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


Briefly Noted: Refined Brahms

available at Amazon
Brahms, Violin Sonatas / C. Schumann, Romance No. 1, A. Ibragimova, C. Tiberghien

(released on August 30, 2019)
Hyperion CDA68200 | 71'06"
Both Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova and French pianist Cédric Tiberghien have impressed these ears in recital and on disc. Their recording and performing history as a duo goes back a decade, too, including discs devoted to Beethoven and Mozart. This year they have branched out into the Romantic period, first with a disc of French composers (Ysaye, Franck, Vierne, and Lili Boulanger) and now with the three violin sonatas of Brahms, officially released later this month.

Tiberghien's interpretation of Brahms has already struck me as on exactly the right wavelength, an assessment borne out by the transparency, smoldering burn, and rhythmic verve of his playing here. Ibragimova floats above the turbulence of the keyboard part with limpid tone, spot-on intonation, and impeccable awareness of contrapuntal interplay. In particular, the way that the two musicians let go together in the extended hemiola-complicated passages affords a suspended freedom from the barline that is just delightful.

There is force where force is needed, but always in balance between the two musicians so that neither has to over-compensate. The emotional vulnerability hidden in the violin sonatas, through references to some of the composer's intensely personal songs, comes across well. The program is capped by a lovely lagniappe, the first of Clara Schumann's Romances, op. 22. It is worth noting that Clara Schumann, who had received a manuscript copy of the first Brahms violin sonata from the composer in 1879, later told him “she wished the last movement to accompany her into the beyond.”


Dip Your Ears, No. 249 (Cologne Mahler Cycle, Take Two)

available at Amazon
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.5,
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne / F.X.Roth
(Harmonia Mundi)

Ten years ago, the Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra released a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with their then-Music Director Markus Stenz. It turned out to be an excellent new recording (of a whole cycle) by the orchestra that premiered that Symphony in 1904. Now the same orchestra has recorded it again with their new music director François-Xavier Roth, also beginning a new Mahler cycle. Again the result is excellent. Interestingly enough it is Roth, who often flirts with period performance, who delivers the more slightly more conventional, slower reading. Most notably in the Adagietto where Stenz takes under nine minutes; Roth two minutes longer. But the transparency is top-notch; there is a pleasant and elegant lightness to the playing: The scoring never feels thick (nor anemic). Of course there are a good number other fine recordings of this symphony available, too. But if you have any inclination or rationalization to try this new cycle-in-the-making, there’s no reason not to start here.



Briefly Noted: New Music for Contrabassoon

available at Amazon
Music for Contrabasson, H. Agreda, M. Racz, A. Kirichenko, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, P. Muñoz-Toledo

(released on August 9, 2019)
Ars Produktion ARS3826 | 63'35"
The contrabassoon has been around since the 18th century, but it was not featured in orchestral music widely until it reached a more reliable form in the 19th century. It does not have much solo repertory, either concertos or chamber music: Gunther Schuller wrote the first solo concerto for the instrument, for contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick, who still plays with the National Symphony Orchestra and also premiered the Contrabassoon Concerto by Kalevi Aho. (Lipnick switched from the contrabassoon to a new instrument called the contraforte a decade ago.)

Hans Agreda, principal contrabassonist of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, has made this disc of music for the finicky instrument, with all but one of the pieces recorded for the first time. Listeners likely think of the contrabassoon's potentially comic low range, the feature of the instrument generally exploited by orchestral composers, but it can also sound more melodic, like a bassoon in its high range.

The composers of the works are worth getting to know, including Kees Olthuis, former bassoonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Gerhard Deutschmann, who wrote a sonata for contrabassoon and piano; the Russian Victor Bruns, former bassoonist with the Staatskapelle Berlin; and Germany-based Efraín Oscher. The Bruns concerto for contrabassoon is the highlight, performed with Agreda's colleagues from the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and conductor Paulo Muñoz-Toledo.


"Dear Evan Hansen" comes home to Washington

Ben Levi Ross (Evan Hansen) and Jessica Phillips (Heidi Hansen) in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Four years ago, the Dear Evan Hansen phenomenon was born at Arena Stage right here in Washington. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks recognized it as a winner early on and continued to report on this compelling new musical's meteroic success on Broadway. Last year the show went on its first North American tour, which landed at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater Thursday night.

The story (book by Steven Levenson) lies at the nexus of many issues facing young people today: social alienation, anxiety, and the social media sites that can make them worse. Evan Hansen is an intensely awkward high-school student being raised by a singer single mother. As part of his therapy, he writes a support letter to himself (thus the title of the musical), trying to improve his mood and ease his worries about the new school year.

Through a series of accidents, without spoiling most of the details, the letter involves him with the family of a classmate of his, a troubled, rage-inclined student named Connor, who takes his own life. Although Evan and Connor did not really know one another, Evan pretends to be his friend, feeding a series of lies to Connor's parents and sister, a ruse fueled by Evan's intense longing for a friend and for a family more present than his mother can be.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Welcome home, ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ You’re back where you belong. (Washington Post, August 8)
For readers like me, the corny plotlines and sappy endings of most musicals are a non-starter. Only those rare tragic musicals are tolerable: someone getting shot (West Side Story), the grim reality of the Holocaust (Fiddler on the Roof), or separation by the war in Algeria (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg). This musical follows a crushingly sad story, especially because just about all the characters need something happy in their lives so desperately that they eagerly accept Evan's rather implausible tale. In a sense, the fake happiness on display every hour of every day on social media filters into reality.

Ben Levi Ross was aloof and even unlikeable in the title role, handling reasonably well the role's vocal demands but without the grain and intensity of Ben Platt, the first Evan. Strongest in singing were the moving performances of Jessica Phillips as Evan's exasperated mother and the vulnerable but emotionally armored Maggie McKenna as Connor's sister, Zoe. Dear Evan Hansen has its laughs, particularly from the comic foil of Evan's friend Jared, who is complicit in the deception, played with biting edge by Jared Goldsmith.

The music and lyrics, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are snappy, in an easy rock style with a few moments of ensemble harmony. The song that ends the first act, "You Will Be Found," is the major hit of the show, with lesser contenders in "Waving Through a Window" and "For Forever," but not much else left an impression. The small band, elevated on a platform at the rear left of the stage, mixes two guitars, drums, keyboard, and bass with three string players from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led capably from the keyboard by Alex Harrington.

The scenic design by David Korins is ingenious, with video projections constantly embodying the flashing, beeping notifications of social media that invade the characters' lives. (It was probably what Santa Fe Opera's production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs wanted to be but was not.) There were some technical details not quite worked out: Ross's microphone came on late at one point, microphone levels were not optimally adjusted here and there, and Aaron Lazar seemed to have a couple minor memory slips as Connor's father.

Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 8 at the Kennedy Center.


Dip Your Ears, No. 248 (Three American Symphonies)

available at Amazon
American Symphonies
W.Piston, S.Jones, S.Albert
Symphonies 6, 3 & 2
L.Friedel / LSO

Walter Piston, Samuel Jones, Stephen Albert are all fine American symphonists of the 20th century. Anyone who likes – or even likes to champion – tonal orchestral music that is ultimately more beholden to beauty than musicological ideology, should want to hold up these composers as an example for classical music that never allowed itself to be divorced from (potentially) popular music. Stephen Albert has a chapter in Surprised by Beauty – A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Music; Samuel Jones should, and even without such a mention Piston is part of a group of “American Classics” to which also belong Samuel Barber, Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, and William Schuman.

When Stephen Albert, student of the wonderful George Rochberg, died in an automobile accident at 51, the Washington Post perceptively wrote that his death “deprived American music of one of its most luminous talents”. Albert had just finished the short score of his Second Symphony which the New York Philharmonic had commissioned. Sebastian Currier tended to the tart, vigorous orchestration. Along with its Pulitzer-Prize winning sibling, the First Symphony, it has previously been recorded by Paul Polivnick and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra for Naxos. His influences are Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and he had a penchant for good tunes (first movement) packed with a robust punch and zero treacle. While one is listening, there’s enjoyment to be had. It would work still better in the concert hall, though.

His music, like that of the two other composers here, is often more easily admired and proselytized than it is loved. All three works contain many good things upon closer inspection but too few merits at the all-important just-below superficial level. Those who listen closely may find much to admire, but the rest scratches their heads. Very little of Piston, for one, is memorable at all. I don’t mean memorable in the literal, “whistle in the street afterwards” sense, which very little music is, but even to remember having had an impression while listening. The most gripping account of that rarely recorded Sixth Symphony may still be Munch’s visceral reading, ahead of the serviceable rest (Slatkin/St. Louis, Schwarz/Seattle, Fridel, LSO).

Samuel Jones’ “Palo Duro Canyon” ends up the most worthwhile inclusion on this disc. His symphony wasn’t, unlike the others, commissioned by big-shot orchestras (Boston and New York, respectively), but by the humble Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. (Which goes to show what important work the easily-overlooked orchestras in the country do.) It’s a colorful and evocative work, between Roy Harris, Carl Orff and a very conservative Messiaen. After a windswept opening (literally, with the help of pre-recorded sounds of gusts in the canyon), it develops a Carmina-Buranaesque energy. Its penchant for the lyrical comes out in the second segment of this nominally one-movement, six-partite symphony No. 3: an awfully sweet, certainly delicious short interlude.

Now if these three works were great-sounding knock-out performances, performed with passion and a hint of desperate communicativeness – rather than being tossed off out with enormous technical skill in a neutral, unimpressive acoustic – this might be a perfect primer for discovering the beauty of American symphonic music. As it is, it’s just a good recording of three good symphonies in a field where “good” is simply not good enough. Any of the Naxos recordings with these works – usually coupled more logically with other works of the respective same composers – are as good or better. That said, the disc is worth it for the discovery (to whomever it would constitute a discovery) of the Samuel Jones symphony alone!



On ClassicsToday: Melissa Galosi Playful with Mozart and Kurtág

Playing Games With Mozart And György Kurtág

by Jens F. Laurson
Pianist Melissa Galosi’s recording titled “Games” is a clever recital mixing Mozart and György Kurtág at their most playful selves. The title refers both to the whimsy of a variety of Mozart’s Variations and Kurtág’s series of miniatures collectively named “Játékok” (Hungarian for “Games”) that... Continue Reading


NSO accompanies screening of "E.T."

Among the summer offerings of the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap was a screening of the classic film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on Friday night. It was a beautiful evening for it, with a cool breeze that could have been a little stronger to make up for the heat of the receding day at the Filene Center. It was heartening in a way to see that the crowd for this supposedly popular offering, in both the house and on the lawn, was smaller than the straight-classical program the NSO had played here last weekend.

The NSO's longtime associate conductor, Emil de Cou, continued his leadership of most NSO events at Wolf Trap for the screening. The Steven Spielberg film, released in 1982, was much funnier than I had remembered, and my son and I both enjoyed watching it again. John Williams, who has provided so much of the soundtrack of American cinematic lives for the last fifty years, may not be remembered principally for this film. In fact, there is not much to the score except some memorable moments created with papery piccolo solos, tingling celesta and harp, and quirky, almost mechanical loops.

That is with the noteworthy exception of the two flying bicycle scenes, the two places in the film where the NSO could really open up and soar. The effect with live orchestra was an exponential increase of the gooseflesh effect of Williams's full-orchestra treatment of one of his distinctive melodies. If some people who do not normally attend orchestra concerts experienced that feeling, this aspect of the NSO's "popular outreach" effort will have been worth it.


Briefly Noted: Late Medieval Polyphonic Masses

available at Amazon
Messes de Barcelone et d'Apt, Ensemble Gilles Binchois, D. Vellard

(released on August 16, 2019)
Evidence Classics EVCD060 | 63'35"
As you move through the 16th century, you can hear European sacred music crystallizing around the foundations of tonality. In most cases earlier than that, it is still the modes, non-triadic harmonies, and parallel voice movement that are most prevalent. That austere sound is what is refreshing to the ear in this new release from the outstanding all-male choir Ensemble Gilles Binchois.

The anchor of the program is two compilations of the Mass Ordinary, disparate musical movements by different composers writing in the musical style favored by the papal court in Avignon, the so-called Ars Nova, but associated with other southern courts. The movements are all found in two polyphonic sources, ms. 971 in Barcelona's Biblioteca de Catalunya and ms. 16bis in the chapter library of the Cathedral of Sainte-Anne in Apt. Extravagant tropes are woven into the Ordinary texts, particularly in the Barcelona Sanctus.

Motets from these two sources, as well as a couple from ms. 1361 from the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, round out the selection. The pieces, composed in three or four parts, are spread in various ways among the six male voices. Dominique Vellard's direction emphasizes harmonious balance among the voices, as well as a pleasing variety of articulation, from choppy to velours-smooth. The sound, recorded in the resonant Benedictine abbey church at Vézelay, is scrumptious. Medieval instruments, two bowed vielles and a gittern, complement the texture in the sung pieces; a couple of the motet pieces have been arranged entirely for these instruments.