On Thursday evening pianist Christopher Taylor joined the Pacifica Quartet for Elliott Carter’s Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, beginning the Library of Congress’s year-long salute to Carter’s centenary. As this piece was programmed in the region earlier this month by the Brentano Quartet, the LoC should be proud of the longevity of the compelling work they commissioned a decade ago for Carter’s 90th birthday.
Carter divides the work’s single movement between percussive clusters for piano and angular textures for string quartet. Taylor, an incredible pianist with a seemingly endless appetite for contemporary music, was awarded first prize at the 1990 Kapell Competition at the University of Maryland. (An acquaintance at the concert recollected experiencing Taylor’s brilliant performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, played without a score.) Back to Carter’s Quintet, the work begins and ends with a single note from the piano. The amount of meaning Taylor placed in these notes was immense, and the cacophony between them always clear and of brilliant tone. Unfortunately, the Pacifica’s rather vague approach to this challenging work allowed Taylor to easily dominate. Taylor’s mathematics degree from Harvard possibly allows him to analyze the construction of Carter's music at a level beyond most musicians.
The sense of the Pacifica possibly being under-rehearsed was further experienced in Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A Minor (the same one the group played in the area in 2005), where their impressive, uninhibited playing and striking volume were undermined by inconsistent attacks and releases (from the second violinist, particularly). First violinist Simin Ganatra conveyed the appealing tune of the third-movement Intermezzo very sweetly.
Robert Battey, Pacifica Quartet (Washington Post, May 31)
The Pacifica ended the program with their strongest work, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major (op. 59, no. 1). With spring-like optimism, the rising themes burst forth with clarity and uniform gestures that were lacking in the Mendelssohn and Carter. Joy was felt when the quartet surged beyond the fifteen repeated unison notes of the second movement’s theme, while the third-movement Adagio was beautifully phrased. Programming Carter’s Quintet between such contented works was appealing. The encore, a Tango by Piazzola, had a nice groove with periodic slides up the fingerboards.
The Library of Congress's concert season ends tonight, with an all-Schubert program from pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Liza Ferschtman, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (May 31, 8 pm). The [New York] premiere of Carter’s Interventions, for piano and orchestra, is scheduled for Carter's birthday, with Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (December 11 at Carnegie Hall).
NSO & Vladimir Ashkenazy, Staying True to Sibelius
Washington Post, May 30, 2008
National Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, guest conductor
Sibelius, Symphonies 1 and 7, and The Oceanides
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
|DSCH, String Quartets 1, 2, 4, Mandelring Quartett|
DSCH, String Quartets 3, 6, 8, Mandelring Quartett
DSCH, String Quartets 5, 7, 9, Mandelring Quartett
Just as it has become the norm for every better orchestra to record a Mahler symphony cycle in the last ten years, it’s part of the good tone for aspiring and established string quartets to delve into Shostakovich cycles. After the pioneering Beethoven (Legendary Treasure), Shostakovich (Regis), Fitzwilliam (Decca), and Borodin String Quartets (an early cycle on Chandos Historical and a complete one on Melodiya) had completed their cycles, there was little to challenge the primacy especially of the latter two until the Emerson String Quartet darted into the relative void with their squeaky clean, live cycle from Aspen on DG. Since then complete cycles have been added by the Brodsky (Warner), Sorrel (Chandos), St. Petersburg (Hyperion), Éder (Naxos), Rubio (Brilliant), Manhattan (Ess.a.y), Danel (Fuga Libera), and Rasumovsky (Oehms, not yet available)Quartets.
One of the most exciting prospects for a cycle of Shostakovich quartets these days is the Israeli-Russian Jerusalem Quartet. They have two recordings of DSCH out, so far, and the leisurely pace seems to be beneficial to the project, assuming a whole cycle is planned. Definitively planning a complete cycle is the Mandelring Quartett from Germany who have arrived on volume three of five of their multi-channel SACD project. I have enjoyed them live and on disc – and in particular their innovative Brahms cycle - coupled with neglected contemporaries like Dessoff - has piqued my interest.
The first two instalments of this group, consisting of the siblings Sebastian, Nanette, and Bernhard Schmidt (violins and cello, respectively) as well as violist Roland Glassl, have already picked up several recommendations – promises of excellence that the third, which includes String Quartets nos. 5, 7, and 9, seems to hold.
Serving as my primary comparison for these recordings is the second Borodin cycle – newly re-mastered and released on Melodiya and more than ever my favorite for the emotional grit and grip that they exude. The sound, formerly “good enough”, is now very fine indeed; the background hiss audible, but even on headphones never intrusive – a definite improvement on the old BMG-distributed cycle.
String Quartet no.7, a sorrowful little number dedicated to the memory of his first wife Nina Vassilyevna Shostakovich who had died of cancer in 1954, is – in the inimitably translated liner notes of the Melodiya release – “a more little of all Shostakovich’s quartets. But there’s said a lot – and said newly.”. Indeed. The opening movement (Allegretto) has a light flexibility, deliberate elasticity with the Mandelring Quartett (3:34); the Borodin is notably faster (3:19) with more anguished peaks. The Hagen Quartett, whose latest disc includes this quartet (as well as nos.3 and 8), is more like spun silver threads; a perfection of individual voices.
The slow Lento movement highlights the Hagen’s individual excellence and separation again – whereas the Mandelrings sound a little hazier. But whereas the Hagens are utterly gloomy here, catching a grove only very late in the shortest of movements (2:46 with the Hagen, 2:52 with the Mandelring, and 3:34 with the Borodin), the Mandelring is comparatively bright. The Hagen Quartet seems to celebrate slacking dystopia and shapelessness, the Mandelring finds more purpose. Neither could possibly sustain the movement over three and a half minutes in the way that the Borodin does, without ever dropping the musical thread. Their take is not gloomy but steady – offering a constantly moving pulse throughout, lyrical toward the end, and almost unnoticeably slow.
Even the speedy and wild(er) third movement – Allegro – has a dark, melancholic, even lethargic undertone, a trace that all the busyness on the surface cannot dispel. It’s not unlike the 8th Symphony, in a way, but a merciful 50 minutes shorter. The Mandelring (5:11) buzz along with abandon and the superb sound on this Audite disc comes to the fore, especially where Bernhard Schmidt’s cello gets all the room to bloom that it needs. Just one detail, a possible caveat: alone, they sound pretty nice, even at the densest and wildest moments. Cut to the Borodin (at 5:35 again the slowest of the three) – and you notice the difference. The latter rip into the music with more pointed accentuation and a gusto that seems to put their poor instruments in immediate danger.
At high volumes the Mandelring quartet sounds weighty and beautiful, the Borodin shrill to the point of unbearable. Which of these two you find a recommendation or warning in a Shostakovich quartet will depend entirely on what it is that you want to get out of these works. If you have made proper acquaintance with them, you will undoubtedly have a preference already. The Hagen (5:16), not unlike the Borodin, but with frightening assuredness and accuracy, instead of frighteningly free-wheeling, rip through the first three minutes like the half-demented.
Judging by the Seventh Quartet, one might expect the Fifth Quartet to be something slightly mellower in the hands of the Mandelring Quartett by comparison with the Borodin’s version. Instead, they bulldoze through the opening Allegro non troppo with an intensity that rivals the Borodin every step of the way. Only at their wildest moments – this time due to the better, fuller sound, not because of lacking aggressiveness – are they less shrill than the Borodin’s who have the more delicate, even sweet, moments in the gentle, pizzicato-dominated closing pages.
In String Quartet no.9, the Borodin are at their most bracing. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that - like Quartet no.6 and the Piano Quintet with Sviatoslav Richter - it was recorded live. Some additional background noise, more reverberation and curious balances make the difference between Audite’s impeccable and Melodiya’s raw sound far more notable.
Listen to the third movement (Allegretto furioso), where the Mandelring Quartett doesn’t gallop into this movement like mad, as does the Borodin Quartet. Rather it starts as a graceful, agile dance, replaced by sudden vigour and anxious terror. The Borodin move from madly riveting to a brutal, metallic harshness that disabuses the listener of the idea that this might be the “Quartet for Children” that Shostakovich had promised the Beethoven Quartet for their 40th anniversary. Unless the same misunderstanding regarding “Toys and spending time in the open air” occurred here as it did in his 15th Symphony – distinctly not a toy-shop symphony, despite Shostakovich’s claims to that effect – the 1964 9th String Quartet is in fact a different, new work than the one he promised to produce with those words in 1952. You could also consider a link between the reoccurring galloping spiccato beat of the Allegretto to the “William Tell” quotes in the 15th Symphony, but if the similarity is anything but coincidental would be difficult to prove. When it finally saw the light, Shostakovich dedicated the quartet to his new, third, wife, Irina Supinskaya.
When anxiety and strife give way to the agonizing Adagio, the calm deliberation and the atmospheric sound of the Mandelring Quartet (3:03) are every bit as raw and tender as the much slower Borodin (4:04). Their concluding Allegretto is a strident highpoint of this release.
The peaks and extremes of the Borodin, not to mention the frequently abrasive sound - which I find quite appropriate most of the time - make that cycle stand out more and may be more immediately captivating or exciting. But especially on repeat- and closer listening, the Mandelring’s carefully considered, always unpredictable ways are a treasure, not only for audiophiles but for all who want more than the “authentic Russian” version of the Borodin, Beethoven, or Shostakovich Quartets.
It has been a Sibelius week around here, for reasons that will become obvious soon enough. One of the discs that made it back into my player was this recent release of some of the Finnish composer's incidental music. It is my first encounter with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which has just appointed a young Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, to succeed James Judd as its Music Director. This recording was made a few months after Inkinen's first guest appearance with the NZSO, in 2006, about one year after he received his conducting degree. Inkinen's youth is being handled as a selling point by the organization, which cites his "past history of playing in rock groups (and soccer teams)" in its promotional materials. Whatever. The only thing that really matters is how the orchestra sounds with him on the podium, and they sound pretty good.
Sibelius, Scènes historiques / King Christian Suite, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, P. Inkinen
(released January 29, 2008)
The first suite known as Scènes historiques (op. 25, 1899) originated in music composed for a pageant in celebration of the Press Pension Fund, charged with Finnish nationalist overtones during a time of Russian imperial domination curtailing, among other things, freedom of the press. (The famous Finlandia also was composed for that event, but it was published separately.) The All'Overtura opening movement is echt-Sibelius, with slow-blooming brass swells, skirling winds, and the dull, volcanic rumble of percussion evoking scenes of pagan Finland. Other colors follow in the second and third movements, the depressing bassoon duet in the second movement, set during the Thirty Years War, and the almost singular castanets (!) of the Bolero third movement (depicting festivities at the court of the Swedish governor).
Around the same time as the first of these suites, Sibelius composed incidental music for the play Kuningas Kristian II, by his friend Adolf Paul, about the Renaissance king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The wind soloists, who so often have to play in pairs in Sibelius, all sound strong, as does the harpist, who gets more than one coloristic outing in this program. So much of what is remembered about Sibelius's music is the grand symphonic gestures, but there is also extravagantly tender music, like the Love Song in the middle of the follow-up suite of Scènes historiques (op. 66, 1912) and the hushed Elégie for the murdered girl loved by King Christian. None of these works are exactly rare on disc already, but this recording is the latest featured in a growing and generally good Sibelius discography from Naxos, at their usual reduced prices, with various Finnish musicians.
One of the best things about Handel's Messiah (and his other oratorios) was that performances of English oratorios inspired Haydn to compose The Creation. The origins of the libretto are a little murky, beginning supposedly with an English text, now lost, that was translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (for the latest research, see the article by Neil Jenkins in the Journal of the Haydn Society of Great Britain from 2005). The sources of the text (.PDF file by Neil Jenkins) include Genesis, the Psalms, Milton, and John Thomson. In any case, the language that Haydn worked with was the German, and its "re-translation" back into English is problematic enough that many performances in English-speaking countries use the German version. For this excellent recording, Paul McCreesh has attempted a rescue of the English (see the version by Jenkins -- .PDF file), with harmonious results. There should be a slot for it on your shelf, right next to William Christie's recent recording of the German version with Les Arts Florissants.
Haydn, The Creation, S. Piau, M. Padmore, Gabrieli Consort, P. McCreesh
(released February 5, 2008)
Archiv 477 7361
McCreesh, ever careful about his performance practice choices, has opted to try to recreate what it is likely that Haydn had in mind. Namely, the overblown style of oratorio he had heard in London, with large orchestras and choruses, which was recreated in the earliest performances of the work in Vienna. That may not sound all that inviting, but he augments his Gabrieli Consort and Players by partnering with young musicians from Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. The sound is large but still refined and musically sensitive, of a sort that tempts one to forget about the label of historically informed performance (HIP) altogether.
Just like Christie, McCreesh has called on five soloists, single-casting the often doubled roles (Gabriel/Eve and Raphael/Adam). Singing Uriel, who is more or less the oratorio's main narrative voice, is the exquisite Mark Padmore, a British tenor in the Ian Bostridge vein. This is a thoroughly English Uriel, contrasted by the ever so slightly French-tinged English of Sandrine Piau's Gabriel. Neither is the sort of singer to impress solely by force, although Piau shines over the chorus radiantly. The other soloists -- Neal Davies as a growling Raphael, Peter Harvey and Miah Persson as a warm, well-matched Adam and Eve -- round out an ideal cast, who sound equally well alone and in their various ensemble combinations.
Paul McCreesh, conductor
Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers | Handel, Saul | Gluck, Paride ed Elena
McCreesh has Timothy Roberts accompany the recitatives, crucial hinge pieces that can often be neglected, on a fortepiano based on an early 19th-century Viennese instrument by Josef Brodmann. For me the test always comes at the end of the second part, where the creation of mankind is a source of wonderment. Here is where Haydn composed some of his most delectable music, especially the concluding angelic trio ("On thee each living soul awaits") with its wandering clarinet lines. It is likely the most perfect musical statement of the Enlightenment's humanist message, found in Uriel's gorgeous aria In native worth and honour clad. The lines "and in his eye with brightness shines the soul, / the breath and image of his God," on which Haydn dwells, are the later counterpart to the image of Adam's creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Dolora Zajick and Salvatore Licitra in Cavalleria Rusticana, Washington National Opera, photo by Leah L. Jones
Mascagni's over-performed, bite-sized piece of verismo pablum (pace Opera Chic) is neither of those things (although WCO also resorted to Cavalleria a few years ago). The initially disappointing sales for these performances seemed to indicate that even the often unadventurous Washington audience had voted it down. The slate of singers, however, had to give anyone pause, as it included two important names in this sort of repertory. The Sunday afternoon performance removed any doubt, and as much as it may surprise you to hear it from me, anyone who loves great singing, such as we do not hear all that often here in Washington, should find a way to hear the only remaining performance, on Friday night.
There is no point in arguing about the value of the work: those who love it, love it, and vice-versa. If sung and played well, as it was here, its emotionally crude appeal can pack a punch. American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, in her regrettably late company debut, sang with a voice that was a stunning force of nature. The few times that she sang directly toward me, it was like a torpedo of sound. That vocal bludgeon was deployed only at emotional high points, mixed with a range of vocal qualities, like the lines drawn by a quill, from razor-sharp to thickly inked. Zajick has rightly earned a reputation for this role, as well as even more forceful and demanding ones, like Verdi's Azucena and Amneris.
Anne Midgette, Mezzo-Soprano's Glorious Debut Lifts 'Cavalleria' (Washington Post, May 27)
Tim Smith, An intense performance of 'Cavalleria' (Baltimore Sun, May 27)
T. L. Ponick, Salute to 'Chivalry,' masters (Washington Times, May 27)
Baritone Gordon Hawkins seemed much less at ease in this role than he did recently as Rigoletto. He stumbled over the Italian and elided or otherwise missed many entrances and cutoffs, but the frame, both vocal and physical, was right for the role. Conductor Riccardo Frizza did his best to keep the ensemble on track but occasionally seemed overwhelmed. Madeleine Grey and Leslie Mutchler were good in the supporting roles of Mamma Lucia and Lola, respectively. The WNO Orchestra, raised up to the stage level from its pit, gave its usual workmanlike performance, with lovely solos from the flute in the introductory scene, a terrible electronic organ, and a violin sound that needed some burnishing. The opera was introduced by an orchestral first half, overtures and instrumental pieces from Mascagni and other Italian opera composers.
The only other performance of Cavalleria Rusticana is scheduled for Friday evening (May 30, 7:30 pm). A few tickets, mostly the expensive ones, remain.
Miss Ionarts and Master Ionarts, on the concert reporting beat
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist
Tim Smith, Soloist, BSO play Gershwin with vim (Baltimore Sun, May 24)
Ronni Reich, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, May 26)
Next week, under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra undertakes a program of South American music called The Inca Trail. On Friday (May 30, 8 pm) at Strathmore, and on Saturday (May 31, 8 pm) in Baltimore.
The latest of Bruno Monsaingeon's films for Arte to cross my desk is this pairing of films centered on the Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Of greatest interest is the first one, Notes interdites (Forbidden notes, retitled The Red Baton, 2003), in which Rozhdestvensky and others narrate the story of musical life in the Soviet Union. It is an absorbing documentary of sound and images. For example, Rozhdestvensky reads from a copy of Prokofiev's biography, with two versions of the same page, the edited one completely revising an anecdote attributed to the composer. This is followed by Rozhdestvensky conducting a performance of Prokofiev's absolutely creepy cantata Zdravitsa, composed in 1939 for the Stalin's 60th birthday, accompanied by pictures from propaganda films.
Available at Amazon:
The Red Baton / Gennadi Rozhdestvensky: Conductor or Conjuror, directed by Bruno Monsaingeon
(released February 12, 2008)
Idéale Audience International 3073498
The propaganda clips are terrible and ominously seductive to watch: a stage full of white-dressed little girls playing Bach, David Oistrakh saying he was proud to advance Soviet musical culture, Tikhon Krhennikov addressing the Soviet Composers Union, a musician recalling conservatory students madly erasing their scores, removing dissonances, when it was announced in 1948 that the government would monitor student compositions. A clip of an insipid song by Krhennikov is a stitch, immediately following Rozhdestvensky bitterly wondering what Prokofiev must have thought of Krhennikov's music. I am unlikely ever to hear Shostakovich's 4th symphony again without remembering what Rozhdestvensky says he told the Cleveland Orchestra about it: that the percussion pattern at the end of the scherzo movement could be thought of as prisoners communicating by tapping on pipes. The footage of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rostropovich playing is worth seeing, too.
The second film is less likely to be of general interest, as it focuses exclusively on how Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducts, which is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. We see him in rehearsal and in concert, as well as speaking about his ideas of what conducting is all about, and even leading classes with his conducting students. If you find the minutiae of how conductors do what they do fascinating (yes, guilty), you will enjoy it. Bonus features include more footage of Rozhdestvensky conducting: first, his own Suite for Orchestra (based on the film music of Alfred Schnittke), and second, a complete performance of that hideous Prokofiev cantata, Zdravitsa, for Stalin's birthday (hideous because it is so beautiful).
- Images of vintage classical LP covers, created or inspired by pioneering graphic designer Alex Steinweiss. Yet another way you can waste time. [Boing Boing]
- Susan Sontag was a lesbian, Philip Johnson was gay, and Robert Rauschenberg was gay. What do all of these rather important details have in common? They are all generally glossed over, if mentioned at all, in their obituaries. Get over it, Mainstream Media. [Modern Art Notes]
- What am I doing this weekend instead of reviewing concerts? Watching the Pistons (against the Celtics) and the Red Wings (against the Penguins), of course -- oh, if only I could be back in Michigan this week. [Puck Daddy]
- Joyce DiDonato describes a spectator's perfectly timed sneeze during her dress rehearsal for I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Bastille. She is co-starring with someone named Anna Netrebko (backed up by Patrizia Ciofi). [Yankeediva]
Decca’s Australian Eloquence subsidiary is to be thanked for their tireless re-issuing of forgotten, out of print recordings from the vaults of Universal Music: DG, Philips, Decca/London. In doing so, they occasionally unearth treasures, sometimes classics, emotional favorites, or simply recordings that have been unavailable long enough to generate some interest and demand.
Just as few recordings receive universal praise, so, too, few interpretations have no following at all. Somebody will always like one particular album above all. And surely someone will also like this one: Solti’s Bruckner 7th with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1965. In listening to it, it struck me again how it can be just as difficult, if not more so, to determine with any precision what makes a performance unspecial , as it is to pinpoint the reasons for excellence with another. Direct comparison usually exacerbates the felt differences without necessarily helping to get a firmer grip on the specific reasons for it.
What remains easily discernible here, though, is that somehow swells don’t quite resonate, that climaxes are not intense and don’t resolve. Energies, nervous rather than compelling, seem misapplied into the wrong directions by margins scarcely noticeable but strongly palpable. The Adagio (with cymbal clash) is reasonably well articulated, while not as drawn out as later in his Chicago recording and performances (where it, too, is hailed the most successful of the movements). Some extraneous noises at the end of that second movement can be heard when listening closely, but are not loud enough to be disturbing. “Disturbing” would be much too harsh a word for the very occasional pitch ambiguity of the woodwinds and brass, but it contributes to playing that is every bit of the standard expected from a very good orchestra in a live performance (which this, however, isn’t), but not much more than that.
Those who don’t appreciate Bruckner in the first place might reason that the music plods along for most of the symphony’s duration because that lies in the nature of Bruckner’s music, not Solti’s conducting. It’d be witty enough – but it needn’t be so at all, and recent recordings of Bruckner’s Seventh make painfully obvious how a linearity and an arch can lead from the first to the last note, and the the hour between. (Solti takes about 66 minutes here, which is insignificantly above average, unless you include Celibidache in the count, who distorts the statistics.)
Most notably and recently there are two live recordings from veteran Bruckner conductors Bernhard Haitink (May 2007, on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s own CSO Resound label) and Karl Böhm (April 5th, 1977 on audite). Both bring a gentility to the work that exudes moving tenderness: elaborate, reticent and glowing at once in Haitink’s recording, slightly tighter in the outer movements with Böhm. Both Haitink’s CSO and Böhm’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra outperform the VPO (WPh), if in different ways. The CSO appeals with playing that’s anywhere from luminously to blazing and ever precise, while the BRSO reveals the music’s structure beyond the notes, playing more lively and with more understanding than the anemic 1965 WPh. (Any subsequent WPh recording of this, including Böhm’s 1976 on DG , is much improved.)
The sound of Decca’s John Culshaw (producer) and Gordon Perry (engineer) from the Sofiensaal is good for its time – but that is also to say that it sounds slightly aged now. The divided violin sections, meanwhile are caught in nice (almost too prominent) contrast... lovely, generally, but potentially an issue when listening with headphones.
In a highly competitive field – roughly seventy different, single-CD versions are offered on ArkivMusic, alone – this will only appeal to the Solti enthusiasts. I like Günter Wand; the Berlin recording more so than WDR (box set) or NDR (DVD) – but apart from the above mentioned Haitink and Böhm, favorites are Karajan III (WPh, 1989), Jochum (Dresden), and – I’m almost embarrassed to admit – Simon Rattle / Birmingham (EMI). Good alternatives to ‘standard’ interpretations are Herreweghe (O.d.Champs-Élysées), and Harnoncourt (WPh) on the ‘non-cymbolic’, fleeting side – and of course Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic for not-thought-to-be-possible breadth and glory.
The star of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón rose like a rocket in recent years, helped especially by his frequent pairing with Anna Netrebko, in the 2003 Salzburg La Traviata among other operas. Then, last year, there was a major wrinkle in that meteoric ascent: it first came to my ears when he sounded awful at the Met Gala last April. That preceded a spate of cancellations in the summer and fall due to unspecified health problems. Villazón has been on his way back, however, at least well enough to shoot the filmed La Bohème with Netrebko this winter, for example. His official schedule has some concerts and a few opera appearances, but no heavy engagements before late September. We certainly wish him a full recovery.
Cielo e mar (Italian opera arias), R. Villazón, OS di Milano G. Verdi, D. Callegari
(released April 22, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon B0010871-02
This latest solo disc, his debut for Deutsche Grammophon, was actually in the can just a month before that Met Gala. It is a collection of lesser-known arias from the 19th-century Italian opera repertoire, taking its title from Enzo's not really unknown aria from Ponchielli's La Gioconda, which is the first track. Villazón and researchers at DG put the program together, sifting through operas and selecting what inspired him. As he put it to one interviewer, "If my heart beat faster and my skin prickled, then I chose it." It started with one of the eight operas, Fosca, by Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896), and continued with arias by Cilea, Mercadante, Boito, Pietra, and lesser-known operas by Verdi and Donizetti.
It is a worthy disc for opera lovers, both those who love Villazón's voice and those interested in obscurities. In this craze for unearthing the past, he is in good company, following similar efforts by Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez. Sadly, there are sounds of strain, an edgy grain in the voice on many tracks (track 12, e.g.), a raggedness (track 9), all of which indicate the troubles to come, but not enough to diminish the pleasure of listening too much. At a total timing of only 56:41 and an appropriately reduced price, it is a refreshment easily quaffed.
Rolando Villazón, Cielo e mar (publicity video)
Sasha Cooke Showcases Vocal, Emotional Range
Washington Post, May 23, 2008
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) and Pei-Yao Wang (piano)
Songs by de Falla, Norman, and Schumann
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Robert Schumann’s “Herrmann & Dorothea Overture” op.136 is probably not better known than the once loved and now forgotten ’idyllic epic’ of Goethe that served as inspiration and namesake. Schumann may not have composed grand music for it, but in concert this utterly charming, rather light and airy work is a splendid curtain raiser – a just like the opening ‘throw-away’ joke is sometimes the best part of a Sunday cartoon.
That the overture is laced with quotes from the Marseillaise – often and obviously – goes back to Schumann’s intention to write a whole opera on the subject of Goethe’s epic which opens with a scene of German refugees fleeing from advancing French Soldiers. (Though if you listen to Schumann, you’d think on their heals was rather a flock of frolicking Frenchmen on their way to a boating party.) Even if Christian Thielemann, conducting the Munich Philharmonic in this opening Schumann-salvo of their May 11th concert, isn’t known for a particularly light touch, the overture came across as positively, quintessentially gay.
Before Schumann continued, Brahms’ Double Concerto was on the program. Cellist Antonio Meneses must know this concerto well enough – not the least because he first recorded it in 1981 with Anne-Sophie Mutter under Karajan. On Hänssler Profil he has a recording with Thomas Zehetmair under Kurt Sanderling. Alas, his knowledge turned to routine in this performance. Entries were not particularly clean, the cello’s tone unlovely above mp. On the plus side: nicely articulated pizzicatos and a fine, electric pianissimo. The orchestra around him played boomily, sometimes sloppy (missed entries, again), as if no one particularly cared about it, and with wayward horns in the third movement. None of this mattered, though, because one man heroically combined and focused everything that was bad about this performance on himself: Daniel Hope delivered a performance that was just shy of insulting.
Slinking through the work un- or under-rehearsed, playing out of tune notes with imprecision and as if his technical ability were taxed to the maximum (it shouldn’t be, by this concerto), the result was a travesty. Tinny, rough whenever digging into the notes, every double stop woefully approximated: this was no way to treat the audience. Or, for that matter, Brahms. How the two artists deduced that the – admittedly indiscriminate – applause demanded an encore, I don’t know. But in honor of Menahem Pressler, who retired his Beaux Arts Trio (in which Meneses and Hope were his most recent partners), they played a part just for violin and cello from Beethoven’s “Ich bin der Scheider Kakadu” trio.
This might not have boded well for the Schumann Fourth Symphony yet to come, but from the depths of artistic poverty, the concert catapulted the keen listener to the pinnacles of musical triumph.
Schumann’s chronologically second, but then heavily revised and last-to-be-published Symphony had recently been performed in
Cohesive, swelling mightily, receding tenderly again, massive but not thick, this was a totality of harmonious noise played phenomenally well by his Munich Philharmonic players. Whether the cellos buzzing in true excitement, or the impeccable ensemble work of the brass, or the commanding volume of the whole apparatus in the finale, it felt like Thielemann put his foot down as one of the foremost interpreters of Schumann. Given his recent success with the ‘difficult’ Schumann Requiem I am ready to believe that he really is.
I must either completely re-evaluate his previous Schumann recordings (1 with 4, 2 and 3 with the Philharmonia) which I remember dismissing rather carelessly, or else hope for new Schumann recorded with the Munich Philharmonic which, if DG should decide to go that way, I’d await most eagerly.
The imitation of Italian artists by their Germanic counterparts is a commonplace in the history of Renaissance and Baroque art. Add to the list of painters and sculptors those Flemish and German composers who imitated Italian styles, from Willaert and Schütz to Bach's reworking of Vivaldi. The theme of this CD provides another example, four of the set of Telemann's six Sonates Corellisantes paired with Corelli sonatas that inspired them. Telemann never set foot in Rome, but he knew the Italian violinist's style very well from published scores.
Corellisante (Corelli / Telemann), REBEL Ensemble
(released February 12, 2008)
Telemann, Sonates Corellisantes (I, II, III, V)
Corelli, Sonatas, op. 1 (no. 9), op. 3 (nos. 8, 12), op. 4 (nos. 6, 10)
The sound put down by the American historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble known as REBEL exceeds my expectations from recent concert hearings in 2007 and 2005. In fact, the tracks presented here were recorded back in May 2003, in a close, somewhat busy, but activated and vibrant sound. The trio sonata format, one of the most characteristically Baroque combinations, brings together the group's two lead violinists and co-directors, Jörg-Michael Schwarz and Karen Marie Marmer (omitting the flutes suggested by some editions as alternatives or supplements to the violins). Their nicely matched sound is put to especially good use in the searing suspensions of the Grave introduction to Corelli's op. 3/12, with organ and theorbo, and the gorgeous Largo of Corelli's op. 3/8.
The continuo part is covered by combinations of cellist John Moran (playing an English cello from around 1700, even on the pieces for which Corelli included a part specifically for the violone), Dongsok Chin on either harpsichord or organ, and theorbist Daniel Swenberg on various instruments. The results are intensely pleasant and worthwhile listening, but not really an essential purchase, especially at an import-level price for a single disc.
Most critics have been impressed by El Niño, the Nativity oratorio by American composer John Adams premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2000. One can only congratulate the Choral Arts Society of Washington and its director, Norman Scribner, for finally performing the work in this area. The group's earnest but slightly shaky concert on Sunday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, for all that it was welcome, confirmed many of my doubts about the successes and failures of this modern take on a central Christian story. The main problem is in the basic distrust of Christian traditions, which also tainted Peter Sellars' direction of Handel's Theodora. Central Biblical texts relating the Nativity narrative are supplemented, brilliantly, by sincere devotional poetry by Hildegard von Bingen, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and anonymous medieval authors. Texts are also introduced from apocryphal infancy narratives (Gospel of James, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew), stories that are not accepted as scriptural but that nevertheless have informed Catholic tradition, especially through the medium of art.
Truly muddying the waters was the modern poetry (Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro -- suggested to Adams by Sellars) that not only has little to do with the story of Christ's birth but actually undermines it. At the Paris premiere, Sellars further subverted the Biblical story with a danced staging and insipid video (the latter relating a parallel account of a contemporary young woman having a baby). The Choral Arts Society laudably reunited that video with Adams' music, if for no better reason than so that we could appreciate just how badly the concept had dated in the period of only eight years. When compared with the timeless appeal of the Nativity story, the Sellars video, with its images of cops staring up at street lamps in parking lots and those perennial show-choir hand movements, became lamentably ridiculous. Either you want to tell the story of Christ's birth or you don't -- make up your mind.
Those reservations aside, El Niño has remarkable musical appeal, much of which came across in this performance. The role of the Evangelist, as far as there really is one, is carried by a trio of amplified countertenors, otherworldly astral triplets who narrate and also incarnate the voices of Gabriel, the wise men, and others. Brian Cummings, Paul Flight, and Steven Rickards made impeccably tuned clustered harmonies together, with a few weaknesses in solo moments. Baritone Christòpheren Nomura sang with ferocious clamor, especially in the I Will Shake the Heavens number, matched unfortunately by the video's images of cops at a burger joint (the words "I'll have a shake!" came to mind). Soprano Sharla Nafziger and mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler did just fine (all of the singers were amplified) but paled in comparison to the creators of these parts, Dawn Upshaw and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Anne Midgette, Choral Arts Society Weathers 'El Niño' (Washington Post, May 20)
---, 'El Niño's' Transcendent Genre (Washington Post, May 17)
Tim Smith, Choral Arts' concert (Baltimore Sun, May 20)
Much of the score percolated with activity and delightful cross-rhythms, shimmering colors from harp, clanging percussion, celesta, and synthesized sounds (not so much the scratchy, arpeggiated solo violin at the opening of the second half). The brass swelled the sound with vast crescendi, matched by confidently square blocks of sound from the
mostly entirely volunteer chorus (not all of the group's roster of singers). There was audible discomfort in the ensemble in several movements, as particularly complex textures pulled apart at the seams. That sense of labored, anxious struggle was also visible, in Scribner's nervously tapping foot and the furiously nodding heads of the chorus at ragged entrances. The Children's Chorus of Washington, superbly trained by director Joan Gregoryk, waited patiently two hours to perform only in the final number, and they sang with angelic, radiant sound, as the vast orchestral fabric evaporated to just a single guitar.
Members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington will perform next month in a rare program of Liszt's vocal music (part of the meeting of the American Liszt Society) at the National Gallery of Art (June 1, 6:30 pm). The group will also take part in the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's eighth symphony, under the baton of Valery Gergiev (June 9 and 10), in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Thomas Adès, composer (b. 1971)
The orchestra was reduced to classical proportions for the Beethoven, with a compact assortment of strings (with concertmaster Jonathan Carney away this week, associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins took his place). The pairs of winds and timpani were separated by a short distance at the back (of course, the arrangement may not have been decided by Adès). Adès' precise, jumpy style of gesture is part of how he uses his body as an expressive device, sometimes lunging, twisting, hunching down. With a careful control of the relative weight of each section, Adès allowed the wind solos or accents to be heard and marshaled those reserve resources for booming crescendi. The first symphony had a balletic slow movement, emphasizing the con moto over the cantabile, and a decidedly scherzo-like menuetto with parallels to the rhythmic distortions in triple meter heard later in the Eroica. Although underplayed, the first is an impressive achievement for the 30-year-old Beethoven, with many nods to symphonic tradition and just as many hints of more ground-breaking changes to come.
Anne Midgette, The BSO, Awkward Now and Then (Washington Post, May 17)
Tim Smith, Beethoven frames Ades' rich concerto (Baltimore Sun, May 17)
Molly Sheridan, Composer Thomas Adès, Trading Pen for Baton In BSO Performances (Washington Post, May 15)
The centerpiece of the evening was a new violin concerto by Adès, op. 24, given the title Concentric Paths. Premiered in Berlin in 2005, the work is a flirtation with minimalism, or at least with the technique of motoric repetition in overlapping cycles or phases. The first movement, Rings, opens with an oscillating motif and is oriented toward the treble colors, with some tinkling percussion that briefly reminded me of the Banquet scene from The Tempest. British violinist Anthony Marwood, who also plays as part of the Florestan Trio, assayed the solo part's stratospheric challenges with the ease one would expect from the musician who premiered the work. In the weighty second movement, Paths, a spiraling series of chords cycled its way through the orchestra, weaving around the solo line, with the menace of bass trombone, tuba, and double bass and the dull thud of pitchless percussion. The third movement, Rounds, had the feel of a cross-footed bossa nova. It was not what one might call a masterpiece, but it would be worth hearing again.
Next weekend, the BSO will focus on the music of Gershwin (May 22 to 24), with Marin Alsop back at the podium. Jean-Yves Thibaudet will play both the Concerto in F and the original orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue, made for the Paul Whiteman Band. Throw in Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin for good measure.
Whether you know Tim Page from his articles in the Washington Post, Newsday, or the New York Times, his books, the liner notes in your CDs, or from his 11 years at WNYC-FM, you can't come away from the experience without great respect for his ability to say what he wants to say lucidly, and concisely. For the last 13 years, his presence at the Post was first the pride of the Style section, in recent years its saving grace.
Shortly before he began his sabbatical to teach at the
Since Tim Page’s departure,
This may only confirm expectations, but it is a sad day all the same if
His reviews for the Post were rarely cutting, biting occasionally, and often of a great warmth. They seemed moody sometimes, but were never sycophantic, never cynical, never gushing, never erratically critical. And throughout most of his articles, if not all, ran a splendid grace that those who are acquainted with him know to come from a dignity, humility, and most of all a kindness that superseded all other fluctuating emotions. There may be a select few who have raised his ire (by way of disappointment), but when you talk to friends and colleagues of his, he is again and again described as the epitome of “good people”. As a writer at the Post he can be substituted for, but not replaced. As a friend, he’s become the best reason to fly to
The Library of Congress tends to elicit strong performances from musicians who play there, as if the sense of history in the place makes it clear that this is not just any hall or any night. Furthermore, the Library and its audience are devoted to contemporary music, without any pretension or air of exclusivity. One always knows that, at an LoC concert like the one on Friday night featuring the Borromeo and Parker Quartets, Tchaikovsky may be the earliest the program goes in music history.
Borromeo String Quartet (photo by Liz Linder)
In an unannounced change, the program opened with a Romance for Violin and Piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939). The piece is in that composer's signature neotonal style, favoring mildly dissonant sounds, especially major-minor combinations, even ending on a major chord. With arch-Romantic yearning melodic lines from Nicholas Kitchen, the primarius of the Borromeo Quartet, and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, the work is a kind of Song without Words. It was pretty, but the move to the opening position made it, quite appropriately, an appetizer for the ears. Zwilich's autograph score was on display in a case in the Coolidge Auditorium's foyer, and the performers played from scanned images of it reproduced on laptop screens. That innovative move is part of the Library's increasing embrace of technology, which is also witnessed by the ongoing expansion of its Internet offerings.
The Web site will soon include sound files of Nicholas Kitchen, the primarius of the Borromeo Quartet, playing all five of the Library's Cremonese violins. That includes the most recently added one, the "Goldberg-Baron Vitta" Guarnerius, loaned indefinitely to Kitchen at a concert with the Borromeo Quartet last year, with the proviso that the instrument be brought home once a year. Kitchen will record Bach's D minor chaconne on each of the five violins.
This program drew me to the Library largely because of the two works that followed the Zwilich, especially György Kurtág's Six Moments Musicaux (op. 44), the fourth work by this beloved composer for string quartet. The Parker Quartet, reviewed last at the Corcoran in 2006, gave an astounding rendition of this complicated yet beautiful work, which synthesizes with remarkable economy several bits and snatches of compositional ideas. Deliciously dissonant chords were voiced to yield a glimmering or murky sheen, and the group's embrace of the very soft end of the dynamic spectrum made one sit up and listen. Ominous steps resounded in the second movement, and the third and fourth movements featured percussive pizzicati and arco stabs and grand homophonic howls that vanished to leave behind a pianissimo glow. The fifth movement's golden harmonics twittered like piping birds in tribute to Messiaen, followed by the sixth movement's tribute to Janáček, with its brief section played with mutes, ritually put in place and then removed.
Composer György Kurtág (b. 1926)
The Borromeo Quartet then played Béla Bartók's sixth quartet, which opened with a tragic, consumed viola sola from Mai Motobuchi, playing intensely, eyes closed. This Bartók was as an antidote to the Emerson Quartet's overly muscular approach, more warmth than violence. It was not that the Marcia of the second movement was any less barbaric, but there was a note of hopeless plodding to it. The third movement's Burletta was a drunken, loopy waltz, with beats dropped to make it lop-sided, and the last movement came full circle back to the agonizing melancholy of that opening viola sola. The combination of the Borromeo Quartet with the violist and cellist from the Parker Quartet did not seem to meld effortlessly on the concluding work, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, op. 70. The group bit into the opening phrase, an aggressive tone that lasted for the entire work. It was a startlingly ferocious approach utterly at odds with the bucolic reading of the chamber orchestra arrangement heard from the Australian Chamber Orchestra last year. It made for some disappointing stridency, especially in the high ranges of the violins and viola, as the group struggled to find greater realms of sound.
Daniel Ginsberg, Borromeo Quartet's Whirlwind Weekend (Washington Post, May 19)
The final concerts at the Library of Congress will feature the Pacifica Quartet in an Elliott Carter program (May 29, 8 pm) and the Barnatan-Ferschtman-Weilerstein Trio (May 31, 8 pm). The same week, as part of the American Liszt Society's meeting, pianist Michele Campanella will play an all-Liszt concert at the Library of Congress (May 30, 8 pm).
Who told the Dallas Stars they could win games? Grr. Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
- It is likely that the overlap between musicians and those who played fantasy games in their youth is large -- er, not that I would know anything about that. In case we needed a reason to connect the two, Cory Doctorow directs us to a guide to using polyhedral dice to make random decisions in composing music. The comments are incredibly insightful -- Schoenberg and the serialists would not have wanted to use dice, but John Cage did. [Boing Boing]
- Matthew Guerrieri has posted a great response to Greg Sandow's recent article about the gentility of classical music. [Soho the Dog]
- Via Patty, perhaps this is what we can expect if we shake up the rules of classical concert etiquette? *shudder* [Oboeinsight]
- From Marc Geelhoed, the tragic story of the principal cellist of the Augusta Symphony Orchestra in Georgia. As reported in the Augusta Chronicle, David Reader was shot to death, apparently after a drug deal went bad. [Deceptively Simple]
- Peter Aidu plays Steve Reich's Piano Phase -- both pianos simultaneously. [Sequenza 21]
- From Musical America, the news that Bernard Holland will accept a buyout and retire from the New York Times. La Cieca exults. [Parterre Box]
- Speaking of buyouts, half the staff of the Washington Post is taking them, too. [DCist]
- The week has been filled with tributes to artist Robert Rauschenberg, who died on Monday of a sudden heart attack. Kriston Capps has a list of where you can see Rauschenberg's work around Washington. [DCist]
- Holy musicology! Ralph Locke -- Ralph Locke! -- will be blogging for a while this summer, replacing Phil Ford and Jonathan Bellman, who want a vacation or something. Worlds collide. [Dial "M" for Musicology]
- Via The Literary Saloon, The New Yorker has launched a blog about books. [The Book Bench]
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
Anthony Storr, in his excellent book Music and the Mind, stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. People sing together and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them having done so around the first fires, a hundred thousand years ago. This primal role of music is to some extent lost today, when we have a special class of composers and performers, with the rest of us often reduced to passive listening. We have to go to a concert, or a church, or a musical festival to reexperience music as a social activity, to recapture the collective excitement and bonding of music. In such a situation, music is a communal experience, and there seems to be, in some sense, an actual binding or "marriage" of nervous systems, a "neurogamy" (to use a word the early mesmerists favored).This passage reminded me of one of the most astounding religious experiences of my life. At a largely uninspired huge Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where I sing in the choir, there were musical contributions from various parts of the world. Before the entrance procession, the African contingent came down the center aisle, with women dancing in colorful gowns and hats and men beating this driving rhythm on large drums. I find most attempts to recreate "liturgical dance" to be kitschy and hopelessly fake, but even from where we were seated in a gallery far above the chancel, this made my heart race.
The binding is accomplished by rhythm -- not only heard but internalized, identically, in all who are present. Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and, since emotion is always intertwined with music, the "hearts") of all who participate. It is very difficult to remain detached, to resist being drawn into the rhythm of chanting or dancing. [...]
Augustine, in his Confessions, described how, on one occasion, he went to a gladiatorial show with an aloof young man who professed disgust and contempt at the scenes before him. But when the crowd grew excited and began a rhythmic roaring and stamping, the young man could resist no longer, and joined in as orgiastically as everyone else. I have had similar experiences in religious contexts, even though I am largely lacking in religious faith or feeling. When I was a boy, I loved Simchas Torah, the Rejoicing of the Law, which was celebrated, even in our normally sober Orthodox congregation, with ecstatic chanting and dancing round and round the synagogue.
-- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (2007), "Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement," pp. 244-246