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

21.5.22

Briefly Noted: Tiranno

available at Amazon
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.

14.5.22

Briefly Noted: Polish Farewells (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Polish Songs, Jakub Józef Orliński, Michał Biel

(released on May 6, 2022)
Erato 0190296269714 | 57'14"
Not surprisingly, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński has recorded largely Baroque music, often in partnership with the historically informed performance ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. For this new album, the Polish singer has partnered with Polish pianist Michał Biel, his longtime friend from their student days in Warsaw and at the Juilliard School. The program is the fruit of their collaboration in song recital repertory by more recent Polish composers, all from the last 150 years, recorded in September 2021 at the Nowa Miodowa Concert Hall in Warsaw.

Some of these composers may be familiar, particularly Karol Szymanowski, although his Songs from Kurpie may not be. The words are folk texts collected by Władysław Skierkowski, a musician and priest who died in 1941 in the Soldau concentration camp. His book, The Kurpian Forest in Song, is based on his time during World War I hiding in the swampy forests of Poland's Kurpie region. Szymanowski composed beautiful musical settings for these often cryptic texts, a sort of Polish counterpart to Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Orliński gives the folk-style cantillation a natural ease of bends and blue notes. In the beautiful bird song (no. 2) his voice reaches effortlessly up to high E.

The other composers are less known outside of Poland and yield fascinating discoveries. Henryk Czyż (1923-2003) may be better known as a conductor, especially for his championing of the music of Penderecki in many recordings. He was also a gifted composer, on display in Pożegnania (Farewells), a set of three gorgeous songs on Pushkin poems translated into Polish by Julian Tuwim. The style is unabashedly Straussian, with lush chromatic turns similar to the delectable music of Joseph Marx. Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) contributes four songs on Shakespeare sonnets translated into Polish, in a pretty, neoclassical style but perhaps with serial techniques underlying it. As a teenager Baird did a period as a forced laborer for the Nazis, eventually surviving internment in a concentration camp. The last of these songs is somber and gorgeous, and Orliński plies his silken voice to the sighed downward portamenti.

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909) is represented by the largest number of songs, a dozen rather short piece, drawn mostly from two sets. His style is late Romantic and poignant, akin to Tchaikovsky, whom he admired. Some are especially fine, as the slow, aching melody of "Na spokojnym, ciemnym morzu." Sadly, Karłowicz died young, a victim of an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains. The only living composer included on this disc, Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968), has one song, "Jesień" (Autumn), on a striking text by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, the "Polish Sappho" active in the years between the two world wars. One hears the autumn rain falling in the long piano introduction, slowly dripping with splashing dissonances rebounding, just one example of Biel's sensitive work at the piano. The stark vocal writing features odd, jagged intervals, humming, portamenti, and other austere effects. The program concludes with two songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), often described as the "father of Polish opera."

7.5.22

Briefly Noted: Alice Coote Schubertiade

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Schubert, Songs, Alice Coote, Julius Drake

(released on May 6, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68169 | 71'36"
At the end of March here in Washington, Alice Coote was the best part of the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The British mezzo-soprano recorded this selection of twenty-one Schubert songs, back in December of 2017, in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, in London. The program is a mixture of rather simple strophic songs and more complex pieces, some relative rarities alongside some of the most often heard songs in performances with new ideas to recommend them.

Coote's wheelhouse is in the dramatic songs where she can open up her considerable vocal power, as in "Der Zwerg," which sets a truly bizarre poem about a dwarf who murders his mistress, a queen, by lowering her into the sea from a ship. Drake supports her with technical assurance, releasing from the Steinway under his fingers a broad swath of sound. Similar examples include a truly thrilling "Rastlose Liebe" and an equally restless "Der Musensohn."

Drake often works with singers to devise ingenious recital selections. In this case the program is a sort of chiasmus in structure, opening with one setting of Goethe's "An den Mond" and ending with another. This quasi-palindromic pattern is extended with other songs or themes heard at the opening of the recital and then in reverse order at the end: Schubert's "Wandrers Nachtlied I" and "Im Frühling," second and third in order, are balanced by "Frühlingsglaube" and "Wandrers Nachtlied II" in antepenultimate and penultimate positions, and so on. Coote's sometimes active vibrato is perhaps less effective in softer, less dramatic songs like these, but she is so musical that they all work.

This clever construction is not as exact beyond that, but the plan does put two famous songs in opposition to one another, yielding interesting results in comparison. In "Der Tod und das Mädchen," Coote summons up radically different vocal qualities for the terrified maiden and the comforting specter of Death. The latter features her extensive and shadowy low register (similar in some ways to her striking "Urlicht" in the NSO's "Resurrection" symphony). "Erlkönig" also involves the confrontation of a young person with the fear of death. Of the multiple vocal characterizations in this dramatic song, the haunted child is the most striking, for whom Coote lightens her tone straightens her vibrato a bit. Drake's accompaniment is not the most steady in those difficult repeated octaves, a rare shortcoming.

30.4.22

Briefly Noted: Tailleferre's Piano Music

available at Amazon
Germaine Tailleferre, Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1, Nicolas Horvath

(released on April 1, 2022)
Grand Piano GP891 | 83'21"
Germaine Tailleferre was the only woman included in the group of French composers styled as Les Six. Even the writer Jean Cocteau, whose leadership brought the group to fame, pushed her into the background, at one point deriding her as "une Marie Laurencin pour l'oreille." (Laurencin, in fact, painted a portrait of Cocteau in the 1920s.) That brief period of association was just the first phase of Tailleferre's long compositional career, that lasted into her 90s, almost until her death in 1983. She lived in the United States twice, in the 1920s, with her first husband, and again in Philadelphia during World War II.

Her music is not well known here, although hopefully that will change as ensembles seek to include more music composed by women: for example, last spring, Chiarina Chamber Players performed her Harp Sonata and her Piano Trio. Pianist Nicolas Horvath, known for his marathon complete performances and recordings of many modern composers such as Satie, Stockhausen, and Glass, is undertaking a complete recording of her piano music. These three volumes will bring together all of the composer's pieces for piano, many recorded for the first time, thanks to permission granted by the composer's granddaughter and sole heir.

Most of the pieces in this first volume are short character pieces, many collected into longer suites. Like Nadia Boulanger she was interested in the monuments of French music history. She collected transcriptions of bits of music by Lully and other French and Italian composers in her Petites ouvertures d'airs anciens, while the influence of baroque style runs through her collection Fleurs de France and the Suite dans le style Louis XV. She was, among other things, talented at mimicry, with many of these brief pieces in imitation of various types of music both real and fanciful (Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Sicilienne, Inca, Amazon).

The only track longer than a few minutes is the piano version of her unusual score for Sous le rampart d'Athènes, music dominated by trilling figures that is probably much more interesting in its orchestral incarnation. Tailleferre met the writer Paul Claudel, the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel, on a ship returning to Europe after her first American stay. He commissioned her to write incidental music for this "philosophical dialogue" written to commemorate the centenary of the scholar Marcellin Berthelot's birth. Horvath's interpretations are sensitive and profound, although at times there are some technical shortcomings, as in repeated-note sections, which can be a little hesitant and clotted.

Washington Ballet returns to its new and improved 'Giselle' at the Warner

Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez in the Washington Ballet's Giselle (xmb Photography)

In some ways the Julie Kent era at Washington Ballet began with Giselle, the big classical story ballet on her first season in 2017. After two years of pandemic struggles, the company has brought back its artistic director's production of this romantic ghost story, described by Kent as "revised and refined," this time at the Warner Theater instead of the Kennedy Center's slightly larger Eisenhower Theater. The venue change brought with it some box office woes, as delays in picking up tickets delayed the start of the performance by a half-hour, problems that can hopefully be prevented going forward.
Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, Washington Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ brims with charm and musical delights (Washington Post, April 29)

Other Productions:
American Ballet Theater (2020)
Bolshoi (2014)
Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris (2012)
Mariinsky (2011)

Eun Won Lee, the Korean étoile who came to Washington to dance for Kent, remained remarkable in the title role. She was equally fragile in both acts, a bubbly girl weakened by a bad heart. As one of the Wilis in the Act II ballet blanc she was less a vaporous spirit this time, it seemed, than a soul that yearned to be still corporeal, a living woman now just out of Albrecht's reach. Her Albrecht, the strong and nobly comported Gian Carlo Perez, in an admirable debut, seemed to see her but could not grasp her at first in that darkened second act.

To their credit Kent and her partner, associate artistic director Victor Barbee, have certainly captured the frightening side of the ballet's "Halloween" act. Adelaide Clauss glowered with menace in her debut as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, the avenging spirits of wronged women. The absurdly pompous Hilarion of Oscar Sanchez, another fine debut, got his just deserts when the ghosts drove him to his agonizing death.

The most impressive debut came in the peasant dance scene in Act I, an extended pairing often used to feature rising dancers. The chipper Tamako Miyazaki danced with Rench Soriano, who joined the Washington Ballet studio company in 2019. He was compact and strong in this athletic choreography, all leg musicle and clean vertical line in his leaps. The corps bounced with fervor in the peasant scenes in Act I, changing into rigid, forbidding spirits in Act II. The surprise moment when their white veils are ripped away, pulled by strings into the wings, added to the aura of mystery.

Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theater, returned to the pit in his ongoing collaboration with Kent. He presided over a stripped-down chamber arrangement of Adolphe Adam's score, which other than some occasional weakness in the strings (parts covered by only twelve musicians total) was remarkably effective. Nicolette Oppelt's flute and Ron Erler Fatma Daglar's oboe were highlights in the woodwinds, with fine contributions from harpist Nadia Pessoa and an ardent viola solo from Jennifer Ries in the touching Act II pas de deux. The horns and trumpets provided heraldic hunt sounds in Act I.

The Washington Ballet's Giselle runs through May 1 at the Warner Theater.

23.4.22

Briefly Noted: Triduum at Notre-Dame (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Pâques à Notre-Dame, Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, Yves Castagnet, Henri Chalet

(released on April 1, 2022)
Warner 190296396892 | 63'45"
On April 15, 2019, fire destroyed the spire and vault of the most beloved Gothic church in the world, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. This new release from Warner Classics is devoted to the last polyphonic works to be performed in the cathedral before the fire, which occurred in the days leading up to Easter. The children and adults of the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, under conductor Henri Chalet, recorded this program in the neo-Gothic Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde.

Since the fire, the Maîtrise has continued its liturgical service at the older Église Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois. A training choir for young voices, from children up to age 30, they perform at the highest professional level. Various combinations of the group's voices sing music that was prepared for the feasts of the Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Yves Castagnet accompanies many of the pieces on Sainte-Clotilde's venerable Cavaillé-Coll organ, once played by César Franck, Gabriel Pierné, Charles Tournemire, and Jean Langlais, to name just the most famous of the church's celebrated organists.

About half of the disc consists of music performed on these sacred days by choirs around the world, including two of Maurice Duruflé's celebrated Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, proper to Holy Thursday and sung with gorgeous subtlety. Antonio Lotti's complex Crucifixus for eight voices, proper to Good Friday, revels in its massive pile-up of dissonant suspensions, balanced by the joy of Jehan Revert's metrical arrangements of the beloved Easter tune O filii et filiae and the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes. The concise Missa Octo vocum by Hans Leo Hassler goes nicely with a motet by Monteverdi and Dextera domini, César Franck's gentle, pastoral offertory proper to Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil.

Quite pleasingly, the disc also features recent liturgical music composed by three living French composers. Two hymns on French texts and the intriguing Messe brève showcase the compelling style of Yves Castagnet (b. 1964), titulaire of the orgue de chœur at Notre-Dame, where he regularly accompanied Vespers. (From 2010 to 2013, Castagnet published seven books of his Heures de Notre-Dame, bringing together the music he oversaw for Vespers at the cathedral.) Jean-Charles Gandrille (b. 1982) is represented by a simple, rather hypnotic setting of the Marian sequence Stabat Mater for organ and treble voices, which cranks up in intensity towards its ecstatic conclusion. There is also a striking new piece by Lise Borel (b. 1993), one of the choir's assistant directors and a rather interesting composer. Her Regina caeli, for seven women's voices accompanying themselves with murmuring repetions of "regina regina," can be heard in the video embedded below.

16.4.22

Briefly Noted: Domenico Scarlatti

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Stabat Mater (inter alia), Emmanuelle de Negri, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, Le Caravansérail, Bertrand Cuiller

(released on April 8, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM905340DI | 76'22"
The little surviving sacred music by Domenico Scarlatti should be sung more often than it is. In my limited experience with it as a choral singer, it is always worth knowing. Bertrand Cuiller puts a setting of the Stabat Mater at the center of this recent survey of the composer's music with Le Caravansérail, the early music ensemble he founded in 2015. Cuiller conducts the work from the organ, leading a small continuo ensemble consisting of cellist Bruno Cocset, plus double bass and archlute. This puts the emphasis appropriately on the voices, soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, blossoming into a rarefied choral sound at climaxes with eight other singers.

Cuiller shifts gears with the remaining pieces on the disc, all of a secular nature, which he performs on or leads from a harpsichord. The selections highlight the melodic variety of Scarlatti the Younger, from the somber Keyboard Sonata in D Minor, K.213 (Cuiller on harpsichord), to an unusual arrangement of the Sonata in G Major, K. 144, for harpist Bérengère Sardin. The group's lead violinist plays the diverting Sonata in D Minor, K. 90, one of the multi-movement sonatas Scarlatti left open to the possibility of performing with added instruments. The disc also includes a movement from one of the Scarlatti sonatas enlarged as a concerto grosso by English composer Charles Avison.

Other vocal works include three arias from the opera Amor d’un’Ombra e Gelosia d’un’aura, composed in Rome and later adapted as Narciso for London, as well as the cantata Pur nel sonno almen tal'ora, composed during Scarlatti's later period in Madrid. Sardin gets another pleasing harp turn on the Minuetto that forms the latter's second movement. Of the two leading soloists, de Negri is the more consistenly pleasing, featured beautifully in the cantata's three vocal movements, as Bénos-Djian at times falls into the nasal shrillness associated with some countertenor voices at loud dynamics. The two singers are heard together to their best effect, as Narcissus and Echo, in the final selection from Amor d'un'Ombra.

9.4.22

Briefly Noted: Mendelssohn Violin Sonatas

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Violin Sonatas, Alina Ibragimova, Cédric Tiberghien

(released on March 4, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68322 | 67'04"
Both violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien got into my ears through their recordings of the music of Bach. Neither performer has made the trip to Washington in several years, so it has been a delight to keep up with their musical partnership on disc, which has extended into Romantic music. After their wonderful Brahms album was briefly noted a few years ago, this collection of the Mendelssohn violin sonatas now gets a mention. Washington classical music presenters, if you are reading, someone needs to bring this duo here soon.

As one is reminded in the superb program notes by preeminent Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy not only as a composer and pianist but as a violinist. He began to study the instrument at age 10, forming a long friendship with his teacher, the virtuoso Eduard Rietz. According to Mendelssohn's composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the composer became a violinist "of professional calibre," taking part as both violinist and violist in a number of public performances. Mendelssohn dedicated to Rietz, who died of consumption at only 30 years old, the only violin sonata he ever published, his Op. 4, as well as the brilliant, youthful String Octet, with its extra-florid first violin part as a tribute to his teacher.

This disc includes excellent renditions of Op. 4 and of the two complete violin sonatas in F major that Mendelssohn never published. All three pieces are worth hearing, but the second one, from much later in Mendelssohn's life, stands out. He drafted the piece in 1838, when he held the director's post in Leipzig, intending it for the hands of Ferdinand David but ultimately abandoned it. Mendelssohn's two original autograph versions of the piece's first movement, one a revision of the other, remained unpublished until the Mendelssohn anniversary in 2009: this recording uses the initial, unrevised first movement. The other curiosity is the fragment of a violin sonata in D major, left incomplete after 367 measures of its first movement. It opens oddly, with a probing violin melody over quiet chords, leading to a fast theme that turns toward minor. An unexpected return to the major key feels like a temporary solution to make some sort of ending, after which the music trails off.