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31.3.11

Spring Is Here -- It's Going to Be Alright

Well, I've survived my first full winter in the state of Vermont. It's not that we've experienced the largest snow falls in years: that I like, and the roads were clear enough for at least one bike ride a week. The light, the natural beauty, the light; only the appearance of the oil truck in your driveway will send shivers of winter up your spine.

But spring is upon us and a young man, not unlike myself, dreams of longer days, fresh colors to paint, and that sweet $10,000 carbon fiber road bike between his legs, meeyow!

I have in fact seen a few memorable shows lately, but with all the world events and spring popping out everywhere, I've focused on painting and long bike rides over writing. It may be the confluence of events, but I couldn't stop connecting, in my head, Pat Steir's recent shimmering paintings at Cheim & Read with Japanese gardens and the graphic depiction of rain showers common in woodblock prints.

There is something timely about walking into an exhibit of Steir's paintings while the world is in such chaos and uncertainty. Steir's embrace of uncertainty, with her method of pouring and splattering, confirms and gives great hope that the outcome can be one of great beauty and introspection. I needed that.

Another life-affirming moment came from Judith Linhares's Riptide series at Edward Thorp. Linhares has a wonderful and unique way of molding figures with juicy paint that borders on fluorescent. The characters that inhabit her fantastical environs, nude women, seem quite content to lounge and frolic about, even though there is danger, we are told -- a riptide, an unseen current, could change everything. But for now, why be a worrywart -- everybody in!

30.3.11

Wanda Landowska, Pioneer of Pioneers

available at Amazon
Landowska: Uncommon Visionary
(DVD)

available at Amazon
Handel / Purcell, Suites, T. Pinnock
(live at Wigmore Hall)

available at Amazon
Scarlatti, Sonatas, T. Pinnock
Was Wanda Landowska "the greatest harpsichordist who ever lived," as English harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock put it? Certainly, she was a "pioneer of pioneers" in the movement to revive the harpsichord, the first performer to record Bach's Goldberg Variations on the instrument, for example. Composers in the early 20th century certainly took notice, creating pieces for her and incorporating the harpsichord into a modern context, and all of the harpsichord virtuosos who followed were indebted to what she accomplished. At the Library of Congress on Tuesday night, Pinnock offered a tribute to Landowska, which required equal parts of his skills as soloist and raconteur.

Pinnock played music by composers whom Landowska championed, beginning with Handel's Chaconne and Variations in G major (HWV 435). Now in his 60s, Pinnock has lost some of his finger dexterity, which caused a few technical slips, most notably in the courante of Bach's G major French suite (BWV 816), which he had to restart after coming to a complete stop. On the other hand, when a page stubbornly refused to turn during the Handel, Pinnock proceeded to play to the end from memory, without missing a beat. The fast movements of the Bach suite were not flawless but had undaunted spirit, especially the jaunty gavotte, and the louré made a lot of musical sense played entirely on the lute stop of the William Dowd harpsichord, based on a French instrument by Blanchet and loaned by Kenneth Slowik.

Pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book were particularly evocative: Byrd's The Bells, animated by the oscillating semitone at its core, and John Bull's The King's Hunt, enlivened by differences in articulation that heightened the imitations of shouts, cries, horn calls, and so on. Pinnock offered Johann Jacob Froberger's Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Mstà di Ferdinando IV as a memorial to Landowska, its closing C major scale rising up to the harpsichord's highest note, like the soul rising to heaven, as Pinnock put it. There in heaven, waiting for her, was Bach, whom Pinnock described as Landowska's musical god, represented by the aforementioned French suite.

Music by François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, also Landowska favorites, opened the second half, beginning with two selections from Couperin's eighth ordre. Pinnock seemed to run out of ideas to give individual nuances to all the repetitions of the leading idea in the passacaille, but the use of a tinkly 4' registration for the La Morinète movement was intriguing. Pieces by Rameau struck similar resonances, like the charming country lilt of the Musette en rondeau and the sharp, militaristic precision of the Tambourin. Landowska also gave marvelously colored performances of many of the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, three of which were selected by Pinnock. He gave K. 490 the feel of a solemn procession, including pleasing echo effects, with the little solo flourishes like trumpet calls in dialogue (Landowska recorded the piece in Paris in 1940, and bombing noises are heard in the background), and K. 491 was even more heraldic and brassy. Pinnock may not have gotten all of the many notes in K. 492, but he gave an odd, almost unmetered interpretation to the strange, little solo turn first heard at m. 26.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Trevor Pinnock plays harpsichord concert (Washington Post, March 31)

Alex Baker, Pinnock Plays Landowska Tribute Show at LOC (Wellsung, March 30)
Landowska is remembered not so much for playing on historical harpsichords, although she did study them and play them. She made most of her recordings on a special type of instrument made to her specifications by the Pleyel company, with a piano mindset -- piano-sized keys, a rather cheesy set of low strings adding a piano-like bass, and a convoluted set of pedals to switch among the various settings, not to mention a rather unwieldy tuning mechanism. (Here are some further thoughts on the instrument by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who played it last year.) Thankfully, Pinnock opted to play only two short works on the Pleyel, more than enough to make clear what a strange sort of Frankenstein monster it is. At the end of the first half, Pinnock had a devil of a time sorting out the pedal system, to give a rendition of a Ground formerly attributed to Purcell, recreating the shift between lute and regular stops used by Landowska. Similar effects were displayed in the final encore, a little dance called My Lady Carey's Dompe, which Pinnock said was brought to his attention by Landowska's student Rafael Puyana, who was probably the last person to specialize on one of the Pleyel instruments.

The next concert at the Library of Congress will feature the London Conchord Ensemble (April 8, 8 pm), playing music for various combination of woodwinds and piano by Mozart, Poulenc, Frank Bridge, and Beethoven.

29.3.11

Altenberg Trio @ Dumbarton Oaks

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Piano Trios (Ravel, Fauré, Martin), Altenberg Trio Wien
Sometimes a performance can be pleasing in many ways without ever becoming the sort of concert that inspires or lingers in the memory. This is perhaps nowhere more true than chamber music, where the alchemy of great music making is the most elusive, because of the restricted musical means. It was true for most of the program offered on Monday night by the Altenberg Trio Wien, in the stunning Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks. The group, formed by some of the former members of the Vienna Schubert Trio, has had a distinguished performing history in the Washington area, last appearing at the Library of Congress in 2010 and at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008: while this concert presented much to admire, the group did not seem as gifted as their compatriots, the Wiener Klaviertrio, for example.

Two Haydn trios -- so many of them, so rarely played! -- mostly highlighted the consummately tasteful playing of pianist Claus-Christian Schuster, reining in the Dumbarton Steinway, whose noisy, crunchy action has bothered me on previous occasions (Paderewski played on the instrument and left his signature). The action was particularly present on the box side, where I sat for the first half, and less so from my later position on the keyboard side. Schuster was an attentive partner, always with one eye on his colleagues, although he sometimes tended to rush them just slightly when he had fast passage work. His Rococo decoration, as in the luscious slow movement of no. 12, had admirable lightness, and he gave remarkable energy to the frothy final movement of Hob. XV:23. Neither violinist Amiram Ganz nor the group's newest member, cellist Alexander Gebert (joined in 2004), made solo sounds that captivated the ear, but melded their performances to Schuster for Haydn that was reserved, stylish, and very musical.

Stronger group performances came on more recent pieces, especially the gorgeous A major piano trio by Ravel that closed the concert. Ganz had a lovely, translucent tone high on the E string in the sultry opening of the first movement, matched by a more tender sound from the cello (although the harmonics from the strings at the close of the movement were more than a little dicey). The second movement -- labeled a pantoum by Ravel, a reference to a Malaysian poetic form -- had the feel of a sweeping waltz, while the third-movement Passacaille continued the Asian influence in the use of open harmonies and pentatonic melodies. The first half concluded with the relatively rare piano trio by Ernest Chausson (op. 3), which again featured the remarkable finger facility of Schuster at the piano, flying through a part that consists largely of busily animated harmonic patterns and anchoring bass lines. The influence of Wagner was most prominent in the seething slow movement, with its chromatic and otherwise heavily perfumed harmonies. At times, it was the sort of exotic-flavored music -- and the encore, the scherzo from Debussy's youthful piano trio, too -- that might have tamed the cobra recently escaped from the Bronx Zoo, who already has a Twitter account, if she had made her way this far south.

The final concert on the Dumbarton Oaks series will feature clarinetist Jon Manasse and pianist Jon Nakamatsu (April 17 and 18).

28.3.11

Opera on DVD: 'Rigoletto' with Flórez

available at Amazon
Verdi, Rigoletto, D. Damrau, J. D. Flórez, Ž. Lučić, Semperoper Dresden, F. Luisi

(released on October 25, 2010)
Virgin 6418689 4 | 2h17
We recently had the chance, in a celebrity recital, to hear Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sing the major arias of the Duke of Mantua, from Verdi's Rigoletto. That concert, as I wrote then, was probably the closest Washington will ever come to seeing Flórez's Duke of Mantua on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, a role that he wisely chose to preview on his home territory in Lima and then sing only in a few carefully chosen houses. If you missed it, your remaining choice at this point is this DVD of the production at the Semperoper Dresden, recorded in the summer of 2008. The value of the DVD is mainly as a document of Flórez's debut in this role, as neither the production or the sound quality particularly recommends it. Even the Staatskapelle Dresden, which normally plays so well, sounds a little disjointed under Fabio Luisi. Perhaps at some point Flórez will make a studio or even live concert recording of the work.

Like the rest of the cast, Flórez sounds magnificent, with his clear, ringing tone very close to its utter best. Unfortunately, the other reason that he has been wise to give this role up, more or less, is that he is not very good in the role of a hateful villain. When the Rigoletto (a booming, snarling Željko Lučić, in excellent voice) and the Gilda (a marvelous Diana Damrau, with her slightly sharp-edged soprano burnished to a tone closer to the innocent golden warmth needed for the role) are less sympathetic than the Duke, you have a problem. This seems to be one of the goals of this production, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, which positions Rigoletto as a sort of villain, particularly for his near-jailing of Gilda, his paternal paranoia -- quite justified in the hellish world of the corrupt Mantuan court -- becoming more like a creepy possessiveness. However, if you have three principals this good, the staging will be a vocal success, and the supporting cast is all quite good, too.

Anyone looking for a traditional production of Rigoletto is going to be disappointed. Putting such slavish traditionalism aside (a handicap to the enjoyment of cutting-edge opera, to be sure), Lehnhoff's modern updating, with the Duke of Mantua as a smarmy 1970s lothario, mostly works with the libretto. Verdi's radiant music, which shines with the virtue of Gilda and even with that fatherly side of the title role, does not so much conflict with Lehnhoff's ideas as help to create a more complex characterization. Gilda is both innocent and sexually curious, Rigoletto both vicious and vulnerable, and even the Duke both predatory and possibly susceptible to love. (Thus, during the Act III quartet, Gilda seems to imagine the Duke singing to her instead of to Giovanna.) The parallels between the Duke and Don Giovanni are obvious in the score: the offstage banda and string group providing music for opening party scene, and the appearance of the wronged Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke, given music not unlike that for the arrival of the Commendatore. With Flórez's Duke, one is reminded of a version of Don Juan who is actually wounded in love after a life of dissolution: the Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses comes to mind.

Lehnhoff emphasizes a sort of Faustian side of this opera, with Rigoletto climbing out of a hole during the overture, then putting on makeup and jester costume, with vaguely phallic protuberances on his hat. When he is ready he stands and commands the curtain to rise on the Duke's party with a wave of his hand: by the end, his own shadow will come to seek retribution, as Monterone's curse is fulfilled in a Dantesque vein, complimented by the devilish costumes from the earlier acts. The opening party is set in the Duke's trashy black marble casino of a palace, with svelte dancer supernumeraries in animal costumes and fake cleavage (sets by Raimund Bauer, costumes by Bettina Walter). The Duke is costumed with a terrible curly mullet, glittery silver tux shirt and tails, and John Boehnerish orange self-tanner face (what a thing to do to a handsome singer like Flórez). One might advocate possibly only listening to the audio if you do not like this sort of updated production, but the sound is pretty bad, with the miking all at the front of the stage and some singing at the back lost.

27.3.11

Listen What the Cat Dragged In: Bach's Partitas


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Partitas 1-6,
Irma Issakadze - Oehms
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Partitas 1, 5, 6,
M.Perahia - Sony
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Partitas 2, 3, 4,
M.Perahia - Sony
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Partitas 4, 6,
F.Kempf - BIS
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Partitas 3, 4, 6,
J.Denk - Azica













Over on WETA, where March is Bach-Month: "Organic Bach"


* * *

Perhaps the Six Partitas (Clavier-Übung Part 1) really are the highlight among Bach’s output for solo keyboard. At least that’s what they should sound like in the moment you’re listening to them. Assuming they’re played very well, of course.

T

The young Georgian pianists Irma Issakadze achieves that feat on her latest, second disc for Oehms. That’s something not even the great András Schiff (on his earlier Decca recording) manages. Her complete recording appears amid a whole slew of new discs with Bach’s Partitas, including two by Freddy Kempf (BIS) and three by Jeremy Denk (Azica). Last year Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca) threw his hat in the ring, in 2009 András Schiff (ECM) and Murray Perahia (Sony) added (or completed) new sets of the Partitas to the catalog.

I

I haven’t heard the new Schiff [Edit: I have now, and it quite surpasses the entire piano-competition with its supreme approximation of dance] or Ashkenazy, but Perahia sets the bar high enough for any challenger. His Bach recordings on Sony have all been wonderfully recorded, with resonance and clarity—and Perahia’s generally romantic style, concerned with phrasing and musicality more than anything else. His for a truly pianistic Bach among the big name pianists, he remains the obvious most recommendation. In comparison Schiff on Decca sounds timid and dry. He connects notes with ease when necessary (take the Fantasia of Partita No.3) and separates them again with agile grace. The way Perahia takes his fingers off the keys, caresses the space between the notes in piano and pianissimo is simply marvelous.


J

Denk, who sounds quite well taken on his own, comes across as wooden and unimaginative when compared to the competition. The calm pulse of Irma Issakadze meanwhile, and her Perahia-like pianistic, more celebratory—indeed orchestral—rendition, need not shy away from any direct comparison. Only on the rarest occasion does her approach sound less fortunate; the mechanical first Menuet of Partita No. 1 being such an exception, or the Gigue that is bubbles maniacally but hasn’t the animated wit of Schiff. (Perahia is curiously leaden here.) Freddy Kempf’s recording only accommodates Partitas Nos. 4 and 6, but at his best he is rhythmically imaginative and supple like no one else. That Perahia is as good as he is, is not surprising. The happy surprise of this lot is clearly Irma Issakadze, especially after her preceding disc of the Goldberg Variations didn’t jolt me from my seat.

d

In Brief: It's Spring Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • One of the greats, actress Elizabeth Taylor, died this week. It remains a mystery to me how someone so beautiful could make herself so ugly in the role I consider her best, Martha in the acidic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. A clip at right to remember her by. [YouTube]

  • In an odd twist of fate, Elizabeth Taylor outlived the New York Times reporter who wrote her obituary, theater critic Mel Gussow, who prepared Taylor's obituary shortly before he died of cancer in 2005. [Village Voice]

  • Choral composer Eric Whitacre represents the trump of style over substance: a final verdict. [Vogue]

  • Videos from ARTE this week include La Métamorphose, an opera by Michaël Levinas from the Opéra de Lille, and installments of Daniel Barenboim's Bruckner symphony cycle with the Berlin Staatskapelle. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Alex Ross posts a photo of a the wasteful packaging of a promo DVD he received. Many times a large box has arrived at Ionarts Central, causing me to wonder which label sent me 25 promos, only to find that it is a single CD under piles of air bubble packaging. [The Rest Is Noise]

  • The Festival d'Avignon announced its season for this summer (July 6 to 26), with dance taking the lead thanks to the leadership of dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who made an impact at last year's festival with En Atendant, a choreography about the fall of night, will debut a new work about the rise of natural life, to be performed at dawn (July 16 to 19), as well as her Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich (July 24 to 26). Charmatz himself will direct his own Enfant, a new choreography for adult dancers and children (July 7 to 12), and Levée des conflits, in a new version "au style Woodstock," staged in the Stade de Bagatelle, with the audience seated on the grass. For the theater, Frédéric Fisbach will direct Strindberg's Mademoiselle Julie, with Juliette Binoche and Nicolas Bouchaud (July 8 to 26). As for music, there will be a "Cycle de musiques sacrées," organized around the churches and organs of Avignon and its region. [Le Monde]

  • Medici TV is updating its Web site. New videos there include Menahem Pressler at the Cité de la Musique in Paris (playing Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Schubert), Skip Sempé and Pierre Hantaï playing music by Rameau for two harpsichords, and clarinetist Paul Meyer and the Jerusalem String Quartet [Medici.tv]

  • Alex Ross also has an allergic reaction to the PR phrase "touch base": "Dear PR caller, please touch someone else's base regarding your adult contemporary smooth jazz artist." My favorite phrase of PR speak is, "I am a regular reader of your blog, and I wanted to give you a tip about [insert name of bluegrass, rap, smooth jazz artist here]." If you really read my blog, you would know that this is mass-mailing FAIL. [Alex Ross]

  • In the world of online radio this week: Hervé Niquet directs Le Concert Spirituel in Haydn's Creation, with Sandrine Piau; a recital by tenor Jonas Kaufmann from the Opéra Garnier; the Quatuor Ébène at the Théâtre du Châtelet; a concert performance of Beethoven's Fidelio with the Orchestre national de France; the Quatuor Diotima at Ircam; and Frank-Peter Zimmermann playing both of the Szymanowski violin concertos with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • The news is not good: cultural patronage by businesses in France fell by a stunning 63% between 2008 and 2010. [Le Monde]

26.3.11

Dip Your Ears, No. 108 (Dinnerstein & Bach Again)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, "A Strange Beauty",
S.Dinnerstein
Sony

With her move from the Telarc recording label to Sony Classics, the ascent of Simone Dinnerstein continues – all on the back of Johann Sebastian Bach. Her self-recorded Goldberg Variations (review on WETA / ionarts - "Bach with a hint of Zamfir and Zinfandel") lifted her from complete obscurity and playing in retirement communities to semi-stardom and a fully booked concert calendar. Her debut album for Sony—“Bach: A Strange Beauty”—will propel her further, yet.

This time it’s a mix of Bach transcriptions (by Ferruccio Busoni, Wilhelm Kempff, and Dame Myra Hess), two concertos (BWV 1052 and 1056), and an echt-Bach work for keyboard, the Third English Suite (BWV 808), chosen because Mme. Dinnerstein sees in it “effectively a concerto for one instrument.”

The two concertos might be the least interesting bits on the new release. They are aggressive and fast and buoyant and fun, but slightly marred by their bass-heaviness, opaque acoustics, and pop-loudness sound. The pleasantly-indulgent English Suite is centre stage, but not propulsive enough to be considered the highlight. The three jewels, the pieces that make this release a really charming winner, are the transcriptions (two chorales and the evergreen “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”). Simone Dinnerstein’s liberal approach to Bach—in the past more on the cloying than the liberating side—really plays out its full strengths here. In a way her Bach, and more naturally still her Bach-Busoni, are what I meant to address in the first part of “Free Bach from the HIPsters”. A romantic-musical disregard for the kind of straitjacket-historicism that Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian), in the liner-note interview, aptly refers to as “fetishizing the authentic”. This disregard always carries a risk of being incredibly annoying, rather than invigorating... but that's a fate (narrowly) avoided here.

Since Simone Dinnerstein’s style and approach to Bach in particularly (and music in general) don’t seem to change, the question is: does the music she chose here suit this particular style? The answer—for me at least—is unequivocally: Yes.

The liner notes are much more sober and readable than the fluff of the past; though the booklet is also co-opted to showcase and promote the art of her father, Simon Dinnerstein.

Further reviews of Simone Dinnerstein’s recordings can be read here: “Lasser’s Licks” and “CD Pick of the Week & Recent Releases

25.3.11

La Brewer, Diva of Divas

available at Amazon
Great Strauss Scenes, C. Brewer, E. Owens, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, D. Runnicles


available at Amazon
Menotti, Canti della Lontananza,
C. Brewer, R. Vignoles


available at Amazon
Echoes of Nightingales,
C. Brewer, R. Vignoles


available at Amazon
V. Thomson, The Mother of Us All, Santa Fe Opera
When we have the chance to hear soprano Christine Brewer sing, we take it. We have reviewed her recitals in Washington, in 2010 and 2005, and on stage whenever possible. Naturally, Ionarts was in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Wednesday night, to hear Brewer's latest program, When I Have Sung My Songs to You, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. This concert was that most prized combination in the rarefied world of the Lieder recital: a rather brilliant selection of almost unknown pieces, all by American composers, sung by one of the best singers, possibly my favorite living singer (and also just a very down-to-earth person), who was performing near the top of her game.

The first half opened with a cycle of songs by Gian Carlo Menotti, Canti della lontananza, a setting of his own Italian poetry. The seven poems are a sort of emotional catalogue, presumably autobiographical, of depression and anxiety over love lost, the eponymous "absence" (lontananza) of the beloved, in middle age. The cycle was commissioned by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and there is a live video of two of the songs, made by Schwarzkopf in Brussels in the 1960s, a few years after the cycle was composed. Brewer herself made a recording of the work, with pianist Roger Vignoles, from a few years ago, a comparison that is telling as far as the demands Menotti made on the singer here. The time having passed since Brewer's recording showed in a number of mistakes she made with the words, although she performed from the score. This is an admittedly minor concern, since the musical line and substance were all there, and if one was not following the texts in the program or fluent in Italian, it is unlikely one would even have noticed. The songs featured the various strengths of Brewer's exquisite soprano, its puissant heights reaching up to a terrified howl at points, oak-strong chest voice, and its velvety piano. Menotti's style ranged from misty harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, almost pointillistic, 12-tonish dissonance, and even hints of blues.

When we described the 2002 song cycle Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn, by Texas-born composer Alan Louis Smith, as "a work that merits repeated listening," after Brewer performed it last year (on the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, as it happened), little did we suspect the opportunity would come so soon. Smith set words taken from letters by First Lieutenant George W. Honts, who went to fight in World War II a year after he was married to his wife, Evelyn Honts. The harmonic idiom is mostly tonal and quite nostalgic, with a broad range of vocal styles that played to Brewer's strengths as a storyteller, although some songs take a more dissonant turn, like the clustered death-knell ostinato in the fifth song, as the first signs of battle are looming. Without being jarring by creating overly strong oppositions, Smith brings in touches of humor, like the rah-rah fight song in the background of the eighth song ("The order of the day is mud -- mud -- mud"). The climax of the cycle, a heart-rending setting of the telegram notifying Evelyn of George's death, was just as devastating this time around, especially the high-soaring shrieks at the core of the message ("THE SECRETARY OF WAR . . . DESIRES TO EXPRESS"), where each fortissimo high note sets the piano strings, thanks to a depressed pedal, shimmering with overtones. A mishap with the pages in accompanist Craig Rutenberg's score folder caused a momentary delay to the start of this piece, allowing Brewer to warm up the crowd with a conductor joke. (The page situation was resolved by Brewer looking over Rutenberg's shoulder while he played from her score for the first page.)

Rutenberg is an accomplished accompanist, something that requires a keen musical and cooperative sense, but a set of piano pieces by Virgil Thomson revealed that, while certainly able and consummately sensitive, he is not a blistering technical force at the keyboard. This set of five works, all musical portraits of Thomson's friends and acquaintances (including one of Carrie Stettheimer, who created this incredible doll house, now in the City Museum of New York, complete with tiny reproductions of modern art made by the artists themselves for Carrie), had the same sort of harmonic oddness and melodic whimsy associated with the programmatic music of Erik Satie. (Rutenberg reported, in one of several charming anecdotes about Thomson, that he is working on a recording of all of the composer's piano music.) This little set was a fine introduction to Brewer's grand interpretation of Susan B. Anthony's final aria from Thomson's The Mother of Us All, the composer's final collaboration with Gertrude Stein. At this point in the opera, a statue of Anthony is placed in the U.S. Capitol: after the unveiling ceremony, the statue sings, animated by Anthony's ghost. Echoes of an old revival hymn help create a sense of eternity.


Other Reviews:

Albert Imperato, 20 (Plus) Questions with Christine Brewer (Playbill Arts, March 25)

Anne Midgette, Christine Brewer comes on strong, and soft (Washington Post, March 25)

Alex Baker, Brewer! (Wellsung, March 24)
An Ives set continued the spirit of lightness from the first half, prompting more fun anecdotes from both Brewer and Rutenberg. Something about Ives -- the popular song quotations, the crazy metric shifts, the jokey atmosphere -- can catch performers off-guard: there was a similar easiness of tone when Thomas Hampson performed some Ives songs a few years ago at the Library of Congress. There were serious, elegiac moments (gorgeous renditions of At the River, with its odd harmonic wanderings and open-ended questioning of faith, and of Rather Sad) and many broadly comedic ones, not least the starting over of the hilarious We're sitting in the opera house (from Memories) because of trouble with the whistling part. (A surprise, since Brewer proved she had a great wolf-whistle in Britten's Cabaret Songs at her 2005 recital.) There was one technical issue in Brewer's voice, most prominently heard in this song, too -- an uncomfortable miscalculation when transitioning between chest and upper voices. It was a rare reminder that she is human after all.

At all three of Brewer's recitals we have reviewed, including this one, she has ended with a most intriguing set of songs she has taken to calling Echoes of Nightingales. Her latest CD, with the same title, draws together many of these songs, all of which are taken from the recital programs of great divas of the past (Helen Traubel, Kirsten Flagstad, Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell), found in printed programs given to Brewer by a voice teacher. These songs, mostly contemporary pieces programmed as encores, are almost always worth rediscovering. This was once again true of lovely, sometimes charmingly over-sentimental songs like Ernst Charles's When I Have Sung My Songs to You (whence the title of Brewer's recital), A. Walter Kramer's Now, Like a Lantern, and Celius Dougherty's Everyone Sang (on a text by Siegfried Sassoon). That last one, featuring a soaring conclusion up to a thrilling high note, combined with other Dougherty songs chosen by Brewer in previous performances, was a reminder that Dougherty's work should be re-examined by singers everywhere. Encores included another Ives setting (of the spiritual Give Me Jesus) and Lili's pretty little song Mira from Carnival, the latter also heard as an encore at Brewer's 2005 recital. Even with its few flaws and minor mishaps, this recital -- and how rarely does a critic get to write these words -- was a sensation.

Vocal Arts D.C. hosts one more recital this season, with tenor Paul Appleby and the remarkable pianist Steven Blier (May 16, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

24.3.11

Biss and Fried

Style masthead

Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Violinist Miriam Fried and pianist son Jonathan Biss at Kennedy Center
Washington Post, March 24, 2011

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Violin Sonatas,
I. Faust, A. Melnikov
[
REVIEW]
The performance of chamber music can be as intimate in tone as a family conversation across a dinner table. In four sonatas by Beethoven, violinist Miriam Fried and pianist Jonathan Biss carried out a fruitful series of such dialogues during their Fortas Chamber Music concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night.

Playing a 1718 Stradivarius once owned by Louis Spohr, Fried fostered a burnished, contained sound that was more maternal radiance than raw power. While her technique may not be quite as formidable as when she won first prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium in 1971, her remarkable phrasing gave a sense of poetry to Biss’s more foursquare approach. As an accompanist, Biss shadowed Fried with filial devotion, while she steadied his tendency to push the fast tempos. It was Fried who nursed and caressed the phrases of the Fourth Sonata’s slow movement, for example, and brought out the arpeggiated extensions, like ecstatic cartwheels, in the 10th Sonata’s opening movement. [Continue reading]
Miriam Fried (violin) and Jonathan Biss (piano)
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 2, 4, 5, 10
Fortas Chamber Music Series
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

If the tragedy of every man is not to become like his mother, as Oscar Wilde put it, Jonathan Biss has happily avoided that regrettable fate. (This was the final sentence of the review, but it was cut in the editing phase at the Post.)

PREVIOUS REVIEWS:
Jonathan Biss with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Strathmore: Mozart on the fast track (Washington Post, November 5, 2010)

23.3.11

Opera on DVD: 'Ariadne' at the Met

available at Amazon
R. Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos, D. Voigt, N. Dessay, Metropolitan Opera, J. Levine

(released on September 28, 2010)
Virgin 6418679 5 | 2h14
No matter that Ariadne auf Naxos may be the oddest work to come forth from the partnership of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. For one thing, its libretto is one of the works in which composer and librettist deconstruct the nature of the operatic genre, as a result of serious revision of the originally planned idea. The score is delightful, as long as there is the right combination of singers, conductor, and orchestra -- even when everything is not quite right, as can be attested in performances of varying levels of success, reviewed at Washington National Opera (2009), Wolf Trap (2008), and Covent Garden (2008). This DVD version from the Metropolitan Opera is certainly one to own: it was filmed in 2003 but was released only last year, due (at least by rumor) to some unresolved legal issues. Whatever the reason, opera lovers should rejoice that it was finally made available, as part of the 40th anniversary set for James Levine.

Levine, whose recent health troubles have been felt keenly in many places, was in top form at the podium, leading a well-etched performance from the Met Orchestra, where he may not remain for much longer, according to recent news. The Big House in New York assembled what can only be called a casting d'enfer. This production represented Natalie Dessay's first performances after surgery to repair vocal nodes, and she is dramatically and vocally a near-perfect Zerbinetta, not least for a stunning Großmächtige Prinzessin!. In the title role, there is Deborah Voigt before her bariatric surgery, in buttery voice and giving a hilarious diva send-up, with Canadian tenor Richard Margison not quite her match vocally as the Tenor/Bacchus. (A London performance of this role involved the infamous black dress that Voigt could not fit into, but given a choice between this Voigt and a lesser but trimmer singer, Voigt would get my vote every time -- just avoid the close-ups, which is not how opera is meant to be viewed anyway.) Susanne Mentzer is intense and edgy as Der Komponist, with the highest notes on the boundary of total control, in an exciting way. There are pleasing supporting performances from Wolfgang Brendel's Music Master and Tony Stevenson as a bright-toned, slightly fey Dancing Master, and Nathan Gunn is a flirtatious Harlekin, if not exactly a voice that sounds like a natural Straussian.

The staging, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty, if a little odd at points, not least because of the crowds of distracting supernumeraries, who disturb the action in ways made worse by the camera focusing on them so much. The first act takes place in a crowded and complicated basement room where preparations are happening, but the second act, for the performance of the mash-up of serious German opera and Italian buffo farce, is much grander. Michael Yeargan's sets and costumes are colorful and bright, with multicolored diamond patterns for Harlekin and Zerbinetta. It was an especially odd choice to have the three naiads roll around on tall platforms that look like mountainous, sunset-vista dresses they are wearing: the staging may account for some of the less than unified ensemble among the trio. Most importantly, none of the nonsense, allowing the comic part of the opera to sparkle, prevents the viewer from taking the operatic part seriously as Strauss seems to have intended. The sound is generally good, although the microphone placement leaves something to be desired: at one point when Dessay turns around while singing, her part is lost almost completely.

22.3.11

Washington Master Chorale Greets Spring

Style masthead

Read my review published today in the Style section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Master Chorale ends first full season with British choral masterpieces
Washington Post, March 22, 2011

available at Amazon
Herbert Howells, St. Paul's Service (inter alia), St. Paul's Cathedral Choir
Washington has too many choruses, a superabundance of amassed volunteers singing too many performances of overdone symphonic choral repertoire. The dire economic downturn began to cull the herd, but new groups continue to appear. Perhaps the best of these, the Washington Master Chorale, ended its first full season on Sunday afternoon at the National Presbyterian Church, with a sterling spring concert of British choral masterpieces.

Artistic Director Thomas Colohan founded the group as the National Master Chorale in 2009 but rebaptized it at some point this season. The combination of professionals and carefully chosen volunteers paid dividends in the group’s warm, full-bodied but not overblown sound, particularly in unaccompanied motets by Charles Stanford and Edward Bairstow. David Lang gave virtuosic fire to Herbert Murrill’s organ solo “Carillon,” but he did not seem to have a clear sightline to the podium. He was sometimes at odds with Colohan, accompanying the choir in Murrill’s lively “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” and “Like as the Hart,” that old Herbert Howells standby. [Continue reading]
British Masterpieces: Jewels from the English Choral Revival
Washington Master Chorale
National Presbyterian Church

OTHER THOUGHTS:
Britten composed The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard for an unusual male chorus (TTB), made up of the prisoners of war at a German camp (Oflag VIIb in Eichstätt). This included Britten's friend Richard Wood and Fred Henson, who directed the chorus. The text seems like an odd choice given the location of the performances, which Britten edited slightly from its original form. The music was beautifully performed, so I focused on that in the review rather than on the fact that there was way too much chatter in this concert: conductor Thomas Colohan, as well as a reading (not even a recitation) of some of Falstaff's lines to go with the Vaughan Williams selection In Windsor Forest, adapted from the composer's opera Sir John in Love, from 1929, which was based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

PREVIOUS REVIEWS:

Ionarts-at-Large: A Midget, Frogs, and Broken Tea Cups

A wonderful—because rare and original—double bill at the Bavarian State Opera: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg. Ravel’s 45-minute tale about the unruly child, its nightmarish-fantastical visions, and eventual repentance is an adorable and lyrical feast for the ears… at least throughout part II, the dream scene in which the animals and pets come to life. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the whole night are the animal costumes Anna Nykowska Duzsynska created for Grzegorz Jarzyna’s production. When Kevin Conners’ Frog gets to give his Squirrel-love Angela Brower a peck, it’s cute enough to make hardened hearts melt—amid very solid singing and a willing, enthusiastic orchestra under Kent Nagano.


Grzegorz Jarzyna opens the opera as a film set where a Walter Felsenstein-esque opera movie of “L’Enfant et les sortileges” is being shot—shown on a wide screen above the set. That would make sense if it had a child movie star gone wild at its center… an obnoxious little brat (as they invariably are) with his tantrums thrown at the stage-trailer, abusing the film crew and director around him. But that’s not the case; the child merely acts its role within the film-within-the-opera. Is it a way to present a realistic version of something unrealistic? Or is the ‘acting’ perhaps the excuse for its behavior and the explanation for its ‘repentance’? If the latter, it would rob the opera of its entire, sole point… so perhaps this first part—also the musically less gratifying—is better not pondered. The costumes are inventive but the characterization of the Wedgewood teapot, for example, is insufferably clownish; some of the voices—the Fire (slightly better, later on, as the Nightingale) and the Kid (Tara Erraught)—were not impressive. All that is forgotten by the time film director and sound technician enter within the dream, metamorphosed as ridiculously adorable fattened prairie dogs or some such creatures.



I love the music of Alexander Zemlinsky (1871 – 1942). How superb to get to hear (!) his third-last opera, “The Dwarf”, (incompetently) adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short story The Birthday of the Infanta. It’s really, really too bad it’s not a particularly good opera. Or at least not a good enough opera to make a lasting impression on stage with a direction that had spent its main ideas on Ravel and gave Zemlinsky a very accomplished, professional treatment but not much imaginativeness. As a stage work, Der Zwerg—lacking that bit of added sophistication that the operas of his contemporary Franz Schreker (1878 – 1934) contain—can’t get by on craftsmanship alone. Fortunately the music can.


Written between 1919 and 1921, there are musically analogous moments to Richard Strauss (melodies for the voices and solo instruments), Gustav Mahler (orchestral color, including the use of mandolin) and Richard Wagner (harmonies). After a few bars of smug marching music, the lyrical, sweet, wallowing, romantic gene of Zemlinsky inevitably breaks through and doesn't leave until that dwarf is stone cold dead.


Zemlinsky adapts the story to whine—for 90 minutes—about how he, Zemlinsky, is ugly and how Alma Schindler (Mahler / Gropius / Werfel) couldn’t possibly love him. It is uninspired stuff that drones on forever as the drawn-out finale is chewed back and forth like cud. As far as autobiographical whining is concerned it’s not as bad as Bernstein’s insufferable Kaddish Symphony, but it’s not exactly dramatically compelling. The text doesn’t seem very naturally set to the music either, and the music is awfully tough for the voices. That John Daszak navigated the uncomfortable part of the Dwarf as well as he did was one of the marvels of the evening; Camilla Tilling’s naïve-yet-calculating infanta Donna Clara—Salome’s childish, dim-witted older stepsister—was a wholly pleasing performance, too. Paul Gay’s Major Domo (Don Estoban) was undermined by his character’s getup; an obnoxiously cliché-drenched freak with a ‘Garry-Oldman-is-Bram-Stoker’s-Dracula’ hairdo. That’s part of the production’s aim, of course: the whole birthday party of the infanta is the actual freak-show; the dwarf is not only regular size but reasonably handsome. His ‘ugly’ is in fact just a being ‘different’. But the grotesque element of the party-folk is so mild that the contrast never really works. Kriegenburg’s Wozzeck (also from the Bavarian State Opera) should have served as an example of how it’s done.


All pictures © Wilfried Hösl, courtesy Bavarian State Opera

21.3.11

The Other BSO

available at Amazon
Bartók, Piano Concertos, K. Zimerman, L. O. Andsnes, H. Grimaud, P. Boulez


available at Amazon
Mozart, Symphonies (14, 18, 20, 39, 41), Boston Symphony Orchestra,
J. Levine
The resignation of James Levine left some big question marks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's visit to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society on Saturday afternoon. Jens's reports on the youngish Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons made me wish that the Washington concert had fallen to him, as the New York one did. Instead we had the journeyman combination of conductor Roberto Abbado (cousin nephew of Claudio) and pianist Peter Serkin (son of Rudolph), both fine musicians doomed to be perpetually overshadowed by more famous relatives. Actually, the program they put together at short notice was a lot more interesting than what Levine had planned -- Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Schumann’s third, noteworthy mostly because Levine was going to be conducting them. This concert was the penultimate event in the Ionarts Week of Four Orchestras -- along with the NHK, the local BSO, and the NSO (the only one I had to miss was the University of Maryland Symphony, fortunately covered by Andrew Lindemann Malone) -- and comparison was not only inevitable but obligatory.

Boston has managed to hold on to its accustomed place in the rankings of the Big Five American Orchestras, something that Levine's leadership has strengthened, although the worries about his health undermining the efforts to improve the orchestra were rampant. The organization seems fiscally sound -- there is a dizzying number of endowed chairs for lead players, across all sections, for example -- and the playing remained at a very high level, especially the smooth unity of the strings and the imperious power of the brass, although not so far above our two local orchestras as one might have expected. Abbado is to blame for competent but somewhat predictable interpretations of two very mainstream symphonies, beginning with Haydn's Symphony no. 93, one of the London symphonies. We are always happy to hear Haydn programmed, and Abbado gave the first and last movements crisp articulation and line, mostly allowing the orchestra its head in terms of pacing, rather than fighting with them. Only the third movement had a slightly affected approach to the pickup of the main theme, given an increasingly mannered lengthening. The various solos were all pleasing, especially the string quartet that opens the Largo movement and the hilariously belched low C, marked fortissimo, from the bassoon that ends it.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Abbado delivers the Boston Symphony Orchestra safely (Washington Post, March 21)

Alex Baker, Boston in DC, sans Levine (Wellsung, March 20)

Jeremy Eichler, For guest conductor Andris Nelsons, an auspicious BSO debut (Boston Globe, March 19)

James R. Oestreich, A Fresh Face Confronts a Seasoned Mahler (New York Times, March 18)

Anthony Tommasini, Boston Symphony Shows Verve Even Without Levine (New York Times, March 16)

Geoff Edgers, After the maestro (Boston Globe, March 13)

George Loomis, BSO/Lehninger, Symphony Hall, Boston (Financial Times, March 7)

Tom Service, Birtwistle premiere (The Guardian, March 6)

Rodney Lister, Birtwistle and Schuller Concertos (Sequenza 21/, March 6)
Bartók's third piano concerto was rather bland, but this is as much the fault of the composer as the performers -- it is a late work, conceived for Bartók's wife, and its more tonal, less experimental character is as retrogressive as it is valedictory. Serkin played with a sense of gentlemanly restraint, his touch a little less than distinct in some of the faster passages, but with careful phrasing. The best moments were in the evocative night music of the slow movement: the insectoid buzzing of the strings, the bird calls traded among the winds and piano. That movement's Coplandesque chorale opening, with its gauzy, evanescent string writing and jazzy piano harmonies, makes one wonder what sort of second American career Bartók could have had (perhaps in Hollywood?) if he had lived longer. The third movement, where the folk-inspired, almost barbaro Bartók suddenly returns, was taken at a cautious tempo, but it had some raucous appeal, as in the fun fugato section. Somewhat worryingly, Serkin's arms did seem to shake at times, usually while holding long notes -- involuntary tremor or deliberate gesture? -- but he was still capable of admirable control of a phrase.

By comparison to Mario Venzago's striking, unexpected interpretation of Beethoven's fifth symphony in Baltimore the night before, Abbado's choices at the podium had few surprises in this famous work. It was the sort of utterly Romantic fifth symphony that is heard on many classic recordings, long on agitation and volume -- indeed, at times so earth-shatteringly loud as to be uncomfortable. The generative kernel of the entire work, those famous first eight notes, sat on the page, loud and hammered like so much of the piece but going nowhere. Even the slow movement, taken at a more traditional and slower tempo, was forceful and the third movement kept strictly in tempo. The transition to the extremely fast finale was particularly tense, the rumble of the timpani muffled in the distance. Abbado emphasized some details of the score, almost half-heartedly: the oboe solo that interrupts the first movement's recapitulation (and the sound of that instrument, in general) was much better in Baltimore, and the horns had just as many minor issues in both orchestras. So, Boston may have the edge in overall sound, by a length, but points to Baltimore for a more interesting interpretation of this symphony and points also to Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO for the more interesting programming.

The next visiting orchestra on the WPAS roster is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which comes to Strathmore next month (April 12, 8 pm) with cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Yuri Temirkanov is scheduled to lead this tour, but the name of conductor Nikolai Alexeev has also been mentioned. Let the speculation begin!

20.3.11

In Brief: St. Patrick's Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Happy St. Patrick's Day! Thanks to former colleague Meghan Leahy for the tip on this video, the hands-down best rendition of Danny Boy in the known universe. [YouTube]

  • Popular taste, especially in our mass media-saturated world, is so fickle that it is ridiculous to base any judgments on its oscillations. Nothing proves that more than the occasional appearance of something other than vacuous pop music, like the Chant recordings a few years ago, on the pop charts. Now a late Renaissance Mass setting, by Alessandro Striggio, rediscovered in 2007 and recorded by I Fagiolini, has made the jump into the pop charts, albeit only at no. 68. [The Independent]

  • In one of the savviest media moves of the year, Washingtonian swooped in to pick up Sommer Mathis -- who was formerly the editor of DCist -- after the fall of TBD.com. [Politico]

  • With hat tip to Jessa Crispin, your St. Patrick's Week Day news is that Dracula was Irish. Well, at least Bram Stoker was. [MobyLives]

  • These comics, featuring Chopin and Liszt, are hilarious. With hat tip to Douglas Wolk -- in unrelated news, Douglas and I went to the same high school for a couple years, and we have both ended up writing about music among other things. [Hark, a vagrant]

  • Tis the season for season announcements -- we just made it back up to Shriver Hall for the first time in a while, to hear Andre Watts, and that venue has announced its lineup for 2011-12. Piano fans will be glad to hear Angela Hewitt and Richard Goode again, while chamber music fans will have the Takács Quartet and recitals by violinist Christian Tetzlaff and cellist Steven Isserlis. There is even something for vocal-heads, a recital by Wolfgang Holzmair, and for us HIPsters, Les Violons du Roy with recorder player Maurice Steger. [Shriver Hall]

  • The Cleveland Orchestra, which sabotaged music critic Donald Rosenberg, has now hired its own in-house critic, Enrique Fernández, who will apparently make benefit for glorious nation of Cleveland Orchestra. Terry Teachout has some thoughts. [Wall Street Journal]

Hail, Eschenbach, All Hail

available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Concertos (nos. 9, 19, 21, 23, 27), London Philharmonic Orchestra, C. Eschenbach


available at Amazon
Zemlinsky, Lyrische Symphonie, M. Goerne, C. Schäfer, Orchestre de Paris, C. Eschenbach
(MP3)
In the first year of two new music directors in Washington -- Philippe Auguin at the Washington National Opera and Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony Orchestra, both now associated ensembles of the Kennedy Center -- lovers of classical music are stepping into what seems to be a golden age of listening in the nation's capital. Christoph Eschenbach's inaugural season with the NSO has not been without any drawbacks, but a new streak of daring programming reached its apex this month with rarely heard pieces like Roussel's Padmâvatî and Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. The NSO's part in the Kennedy Center's maximum INDIA festival came to a grand conclusion this week with Alexander Zemlinsky's Lyrische Symphonie, heard at the second performance last night. Sadly, all three of these programs have been largely neglected by the NSO's regular fan base, with a fairly sparse crowd last night and hundreds of tickets unsold for today's matinee.

My suggestion last week for the NSO's programming of Turangalîla, to pair a work less palatable for Washington's conservatively minded audience with something easier to swallow, was actually implemented this week. Unfortunately, the chance to hear Eschenbach both conduct and play the solo part in a Mozart piano concerto -- no. 23 in A major, K. 488 -- was still not enough to draw a large audience. Eschenbach has an alluring way with Mozart, heard in his recordings with the London Philharmonic, and he led a performance that was not without technical shortcomings but was musically captivating. The NSO announced earlier this month that the originally planned concerto, Beethoven's first, had to be changed because Eschenbach was undergoing treatment for severe tendonitis, and even in the Mozart many of the fast passages in Eschenbach's right hand were glossed over just a bit.

No. 23 is a favorite of many pianists: Ingrid Fliter played it with the NSO just last season, and Mitsuko Uchida has just released a new recording of it. Eschenbach gave the score an ultra-emotional, even mannerist performance, twisting and elongating many phrases by stretching the pacing, especially in the slow movement, almost what one imagines a Romantic pianist like Chopin might have done with the work. He selected a rather small number of string players, which created an optimal balance with the woodwinds and horns, which were more present in this arrangement than with a larger orchestra. The first movement had a genial tempo, not too fast, while the second was stretched out almost to the breaking point, and all through Eschenbach emphasized soft, even sotto voce dynamics. Offering a tribute to the people of Japan, Eschenbach and this large chamber group went back for more Mozart, the slow movement of piano concerto no.  12, K. 414.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach leads NSO’s first ‘Lyric’ ode to India (Washington Post, March 18)

Alex Baker, Goerne, Eschenbach, NSO in Zemlinsky (Wellsung, March 18)

Marie Gullard, Songs of sensuality at the Kennedy Center (Washington Examiner, March 19)
As for the main event, this was the first time that the NSO has ever performed Zemlinsky's orchestral song cycle, a setting of seven poems by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (a German translation based on the poet's own English translation) inspired at least in part by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.
the balance problems that reportedly plagued the first performance on Thursday night had been resolved, and with few exceptions both singers could be heard clearly over Zemlinsky's enormous orchestra. Eschenbach brought baritone Matthias Goerne, an Ionarts favorite, from his excellent recording of this work, with the Orchestre de Paris, and he was a suave, virile presence in the male songs of the cycle. One wished for the other half of the recording, Christine Schäfer, especially after our disappointment with Eschenbach's last engagement of Twyla Robinson. The American soprano, however, was in much better form this time, not exactly overpowering the hall but singing with an admirable sense of strength and varied color.

The orchestra seethed and boomed with exotic and, at times, earth-shattering sound, perfectly in sync with their conductor, who led the score with an experienced and clear hand. The poetry is the sort of heavily symbolic, chest-heaving verse perfectly suited to Zemlinsky's harmonically corrupt late Romanticism, a sort of rapturous love encounter with cosmic infinity. He set it with boozy portamenti and tidal swells of orgasmic sighing, culminating in the Wagnerian Liebesnacht of the fourth song. Parts of the soprano solo are cast in a style almost like Sprechstimme, and the conclusion of the final song, sung masterfully by Goerne, was a tender apotheosis.

This concert will be repeated this afternoon (March 20, 1:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Ionarts-at-Large: Uchida's Beethoven Touch

Ein Heldenleben bei Richard Strauss is 45 minutes long, for 30 of which it ends. By the time the final chords die away in the huge, asymmetric Philharmonic Hall of Munich’s Gasteig, the members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are all smiles and their chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, too, seems rather pleased. It was indeed a fine performance... at least one that got better and better as it went on: From a dry, swift opening that wasn’t particularly lusty, via a few rather disjointed minutes during which each instrumental group sounded distinct and disconnected from the rest, to unsuspected, real swing at the beginning of “Des Helden Walstatt” (just before the military-like march breaks out). Though nicely noisy and clangorous, this wasn’t particularly hard edged Strauss and it was at its best whenever it came to tension and gentle release. Concertmaster Anton Barachovsky did Pauline Strauss (portrayed, more or less, in “Des Helden Gefährtin”) proud in all her occasional tenderness and domineering shrillness.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, The Piano Concertos,
Uchida / K.Sanderling / BRSO
Philips

The BRSO 2010/11 Beethoven Cycle:

No.4, Francesco Piemontesi (intended: Perahia) / Sakari Oramo (intended: Jansons)

No.5, Paul Lewis / Daniel Harding

No.1, Lars Vogt (intended: Rudolf Buchbinder) / Mariss Jansons

No.2, Maria João Pires / Markus Stenz

If the audience’s reactions might have been slightly cooler than expected, it’s perhaps because they had already given their all in appreciation of Mitsuko Uchida who performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto before intermission. It concluded the Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle the BRSO performed this season, and it did so in great style. After a strangely harsh attack on the opening couple of notes the cat-like sinuousness of Uchida came through, and with it all the control she exudes over the piano—all in service of the music. The bubbly rows of perfectly separated notes, the way notes came in coy pairs, or sparkling triplets… in short: the whole skillfulness and subtlety of her touch… it all came to the fore with pleasingly shocking obviousness. In a way it was--is--altogether heartening how easy it can be to tell mere note-players and key-pushers from the rarified ‘real thing’.

Together with an orchestra in pristine deference to her tasteful ways, it made for a combination that spelled not excitement or ravished infatuation but calm and utter enchantment, a melancholic happiness, a perfect kind of laid back delight. The BRSO’s strings were precise, the woodwinds doleful, and the timpanist attacked with grim determination. The slow movement went on to be ever so deliberate—something that perhaps fit the mood of the evening slightly better than Beethoven—while the finale vacillated between mercurial and tragic, with playing on the soloists’ and the orchestra’s part that was as soft as butter.

A pre-core of Solveig’s Song (Edvard Grieg) set the mood after Jansons gave the (seemingly obligatory) Japan-condolence speech that was so felt that one couldn’t mind. Paraphrasing him, he said that ‘we send our thoughts and prayers the way we know best—through music’. Solveig’s Song has never sounded more funereal.