CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

2.7.22

Briefly Noted: Jean Rondeau's Goldberg Variations

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Jean Rondeau

(released on February 11, 2022)
Erato 190296508035 | 107'12"
By the time he was 30, French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has made two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. "I will no doubt spend my life working on them," he admits in the minimal booklet for his second traversal, released earlier this year on the Erato label. In Rondeau's first version, recorded in a video for the Netherlands Bach Society in 2017, he played from a modern score, turning his own pages. That interpretation is the more straightforward of the two, with an emphasis on rhythmic regularity and the necessary technical acumen to make that happen. He played then on a modern harpsichord, a 2004 double-manual instrument built by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto.

Rondeau used a 2006 double-manual instrument by the same makers in the new recording, based on German models, captured in the Paris church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in April 2021. It has a fuller and more varied sound, brought to life with exacting precision by Rondeau's fingers. The second version is about ten minutes longer than the first, the result of a much less metronomic approach, for better or worse. Some of the tempi are much slower, and the introduction of rather mannered rubato, enough almost to induce seasickness, drags out many of the movements. For example, Variation XV is glacially paced, with an extended rallentando at the end to emphasize the upward scale trailing off into nothing, while Variation XXV is about two minutes longer because of the labored contemplation of every motif. Many of the movements start slowly and gradually reach a tempo, like a music-box cranking to life, a gesture that tires through repetition.

The best part of this interpretation is the sometimes extravagant ornamentation added to the repeats, all of which are taken in a rigorous observance of the score's indications. These embellishments are often quite striking, including right off the bat in the opening statement of the Aria. Rondeau apparently took into account an original printed edition, one marked and corrected by the composer himself. "Through delving into this precious musicological source," he writes, "I was able to make what I felt to be the most authentic choices." As he did in his first recording, Rondeau marks the end of Variation XV with a long silence, a way to draw attention to the bipartite division of the work, the second half of which opens with the Ouverture of Variation XVI.

The other subtle facet of this version is in the handling of the variations for two keyboards. Rondeau uses changes of registration and articulation to delineate the two hands, especially when they cross one another in range, often bringing out first one hand and then the other on the repeat. Variation XIV is a good example, where Rondeau even "removes" the written-out ornamentation at one point, playing one part of the repeated B section as a simple arpeggio, almost like a question mark. Rondeau cites the influence of the writings of reclusive French novelist Christian Bobin on his interpretation, although he does not specify how Bobin's Catholic mysticism relates to the way he plays. With this interpretation placed alongside his first recording, Rondeau has made a sort of diptych, a dual examination of Bach's score.

25.6.22

Briefly Noted: Supercharged Hahn Nostalgia

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Reynaldo Hahn, Le rossignol éperdu / Premières valses (selections), Pavel Kolesnikov

(released on June 3, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68383 | 71'24"
My ears are generally happy to discover more of the often overlooked music of French composer Reynaldo Hahn. That was true again in the case of this new disc from the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. The winner of the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012 has made selections from two of the composer's collections of miniatures, Le rossignol éperdu (53 poèmes pour piano) and Premières valses, with a half-dozen of the latter sandwiched between two groups from the former.

These salon pieces are visions fugitives par excellence, sepia-hued photographs of nostalgic etchings or watercolors from previous ages. The waltzes are the most sentimental evocations of Chopin and other Romantic composers, with other nods in the character pieces to the Renaissance ("Le jardin de Pétrarque" and " La fête de Terpsichore"), the Ancien Régime ("Les noces du duc de Joyeuse"), the Rococo ("Éros caché dans les bois"), and so on.

In a somewhat meandering booklet essay, Kolesnikov said that in order "to give this illusion of a powdery, old-fashioned sound," he made some unusual decisions for the sound of this recording. Working with piano technician Peter Salisbury, he plays on a Yamaha CFX concert grand "tuned in such a way as to maximize the extreme sensitivity of the keys, with closely positioned microphones." Loud passages clatter with a distracting amount of detail, but in soft passages -- the vast majority of the selections here -- one has the sense of being within a dampened cushion of sound. This heightens the feeling of daydreaming, making this disc a sleepy summer favorite for meditative listening.

18.6.22

Briefly Noted: Great Venetian Mass (CD of the Month)

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Vivaldi, The Great Venetian Mass, Sophie Karthäuser, Lucile Richardot, Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
(released on June 24, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905358 | 68'09"
One does not really need an excuse to make another recording of Vivaldi's well-known Gloria (RV 589), but it helps to have something that could set a new version apart. The distinguished French early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants hit on an ingenious solution, setting the Gloria as the centerpiece of a hypothetical reconstruction of a Great Venetian Mass by Vivaldi. The Redhead Priest, although he was required to produce several settings of the Latin Ordinary during his career at the Ospedale della Pietà, left no complete Mass that has survived. Paul Agnew, a long-time tenor with the ensemble and now serving as its musical codirector with founder William Christie, conducts a convincing interpretation that can only make the listener lament what such complete masses have been lost.

The Kyrie (RV 587) suits as a first movement, especially the second statement of "Kyrie eleison," with its playful rising chromatic scale, passed around the choir and orchestra, zipping along at a fleet tempo. A particularly nice touch comes in the motet placed between the Kyrie and Gloria, Ostro picta, armata spina (RV 642), surviving only in a manuscript in Turin. This piece, subtitled "Introduzione al Gloria," is something like a trope to preface the Gloria, because of its text likely sung for the Visitation of the Virgin on July 2, the convent-orphanage's patronal feast. Soprano Sophie Karthäuser gives a plangent edge to this solo piece, including the striking text painting of sudden silences in the main theme, "Linguis favete / Omnes silete" (Let tongues be still / Let all be silent), as the singer imposes silence so that only the words of the angelic hymn that follows can be heard.

Agnew helps his musicians shape a worthy interpretation of the famous Gloria, one of only two by Vivaldi that survive. The opening movement, adorned by two rustic natural trumpets, moves at a bubbly speed and with expressive, text-sensitive shaping of the choir's homophonic phrases. Karthäuser and steely mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot share the solo movements to optimal effect, and the aching suspensions of the "Et in terra pax" section are drawn out to languorous effect. The concluding fugue ("Cum sancto spiritu"), borrowed from another Gloria by one Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, a contemporary of Vivaldi's in Venice, is in the context of this mass reconstruction just another piece of the patchwork. Of Vivaldi's two surviving settings of the Credo, the group selected RV 591, the only one still confidently attributed to the composer. Its "Crucifixus" especially is quite lovely, a web of plaintive vocal lines over a detached walking bass.

No musical setting of the other movements of the Mass by Vivaldi survives, requiring this reconstruction to conclude with other pieces by Vivaldi retrofitted to the text of the Sanctus and Agnus dei (editions prepared by Pascal Duc). This makes perfect sense, as Vivaldi was known to cannibalize his own work in this way, as did most Baroque composers. The flowing strings of the Benedictus are particularly effective, adapted from a movement of the composer's Dixit dominus. In an apt echo of the return of the start of a cyclic mass setting at its conclusion, the final section of the Agnus dei is based on the solemn opening of the Kyrie (sadly not that zippy chromatic section of the second Kyrie). The sound, captured in 2020 in the resonant acoustic of the Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban in Paris, has a pleasing ring.

11.6.22

Briefly Noted: Bolcom's Complete Rags

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William Bolcom, The Complete Rags, Marc-André Hamelin

(released on June 3, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68391/2 | 133'03"
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when America had largely forgotten about Scott Joplin and ragtime. In a liner note to this dazzling new recording, composer William Bolcom describes the origins of his obsession with the rag. It began in 1967, when he first heard of Joplin and his opera Treemonisha, and continued for much of his career, as he and some fellow travelers shared new ragtime discoveries and wrote their own compositions in the style. Most of the original rags in this collection date from the ragtime revival period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When the soundtrack of the film The Sting swept the nation in 1974, Joplin's music became a rage again, so that by the time of my first piano lessons, Joplin and Joplin arrangements were common student repertory.

Marc-André Hamelin, himself a musical mimic not unlike Bolcom, gives these pieces a studied nonchalance. The two discs obviously include everything published in Bolcom's Complete Rags collection twenty years ago, with a couple of charming lagniappes. These include a few late arrivals, like Knockout 'A Rag', from 2008, in which the player raps on the piano's fallboard for a cool percussive self-accompaniment (an effect heard less extensively in the earlier Serpent's Kiss, with a bit of whistling, too), Estela 'Rag Latino' (2010), and what Bolcom thinks will be his last rag, the ultra-serene Contentment (2015). Another curiosity to discover is Brass Knuckles, a 1969 collaboration between Bolcom and another composer, William Albright, in imitation of the "collaborative rags" undertaken by Joplin and other rag composers.

The spirit of innovation runs through this music, as Bolcom merges the gestures of ragtime with other kinds of music, from more dissonant modernism to Latin genres as in the Tango-Rag. Bolcom also describes his 1969 meeting with the octogenarian Eubie Blake, the great stride master, a style Bolcom calls "urbanized ragtime." They became friends and performed together, a musical relationship that ran deep: "I consider him my last great teacher," Bolcom notes. As if to acknowledge that debt, the recording opens with Eubie's Luckey Day, a tribute to Blake's Charleston Rag.

10.6.22

New York City Ballet Returns to the Kennedy Center

New York City Ballet performed Suspended Animation, choreography by Sidra Bell (photo: Erin Baiano)

New York City Ballet has been through a disastrous period in the last four years. In 2018, the company's long-time artistic director, Peter Martins, resigned in disgrace, following accusations of sexual abuse. NYCB scrambled to find a stable way forward, naming Jonathan Stafford as its new artistic adviser, but with Wendy Whelan as associate artistic director and Justin Peck as resident choreographer and artistic adviser. As the company founded by George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Jerome Robbins struggled to address its history of sidelining the contributions of women and people of color, the coronavirus shut all of its performances down. NYCB was finally able to present a season over the past year, a selection of which the company brought to Washington for its first appearance at the Kennedy Center since 2019.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, In a terrible week, the much-needed balm of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Washington Post, June 10)

Jason Fraley, New York City Ballet’s first Black female choreographer comes to Kennedy Center (WTOP, June 6)

Gia Kourlas, A Farewell and the Promise of a New Future at City Ballet (New York Times, May 31)

---, City Ballet Gets a Modern Dance Fix (New York Times, February 4)

---, At City Ballet, Giving Voice to the Body, With Sneakers (New York Times, January 28)

Marina Harss, At City Ballet, Jamar Roberts and Dancers Find a Common Language (New York Times, January 27)

Roslyn Sulcas, Justin Peck and Collaborators Combine Gravitational Universes (New York Times, January 25)

Madelyn Sutton, Sculptor Eva LeWitt on Designing the set for Justin Peck's Partita (Playbill, May 2)

Jennifer Homans, Ballet Is Back, but All Is Not As It Was (The New Yorker, November 1, 2021)
The first two performances this week were devoted to three new choreographies, all premiered this season, seen on Tuesday evening. The first two were created by African-American choreographers, beginning with Emanon—in Two Movements by Jamar Roberts, resident choreographer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The work, whose title is "no name" spelled backwards, is set to two pieces by jazz composer Wayne Shorter, “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound.” The choreography was active but in many ways repetitive, aside from a striking solo moment for Jonathan Fahoury. The music from the pit and the dancing on stage did not always seem to line up ideally, although the visuals were beautiful, especially Jermaine Terry’s cool-purple costumes.

With her much more engaging Suspended Animation, Sidra Bell became the first black woman to choreograph a work for New York City Ballet. It opened in a whimsical way with dancers attired in technicolor costumes by the young black fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, something like Dr. Seuss characters strutting on a parody of a 1960s fashion show walkway. The dancing became more visible as the performers lost these extravagant outer layers, like birds molting their feathers. Set to music by Dosia McKay (the string quartet Is Now Not Enough? and Unveiling for strings), Oliver Davis (Solace for strings), and Nicholas Britell (The Middle of the World from his score for the film Moonlight), the piece turned from surreal to serious with an extended solo accompanied only by silence.

NYCB saved the best for last, a dynamic abstract ballet by Justin Peck, inspired by Caroline Shaw's ground-breaking Partita for 8 Voices, heard as accompaniment to the performance in the recording by Roomful of Teeth. Eight dancers, clad in white sneakers and variously colored workout clothes, moved in response to the score's often unconventional sounds. In a noteworthy tie-in, sculptor Eva LeWitt designed the sets for the ballet, hanging backdrops made of brightly colored ropes forming large discs above and behind the dancers. LeWitt is the daughter of minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, whose instructions for anyone executing his work Wall Drawing 305 were quoted extensively in Shaw's piece. Peck, who is one of the more musical choreographers working today, created a compelling work that translated music into motion, somewhat heavy-handed at times but seamless.
Sara Mearns and New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photo: Paul Kolnik)

The last four days of the run at the Kennedy Center are devoted to a recent classic, George Balanchine's innocent, child-centered story ballet based on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, seen on Thursday evening. Premiered in 1962, the work weaves together Mendelssohn's overture and incidental music for the play with other selections by the composer, to make a convincing whole, a first act with most of the action plus a compact second act consisting largely of a divertissement. The Pennsylvania Ballet brought its utterly charming version of this Balanchine ballet to the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and this was a welcome chance to see it in the hands of the company that premiered it. (One thing that NYCB should have imitated from Pennsylvania Ballet was the placement of the singers, women from the local choir Choralis, for the vocal selections in the pit: the piping in of those performers from another location was less than satisfying.)

One of NYCB's best dancers, Sara Mearns, was a warm, almost glowing Titania, easily the stronger of the royal pairing with Daniel Ulbricht's Oberon, all vanity and strength in his tantrums and athletic leaps. Taylor Stanley made an antic, caprine Puck, running with manic exaggeration and even soaring suspended on wires in the striking final tableau. Georgina Pazcoguin displayed her own virtuosic strength as Hippolyta, bounding in impressive leaps as she hunted a pack of dancer-animals. The most gorgeous moment of the night came in the Act II pas de deux, danced with time-stopping grace by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. The swarms of faeries, especially the local children in their delightful insectoid costumes, stole the show during the scenes where they appeared.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through July 12.

4.6.22

Briefly Noted: New B Minor Mass from René Jacobs

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Bach, Mass in B Minor, R. Johannsen, M.-C. Chappuis, H. Rasker, S. Kohlhepp, C. Immler, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, R. Jacobs

(released on May 13, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902676.77 | 1h44
René Jacobs, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the RIAS Kammerchor made a recording of Bach's B Minor Mass in the 1990s. It was a fine interpretation, featuring solo work from Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Matthias Goerne, Axel Köhler, and Christoph Prégardien, backed up by a large complement of choral singers. Last year, Jacobs came back to this monumental score, second among Bach's achievements only to the St. Matthew Passion, in a new recording made at the Bürgerhaus in Neuenhagen bei Berlin, released last month on the Harmonia Mundi label.

Jacobs has drawn his ideas for this new interpretation from an article by musicologist and church musician Wilhelm Ehmann (an essay called ‘Concertisten’ und ‘Ripienisten’ in der h-Moll-Messe Joh. Seb. Bachs, published in 1960). As Jacobs puts it in a booklet essay, "Ehmann argued that Bach’s ideal in his choral works was a ‘vocal concerto’, that is, an alternating juxtaposition of the full choral sonority (ripieno) and a small group of soloists (concertino)."

To realize this concept, Jacobs gives the large choral sections to the entire RIAS Kammerchor (29 singers), contrasting that sound with sections for a small choir within the choir (15 singers). The quintet of soloists, all current or former choral singers, handles the solo and duet movements, as well as some of the complete choral sections, like the intimate "Et incarnatus est" and "Crucifixus," and a few passages within the large choral sections. The effect is a pleasing increase in the variety of choral textures across what is a rather long work. (Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion used a similar approach in their new recording of the St. Matthew Passion, although Pichon's soloists also sang with the chorus.)

Jacobs has sped up his tempos in several movements, noticeable from the opening Kyrie movement, choices that shave about six minutes off the total duration. Much of that time difference may come in the Sanctus, taken at breakneck speed, about twice as fast as his previous interpretation. That being said, Jacobs is not the sort to go for HIP speed all the time: the gently flowing "Et in terra pax" movement in the Gloria is very calm, just not as slow as his old recording.

All five soloists are excellent, especially in combinations, particularly the treble voices (Robin Johannsen, Marie-Claude Chappuis, and Helena Rasker) and the impeccably light tenor of Sebastian Kohlhepp, ideal for Bach. The instrumental contributions are equally fine, with a more diverse continuo sound, organ with prominent lute from Michael Freimuth mixed in to pleasing effect. Christoph Huntgeburth and Laure Mourot give the two flauti traversi a wonderful, breathy sound, featured unusually in the parts retrofitted to the "Cum sancto spiritu" fugue of the Gloria (added by Bach when he adapted the piece in his Christmas cantata Gloria in excelsis deo).

Margherita Lulli gives a rustic touch to the corno da caccia part in the "Quoniam tu solus sanctus," and the three natural trumpets and timpani add regal dignity to the largest movements. Perhaps in a nod to the nickname of the piece in the time even of Bach's sons ("‘Die große catholische Messe"), Jacobs opts in this version for the Roman pronunciation of the Latin Ordinary.

28.5.22

Briefly Noted: Monza String Quartets

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Carlo Monza, Six String Quartets, Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi

(released on May 6, 2022)
Naïve V7541 | 60'28"
Fabio Biondi made this world premiere recording of six string quartets by Carlo Monza (1680-1739) back in 2019, at the Sala Ghislieri of the Accademia Montis Regalis in Mondovì, Italy. Biondi plays the first violin part, joining with three musicians from his ensemble, Europa Galante - violinist Andrea Rognoni, violist Stefano Marcocchi, and cellist Alessandro Andriani. In a liner note, Biondi explains the path that led him to this relatively little-known Milanese composer, related to his attempt to understand what Mozart learned from music popular at the court theater of the Duke of Milan during his travels in Italy.

Biondi discovered a reference to these quartets in the private library of a large residence on Isola Bella, one of the Borromean islands on Lake Maggiore. Although Biondi knew the composer and his music to be of interest, the library refused to authorize the use or even photographing of the manuscript scores. A musicologist friend of his then found a copy of the quartets in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a connection that showed that that score was not a reduction of symphonies but a set of string quartets. Biondi put together a concert juxtaposing these pieces with the quartets Mozart had written during his time in Italy, and now the group has released this excellent recording of the entire set.

The quartets all have descriptive titles, as well as many of the individual movements. Even in the absence of a true program to tell us what the music is attempting to say, the titles make these pieces, in the words of the one title, like "Opera in musica." In that Quartet in D Major, both violins and the viola receive recitatives like opera singers, a convention heard in several of the other quartets as well. This helps make them like little operatic scenes, ranging from 8 to 12 minutes in length. In the String Quartet in C Major ("Gli amanti rivali") we hear two rival lovers at odds with one another. They challenge each other (second movement) and fight a duel (third movement). One of them dies (fourth movement), and the finale depicts the desperation of the women who loved them ("La disperazione delle donne amanti").

The String Quartet in B-Flat Major ("Il giuocatore") follows the misadventures of a gambler, leading up to a sad movement ("La tristezza per la perdita") and a happier conclusion as he repents of his gambling ("Il giuocatore ravveduto," or the repentent gambler). Other vignettes include the String Quartet in F Major ("La fucina di Vulcano," or the Forge of Vulcan, a scene of reconciled jealousy between Vulcan and Venus under Mount Etna), the String Quartet in G Minor ("Divertimento notturno"), and the charming String Quartet in E-Flat Major ("La caccia"). In that last one, one hears a thunderstorm ("Temporale"), the meeting of the hunters ("Unione dei cacciatori"), and rustic music played by shepherds while the hunters have their dinner ("Rondò de' Pastori frattanto che i Cacciatori cenano"). The performances are all top-notch, and these pieces could easily be confused for early Mozart.

21.5.22

Briefly Noted: Tiranno

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Handel / A. Scarlatti / Monteverdi / Monari, Cantatas, K. Lindsey, Arcangelo, J. Cohen

(released on May 28, 2021)
Alpha 736 | 75'34"
The latest solo recital disc from mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, released last year, is just now reaching my ears. She partners again with Jonathan Cohen and the early music ensemble Arcangelo, the same as her previous album, with Ariadne-themed pieces by Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Haydn. This new recording is devoted to the Roman emperor Nero, again with secular cantatas by Handel and Scarlatti père, as well as one by Bartolomeo Monari (1662-1697) and excerpts from Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

The program ingeniously traces an arch between the two Scarlatti cantatas, Il Nerone and La morte di Nerone, which serve as bookends. In between, we get glimpses of the women who loved Nero and were betrayed by him: his mother, Agrippina, whom he had assassinated; his wife, Octavia, foisted on him by the scheming Agrippina, whom he divorced, exiled, and then executed; and his mistress and second wife, Poppea, whose death he caused either by poisoning her or causing her to miscarry a child after he kicked her in the abdomen.

The Richmond-born mezzo-soprano remains in good form in this remarkable disc. The bottom range has become richer, although a few high notes sound squeezed and slightly off in the aria "Veder chi pena" in the first Scarlatti cantata, perhaps intended to show Nero's loss of mental stability as he relishes the suffering of his people while Rome burns. Her voice still displays amazing virtuosity overall; the melismatic technique is in a class of its own, with runs so clearly delineated, as in Handel's showpiece "Orrida, oscura" from the cantata Agrippina condotta a morire. Cohen's ensemble adds outstanding instrumental contributions all around.

In the Monteverdi selections, Lindsey matches well with tenor Andrew Staples's Lucan in "Or che Seneca è morto" and gives dramatic force to Ottavia's lament "Addio Roma!" The duet "Pur ti miro," with soprano Nardus Williams, is a less suitable pairing in some ways, but still lovely. Never has that love duet of emperor and mistress rang more hollow than when it is followed by Bartolomeo Monari's fine cantata La Poppea, on Nero's murder of his great love. The cycle of bad karma comes full circle with Scarlatti's La morte di Nerone - both of these last two cantatas are given world premiere recordings on this disc. Nero finds himself abandoned by all and, depending on the telling, commits suicide or forces someone to kill him, dying on the anniversary of Octavia's death.

Lindsey, who was born in Richmond, has been gracing these pages since 2005, when she was a young artist with Wolf Trap Opera Company. She has returned to the area the last few years mostly with Washington Concert Opera, most recently in Gluck's Orphée last month. She will come back to Wolf Trap this summer, in a recital combining Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben and Fauré's La Chanson d'Ève on July 8.