'Le Déserteur': It's Seldom Done For Good Reason
Washington Post, January 31, 2009
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, Le Déserteur
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
What follows is some research on this opéra-comique that I could not use in the review. Hector Berlioz admired Le Déserteur for its dramatic ingenuity and cohesion, and Paule Druilhe, the author of the definitive biography of Monsigny, wrote that the work's "union of music and drama marked a decisive step away from the conventional comédie à ariettes." That is, rather than a silly plot that mostly just links together stock songs, Monsigny and librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine made a libretto that told a coherent story and that incorporated more complex musical numbers into the action, an unusual mix of comic and serious. A good example is in the prison scenes, where Sedaine balances Alexis's despair with the comic character Montauciel, who is drunk and full of insults. In fact, Karin Pendle called Montauciel "one of Sedaine's most remarkable characters," in her article published in Grétry et l'Europe de l'opéra-comique, edited by Philippe Vendrix. Monsigny dedicated the score to the Duc d’Orléans, a wealthy nobleman who became interested in the theater after an affair with a mistress who was a dancer; Monsigny had found his way into the Duc's service in 1768.
Heinrich Heine regarded the score as truly French music because of its "most serene grace, guileless sweetness, [and] freshness like wildflowers." Monsigny lived a long life (1729-1817), living through the French Revolution, but had a relatively short career. He was a sort of noble amateur who tried to make up for his lack of formal musical education with private lessons at various points in his life. Most listeners agreed that he had a natural melodic gift, and Grétry supposedly called him "the most tuneful of musicians." Druilhe attributes the "technical imperfections in his works" to the fact that he "relied on instinct rather than acquired technique," while the Baron von Grimm condemned Le Déserteur as the worst of Monsigny's works, an example of his poor harmonic ability and phrasing. Druilhe agrees that "his harmonic idiom has scarcely anything original to offer" but notes that his orchestration is innovative, like the dramatic use of drum in Le Déserteur.
Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817)
The Théâtre-Italien in Paris premiered the work on March 6, 1769, only a few years after the Italian Comedians and the Théâtre de la Foire had merged into the Théâtre-Italien in 1762. In the new troupe's first decade the orchestral forces were modest, estimated at twenty-two musicians, including the strings, two flutes or oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and one drum player (probably one of the string players who doubled on drum parts when needed). Information indicates that the chorus in the 1770s consisted of two or three singers per part. In one copy of the first edition of the score in the Library of Congress (M1500.M75 D3), the overture of Le Déserteur calls for two violin parts, viola, two oboes, two horns, two bassoons, and basse continue, although the bassoons often double the bass line and the oboes often double the violins.
The faked wedding scene (Act I, scene 5) calls for two violins on stage, as well as a musette and cornemuse, which are both types of rustic bagpipes. While they enter, there is a little piece called Marche des Gens de la noce, scored for strings and basse continue only). Monsigny calls for the tambour (drum) only to accompany the chorus of the king's troops (Act III, scene 12), and even then the drum is not given a notated part. Opera Lafayette, which had a separate percussion player on hand, understandably used drum much more often than that. The range of musical numbers includes simple, pleasing ariettes, dramatic set pieces, accompanied recitatives, duets and ensemble scenes, even a "fugue" (a trio with some clumsy contrapuntal sections).
Robert Levine, Opera Lafayette Presents Monsigny's "Le Déserteur" (Classics Today, February 5)
Paul du Quenoy, Le Deserteur, Opera Lafayette, Rose Theater, New York (Opera Critic, February 5)
John Wall, Le Déserteur (NewOlde.com, February 5)
Karren Alenier, Redeeming the Deserter (The Dressing, January 31)
Opera Lafayette's English narration removed many of the comic parts, often found in the witty dialogue, like the family talking over one another in the opening scene or dumb Jeannette's attempts to keep to the script she has been given. Her costuming indicates that Jeannette is supposed to carry a quenouille (or distaff, the part in spinning where you keep the unused thread, shaped like the plant we call the cattail or bullrush, found in swamps); she then pretends to look for her lost fuseau (spindle). Another copy of the first edition score in the Library of Congress (M1503.M765 D34), which I examined earlier this week, has French annotations made in pen, pencil, and colored pencil, apparently made by a conductor or prompter. Many lines of dialogue are crossed out, and there are cuts made to the musical numbers, too. Other lines and stage directions are added, and reminders of downward key transpositions are noted for more than one number (many of the roles have extended ranges). The Library of Congress also has some piano-vocal scores that record some of the English-language adaptations of Le Déserteur, as well as some of the ballet versions of the work.
Monsigny, Le Déserteur (excerpt), Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne (1994)
A couple years ago, every singer and her sister was making a Handel album. During that trend, soprano Natalie Dessay and conductor Emmanuelle Haïm teamed up to make a superlative Handel disc called Delirio. This new Bach album is not the first disc that has reunited Dessay with Le Concert d'Astrée in the years since, but it is the first solo album and it has been a favorite in my player since it came across my desk. Dessay's Bach cantata disc is not quite the equal of that Handel recital, not least because some of Dessay's mannerisms, like affective scooping, seem more cloying. Her voice has not fully returned to the angelic purity and stupefying pyrotechnical flair it had before her vocal surgery for nodes, but when she keeps the tone sharp and clean, it is still a marvel to hear. In fact, as noted of her Pamina in Santa Fe, there is more complexity to the sound now, which is a bonus.
Bach, Cantatas, N. Dessay, Le Concert D'Astrée, E. Haïm
(released on January 13, 2009)
Virgin Classics 50999 519314 2 1
What makes this disc so worth repeated listening is actually the playing of Le Concert d'Astrée, which Haïm has helped to present a rhythmically taut performance in a canvas of varied and pleasing colors. Neil Brough's trumpet makes a virtuosic double of Dessay's stratospheric acrobatics in Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51), and Haïm herself provides warm continuo support on harpsichord, with Yves Castagnet sharing the work on the portative organ. Ich habe genug (BWV 82a) and Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 99) -- all three cantatas are recorded complete -- are now both closely associated with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and singers who try to appropriate them may risk accusations of blasphemy. Again it is Haïm's ensemble who make these performances unique, with the dusky, note-perfect sound of the traverso (Alexis Kossenko and Olivier Bénichou) in BWV 82a and the plaintive oboe (Patrick Beaugiraud) in BWV 199. These are memorable performances, and one can only hope that Le Concert d'Astrée undertakes more Bach cantatas on disc.
Natalie Dessay and Emmanuelle Haïm, Alleluja (from BWV 51)
Other YouTube videos
Continuing our series on leading ladies of the opera world, after Renée Fleming's Strauss, Diana Damrau's Mozart disc has been in my player recently. This disc continues the happy collaboration between the German soprano and the French early music ensemble Le Cercle de l'Harmonie -- Damrau's recording debut, a (late) 2007 disc of bravura arias by Mozart, Salieri, and Righini has been nominated for a Midem Award in the Vocal Recital category. Jérémie Rhorer founded the group only in 2005, but they quickly embarked on a series of impressive recital discs with opera singers for Virgin Classics. We have been left gobsmacked by her Queen of the Night in Salzburg and New York (she has sung the role just about everywhere else, too, and it was recorded on the Arie di Bravura disc). Recently Jens pronounced Damrau "the most sublime Sophie [...] excited, naive yet also knowing" in the Munich Rosenkavalier in 2007, and he was equally impressed by her Aithra in Die ägyptische Helena at the Met. Damrau, named Singer of the Year 2008 by Opernwelt magazine, will finally make her Washington National Opera debut, in May 2010, as Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet.
Mozart, Opera and Concert Arias, D. Damrau, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, J. Rhorer
(released on October 28, 2008)
Virgin Classics 50999 2 12023 2 2
While readily admitting Damrau's prowess and achievement, I find the just-so-slightly acidic turn to her voice pleases less. Certainly that edge works remarkably well in the characterization of venomous characters like the Queen of the Night or Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito, but for an ultimate Mozart soprano give me a voice with a little more warmth and sheen like Natalie Dessay or Sandrine Piau, although Damrau's native pronunciation of German wins hands down. For all of Damrau's technical mastery -- and the runs are indeed mostly fleet and well-defined -- a recital like this is a rave if all the tracks are bold and hard to critique. That is not the case here, where some of the highest notes sound effortful and a little pointy and the fast passage work occasionally gets a little bogged down. The value is improved by the original-instrument sound of Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, especially the horns, traverso flutes, and basset-horn (Nicola Boud -- also on clarinet).
This week was Mozart’s Birthday, and what better way to celebrate than to spend a little time at the “MozartWoche” in Salzburg, one of the annual star-powered festivals in Salzburg.
Twenty three concerts in ten days, with artists Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, the Capuçon Bros., Dennis Russell Davies, Bernarda Fink, Martin Fröst, Christian Gerhaher, Susan Graham, Werner Güra, Magdalena Kožená, Marc Minkowski, Seiji Ozawa, Simon Rattle, András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, the Artemis-, Hagen-, and Minguet Quartets, Camerata Salzburg, Concentus Musikus Wien, Ensemble intercontemporain, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And that’s just a selection.
I skipped the first three days and started with what was supposed to a chamber performance of the Capuçons, Fröst, Antoine Tamestit (ARD Viola Prize Winner), and Sergio Tiempo. Unfortunately Tiempo got sick and Renaud Capuçon elected to practice the Berg Violin Concerto (due today in Munich with the BRSO) instead, and the replacement pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa was more pale patch than surprising delight. Her distressingly trivial Haydn Sonata (Hob:XVI 49) is best kept mum about, her Mozart B-minor Adagio K540 was made unbearable by a superimposed profundity of the shallowest kind, and both of Beethoven’s sets of Variations for Cello and Piano wouldn’t have been transformative experiences, even if Gautier Capuçon had elected to play in the same pitch as the pianist, rather than putting on the artiste, closed eyes, dramatically raised eyebrows, and all.
The chamber music fared much better. Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio in E-flat was the sole survivor of the original program (a tantalizing juxtaposition of just Birthday-Boy Mozart and Anniversary-Papa Haydn) and in this 2+1 trio, Föst and Tamestit gave an example of what musical communication in chamber music should be like. Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, a somewhat arbitrary filler, was appreciated for Fröst’s contribution who, even in a less than concentrated state, is incapable of unlovely music-making. He engages in the potentially distracting snake-charmer movements common to clarinetists, but closing one’s eyes confirms the consistent, unfettered and clear beauty of his tone.
The New Mozarteum is an impressive building, surprisingly aesthetic for its bulky size and rigorous modernist look. It contains a good sounding concert hall (“Solitaire”) with a spectacular view over the Mirabell Gardens over to the Mönchsberg. Waiting for Carolin Widmann, I hear sounds coming from the Solitaire upstairs that evoke a group of musicians testing the exact breaking point of a piano, cello, and violin. It turns out to have been Widmann & Co practicing Matthias Pintscher’s work “Svelto”. From the piano rooms in the back faint sounds of a student practicing the same Schumann phrase over and over round out the delicate cacophony.
I missed the performance of “Svelto” the next day, where it was part of an almost four hour long “Concert & Conversation”, juxtaposing Mozart with Pintscher. The idea of loosening up the ears with familiar sounds between the demanding complexities of modern works is great in theory. In practice, ensembles spend all their time practicing the new, difficult piece, and perform Mozart (or Haydn, or whatever else it may be) on autopilot. Mozart’s String Quartet in d-minor K421 suffered thus, with only the cellist attempting to bring calm and cohesion to the work, and then only for one movement.
Pintscher’s talk with Stephan Pauly about the world premiere of his “Study IV for Treatise on the Veil” for string quartet (inspired by Cy Twonbly’s painting of the same name) was full of empty phrases about “spatial relationships”, “states of density”, “duality and autonomy”: European feuilleton-speak of the worst kind, supported by projections of artworks by Giacometti, Beuys and of course Twombly. (The unintended comedic element of continuously pronouncing the work “Treatise on the Veal” was sadly lost on the rapt audience.) Strangely, some of those platitudes began taking on relevance during the half hour “Study IV”, and the fragile Giacometti sculptures received audial context.
The work comes across as a breathy study of sound, heavily muted sounds of a freight train station or under-water sea lion chatter, occasionally and violently punctuated by shrieks. The first violinist’s hitting the score in a few agitated moments could have been intentional or accident: with music like this, who knows. The score was, to the limited extend one could tell, performed superbly, delicately, and with enormous precision. It would have fit seamlessly into the exhibit of a modern art museum, which is part compliment, part warning: It’s aesthetically impressive art, but does being museum-bound make contemporary music instant taxidermist’s material, dead-on-arrival? Twenty minutes into “Study IV”, the first actual “string quartet sounds” appear, only to slip back into the atmospheric clatter. But the critical ear noted with surprise: The 30 minutes sounded like 15! “Study III for Treatise on the Veil” for violin solo—performed, fully engaged, by Carolin Widmann—followed, and it sounded like paper and stone—a bit like what might be left if a composition by Kaja Saariaho had all its music filtered out.
Mozart still didn’t get a particularly genial Birthday present in Alexander Lonquich’s Sonata in F, K533/494, but what a difference to the morning’s interpretation. Rather too bold and a little harsh, at least here was a concept and interpretive intent with which one could disagree, rather than no concept at all. The concert continued for another 90 minutes, with more Pintscher (said “Svelto” and “Janusgesicht for Viola and Cello”) and Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, but I had to run—not from the music, but to my next appointment.
The evening set the first musical exclamation mark. René Jacobs, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and the RIAS Chamber Choir presented Haydn’s Creation. A very homogeneous, wet sound (as if covered by several silken veils, down to the timpani), resulted in a warm and comfortable orchestral glow. Maximilian Schmitt, who had rid himself of the gray fuzziness that surrounded his voice for the first few minutes of the first and (after the break) third part, was surrounded by Johannes Weisser—strong and radiating—and strong yet mild, surprisingly dramatic soprano Julia Kleiter, whose comfortable voice has a brassy, matte golden hue, aided by spot-on accuracy. Dramatic also the smallish orchestra, which displayed the “roaring lions” with the most garish possible brass exclamation and made the floor boards creak at “Den Boden drückt der Tiere Last”. There was nothing chamber-like in the rousing, powerful contribution of the RIAS Chamber Choir. (An aside: Does anyone else hear hints of the First Act Finale of “L’Italiana in Algeri” in the music to “und ewig bleibt sein Ruhm”?)
Another treat, squeezed between a score of interviews, was experiencing Nicolaus Harnoncourt in rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, getting Haydn’s Harmoniemesse in B-flat ready for performance.
Fröst, meanwhile, got at it again on Tuesday, the 27th, when he played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 on the basset clarinet it was intended for. The sense that Fröst was not entirely at ease but encountered moments where he had to fight a little lent intensity to what might otherwise have been too sparkly and pretty a performance. The way he held the last note of the Adagio until it died away into infinity, just to jump immediately into the eagerly excited Rondo Allegro was just one of the touches that make his performances so special. He followed Mozart with Carter’s Clarinet Concerto after intermission, which had a more difficult stance with the audience. But with concentration and accuracy in ample supply by soloist and the Camerata Salzburg, the chamber qualities and violent whiplash of the work came through well.
It caught me by surprise, but most successful and remarkable was the conducting of Heinz Holliger. I thought of him as a instrumentalist and composer, known for his conducting primarily in modern repertoire. No revelation that his Carter was excellent. But how absolutely smudge-free the muscular neo-classicism of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin shone through French romanticism—full bodied and delicate—was truly special. And the concluding Military Symphony by Haydn was worthy of hyperbole. While its initial delightful, gentle sounds elicited a light chuckle of relief from the Carter-shocked audience, the violence and war indicated by the symphony’s title made their presence known just a few bars later. It turned out to be the most intensely theatrical reading, with the trumpets charging headlong into their music (just like the opening of Mahler’s Fifth), and the three man military percussion group marching into and through the auditorium in the finale. A gimmick, but delightful and impressive. Undoubtedly the best performance of this symphony I’ve ever heard—and well possibly the best live Haydn Symphony I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Haydn’s Symphony No.104 and Mozart’s Symphony in C, K338, aided and abetted by Christian Gerhaher in Mozart arias and Sándor Veress’ dark, brooding Elegie, were just about as fine.
Renée Fleming, one of the great living Straussian sopranos, already has a recording of the Four Last Songs, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, for RCA. Last fall, Decca released this live recording of an all-Strauss program Fleming gave with the Munich Philharmonic in April 2008, which opens with the Vier letzte Lieder. Fleming's first attempt at these celebrated twilight compositions was already an accomplished performance, although I have been listening to Jessye Norman for years as my reference recording. Fleming's second attempt is definitely an upgrade (you can listen online), not only in terms of the refinement (if not necessarily heft) of her voice and the quality of her German, but because the hand at the helm belongs to Christian Thielemann, perhaps the best Strauss conductor at the moment, and the orchestra is the Munich Philharmonic. The orchestral sound is a lush, color-rich fabric, with only some squeaky high strings detracting from the opening of September.
R. Strauss, Four Last Songs, R. Fleming, Munich Philharmonic, C. Thielemann
(released on September 16, 2008)
Fleming maintains that Strauss is her favorite composer to sing -- have a listen to the extensive NPR feature by Fleming about this recording. As she usually does in Strauss and similar music, Fleming keeps the scooping and other mannerisms to a minimum. Most strikingly, she achieves a fluid transparency in some of the songs' radiant moments, and Thielemann's forces respond with warm, gentle sounds, especially in the languorous Beim Schlafengehen. In the rest of the selections -- excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos and Die ägyptische Helena, as well as a set of four songs recorded by Fleming for the first time here -- the vocal instrument is ideal for Strauss, a broad swath of sound with a burnished low range, power and the ability to control it, and dynamic range. For a couple extra dollars at the reduced prices now listed at Amazon, the devoted Fleming fan should probably buy the Deluxe Edition, which includes the Strauss disc plus a bonus CD containing another hour's worth of performances of La Fleming's signature roles at the Met (not necessarily recorded at the Met) -- Otello, Eugene Onegin, Rusalka, Thaïs, and Capriccio.
Mendelssohn on the Mall celebrates the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth and is sponsored by the Library of Congress, National Academy of Sciences, and National Gallery of Art. Last weekend, the
Fine Arts Quartet (NB: with former violist)
latter venue NGA, at their regular free-of-charge Sunday evening time, hosted an exquisite concert (.PDF file) by the Fine Arts String Quartet in front of a full house.
Often described as having one foot in the Classical period and the other moving on into Romanticism, Mendelssohn wrote for string quartet in a way that leaned heavily toward the former, whereas his writing for piano often more adventurously encompasses the latter, especially in the fiery piano trios. The program opened with two single-movement works -- the Capriccio in E Minor, from 1843, and the Scherzo in A Minor, from 1827 -- each full of charm, while exuding a positive brightness uniquely found in the minor modes. The Fine Arts Quartet’s gentle use of vibrato and carefully synchronized bow control was well suited to the wet acoustic of the West Garden Court. Furthermore, their statuesque demeanor allowed the music to flow through the performers as vessels. The people listening most intently in the room last Sunday were indeed the performers, whose intonation, tempos (fast notes never seemed fast) and ensemble were on par with the about-to-retire Guarneri Quartet (who will make their final appearance in Washington on February 10 at the Terrace Theater).
As they moved through the quartets (E-flat major, from 1829, and D major, from 1838) in all of their sense of victory, grace, and poise, one began to wish for the Fine Arts Quartet to push the envelope of a melodic phrase, put the flex in flexible tempo, or even misplace a note -- after all this was not Haydn or Mozart! Finally, in the penultimate movement of the concert, the third movement of the D major quartet (Andante espressivo ma con moto), the musicians took the tempo indication of espressivo as a direct instruction to milk it, with delicious results. The encore was the finale from Haydn’s “Lark” quartet, likely programmed to reinforce the musicians’ inclination to frame Mendelssohn narrowly as a Classicist. We hope to see the Fine Arts Quartet in the Washington area more frequently.
Daniel Ginsberg, Mendelssohn Experimented, and Fine Arts Gets Results (Washington Post, January 27)
Next Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery of Art (February 1, 6:30 pm) will feature pianist Ulrich Urban, playing more music by Mendelssohn, as well as some by other composers.
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
The Triple Helix Piano Trio, since its founding in 1995, has made contemporary music for this combination of instruments its focus, and that was the best part of their concert at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon. Of several performances of Shostakovich's second piano trio (E minor, op. 67) recently in our ears -- by Natalia Gutman and colleagues, the Beaux Arts Trio, and the Amadeus Trio -- this was the most viciously savage and bloodthirsty rendition (also featured on Triple Helix's 2004 recording, A Sense of Place, from MSR Classics). The ironically Pollyanna-ish tune of the first movement had an acerbic tone biting behind it, and there was nothing humorous about the danse macabre had nothing remotely funny about it, marked by machine-gun motifs and martial trumpet calls. The harmonics that placed Rhonda Rider's cello above the violin line in the surreal opening passage of this work were a little brittle and unsure, as was the E string playing of violinist Bayla Keyes, although her opening lament in the third movement was gorgeous.
Triple Helix Piano Trio, A Sense of Place (Shostakovich, Ravel, Bright Sheng)
Pianist Lois Shapiro struggled to shoehorn the music on this program into a theme that tied it to the Corcoran's exhibit of Richard Avedon's photographs, identifying the theme as "Voices from the Flames: Music That Reaches toward Transcendence." This worked in the second half of the concert, because the Shostakovich E minor trio was composed as a reaction to the death of the composer's friend at Treblinka, tying in to the theme of powerlessness as the obverse of Avedon's theme of Portraits of Power. It tied in well with the work that opened the second half, too, Abu Ghraib, a 2006 duo for cello and piano composed by John Harbison (b. 1938) for Rhonda Rider. The work opens with the cello and piano in heterophonic dissonance, and much of its two movements is focused on the lamenting wail of the cello, which opens the second half, or Prayer, of each movement. Harbison's style is often dissonant but not stridently or exclusively so, with a music box-like use of the piano in the first movement and the sing-songy adaptation of an Iraqi folk song and percussive strikes on the keyboard cover in the second. It is a worthwhile piece of music, a profound statement in response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, and hopefully the group will record it soon.
That is where the theme broke down, as the first half was completely unconnected, in spite of Shapiro's attempts to make connections. Arno Babadjanian's 1953 piano trio made some general references to, not citations of, Armenian folk song, but it mostly sounded like a folksy version of Rachmaninov, sugary harmonies with a few flat sevenths and flat thirds thrown in. It would have probably been enough for the first half, since it ran long to my ears and could have benefited from some judicious cutting. Shapiro's hammering touch at the piano worked well in the modo barbaro 5/4 last movement of the Babadjanian trio, as it did in the Harbison and Shostakovich, but it was far too harsh in the opening Mozart selection, the G minor piano quartet, K. 478, as in the first movement's development section, where its part has so little interest. There were some technical issues, too, a slight gumminess in the right hand figuration at points (some of the tempo choices were overly ambitious). It made one think that the program would have been improved by omitting the Mozart altogether, but that would have obviated the need to invite an Ionarts favorite, violist Roger Tapping, to join the group. Not only was his contribution to the Mozart valuable, but as it turned out, another expertise of his was required when, in the second half, he was called on to replace a disastrous page-turner.
The next concert in the Corcoran's Musical Afternoon Series will feature the Auryn Quartet in an all-Beethoven program (February 8, 4 pm).
Sudbin danced through most of the challenges of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, his right hand sparkling aquatically in Ondine (links are to YouTube videos) and giving a satisfying melodic arch to the melodic line floating above and within the non-stop figuration. His impatience -- felt in his no-nonsense manner on the stage, too, cutting short applause to move on to the next piece, taking the stage after intermission before the audience was seated -- caused him to gloss over many details. The clanging bell in a somber but rushed Le Gibet vanished in some places, and a manic, neurotic Scarbo missed much of the movement's impish jocosity. Even at daring speeds, Sudbin dropped few notes, but one is left with the impression that he may be too good for his own good, although he will certainly continue to be a performer to follow as he matures.
With the impetuous opening to the recital, Haydn's B minor sonata (Hob. XVI:32), it was clear that this was not going to be retiring Haydn. Digging into the Rococo ornamentation and the bass line, Sudbin made no pretense of pretending the Steinway was a fortepiano. He did use the instrument's soft side, looping out whorls of feathery funs, especially in the graceful but somewhat languorous Menuet, and sometimes went heavy on the sustaining pedal. A wild Presto gave the last movement's repeated note theme an obsessive quality. The C major sonata (Hob. XVI:50) was less striking, at least partially because it is heard more frequently, but the foamy embellishments of the first movement (.MP3 file), the dreamy flights of fancy in the second (.MP3 file), and the rat-a-tat joking of the third (.MP3 file) sustained the work. Both performances point toward what will be an exciting Haydn disc, which is reportedly in the works.
Anne Midgette, Yevgeny Sudbin Brings Dark, Rich Tones to Kennedy Center (Washington Post, January 26)
Lawrence A. Johnson, Pianist Sudbin shows power, not always poetry (South Florida Classical Review, January 22)
The next recitals sponsored by WPAS will feature violinist Nicola Benedetti (February 3, 7:30 pm) and pianist Simone Dinnerstein (February 7, 2 pm), both in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
America, thank you for your visit to Washington, D.C. The next time you come to see us, perhaps you could do a better job of cleaning up your trash. Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
- My regret at missing American Opera Theater's production of Philip Glass's Hydrogen Jukebox was mitigated by standing on Miami Beach in the sunny 75° weather. The Post did not review the production either, but fellow blogger Karren Alenier liked it, as did, more surprisingly perhaps, T. L. Ponick. [Washington Times]
- Congratulations to Bruce Hodges, who celebrates his third blog birthday! [Monotonous Forest]
- Musically speaking, what I loved most about the Presidential Inauguration was the jazz, even Herbie Hancock trying to make something happen with that terrible keyboard. (That, and the music that, to my ears, is the most authentically American spiritual sound, Gospel. On your next visit to Washington, go to the 11 am Sunday Mass at my local parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, to understand what I mean.) Leave it to the always perceptive Nat Hentoff to remind us of the reasons why jazz is so important. All American students should have to learn about it. I know that mine do. [Wall Street Journal]
- As noted by Alex Ross, the composer George Perle -- student of Ernst Krenek, MacArthur Fellow, and Pulitzer Prize winner -- has died. [New York Times]
- Something else was inaugurated this week, the new Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen, designed by architect Jean Nouvel and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. George Loomis was there to give ear to the opening gala performance by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under conductor Thomas Dausgaard. [Financial Times]
Dusapin, Apex et al., Lyon NO / Krivine & Robertson (oop?)
Ravel, Piano Concerto, Li / BPh / Ozawa
Ravel, Piano Concerto, Zimerman/ ClevO/ Boulez
Berlioz, Sym.Fantastique, C.Munch / BSO
The National Symphony Orchestra offered an all-French evening (1/23/09) that turned out to be even more French than I had anticipated. Thanks to my confusion concerning the time of the concert (8PM instead of 7), I arrived at the Kennedy Center more than an hour early. My reward was a performance of the Ravel String Quartet, which took place in the lobby as part of the free Millennium Stage presentations. The four contributing musicians are not a name string quartet, but they played like one. They gave a mesmerizing performance of this deliciously dreamy music that seems to emerge out the haze of a semi-conscious state. In the third movement, marked Tres lent, the music itself seems almost to fall asleep, so deeply lost in reverie it becomes. These four musicians, who deserve mention – Carole Tafoya Evans, violin; Susan Midkiff, violin; Nancy Thomas, viola; and Mark Evans, cello – captured Ravel’s evanescent beauty. It was a singular treat, all the more appreciated for being unexpected. The main course was orchestral, beginning with the North American première of Pascal Dusapin’s Apex, which offered sheets of orchestral sonorities, punctuated by timpani, growing and subsiding for no apparent reason. At times, the rhythm was barely discernable, so I watched conductor Emmanuel Krivine keep time. Apex seems more of a study for a composition than a composition. It was in a constant state of becoming, yet it never became. It almost seemed to be developing into something, but then it lapsed back into becoming again. It was unencumbered by melody. I have heard some interesting, highly imaginative pieces from Dusapin, but this is not one of them. Workbench material.
The main course was orchestral, beginning with the North American première of Pascal Dusapin’s Apex, which offered sheets of orchestral sonorities, punctuated by timpani, growing and subsiding for no apparent reason. At times, the rhythm was barely discernable, so I watched conductor Emmanuel Krivine keep time. Apex seems more of a study for a composition than a composition. It was in a constant state of becoming, yet it never became. It almost seemed to be developing into something, but then it lapsed back into becoming again. It was unencumbered by melody. I have heard some interesting, highly imaginative pieces from Dusapin, but this is not one of them. Workbench material.
The Ravel Piano Concerto in G major needs no introduction. It is one of the most delightful confections of the first half of the 20th century. It is Ravel on a lark. The NSO was on its toes and kept there by Krivine’s incisive beat. They captured the musical toy-box sound at the outset, as well as the echoes of Stravinsky and, of course, the glaring influence of George Gershwin. Pianist Yundi Li (who recorded this concerto with Berlin Philharmonic under Ozawa) played faultlessly but lacked warmth and a bit of nuance. There was little sense of play within his part. He was not on a lark. It is undoubtedly a challenge to distill the unique French blend of insouciance and sentiment, and this performance had the feel of international blandness. Overall, the performance was brut, and I would have preferred sec.
The unalloyed delight of the orchestral part of the evening was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Krivine and the NSO delivered highly alert, rhythmically alive playing that also had the merit of complete transparency in even the most complex passages of this sometimes phantasmagoric music. They caught all the excitement without a strand of hair out of place. Krivine has an excellent ear for detail, without sacrificing the big picture. The orchestra played so wonderfully well in all sections that it may be unfair to point out that the first chair wind players were particularly outstanding. But then so were the strings, the brass, the timpani, and… You see the point? C’etait le meilleur!
Although Elliott Carter had at least some facility at the piano himself, the famously centenarian composer did not compose at the keyboard or pass through a piano sketch phase to reach the final version of most of his works. In the fine liner essay to this reference recording of Elliott Carter's piano works, Bayan Northcott observes that "until his 86th year, [Carter's] published catalogue for solo piano comprised just two scores: the Sonata for Piano (1945-46) and Night Fantasies (1980)." The lion's share of this Carter centenary disc, recorded by the pianist and champion of contemporary music Ursula Oppens, is devoted to those two works, which represent the two poles of Carter's compositional development.
E. Carter, Complete [Solo] Piano Music
(released on October 14, 2008)
Cedille CDR 90000 108
Oppens turns in a masterful reading of the sonata, if still not supplanting the unparalleled version by Charles Rosen. We were lucky enough to hear Rosen play the work live at La Maison Française a few years ago, the best way to experience this music, because the fragile overtone effects are difficult to capture in recording. Night Fantasies was commissioned by Oppens, Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, and Charles Rosen, and the latter has called it "the most significant new contribution to the repertoire of transcendental pianism since Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit." Where the piano sonata is the last gasp of Carter's Boulanger-esque neoclassical style, Night Fantasies marked a switch to much greater rhythmic and harmonic complexity. Oppens was the one who had to premiere the work in 1980, and it is a good thing that she is able to receive audience booing in the best light -- she is an able ambassador for some blisteringly difficult writing.
The music on the rest of the disc consists of short character pieces from the last two decades. Oppens has included two world premiere tracks: Matribute, from 2007, and Caténaires, from 2006. The latter is the most successful miniature Carter has composed for the piano, at the tender age of 98, a Prokofiev-style moto perpetuo toccata of repeated notes and jabs of sound that served quite nicely as an encore for Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Shriver Hall recital last year. For these and the other works composed since 1999 (Retrouvailles, from 2000, Two Diversions, a piece for children from 1999 that we heard played by Jean-Marie Cottet at La Maison Française, and Intermittences, from 2006), Oppens supersedes the earlier Rosen disc in terms of its completeness. However, the final track of that 1997 disc, a conversation between Rosen and Carter, makes it still valuable for Carter completists (all five of you).
Take the chance to hear Ursula Oppens, joined by pianist Amy Briggs, when they perform with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra for Mozart Dances, presented by the Mark Morris Dance Group (January 29 to 31) at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. The music includes two Mozart piano concertos (K. 413 and 595), as well as the D major sonata for two pianos (K. 448).
The Thursday evening performance at the Music Center at Strathmore showed the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at their finest: poised, stylish, and featuring their own Principal Oboist Katherine Needleman (pictured) as concerto soloist to a nearly full house.
In Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major (“Military”) the orchestra was reduced to chamber forces and struck the elusive balance of exuding both strength and lightness simultaneously. Leadership of this stylishness was shared equally by guest conductor Carlos Kalmar and concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The combination of Haydn’s bright key, perfect tempos, and cohesive ensemble drew the listener into a heightened receptive awareness. The joy experienced from tuttis of excessive triangle and bass drum remedied any muddled clarity in the quick, repeated notes of the top of the theme of the final Presto movement.
It is likely that Bohuslav Martinů's Oboe Concerto was new to most ears in the hall; however, many in the audience likely were in attendance to hear Baltimore native Katherine Needleman in the solo part. With soaring and sparkling tone, Needleman and the orchestra – with the help of the piano – created unique neoclassical flavors for the audience to savor. Each of the soloist’s notes were clear, while faster groupings sparkled. Neo-Baroque dialogues and echoes in the final movement between the soloist and herself provided a contrast to the piano clusters under the soloist and multiple cadenzas in the second and third movements that were always lyrical, even if busy. The quality of Needleman’s musicianship is testament to the legacy of her teacher Richard Woodhams, Principal Oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, and the musical ancestry of his teachers.
The BSO gave a contained reading of Dvořák’s eight Slavonic Dances with meticulous control of volume and flexible tempo. Although the conductor generally seemed to conduct with the orchestra instead of being ahead, the outcome was splendid, despite that your reviewer is not quite sure if the concertmaster or conductor was really in charge. The string sections were at their utmost lushness for the stylish waltzes and the brass never went overboard until the very end. Do not wait to purchase your tickets.
Tim Smith, Kalmar leads BSO in colorful, engaging program (Clef Notes, January 23)
This concert will be repeated this evening (January 23, 8 pm) and, in a reduced Casual Concert version -- without the Martinů oboe concerto -- tomorrow morning (January 24, 11 am), both in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.
Intendant Klaus Bachler has brought Pfitzner’s Magnum Opus, “Palestrina” back to the stage of the Bavarian State Opera where it had been premiered 92 years ago. Although co-produced with the Hamburg State Opera, this was to be a “Munichean affair”, and Bachler hand picked Christian Stückl, a Bavarian wood carver-cum-theater director probably best known for being in charge of the Oberammergau Passion Play.
By his own admission, Stückl, doesn’t much like “Palestrina”, finding more redeeming qualities even in Salieri’s “La Cifra”. No one will blame him for trashing the libretto, though, written by Pfitzner himself and amounting to little more than brutally purple, pseudo-Wagnerian prose from which one could quote at length to humorous effect.
The subject is the 16th century composer Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina who prevents music being banned from church service at the council of Trent through his ingenious mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli, written under distress, angelic influence, and breaking his writer’s block. A sub-plot has his student Silla decide that the old master’s traditional ways are not suited to his creative endeavors and plans to move to that secular sin-city of free roaming artists, Florence.
This would be a fine opportunity to stage the conflict of art and politics and the tension of traditional and modern art in times of renewal. That potential was undoubtedly what fascinated Thomas Mann and Bruno Walter at the premiere. And indeed, it could be terrific sujet, but Pfitzner wastes more opportunities than he takes, and Stückl’s superficial production misses most that are left. For a theater director being in charge, there was surprisingly little coordination of the singers’ acting. The monochromatic stage and costumes—black, white, hot pink, and absinth green—by Stefan Hageneier, were visually appealing at first, but became gimmicky by the time the three-and-a-half hours of music concluded.
One of the problems of “Palestrina” is that there is too much text for the music and too little action for the text. The first act, 100 minutes, is overlong and its drama moves tediously. The next act sounds and reads like a secular second coming of Die Meistersinger. Instead of zooming in on the conflict of arts and politics, it is 70 minutes of clerical Barnum & Bailey in robes… but at least it offers plenty action. The third act, with strong shades of Parsifal, is most satisfying musically and—refreshingly—only thirty minutes long.
Musically, matters were in solid hands with Simone Young, decisively navigating the Bavarian State Orchestra through two acts before losing focus in the third. But one could not help to wonder what might have been made of this, had Bachler managed to make this truly a Munich affair and lure Christian Thielemann, to whom Pfitzner’s idiom speaks so well, into the pit. Troubled operas need all the help they can get and Pfitzner’s music needs great performances to appear great. Merely competent outings smother its potential.
Some singers were outstanding in the otherwise evenly good Munich cast: Most notably the Bernardo Novagerio of John Daszak, whose controlled and comfortable tenor rang with clarity throughout. Christiane Kart brought a much needed high voice to this opera without female characters, and her Ighino, the son of Palestrina, was bright and strong, with a young and tightly-luscious vibrato anywhere above her weaker low register.
“In-house baritone” Michael Volle was his usual compelling self as Morone, bass Peter Rose hit even the lowest of Pope Pius IV’s low notes with seeming ease, and tenor Christopher Ventris in the title role was commendable, but paled a bit next to the ruthlessly booming baritone Falk Struckmann who apparently so takes to his role as Carlo Borromeo that he’ll perform it again when the Frankfurt Opera premieres its Pfitzner in June.
There are many better operas more neglected, and many worse operas performed more often. It’s good to have “Palestrina” back in Munich, but Pfitzner ultimately needs a more sympathetic and concentrated treatment to convince those who don’t already believe in the work’s flawed greatness.
All pictures © Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera
A photo-journal of "Palestrina", put together by Matt Blank, can be found at Playbill Arts.com.
Pfitzner, Palestrina, R.Kubelik / BRSO / Fischer-Dieskau, Fassbaender, Prey, Donath, Weikl et al.
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
After a reflective slow movement, the final movement of Grand Pianola Music, entitled "On the Dominant Divide," begins with a long, sustained dominant seventh chord that pulses and throbs for sixty bars before it finally disgorges a virtual Niagara of piano arpeggios. What follows is a melody that sounds utterly familiar, like an "Ur-melodie." You think you've heard it before but can't quite recall when or where. In fact it is an original tune. Back and forth over that most fundamental of all tonal progressions -- tonic-dominant-tonic -- the pianos rock and roll while the brass and drums offer increasing ballast.I have to admit that I am heartened to hear audiences booing something, even if the booing seems unmerited in my opinion. So much about concert life these days seems staid and polite (as Adams puts it, too) -- the obligatory standing ovation that is really just a prelude to the sprint for the parking garage. If there is really vociferous cheering or booing, at least it seems like the audience gives a damn. The same is true, to me at least, about critical reviewing -- wasn't Franz Welser-Möst better off with Donald Rosenberg as the thorn in his side, à la Leonard Bernstein and Harold Schonberg? The conflict between concert hall and newsprint page galvanizes listeners in their opposing camps, too, in the tradition of the great French musical querelles (the bouffons vs. the French opera fanatics, the Gluckistes vs. the Piccinnistes). This is what we will lose if independent newspapers do not find a way to reinvent themselves -- a platform large enough for vigorous cultural debate. So, musicians, take a lesson from Ursula Oppens and love the booing.
It was a P. T. Barnum of a work, and on its first performance in February 1982 in the grimy Japan Center Theater in San Francisco the befuddled audience didn't know whether to cheer or maintain a stony silence. A performance several months later at Avery Fisher Hall in New York actually did elicit some partisan boos, thereby giving the piece the luster of scandal, a value-added benefit by now rare in the otherwise tepid and polite world of contemporary art music. When I went onstage to take a bow the blood rushed to my face at the sound of the booing, but the pianist Ursula Oppens, a veteran of countless contemporary music concerts, grabbed my hand and said, "Oh, my god, they're actually booing . . . don't you just love it?"
-- John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (2008), pp. 117-118
Here's a straight list of the nominations for the 2009 Midem Awards, probably the most meaningful classical music awards there are, since they are neither gimmicky (Grammy) nor bought by advertising money (Gramophone, Klassik Echo et al.).
My would-be-choices are underlined wherever I've actually heard all three contenders or where I found a recording particularly striking on its own account.
- Estampies & Danses Royales
Hesperion XXI, Jordi Savall
- Monteverdi - Quinto Libro dei Madrigali - 1605
- Crystal Tears (John Dowland and His Contemporaries)
Andreas Scholl, Concerto di Viole, Julian Behr
- Biber – Rosenkranz Sonaten (Complete Recording)
Riccardo Minasi, Bizzarrie Armoniche
- Schütz - Geistliche Chor-Music 1648
Dresdner Kammerchor, Cappella Sagittariana, Hans-Christoph Rademann
- Carestini - The Story of a Castrato
Philippe Jaroussky, Le Concert d'Astrée, Emmanuelle Haïm
- Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin
Christoph Prégardien, Michael Gees
- Melancholie (Schumann - Various Lieder)
Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber (Review)
- Arie di Bravura (Mozart, Salieri, Righini)
Diana Damrau, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, Jérémie Rhorer
- Handel - Messiah
Sampson, Wyn-Rogers, Padmore, Purves, The Sixteen, Christophers
- Ives – Psalms (Complete Recording)
Lustig, Pfeifer, Johannsen, Creed, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Collegium Iuvenum, Mitglieder des Radio-Sinfonieorchesters Stuttgart des SWR
- Schumann – Das Paradies und die Peri
Röschmann, Hartelius, Martin, Fink, Strehl, Güra, Gerhaher, Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Harnoncourt
- Beethoven - Complete Works for Piano Solo, Vol. 6 (Appassionata, etc.)
- Debussy - Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2
- Bach - Partitas 2, 3, 4
- Beethoven - Complete Works for Piano and Cello
Antonio Meneses, Menahem Pressler
- Schumann - The Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 – 3
Carolin Widmann, Dénes Várjon (mini-review, interview forthcoming)
- Janacek - String Quartet No. 1 / Haas - String Quartets Nos. 1 + 3
Pavel Haas Quartet
- Sciarrino - Lohengrin
Alberti, Pousseur, Ensemble Risognanze, Ceccherini
- Janáček - The Excursions of Mr. Brouček
Vacik, Straka, Janál, Haan, Plech, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bělohlávek
- Cherubini - Lodoïska
Soloviy, Pańko, Szlenkier, Kröner, Lhôte, Gierlach, Łukomski, Kowalski, Desoń, Smołka, Styszko, Deiber, Polish Radio Choir Kraków, Camerata Silesia, Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Warsaw, Borowicz
Ludwig van Beethoven Association / Polskie Radio 5907812241858
- Kurtág: 80 - …Concertante, Zwiegespräch, Hipartita, etc.
Kikuchi, Hakii, G.Kurtág, M.Kurtág, Keller Quartet, Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Kocsis
- Nono - Prometeo, Tragedia dell’ascolto
Hoffmann, Bair-Ivenz, Otto, Frenkel, Mayer, Schell, Dalal, Solistenchor Freiburg, Ensemble Recherche, Richard, Hirsch, Ryan
- Saariaho - Notes on Light, Orion, Mirage
Mattila, Karttunen, Orchestre de Paris, Eschenbach
- Beethoven - The Five Piano Concertos
Paul Badura-Skoda, Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen
- Fritz Busch – His Complete Dresden Recordings (1923 – 1932)
Roselle, Schöffler, Tessmer, Sigmund, Pauly Dreesen, Staatskapelle Dresden, Busch
- Beethoven - Piano Concerto No.3 / Sibelius - Symphony No.5
Glenn Gould, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
- Bartók - Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra / Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.1 / Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Stefanovich, Aimard, Thomas, Percy, Kremer, Bashmet, London Symphony Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker, Boulez
- Handel - Organ Concertos op. 4
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
- Mozart - Piano Concertos, Vol.3 (KV 453 + 456)
Christian Zacharias, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne
- Mozart - Symphonies Nos. 38 – 41
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras
- Mahler - Symphony No.4
Mojca Erdmann, Bamberger Symphoniker, Jonathan Nott
- Beethoven - Symphonies 1 - 9, Overtures
Kaappola, Kielland, Schäfer, Bauer, Anima Eterna, van Immerseel
- Pickard - The Flight of Icarus, The Spindle of Necessity, Channel Firing
Lindberg, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Brabbins
- Marais – Sémélé
Mercer, Tauran, Azzaretti, Thébault, Dahlin, Dolié, Abadie, Labonnette,
Le Concert Spirituel, Niquet
- Wellesz - String Quartets Nos. 3, 4, 6
Artis Quartett Wien
DVD: Opera / Ballet
- Busoni - Doktor Faust
Hampson, Groissböck, Kunde, Macias, Trattnigg, Zysset, Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, Jordan, Grüber, Arroyo, Dessecker, Breisach
- Adams - Doctor Atomic
Finley, Rivera, Owens, Fink, Maddalena, Glenn, Morris, Rabiner, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, Renes, Sellars, Lobel, Ramicova
- Donizetti - La Fille du Régiment
Dessay, Flórez, Palmer, Corbelli, Maxwell, French, Secombe, Price, Blanchard, The Royal Opera Chorus, The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Campanella, Pelly, Thomas, Lough
- Christa Ludwig - The Birthday Edition (Schubert, Mahler, Wolf, Strauss, Bernstein)
Christa Ludwig, Charles Spencer, Sánchez Lansch, Viller
- Lazar Berman - The 1988 Tokyo Recital (Schumann, Liszt, Wagner-Liszt, Schubert-Liszt, Rachmaninov)
- Mahler - Symphony No.3
Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado, Beyer
- Itzhak Perlman - Virtuoso Violinist (Sarasate, Beethoven, etc.)
Perlman, Zukerman, Ashkenazy, Harrell, Canino, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Foster, etc.
- Herbert von Karajan - Maestro for the Screen
Herbert von Karajan, Wübbolt
- Martha Argerich - Evening Talks
Martha Argerich, Gachot