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


Angela Hewitt's Haydn and Handel

available at Amazon
Handel / Haydn, A. Hewitt

(released on September 8, 2009)
Hyperion CDA67736 | 67'25"
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is one of my favorite performers when I want to hear Baroque music, and especially Bach, played immaculately on the modern piano (she prefers a Fazioli). She has done it again with this recent disc combining some keyboard selections of Handel with Haydn's F minor variations and the piano sonata Hob. XVI:52. For the Handel suites, my first recommendation would still be for harpsichord, as in the new set of the eight "Great" harpsichord suites by Jory Vinikour for Delos, reviewed in honor of the Handel anniversary last year. At the same time, we have no problem with hearing Handel played on the piano and, as with her other recordings of Baroque music, Hewitt creates a version that manages both to sound authentic and to be highly idiosyncratic, bearing her own stamp in terms of variation of tempo and attack. Hewitt has written her own liner essay for the booklet, which depending on your temperament, you may not want to read.

What it reveals is an approach that is not as scholarly as you might expect from Hewitt: in it she notes that the Bärenreiter edition records a different conclusion to the G major chaconne recorded here (HWV 435). Preferring the edition she learned in her youth, she chooses to play it instead, and well she should. As she also notes, Trevor Pinnock plays the critical edition in his recording: she is aware of the research and the differences of the editions, and she is not presenting her recording as anything but what she likes to play. She also seems to have no trouble making other changes, adding octaves to the left hand in places to give a fuller sound, for example. Hewitt's Haydn is no less pleasing, with the filigree runs in the F minor variations, played so memorably by Alfred Brendel at his Washington farewell recital, light as a Rococo feather. Yes, I would still rather have my Haydn on a fortepiano, as heard from Kristian Bezuidenhout at the Library of Congress a couple years ago, but nothing wrong with hearing the sonatas from more pianists (a disc from Rafał Blechacz was the most recent example of the sonata recorded by Hewitt, no. 52).


In Brief: Lord Stanley Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Pierre Boulez turned 85 back in March, and the man himself led two concerts in his honor this week, with the Orchestre de Paris and the Ensemble intercontemporain in the Salle Pleyel. Unfortunately, both Boulez (in a public interview at intermission) and critic Renaud Machart pronounced these concerts "interminable" because of the length of seating changes from work to work, causing Boulez to declare that a concert hall suited to "the music of tomorrow" would have a revolving stage for such changes and an acoustic setup suited for the "spatialization" techniques heard in music by Boulez, Dalbavie, and others. Machart notes with some humor, "What other major musician of today would hold 'spatialization' up as a cardinal virtue of the music of the future and would dare to claim that that consideration requires one to rethink completely the setup of classical music venues? Only Boulez, as far as I know, could argue this point in such an opinionated way." [Le Monde]

  • It's that time of the year: "NHL Needs to Raise $5,000 in 24 Hours if it Wants to Hold Stanley Cup Finals." [The Onion]

  • The concern about hockey's popularity, or lack thereof, is so marked that Greg Wyshynski actually has a list of assignments for hockey fans to help raise awareness of the sport during the Stanley Cup finals. [Puck Daddy]

  • Last Sunday in one of those inspired bits of wackiness that could only happen in France, a project called "Nature capitale" transformed the boulevard des Champs-Élysées into a garden. From the Place de l'Etoile to the Rond-point des Champs-Elysées, farmers hauled in 8,000 agricultural displays -- orchard trees, swaths of grass and other grains and other plants, enclosures of livestock -- and covered 1.2 km of the broad avenue. The pictures are whimsical. You can walk around and see everything for free, but you can also buy all sorts of agricultural products. Two million visitors are expected. [Le Figaro]

  • The last two finalists in the piano competition of the Concours Reine Elisabeth played last night: American Claire Huangci and Russian Denis Kozhukhin. The announcement of the winner was made early this morning, and apparently the best was saved for last: the jury awarded first prize to Kozhukhin. (You can watch online videos of the competition.) His semifinal round performance of Mozart's K. 491, with fine cadenzas by Alfred Schnittke, was excellent, and his semifinal recital program was equally striking (especially the compulsory work, Back to the Sound by Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps). In the final round, he chose a Haydn sonata (!) and Prokofiev's second concerto. [Queen Elisabeth Competition]

  • Classical music: "I'm not dead yet!" Thierry Hilleriteau reports that a new film by Radu Mihaileanu, Le Concert, has enjoyed record sales in France: 1.9 million tickets sold in theaters, huge sales on DVD and Blu-Ray (and selling, at the moment, at a rate of 4,000 DVDs per week). The entire final scene is given over to a performance of (part of) Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, and the effect on sales of CDs of that work and others by the same composer has been surprising, even leading to pirated CDs appearing in some shops. A successful film, even if it is not entirely about a composer but features a work prominently, can reignite interest in classical music among people who are not die-hard fans. Will Stephen Fry's new biopic on Handel next year have a similar effect? [Le Figaro]


Ionarts-at-Large: Heinrich Schiff Between Boredom and Beguiling

available at Amazon
L.v.B., Sys. 2 & 3,
H.Schiff / Bremen Ch.Phil.
Berlin Classics
USA | UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
L.v.B., Sys.4 & 7,
P.Järvi/ Bremen Ch.Phil.
USA | UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
W.A.M./ L.v.B. [sic!], Clarinet Concertos,
Collins / Pletnev / Russian NO
USA | UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
W. Lutosławski, Musique Funebre et al.,
Lutosławski / Polish NRSO
EMI Matrix
USA | UK | DE | FR

Lutosławski, Mozart, Beethoven: Andreas Schablas (clarinet), Bavarian State Orchestra, Heinrich Schiff (conductor), National Theater, Munich 17/18.05.2010 (jfl)

Lutosławski: Musique funèbre à la mémoire de Béla Bartók
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A, KV 622
Beethoven: Symphony No.7

As, eventually, owners look like their dogs, Heinrich Schiff has morphed into the shape of a stout cello. He also has the unique ability of making any suit jacket look like a cardigan—so last seen in the Sixth Academy Concert of the Bavarian State Opera, earlier this May.

Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music (in Memory of Béla Bartók) is dry stuff and there was little either Schiff (in conducting mode) or the Bavarian State Orchestra could do to make it appear otherwise. Written for the 10th anniversary of Bartók’s death (but not finished until 1958), it skates heavily, densely, repetitively, until the Apogeum-third movement offers a lyrical bright light. Calm, interrupted by intermittent thuds, the Epilog ends with a twelve-tone row on one cello, just as it began.

If ‘dry’ be a euphemism for boring, let’s call the following Mozart clarinet concerto performance (KV 622) outright dull: Andreas Schablas, first clarinetist of the orchestra and member of the Austrian Ensemble for New Music (OENM—where he has apparently impressed with interpretations of Poppe and Rihm) was the soloist. What struck as perfectly amiable at first, revealed itself in time as lacking beauty of tone and phrasing and teetering too close to boredom. An achingly sincere slow movement notwithstanding, this was a skilled, schooled, and stiff run-of-the-mill performance.

Had I given in to temptation and left at intermission, the impression of the concert would have been terribly wrong: In the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven, Schiff let it all hang out. Not subtle, but then we don’t go to concerts for ‘subtle’ but—ideally—for entertainment. The first movement still sounded more like the attempt at an exclamation mark, rather than the real thing. But from those forced, incidental (rather than essential) exclamation marks, the symphony worked up energy via a too-quick-to-be-funereal Allegretto (beautifully executed double bass and cello lines!) to a steadily more appealing romp cumulating in excited excellence.

Photo of Heinrich Schiff © Andrea Felvégi


Philadelphia Orchestra Drive-By

available at Amazon
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos 1-4, City of Birmingham Orchestra, N. Lugansky

(released on March 20, 2007)
We are glad to assist at the yearly visits of the Philadelphia Orchestra to Washington, especially with Charles Dutoit at the helm. Well, they almost made it to Washington this year but decided to stop in Maryland for their debut performance in the Music Center at Strathmore, once again sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. As noted of the ensemble's appearance last year at the Kennedy Center, the sound and confidence level are returning to their former level. Although the turbulence of the Eschenbach era has reportedly calmed under Dutoit's stewardship, with promises that the musicians will have a say in the selection of the next permanent music director, the orchestra's financial situation is far from rosy. While there must be stress relating to those money worries, it did not come through in a sound that was velvety, rhythmically cohesive, and very polished.

The opening selection, the sparkling overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla, seemed intended to announce the orchestra's vitality and strength. The Philadelphians performed the work in a new edition, recently published by Kalmus and edited by David J. Miller, a Petty Officer and trombonist in the U.S. Navy Band (and Fairfax Symphony). Working from a copy of Glinka's manuscript, Miller discovered and corrected several mistakes that had crept into the most often used editions. (Marilyn Cooley spoke to Miller about his work for WETA's Classical Conversations.) With precise and fluid gestures, Dutoit led the players in a clean rendition, digging into the brash opening, giving incisive clarity to the dissected motive fragments in the middle section, and with the cellos giving a glowing happiness to the B theme.

Russian pianist Nikolaï Lugansky then joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto (the uncut original version, of course). Although some ensemble sloppiness emerged in the first movement, after the famous opening theme -- Lugansky rushing ahead, the players not keeping pace -- this was Rachmaninoff that this inveterate Rachmaninoff-hater could love: light on the schmaltz (although not lacking in beautiful rubato) and heavy on the athletic power, a performance that insisted with urgency rather than swooned with fainting emotion. The winner of second prizes at the Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Bach Competitions -- that's a combination that says something about the way Lugansky plays Romantic music -- the ever-formal Lugansky sat with his back straight as a rod, not even breaking a sweat, although the most demanding passages did cause some veins to bulge out in his neck. His technical assurance and smooth melodic line even in the first movement's gigantic cadenza and the outrageous repeated-note and scherzo-like passages of the third movement were impressive.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, In performance: The Philadelphia Orchestra (Washington Post, May 28)

Peter Dobrin, Phila. Orchestra continues neighborhood concerts (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13)

David Patrick Stearns, Gershwin, Sousa play in Shanghai (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9)

Xiyun Yang, U.S. Orchestra Performs in China, in Echoes of 1973 (New York Times, May 7)

Previous Reviews:
December 2004 | November 2005
June 2007 | December 2007 | June 2009
The real highlight of the evening, however, was for the orchestra, in its many-colored, psychologically penetrating reading of the original 1911 ballet score for Stravinsky's Petrushka. In the opening tableau, the Shrovetide Fair had a delightful sense of rhythmic elan, with a childlike wonder at the circus-like, almost goofy calliope section, while the Magic Trick featured the hilarious belching and popping of the low winds. Stravinsky's orchestration in this work is masterful, certainly meriting the repeated study it receives from orchestration students to this day, and all of the Philadelphia players were up to their various tasks. Only the violin section showed a little bit of sluggishness, the back desks often just slightly off from the front ones, meriting more than one concerned glance from Dutoit. The grotesque wrong notes of the Ballerina's Dance and the Waltz and the mechanical hammering of misplaced accents, the rough draft of The Rite of Spring as it were, added to the vivid portrayal of the story.

The WPAS season concludes next month with a recital by cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (June 15, 8 pm), at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.


Chopin on Chopin's Piano, Almost

available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonata No. 2 / Ballades /
Preludes / Nouvelles Etudes, E. Stern

(released on April 27, 2010)
Naïve AM 197 | 1h04

Chopin's First Editions Online

available at Amazon
Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger,
Chopin et Pleyel (2010)
The hope of truly knowing a favorite composer, artist, or writer by going to the places he lived and worked is a folly, but as someone who has dragged Mrs. Ionarts to Montaigne's chateau, Proust's room at the Grand Hôtel in Cabourg, and the île de Saint-Pierre in the Lac de Bienne, where Rousseau wrote the fifth promenade of Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, I can tell you that it can be obsessive fun. So what would Chopin's piano pieces sound like on one of the pianos that he owned and played on every day? Well, the Musée de la Musique has the Pleyel piano that Chopin had for a couple years in his apartment in Paris, but it is only for looking, not for playing. Chopin met Camille Pleyel soon after his arrival in Paris, gave his first recital at the piano manufacturer's showroom (in a building now called the Hôtel Cromot de Bourg at 9, rue Cadet): the relationship is the subject of a new book, by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, that just came out in France. So Edna Stern plays the next best thing, an 1842 Pleyel grand piano thought to be as similar as possible to Chopin's piano, the very instrument on which he composed some of the pieces recorded here.

After recording this disc last December, Stern played a concert on this piano as part of a Chopin marathon at the Cité de la musique, in connection with the exhibit Chopin à Paris, l'Atelier du Compositeur, well worth an online look (or on site in Paris, but only through June 6). The hammers of this instrument, found still covered in their original leather, have been restored, and the surprising thing about its mellow sound is how it can veer from a thunderous boom to a surprisingly transparent piano. The almost brittle sound of the high treble range, as at the fifth measure of the "Presto con fuoco" section of the second ballade, for example, is used by Stern to surprising effect. The same is true of the enigmatic fourth movement of the second sonata, which sounds here like a murky wash of notes. The Pleyel has a single-action mechanism, which Stern admits forces her to slow some passages down to make them technically possible -- it also "requires a wide variety of touch" to draw forth all of its possible colors. Perhaps partially as a result, Stern plays with a rubato that can border at times on the extreme, perhaps in line with what Matthew Guerrieri recently described as Chopin's own peculiar way of stretching the rhythm in his own works.

Stern, whose recent Bach recordings have been impressive, is a thoughtful and assured pianist, not necessarily driven only by the desire to impress with a technical blaze of glory. In her career she has avoided competitions, focusing instead on periods of advanced study -- with Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Leon Fleischer -- and on her discovery of the fortepiano, which she says "has transformed her approach to music." This disc is not recommended for listeners who prefer their Chopin on the modern piano, but as a possible peek into the sonic past, it is more than a curiosity.


Music We'll Take; but Hold the Jesus*

by George A. Pieler and Jens F. Laurson

Does the First Amendment need protection from itself? A case from Washington State, although just rejected by the Supreme Court, suggests it might: Franz Biebl, a perfectly pleasant Bavarian composer, has been banned there, in Snohomish County. Worse, it was Biebl's most popular work, his setting of "Ave Maria," that was expelled from Henry "Scoop" Jackson High School...

...If anything with a religious text is [too much for administrators of any sort], then Handel Oratorios, Bach Passions, all the requiems (Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Brahms, Fauré,
et al.) are disallowed, along with excerpts therefrom, even in instrumental transcriptions. Bernstein's Mass and "Kaddish" symphony are out. Haydn's "Creation" would be slashed. Spirituals couldn't be performed, and lots of Motown would be banned. If we combed through every instance of music that includes a reference to God or has a hint of Jesus in it, Western music would be slashed to a pitiful trickle. Might someone even suggest the Goldberg Variations could be "too Jewish"? They certainly sound suspicious...

Read the full article at Inside Catholic CatholiCity.

* Or any other instance of possibly religious mentions.

Bach Cello Suites

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Cello Suites,
Jörg Baumann
Warner / Apex
[mp3 avail. for $4]
.com .de .fr

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Cello Suites,
Wolfgang Boettcher
[mp3 avail. for $18]
.com .de .fr
Who is Jörg Baumann? From the latest release of his Bach Cello Suites on Warner’s Apex budget label we learn nothing other than that he was a cellist. And that he recorded the Suites for Teldec in Berlin between 1981 and 83. Cursory research yields that he was the Berlin Philharmonic’s solo cellist from 1976 until his death in 1995 at the age of only 55 and one of the founding members of “The 12 Cellists”. Another founding member of that group was Wolfgang Boettcher, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1958 and Baumann’s predecessor as solo cellist from 1963 until 76. That’s a neat coincidence, since I have recordings (re-issues) of both cellists’ take on the Bach Suites in front of me. (For reviews of recent issues like those of Queyras, Lipkind, Isserlis, Gastinel, Sigiswald Kuijken’s performance on the shoulder cello, as well as re-issues of Rostropovich, Fournier, and Maisky on DVD see the links above.)

Jörg Baumann’s recording is a rather conventional reading that stresses beauty over innovation of form, firmly anchored in a world of tastefulness, eschewing extreme—much less erratic—tempos. Well recorded in a dry, but not ungenerous space, the Teldec release must have been fairly impressive in its time, although it apparently never garnered enough fame to have been known to me at all, prior to re-issue. His cello is pitched somewhere above 440Hz—presumably at Berlin Philharmonic standard pitch somewhere in the 446Hz region. Further generalization is difficult with Baumann as well as Boettcher (who is tuned to ~440Hz) because they don’t adhere to any one stylistic route. In the Allemande and Courante of the first Suite, for example, it is Baumann who sets the pace with a neat and crisp pace. The concluding Gigue of the same suite is rather solemn compared to the swiftly dotted and flexibly played way Boettcher has with it. Boettcher plays the Courante from the second Suite similarly: light on its feet but never to the point where his considerably more resonant acoustic would start muddling matters. And in the Sarabande of the same suite it is Boettcher’s turn dig in far beyond what’s necessary to retrieve maximum beauty—he very nearly gets stuck. And Baumann’s tone, uniquely, becomes unlovely in the following Minuet. Given the confident way of Kuijken’s inexorable fiddling (lacking any acoustic ‘trail’), such questions rarely arise with his interpretation.

Nimbus offers fine annotations for their issues; the bear-bones apex issue does not. I particularly like Wolfgang Boettcher’s candid comments on his Bach playing (“…and how my playing has changed in 50 years! That development away from a broad, ‘beautiful’, uniform legato sound to ever more clarity, declamation and diversity… I’ve not always avoided the danger of making too many embellishments but over the years [they] have been simplified to a few suspended notes… and to Sarabandes, where I have made it a rule only to embellish the reprises.” Boettcher praises the excellent acoustic conditions of Wyastone Estate’s Monmouth Hall, confirming what I had a cellist-acquaintance wax about to me just a while ago.

Baumann’s tone is not as consistently beautiful as it should be; even the acoustics seem to vary. I like his unmannered and unfussy approach and his reluctance to dwell. But ultimately his recording is a competitor for a generation of cello suite recordings where—in my book, at least—Pierre Fournier is the undisputed king. And with Fournier, or Starker, of even Schiff, Baumann simply can’t compete—terrific E-flat major Gigue or not. Boettcher is harder to dismiss, because of the superb sound (close to the ‘wet’ side) and because some really lively playing. But Voltaire’s “Le mieux est l’ennemi de bien” strikes Boettcher down. Much as he has recovered from the “broad, ‘beautiful, uniform” style of bygone days, Boettcher still sounds too conventional—and at the same time not gorgeous enough—to seriously challenge the towering excellence of Jean-Guihen Queyras’ recording or the stunningly beautiful virtuosity of Gavriel Lipkind.

The Bach Cello Suites elsewhere on ionarts:

Just What Are the Bach Cello Suites? [Pandolfo, Cocset]
Solo Bach Cello Suites [Ma, Haimovitz]
Dip Your Ears, No. 4 [Wispelwey]
Dip Your Ears, No. 25 [Fournier]
Dip Your Ears, No. 111 [S.Kuijken, Viola Pomposa]
Dip Your Ears, No. 145 [Vogler]
Bach Cello Suites [Baumann, Boettcher]
● The Cello Suites, Bach I [Maisky, DVD]
● The Cello Suites, Bach II [Rostropovich, Fournier, Isserlis, Harnoncourt]
● The Cello Suites, Bach III [Gastinel, Queyras, Lipkind]
● The Cello Suites, Bach IV [Klinger]
● CD Pick & Recent Releases [Bailey]


Opera Lafayette: Philidor's 'Sancho Pança'

Composer and chess expert François-André Danican Philidor
Opera Lafayette closed its 15th anniversary season with the first modern American revival of Sancho Pança dans son isle, a 1762 opéra-comique by François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. A slender work, clocking in at 90 minutes without intermission, it turned out to be the low point in a year of striking successes. The performance of Gluck's Armide drew a capacity audience to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a venue far more vast than the company's normal haunts, and the one concert last fall was a pleasing performance of Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants. Antoine-Alexandre-Henri Poinsinet (1734–1769) created the libretto of Sancho Pança from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes' Don Quixote. The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governorship of an island for his faithful service — a dream that the duke and duchess featured in Part 2 fulfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho. When faced with the "real demands" of governing this imaginary land — the island of Barataria — Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor.

In adapting Poinsinet's libretto into an English version, Nick Olcott took a "meta-theatrical" approach, framing the outline of the action within the history of the troupe that performed it. Shortly before the premiere of Philidor's Sancho Pança, the comic opera companies of the Parisian foires were merged into the royally sponsored Comédie Italienne. Olcott's version plays with the rivalry of the factions and presents some of the history of this performer-led company, as they rehearse a new work, Sancho Pança, to present it to all of their voting members for approval: actor John Lescault (last seen with the company in Le déserteur) took the speaking part of Poinsinet himself and conductor Ryan Brown, with a hair-extending ponytail, stood in as Philidor. This adaptation had the benefit of compressing the work so that it could be performed by a smaller cast. It did little, unfortunately, to improve the work -- for all the shameless mugging and flogging of weak jokes, the piece was still leaden.

This should hardly be surprising, since on July 15, 1762 -- within days of hearing the premiere -- Baron von Grimm noted in his Correspondance littéraire with Diderot (my translation) that the work had "a mediocre success" because it was "burlesque without being gay," a description that so perfectly fits my reaction to this performance, in which one knew there were things that were meant to be funny but that mostly were not, I cannot improve upon it. Grimm goes on:
A poet who could not make something of the governorship of Sancho Pança should be strangled. M. Poinsinet did not know how to provide situations to the composer either. Except for the scene with the coward who fights with Sancho, dying of fear just like him, I hardly see anything in it that merits the name of situation; and worse, most of the airs do not have much effect. M. Philidor spent a lot on harmony and noise, and not much on melody or musical ideas. He repeated himself in several places; in others he borrowed bits from On ne s'avise jamais de tout and even Annette et Lubin. In a word, this new work by M. Philidor will not hold up to the reputation of Le maréchal ferrant.
Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, "Sancho Pança" lumbers and sparkles at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, May 26)

Tim Smith, Opera Lafayette takes comic turn with 1762 work about Sancho Panza (Baltimore Sun, May 26)
A weak work was not helped by a young, slightly raw cast and bare-bones production (directed by Catherine Turocy) that any university opera program would be proud to present. Both baritone Darren Perry (Sancho) and soprano Meghan McCall (Juliette et al.) have sounded much stronger in previous outings than they did here. Perry had the most present voice in a cast that was often covered by the small, generally good orchestra of period instruments, even though it was placed in the pit for this performance, but both the top and bottom of his range were a little ragged. Karim Sulayman (Lope Tocho et al.) and character tenor Tony Boutté (Le Docteur et al.) contributed more in terms of character and comic timing than vocal quality. While the opera largely deserves the obscurity it had lain in for all this time, there are numbers worth hearing, not least Sancho's boule aria, in which he imagines his travails on the island making him like a ball bounced around every which direction in a children's game, and that same duel duet for Sancho and Don Crispinos that Grimm singled out in his pithy review. For the historically curious, Opera Lafayette has plans to release a recording of the work in its series for Naxos.

Plan now for Opera Lafayette's next season, which will include La Muse de l'Opéra (November 15, 2010), Grétry's Le Magnifique (February 5, 2011), and Handel's Acis and Galatea (April 5, 2011).


Yuja Wang @ Sixth and I

available at Amazon
Yuja Wang, Transformation

(released on April 13, 2010)
Chinese-born, Curtis-trained pianist Yuja Wang is all of 23 years old, but she has already given so many striking performances in the Washington area: a stunning 2008 WPAS recital, accomplished performances of the Higdon piano concerto and Prokofiev second with the National Symphony, as well as the Prokofiev first and Liszt first in Baltimore -- indeed, she is coming back next season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to play Rachmaninoff. In her latest recital appearance with Washington Performing Arts Society, on Saturday night at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, she gave the one of the most viscerally thrilling and musically profound performances yet to reach my ears. It was noteworthy both for its technical fierceness, with a few fatigued slips appearing only at the end of the last work on the program, Prokofiev's sixth sonata, and for its carefully calculated architectural orderliness.

Wang opened the recital with three of Liszt's outrageous arrangements of Schubert Lieder. The melody of each song, often marooned in the middle of increasingly complex accompanying textures, soared in a flowing legato as if sung by a voice. Pensive yet agitated arpeggiation percolated through Gretchen am Spinnrade, cascading notes murmured in Auf dem Wasser zu singen, and the menacing king's passages in Der Erlkönig had an elfin, razor-sharp grace. Far from being simple pieces for the performer to warm up on, Liszt's settings make terrifying demands, making one hand or the other cross to add brilliant flourishes or creating great sonic outbursts in roiling octaves, nowhere with more abandon than in Der Erlkönig. A Scriabin set opened the second half, ranging from a poetic B minor prelude (op. 13/6), with its lost wisps of melody, to the almost expressionistic savagery of the G# minor etude (op. 8/9). Two of the softest moments of the evening came here, in the ethereal mistiness of the G# minor prelude (op. 11/12) and the reverie of the F# minor Poème (op. 32/1), with its wisps of curling smoke forming a halo around eyes lost in thought.

Other Articles:

Joe Banno, Breathtaking Wang delivers in DC recital (Washington Post, May 24)

Robert Battey, Yuja Wang: Transformation (Washington Post, May 24)

Lloyd Dykk, Yuja Wang triumphs with intensely difficult program in Vancouver (, May 14)

Lawrence B. Johnson, Adventurous Yuja Wang tackles challenging, diverse recital for Chamber Music Society (Detroit News, May 13)

Peter Dobrin, An elfin Yuja Wang flexes piano brawn (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1)
If Maurizio Pollini's recital earlier this month was the best way to mark the Chopin anniversary this year, Wang commemorated the anniversary of Schumann's birth par excellence with her performance of the composer's Symphonic Etudes, op. 13. Wang restored three of the variations cut from the set by Schumann, and published in later editions after the composer's death. Judging by this performance, Wang will likely make an indispensable recording of this work one day. With the tempi stretched for dramatic effect, even a truly breathtaking "Presto possibile" in the ninth etude, she drew out each character, tender or rueful, martial or manic, dancing over the keys and delighting in the rhythmic shifts and jabbed accents. Wang had a similar approach to the Prokofiev sixth sonata, digging into the loud and fast passages with barbaric savagery, giving sharp-fingered irony to the grotesque march of the second movement and a carnivalesque playfulness to the last movement, more humorous than vicious.

A generous selection of four encores revisited all of these strengths: the soaring line of Gluck's Mélodie (Giovanni Sgambati's arrangement of a tune from Orfeo ed Euridice), the athletic vigor of a Scarlatti G major sonata (L. 209 / K. 455), the blistering virtuosity and cartoon-like looniness of Cziffra's arrangement of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Tritsch-Tratsch Polka (the work is indeed associated with the cartoon Tom and Jerry), and the palate-cleansing dissonance of Danse russe (the first part of Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka). The only regret at this recital was the sound of the piano, a Steinway rented for the occasion, which had a fairly good tone, a reliable una corda pedal, but something clanging and rattling in the middle to lower registers' mechanism that added disturbingly to Wang's already percussive touch.

The final WPAS concert of the season at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue will feature cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (June 15, 8 pm).


In Brief: Fifty Days Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Yvonne Loriod, the wife of composer Olivier Messiaen, died this week. In a DVD about Messiaen, reviewed a couple years ago (another section of it embedded here), Loriod remembered recognizing a bird, the courlis (curlew), while in the field with Messiaen, only from having played the corresponding movement in Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux. [Ionarts]

  • Claudio Abbado has been hospitalized in Germany for exhaustion, forcing him to cancel his June engagements. We wish him a speedy recovery. [Opera Chic]

  • It's time for the Queen Elisabeth Competition again: twelve pianists have been selected for the final round (May 24 to 29). They will all perform with the National Orchestra of Belgium -- a concerto of their choice, plus the required work, a new concerto called Target by Minje Jeon -- which finds itself this year under the baton of none other than Baltimore's own Marin Alsop. You can watch the performances (and the semifinals, as well) online. Martine Mergeay has a profile of the American conductor as a preview. Alsop could not say much to the press about the new piece, which is kept out of public view until the competition, but she did say (my translation), "It's an excellent piece, for the orchestra and for the pianist (even if I am a violinist, I can have an opinion). We have begun to work on it, and I know that it is going to work out. [La Libre Belgique]

  • New York City Opera had to pay a large severance package to Gerard Mortier for not even ultimately taking up the job as their general director. [Bloomberg News]

  • Do we give Google too much power by using it so exclusively? [New York Times]

  • Jerry Bowles asks the question, Is Nico Muhly overrated? [Sequenza21/]

  • Sarah Kaufman profiles the first specifically Christian ballet company in the United States. [Washington Post]

Dip Your Ears, No. 103 (Polish Delights)

available at Amazon
Bacewicz / Karlowicz, VC no.3, Eternal Waves,
Jakowicz / N.Niesiolowski / Bialystok Phil

BACEWICZ Violin Concerto No. 3. KARŁOWICZ Symphonic Poem: Eternal Songs. Krzysztof Jakowicz (va); Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski, cond; Białystok Phil DUX 0685 (51:58)

Grażyna Bacewicz is the most important female Polish composer of the 20th century. Granted, that triple-qualification of “most important” makes it sound like she isn’t important at all, but once you’ve taken to her music, you know that’s not true. She was born 100 years ago last February, and in the year since, she’s gotten considerable love on record, mostly from Chandos and DUX. She was a prodigious violinist and it is especially her output for that instrument—seven concertos and five sonatas—that receives special attention. Joanna Kurkowicz’ excellent recording of three concertos (nos. 1, 3, 7—reviewed for WETA) has probably been the most important Bacewicz release so far.

Dux has also now treated the Third Concerto to an outing, coupled with Mieczysław Karłowicz’ Tone Poem Odwieczne pieśni (“Eternal Songs”) op.10 who also had a 100th anniversary last year, albeit that of his death. If you want Karłowicz’ Eternal Songs—delectable stuff and very well performed—there are plenty good choices available including a DUX two-CD set (reviewed here) of 1981/83 radio recordings. Bacewicz’s Violin Concerto is the main ingredient here.

Soloist Krzysztof Jakowicz, conductor Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski, and The Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Białystok make the concerto sound like obvious fun. I heard ‘weltering lyricism and Bartók’ in Kurkowicz’ recording, but I think Robert Maxham’s suggestion (in his Fanfare Magazine review) of trace-elements of Korngold really does a better job of pointing out the liveliness and playfulness of the work. Jakowicz enjoys the work, including spooky figures in the Andante and Vivo (Finale) that seem to howl at the audience like kids in ghost costumes. The first and third movements end on a bang, the finale especially being a headbanging, life-affirming joyous romp designed to show off the soloist in a way that would surely capture and enthrall any live audience.

I’m not sure if a recording (I assume this was a live recording, but there are no noises that give it away as such) should go much further than Jakowicz does, but I know that in performance a much more theatrical way, especially in the first and second movements, would draw in listeners even more; would make an even better point about why we should listen. The writing for violin seems to be an invitation to go over the top—to make it as entertaining as could be. I am reminded of Arabella Steinbacher’s Dvořák Violin Concerto: superbly tasteful and attractively understated on disc (Pentatone) and riveting-schmaltzy with Colin Davis in concert. I want the latter version for the Bacewicz!

My first reaction to Jakowicz was that he lets his hair down just a little more than Joanna Kurkowicz, and that consequently I enjoyed his performance a little more than the (on the surface of it superior) one on Chandos. But direct comparison suggests it might be the coupling or the headphone listening that was responsible for that impression; the two performances sound eerily similar, with the DUX recording just a few percent slower. The soloists are impeccable, both, and the provincial Białystok orchestra is at no discernable disadvantage to its bigger Polish Radio brethren. One of the few, and minor, differences I detect is a greater amount of control and deliberateness on Kurkowicz’ part in the exposed moments of the slow movement… possibly suggestive of why Jakowicz intuitively pushed the ‘authenticity’ button in me.

As an introduction to Karłowicz and especially Bacewicz this disc is a near-ideal starting point. What I particularly like about it: It made me not just admire the violin concerto, it made me fall in love with it. The only problem—assuming you consider that a problem—is: Once you’ve quite naturally fallen in love with both pieces, you will end up getting recordings that will double up the repertoire included here.


Chamayou Champions Franck

available at Amazon
Franck, Les Djinns (inter alia), B. Chamayou,
O. Latry, Royal Scottish National
Orchestra, S. Denève

(released on April 27, 2010)
Naïve V 5208 | 1h13
We missed the one Washington concert by French pianist Bertrand Chamayou but did take note of his debut CD on the Naïve label a couple years ago, some lesser-known pieces by Mendelssohn. Although he has recorded at least one other disc, Liszt's Transcendental Etudes for Sony, it has not reached the U.S. yet. So, after a couple years, it was a pleasant surprise to have his second recording for Naïve cross my desk. This one is devoted to the music of César Franck, again not something one sees many pianists going out of their way to play. This is yet another disc whose inspiration is owed at least in part to the Centre de musique romantique française, whose research also led to recent discs of music by Onslow and Boëly. From the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice -- where Chamayou gave a concert earlier this week, with a program of Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Franck, and Alkan -- the Centre's Scientific Director, Alexandre Dratwicki, authored the authoritative and informative liner notes of this disc. Chamayou gives urbane and color-filled performances of all the pieces on the disc, some more familiar than others: as noted in the liner essay by the pianist, these are works that used to be much more a part of the performing repertory of the world's great pianists.

Certainly, the two works with orchestra could be a worthy alternative to late Romantic concertos: Jean-Yves Thibaudet should think about it instead of playing one of the Ravel or Liszt concertos for the umpteenth time. Put together, the Variations symphoniques and the brilliant, mysterious Les Djinns, the latter inspired by a poem from Victor Hugo's exotic collection Les Orientales, would make an exciting bit of programming. The Prélude, choral et fugue (also recorded recently by Jens Elvekjær) and Prélude, aria et final are more familiar but still rarely heard on recital programs (indeed, I believe, either work has been reviewed live only once in the history of Ionarts). The most savory discovery, however, is the final set of three short tracks, the Prélude, fugue et variation, op. 18, in Franck's unusual arrangement for piano and harmonium. None other than Olivier Latry plays the evocative 1926 Mustel harmonium -- a sound that reeks of Frenchness. Indeed, all of Chamayou's collaborators are top-notch, including conductor Stéphane Denève and his Royal Scottish National Orchestra.


Classical Month in Washington (August)

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Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

August 5, 2010 (Thu)
8:15 pm
Music of James Bond
National Symphony Orchestra
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 6, 2010 (Fri)
8:30 pm
Bugs Bunny at the Symphony
National Symphony Orchestra
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 7, 2010 (Sat)
3 pm
Salomé (film adapted from Oscar Wilde) [FREE]
Music by Silent Orchestra
Smithsonian American Art Museum

August 7, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
2010 Memorial Concert in Honor of Susanna "Susie" Kim
Hyunah Yu (soprano) and Soo Bae (cello)
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

August 7, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright
Music Center at Strathmore

August 7, 2010 (Sat)
8:30 pm
Bugs Bunny at the Symphony
National Symphony Orchestra
Filene Center, Wolf Trap

August 8, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Goldenberg Duo (violin, piano) [FREE]
Steinway Series
Smithsonian American Art Museum

August 13, 2010 (Fri)
8 pm
Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Wolf Trap Opera Company
The Barns, Wolf Trap

August 15, 2010 (Sun)
3 pm
Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Wolf Trap Opera Company
The Barns, Wolf Trap

August 17, 2010 (Tue)
8 pm
Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Wolf Trap Opera Company
The Barns, Wolf Trap

August 28, 2010 (Sat)
7:30 pm
Joo Young Oh, violin
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

August 28, 2010 (Sat)
8 pm
Wynton Marsalis, Louis
Silent film with live music (with Cecile Licad, piano)
Music Center at Strathmore

More John Adams with the NSO

available at Amazon
The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings
on an American Composer
, ed. Thomas May
The final installment in John Adams’s residency at the Kennedy Center, which has featured him as composer and conductor, opened last night with mixed results. It is always interesting, for lack of a better word, to see composers conduct their own works, and this was no exception. The spoken introductory remarks to both his works on the program, The Dharma at Big Sur and Doctor Atomic Symphony, for example, were much more meaningful coming from Adams himself. However, John Adams is not the finest conductor, and the opening piece, Britten's Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", was, unfortunately, a mess.

Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, about the marginalized fisherman accused of killing his apprentice, was originally written with six orchestral interludes, four of which Britten made into an orchestral work. The music moves from hauntingly jaunty and folksy melodies to the sweeping and destructive sounds of the sea, but the orchestra was woefully out of sync. Entrances cascaded from instrument to instrument, melodies lacked internal precision, and each orchestral section seemed incongruous with the next. Of particular note were John Adams’s motions, which often seemed to correspond to a completely different work than what was actually being performed. His gestures were often large and strict when the sound issued was gentle, among other inconsistencies. Whatever the problem with the players or conductor, there was certainly a disconnect. As a result, the Britten came off as wholly disjointed and lacked any precision or color.

The musicians were redeemed, however, in the next work, Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur, which featured the brilliant Leila Josefowicz on electric violin. The juxtaposition of electric violin atop an entirely acoustic orchestra is a powerful sound and Josefowicz certainly has the chops for the piece, which is fairly non-stop for the violinist. Here, musicians and conductor finally connected in what became a beautifully rolling, raga-inspired seascape, and Josefowicz handled the part with grace and resilience. Adams’s other work on the program, the closing Doctor Atomic Symphony, was prefaced by a video of Gerald Finley, who created the role of Oppenheimer, singing the shattering aria that confronts Oppenheimer's invention and its devastating consequences. The symphony itself ends with this aria (played beautifully on the trumpet by Steven Hendrickson), built up to by eerie discordant sounds and “panic music” that captures all too well the frenetic energy surrounding the development of the bomb.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, As flawed conductor, Adams offers insights into the music (Washington Post, May 21)

Armando Bayolo, The Dharma on the Potomac (Sequenza21/, May 21)
Programmed in the middle, Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice, op. 4, showcased slightly better ensemble work than that heard during the Britten, though the piece was still lackluster and without rigor. It is unfortunate that for such a wonderfully pictorial and descriptive program all around, the results were so mixed. John Adams’s ability to lead an orchestra is questionable and all in all dissatisfying. However, Adams is a brilliant composer who can create a considerable impact, notably during the powerful and emotional conclusion of The Dharma at Big Sur. But as much deserved respect as he gets, John Adams is above all a composer, and not a conductor.

This concert will be repeated this afternoon (May 21, 1:30 pm) and tomorrow evening (May 22, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Washington National Opera: Hamlet behind the Iron Curtain

Michael Chioldi (Hamlet) and Elizabeth Futral (Ophélie) in Hamlet, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)

More production photos
The Washington National Opera opened a strong production of Hamlet, by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), at the Kennedy Center Wednesday evening, in an updated version by stage director Thaddeus Strassberger originally premiered by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Until this year, this French grand opera had not been heard in over one hundred years at the Metropolitan Opera, and it is receiving its WNO premiere starkly set in the 1950s, in a Fascist dictatorship or behind the Iron Curtain, yet curiously in a country with a monarchy.

Hamlet has the potential to reach similar psychotic depths as Strauss’s Salome or Britten’s Rape of Lucretia; however, the libretto (.PDF file), by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, reshapes Shakespeare’s work by focusing on the relationship (engagement ring and all) between Prince Hamlet and Ophélie. Indeed, the main point of the story was turned from Hamlet’s tragic introspective tribulations to that of Ophélie’s mad scene and suicide caused by love lost, a predictable course for a Romantic opera. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” inevitably becomes about Ophélie’s will to live, thus weakening the political suspense of who would rule Denmark and whether Hamlet would fulfill the ghost of his father’s command to kill Claudius. Hamlet was often seemingly perplexed and remorseful rather than crazy, angry, or violent, except for at one point when he almost knocked off his mother.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier energetically led the orchestra through Thomas’s pleasing score, which could be loosely described as a blend of Rossini and Franck. However, the orchestra and venerable bass Samuel Ramey (Claudius) did seem to ignore some of the excesses of Fournillier’s enthusiasm, particularly his attempts at velocity. At one point Ramey held back Fournillier and the entire orchestra by sheer vocal force. The orchestra, stuck in the middle, chose wisely to follow a singer with such experience and reputation. Ramey, with a rather rusty sound and vibrato slowly oscillating like a basketball, warmed up through the evening, becoming more and more convincing until his death by pistol.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral stepped in with short notice for an expecting Diana Damrau as Ophélie. Futral had everything needed for her role except for a dry approach to bel canto singing, where each note was given equal importance instead of creating dazzling shapes and flourishes. Additionally, Futral's highest notes seemed to go wide and lose beauty and agility. In fairness, the “mad scene,” where the music changes meter and affect every few moments along with Ophélie’s lost thoughts and in which Futral carries all of Act IV, was much more polished than her work in previous acts. The audience was completely transported when she was singing her last phrases with harp, alone, suspended high above the stage after having dived backwards into a lake, even if her sound was not fully present.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, In 'Hamlet', only the theatrics are grand (Washington Post, May 21)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera's "Hamlet" packs musical, theatrical power (Baltimore Sun, May 21)

---, Opera version of 'Hamlet' gets rare D.C. staging (Baltimore Sun, May 15)

Emily Cary, Washington National Opera presents unique take on 'Hamlet' (Washington Examiner, May 18)
Baritone Michael Chioldi, who earlier had stepped in to replace Carlos Álvarez as Hamlet, had his best dramatic moments in scenes with his conniving, Nordic-blond mother Gertrude (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop). After Hamlet’s intelligence catches his mother in a falsehood, Hamlet physically forces her to face her dead husband, lying in state in a mausoleum, grippingly singing, “I am no longer your son, but your judge, guilty Queen!” Hamlet then breaks the bust of Claudius (almost hitting his mother) on the same base that a statue of the dead King had stood before being pulled down with ropes strewn by coup supporters at the beginning of the opera. Bishop, with equally impressive high and low register, swiftly swirled bel canto phrases to reveal the haunted, fearful guilt with which she was possessed. Even so, the ghost of the dead king (bass John Marcus Bindel), then visible only to Hamlet, instructed him to spare his mother.

The chorus beautifully reinforced scenes without drawing undue attention away from the main characters, while John Tessier's bright tenor instrument was captivating as Laërte. Even if this production is a departure from the original Hamlet, could easily be named Ophélie, and is confusingly trying to have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too in terms of historical placement, it is definitely worth experiencing.

Washington National Opera's production of Hamlet continues through June 4. Liam Bonner will sing the title role on May 24 and June 1 and 4.


Art Viewing in a Monsoon

Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise
Happy (post-)International Museum Day! I know, who knew? I found out when I got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and 5 billion people were packing the galleries. I went there to get some play time on Doug + Mike Starn's bamboo jungle gym on the roof called Big Bambú, but it was closed due to the monsoon rains that day. I will return! From what I've seen online it's well worth the visit; pictures to come.

I then attempted to enter the Picasso exhibit, but there was a bottle neck at the entrance -- fugettaboutit. So I took in a little Lippi, Botticelli, and Titian. Then some Velazquez, Goya, and Vermeer, ending up with a few big Gainsborogh portraits. So thankfully, if your Met blockbuster is overwhelmed or closed, the collection is so incredible you could wander for days and be inspired by the unexpected. Truly, an embarrassment of riches.

From the Met I plunged back into the monsoon weather and made my way up 5th Avenue past the Guggenheim, which had several hundred people queued up to enter, to the Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?. A great question and some of the answers you may have already seen on news programs or sites such as TED. Several designs are very simple solutions that save lives, like the Solvatten solar safe water system or improved clay stoves for the Sudan, pictured, which are both more efficient and healthier than open pit cooking. Architecture and materials, solar and wind energy and clean transportation will be crucial to our future: this year's triennial has some of the best examples.

D.C. area readers may be familiar with the Loblolly House on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (named after the pine trees growing on the property). The structure is composed entirely of fabricated off-site and ready-made components and assembled with a wrench. The mechanical systems are also integrated into each component. Smart Cars, smart efficient trains, self-propelled cargo ships, folding composite bikes, wind, solar, and wave energy are all represented.

In my last post I mentioned that Amy Sillman hands down showed the best paintings this Spring. Then I saw Paul Resika's show at Lori Bookstein, what a difference a week makes. The long time Parsons teacher and mentor has pared his paintings down more than ever, making his iconic Provincetown lighthouse a near total abstract balancing act. This spring is now an official tie.

I'm getting a feel for the washy Zwirner Gallery style of painting. Luc Tuymans, Marcel Dzama and this month Jockum Nordstrom and Mamma Andersson display that similar washy-ness although their themes vary. Nordstrom pushes a naive/folkart style and Andersson, like Dzama, paints a more formal figure in contemporary situations. Definitely need a second look before this show closes.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has some stunning portraits at Jack Shainman: large, spare, yet boldly painted. I thought of the Goyas I had just seen earlier at the Met.

Lohin Geduld Gallery has been on a roll for me lately with shows of paintings by Kyle Staver, Albert Kresch, and now Sarah Lutz. They feel like wonderful goopy melting still lifes or kaleidoscopic overflowing bubble baths, maybe a wonderland garden that Alice would approve of. They made me smile and they're up through June 5th.

My last stop on this soppy day was to see the Michael Hoeh (better known as Mike @ Mao or super photo collector) curated group photography show at Winkleman Gallery. The theme, pertinent for the day, is American ReConstruction, from disasters of the natural or contrived - thank you again, Wall Streeters. Mathew Albanese is quite literal with his Tornado and Volcano c-prints. Albanese constructs the environments in his studio, then using a variety of techniques and lighting rains the wrath of God on his personal swath of earth. Good stuff and a nice show, Mike.