Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

31.12.09

Top 10 Live "At-Large" Performances of 2009

We list our favorite performances in chronological order, because you can’t rank live performance. Although this year, I probably could—because there was one staggering-amazing, one heart-wrenching, one eye-opening, and then seven very good performances among the ten concerts below. I don’t expect to hear Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ever again in quite as exciting a performance as Daniele Gatti delivered with the Munich Philharmonic. Heinz Holliger made Haydn burst onto the scene as if he had never ceased being the most relevant classical composer. Barbara Frey’s Jenůfa made me cry both times I saw it while also musically being the best offering the State Opera Orchestra has produced in some time, no doubt thanks to Kirill Petrenko.



January 27th, Salzburg, Mozarteum:


Holliger & Haydn

Martin Fröst played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 on the basset clarinet it was intended for and Carter’s Clarinet Concerto after intermission. Fine stuff, with the Camerata Salzburg, 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...

Mozart’s Birthday in Salzburg: http://www.weta.org/fmblog/?p=467


January 22nd/23rd, Munich, Herkulessaal:


Polyptyque & Bach with Röhn & Hengelbrock

Frank Martin is not a completely obscure figure, but unknown enough to be considered one of the hidden and neglected gems among 20th century composers. If his time hasn’t yet come, it will—and works like “Polyptyque -- Six Images de la Passion du Christ” (for violin solo and two string orchestras, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin) will either be the cause or beneficiaries of that change in perception.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts on January 22nd and 23rd under Thomas Hengelbrock featured the six movements of Martin’s concerto alternating with Bach chorales. The 45 voices of the Bavarian Radio Chorus combined with the delicately performing orchestra formed a foundation from which the six concerto movements could rise and set them in a contextthat the audience could appreciate. Such mix-and-(mis)match programs, at their best, can enhance the experience of both, old and new. That certainly was the case here. Soloist Andreas Röhn, concertmaster of the BRSO, had a big part in that: His performance further underscored the level of individual excellence of that orchestra and the work's challenge had the soloist come out in Röhn—a student of Gingold and Szeryng and Carl Flesh-Prize Winner, after all. A Mozart Requiem followed.

Ionarts at Large: Mozart's Requiem with the BRSO



February 26th/17th/28th, Munich, Gasteig:


MPhil-Mahler-Gatti-Mahvelous!

After the Lulu Suite—so much more easily appreciable than the overlong completed version of the opera—it seemed clear that Berg, not Mahler, would be the highlight of this concert. As if this didn’t already sound close to hyperbole, it should be telling about the quality of the concert that the Mahler turned out the highlight, after all. For that it would have to have been the best Mahler Fourth I have heard—and it was...

Ionarts at Large: A Mahler Supreme & a Lulu to Die For


May 15th, Munich, Herkulessaal:


American Nights @ MusicaViva with Kristjan Järvi and the BRSO

Udo Zimmermann seems to feel naughty for throwing this tonal bone to the listener. The liner notes spend considerable time justifying the daring occurrence of--wait for it...: harmony! As a truly modern European composer one would not want to be considered a reactionary, after all. Perhaps Zimmermann is right about being worried. (“Is that allowed? Is this an Anti-Concerto” the notes disingenuously question and eagerly postulate. ) After all, this ‘taking the listener by the ear’, gently, and harmonically pulling him his way… this acknowledgment of purpose (in instrumentation and structure) is the very negation of Zimmermann’s (and the whole avant-garde music scene’s) underlying and often trumpeted notion of the “paradigm shift” that had allegedly occurred in our listening habits.

The concerto is gorgeous, even when it gets busy, noisy, and tangled. The heartfelt reception and genuine applause must have been quite different than the usual, cool admiration. Via perceptible ideas and motifs, through recognizability and musical craftsmanship Udo Zimmermann has arrived, if not at truth, so at least in reality. A warm “welcome back”.

Ionarts at Large: American Night at Munich’s Musica Viva


June 5th/6th/7th, Munich, Gasteig:


Faust for Schnittke, Schoenberg for Brahms

Rarely have I encountered a concert program seemingly so tailored to my (very mildly eclectic) tastes as that of the Munich Philharmonic earlier this month. Andrey Boreyko conducted Schnittke’s wild and whacky Faust Cantata—the closest (and maybe close enough) we’ll likely come to the composer’s opera “Historie von D. Johann Fausten”—and the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet.

The Faust Cantata, which would become the third act of the opera, shows Schnittke at his most effective... From the Matthew Passion to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Schnittke covers all your grand theatrical desires in this work. Undoubtedly one of the best treatments of Faust in music. The low growling, seedy prowling Malgorzata Walewska was the sordid hit amid a very fine completed by Artur Stefanowicz as Mephisto and bass Arutjun Kotchinian as Faust.

Ionarts at Large: Ravel & Schnittke in Munich


Munich, April 8th, Munich, National Theater:


On the Searing Pain of our Horrible Best Choices: Barbara Frey’s Jenůfa

You could sit through Barbara Frey’s Jenůfa (Bavarian State Operaand completely miss out on the fact that you have witnessed greatness. It doesn’t take much exhaustion, a touch of uncharitable mood, or slight dullness of mind to not pick on the subtleties that lift this production so far above others. A theater director by day, Mme. Frey went for the most human, most realistic approach to the drama, taking Janačék’s music and libretto seriously. The result was un-operatic in that it lacked grand gestures and pathos. And precisely that made it a terrific, terrifying experience that snuck up on the audience at any given, but never the most expected, moment... Kirill Petrenko elicited the most emotional--best--performance from the Bavarian State Orchestra this season...

Ionarts-at-Large: Munich Opera Festival Recap


Dublin, September 20th, Irish Museum of Modern Art:



Elizabeth I and Philip II Horsing Around Early Music

...Later during the final rehearsal, Queen Elizabeth, who barely reaches up to Caitríona O’Leary’s belt, pipes the tune of Greensleeves in duet with O’Leary, which sounds absolutely adorable and moderately musical. Then the little Queen gets her wig affixed while rummaging through her Hello Kitty bag and Philip II chats with Kate, the make-up artist, and crinkles his nose as her brush applies white powder to his face...

eX Shipwrecked Queen Horses Around in Dublin


Munich, October 10th, Gasteig:


BRSO, Jansons, and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra

Composed between 1950 and ’54, at a time when the composer was moving from neo-classicism to something closer resembling Bartók’s folk-modernism, the work is gripping, short on dissonance and long on sharp contrast and driving rhythms. This is music of a rare invigorating quality, full of different shades, timbres, and various levels of textures without being a saturated Technicolor bonbon: clarity and a sense of cool remain even during the glowing brass passages and the intoxicating finale. What an awe-some concerto to explore—and to explore as fine an orchestra as the BRSO with.

Ionarts-at-Large: Midori, Jansons, And Most of All: Lutosławski


Munich, October 15th, Prinzregententheater:


Schubert by Way of Webern

The Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) is a local musical force to be reckoned with... why I have not made it to any of their concerts in the last two years, I do not know...

Where is Anton Webern in his Schubert song orchestrations? In the unfailing tastefulness, the clarity, the absence of anything not essential. It’s as if Webern, by orchestrating them, further parsed the songs’ accompaniment down. The result levitates above the singer like a mobile suspended from silver threads the thickness of hair. The brief, dotted touches of color are already pure Webern, even though these are youthful works compared to his more famous orchestral transcriptions. Every note becomes audible, it’s Schubert as nouvelle cuisine...

Ionarts-at-Large: Munich Chamber Orchestra Opens Season in the Hereafter


Munich, December 1st, National Theater:


Bel Canto with Buster Keaton

The review of the Bavarian State Opera's new "L’Elisir D’Amore" is forthcoming, and it will be glowing. What a terrifically entertaining show... you couldn't do better going to the movies, in terms of laughs, tears, and total diversion. When Rolando Villazon will take over as Nemorino in the next run of performances, he will have a hard time matching the sensitive, graceful, hilarious and melancholic, touching... in short: divine performance of Giuseppe Filianoti. Nino Machaidze was an Adina to match, Patrick Bannwart's stage and David Bösch's direction an instant hit. Great theater with music which, no offense, Donizetti, is precisely the way to treat this sort of repertoire.

30.12.09

Musée du Luxembourg Will Close on January 17


Musée du Luxembourg
Over the summer the French Senate announced that it would close the museum that shares its lodgings in the Palais du Luxembourg. Since 2000, a private company called SVO Art had a special arrangement with the Senate to host exhibits in the museum space, some of which have been covered by Ionarts. When the current exhibit, on glass works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, closes on January 17, the museum will be dark until a new company is authorized to reopen the museum, supposedly in 2011. (The official quote was sans doute au début de 2011, which in French administrative language, as a French friend loves to joke, means "probably never.") Twenty-five salaried employees and seventy-five other workers will be laid off. An article by Michel Guerrin (Le Musée du Luxembourg fermé en 2010, December 29) in Le Monde has some more detail (my translation):
In an interview with Le Monde, on July 3, Gérard Larcher [President of the French Senate] described the relationship between the Senate and SVO art as "a real mess" (un vrai micmac) and said it was necessary to "come back to a clear state of things." The Senate intends to have more control over the museum it houses. It has made a request for proposals with the idea of establishing a delegation for public service for the maintenance of the museum. But "the conditions of this request for proposals are too constrictive," according to an employee questioned by Le Parisien, who gives as an example the fact that the new operator will have to take on the responsibility for the upkeep of the building while also lowering admission prices. In the meantime, two planned exhibits, including one on "Boats and the Impressionists," have been canceled.

The Musée du Luxembourg has drawn 5.5 million visitors in the last 10 years, which is quite a success in terms of audience numbers, even if the exhibits that were organized there were occasionally the object of negative criticism from specialists. Some high points for the museum have been the Modigliani exhibit in 2002-03 (545,000 visitors), Botticelli in 2003-04 (507,000 visitors), the Phillips Collection in 2005-06 (452,000 visitors), and the Italian painter Arcimboldo in 2007-08 (422,000 visitors).
The article also states that the museum's closing is related to a conflict, now two years old and currently in the courts, between Sylvestre Verger, the leader of SVO, and Patrizia Nitti, the museum's former artistic director, notably over the sharing of the profits of the exhibits. According to Verger, the Musée du Luxembourg brought in 637,000 € to the Senate in 2008.

29.12.09

Haydn: Symphonies and Violin Concerto

The Haydn Year recently saw the passing of the great scholar of the composer and his works, H. C. Robbins Landon.

available at Amazon
Haydn, Symphonies 49/80, Violin Concerto 1, G. von der Goltz, Freiburger Barockorchester

(released on November 10, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2962029
68'45"
This disc of two early Haydn symphonies, no. 49 and no. 80, is another fine release in Harmonia Mundi’s Haydn Edition series for the anniversary year, quickly drawing to a close. The Freiburger Barockorchester gives crisp, even angular performances of the two symphonies, both sometimes cited as examples of the Sturm und Drang character (especially the storm-tossed no. 49, known as "La passione") found in many of Haydn’s early symphonies. Those relatively heavier works bookend a lighter diversion, a welcome performance of Haydn’s first violin concerto (C major, Hob. VIIa:1), which affords the chance to hear how Haydn, like Bach before him, absorbed the structure of the Vivaldi solo concerto. The ensemble’s leader, Gottfried von der Goltz, gives a glowing rendition of the solo part, conceived by Haydn for his orchestra’s concertmaster, violinist Luigi Tomasini.

This is only the latest in an unofficial series of Haydn symphonies (and other works) by the Freiburg ensemble, including another release this year, Symphonies 91 and 92, paired with the Scena di Berenice sung by Bernarda Fink. The best way, economically speaking, to add some Haydn symphonies to your collection at the moment is still with a larger set, like the re-release from Tafelmusik reviewed last week. Christopher Hogwood's historically informed recording with the Academy of Ancient Music, still very pricey in several little sets, has also been in my ears recently: they are elegant, subtly lined performances but not extraordinary enough to merit the current asking price. If you already own many of the early Haydn symphonies, these discs from the Freiburgers would be an excellent way to fill a gap in your collection, and anyone looking for a taste of those works would be assured an excellent introduction with these performances.

28.12.09

Nikolaj Znaider Channels Kreisler in Elgar

available at Amazon
Elgar, Violin Concerto, N. Znaider, Staatskapelle Dresden, C. Davis

(released on January 5, 2010)
Sony Red Seal 88697 60588 2
49'23"

available at Amazon
Simon Mundy, Elgar
We have already recommended next week's National Symphony Orchestra concerts (January 7 to 9) as something that will likely be one of the high points of that ensemble's season. The orchestra is supposed to be welcoming back former music director Leonard Slatkin to its podium, although complications from the heart attack he suffered while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic last month have delayed some of his plans to return to conducting since then. The main course of the program is a welcome chance to hear Elgar's violin concerto, with none other than Nikolaj Znaider as soloist. We have admired this Danish violinist's velvety tone many times before, both before and after he was loaned a rather extraordinary instrument, the "ex-Kreisler" Guarnerius heard last on Znaider's recording of the Brahms violin concerto. Znaider has now taken advantage of that instrument's history by recording and playing on tour the violin concerto that Edward Elgar wrote for Kreisler and his Guarnerius.

Until recently, Nigel Kennedy's recordings of the Elgar concerto were the ones to own. A few years ago Philippe Graffin made an excellent version with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, under the baton of the excellent Vernon Handley, that for the first time attempted to strip away Fritz Kreisler's many changes to the violin part (Jessica Duchen wrote about the manuscripts Graffin consulted in the British Library). Given how Kreisler later treated the Elgar concerto -- often playing it in a drastically cut version and refusing to record it -- the question of whether Elgar's original version or the one that incorporated Kreisler's changes should be considered the best is open to debate. Znaider's liner notes make no mention of the Graffin reconstruction, for obvious reasons, like invoking the mantle of Fritz Kreisler. It would not do to "de-Kreislerize" the concerto while playing on the "ex-Kreisler."

Not that what one hears here should be thought of as how Kreisler might have played the Elgar concerto, something that we can never really know in the absence of a recording. What one does hear is Znaider's elegant line in a work that is really centered on lonely, intimate scenes, with some big playing required as well, to be sure. Simon Mundy writes in his recent book Elgar about the concerto's sub-dedication, a quote from Gil Blas ("Here is enshrined the soul of ..."), calling it "another of Elgar's enigmas." Elgar described the piece as full of Romantic longing, that "the music sings of memories and hope" but for whom? Mundy thinks Alice Stuart-Wortley was the name replaced by the ellipsis, and it makes sense. Alice inspired Elgar to work past his block as he composed the concerto, finding a melody to bridge the two themes he had composed some time earlier for the first movement, which he called "windflower" themes, after a spring wildflower (Anemone nemorosa) he came to associate with Stuart-Wortley. According to Michael Kennedy in The Life of Elgar, the composer
told Ivor Atkins that he would like the nobilmente theme of the slow movement (five bars after cue 53) to be inscribed on his tombstone. In that theme, we may feel, the soul of Edward Elgar is enshrined.
Nikolaj Znaider will play the Elgar violin concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra next week (January 7 to 9), in a program that pairs it with Holst's The Planets.

SVILUPPO:
Jessica Duchen and Bob Shingleton have another theory about Elgar's mysterious dedications in the Violin Concerto and the Enigma Variations.

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 2)


This continues Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.10 (Part 1).


available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Barshai), Barshai / JDtPhil
Brilliant

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke III), Gielen / SWRSO
Hänssler

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Wheeler), Olson / PNRSO
Naxos

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke II), Chailly / RSO Berlin
Decca/ArkivCD

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke III), Harding / WPh
DG

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke III), Noseda / BBC Phil
Chandos

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke II), Inbal / Frankfurt RSO
Denon (oop)

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Carpenter), Litton / Dallas SO
Delos

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke III), Rattle II / BPh
EMI

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Mazetti II), Lopez-Cobos / Cincinnati SO
Telarc

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke II), Sanderling / Berlin SO
Berlin Classics

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke I), Ormandy / Philadelphia
CBS/Sony

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Cooke II), Rattle I / CoBSO
EMI

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Mazetti I), Slatkin / St.Louis SO
RCA

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.10 (Samale-Mazzucca), Sieghart / Arnheim PO
Exton

UK | DE | JP
Twenty minutes into the Adagio of his Tenth Symphony, Mahler puts down two horrible, threatening nine-tone chords that remind of the ‘gate posts’ with which Beethoven’s Eroica opens. When heard in performance, they open that movement up for the first time: Here, after all, stands the terrible, black, and towering gate to modernity from which, once entered, there is no return. (A nine-tone chord might suggest that, Mahler was just three notes from having quite naturally—without any musico-ideological plan—stumbled upon a twelve-tone system of his own.) The descent from these gates tellingly brings us—via the amorphous Scherzo—to the “Purgatorio” middle movement. Mahler wrote into the margins: “Dem Teufel tanzt es mit mir”. (“The Devil is dancing [it] with me” – see picture accompanying Part 1.)

Where the travel goes from there, I cannot tell. There are moments in the finale, after passing those two horrible gates of chords again (this time some ten minutes into the movement), that suggest an ascent from the Purgatorio to a more solemn peace. The haunting flute melody (still before those gates), for example, which meanders with haunting beauty in all the performing versions, already hints at a contentedness otherwise akin only to the finale of the Ninth. But first that finale opens with seven, later repeated, dreadful (blunted) blows on…—well, and here the versions differ: a bass drum like Wheeler has it? A military drum as Carpenter suggests? Muted (as Cooke suggests) or forced, loud, and unfiltered (as Rattle departs from the Cooke score in both his versions)? And should there be two—one closing the fourth and one opening the fifth movement, as indicated by the score? Or one, to connect the two movements, as does Kurt Sanderling in his seminal 1979 recording does and as Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding have since adopted, too. These blows were apparently inspired by the passing of a cortége for a Fire Chief below Mahler’s hotel window in New York. It makes sense to hear the blows as the sound that traveled up to Mahler, possibly emitted from short ‘tattoos’ on a snare drum. If so, the vigorous single strokes of Sanderling (or Rattle I, slightly less glaring but even louder, Hammerblow-like) make less sense, whereas the washed sound of a distant drum (hence hearing the ‘tattoo’ as one solid thump) does. I have heard none more convincing than the one Barshai employs at this crucial moment in the score. Noseda opts for loud but not harsh, Harding for soft, but with too much reverb. Inbal and Gielen could both benefit from a more muffled sound.

Since the Tenth only exists in ‘performing version’, there is no point getting too deeply into the different approaches; unlike with the Sixth’s two contentious choices regarding the Hammerblow-count or the movement order, the differences in the Tenth are the point of the various versions and part of its reception. Suggesting that one touch or another works better—like Cooke’s use of brass (tuba) in the opening of the last movement, which distinctly sounds like Wagner, whereas Wheeler, Mazzetti, and Barshai, using double basses, get a more discernibly Mahlerian sound—should only suggest that we are lucky to get more and more versions of this work, all of which work off each other and can utilize good ideas and melt them with new ones. Anything else would be precisely the kind of presumptuousness that has made all the re-constructors approach this task so tepidly in the first place.

Since its appearance, Rattle’s Berlin recording of the third Cooke edition (with some of his own touches already displayed in the earlier Birmingham recording), has been hailed as the go-to ‘performing version’ tenth. Glorious sound and what was at the time deemed the most up-to-date edition as well as the fact that Rattle has been (and remains) the foremost champion of the ‘complete’ Tenth, have largely contributed to this. Since then, there have been a few other Cooke III recordings, though, and none of them worse and some better than Rattle: Michael Gielen’s on Hänssler (the most successful, most unforgiving, most terrifyingly modern), Daniel Harding’s on DG (superbly played by the Vienna Philharmonic), and Gianandrea Noseda’s on Chandos (more unified than Harding, a tremendous finale with a haunting portamento from ppp to pp, albeit with fewer ‘moments’ elswhere). In terms of sheer beauty, none of these recent releases manage to match Riccardo Chailly and the RSO Berlin (Cooke II). Interpretively reserved, but shaped with loving dedication. Inbal (Frankfurt RSO, Denon, oop) always keeps my interest, but Sanderling (Berlin SO, Berlin Classics) no longer sounds as good next to the newly appearing competition. The playing of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra is not at an exalted level and he rarely gets the pianissimos to be truly hushed. It is interesting to hear his stylistic influences and textual choices and deviations on Rattle, but all the above named sound better and the orchestras play better, now that the Tenth is no longer a nose-wrinkling experiment to them.

Given the improvements (notably some trimming-down) of Cooke II and III over Cooke I, the re-issued Ormandy is an interesting piece of history, and an engaged performance, but not a viable choice in light of many other good performances of Cooke II or different versions. Wheeler has gotten its first commercial recording on Naxos—with Robert Olson (he also led the premiere performance) who directs the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in a fine, if not particularly polished performance. The result may have warts and the minimalist approach to Mahler's sketches may take some getting used to, but the version and the recording are better than its reputation. Not a first choice, but a first second choice. The spartan Wheeler/Olson version turned out to be so good—so close to Mahler’s draft—that Mazzetti went back to revise his own version (originally recorded with Leonard Slatkin and the St.Louis SO), which in turn was played and recorded by Jesus López-Cobos and the Cincinnati SO. Leonard Slatkin suggested that the recorded first version should be very similar to the second version, since the latter version incorporates all the changes that he suggested to Mazzetti before performing his first completion. (In conversation a few years ago, he even suggested that he might like to try his hand at completing a performing version himself, if he finds the time.) But as Remo Mazzetti points out, the changes that Slatkin unilaterally imposed on the score (substituting, for example, the xylophone for the glockspiel in the last 2 movements, much to Mazzetti’s dismay), have nothing to do with his—Mazzetti’s—subsequent version... and were in any case not "suggested" but presented to Mazzetti as a fait accompli. A truly idiomatic recording of the non-bowdlerized Mazetti-solution has yet to be issued, but may well be (or at least should be) forthcoming one day.

Carpenter, who worked on his fairly liberal version without knowing of the parallel efforts by Cooke, seemed less inhibited in adding and inventing to the Mahler facsimile, and perhaps he overshoot here and there. The result is, together with Barshai (but less happily, to my ears) at the other end on the re-constructive continuum as measured from Wheeler. The recording to go with Carpenter is Andrew Litton’s with the Dallas SO. The Dallas Mahler recordings, even if I have not mentioned them in the past survey, are good; this Tenth (for obvious reasons) being the most interesting and the Second the most impressive of the lot.

Rudolf Barshai set upon his own draft, drawing on all available versions and coming up with what I find to be by far the best attempt of presenting a coherent, exciting Mahler symphony. Excellent sound and a wildly inspired playing Junge Deutsche Philharmonie add tremendously. Barshai uses an almost bewildering variety of instruments in his Tenth, thereby moving further from the score in that regard than anyone else. Some might find the sounds of the guitar, castanets, or xylophones as uncharacteristic of Mahler (the Mahler of Symphonies 1-9 that is) or could think the atmosphere ‘congested’. Maybe, but it makes for tremendous excitement. Of course we have no idea what Mahler would have ended up using for the final version of the Tenth—and despite the curiously large number of percussion instruments that Barshai uses, the tender and sparse, ‘broken’ orchestral texture of the symphony never gets disturbed. No one else sets the two gates in the first and last movement down in such a deliciously terrifying manner; Barshai successfully circumnavigates those rare moments where Cooke sounds oddly un-Mahlerian or too literal. The additional meat he hangs on the bones of the Mahler skeleton—as compared with Wheeler’s leaner attempt—make for generally more satisfactory listening.





Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.





The font used in the title is "ITC Franklin Gothic"

Mahler 10 Choices


1. Rudolf Barshai, Version: Barshai, Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Brilliant

2. Michael Gielen, Version: Cooke III, SWRSO, Hänssler

3. Robert Olson, Version: Wheeler, Polish NRSO, Naxos

4. Riccardo Chailly, Version: Cooke II, Berlin RSO, Decca/ArkivCD

Also: Gianandrea Noseda, BBC Philharmonic, Chandos or Daniel Harding, Wiener Philharmoniker, DG (both Cooke III)

Mahler 10 SACD Choice

By default, that is Martin Sieghart's 10th (Samale-Mazzucca) on Exton. Currently only available as an import from Japan, to Europe, at absurd prices.

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 1)



Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, of which Mahler himself only got to finish the long opening Adagio and the short “Purgatorio” played as its central movement, has been ‘finished’ by several scholars after Alma Mahler released the extant material in facsimile form and then eventually gave her consent for a performance. (Although all who have worked on it would eschew the word “finished” or “completed” in favor of the more correct and modest: turned into a ‘performing’ version)

Most notable among them is Deryck Cooke’s version—by far the most performed and recorded, although that might begin to change. From the sketches and the basic layout Cooke has made a performing version which exists in three revisions. Other scholars and musicians who had a go at it were Clinton Carpenter (the first one to do so), twice Remo Mazzetti (apparently with help from Leonard Slatkin the first time around), Joe Wheeler (with additions by conductor Robert Olson), Rudolf Barshai, and most recently the conductor-composer team Samale-Mazzucca with their ‘Ricostruzione’. (Recordings exist of each version.) Colin and David Matthews assisted Cooke in his last revision and finished it, when Cooke died in 1976. Even then conductors tend to add, bend, subtract according to their own ideas, which is only natural given the tenuous nature of the material they deal with. Thus there is scarcely a recording out there that exactly resembles another, even as far as the notes or the instrumentation are concerned.

When Alma Mahler heard the result in 1964 (performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who also made the first recording of it), she was moved to tears. “I had no idea how much of Mahler was in it” she was supposed to have said after what was technically the third performance. Even so, critics still don’t agree on whether any of the results are truly satisfying. There is no doubt that Mahler, known to tinker around with his symphonies until well after they got their premiere performances or were published, had much, much work left on his Tenth. Orchestration, general layout, and even the movement order or inclusion or exclusion of them are all in question and not made easier by his despaired scribbles in the margins that suggest a melancholic passion of Nietzschean pathos. Yet, despite many open questions, the symphony appears finished in principle (it is extremely symmetric, for one—with two slow, twenty-plus minute long outer movements, two inner, ten to twelve-minute long Scherzos, all joined by the central, tiny “Purgatorio” intermezzo) and sounds more than reasonably Mahlerian.



Early work on the Adagio and the Purgatorio was done by Ernst Křenek (Mahler’s son-in-law). Alban Berg, Franz Schalk (of Bruckner-meddling infamy) and Alexander (von) Zemlinsky all may have had their fingers in it at one point or another. Especially when the Adagio and the Purgatorio were played together, the impression it made must not have been a very good or convincing one—and perhaps as a result some of the most notable Mahler conductors of that time—Kubelik, Bernstein, Walter, Klemperer, Barbirolli—never went on to bother with the performing version, even when it became available. The rise of the Third Reich—performances of Mahler were outlawed wherever Nazism reigned—certainly did not help aspirations to go any further with the material, either. By the time a ‘completion’ was deemed intriguing or even desirable, Alma Mahler and the American Mahler scholar Jack Diether ‘shopped the work around’ with some of the most notable composers of the time. None accepted. The one composer who I most wish to have tackled it, Arnold Schoenberg, did not dare, either. Shostakovich, too, denied—and I fear that a DSCH version might have sounded rather awkward precisely because of the (albeit ‘industrial’) proximity of Shostkovich’s own symphonic sound to Mahler’s. Shostakovich might have seen it similarly: He responded to the inquiry by Diether: “In spite of my love for this composer, I cannot take upon myself this huge task. This calls for deep penetration into the spiritual world of the composer, as well as his creative and individual style. For me, this would be impossible.”

The Tenth is much less speculation than, say, Elgar’s Third Symphony, but with all due respect to Elgar seems a more formidable task, anyway. I, for one, didn’t quite grasp the appeal of the complete work before slowly beginning to appreciate it more and more. Whether the completion is successful or not is a judgment up to each listener—and fortunately there are enough different versions out there to try many times to see if one fits. The completions very generally differ in how much they either tried to finish the symphony or decided to leave it as bare as possible just to have a performable version. Cooke (in versions I and II), though claiming strict unintrusiveness, ‘composes’ the most into it, Wheeler leaves it the most rudimentary, in a Mahlerian language that resembles Das Lied more so than symphonies Five and Six (as do Cooke’s and Mazzetti’s). Barshai’s reconstruction (though not his instrumentation) is a compromise between the two urges and—as far as I am concerned—works best. If his is closer to any particular style of Mahler’s symphonies, it is that of the Ninth which, according to Mazzetti, Barshai would have in common with the Clinton Carpenter version (recorded by Andrew Litton).

The Adagio had been performed as a stand-alone movement and it is an impressive lone pillar—nearly thirty minutes long—that indicates, but not quite reveals, Mahler’s musical testament. The harmony is more daring, still, than in the Ninth—and Mahler tugs and pulls (I feel: desperately) on the harmonies that he knew and had already expanded. And despite audible cues to previous Mahler works (notably Das Lied von der Erde in the fourth movement), a new Mahler arises with that Adagio of the Tenth (assuming the finale of the Ninth can be seen as an apt closure of all his previous work). This ‘fare-thee-well’ is not necessarily melancholic, much less nostalgic, but rather resigned. The variation movement of Beethoven’s op.111 has such a fare-thee-well theme, too—and was considered, by Adorno (speaking to us through Thomas Mann’s Wendell Kretzschmar) to have been “the end of the piano sonata as such”. (Adorno, as it were, was outspoken in his opposition to creating a performing version of the Tenth, asking that that which does not exist in the symphony be imagined. Of course that assumes access to the facsimile and very advanced skills in reading the score; perhaps a tad too elitist an opinion by any standard other than Adorno’s.)

As with all the works that stretch chromaticism to its limits, starting with Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde and culminating with Schoenberg’s transitional works (Gurrelieder-Part III, Kammersinfonie), Mahler is a composer in need of a long breath. Especially so in the finale of the Ninth and the whole Tenth. In order to hear the musical reasoning and the harmonic connections, one needs to keep all its sounds ‘in the air’ until a note comes by which allows for the preceding material to be put in place. I suspect it is not coincidentally like the German language in which a sentence (often of obnoxious length) makes no sense until the concluding verb gives everything its meaning. Like a puzzle in which one cannot yet fix any pieces because consequent pieces might demand a different alignment.[1]

Because language determines our way of thinking to a large degree, I wonder if I should be surprised how well and enthusiastically and informed English speaking audiences and performers take to Mahler. Unlike Bruckner—strangely less well understood there—Mahler does not put full stops after any of his musical sentences. His movements—and more so in these late works, from Das Lied onward—consist only of allusions followed by ellipses and separated by a slew of commas. Seemingly extraneous material is inserted in porous parentheses. The Tenth Symphony is one of the more obvious examples of that art. If the increase in the completed versions’ popularity over the last twenty years is anything to go by, the ‘complete’ Tenth will become part of the standard Mahler canon before long.



Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 2)

Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.





The font used in the title is "Auriol Roman"


[1] Schopenhauer had the this to say about long German sentences:

"The German weaves his sentences together into one sentence which he twists and crosses, and crosses and twists again; because he wants to say six things all at once, expressed in a high-flown, bombastic language in order to communicate the simplest thought. The long German sentence is involved and full of parentheses like so many boxes one enclosed within another, all padded out like stuffed geese, overburdening the reader’s memory, weakening his understanding and hindering his judgment. . . . This kind of sentence furnishes the reader with mere half-phrases which he is then called upon to collect carefully and store up in his memory as though they were the pieces of a torn letter which the reader has to put together to make sense. . . . The writer breaks up his principal sentence into little pieces, for the sole purpose of pushing into the gaps thus made two or three other thoughts by way of parenthesis, thereby unnecessarily and wantonly confusing the reader." Mark Twain has much to say about it, too – in his typical humor – in his essay “The Awful German Language” and his speech, “The Horrors of the German Language”.

27.12.09

In Brief: In Dulci Jubilo Edition


Noël nouvelet, arr. Stephen Cleobury
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Celebrated bass-baritone José van Dam will celebrate three major milestones in 2010: his 70th birthday (as they say in Belgium, "il aura septante ans"), his 50th anniversary as a professional singer, and the 30th of his debut at the Théâtre de La Monnaie. The Brussels company will celebrate with a production of Massenet's Don Quichotte (May 4 to 19), with van Dam in the title role (Marc Minkowski will conduct and Laurent Pelly will direct -- just how much is a ticket to Brussels?). Martine Mergeay has an appreciation. [La Libre Belgique]

  • The pastry chef at The Four Seasons makes an amazing gingerbread construction every year: this year, it's the Smithsonian Castle under the snow. [DCist]

  • Even from the skies, the aftereffects of last weekend's nor'easter are striking and beautiful. [NASA]

  • The Opéra Garnier is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Ballets russes this month, by staging four of that company's choreographies, including Vaslav Nijinski's controversial staging of L'Après-midi d'un faune with music by Debussy. [Le Monde]

  • Rosita Boisseau looks into the history of the Ballets russes and the life of its iconoclastic founder, Serge Diaghilev. [Le Monde]

  • Researchers have disinterred the remains of Caravaggio. The bones will be examined and given various tests, mostly in an attempt to make a scientific determination of the cause of the artist's death, then displayed to the public at Rome's Galleria Borghese before being interred in an as yet unannounced location. [BBC News]

  • Helpful information for next year's holiday season: how to sabotage your office's Secret Santa activity if it is unjustly foisted on you. [NotionsCapital]

26.12.09

The King's College M-Word

available at Amazon
Handel, Messiah, A. Tynan, A. Coote, A. Clayton, M. Rose, Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, S. Cleobury

(released on November 3, 2009)
EMI Classics 50999 2 68156 9 5
160'
Handel premiered his oratorio Messiah in Dublin on April 13, 1742. While the chance to hear the massive Goossens orchestration last weekend, with the National Symphony Orchestra, was certainly welcome, this new DVD takes the listener much closer to what Handel created. There is no shortage of DVD versions of Messiah shot in beautiful locales, including a previous one by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the high price tag does not help make a case for this one. Cleobury's earlier recording was with the Brandenburg Consort, and here he has an even finer instrumental portion, provided by the Academy of Ancient Music on original instruments. The band is limited to what Handel had at the premiere, a small consort of strings, and historical replicas of two oboes, bassoon, timpani, and two trumpets (twenty-some players in all). In Dublin, Handel led the performance from the harpsichord, which is used here as at the premiere in conjunction with a chamber organ. As he often did at his concerts, Handel interpolated movements from his organ concertos at the intermissions, featuring himself as soloist, a practice that is not reproduced here.

Messiah was not premiered in a church but in a public auditorium, the New-Musick Hall in Dublin's Fishamble Street (often named Neale's Hall after the music publisher William Neale), a building that was later converted into a theater and has long since been demolished. The hall is thought to have held about 600 people, but one reviewer of the first performance said that as many as 700 had squeezed into the space. Just for comparison the Kennedy Center Concert Hall holds about 2,500, but the legendary chapel at King's College holds just over 600 (filled as it was for the performances captured here, this past April) and is long and narrow like the Dublin venue was. Needless to say, the building's fanned web vault, an impossibly intricate version of late Gothic architectural design, comes in for many beauty shots.


available at Amazon
Thomas Forrest Kelly, Five Nights: Five Musical Premieres
(2000)
To learn more about the circumstances of the first performances of Messiah, we highly recommend a book by Harvard professor Thomas Kelly, which examines all of the primary evidence about the work's early history, to separate fact from fiction: Prof. Kelly gives the same treatment to four other supremely important musical masterpieces, including Monteverdi's Orfeo, Beethoven's ninth symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Although Messiah is generally thought of as a sacred work now, at the time it represented a radical secularization of the life of Christ, intended not for a church but for a public theater (sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Dublin), that was opposed by some churchmen and pious Christians. Jonathan Swift, then Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, almost scuttled the premiere by initially forbidding choristers from the cathedral to take part in the performance, because of the perceived crossing of sacred-secular lines.

Handel's choir consisted of the gentlemen and choirboys of Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, making the King's College Choir an excellent approximation of their sound. Handel did have women as soloists at the Dublin premiere (he later revised some of the solos for the castrato Guadagnini): an Italian singer known only as Signora Avolio for the soprano pieces and the contralto Susanna Maria Cibber for some of the alto solos (she actually shared the solos with two gentlemen of the choir). Mrs. Cibber was an actress known more for her dramatic talent (her fame was widespread and she was allowed the rare honor of burial in Westminster Abbey) than as a singer and had sung the role of Polly in The Beggar's Opera in London. Because she had no musical training, Handel had to teach her parts to her by rote, and to accommodate her light voice -- "a mere thread," according to Charles Burney -- Handel had to transpose her arias down to suit her limited range. The male solos were divided among some of the gentlemen of the choir; violinist Matthew Dubourg led the orchestra and conducted -- he was known for an excessive love of ornamentation, as described by Burney.

It may surprise some listeners of Messiah to know that Handel did not compose the piece originally for specific voices, and he apparently scaled down the virtuosic demands of his vocal writing, not knowing what kind of singers he would have at his disposal. In fact, John Hawkins, another authority on music in the 18th century, wrote somewhat disparagingly of the vocal writing:
Instead of airs that required the delicacy of Cuzzoni, or the volubility of Faustina to execute, he hoped to please by songs, the beauties whereof were within the comprehension of less fastidious hearers than in general frequent the opera, namely, such as were adapted to a tenor voice, from the natural firmness and inflexibility whereof little more is ever expected than an articulate utterance of the words, and a just expression of the melody.
In fact, the famous soprano solo Rejoice greatly was originally composed to be about twice as long as it was later revised. This may explain why the piece works better with talented singers who may not have the largest voices, such as are featured here. Again, this new DVD is not a necessary purchase, but for someone looking for a Messiah on DVD, in a beautiful setting and fairly close to what Handel envisioned, this is a good choice.

25.12.09

In Die Natalis Domini 2009


Sussex Carol, arr. Philip Ledger
King's College, Cambridge, 2008
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad?
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night.
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"

24.12.09

Top 10 Live Performances of 2009

We hear so much good music every year, which makes this annual post difficult to compile, but here is the list of the ten best Washington-area concerts we heard in 2009 (Jens will have a separate list of the best heard by Ionarts at Large). It is pointless to try to rank these excellent concerts from best to least best, so they are listed in chronological order, with an excerpt from my review. As always, your comments about the year in review are welcome.

#1. Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, Viol Consort (Renwick Gallery, January 11):

The concert was programmed at the request of an anonymous patron -- thank you! -- who wanted to hear a performance of all nineteen of Christopher Tye's five-part settings of the In Nomine melody. You might think that this would be the kiss of death as far as selling tickets, but every seat was filled, many of them an hour beforehand for Slowik's pre-concert lecture. In Nomine was a fragment of the Sarum chant used as the cantus firmus of a famous four-voice passage in the Benedictus section of John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, played widely by viol consorts in the English Renaissance and used as the basis for an array of new compositions based on it. Composers tackled the In Nomine like a proof of one's contrapuntal chops, but few took to the genre like Christopher Tye, who seemed intent on doing as many different variations on the concept as possible. This performance was technically assured, if not note-perfect, weaving the warm halo of sound from these exquisite 17th-century instruments into a carefully balanced ensemble.

György Kurtág, autograph score to Hommage à Bartók (first movement, "Adieu, Haydée I"), Library of Congress (photo by Robert Pohl)
#2. György and Márta Kurtág (Library of Congress, February 7):
György Kurtág has long been on the list of Ionarts favorite composers. As part of the 82-year-old Hungarian composer's first visit to the United States, the festival devoted to the Hungarian Cultural Year (infelicitously named Extremely Hungary) included a concert of historic importance on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. On April 13, 1940, violinist József Szigeti gave a concert with Béla Bartók at the Library of Congress, two days after the Hungarian composer had arrived in the United States. That concert was recorded on acetate discs, which have been transferred to CD (see this review), and Kurtág calls it an event "sacred for all Hungarian musicians." Continuing the legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who helped so much to sustain Bartók's late career, the Library of Congress commissioned a new work by Kurtág, premiered at this concert by the composer and his wife, Márta Kurtág.
#3. Evgeny Kissin (WPAS, March 1):
Opening with Prokofiev's Three Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, op. 75, Kissin captured Juliet's flightiness in restless runs, the wild romp of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, and the heavy-footed dance of the Montagues and Capulets, orchestral in scope and marvelously differentiated in voicing. That was a pleasing overture to the meat of this recital, an unforgettable performance of Prokofiev's eighth sonata (B-flat major, op. 84). From the opening note of the first movement (Andante dolce), which Kissin set gently and sweetly in place with such deliberate care, this was a display of patient craftsmanship, alternately elegiac and then restive in the inquieto sections. The piece has never much appealed to me, by comparison to the flashier Prokofiev sonatas (no. 2, no. 7), but Kissin's case was persuasive, giving the second movement (Andante sognando) the feel of someone fallen asleep outside a dance hall, with chromatic chord alterations soft-pedaled and Kissin's velvety touch making time seem to stand still. Finally, the third movement (Vivace) was an outrageous toccata that rumbled with trumpet-like fanfares through to its booming conclusion.

Quatuor Ébène (Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure, Mathieu Herzog, Raphaël Merlin), photo by Julien Mignot
#4. Quatuor Ébène (Library of Congress, March 12):
For the most part, when string quartets play jazz, the result is often so stilted that I just avoid it when possible. Not only did the Quatuor Ébène play a jazz arrangement of Un jour mon Prince viendra (otherwise known as Someday My Prince Will Come, a song written by Larry Morey and Frank Churchill for Disney's Snow White and performed by jazz legends like Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis) as their encore, and very well at that. They even introduced it by standing and singing it in more than passable four-part close harmony (you can hear part of it at the end of the promotional video embedded after the jump), in what had to have been a first in the history of the Library of Congress. [...] Making a switch from the printed program, the Ébène opened with the best performance of the three, the Ravel F major quartet -- which they also played at the Corcoran two years ago. As they relate in the video, it was the first quartet they rehearsed as a group; they wanted to give it the "performance of the century," and that is exactly what they did last night. It was a viscerally exciting performance: tonally varied, not overly sweet, but luxuriating in the decadent chords at the end of the first movement.
#5. Lera Auerbach, Alisa Weilerstein, and Sasha Cooke (Kennedy Center CrossCurrents Festival, May 1):
We have been enthusiastic fans of Auerbach's music since hearing her sonata for cello and piano, on a 2005 concert by Wu Han and David Finckel, but had already been convinced of her talent from other works heard in recordings. Once again after this program devoted entirely to her compositions, with the composer herself at the piano, Auerbach more forcefully strikes me as that rarest of new voices, a composer who sounds most often only like herself, rather than reminiscent of the work of earlier composers.

Auerbach first partnered with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, both Ionarts favorites, in the 2003 song cycle Last Letter. As Auerbach explained in an engaging introduction, it is a setting of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, the author of a passionate correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke, although they never met. She wrote this poem upon learning of Rilke's death, some time after he had stopped answering her letters, and carries on in it her conversation with the Rilke in her mind, whom Auerbach said she cast as the cello, as if Rilke were involved in the dialogue although he is deprived of words. It opens the work in a frenzied A string cantillation focused on keening half-steps and continues often in agonized trills, spectral overtones, and disembodied sound from the bow sul ponticello.
#6. Jenny Lin (Mansion at Strathmore, May 7):
Lin gave tribute to the nineteenth century, when the etude was perfected as a concert genre, in a ferocious performance of the tremolos and chromatic runs of Liszt's "Etude transcendente No. 12." Two Debussy etudes also referred to the past, including the cheeky reference in no. 1 to Carl Czerny's five-finger exercises, which all piano students love to hate. Some of the choices were obvious, if encountered all too rarely, like the boundary-shattering etudes by György Ligeti and the "Ile de Feu" rhythmic studies of Messiaen.

Just as compelling were lesser-known works like the early Stravinsky etudes (op. 7) and, to complete the menagerie, strikingly different attempts at the genre by living composers Unsuk Chin, Gabriela Ortiz, Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez, and Jason Freeman. With hard-fingered, percussive technique Lin tamed them all, a series of stunningly difficult pieces of the sort one might sprinkle here and there in a normal concert.

Pianist Till Fellner (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
#7. Till Fellner, Beethoven Cycle, Part 3 (Embassy of Austria, May 11):
Fellner's op. 106 was nothing short of a technical marvel, an almost breezy handling of a viper that made one forget the poison in its fangs. Indeed, the audience's restrained applause may have been due in part to the ease with which Fellner played the work, meaning that a listener might not have realized just how difficult it was. The exposition of the first movement established the tone of Fellner's interpretation, a careful balance of hammer (explosive where needed) and lightness (exceptional clarity of independent lines) that never felt overplayed, resulting in a sort of Schubertian grace. In fact, never has the Hammerklavier struck my ears as so close to the Schubert sonatas, which of course it was, composed only about a decade before D. 960. In terms of tempo, Fellner was generally steady as a rock, yielding only as Beethoven indicated, no matter the demands to be negotiated, although the first movement's tempo was slower than the absurdly fast metronome marking that Beethoven indicated. The same was true of the enigmatic scherzo (although Fellner did almost meet Beethoven's metronome marking), kept lively and bouncing with energy right to its abrupt conclusion, slowing only slightly at the trio, perhaps in reaction to Beethoven's marking semplice.
#8. Susanna Phillips: languid legato (Bishop Ireton High School, November 3):
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the area to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend, gave an exceptionally beautiful recital on Tuesday night in the auditorium of Alexandria's Bishop Ireton High School. Those in attendance received a preview of the delectable program of songs Phillips will present later this month at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Even better, the proceeds went to support the creation of a summer music camp for the students of Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School. Phillips has a charming stage presence in operatic roles, but her greatest strength may be as a singer of lieder. As in her Vocal Arts Society recital in 2007, Phillips sang with a tone of consummate beauty, strength and consistency, a voice suited more to the spinning out of flowing legato line than to pyrotechnical acrobatics.
#9. American 'Ring' Cycle Comes to Surprising Conclusion
(Washington National Opera, November 7):
In 2006, when Washington National Opera opened its American Ring Cycle, few could have imagined that it would end as it did on Saturday night, with a concert performance of Götterdämmerung. After very promising productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in 2006 and 2007, financial considerations delayed the staging of Siegfried by one season, to last spring, when it ended up with a troubled casting and special-effects woes. The collapse of the financial and housing market last fall was the final nail in the coffin, forcing the company to give up on the ultimate goal, canceling the plans to mount the entire four-opera cycle this month. Instead of an international operatic event, we had a hastily reconfigured season, until now less than stellar, and two concert performances of Götterdämmerung. By all logical expectations, this doomed Ring should have come to an ignominious end, with nothing but the fact that it finally concluded to show for all the trouble. So, imagine the surprise of everyone in the Kennedy Center Opera House -- critics, subscribers, and likely even the orchestra and the cast -- when this Götterdämmerung turned out to be one of the most transcendent musical experiences in recent memory.
#10. Kim Kashkashian and Tigran Mansurian, Armenian Musical Evening (National Museum of Natural History, December 8)
The Smithsonian Associates and the Embassy of Armenia presented a memorable concert in the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium on Tuesday night. The hour-long program of Armenian music, performed by violist Kim Kashkashian, Armenian composer and pianist Tigran Mansurian, and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, was drawn largely from their admirable series of recordings for ECM.

Speaking through an interpreter before the concert, Mansurian noted that, although he was going to sing some of the pieces, he is not a singer, and he was not kidding. Even with a voice that was barely audible, wobbly and generally unreliable, the venerable composer contributed something affecting and mysterious to two sets of Armenian folk song transcriptions by Vartabed Komitas, whose work on Armenian folk music is comparable to what Bartók and Kodály did in Hungary. Seeming to rise out of a distant past, Mansurian's voice, almost disembodied even with amplification, was echoed by many in the audience, humming along softly.
ADDENDUM:
Each year Ionarts picks the best Christmas concert of the many that we heard in the last month of the year. This highly prized award is utterly subjective and based on an incomplete selection, since we could not (and frankly will not, for our sanity) attend all of the concerts that might qualify. Unfortunately, this year a late December nor'easter canceled two of the possible contenders, but it means that the award goes to the first such concert we heard, back on the first Sunday of Advent, a new Christmas program by Anonymous 4 called The Cherry Tree. Congratulations to the folks at Dumbarton Oaks and to Anonymous 4: long may they reign!

23.12.09

Haydn: Tafelmusik's Symphonies

The Haydn Year recently saw the passing of the great scholar of the composer and his works, H. C. Robbins Landon.

available at Amazon
Haydn, Symphonies (41-47, 50-52, 64, 65, 82-90), Tafelmusik, B. Weil

(re-released on August 18, 2009)
Sony Vivarte 88697480442
7h 31'23"
Sony's re-release of Georg Szell's recording of Haydn's early London symphonies, with the Cleveland Orchestra, already got high marks from Jens this year. Sony has also finally gotten around to re-releasing, as a box set on its Vivarte label, the early Haydn symphony recordings made on period instruments by Tafelmusik in the 1990s, the era in which the Toronto-based HIP ensemble and its principal guest conductor, Bruno Weil, racked up several awards for their Haydn collaborations. Of course, what one hears of the Haydn symphonies for the most part are the later ones he composed for his visits to London, but fine recordings like these ones make a persuasive case for the many earlier symphonies that are unfairly neglected. (Scans of H. C. Robbins Landon's editions of the lion's share of the Haydn symphonies are available at the invaluable IMSLP but unfortunately are tied up in copyright disputes for American users.)

Tafelmusik is one of my favorite ensembles, and their performances get high marks in my book, recently in concert at Wolf Trap and in an unforgettable DVD of Purcell's Dido with the Mark Morris Dance Group. It is not there are not other good options for the pre-London Haydn symphonies: we have already recommended some of the early Haydn symphonies as recorded by Ferenc Fricsay, and Harnoncourt's Paris symphonies are brash and strikingly conceived (although they may irritate some ears). Tafelmusik and Bruno Weil struck a middle ground, seeming to take as their starting point that the Haydn symphony was meant as an aural diversion: not that these are lightweight interpretations -- far from it -- but there is rarely a harsh sound to be heard. The historical instruments are handled skilfully, with even the brass and woodwinds played accurately and pleasingly. The tempi dance and flow, rarely sounding pushed too far in either direction, and the intonation and sense of ensemble are admirably true. At just under $6 a disc for a 7-CD set, including all of the Paris Symphonies and a fine selection of the early symphonies from the 1770s (all of them with H. C. Robbins Landon as musicological adviser, by the way), this is a great way to begin a love affair with the Father of the Symphony.

22.12.09

DVD: 4 Elements / 4 Seasons

available at Amazon
Rebel, Les Élémens / Vivaldi, Le Stagioni, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, M. Seiler, J. Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola

(released on September 8, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMD 9909026
78'
Performances by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, on disc and in concert, have consistently impressed my ears. Their new performing initiative, a series of choreographic concerts at Radialsystem V, the "new space for the arts in Berlin," attempts to impress the eyes as well. Whether it does, I suppose, will depend on your tolerance for modern dance. The concept began with ideas developed among the musicians, which were then adapted by Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola, a countertenor and early music specialist turned dancer, whose background in music helped to get the musicians, who are not only incorporated into the dance but also perform it at times, to trust him. That early music ensembles are not only reviving old, underperformed music but are creating new works of art is another sign that the HIP movement has, as I put it in a review yesterday, run its course.

Esnaola is the focus of the first half, set to Les Élémens, the suite of music by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747). He lies on the floor, a fetal creature of the primordial ooze, as the work opens with a dissonant cluster (Le chaos) and then passes through the formation of the four elements and things associated with them. Esnaola shares the stage with the violin soloist, Midori Seiler, for the second half, a slightly odd but memorable staging of Vivaldi's Le Stagioni. The musical performances are splendid, as expected (with some odd sounds added in by decidedly non-period instruments), especially the Rebel half. Seiler seems to constrain the tempi of the outer movements of the Vivaldi concertos, likely at least in part because she has to play with all kinds of distractions from the choreography: she has a red ribbon pulled from her mouth, she is carried about on Esnaola's shoulders or back, rocked in a chair, covered with leaves and snow flakes, turned suddenly upside down, even "shot" with instrument bows as the quarry in the third movement of the fall concerto. Both works, brought together, give the impression of a life cycle, a human being born from the muck of prehistory who then falls in love with artistic beauty and mourns its loss. The ensemble has recorded neither work previously and, as stated was the goal in recording Vivaldi's most famous work, they have made something quite new with it.