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30.11.11

What to Put under the Tree

Here at Ionarts Central it is Advent -- and not Christmas -- until the evening of December 24. One does need to think about presents at this time of year, however, and for that culture-loving person in your life, here are some gift ideas, a few discs and films I most enjoyed over the past year -- five each in the sacred music, secular music, and movie categories. A gentle reminder: if you buy something we recommend by clicking on the Amazon link provided, a part of the proceeds goes to support Ionarts. Happy shopping!

CHRISTMAS AND OTHER SACRED MUSIC
École de Notre-Dame: Mass for Christmas Day, Ensemble Organum, M. Pérès (Re-release, Harmonia Mundi)

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Celebrate the New Year with this exquisite recording, which was re-released this year at an excellent price. Since first hearing this disc, shortly after it was first released in 1985, I have recommended it to everyone who would listen as the most beautifully performed and ingeniously programmed cross-section of liturgical music in the Romanesque period. Rather than neatly divided ages of chant and polyphony, forms of the latter are found in written sources nearly as old as those containing the former. A compilation of pieces making up a Christmas Mass, this program mingles chant and polyphony -- ordinary, propers, tropes, parallel organum, and more complicated polyphony, all transcribed from original sources -- in a seamless way. The performances are just as stylish as the musicology behind them.
[READ REVIEW]


The Christmas Story, Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier (HMU 807556)
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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 -- is 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.
[READ REVIEW]


Sacred Music by Robert Parsons, The Cardinall's Musick, A. Carwood (Hyperion CDA67874)
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This is a recent release of beautifully recorded music by Robert Parsons (c. 1535-1572), a highly regarded composer who met an early death, by drowning in the River Trent, to be succeeded as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by none other than William Byrd. Not much music survives by Parsons (see this collection of online scores), but it has been recorded before, especially piecemeal for anthology-type discs. An Australian group, The Parsons Affayre, recorded all nine of the Latin pieces two years ago, but this recording includes all of those pieces, plus two brief works in English, and in better performances, for both the quality of singing and recorded sound. Like the image of Queen Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, on the cover, the choice to make this recording in the Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel Castle, which maintained its Catholic identity distinct from the local Anglican parish, underscores the music's Romish leanings.
[READ REVIEW]


Cherubini, Masses, Overtures, Motets, R. Muti, N. Marriner (re-release, EMI 6 29462 2)
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EMI marked the 150th anniversary of Cherubini's birth last year with this 7-CD set of mostly older recordings of Cherubini's Masses (only about half of what Cherubini finished, plus the two settings of the Requiem), overtures, motets (only a fraction of the two-score examples), and a few other miscellaneous pieces, priced to move at $30. Riccardo Muti's admiration for Cherubini is second to none, and these performances gleam with the loving care lavished upon them, with the Bavarian RSO, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. My own tastes would tend toward a performance on period instruments, like that of Boston Baroque, but it is difficult not to love these suave, heartfelt, Romantic (occasionally overblown) renditions. The Missa in F, dubbed the "Messe de Chimay" because it was composed after a visit to a village church in Chimay, where he was staying with the local prince, marks the beginning of the composer's late efflorescence in sacred music, after experiencing disappointment as an opera composer. In Chimay, Cherubini reportedly rediscovered his earliest training in counterpoint and the works of Palestrina, later writing a treatise on the subject.
[READ REVIEW]


A Worcester Ladymass, Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series 2166)
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We are great admirers of the singing of Trio Mediaeval, having reviewed these three Scandinavian women in concert in 2005 and 2008 and enjoyed their recordings. Their new disc returns to their best territory, late medieval polyphony juxtaposed with modern music, and their sound is as pristine as it ever was. This program is centered on some of the pieces of the so-called Worcester Fragments, a partial collection of music, mostly three-part polyphony, sung at Worcester Cathedral. The book was destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, cut up into pieces used to bind other books: the fragments were pieced back together and transcribed by musicologist Luther Dittmer from groupings at Oxford's Bodleian Library, with other shards of the manuscript still in the Worcester Cathedral Library. What makes this disc of interest, besides the refined, ethereal singing, is that it is a hypothetical reconstruction of a Mass for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, on August 15.
[READ REVIEW]



SECULAR
Streams of Pleasure, K. Gauvin, M.-N. Lemieux, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis (Naïve V 5261)
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Alan Curtis, after a lovely selection of duets from Handel's operas, with Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato (Virgin, 2004), has released a follow-up recording, this time of arias and duets from the English-language oratorios, dating from 1744 to 1750 (including the rarely heard Joseph and His Brethren and Alexander Balus). The results are equally hard to resist, especially with singing by two Ionarts favorites, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and soprano Karina Gauvin. Curtis's instincts in Handel, as usual, are spot-on, neither underplaying nor overselling the music's emotional punch. Minor pronunciation tics that mark the singers as non-native English speakers (the word "the" is a dead giveaway), but one can listen without the booklet texts and understand every word. Lemieux sings with forthright and broad tone, the chest voice burnished and full, and Gauvin is as shimmering and sparkling as ever. All the duets are carefully balanced between the two voices. Solo highlights include Lemieux's seraphic "As with rosy steps the morn" (Theodora) and Gauvin's heart-rending "Can I see my infant gor'd?" (Solomon).
[READ REVIEW]


D. Terradellas, Sesostri, re d'Egitto, Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara, J. B. Otero (RCOC Records 1102.3)
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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.
[READ REVIEW]


Manto and Madrigals, T. Zehetmair, R. Killius (ECM New Series 2150)
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Thomas Zehetmair is a serious violinist. He has the chops to play the war horse concertos but is known for playing meatier modern concertos by the likes of Karol Szymanowski, Leos Janacek, Heinz Holliger and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Like many of his adventurous recordings for the ECM label, Zehetmair’s new disc is not for the listener who cannot abide music more recent than Debussy. It will be a welcome diversion, however, for those who like to have their ears pulled in other, even uncomfortable directions. The four-dozen duos by Bartok are among the most famous works for violin duet, and Zehetmair and his wife, Ruth Killius (also the violist in the Zehetmair Quartet), play a youthful Bartok duo arranged for violin and viola. The score, reproduced in the booklet, with a thoughtful essay by Paul Griffiths, is 22 simple measures in G major for the first violinist. Turn the score upside down and it is to be read by the second violinist. It is an ingenious idea that makes for a pleasing little trifle when played.
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J. S. Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (HMC 902064)
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Joseph Kerman stands by the assessment of most specialists that Bach conceived The Art of Fugue -- and intended its performance -- for the harpsichord. As Kerman puts it quite wisely, "for this composer learned display was inseparable from practical performance" (p. 34). Many of the recordings we have enjoyed have been for keyboard instruments, like those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), André Isoir (organ), and Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord). In this recent recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the instrumentation changes with each movement, ranging from solo harpsichord or organ, to small chamber groups (string quartet, combinations of winds with brass or harpsichord), to the full ensemble. This is in line with some irresistible transcriptions of other Bach keyboard works, for various sizes of instrumental ensemble.
[READ REVIEW]


C. Brewer, Great Strauss Scenes, E. Owens, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, D. Runnicles (TELARC 31755-02)
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This disc had me with its opening sounds, Elektra's shriek ("Sei verflucht!" -- up to an earth-shattering B-flat) as Chrysothemis runs back into the house, frightened by her sister's plan to kill Klytämnestra. It makes for a dramatic introduction to the scene actually recorded, with Eric Owens' Orest appearing at the doorstep but only gradually being recognized by Elektra, some of the heroine's most sensuous, tender music in an otherwise rather disturbing opera. Like that opening wail, the excerpt ends on Elektra's ecstatic realization that Orest will act on her long-desired revenge against their mother. So much of the disc's appeal is contained in that first searing vocal flight: the force and power of Brewer's voice, in all of its unaccompanied glory and later glowing effortlessly through the amassed orchestra.
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DVD
The Debt, H. Mirren, J. Chastain, dir. J. Madden
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One of the worst criminals of the Holocaust, Josef Mengele, infamous for his medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, managed to avoid capture in South America until his death in 1979. The Mossad reportedly had a chance to abduct Mengele when he was in Argentina, but already had its hands full catching Adolf Eichmann. What if a team of Mossad agents had managed to capture and kill Mengele instead of letting him go? What if the story they told after the mission did not turn out to be quite true? This is the conceit of John Madden's new film The Debt, which follows three Mossad agents in the 1990s as they look back on their mission, in the 1960s, to abduct a Mengele-like Nazi war criminal -- Dieter Vogel, with the nickname "The Surgeon of Birkenau" -- from East Berlin.
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Jane Eyre, M. Wasikowska, M. Fassbender, dir. Cary Fukunaga
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As directed by Cary Fukunaga, in his first major feature after Sin Nombre, this is a stylish film that plays heavily on the ghost-story associations of the source novel, long on Gothic gloom and happily short on mawkish sentiment. There is nothing about the film as an adaptation of an over-adapted story that demands viewing, but it is beautifully shot (cinematography by Adriano Goldman), well acted, and the novel's long, sprawling narrative is convincingly streamlined. Anyone who enjoys watching English history pictures will enjoy this one, too. We are clearly going to be seeing more of the young, Australian-born actress Mia Wasikowska, last noted as a relative newcomer and the best part of The Kids Are All Right. Now she has the title role in Jane Eyre, and her performance and look are quite similar to that of Ruth Wilson in the 2006 TV series: with hair framing her face too close and an emotionless pallor, one might forget how pretty Wasikowska really is. She brings the same impassive calm she had in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland, with emotional reserves that lurk just around corners.
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Copie conforme (Certified Copy), J. Binoche, W. Shimell, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
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[Blu-Ray]
At an English writer's book reading in Tuscany, we see a mother, unnamed, and her son, Julien, who go off to have lunch but leave information for a meeting afterward. The language of the conversation shifts, only one of many things in the film that are not necessarily as they seem. As the mother, Juliette Binoche (who won Best Actress prize at Cannes last year) switches easily between French, English, and Italian; her son, the German-born Adrian Moore, speaks impeccable French; and British baritone William Shimell speaks English and (we learn later) French. Miller meets the woman at her antiques shop, and they set off in her car for the hill town of Lucignano and its Museo Civico, on a voyage that consists of little more than the two of them driving, walking, and talking in squares and cafés. What exactly is going on between the two of them, and how reality can shift from one thing to the next, is for the viewer to determine. Are we looking at a copy or the original?
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Of Gods and Men, L. Wilson, M. Lonsdale, dir. Xavier Beauvois
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We took note of Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux when it was released in France last year. The film, a retelling of the story of the assassination of a group of monks in Algeria in 1996, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Catholic dioceses around France sponsored screenings of the film, followed by discussions of the film to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue. The monastery featured in the film, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, was established by the Trappists near the village of Lodi, itself founded by French colonists in the agricultural region of Tibhirine. It was only a priory in the late 20th century, and its prior, Frère Christian de Chergé, led a faith exchange between Christians and Muslims. Played with solemn intellect by Lambert Wilson, he guides the monks in his care as the civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government worsens, making the threat to the safety of the monastery more and more imminent.
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Rabbit Hole, N. Kidman, A. Eckhart, dir. J. C. Mitchell
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This is likely the best Oscar-nominated film from last year that you did not see. Nicole Kidman received a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Kidman's company bought the movie rights to the play, and she is also credited as producer), for her portrayal of Becca, a woman who is struggling to bear the worst loss imaginable: her young son ran into the street in front of their house, chasing his dog, and was struck by a car. Kidman's performance is the strongest of the nominees for the award (with Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine also in the running), but the media attention paid to Black Swan is likely to swing the voting to Natalie Portman [and indeed did so -- Ed.]. No less moving is Aaron Eckhart as Becca's husband, Howie, who helplessly watches his wife retreat into a Stepford Wife-like coldness and is tempted by a kindred spirit (Sandra Oh) at their support group. Finally, there is the screenplay, which plays its cards so subtly and with so few cliches that it would be a shame to spoil any of its details.
[READ REVIEW]

29.11.11

It's Time for the M-Word Again



Charles T. Downey, Where to Catch “Messiah” in the Washington Area This December
The Washingtonian, November 29:

While Handel’s Messiah has become a Christmas tradition over the years, quite why it has is puzzling, since the oratorio, an assemblage of texts from the Bible, is focused primarily on the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, making it generally more appropriate for Easter. However, a holiday tradition it is, so here are your options if you wish to hear Messiah this December. You never know—you could witness something along the lines of the most epic mistake ever heard in the Hallelujah chorus for your trouble.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, December 2 and 3, Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore
Edward Polochick conducts, with the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale, and Karen Clift, Krisztina Szabó, Nicholas Phan, and Stephen Powell as soloists. It’s a fairly long trip from Washington, but the acoustics at the Meyerhoff are some of the best in the region. $20 to $65. [Continue reading]
Background on Messiah -- The King's College M-Word (Ionarts, December 26, 2009)

28.11.11

For Your Consideration: 'Contagion'

From Boccaccio's Decameron to any number of cinematic thrillers, we love to worry about what it would be like to live through a plague. Recent history's deadly bugs, from smallpox to AIDS to Ebola, are natural targets for our anxiety, but history has shown that it may be influenza that gets us. This is the premise of Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Contagion, and it is so effective precisely because it has what the best films on this subject so far had -- 1971's The Andromeda Strain is my favorite in the genre -- but also because Soderbergh treats his story in disturbingly clinical fashion, even as the death toll mounts into the millions. Although Contagion is no longer in first run, it was actually more frightening to watch this movie over the Thanksgiving weekend, because that is when the flu outbreak occurs in Contagion, with the devastating disease mounting in numbers killed through Christmas. It did not help that members of my family were coming down with the inevitable cold symptoms of this time of year.

The screenplay has been whittled down to a taut 106 minutes by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), leaving little room for much personal emotion from a sprawling cast of characters, and Soderburgh has bleached most of the color from the screen, leaving the harsh white light of the ER or examining table. A chilling score of impersonal, synthesized music by Cliff Martinez, a regular collaborator of Soderburgh's, rounds out the picture of something that is happening outside of human concerns. Anyone looking for gripping drama as the human race heroically confronts the deadly pestilence is going to be disappointed: no race against the clock, no pithy one-liners, no pulse-racing music. It is typical of this film that the horror of the illness caused by the deadly flu virus is communicated by a minute or so of terrifying paroxysms it causes in the bodies of two actors, Gwyneth Paltrow, as the Patient Zero who comes back to Minneapolis from a trip to Hong Kong infected, and her character's young son (Griffin Kane).


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The scope of the film, however, goes far beyond any one individual, such as Paltrow's slightly hapless husband (Matt Damon), who manages to survive and puts all of his effort into protecting his daughter (a pleasing Anna Jacoby-Heron) from meeting the same fate. In almost documentary style, as if to make a case for the importance of vaccination, the camera sweeps around the world, taking in a community in China and an official with the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard), a lead doctor at the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne), a CDC worker in the field (Kate Winslet), and a rogue blogger (Jude Law) who complicates the scientific response to the outbreak with dubious information. Soderbergh and Burns marshal all of these stories with admirable concision and clarity, tagging the various locations with grimly efficient subtitles.

The most moving part of Boccaccio's Decameron is not the many charming, smutty stories told by the brigata, indulging in escapism in their villas outside Florence, but the shocking personal account of what Florence was like in 1348, when the bubonic plague killed half of the people, or more by some reckonings, who lived there. Boccaccio, who lost his father, his step-mother, and many other people in his life to the plague, describes more or less exactly what happens in the film to American cities: public order disintegrates as lawlessness goes unchecked, citizens run after false cures in panic, and the dead go unburied. The worst, most selfish parts of human nature are on display. The only difference is that we in the 21st-century world have at least some hope that a medical cure will be found. In Contagion, that hope is centered on pragmatic scientists, played by the no-nonsense Jennifer Ehle and a rather goofy Demetri Martin, and the film will hopefully make the American electorate think twice about the ramifications of certain cuts to the federal budget.

This movie is still being shown at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, including on a $1 special tonight.

27.11.11

In Brief: And With Your Spirit Edition

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

  • From the Böllenfalltorhalle in Darmstadt, a most unusual concert combining music by Xenakis (Terretektorh), Anthony Cheung (Fog Mobiles), Thierry de Mey (Musique de tables for percussion), and Stockhausen's Gruppen, for three orchestras. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Olga Bloom, founder of the unusual Bargemusic series at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, passed away this week, at the age of 92. We have had the chance to review a concert on the barge only once, back in 2006, a visit that came to mind when we heard the news. [Ionarts]

  • With sadness we also note the passing of early music soprano and muse Montserrat Figueras this week. Celebrate her memory by listening to a concert she recorded last June in the Abbaye de Saint Michel en Thiérache. [France Musique]

  • Violinist Leonidas Kavakos is the soloist for Henri Dutilleux's L'Arbre des Songes with the London Symphony Orchestra. Valery Gergiev also conducts two Prokofiev symphonies, the first and fifth. [France Musique]

  • Why do the French call green beans haricots? Inquiring minds want to know. [Languagehat]

  • The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR performs music by Debussy, Johannes-Maria Staud, and Philippe Manoury, with soprano Claudia Barainsky, from the Festival Musica Strasbourg. [France Musique]

  • Watch Myung-Whun Chung lead the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, in a Strauss program with mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • More Strauss, with sopranos Valentina Farcas and Cornelia Ptassek and mezzo-soprano Andrea Hill, under Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • This is just marvelous. What do we mean by the word "culture"? The French Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, spoke on a public panel with novelist Umberto Eco to answer that question -- and what the response might mean for European identity. Eco said that a European identity is "very difficult to define -- what cultural unity is there between Cervantes and Racine, the Chanson de Roland and Bertolt Brecht?" Preferring to speak of a "continental unity," Eco went on to say: "After two whiskeys, there is more in common between me and a Swede in our way of thinking than between me and an American. So I see an impalpable unity there, and I realize that in the end there is more similarity between Dickens and Balzac than between Balzac and Melville." [Libération]

  • From the Cité de la Musique, Alexei Lubimov plays a recital of 19th-century music by Dussek, Schubert, Beethoven, and Hérold, on reproductions of pianos from the period. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the winners of the 2011 Concours d’art lyrique de Bourgogne, mezzo-soprano Romie Esteves and baritone Rudi Fernandez-Cardenas. [France Musique]

  • You can also watch the finalists in the 66ème Concours de Chant de Genève. [ARTE Live Web]

  • From the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Reinhard Goebel leads the Orchestre Français des Jeunes Baroque in a program of Baroque dance music. [France Musique]

  • Isaac Celnikier, the Franco-Polish painter and engraver whose subject matter was often his own near-extermination in the Nazi concentration camps, died earlier this month in Ivry-sur-Seine. [Le Monde]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, a concert of chamber music with violinist Lisa Batiashvili and friends. Music by Mozart, Prokofiev, and Britten. [France Musique]

  • Putting this on my wish list: Naïve releases Bertrand Chamayou's complete recording of Liszt's Les Années de Pèlerinage. The French pianist will play the work live tomorrow at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Christian Merlin speaks to him about working with Pierre Boulez. [Le Figaro]

  • The Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne presents a program of classical music paired with Hindemith's Trauermusik, from 1936. Isabelle van Keulen plays violin and viola. [France Musique]

26.11.11

Ionarts-at-Large: Lied von der Erde with Inbal, Heppner, and Stotijn


One of the hallmarks of a top orchestra is the quality of the replacement conductors and soloists it can get on short notice. Granted, replacing Riccardo Chailly for four concerts of two programs—which is what the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra had to do this and next week— is near-impossible. At least since Chailly has reached the kind of unencumbered, matured wisdom that makes him an increasingly more interesting conductor. Quite the opposite of the kind that mellows into routine blandness with age and whose name usually starts withM”. For the program with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (that piece still being in local centenary mode) the BRSO got Eliahu Inbal; in the following program of Berio and Ravel, the stupendous David Robertson will step in without having to change the program.

25.11.11

Briefly Noted: Robert Parsons

available at Amazon
Sacred Music by Robert Parsons,
The Cardinall's Musick, A. Carwood

(released on October 11, 2011)
Hyperion CDA67874 | 70'07"
It is odd that we have not mentioned the British choir The Cardinall's Musick until now. Founded in 1989, the ensemble has come into its own in the last few years, becoming one of the strongest competitors in the field of Renaissance polyphony with the Tallis Scholars. Under their director, Andrew Carwood, who is also director of music at St. Paul's Cathedral, the group has made significant contributions to the discography of the English Renaissance, not least with an excellent series of the complete works of William Byrd, of which the latest, vol. 13, was recognized with Gramophone awards last year. Add to that pile this recent release of beautifully recorded music by Robert Parsons (c. 1535-1572), a highly regarded composer who met an early death, by drowning in the River Trent, to be succeeded as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by none other than William Byrd. Not much music survives by Parsons (see this collection of online scores), but it has been recorded before, especially piecemeal for anthology-type discs. An Australian group, The Parsons Affayre, recorded all nine of the Latin pieces two years ago, but this recording includes all of those pieces, plus two brief works in English, and in better performances, for both the quality of singing and recorded sound. Like Byrd and others of his generation, Parsons seems to have remained faithful to Rome in his compositional tendencies, lavishing particular attention on Latin texts, especially the lengthy setting of the Magnificat, in alternatim setting with Latin chant. Like the photograph image of Queen Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, on the cover, the choice to make this recording in the Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel Castle, which maintained its Catholic identity distinct from the local Anglican parish, underscores the music's Romish leanings.

24.11.11

Briefly Noted: Sacred Music by Pergolesi

A Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers!

available at Amazon
Pergolesi, Stabat mater (inter alia), A. Prohaska, B. Fink, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

(released on October 12, 2010)
HMC 902072 | 59'53"
Pergolesi's Stabat mater is one of the most memorable settings of that sublime sequence text. It gets a live performance every once in a while, as it did this fall by the Washington Bach Consort, a concert that sadly went unreviewed here. Both it and the other sacred work by Pergolesi, the Salve Regina in C minor, recorded on this recent release from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are available in strong performances by several other historically informed performance ensembles. Like most of Pergolesi's music, there is considerable facility and melodic beauty, but not surprisingly for someone who died at age 26, shortly after composing the Stabat mater, one has the sense of a voice not quite fully formed. This Stabat mater was composed for and performed by two castrati, a soprano and an alto, something for which the two voices heard here could never be confused. Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink is a known quantity, and she sounds as full-bodied as ever, the vibrato perhaps a little excessive and leading to a slight inconsistency of intonation. Soprano Anna Prohaska, whose name came up in my review of René Jacobs's new recording of Handel's Agrippina -- and in Jens's coverage of the Salzburg Festival -- is just as rugged in tone, with a robust thickness and a similar tendency toward minor discoloration, though also affecting, at times of stress. The thing that tips the scales in favor of this disc ultimately is the playing of the string (and continuo) players of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, not least in two little instrumental gems by Vivaldi (the Sinfonia "Al santo sepolcro," RV 169) and Locatelli (the gorgeous Concerto a 4, "Il Pianto d'Arianna").

23.11.11

Ionarts-at-Large: Classical Night Out With the BRSO

A composer born in 1756 and lamented, after his premature death, by Haydn as “one of the greatest geniuses I have ever known” naturally invites comparison to Mozart. It was Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792) that Haydn meant, originally from Miltenberg in the Archbishopric of Mainz but known for his work that he did as the Court Kapellmeister for Gustav III of Sweden.

The audience of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concerts on the 17th and 18th of November, conducted by Christian Zacharias, got to compare all three composers—Mozart, Kraus, and Haydn—side by side. A symphony of Kraus’ (the C Minor Symphony VB 142), two concertos by Mozart (Oboe Concerto K314 and Piano Concerto K450), and a Haydn Symphony—thankfully not a “London” one, but No.80 in D Minor.

22.11.11

Born of Munich: 100 Years Das Lied von der Erde


On the 100th anniversary of the Munich world premiere of Das Lied von der Erde



There’s something very gratifying about celebrating the centenary of a world premiere—Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde in this case—not by dipping deeper into the nostalgia trove and replicating the entire original program (that would have been Mahler’s Second Symphony) but by programming it with a world premiere of its own. The Munich Philharmonic, the orchestra that Bruno Walter conducted for the premiere of Mahler’s song-symphony, did just that, and accompanied the anniversary-piece with a commissioned work for orchestra by German composer and pianist Moritz Eggert. Technically it wasn’t a world premiere anymore on November 20th, the exact date of the anniversary, because the same program had already been performed twice on the previous Thursday and Friday (just as it would be performed a fourth time on Sunday, the 21st), but it probably never sounded better until that third performance under the Munich Philharmonic “Honorary Conductor” Zubin Mehta.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde,
Rattle / Birmingham/ Seiffert, Hampson
EMI



available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde,
MTT / SFSO / Skelton, Hampson
SFSO Media



available at Amazon
Schubert et al., Overtures,
Celibidache / MPhil
EMI



available at Amazon
M.Eggert, Amadé, Amadé,
Quintetto Amadeo
Col Legno

With “Pulse” for large orchestra, the name says it all. The work opens with a coy tap-tap on the bongos, dripping like an introductory faucet, before chirping violins chime in, turn from mildly dissonant to vaguely harmonious. Behind them, the brass in- and exhales behind them. There’s a slow, ever increasing and consequent slacking in tension and volume, a busy swirl of rhythmic unrest above that steady pulse as Eggert carefully constructs his enchanting piece one mighty block sound-bit at a time. The work has a colorful one-dimensionality to it, with a generally harmonious, pleasant sameness; so much that greatly enthusiastic relief spread among the many subscription ears that feared—from their perspective—‘much worse’. Eggert deserves the enthusiasm in the response not for going easy on them, but for leaping right across the ideological hurdle that—albeit ever diminishing—is still higher for composers in Germany than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps France. With repetition one of his main ingredients, the orchestral work had more in common with a Philip Glass score (“Fog of War”) than what any Darmstadt School composer might have produced. His studies with fellow pragmatists Wilhelm Killmayer and Oliver Knussen show!

For Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, Peter Seiffert and Thomas Hampson were engaged—casting worthy of such an occasion and also setting the anniversary apart from the Klemperer-premiere that used a mezzo soprano for the low part, setting a trend that would remain rarely challenged for decades to come. It seems pointless to ponder which version one prefers when it is so obviously the high voice’s part is troubling: Whenever the orchestra launches into Das Lied, and the tenor remains standing, my first instinct is to preemptively cringe and think “poor sod”. Mahler never had a chance to fine-tune the work, and the tenor songs so needs fixing. While mezzos and baritones bask in glory, tenors cruelly run aground, squeezed between the merciless orchestration and uncomfortably high notes.

All the more astonishing, then, that Peter Seiffert navigated his way very nicely through the score, never succumbing to the trickiest and most treacherous bits, remaining audible throughout, and beautiful, too. Even if effort and effect are still not in economic relations in the orchestral version of Das Lied, Seiffert was hugely impressive—as if he was a completely different singer since I had heard him earlier this year as Lohengrin. Thomas Hampson, with his mildly introverted, ever artful, deliberately crafted delicacy, nuance, and enunciation, did his part to ensure success, despite wayward moments in Von der Schönheit where the orchestra—responding with lively, playful manner to Mehta—also managed to drown him out.

For a curtain raiser Mehta chose Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, and it was a sonorous appetizer, lightweight despite blustery exterior and perfectly enjoyable thanks to touches of calm delicacy and the considerable cohesion that comes with having practiced it in two public performances already.

21.11.11

John Eliot Gardiner's Extraordinary Beethoven



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Beethoven, Symphonies, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, J. E. Gardiner
Charles T. Downey, John Eliot Gardiner Rethinks Beethoven
The Washingtonian, November 21:
One of the highlights of the season of concerts sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society is the visits by some of the world’s best international orchestras. As expected, this season’s lineup of visiting orchestras has been particularly excellent. After a polished appearance by the Budapest Festival Orchestra last month, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique made its WPAS debut on Saturday afternoon. Founder-director John Eliot Gardiner led three pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, which one could be excused for thinking were very familiar but which, in these sterling performances, proved to be anything but.

Gardiner’s career as a conductor traces the trajectory of the early music movement, led by ensembles devoted to performing music on period-appropriate instruments and benefiting from knowledge about performance practice gleaned from musicological research. First, Gardiner helped lead a revival of Monteverdi and other composers from the 17th century with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. To widen his work into classical and romantic music, Gardiner formed the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in 1990. He proceeded along similar lines with this later music, using instruments from the appropriate era and applying the fruits of historical research. His recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, re-released as a complete set last year, may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that listening to them will make you think about Beethoven’s music in new ways. [Continue reading]
SEE ALSO:
Joe Banno, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 21)

Steve Smith, Period Instruments Breathe New Life Into a Musical Hero (New York Times, November 17)

Fred Kirshnit, Orchestre Révolutionnaire at Romantique (MusicalCriticism.com, November 19)

Brian Wise, John Eliot Gardiner's Historical Beethoven At Carnegie Hall (NPR, November 15) -- includes online audio