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

31.10.15

Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin

With your moderator still recovering from eye surgery, we thank Friend of Ionarts Robert 'Mecki' Pohl for the following thoughts on Thursday's recital by Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin. This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, S. Isserlis, R.Levin
(Hyperion, 2014)
The first indication that this would not be just another concert of Beethoven's music for cello and piano came when entering the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. At this concert by Steven Isserlis, presented by Washington Performing Arts, one was confronted not with a giant shiny black Steinway, but with a brilliantly polished, wood-grained fortepiano. To go along with the gut strings Steven Isserlis prefers, Robert Levin was playing the ancestor of a modern piano, the instrument on which Beethoven himself composed.

The difference was remarkable, and, in the main, a real improvement. Starting with the quiet Adagio introduction of the first sonata, the warmth of the fortepiano meshed beautifully with the tone of Isserlis's gut strings. The revelations continued even through the sprightly Allegro, with notes that would otherwise be covered up being allowed to shine through. Particularly the quiet section that leads into the final, furious run was so subdued that it appeared that the fortepiano was in another room. As the first movement came to a triumphant end, it was a real testament to the restraint of the audience that nobody burst into applause.

In op. 102, no. 2, which ended the first half of the program, once again it was the Adagio that shone through, with its sublime notes flowing from Isserlis's bow and making a piece that has been played thousands of times feel truly new. (Why the fortepiano is not the go-to instrument in this modern age became clear during the intermission, when a technician came out to tune it, a job that took most of the time available.)


Other Reviews:

Jeremy Eichler, Uncorking Beethoven, one cello work at a time (Boston Globe, October 28)

David Weininger, Steven Isserlis delves into Beethoven at the Gardner (Boston Globe, October 24)
The second half of the program opened with the variations on Mozart's “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute. Once again, it was the quiet movement that was revelatory; rather than being the quiet piece before the last restatement of the theme, it became under Isserlis and Levin's fingers the central point of the whole piece, the axle on which the whole thing turned. To have ended the concert with anything but op. 69 would have been a real mistake. Even with this crowd-pleaser, there were new things to be heard, whether a few runs that Isserlis and Levin added, or the moments where Levin had the fortepiano sounding more like a harpsichord.

As an encore, the two musicians offered up more Beethoven: a piece for mandolin and harpsichord which Isserlis said was much too good to be left to them. Levin quickly added that they “apologize to any mandolin players,” to which Isserlis replied “no we don't” and proceeded to play the fairly flashy piece with his usual good cheer and skill. It was a wonderful end to a remarkable concert.

The good news is that the rest of the Beethoven Sonatas will be played later this season by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. The bad news is that this concert is not until April 13.

30.10.15

For Your Consideration: 'The Cut'



President Obama has yet to refer to the massacre of Armenians in Turkey during World War I as a genocide, something he made a campaign promise to do. Among those who have been willing to cross the Turkish government on this issue are Pope Francis, Evgeny Kissin, and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Given that Turkish laws curtailing freedom of expression are hardly enlightened, it is not insignificant that Fatih Akin, the director of this new film about the Armenian genocide, is German and not Turkish. While Akin's previous major films (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven) are about the Turkish immigrant experience in Germany and lighter in tone, this screenplay is set directly against the background of that tragic episode in Turkish history.

available at Amazon
The Cut, directed by Fatih Akin
Nazaret Manoogian is a blacksmith in the small town of Mardin, not far from the border with Syria, where he and his family are members of the minority Armenian Christian community. He and his brother, like all young Armenian men in the town, are first separated from their families and sent off to work on chain gangs in the desert. While they are building roads, they see the next phase of this "extermination under the guise of deportation," as groups of women and children are force-marched past them further into the desert. (A similar religiously motivated extermination is being carried out in Syria and Iraq right now.)

In that sense, The Cut is not an attempt to show the Armenian genocide as a historical event, showing instead how such a devastating thing could unfold slowly, piece by awful piece -- so that even those targeted by the state's efforts would not understand what is happening to them until it is too late. Nazaret, played with steadfast calm by French actor Tahar Rahim, sees his brother and all his fellow conscriptees lined up to have their throats cut, but himself escapes with a wound to his throat that leaves him mute. He manages to track down his sister-in-law, abandoned like so many in a desperate desert camp, and never loses hope that he might find his twin daughters.


Other Reviews:

New York Times | New York Magazine | Washington Post | Philadelphia Inquirer
A.V. Club | Hollywood Reporter | Los Angeles Times | Village Voice

So the film is about more than the events of the Armenian Genocide, following Nazaret as he follows the trail of his daughters throughout the Middle East, Cuba, and the United States. Armenians, long spread out from their homeland, as we understand it today, were under the thumbs of Persian, Byzantine, and Ottoman emperors, as well as the Soviet Union, and in the 20th-century diaspora were spread even farther and wider. It is a worldwide scope that threatens to collapse the film under its own weight at times, even after Akin's screenplay was sharpened by co-writer Mardik Martin, whose last major credit was a little film called Raging Bull in 1980. (Martin's family, of Armenian descent, fled Iraq to come to the United States.) The screenplay is based on careful historical research, although the characters are fictional, and the relationships that play on Nazaret are complex. His life is spared by a Turk, Mehmet (Bartu Küçükçaglayan), and a Muslim in Syria, played by Makram Khoury, takes pity on him in the desert and nurses him back to health. Not only does Nazaret lose his voice, he loses his faith in God; but no one could blame him for that.

This film opens today, at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

Pop Star Pianist: Lang Lang with the NSO

available at Amazon
Chopin, Scherzos / Tchaikovsky, The Seasons, Lang Lang
(Sony, 2015)
The excitement was palpable at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday, with throngs of concertgoers crowding the stairs and lobbies leading to the Concert Hall. This sort of pre-concert commotion is an unusual occurrence for a National Symphony Orchestra subscription concert on a weeknight. Yet pianist Lang Lang, the evening’s featured guest, is not your usual piano soloist. Perhaps the closest thing classical music has to a pop star, the Chinese pianist has a loyal following, a social media presence, and all the trappings associated with stardom. In Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, he delivered a muscular performance filled with moments of incredible speed, technique, and more than a bit of musical style.

It was fortunate that Lang Lang had Christoph Eschenbach on the podium. Eschenbach's sensitive accompaniment seemed to owe something to his experience as a keyboard soloist. The NSO was a willing partner for most of the concerto, allowing Lang Lang to plumb the piano's dynamic range, from a barely perceptible pianissimo in the third movement to a thunderous fortissimo that ended the concerto. The NSO and Eschenbach get credit also for carefully following Lang Lang during his frequent rubatos, which allowed the pianist to let loose his dazzling technique, particularly in the first movement's cadenza and later in a short cadenza in the finale, where Lang Lang's lightning-fast cross-hand work elicited gasps from the audience. It was in the first cadenza, though, that Lang Lang demonstrated that he can use his prodigious technique to create stylish interpretations. His coloring and voicing in the cadenza, allowing him to imitate the sound of a harp at times, displayed a depth of interpretation heard far less during earlier appearances in Washington.

As expected, the finale featured Lang Lang pushing the speed limit, displaying energy and feats of extreme pianism, culminating in a raucous ovation, which was rewarded with a memorable encore. Without having to concern himself with an orchestra, Lang Lang raced through Ernesto Lecuona’s Cuban Dance. That he played it faster than any dancer could manage to move mattered little. His hands seemed to go three times as quickly as they did in the Grieg.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO offers chestnuts, and Lang Lang, in enjoyable evening (Washington Post, October 30)
With its copious exposed solo parts the Grieg highlighted the state of the NSO. In the second movement, for example, newly appointed principal horn Abel Pereira joined the ethereal string introduction midway, resulting in some of the most gorgeous orchestral playing of the evening. When the theme transferred to the flutes and clarinets, however, the sound quality diminished. Pereira’s gorgeous playing was on display in the night’s opening work, Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser and again in the closing work, the Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88, of Dvořák. While both pieces were dispatched with more precision than we're used to hearing from the NSO, neither compared to the musicality the orchestra and Eschenbach showed in the Grieg.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

#morninglistening: Igor Kamenz, Scarlatti

29.10.15

À mon chevet: 'Eugénie Grandet'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Monsieur Grandet thus obtained that modern title of nobility which our mania for equality can never rub out. He became the most imposing personage in the arrondissement. He worked a hundred acres of vineyard, which in fruitful years yielded seven or eight hundred hogsheads of wine. He owned thirteen farms, an old abbey, whose windows and arches he had walled up for the sake of economy -- a measure which preserved them -- also a hundred and twenty-seven acres of meadow-land, where three thousand poplars, planted in 1793, grew and flourished; and finally, the house in which he lived. Such was his visible estate; as to his other property, only two persons could give even a vague guess at its value: one was Monsieur Cruchot, a notary employed in the usurious investments of Monsieur Grandet; the other was Monsieur des Grassins, the richest banker in Saumur, in whose profits Grandet had a certain covenanted and secret share.

Although old Cruchot and Monsieur des Grassins were both gifted with the deep discretion which wealth and trust beget in the provinces, they publicly testified so much respect to Monsieur Grandet that observers estimated the amount of his property by the obsequious attention which they bestowed upon him. In all Saumur there was no one not persuaded that Monsieur Grandet had a private treasure, some hiding-place full of louis, where he nightly took ineffable delight in gazing upon great masses of gold. Avaricious people gathered proof of this when they looked at the eyes of the good man, to which the yellow metal seemed to have conveyed its tints. The glance of a man accustomed to draw enormous interest from his capital acquires, like that of the libertine, the gambler, or the sycophant, certain indefinable habits -- furtive, eager, mysterious movements, which never escape the notice of his co-religionists. This secret language is in a certain way the freemasonry of the passions. Monsieur Grandet inspired the respectful esteem due to one who owed no man anything, who, skillful cooper and experienced wine-grower that he was, guessed with the precision of an astronomer whether he ought to manufacture a thousand puncheons for his vintage, or only five hundred, who never failed in any speculation, and always had casks for sale when casks were worth more than the commodity that filled them, who could store his whole vintage in his cellars and bide his time to put the puncheons on the market at two hundred francs, when the little proprietors had been forced to sell theirs for five louis. His famous vintage of 1811, judiciously stored and slowly disposed of, brought him in more than two hundred and forty thousand francs.

Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold. No one saw him pass without a feeling of admiration mingled with respect and fear; had not every man in Saumur felt the rending of those polished steel claws? For this one, Maitre Cruchot had procured the money required for the purchase of a domain, but at eleven per cent. For that one, Monsieur des Grassins discounted bills of exchange, but at a frightful deduction of interest. Few days ever passed that Monsieur Grandet's name was not mentioned either in the markets or in social conversations at the evening gatherings. To some the fortune of the old wine-grower was an object of patriotic pride. More than one merchant, more than one innkeeper, said to strangers with a certain complacency: "Monsieur, we have two or three millionaire establishments; but as for Monsieur Grandet, he does not himself know how much he is worth." [...]

If some Parisian mentioned Rothschild or Monsieur Lafitte, the people of Saumur asked if he were as rich as Monsieur Grandet. When the Parisian, with a smile, tossed them a disdainful affirmative, they looked at each other and shook their heads with an incredulous air. So large a fortune covered with a golden mantle all the actions of this man. If in early days some peculiarities of his life gave occasion for laughter or ridicule, laughter and ridicule had long since died away. His least important actions had the authority of results repeatedly shown. His speech, his clothing, his gestures, the blinking of his eyes, were law to the country-side, where every one, after studying him as a naturalist studies the result of instinct in the lower animals, had come to understand the deep mute wisdom of his slightest actions.

"It will be a hard winter," said one; "Père Grandet has put on his fur gloves."

"Père Grandet is buying quantities of staves; there will be plenty of wine this year."

-- Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet (trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
This is one of Balzac's most celebrated novels, which I had come across before, along with Le Père Goriot, in a French literature course. I am still early on in the "Scènes de la vie de province" portion of La Comédie Humaine, but this book managed to rival Ursule Mirouet, which comes directly before it, in my admiration. Balzac chose the title of his collection by analogy to Dante's Divine Comedy, in the sense that all of the sins and vices of humankind are revealed to the reader not on the stage of a visionary afterlife, but right here in our own world. The vice on display in Eugénie Grandet is avarice, which governs every action of Eugénie's father, to the point that it almost makes him destroy his own daughter. He reminds me in many ways of a family friend I grew up with in provincial Michigan, who in spite of being rather wealthy would keep his house so cold in the winter that we had to sleep in hats and scarves there.

27.10.15

Ionarts-at-Large: HIP Haydn, Hummel & Mozart with the Vienna Academy Orchestra


I refrain from “complauding™”—my standard response of disgruntled delight when a concert programs a Haydn Symphony as the first piece—when the orchestra in question also has one to conclude the concert. I also refrain, if only barely, if the performance is splendid. That happened the last time in October of 2014, when the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) majorly rocked Haydn G-minor at the Vienna Konzerthaus. It happened again a few nights ago at Vienna’s Musikverein, where the HIP Vienna Academy Orchestra (secretly 30 years old, even if they’re only now appearing on the international radar) did one of their subscription concerts to a full house (the infallible lure of the Musikverein’s Goldener Saal be thanks!). With Haydn in front of them, Haydn in the back of them, Mozart and Hummel in the middle the volley’d and thunder’d away in style.

Just as in the Beethoven Ninth project, a Haydn symphony needn’t be perfect to be good, it just needs to kick posterior. The orchestra with Martin Haselböck in front of them did so entertainingly, excitingly, and lively. And lest anyone think this was of the sloppy rag-tag excitement sort that the Ode to Joy had been, this was also played exactingly if not—perhaps understandably—nearly as precise and accurate as the Australians did, back then.

Of course it’s slightly less surprising to find an original instrument band like the Vienna Academy Orchestra (or the ACO) doing well with Haydn—it’s the big symphonic and philharmonic orchestras that perpetrate the more heinous crimes against this most important of composers… and it’s those who most desperately need to play more of it. Still, we take what we can get, and in this case I took Symphony No.94 in the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein at the sold-out season-opener of that HIP band of Martin Haselböck’s.


available at Amazon
J.Haydn, London Symphonies,
M.Minkowski/ Les Musiciens du Louvre
naïve



available at Amazon
Hummel, Haydn, Puccini, Trumpet Concertos for Keyed Trumpet,
R.Friedrich/Vienna Academy Orchestra/M.Haselböck
Capriccio

Under the enthusiastic beat of the organist-cum-conductor-cum-impresario, the players responded with something raw and energetic that had bite, from the gruff strings to the punchy brass. My only quibble about the choice of symphonies would be the picking of two of the London set symphonies which, if Haydn gets played at all, are always the first choice anyway… almost as if Haydn had only composed only 12 symphonies and not 104 (or 107), of which at least two thirds are masterpieces worthy any occasion.

The subsequent oboe concerto was cast with the orchestra’s own oboe player—a popular move for orchestras as this saves money and keeps the locker room spirit high. Emma Black (of the ginger faction), on her 18th century oboe, proved this to be a win-win situation: The Mozart Concerto K.314 was phrased with the utmost grace and feeling. What a pleasure! To nitpick: Black was just a little tightly coiled around her instrument, which might impede from communicating more directly with the audience… an audience which is usually hungry for more—some show—than just great musicking. Perhaps that’s something she could straighten out in the future, a future in which I would love to hear lots more of her solo oboe-playing. Mme. Black displayed a tone so clean and playful and beautiful—much as if Pavarotti had been reincarnated as a goose—that possible betterment, except for the rare glitch and a nervous cadenza, seemed improbable in the moment.

It didn’t seem improbable to Emma Black, though: It’s funny how obviously seasoned soloists and orchestra musicians in solo-performance differ. Not by quality of play—this was far better than one would have any right to expect from whatever famous soloists there are around—but by attitude. If Emma Black plays a note with which she isn’t entirely content, you can immediately see it on her face. “Darnit”, it seems to say, “I could have done this yet so much better.” Or “Gorblimey, this isn’t up to my standards… and now of all times.” If a pro like, say, flutist Emmanuel Pahud, makes a blunder, he does it with confidence, smiles, and eventually takes a bow glowing with pride as though he had just shat solid gold. Then again, I’ve never heard Pahud play as satisfactory as Black, and wouldn’t take posture over pleasure.

After intermission the next concerto: This time with Reinhold Friedrich as the soloist, which at first made me think that either time travel or necromancy had been involved, because he seemed such an omnipresent when I was a wee lad and I just thoughtlessly assumed him a figure of the distant past. It turns out that: He’s perfectly alive and kicking. And Yes, he’s been around for a while. Yes, he’s recorded very prolifically. And No, he’s not that old, actually. Also, I conflated him with Ludwig Güttler. (If you bought randomly a trumpet concerto in the 90s in a German-speaking country, it was going to be performed by either one of those guys.) Just before the concerto there was a little side-by-side comparison of the baroque trumpet and an instrument that looked like the murder weapon in a steam-punk novel: the classical-era keyed trumpet… a replica of the very first such instrument for which the Hummel- (and the Haydn-) concerto was written and which enabled the instrument for solo-duty in the first place. This showed that, at least in theory, the keyed trumpet can do many more things, musically, than its predecessor.

Unfortunately it’s almost criminally difficult to play and just about impossible to play cleanly throughout a whole one of those concertos written for it. Sunny and radiating joy with and without trumpet, Reinhold Friedrich looked like he would not have minded conducting the orchestra as well as performing his part… the latter of which he did with routine and enthusiasm but a good number of invariable flubs. Sure enough, he beamed away through all of them… part knowing that the instrument has a will of its own that’s not bent his way by frowning, and part professional mien.

Haydn’s last Symphony, No.104, capped the evening with all the qualities that No.94 had displayed, perhaps still a bit more brash, and with wonderful unleashed baroque trumpets (angry at being overshadowed in the previous piece, no doubt) and a whack-lusty timpanist. Some of the musical drama that Haselböck and his crew brought out was so intense, it seemed to have proto-Don Giovanni (in the second movement) and LvB-9th (in the fourth movement) proportions. Most gratifying, indeed.


Classical Music Agenda (December 2015)

Ah, December -- 'tis the season for all my holiday concert and Messiah-boredom snark! The Christmas Concert-Messiah-Nutcracker-holiday children's opera business is the bread and butter of every working musician, so long may they reign. Those few such concerts in the Washington area that can actually make this Grinch's heart grow three sizes compete every year for the coveted Ionarts Sugar Plum Award. After a few choices that have nothing to do with holiday spirit follows a list of the leading Yuletide contenders.

HO HO NO:
The Yannick Nézet-Séguin era continues at the Philadelphia Orchestra, presented yet again by Washington Performing Arts, this time at Strathmore (December 7). Bizet's Carmen Suite and Stravinsky's Firebird seem ho-hum, but violinist Hilary Hahn will also be in tow to play Vieuxtemps's fourth violin concerto.

Compare the Philadelphia sound with the hometown band when Sarah Hicks makes her conducting debut with the National Symphony Orchestra (December 3 and 5), leading an unusual selection of music by Copland, Mason Bates, John Adams, and Creston. Organist Cameron Carpenter, who can be relied on for a show, joins for Barber's Toccata Festiva and some improvisations on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall organ.

It has been over a decade since we have reviewed cellist Mischa Maisky live in the area. We may have to make the trip to Charm City for his recital with daughter Lily Maisky at Shriver Hall (December 6).

Closer to home, there will be string quartets to keep our hearts warm: the Schumann Quartett (December 6) and the Escher Quartet (December 20) will perform on the wonderful Sunday series at the Phillips Collection. The seasonal joy of celebrating the Stradivari Anniversary will fall to the Borromeo Quartet (December 18) on the free series at the Library of Congress.


available at Amazon
David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion (inter alia), Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier

(re-released on June 9, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807496

[REVIEW]
CHRISTMAS, HOLD THE CHESTNUTS:
In general, the older you go with the Christmas music, the better. Put the appearance by the Tallis Scholars on the Fortas Chamber Music series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater at the top of your list (December 3), with music by Renaissance composers John Sheppard and Thomas Tallis. Hopefully, the German chamber choir Calmus will sing something similarly old for their Christmas concert in the Barns at Wolf Trap (December 6).

The most unusual combination of holiday music goes to the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Singers, which will perform David Lang's extraordinary Little Match Girl Passion, interwoven with sections of Tchaikovsky's music for The Nutcracker (December 4).

Miss Ionarts will likely be quite busy taking in the various holiday operas for children this month. The In Series presents a new English version of Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne (December 5 to 13) at Source Theater, with a holiday sing-along grafted onto it. Cantate Chamber Singers perform Benjamin Britten's The Company of Heaven at the heart of an angel-centered program (December 5) at St. John’s Norwood Parish. Stagger your weekends to take in Opera Bel Cantanti's production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, at Bethesda's Concord-Saint Andrews United Methodist Church (December 5, 12, and 19). Last but not least, Washington National Opera returns to basics after two holiday opera flops in 2013 and 2014, with the evergreen Hansel and Gretel of Engelbert Humperdinck, presented at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (December 12 to 20).

Start the month off with two free performances on December 1. The Washington Bach Consort performs Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 190, composed for New Year's Day) on its Noontime Cantata Series at Church of the Epiphany. That evening the U.S. Air Force Band presents its Holiday Concert in the Music Center at Strathmore.

See the complete calendar after the jump.

26.10.15

Pavel Haas Quartet @ LoC


available at Amazon
Smetana, String Quartets, Pavel Haas Quartet
(Supraphon, 2015)
Charles T. Downey, Engaging new voice with Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Washington Post, October 20)
The members of the Pavel Haas Quartet have said in interviews that they do not think being Czech helps them play the music of Czech composers. Nevertheless, that is where this excellent string quartet has had its greatest triumphs on disc, for the Supraphon label. At a Friday night concert, the Library of Congress, not surprisingly, featured them in quartets by Bohuslav Martinu and Antonin Dvorak. Since the group had to cancel its last U.S. tour, in 2013, this was its first local appearance since 2008.

Since that concert, also at the Library of Congress, the group has gone through a couple of changes for second violin... [Continue reading]
Pavel Haas Quartet
Library of Congress

SEE ALSO:
Jeremy Eichler, Pavel Haas Quartet makes local debut (Boston Globe, October 24)

Stefanie Lubkowski, Martinů’s music provides the highlight with Pavel Haas Quartet (Boston Classical Review, October 23)

Chloe Cutts, We do not believe in a Czech tradition of playing, says the Pavel Haas Quartet (The Strad, September 28)

#morninglistening: Henning Kraggerud, Equinox


Charles' review here:

25.10.15

Perchance to Stream: Have Your Eyes Checked Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • La Fenice and Vox Luminis perform Purcell's King Arthur at the Festival d'Ambronay; also at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. [France Musique | ORF]

  • Roger Norrington leads the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris in two symphonies of Mozart, plus the composer's 25th piano concerto with Emanuel Ax as soloist, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Louis Lortie joins conductor Emmanuel Krivine and the Orchestre National de France for Chopin's second piano concerto, plus music of Zemlinsky (The Little Mermaid) and Berlioz (excerpt from Les Troyens). [France Musique]

  • The Helsinki Philharmonic celebrates the 150th anniversary of Sibelius, with Leif Segerstam conducting Tapiola, Luonnotar, and the Lemminkäinen suite. [Radio Clásica]

  • Listen to the closing concert at the Festival Musica in Strasbourg, with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under conductor Peter Rundel, in music of Lachenmann, Murail, and others. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, starring Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni), Alex Esposito (Leporello), Albina Shagimuratova (Donna Anna), Rolando Villazón (Don Ottavio), Dorothea Röschmann (Donna Elvira), and Julia Lezhneva (Zerlina), recorded last June at the Royal Opera House in London. [ORF]

  • Music of Nielsen, Szymanowski, and Schubert from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Afkham, and pianist Piotr Anderszewski. [ORF]

  • From last May, Andris Nelsons leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Shostakovich's fourth symphony, plus Lang Lang as soloist in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. [BR-Klassik]

  • Krzysztof Urbanski conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, in music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, plus Prokofiev's fifth piano concert with Nicholas Angelich as soloist. [France Musique]

  • Laurence Equilbey conducts Accentus and the Insula Orchestra in Mozart's Solemn Vespers and C.P.E. Bach's Magnificat, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • David Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, featuring Olesya Petrova, Stuart Skelton, and other soloists. [ABC Classics]

  • Herbert Blomstedt leads the Wiener Philharmoniker in performances of Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Violinist Solenne Païdassi and pianist Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter perform music by Stravinsky, Szymanowski, and Ravel, recorded at the Théâtre des Abbesses. [France Musique]

  • Cameron Carpenter joins the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien and conductor Cornelius Meister, for music by Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, and others. [ORF]

  • Pianist Shani Diluka and cellist Valentin Erben perform music of Beethoven, Johanna Doderer, and Schumann, recorded at the Festival Solistes in Bagatelle. [France Musique]

  • Benjamin Alard performs Bach's Goldberg Variations, recorded at the Théâtre des Abbesses. [France Musique]

  • From last May, Jaap van Sweden leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, plus music of Britten and Shostakovich. [CSO]

23.10.15

Latest on Forbes: New MD at Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra


New Principal Conductor For The Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra


Fischer is fairly big name for an orchestra with so little name recognition, although the Düsseldorf orchestra has a proud tradition. It’s just that one has to go back a while… namely to 1833, when Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy led them for three seasons. Before him, Louis Spohr and Ferdinand Ries had subbed; after him came Ferdinand Hiller (1847–1850) and then of course Robert Schumann (1850–1854) who led them incompetently but with enthusiasm. Big-ish names graced the orchestra again in the mid-20th century when Jean Martinon (1960–1965) and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (1966–1971) led the band in back-to-back, one-term stints.

Picking a new music director for orchestras at this level of fame-purgatory is tricky; old but famous hands who phone it in don’t do the trick but unknown young music directors can backfire if they don’t turn out to be the next miracle man...

Full review on Forbes.com.

Briefly Noted: Arias for Marchesini

available at Amazon
Arias for Luigi Marchesi, A. Hallenberg, Stile Galante, S. Aresi

(released on September 25, 2015)
Glossa GCD923505 | 71'45"

available at Amazon
M. Feldman, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds
(University of California Press, 2015)
Among the vocal recital albums devoted to great historical singers are a few bringing together arias written for castrati, those unnatural voices who were the toast of the opera world in the 18th century. Countertenor Andreas Scholl attempted to step into Senesino's shoes, and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli confronted the repertory in her odd Sacrificium disc. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, whom we have admired in many opera recordings, does the same with some of the arias composed for Milanese castrato Luigi Marchesi (1754-1829). Trained as a chorister at Milan Cathedral, this soprano castrato known sometimes as Marchesini was known as much for his good looks as for his vocal skills, which were renowned throughout Europe.

In her book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, University of Chicago professor Martha Feldman compiles and translates several accounts of Marchesi's art, as well as that of other castrati. She quotes a writer named Pietro Verri, who heard Marchesi at La Scala in 1780 and wrote about him in his correspondence with his brother Alessandro Verri: "I can find no singer with whom to compare him. He's faultless in intonation, does things of great difficulty, and commands his voice as one would a violin." Although he "has everything," all the technical prowess one could want, "the only thing he lacks, I think, is feeling, the kind that knows how to touch your soul," without which "he's a marvelous bit of non-sense, all bits and pieces" (un non senso maraviglioso a pezzo a pezzo).

Assisted by Stefano Aresi (Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Pavia) and Stile Galante, the historically informed performance ensemble he founded in 2010, specializing in the music of the Neapolitan Baroque, Ann Hallenberg tries to recreate the singer's vocal exploits. Václav Pichl actually transcribed some of Marchesi's extensive ornamentation and cadenzas, and Aresi and Hallenberg use these documents, both incorporated literally and used as the basis of recreations, in the performances recorded here. Technical marvels often attributed to the castrati include a preternatural breath support, as well as a combination of a male singer's power with a female singer's range and agility.

Not all of these qualities come naturally to Hallenberg, especially Marchesi's penchant for huge leaps, sometimes over two octaves, but the sound is convincing and quite beautiful. The selection of arias is also attractive to the collector of curiosities, including pieces by Luigi Cherubini, Domenico Cimarosa, Johann Mayr, Giuseppe Sarti, Gaetano Pugnani, Niccolo Zingarelli, and sadly just one aria by Josef Mysliveček, who was Marchesi's most important musical partner in his early career. The instrumental contributions are also fine, prompting me now to go back and listen to Aresi's earlier releases with this ensemble on the Pan Classics label.

21.10.15

À mon chevet: 'Ursule Mirouet'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The night of her first communion, when Ursula came into the salon where her godfather was sitting alone, she put the backgammon board before him.

"Whose throw shall it be?" she asked.

"Ursula," said the doctor, "isn't it a sin to make fun of your godfather the day of your first communion?"

"I am not making fun of you," she said, sitting down. "I want to give you some pleasure--you who are always on the look-out for mine. When Monsieur Chaperon was pleased with me he gave me a lesson in backgammon, and he has given me so many that now I am quite strong enough to beat you--you shall not deprive yourself any longer for me. I have conquered all difficulties, and now I like the noise of the game."

Ursula won. The abbé had slipped in to enjoy his triumph. The next day Minoret, who had always refused to let Ursula learn music, sent to Paris for a piano, made arrangements at Fontainebleau for a teacher, and submitted to the annoyance that her constant practicing was to him. One of poor Jordy's predictions was fulfilled -- the girl became an excellent musician. The doctor, proud of her talent, had lately sent to Paris for a master, an old German named Schmucke, a distinguished professor who came once a week; the doctor willingly paying for an art which he had formerly declared to be useless in a household. Unbelievers do not like music--a celestial language, developed by Catholicism, which has taken the names of the seven notes from one of the church hymns; every note being the first syllable of the seven first lines in the hymn to Saint John.

The impression produced on the doctor by Ursula's first communion though keen was not lasting. The calm and sweet contentment which prayer and the exercise of resolution produced in that young soul had not their due influence upon him. Having no reasons for remorse or repentance himself, he enjoyed a serene peace. Doing his own benefactions without hope of a celestial harvest, he thought himself on a nobler plane than religious men whom he always accused for making, as he called it, terms with God.

-- Honoré de Balzac, Ursule Mirouet (trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
Count me now among the faithful admirers of Honoré de Balzac, like the young Antoine Doinel in Les 400 coups (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, but really a stand-in for François Truffaut), who reaches the end of Balzac's La Recherche de l'absolu, lights a candle in his homemade shrine to the author, and nearly burns down his family's apartment. I have completed the section of La Comédie Humaine devoted to "Scènes de la vie privée" (Scenes of private life), having devoured all of its stories and novels. Although I did not post a quote from it, I especially enjoyed Mémoires de deux Jeunes Mariées (Memoirs of Two Brides), an epistolary novel that follows two young women who leave a convent school to return to the world of marriage and family.

The novel excerpted here is the first part of "Scènes de la vie de province" (Scenes from provincial life), and it is a vicious portrait of the pettiness of small-town people, in this case in the village of Nemours, in the Seine-et-Marne. One of the stranger plot details is the conversion of Ursule's godfather and protector, Dr. Minoret. Balzac, who was a staunch Catholic apologist, makes the old atheist a most sympathetic character, who is ultimately won over to belief by the experience of seeing a demonstration of supernatural awareness by a woman under a Swedenborgian's hypnosis. It is a truly odd thing for Balzac to treat seriously, and related phenomena occur throughout the book. I much prefer the doctor's scientific atheism, opposed to his ward studying music because of its Catholic associations. I would rather believe that it was music that converted him.

20.10.15

The Results of the 2015 Chopin Competition are In, Ey!


1st prize and gold medal - Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)
2nd prize and silver medal - Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canadia)
3rd prize and bronze medal - Kate Liu (USA)
4th prize - Eric Lu (USA)
5th prize - Yike (Tony) Yang (Canadia)
6th prize - Dmitry Shishkin (Russia)

The First prize comes with €30k attached to it, the Second with €25, and Sixth still gets €7k.

Special Prize for Best Polonaise: Seong-Jin Cho
Special Prize for Best Mazurka: Kate Liu
Special Prize for Best Concerto: Not Given (understandably; had I had to decide, I’d have handed it to Szymon Nehring)
Krystian Zimerman Prizefor Best Sonata: Charles Richard-Hamelin

Honorable mentions were handed to the other finalists: Aljoša Jurinić, Aimi Kobayashi, Szymon Nehring, and Georgijs Osokins… which basically means that they didn’t totally disgrace the Chopin Competition during the Finals but other than that: Thanks for nothing. Oh, and €4k.

I’ll have a larger piece on the Finals up on Forbes this week... links to the winners' performances on YouTube will be added.




KC Chamber Players and Brahms Horn Trio


available at Amazon
Brahms, Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano, T. van der Zwaart, I. Faust, A. Melnikov
(Harmonia Mundi, 2008)
Charles T. Downey, Engaging new voice with Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Washington Post, October 20)
During his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach has overseen the appointment of eight principal musicians.

The changes are audible not only in performances by the NSO, but also in the recitals by the Kennedy Center Chamber Players, drawn from the NSO membership.

The group’s first concert of the season, on Sunday afternoon, offered a chance to hear the outstanding new principal horn player, Abel Pereira.

First on the program were two Beethoven trios, composed in the 1790s... [Continue reading]
Kennedy Center Chamber Players
Music by Beethoven, Brahms
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

#morninglistening: Afiara Quartet, Spin Cycle

19.10.15

Beauty Over Power: Herbert Schuch at the Kennedy Center

We welcome this review from Ionarts guest contributor Seth Arenstein.

available at Amazon
Invocation (Bach, Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen, Murail), H. Schuch
(Naïve, 2014)
Washington Performing Arts President and CEO Jenny Bilfield rang in the 49th season of the Hayes Piano Series with a Saturday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater centered on musical evocations of bells. While compositions from Liszt, Ravel, Messiaen, and Murail provided bell-like sounds, as did Busoni and Bauer arrangements for piano of J.S. Bach vocal works, it was the young pianist Herbert Schuch whose sensitive touch and gorgeously subdued playing rang out this day. Yet Schuch’s playing was anything but loud. During this recital, the Romanian-born Schuch brought forth subtle colors from the piano, without the quicksilver technique and sheer power that seem to be hallmarks of many of today’s most popular young pianists.

From the opening of the program, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire, Murail's homage to his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, Schuch began building a quiet, mesmerizing line of music that lasted nearly one hour, through two more works: selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173, and Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639. The subtle wave lasted in part because Schuch played with barely a pause between the compositions, never leaving the piano bench.

By failing to announce that the works were to be performed en masse, Schuch and WPA took a risk that the Hayes audience would appreciate this uncommon practice and be able to follow along. While some audience members undoubtedly were puzzled, weaving the pieces together worked beautifully in an artistic sense. Schuch’s lyricism, displayed best during the Liszt, and his gorgeous control created a continuous, compelling tension until the Bach-Busoni’s final notes brought the first half to an end. It was as if Schuch had created a single, soft musical statement, despite playing pieces from various historical periods.


Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Herbert Schuch is a good pianist, but he inspires more questions than answers (Washington Post, October 19)
The second half was only slightly different. Again, Schuch performed his selections without a break, and the vast majority of his playing rarely rose above mezzo-piano. There was a moment of great contrast, however, as the dramatic Funerailles selection from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses began with loud, clanging bells and later depicted a battle, with trumpet calls and horses’ hooves pounding. Schuch had little trouble transitioning from an afternoon of subtle, pianissimo playing, sitting calmly erect on the piano bench, to moments in the Liszt, where he hunched over the keyboard to produce fortissimo chords. He did so with power and executed several fast glissandi runs with impressive accuracy.

Shortly after that, though, Schuch returned to the contemplative, soft playing that dominated the recital. He concluded with La vallée des cloches, a selection from Ravel’s Miroirs. A tone painting written on three staves, it depicts a variety of ringing bells, from heavy Parisian church bells to sweet, hand-held bells. At one point Schuch crossed his left hand over his right, to flick two small bells.

The piano recitals continue later this month, when Washington Performing Arts presents András Schiff (October 26) and Evgeny Kissin (October 28).

'Tender Land' from In Series


available at Amazon
Copland, The Tender Land, University of Kentucky Opera Theater, K. Trevor
(Albany Records, 2002)
Charles T. Downey, ‘Tender Land,’ the failed Copland opera, shows its worth at Gala Theatre (Washington Post, October 19)
Aaron Copland’s music is so familiar, so iconic in the way it stands for American identity, that we take it for granted. The composer’s embrace of pioneer stories from America’s early history, at a time when the United States was becoming the dominant world superpower, can feel like kitsch now.

A production of his failed opera “The Tender Land” by the In Series, heard Saturday evening at Gala Hispanic Theatre, was an opportunity to appreciate that Copland’s music is more radical than its reputation might seem. Although the libretto, by Copland’s one-time lover Erik Johns, grinds to a dramatic halt trying to reach its conclusion, the music is often of exceptional beauty.

Copland created the work, beginning in 1952, for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, a program that in today’s pop-culture-saturated world seems too improbable to have existed... [Continue reading]
Copland, The Tender Land
In Series
GALA Hispanic Theater

18.10.15

Perchance to Stream: Go Cubs Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to a performance of Weber's Der Freischütz, recorded in concert last month at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Watch a performance of Handel's Theodora recorded this week at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, featuring William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. [ARTE]

  • Veronique Gens stars in a performance of Lalo's La Jacquerie, recorded this past July in Montpellier. [ORF]

  • From the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels, watch a performance of Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès. [De Munt]

  • Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Royal Opera House production of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, starring Christine Rice, Kurt Streit, and Anne Sofie von Otter. [ABC Classic]

  • Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore from Brussels, starring Olga Peretyatko. [RTBF]

  • The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Mariss Jansons, plays Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Sibelius's Karelia Suite, and Varèse's Amériques. [BR-Klassik]

  • From the Schubertiade Hohenems, Juliane Banse and other singers perform songs and ensemble pieces by Schubert. [ORF]

  • Countertenor Damien Guillon leads Le Banquet Céleste in Bach cantatas (BWV 4, 153, 156, and 159) at the Abbatiale d'Ambronay. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Jordan leads the Vienna Symphony, with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in music of Bartók and Beethoven. [ORF | Part 2]

  • From a concert recorded last April, Semyon Bychkov conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's eighth symphony. [CSO]

  • Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform music of Lutoslawski, Enescu, Ravel, Liszt, and Gershwin. [BR-Klassik]

  • Soprano Camilla Tilling joins Musica Saeculorum for music by Mozart and Gluck. [ORF]

  • Pianist Nicholas Angelich joins the Pavel Haas Quartet for music of Schubert and Dvorak, recorded at the Schubertiade Hohenems. [ORF]

  • Also from the Abbatiale d'Ambronay, Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas and the Ensemble Les Surprises perform sonatas and cantatas by Biber, Pachelbel, Bruhns, Bernhardt, Buxtehude, and Brennecke. [France Musique]

  • Music of Debussy and Beethoven performed by Les Dissonances and David Grimal at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Utrecht Early Music Festival, Gli Angeli Genève, directed by Stephan MacLeod, perform music of Tallis and others. [France Musique]

  • Vasily Petrenko leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in music of Ravel and Rachmaninoff, plus Prokofiev's third piano concerto with Behzod Abduraimov as soloist. [France Musique]

CD Review: Isserlis Has Guts


available at Amazon
Bach, Viola da Gamba Sonatas (inter alia), S. Isserlis, R. Egarr

(released on September 11, 2015)
Hyperion CDA68045 | 59'50"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Cellist Isserlis shows guts in Bach
Washington Post, October 18
Cellist Steven Isserlis plays on gut strings rather than the standard contemporary metal ones, a preference that limits his dynamic range at the loud end of the spectrum, but to which he remains devoted. The sound of gut strings has a “more human quality,” he said during a concert at Wolf Trap in 2013. Although he is not known principally for historically informed performance (HIP), he does collaborate with early music ensembles and specialists, like the fortepianist Robert Levin, with whom he will play Beethoven’s cello sonatas at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 29.

Another example is his new disc with harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the first recording Isserlis has made with that instrument... [Continue reading]
CONCERT NEXT WEEK:
Steven Isserlis (cello) and Robert Levin (fortepiano)
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

17.10.15

BSO and Folger, Star-Crossed

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (chor. L. Lavrovsky), D. Vishneva, V. Shklyarov, Mariinsky Theater, V. Gergiev

(released on October 14, 2014)
MAR0552 | 152 min
Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet was last seen in Washington from the Mariinsky Ballet in 2007. Orchestras play the score more regularly in concert form, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has now used the score to extend its quasi-concert offerings: in the vein of its film screenings with live music, this performance, heard on Friday night at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore, combined the complete orchestral score of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet with excerpts from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

This sounds like a good idea, but it is actually a bad one. Prokofiev's music was not made to accompany Shakespeare's play. It lines up with the choreography of the ballet's streamlined story, adapted in Soviet Russia, and has little to do with Shakespeare. Worse, rather than having a few excerpts between sections of the score, which would have allowed the listener to focus on one or the other, actors performed their lines, with powerful amplification, at the same time as the BSO was playing. The cacophony that this created was most unpleasant, taking two beautiful works of art and forcing them to annihilate each other. There were a few effective moments, when one or the other work took a pause, or when the dynamics of the orchestra lined up briefly with a scene. By and large, though, it was rather hard, perhaps not surprisingly, to take in two simultaneous performances.

Some of the score was cut, to keep the run time down to around two hours with an intermission, but Marin Alsop managed to keep the numbers with mandolins, which are often cut in ballet versions. In spite of the circumstances, some of the actors made favorable impressions, including the noble but venomous Lady Capulet of Kelley Curran and the dignified/ridiculous Friar Lawrence/Nurse of Louis Butelli, who was so memorable in the Folger's production of Henry VIII in 2010. The orchestra seemed out of sorts, with one of the players even plugging his ears during one of the actor's louder speeches, and the performance of the Prokofiev suffered, although there were some pretty moments, too.


Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A frustrating fusion of Shakespeare, Prokofiev from the BSO (Baltimore Sun, October 17)
Better to stick to the model of last year's Midsummer Night's Dream, by combining scores of incidental music and the plays they were meant to accompany. Helpfully, I drew up a list of such works to consider, which I publish again: Goethe's Egmont (Beethoven), Shakespeare's The Tempest (Sibelius), Ibsen's Peer Gynt (Grieg), Alphonse Daudet's L'Arlésienne (Bizet), Hugo's Ruy Blas (Mendelssohn), Helmina von Chézy's Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Schubert), Racine's Phèdre and Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (Massenet), and Aristophanes' The Wasps (Vaughan Williams). These are just the ones I would most like to hear: there are many more, including several scores by Darius Milhaud.

This performance repeats this evening at Strathmore and Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore.

Jamie Barton Returns to Vocal Arts


available at Amazon
J. A. Hasse, Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, J. Barton, Ars Lyrica Boston
(2010)
Charles T. Downey, Vocal Arts D.C. celebrates 25th anniversary with fine performances (Washington Post, October 17)
Vocal Arts D.C. is celebrating its 25th anniversary in style. After a knockout season opener by Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave a well-rounded recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday evening. The Georgia native’s voice continues to grow, and her musical sense of how to shape a phrase with sensitive rubato is expanding right along with it.

Barton’s big, juicy tone is matched now with an ability to float lighter high notes, heard right from the first striking phrase of Joaquín Turina’s “Homenaje a Lope de Vega,” Op. 90. In these three songs, mostly in the stark style of dramatic recitatives, Barton had the presence to hold musical attention... [Continue reading]
Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano) and Bradley Moore (piano)
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

PREVIOUSLY:
Mahler 4 with BSO (2015)
Menotti, The Last Savage, Santa Fe Opera (2011)
Vocal Arts Society debut (2009)
Monteverdi, Il Ritorno di Ulisse, Wolf Trap Opera (2009)

Dip Your Ears, No. 209 (Discovering Titz)

available at Amazon
A.F. Titz, String Quartets v.2,
Hoffmeister Quartet
Profil Hänssler

Chamber Music You Didn’t Know You Love: Titz

Imagine the most moving slow opening that could be written for string quartet. Imagine it caught in a rich, resonant acoustic and played so accurately and beautifully that you’d never know there is an original instrument quartet at work. Even if you succeed invoking that aural image, chances are that the Anton Ferdinand Titz String Quartet in E flat (1781, No.6) will exceed your expectations. The Hoffmeister Quartet plays four of this largely unknown composer and violinist’s quartets with the kind of passion and skill that they need and, more so: deserve. (Incidentally that’s not the norm; I remember in particular the very interesting quartets by Joseph Wölfl from around the same time—let down by shoddy HIP group’s playing.) There is even a sense of a sacred halo around the music, though that probably has more to do with the acoustic of the church these quartets were recorded in. The glow thus bestowed on the music strikes me as appropriate, especially since the players are recorded closely enough that no details are lost.

It is the Hoffmeister Quartet’s commitment to these A. F. Titz’s (1742-1810) works from his time at the Russian Court of Catherine the Great and Czar Alexander I. that makes this disc great even where the music can’t quite uphold the promise of its opening lines. The composer himself left more music—especially chamber music—than he did biographical material. He was—presumably—born in Nuremberg; as an orphan he grew up with relatives. In his 20s he moved to Vienna where he—presumably—met Gluck who got him a position in the opera orchestra. When a Russian magistrate heard his playing—perhaps at one of Prince Lobkowitz’ musical happenings—the musician, not quite 30, was invited to the court in St.Petersburg where he was employed and would stay for the rest of his life. That part at least is known for sure. We also know that Louis Spohr met Titz in 1802/03 and commented very favorably on his compositional genius, less favorably on his old fashioned violin playing, and with slight irritation about his confused state of mind that manifested itself in nonsensical speeches or prolonged terms of silence. Interesting also a comment in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung from a few years later about Titz as the unsurpassed master of the Adagio. If you listen to the two adagios on this disc, that statement makes perfect sense.

Twelve quartets survive of the composer, the six “Golizyn Quartets” from 1781 (two of which are on this compilation), three “Alexander I. Quartets” from 1802, and three “Teplow Quartets” from 1808. Of some of these works, the very substantial C major Teplow Quartet for example, complete scores were only discovered within the last few years. (The Hoffmeister Quartet’s performance is a world premiere recording, a fact that the understated design of the Profil Hänssler release mentions in the small print of the informative liner notes, not plastered across the cover.) That late quartet incorporates Russian folk music influences to an extend that even the untrained ear can detect a musical accent well east of Vienna. Just a few repeat listening sessions leave me with the indelible impression that we are dealing with some of the agreeable music of its kind and of its time… all the more notable given the truly great string quartets that have been written and published by his much more famous contemporaries.

This is volume two in what should be a series of three discs. I fear that in English speaking parts of the world he might always remain the butt (as it were) of inappropriate jokes… all the same, I can’t wait to get my hands on more Titz.



16.10.15

For Your Consideration: 'Jafar Panahi's Taxi'



Whatever else may or may not be changing in Iran, the situation for filmmakers there remains restrictive. Iranian director Jafar Panahi, placed under house arrest after a run-in with his government's censorship machine, managed to make two extremely low-budget films, This Is Not a Film and the less effective Closed Curtain that were smuggled out of the Islamic Republic. Panahi, who is now apparently enjoying some greater liberty, has made a new feature that takes up many of the same themes as This Is Not a Film, blurring the lines between documentary reality and cinematic artifice. Its conceit, so flimsy as to be absurd, is that Panahi is driving a taxi around Tehran with an anti-theft camera on the dashboard, speaking to a series of passengers who happen to get into his car. The result is ninety minutes of delightful whimsy and meta-satire.

available at Amazon
Jafar Panahi's Taxi, directed by Jafar Panahi
In a regime where "sordid realism" is strictly forbidden by the censorship laws, Panahi has extended discussions with a petty criminal (on the subject of capital punishment, no less), a DVD bootlegger (who promises that he can get Panahi any film or television series he wants, even dailies of films still in progress), and a legal consultant (defending women arrested trying to watch sporting events in stadiums, from which women are banned in Iran, with open references to Panahi's masterpiece Offside, the film that appears to have landed the director in all this trouble). This legal consultant, with whom Panahi openly discusses his own harrowing experience with the government interrogators, lays a rose on the dashboard in front of the camera, blowing a kiss of tribute to us, the viewers of "the world of cinema," who will never waver in their support of justice in Iran. While still claiming to be true to the conditions of the judgment against him -- twenty years without making any movies -- Panahi effectively thumbs his nose at any attempt to impose censorship on free expression in the digital age.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Hollywood Reporter | Washington Post | Kristen Page-Kirby
A.V. Club | The New Yorker | NPR | Los Angeles Times | Variety | Village Voice

In one of the stranger passages in the film, two old women get into the director's taxi, carrying a gold fish in a large glass bowl. The goldfish may refer to Panahi's earlier film The White Balloon, which is about a little girl who wants to buy a goldfish, but the women are taking this gold fish to the Spring of Ali. As they explain, somewhat exasperated, they have kept this fish from the spring alive for a year. Now they must return the fish to the spring or they will die. (The spring, in the southern part of the city, is a pre-Islamic site, but these sorts of popular devotions do not die easily, surely a point of contention in the Islamic Republic.) The passenger with the greatest impact is Panahi's precocious niece, whom he picks up at her school. Like the DVD seller, who is pressed into service to record a wounded pedestrian's last will and testament with Panahi's cell phone, the niece seems more directly a filmmaker than her famous uncle, using her digital camera to create a short film for a class project. Parroting her teacher, she dutifully recites the absurd government regulations on cinema to Panahi, all of which are broken in the course of the film, just to be able to show the most basic things. Without being a critique of the government, Jafar Panahi's Taxi reveals the absurdities of living in a society under such rules.

This film opens today, at Landmark's E Street Cinema.