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


Psyché in Boston

available at Amazon
Lully, Psyché, C. Sampson, K. Gauvin, Boston Early Music Festival, P. O'Dette, S. Stubbs

(released July 29, 2008)
cpo 777 367-2

Online scores:
Psyché (full score, ed. Nicolas Sceaux)
The fine series of operas from the Boston Early Music Festival, recorded by Radio Bremen, continues with this 3-CD set made during last year's performance of Lully's Psyché. Lully had a life-long fascination with the story of Cupid and Psyche, setting it first as a court ballet with Isaac Benserade in the 1650s and then turning to it again for a 1670 ballet, whose divertissements were reworked as the framework for the full opera recorded here. Les Arts Florissants has recorded some excerpts, but this is the first complete recording. Last year's BEMF release, Lully's Thésée was very good, but this production strikes my ears as even better, largely because of a stronger cast.

The production drew a remarkable confluence of music critics, with reviews published by Jeremy Eichler (Boston Globe), Anne Midgette (New York Times), John Yohalem (Opera Today), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), and George Loomis (Financial Times). The photographs of the staging make one wish for a DVD instead of a CD. The thorough and excellent booklet includes essays about the opera by Gilbert Blin, Rebecca Harris-Warwick, John S. Powell (the musicologist who provided the performing edition of the music), and other specialists, which give the listener more information than most probably want or need. These essays explain the parallels intended to be drawn between the story and the court in which it was performed. The god L'Amour (Cupid -- Louis XIV) falls in love with the most beautiful mortal woman, Psyché (Athénaïs de Rochechouart, known as Madame de Montespan, the second of Louis's official mistresses, after Louise de la Vallière). He builds her a palace, as Louis built the Château de Clagny, to keep La Montespan near him at Versailles. (Clagny was later demolished, and its bricks used to build an Ursuline convent at the edge of the village of Versailles.)

available at Amazon
Lisa Hilton, Athénaïs: The Life of Louis XIV's Mistress, the Real Queen Of France
Psyché's story was associated with La Montespan in art and music, and the 1678 reworking of the opera was made to celebrate the return of the royal mistress to her former glory at court, after a period in disgrace. The score has a startling range of music, including one of the most extended lament scenes in Baroque opera, the so-called Plainte italienne, a scene sung in Italian and accompanied by extra recorder players on stage. There are also dance scenes for Cyclopes, chain-rattling demons in a celebrated underworld scene, and the Furies given voice by a trio of growling male voices). It is endlessly diverting music, presented in the best possible light by the BEMF Orchestra, led superlatively by theorbists Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs from the continuo section. All of the players are leading players of historical instruments, with especially vigorous and sparkly playing from Kristian Bezuidenhout and Peter Sykes at the harpsichord. A number of bells and other tinkly percussion, as well as glissandi on harpsichord, help give fantastic color to the magical transformation scenes.

The singing is led by two truly excellent sopranos, the luminescent Carolyn Sampson as Psyché and the velvety, fuller Vénus of Karina Gauvin. The chorus is one of the strongest in this sort of recording, made up of the fine singers in the supporting cast, including countertenor José Lemos, tenors Jason McStoots and Aaron Sheehan, and sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Yulia Van Doren. It is not only the sole recording of this important opera, it is hard to imagine it being surpassed by a superior version.



Anna Vinnitskaya: Hats Off, Gentlemen...

Although the official Season Opening Concert of the Washington Performing Arts Society is scheduled for October 11, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Camerata Salzburg, the WPAS season got under way most impressively on Saturday afternoon. Sponsored by WPAS, the young Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya gave her first recital in the Americas, right here in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The 2007 first prize winner of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition put together a blockbuster program that overwhelmed the senses both by its virtuosity and its musicality.

That someone could find so much music in a program that consisted primarily of Medtner, Rachmaninov, and Liszt and also get (almost) all the notes in this most difficult repertoire was a remarkable achievement. That the musician in question is a still largely unknown (at least on this side of the Atlantic) 20-something made it evident that Vinnitskaya has the potential to be making not only excellent, but extraordinary music in her career. Far be it from me to damn that possibility by using the dreaded G-word, the one recently applied most deservedly to Alex Ross, although the MacArthur Foundation does not really use the term. A critic calling a performer a genius, or even worse "the next X," is so often a death knell for a nascent career. Let us just hope that we will have the chance to hear Vinnitskaya perform again and often.

The program first showcased Vinnitskaya's exciting, hard-fingered pianism with Sofia Gubaidulina's modern updating of the chaconne. With parallelisms, copious dissonance, and other 20th-century harmonic gestures, Gubaidulina explores the historical form and undermines it, notably with a fugal section where the bass repetition disappears completely. It was the only moment of austerity in a generally ear-pleasing program. Nikolai Medtner's music is often as backward-looking and broadly neo-Romantic as that of Sergei Rachmaninov. Vinnitskaya gave Medtner's Sonata Reminiscenza in A Minor (op. 38, no. 1) a smoky nostalgia, shaping it beautifully without indulging in too much of the treacle.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Anna Vinnitskaya (Washington Post, September 29)
The real meat of the program was the paired sonatas of Rachmaninov and Liszt. The tempestuous opening of Rachmaninov's second sonata, in the composer's own 1931 version, had a few skittish slips that turned out to be a blip in a mind-blowing performance. Even more impressive than the booming sound of Vinnitskaya's power playing was the lacy, dewy soft passages which were poignant yet contained. A large part of my aversion to Rachmaninov's music is the way that so many overplay it, wallowing in its syrupy harmony. In both the demanding technical parts and the painfully sweet, Vinnitskaya did not drag anything out. It was simply what it was, virtuosic or tender, and Vinnitskaya could say more by understatement than by exaggeration.

Liszt's B minor sonata followed, in one of the more enigmatic, subdued, and yet astonishing performances of the work in my experience. The opening section was truly misterioso, not something puzzling to be passed over quickly, and the challenging passages had a magisterial sweep, even if some of the technical demands (octaves especially) could have used a little more polish. Again it was the gossamer touch in the rhapsodic sections that stood out as distinctive, with rubato used with sparing efficacy in both fast and slow sections. Even when large-chord sections reached a manic howl, the voicing of the melody within was etched and shaped.

The same straightforward appeal came across in two encores, although the second one, Chopin's C major etude (op. 10, no. 1), was just one notch too effortful to serve as a perfect encore. Further listening since this recital, in live tracks on a 3-CD set featuring Vinnitskaya's performances at the 2007 Queen Elisabeth competition, displays similar qualities. The final-round performance of Prokofiev's massive second piano concerto is noteworthy for its motoric drive. Her first-round piece, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, has also been showing up in her recital programs, making me hope for a movement from it as an encore. The range of touch in the work, in which range of color is so crucial, is remarkable, especially the ceaselessly clanging bell of Le gibet.

The next concert in the WPAS classical series will feature the final tour of Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic (October 4, 4 pm).

Anna Vinnitskaya's first encore was an arrangement of a Bach prelude by Alexander Siloti. Siloti took BWV 855a, a little prelude in the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (he later adapted it for the E minor prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, no. 10), transposed it to B minor, and inverted the parts for right and left hands.

Carmen Is a Man, Baby!

Unfortunately, I had to cancel my trip to Baltimore to review the Cabaret de Carmen, previewed on Friday, American Opera Theater's reshaping of Bizet's operatic classic. The review by Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore Sun spills the beans:

But Nelson out-Brooks Brook by turning Carmen into a drag queen. Thus, the crime for which Don Jose initially is driven out of town isn't murder, but homosexuality.

This is the second time in recent memory that Nelson has mined a heretofore unsuspected homoerotic element in classic stories; he recently did the same for David et Jonathas, a 1688 opera about two biblical characters by the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In Carmen, the lead character is portrayed by a woman playing a man playing a woman; in David, a lead character (Jonathan) is portrayed by a woman playing a man.

This all seems a bit confusing and over-complicated, but it kind of works. If Don Jose is gay, that adds a new tension to the romantic triangle between the soldier, his virginal fiancee, Michaela, and his Gypsy lover.
Just when you thought there were no more sharks to jump. Performances continue at Baltimore Theater Project, from October 2 to 5.


Bernstein Does Not Measure up to Mahler

Marin Alsop continues to program American contemporary music in her second season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. After Michael Daugherty's percussion concerto UFO last week, it was time this weekend to begin her tribute to her one-time mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic are co-sponsoring a Bernstein Festival, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 50th anniversary of his appointment to lead the NYPO; the Philadelphia Orchestra has hosted something similar. Alsop has programmed a few of his works this season, most notably the gargantuan and often-grotesque Mass. For these concerts and another series in April, Alsop has paired Bernstein with the music of the composer he did so much to champion, Gustav Mahler.

The chance to hear Bernstein's first symphony, an evocation of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, was welcome. One of several parallels between Mahler and Bernstein is a Jewish upbringing that was later submerged under other sympathies. Bernstein dedicated the "Jeremiah" symphony to his father, Sam, who was a Talmudic scholar, and his grandfather and great-grandfather had been rabbis in Russia. Those who are familiar with Jewish liturgical music have identified quotations of it throughout Bernstein's music, even Westside Story. Although Bernstein often asserted his independence from his heritage, like most composers, the music he heard sung by his father or in the synagogue was in his DNA.

Good to hear, but not hard to understand why it is performed so infrequently. The sound is typical Bernstein, Hollywood harmony tarted up with bits of dissonance and multi-metrics. The second movement, "Profanation," is particularly forgettable, a mocking scherzo reminiscent at times of a Yiddish-accented "I Want to Be in America." The high point is the elegiac third movement, "Lamentation," in which a mezzo-soprano sings selections from Lamentations, in Hebrew, a dramatic accompanied recitative about the devastation over the destruction of Jerusalem, a movement that would make an excellent choice to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The soloist on Friday night was Kelley O'Connor, and her wine-dark lower register, throaty but not growling, was just right for the work, although a couple higher passages sounded under-supported and breathy.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO explores worlds of Mahler and Bernstein (Baltimore Sun, September 26)
Alsop is an eloquent champion of Bernstein, as she showed in her charming introduction to the work, speaking from the podium. Ironically, pairing "Jeremiah" with Mahler's first symphony only underscored the American work's shortcomings. The Mahler was performed in its final version, after the title "Der Titan" and the descriptive movement titles had been dropped, as well as the second movement, "Blumine" (which Alsop performed with the BSO two seasons ago). The playing was generally good (a few problems in the horn section), opening with the tense melodic drone of the springtime awakening in the first movement. Alsop wisely kept the sound hushed in the soft passages, allowing the bird calls to sound clearly without being harsh. The tempo of the second movement never seemed set, opening at a slow pace that was not returned to at the repeat of the scherzo. Alsop also applied some unusual tenuti in the third movement, after a solemn opening on the Bruder Martin theme, the funeral march based on the "Callot" scene. It was certainly exciting to hear, a lot of boom and swell, if not yet a profound reading of the work.

The next major series of concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will feature Bernstein's Mass (October 16 to 18 in Baltimore and October 26 at the Kennedy Center).

In Brief

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

  • After stepping down from the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel will start an annual festival on his property in Rappahannock County, Castleton Farms. The Châteauville Foundation will host the first Castleton Festival on July 4-19, 2009. It will include all of the Britten operas that Maazel has staged there (and that we have reviewed): The Rape of Lucretia, the adaptation of The Beggar's Opera, and The Turn of the Screw. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

  • "I, for one, welcome our tall, slender Austrian overlord!" Zach Lewis's tenure as critic of the Cleveland Orchestra begins with a puff piece. [Cleveland Plain Dealer]

  • Mark Swed proposes the perfect solution to the Plain Dealer's problem: let both Zach Lewis and Donald Rosenberg review the Cleveland Orchestra in alternation. What? a newspaper showing itself to be impartial and unbiased? [Los Angeles Times]

  • Anne Fontaine is making a film about Coco Chanel, and she cast cute-as-a-button gamine Audrey Tautou in the title role. The first photograph of Tautou in the role has been published. [Le Figaro]

  • To go with the big Rothko exhibit at the Tate Modern, take the Rothko poll: majestic talent or boring? [The Guardian]

  • Composer Jake Heggie has officially volunteered to be Barack Obama's Music Education Czar. [Playbill Arts]

  • The big news of the rentrée littéraire in France this fall is the mysterious dual-authored novel Ennemis publics. Michel Houllebecq was the known author, but it was revealed this week that the other, secret author of the book, to be released on October 8, is Bernard-Henry Lévy. [Le Figaro]

  • Simon Schama's latest review reminds me that I need to get to that Richard Avedon exhibit at the Corcoran. [The Guardian]

  • From Mark Barry, the lounger chair called Heat Exchanger by David Hess, mentioned in Mark's post earlier this week, was purchased by a collector and donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Congratulations, David! [Flickr]


Les Journaux

Cultural news bits from the European press.

Conductor Seiji Ozawa was inducted as a member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts on Wednesday, taking the seat of Yehudi Menuhin, which had been empty for almost ten years. As Hugues Gall, former director of the Opéra national de Paris, explained at the ceremony, Ozawa was actually elected in October 2001. Not surprisingly, Gall included prominently, in his enumeration of Ozawa's triumph, his leadership at the podium in Paris for the 1983 premiere of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise. In his remarks, Ozawa recalled his first trip to Paris, as an employee of the Japanese company that made the Rabbit scooter. Following the verbal tribute, there was a musical one, as "the young violinist ­Agata Scymczewska gave a final hommage to Menuhin. A most rare thing: two Bach partitas were played under the Coupole, while the sunlight came to rest on the face of an obviously moved Henri Dutilleux." [Le Figaro]

The Château du Petit Trianon has opened again, after a year-long restoration, to install new decorations to recreate the setting as it was during the life of Marie-Antoinette. The monument will reopen officially on October 2, to commemorate the arrival of the revolutionaries at Versailles to seize Marie-Antoinette. "When the rioters arrived at the gate, the queen was walking, so a valet informed her that she had to go back and then leave," said Pierre-André Lablaude. "We intended to stop history at that moment, as if saying to visitors, The queen is not here, let's take advantage of that." [Le Figaro]


Trying to Make 'Carmen' Shocking Again

Cabaret de Carmen, photo courtesy of American Opera Theater
We have been following the work of American Opera Theater, since when it was named Ignoti Dei Opera. Timothy Nelson has directed this little company, based in Baltimore, in some daring repertorial choices over the last few years. In that time, he has run afoul of critical opinion more than once, but with an eye toward the pioneers of the recent past, like Peter Sellars, Nelson continues to make interesting and original choices. To open its fall season, AOT has chosen to remake one of the sacred cows of the opera repertory, Bizet's Carmen. The opera's popularity is seemingly endless: I have reviewed two productions since 2006, with a third soon to come from Washington National Opera, which mounts it again this November (after only a six-year absence). Surely no one needs yet another Carmen, but has the almost continuous staging of the opera made it lose its punch?

That was how Nelson put it earlier this week, that the grand trappings of umpteen productions have made audiences forget what he called "the dark essence of Carmen." This production began with the idea of finding "a way to present Carmen so that it would grip audiences and remind them of the power living within Bizet's score and Mérimée's story." So, the group hit on the concept of recasting the opera, in a stripped-down version of the score, as a cabaret show. The audience will be seated at tables on the theater floor, where they will be served food and drink by the performers, literally part of the action.

For the musical adaptation, Nelson went back to the reduced version used by Peter Brook, in performances at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and later at Lincoln Center in the 1980s. The result, which he called La Tragédie de Carmen, was streamlined down to the central characters and the most important music. One critic described it as falling, "disconcertingly, between drama embarrassed by the music and opera disemboweled by the drama." For a company working on a limited budget, of course, a production involving only four singers and two actors, as well as a very small orchestra (reduced further to a typical cabaret ensemble) had obvious appeal. Nelson did not want merely to revisit Brook, however, and wrote new dialogue to retell the story within the context of a cabaret act. With fewer characters and none of the operatic grandeur, the story becomes much grittier, what Nelson calls (echoing Brook) "theater of the essential," allowing a "more concentrated energy devoted to the central characters" to emerge.

Brook cut most of the choral music, as well as the pieces for the minor characters. He also went back to largely spoken dialogue, keeping only the famous solo pieces and reordering many of them to refashion the story. Nelson has made the piece even more his own, by designing a character for himself in the new book he wrote for the show (that is Nelson in the photo above). The character, whom Nelson likens to the Emcee in the musical Cabaret, "acts as the force behind the drama, a personification of fate that puts things into place for the tragedy to occur, like a puppetmaster." He continues, "It's as if I get to direct the production from within the production as it is performed." It is a good thing, he adds, for a director to experience what performers experience.

The opera traditionalist looking for Carmen will not find it in this production. For the more adventurous listener or theater-goer, it might make for an interesting change.

American Opera Theater will present the Cabaret de Carmen this weekend and next, at Baltimore Theater Project, with shows on September 25 to 28 and October 2 to 5. Tickets range from $22 to $40. At the same time, Opera Vivente, another adventurous company in Baltimore, offers up an alternative to the same old Don Giovanni, with an English-language adaptation of the Mozart classic (September 26 to October 4).


From Desperate to Ideal - The NSO Has a New Music Director

The NSO has found itself a new music director – and the choice is Christoph Eschenbach. Eschenbach (many years ago an ARD competition prize winner as a pianist) has just been replaced by Charles Dutoit as music director with the Philadelphia Orchestra… a departure not devoid of some less than pleasant noises coming from disgruntled players. It turns out that the problems that led to Mr. Eschenbach’s relatively early departure in Philadelphia – some of which are said to have been much less acute in his last year – are a blessing for Washington. Without them, it might have been impossible to get Eschenbach to move to DC and an orchestra that, to put it kindly, has better potential than a reputation.

Not only is the choice of Eschenbach most welcome for those who desperately want to see the NSO reach the next level and patrons become excited and proud of the capital’s orchestral body again, it is downright inspired. And to think that before Eschenbach’s first season as MD there will be two years of the wonderful Iván Fischer, still, the situation at the helm of the NSO turns from worrisome to exciting. After Rostropovich brought name recognition to the NSO, and Slatkin proper standards, the NSO should be ready for Eschenbach to bring the music.

Eschenbach will also bring attention to the NSO which it hadn’t received in a while. Able to get Philadelphia a recording contract (with Ondine, and very fair results), he might be able to do something similar for the ‘Nats’. And if he could bring himself to sleep in the same hotel as the musicians, even the planned tours of the orchestra should go very well.

Eschenbach won’t likely fulfill his new job without courting at least some controversy, but he will also court many old and new supporters of –and for– the NSO and the Kennedy Center. (Meaning a slight expansion of the NSO job, he will officially be music director of the Kennedy Center – including responsibilities of programming for the entire arts complex, not just the symphony orchestra.) Eschenbach will start as music director designate of the NSO in 2009-10, and according to Anne Midgette’s article in the Washington Post today, he will start holding auditions for the orchestra’s vacancies as soon as November.

Why Does No One Play Mendelssohn?

available at Amazon
Mendelssohn, Piano Pieces and Transcriptions, B. Chamayou

(released June 24, 2008)
Naïve V 5131

Online scores:
Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Pieces
Up-and-coming French pianist Bertrand Chamayou has played here in Washington at least once, in 2006, the same year he was on the roster at the Gstaad Festival, but I was not able to hear him. I trust that Roland Celette, the ever-vigilant Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy, will bring him back to Washington eventually. In the liner notes for his first disc on the Naïve label, Chamayou asks the question, Why do "the vast majority of pianists so seldom frequent the works of Mendelssohn?" It's true that, in my memory of being a piano student, only one of my fellow-sufferers was ever assigned Mendelssohn by a teacher, and that was a set of Songs without Words, which are the pieces one is likely to know. Is the music worth knowing?

Mostly it is, at least with Bertrand Chamayou to champion it. True, some works still feel like empty showpieces, no matter how brilliant Chamayou's fingerwork (the op. 104 etudes, possibly excluding no. 2). The third etude in that set would make a knock-out encore piece, especially after a Spanish-flavored program. In fact, so much of the Mendelssohn piano corpus would work beautifully as encore pieces, which says something about it. Much of the program consists of sparkly miniatures (a prelude, several Songs without Words), but it is anchored on three more substantial pieces, none of them all that familiar. The Variations sérieuses, composed to raise money for the construction of a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, veer between flashy technical excesses and somber, Bach-influenced counterpoint. The Rondo capriccioso, op. 14, may have a pretty vapid slow section, but the Presto is a romp of gossamer-winged lightness, taken here at a death-defying tempo. The two (of three) Caprices, op. 33, are longer works but noteworthy more for their technical challenges than their musical interest.

To round out the tribute, Chamayou includes three Mendelssohn transcriptions, concluding with the famous Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream arranged by Rachmaninoff -- a whole lot of repeated notes that sound impressively light and airy. Two songs arranged by Liszt include Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, from Sechs Gesänge (op. 34, no. 2), on a poem by Heinrich Heine, and Suleika (op. 57, no. 3), on a poem by Goethe, both mostly in the dreamy Liszt style rather than the outrageous one. Throughout, Chamayou's pianism is athletic, sure-fingered, and fleet, making for diverting listening. American listeners can hopefully look forward to Chamayou's first recording, of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, and his latest project, the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, for the Messiaen Year.



Francesco Schlimé in a Landscape

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Francesco Tristano Schlimé:
available at Amazon
Ravel / Prokofiev

available at Amazon
Bach Concertos

available at Amazon
Berio [IMPORT]

available at Amazon
Frescobaldi [IMPORT]
Francesco Tristano Schlimé, a 20-something pianist born in Luxembourg and lately a student at Juilliard, gave a whopper of a recital on Monday night at La Maison Française. It was the opposing panel in a diptych of young French pianists interested in contemporary music, following last week's experimental concert by Benoît Delbecq. Whereas Delbecq played jazz compositions inspired in part by the music of John Cage, Schlimé played a more traditional classical recital program, including music by John Cage. Like Delbecq, Schlimé played some of his own compositions, beginning with Hello, which featured swinging, jazz-influenced rhythms, as well as non-traditional effects, like stopped and scratched strings and overtone strikes. Here and in his piano arrangement of Technology, a 1995 bass-heavy techno piece by Carl Craig given a treatment that recalled Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie, Schlimé's compositional style was repetitive, if with appealing drive, and short on ideas able to sustain interest for long.

Another French pianist, Alexandre Tharaud, has said that the pioneering work of Baroque specialists makes it "essential for a pianist to immerse himself in Baroque music." Schlimé has followed the same path, releasing recordings of Bach and Frescobaldi. His approach to Bach's first keyboard partita (B-flat, BWV 825) showed that influence, played without the pedals and with a dancelike verve. While he skipped the repeats in many of the movements, in the repeats he did observe, as in the sarabande, he made pleasing alterations, like during that long trill of the B section. The sarabande kept a sense of propulsion, rather than being allowed to droop, and the gigue had a buzzing whirr, wild to the point of a few slips in the many hand crossings. The virtuosity of the Bach was bookended by two dreamy pieces by John Cage. Before it there was a later Etude Australe (Book 1, no. 4), a pointillistic watercolor of odd, fleeting textures. After it came the program's major discovery, the 1948 Debussyesque In a Landscape, a work that few would ever guess was composed by Cage. Schlimé played it as a sotto voce Zen murmur, punctuated by occasional bell tones and mantra-like repetitions of an unusual scale (the whole piece was played with the pedal depressed).

Choosing to end with a booming virtuosic display, Schlimé closed with a set by Igor Stravinsky. The suave Tango, reviewed recently in a version for two pianos, allowed Schlimé further to display his command of the soft dynamic range. He then launched into a barn-storming reading of Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, which ranged from a manic "Danse russe" to a dreamy second movement, and back again. Schlimé not only showcased his extreme, if not flawless technical control but never seemed to try to exceed the range of colors and dynamics of the embassy's Bösendorfer. He not only got all, or most, of the notes: he shaped the lines and voiced the sonorities to create an orchestral range of sound, from hollow and percussive to rich and warm. It was quite an achievement.

La Maison Française, which regularly hosts some of the most attractive and unusual concerts in the city, next offers a recital by Baroque violinist Patrick Bismuth and his ensemble La Tempesta (October 9, 7:30 pm). The program of Baroque music is centered on the work of Jean-Marie Leclair.

Egarr Champions Purcell

available at Amazon
Purcell, Keyboard Suites and Grounds, R. Egarr (harpsichord)

(released September 9, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907428

Online scores:
Henry Purcell, Suites, Lessons and Pieces for the Harpsichord
Richard Egarr's playing is top-notch to my ears, although he has come in for some less than enthusiastic descriptions in recent reviews: "far from what one could call flashy" (Handel organ concerti), "leisurely" (Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier), even -- lowest of the low -- "musicologically valuable" (Mozart fantasias and rondos). Well, I take it all back after listening to this absorbing new disc of Purcell's under-played keyboard suites. For pieces that are not all that much, in terms of technical demands, Egarr presents their best side, playing each movement with a sense of theatrical panache on his Joel Katzman instrument (made in Amsterdam in 1991 after a 17th-century Ruckers instrument). It is clear from the performances that Egarr cherishes these eight suites, finding in them, as he puts it in his liner essay, "harmonic, melodic and textural twists, oddities, and eccentricities that are deeply and uniquely rooted in a land that seems to specialize in the zany," ranging from "wonderful beauties" to "heart-breaking depths and earthy 'fish-slapping' humour."

As noted of his Well-Tempered Clavier recording, Egarr tends to stretch out the prelude movements a bit too much for my taste. When the sense of rhythmic line disappears almost completely, it's probably too far. The dances, however, mostly crunch satisfyingly with palpable rhythmic verve. Most admirably, the embellishment are among the most extensive and tasteful in my memory for a harpsichord recording, making this essential listening for all keyboard students and players who want to get a sense of how far a player can go in ornamenting Baroque music. As musicological lagniappes, Egarr throws in two movements transcribed from a manuscript that has recently come to light in the British Library (ms. Mus.1), which yields a jig (Gigue) to append to the incomplete A minor suite and an alternate prelude for the C major. He even improvises, in passable Baroque style, a prelude for the prelude-less D minor.

Between each pair of suites, Egarr inserts a variation set, one chaconne, the Round O, and five grounds. These round out the picture of Purcell the keyboard composer, with that most Baroque of compositional techniques, the variation set over a repeated bass pattern. Worth a special look is the Ground in Gamut (Z. 645), eight variations on the same eight-bar harmonic pattern that opens the Aria of the Goldberg Variations (I-V6-vii°6/V-V-I6 (V65/IV)-IV-V7-I). Having often read that Bach's aria, whose provenance (if any other than Bach himself) remains unidentified, is related to the generic patterns of earlier variation sets, I was glad to have a concrete example. The similarity makes this little Purcell ground, about two minutes in length, a perfect encore for a performance of the Goldberg Variations.

The only omission Egarr makes, for lack of disc space, is the unnumbered suite in C major, not in the set of eight published in 1696 (it was published in 1687 and is given the number 665 in the Zimmerman catalogue -- Zimmerman strangely left the number 664 unassigned). One hopes that Egarr will pair that suite with more of the individual Purcell pieces for a companion disc in the future. For now, Egarr's set of the eight numbered suites is the leader of the pack, knocking out previous complete sets, competent but not all that distinctive, by Raymond Touyère (Gallo), Terence Charlston (Naxos), and John Gibbons (Centaur). The Purcell fan will surely still be interested in the excellent complete set of Purcell's chamber music (Brilliant), which includes a set of the suites and other keyboard music played by Pieter-Jan Belder (a unbelievable steal at under $30 for seven discs).


This fall Richard Egarr will play a recital at the Baltimore Museum of Art, as part of the Shriver Hall series, featuring a complete performance of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (November 15, 3 pm). We advise you not to miss it. Hopefully, some Purcell will show up in his encores.


Serious Play at Goya Contemporary

You may remember my past reports from the American Visionary Art Museum’s Kinetic Sculpture Races, especially the insanely fun entry by David Hess and his Team Platypus. David Hess, Reconstruction, an exhibit of his latest sculptures at Goya Contemporary, opened to a packed house this past Friday evening.

Hess is one of the premiere scavengers of discarded objects I’ve ever met - and I know many. I’m always surprised by his finds, but it turns to pure joy and amazement to view the final results: it’s serious playtime with masterful precision.

What David does best is to allow these previously used objects to retain the essence of their past identities, as with the piece Chestnut, a 7’ wood plank of chestnut exposing a history of paint, scars, and a mysterious cut-out. A rusted toy tractor, with a hefty chain and hook attached, seems to be attempting to move the void; of course it’s folly, we can’t alter reality with force, can we?

Another toy tractor in the piece Excavator diligently tills a field of complex crop circles. It’s an accomplishment of man and machine over the environment; the only problem is that this alien landscape is composed of steel.

With Conveyor a truck towing some sort of harvester appears to have come to the end of its path. The path in this instance is a long industrial canvas belt attached to a mechanical device, positioned out of reach, high up on the wall. There is plenty of neatly rolled belt attached to this strange invention; its purpose is unclear, but if we could only fuel the fire, what harm could something this elegant do?

There are several more pieces, including a very cool lounger, that may have survived a cataclysmic reentry; it's very comfortable. The exhibit runs through October 19th; you can find more images on the gallery website.

Over at Paperwork Gallery, co-directors extraordinaire Cara Ober and Dana Reifler have assembled Bright Shiny New, a show of recent BFA and MFA graduates.

Jaime Bennati's biomorphic creation of folded and assembled newspapers was the highlight of the show for me. It’s a complex piece that just keeps on giving. In addition I liked the photos of Joseph Latourneau and Jana Rice.

It was a treat to meet the wizard of the City Paper’s Best Art Blog, Alex Ebstein of There Were Ten Tigers! Keep an eye on Paperworks: the shows are always interesting and thoughtfully installed. It’s an evolving venue, full of passion.

And cheers to Tara Donovan, a genius grant and $500,ooo for art supplies and taxes.

Cellist Weilerstein Shines at NSO Season Opener

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, photo by Lucio Lecce
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s inspired performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was the high point of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Season Opening Concert Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center. The color, beauty, and detail that Weilerstein brought forth from her instrument equaled that of the fashionable evening gowns worn by the female orchestral players on stage and the grand audience eager to dance the night away at the Opening Ball following the performance. Weilerstein, age 26 and a frequent visitor to the D.C. area, is remarkable in that she always aims to exceed her own goals. It is from this stratospherically ideal level of music making, full of effortless intensity through detail, that an audience may begin to be inspired, and souls touched or quieted.

Without Weilerstein’s gripping performance, the less positive aspects of the event might have outweighed the positive. These included Principal Conductor Iván Fischer’s much regretted absence, a missed opportunity to create interest and capital for himself socially and the NSO musically in the community – the NSO agreeably bends over backwards to exceed Fischer’s own stratospheric musical expectations but did not seem invigorated by Itzhak Perlman’s conducting. Resultant low points included the harrowing struggle of Perlman (violin) and Pinchas Zukerman (viola and conductor) to play unison material together in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, though the second movement was nice, and the trombonist grossly flubbing the elephant roar solo in Ravel’s Bolero. Investment bank and primary benefactor of the evening Morgan Stanley’s turbulent week in the financial markets could not have helped the general mood.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Energetic, if A Bit Ragged, NSO Opener Is All in Fun (Washington Post, September 22)

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, Economy Strikes a Sour Note at the NSO Opener (Washington Post, September 22)
During post-intermission remarks, Kennedy Center Chairman, and co-founder and CEO of the Blackstone Group (private equity) Stephen Schwarzman wished Morgan Stanley “and the financial system well because the entire country benefits from it,” and noted that $2 million was raised that evening ($2.2 million was raised last year). NSO Board Chairperson Ann Jordan (wife of Vernon Jordan) then commended the NSO musicians in her gracious remarks. Alan Greenspan was in attendance.

On an evening tainted with external uncertainty, the NSO could have provided a pristine musical escape for an affluent audience of 2,500 people collectively facing hundreds of millions of dollars or more of financial losses. The evening was further undermined by whoever programmed Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Wiener Blut. Of course the literal translation of the waltzes contains the word “blood,” the program notes point out that title actually should be interpreted as Viennese “strength” or “courage” instead of blood on the street. Ominously, the program notes go further to point out that Strauss, Jr.’s work was tragically undermined by the Vienna Stock Exchange’s collapse one week after the work’s premiere during the opening of the Vienna Exhibition in 1873. Thankfully, Weilerstein’s cello playing left positive memories.

The first concerts of the NSO's fall season will feature Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the first to ride the ever-turning carousel of conductors in this essentially leaderless season, in a performance of Shostakovich's fifth symphony and Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, with Hélène Grimaud (October 2 to 4).


Dip Your Ears, No. 94

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Piano Concertos,
Pletnev / RNO / Gansch

DG [Import]

How much can an interpreter say anew about a piece played by just about every pianist under the sun and of which there are well over 100 different recordings to choose from? Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and Symphonies are the object of Mikhail Pletnev’s recent recordings which Deutsche Grammophon, and now that the project is officially finished with the issue of the five piano concertos in an elegant slim box, he might just have given us the answer.

I had been looking forward to concertos Two, Four, and Five ever since the North American release of the first disc with One and Three. Hearing them now was a very pleasant reaffirmation of the quality I so much liked the first volume for. Pletnev, as magnificent as headstrong a pianist, would be the person to do just that – without (necessarily) distorting the music. Sometimes to triumphant and enjoyable effect (Scarlatti, Mozart), sometimes with more arguable success. Together with “his” Russian National Orchestra – which has more or less avoided becoming a pawn in the political games of Moscow – he made 2006 a ‘Beethoven Year’: A subtly unsubtle political message to celebrate the revolutionary republican composer when everybody else in Russia was busy extolling the virtues of Shostakovich. His performances of the concertos in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn resulted in DG’s live recordings, the first of which was issued March of last year.

Sure enough, Pletnev does things just a bit different. From the first notes on, the concertos sound a little extra bold, a little extra fresh; capricious, perhaps, but with the light and joyful (and sometimes deliberately heavy) touch that made his Mozart so oddly irresistible. There is an insubordinate spark and a twinkle in his notes I don’t hear from other pianists. (This is quite in contrast to how Pletnev looks when he is playing, which is rather miserable as Sviatoslav Richter had remarked a long time ago and which still hasn’t changed.) The performances appear faster than they already are – impetuous at times; in the c-minor concerto, especially. All five concertos are very energetic stuff, with many forward bursts (occasionally bordering the hectic in the 2nd concerto), and great momentum. The altogether electric, nervous atmosphere is well conveyed even on disc.

Amid general beauty and excitement, Pletnev does have a few surprises to offer. You won’t be able not to note the strangely stressed halts in the entry of the solo opening of the G-major Concerto... is it loutish or ingenious? The stuttering breakdown in the cadenza of the C-major concerto’s third movement is accentuated in such a way that it sounds like a genuinely different piece of music, although the notes (and their order) are evidently all the same.

Upon first hearing, the effect is rather “what-the-hell”. There was much comparing to other favorite recordings of mine (Uchida, Aimard – where that moment flutters by without much notice), and even head-scratching. But these overly vigorous accents, syncopations, and the shifting of balances are supposed to be the soloist’s realm of fancy and they contribute, rather than distract. For one, they make you listen closely to the music… something which may not be as much a given in these warhorses as we’d like to admit to ourselves.

The B-major concerto Pletnev’s hands present the voices with surprisingly equal weight: Entire passages usually relegated to the background attain a life of their own. At first this challenges our expectations, then it challenges the ears to take in more information than usually. Finally it delights – at least this listener.

The RNO proves to be Russia’s finest orchestra (although hardly its most Russian) and Pletnev’s usual record producer Christian Gansch (a pianist, former violinist for the Munich Philharmonic, and – as evident here – capably supportive conductor) leads them through the concertos with aplomb, though notably as an extension of the soloist’s will. The quality of the live recording is on par with the quality of the performances. Only in the Fifth – E-major – are the closely recorded winds caught with some notable, excessive hiss.

The whole concerto cycle is willful & impetuous – without ever being importunate. Elsewhere Pletnev’s approach has aptly been called “impish”, without demeritorious intent. Indeed, these are performances that are actually very elegant and generous in their way. Pletnev’s superb touch on the softly sonorous Blüthner concert grand alone is worth listening to.(He might be considered at the other end of the interpretive spectrum, but there are moments in the “Emperor” concerto where his touch reminds me of Wilhelm Backhaus, if anyone.)

I suppose it would be easy to pick ‘odd’ out instances, judge them against a theoretical or actual ideal and declare them pertinacious. If you often read classical CD reviews, you will know the kind of critic who would have a field day diligently and scathingly picking this performance apart. But he (or they) would be missing the point of the whole (happy enjoyment rather than stern adherence to preset standards) in isolating instances. True: if Clifford Curzon (who I adore) marks the limits of the emotional extremes to which you are willing to let a pianist go, then Pletnev is not for you. But if you are inclined to enjoy great music without ideological strings attached, you might consider this set among the finds of the year.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Style masthead

Bizet's 'Pearl,' Dusted Off
Washington Post, September 22, 2008

Georges Bizet, Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Norah Amsellem (Léïla), Charles Castronovo (Nadir), Trevor Scheunemann (Zurga), and Denis Sedov (Nourabad)
Giuseppe Grazioli (conductor)
Andrew Sinclair (director)
Zandra Rhodes (sets and costumes)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Other productions:


BSO Dans La Lune

Michael Daugherty, composer
In my preview of the fall concert season in Washington, I admitted some disappointment about the looks of Marin Alsop's second season at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Her first official program this weekend showed that the bloom is not really off the rose, although the programming still seems a little less daring. At the heart of this program was the latest evidence of Alsop's devotion to living and American composers, the percussion concerto UFO by Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). It was commissioned for the National Symphony Orchestra's percussion festival ("Drums along the Potomac") in 1999, and the premiering soloist (and dedicatee), the Scottish percussion virtuosa Evelyn Glennie, played it yet again at Meyerhoff Hall on Friday night.

Alsop begins her season-long tribute to her one-time mentor, Leonard Bernstein, next week. Listening to Daugherty's extraterrestial-inspired work made me aware of several parellels with Bernstein's music: both are glossy, susceptible to cross-pollination with Broadway and jazz, occasionally vulnerable to fatal quirkiness. The piece's solo part, which calls for a stage-filling battery in several stations, alternates between a more traditional conception of percussion as meter-reinforcing pulse and an opposing range of improvised sounds noteworthy for its unpredictability. At various points, the slender, sorceress-like Glennie strode down the aisle with an amplified waterphone (so overused in The First Emperor), cranked a large siren, and frantically manipulated an endless variety of little noisemakers spread out on a mat. It was as cooky as the cultural phenomenon, UFO followers, it sought to embody.

Glennie's performance was astonishing to watch, especially in the more demanding movements that featured her primarily at the xylophone, vibraphone, and drum set. At times Alsop had her work cut out just to keep the orchestra in line with Glennie, which brought to mind that Glennie's accomplishment is all the more remarkable because she is hearing-impaired (she plays in bare feet, which she has said helps her sense vibrations more clearly). Regrettably, her recent forays into motivational speaking and jewelry design may make her become a parody of herself or just primarily a business. In any case, seeing her perform is still nothing short of stunning.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, The Baltimore Symphony's Space Adventure, Without the Cosmos (Washington Post, September 20)

Tim Smith, BSO ventures out of this world in season opener (Baltimore Sun, September 19)

Tim Smith, Quick Hit: Evelyn Glennie (Baltimore Sun, September 18)

Suzanne Collins, BSO Kicks Off Season With A Unique Sound (WBJZ, September 18)
It was a bit of a stretch to match a work about outer space with Holst's astrological suite The Planets, which is not about the cosmic bodies themselves but about their influence on people's lives. With more familiar repertory, Alsop tends to push the musicians harder, faster, and wilder, milking the work for its dramatic potential. Her Mars was fast and focused on the driving evenness of the pervasive beat rather than the sweep of melody. It led to an appropriately militant sound, with all of the crescendi and swells maximized. The perilous horn solos of Venus were all suave and sure, as was the intonation of the winds (moreso than the violin solos). Alsop did a good job of holding down the sound to emphasize unusual colors, like the celesta in Mercury, which was breathless and a little scattered.

The hymn in Jupiter, later known as Thaxted, was monolithic and congregational, almost uninflected. Uncharacteristically, the trumpets had a few imprecise attacks, and it was hard not to miss the organ part that is so memorable in the Uranus movement (yes, that's right, the organ in Uranus -- cue rimshot). The women's chorus in Neptune, made up of members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society under the direction of Tom Hall, were suitably atmospheric, as the final movement, in 5/4 like Mars, rounded out the mirror form of the work.

The only false note was the opening work, the immolation scene from Wagner's Götterdämmerung. The strings and indeed the whole orchestra had a massive sound, like a wall of cyclopean blocks -- none of that Boulezian transparency in Alsop's Wagner. Some of the sectional transitions were a little rough around the edges, something a little more rehearsal time would have improved. All in all, it was an auspicious start. At intermission I spoke to a young Baltimorean who was at his first classical concert. An amateur rock musician, a friend had given him a season subscription and he found himself pleasantly surprised. It was no coincidence that Glennie's performance and the Daugherty piece were critical to the good first impression.

We are looking forward to next week's program even more, because it will combine the first symphonies of Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor as soloist, on September 26 (Strathmore) and September 27 to 29 (Meyerhoff).

Maurizio Kagel (1931 – 2008)
Mourned by More Than Will Miss His Music

The Argentinean-German composer Mauricio Raúl Kagel died last Thursday, September 18th, and with him, you might say, the ‘60s that for so long defined modern music. With Stockhausen’s death last December and now Kagel’s, Cologne – and indeed the entire musical scene – has lost one of the last remaining “Darmstadt” composers. Nono (1990), Xenakis (2001), Berio (2003), Ligeti (2006) are dead already, only Henri Pousseur, Hans Werner Henze, and Pierre Boulez remain.

Kagel was born in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve of 1931, a son of a Russian Jewish family with Ashkenazim and Sephardim background – a multi cultural household, living in a multi-cultural city, early-on fluent in five languages, and interested as much in photography and cinematography as in avant-garde music.

Pierre Boulez, impressed with Kagel’s compositions, recommended he go to Europe where Kagel found himself in Cologne in 1954. There he eventually became the successor of Karlheinz Stockhausen as head of the Cologne Courses for New Music. Although a devoted modernist, composing “elitist” music, he was primarily a theatrical composer, a main exponent of modern musical theater. “Staatstheater”, “Erschöpfung der Welt”, “Der Mündliche Verrat”, “Aus Deutschland” being examples thereof, even if they are not operas in the traditional sense.

available at AmazonM.Kagel, “Sankt Bach Passion”,
Stuttgart RSO / Kagel

available at AmazonM.Kagel,  Anagrama, et al., Stuttgart RSO / Kagel

available at AmazonM.Kagel, Quirinus’ Liebeskuss, Serenade, Doppelsextett, Schoenberg Ensemble, Netherlands Chamber Choir / Reinbert De Leeuw
Winter + Winter

Extra-musical matters like gestures, pictures, actions – especially humor, absurdity, and (very relative) accessibility define his work, much of which is highly unsuitable for recording on CD.

His originality was unsurpassed even by his most inventive colleagues; his success in Germany second perhaps only to Stockhausen. Unlike the latter, though, he did not influence non-classical music as much, nor as lastingly. Nor did he achieve anything like the fame (or notoriety) of many of his colleagues abroad.

Maurizio Kagel contributed several works to the ARD Music Competition and was closely associated with Munich contemporary musicmusica viva series that Karl Amadeus Hartmann had founded. His work was regularly featured at theDonaueschinger Musiktage. His music, suitable or not, was widely recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, then Disques Montaignes, and now is most ardently championed by the Munich record label Winter & Winter.

Kagel said of composing that “[a]bsolute and non-absolute music can be separated from each other only up to a certain point; the search for unequivocal certainty here leads to confusion. I myself continually blend absolute and narrative music, and constantly have in the back of my mind concrete impressions of emotional states which are far from being absolutes. Music is a realistic art.” Absolutism certainly isn’t something Kagel could ever be accused of. And to today’s viewer, even his more straightforward tributes – like the musical piece (not the film of the same name) “Ludwig van” – will leave the aftertaste of ambiguity.

His most interesting work to new ears otherwise eschewing avant-garde composers must be the 1985 “Saint-Bach Passion”, composed for the tercentenary of J.S. Bach’s birth. A work that channels the spirit and structure of Bach’s Passions without actually reproducing any of the music (or particularly close references), it is something any willing listener might be able to react to emotionally, not just intellectually. A fine example of that latter type would be a work like “Anagrama”: a grammatical, musical, intellectual brew in constant transformation, a game on words with words, a Latin palindrome at its heart, and allegedly implying criticism of the unyielding and prescribed rules of construction of serial music.

For those thus inclined, it will be undoubtedly interesting, possibly fascinating, to explore Maurizio Kagel’s work – his journey through the European avant-garde to modernist ‘outsiderdom’ to the relatively conventional music of the last two decades of his life. (DoppelsextettQuirinus’ Liebeskuss et al.). But if my reaction to most of his music is anything to go by, the amount of listeners who also find this sort of exploration rewarding will be considerably smaller. Maurizio Kagel will be mourned because of his stature, influence, and renommé. He will be mourned by many more people than listened to – or liked – his music.

More reading: Appreciations of Maurizio Kagel in the GuardianNew York Times, and Times Online UK.

In Brief

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

  • From Mark Barry, take a look at Irving Sandler's interview with New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. [The Brooklyn Rail]

  • From Michael Lodico, the Philadelphia Orchestra will help celebrate the 150th anniversary of Macy's, by playing a concert on September 27 in Philadelphia's Wanamaker Building, the department store now owned by Macy's, joined to the sounds of the Wanamaker Organ in the building's grand court. This outlandish instrument was built for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and later purchased by John Wanamaker for his department store. The Wanamakers brought Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne, Nadia Boulanger and many other great organists to Philadelphia to play it. [Wanamaker's]

  • The opera company that mounts those amazing summer opera productions in the Arena di Verona has gone bankrupt. [The Guardian]

  • With hat tip to Opera Chic, Tim Smith reports that the editors at the Cleveland Plain Dealer lost what was left of their spines this week, when they took feisty critic Donald Rosenberg off the Cleveland Orchestra beat. Rosenberg was not given to pulling his punches, it's true, but isn't that exactly what a good critic should be like? As for the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst, Jens and I have both expressed reservations recently, as have many listeners. If someone has some extra spine, please send it to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. [Clef Notes]

  • Lisa Hirsch's "classical music blog" will apparently be a political blog from now until the U.S. presidential election. Let's focus instead on her helpful roundup of reviews of The Bonesetter's Daughter at San Francisco Opera. [Iron Tongue of Midnight]

Ionarts at Large: From the ARD Music Competition - Final Prize Winner Concert (No.3)

A hint of glamor graced the final prize winners’ Concert of the 57th International ARD Music Competition in Munich, broadcast live on radio and recorded for television. The Herkulessaal was full with music lovers and industry insiders: agents, record company executives, orchestra managers, conductors, proud teachers, envious colleagues, and the interested officialdom of the German Public Broadcasting Institution (ARD) who finances the event together with its subsidiary institution, the Bavarian Broadcasting Service (BR).

Notes from the ARD Intl. Music Competition:

Day 2:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (2)
(September 2)

Day 3:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (3)
(September 3)

Day 4:
Viola Competition, Round 1 (4)
(September 4)

Day 5:
String Quartet Competition, Round 1 (1)
(September 5)

Day 6:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (2)
(September 6)

Day 7:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 1 (3) (September 7)

Day 8:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (1) and Viola, Semi-Finals (September 8)

Day 9:
String QuartetCompetition, Round 2 (2) (September 9)

Day 10:
Viola, Final (September 10)

Day 11:
String Quartet, Semi-Finals (September 11)

Day 12:
Clarinet, Final (September 12)

Days 13 & 14:
String Quartet & Bassoon Finals (September 13 & 14)

Day 17:
Prize Winner Concert No.1 (September 17)

Day 18:
Prize Winner Concert No.2 (September 18)

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, now with its first chairs back on duty, was conducted by the 28-year old GMD of Heidelberg, Cornelius Meister. The improvement over the BRSO finals performance was notable from the first movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A-major, K622 – played by Sebastian Manz, only the second first-prize winner in the history contest. He played the work on a basset clarinet (for which it was written) – and beautifully shaped the slow movement which essentially became an ersatz-requiem for Maurizio Kagel whose passing had been mourned before the concert with a minute of silence. Although fitting for the moment, an altogether more spirited performance and more flexible orchestral coat would usually be my preference.

It speaks to the André Jolivet Concerto for Bassoon, String Orchestra, Harp and Piano that it is much harder to play than to appreciate as a listener. Marc Trénel, the French first first-prize winner in the history of the ARD’s bassoon competition, brought the funk and beauty out of this 1954 (!) work in a way that made Jolivet more pleasurable even than the Mozart. And not just to these ears but those of fellow neophytes as well, whose innocent ears instinctively respond to inventiveness, variety of mood, and spirited presentation. Together with Kalevi Aho’s concerto for contrabassoon (written for the Washington NSO’s Lewis Lipnick), this is one of the very few concertos for this instrument you’d actually want to hear every so often on its own merits, not just as an affirmative action vehicle for deprived bassoonists.

The Apollon Musagéte had the opportunity to silence those voices that doubted their being deserving of a first prize after an admittedly troubled, spottily genial Beethoven performance in the final round – and prove themselves worthy of the famous ARD top prize winning predecessors like the Tokyo-, Peterson-, Leipzig-, Mandelring-, Artemis-, and Ébène quartets. The Rodion Shchedrin commission, “Lyrical Scenes” which they played as its special prize winning interpreter, had been nearly impressive with them in the semi-finals. Now, in front of the composer, it sounded more like music, still – capable of entertaining even the audience exposed to it for the first time.

But to give a more substantial impression, the Polish quartet also encored their Bartók performance from the final. In their hands, Bartók “Three” plays more to its haunting, even numinous character rather than subverting that impression by playing up its animated side. It was good stuff – better even than when it had mattered more – but it still sounds likely that the four players will yet find a more personal, distinct, persuasive way with this work.

I was very pleased that the entire 2008 ARD Music Competition concluded with – and cumulated in – a performances of the terrific and terrifying, must-hear Schnittke Viola Concerto. A befitting conclusion in particular because no work might be more closely associated with the competition. It was written for- and dedicated to- an ARD prize winner (Yuri Bashmet), and all of its important recordings* are made by ARD prize winners: Bashmet (ARD winner in 1976, recorded first in the USSR, later for RCA), Kim Kashkashian (’80, ECM), Nabuko Imai (’67, BIS), and just this week from the 2004 first-prize winner Antoine Tamestit (Ambroisie). (Not the least this list indicates the ARD competition’s king-maker qualities for violists – so far the contest’s strongest category along with voice and string quartets.)

Maybe WenXiao Zhen from China will one day add his name to this very distinguished list – because his intentionally raw performance during this final concert with the BRSO was worthy stuff after this concerto had already won him the audience-prize in the finale. In this concerto, which explores pain and grief, anger and desolation, WenXiao Zhen dared to go for deliberately ugly sounds and nailed the tension and despair of the work. The invariable grime he came up with added more than it detracted. An astounding performance for any player, much less someone who stood on stage with an orchestra only for the third time in his life.

All pictures © Sigi Müller, except WenXiao Zheng's portrait which is © Daniela Falke

Congratulations to all Prize Winners of the 2008 ARD International Music Competition