-like auditorium at NAS to hear the triumphant return of the the Ensō Quartet to Washington. Longtime readers will surely recall their last appearance in the area, at the Library of Congress in December 2006, for the Stradivari anniversary concert. After the young quartet gave a memorable performance of a work commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Alberto Ginastera's second string quartet, I advised in print that "they should make a recording of all three of them." Not that it has anything to do with my hopes, but the group has done just that, in a forthcoming disc for Naxos, to follow their Pleyel set.

Ensō Quartet:
available at Amazon
Pleyel Quartets 1


available at Amazon
Pleyel Quartets 2
When the Ensō Quartet took second prize (after the extraordinary Jupiter Quartet) at the 2004 Banff Competition (but with two different members from present personnel, still listed in their Naxos biography), they received a special prize recognizing their performance of a modern work. True to form, another Ginastera quartet, no. 3, was also the high point of this program. The composer grouped it with his string quartets, but it is a sort of song cycle, featuring a soprano voice in four of its five movements. The texts, by prominent Spanish poets, are concentrated on the theme of music and sound, beginning with Juan Ramon Jimenez's La Música. Out of the opening unison that blossoms into clusters and then is vaporized into stratospheric harmonics, the soprano voice of music sometimes speaks and at other times sings only parts of each line, as if she were partially submerged.

One could hardly ask for a more committed performer to partner with the Ensō Quartet than Washington soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. She met the harrowing demands of the score with courageous tonal beauty, fragmenting only occasionally on long high notes. The quartet played with impressive unity, obliterating Lamoreaux's voice with destructive shrieks and clusters, insect noises, and crazy contrapuntal barking (at the end of the fourth movement). The work comes full circle, returning to the opening motif at the start of the fifth movement, and this rendition left an impression similar to how the musicians described the work, all jagged edges and clashing colors of an expressionistic painting.


Ensō Quartet recording Ginastera, String Quartet No. 3,
with soprano Lucy Shelton

It was Mozart that impressed least in the Ensō Quartet's last concert, and here it was Haydn's op. 20, no. 1, that had a rocky start, with the first violin sound on the shallow side. The sense of the quartet rushing through the work prevailed, with the short and sweet Menuet just a little too sprightly and an appropriately fast and short final movement. The high point of the Haydn was the homophonic slow movement (Affettuoso e sostenuto), set at the perfect calm tempo, with each harmony beautifully tuned and with a near total absence of vibrato.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Enso String Quartet (Washington Post, January 29)
Surprisingly, the quartet reprised the same Dvořák E-flat major quartet, op. 51, that concluded their Library of Congress appearance. Once again, it was a fine performance, with an earnest and poignant first movement and a Dumka infused with folksy rubato. Again, it was the slow movement that pleased most, a tense and somber Romanze. Happily, the Ensō Quartet returned to contemporary music for its substantial encore, the third movement ("North Is a Notion") of Pierre Jalbert's Icefield Sonnets. Opening with dissonant chords and dominated by crescendo growls from the viola and cello, this movement climaxed with fast tremolos and a thrilling ultra-rhythmic conclusion. Now we can hope for a Jalbert recording by the Ensō Quartet from Naxos.

The next concert at the National Academy of Sciences features violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, harpist Anna Reinersman, and pianist Craig Ketter (February 10, 3 pm). It is free, and no reservation is required.

Related: The Ensō Quartet played all of Icefield Sonnets and one of the Pleyel quartets on the January 26 program I am very sorry to have (unavoidably) missed, on the Candlelight Concert Society series in Columbia, Md.

A Moroccan Adventure

This past week I've been transported back in time to a very mysterious and magical place of complete and wonderful sensory overload; it's called Morocco. I've attempted to post something about my trip since I first arrived in the bustling westernized city of Casablanca, but I couldn't get a handle on it. What is the real Morocco? In essence it's an African country with a European influence. The larger cities Casablanca and the capital, Rabat, are more cosmopolitan, while the majority of the country tends to be conservative, with five calls to prayer wafting from the mosque beginning at sunrise every morning; it's a beautiful feeling.

I am told that, due to the influence of its new king, Mohammed VI, and a supportive coalition government, it's a modern rapidly changing place with many highly educated, sophisticated citizens. It's also a country of mosaics, lush fertile agricultural lands, arid deserts, and the centuries-old lifestyle of the walled medinas, filled with characters and personalities that would influence many artists and writers, the Indiana Jones movie series, and most definitely the cast of Star Wars.

My cynical voice tells me that this is a charade for the tourists, that no one actually lives this way. Well, through my brief experience I found it's a little of both, and as you travel about the country it becomes clearer: what is authentic (Fez) and what is more a Disney-esque production (Marrakesh), complete with Moroccan handicrafts made in China. Because of its rich history of conquests, trade routes, and pirates, this country cultivates a little wariness in any traveler.


Most Moroccans are warm and very friendly people eager to assist in any way, especially on long inter-city train trips; we made many friends. Besides being constantly dazzled by the amazing tile work, fabrics, crafts, and architecture, I am going to miss my morning coffee, fresh juice, and great breads, not to forget the incredible dinners you can cook in a tangine! I'm hungry for more.

Pictures tell the story so well. I have loaded many from my trip, with details on my Flickr site and will continue to load more as my internet connection allows.

Mark Barry (www.markbarryportfolio.com) is an artist who usually lives and works in Baltimore.

28.1.08

Yuja Wang @ Terrace Theater

Yuja Wang, pianist, photo by Christian SteinerOn Saturday, 20-year-old pianist Yuja Wang surpassed the buzz preceding her Washington Performing Arts Society performance at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. In a concert sold out since last spring, the Chinese-born American-trained pianist played works by Hungarian composers Ligeti, Liszt, and Bartók, balanced by the unique colors of Scriabin and Ravel. Intermission chit-chat following Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B Minor revealed that Wang has already been labeled as “the next Argerich.” Further conversation the following day indicated that perhaps she already is. Why this young pianist over others?

Wang impresses by her natural intellectual capacity to express musical structure in combination with powerful technique. While marveling at the immediate demands of the Liszt sonata, the audience could also experience Wang’s care in shaping short phrases, sections, and the proportional arch of the entire work, climaxing at the gigantic modulation before the fugue. Most players, especially in a work like the Liszt Sonata, are more or less consumed by the immediate technical demands, which directs the audience toward musical immediacy rather than the musical whole. The short, opening B's had a forbidding edge, while one heard harmonic motion painted in the barrages of octaves. Wang’s sparse pedaling forced her to reach goals of clarity through exploitation of resonance within the instrument and acoustic of the room. Furthermore, Wang’s keen sense of forward motion pulled the audience onward, neither upsetting relationships of tempo nor giving the sense of speeding -- though the fugue was brisk -- since modifications were interwoven so subtly over large phrase structures.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Wang, Putting Herself On the A-Liszt (Washington Post, January 28)

One Hundred Pages of Music, No Problem (Washington Post, January 8)
Besides marveling at Wang’s gifts (full disclosure -- we were in school together during her first year at the Curtis Institute four years ago), I gained a notion of her intellectual brilliance one day when running into her at the library after she had watched countless hours of DVDs of Wagner’s Ring cycle. After taking all of that in, Wang, then aged fifteen or sixteen, made some glib comment about the Liszt sonata being a miniscule work. How about that for a musical perspective!

Rarely leaving space between individual movements or works, Wang relished the persistent rhythms and folk motifs found in Bartók’s Sonata for Piano. Her rendition of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G# Minor (“Sonata-Fantasy”) conveyed an extemporaneous gentleness, always contained and beautiful. This contrasted well to the motoric ground patterns of Ligeti’s Etude for Piano No. 4 which opened the program. The Etude No. 10: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice featured a texture of fluttering repeated notes from which long notes eventually – and magically – emerged. Wang brilliantly kept the violent undercurrent of Ravel's La Valse behind an idealistic facade of light waltzing – most performers approach this work as a toccata.


Mozart-Volodos, Rondo alla Turca, played by Yuja Wang

Wang’s first encore, Gluck’s Melodie, was rather soupy, though her second and third encores were delightfully trashy enough to make Earl Wilde proud. Volodos’s version of Rondo alla Turca opens with a few bars of basic Mozart before launching into an incredible Rachmaninoff-esque charade. Equally fun, Cziffra’s double-octave arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee reportedly led Wang to mention in the Q&A that it was "one big-ass bumblebee."

The next concert sponsored by WPAS is not to be missed, the visit of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (February 3, 3 pm). Also, Yuja Wang will play Prokofiev's first piano concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in late April (April 24, Strathmore; April 25 to 27, Meyerhoff).

Gustav Mahler in Washington

Mahler is not an easy composer to love, much less understand. Few neophyte listeners immediately take to Mahler’s sound-world – somewhere between the anxiety-driven and the sheer gargantuan, un-deliberately meandering – and a good number never warm up to his music entirely. But those who get bitten by the Mahler bug fall hard for the Austrian’s symphonies and orchestral songs. And since Mahler is no longer anathema to the serious classical music lover as he was until roughly the early 60’s (and until later, still, in places like Vienna), more and more people fall victim to “Mahleria” (Prokofiev). Mahler, like very few other composers, has a tendency to create obsession among his ‘followers’. That obsession has rarely been served better than in the first decade of the 21st century. Mahler performances become more and more common even outside the traditional Mahler-centers New York and Amsterdam.

The Washington Mahlerians are well served again this month. From January 31st until Februay 2nd, the National Symphony Orchestra will present one of its most promising and most ambitious programs with Mahler's imposing Sixth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder with none less than the great Mahler interpreter Thomas Hampson. It's a must-hear event - followed by another must-hear event, presented by WPAS the following day, February 3rd. That's when Mariss Jansons, by any account one of the very finest conductors of our day, presents one of his two top orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. There is no orchestra more steeped in the Mahler tradition than the Concertgebouw, who have played Mahler symphonies well over eleven-hundred times (!) in the last century. You were lucky if you caught their concert in DC two years ago, and you'll likely be lucky to hear them perform Mahler's Fifth Symphony coming Sunday at 3PM. For good measure they will also throw in a little Richard Strauss.

The Fifth Symphony is popular enough because of the "Death in Venice" and Bobby Kennedy-Funeral playtime. Only Symphonies Four and One are played more regularly. It seems to need little introduction or 'help' to appreciate. The Sixth has a tougher time - and is, together with the rather strange Seventh and the logistics-challenged Eight, the least played of Mahler's symphonies. It is dark, brooding, unrelenting, and ends on a note of despair. Cheerful it is not - but it is one of the most impressive symphonies composed and potentially one of the most impressive experiences in the concert hall.

The Sixth Symphony is often mentioned to be Mahler’s most classical, invariably followed by the qualification: “If only in structure”. It’s an important qualification, because although in the sonata-form of the classical symphony (replete with repeats, Allegro first movement, inner slow and Scherzo- movement and an Allegro moderato – Allegro energico Finale), the symphony has nothing else in common with the classical predecessors. For one, its individual movements are as long or longer than any one of Haydn’s complete symphonies. The musical language is Mahler at his most romantic, too. His symphonies are generally not of the happy, cheery kind – but at least they occasionally end on a note (or the hope) of optimism. Not so the Sixth. It’s brutal and remorseless – and while it can be tamed and sound beautiful, I find the most appropriate way to perform this symphony is by riding the beast as hard as possible; foam at the mouth, wide-eyed, driven to the brink of the abyss.

There are two choices to be made in the performance of this work and they are, among Mahler-geeks, perennially controversial: Is the Scherzo to be taken before the Andante (the order it was composed in) or the Andante before the Scherzo (as Mahler always had it performed; presumably because the criticism that the Scherzo and the first movement were too similar, struck a chord with him)? And are all three hammer-blows that Mahler originally composed to be included, or is the symphony to be played in the version where Mahler - possibly out of superstition - removed the last one? (The "Hammer-blows" are three particularly crushing thumps in the last movement for which Mahler envisioned a specifically constructed instrument; conductors variously use large timpani, wooden crates, or specially constructed mallets for this.)

It’s a tedious argument, usually, and suffice it to say that every outstanding performance allows you to neglect the matter, even if you do have set preferences. Mine, incidentally, favor Scherzo-first and three hammer-blows. I am inclined to separate between Mahler “the composer” and Mahler “the conductor” who was willing to engage in any compromise to get his works performed, including moving the Scherzo behind the Andante, even though the harmonic progression could be argued to suggest the order of Scherzo-Andante. The latest decision of the International Mahler Society reverses its course and now places the slow movement before the Scherzo with an air of unassailable certainty.

All that need not be on your mind when you listen to the NSO's performance - or, if you can't attend, a good recording of it. The point is rather to experience the hair-raising brutality and dystopia and the flurry of musical ideas and brilliance. Next week I will see to write about some of particularly outstanding recordings of the Fifth and especially Sixth Symphony to aid (or perhaps make more difficult) the decision which of the many recordings to own.

Les Journaux

Music and art news from the European press.

Hanover State Opera has mounted a rare production of Hartmann's Simplicius Simplicissimus, reviewed by Shirley Apthorp (Financial Times, January 23): "Director Frank Hilbrich reads the developing depredations literally and lets us see their effects on the traumatised Simplicius. The boy is clad in a knitted baby suit, like an undressed doll, neutered and removed from the modern-dress world of scruffy and depraved adults. Yet Hilbrich lets this Pinocchio suffer emotions at all that he sees, turning his distanced pronouncements into personal utterances of pain."

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Angela Hewitt, piano
(re-released September 11, 2007)
Angela Hewitt has re-released her complete recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier, accompanied by a series of concerts playing the work. Hewitt published some thoughts about her world tour in The Guardian ('The slightest cough can derail you', January 11): "I am often asked what I think about while performing. That question is, in part, unanswerable. [...] With Bach, the concentration has to be unfailing. That is a feat in itself, as it is impossible not to have extraneous thoughts assault your brain (during a concert in Brescia, the strap on my high-heeled shoe broke during the third prelude-and-fugue set, and I had the next hour before intermission to wonder what I would do when I got up from the piano). The slightest cough from the audience at the wrong moment is enough to derail you." So, people, please unwrap those cough drops (before the concert) and use them. Related: Objections (well considered) from On an Overgrown Path.

Young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin will have a guest appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra this spring (April 10 to 12). Rian Evans assesses a recent appearance with the Birmingham Symphony (The Guardian, January 21): "It implied a struggle if not of faith then of conscience, and, while the adagio is usually seen as the composer's farewell to life, the effect was to challenge any overly simplistic perception of Bruckner's spiritual certainty. Nézet-Séguin's ability to inspire his players was evident enough - conducting without a score ensured unbroken eye-contact - and he rightly acknowledged the contribution of the CBSO's blazing brass section." Which young conductor will the National Symphony hire?

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Detail of Andrea da Firenze's Triumph of Thomas Aquinas over Heresy, c. 1365, fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Today is the feast day of the Angelic Doctor, the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274). The son of a noble family, Thomas began his monastic career as a Benedictine, left by his parents as a child to be raised and educated by the monks at Monte Cassino. Impressed by the zeal of the new mendicant orders, Thomas professed as a Dominican, over his parents' objections. As a theological hero of Dante, Aquinas makes an important appearance, speaking in the Sphere of the Sun section of Paradiso:
"And let this always be as lead upon your feet
to make you slow, just like a weary man, in moving,
whether to yes or no, unless you see both clearly.

"For he ranks low among the fools
who, without making clear distinctions,
affirms or denies in one case or another,

"since it often happens that a hasty opinion
inclines one to the erring side, and then
fondness for it fetters the working of the mind.

"He who casts off from shore to fish for truth
without the necessary skill does not return the same
as he sets out, but worse, and all in vain.

"Clear proof of this was given to the world
by Parmenides, Melissus, Bryson, and others,
who went to sea without a port in mind.

"Such were Sabellius and Arius and the fools
who misread Scripture as a sword reflecting
the distorted image of a face upon its blade.

"Let the people, then, not be too certain
in their judgments, like those that harvest in their minds
corn still in the field before it ripens."

-- Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto 13: 112-132,
translated by Robert Hollander (with thanks to Princeton Dante Project)
In the fresco by Andrea da Firenze shown above, Thomas is seated with a book, and the heretics Sabellius, Averroes, and Arius lie prone at his feet. The concern expressed by Dante's Aquinas, that one must understand all of the arguments both for and against a hypothesis, pervades Aquinas's most famous work, Summa Theologica, in which all possible objections to each point are raised, defended, and ultimately undone. It is a breathtaking tour de force of scholastic argument.

Image: Detail of Andrea da Firenze's Triumph of Thomas Aquinas over Heresy, c. 1365, fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Related: The Cranky Professor venerated the armbone of Thomas Aquinas today, in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. He did not mention Filippino Lippi's fresco cycle on the life of Aquinas in the Carafa Chapel there, but it was a close second choice for the image to accompany this post.

27.1.08

In Brief

Ionarts: The Nation's Premier Classical Music Blog, image produced at churchsigngenerator.comHere is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond. (Illustration via Monotonous Forest -- the joke's prerequisite is that you have read this post earlier this week)

  • Via Maud Newton, what documents of extensive secret police surveillance tell us about the life of Alexander Pushkin in "the nation that reads the most books." [Moscow Times]

  • The Church Sign Generator used to make the image seen here is only one of several fun design-your-own image sites run by the same group -- check out the Concert Ticket Generator, the Cassette Tape Generator, and the Vinyl Record Generator. Hours of fun for the whole family! [Says-It.com]

  • Information yearns to be free-range! Via Boing Boing, another great purveyor of published goodness has set its archive free on the Internet, joining the New York Times. When will you come to your senses, Wall Street Journal? [The Atlantic Monthly]

  • Phil Ford has a great quote from Elgar, wistfully recalling the joy of first discovering music as a boy. In my own life, I remember my undergraduate piano teacher discovering that I had never heard the first Brahms piano concerto. She looked at me with what I can describe only as incredulous envy. "You are so lucky to be able to hear that piece for the first time," she said and sent me to the library to find a recording immediately. [Dial "M" for Musicology]

  • Anne-Carolyn Bird is on her way to sing Susanna, in my home state, the Great State of Michigan. Get that woman a Petoskey stone! Also, I hope she has a good, warm hat. [The Concert]

  • Speaking of the Great Lake State, can this be true? A real contemporary art museum in East Lansing, designed by Zaha Hadid? Eli Broad went to Michigan State, too? The museum will be "at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Farm Lane at the Collingwood Campus entrance." The pictures of the design look pretty cool. [International Herald Tribune]

26.1.08

NSO Plays Rouse, Loudly

Christopher Rouse, composerLeonard Slatkin has done well this week in programming Christopher Rouse's second symphony. Premiered in Houston in 1995, it was the most successful work on the National Symphony Orchestra's Friday concert, garnering a warm ovation for the Baltimore composer. This comes two years after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's most recent performance of Rouse's first symphony, under Marin Alsop. (Rouse will be featured later this winter in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Composers in Conversation series -- March 5, 7:30 pm -- the week that Marin Alsop will conduct his flute concerto -- March 6 to 9.) Slatkin's brief introduction, in a cold-deepened voice assisted by a microphone, attempted to explain the element of color in Rouse's thick, sometimes dissonant, sometimes neo-Romantic style. Whatever you might think, this music "will provoke a response," Slatkin promised, provoking the sniggering of the reactionary and dubious.

It was the NSO, however, that really made a case for Rouse's second symphony, playing with commitment and weighty bombast in this dramatic and appealing work. The outer movements are metrically complicated, with shifting downbeats underpinning the bubbling of mechanistic motifs, with the bass instruments often repeating a driving Stravinskyesque pattern. The percussion play a crucial role, often announcing the transition between sections and at times crashing into the texture with machine-gun or jackhammer pounding. The slow movement, dedicated to the memory of composer Stephen Albert, opens with lush string sound. Poignant oboe and horn moments and a melancholy bass clarinet solo were all played beautifully, as was the forlorn duet of bassoon and violas. All in all, it was an athletic workout for the NSO, not all grace and virtuosity, but well worth the extended applause.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Rouse, Sy. 2, Houston SO


available at Amazon
Liszt, Piano Concerti, Thibaudet, Montréal SO
One of the points in Tim Page's assessment of Slatkin's tenure in the Post concerned unadventurous programming ("we've heard two renditions of Franz Liszt's meretricious Piano Concerto No. 1 only a few months apart"). Actually, the first Liszt piano concerto is alright by me, maybe not that many times in a year, but the second one seems even less worth my time. Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave a stylish and more than solid performance of the alternately booming and rhapsodic solo part, and the NSO played competently if somewhat unimaginatively. The players can be excused for being uninspired: the work is hardly one for the ages (especially since it was Thibaudet who played it with the NSO the last time, in 2003). A quick glance over Thibaudet's concerto discography indicates several other options, although no more Ravel, Grieg, or Saint-Saëns, please. While one of the Mendelssohn concerti would have been welcome but probably too long for the Thibaudet slot, Richard Strauss's seldom heard Burleske would have filled the time quite pleasantly, thank you.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, For the NSO, Newer Is Improved (Washington Post, January 25)
The concert closed with another crowd-pleaser, Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Although the NSO performed it as recently as last February, this was the group's premiere of Slatkin's adaptation of Ravel's orchestration, premiered this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Slatkin pushed many of the tempos forward, occasionally leading to a sense of harried misalignment among the players (as in the Bydlo movement, with its fast-moving oxcart, and Limoges). The saxophone solo in the Vecchio Castello movement was suave and mysterious, earning the player a bow, and the winds bickered quite effectively in the Tuileries movement. The best ensemble playing came at the end of the piece, with an ominous Catacombs, a breath-taking tour of orchestral color in Baba Yaga, and a clanging, sonorous Gate of Kiev. The only change apparent in the Slatkin adaptation is the restoration of the the Promenade movement left out by Ravel (between the Samuel and Limoges movements). The ingenuity of the promenade sections is that they take on the character of the paintings around them. Slatkin adapted his arrangement from the opening Promenade, which created an association with the work's opening, somewhat destroying Mussorgsky's intention.

This concert will be repeated this evening (January 26, 8 pm). Next week's all-Mahler program (January 31 to February 2) should be one of the season's best, featuring the sixth symphony and Thomas Hampson singing the Kindertotenlieder.

Dip Your Ears, No. 88 (Shostakovich with Kondrashin)

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, Sym.15,
Kondrashin / Dresden Staatskapelle
PROFIL Hänssler


Profil – Edition Günter Hänssler” has been issuing more and more CDs from (old) German radio tapes that vie for a spot in the limelight of the mainstream. Especially some of the more recent performances of the Staatskapelle Dresden are immensely impressive. Bernhard Haitink’s Bruckner 6 has already been mentioned earlier this year, a Mahler 9th with Guiseppe Sinopoli awaits a review, and Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony with Kyrill Kondrashin makes this list.

On January 23rd, 1974 – just a little over a year before Shostakovich died – Kondrashin conducted his favorite German orchestra in a concert celebrating the 425th anniversary of the orchestra, the 50th anniversary of the christening of St. Petersburg as Leningrad, and the 30th anniversary of the break of the German siege of Leningrad.

The latest and last symphony of the great composer from St. Petersburg was a logical choice for this, but it wouldn’t have escaped Kondrashin, or the Dresden audience, that it is uniquely unsuited to venerate the Soviet—or any communist—regime. After vocal symphonies 13 and 14, Shostakovich, fatally ill and well aware of it, returned to an almost classical form of the symphony.

In the essay that accompanied the recording of Maxim Shostakovich (said to be the best performance of Shostakovich’s son on record – but to my knowledge not available on CD) Shostakovich spoke of the first movement Adagietto as a “toy-shop with plenty of knick-knacks and trinkets – absolutely cheerful”. No listener will get away from the first movement without doubting the composer’s own words. If it is a toy-shop at all, it’s one that sells little tanks, toy-guns, and junior’s first torture-kit. It’s a romp with its share of plink and delicate chirping, but this collection of trivialities amid intensity, with crashing marching bands and ballerinas, sounds like a sugarplum fairy-cum-guerilla fighter. There are moments that remind of the 2nd and 9th Symphony, and it’s always interrupted by the seemingly random William Tell overture excerpt that all American audiences can identify as the “Lone Ranger” theme.

It’s not impossible that Shostakovich knew the Lone Ranger and his heroic deeds (or his appeal to children, which would go with the toy-shop story) – but it’s more likely the Rossini original that inspired him. And that’s telling enough: A story about a man who is coerced to use his skill (archery, in Tell’s case) according to the bidding of a despot – who then uses that skill to fight against tyranny. If anything it seems that Shostakovich, in the hospital while composing this movement, had dispensed with being subtle in his political statements.

The strange giddiness of the first movement is immediately subdued by the grave brass chorale that opens the dark second movement. Phases of rest and answer and the cello’s lamenting song lead into trombone and violin statements that are everything but “absolutely cheerful”. Trombone glissandi (the ones that enraged Stalin in Lady Macbeth) are employed and eventually the subdued movement wakens and rises slowly to a big orchestral thrashing-about. It’s much like the Shostakovich from Symphonies 4, 7, 8, and 11 – but with an incredible efficiency of means, almost chamber-like in proportion and scoring.

The little, friendly third movement (Allegretto) has moments that are nearly Haydnesque before the fourth movement takes over with another blatant musical quotation – this time Wagner’s ‘ensuing death’ (or “fate”) motif from the Ring, already foreshadowed in the Adagio of the second movement. The yearning opening of Tristan & Isolde also appears several times, completing the atmosphere of resignation and departure. More difficult to hear, if you don’t know about them, are references or quotations of a Glinka song, twelve-tone rows (“bourgeois decadence!”), Strauss’ Heldenleben (the “adversaries” phrase, third movement), and many others that I will have missed completely. In this fourth, as in the second movement and in so many of his other symphonies, there is the gathering of momentum, the orchestral outbreak, the swoop up… here leading to a Passacaglia – and then the symphony dithers away in a morose mood over ghastly tic-tocs of a clock and a last, faint glimmer of percussive hope.



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Shostakovich, Sym.4,
Kondrashin / Dresden Staatskapelle
PROFIL Hänssler

Especially the quotations from Wagner, himself once Hofkapellmeister in Dresden, would not have escaped the sophisticated Dresden audience at this performance -- the last with Kondrashin. And what an extraordinary performance it is. It is better in every regard than Kondrashin’s earlier recording (Melodiya / Aulos): The playing is finer, indeed flawless. The sound, with a little artificial reverb, is excellent from the GDR’s radio-broadcast recording crew. Lasting just over 41 minutes, the tempi are the same (marginally more relaxed) as in the Moscow recording, but still very much on the fast side which means that no moments are allowed to sag or lumber along. I have not heard the mythical first Maxim Shostakovich performance (and I doubt many who sing its praises have, either), but among the interpretations I know (Barshai, Caetani, Haitink, Järvi, Kitajenko, Kondrashin/Moscow, Ormandy, and especially the favorite Sanderling/Cleveland), this one goes to the very top. The Theme & Eight Variations by Boris Tchaikovsky (not related) was written for this concert and are heard in their world premiere. The work has only reinforced my curiosity about -and appreciation of- a composer that my friend and colleague Bob McQuiston has long been recommending to me.


The Kondrashin/Dresden recording of the ‘outside-the-USSR’ premiere of the Fourth Symphony from 1963 was also broadcast by GDR radio and issued on Profil Hänssler... it is a dark, exciting reading - but too muddled to seriously challenge the supremacy of the Jansons recording.