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30.11.09

Chestnuts Not Only for Open Fires

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See my annual roundup of holiday concerts, both good and bad, published at DCist today:

Get Your Yuletide Cheer: Holiday Concerts, November 30

Christmas cheer is inevitable this time of year, but when it comes to holiday music, the range of choices can be daunting. Each year, we pick out what we think will be the most interesting concerts, the ones that will (hopefully) not make you roll your eyes. If you want something more traditional — your carol medleys, your Messiah, your Nutcracker — it's all after the jump.

NOT THE SAME OLD CHRISTMAS:
>> Members of the Washington Bach Consort will present one of Bach's cantatas for Christmas Day, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, for its Noontime Cantata series at Church of the Epiphany (December 1, 12:10 p.m.). It's free!

>> Celebrate the end of the Haydn Anniversary Year with the concert for St. Nicholas's Day by Chantry and Modern Musick at St. Mary, Mother of God (December 5, 8 p.m.). Haydn's Missa Sancti Nicolai is combined with medieval and Renaissance works devoted to St. Nicholas.

Pappano's Verdi Requiem

available at Amazon
Verdi, Messa Da Requiem, A. Harteros, S. Ganassi, R. Villazón, R. Pape, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, A. Pappano

(released on October 6, 2009)
EMI 6 98936 2 | 84'10"
Giuseppe Verdi's bombastic but intensely pious setting of the Latin Requiem Mass was the composer's tribute for the first anniversary of the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni, the author of Italy's most famous novel, I Promessi Sposi. It is now so popular with audiences that it is performed in Washington regularly by one big chorus or another, pretty much at least once a year (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and twice in 2009 -- and that's surely having missed a couple). There is certainly no shortage of fine recordings, either -- for years I listened to an LP of the fabulous recording with Jussi Björling and Leontyne Price (now on CD for a steal). Of recent recordings, Harnoncourt is the most to my liking, because it is the farthest from the often overblown, operatic performance most conductors favor, like Gustavo Dudamel, who is either magnificently theatrical or The Dud, depending on whom you read.

Antonio Pappano heads up the fiery orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in this new recording. It is a fine version, marked with some of the conductor's individual touches, like having the chorus pronounce the words "Quantus tremor est futurus" (in the Dies irae) almost in a terrified whisper, with most of the pitch drained out in favor of dry consonants (Verdi marked this entrance only ppp sotto voce). The first track is introduced by about thirty seconds of silence, perhaps an attempt to create a reverent acoustic feeling -- after only a few listenings, it became annoying. It is an intensely exciting performance, with a lot of orchestral fire backing up a good -- if not superlative -- vocal quartet.

The best of the four is the striking soprano Anja Harteros, who on her current vocal track will likely produce a stunning performance in this work later in life, heard here as an extremely potent kernel. Rolando Villazón does not implode vocally, which given his recent troubled history is an achievement (the recording was made in Rome this past January). René Pape is his usual reliable self, a sturdy bass that sounds always full but sometimes, oddly, with a leathery confidence that can get a little boring. In short, a good recording but not one that leaps to the top of an already crowded field.

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 2)


This continues "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.8 (Part 1)"


available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Wit / Warsaw PO
Naxos

UK | DE | FR
For a while, the Mahler Eight with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos was the only recording (easily) available in the U.S. that comes close to Ozawa’s splendor. Classics Today sings its praises loudly (then again, Classics Today sings “The 5 Browns” praises loudly, too) and indeed, it is a grand, a weighty, a magnificent reading. The timings are incidentally similar to Ozawa’s: 6:25 for “Alles Vergängliche,” 23:56 for “Veni, Creator Spiritus”—although minutes and seconds rarely tell the whole story about any Mahler symphony. Wit knows how to handle large orchestral forces: His 2000 recording of Messiaen’s Symphonie Turangalila (with the Polish Radio SO) was the disc that turned me on to Naxos as a high quality in label in the first place; a Turangalila to hold its pride of place against Chung (DG) and Nagano (Warner). The Mahler meanwhile is well paced (at just under 81 minutes the Naxos engineers were sadly unable to fit it onto one disc, eating up the Naxos price advantage), this is the kind of “Continental” interpretation I need to hear in the Eighth.

29.11.09

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.8 (Part 1)


Continued here: "GUSTAV MAHLER — SYMPHONY NO.8 (PART 2)"


The garishly divine Eighth Symphony is the oddest beast of Mahler’s, by far. Not because it is difficult to come to terms with (although it can be that, too—even if the Third and Seventh raise more question marks) or difficult to enjoy. In fact, given the right amount of patience necessary for any of his symphonies, the Eighth might be more easily enjoyed than most his other symphonies. Grandeur and bombast and a very different musical language—less dense, not Angst-driven, one might even say: confident and optimistic (for once!)—make for that. It sticks out from the rest like a sour thumb, and card carrying Mahler-fanatics tends to look down a little on this Schmachtfetzen (weepy rag).

Hamming up the mentioned grandeur and the work will irredeemably descend into pomposity. The admittedly effective nickname, “Symphony of a Thousand”—coined by the impresario Emil Gutmann—has not always been helpful to that effect.


available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Solti / CSO
Decca

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, Rattle / CoBSO
EMI

UK | DE | FR
In this work it is necessary to capture the second movement on the concluding part of Goethe’s Faust II just right—and all too often conductors get it just wrong. There seems an incorrigible trend—especially among Anglo-type conductors (I include Chicago-Solti here)—to meet the symphony in both movements with stride, élan, purpose, and goal. Nothing could be more harmful to a work that must shimmer, hover, only evoke, never proclaim. Faust II is, frankly, a drug-hazed, weird read—and although once part of the basic canon of German literature—Mahler knew sections by heart, has very much gone out of fashion. I wonder how many conductors slug through it, before tackling the Mahler Eighth.

Solti’s very, very highly regarded recording (with the CSO but recorded in Vienna) only raises my ire. It must be the single most overrated Mahler recording on the market and it takes me a lot less time to forget that performance than it takes me listening to it. (It is, admittedly, recorded gloriously!) Similar in all flaws—but with less ideal sound, a slightly lesser orchestral performance, lesser vocal and choral contributions—is Simon Rattle’s recent recording that The Gramophone praised to the skies. I’ve written about it before and doubt that I will ever turn to it again.


available at Amazon G.Mahler, Sy.8, N.Järvi / Gothenburg OO
BIS

UK | DE | FR
When I reviewed Neeme Järvi's live account alongside Rattle's, it may have gotten a recommendation that was a bit too enthusiastic. Granted, anything sounds good next to the blasé Rattle, but there are finer, tauter Eighths, if that is one’s preferred style. Still, at a perversely fast 70 minutes, Järvi shows that tempo is not the only consideration—and for all the derision that rains on the Gothenburg performance—I think it’s a fine effort (the soloists don’t help, though) and a near-radical, deeply felt alternative, without being nearly as glib as other ‘zipped’ versions are.

In Brief: Giving Thanks Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Watch this entertaining video of one of Marc-André Hamelin's compositions for player piano, Circus Galop, synchronized to the dizzying score. So many notes! [Monotonous Forest]

  • For the cynical at heart, the acidic Thanksgiving Prayer of William S. Burroughs. [Boing Boing]

  • Jessa Krispin's little post about trying to find a pumpkin in Berlin reminded me of one Thanksgiving Mrs. Ionarts and I spent in France in 1996, while on my dissertation research grant. Trying to buy a turkey from a French volailleur in November raised many a curious eyebrow. The birds are grown on a schedule to reach their ideal weight by December 23 or so, to be slaughtered in large numbers for Christmas. Our Thanksgiving turkey, once we found a shop willing to procure one for us, was pathetically scrawny. [Bookslut]

  • A special place in Hell is reserved for those like Cameron Poole, the finance director of the London Philharmonic, accused of embezzling several hundred thousand pounds from the orchestra. The torments of that bolgia will be carried out with diabolical versions of the orchestral instruments (see the right panel of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights to get an idea). Jessica Duchen, whose husband plays in the LPO's violin section, has some choice thoughts. [Standpoint]

  • At his blog John Adams posted an entertaining "critic's guide" to writing about music one knows very little about, by stitching together a few stock words and phrases. Sure, it's fun, but reading it did remind me of Tim Page's eerily similar comments here and there about Adams being a "pasticheur," sewing together patches of music of his own and the influence of others. Composers love to carp about reviews, although most of them wear the bad ones with pride, like a badge of honor. [Hell Mouth]

  • 'Tis the season -- Christmas Concert Hell, that is, the time that musicians dread (but simultaneously love all the way to the bank) as do critics (how do I write yet another review about some awful local Messiah?). Hat tip to Scott Spiegelberg for bringing this video by Patton Oswalt to our attention. [A.V. Club]

  • Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Otello vengeance duet, or as one teacher of mine put it, the "wedding duet" with Iago. [My Favorite Intermissions]

  • Had my calendar been less fraught with non-negotiable demands, I would have gone to more than just the first concert in the 10-day cycle of Beethoven sonatas played this month by François-Fréderic Guy at La Maison Française. Anne Midgette wrote a beautiful review of the final concert. [Washington Post]

28.11.09

Tooth-Rotting Children's 'Nutcracker'


Waltz of the Snowflakes, Nutcracker, Pennsylvania Ballet (photo by Paul Kolnik)
In addition to Septime Webre's Washington-specific Nutcracker for Washington Ballet, which Miss Ionarts and I attended last year, the Kennedy Center usually hosts a visiting company that mounts Tchaikovsky's evergreen Christmas-themed ballet. After the Joffrey Ballet's visit last December, it was the Pennsylvania Ballet's turn, giving a series of performances this week of George Balanchine's classic choreography (the one created for New York City Ballet and supposedly performed in Washington for the first time in this production) in the Kennedy Center Opera House. With so much of the ballet performed by children -- talented, well-coached child dancers, but still -- it is probably not a Nutcracker for a serious dance enthusiast, but Nutcracker is not really about serious dance for most people in the audience. Judging by the reaction of Miss Ionarts, who is my constant companion for this sort of event, at last night's performance it is an excellent option for a child viewer.

The production has broad, colorful set backdrops and numerous special effects, including a couch and bed that glide about by themselves, a flying ship, and a little moving toe plate on which the Sugar Plum Fairy floats en pointe. Herr Drosselmaier (Maximilien Baud) is a more menacing figure than in other versions, stealing back into the house while Marie (Clara) is asleep. One factor that shifts this staging toward the children is the decision to cast the Prince (Nutcracker) as a child, the poised and sunny Peter Weil, who appears first as Drosselmeier's nephew at the party, returning later in Marie's dream. This approach had its physical limitations especially in the battle with the Mouse King (Nicolas Sipes) and his forces. The corps de ballet shone strongest in its lovely, unified women as the Snowflakes (Act I) and the Flowers (Act II), with strong solo performances from the Sugar Plum Fairy of Arantxa Ochoa, Meredith Reffner's curving, long-legged Coffee (the Arabian dancer -- the Chinese dancers' scene is called Tea), and the Mirlitons of Abigail Mentzer and colleagues (called the Marzipan Shepherdesses).


Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, With this 'Nutcracker,' the magic is in the music (Washington Post, November 26)

Jean Battey Lewis, 'Nutcracker's' zestful magic sparks season (Washington Times, November 26)

Ellen Dunkel, Notching several firsts in the capital (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 27)
Where this production definitely trumped the Washington Ballet, at least as heard last year, was in the musical performance, with many details of Tchaikovsky's luminous and complex score sparkling in their best light. This was especially true of the children's chorus in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which is omitted in some versions (including several I have witnessed) -- but there it is in on the page, a two-part chorus of trebles voices, indicated by Tchaikovsky to be hidden if sung by women or on stage by children (the Norwood Middle School Choir was piped in and added some lovely sounds). Balanchine added a scene in the first act, after the guests leave the house when we see Marie, fallen asleep on a couch, covered in a blanket by her mother. The music played at this point is an entr'acte composed originally by Tchaikovsky for the second act of Sleeping Beauty, with an extended violin solo, whose complicated passages were played admirably on Friday night. Miss Ionarts and I were also surprised to see the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy almost at the beginning of the second act, another example of Balanchine's reordering of the ballet.

Three performances of Pennsylvania Ballet's production of Balanchine's Nutcracker remain at the Kennedy Center Opera House, today at 1:30 and 7:30 pm and tomorrow at 1:30 pm.

27.11.09

Viviane Hagner: Quiet Intensity

Violinist Viviane HagnerGerman violinist Viviane Hagner gave a beautiful recital on Tuesday night, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society, before a relatively sparse Thanksgiving week audience in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Although Ionarts has reviewed Hagner once before, at Lorin Maazel's Châteauville Foundation in 2007, we missed her 2004 recital with the Foundation for Advanced Education in Sciences. On one hand Hagner is yet another remarkable young female violinist to come out of Munich, but on the other it is difficult to mistake her for Julia Fischer, Arabella Steinbacher, and Lisa Batiashvili -- all students of Ana Chumachenko (and there are many others waiting in the wings). At times Hagner's tone, bordering on strident while still elegant and burred with all kinds of individual corners (another type of listener might say imperfections), reminded me most of Anne-Sophie Mutter.

The program, which favored the unusual over the familiar, opened with a pairing of modern works. Béla Bartók's first rhapsody for violin and piano featured forceful, throaty playing, especially on the lower strings of the 1717 Sasserno Stradivarius loaned to Hagner by the Nippon Music Foundation. In the second movement, Hagner attacked the multiple stops with ferocious accuracy, creating a rabid accelerando that led, in a folk-music-like way, to a barbaric climax. That more raucous work was balanced by a new set of pretty miniatures, Four Chants, composed by Marc-Anthony Turnage for Hagner and premiered by her, with pianist Shai Wosner, in Germany in September. Hagner described the inspirations for the four movements as all happy occasions, and the sounds ranged from eerie calm in the first movement to playful jocosity in the second, with the third movement, for violin alone, full of more searing double stops. The fourth movement, Turnage's reaction to reading a bad review of another of his compositions, was a sort of bluesy foxtrot, with percussive, dissonant jabs in the pianist's right hand dedicated to the critic's poisoned pen. On behalf of the critical profession, we accept this loving tribute with a sense of honor.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Hagner's violin recital marred by shrill tone (Washington Post, November 26)
A rhythmically free, Romantically broad performance of Schubert's A minor violin sonata, D. 385, provided an interesting comparison to Julia Fischer's new Schubert disc. The introspective second movement needed some more polish perhaps -- the ends of notes and the technical approach to some high notes were not flawless -- but it was musically fetching, with a gentle approach to the third and fourth movements. The recital's high point was a mercurial performance of Schumann's second violin sonata, full-blooded but capable of scaling back in sound to a hushed piano. A moody scherzo in the second movement, that roared to its big conclusions, was followed by a third movement that opened with a pizzicato introduction like a guitar serenade, followed by an elegiac hymn. The fourth movement, with its rampant, heroic theme, was a tour de force that closed triumphantly in major. Throughout the evening, pianist Shai Wosner was a nimble, if too subservient partner, often seeming to rein in his sound too much, with the effect that he mostly sounded timid but always correct. The audience coaxed two encores from the musicians, the "minute waltz" scherzo of Beethoven's Spring sonata (op. 24) and Fritz Kreisler's misty-eyed bonbon Liebeslied.

The next concert in the WPAS Classical series will feature pianist Angela Hewitt (December 3, 8 pm), playing Bach's Goldberg Variations in the Music Center at Strathmore. Not to be missed.

26.11.09

With Thanks for Bounty Given

From the Thanksgiving Proclamation of President Barack Obama:

From our earliest days of independence, and in times of tragedy and triumph, Americans have come together to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Americans, we hail from every part of the world. While we observe traditions from every culture, Thanksgiving Day is a unique national tradition we all share. Its spirit binds us together as one people, each of us thankful for our common blessings. As we gather once again among loved ones, let us also reach out to our neighbors and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand. This is a time for us to renew our bonds with one another, and we can fulfill that commitment by serving our communities and our Nation throughout the year. In doing so, we pay tribute to our country's men and women in uniform who set an example of service that inspires us all. Let us be guided by the legacy of those who have fought for the freedoms for which we give thanks, and be worthy heirs to the noble tradition of goodwill shown on this day.
From our house to yours, we wish our American readers a very happy Thanksgiving Day!

25.11.09

H. C. Robbins Landon, 83

Haydn Chronicle
One of the leading scholars of the music of Haydn and more broadly of the 18th century, H. C. Robbins Landon, died on Friday at his home in France. Musicologist Barry Millington wrote the obituary published yesterday in The Guardian. Robbins Landon was born in Boston, and he studied music and literature there (with Karl Geiringer at one point, whom he credited with turning his interest in the music of Haydn into an obsession) and at Swarthmore. To study Haydn -- then largely unknown even to classical music enthusiasts -- Robbins Landon went to Europe, first to work as a journalist, writing about music for publications like Musical America and The Times.

He used his clout as a journalist for a major daily to gain entry to many archival collections not widely available, like the papers of the Esterházy family in the National Library in Budapest. With an encyclopedic mind he marshaled a staggering amount of documentary evidence in his five-volume summa on the life and works of Haydn, the Haydn Chronicle. The culmination of that work, as well as his editing of authoritative scores of the composer's symphonies and his encouragement of many other Haydn scholars, comes in a sense this year with the bicentenary of Haydn's death. To honor his passing, Ionarts will focus for the next few days on reviews of some more Haydn discs that have been piling up on my desk.

Many more people will likely remember Robbins Landon for his later work on Mozart, especially his widely read book 1791: Mozart's Last Year, which stripped away the layers of nonsense about Mozart's death. His writing style, because of his work in newspapers, was much more journalistic than most scholars (if not necessarily all that elegant), meaning that what he wrote reached a far wider audience. For more information on his life, see also the obituary published by The Telegraph.

24.11.09

Vienna Chamber Orchestra

Sunday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra performed works of Mozart and Haydn. The concert, led from the podium and piano by Conductor Laureate “For Life” Philippe Entremont, was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. The orchestra played with fluency, figural clarity created by emphasizing shapes instead of notes, and resolute ensemble. Under an aural microscope, trills within sections and even upper-string tremolos were synchronous to the point of perfection, yet on the opposite end of the spectrum from the safety of monotony or predictability. Through absolute knowledge of the score, the musicians were able to point more receptive focus toward their peers and conductor rather than the score, whereby physically the musicians often exchanged smiles and exuded upward energy along with the sounds from their instruments.

The third Menuetto movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major (“Haffner”) allowed the musicians an opportunity to waltz as the Viennese do best. The Finale: Presto movement purveyed boundless energy in a dashing tempo that never sped, while the brass contributed colorful hues with noble reserve and balance. Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 (“London”) was approached with simplicity in mind. Long notes contained a transparent beauty, and certain attacks by the lower string sections had a perfectly timed bow smack, particularly effective in the final movement (Allegro spiritoso), something like a peasant's hoe-down. Perpetually on the edge of technical clarity, the final movement’s strength would have been weakened if Entremont had taken it just a hair faster.


Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Entremont brings Vienna's charm to Strathmore (Washington Post, November 24)
Entremont was unable to attain this sparkling balance when conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466. It was also not helpful that his back was to the audience and the piano lidless, with blurry sound wafting upward in combination with generous use of the damper pedal. Well-executed cadenzas and nice moments in the work did not overcome this problem. As encores, the audience warmly elicited a wonderfully affected Blue Danube (in balance despite all of the stilting), and a familiar waltz to which everyone enjoyed clapping.

The next concert in the WPAS Classical Series is a keenly anticipated recital by German violinist Viviane Hagner, tonight at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (November 24, 7:30 pm).

23.11.09

What Might Have Been: Riccardo Muti and the New York Philharmonic

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the New York Philharmonic's DC appearance. You can read his latest column for InsideCatholic here.


Truth to tell, I would not hurry to a concert hall to hear the Wagner-lite bombast of Liszt’s Les Preludes or even the rarely performed Elgar concert overture, In the South, which is not his best work. Excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are another matter, as it is my favorite ballet. However, I would prefer to hear the whole thing or the Suites from it, rather than a Reader’s Digest-like selection of high points.

My predilections are quite beside the point because the purpose of the matinee concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 4:00 PM on Saturday, November 21st, was to showcase the New York Philharmonic under its guest conductor Riccardo Muti. This was simply an afternoon to enjoy the merits of a first-rate orchestra and Muti displaying their prowess; a window into what-could-have-been, had the Chicago Symphony Orchestra not snatched Muti from the New York Philharmonic where he was supposed to become the new Principal Guest Conductor.

At that level of appreciation even I, who loath most of Liszt’s music, can enjoy Les Preludes. Muti tried hard to make this sound like serious music rather the dated period potboiler (with toothbrush mustache overtones) that it is. He was helped by the gorgeous playing of the string sections and the superb brass. The Elgar, a far more sophisticated work with multiple crosscurrents, also received virtuoso treatment, with Muti keeping myriad details clear within the welter of sounds. In the South contains many of the components that went into Elgar’s music to make it great, but does not quite achieve his signature sound or the surging sense of nobility for which he became so noted.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Muti coaxes pleasing glow from N.Y. Philharmonic (Washington Post, November 23)

Tim Smith, Riccardo Muti leads New York Philharmonic in DC concert (Baltimore Sun, November 23)

Peter Dobrin, They're still mad for Muti (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23)

Anthony Tommasini, Maestro Who Said No Returns to Philharmonic (New York Times, November 20)
The selections from Romeo and Juliet were
brilliantly performed. The music shimmered with great refinement. Muti and the New York Philharmonic caught the mystery, the ache, and the passion of this fabulous score. Muti hammered home “The Death of Tybalt” with extraordinary force and conviction.

Throughout, Muti combined litheness, energy and exactitude in his conducting, to which the New York Philharmonic responded in kind. (This makes one wonder what might-have-been had Muti not chosen the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for his next post, after refusing an offer from the NY Philharmonic.) Although I weary of Washington audiences awarding standing ovations to nearly everyone, Muti and the orchestra deserved it. RRR

Philippe Jordan Gets Started in Paris

Philippe Jordan, conductorThe name of Philippe Jordan, the new music director of the Opéra national de Paris, came up recently at Ionarts. It looks like he opens his tenure on a fairly sure footing with the Parisian press, judging from the positive review of a concert he gave with the company's orchestra on November 14 at the Opéra Bastille. Here are some of the nice things written by Renaud Machart (Le talent sûr de Philippe Jordan, directeur musical de l'Opéra de Paris, November 17) in Le Monde (my translation):

In [Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie] Philippe Jordan, who was making his first official appearance at the head of the Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris since becoming its music director, gave evidence of a sense of nuance and showed that he knows how to make the orchestra sound full without giving it too much free rein. One noted, however -- and it is a feeling that one has already felt listening to him in other situations -- a disparity between a very demonstrative conducting style (with gestures like a javelin thrower or tennis player catching the ball "like a spoon") and an expressive reservedness that can leave the listener just at the edge of real emotion. Still, the musical temperament of this young conductor, 35 years old, is well and good and he never leaves one bored. He should produce some beautiful evenings at the Opéra de Paris.
Jordan also programmed György Ligeti's violin concerto, with Isabelle Faust as the soloist. His next major project for the company will be taking the podium for the first half of a Ring Cycle, starting in the first half of 2010, something he spoke about in an interesting interview for La Croix earlier in the week (in part, he said that he chose the Strauss tone poem to reacquaint himself with the large orchestral palette he will need from this group for the Ring operas). After all the American fuss over Gustavo Dudamel, who is not all that much younger than Jordan, it is a relief to see journalists not wetting themselves before the conductor has had some time to produce some performances.

22.11.09

Andsnes and Rhode: Pictures Reframed

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
On Friday night, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (in his first local appearance since a recital at Strathmore last year) and South African visual artist Robin Rhode presented Pictures Reframed, a multimedia concert centered on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The program revolved around the theme of childhood, an inspiring idea, and Andsnes seemed completely at peace with himself, without pretense -- in short, exactly the kind of pianist who will succeed in the changing world of classical music. He began, without any flourish, with Mussorgsky’s unfinished, two-movement work Memories of Childhood and Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Each work was conceived as the reminiscences of an adult looking back on childhood, but Andsnes’ simplicity was so utterly childlike one almost forgot that there was maturity behind the music.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Andsnes and Rhode's 'Pictures': The frame doesn't fit (Washington Post, November 23)

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, Lief [sic] Ove Andsnes combines music and visual art (The Times, November 21)

Martin Bernheimer, Pictures Reframed (Financial Times, November 18)

Jason V. Serinus, Putting It Together (San Francisco Classical Voice, November 17)

Kenneth Delong, Pianist great, visuals not (Calgary Herald, November 17)

Richard Lacayo, Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition" — Plus More Pictures (TIME, November 16)

Anthony Tommasini, Sound and Vision: A Piano Recital With a Multimedia Heart (New York Times, November 15)

Albert Imperato, The Art of Collaboration and the Meaning of "Pictures Reframed" (Huffington Post, November 12)
Andsnes was remarkably steadfast, unaffected, and economical in his movement, and did not seem to feel the need to give the pieces too much nuance. He performed the music as a child would, without the jaded years of experience, and it was gorgeous. The intermittent short films, dubiously received, were programmed as a seamless extension of the music, with Andsnes handing over the baton during his final notes. The first of the two featured films, Rhode’s Kid Candle, was a mixed media film of a live action boy interacting with a hand-drawn horizontal plane and candle, the image all the while flickering as a candle would between the negative and positive film. The art beautifully complemented the music, an outwardly simplistic commentary on the imagination of a child.

The idea of setting Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to new images is certainly nothing new. However, the way in which Rhode drew upon Viktor Hartmann’s pictures, the original inspiring art, was certainly interesting, if also difficult to follow (only upon reading Rhode’s program notes did many of the connections become illuminated). As in the music itself, the promenade was the only connective tissue, for which Rhode created the marvelous image of a youth whose feet are unable to touch the ground. The boy is discovering his path, portrayed by geometric shapes that move and transform at the touch of his feet.

In the crowded elevator leaving the concert, the silence was heavy as thoughts and reactions were surely in development. Then a simple question was posed by a smiling man: “What did you all think...?” And just like that, former strangers were now connected and engaged. If nothing else, Andsnes and Rhode created dialogue and passion among the patrons of their art, a much needed element to keep the field living and breathing. For better or worse or unknowing, at least the audience members felt something.

Merci, Jeanne-Claude

Jeanne-Claude, 74, American artist and resident of New York City, died suddenly on November 18, 2009 as a result of of complications due to a ruptured brain aneurysm. From Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Web page:

Christo is deeply saddened by the passing of his wife, partner and collaborator and is committed to honor the promise they made to each other many years ago: the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude will continue. Christo is dedicated to completing their current works in progress: Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, and The Mastaba, Project for the United Arab Emirates, as Jeanne-Claude would wish.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France in November, 1958, sharing the same date of birth, and have worked together for 51 years creating temporary works of art. It is Jeanne-Claude's wish that her body be donated to scientific research. A memorial will be announced at a later date. Christo requests that flowers not be sent. Memorial gifts may be made to the charity of your choice.
Here is a link to the piece I wrote about a wonderful day I spent with them in Central Park.

In Brief: And Music's Power Obey! Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Today being the Feast of St. Cecilia, it is time for musicians to give thanks. Take a listen to this performance of Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, from November 22, 1739. The chorus sings the following lines from the poem by John Dryden: "From harmony, from heavenly harmony, / This universal frame began. / Through all the compass of the notes it ran, / The diapason closing full in man." [YouTube]

  • One of the things that neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his must-read book Musicophilia was just how important music is to most brains. There is more proof of that in scientific findings about the benefit of music therapy to recovering brain function in patients with Alzheimer's or recovering from strokes or other types of brain damage. This is something that any musician who has volunteered time playing or singing for patients in nursing homes needs no proof of to accept. I have seen the first few bars of music hitting someone's ears have an effect similar to that of a burst of oxygen on an asphyxiating person. [Wall Street Journal]

  • "Arrive sober, stay awake, stay to the end and don't take a bribe unless it is big enough to allow you to retire in comfort for the rest of your life." Wait -- you mean a critic is supposed to follow ALL of those rules when reviewing? [The Guardian]

  • It makes me happy when classical music gets a mention in something like "Overheard in D.C." Something funny heard at Joshua Bell's concert with the NSO. [DCist]

  • Some excellent thoughts from David Auerbach on Mes petites amoureuses, a film by Jean Eustache. [Waggish]

  • Andrew Lindemann's review of a concert I wished I could have heard, Malcolm Bilson's recital at the Strathmore Mansion. [DMV Classical]

  • Pope Benedict XVI gathered 250 artists together for a meeting in the Sistine Chapel, to observe anniversaries of previous popes' messages to artists and speak to them, with the work of Michelangelo, Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and others all around him: "Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy "shock", it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it "reawakens" him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: 'Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here'." [Whispers in the Loggia]

21.11.09

The Lord Said

available at Amazon
Handel, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne / Dixit Dominus, H. Guilmette, A. Scholl, A. Wolf, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Vocalconsort Berlin, M. Creed

(released on October 13, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902041 | 56'24"
The Handel Year, marking the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, has brought some productions of his operas to our eyes and some great recordings to our ears, again notably of the operas. Add to it this new release of sacred works that, arguably, do not need new recordings, but which given the combination of forces has considerable appeal. Handel wrote his setting of Psalm 109 (HWV 232) -- Dixit dominus, the first psalm of the Vespers service -- when he was only 22 years old and on a trip to Italy. It came into my ears first in the landmark recording by Simon Preston and the Westminster Abbey Choir, with the incomparable soprano Arleen Augér. That classic disc, re-released by Archiv a couple years ago at a very good price, is hard to beat. Other interesting choices include the very French version led by Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée boasts Natalie Dessay and Philippe Jaroussky and pairs the work with Bach's Magnificat (Virgin Classics), while Marc Minkowski's version with Les Musiciens du Louvre, also excellent, places it among an assortment of other Handel liturgical works and has a lovely pairing of sopranos, Magdalena Kožená and Annick Massis (Archiv).

Still, for the one Dixit dominus to own, the only recording that might challenge Preston is Andrew Parrott's older recording with Emma Kirkby and the Taverner Players (Virgin Classics Veritas). Musically, it is not as satisfying, but the musicological interest is greater, because Parrott situates the Dixit dominus and several other Handel works for Vespers, in the context of an actual (highly speculative) Vespers service (plus, a 2-CD set at $10.98 is a steal too good to pass up). Up against that competition, Harmonia Mundi's new recording features exciting, incisive playing especially, from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, but the choral singing is not as polished. The soloists seem a little mismatched, with countertenor Andreas Scholl struggling at times to make himself heard, and Hélène Guilmette, while lovely at times, is no Arleen Augér. In the other work heard here, the much less recorded Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (for the official celebration on February 6, 1713 -- not long before the queen died), the performance is more satisfying from all sides, with only the occasional charming but odd pronunciation of English to be faulted. It is not enough to recommend this disc as a must-listen, but downloading just the Ode would be a good option for anyone looking for a recording of that work alone.

20.11.09

Sonia Wieder-Atherton Sings of the East

available at Amazon
Chants d'Est, Sinfonia Varsovia, S. Wieder-Atherton

(released on April 28, 2009)
Naïve V 5178 | 61'37"
Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton has made a niche for herself by avoiding the well-trodden paths of celebrity cellists, although her credentials -- Russian conservatory studies, lessons with Mstislav Rostropovich, a Mention at the Third Rostropovich Competition in 1986 (the year that Gary Hoffman won the Grand Prize and Jean-Guihen Queyras won the Prix Jeanne Marx) -- could have set her on that trajectory. A perusal of her concert schedule shows that she plays a lot of interesting chamber music, programs a lot of contemporary music on her solo concerts, and plays the occasional concerto, mostly ones written in the 20th century, with orchestras here and there. A few years ago we wrote about one of her collaborations with filmmaker Chantal Akerman, providing music that went with a screening of Akerman's film D'Est, and one of the cellist's abiding interests has been in music of Russia and central Europe, especially with Jewish roots.

Wieder-Atherton has been performing music from her new CD of Slavic music, Chants d'Est, in Europe, but with an ensemble other than the Sinfonia Varsova heard on the disc. In a One on One interview for Playbill Arts, Wieder-Atherton said that she conceived the program as "a journey of 24 hours," beginning with an arrangement of the Nunc dimittis from Rachmaninov's Vespers (so, a journey that begins in the darkness of late evening, I guess). The regions and peoples visited in this nocturnal peregrination include Hungary (Dohnányi's Ruralia Hungarica), Russia and Ukraine (Tcherepnin's Tatar Dance and Prokofiev's devastating The Field of the Dead from Alexander Nevsky), and Czechoslovakia (Franck Krawczyk's adaptations of Janáček's Moravian Folksongs and Martinů's Variations on a Slovak Folksong). The predominating mood is somber, imbued with a depressive gloom, culminating in the contemplation of total separation from life, in a moving, tender adaptation of Mahler's song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. It is a gorgeous CD for quiet listening, with smooth, emotionally expansive playing from the Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted in some tracks by Christophe Mangou.

Sonia Wieder-Atherton and the Niguna Ensemble will perform selections from this disc on their program at Le Poisson Rouge in New York this Monday (November 23, 7:30 pm).

19.11.09

Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Symphonies by Rudolph Simonsen

available at Amazon
R.H.Simonsen, Symphonies 1 & 2, Overture in g,
Israel Ynon / Sønderjylands SO
cpo 777229 (70:52)
Rudolph Hermann Simonsen was born in Denmark on April 30th, 1889. After a career of composing and teaching—music history and piano at the Royal Danish Conservatory—he became the successor to Carl Nielsen as the Conservatory’s principal. He had an evangelical zeal for spreading classical music among the people, which he attempted with lectures throughout the country and on the radio, articles, and books.

Simonsen greatly admired German culture, so when the Nazi regime assumed power—which meant that the Jew Simonsen and his family had to flee to Sweeden—he suffered a blow from sheer disillusionment. A blow, we are told, from whcih he never recovered after returning to his native Denmark, where he died in 1947, aged 58.

Between 1920 and 1925 Simonsen wrote four symphonies, which are titled “Zion”, “Hellas”, “Roma”, and “Denmark”. The first three are tributes to Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture and form a triptych. “Zion” and “Hellas”, three movements each, are included on the present disc with the Søderjyllands Symfoniorkester (providing concerts throughout Jutland, the part of Denmark attached to the continent) and the 1910 Overture in g is thrown in, too. The unusually lucid liner notes (not van den Hoogen’s, CPO’s regular contributor, and thankfully not in their damnable translations) mention Nielsen, but also Sibelius and Wagner as the main inspirations. Carl Nielsen is an obvious influence for the “Zion” Symphony (which he conducted at its premiere) with its movements “Against Slavery”, “The Promise”, and Allegro con brio.

My initial enthusiasm—“a second Bruckner!”—has cooled a little since first hearing these discs. The “Promise” movement, for example, grinds down to a pretty dark, dull vision of the future before a more pastoral mood lifts it from gloom at around the 10-minute mark. There is some tedium and a few very put-on Jewish-ish colors that benefit from patience during the nearly 19 minutes the movement lasts. The following Allegro is a more engaging conclusion to the work that Artutro Toscanini once expressed interest in. (Can you imagine him in rehearsal: “Is-a not Moses, is-a not Ramses… Is ‘Allegro con brio’”)

The Hellas Symphony, a wonderfully curious aside, got Simonsen a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympic Game. In that neither a gold- nor silver-medalist nor even another bronze-medalist was named in the three composition categories “Song”, “One Instrument”, and “Orchestra”, he could be said to have came in first. Until 1948 Art was part of the Olympics, with medals given in categories (and subcategories) of Architecture, Literature, Painting/Graphic Art, Sculpture, and Music—so long as they were somehow related to the Olympics.

Silver sounds about right: that portentous work doesn’t strike me as a gold medalist, either. The symphony is motif-heavy (and the motifs heavy) and solidly constructed. It even has touching moments like the strings of the “Loneliness in front of the Temples” movement that sweeps up with the feel of a Mahler Adagio and continues with a cool lament of the woodwinds and flutes. But the moments in which I remain fully engaged around the 10th time listening to the work continue to decrease, not increase. My sense why I remain unconvinced by these two symphonies is a vague one, and therefore my description remains vague, too. I only know that the performances cannot be faulted.

The G minor overture, finally, is a wholly enticing 14 minutes of grandeur; probably the reason for my Bruckner analogy in the first place… melodic and sweeping bombast of the finest order and nothing to be vague, only enthusiastic, about.

To Hear Tonight: Vogler Quartet

available at Amazon
Zimro: A Broken Concert Tour, Vogler Quartet, C. Halevi, J. Nemtsov
Berlin's Vogler Quartet will perform some of the compositions revived for its Zimro Project in a concert this evening in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Zimro, a Hebrew word that means singing, is taken from the name of a St. Petersburg clarinet sextet, devoted to the performance of works by the New Jewish School in Russia, all with connections to Jewish folk music (and touted, therefore, by Jens Laurson at WETA for its Mahler-illumining possibilities). Sergei Prokofiev, taken with one of the Zimro sextet's performances he heard, wrote his melody-rich Overture on Hebrew Themes for them, and the Vogler Quartet's concert will open with it. It is the first work on the group's excellent Zimro CD, released last year on Hänssler Classic's SWR label, and the concert will include two other pieces from the album, Grigori Krejn's moody Prelude and selected movements from Joseph Achron's Children's Suite, a series of evocative, delightful scenes from the lives of children. The concert tonight is not an exact copy of the CD, however, as Alexander Fiterstein is the scheduled clarinetist (the pianist will be the same, Jascha Nemtsov), and the evening will conclude with Julius Chajes' Hebrew Suite and Osvaldo Golijov's Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, for klezmer clarinet and string quartet.

Tickets are available for this evening's concert (7:30 pm) at the Terrace Theater. Qualify for a slight discount ($25 instead of $32) if you mention Promotion Code 45484 when you order your tickets, either online or at the box office.

18.11.09

Alfred Brendel Speaks

This article is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Alfred Brendel, On Music: Collected Essays


available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete Piano Sonatas, A. Brendel


available at Amazon
Alfred Brendel: The Farewell Concerts
Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel may have retired from performing last year, but he continues to share his thoughts about music. Already known during his performing years as an intelligent commentator on music, Brendel has been touring the United States this month, presenting a lecture version of his essay On Character in Music, focusing mostly on the sonatas of Beethoven, with the support of Washington Performing Arts Society. After a brief delay to allow the capacity crowd to filter through the security check at the door, Brendel appeared on the dais of the Austrian Embassy on Monday night, turning periodically from his text, read with the aid of the embassy's not always reliable amplification system, to the Bösendorfer to play some brilliantly chosen musical examples. The excerpts were from a wide range of Beethoven's sonatas, bookended by selections from the work of a composer much closer to Beethoven than some listeners might think, Arnold Schoenberg.

Several complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas are being performed in Washington at the moment, from Till Fellner and François-Frédéric Guy (a marathon nine-day performance, concluding this Sunday), as well as local versions by Yuliya Gorenman (ongoing at American University) and Anne Koscielny (ongoing at Howard Community College), leading Anne Midgette to ask the question, What do the Beethoven sonatas mean? in the Washington Post. So, it was a helpful way to organize one's thoughts about the Beethoven sonatas to hear Brendel, who has performed the complete cycle himself, quite famously, speak about how he views the contrasts of the sonatas. He spoke of various attempts -- by historians, aesthetic philosophers, and musicians -- to analyze how Beethoven used the different aspects of music (more than just tempo) to tell a story, some more plausible than others. How can one reliably understand what Beethoven's various gestures might mean, especially in so many cases when the composer left no indication of his intentions?

As Brendel sees it, the clues are mostly right there in the scores themselves. He referred to some sources, mostly writings by or attributed to Beethoven, but he also went so far as to dismiss some extra-musical information often treated as reliable, most famously Anton Schindler's recollection that sonata no. 17 (op. 31, no. 2) was best understood in reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest (Tovey and many other historians and later writers led the way in this dismissal of Schindler's interpretations). Brendel spoke of many of the characters he identified in his own interpretation of the sonatas: dancing, singing, speaking, as well as four that he identified with the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth.


Other Reviews:

Jeffrey Johnson, Pianist Alfred Brendel Gives Master Class On The 'Character In Music' — And His Own (Hartford Courant, November 13)

Timothy Mangan, What makes music beautiful? Alfred Brendel knows (Orange County Register, October 27)
If there were any musician whose intuition about Beethoven I would probably trust, it would be Alfred Brendel, and it is a shame that the event conflicted with François-Frédéric Guy's ongoing performance of the Beethoven sonata cycle at La Maison Française, because Brendel's lecture was an excellent sort of road map to the monumental journey Guy is on at the moment. Ultimately though, as with all abstract instrumental music, the search for this kind of meaning in the absence of words or more concrete information is highly subjective and speculative. One is not obliged to hear the sonatas in the same way as Alfred Brendel, but one could certainly do a lot worse.

The next event sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society is the keenly anticipated multimedia concert by Leif Ove Andsnes (November 20, 7:30 pm), combining a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition with projected images by South African visual artist Robin Rhode, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

The Spheres of Mahler

MahlerMonth_at_WETA_Condens

“I wouldn't suggest the racetrack as the incubator and inspirer of poetry. I just say it might work for me—sometimes. Like beer, or [enjoying] a good woman, cigars, or Mahler with good wine and the lights out, sitting there naked watching the cars go by…” (Los Angeles Free Press, March 3, 1967)

Charles Bukowski might seem an unlikely source of insight about classical music, but he was an avid listener—especially to classical music on the radio—and he had a naturally discriminate ear. “Bach is the hardest to play badly because he made so few spiritual mistakes” is only one astute point among his 15 “Observations on Music” (from Sifting through the madness for the word, the line, the way). That Bukowski couldn’t mention Haydn without also using the F-word or a raunchy equivalent in the same sentence doesn’t take away from those insights.

Among his most cherished composers—and the one with the most references in his works—is Gustav Mahler. If “the struggle, the crisis of identity and faith, the uncertainties and the challenge of a creeping modernism that undermined life as people knew it… all seem to be reflected in the clashes and crashes of Mahler’s symphonies” (Mahler Introduction), then it isn’t terribly surprising that Bukowski responded to Mahler so strongly, even well before Mahler’s music had achieved the wide spread popularity it enjoys today.
Mahler was always one

of my favorites.

it's possible to listen to

his works again and

again and

again without

tiring of them.

I don’t agree with that (anymore), but it’s the pithiest reference to Mahler in Bukowski I know. Unless that very apt picture of Mahler as the dinner guest already at the door, who takes an hour saying goodbye, is also from Bukowski, as I seem to very faintly remember.

That Mahler has influenced other artists isn’t surprising. Just as Mahler soaked up the music in his sphere, they soaked up his music to make it their own. I’d like to think that Bukowski, quite accustomed with earthy language, might have responded well to the subcutaneous vulgarity present in Mahler. Mahler--the crude juxtapositions in his music, the banalities that are just saved by their presumed irony--had been thought a vulgar composer well into the 60s. I never understood that sentiment until I watched Unitel’s DVD of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Sixth Symphony at the Musikverein in Vienna. The orchestra plays with some reluctance, the brash orchestral effects suddenly begin to sound like crude kitsch, and even the walls of the Golden Hall look like the seedy interior of a brothel, with Bernstein as the charming pimp in lead.

Uri Caine is a Philadelphia born avant-garde jazz artist from New York with a penchant for classical music, unsurprising given that his composition teachers were George Crumb and George Rochberg. Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, Schumann have all inspired him to absorb and creatively regurgitate their music. The result is music unlike any you have ever heard, which is as high a compliment as I know of. His best ‘crossover’ work might well be that with Mahler. His treatment of the source material is an ethnomusicological exploration of Mahler, at once reverent, insightful, and flimsy. Uri Caine’s distortion, modification, deconstruction and reassembly doesn’t obscure the Mahler beneath it, it actually allows for deeper insights into what it is we hear in Mahler. All the Jewish and Klezmer influences emerge vividly. And whether it’s “Liebst Du um Schönheit” as a gospel collage or the “Adagietto” taken apart into individual piano notes, suspended like a mobilé, it’s always Mahler from a new angle, always surprising and delightful to the ears. I’ve come to appreciate and even love most, maybe all his ‘crossover’ albums—but his primary Mahler disc, Urlicht, remains at the top of the heap; among the handful of favorite recordings I own.

A different way to get at the Jewish and Yiddish musical roots of Mahler is by hearing the music from the same tradition that has been written at Mahler’s time or since. The Vogler Quartet plays a recital of such music Thursday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. It is based on the music played by the Russian-Jewish Zimro Ensemble, a string quartet, clarinetist, and pianist that Prokofiev heard on their American tour in 1919. Their mission was to maintain a level of excellence in the “New Jewish School” of music with strong roots in Jewish folk music. Sponsored by Zionist Organizations around the world, and intent of touring their way to Palestine, they performed only music approved by the St.Petersburg Society of Jewish Folk Music. Along their American tour they greatly impressed Prokofiev who consequently wrote his Overture on Hebrew Themes for them. In the end they never made it quite to Palestine, because Simeon Bellison was snagged by the New York Philharmonic as solo clarinetist.

The Vogler Quartet (excellent Thuille!) is on their own Zimro tour now, performing the works the original ensemble (and its successor ensembles) played—Ekht-Jewish music from composers such as Grigori Krejn, Julius Chajes, Joseph Achron—and of course Prokofiev. If you can’t make the concert, the same musicians have released that program on a wonderful CD as well, which is what backs up my enthusiasm about their (Mahler-related) program tomorrow.

For the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1967, Luciano Berio composed (albeit missing the deadline) Sinfonia, a four-, then five-movement work for orchestra and amplified voices. There is a very decent Wikipedia article on the piece, that goes well beyond describing that the third movement of Sinfonia is a quixotic pastiche of the third movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony, cut up, re-imagined, and spliced with quotations from a dozen other composers. Next to his Schubert-realization Rendering, Sinfonia remains one of Berio’s most accessible and most easily enjoyable pieces.

The Berio-Mahler connection can be further explored on one of the four superb Frank Scheffer documentaries on Mahler that I’d like to mention. While three of those four “Juxtaposition” films—from a series that always couples two more or less related subjects to another—don’t relate directly to the music he influenced or was influenced by, they are DVD gold when it comes to delving fully into Mahler and assuming you are already a fan. Attrazione D’Amore is a film on Riccardo Chailly, ‘his’ Concertgebouw (at the time), and Mahler. A touch of hagiography, but splendid all the same. Coupled to it is Voyage to Cythera, about Berio and Sinfonia. The other coupling consists of Conducting Mahler—with Muti, Chailly, Rattle, Abbado, and Haitink rehearsing their orchestras in Mahler, opining along the way—and I Have Lost Touch With the World about Mahler’s 9th and Chailly. signature1

17.11.09

Kennedy Center Chamber Players

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Kennedy Center Chamber PlayersThe Kennedy Center Chamber Players never disappoint, and Sunday afternoon in their first appearance this season at the Terrace Theater, they presented an exceedingly fine concert of music by Fauré and Tchaikovsky. The group strikes a balance between collective musical ownership and the guidance of a single leader -- the ever graceful, but strong Nurit Bar-Josef. The opening theme of the first piece, Fauré’s Quartet No. 1 in C minor, is declared right away in unison by the strings -- an immediate pronouncement of the Chamber Players’ tight ensemble playing -- offset by thick chords in the piano on the offbeats. Pianist Lambert Orkis, in his extended solo parts, showed his ability to create strikingly long phrases and not give in to the seasick back and forth style of phrasing (which is certainly appropriate in some instances). He was truly unaffected, and for this style of late 19th-century French music, it was perfect. However, notes were dropped in many of the technically demanding spots that required flitting back and forth and spanning of the whole keyboard (although it certainly did not help that he was turning his own pages).

The second movement was brilliant: a showcasing of the pianist, whose part is ever quick and nymph-like in its devilish delicacy. Orkis handled the part beautifully, and the accompanying pizzicatos in the strings were in tune and together. The false ending in the scherzo is a delightful quirk that is immediately followed by similar music in the piano, but the strings at this moment are different. Subdued and again in an accompanying role, the strings were unadorned and without vibrato, which created an ethereal sound since the players tuned so well. The opening of the third movement highlighted the group’s dynamic as an ensemble: the movement starts with a single line in the cello, seamlessly joined by the other strings, sounding all the while as one voice that is simply growing in strength.

Without their violist, Daniel Foster, the ensemble went on to something different in the second half of the program, Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor. The opening piano starts from nothing and sets the stage for the cello, played by the formidable David Hardy, who then passed his theme without effort to Josef. The first movement, Pezzo elegiaco, a broad sonata form, is almost rhapsodic in the ground it covers and in a seemingly irregular form. At one point, the first violin trailed off hauntingly before a slow middle theme, which was stunning in its mournful temperament. The second movement is a gigantic theme and variations, whose theme is a pastoral, simple melody begun in the piano. Imitated by the violin and cello, the music’s breadth then encompasses everything from that rich Russian fire to more folk-like sounds. The ensemble easily went from one thematic material to the next and, pulling out all the stops, summoned that overly Romantic, Russian tugging-of-heartstrings sound to bring the piece to an exciting close.

The next concert by the Kennedy Center Chamber Players (January 10, 2010, 2 pm) will feature a program of three Brahms sonatas (violin, viola, and cello) with piano.

16.11.09

François-Frédéric Guy Ascends the Mountain

Style masthead
Read my review today in the actual Washington Post, the thing printed on paper:


François-Frédéric Guy (photo by Guy Vivien) -- extra credit for anyone who can identify the location
Charles T. Downey, François-Frédéric Guy
Washington Post, November 16, 2009
François-Frédéric Guy began a complete traversal of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas on Friday night at La Maison Française. The schedule of nine concerts over nine days, with a two-day break in the middle, is an epic feat of concentration and endurance, and that is just for the listener. Guy played the Beethoven cycle twice last year, in Monaco and Paris, in the same, mostly chronological sequence. That ordering creates, in his words, an "immense crescendo," a stylistically driven motor that powers him through the exhausting task.

In keeping with that idea of developmental accretion, Guy began the cycle with a soft, understated performance of the three sonatas of Op. 2. It was Beethoven imbued with many subtle colors and lyric phrasing, drawn from the pianist's poetic fantasy, often with a quiet rumbling of inner melancholy. In the mixing of his color palette, Guy relied perhaps too much on the sustaining pedal, blurring the trio of the rather fast third movement in No. 1, for example, into a cloud. [Continue reading]
François-Frédéric Guy, piano
Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Complete Cycle, Concert 1
La Maison Française

FFG Beethoven:
available at Amazon
Piano Sonatas 8/19/29

Naïve V 5023

available at Amazon
Piano Concertos 1/5

Naïve V 5084

available at Amazon
Piano Concerto 4 / Piano-Wind Quintet

Naïve V 5148

available at Amazon
Piano Concerto 2/3

Naïve V 5179
François-Frédéric Guy’s more or less numerically ordered cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas is intended to reach its apogee at the end of the “crescendo,” the last two concerts this coming Friday and Saturday. Guy’s acclaimed 2006 recording of some of the later Beethoven sonatas gives an idea of what to expect, a much more explosive approach than the restrained, delicate sounds heard on Friday night. The infamous op. 106 (‘Hammerklavier’), which will conclude the November 21 concert, is one of Guy’s obsessions: he made his first recording of the work a decade earlier and does not deny that he will likely record it again later in life. Guy’s interpretation foams at the mouth more than Till Fellner’s graceful take on the ‘Hammerklavier’ at the Austrian Embassy last May, but without devolving into a performance merely about forceful attack as heard from Valentina Lisitsa at the National Museum of Women in the Arts around the same time.

The transitional phase of the cycle, the beginning of the crescendo, has likely already begun, judging by Guy’s chiaroscuro recording of no. 8 (op. 13, ‘Pathétique’), an almost violent opposition of light and darkness in terms of dynamic choices. A performance of no. 7 at the Corcoran in 2006 showed a similar unpredictability in choice of tempo especially. The piano brought in for these concerts at La Maison Française, a brightly voiced but versatile Yamaha, plays right to this kind of interpretation. In any case, it is not too late to hear the majority of this extraordinary pianistic undertaking, and what remains will likely be the most noteworthy parts of the experience, beginning this evening:
November 16, 7 pm (Nos. 16-18, includes ‘The Tempest’)
November 17, 7 pm (Nos. 15, 19-21, includes ‘Pastorale’ and ‘Waldstein’)
November 20, 7 pm (Nos. 22-26, includes ‘Appassionata’ and ‘Les Adieux’)
November 21, 7 pm (Nos. 27-29, includes ‘Hammerklavier’)
November 22, 4 pm (Nos. 30-32)
Guy has also made a complete recording of the Beethoven piano concertos, in three discs released over the past couple years: Naïve has announced plans to release a box set this coming January. For these releases he has partnered with Philippe Jordan (one of each of their hands is shown on the covers of the three discs) and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and they have been performing the entire cycle at Paris's Salle Pleyel, beginning last February and set to conclude next June. Jordan, a Zurich-trained pianist and conductor, got his start as assistant conductor to some big names like Jeffrey Tate and Daniel Barenboim, and he has appeared as a guest conductor with many orchestras around the world and with the Berlin Staatsoper.

Starting this season Jordan is the new music director of the Opéra national de Paris, "replacing" Sylvain Cambreling, the (heavily criticized) favorite of Gerard Mortier, who was never actually appointed to the position (it had remained vacant since the departure of James Conlon in 2004). Philippe, now 35 years old, is the son of Armin Jordan, one-time conductor of Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Their Beethoven concertos are worthy, in spite of fierce competition both present and past (a longer series of posts to consider the full field is in the offing), made more attractive by the inclusion of a little-known quintet for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon (E-flat major, op. 16) on the second disc, where it is paired with the fourth concerto.