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Rigoletto @ WNO

Carlos Álvarez as Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Carlos Álvarez as Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
What a difference seven years can make! Two operas premiered at Venice's Teatro La Fenice, both with music by Giuseppe Verdi, both with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, both based on plays by Victor Hugo. Somewhere between Ernani (1844), under review last week at the Metropolitan Opera, and Rigoletto (1851), which opened on Saturday night at Washington National Opera, Verdi became a confident, ground-breaking opera composer. Part of that success was that Verdi was more dramatically shrewd, and his improving track record allowed him to dominate the creative relationship with Piave. Another component was that the story taken from Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, was less complicated and yielded more operatic possibilities.

Still, the play was regarded as dangerously revolutionary, because it directly concerned the sexual peccadilloes of the great Renaissance king of France, François I, in whom Hugo was really criticizing Louis-Philippe. Verdi had to mollify the imperial censors in Venice by recasting the noble philanderer as the Duke of Mantua, rather than a king, but it was not Hugo's title character who most interested Verdi and Piave. It was the court jester, Triboulet, who became the center of this opera, named for his Italian counterpart, Rigoletto (the initial working title of the opera was La Maledizione, referring to the curse Monterone places on Rigoletto). Of course, the ban on Hugo's play had ensured that it was widely read, if not staged for many years. Eventually, Verdi's operatic adaptation was performed repeatedly in Paris, while the Hugo play was still officially banned, although everyone knew that the opera was based on Hugo's play.

Rigoletto is an audience favorite, and the company has lately been reviving it about every eight or nine years (the last productions were in 1999 and 1991). It does require a serious cast, which for the most part this one is, beginning with baritone Carlos Álvarez, who was vocally puissant and dramatically gripping in the title role. The character is a study in contradictions, which is part of what makes him so endlessly fascinating: Hugo said that Triboulet was so protective of his daughter because he himself was such an evil man and knew evil intimately. Piave's libretto (in English translation) and Verdi's score present him also as a flawed but vulnerable father, in spite of his faults, and in any case, we cannot possibly sympathize with the callous Duke and his amoral court.

Joseph Calleja (Duke of Mantua) and Lyubov Petrova (Gilda) in Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Joseph Calleja (Duke of Mantua) and Lyubov Petrova (Gilda) in Rigoletto, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Lyubov Petrova, whom we have admired before (two years ago in L'Italiana in Algeri and in concert) was a pretty and lyrically dulcet Gilda. While she was physically believable and vocally right for much of the softer parts of the role, she was underpowered for those parts that require her to soar above the full orchestra and other singers (like Bella figlia dell'amore in Act III), weakening some of the opera's emotional climaxes. Joseph Calleja's Duke was brassy and (appropriately) unsympathetic, physically reminiscent of the later portraits of Henry VIII. The voice is razor-edged, with a rapid-fire vibrato, the upper extent of which, at least, tends to be true to the pitch. (With any luck, we will eventually be able to hear Juan Diego Flórez sing the role, as he is doing right now in Peru.)

The other noteworthy performance was the truly terrifying Sparafucile of Andrea Silvestrelli, a bass gigantic of both stature and squillo, whom we last reviewed as Sarastro in Santa Fe. Conductor Giovanni Reggioli, formerly the head coach and music administrator for the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program from 2001 to 2004, presided over a competent performance from the orchestra. Some good solo work was heard from the flute section (Caro nome), the melancholy English horn (Miei signori, perdono, pietate in Act II), and the oboe. Reggioli also did well at restraining the male chorus's tendency to rush, although misalignments of ensemble abounded in Act I.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO's 'Rigoletto': Needs Direction (Washington Post, March 31)

T. L. Ponick, This 'Rigoletto' a charmer (Washington Times, March 31)
This opera was also the Washington directorial debut of Catherine Malfitano, a much-admired singer who has recently been trying her hand at directing. Her style is about as traditionalist as they come, which will please the conservative audience but which leaves little interst for someone who has seen Rigoletto a few too many times. The sets (handsomely designed by Robert Dahlstrom in a Renaissance style) have been recycled from Seattle Opera, and the costumes (designed by Zack Brown) could fit into any generic Shakespeare production. In short, no one is going to come away from this production with any new ideas about Rigoletto. What Malfitano does do well, perhaps because of her own time on the stage, is direct the actions of the singers. Characters did more than simply stand and sing, and much of the detail and nuance of the story was related by gesture. This, at least, is preferable to a high-concept refashioning of the story that does not pay much attention to what is actually happening in the libretto.

Rigoletto runs through April 13, with two overlapping casts. See my review of the B cast in the Washington Post (April 3).


Jupiter Twilight at the Corcoran

In the interest of full disclosure, the author's undergraduate piano teacher is the mother of Nelson Lee, the first violinist of the quartet under review.

Jupiter Quartet
Jupiter Quartet (L to R: Nelson Lee, Meg Freivogel, Liz Freivogel, Daniel McDonough)
Since the New England Conservatory-trained Jupiter Quartet burst onto the scene, by winning the Banff Competition in 2004, the group has become an Ionarts favorite. They were back in Washington on Friday night, for another concert on the Musical Evening Series at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. This program combined three autumnal masterpieces, all composed in the final years of their composers' lives. As a result, it was an evening of consummately crafted music, which nonetheless could have benefitted from at least a moment of levity.

Mendelssohn's final string quartet (F minor, op. 80) was a frenzied expression of the composer's grief at the death of his beloved sister. Its opening was a dramatic yowl, anxious tremolos over which the first violin's high-pitched keening was heard. The first movement never settled into a unified tempo, seemingly from a minor conflict between the driving impetus of cellist Dan McDonough and the other players. The second-movement Scherzo hit a sound, upbeat pace, the steady pulse reminiscent of Schubert's relentless Lied Der Erlkönig, contrasted with a somber, drone-centered trio. By the third movement, the Jupiter hit its stride, with a mournful melody passed around among exquisite solos from both violins and viola. The chromatic shudders pervading the fourth movement prepared the ground for the searing lament of Nelson Lee's first violin.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Jupiter String Quartet (Washington Post, March 31)
The second Britten quartet was the high point of the Jupiter Quartet's first concert at the Corcoran in 2005. (We also reviewed their 2005 concert at the Library of Congress but had to miss their debut at the Kennedy Center in 2007.) Here it was Britten's third quartet, one of his most austere and mournful works, the twin of his final opera, Death in Venice, a lament not for Aschenbach's decline but Britten's. The Jupiter's comfortable and well-considered way with Britten raises hopes that they will one day make a great recording of the composer's three quartets. This performance captured the sense of world-weariness, as well as the sounds of Britten's last visit to Venice, the lapping waves, the wailing gulls, the cosmic calm of the small canals, the trembling air of crystalline harmonic-topped chords. Bartókesque folk parlandi and meditative recitatives contrasted with the gently propelled passacaglia that concludes the quartet, during which especially the throaty but not barking viola of Liz Freivogel distinguished itself.

Senior violist Roger Tapping and cellist Natasha Brofsky joined their younger colleagues for Brahms's Sextet No. 2 in G major. A warm, gentle comity prevailed over this performance, capturing the interior anguish and joy. The Scherzo was set at a gently bubbling pace, allowing the interplay of duple and triple groupings. The Presto trio had a similar shpae but transformed into a barroom waltz spinning out of control from its raucous opening. The third movement was well contained and then allowed to blossom in a burst of color and sound over the pedal point in the cello, leading to a rollicking fourth movement of rousing, almost convulsive rhythms responding to the call of folk fiddle tuning.

The next concert on the Corcoran's Musical Evening Series will feature the Walden Chamber Players (April 25, 8 pm).

Bring on the Fairs!

So much art to see, my eyeballs hurt. The New York art fairs opened and the hardcore collectors are all over it: alcohol consumption just doubled in NYC. I lost count of the total number of fairs this year -- ten, I think, on the piers, hotel rooms, office buildings, and containers on the street in Chelsea. Because of their amazing success as an efficient way selling art, fairs have grown in size and number. Many galleries make most of their income for the year, living a gypsy life, setting up four or five fairs in London, Basel, Miami, or here in NYC.

The jewel of the New York fairs is the Armory Show on Pier 94, with 160 galleries showing more than 2,000 artists. Last year's sales here were in excess of $85 million, with many of the sales in the first day/hour. No matter your point of view, that’s quite impressive. But, with the economy on everyone’s mind there is much anticipation this year.

Well, not to worry, a little price adjustment wouldn’t be so bad. There were no show-stopping, bizarre installations. Katie Grinnan's exploding cheerleaders in ATM's booth were probably the most adventurous; let's take one for the team! Galleries tended to played it safe: lots of paintings, many small works. I was happily floating from booth to booth noticing a few good paintings, like the three by Tom Nozkowski at Pace Wildenstein; a celebrity sighting here, an art star there; or the large Daniel Richter painting at that Berlin gallery (pictured); or better yet, the Herman Bas at Lehman Maupin.

If you're playing it safe, with gold over $1,000 an ounce, try a John Miller construction covered in gold leaf -- sorry, it sold in the first hour. A British Turner Prize winner famous for his cross dressing, Grayson Perry, had $30-90,000 ceramics that were selling well at Victoria Miro.

I enjoyed the Armory Show. The crowd was enthused, many of the European galleries had work I rarely get to see, and it's fun to eavesdrop on conversations -- is that my price? What if I get three? There's nothing quite like it.

A short trip down the Westside Highway to the Pulse Fair on Pier 40 (which happens to have a very cool parks and rec athletic field in the center). Pulse, in its third year, has grown to 90 established and newer galleries. It is a bit more laid back, a place where you're able to talk more freely with dealers and artists.

Two stand-outs were the booths for the British gallery with the coolest name, Pippy Houldsworth, with nice graphic drawings by Julie Nord, and the Dublin gallery Rubicon, showing Nick Miller's impastoed landscape paintings (he paints in a mobile van on location, and his canvases may seem off square but he also paints in the frame of the truck), and in Maud Cotter's over-sized furniture, ordinary objects take on grand significance.

Martin McMurray's simple paintings of typewriters at Jeff Bailey had me nostalgic for a bit, until I remembered how often I need spell check: he's also got a show up at now, the gallery in Chelsea.

Saatchi Online, an offshoot of the Saatchi Gallery of London is a free online Web space for artists to show and sell their work at no charge. It's an amazing venture for which I was one of the original 1.000 or so contributors. The project has expanded in several areas and now has over 80,000 members. They're at Pulse to give a little more credibility to the online venue.

In addition to Andy Yoder's giant licorice shoes -- yes, licorice and matching pipe -- Winkleman Gallery has a very interesting, often funny set of letters from corporations in response to artist Yevgeniy Fiks's attempt to "donate" a copy of Lenin's Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, to their corporate libraries. Of the 100 books sent he got 30 responses, from J.C. Penney, Target, Amazon, and others. Most companies didn't know what to do with the donation but always responded kindly; the response from Disney was the most detailed.

Also of note at Pulse was Federico Solmi's video The Evil Empire, a year-long project composed of over 1,000 small paintings, with each image getting eight seconds of screen time. Although at times hilarious, it's not a flattering portrait of the Pope and was banned from an exhibit in Rome.

As always great things to see at San Francisco's Catherine Clark Gallery, and welcome back from hiatus, DCKT Gallery, whose new Lower-Eastside space I haven't visited yet.

Whew, the final stop was across town at Red Dot, at the Park South Hotel. This fair has 38 galleries or private dealers occupying rooms in the hotel in very creative ways, some not so. The best part is, you're in NYC, this fair gets a good crowd, make the best of it.

Of note at Red Dot are Julian Hatton's paintings at Elizabeth Harris and also William Carroll's silhouette scenes of NYC. Baltimore's Gallery Imperato took a first plunge into the art fair pool: the room looked great, with Cara Ober's paintings and Gwyneth Scally's oil on gesso creations. Philadelphia's Projects Gallery had Alex Queral's acrylic on carved phone book -- see, there's still a reason for them. GV ART of London had a gorgeous small painting by Vicki Clark.

I've only covered a few standouts at the fairs and I only went to three of the nine. It would be a Herculean effort to see it all in one weekend, but you can visit my Flickr site for more pictures and descriptions. Here is a two-part James Kalm video of the Armory an Pulse and Vernissage TV with John Waters. I'll link to articles and other images as they get posted online.

In Brief: Octave of Easter Edition

LinksHere is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • eighth blackbird is premiering their new project, The Only Moving Thing, which includes "Steve Reich’s major new 22-minute work, Double Sextet," consisting of the group playing live simultaneously against themselves on CD. We are so there for the Washington premiere (May 13, 7:30 pm), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, and you should be, too. Flutist Tim Munro has some photos of the rehearsals for the world premiere in Richmond. [thirteen ways]

  • Anne Midgette went down to Richmond to review the eighth blackbird premiere, writing that the group "embodies a slightly geeky spirit of earnestness." [Washington Post]

  • Through a (somewhat annoyingly) supercilious comment at Jeremy Denk's blog, this very useful information: a Web site that has scans of all of the first editions of Chopin's music. It's an incredibly valuable resource, but a good scholarly edition, in which musicologists have dissected and sorted out all of the variants, is still important. [Chopin's First Editions Online]

  • How do Cistercian monks outside of Vienna sign a record deal with Universal? By answering a YouTube ad, of course. [New York Times]

  • "OK, I'll admit it, I've been kind of phoning it in on the blog for the last little bit. It's lame to blog about how you're too busy to blog (something I've called 'the Teachout method')..." Phil Ford, you almost made me spit coffee onto my keyboard. [Dial "M" for Musicology]

  • Finally, WETA (90.9 FM) will be broadcasting concerts by the National Symphony, unfortunately not live and not single concerts complete. Every Wednesday at 9 pm One Wednesday a month, there will be a broadcast combining bits and pieces of various concerts. Next week, it is all Beethoven, the fourth and seventh symphonies and Emanuel Ax playing the third piano concerto. The performances were conducted by Ivan Volkov and Leonard Slatkin. [Washington Post]

  • From Marc Geelhoed, the wonderful video embedded below, of Ionarts favorite pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing Couperin's Tic toc choc, with mind-blowing hip hop dancer Anthony Benichol and actor Boris Ventura Diaz providing visual interest. [Deceptively Simple]


Blogger Makes Good

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Washington Post, March 29, 2008

Marin Alsop, conductor
André Watts, piano
Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 6 in D Major and Notturno in B Major (op. 40)
Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, Md.)

Ionarts at Large: Ernani at the Met

Thomas Hampson (Don Carlo) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) in Ernani,
Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Marty Sohl
My latest trip to New York ended with a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, the first production of Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani mounted by the house since 1985. It is unlikely to be on many people's lists of favorite operas, only Verdi's fifth attempt (premiered March 9, 1844, at La Fenice), almost a decade before the composer knew enough and could demand enough to produce the Big Three of the early 1850s (Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and La Traviata). Much of the work's weakness is due to the ridiculous story, but we cannot blame everything on the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. In many ways, the opera is an improvement on its source text, Hernani (1830), a convoluted play by Victor Hugo that caused quite a stir at its premiere.

Other Reviews:

Martin Bernheimer, Virus season at the Met (Financial Times, March 20)

Bernard Holland, From the Attic, a Verdi Craves Attention (New York Times, March 19)

Jay Nordlinger, Verdi, Strong & Steady (New York Sun, March 19)

Harry Rolnick, The Splendid and the Silly (ConcertoNet, March 19)
The confusion is caused by the fact that everyone in the play wants to marry the prima donna, which is just the way that sopranos like things. Elvira is betrothed to her older cousin, Silva, but is in love with Ernani, the disgraced nobleman turned bandit. To make things more confusing, the King of Spain, Don Carlo, tries to steal Elvira away, at the same time as he is trying to get himself elected as Holy Roman Emperor. (One cannot help picturing the Democratic convention playing out like this, with shadowy conspiracies and plotted assassinations.) Silva and Ernani make an uneasy truce, agreeing to work together to save Elvira and get revenge on Don Carlo. Silva saves Ernani's life, accepting the latter's oath that his life will be forfeit at a later date. Don Carlo, elected Emperor, renounces his claim on Elvira, pardons Ernani, and orders that they be married. The tragic ending is ensured, however, as Silva appears, blowing the horn that is the sign of Ernani's pledge, and Ernani stabs himself. (He needs to get himself a better lawyer.) It could be much more of a bloodbath: in the Hugo play, Hernani and Doña Sol (Elvira) both drink poison, and Silva, in grief, subsequently kills himself.

The production is a revival of Pier-Luigi Samaritani's staging from 1983, and it remains overblown, fluffy, and dated. Huge paintings, billowing curtains, enormous towers, vast moonscapes were little more than stage space-filling backdrop for the plain staging by Peter McClintock. If poor Sondra Radvanovsky had to sing plaintively on her knees one more time, often perched precariously on oversized stairs, she was going to need physical therapy. The costumes by Peter J. Hall were handsome enough, with additional credit going to various designers for the multiplicity of hats and furs. Conductor Roberto Abbado did as well as one could expect with the perfunctory overture, which is over before much of it registers at all on the ear. He is not as authoritative a presence on the podium, and the orchestra did not always sound that attentive to him. When the singers got ahead of the beat, as happened more than once, he was efficient at realigning the ensemble. The on-stage banda played well, especially in the wedding number with castanets in Act IV.

Marcello Giordani (Ernani) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) in Ernani,
Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Suzanne DeChillo
After all of the casting drama with the Met's Tristan, American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky also fell ill, struggling through the opening night and then suddenly replaced by newcomer Angela Meade at the second performance. Radvanovsky was back in the saddle on Wednesday night, a pleasing stage presence and large, solid voice, shading just a scintilla below the pitch because of its weightiness. The omnipresent Marcello Giordani, who recently described himself as the Met's "house tenor," takes on his nth role as Ernani. His voice had ring and brilliance, and he cut a dashing figure as the bandit hero, but one cannot help but notice a certain superstar quality missing from his portfolio. At the same time, it is a welcome relief to watch a lead singer distinguished by his sense of modesty. Ferruccio Furlanetto stole the show with his snarling, resonant Silva. That world-class performance was matched, somewhat less stormily, by Thomas Hampson, who was a patrician, supercilious Don Carlo. If you are going to sit through Ernani, you should at least have a cast this good to sing it.

This opera will be repeated at the matinee performance today (March 29, 1:30 pm), broadcast live on the Met radio broadcast, as well as on April 2, 5, and 10.

Christine Brewer's Isolde

available at Amazon
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, C. Brewer, J. Treleaven, BBC SO, D. Runnicles

(released September 12, 2006)
Warner Classics 2564 62964-2
Of all the operas on your shelf, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is generally one worth owning in more than one version. Ionarts recommendations in the past have included Thielemann's live Vienna recording (Deborah Voigt, Thomas Moser), the Barenboim/Berlin Phil (Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem), and Karl Böhm's live Bayreuth recording (Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen). Along with Deborah Voigt and Nina Stemme (and maybe Waltraud Meier, who has been attempting the role again), Christine Brewer is probably on most critics' lists of best living Isoldes at the moment, heard live recently in the Bill Viola video Tristan and in David Hockney's production revived at San Francisco Opera. Brewer is the main reason to want to own this live recording of Tristan, captured in December 2002/January 2003 but only released in 2006.

It has been in my ears lately, in preparation for a possible hearing of the Met's Tristan this week. That ended up not happening (although some people heard it twice in a row!), but everyone has surely been following the musical-chairs casting for this production, as illness and other disasters swept through the cast and caused an absurd number of replacements. The situation was so complicated that the people who correct the billboard in front of the Met, likely tired of making more and more new corrections each night, finally stuck a huge sheet over the whole cast with all of the substitutions listed (Opera Chic has the whole rundown, if you need to have the details). There is a history here: after a considerable delay finding singers capable of the two demanding title roles, the very first production of Tristan in Munich was plagued by cast troubles, too, delaying the premiere several weeks.

Donald Runnicles, who was at the helm for the Met's Peter Grimes this week, has a strong hand in Wagner, too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is captured in warm, well-defined sound. The pacing is luxurious (fitting comfortably onto 4 CDs), creating that sense of Wagnerian near-stasis, in the opening of the third act, for example. While Brewer's weight is probably an impediment to her singing Isolde at the Met in the present era, vocally she is radiant, rounded, luscious from top to bottom, with a transcendent Liebestod. Jens heard John Treleaven's Tristan in Munich, although not at his best. It's a clear, puissant voice, appropriately youthful in tone and broadly colored, just not always with enough squillo for the loudest orchestral passages. It makes the Act II love duet a little uneven. The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Rose's King Marke.


Ionarts at the Met: Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin, Self-Portrait, Musée du Louvre
Nicolas Poussin, Self-Portrait, 1650, Musée du Louvre
Part of my last day in New York was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially in the exhibit Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions. It opens with the Louvre's self-portrait of Nicolas Poussin (not officially part of the exhibit and not in the catalogue), a beautiful painting pregnant with meaning. Painted in 1650 for Poussin's friend and supporter Paul Fréart de Chantelou, it shows the painter in front of several of his paintings, crowded together. The only visible part of a canvas contains the allegorical figure of painting, identified by the crown she wears, bejeweled with the eye of discernment (see the close-up). Painting is enfolded into the arms of friendship, a tribute to the importance of friendly patrons.

Poussin may not be the most popular painter, a lesser status indicated by the small attendance in a museum generally mobbed with people, but he was revered by just about everyone who came after him. The exhibit, organized in conjunction with Bilbao's Museo de Bellas Artes, focuses on Poussin's skills as a draftsman, with a large number of drawings, and as the creator of a celebrated type of pastoral landscape, the Arcadian vision of the title. The paintings here are not his most famous, but the chance to see so many lesser-known works, drawn from private collections and small museums from all over the world, is worth the effort. For example, Poussin's most famous painting, Et in Arcadia ego, is not here, but a lesser-known painting, from the Devonshire Collection in Chatsworth, on the same subject is. Shepherds and nymphs in the carefree, idyllic realm of Arcadia examine the inscription on a tomb: death (or the dead person), too, has a place in Arcadia, one of the themes evoked in Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia and Philip Sydney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Other Articles:

Holland Carter, Classical Visions, Romantic Eye (New York Times, February 15)

"And for a painting like Landscape With a Calm, no narrative seems intended. What we have instead is a Classical pastorale, an Arcadian souvenir, a golden-age snapshot of placid water, grazing flocks, palatial buildings and sun-brushed Olympian peaks. If the scene looks too good, too innocent of corruption, to be true, that is surely the point, and Poussin makes it clear. In the near distance a mounted horseman streaks out of the picture. Where is he off to, and why the rush? Shadows are seeping from the stand of lush trees to the left, casting a watchful shepherd in shade, dimming the color of his poppy-red tunic. Even in Arcadia time is passing, noon moves toward night. That’s why the painting’s mood is both sweet and stabbing, almost shockingly elegiac, like the sound of certain music by Handel, like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Ombra mai fu."

Manuela Hoelterhoff, Snakes Strangle Mortals in Poussin's Serene Scenes: Interview (Bloomberg News, February 28)

Rachel Spence, Lord of the landscape (Financial Times, March 1)

Arthur C. Danto, Just Looking (The Nation, April 7)

Andrew Butterfield, The Magical Painting of Poussin (New York Review of Books, April 17)
More than one critic has singled out Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake for special consideration. Now in the collection of London's National Gallery, it was once remarked on by Denis Diderot for its evocation of terror in a peaceful rural scene. Paintings with similar compositions in this exhibit include a Death of Eurydice, from a private collection, and a Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe. Looking at all three of them on Wednesday, it occurred to me that perhaps Poussin is the background for Max Ernst's Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale: the odd juxtaposition of calm and panic, the tilted pose of the running figure.

A nice visual counterpoint to musical settings of the four seasons are Poussin's four canvases, matching the seasons of the year to four Old Testament stories. Two from the Louvre are in the exhibit. In Spring, the first couple, Adam and Eve, think about how the fruit of a certain tree would taste real good right now, as God the Father flies above on a cloud (his form directly recalling Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling). In Summer, the widow Ruth throws herself at the mercy of Boaz, not realizing that they will soon be happily married. In the two not shown at the Met, Autumn is matched with an image of spies bringing grapes from the Promised Land, and Winter with the story of the flood. Another major discovery is the moody Landscape with Three Monks (La Solitude), shown here outside Serbia for the first time since 1934. One of the curators of the exhibit claims to have seen it hanging in Tito's office. In return for the chance to show it, the Met has undertaken a lengthy restoration of the painting. Catch it before it goes back to Serbia.

Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 11. Here are some other images.

Also recommended at the Met:
  • Gustave Courbet (through May 18)
    Favorite images include the self-portrait (The Desperate Man) that is the promotional image of the exhibit, made at the time of his jury rejection from the Salon. Of course, any chance to see L'Origine du Monde should be taken, shown at the Met in an alcove with a polite warning about "explicit nudity." It is accompanied by a viewer showing one of the nude photos by famed 19th-century pornographer Auguste Belloc that was likely Courbet's inspiration.
  • Jasper Johns: Gray (through May 4)
    See the comments of our own Mark Barry last month.

The View from NYC

I'll post soon about the Armory Show and as many satellite exhibits as I can take in. In the meantime, view my Flickr site for my pictures of the events.


Hilary Hahn's Schoenberg and Sibelius

available at Amazon
Schoenberg / Sibelius, Violin Concertos, Hilary Hahn, Swedish RSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen

(released April 8, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7346
What is it with Sibelius these days? We just reviewed Lisa Batiashvili's recording of the Finnish composer's daunting violin concerto, which has been performed a shocking number of times over the last couple years in these parts. Now, an Ionarts favorite performer and Baltimore's favorite daughter, violinist Hilary Hahn, has taken on the Sibelius concerto in a new recording. As further proof of her serious-mindedness, Hahn has paired it with Schoenberg's mostly unknown violin concerto, a work that we have never reviewed live and that is hardly over-recorded. In her charming liner note, Hahn relates that her first attempt to wrap her head around the Sibelius concerto was via headphones, between innings of an Orioles game, and that she had to special-order the Schoenberg score, since no music stores had it in stock.

Other Reviews:

David Salvage, Three Moments musicaux with Hilary Hahn (Sequenza 21, February 27)

Andrew Clements, Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (The Guardian, March 7)

Geoff Brown, Hilary Hahn: Schoenberg/Silebius (The Times, March 14)

Norman Lebrecht, Schoenberg, Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Minneapolis Star-Times, March 15)

Matthew Rye, Schoenberg, Verdi, Bach and more: Classical CDs of the week (The Telegraph, March 22)
In the Schoenberg, Hahn's narrow, pitch-centered tone, alternately electric and honeyed, converses polyphonically with the agitated orchestra in the first movement. As one would expect, Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra deftly through the complicated, percolating score. The sound is appropriately balanced and warm, with the solo prominent but never unnaturally so. Schoenberg described the concerto, composed after he took refuge in the United States, with the words, "I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult, and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait." Hahn has put an impressive amount of work into mastering the technical demands of this piece (including extended cadenzas), especially in the often spastic third movement, which she said rearranged her technical approach (perhaps growing her little finger). Not only that, she has rendered the piece in a way that shows it at its most attractive, almost light-filled and (post-)Romantic, still likely not palatable to every listener but certainly worth hearing.

Hahn has been playing the Sibelius concerto for a much longer time (embedded below is a video of a very young Hahn playing it in Munich), and it is good to have a recording of it. Pekka-Salonen and the SRSO help cast the first movement in a gloomy, sun-deprived atmosphere, matched by Hahn's masked, icy tone. Along with the glaciers of the slower, dreamy sections there is considerable force in the first movement, too, so substantial that it constitutes more than half of the work's total length. The second movement seethes and surges with volcanic heat, and the third movement, which has been described as a "polonaise for polar bears" (D. F. Tovey), lumbers and pops with heavy emphasis from the SRSO, on top of which Hahn's occasionally nervous violin dances and skitters. In any case, the Sibelius is available in so many versions, some of them better, faster, more daring than Hahn's: it is the Schoenberg that makes this recording so worthwhile.

Sibelius Violin Concerto, Hilary Hahn, Symphonieorchester des
Bayerischen Rundfunks, Lorin Maazel (watch the rest of the concerto)
Hahn writes a blog of sorts -- an online journal that she updates (sporadically) while she is on the road, which is much of the time. In her latest entry, she drops a fascinating bit of information, in relation to an extended spot she did on a Danish television show:
Let me just point out that it is highly, highly unusual for a TV station in any country to devote all of one show to a classical musician. I can't count how many times people working for me, asking about even a two-minute appearance, have been told by apologetic (or not so apologetic) programming directors, "We don't do classical music." This is not limited to a certain type of show. This rule prevails through hordes of mainstream shows, women's shows, music shows, late-night, early-morning, midday, afternoon, and prime-time shows, celebrity shows, personality shows, interview shows, entertainment shows, and intellectual shows.
And there you have it: classical music isn't dying, it is being killed, at least in this part of the popular imagination.

Hilary Hahn will perform with the National Symphony Orchestra later this spring (May 8 to 10) -- sadly, not the Schoenberg concerto but the first Paganini concerto. We still plan to be there.

Ionarts at Large: Bach in Naarden

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.Matthew Passion (II),
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.Matthew Passion (I),
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, St.John Passion,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor,
J.v.Veldhoven et al.
Channel Classics

The little Dutch medieval fortress town of Naarden, completely surrounded by a wall and moat, was the first stop of my Easter Pilgrimage of St.Matthew Passions and Parsifals and it was a highlight unlikely to be topped by successive Matthew Passions this year or, perhaps, any year.

Since 1921 the Matthew Passion is performed at the Grote Kerk (“Great”, or “Large Church”) in Naarden. The Nederlandse Bachvereniging is responsible for the performance. That name and their current director Jos van Veldhoven are familiar to me from their recordings on Channel Classics. Their Mass in B-minor from last year not only made it onto my best-of-2007 list but has quickly become a favorite version.

High expectations were hardly disappointed. While I was not as moved and grabbed as I always hoped for, that might have been due to recent overexposure. It was in any case so good – so exceptionally good – that the delight it brought made up fully for this.

From the first notes on, Veldhoven and his forces (two orchestras with altogether ten violins, each, a viola, one cello, one double bass, two traverse flutes, two oboes, a recorder, continuo organ, and assoon each, and a theorbo, viola da gamba, and harpsichord) established this rendition as superior. The ensemble work was perfect with all six violins of the first orchestra playing, breathing, and living the music as one. The tone of this HIP (Historically Informed Performance) group sweet and sonorous like one could hardly expect from an indulgently romantic Viennese group, much less an original instrument band.

Johannes Leertouwer’s violin solo (“Erbarme Dich…”) was filled with warmth, a light vibrato on held notes, perfectly in tune and proved altogether better and more accurate than anything I have ever heard, say: Pinchas Zukerman do lately. The following duo with alto Matthew White (pleasantly masculine sounding, near his limits in the upper register but never of that whiney, namby-pamby quality that turns so many ears off counter tenors) had me in awe of the musical excellence. Antoinette Lohman’s solo for the opposing camp of violins was a study in contrast to Leertouwer’s mellifluous, sweet sound: Very engaged, wiry, agile, and energetic.

The boys’ choir employed for the chorals consisted of but three trebles. They may have been nervous, but either need not have been – or perhaps that nervousness actually aided their pinpoint accuracy. I have had my share of exposure to boys’ choir singing – active and passively – and I don’t think I heard three voices so together and accurate. In the generous but appropriately dry acoustic of the Grote Kerk they produced a sonorous, even voluptuous sound that I would not have thought possible. The fact that even the tiniest inaccuracies in their presentation were immediately audible only assured that the achievement was all theirs, not due to some unique acoustic phenomenon of the venue or their placement in front of conductor and orchestra, vis-à-vis the pulpit.

There were three, four very minor quibbles with the whole performance not worth the time or space to mention, since the overall excellence of Veldhoven’s and the Netherlands Bach Association’s achievement cannot be overstated. Of course the soloists had their part in this too: All were at least good, but next to Gerd Türk’s evangelist, Dorthee Mileds and Maria Keohane (sopranos), Matthew White and Williams Towers (countertenors), Julian Podger and Charles Daniels (tenors), and Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass), it was Andrew Foster-Williams whose Jesus stood out for his very impressive, indeed: ideal rendition.

Towers could not quite match White’s performance, but he came close in the unrestrained and unconstrained, beautifully shaped aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen…”. Türk had a few rough patches, his singing somewhere between lovely and routine, maybe both. Charles Daniels, recently heard in Koopman’s Mass in B-minor, was at the same high level of accomplishment without going beyond it – his colleague Podger rather excitedly sang the recitative “O Schmerz!” and found himself near his limits before the absolutely phenomenal, pitch-perfect oboe solo interrupted him. Dorothee Mields’ vibrato was a little heavier than I would have expected, but it was still clear and uncommonly beautiful, strong, and secure.

Ripienist Marjon Strijk’s Uxor Pilati, with an angelic ring to her strong soprano, proved on behalf of her colleagues the high quality of the choir which sang the chorales together with the soloists. The resultant group of 24 singers sounded very sizable in this venue and yet retained the clarity and precision rightly cherished in good HIP performances. Gerd Türk joined in as the finale chorale – “Wir setzten uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down with tears…“) let us back out into the clear night in Naarden, journeying back to nearby Amsterdam.

This concert was attended as part of my WETA Easter Pilgrimage.