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


On ClassicsToday: Thomas Zehetmair conducts Bruckner (MDG)

Bruckner From Switzerland, Handicapped And Below Par

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

I wouldn’t rule out that a small orchestra with something to say can’t do invigorating romantic music—even Bruckner. Thomas Dausgaard’s Bruckner Second comes to mind, where the incense-free très sportif atmosphere does its part to bring out Bruckner’s kinship with Schubert. So when Thomas Zehetmair (whose musicianship as a violinist and string quartet player is of the very highest order) recorded Bruckner’s Third symphony with his Musikkollegium Winterthur (which itself has some very nice recordings of Frank Martin and, for that matter, Schubert, to its name), my expectations weren’t particularly low, though not particularly high, either. [continue reading]


Briefly Noted: More of Rousset's Salieri (CD of the Month)

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A. Salieri, Tarare, C. Dubois, K. Deshayes, J.-S. Bou, J. van Wanroij, Les Talens Lyriques, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, C. Rousset

(released on July 12, 2019)
Aparte AP208 | 2h45
Among Christophe Rousset's major accomplishments as a conductor is his revival of the operas of Antonio Salieri. We took note of his recording of the composer's Les Danaïdes a few years ago. The latest in the project, Tarare, coincides with Alex Ross's on-point reconsideration of Salieri's place in music history. The superlative playing of Les Talens Lyriques, especially the whisper-fine traverso flutes, reveals this melodically rich score in its best light.

Tarare has some interesting overlaps with Mozart's career at the same time. Beaumarchais himself wrote the libretto for the French premiere in 1787, the version recorded here. Then Lorenzo da Ponte reworked it in Italian as Axur, re d'Ormus for the Viennese premiere the following year. (In the film Amadeus, Salieri is seen conducting the finale of the Viennese version, its success earning Mozart's scorn.)

Beaumarchais drew the story from a curious literary source, a collection of English exotic tales published as The Tales of the Genii, or The Delightful Lessons of Horam, the Son of Asmar. The author, James Ridley (the pseudonym of Sir Charles Morell), claimed to have translated the stories from a Persian source, but they are decidedly European visions of the East. Salieri, master of the dramatic gesture, has the orchestral intro to the Prologue interrupted by entrance of the soprano Judith van Wanroij as Nature, accompanied by the chorus of unchained winds. In the frame narrative of the French version, the shades nominate one of their number to become the despotic ruler Atar and another the soldier Tarare. The five acts that follow are the account of what became of them in their lives.

The king, jealous of the happiness and popularity of the soldier, orders Tarare's wife, Astasie, to be kidnapped and transferred to his harem. In a twist of reversal from stories like The Magic Flute, the slaves in Atar's household are Europeans -- and singers to boot. The chief eunuch, Calpigi, is even a castrato from Ferrara, who reveals his king's evil plan to have Tarare killed. Tarare manages to elude all of the plots to torture and kill him and is eventually named king after the suicide of Atar. Salieri uses jangling Janissary sounds throughout the opera, starting with the loud overture that introduces Act I. One unusual facet of the plot involves the disguise of Tarare as a black slave, who is then to be married to his own wife, who ends up sending another servant in her place. Such wife-swapping aspects crop up in Figaro and Cosi, among other works of the period.


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Die Walküre

Hunding (Albert Pesendorfer) and his dogs

From the second day of the 2019 Budapest Wagner Days come these pictures of Die Walküre. (See production pictures of Das Rheingold here - and the ClassicsToday review here.) If the Rheingold stunned with a (largely) no-name cast that was absolutely bona-fide world class (most especially Alberich, Loge, Mime, and Fasolt along with the established Wotan of Johan Reuter's), this most popular opera of the Ring boasted a cast with world class names that, happily, lived up to their billing. Stuart Skelton, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, and especially Catherine Foster gave of their best.

Here is part two (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung
Here is part one of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Die Walküre to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)


À mon chevet: My Struggle, Book 6

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

book cover
For my own part, the transgressional was associated with an enormous sense of freedom on the one hand, and enormous shame on the other, played out in a rather unsophisticated fashion in a few too many beers followed by a couple of hours of undesirable yet delightfully unfettered behavior as a result. It was low and vile and wretched, even if it didn't necessarily feel like it, whereas the crimes that took place in the Third Reich were transgressional in a radically different and fundamentally incomprehensible yet not less compelling sense altogether. It was as if they exceeded the very limits of what was human. How was that possible? The allure of death, the allure of destruction, the allure of total annihilation, of what did it consist? The world burned, and they were joyful.

I read about it, I wondered about it, and never without feeling some small measure of that same allure myself as I sat there far from war and death, destruction and genocide, on a chair in Bergen, surrounded by all my books, usually with a cigarette in my hand and a cup of coffee next to me on the desk, the dwindling hum of the evening's traffic outside the window, sometimes with a warm cat asleep on my lap. I read about the final days of Hitler, the utterly demented atmosphere far beneath the ground where he lived with his attendants and those closest to him, the city above them, bombed to rubble by the Russians, a blazing inferno. At one point he ascended to inspire some boys of the Hitler Youth, I had seen the footage that was shot, he is ill, tries to stop his hand from shaking as he goes from one boy to the next, it must have been Parkinson's disease. but in his eyes there is a gleam, something unexpectedly warm.

Surely it couldn't be possible?

When Dad died, Yngve and I found a Nazi pin among his belongings, a pin with a German eagle to put in the lapel of a jacket. Where did he get it from? He was not the type to have bought something of that nature and therefore he must have been given it or come across it in some way. When Grandma died, a year and a half after Dad, and we went through the house to divide things up, we found a Norwegian edition of Mein Kampf in the chest in the living room. What was it doing there? It must have been there since the war. It was a fairly common book at the time, with thousands of copies sold, someone might have given it to them as a present, without it having any signficance for them, but nevertheless it was still strange that they hadn't got rid of it after the war, for they would hardly have been unaware that it was incriminating. After the initial sensation the discovery of something so illicit gave rise to, I thought little more of it. I knew the people they were, Grandad and Grandma, and I knew that they were from another age, in which other rules applied.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, Min kamp Sjette bok, pp. 490-92
It was a long three years since I read Book 5 of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle. In some ways I put off reading the last volume because I was a little sad that the book would come to an end. The first five volumes are in a disturbingly direct style, as Knausgård painfully examines his own life in a style that is half-memoir, half-novel. The sixth book begins in the same manner, but quickly veers into uncharted territory.

He is writing about the period when he was finishing the book. His publisher asked him to contact all the people who appear in the novel, to make sure they will not raise a fuss about the use of their names and private lives. Novelists make use of this kind of material all the time, of course, but usually they at least change the names to disguise identities. Most of his friends and family do not object, but one uncle, his father's brother, adamantly refuses and threatens to sue. The basis of his complaint is that Karl Ove's recollections are entirely false, an absurd invention that will bring harm to the family name.

Knausgård uses the fear this instills in his own heart as a way to lead the reader to question everything in the first five volumes. Is it possible that a book that gained Knausgård fame for its brutal honesty is in fact not to be trusted? Language itself becomes suspect, as does memory. The middle part of the book is an exhaustive analysis of the topic, beginning with a near-indigestible coprolith of literary analysis devoted to the author's favorite poem by Paul Celan. This leads to a long consideration of the book's namesake, Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, which Karl Ove and his brother found among his grandmother's belongings after her death (the section quoted here).

Knausgård combs through Hitler's book, obsessively comparing it with other primary texts about Hitler's life, all of this by way of pointing out that Hitler's account of his own life is not all that accurate. Literary critics have not been kind to this wordy section weighing down the middle of Book 6, but the author's brother, Yngve, had perhaps the best reaction to this idea. After reading an early draft of the novel to see how it depicted him, Yngve wrote Karl Ove an e-mail. "Your fucking struggle, said the subject line," he recalls.


Dip Your Ears, No. 244 (Tempting Brahms 4th from Saraste & WDR)

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J.Brahms, Sy.#4, Academic Festival Ovt, Tragic Ovt.
J-P.Saraste / WDR SO
(Profil Hänssler)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste (on Twitter) has just conducted his last concert as the chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (with Mahler 5th, Zimmermann’s Photoptosis and the Felix Weingartner arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge) where he succeeded Semyon Bychkov and will be succeeded by Cristian Măcelaru (on Twitter). Nine productive years seem to have just flown by. It might be recency bias, but towards the end, it felt, recordings were coming out left and right – including a cycle of the complete Beethoven Symphonies which, despite the accumulating cynicisms of life in a Beethoven-saturated market, was rather splendid (ClassicsToday: Mightily Superfluous Excellence: Saraste and Beethoven Cycle No. 176).

Also among the recordings was a set of the Brahms Symphonies. I have before me the Fourth, which, on its own, sounded pretty darn good on casual hearing. Good enough to merit a little comparison, and so out came two versions from favorite cycles: Simon Rattle’s—reviewed here: Dip Your Ears, No. 100 (Rattle and Brahms)—and Günter Wand’s 1996/97 live NDR set on RCA (his last of three cycles with that orchestra). Günter Wand’s magnificently unhurried way and cool-as-a-cucumber flow is something to behold, still. Ditto Rattle’s tension and the quality of playing. (Although I don’t think that rather broad Fourth is the absolute strong-point of a generally terrific set). In many ways Saraste sits between these two approaches: Nearly the bite of Rattle, but not quite. Nearly the impossibly effortless movement of Wand, but not quite.

That might sound like a bit of Vanilla neither-nor, but that’s not the case. With excellent sound a shade on the bright side, fine playing from all the instrument groups (all caught in good presence without any awkward spotlighting) and niftily chosen, lively tempos (not that being faster than Rattle and nimble Wand suggests breaking any speed-records), the result is actually subtly outstanding. A truly joyous Academic Festival Overture and a meaty Tragic Overture round the disc out very gratifyingly. If all the senses didn’t scream: No-one needs a 2Xth set of the Brahms symphonies, one might almost be tempted to find out how the rest of Saraste’s Brahms sounds!


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Das Rheingold

Freia (Lilla Horti), Fasolt (Per Bach Nissen) & Fafner (Walter Fink)

The Budapest Wagner Days are a 15-year old institution that I only got to know this year. Shame on me. At the heart of the Wagner Days, initiated by Ádám Fischer and taking place at the Müpa, Budapest’s splendid modern arts center, has been an annual Ring Cycle, always coupled with another Wagner opera. Last year, this cycle was on hiatus in favor of two non-Ring Operas. The feedback was immediate: "We want our Ring back", chanted the international crowd that had come to love the tradition and the semi-staged production by Hartmut Schörghofer & his wife. I don't know if they went to the Müpa Center with placards in their hands and horns on their helmets, but the Wagner Days were quick about bringing the Ring back, with the videos - an essential part of the production(s) - overhauled and brought up to technological date. Blood now splatters in HD. A good thing that they did that, too, one must assume (not having seen the previous incarnation), because these things tend to stale quickly. (Take the La fura dels Baus' vapid Ring Cycle, where the video elements looked like HAL 9000 had mated with a Windows 95 Screen Saver soon after that Ring first hit the stage.) To make up for the hiatus, the Ring was put on twice, from June 13. until 16. and from June 20. until the 23.

Here is part one (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Das Rheingold to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)

Briefly Noted: Piemontesi's Colorful Liszt

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Liszt, Années de pèlerinage, 2ème Année ("Italie") / Légende No. 1 , F. Piemontesi

(released on May 24, 2019)
Orfeo C982191 | 62'19"

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1ère Année
It was a pleasure to discover Francesco Piemontesi earlier this year when he made his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra. Far more impressive than his take on a Rachmaninoff blockbuster was his encore, a sensitively voiced rendition of the slow movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. That experience led me to push the Swiss-Italian pianist's recordings toward the top of my listening rotation. His most recent release, the second year of Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, gives a varied and delightful cast to the composer's memories of his years in Italy.

Rather than Venezia e Napoli, the supplement Liszt later added to the second volume of his collection, Piemontesi prefaces it with the first of the Deux Légendes, pieces dedicated to miracles associated with Liszt's two name saints. This turns out to be the highlight of the disc, with pastel-light avian trills twittering around the unison lines of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds.

More than the technical exploits of the Petrarch Sonnets and the dizzying excesses of "Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata," it is these more musical moments that stand out. In the dreamy "Sposalizio," inspired by Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin in Milan, tinkling motifs rain down in the seraphic postlude. In the dirge-like "Penseroso," inspired by the moody sculpture of Michelangelo for the tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici in the "new sacristy" of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, Liszt explores the somber bass end of the keyboard. The latter artwork made quite an impression on Liszt, as he published the music with a quatrain of Michelangelo's he felt applied to the sculptor's portrait of Lorenzo: "I am thankful to sleep, and more thankful to be made of stone. So long as injustice and shame remain on earth, I count it a blessing not to see or feel; so do not wake me – speak softly!"

A Stunning Orchestral Surprise in Budapest

A Budapest Miracle? Concerto Budapest's "Wow" Moment

Budapest, March 27, 2019: Müpa: Ever since Budapest’s new concert hall—known as “Müpa” or “Palace of Arts”—with its combination of high-tech echo chambers and its traditional common-sense “shoebox” design opened in 2005, I’ve wanted to hear it in action. Located at the edge of downtown—alongside the Danube, right next to the comically hideous 2002 National Theater—it is not an imposing building from the outside, but welcoming and logically laid out on the inside. The main hall, the Bartók National Concert Hall, is a soft-curved wooden shoebox with a very sensible capacity of 1700. Its acoustic was overseen by Russell Johnson. The massive organ, built by the Pécs Organ Manufactory and Mühleisen Stuttgart, features an imposing prospect—including a battery of pipes protruding from the façade—and is one of the largest of its kind.

Along the walls above the upper tier—vaguely colored like a Scottish tartan—are the resonance boxes that can be closed or opened to give the desired length of reverb for the program at hand. Although closed on this occasion in late March, they are apparently in regular use—in contrast to fancy features like the Sala São Paulo’s adjustable ceiling, which is very cool in theory but hardly used in practice. Now: one visit to a concert hall cannot begin to give an adequate idea of its acoustic. But this one impression of hearing the Concerto Budapest, one of five symphony orchestras in Budapest, suggested that at its best, the acoustic is superb.

The Rambunctious Joy that is King Ubu’s Dinner Music

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BAZi, 'Ubu Music', Symphony in One Movement, Giostra Genovese, Concerto for Strings

And what a concert it was. More specifically: What a first half! On the far side of intermission, a very finely played, generally soft-edged Rite of Spring awaited the listeners, full of well-shaped individual contributions, sexy contrabassoon notes, and fierce highlights. It didn’t have the ferocious bite I look for in the work, delivering—*de gustibus*—rather urbane suaveness instead. A bit like the Concertgebouw Orchestra might play that work. Indeed, like in Amsterdam, the perception may have been shaped by the acoustic which gave the impression of some orchestral energy dissipating upwards: even the greatest *fff* climaxes were not shrill or harsh or even particularly loud.

It would have been a more impressive performance, hadn’t that first half rocked as hard and delighted as much. Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu—which incidentally throws out a quote from Le Sacre right off the bat on the organ—is a tumultuous, riotous, quintessential musical collage: None of the music is, *en détail*, original. But collectively the phrases as put together by Zimmermann, create a unique, decidedly original work.

It certainly sounds, in parts, like a “who’s that composer” guessing game. But more to the point, it is a riveting, compelling work all of its own which has, not in any individual incident but structurally, parallels in the music of Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives. And then there are four solo basses fiddling for their life up front in episodes that make Mahler’s “Frère Jacques” episode seem like child’s play. Perhaps most notably, instead of being doom-and-gloom as one would might reasonably expect from the composer of the *Ecclesiastical Action* (“I turned and beheld all the injustice perpetrated under the sun”), it is very often very funny. The classical bits (from plainchant to Stockhausen’s banging, repetitive chords of Klavierstück IX, and with plenty Wagner in the middle) are interrupted by Jazz-outbreaks that sound like someone turned the knob on the radio… eventually blending it with a medieval flute consort and then an ever-increasing amount of musical layers. E-guitars and basses are thrown into the mix, too. Altogether a bit like someone was taking Schnittke, Purcell, Monty Python and started juggling. What a joy!

Supple Pianism and a Lesson in Orchestral Alertness

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J.Brahms, F.Liszt & W.Lutosławski, Paganini Variations & Paganini Rhapsody
Tzimon Barto/Schleswig-Holstein FO/C.Eschenbach

The rest of the front-loaded first half of the concert consisted of the two piano-and-orchestra humdingers, the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Andrei Korobeinikov played with rare feeling: short notes were still soft-edged. There was no incident of harsh banging, although banging is certainly required by at least Rachmaninov. What a *very* pleasant surprise in works where technical efficiency and accuracy, however necessary, would be so very much insufficient.

If that hadn’t been enough for enthusiasm, the Concerto Budapest—long established but revived and raised to new heights by its current music director András Keller (of Keller Quartet fame)—performed with absurd accuracy and sensitivity. The turn-on-a-dime-agile brass was secure; the strings warm and wispy-velvety in the true pianissimos; the woodwinds colorful. Moreover, the collective responded in such minute detail to Keller’s instructions that it just about took your breath away. Climaxes were approached not with a permanent swell but only quick peaks followed by an immediate and gentle receding of the strings. It’s just the way you think a string quartet player would want to make his orchestra play. You just don’t think he’d actually achieve it. Astonishing… just as it was impressive how the band could disappear into the background by becoming pure atmosphere—both in the pointillism of Lutosławski and the Delacroix-like tone painting of Rachmaninov. At one point I pinched myself: Is it really that good or am I hearing things?

After the concert an exhausted Keller said, with refreshingly level-headed pride: “They really are that good. And they play more than 40 programs – not concerts: programs! – a year. I think Concerto Budapest can claim to be the second best orchestra in Budapest [after Iván Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra].” A second-best—assuming this concert was not a positive outlier—that would be the very best in most cities. I know I’ll keep my ears peeled for them.