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30.9.11

Christmas with Paul Hillier

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 30, 2011.

available at Amazon
The Christmas Story, Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen,
P. Hillier

(released on September 13, 2011)
HMU 807556 | 65'20"
The gift of CDs of Christmas music is a gauche gesture, because for the most part the music they contain is, at best, passably performed and, at worst, painfully banal. The only exception to this rule is the occasional disc of exquisite historical music performed with such delicacy and musicality that it is impossible to resist. This new recording from Paul Hillier’s two choral ensembles -- Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen -- comes close to passing that bar: a handsomely packaged disc, complete with a thoughtful essay by Hillier and carefully edited texts and translations.

Gregorian chant from the feast of Christmas is a winning choice of programming in these cases, and the selections here, like the introit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Rorate caeli desuper, that opens the disc, and the Christmas introit Puer natus est, are beautifully performed. In fact, more chant would have been preferable than the less successful pieces here, like some rather plain, common carols such as Veni veni Emanuel (sung with perhaps ill-placed vim), We Three Kings (with folksy, almost cheesy guitar accompaniment), The Holly and the Ivy, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Director Paul Hillier has dressed up some of these carols with spicy arrangements that flirt with more dissonant harmonies, like that of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, giving those selections more interest than traditional harmonizations offer.

Best of all are the least familiar carols, like the mysterious German song Andachtsjodler (a meditative repetition of the syllables, “Djo – djo – i – ri,” etc.) and the sweetly simple Barn Jesus i en krybbe lå by Niels Gade, a composer almost always worth hearing, with an unpretentious setting of a text by none other than his Danish compatriot and contemporary Hans Christian Andersen. Howard Skempton’s arrangement of Adam lay y-bounden, pulsing with twitching harmonic movement, is also a worthy discovery.

Most of the best tracks are laid down by Ars Nova Copenhagen, such as the two lesser-known motets by the all but unknown Johann Eccard, especially the sweet Maria wallt zum Heiligtum. The group also contributes a gorgeous rendition of Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium, which provides a convenient yardstick against which to measure Cappella Gloriana’s recent recording of the same work.

Unexpectedly, given the high quality of their previous recordings, the mostly Baroque selections recorded by Theatre of Voices do not sound quite as refined, with the contributions of solo voices less pleasing. These Baroque pieces, in the monodic style of 17th-century opera and oratorio, add a dramatic element to the program but would likely be more pleasing in live performance, where one could see the singers as well as hear them (this disc reflects the Lessons and Carols concerts assembled by Hillier for his groups in recent years).

Biasio Tomasi’s agreeable but plain Dum deambularet sets the story of the fall of Adam and Eve (something that is more proper to Septuagesima and the pre-Lenten season than Advent); likewise, Alessandro Grandi’s Missus est Gabriel is a straightforward setting of the Annunciation dialogue between Gabriel and Mary; and the shepherds go to worship the infant Jesus in Giovanni Anerio’s clear-cut Voi ch’ai notturni rai. With the sound separated from the gestures and characterization of a semi-staged concert performance, there is little in these largely speech-like, no-frills settings to divert the ear.

There are enough reservations about this recording to disqualify it from a full endorsement, but it will undoubtedly make a good gift for someone who would not turn up their nose at traditional carols and yet be open to hearing some more interesting historical music appropriate to the sentiment of the season at the same time.

29.9.11

Rediscovered Opera by Terradellas

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 28, 2011.

available at Amazon
D. Terradellas, Sesostri, re d'Egitto, Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara,
J. B. Otero

(released on September 13, 2011)
RCOC Records 1102.3 | 65'20"
Domènec Terradellas (1713-51) was a Spanish composer who left his Barcelona home to make his fortune in Italy, first as a student at the Conservatory in Naples and then for a short tenure at the church of San Giacomo e San Ildefonso degli Spagnoli in Rome. He had a few operas performed in Rome (as well as other cities, including Naples, Florence, and London), although evidence of them and their musical sources is scarce. The Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara has released this premiere recording of one of those operas, his last, Sesostri, re d’Egitto, performed at the Teatro Alibert o delle dame in Rome in 1751, the year of the composer’s death. It received one other known performance, back in the composer’s native Barcelona, at the Teatre de la Santa Creu, in 1754.

The libretto, written by Apostolo Zeno and adapted by Pietro Pariati, is as complicated a story as one expects of an 18th-century Neapolitan opera. It concerns the backstabbing politics of the royal succession in Egypt, following the assassination of Pharaoh Aprio and his five sons by their prime minister, Amasi. The youngest son, Sesostri, is saved by a faithful noble, Fanete, who raises the boy in secret while continuing to serve Amasi, who has become Pharaoh.

When the opera begins, Fanete persuades Sesostri to kill Amasi’s illegitimate son, Osiri, and then assume his identity -- the motive is revenge, and so accordingly Fanete reveals to Sesostri his true parentage. Amasi, frustrated in his plan to wed Nitocri, the widow of the murdered pharaoh, instead sets his sights on Artenice, Fanete’s daughter, with whom Sesostri has fallen in love. Orgonte, Fanete’s servant, then informs Fanete that Osiri’s guardian has not been killed, as previously thought, and that they are in danger of the plot against Amasi becoming known. In an attempt to disguise the deception and prevent it being discovered, Fanete tells Artenice that the young man she is in love with is actually Osiri.

If you are lost already, take heart: this is only the end of the first act, and the plot does not become any clearer. All of these mistaken identities set up the dramatic crises of the story, leading Nitocri to agree to marry Amasi, if he vows to kill the man she believes to be Osiri, who is actually her youngest son. Amasi saves his fictional son from Nitocri’s plot to kill him, and orders the doppelgänger Osiri to execute her. And so on…. In the end, thanks to many dramatic near-escapes, no one is executed, and the Egyptian people rise up, deposing Amasi and restoring Sesostri to the throne. Fortunately, comprehension of the plot is not a prerequisite to enjoy the lovely music.

Although almost completely forgotten today, Terradellas was considered by his peers to be one of the best composers of the Neapolitan style, noted by both Charles Burney and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, as rightfully belonging in the company of Porpora, Hasse, Galuppi, and Jommelli. He wrote the type of Italian opera that was critical to the formation of the young Mozart’s ears. One of the places I listened to this recording was sitting at the desk in my office, and many colleagues poked their heads in to find out what it was, a sure sign that the style has broad appeal. None of them, of course, had ever heard of Terradellas.

Sesostri is the middle installment of a Terradellas trilogy planned by RCOC director, Juan Bautista Otero: Artaserse was released in 2009, with Merope scheduled as the third volume. Otero leads a small, lithe ensemble of strings, brass, winds, and percussion, with continuo harmonization realized with expert flexibility on harpsichord, with occasional use of chamber organ. The cast is generally fine, led by tenor Kenneth Tarver in a heroic performance as the villainous Amasi. As his mentor, Fanete, Tom Randle has a more baritone-like sound, which helps to balance out this decidedly treble-heavy opera, with the rest of the roles -- some of which were probably intended for castrati -- given to sopranos.

The richest female sounds come from Raffaella Milanesi, as the servant Orgonte, and the viscous, full-bodied Nitocri of Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Lighter soprano Sunhae Im, the only singer who was also featured on the earlier recording of Artaserse, is a little acidic and nervous as Sesostri, turning shrill at the top, although this is at least partially due to overly close miking of all the singers, placing the intensity of Tarver’s voice at loud moments, for example, at a level near discomfort in close listening.

Ditte Andersen, as the perpetually confused Artenice, has an intense and focused tone in slow passages, like the middle section of the gorgeous show-stopping aria ‘Se si trova in lacci stretto’, which concludes the first act. When the tempo speeds up in the outer sections, however, a nervous edge creeps in to her vibrato, making the tone squeeze and strain flat at the top of her voice. More of the background of the room in the mix might have fixed some of these issues with the singers, but this is still highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of opera before Mozart.

The music is worth discovering, and the high cost of this three-disc set on the RCOC’s own label (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) includes an extensive booklet containing an essay about Terradellas by Otero, and full texts and translations in Catalan, Italian and English.

28.9.11

NSO Opens Its New Season



See my review of the season opening gala concert from the National Symphony Orchestra:

National Symphony Orchestra’s Season-Opening Gala Performance (The Washingtonian, September 27):

available at Amazon
Bruch / Mendelssohn / Mozart, Violin Concertos, J. Bell, ASMF, N. Marriner / English Chamber Orchestra, P. Maag
In cultural terms, the bad economic climate has spared Washington, which has lost neither its opera company nor its most important local orchestra, both now permanently associated with the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra, in fact, ended up with a new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, who led a remarkably good debut season last year. The continued generosity of local patrons of the arts has made possible the extension of Eschenbach’s contract with the NSO, for two more years, at least through the 2014-15 season. David Rubinstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, has also donated a large sum of money to purchase and install a new theater organ in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The old organ, one of the most notoriously bad and unreliable instruments in the city, will be replaced some time next year. Both of these announcements were the centerpiece of Sunday night's NSO season-opening gala performance, in celebration of both the NSO’s 80th anniversary and the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy Center.

Musical stars were on hand to mark the event and dazzle the high-powered audience. The evening started with violinist Joshua Bell, who played the latest of umpteen performances of Max Bruch’s jewel-like first violin concerto. (This past week alone, he has performed the piece at season openers and gala performances in Colorado and Dallas, all part of the jet-setting schedule of a performer at Bell’s level.) It’s a piece of angelic sweetness, Bell’s specialty. He excelled at the tender themes of the first and second movements, drawing them out with an attention to arching line and purity of intonation and tone color. At the podium, Eschenbach kept the level of the orchestra carefully calibrated to Bell’s sound, never covering him, but also giving a much-needed energy boost to the fast concluding movement. Gasps of excitement filled the auditorium when Bell announced that he would play one of his most famous encores, the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs. The piece is a syrupy concoction that is played so often and so poorly -- not here. Bell gave a performance that was light on the sugar but filled with a tender nostalgia. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Anne Midgette, With much to celebrate, NSO does just that (Washington Post, September 27)

27.9.11

Final Thoughts on 'Tosca'



See my review of the second cast in Washington National Opera's production of Tosca:

Final Thoughts on Washington National Opera’s “Tosca” (The Washingtonian, September 26):

Puccini’s Tosca, the first production of the new Washington National Opera, now under the auspices of the Kennedy Center, was something of a dud. It would be unfair to expect that the merger with the Kennedy Center would instantly solve the struggling company’s problems, however, and the next three productions, all firmly under the more expert baton of WNO’s excellent new music director, Philippe Auguin, hold greater promise. The one encouraging note from this Tosca came in an unexpected place, the second-cast Cavaradossi of Gwyn Hughes Jones, heard late in the run on Friday night. The Welsh tenor made a brilliant Washington debut, singing this demanding role with far greater grace, beauty, and dramatic appeal than his first-cast counterpart.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the ease and power of the top of his voice, Hughes Jones started singing as a baritone. The placement of the voice is forward, producing a slightly nasal tone that was sometimes exacerbated by the decidedly Welsh color of some of Hughes Jones’s vowels as he sang in Italian. He sang Cavaradossi, a role that is often rendered with little nuance, with vigor and solidity but also with pleasing sensitivity. His rendition of the big aria, E lucevan le stelle, was melancholy and anguished in gestures both vocal and physical, with an exquisite decrescendo on one critical high note that was artful and affecting. He may not be quite the body type favored by more and more opera directors, in an opera world now so regrettably obsessed with film simulcast and camera closeups, but that is easily overlooked in an art form where vocal concerns should drive casting (but, sadly, often do not). [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Tim Smith, Patricia Racette shines in Washington National Opera's 'Tosca' (Baltimore Sun, September 15)

26.9.11

Friday Morning Music Club's Festival of Hope

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See my review of the anniversary concert presented by the Friday Morning Music Club in today's Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Volunteer singers’ enthusiasm marks Friday Morning Music Club’s anniversary
Washington Post, September 26, 2011

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Elias, E. Ameling, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, W. Sawallisch
The performance of music at the highest level is made possible by music devotees who are not professionals: the volunteer church choir singers and other amateurs who learn and perform music just because they love it. The oldest group of such lovers of music in Washington, the Friday Morning Music Club, will mark its 125th anniversary next month. The club celebrated Saturday afternoon with a concert in its new home, Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown, itself celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Formed by women who enjoyed performing music in one another’s homes, the FMMC now sponsors major competitions and events, among other projects, to support young people finding their way into music careers. The Festival of Hope, a musical memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, brought together volunteer musicians from FMMC and Calvary along with an honors choir of 25 high school singers. In sound, it was an endeavor distinguished more by the participants’ sincerity and enthusiasm than by musical refinement.
[Continue reading]

available at Amazon
The Great Composers: Reviews and Bombardments, G. B. Shaw, ed. Louis Crompton
Thinking about this performance sent me back to George Bernard Shaw's delightfully sharp take on Mendelssohn's oratorios: "There is no falling off in the great popularity of Elijah. This need not be regretted so long as it is understood that our pet oratorio, as a work of religious art, stands together with the pictures of Scheffer and Paton, and the poems of Longfellow and Tennyson, sensuously beautiful in the most refined and fastidiously decorated way, but thoughtless. That is to say, it is not really religious music at all." Shaw was even harsher about St. Paul: "Set all that dreary fugue manufacture, with its Sunday-school sentimentalities and its Music-school ornamentalities, against your recollection of the expressive and vigorous choruses of Handel. [...] Then blame me, if you can, for objecting to people pestering mankind with Mendelssohnic St. Pauls and Gounodic Redemptions and Parrysiac Judiths and the like, when one hardly ever hears Jephtha or a Bach cantata. But of what use is it to complain? If my cry were heeded [...] they would straightway kidnap five or six thousand choristers, put Israel in Egypt into rehearsal; and treat me to a dose of machine thunder in the Handel orchestra."

25.9.11

In Brief: Season Opening Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • available at Amazon
    Bach, Keyboard Works, A. Hewitt
    Listen to Angela Hewitt's recital, of Bach and Chopin, at the Wigmore Hall. [France Musique]

  • Watch the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris perform Sibelius's Pelléas et Mélisande and Poulenc's La Voix humaine. [Cité de la musique]

  • Hear the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France play Bruckner's sixth symphony, in the Salle Pleyel. [France Musique]

  • The new Music Center in Helsinki was opened with a concert of music by Sibelius, which you can watch. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien play music by Szymanowski, Philippe Hersant, and Beethoven at the Pavillon des Azalées des Serres d'Auteuil. [France Musique]

  • Watch some of the competing young conductors in the 52e Concours International de jeunes chefs d’orchestre de Besançon. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Pianist Sun-Young Nam and Ensemble Linea play a program of Xenakis, Dorokhov, Stockhausen, and Hanna Eimermacher, at the Abbaye de Royaumont. [France Musique]

  • The Vox Luminis ensemble performs sacred music by Purcell at the MidSummer Festival. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Daniele Gatti leads the Orchestre National de France, in Enescu, Debussy, and Dukas, at the Théâtre du Châtelet. [France Musique]

  • Later this week, there will be online video of Pierre Boulez conducting Pli selon pli with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. [ARTE Live Web]

24.9.11

Baroque Music from Four Nations at the Freer



See my review of the Four Nations Ensemble at the Freer Gallery of Art:

Music from Four Nations at the Freer (The Washingtonian, September 20):

available at Amazon
Leclair, Violin Sonatas, First Book,
F. Biondi, R. Alessandrini
Once in a while, music finds its way to a near-ideal performer. This is exactly what happened last night with the pieces performed by soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, in a free concert with the Four Nations Ensemble at the Freer Gallery of Art. The local soprano sounded at her best, with a silvery tone of faultless intonation and slender accuracy, beautifully suited to the museum’s small Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium. The purity of the voice was featured most simply, and beautifully, in an unaccompanied performance of Dividido el Corazon, a solo chant-like song composed in the New Mexican missions in the 18th century that is an impassioned lament by the Virgin Mary over the death of her son.

The programming concept was to bring together music of European-trained composers in the 17th and 18th centuries, from four different parts of the world—Europe, Latin America, the American colonies, and China. Lamoreaux also gave a light-footed dancing quality to the South American villancico by Alonso Torices, Toca la flauta, a charming little piece accompanied somewhat rustically by cello, flute, and violin. Plus the director of the Freer’s concert series, Michael Wilpers, pressed into service to beat the tambourine (unfortunately not always in sync with the often complicated beat). The Arcadian cantata O Daliso, by Domenico Zipoli, an Italian composer transplanted late in life to Argentina as a Jesuit missionary, was enlivened especially by Lamoreaux’s impeccable theatrical sense. However, the first aria in the piece, Per pietade, seemed to be paced too quickly for the sighing motifs to sound much like sighs. Three songs of Philadelphia-based composer Benjamin Carr were likewise saved from insipid sentimentality by Lamoreaux’s wry but also sincere approach. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Cecelia H. Porter, Going for baroque at the Freer (Washington Post, September 24)

23.9.11

Son of Chamber Symphony: It's Alive

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See my review of a new recording of the string quartet and second chamber symphony of John Adams, in the Sunday Arts section of the Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, John Adams’s String Quartet outshines his ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’ on new CD
Washington Post, September 25, 2011

available at Amazon
J. Adams, Son of Chamber Symphony / String Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, St. Lawrence String Quartet, J. Adams

(released on May 31, 2011)
Nonesuch 523014-2 | 54'
In 2007, American composer John Adams said he was working on a follow-up to his “Chamber Symphony,” composed in 1992. He joked then that he was thinking of calling it “Son of Chamber Symphony,” which has a much better ring for a sequel than the more pedestrian “No. 2.” The name stuck, and “Son of Chamber Symphony” made its premiere later that fall.

The title makes explicit the parentage of the later work, and in this case it may be a little too much of “like father, like son.” The elder “Chamber Symphony” was a rock-fueled bacchanal in the outer movements, paced by the trap set, with cowbell-smack echoes of Bernstein’s “Mambo” in the first movement, “Mongrel Airs.” (That movement was named “to honor a British critic who complained that my music lacked breeding,” as Adams famously put it, so I had better choose my words carefully.) As with so much of Adams’s music, one has the sense of a sort of mathematical schema in both works, a set of patterns in each movement, wound up like a clock mechanism and allowed to tick to its conclusion. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Robert Baird, Recording of September 2011: Son of Chamber Symphony (Stereophile, September 1)

Christopher Abbot, John Adams, Son of Chamber Symphony on Nonesuch (Fanfare, August 20)

Robert Battey, St. Lawrence Quartet impresses with new Adams, Viñao (Washington Post, December 7, 2009)

Mark Swed, John Adams has a 'Son' that he can be proud of (Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2007)

22.9.11

From the 2011 ARD Competition, Days 12, 13, 14, and 15



September 10th, Trumpet Finals with the Munich Radio Orchestra, Herkulessaal

In many ways, the final for the trumpets at the ARD Music Competition was the most pleasant of all the performances of the event: Three times the Bernd Alois Zimmermann 1954 Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See”† after the spiritual of the nearly same name. That meant 45 minutes net music with the Munich Radio Orchestra (not to be mistaken for the BRSO, but also part of the Bavarian Broadcasting family) under the musical and pleasingly unfussy leadership of the young Rasmus Baumann (*1973) at the Herkulessaal before being allowed back home again. Brevity, that great underrated pleasure of classical music in general and concerts in particular! Frontrunner Manuel Blanco Gómez-Limón (Spain), Alexandre Baty (France, future principal trumpet of the RCO), and dark-horse finalist Ferenc Mausz (Hungary) each performed the concerto with great success. Assured and rhythmical Gómez-Limon, bluesy-but-reticent Baty, and trying and with positive struggle Mausz. No one complained when they were given first, second, and third prizes in that order, with Mausz cleaning up the audience prize presumably because he made the Concerto most immediately felt of the three. One of the more interesting special prizes went to another trumpeter: Simon Höfele got the “Under 21” prize; he had particularly pleased me when I heard him during the second round on Day 6.

Originally the concerto was called “Darkey’s Darkness”, but when it was pointed out to the alliteration-admiring Bernd Alois Zimmermann that “Darkey” had a connotation—even or especially in 1954—that he surely didn’t intend to convey, the composer changed the name to the slightly modified version of the spiritual’s title. You can find a performance of the work on YouTube.


September 11th, Piano Finals with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonie, Gasteig

If only the final of the piano competition had been nearly as satisfying an event. Instead they were an example of how much of a drudge competitions can be. Admittedly I was in poor mood and shape when I attended, but even after trying to deduct those influences on my perception, the result was still a bore-fest. Not that Da Sol Kim’s (South Korea) interpretation of the Third Rachmaninoff Concerto wasn’t technically impressive: it was rather! But one felt tempted to repeat the famous quote from Amadeus: Too many notes. And to what purpose? It sounded better, in retrospect, because Eun Ae Lee (also South Korea) Beethoven Third Concerto sounded worse. Blasé, although powerful. After the break one could sense that the audience responded a lot more to Alexej Gorlatch’s (Ukraine) interpretation of the same concerto; I, alas, only heard a different, more sophisticated kind of boring… and didn’t hear anything truly musical until Tori Huang (USA) performed Chopin’s e-minor Concerto op.11 – with such natural ease and confidence that it sounded to me in a different league. The resolute first and lyrical second movement in particular, quite different from another, charmed me sufficiently to turn an evening long frown into a faint smile.

The performance, along with her other three rounds, brought her a much deserved Second Prize; Gorlatch took First and the Audience’s seal of approval; Da Sol Kim was given a Third Prize as well as the Munich Chamber Orchestra’s Prize for his Mozart performance in the Semi Finals with them and the Alice Rosner Prize for his interpretation of Bela Bartók, Sonata Sz 80 in one of the earlier rounds. Gorlatch, meanwhile, cleaned up several of the gig-related prizes. Jury member Anatol Ugorski spontaneously gave out a special “Prize for an outstanding performance” to Mao Ishida (Japan) who must have done something very right in an earlier round but not advanced despite Mr. Ugorski’s (presumed) advocacy.

September 14th, Prize Winner Concert I with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Prinzregententheater

With all finals out of the way and three first, five second and five third prizes given away, the prize-winning musicians presented themselves to the audience once again in three concerts, two of which caught before treating myself to just a smidgen of contemporary fare at ULTIMA, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival. The first took place in the lovely Bayreuth-like Prinzregententheater, with the Munich RSO, and Rasmus Baumann conducting again. When the repertoire-issues among the oboists suggested Jean-Marie Leclair’s Concerto in C, op.7 no.3 as a desirable choice for Marc Lachat to play, Baumann agreed to learn the continuo part over night and led that very charming piece from the harpsichord. Charming, too, was Lachat’s interpretation, if not much more than that.

Ivan Podyomov brought his mature approach to bear on the Bohuslav Martinů Concerto for Oboe and small orchestra, a piece that encapsulates in microcosm the Martinů-Problem: Extraordinary appeal and beguiling means in close proximity to wearisome episodes. Fortunately much more of the former than the latter. Ferenc Mausz and Tori Huang gave repeat performances of their prize winning Zimmermann and Chopin concertos; interestingly neither as good as under the presumably more stressful competition conditions. Especially from the Mausz-Zimmermann-I’ve-won-so-now-I-can-play-however-I-want combination I had expected much more from… instead, it was a rather timid version that we got to hear. The differences were more subtle from Huang on Sunday to Huang on Wednesday, and at least the slow movement was as delicious as ever.

September 15th, Prize Winner Concert II with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, Great Hall of the Music Academy

The second prize winner concert opened and closed with the solo organ. Anna-Victoria Baltrusch, who in the semis had presented a rather stiff interpretation of the ARD commissioned work for solo organ, Arabesques pour orgue by Naji Hakim (successor of Messiaen as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité). Lukas Stollhof opened with Bach’s Trio Sonata in G, BWV 530, but for all the beauty of Bach, it was a rather pedantic, correct effort, not an in any way inspired one. Cristina Gómez Godoy’s lovely Mozart Concerto (for the interpretation of which during the semi-final she received a special prize from the artistic director of the competition, Axel Linstädt) was sabotaged by an accidentally live monitor on stage that whispered a radio broadcast or back-stage chatter into all the concertos soft moments. Da Sol Kim also encored his semi-finals Mozart performance (KV459) and Alexandre Baty did the same with his Haydn Concerto for Trumpet… a nice enough performance but not half as interesting as the fine, retro-ish brow pinstripe suit he wore.


Photos of Trumpet finalists & jury and Piano Competition Prize Winners courtesy ARD Music Competition, © Dorothee Falke

21.9.11

Paul Agnew: 'The treat is only sound'

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See my review of the recital by Paul Agnew and friends, at La Maison Française, in today's Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Music review: Les Arts Florissants
Washington Post, September 21, 2011

available at Amazon
H. Purcell, Divine Hymns, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie
“Music for a while / Shall all your cares beguile,” as English poet John Dryden put it, but who shall beguile the cares of the musicians? Shortly after the Scottish tenor Paul Agnew had sung Henry Purcell’s setting of that text, in a beguiling concert at La Maison Française on Monday night, the harpsichordist accompanying him, Beatrice Martin, felt faint and asked her colleagues to pause the concert in the middle of a dance from Purcell’s G Minor Suite.

Martin and her colleagues, viola da gamba player Anne-Marie Lasla and theorbist Thomas Dunford, recently arrived in the United States with Les Arts Florissants, to perform what is by all accounts a magnificent revival of Lully’s “Atys” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Up to that point, no audible sign of fatigue was evident in Martin, and after the group took an impromptu intermission and reorganized the second half, she played with the same precision and passion as in her magnificent performance at the French Embassy last year. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Allan Kozinn, It’s Not Easy to Be a Goddess’s Boy Toy (New York Times, September 19)

Charles T. Downey, Ensemble Les Folies Françoises plays with vivacity at La Maison Francaise (Washington Post, March 18, 2010)

Opera in the Outfield



See my preview of Washington National Opera's Opera in the Outfield, scheduled for tomorrow night:

Take Me Out to the Opera (The Washingtonian, September 20):

Washington National Opera’s current production of Tosca, reviewed last week, may not be worth the expense of seeing it at the Kennedy Center. However, it could still be considerable fun to view it for free and in a completely different context, say, while reclining on the field of Nationals Park. In what has become an annual tradition, Opera in the Outfield will offer Washingtonians a chance to experience Thursday night’s performance of Tosca, when it is beamed in a live simulcast to the big screen in the baseball stadium. This event on September 22 is free and open to the public.

The time for preregistration for this event has come and gone, but walk-ins will be directed to remaining space in the stands or on the field—note that only blankets, not portable chairs, are allowed on the field. The opera begins at 7:30 PM, but you can arrive as early as 5:30 PM, to experience various activities leading up to the simulcast, including performances by community groups, a screening of the classic Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?, and more.
[Continue reading]

20.9.11

Cappella Gloriana's Renaissance Christmas

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 20, 2011.

available at Amazon
A Renaissance Christmas,
Cappella Gloriana, S. Sturk

(released on July 19, 2011)
CDBY | 69'49"
September is not too early to begin thinking about giving Christmas music as a season gift, but this new disc from Cappella Gloriana, an a cappella, mixed-voice choir based in San Diego, California that celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, is not an ideal choice.

The selection of music is worthy, with a bouquet of Christmas motets by a range of Renaissance composers set around the central jewel of the remarkable Missa Quaeramus cum pastoribus by Cristóbal de Morales, a gifted Spanish composer active in the first half of the 16th century. This setting of the Latin Mass Ordinary, based on Jean Mouton’s motet of the same name, is still available in a superior version by James O’Donnell and the Westminster Cathedral Choir on an admirable disc released by Hyperion in the 1990s, when it was paired, as it is here, with Mouton’s motet. While the Westminster disc does not program the Mass with other Christmas motets, it would still make a better Christmas gift.

Under the direction of Stephen Sturk, Cappella Gloriana make some pretty sounds, and some pieces are better than others. These performances, however, are just not as beautiful in terms of balance, intonation and overall purity of sound as those of the best choirs available on disc today, like the Tallis Scholars, Stile Antico, Nordic Voices, Theater of Voices, or The Sixteen. Although recorded in favorable acoustics -- St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, and the Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California -- individual voices are heard too often in all sections (with some regrettable sounds from the tenors in the ‘Agnus Dei’ of the Morales, at around 2’45”, for example).

Nor does the ensemble intonation line up as it should, especially at entrances, where sections are not always at unity in the attack on new contrapuntal lines, with sopranos pulling sharp and male voices sinking flat. Most final chords settle into clean tuning, although dissonant beats sometimes take a short time to disappear. Harmonic structures within the contrapuntal texture do not coalesce as clearly as they should, or not at all.

Where the Westminster Cathedral recording of the Mass is spacious and reflective, Sturk’s half-hour-long reading opts for stronger rhythmic impetus, shaving a few minutes off the timing but also creating an almost breathless quality. In addition, there are some odd extraneous sounds (riser creaks? metal clinking?) in the first minute of Byrd’s O magnum mysterium, as well as awkward editing joins in the ‘Sanctus’ movement of the Mass (around 1’28”) and in the ‘Agnus Dei’ (around 4’24”).

Ten motets for Christmas and Marian feasts round out the disc, ranging from the familiar -- Victoria’s Quem vidistis pastores and Ne timeas Maria, Palestrina’s Alma redemptoris -- to less-often recorded works by Jacobus Gallus (more familiarly known as Handl) and Peter Philips. A motet by the Italian composer Francesco Corteccia, O regem caeli, is not known to me in any other recording, but it is not a sufficient reason to recommend this recording.

In addition, the disc is packaged in a simple cardboard sleeve, with minimal information on it. Full program notes and vocal texts are promised at the group’s website but were unavailable there at the time of this writing, which is the last entry in the list of reasons to give this recording a pass.

Kronos Quartet



See my review of the latest concert by the Kronos Quartet at Clarice Smith Center:

The Kronos Quartet at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (The Washingtonian, September 19):

available at Amazon
Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Kronos Quartet, F. Ali-Zadeh
(2005)
The Kronos Quartet -- the pioneering ensemble which opened the fifth year of its residency at College Park’s Clarice Smith Center on Friday night -- is a string quartet, but really it is not. The appeal of a traditional string quartet’s performance is in the appreciation of the warm tone of the four instruments. A small and intimate room, with a warm acoustic and a silent and attentive audience, is an essential part of this cult of beautiful sound, allowing the blend of four excellent musicians to reach your ear. Families and friends used to gather, and sometimes still do, to play string quartets in living rooms, but modern string instruments, with more resonant steel strings, can often overpower too small a room, just as they are lost in one too large. Washingtonians have many opportunities to hear this kind of concert in an optimal setting, for example, on the best historical instruments available, in the superb auditorium of the Library of Congress.

That is not what the Kronos Quartet does, and anyone with those expectations will be disappointed by their performances. A Kronos concert veers into the territory of theater, with lighting concepts, a fully darkened house, and atmospheric recorded tracks associated with many of the pieces they play. The musicians plug cords into their instruments, which amplify and otherwise transform the sound they produce. This was evident right from the start of this concert, when recorded sounds of dripping water opened Oasis (1998). The piece was an evocation of the allure of water in the desert, composed for the Kronos Quartet by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. The musicians imitated this sound with a pizzicato motif, disappearing as the piece grew over a gentle arc, marked with melodic references to traditional Azerbaijani scales, with the drips of water returning at the conclusion. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Tom Huizenga, Kronos Quartet at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (Washington Post, September 19)

Charles T. Downey, Reich WTC 9/11 (The Classical Review, September 12)

19.9.11

Big Bang of Alsop's Mahler 2

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See my review of the first program of the new season from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in today's Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Resurrection’ tops the Mahler memorials
Washington Post, September 19, 2011

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 2, C. Schäfer, M. DeYoung, Vienna Philharmonic, P. Boulez
The 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death was in May, apparently inspiring local orchestras to play the composer’s Second Symphony as many times as possible to celebrate the Mahler Year. On Saturday night at Strathmore, it was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s turn to play the “Resurrection,” in a performance that was not without its faults but still the best of several heard this year.

Music director Marin Alsop opened her season with an interpretation that bubbled with vivacity and force but, like the previous installments of her ongoing Mahler cycle with the BSO, tended to miss the forest for the trees. Alsop’s tempo choices were often distorted, such as overly slow funeral march sections in the first movement and an overly fast third movement. This mannered approach helped neither ensemble unity nor the sense of overall line through the symphony. Most successful was the delicate second movement, an unruffled, nostalgic Landler that bordered on the shmaltzy in its evocation of a memory of the world left behind. [Continue reading]
Other Mahler 2 performances this year:
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra | World Doctors Orchestra | Washington Chorus (finale, not reviewed) | National Philharmonic

SEE ALSO:
Tim Smith, Marin Alsop, BSO open season with Mahler's epic 'Resurrection' Symphony (Baltimore Sun, September 16)

Tosca Come Lately

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Washington National Opera.

Disappointment in the Washington National Opera’s Tosca on Friday, September 16th, was assuaged by the vocal excellence in the third act, when the pivotal relationship between the two lovers, Tosca and Cavaradossi, finally caught fire. Too little, too late, alas, to make the evening a success. In most other places, it was an adequate rendition, musically and vocally, but in an opera about passion it helps to have passionate people. They were missing till late in the second act.

There needs to be believable, fervent passion between Tosca (Patricia Racette) and Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones) to propel the drama, and in this respect, the first act fell flat. It brought me back to the way opera was done decades ago: stand there, belt, and don’t worry about the acting. How nice it might have been, had we been able to believe that the principals were actually in love. The music was effectively telling us that, but there were no sparks on stage to back that claim up.

In the first act Tosca came across as petulant and light-weight. The more Tosca is seen as a silly, jealous woman, the less effective the drama. I don’t know if this was her fault or director David Kneuss’, but Racette lacked the necessary gravitas. Several directorial miscues did not help. Why does Cavaradossi give an expressive sigh as if to say “thank God that’s over” when Tosca departs? That earns a giggle from the audience, but undercuts the credibility of his passion for her. (In fact, there were far too many laughs in the first act.) Should we be glad she has left, too?

When the Sacristan (Valeriano Lanchas) reveals details that will expose the recent presence of Angelotti in the church, why isn’t Scarpia (Scott Hendricks) fixated upon these remarks instead of casually walking around the church as if he weren’t listening? And why did Scarpia, in his turning away from God at the end of the first act (“Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!”), turn toward the Eucharistic exposition of the Benediction depicted upstage, instead of away from it as the dramatic situation demanded? Scarpia’s moment of evil triumph in the second act was ordinary—not malignant (much less satanic) enough to carry the weight of what he had done or provide the full measure of horror. These instances could be the result of directorial sloppiness, or acting deficiencies, or most likely both. They may be minor details, and I do not want to make too much out of any one of them, but I would not have noticed such things had I been convinced of the dramatic veracity of the larger whole.

This only began to happen just before Scarpia’s murder by Tosca late in the second act. Matters came alive at this point; everything coalesced and the singing in the last act was particularly fine. Racette and Jones sang beautifully together. Jones sings Cavaradossi for only three of the nine performances (one more time on the 23rd). In the Washington Post, Anne Midgette suggested tenor Frank Porretta was “strained” in the role on opening night; the same could certainly not be said of Jones’s soaring voice.

Hendricks, the Scarpia vis-à-vis Jones for those three performances (otherwise veteran Alan Held took and takes the role) looked, but did not completely act, the part. He sang well but was occasionally swamped by the orchestra. Racette was vocally stirring and showed plenty of emotion—at curtain call. Had only she deployed that emotion earlier in the evening—any time before Cavaradossi’s offstage torture scene during which her reactions began to be affectingly conveyed. Gymnastically, she took a rather spectacular leap off the parapet for her suicide at the end of act three. It was the sole moment of the evening that caught my breath. Midgette complained that Plácido Domingo’s conducting on opening night was so bad that it sabotaged the performances. Israel Gursky, an actual conductor and holding the baton on the 16th (he will also conduct tomorrow’s performance), did a perfectly adequate job. One plus in this production were the impressive sets by Ulisse Santicchi, borrowed from the Dallas Opera. For lovers of traditional opera, they must have been authentic looking in terms of period and suitably atmospheric. RRR

18.9.11

In Brief: Online Music Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • In online video this week, Sandrine Piau and Detlef Roth in Mozart duos with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [Cité de la musique Live]

  • Listen to Vivaldi's opera Farnace with Vivica Genaux, among others, and the ensemble I Barrochisti with Diego Fasolis conducting. [France Musique]

  • Hear Italian pianist Béatrice Rana, the winner of the first prize at this year's Concours de Montréal. [France Musique]

  • See how Leonard Slatkin is doing in his new position with the Orchestre National de Lyon, in a performance with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. [Medici.tv]

  • Daniele Gatti leads a performance of Mahler's ninth symphony, with the Orchestre National de France at the Théâtre du Châtelet. [France Musique]

  • Madrigals by Monteverdi, Diego Ortiz, and Adriano Banchieri with Ensemble Sagittarius at the Festival Sinfonia en Périgord. [France Musique]

  • More video, of Bach's Magnificat from the Festival d'Ambronay. [ARTE Live Web]

  • A rare Te Deum by Jan-Dismas Zelenka from the Festival de la Chaise-Dieu, with Collegium vocale 1704. [France Musique]

  • Listen to François-Frédéric Guy playing Franz Liszt's Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173, at the Festival de l’Eté musical d'Horrues. [France Musique]

  • Watch the winners of the ARD Competition in concert. [ARTE Live Web]

  • From the Festival de la Chaise-Dieu, Renaud Capuçon playing Korngold's violin concerto with the Orchestre du Festival de Gstaad. France Musique]

  • Listen to the Hagen Quartett, playing a concert in Schwetzingen. [France Musique]

17.9.11

Czeching In

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See my review of the latest concert from the Mutual Inspirations Festival in today's Washington Post:

Charles T. Downey, Czech Embassy celebrates 170th anniversary of Dvořák’s birth
Washington Post, September 17, 2011

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Moravian Duets, op. 32, Prague Chamber Choir
Czech composer Antonín Dvořák famously spent several years in the United States during the 1890s. The Embassy of the Czech Republic celebrates the connection — and what would be the composer’s 170th birthday — with a Mutual Inspirations Festival. The festival continued Thursday with a performance by members of Washington Musica Viva.

The Dvořák on the program was the “Moravian Duets,” op. 32. In these charming, simple pieces, Dvořák used the words of folk songs, mostly substituting his melodies and harmonies for the original music. They were instantly popular, and they have the same spring-meadow freshness today. Soprano Elizabeth Kluegel and mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman had an admirable blend of vocal tone color, important because the parts are often joined in pleasing harmonies. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Anne Midgette, Dvořák’s music to be celebrated in two-month festival (Washington Post, September 2)

Abingdon Plantation

When Central Park was created, in the middle of Manhattan, it was not an already empty space. One of the losses was an African-American village, currently being excavated and researched. There have been similar discoveries of this long-ignored part of American history only now receiving this sort of historical protection. Purely by chance, while returning a rental car to National Airport last month, I happened on a historical monument to what used to occupy most of the land of that airport, Abingdon Plantation, the birthplace of Nelly Custis Lewis, the adopted granddaughter of George Washington. In an easily missed space between two parking garages are the ruins of the main plantation building, which during the course of its history was owned by members of the Alexander family, for whom Alexandria is named. On the various markers placed there by the airport authority, the lineages of the owning families are displayed, but there is no mention if slaves lived there or not. One assumes that slaves were part of this plantation: the owner at the time of the Civil War served in the Confederate Army, although the Union occupied Alexandria and used it a base to take in slaves escaping the south. Alexandria was one of the farthest points north in the American slave trade before that. The Library of Congress has chilling photographs, available online, of slave pens in Alexandria, on the property of slave dealers Price Birch & Co., in the 1300 block of Duke Street.

American society (and government at all levels) needs to take steps to make sure that we save and protect as much historical information as we can about the history of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend highly enough the work that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has done, in programs aired on PBS, to help African-Americans learn about the history of their families going back into slavery -- and sometimes not. The Virginia Historical Society has recently taken a step in the right direction by launching a new database, called Unknown No Longer, "to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent." It is a work in progress at the moment, containing around 1,500 names, but there is much more information to be gained from scouring historical documents. More slaves were reportedly held in Virginia than in any other state.

Photo: "J. J. Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, S.C." (photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan), showing a group of black men and women in front of the slave quarters, Library of Congress

16.9.11

More Art Ramblings

So the de Kooning exhibit is a must, opening at the Museum of Modern Art on the 18th, but there's much more to see! As I was strolling around Chelsea, fashion week was in full fling. Skinny, chain smoking girls and boys where everywhere. Admittedly there where some stunningly beautiful girls mixed in, but what a freaky world they inhabit; that said, a fitting mix for the Chelsea art scene.

And speaking of art, Anne Neely's dripping, glowing, and otherwise manipulated paintings at Lohin Geduld brought me back for a second look. Very nice, complex surfaces. My Vermont neighbor Anne Pibal's small acrylic-on-aluminum wonders at Meulensteen are great: loving the washy backgrounds on some of them. Courtesy of the Pace Gallery, David Byrne has a huge bulging, inflatable earth sculpture with sound stuck in a garage on 28th Street? Lots of photo-ops with models when I was there.

Nick Cave is back at Jack Shainman with his new fashion week-friendly show, Forever-After. His sound suits, which he calls visual landscapes, camouflage the body, concealing race, gender, and class; they're amazing, beautifully crafted, yet as usual, a little creepy. The video of dancing suits is fun to watch. Digitally manipulated art can be cold and impersonal, and yes -- admit it -- we're all guilty sometimes. With new paintings at Jeff Bailey Kris Chatterson manages to manipulate his imagery and still keep his surfaces hands-on and painterly.

So many 9/11 tributes and I will admit I went underground this past week; however, Woodward Gallery has an interesting take, Charting Ground Zero: ten years after. The exhibit uses aerial shots with cartographic representation, laser imaging, and GPS tagging. It's as complex and impersonal as it sounds, until the image of the GPS locations of remains, fire equipment, and plane parts. Ten years later it's still unfathomable.

I think Alex Katz probably made a good decision moving from Pace to Gavin Brown. Not only is he now the big fish, but his paintings look great in the space. Nicole Etienne, at Sloan Fine Art, is all fantastical and dreamy: good shows, always worth a stop. Sloan's lease is up, and they may be moving to a new location -- watch their site. I happen to be quite proud of myself: I can finally find my way around the LES galleries without a map; well, I peek.

Loren Munk may be better known for his James Kalm Rough Cuts of gallery openings on his YouTube site, but his show up at Lesley Heller should qualify him as a master historian of the New York art world. His paintings or painted maps of the studio locations of art stars, both past and present, are quite thorough and entertaining. He could have a book in this somewhere or, maybe better, a game app.

Looking forward to Agnes Martin at Pace Gallery, opening the 15th, and Degas is coming to Boston. Brace yourselves, Beantown, the buses are coming!

15.9.11

The Full de Kooning

If ever there were a list for immigration, poster boy Willem de Kooning could be an honorable mention. He didn't immigrate as an established artist, as many Europeans did, fleeing World War II. He came in 1926, with a student's academic portfolio -- a good one -- in search of the long-legged American women he had been lusting for in the Netherlands. Those same caricatures that would later play such a powerful role in his most important paintings.

The Museum of Modern Art's new exhibit de Kooning: A Retrospective brings together an amazing collection of some 200 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture from 100 private and museum collections, tracing seven decades up to his last paintings of the late 1980s. It's a masterful feat of scouring and culling by curator John Elderfield and his team. Some desired works were too fragile to loan: one from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was too good to travel -- true story.



When we think of de Kooning and the image of the hard-drinking womanizer, he is part of a gang of guys associated with the New York School, which includes the serial womanizer Jackson Pollack -- the original mad men of the art world. Not like Picasso's embrace of women -- literally, as he would anything with a pulse -- de Kooning's depictions showed vulnerability, fear, mistrust; sexual confusion? I think so. I won't linger here as there are far more gifted interpreters than I here and here.

This is one of those must-see exhibits that will only be seen at MoMA. It's filled with rarely seen gems and, what's best for me, the drawings -- amazing drawings. Through de Kooning's drawings we get to see the master at work, always searching, always experimenting, never afraid of change; the immigrant's experience.


More images from the exhibit on my flickr. This Carol Vogel piece in the NY Times discusses the influences of  the era on the artist. The black and white series may have a Casper the Friendly Ghost connection.

14.9.11

World Doctors Orchestra: "With wings I will soar upwards"



See my review of the September 11 memorial concert by the World Doctor Orchestra:

World Doctors Orchestra (The Washingtonian, September 14):

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 2, C. Schäfer, M. DeYoung, Vienna Philharmonic,
P. Boulez
The World Doctors Orchestra, composed of physicians who are all devoted amateur musicians from around the world, came together in Washington last week for the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. It was both a concert honoring those who lost their lives in the twin towers and a benefit for Whitman-Walker Health. A local glut of other memorial concerts for the September 11 anniversary, most of them free, was likely the cause of the unfortunately large number of empty seats in the hall, but the idea behind the WDO certainly ennobled the undertaking. No one with discerning ears would ever have mistaken the playing of the group for that of a professional orchestra, but perfection of sound was not ultimately the point. Amateur musicians gave their time and talent with the goal of honoring those who died and of raising money to support a local healthcare cause.

The program of music selected was too long, making for an overtaxing three-hour concert, enough to do my head in at the end of a day full of heavy remembrance in Washington. It would have been preferable, surely, to cut the opening work: Barber’s beautiful but cliché-ridden Adagio for Strings, and perhaps also the Mozart violin concerto (Number Five in A major), thrown in for good measure. The light-hearted nature of the Mozart undermined the weightier message of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which was waiting in the second half.
[Continue reading]

This review is a Washingtonian exclusive.

From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 11

September 9th, Organ Finals, Part II

Playing on the grand 1985 Klais Organ of the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig, the four young organists Lukas Stollhof, Michael Schöch, Johannes Lang, and Anna-Victoria Baltrusch came together for the second part of the organ finale for four performances of the Hindemith Concerto for Organ and Chamber Orchestra, op.46 no.2 (1927), a.k.a. Kammermusik 7, not to be mistaken for his Concerto for Organ from 1962, as I found out when I looked at the score and the notes didn’t match what was being played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sebastian Tewinkel. They were an integral part of making the four performance continuously diverting, which is—not to take too much of a dig at Hindemith—a great compliment.

available at Amazon
P.Hindemith, Kammermusik,
Chailly / RCO
Decca


[FYI: Chailly is set to record a new set of Kammermusik with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.]
The first candidate of a day, especially when it involves a work one doesn’t know well and perhaps an instrument with which one isn’t on very intimate terms, serves largely to get to know both. That role fell to Lukas Stollhof, the oldest and most experienced of the candidates. He worked his way through a lively and pleasant first movement, with liberal—frankly distracting—use of the swell for dynamic variation. The second movement sounded like organ and orchestra mutually accompanying each other and with neither taking up the case of the music. At its best, it’s truly a chamber work for winds and organ, with the flute and oboe duetting with the organ, after which the rest of the winds and eventually the horns enter.

Michael Schöch put the performance into perspective. One of the students of Munich organ professor and member of the ARD competition’s jury, Edgar Krapp, he gave more of a pulse to the first movement, more rigor, and more horizontal pull which resulted in, ironically, a great flow. He dealt with dynamic issues through nicely subtle registration that eschewed abrupt blocks of sound… and his third movement showed first signs of humor, not pretentiousness as it had with the first candidate. The painfully obvious better registration might be considered a by-product home field advantage, though a (slightly sleazy) article in the local paper insinuated foul play by Krapp—who knows all three organs on which the candidates performed very well and whose students were very successfully in making the initial cut—and his fellow jury member from Munich, custodian of the Gasteig organ, Friedemann Winklhofer. Local storm in a teacup, for the most part.

Johannes Lang and Anna-Victoria Baltrusch are not students (former or current) of Krapp, nor overly familiar with the Gasteig’s (or Music Academy’s) organ, and their registrations were considerably better, too. The former still worked the first movement mainly through the swell, which I find off-putting, but the second movement was indeed “Very slow and very calm”, beautifully, subtly registered, with a nice give-and-take—albeit not quite as seamless and grayer, more homogenous than Schöch’s. The last movement, suggested ♪ = up to 184, was taken slower, with wit penetrating even into the registration. Mlle. Baltrusch substituted daring for wit, and threw herself at the first and third movement with buoyancy, meticulous registration work, and a stern, grand, brilliant ring to it, especially in the finale where the winds and brass of the chamber-sized Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sebastian Tewinkel must have felt the challenge. Her second movement—this the exception—was flexible, gentle, and slightly boring. The audience reacted with astonishment that their favorite, audience prize winner Lang, did not even receive a third prize which went to Stollhof. Second went to Mlle. Baltrusch, and the first—this one hardly controversial—to Schöch.

13.9.11

Thrilling 'Attila' from WCO



See my review of Washington Concert Opera's performance of Verdi's Attila:

Excellent “Attila” at Lisner Auditorium (The Washingtonian, September 12):

available at Amazon
Verdi, Attila, S. Ramey, C. Studer, N. Shicoff, La Scala, R. Muti
As previewed last week, Washington Concert Opera kicked off the opera season on Friday night with an outstanding concert performance of Verdi’s Attila. Like most early Verdi operas, the work has its dramatic and musical longueurs, but Attila already shows the composer’s finely honed sense of dramatic tension, with two particularly memorable entrances, for Attila and then for Odabella, in the first act. Even at this point in his career, Verdi was also striving to make Italian opera conventions, like always having a slow-paced aria (cavatina) followed by a fast-paced one (cabaletta), fit more convincingly into his opera’s dramatic structure. Certainly, when sung as well as it was in this performance, Attila can be an excellent night at the opera.

Bass-baritone John Relyea had the necessary snarl and vocal brawn for the title role, menacing but also showing greater range and variety in the dream scene, for example. Top billing, however, goes to soprano Brenda Harris, who gave a gutsy, sharp-edged, virtuosic rendition of Odabella, one of Verdi’s more demanding roles. The composer wrote for a dramatic soprano with sizzling voltage on the top, brute strength, and agility in fast passages, all of which Harris had in spades as well as a regal stage presence. She also had the other side of the package, giving Odabella’s gloomy slow aria in Act I a tender quality, with intense control over a silky pianissimo tone and overall excellent intonation. This is a voice to be reckoned with, although her recent and upcoming stage appearances, somewhat surprisingly, are mostly with smaller American companies. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Anne Midgette, Washington Concert Opera scores with Verdi’s ‘Attila’ (Washington Post, September 12)

Emily Cary, Relyea adds Attila to his list of operatic villains (Washington Examiner, September 8)

12.9.11

From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 10

September 8th. Piano, Semifinals with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) at the Herkulessaal

For a Mozart concerto to be played so well, by orchestra and soloist, that hearing it six times in a row wouldn’t be a dulling, cruel experience, it would have to be played… well… astonishingly well. I doubt I have heard it. Maybe Clifford Curzon or Ivan Moravec, with someone like Ferenc Fricsay or Karel Ančerl or Rafael Kubelik—to list the names that pop into my mind trying to come with the most musical, satisfying artists—would be able to pull in a hypothetical musical universe. It’s quite bad enough even just to hear three in a row, and that’s not because the MKO isn’t up to snuff or because Roope Gröndahl (Finnland), Eun Ae Lee (South Korea), or Tori Huang (US) are rubbish. They’re all in the semi final and fine pianists, the first-named with a no-nonsense, mature, unaffected approach. Subtle and perfectly pleasant, with elegance-through-simplicity in the slow movement, which seemed most notable in his performance of the Concerto No. 18 in B-flat, K.456. Yet the Finn with a Swedish name left something, that intangible ‘something’, missing from the concerto … a minor-yet-important fault he shared to some degree with all three renditions before the break.

available at Amazon
W.G.Mozart, Piano Concertos 17 & 18,
M.Perahia / ECO
sony


available at Amazon
J.Reubke, F.LisztSonata in c-minor, Ad nos,
Sir Simon Preston, Westminster Abbey Organ
DG


available at Amazon
M.Reger, Chorale Fantasias, op.52/2 et al.,
H.Feller, Reger Memorial Organ, St.Michael, Weiden
Oehms
The second performance came from Eun Ae Lee, one of two South Koreans left from the 18 (!) that started out in round one. Performing the rather lovelier G-major concerto, K.453, she took a more mannered but also a more nuanced approach which made for some very charming passages early on and the finest impression of these three overall, even if the slow movement was a wee bit overwrought. The third movement, much like the third, was unambiguously lovely.

Tori Huang, a wafer-thin Chinese-American and although of the complexion of rare porcelain, didn’t treat the Mozart (also the B-flat concerto) in the Dresden-China style either. (Thankgoodness!) More energetic than either of her predecessors, with a hint of flamboyancy, she came up with a notably compelling first movement—especially when compared to the other K.456 performance. There was pretty stuff in the third movement, too, but arguably more heat than light.

The main draw for attending the piano semi-finals (as any ARD semi final and in fact one of the best aspects of the whole undertaking) is, and was, the commissioned composition. The one written for the pianists came from Lera Auerbach this year. “Milking Darkness” sounds, no matter how different the interpretation, like Messiaen-meets-Silvestrov; it’s a pianistic, musical, playable composition that starts with an Adagio misterioso that also insists on being ‘ritmico’, like a little music box, perhaps. Eun Ae Lee took “ritmico” more seriously than “misterioso”, which was particularly notable after Mr. Gröndahl had done it the other way around… to considerably greater success. Tori Huang nearly achieved the perfect third way between steady-steady and ominously meandering, but was less concerned with the low and lowest dynamic markings of the work than her Finnish colleague. Her more robust approach offered yields of its own, but couldn’t, to these ears, surpass Gröndal’s way of milking “Milking Darkness”.

Organ, Finals Part 1, Grand Hall of the Academy of Music

With three more Mozart concertos threatening, the decision to bike over to the Academy of Music for the first—solo—part of the Organ finals, was easy enough. All the easier, since Jamie Bergin, for my ears the bright spot of the second round, had sadly not even made it into the semis. (Music’s loss, methinks, but surely no obstacle for his ensuing career.) The 140 minutes spent at the Herkulessaal with the pianos meant missing the first two candidates (German Lukas Stollhof in the Reger Fantasie & Fugue in d-minor and Austrian Michael Schöch in Julius Reubke’s Sonata, the “94th Psalm for solo organ”*), but catching the two candidates heard previously, Johannes Lang and Anna-Victoria Baltrusch. That constellation meant another personal favorite missing: Mlle. Metzger, particularly convincing in the first part of the semi final (which in the case of organ was already the second round), had not advanced.

Johannes Lang performed Max Reger’s Chorale Fantasia & Fugue op.52/2 (“Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme”), Anna-Victoria Baltrusch the next one in line, the Choral Fantasia op.52/3 (“Hallelijah! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud”). If anyone found himself sleeping at the Grand Hall, they certainly woke up to Lang’s Reger, given the full-out organ assault he unleashed between deceiving stretches of lull and whisper. The lowest pedal points struck literally rattled the cage and got assorted construction bits of the venue to hum. Anyone but an card-carrying organ-aficionado won’t often hear even the more popular Reger pieces, which makes judging a performance for lay ears so difficult. Did Lang brush parts of the music under the heavily registered carpet? Was there something that ‘isn’t done’? I like the occasional Reger and, perversely, have two complete sets of just the organ music, and could access a good dozen versions of op.52/2 via the Naxos Music Library. But still I felt at a professional loss, admiring ‘in private’, as it were, the gorgeously gentle register change and choice for the faint end of the Fantasia, and the very Bachian Fugue, played fresh, lively, not without mistakes but nice and—never to be underestimated as far as organ-appeal goes—loud. Mlle. Baltrusch’s Reger Fantasy has the more striking opening, distinct and distinctly registered. The erratic muting with the swell annoyed me more than anything else, otherwise the work, especially the Fugue, struck as well judged. All four participants would go on performing the Hindemith Concerto for Organ and Small Orchestra (a.k.a. “Kammermusik 7”) the next day at the large organ of the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig.


* A work Simon Preston much cherishes and one of his recordings he takes particular pride in, even if the affable, almost deferential but witty seventy-three year old probably wouldn’t use the word “pride” referring to anything regarding himself.