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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: HIP Mozart Piano Trios

available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Trios (Complete), Trio Stradivari
cpo 777 27302

Mozart’s Piano Trios are not as prominent in Mozart’s chamber output as his ingenious String Quintets or the String Quartets, but the are utterly lovely works that never really fail to charm. They have been well served by a host of good recordings: The Beaux Arts Trio is, rightfully, a classic. The magnificent Florestan Trio has recorded them on two discs (hyperion), and so did the Trio Parnassus (MDG).

That’s daunting competition, and this cpo release with the Trio Stradivari competes for its spot on your shelf not by trying to better the above, but by offering the trios in performances on original instruments. That’s what the Trio 1790 did for cpo on their very fine Haydn Piano Trio traversal, offering the original instrument spice to the Beaux Arts Trio’s sumptuous old-school beauty.

The Trio Stradivari, made up of Jolanda Violanta on the fortepiano, Luigi Piovano on Violoncello, and Federico Gulielmo on violin, amiably plays its way through the five Piano Trios and the Divertimento KV254 in Bˉ minor with an element of honest rawness in their sound that might be found gripping and intimate. Of course it might just as well be thought of craggy and unrefined. That can, in part, be blamed on the nature of the beast that is Historically Informed Performance. But HIP need not mean tinny sound and intonation issues. Fortunately, the Trio Stradivari suffers from neither of these. But they do sound clangy in a way that only true HIP-fans will find as adding to this music, rather than subtracting.

In the Allegretto of the E major Trio, Mme. Violante goes on to show that she is a formidable pianist who can produce precisely the kind of pebbly sparkle where the fortepiano has an advantage over the modern concert grand. Yet none of the slow movements – and surely not for lack of skill on her part –are as touching as when Menahem Pressler or Susan Tomes caress their instrument.

Detailed comparison with modern-instrument is ultimately futile here. The differences are too stark, the fortepiano sound too brittle, and the strings not sweet and warm enough to make this palatable to those looking for Mozart as exemplified by the above mentioned alternatives.

What about HIPsters, then? Well, there is competition here, too – and that makes the difference between the Trio Stradivari recording being keenly appreciated (as an alternative reading), and superfluous. And as long as the wonderful original instrument recording of the Mozartean Players (available on two budget “Classical Express” discs or as part of Harmonia Mundi’s lavish, mid-price Mozart Anniversary Edition) is around, the Italians will be a second choice. The “Mozartean” Steven Lubin (on a copy of a Walter fortepiano) produces a tone that is still distinct period sound, but together with his colleagues he continually manages to inject a joy into these performances, that Mozart skips, dances, and flows along very happily. (Indeed, so happily that the Mozartean Players are a sure recommendation for period and non-period Mozart lovers alike.)

Cpo’s recorded sound is pleasantly neutral, the liner notes very good, and the English translation thereof reasonably idiomatic. Giving the composer’s name as Wolfgang Amadé Mozart—though that is how he preferred to be called—has an unnecessarily self-conscious touch to it.

April Concert Planner

The Easter holiday takes some of the time out of the April concert schedule, but there are many good things to hear. These are the events we are putting at the top of our list, but everything will be listed in the calendar.

Ian Bostridge, tenor>> If you are a fan of English tenor Ian Bostridge (not everyone is), you will not want to miss his all-Schubert recital with pianist Julius Drake, even if it does mean a trip to Baltimore and Shriver Hall (April 5).

>> Those who have not heard Anne Sofie von Otter's recording of music from the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp should do that. Also, take the chance to hear a live performance of some of the CD's music, with violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Bengt Forsberg, sponsored by the Vocal Arts Society in the Music Center at Strathmore (April 30).

>> Other worthy recitals include Vocal Arts Society's offering of soprano Felicity Lott and pianist Graham Johnson at the Embassy of Austria, a follow-up on a memorable recital last year (April 17), and an appearance by the Canterbury Cathedral Choir at the British Choir Festival at Washington National Cathedral (April 26).

>> Also, it is apparently the month for collegiate opera companies, with productions of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (April 17, 19, 23, 25) and Handel's Xerxes (April 18, 22, 24, 26) staged by Maryland Opera Studio at Clarice Smith Center; also Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea at Catholic University (April 17 to 19); high marks go to Peabody Chamber Opera for its production of Melissa Shiflett’s Dora (April 23 to 25) at Baltimore Theater Project.

Kim Kashkashian>> Count us as big fans of the series of recordings for ECM by violist Kim Kashkashian. She will perform a free recital with violist Dimitri Murrah this Wednesday (April 1) at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Nothing but two violas? It must be an April Fools joke.

>> The major string quartet event of the month is the "final" performance of the Guarneri Quartet, at the Clarice Smith Center, joined by the Left Bank Quartet in Mendelssohn's fabled octet (April 24).

>> My choices for noteworthy string quartets on the calendar this month include the Pacifica Quartet in the Barns at Wolf Trap (April 3), the Brentano Quartet with pianist Peter Serkin at the Library of Congress, reprising the program reviewed at Shriver Hall last month, with a different baritone (April 17), the Tokyo String Quartet with cellist Lynn Harrell at Strathmore (April 17), the Quatuor Mosaïques in a free concert at the Library of Congress (April 18), and the Jerusalem Quartet at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville (April 26).

>> Opera Lafayette will perform Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato at the Terrace Theater (April 3), a beautiful way to celebrate the Handel anniversary year. For Bach fans, the tradition of the St. John Passion at Washington National Cathedral continues on Palm Sunday (April 5). Also in Holy week, don't miss the Washington Bach Consort's noontime cantata, a free concert at the Church of the Epiphany: it's not for Holy Week, but Nur jedem das Seine (BWV 163) will feature two fine singers who happen to be friends, Robin Smith and Gerald Javinski (April 7).

>> The classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, is the inspiration for the (mostly Baroque) music on the new program from the Folger Consort -- not the music heard in the novel, as on the marvelous recording put together by Jordi Savall. Bob McDonald and Floyd King will give some readings from the Cervantes text (April 17 to 19).

>> Earlier this month I reviewed a concert of Haydn's baryton trios. You have several other chances to hear this mostly forgotten instrument in the works Haydn wrote for it, with free concerts by the Geringas Baryton Trio at the Library of Congress (April 24) and the National Gallery of Art (April 26). Geringas will give a master class, on the cello not the baryton, at the Library of Congress (April 25).

Gustavo Dudamel>> Symphony orchestra musts this month include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's take on Mahler's ninth symphony, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing Leonard Bernstein's Opening Prayer (April 4 at Strathmore, April 3 and 5 in Baltimore). The hottest ticket of the month is likely the one to hear the first Washington performance of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which will conclude with a (surely driven) performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (April 6). From the National Symphony Orchestra, put us down for the Brahms German Requiem, led (incredibly) by Kurt Masur and featuring one of the final performances of the soon-to-disband Master Chorale of Washington. Heidi Grant Murphy and John Relyea will sing the solos (April 9 to 11).

>> Any appearance by Leonidas Kavakos is likely to be worthwhile, as with the National Symphony Orchestra, even if he is playing the Mendelssohn (April 16 and 18) and Tchaikovsky (April 17) concertos. The other concerts by the NSO are noteworthy for their conductors: David Zinman in a program of Webern, Schoenberg, and Brahms (April 23 to 25) and Helmuth Rilling leading what will likely be a memorable performance of Haydn's Creation (April 30 to May 2).

>> At the top of our list of piano recitals is the return of Krystian Zimerman, whom WPAS brings to the Music Center at Strathmore. Hopefully, he will refrain from talking about politics and just play the piano -- the program includes Bach's Partita No. 2, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, Brahms's Klavierstrucke, Op. 119, and Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Theme (April 8).

Olivier Latry>> We will also be interested in hearing the young Israeli pianist Yaron Kohlberg, who will be playing Prokofiev's eighth sonata among other things, in which he will have a hard time measuring up to Evgeny Kissin (April 4). Another promising youngster is Jonathan Biss, who will give a solo recital at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington out in Rockville (April 5). Adam Neiman will provide the performance part of Rob Kapilow's lecture on Liszt's Transcendental Etudes at the Freer Gallery of Art (April 15).

>> One of the best organists in the world at the moment, Olivier Latry from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (and Ionarts favorite), will visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this month. In an annual tradition, the Basilica invites a famous organist for the Octave of Easter (Sunday, April 19), when Latry will play during the Noon Mass and give a special evening recital at 6 pm. Both performances will feature improvisations by Latry.

>> The ever-adventurous 21st Century Consort returns to the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture with a program of music by William Doppman, Jacob Druckman, Eric Moe, and Marjorie Merryman (April 4). Later in the month there is a, frankly, more interesting program offered by the Inscape Chamber Music Project, with music by Antheil, Nancarrow, and Ives, at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda (April 26).


LSO and Gergiev

Valery Gergiev takes pride in being able to keep his daredevil schedule, regularly conducting several ensembles, appearing constantly as guest conductor on the fly-by circuit, tirelessly promoting Russian operas and symphonic works around the world. He even has time, as he showed again last summer, to get involved in politics -- disastrously, as many outside of Russia saw the concert Gergiev led in Tskhinvali, the bombed-out capital of South Ossetia. Many cultural commentators thought that Gergiev may finally have overplayed his hand, that the backlash of sentiment against such a ham-handed act of musical propaganda (choosing Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony to sum up the conflict between Georgia and Russia) would destroy his reputation, if his closeness to Vladimir Putin, which has certainly not harmed Gergiev's career, had not already done so. Anyone who had this thought, it turns out, sold Gergiev too short.

As if to prove that point, Gergiev is leading a North American tour of the London Symphony Orchestra at the moment -- sorry for the VISA hassles, chaps -- with, as its centerpiece, several of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonies, most notably the rarely programmed sixth symphony, one of the most bone-chilling symphonic statements on the horrors of war (leaving Alex Ross, for one, in a "cold sweat"). Prokofiev composed it in the years immediately following the devastation of Russia during World War II. Unfortunately for him the work was repudiated by the Soviet Composers Union in 1948 as an example not only of overly dissonant music but of anti-patriotism. Its performance was banned, and Prokofiev died without hearing it performed again -- here, perhaps, was the work that Gergiev should have led at that concert in Ossetia. The sound of the LSO, the oldest orchestra in the United Kingdom, remains extremely good, remarkably unified and refined, with only a couple flubs in the horns and some minor attack imprecision in the violin section. Without spending a lot of time investigating the current state of the personnel, it looks like a relatively young ensemble, and the sense of vitality and willingness to be pushed out of their comfort zone come through in the sound.

Gergiev, who took the reins as principal conductor in 2004, will hopefully begin undertook a Prokofiev cycle immediately, although for Philips rather than as part of the generally worthy LSO Live series, which since 1999 has been a run-away success, with cycles of Mahler, Sibelius, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Brahms, Elgar, among others. Heard live, it was an intense sixth symphony, from the sharp trombone calls, melancholy viola solos, and siren-like horn swoops of the first movement to the deafening swells of sound followed by stunned silences in the last. It was the second movement that was most terrifying, the motif of a sort of grim, robotic march pervading, at one point highlighting the music boxish nursery rhyme of harp and celesta against a menacing snarl of brass. The encore, a section of the score for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, including the Dance of the Montagues and Capulets, opened with an introduction that sounded very much like it was part of the sixth symphony.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, London Symphony Overcomes the Conductor's Sluggish Start (Washington Post, March 30)

Tim Smith, Gergiev, Volodin, London Symphony in brilliant Kennedy Center concert for WPAS (Clef Notes, March 30)

Jeremy Eichler, Gergiev, LSO bring wartime Prokofiev to Symphony Hall (Boston Globe, March 27)

John von Rhein, Gergiev's elite London orchestra seems as Russian as the ruble (Chicago Tribune, March 24)

Mark Swed, Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony in Costa Mesa (Culture Monster, March 20)

Timothy Mangan, London Symphony gives Prokofiev his due in O.C. (Orange County Register, March 20)
A much lighter first half provided some balance, with a bubbly reading of Prokofiev's first symphony, an experiment with neoclassicism that sounds a lot like Ravel in many places, as in the first movement's second theme, as chipper and svelte as a passepied. The second movement was a more refined minuet, circular gestures from Gergiev communicating balletic grace, but while the Gavotta of the third movement was a little clunky, the fourth was a very fast Offenbach-style galop, controlled by Gergiev with the tiniest of gestures. Beethoven's fourth piano concerto is hardly fluff, but Gergiev had a challenge keeping the LSO aligned with an often unpredictable solo in the hands of Alexei Volodin. The Russian pianist is a Gergiev favorite -- he played the same concerto under Gergiev last fall with the Mariinsky orchestra -- but it would have better to have had the other pianist featured on this tour, Vladimir Feltsman playing the Prokofiev second concerto. Volodin's tendency to rush ahead in fast passages undid most of the effect of his blistering technique, although he did have an appropriately enigmatic take on the opening of the first movement and the other somber and introspective solo piano moments. Volodin was stronger on his own, in a fluttering encore of Rachmaninoff's G# minor prelude (op. 32/12).

The next orchestra to visit Washington thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society will be the Simón Bolívar Youth
Orchestra of Venezuela
under dynamic conductor Gustavo Dudamel next Monday (April 6, 8 pm) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program includes Ravel's
Daphnis et Chloe (Suite No. 2), Castellanos's Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Good luck finding a ticket.

Anne Midgette, Blogger

Anne Midgette has been the classical music critic at the Washington Post since last summer. We have been following the trend of newspaper critics being migrated, either by choice or necessity, to the Internet to write what are, essentially, blogs. It is no secret that the Post has been reducing the size of its daily page load, cutting things like a Books section and, most recently, its Business section. The Style section and others also continue to get smaller. Fortunately, classical music will continue to have a presence on those shrinking pages, and other reviews will appear online.

Anne has actually been interested in writing a blog for a long time, and it is finally happening at the Post. Beginning today, Anne will be blogging at a new Washington Post blog called The Classical Beat. You should add it to your blogrolls, RSS feed readers, and so on. One of the features it will include is a daily list of all of the Post's classical music reviews, in print and online only, in one place. I will still link to my Post reviews from Ionarts, but you will want to check Anne's blog for all of the others. Remember -- clicking on them is the best way to let the editors know that you want to read classical music reviews. Adding a comment is even better.


Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Brahms Piano Quartets

available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Quartets 1 & 3, Amity Players, Xiayin Wang
Marquis 81377
available at Amazon
Brahms, Piano Quartets 1 & 3, Nash Ensemble
Onyx 4029

Two discs with Brahms’ First and Third Piano Quartets have come across my desk. The Nash Ensemble’s (on Onyx) and the Amity Players’ with pianist Xiayin Wang (on Marquis) are both capable performances. Discontented at first, my appreciation for the latter was much heightened by how well it stood up to the former.

The much better known and renown Nash Ensemble plays with more refinement and audibly indulging in the mastery of their instruments. The more homogenous result is not generally an advantage here, in the sense that, in most movements, it doesn’t make the performances stand out compared to the Amity Players. The few times it does draw our attention, however, it does to notable benefit. Take the opening of the fourth movement which is all elastic verve with the Nashs whereas the Amity Players (Béla Horvath, Tom Palny, Raphaël Dubé) get into eager but gawky gear which sounds less like a flexible stride than a wee hobble. On the upside, the Amity Players take to the music with greater—youthful?—tenacity in some movements and the more independent-sounding violin will please especially those who prefer more separation among their voices, with the strings more in the foreground.

Both groups take the Scherzo of op.60 at a fairly brisk pace. The Nash Ensemble is through it in 4:23, the Amity Players shave another ten seconds off that. That avoids ponderousness in music that’s on the hefty side to begin with and substitutes horizontal energy for gravitas. That might not be to everyone’s taste; to these ears it’s a fair trade-off. The delicately reluctant touch of first violinist Horvath in the opening Andante of op.60 is, with his tidy and resilient tone, is an absolute treat. Ian Brown’s comparatively straight-laced entry melds in with his Nash brethren Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power, and Paul Watkins and isn’t half as exciting in this (brief) moment. The veteran ensemble makes up for it with more steady ensemble work later in the resolutely performed movement, though.

The Amity Players’ recording is one the artists can be proud of and one that attendees of their concerts can take home as a memento knowing they have gotten perfectly fine Brahms Piano Quartets. But competition in the crowded market is tough and won’t allow it to stand out. Complete sets with Domus (Virgin, still my favorite), the Beaux Arts Trio/Trampler (Philips, Pentatone), and the Leopold String Trio/Hamelin (Hyperion) are preferable, as are, in this exact coupling, the Fauré Quartet (DG, available in Europe) and Lars Vogt at the Heimbach Festival with players like Julia Fischer, Kim Kashkashian, and Boris Pergamenschikow (EMI, available as an ArkivCD). The Nash Ensemble gets an ever so slightly stronger recommendation on account of superb ensemble work, but a rave this doesn’t elicit, either.

In Brief: Lent V Edition

Haydn, Insanae et vanae curae,
Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Haydn's Insanae et vanae curae is a favorite chestnut of choirs everywhere, and none more than boys' choirs, who tend just to love a good storm chorus. Master Ionarts is having his first experience with the piece as a provisional chorister and is already starting to memorize its evocative Latin words (by an unidentified author and fitted to the music later). The music comes from Haydn's first oratorio, on the Tobias story, Il Ritorno di Tobia, with a libretto by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, whose brother Luigi was also a famous composer. The chorus was originally set to the words Svanisce in un momento, and Haydn added it to the oratorio in a later version. [YouTube]

  • A 93-year-old man has now been identified as the only surviving victim of both nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the former on a business trip on August 6, 1945, and back home in the latter on August 9. That is just horrible. [Cronaca]

  • With hat tip to ArtsJournal, Gerard McBurney is orchestrating the first act of a fabled but thought-to-be-lost opera by Shostakovich, left unfinished in the 1930s. Orango, a collaboration with Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, told the story of a half-ape, half-human protagonist, who becomes a journalist, politician, and eventually Secretary-General of the Communist Party. [Le Devoir]

  • Roberto Saviano, the author of a devastating book about the Neapolitan mafia (Gomorra, movie version reviewed last month), has spoken on Italian television about his life after taking on the Camorra. [Opera Chic]

  • A former student of mine, now at Georgetown, helps catch an iPod thief. Nice. [Georgetown Hoya]

  • If you are like me and missed this big feature on conductor Valery Gergiev, do yourself a favor and go read it. [New York Times Magazine]

  • La Fura dels Baus strikes again, with a daring staging of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at La Monnaie in Brussels. The production will go soon to Rome, Barcelona, and English National Opera. [Financial Times]

  • This video, of someone offering free voice lessons, is so horrible ("you can shake your head to make vibrato") that one wishes it were a joke. But it's not. You can also follow the links to the other awful videos she has made. [YouTube]


Flicka and Ramey

Frederica von StadeOne of many things to have taken a hit in the financial crisis is the gala performance. True, the Metropolitan Opera did quite well with its 125th anniversary gala earlier this month, but it did so with major star power and an opera-centered, staged production instead of speeches and fluff. In better times, it was understandable for Washington Performing Arts Society to think it could book two operatic legends, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey, to sing a lightweight program and fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. In the current climate it could have worked in a smaller hall, but the Washington visit of what Ramey has called "the seniors tour" was not enough of a draw to fill such a large hall.

Samuel RameyBoth voices are long past their prime, threadbare in tone and with notable declines in agility and clarity. That being said, there are still contributions for singers in this career phase to make, as Ramey has shown in recent years with appearances as Claggart in Billy Budd and as Bluebeard and Gianni Schicchi. In 2010, von Stade will make her Chicago farewell in a new opera composed for her by Jake Heggie at Chicago Opera Theater and a solo recital with Heggie at the piano. Unfortunately, this sort of gala-like event barely holds serious interest for very long with the best voices in demanding repertoire. For von Stade and Ramey, the repertoire of their past glories served only to underscore their vocal decline, and the far more numerous examples of fluff, occasionally charming but just as often campy and embarrassing, quickly tried the patience.

Other Articles:

Ronni Reich, The Personality Touch of Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey (Washington Post,

John Fleming, Mighty operatic duo of Ramey and von Stade aims for fun (St. Petersburg Times, March 20)

Adam Parker, Two opera stars close Charleston Concert season (Charleston Post and Courier, March 15)
Von Stade's Mignon was once a wonderful thing, but she is long past the time to be the wide-eyed Frédéric singing the pants-role gavotte Me voici dans son boudoir or the pure, innocent Mignon of Connais-tu le pays, as wonderful as both arias are. She was most in her element in the comic aria Ah, que j'aime les militaires, from Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, a role that Felicity Lott, another singer of roughly von Stade's age, has performed to great acclaim. Von Stade was always, and continues to be, charming and funny on stage, although certain concessions have to be made in terms of her ability to be heard clearly, especially in rapid passagework.

Ramey noted wryly before he began his corresponding set of three big devil arias (Berlioz, Gounod, Boito) that he had spent "probably 75% of my career playing the Devil," adding, "I'm not sure why - my mother always thought I was a little angel." His voice still has enough boom to it for the laughing "Ha-ha-ha" refrain of the Gounod Sérénade, but the wobble noted in both recent stage appearances remains prominent. For a sexagenarian he cuts an admirably slender figure, but it is unlikely he will be picking up his shirtless Mefistofele costume anytime soon. The first half ended with a decent set of Copland songs: most of the cost of a ticket was probably compensated by the chance to hear von Stade's imitation of a goose in I Bought Me a Cat, turned into a duet with Ramey. The second half degenerated into an evening of popular song, with some Gershwin tunes and other "favorites" from American musicals. Martin Katz, the highly regarded accompanist of about the same age as the singers, hopefully was paid double his normal fee.

The next event in the WPAS classical series is this afternoon's appearance by the London Symphony Orchestra (March 28, 4 pm), with Valery Gergiev conducting Prokofiev's first and sixth symphonies, the latter having already reduced Alex Ross to a cold sweat.


Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Brahms Transcribed

available at Amazon
Brahms, Orchestrations by Schoenberg & Berio, Steffens / State O. Rhenish Phil. / Raiskin
cpo 777 356-2

Brahms’ First Piano Quartet, op.25 in G minor, was dubbed “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony” by the orchestrator—Arnold Schoenberg—himself. (By other accounts, it was the conductor of the premiere, Bruno Walter, who coined the term.) That’s not boasting, it’s quite accurate. For one, the symphony writing of Brahms in that marvelous, blustery quartet lends itself to the orchestral arrangement, and Schoenberg did a bang-up job in the orchestration which isn’t so much Brahms but Brahms catapulted into the 20th century of Mahler and Schoenberg himself.

There is an anecdote of Otto Klemperer, who had suggested to Schoenberg to arrange and orchestrate that quartet, premiering the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms Quartet in L.A. where one of the ‘Dragon-Ladies’ of the Board came up to him afterwards and proclaimed: “I don’t know what everyone’s problem is with that Schoenberg. I think that was quite beautiful.”* It is safe to say that she did not gain much insight into Schoenberg’s (actual) work, but at least she enjoyed his orchestration, which indeed – insight or not – any Brahms-lover will.

The result, despite Schoenberg’s insistence that he only ‘opened up the inherent possibilities’ of works of past masters, is a musical work of its own. Just listen to the last movement’s instrumentation which revels in surges of Hungarian color that Brahms would never have come up with. The quartet is no longer rarely heard, as it was in Schoenberg’s time, nor often played badly when it is (another of Schoenberg’s complaints and reasons for orchestrating it). But that does not negate the additional pleasure that can be gained from the orchestration.

Indeed, this monumental and stunningly beautiful work is good to have in any performance. A fine account has recently been offered by Robert Craft on Naxos—coupled with the re-working of the Monn cello concerto, which is more based on, rather than “transcribed from”, Georg Matthias Monn’s (1717 - 1750) work. The latest addition comes from cpo, Daniel Raiskin, and the State Orchestra Rhenish Philharmonic (Koblenz). It’s a lighter, not to say lyrical, performance, but neither as secure nor unashamedly bombastic as the Christoph Eschenbach’s RCA recording with the Houston Symphony (coupled with Schoenberg’s excellent Bach transcriptions of BWV 552, BWV 654, and BWV 631) on RCA (sadly oop). The finest sounding version currently available is probably Neeme Järvi’s on Chandos, because the London Symphony Orchestra delivers more of a punch and more vibrant colors than the Rhenish Philharmonic.

That said, the main attraction on this disc is not the Brahms/Schoenberg arrangement, but the Berio orchestral arrangement of the Clarinet Sonata op.120/1, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of Los Angeles. Like Schoenberg, it’s a harmonically and melodically “straight” transcription, not a modern re-imagining of the work. Berio, no stranger to orchestrations and adaptations (Puccini’s Turandot, works by Schubert, Mahler, and Verdi), tackled this last major work of Brahms’ for reasons we don’t know. Iosif Raiskin speculates that the tinges of Mahler in late Brahms may have been a reason for the Mahler-loving Berio. Be that as it may, the result is a wonderfully graceful Brahms Clarinet Concerto. Quite different than the grandiloquent Schoenberg transcriptions—partly due to the very different source material, partly due to the airier orchestration.

Karl Heinz Steffens’ performance on the clarinet is, if anything, even better than the already admirable orchestral contribution in the Berio-Brahms. If you like the idea of transcriptions, if you like Brahms, if you don’t already have a recording of the “Fifth Symphony”, and if you like the clarinet (or if any two of these four points are true), this is probably worth seeking out.

* The same story also exists in a version where it was the manager of the L.A. Symphony who said the same thing, except substituting “melody” for “beauty”. I haven’t yet found out which one is more credible, for now I prefer the former.


Documenting Robert Frank's America

Robert Frank, Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 (Private Collection, San Francisco), image courtesy of National Gallery of Art
A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to look through the exhibit on Robert Frank's The Americans, currently on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. In 1955 and 1956, Robert Frank traveled around the United States taking thousands of photographs, eventually selecting 83 images to be reproduced in his famous book, published here in America in 1959. Born into a wealthy American family in Switzerland, Frank's negative view of the country that he did not really know comes across in the way he trained his eye on the places he visited.

In fact, the book was first published in France, in a 1958 edition, and the French are marking the anniversary, too. As reported by Michel Guerrin (Dans les pas de Robert Frank, March 12) for Le Monde, Philippe Séclier screened a new documentary about the 20th-century de Toqueville's American trips, Un Voyage américain at the Musée du Jeu de paume in Paris earlier this month. Although Frank himself, still alive but something of a recluse, did not accept an interview for the film, Séclier spoke to everyone involved in the production of the book that he could, as well as traveling the United States by car, retracing Frank's steps and shooting footage in the places where Frank took the book's photographs. You can listen to the director speak to Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the NGA's department of photographs, on this podcast. The museum screened the film on January 18, while I was in Miami.

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans continues at the National Gallery of Art through April 26. It will then travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May 16 to August 23) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 22 to December 27).

Robert Frank, Streetcar - New Orleans


Brandenburg Concertos, Part 2

Style masthead

Charles T. Downey, Academy of Ancient Music Plays Brandenburg Concertos
Washington Post, March 24, 2009

Academy of Ancient Music
George Mason University Center for the Arts
J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concertos

Dover study score | Online score | Part 1

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on March 10, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62 ($37.78)

No. 1 [21'38"]
No. 2 [11'15"]
No. 3 [11'00"]
No. 4 [14'43"]
No. 5 [21'15"]
No. 6 [16'06"]
Richard Egarr's new recording of the Brandenburg Concertos with the Academy of Ancient Music is not the most daring version when compared to the racier sets by Concerto Italiano and Il Giardino Armonico, but it may strike the best overall balance between musicological rigor and concessions made for musical interest. The pitch is set at A392Hz, so-called French Baroque pitch, since Bach's wind players mostly used French instruments at this lower pitch, and Egarr has his Katzman harpsichord tuned in ordinaire temperament, not the one proposed by Bradley Lehman as Bach's special temperament. Egarr embraces the historically informed performance practice of assigning one player to each part, describing the Brandenburgs in his liner notes as "some of the best chamber music ever penned." In that sense, it would be wrong to attribute these versions only to Egarr, for he has taken a collaborative approach to leading the ensemble, leaving many decisions to the other players.

Egarr describes No. 1 as a "processional," an introduction to some of the contrasts embedded in the scores, with glissando-ing natural horns striking a decidedly rural tone in the first movement, only to introduce learned ornaments in their big trio in the dance suite. Rodolfo Richter plays the violino piccolo parts on an actual 17th-century instrument (Jacobus Stainer, 1659), an instrument that produces a dulcet ribbon of sound. Egarr is generally not the one to push tempi beyond the breaking point, so the timings are generally on the longer side: for example, he chooses a stately tempo for the minuet, which allows him to make the right proportional tempo distinctions for the dances in 3/8 and 2/4. No. 2 has a fairly mellow trumpet solo, made a little more relaxed because of the lowered pitch, allowing the trumpet to be only of a group of solo instruments. It's a crisp performance, with pleasing rhythmic vitality although the tempi are not all that fast, except the second movement, where the three solo lines introduce lovely ornamentation. In No. 3 Egarr chooses to perform the mysterious one-measure Adagio second movement basically as written, with a few harpsichord arpeggiations to stretch it out, on the basis of a numerological theory that this "movement" is actually the missing bar to round out a perfect number in the third movement.

While it would not be fair to describe this set as staid, many of the performances seem cut too much from the same cloth, generally with a big pause or marking of the return of the ritornello in the home key and an overly mannered rallentando to mark the ending of many movements. Egarr described No. 4 as an example of "virtuosity for virtuosity's sake," and the group turns in one of the shorter timings of the work, with bubbly playing on the twin soprano recorders and Richter on the solo violin, particularly breath-taking in the third movement. Egarr's performance on the harpsichord solo part of No. 5 is typical of his highly skilled but not showboat-ish manner of playing, perhaps most lovely in the second movement, treated essentially like a trio sonata of three equals. Although Egarr admits that adding theorbo to the continuo line in all of the concertos (replaced by Baroque guitar here on No. 5) is not historically accurate as far as the forces Bach had at hand, he describes the sound as a delicious luxury. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle movement of No. 6 where the harpsichord drops off the continuo part, to leave the theorbo to provide the harmony for an all-string sound.


Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Gulda Plays Bach

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Gulda Plays Bach, Friedrich Gulda
DG 4778020

“Gulda Plays Bach”, “First release ever”, “Private Recordings from Gulda’s archive”, “Bonus Track: Gulda’s own exuberant Prelude and Fugue”. The title and the exclamations of this Deutsche Grammophon release aretypical PR breathlessness aside—are perfectly enticing. At least to someone who values Friedrich Gulda’s second Beethoven cycle and also cherishes many of his quirks and jazz-antics. (I know I do.)

That said, this compilation does not quite live up to its promise. The English Suite No. 2 in A minor, a patch of a live radio broadcast from a 1965 Berlin Philharmonic Hall performance and a RIAS studio recording a year later, is the longest piece on this disc and the sprightly-yet-anchored performance is the most satisfying. Because the subtle white noise was adjusted to appear on all six tracks and because the audience coughs on the live cuts were suppressed, it’s actually difficult to tell the cuts apart.

The Toccata in C minor comes in bad sound quality (a 1955 private live recording). It’s the work that won Gulda the 1946 Geneva Piano Competition. But whatever special thing was present at that competition performance is either absent here or no longer easily discernible to 2009 ears. Especially for the combination of this Toccata and the A minor English Suite, Deutsche Grammophon has a more interesting, better sounding disc on offer with the recital of his student, Martha Argerich.

The Italian Concerto, driven in the outer movements, gentle yet fleet in the Andante, is fine stuff, but I can't quite hear why it might be special (compared to Alexandre Tharaud, for example), despite the Gulda’s interpretive authorship. A curiously un-involving G minor English Suite comes in very good sound from a 1969 studio recording. The Capriccio in B flat BWV 992 sounds superb given that that it is a 1959 private mono recording.  The approach is unsentimental and brisk, but the work’s mellowness is allowed to linger in the slow movements. This cobbled-together recital is capped with an encore of Gulda’s own, jazzy-Bach Prelude & Fugue. Four pleasant minutes that don’t really allow any insight into Gulda’s foible or ability for Jazz.

For Gulda fans, this CD (coming, like many of DG’s new releases, in the more functional “Super Jewel Box”) will be of obvious interest. Those interested in Gulda’s Bach will find his Well Tempered Clavier (Philips) of more lasting appeal.


Russian National Ballet's Cinderella

Dancing Master, Stepmother, Cinderella, and Ugly Sisters
in Cinderella, Russian National Ballet Theater
The Russian National Ballet Theater brought one of its multiple-ballet touring extravaganzas to the George Mason University Center for the Arts last weekend. The company, founded by Elena Radchenko, a former principal dancer at the Bolshoi, maximizes the number of performances on its tours, tending to present as many audience favorites as possible to pack the house. Although this performance on Friday night felt, as a result, perfunctory and routine, the strategy paid off for the company, as lots of parents with their little girls turned out to see the RNBT's Cinderella. It was the second ballet for Miss Ionarts, after her first experience with The Nutcracker in December, and she loved it in spite of its shortcomings.

Many of the RNBT choreographies are the classic ones by Marius Petipa, which have been recycled and updated by many companies. This Cinderella was originally choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov, for the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev's fabulous score at the Mariinsky Theater in 1945. The saddest part of this performance was that that brilliant music was not performed by an orchestra, which has been part of previous tours, but played on the sound system from a recording. Not only did that result in an unsatisfactory canned sound, adding to the impression of the dancers phoning in the performance, but the transitions between tracks was unfortunately clunky, chopping up the musical continuity, too. Another sign of financial hard times.

The women, both in the corps and among the soloists, were generally stronger than the men, beginning with the attractive Cinderella of Marianna Chemalina, girlishly delicate yet flirtatious. When she combined with the five fairies (the Fairy Godmother and the four Seasons), the ensemble was the strongest, elegantly unified in line and action. The Dancing Master of Marat Abdrakhmanov was athletic and graceful, while the tall Prince of Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev started off strong in Act II but seemed to weaken toward the end, with buoyant leaps but his lifts losing some of their ease of motion. Some of the best parts of this choreography are the comic relief, the Stepmother (a drag role) and two Ugly Sisters, who danced with burlesque broadness. The sets were fairly plain, a necessary evil of the touring company, but the costumes were appealing, especially for the two leads, not least the gorgeous white gown Cinderella wpre to the ball, which put stars in Miss Ionarts' eyes until she fell asleep in the car on the way home.

The next ballet event in Washington is the Washington Ballet's production of Peter Pan, directed by Septime Webre, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater (April 1 to 5).

DCist: Peter Grimes

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From my review published today at DCist:

Washington National Opera opened its first-ever production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes on Saturday night. The house was not sold out and emptied slightly after each intermission. The operas of Britten, as analyzed in some detail by Anne Midgette in the Post, do not have the same broad appeal to listeners who prefer their opera in familiar form. This is in spite of the fact that Britten is one of the more traditionally minded opera composers of the 20th century, if you compare his operas with Berg, Messiaen, and Ligeti, for example. In fact, Grimes should be the antidote for those who dislike opera because the plots are so often absurd and sacrifice dramatic realism to musical and especially vocal excesses. Although the story is drawn from a 19th-century source, its tale of a social outcast persecuted by a closed and oppressive society was directly related to the composer's life: Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who created the role of Grimes, were not only closeted homosexuals but committed pacifists, which made life very difficult in WWII-era Great Britain.

Overseen by Britten and Pears, Montagu Slater adapted the libretto (.PDF file) from a bleak story in George Crabbe's poem The Borough, a set of 24 letters about a village in Suffolk (Letter 22 is about Peter Grimes). Britten found the story when he and Pears had fled the war to the United States, and at least part of the appeal of the Suffolk setting, which was also Britten's natal landscape, was thoughts of home. The sounds of the sea, pervading the score in six famous interludes, were part of Britten's plan from the beginning. That music is the incarnation of the mothering yet also menacing presence of the sea, which threatens literally to swallow the coastline of the borough and eventually does consume Grimes. Britten and Pears worked together to give the character of Grimes a rather different shape, a social outcast who longs for acceptance but can never find it in the hostile, gossip-governed borough. The chorus of citizens insists on their own moralizing superiority when they pass judgment on Grimes, but their hypocrisy is revealed as they commit their own sins of drinking, drug use, and sexual depravity.
DCist Goes to the Opera: Peter Grimes (DCist, March 24)

Anne Midgette, 'Grimes' Is Fiercely Embraced (Washington Post, March 23)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera’s staging of Peter Grimes freshly relevant in the age of A.I.G. (Clef Notes, March 22)

Robert R. Reilly, Goodness Does Not Undo Peter Grimes (Ionarts, March 22)


On the Radio

Tune your radio dial to 90.9 FM on Mondays at 9 pm to hear Front Row Washington, broadcasts of recent concerts in the area's concert halls. Here is the program of this evening's installment:

March 23, 9 pm
Jens Elvekjær, piano
Dumbarton Oaks

The only place where you could have read a review of this recital, Elvekjær's Washington debut, was right here at Ionarts.

The concert opened with Danish music, Carl Nielsen's Tema med variationer, a set of fifteen more or less continuous variations on a gentle neo-Baroque theme with unexpected harmonic shifts, composed in 1916-17. The variations were alternately devilish (no. 6), playful (no. 5), and gentle (the interweaving lines of no. 10), evoking flavors redolent of Schumann (the crossing hands of no. 1), Chopin (the mournful inner voices of the mazurka-like no. 8), and Debussy (the cascading tolling of bells in no. 15, reminiscent of La cathédrale engloutie). Elvekjær gave a range of finishes to the different genres referenced, a gloomy funeral lament for the homophonic no. 7, flashing sparkle for the toccata of no. 11, soft pedal and whirring tremolos in the music box-like no. 12, and obsessive harping on the ostinato half-step in the top voice of no. 13.
Charles T. Downey, Jens Elvekjær at Dumbarton Oaks (Ionarts, January 15)

Unashamedly Traditional and Unapologetically Beautiful

Tomorrow, March 24th, an intimate exhibition of architectural watercolor renderings by the New York based architectural husband-and-wife team Irina Shumitskaya and Anton Glikin opens at the Gelabert Studios Gallery (255 W 86th Street, NY). The opening reception starts at 5.30PM, complimentary tours by the artists take place on Friday, March 27th, Tuesday, March 31st, Thursday, April 2nd, from 5:45 pm to 6:30 pm.

Shumitskaya and Glikin studied at the St. Petersburg’s Architecture & Construction Institute in the 1990’s, where they took advantage of its traditional training in the art of architecture. The Academy was founded in 1757, hundred and nine years after the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and thirty six years before the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The three schools were the focal points of Europe’s artistic education.

During the late 18th century, the Academy’s program was closely modeled after the École, subsequently even surpassing the École’s model in some aspects. As the result of this educational evolution and the element of isolation in St. Petersburg, by the 1990’s the Academy offered some of the most flourishing and sophisticated living tradition of architectural rendering.

“Alas,” say the artists, “the cultural crisis that went hand-in-hand with the Russian economic recession has destroyed this last bastion of traditional education. Essentially, the Academy followed the tragic fate of École, which closed its traditional program in 1968.” Shumitskaya and Glikin share their (living and practiced) memories of the Academy in this exhibit which pays homage to the traditional education it once offered, with a wistful eye to the ease with which such a tradition can and did succumb to fads that don’t always--in fact: rarely--replace adequately what is lost with the old. If H.R.H., The Prince of Wales’ stance on architecture--admirable at the very least for not being afraid of being called musty (or worse)--appeals to you, this will, too.


Goodness Does not Undo Peter Grimes

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the Washington National Opera's "Peter Grimes".

My impressions of the debut of the Washington National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on March 21st deserve context: I date my acquaintance with the opera to the early 1970s when I had the privilege of seeing Jon Vickers perform the title role twice at the Metropolitan Opera. His performance provided one of the greatest theatrical/dramatic/operatic experiences that I have ever had.

This was for two reasons. Peter Grimes is great art, and it was given a great performance. What are the standards for this judgment? In a 1981 interview, Vickers gave them himself. He said that “Great art wrestles with the timeless, it wrestles with the universal, and at every point deals with the ever-present argument of what constitutes the fundamental moral law.” Peter Grimes does this, and meets Vickers’ definition of great art. Of his aim as an artist, Vickers said, “I try to touch the fundamental essences of the struggle of existence that are timeless and universal, so that I can reach through the proscenium arch and sort of gather the audience into my arms and bring them into the stage and say, ‘You feel these things with me; you feel these emotions with me. You put yourself into these situations and when you go out of here and you wrestle with those thoughts and emotions, you might go out of here a better person.’” He did that to me, and I will never forget it.

The perfect can be the enemy of the good and, for this reason, I hesitated in going to see this production of Peter Grimes. How could it possibly measure up? Well, it turned out to be—good. Not great, but certainly good, and even better than that in certain respects. First of all, Christopher Ventris sang the part beautifully. He has a lighter voice than Vickers and portrays a younger Grimes. This moved the portrayal away from something on the scale of Greek tragedy to a more human level.

The first key moment is in the solo near the end of Act I, when Grimes sings of the Great Bear and Pleiades, and asks, “Who can turn skies back and begin again?” The drama of the opera is in answering this question. Is there any recovery from the consequences of the accident that killed Grimes’ young apprentice at sea and left Grimes under a cloud of suspicion? Or will he be consumed by fate? Or is his fate his insurmountable character flaw? Or is this about all of us who wish we could begin again because of something we did or something that happened to us? All of this is gathered up in this solo. Vickers caught this shattering moment and insight into the human condition in an unforgettable way. To his great credit, Ventris also captured the moment, and so set up the rest of his performance.

It is Grimes’s relationship with Ellen Orford that gives suspense and tension to these questions. She is his only source of hope. Can her love “turn skies back,” so that Grimes can “begin again?” The good fortune of this production is to have Patricia Racette singing this role and giving it a most convincing, very moving portrayal. Every scene in which she and Ventris sang together went wonderfully well. Her warmth was effectively contrasted to the surrounding coldness.

Act II was Ventris’ strongest. He powerfully embodied the looming tragedy. His scene with his new apprentice in the hut was poignant and completely convincing in its wide, wild range of emotions from bitterness and anger to sweet hope. I expected, therefore, that he would be able to carry off the mad scene, one of the great mad scenes in opera, at the end of act III. Unfortunately, Ventris did not quite have the gravitas or sense of real anguish to sear our souls. The solo is sung a cappella, so the orchestra cannot come to the rescue if conviction flags. I reckon this was a failure in acting the role, in making us believe that he really was going mad and of tearing our hearts in two over the tragedy and sadness of it, over the terrible realization that skies cannot be turned back and we cannot begin again.

Anti-climactic as this was, it did not erase the other fine elements. Amid a uniformly good cast, special moments included the female quartet in act II, “Do we smile or do we weep?” which was sung radiantly. The chorus, crucial in this opera, was outstanding. The Washington National Opera Orchestra was fine and conductor Ilan Volkov completely on top the proceedings, moving things forward with a sense of inexorability, but also capturing the heart-wrenching lyricism that occasionally breaks through. As Captain Balstrode, Alan Held had both the voice and the dramatic presence to convey his character, the only male one with the strength to stand up to the mob on Grimes' behalf. And Myrna Paris as Mrs. Sedley did a marvelous character turn as the village busybody.

The set and costumes were as drab as could be, all browns and grays, with dusky lighting leaving us uncertain at any time as to whether it was night or day, giving special poignancy to the desire to “turn night into day.” Day never comes, however. The bleakness was a perfect foil to Britten’s magical music which holds within itself the thrilling, though unfulfilled, promise of something better, an expectancy that something might take Peter, and us, out of the clutches of his grim fate.

Director Paul Curran’s production notes led me to expect that his understanding of the story as a simple morality tale about the individual vs. society, a la Rousseau, would reduce the opera to an overt form of moralizing. However, he did not let this happen. For the most part, he allowed the force of the story to mold the movements of his characters and the crowd (chorus), who flowed naturally. It was clear from the claustrophobic court room scene in the prologue that Curran would meld the crowd into an organic unity that would move around the village and its environs like a giant ameba. The only time he overstepped was putting the crowd into marching formation before it closed on Grimes’ hut. This would have been fine for Brecht, but not for Britten. The underlining of what was so obviously taking place was gratuitous.

There was one more misstep on Curran’s part. The orchestral Sea Interludes were composed to allow for scene changes and to move the story forward in a purely orchestral way. For some reason, Curran chose to leave the curtain up and, except during the last interlude, place characters on stage. Their stage business, though minimal, was unrelated to the music and therefore distracting. It would have been much better had the stage been left dark, so we could concentrate exclusively on the Sea Interludes, which contain some of Britten’s most brilliant music. I do no to mean to carp, because Curran is part of what makes this Peter Grimes a satisfying night at the opera.

Peter Grimes will be repeated on March 23, 26, 29 (matinee) and April 1 & 4.

Photos courtesy WNO, © Karin Cooper.

Recommended Recordings:
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Britten / Pears

When you have a composer who is such a stupendous conductor, and a singer for whom the main role was created who was as good as Pears was, a recording in good sound of these forces is inevitably worth a recommendation. But even if this is a performance "as it was meant to be", that doesn't mean there isn't room for other interpretive choices.
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Davis / Vickers

An instant classic when it came out, this harrowing performance by Vickers has come under criticism because Vickers allegedly proved impervious to what Britten wanted Grimes to be and feel. While it is true that Vickers has expressed opinions that seem at odds with some of the emotional proclivities of Britten, this is still riveting stuff, no matter what Vickers thought or didn't think he was doing.
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Richard Hickox / Philip Langridge

This (1997 Grammy winning, for what it's worth) performance is my preferred choice because Hickox and Langridge account for unparalleled beauty and lyricism married to overwhelming (if only occasional) ferociousness.