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31.8.10

Classical Month in Washington (November)

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Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

November 1, 2010 (Mon)
8 pm
Ruckus (new music ensemble)
The Syndicate
Catholic University, Ward Recital Hall

November 2, 2010 (Tue)
12:10 pm
Noontime Cantata: Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (BWV 162) [FREE]
Washington Bach Consort
Church of the Epiphany

November 3, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
New York Chamber Soloists [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

November 3, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Benjamin Hutto, organ [FREE]
St. John's Lafayette Square

November 3, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Dresdner Staatskapelle
With Rudolf Buchbinder (piano) and Daniel Harding (conductor)
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 3, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
With Jonathan Biss, piano
Music Center at Strathmore

November 3, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

November 4, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Xian Zhang (conductor) and Gil Shaham (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 4, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
Vocal Arts DC
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 4, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Unfinished Symphonies
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 4, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
1:15 pm
Novella Chamber Players [FREE]
Georgetown University

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Ravi Shankar, sitar
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
University of Maryland Wind Orchestra
With Delores Ziegler, mezzo-soprano
Clarice Smith Center

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Lar Lubovitch Dance Company
GMU Center for the Arts

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

November 5, 2010 (Fri)
8:15 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Mahler and Freud
Music Center at Strathmore

November 6, 2010 (Sat)
2:30 and 8 pm
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

November 6, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Mahler and Freud
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 6, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Xian Zhang (conductor) and Gil Shaham (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 6, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Philharmonic
Berlioz, Requiem
Music Center at Strathmore

November 6, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
BBC Concert Orchestra
With Keith Lockhart (conductor) and Ilya Yakushev (piano)
GMU Center for the Arts

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
1 and 5:30 pm
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
1:30 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Xian Zhang (conductor) and Gil Shaham (violin)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
2 pm
Jonah Kim, cello
Korean Concert Society
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
University of Maryland Symphony
With Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
Clarice Smith Center

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Daniel Gaisford (cello) and Michael Hersch (piano)
Phillips Collection

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Terry Waldo, piano [FREE]
Early American jazz
National Gallery of Art

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Blue Heron
Renaissance chansons
Dumbarton Oaks

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel (music of Schumann)
GMU Center for the Arts

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Colin Carr, cello
JCCGW (Rockville, Md.)

November 7, 2010 (Sun)
8 pm
Ravi Shankar, sitar
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 8, 2010 (Mon)
8 pm
Blue Heron
Renaissance chansons
Dumbarton Oaks

November 9, 2010 (Tue)
8 pm
Gautier Capuçon (cello) and Gabriela Montero (piano) [FREE]
Library of Congress

November 10, 2010 (Wed)
12 noon
Guarneri Quartet and Friends [FREE]
Open rehearsal
Clarice Smith Center

November 10, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Kate Egan (soprano), Marlene Bateman (mezzo-soprano), Juliana Osinchuk (piano) [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

November 10, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
ModernWorks Ensemble [FREE]
Music by Vietnamese composers
Freer Gallery of Art

November 10, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Emanuel Ax, piano
WPAS
Music Center at Strathmore

November 11, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Bang on a Can All-Stars
Music by Steve Reich
Music Center at Strathmore

November 11, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Simon Trpceski, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 11, 2010 (Thu)
8 pm
Kate Egan (soprano) and Marlene Bateman (mezzo-soprano) [FREE]
With Juliana Osinchuk, piano
Clarice Smith Center

November 12, 2010 (Fri)
1:15 pm
Risa Browder (violin) and Adam Pearl (harpsichord) [FREE]
Music of J. S. Bach and sons
Georgetown University

November 12, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Trio Cavatina
Barns at Wolf Trap

November 12, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Simon Trpceski, piano
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 13, 2010 (Sat)
4 pm
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin) and Lambert Orkis (piano)
Brahms, violin sonatas
WPAS
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 13, 2010 (Sat)
7 pm
Vivre Musicale
Mt. Vernon Place UMC (Baltimore, Md.)

November 13, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Borromeo Quartet [FREE]
Library of Congress

November 13, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Calder Quartet
Music by Bartók, Beethoven, Ravel
WPAS
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

November 13, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Left Bank Concert Society
Dumbarton Concerts

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
American Century Music [FREE]
Music by Griffes, Piston, Copland
Smithsonian American Art Museum

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
University of Maryland Choruses [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Artur Aksenov, piano
Phillips Collection

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Choral Arts Society
Schlesinger Concert Hall (Alexandria, Va.)

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
5 pm
Inscape Chamber Orchestra
Music by Barber and Justin Boyer
Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (Bethesda, Md.)

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
5:30 pm
Gautier Capuçon (cello) and Gabriela Montero (piano)
Shriver Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
NGA Orchestra with Sara Daneshpour, piano [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
7 pm
Venice Baroque Orchestra
With Robert McDuffie, violin (music by Vivaldi and Glass)
Music Center at Strathmore

November 14, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Vivre Musicale
St. George's Episcopal Church (Arlington, Va.)

November 15, 2010 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Clérambault, La Muse de l'Opéra
Opera Lafayette, with Judith van Wanroij (soprano)
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 15, 2010 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Catholic University Symphony Orchestra
Church of the Epiphany

November 16, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Fessenden Ensemble
Quartets by Tchaikovsky and Borodin
St. Columba's Episcopal Church (4201 Albemarle St. NW)

November 17, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
Quaver [FREE]
Music by Dalla Casa, Lasso, Ligeti, others
National Gallery of Art

November 17, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Orchestra of St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 17, 2010 (Wed)
8 pm
Georgetown University Chamber Singers [FREE]
Music of Buxtehude and contemporaries
Georgetown University

November 18, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Mälkki (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 18, 2010 (Thu)
7 pm
Chamber Music, University of Maryland Students [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

November 18, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Pro Musica Hebraica
Music of Berman, Braunfels, Ben-Haim
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 18, 2010 (Thu)
7:30 pm
Ana Vidovic (guitar) and Anastasia Petanova (flute)
Mansion at Strathmore

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
1:15 pm
NSO Brass Quintet [FREE]
Georgetown University

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
5:15 pm
Chamber Music, University of Maryland Students [FREE]
Clarice Smith Center

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
7:30 pm
Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas (with piano only)
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Doric Quartet [FREE]
Library of Congress

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Mälkki (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 19, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra
With Vladimir Spivakov (conductor) and Alexander Ghindin (piano)
Music by Mozart, Schnittke, Shostakovich
Music Center at Strathmore

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
3 pm
Claremont Trio
Evergreen Museum and Library

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Kenneth Slowik, cello
Bach, solo cello suites (Part 1)
National Museum of American History

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Edvinas Minkstimas, piano
Embassy of Lithuania (2632 16th St. NW)

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
National Symphony Orchestra
With Susanna Mälkki (conductor) and Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10)
With Günther Herbig (conductor) and Tianwa Yang (violin)
Music Center at Strathmore

November 20, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra
GMU Center for the Arts

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10)
With Günther Herbig (conductor) and Tianwa Yang (violin)
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas (with piano only)
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Georgetown University Chamber Music Ensembles
Georgetown University

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Daniel del Pino (piano) and friends
Phillips Collection

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Maryland Choral Society: David and Solomon
Music by Handel, Honegger, Thompson
Bethany Christian Church (Ft. Washington, Md.)

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
5 pm
Washington Chorus
Music by Rachmaninoff
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Camerata Philadelphia [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Music by Hindemith, Poulenc, Loeffler
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 21, 2010 (Sun)
7:30 pm
University of Maryland Chorale and Chamber Singers
Ginastera, Lamentations of Jeremiah
Clarice Smith Center

November 22, 2010 (Mon)
7:30 pm
Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas (with piano only)
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 23, 2010 (Tue)
7:30 pm
Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas (with piano only)
Maryland Opera Studio
Clarice Smith Center

November 24, 2010 (Wed)
12:10 pm
NGA Chamber Players [FREE]
National Gallery of Art

November 24, 2010 (Wed)
7:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker
Joffrey Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 26, 2010 (Fri)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker
Joffrey Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 27, 2010 (Sat)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker
Joffrey Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 27, 2010 (Sat)
2 and 8 pm
Mormon Orchestra and Choir of Washington, D.C.
Christmas music
Music Center at Strathmore

November 27, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Taiwanese American Charity Annual Concert
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

November 27, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
A Chanticleer Christmas
GMU Center for the Arts

November 28, 2010 (Sun)
1:30 and 7:30 pm
Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker
Joffrey Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

November 28, 2010 (Sun)
4 pm
Alan Mandel, piano
Phillips Collection

November 28, 2010 (Sun)
6:30 pm
Ian Shapinsky, piano [FREE]
Music by Dalla Casa, Lasso, Ligeti, others
National Gallery of Art

Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2010 ARD Competition, Day 9 - Cello, Semi Final



This is slightly out of reporting-order, but since it’s the most recent round of the ARD I’ve heard, and because it merits comment more acutely, I won’t wait until I’ve caught up with the second round of the Piano Duo competition.

The stage for all the semi finals this year is the Carl Orff Hall in the Gasteig, not a terribly convivial place to hold any concert or recital, with a neutral-to-dry acoustic and rather ugly, at that. Six cellists advanced from the second round, which I didn’t catch, therefore missing a little context. Still, after hearing Tristan Cornut (France), Jakob Spahn (Germany), Gen Yokosaka (Japan), Julian Steckel (Germany), David Eggert (Germany/Canada), and Alexandre Castro-Balbi (France), one had to wonder whether the jury members had been drunk previously, whether something terrible happened to all of them between the second round and now, or whether the overall quality of the competition was simply that low. It was a semi-final with a quality of playing simply unworthy of the ARD Competition.

But first things first, happily one of the few positive points of this day at the Gasteig, namely the performance of the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO): This band has, in the three years I have been following the competition closely, established a reputation of being motivated to the nth degree in these ‘duty concerts’; not just capable of-, but reliably providing, the most sympathetic support that these young musicians could possibly receive. Every time they perform at the competition, my estimation of these players gains yet again.

That, of course, means that the onus of turning in a quality concerto (Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, in this case) rests squarely on the shoulders of the soloists. While the MKO might make it as easy as possible for them to succeed, any evident failure doubtlessly ends up in the soloist’s court. And so it did.

The semi final, lasting from 4pm until 9.30pm with only one short intermission, twice pitched three candidates against each other in the ARD commissioned composition for the cellists, followed by three concertos where the participants could chose from either Haydn’s C-major and D-major, or C.P.E. Bach’s B-major and A-major works for cello and orchestra. The commissioned composition is another happy note from this dreary day, because Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “knock, breathe, shine” (available from Chester Music) contains plenty of difficulties while retaining real music and a Salonen-typical rocking groove. (Carolin Widmann describes her encounter with Salonen’s ‘Californian feel-good, belly-centered music’ here.)


Tristan Cornut was the first to go, and in retrospect he put the bar fairly high with his elegant account, which could have benefited, though, from having the score in front of him, since it is impossible to fully keep track of the many dynamic markings in the score. (Admittedly, having the score in front of those who did, didn’t necessarily increase the detail in attention to these markings, which diminished with most performers—score or not—as they got further and further into the music.) Gen Yokosaka, the third to perform “knock, breathe, shine”, was the first to really bring out the pizzicato glissandi of “knock”, but then, for example, underplayed the pianissimo to fortissimo crescendos markings that follow shortly thereafter. The best performance of “knock, breathe, shine” came from David Eggert, who let loose and who followed the dynamic markings without stiffening up, bringing out the music rather than playing just the notes. He might have missed a few notes as he got excited, but he dared a real pianissimo, forcing the audience to listen, and his glissandi were easily as wonderful as young Mr. Yokosaka’s. Compared to his performance, Alexandre Castro-Balbi’s was too forced, too inflexible, too arduous to elicit anywhere near the same hope for great Haydn to follow.


That the black pedestal the cellists sat on was shaped like a shortened coffin might have been a bad omen, a symbol for their chances of reaching the final being buried, or at least of Messrs. Haydn and Bach Jr. spinning in their graves. Cornut made the start and it was pretty soon pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be pretty. Endlessly mediocre, constantly struggling with intonation, and with the height of cruelty in the tortured cadenza, this was Haydn (in D, not that it mattered) for mild bleeding of the ears. Jakob Spahn’s Bach (in A, roughly) started well, simply because I like a soloist participating in the opening tutti. But once he emerged, it was no longer so enchanting. At least he was constant in his being off-pitch, maybe some 6, 7 Hz flat. When Gen Yokosaka tackled the C-major Haydn concerto—a little heavy handed, but at least largely in tune and with a refreshingly speedy finale—one noticed how quickly one lowered one’s standards. This was 'OK', and slightly tedious Haydn at best, and it already seemed like a great relief.

After the break, Julian Steckel was the first to try his luck (and the audience’s patience) with Haydn and voila, he delivered a perfectly acceptable concerto performance at long last. Nothing great, nothing stunning, mind you, but with a gutsy cadenza, solid intonation, and hitting the right notes. (Except a few perfectly excusable misses in the very speedily taken finale, but at this point I was giving anyone grateful credit just for being fast.) That his tone in the slow movement was obtrusive rather than beautiful, and his longer phrases capped in an ungainly way suddenly seemed completely irrelevant. I sensed a wave of great improvement now, especially with Eggert up next, who had been the most impressive in the Salonen piece. Alas, honest ears that knew nothing of his allegedly out-of-this-world Bach in the first round and excellent Mendelssohn in the second, heard something quite terrible. Even as flashes of qualitative summer lightning appeared here and there, they were not enough to lighten the dim impression of a forced, nasal tone, missteps (from which he recovered immediately, though), an overly daring (non-traditional?) cadenza, a howling slow movement, and flinch-worthy intonation issues in the finale. Sadly, it was Castro-Balbi’s job to make sure that Eggert’s Haydn would not remain the worst of the evening. He easily undercut the low expectations with short, clumsy phrasing, crooked intonation, and stumbling about in the final (though I was not going to count speed against him, or anyone, at this point).

The result of this display of ineptitude under competition conditions (most of these players have proven themselves elsewhere, including successful orchestra duty) could be a discussion of the sense and sensibility of competitions as such, or at least about the type of performer for whom they make sense and for whom not. More to the point, though, it should lead to a discussion what a jury’s duties are to the generations of past and future winners of such a competition. If it is enough just to play your instrument in tune to advance to the finals, and if any one of the three performers that were moved on (I would have understood perfectly well if the finale had simply been cancelled) win a prize, to boot, then that inevitably cheapens the value of the competition’s prizes across generations. Even if Cornut, Yokosaka, and Steckel suddenly play like young gods in the finale. No one will un-invite someone like Sol Gabetta, the most recent notable ARD Cello Prize winner, from an engagement of course. But those cellists who are not (yet) famous and who could use the reputational power of having placed well in a competition like the ARD’s could suffer from such a disappointing crop. In light of this, the jury might consider not giving out any prizes at all this year (certainly no first prize should be given, based on the semi-final performance alone), even if that would naturally be disappointing to this year’s cello competition alumni.

30.8.10

Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )


Richard Strauss • Elektra


Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s new Salzburg Elektra at the Grosse Festspielhaus centers around a wonderful set by Raimund Bauer and Daniel Dooner: A tilted concrete construction with dystopian overtones, an interior court where creatures—from the (scarcely audible) maidens in the beginning, to Elektra, to the (mute) feathered demons in the end—emerged from sharply delineated window openings and cruder holes that reach deep into anb below the ground. A timeless place in blunted gray where the equally gray-faced Elektra (Iréne Theorin) lurks. Occasional spots of color—Eva-Maria Westbroek in Chrysothemis’ desperately happy purple and Waltraud Meier in Clytemnestra’s dark ruby-red, Cruella DeVille-style dress and fur coat—stand out amidst this monochromatic world of dim lights and shadows.




The rest of the production is really taken care of by the opera itself, music and text combining for drama that works perfectly well on its own, given a good cast. With Theorin, Westbroek, Meier, René Pape (Orest), and Robert Gambill (Aegisth) and a cool set, the necessary work was done for a good night at the opera. If it didn’t go further, it might have been partly due to seats on row 25 where one could hear the singers even less than in row 15, where, although, similar vocal lacunae were reported from; partly because Daniele Gatti could not get the Vienna Philharmonic to play softly. (But then, who can?!). Apart from Gambill and Pape, understanding the text without the supertitles (both German and English easily fitting up there, thanks to the Festspielhaus’s wide stage) was impossible. Theorin went in and out of audibility, with her strongest phase in the last third, vis-à-vis Pape’s Orest. Meier had a little more bite, but it was only Westbroek who made herself heard reasonably well, thanks to her mobile character running up and down the set and getting to the ramp every time she had to sing. (As her older sister well knows, Chrysothemis, is a clever one.)



Where the production didn’t quite succeed in communicating the story (or Lehnhoff’s intentions) was the pivotal recognition scene, where Elektra’s prolonged disbelieve (even well after the actual recognition) kept Elektra and Orest apart, quite contrary to what their words indicate and with repetitive stock motions of “oh, but it cannot be”. Gambill was nicely voiced, a surprisingly honeyed Aegisth, but looked like an English country-side fop who stumbled unto the set like the unintended comic relief character in a stuffy British murder mystery. René Pape’s batman suit body armor, his greasy pony tail, his non-movement all contributed to a stale Orest; never have I seen Pape so underutilized, so wasted in a production, even as his perfect declamation and diction was of the usual greatness. His stiff presentation of the butchered body of Clytemnestra (hung upside down from an oversized meat hook with very fake blood randomly splattered across the white tiles of the, until then hidden, chamber at the back of the stage) was as strangely anticlimactic as Elektra’s final dance scene; as if it had been oddly tacked on to the opera after the murder of Aegisth: Missed opportunities, perhaps, in an otherwise plenty enjoyable production.



And if the voices, for whatever reasons, were hard to make out, at least there was plenty to hear from the orchestra. Daniele Gatti made the Vienna State Opera turn in a passionate, fine, and of course loud performance, arguably more respectful of Strauss than the singers. The highlights were the moments of Rosenkavalier-style sweetness, such as in Elektra’s monologue which became true climaxes, bathing the ears in typical, lyrical Strauss between all the harsher bits of music Elektra provides.

All photos courtesy of the Salzburger Festspiele, © Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Capricious Paganini

available at Amazon
Paganini, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, J. Fischer

(released on September 7, 2010)
Decca 478 2274 | 79'28"

Online scores:
Paganini, op. 1
The 24 Caprices by Niccolò Paganini are a mountain traversed only by the greatest violinists. That they are not exactly engaging listening has relegated them mostly to the status of show-off encore pieces, and they would not merit a place among my recommendations for music that one needs to own. Violinists and aficionados of the instrument, of course, will likely want to own a set of the Caprices -- both to admire the player and dissect his or her faults, to be sure. That is what distinguishes these virtuosic works -- basically études with a healthy dollop of Romantic mustard -- from Bach's solo violin pieces, which may not require as much technical flash, while still being damn difficult, but are much more musically rewarding.

Julia Fischer did not really have anything to prove as a virtuoso, having recently added to her many exploits on the violin some recordings as a pianist, including an upcoming recording featuring herself as soloist in both Saint-Saëns' third violin and Grieg's piano concerto. Needless to say, she acquits herself admirably in her new Paganini disc, giving as much musical interest to the Caprices as one could reasonably expect, as in no. 4's rather gorgeous melancholy Maestoso section in thirds and the rustling tremolo of no. 6 fluttering around a subdued, utterly smooth melody. The technique is not without shortcomings -- like some rather dicey intonation in fast thirds -- but Fischer's E string stratosphere is assured, as in no. 8, and in no. 16 she produces a fairly flawless rush of notes, as well as Mephistophelean chromatic movement in no. 10 (one of my favorites) and pleasing tonal effects like the imitation of paired flutes and horns in no. 9.

Mercifully, Fischer does not observe some of the repeats in Paganini's manuscript, skipping one in no. 7, for example, while observing one in no. 13, then taking a repeat that is struck out in no. 14 -- many of the repeats in the manuscript appear to have been removed by the composer, certainly giving an interpreter freedom to repeat or not as she wants. No. 24 is the best and, not surprisingly, most famous piece of the set, a dastardly set of variations that have been expanded on by countless other composers. When judging a complete recording like this one, it can save one a lot of time to turn immediately to the final track: Fischer's performance is a jaw-dropping tour de force, the best part of this disc. See Fischer's thoughts on playing the Caprices in this video interview.


available at Amazon
Paganini, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, J. Ehnes

(released on January 12, 2010)
Onyx 4044 | 78'04"
We have been impressed with the playing of James Ehnes many times before, and while he does not always win in every competition of the technical mano-a-mano with Fischer, his recording comes out on top overall. The ricochet bowing of no. 1 ("L'Arpeggio," shown above in the composer's manuscript) is clearer and stronger, the intonation is much cleaner in general, especially in multiple stops, although Fischer wins out in purity of the upper reaches of the E string, where Ehnes can be shrill. Furthermore, there is an almost Gypsy fiddler flair to the playing: more portamento and a throatier, rawer tone that makes Fischer's performance seem almost polite and pretty, a criticism that came to mind when listening to her Bach, too. Ehnes even manages to find interest in the endless octaves of no. 3, no. 7, and many others, which are often pretty boring as played by Fischer, and the section entirely on the G string in no. 19 has an appealing viola-like bark to it. Ehnes takes many of the pieces in fast tempi at an appreciably more rapid pace, although he manages to shave only a little over a minute off Fischer's overall timing.

For some reason Ehnes has returned to Paganini's Caprices after a first recording of the set for Telarc (2003, now heavily discounted), but I cannot comment on it, having never heard it. For that matter Thomas Zehetmair has also recently recorded the complete Caprices, a disc released last summer by ECM: I haven't heard it either, although he also recorded the pieces once before, for Teldec in 2002. If that is still not enough Paganini for you, there is also a new recording by Philippe Quint of Kreisler's arrangements of the Caprices for violin and piano (Naxos), which also has yet to reach my ears.

29.8.10

Ionarts-at-Large: From the 2010 ARD Competition, Day 4 - Cello, First Round


Over the last few years, the most reliably reoccurring signal that another year has passed (and scarcely an idea where it went) is the ARD International Music Competition, when I sit in the various venues spread out over Munich with colleagues and listen to tons of young musicians playing the same pieces over an over. The ARD Competition features about 20 different instruments and chamber ensembles, four at a time at various, usually four-year intervals. And in most categories—string quartet being the most notable exception—the first round is pure tedium. Cello, one of this years’ categories, might be slightly more bearable than viola (two years ago), but hearing Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano op.70 roughly a dozen times a day, for up to four days in a row, results in a similar physical reaction as listening to Reger sonatas for solo viola over and over. Heck, even the ‘indestructible’ Bach can be turned into an instrument of mild torture.

The latter might have something to do with the average quality of the Bach Suite performances (the candidates of the first round can chose to play the Prélude and Sarabande from either BWV 1009, 1010, or 1012), which is astonishingly low. While few candidates manage to mess up Schumann (boring, sure, but rarely outright bad and often enough with a reasonably beautiful tone), even those who play their other chosen works—Schnittke’s Improvisiation, for example—with abundant confidence will falter before Bach, play timidly, limpidly, simply badly. The first three candidates on Tuesday, August 24th—Gen Yokosaka (Japan), Mischa Meyer (Germany), Eun-Sun Hong (Korea) all struggled mightily.

Before a jury made up of Pamela Rosenberg, Anja Lechner (filling in for Anner Bylsma), Thomas Demenga, Ophélie Gaillard, Marie Hallynck, Sadao Harada, and Jan Vogler, Gen Yokosaka started awkwardly into the Prélude, with little trace of a legato, extraordinarily loud fingerboard noises, and a laboured approach only occasionally interrupted by moments where gorgeous tone and felicitous technique allowed for beauty to emerge. A beauty, even if it came in patches, that I appreciated more as I heard more of his colleagues rummage their way through Bach. I loved the potential that probably lies beneath, but not the execution. The Schumann had the necessary consistency, the tone was singing at its best, gentle enough and resonant—extraordinarily impressive at first, and remarkable even after the other Schumanns showed that that was the most likely piece (tiresome as it does get, eventually) for the cellists to shine.

The cellists were originally intended to play four pieces; another classical/romantic work and a (more or less) contemporary one, but were asked to drop one, due to the time constraints that the roster of almost 70 cellists posed on the schedule. Gen Yokosaka thankfully stuck with the modern piece (lots of variety in that segment—and much better than hearing Karl Davydov’s Op.20/2, “At the Fountain”, cute though as that buzzing little charmer can be, if it is played well). Yokosaka’s choice was Marco Stroppa’s “Ay, There’s the Rub” (from 2001): A technical exercise in flageolet and various other more or less exotic ways of treating the strings with the left hand, including rubbing them (flageolet glissandos) which is presumably the source for the would-be wit of the title. Not the most charming work, but very impressively done. He advanced to the second round. [Edit: And since then to the semi-final.]

Mischa Meyer labored with the same Bach—the bass notes of the Prélude’s opening just throw-away sounds instead of being integral to the music, but didn’t have those patches of beauty to offer. The Schumann before that was a little stiffer, not quite as lush-toned, but impressive still... just not enough to advance him to the second round, despite a nicely chugging Ginastera Punena No.2, op.45. Eun-Sun Hong went, as many others, for the sportif approach which to which Suite BWV 1012 is better, err... suited, but sounds an awful lot like the sewing machine method. A whiny tone, especially in the upper register, suggested the above mentioned lack of confidence. More panache, a sultry performance, even, was audible in the Schnittke and the oh-so-romantic, slightly sweet Schumann. Her not making the second round might have been a close call, alas...

Maxime Ganz (France) might have had fewer technical issues in the same Prélude and Sarabande, but noodling through Bach, and sour intonation in the Sarabande isn’t doing anyone any favours. At least he didn’t make that ‘transfigured face’ that strangely befalls the vast majority of cellists when they are playing without the notes in front of them. Just one of many reasons that playing with the notes should be made mandatory in competitions; not doing so only breeds bad habits. The custom of playing from memory (or pretending to do so, at least), so as to suggest a somehow superior mastery of the music (bollocks!) could and should be broken early on at such an event. Karl Davidow’s “At the Fountain”, a buzzy, zippy little thing, was sadly lined with intonation troubles and not taken as fast as it is probably supposed to. The modern piece he chose and performed (rather than the Schumann, God bless him), “Duoton” by Andrzej Bauer, established immediate interest and curiosity, despite gimmicky use of col legno playing, but that wasn’t enough for Ganz to make the second round, either.

Ditto Marianna Sinagra (Italy), whose vibrato-testing-ground Schumann was most notable for the risks she took (eliciting an errant Bravo, which may, however, have come from a audience member additionally enamoured by her highly presentable exterior), but she also lost her line. Although I am inclined to always favour risk over ‘safe’, especially in competitions, I am not sure if the trade-off was proportional. (The jury obviously didn’t think it was.) Her Bach, at least, was better than most that had come so far, but again more an Étude than a Prélude. Luciano Berio’s “Le mots sont allés”, a rather cellistic work (none of those ‘strike-with-a-wooden-spoon-and-cheese-grater-while-holding-the-instrument-upside-down’ instructions) was particularly pleasurable because it was so concise. If she were to have promised to keep it short in the future, too, I would have liked to hear her again in the second round.

Polite, earnest, but sadly boring Wiktor Kociuban made everything, from Bach via Schumann to Xenakis (“Kottos”) sound longer than it lasted. Sol Daniel Kim was too timid with the pizzicato orgy of Isang Yun’s Glissés, and a fine, confident Bach Prélude apparently didn’t impress enough. Like Rei Tsujimoto (Japan), none of them advanced.

Antonia Zharava, one of the youngest of the already very young crowd of cellists, was the surprise of my first day at the competition. Her performance of Bach was stunning. Whether by accident, design, intuition, or naïveté, she not only played the right notes and in tune, but she also found a groove that made sense of the note where almost everyone before had failed miserably. Bach shouldn’t sound like a mere Étude, and at last it didn’t. Unfortunately her two other choices—Schumann and Piatti— were played awfully, and consequently she didn’t make the second round, just like the more even Camille Thomas (Belgium / France).

In Brief: Late August Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Live from the Festival de La Chaise-Dieu (the church of the former Benedictine abbey shown at right), an online radio broadcast of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. [France Musique]

  • Last spring Philip Kennicott deplored the decision to close the main entrance of the United States Supreme Court and, in the name of security, have visitors enter through a smaller ground floor door on the side of the building. The House of Representatives has recently introduced a resolution to call on the Supreme Court to open its doors again. [Philip Kennicott]

  • Prosper Mérimée put the ruins of the Roman arena in Fréjus on the French register of national monuments. Now the Mairie in the southern French town is going to build a "new amphitheater" on the site, covering the ruins with a concrete structure capable of holding 5,000 spectators in a more secure space. [Le Figaro]

  • Network television's audience is only getting older (median age now 51), so cue the chorus chanting the death of network television. Quote from one NBC executive: "If you try to young down your median age, you're going to be going against gravity." [Philadelphia Inquirer]

  • Scholars have uncovered a remarkable series of Hellenistic wall paintings, at a site near Petra, in Jordan. [The Observer]

  • Hugo Wolf was born 150 years ago on March 13, and Martine Mergeay has a review of the EMI set containing some 300 of his songs. [La Libre Belgique]

  • A new song festival in Baltimore, at An die Musik LIVE, will be devoted to the songs of Hugo Wolf on October 23 and 24. [Baltimore Lieder Weekend]

  • You may recall that laughably bad production of Don Giovanni at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. After critics shellacked director Dmitri Tcherniakov, French baritone Gabriel Bacquier has used the staging as an excuse to lambaste excessive opera directors as "pornographers who flaunt their neuroses as if they were one of the fine arts." [PlaybillArts]

  • This fall James McTeigue will begin shooting a film to be called The Raven, in which John Cusack will play Edgar Allan Poe trying to track down a serial killer who has been inspired by his own horror stories. [Reel Fanatic]

  • Andrew Simpson, professor of composition at Catholic University, on how he goes about accompanying a classic silent film. [TBD.com]

  • An Ode to Fact Checkers. RIP. [New York Times]

28.8.10

Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 13 )


Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam



Reviewable in six words: “Yeah, whatever…” • “Very interesting.” • “Holy Cow!!!”


Those are technical terms, of course, and they describe the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s guest appearance at the Salzburg Festival, where they performed Bela Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta”, Modest Musorgksy’s “Songs and Dances of Death” (liberally orchestrated by Shostakovich), and Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu, his “Firebird”.


Get Lost In Color

I had plenty reason to suspect that the Firebird would be not just good, but great; in part because the orchestra’s abilities and the conductor’s strength play into the hands of a work that demands color, color, color, rather than rhythm, structure, precision. It shows on their recording (which made my “Best of 2008 List), where the Firebird far outshines perfectly wonderful “Rite of the Spring”. But even those high expectations where surpassed by hearing the orchestra respond to a visibly healthy Jansons enjoying himself, guiding the orchestra—as one player put it afterwards—as if he was holding a quill. The moto perpetuo double bass stomping of the opening and the brass emerged so softly, as if played far away. The strings’ cinematic, shimmering playing, detailed but not clinical or even ‘nouvelle cuisine’ style, was enchanting, stirring, lulling; just like it ought to be, given the sujet of the ballet. The work seems made for that band, with its wealth of shades and nuance all coming out… and even if the band masters the subtle haze (as opposed to the razor sharp precision of Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic, for example) the shrieks and orchestral clashes were easily as harrowing here; the frenzy perfectly believable, the performers on the edge of their seats. The whole last scene of the Firebird was a celebration of organic beauty and the audience virtually erupted after the finale notes. The most enthusiastic applause—by far—that I’ve witnessed yet at any Festival concert this season, forced two encores (Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt and Dvořák's Slavic Dance op.72/7) from a beaming Jansons and his Concertgebouw Orchestra (with one of last year's ARD Prize Winners).


Graphic Bleak & Black

Modest Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death are expectedly a grim affair and a rarely heard one. Surely a programming choice borne out of Mariss Jansons’ special passion for Russian repertoire in general and Shostakovich in particular. I say Shostakovich, not Musorgsky, because the theatrical, not just picturesque but downright graphic orchestrations leave the Songs and Dances more a cooperative effort than a mere orchestral ‘realization’. They’re not works most audiences will demand to hear every couple of seasons, but then that’s hardly what is looming on the programming-horizon. It’s rather a question of hearing them at all in concert. (On disc, they’re pretty well represented, actually.) Ferrucio Furlanetto lent his dark italiante bass—slightly vailed—to these pieces and benefited from the orchestra in supremely alert accompaniment mode, sounding ‘Russian’ at the wave of Mariss Jansons’ little finger. A happy surprise of the evening, if not a stunner.


When Beauty Doesn’t Cut It

Nice as it is to hear a great orchestra at home, in its familiar setting and acoustic, it’s often nice still to hear them when they are on tour in a place and hall with a great reputation like the Vienna Musikverein, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonie or at the Großes Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival. The ghosts of past greats look down upon the players, and a (presumably) discerning, foreign audience at them from the orchestra seating. The players are out to impress, the sense of occasion is palpable. Those are the moments when orchestras can push themselves to “11”. All that wasn’t quite enough to make the Bartók compelling; the really tight rhythms that propel the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (if it is to be propelled at all; I find it’s a work as likely to go by me as to grab me) were lacking, the Concertgebouw sounding like a gorgeous, beautiful—but unfortunately slightly dull—knife. But I doubt anyone who felt similarly (the eager-early-clapper and Bravo-yeller at least seemed to have loved it, not waiting for the last note even to be fully played) still thought much about Bartók after a Firebird of a lifetime.






Pictures courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Wolfgang Lienbacher

Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 12 )


Vienna Philharmonic 5 - Haitink / Bruckner


Bruckner in the morning can be a tall order, for the conductor—Bernard Haitink heading the Vienna Philharmonic—as much as for the audience. At least the repose in Bruckner, the spiritual qualities of his music (assuming one is susceptible to them), make the experience easier than many other composers I can think of; Mahler, for example, would be too much on an empty stomach. But 11am or not, the combination of Haitink-VPO-Bruckner is too tempting to miss it, especially when it concerns the Fifth Symphony which, to my ears at least, is Bruckner’s ‘great’ (they’re all grand, of course) symphony, even more so than his Eighth, the ‘Cathedral’.

Haitink started into it without undue hesitation, the VPO’s double basses stomping through the walking bass in healthy mezzo-piano (that’s about as soft as they can play), rather than hushed pianissimos. But rather than a grand convex arch, this Fifth played out as a convex one; with a lull after the first movement that lasted until the naturally rousing, gripping finale and was not just due to the potential lack of concentration at this early hour. Even with the second movement’s double cream quality melody raising to the top like fat in fresh-from-the-cow milk, or the wistful tone of the concert master (= minimally flat and with a lamb’s tail vibrato), the feeling of being carried from greatness to greatness was lacking.

Haitink didn’t look younger by the end of the concert (I’m thinking especially of Guenter Wand who would climb on the rostrum an old man and one Bruckner-hour later hop off a sprightly 80-year old), but exceedingly tired. When I heard Haitink in the Fifth earlier this year, it wasn’t fireworks or life-changing, either, but at least the arch was flat, not sagging. That said, this was still ‘luxury-disappointment’, and seventy well invested minutes to ring in my final days at the Salzburg Festival.


Picture courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Silvia Lelli

27.8.10

Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 11 )


Kontinent Rihm 10 - Eschenbach / Barto / WPh


It takes a confluence of circumstances (including loss of the actual ticket) and a touch of talent for disorganization to casually check the Salzburg Festival website around two in the afternoon to see if my Vienna Philharmonic concert with Christoph Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto starts at seven or eight, only to find out it had started at eleven in the morning. More embarrassing still, since I was supposed meet the artists afterwards where, eventually (instantly, hopefully), they shrugged and went to lunch without me. But then, who would have ever assumed that both performances of the Vienna Philharmonic, including the Saturday one, were at eleven in the morning?

Fortunately the understanding and kind festival press staff were kind enough to get me into the Sunday performance without as much as raising a bemused or reproachful eyebrow, and lunch—wedged between Wolfgang Rihm and Tzimon Barto’s Austro-American manager—was still had, even if Christoph Eschenbach had to rush away after the appetizer to practice some more with Matthias Goerne before leaving Salzburg to play a private gig with Barto near the Attersee that night.

In between, Eschenbach/Barto played the same Schumann program that can also be enjoyed on their most recent CD (slated to be the ‘Best of 2010’, reviewed here, and now even ‘Wolfgang Rihm-approved’, who told me that he, too, cried when listening to it for the first time). The two concert pieces for piano and orchestra, joined by the Ghost Variations to form a piano concerto of its own, are rounded out on CD by Schumann’s Bach-influenced Six Etudes in Canonic Form for pedal piano in Debussy’s transcription for two pianos (I heard Barto-Eschenbach play that later that day, in above mentioned countryside barn-cum-concert hall). In concert Schumann Second Symphony is added, which is a program I also heard in Hamburg with the NDRSO this summer, where I was to interview Maestro Eschenbach (interview forthcoming in September). And in Salzburg, with the Vienna Philharmonic playing, the concert was tacked on to the Kontinente Rihm series by adding Rihm’s “Ernster Gesang” before the symphony, after intermission.

The short work (short is always good, and especially with Rihm, who occasionally falls victim to the pitfalls of lengthiness) was commissioned by Wolfgang Sawallisch for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s celebration of Brahms’ 100th (death) anniversary in 1996. Without any blatantly obvious quotes, Rihm references Brahms’ Second and especially Third symphonies, several Intermezzi, and of course the Vier Ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) from which Rihm takes the work’s name. It is very effective at establishing a sense of Brahms within a modern guise, modern in execution but easily accessible to the ears even of those in the audience who came despite, not because of Rihm. In a away, that doesn’t surprise, because Ernster Gesang in not just a beautiful work itself, but a lot of composers are most successful (in the above sense of ‘successful’) when they relate in some way—literally or ephemerally—to those who have come before, the composers we already know, cherish, love… Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart et al.

The obvious explanation for this is that in giving the audience their music, aligned to something that they relate to, they offer not just familiarity, but something to grasp; an easier “in” to the music. Like a work of modern architecture placed into an extant city block resonates with the casual viewer if it respects the sight-lines, proportions, ratios of its surroundings, the ensemble it is placed into, even if it is in every other way a product of its time, so a work of music that allows for context has an easier time hitting a vibe with listeners.


available at AmazonR.Schumann, Introd.& Allegro, Ghost Variations et al.,
Barto / Eschenbach / NDRSO
Ondine

Lovely as it was to hear Ernster Gesang—to which Eschenbach has a natural relation as Sawallisch’s successor in Philadelphia—it did feel rather tacked on to an extant program… which happened to be superb. Those who had been at both performances—Rihm, among them—lauded this, the Sunday one, for adding yet something further to all four Schumann works. From a boldly varnished, very flexible Second Symphony in trademark VPO-sound (in the good sense, that) to the tender, torn Ghost Variations. Barto, who enjoys tempo extremes (if never without musical reasoning), takes the Variations very slowly; to the verge of one’s concentration no longer grasping the big line. Later, at lunch, he jokes with fellow pianist (and conductor) Stefan Vladar about the criticism of having ‘distorted the music’s architecture’ or ‘having lost the long line’: “I don’t lose the long line, I know exactly where I am and where I am going, at all points.” “Yes”, adds Vladar laughing, “if there is any losing of lines going on, it’s the audience’s fault.” With there being a bit of a joke in every joke [sic], they have a point, of course… even if it begs the question of how easy they’re going to make it for the audience not to ‘fail’. In any case, the Salzburg performance, although still not as overwhelming as the CD-listening experience, managed to join the Introduction and Allegro appassionato op.92 and the Concert-Allegro and Introduction op.134 better than I remember the Hamburg performance to have done, and the two girls sitting next to me, who I had regaled with the virtues of said recording, were disinclined to believe that the experience they just had could be bettered, on CD or in concert.

26.8.10

Schlingensief's Bayreuth

Last weekend we noted broke the story on the passing of Christoph Schlingensief. According to an article (Schlingensief's opera village in Burkina Faso faces uncertain future, August 24) by Marc Dugge for Deutsche Welle, the German bad-boy theater and opera director spent a lot of time in Africa, getting away from the stress of life in Berlin on a property in the savannah outside Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. In addition to using the site as a personal retreat, Schlingensief had plans to build what he called an "opera village," including a school for theater and music, a clinic, and among several performance spaces, an opera theater built to his specifications. Hmm, of whom does that remind us?

Family and friends of Schlingensief hope to continue with the project: they asked for donations to the fund for the Festspielhaus Afrika in lieu of flowers and other remembrances. See some images and brief history of the project in the video (in German) embedded below.

25.8.10

New Mahler Song Recordings

available at Amazon
Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Adagio from Symphony No. 10, M. Kožená, C. Gerhaher, Cleveland Orchestra, P. Boulez

(released on October 5, 2010)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9060
73'16"

available at Amazon
Mahler, Lieder, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber

(released on November 17, 2009)
Sony/RCA 88697567732 | 75'52"

available at Amazon
Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Rückert-Lieder / Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, S. Graham, T. Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, M. Tilson Thomas

(released on September 14, 2010)
SFS 821936-0036-2 | 64'57"

Online scores:
Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn | Rückert-Lieder | Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

available at Amazon
D. Mitchell, Gustav Mahler:
The Wunderhorn Years
Like most German composers of the nineteenth century, Gustav Mahler was taken with the distilled folk poetry of the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. When something that is unlearned and orally transmitted is written down by men of letters, the temptation is strong to improve and refine it, and the temptation proved too much for the transcribers of this poetry as it did for those who notated Appalachian folk song, like John Jacob Niles. Only the phonograph cylinder, such as used by Béla Bartók to record folk songs in peasant villages, does not embellish -- although Bartók did note in his journals that sometimes he trusted his own transcriptions, made from memory or at first encounter with a singer, more than the phonograph cylinders, saying that sometimes a singer would alter what he had sung "in spite of himself," reacting to the formality of being recorded for posterity. Mahler, having obsessively set the Wunderhorn poems to music for much of his life as a composer, assembled twelve of them in a set, altered in some of its details over time, that is now often called Lieder aus "Des Knaben Wunderhorn."

To hear how Pierre Boulez would conduct the songs of the Wunderhorn collection is enough recommendation perhaps for this new release coming up from Deutsche Grammophon. This is even more true of his incandescent reading of Mahler's draft of the Adagio movement of what would have been his tenth symphony. Boulez told Cleveland Plain Dealer critic Zachary Lewis that the piece has both a "dark side" and "a kind of child-like tempo, a remembrance to it": both come across in this performance. In his hands the Cleveland Orchestra sounds refined and folk-rowdy as need be in the songs, and certainly the portion of pieces given to German baritone Christian Gerhaher is engaging and gorgeously sung, almost recited.

Boulez follows the typical division of the songs for baritone and soprano voices, although Mahler notated the vocal part, marked simply as Voce, in treble clef without any other indication of the intended voice type, even in songs that are dialogues between man and woman. Magdalena Kožená, as much as I admire her in early music and in smaller-scale song repertory, does not have a voice opulent enough to match the orchestration Mahler created, sounding a little brittle and breathless in her songs, albeit with some lovely moments (like "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen"). Somewhat to my surprise, Zachary Lewis had completely the opposite reaction hearing one of these concerts live for the Plain Dealer. Given how many recordings clutter the field already, including some made in recent years, this live recording, complete with audience coughs and noisy page turns, does not rise to the top of the pile.

Gerhaher made one of the recent Mahler recordings that is truly indispensable, an exquisitely programmed selection of songs from the Wunderhorn settings and complete performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-Lieder, the latter set in a different order than one usually hears. Judging by the performances and the insightful liner essay Gerhaher wrote, the German baritone has lived inside these songs and mines them for every gorgeous detail of diction, melodic lines, and vocal color. Even though some of these songs were conceived originally in orchestral versions, Gerhaher's gifted collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber, brings these versions with piano accompaniment to vivid life. Scholar Renate Hilmar-Voit, with baritone Thomas Hampson, edited Mahler's original piano accompaniments for the orchestral songs, which had been supplanted by piano reductions of the orchestrations. The documentary material does not indicate which version Huber is playing. The final song on this disc, the piano version of Urlicht, dropped from the Wunderhorn publication after it was incorporated into the second symphony, is a radiant marvel with baritone and the hushed whisper of the piano.

Following up on some thoughts on Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of Das Lied von der Erde, the San Francisco Symphony has come to the end of its Mahler cycle with a volume of orchestral songs. The two singers are known quantities, both American stars, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's shaded, honey-smooth rendition of the Rückert-Lieder serving as the high point. Tilson Thomas takes his time with the tempi and pays careful attention to all the details of the score, turning over every stone to squeeze out each song's emotional potential. The tone of these beautiful songs is refined, not to say overly polite, with only occasional details raising an eyebrow, like the near-crack of the sliding oboe d'amore and clarinets, marked Herunterziehen, in Um Mitternacht, for example. Thomas Hampson gives a somewhat bland performance of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which Gerhaher described as a sort of sequel that continues from the troubling conclusion of Schubert's Winterreise (made about a week after Graham's Rückert-Lieder, both in live concert at Davies Symphony Hall). Five songs selected, apparently at random as no other reason was given, from the Wunderhorn set were actually recorded in concerts given in 2007, again with Hampson. A gifted singer, Hampson tends to luxuriate in his sound too much, and his German pronunciation suffers in comparison with Gerhaher: note the sounds in "O Röschen rot," for example. This disc also ends with Urlicht sung by a baritone, but it is difficult not to prefer Gerhaher's version, even though it is only with piano.

24.8.10

Mahler 9 in Lucerne

Over the years we have been following the exploits of Claudio Abbado, who appears around this time at the Lucerne Festival with the orchestra of musicians who come together for that event. This year's Mahler symphony was No. 9, and it was apparently pretty good, according to Shirley Apthorp (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, KKL, Lucerne, August 24) for the Financial Times:

For the last bars of Mahler’s ninth symphony, Abbado lets the stage lights dim and pulls the tempo back to a point just short of absurdity. The strings, already playing softer than a whisper, are forced to a pianissimo that is barely louder than thought. Nobody in the audience dares move a muscle, even when the final note fades to nothing. Abbado, now in full command of every person in the hall, holds the silence. The seconds drag past. Still he holds. A minute stretches into eternity and, when a few gentle coughs break the hush, listeners begin to shift in their seats and exchange glances of incredulity. Abbado gives no quarter. Obedient, the audience falls back into reverential silence, until finally, after more than two minutes, the conductor lets his right hand drop to his side and the stunned public eases its way into a standing ovation.
Was the playing really that great? Or was the magic in the hall that night making up for the obvious faults that Apthorp noted in her review? Judge for yourself, as much as you can, by watching the video online. Other reviews were published in The Telegraph and The Guardian.

23.8.10

Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 10 ) Arcadi


Recital 6 - Arcadi Volodos


Krystian Zimerman’s name once stood for great art, rarified occasions of intelligent musicianship. But a few more cancellations, aborted projects, and inane political speeches and he runs the risk of joining the circle of dysfunctional geniuses/madcaps (C.Kleiber, I.Pogorelich, G.Gould, et al.). In the case of his cancelling both his Salzburg appearances—a Chopin recital and a chamber concert with the Hagen Quartet that was to include Grażina Bacewicz’s Piano Quintet (where is that Bacewicz recording Zimerman promised us?)—I actually believe that he is sick and genuinely sorry to miss them. That doesn’t change the fact that no one is really surprised that he did cancel.

When I heard that Arcadi Volodos would replace him for the recital, I got interested, with hearsay of recent Volodos recitals having been great and my not having seen him live since a recital a decade ago, when he impressed the heck out of me. The program was made up of Mompou, Albéniz, and Schumann. It’s good to hear Mompou (‘the better Satie’) from a pianist of Volodos’ caliber and at a high-profile occasion like this. Played with care and without perfume, trying not to make more out of the Scénes d’enfants than they are, Volodos opened the recital on a skillfully-somber note, without perhaps gaining as many new friends for Mompou as would have been possible and desirable.

Albéniz’ Seguidillas (op.232/5), Córdoba (op.232/4), Zambra granadina, and La Vega (from the Alhambra Suite) offered a furious flurry of notes without particularly lasting impressions (Seguidillas), original restrain (Córdoba), and a dreamy, almost sedate milking of La Vega. Schumann’s Humoreske was the highlight of the regular program, with the first half having a continuous arch, Volodos employing a soft touch that belies his animalistic piano playing style (and one that would have suited the Mompou quite well). His Schumann was never ‘simple’, even where the composer specifically asks for “Einfach”, but then always very beautifully caressed, instead. Subtle sparks and dense playing were followed by tenderness until at some point, while Volodos wriggled on his chair like a wounded sea lion around the Innig movement, one of us got lost.

Except for the finale of the Humoresque, which was unabashedly rocking Schumann, I heard little more than a haze of randomness in the playing. That description also fit the rest of the recital, Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Scenes from Vienna, op.26, not to be mistaken with the op.9 Carnaval) which had very little carnival atmosphere about it. It revealed what had made the entire recital less than brilliant and less enjoyable than it was impressive, namely that Volodos’ playing was, for all the loud and soft here and there, one elongated, gentle, unwavering scream. The fact that the headlong Intermezzo proved that “too fast” is a category unknown to Volodos did little to change that. What did change that impression was the second of two Mompou encores—finally a piece in which Volodos let loose—and the (surprisingly?) wonderful, tasteful Bach-Vivaldi Sicilienne (BWV 596) that capped the evening at the Grosse Festspielhaus.



Photo courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Silvia Lelli

Rattle's 'Fidelio'

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Fidelio, A. Denoke, J. Villars, A. Held, T. Quasthoff, Berlin Philharmonic, S. Rattle

(re-released on November 11, 2008)
EMI 2 17630 2 | 110'10"

Online score:
Beethoven, Fidelio

available at Amazon
Paul Robinson, Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
EMI recently re-released this 2003 concert performance of Beethoven's only opera, made during Berlin performances of the opera with the same cast that performed it at the Salzburg Easter Festival that year. Whether it really stands a chance among a hundred or so available recordings, even at a bargain-bottom price for a 2-CD set, likely depends on the type of collector. If price is the only concern, this recording is more than acceptable among a large field: good sound, an unusual reading by Simon Rattle, full of personal nuances right from the opening bars, with great playing and singing from Berlin Philharmonic and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor (but a bare-bones booklet, with no libretto, of course). For scholarly interest, it was apparently the first recording made from Helga Lühning's new critical edition for Bärenreiter -- the confusion of versions of the opera that have to be sorted out is far too vast to go into here. The supporting cast is particularly fine, including Alan Held's disturbed Don Pizarro, László Polgár's Rocco, Juliane Banse's Marzelline, and especially Thomas Quasthoff's Don Fernando, but one wishes better results for the two leads.

Angela Denoke has had her detractors, in this role and others, although her coverage at Ionarts has been generally positive. Still, for power, pitch accuracy, and overall beauty of tone (in spite of a lovely "Komm, Hoffnung") there are far better Leonoras out there, like Christine Brewer (in either German or English), Christa Ludwig (stupendous), Birgit Nilsson (impeccable), Gwyneth Jones (intense), Elisabeth Söderström (at Glyndebourne with Bernard Haitink at the helm), Hildegard Behrens, Deborah Voigt, and the upcoming re-release of Jessye Norman from Decca. Regrettably, there are better Florestans than Jon Villars, too: a young Jonas Kaufmann in a Zurich DVD conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Ben Heppner before the cracks in the Met DVD with Karita Mattila. A truly excellent recording will cost more, and Rattle's version cannot complete against, for example, Mackerras's historical instruments recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, not to mention classics by names like Klemperer (above all, by most accounts) and, roughly in this order, Furtwängler, and Kleiber (with room further down the list for Böhm, Karajan, and Solti).