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Top 10 Live "At-Large" Performances of 2010

We list our favorite performances in chronological order, because you can’t really rank live performances. (The 2009 list here.)Because it has a good ring to it, we limit ourselves to ten stand-out performances, which in this case means leaving out Gatti’s Mahler 5th in Amsterdam (which had its wacky merits), Julian Rachlin’s performance of the Kancheli Concerto for Violin and Viola (with a stupendous Eroica of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Ryan McAdams), Andris Nelson’s excellent ‘courtship concert’ with the BRSO, and the event of Christian Thielemann conducting Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the ‘original band’ , 100 years after its premiere.

February 7th, Munich, Philharmonie @ Gasteig

Thielemann & Elektra

“This is goose-bumps music already… But Thielemann conducted it just like that, too, making for the most shattering, devastating, frenetic climaxes full of relentless, rapturously violent music. And yet it was played with such loving abandon that it sounded like there was more Rosenkavalier in Elektra than ever before. Thielemann, who owns the secret to the invisible fast-forward button (no longueurs with him), celebrated the many big moments in this opera with such unbridled grandeur that the experience became nothing short of entrancing. Hearing an incredible wealth of details and colors thanks to the orchestra being on stage—not muffled by a pit—further added to that experience, even if the singers might have been less happy about it… [full review]

March 16th, Würzburg, Cathedral

Wilfried Hiller’s “Sohn des Zimmermanns”

As I wrote in the review of this world premiere: “the combination of moment, location, and performance, the hope, serenity, and beauty… made for a very rare, wholly moving musical—even spiritual—experience.” It’s on rare enough occasions that that can be said about a concert; the inclusion here is a given.

“Thirty-three violas and a viola d’amore in a church. Not the beginning of a bad music-joke, but the center of Wilfried Hiller’s “Scenes based on the New Testament” that the Abbé-Vogler Music Foundation commissioned composed for the 65th anniversary of the total destruction of Würzburg. The result is Der Sohn des Zimmermanns – “The Son of the Carpenter”, a work of disarming simplicity and shocking beauty, which was premiered in the reconstructed cathedral of the town, on March 16th… [full review]

May 27th, Munich, Philharmonie @ Gasteig

Detlev Glanert’s Insomnium under Thielemann

In this case, a most impressive world premiere of a modern romantic orchestral work pushed a perfectly enjoyable, reasonably good concert—Radu Lupu in Mozart, Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony—into the “Best of the Year” realm:

“A world premiere performance under Christian Thielemann—and it’s not some thought-to-be-lost Bruckner or Schumann fragment? The controversial maestro, admittedly not the hardest working in the business, gets a bad rap about his limited repertoire seemingly confined to Bruckner, Schumann, Strauss, Pfitzner, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Pfitzner, Bruckner, Strauss, Strauss, Schumann, and occasionally Beethoven. That’s doing injustice to his excellent French touch (when he whips it out on rare occasion) and his incredibly sensitive way with contemporary fare. If (a big if), it is contemporary music that rubs him the right way. Like Henze. Or, as it turns out, Detlev Glanert, who wrote “Insomnium” for the Munich Philharmonic, an Adagio for large orchestra…” [continue reading]

July 23rd, Munich, Prinzregententheater

Die Schweigsame Frau & Damrau

Brilliant. Ingenious! Marvelous. If I ever needed a reason why I continue to go see operas (and frankly, sometimes I do), this was one of those reasons that could last for years, if necessary. Take a ‘problematic’ opera, an odd, not to say mediocre one—and Richard Strauss’ comedic opera “Die Schweigsame Frau” with its fogy, hoary knee-slapper moments of contrived funniness is all that—and turn it into a masterpiece of musical theater, an operatic moment of glory: that’s what great opera direction is all about, and that’s precisely what the Australian director Barrie Kosky, dramaturg Olaf Schmitt, and conductor Kent Nagano did. They cut, incised, restored music and text to highlight its beauty and downplay all corny aspects. They went all-out, over-the-top where that helped the play (and in a strange way: the believability of it… or at least the willing suspension of disbelieve) and they toned it down where toning down was necessary to keep the hooey aspects at bay.

Cast as Aminta, the (not so) silent woman of the title, was Diana Damrau—in her third trimester. One small ingenious touch adopted her happy state (further exaggerated by her Brünnhilde costume in act one) into a delicious addition to the plot. Feigning timidity (as her character does, anyway) she takes Sir Morosus’ glasses away—and until the very end Franz Hawlata (substituting a sound bottom with dramatic presence) potters about the stage thus visually impaired. When Arminta is accused of ‘adultery’ in the last act, there’s now no longer that moment of sticky awkwardness—Arminta/Damrau's pregnancythe being the fully visible sign of her perfectly irreproachable relations with her husband Henry (played with youthful spunk and charm by Toby Spence). Nagano’s magnificent, very straight conducting kept the music from becoming a tangled mess… and superlative singing and acting further ensured tears and laughter—sometimes simultaneous—and for The Silent Woman to be the hit of the Bavarian State Opera Festival.

August 4th, Salzburg, Felsenreitschule

Lulu & Berg’s Seductions under Marc Albrecht

The direction of Lulu was good—certainly good enough—but it was the combination of the singers and the direction of the Vienna Philharmonic by Marc Albrecht that made the event so special.

“That’s in a nutshell the story of this production: Not without offering points of criticism, but never getting in the way of the cast of assembled stage animals (especially Paticia Petibon, Michael Volle, Franz Grundheber, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Pavol Breslik, Cora Burggraaf). Better yet, the direction actively helped them to shape their characters most vividly…” [full review]

August 15th, Salzburg, House for Mozart

Guth, Nézet-Séguin, & Maltman with Don Giovanni

Perhaps the “perfect conservative” staging of Mozart (never mind that Don Giovanni gets shot during the overture) combined with superlative acting and excellent musical accomplishments; this was the stuff life altering performances are made of.

“There are different ways of taking the “giocoso” out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Think of Peter Sellars’ruthlessly raping New Yorker protagonist. Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni, seamlessly embodied by a stupendous Christopher Matlman, doesn’t need to rape. He’s too good looking, too strapping, too suave, too vulnerable, too convincing to stoop to that level. But he is still a liar, a crook, constantly deceiving, ruthlessly manipulating, in short: a real jackass to the ladies. You feel for the women; Donna Elvira’s pain is made physically tangible by Dorothea Röschmann who exceeds at these roles of embittered, slightly trampy, strangely alluring women. Flighty, flirty Zerlina’s turn from being enamored to being cross (a willing, eager, perfect-for-the-thankful-part Anna Prohaska) becomes believable. Somewhere along the way, Donna Anna (Aleksandra Kurzak) is wronged, too… [continue reading]

August 27th, Salzburg, Grosses Festspielhaus

The Concertgebouw & Its Firebird

The Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Firebird in Salzburg meant show-time for the players and Mariss Jansons, and was a spectacular festival of colors:

“…The strings’ cinematic, shimmering playing, detailed but not clinical or even ‘nouvelle cuisine’ style, was enchanting, stirring, lulling; just like it ought to be, given the sujet of the ballet. The work seems made for that band, with its wealth of shades and nuance all coming out… and even if a subtle haze surrounds the orchestra, the shrieks and orchestral clashes were as harrowing as could be; the frenzy perfectly believable, the performers on the edge of their seats. The whole last scene of the Firebird was a celebration of organic beauty and the audience virtually erupted after the finale notes…” [full review]

September 24th, London, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden

A Cosí fan tutte as Few Do It

When the curtain rose over the seventh (or eighth?) revival of Jonathan Miller’s Covent Garden Cosí fan tutte, and I saw the sparse, cream colored set, for a second I feared that I had by accident landed in the middle of another Dieter Dorn production. Quel horreur. Such fears—intensified by my intense dislike for all Cosí stagings I had seen previously—turned out unwarranted. This re-touching of the Miller’s production, aided and abetted by a stupendously acting cast (Ferrando – Pavol Breslik, Guglielmo – Stéphane Degout, Don Alfonso – William Shimell, Fiordiligi – Maria Bengtsson, Dorabella – Jurgita Adamonyte, Despina – Rebecca Evans), was perfect entertainment. It was the first successful Cosí I have seen on stage, because the immorality of the plot—the same that Beethoven and Wagner sneered at—was done away with. Not by changing anything about the story, but by taking the psychology of the female protagonists seriously. Rather than making them look like dumb harlots, fooled by a fake mustache to renege on love sworn eternal, they were self-absorbed teens on a path of transition from being in love with the idea of being in love to taking their (new) partners and their feelings toward them seriously. By not taking their initial, professed love seriously (the girls may believe it, we are shown, but they don’t, frankly, know what they’re singing) about), he allows their hesitant reckoning of true—Albanian—love to become a struggle with coming to terms with what love means. Not a struggle with whether or not to cheat on their betrothed, some 35 minutes after they have gone off to presumed war.

All Miller needs for this is a full length mirror centre stage. After everlasting love had been sworn, and incurable heartbreak affirmed over the parting of their boys, the girls go off stage to change. They come back clad in black. The official color of mourning. And gee, don’t black look on those girls! They check themselves out in the mirror with coy delight. If we hadn’t noticed already, we do now: just as dressing in black was little more than two young fashionistas accessorizing, all that alleged love—of which the girls have only observed the ritual but not felt the real thing—had been a wonderful game. Exciting, though curiously missing something not yet known to be missing. All the overt touches in the rest of the production—the pictures (salacious proof of infidelity) taken on cell phones, the laptop for the fake marriage contract, the recitative announced by the Nokia ringtone banged out on the fortepiano in the pit—serve to entertain, to amuse, and make the time fly by. But they, too, are mere accessories to the core of having treated the personalities with thoughtfulness. The acting does the rest, in any case. When the newly found couples are finally about to talk to each other, the uncomfortable pauses (between their lines) among these four nervous kids are stretched to painfully hilarious eternity. William Shimell, jumping in at short notice for Sir Thomas Allen, topped it off with an underplayed, nonchalant, poignant performance that felt at every moment as though it could not be bettered. The music, under Thomas Hengelbrock, sounded awkward at first—as if a historically performed attitude clashed uncomfortably with a different orchestral reality. Over time, it my ears perceived it as an effective, integral part of the performance.

Miller's suspended ambiguity for the ending—the four protagonists don’t line up in the form of the newfound couples but scurry out the four corners of the stage—might be considered cynical. Perhaps he tries to strike a note between the two versions usually given in the end: The implausibly reconstituted Guglielmo-Fiordiligi and Ferrando-Dorabella coupling or the other, ‘new’, musically and dramatically sensible tenor-soprano / baritone-mezzo coupling. Perhaps he is leaving it to us to figure out the obvious, namely that if the couples actually learn during the course of these three-plus hours (the men never to test women again, the women what it means to truly love another person), then we don't even need to follow the clues in the music and the text to realize that the couples cannot go back to the original configuration. Marrying the person they have found to actually cherish means 'putting it right at the end'. If take in the traditional mold, the entire opera would be nothing but cynical, an immorality play. In Miller's hands it became a fable, almost a morality play.

October 14th, Munich, Herkulessaal

Chailly & Mahler

This is easily the least well played performance in this list, which goes to show that interpretation can overcome imperfection and technical deficiencies much in the same way good service can rescue a bad meal in a restaurant, but the best food never salvage crummy customer treatment. And not only was Mahler’s First Symphony darkly magnificent under Riccardo Chailly’s leadership, the programming was inspired, too.

“…Mahler’s First Symphony, in such short succession to the performance across town, afforded inevitable, direct comparison to Zubin Mehta and the Munich Philharmonic. It is an interesting comparison, too, [showing how] Chailly gets more audacious and harder [with age]—at least in Mahler. Where Mehta’s pseudo-Titan, despite several endearing qualities, was just ‘nice’, Chailly wielded a surprising iron fist.

The opening—the famous Rheingoldian, and Beethoven Ninth-ishUr­-sound (“A” throughout the entire register of the orchestra)—was held in the must hushed tones, forever clinging to pianissimowith fascinating, compelling tenacity. Even the second theme remained moored in the domain of chamber music-like delicacy. With the ever present prospect of a rip-roaring explosion looming (and without ever calling on it), he made for one of those lapel-grabbing stretches of time where will-power seems to manifest itself in music. He steered the orchestra through the first movement like walking a dog on a rubber band, rubato-wise…” [continue reading]

November 30th, Munich, National Theater

Nagano’s Bruckner From Outer Space

Another great piece of programming coupled with a superb and intrepid performance came from Kent Nagano who placed Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony next to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Stille & Umkehr (“Silence and Return”). Ferocious silence and “Outer Space Music”—as a fellow critic, similarly enthralled, said afterwards—are an apt description of the finest, most intriguing of the “Academy Concerts” I have heard under Nagano. [full review]

Picture of Christian Thielemann © Astrid Ackermann
Picture from the rehearsal of Hiller's Zimmermann in the Würzburg Cathedral (the composer is highlighted) © Markus Hauck
Pictures of Kent Nagano and the production of Die Schweigsame Frau courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl
Pictures from Don Giovanni and Lulu courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Monika Rittershaus
Picture of the Concertgebouw under M.Jansons courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Wolfgang Lienbacher
Picture of Maria Bengtson in Cosí fan tutte courtesy of the Royal Opera, © Mike Hoban
Picture of Riccardo Chailly courtesy Bavarian Radio

À mon chevet: Luka and the Fire of Life

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
Fortunately for Luka, he lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships, and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster's castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog and a street fighter and a rock star, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red and black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head. Like everyone he knew, he had joined imaginary continuities in cyberspace, electro-clubs in which he adopted the identity of, for example, an Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles, or, later, a completely invented flying being whose height, hair color, and even sex were his to choose and alter as he pleased.

Like everyone he knew, Luka possessed a wide assortment of pocket-sized alternate-reality boxes, and spent much of his spare time leaving his own world to enter the rich, colorful, musical, challenging universes inside these boxes, universes in which death was temporary (until you made too many mistakes and it became permanent) and a life was a thing you could win, or save up for, or just be miraculously granted because you happened to bump your head into the right brick, or eat the right mushroom, or pass through the right magic waterfall, and you could store up as many lives as your skill and good fortune could get you. In Luka's room, near a small television set stood his most precious possession, the most magical box of all, the one offering the richest, most complex journeys into other-space and different-time, into the zone of multi-life and temporary death: his new MUU. And just as Luka in the school playground had been transformed into the mighty General Luka, vanquisher of the Imperial Highness Army, commander of the dreaded LAF, or Luka Air Force, of paper planes bearing itching-powder bombs, so Luka, when he stepped away from the world of mathematics and chemistry and into the Zone of MUU, felt at home, at home in a completely different way than the way in which he felt at home in his home, but at home nevertheless; and he became, at least in his own mind, Super-Luka, Grandmaster of the Games.

-- Salman Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life, pp. 13-15
This is how Rushdie introduces the concept of his new novel, written for the 13th birthday of his younger son, Milan. It is in many ways a standard child's adventure kind of book, in which the young hero, attempting to save his ailing father, is confronted by characters who are derived from his own parents and others he knows, with Rushdie's native India as the background. The brilliant part is that Luka's adventure unfolds like one of his beloved video games, a cyber-fantasy that is at once impossible and disturbingly real. If you missed Nicholson Baker's absorbing piece in The New Yorker on how big a market video games have -- and how big a stake these games play in the lives of young people -- Rushdie's book is another reminder. We live in an age where my art history students are excited to learn about the Pantheon and other historical sites in Rome and Florence because they feature in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or that my Humanities students, reading Dante's Inferno with me for the first time, excitedly tell me what they know about Dante from the video game version of Dante's Inferno. This is not a judgment on my part about the value of video games, which can be really fun to play: in fact, any reason that students are excited about ancient architecture or medieval Italian poetry is good enough for me.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Tristan et Iseult

available at Amazon
Tristan et Iseult, Boston Camerata,
J. Cohen

(re-released on April 29, 2008)
Erato 2564 69634-0 | 68'47"

available at Amazon
M. Gallaway, The Metropolis Case
Many people see the story of Tristan and Isolde only through the lens of the Wagner opera, a central work of art that Matthew Gallaway uses in his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, to unite four narrative strands. The legend of this doomed love goes back much farther than the 19th century, of course, to medieval epic literature, represented in German and French poetry and prose and numerous musical works, many of which were brought together in this single mosaic-like patchwork program. This classic recording, made by Joel Cohen and members of his Boston Camerata in the late 1980s, won the Grand Prix du Disque (in 1989) and much other critical praise. If you never bought it, it has been re-released in recent years (by Warner Classics) at an affordable price: the booklet has been stripped of its texts and translations, but they can be viewed online (.PDF file).

What stands out to my ears now, some twenty years after hearing this recording for the first time, is its austerity. There are lengthy recitations from literary versions of the story: Gottfried von Strassburg (Middle High German, c. 1210) and Thomas de Bretagne (Old French, c. 1170), generally to instrumental music in the background. Other texts are set to medieval melodies, like Marie de France's Lai du Chèvrefeuille, and many other musical pieces related to the Tristan legend (very loosely so, in some cases, like the aubade Rei glorios) are woven together to give the basic outline of the story, rather than being an actual complete "telling" of it. The musical performances are generally pretty, especially the work of the two sopranos Anne Azéma and Ellen Hargis. This was also, tragically, the last recording of pioneering French countertenor Henri Ledroit, who died in 1988 (the cause was AIDS, and its progress devastatingly fast). The instrumental accompaniment often is little more than a few supporting chords from lute (Cohen) or medieval harp (Cheryl Ann Fulton), backed by drones from rebec or vieille, with some evocative flute and recorder lines.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Nobil Donna

available at Amazon
Nobil Donna, S. LeBlanc, La Nef,
A. Weimann

(released on September 28, 2010)
ATMA ACD2 2605 | 69'03"
The fine Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc first came on the Ionarts radar at a 2005 concert with the Washington Bach Consort, and we last reviewed her on an outstanding Messiaen disc. The latest of her several solo discs is a rather pleasing survey of music largely by composers under the patronage of the Barberini family in Rome. This includes, most notably, sections of works on the Orpheus legend by Stefano Landi and Luigi Rossi, as well as other solo cantatas and instrumental pieces by Marco Marazzoli (Nobil donna in rozzo manto, which provided the title of the disc), Benedetto Ferrari, Giovanni Kapsberger, Giovanni Vitali, Bernardo Storace, and Girolamo Frescobaldi. That combination of relatively rare composers would probably be enough to sway us to approval of this beautiful disc, but it is the performances that tip the scale. LeBlanc, with excellent (but not overdone) diction, delights in the Italian texts, like Giovanni-Felice Sances' Accenti queruli (on the same ground bass pattern as Monteverdi's celebrated madrigal Zefiro torna, one of many pieces on a repeating bass line). Her pure, agile, and supple voice has a clarion sound on Rossi's Lasciate Averno, from Rossi's Orfeo, but also reveals a supreme control of soft sound and minute, expressive swells in the moving lament Dormite, begl'occhi, from the same work. In Landi's Mentre cantiam, from La Morte di Orfeo, LeBlanc unfurls a dizzying ornamented duet with the cornetto, only one example of the truly superlative playing from the chamber-sized ensemble La Nef, especially the various types of cornetto (Matthew Jennejohn), Baroque violin (Chloe Meyers), and the theorbo and guitar (Sylvain Bergeron).


Twelve Days of Christmas: Baroque Christmas in Hamburg

available at Amazon
Baroque Christmas in Hamburg Bremer Barock Consort, M. Cordes

(released on November 16, 2010)
cpo 777 553-2 | 72'18"
The admirable goal of this new release was to recreate the sounds of the best polyphonic music from the city of Hamburg and the surrounding area in the 17th century. The results may not strike the ears as the most felicitous, with a choir composed mostly of student musicians from the Hochschule für Künste Bremen (in imitation of the forces available to the Hamburg Kapellmeisters, students supplemented with a few professionals) and featuring the organ of the church of St. Marien and St. Pankratius in Drebber, chosen because it is a seventeenth-century instrument that still has some of its original stops and its original 1/5-comma temperament. Most pleasingly, the musical selections are ones you are unlikely to have heard elsewhere (although some are available on other recordings), especially works by two of Hamburg's Kantors, Thomas Selle and Christoph Bernard. Other pieces for choir and some for solo organ were composed by Heinrich Scheidemann, Jacob Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, Matthias Weckmann, and Johann Philipp Förtsch. It is hardly surprising that the best pieces on this disc are among the best known, example of Hieronymus Praetorius's learned imitation of the Venetian polychoral style, beginning with a triple-choir Angelus ad pastores ait. The extended double-choir Magnificat quinti toni is a rather magnificent alternatim setting (performed here with some of the parts taken by instruments), with verses of Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo interspersed between some of the verses of the Marian canticle.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Bach from the Low Countries

available at Amazon
Bach, Magnificat / Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, Netherlands Bach Society, J. van Veldhoven

(released on November 9, 2010)
CCSSA32010 | 64'29"
Jens has already praised the work of Jos van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society, in concert and on disc. Put me down as an admirer, too, not least for this recent recording of two Bach works destined for Christmas, on the Channel Classics label. Neither of the performances included here is quite perfect but, while not perhaps constituting a must-buy disc, both have provided much enjoyable listening over the Christmas holiday. Bach wrote both of these works early in his tenure at Leipzig: the Christmas morning cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110, in 1725 (the first of a series of cantatas for the Christmas season in 1725-26, I have argued, that may have been a model for the Christmas Oratorio), and the second version of the Magnificat canticle, in D major (BWV 243). For the first version of the work, performed at Christmas Vespers in 1723, Bach inserted four hymns from a Kuhnau Christmas cantata among his own music. Van Veldhoven inserts four different Christmas pieces -- by Dirck Sweelinck, Jan Baptist Verrijt, Johann Hermann Schein, and Johann Michael Bach -- and they are some of the most attractive pieces on the disc (especially Currite, pastores, in which two treble voices chase one another playfully all the way to Bethlehem to see Jesus in the manger). While some of the vocal performances have unvarnished moments -- van Veldhoven uses many of the same singers in his recording of the B Minor Mass -- soprano Dorothee Mields is at her smoky best in an intense "Quia respexit" movement (with a somber oboe solo), as is countertenor William Towers in the "Esurientes" movement (with delightful paired flutes and dancing continuo of lute and organ -- good things to be filled with, indeed). The five soloists join a few other singers for the choral movements, ending up at three on each part, giving transparent, rhythmically propelled sound in the "Omnes generationes" movement, for example.


In Brief: Second Day of Christmas Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond.
  • Always up for a joke, Shaquille O'Neal celebrates his first season playing for the Boston Celtics by taking the podium of the Boston Pops. [Los Angeles Times]

  • Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek will return to Prague in 2012, to take up the reins of the Czech Philharmonic. [Slipped Disc]

  • People are trying to figure out what the best choirs in the world are. Does the fact that a British list did not include a single American choir reflect national bias (which would be shocking) or say something about the state of choral singing in the United States? [Deceptive Cadence]

  • What was the last building designed by Philip Johnson and who is using it these days? [Wall Street Journal]

  • We already know that classical music is dying -- and a good thing, too, because there is no new music left to compose. [Sound]

  • Critic Alastair Macaulay's name recognition jumped quite a bit after he observed in print that New York City Ballet dancer Jenifer Ringer was looking a little chunky ("as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many"). Why is no one also mentioning that he was even harder on Ringer's male partner, Jared Angle, who "as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm"? It's not nice, but that's what critics are supposed to do -- and it's why critics need to stay away from getting to know the people they review. [The Independent]

  • Feel free to dissect Mr. Macaulay's personal foibles yourself. [Ballet Magazine]

  • "What killed Mozart? Who the fuck cares." Oh, Jessa Crispin, you make me laugh. [Bookslut]

  • Jessica Duchen gets a head start on the Liszt anniversary year. [Standpoint]


Christmas Wishes 2010

Christ keep us all, as He well can,
A solis ortus cardine;
For He is both God and Man,
Qui natus est de virgine.
Sing we, sing we: Gloria Tibi, Domine.

As He is Lord, both day and night,
Venter puelle baiulat,
So is Mary, mother of might,
Secreta que non noverat.
Sing we, sing we: Gloria Tibi, Domine.

The holy breast of chastity,
Verbo concepit Filium
So brought before the Trinity,
Ut castytatis lyllyum.
Sing we, sing we: Gloria Tibi, Domine.

Between an ox and an ass
Enixa est puerpera;
In poor clothing clothed He was,
Qui regnat super ethera.
Sing we, sing we: Gloria Tibi, Domine.

-- English carol, before 1536 (from Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700, ed. Edith Rickert)

At right: Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi (central panel of altarpiece triptych, c. 1495) -- make sure to click on the large version of the image to see the crazy details


Annette Messager's Princess-Pine

The town of Saulieu, in the Côte-d'Or region of Burgundy and home to a Romanesque basilica called Saint-Andoche, invited contemporary artist Annette Messager to create a work of public art. As part of the area's Fêtes du Sapin for a few years now, an artist has been invited to decorate a large pine tree in the city square. Generally, the tree has looked like little more than a stylishly decorated Christmas tree, but Messager went a different route, as Philippe Dagen reported (Le sapin "très" éphémère d'Annette Messager, December 23) for Le Monde (my translation):
The pine tree was supposed to be unveiled on December 11. The night before, it was all ready. "I had dressed the pine tree in a sort of gilded princess gown made of emergency isothermal blankets," explained the artist, "and because it was transparent, lighting made it possible to see the tree underneath. It was quite pretty."

Few were able to enjoy it. The work was barely done when, on the night of December 10 to 11, "an enormous cyclone destroyed everything." Ferocious winds tore the covering from the tree, and only a few photographs give witness to what the work would have been. It was to have been on display through January 15, 2011, but lasted only for a few hours. "The princess-pine lived only as long as a waltz," concluded Annette Messager, continuing with good spirits against bad weather, "It is rather pleasing, like some Japanese fairy tale."


2011 Concert Preview

We just put the old year safely in the books, and it is already time to start planning for the rest of this season's concerts. What will be the must-hear events of the first half of 2011? Hit the ground running in January (or do some last-minute gift shopping) with a few picks for the Washington area: to give this some definition, we are limiting ourselves to just four picks for each category. Please feel free to argue and add your own picks in the comments section!

Without a doubt, the highlight of the orchestral season is the centerpiece of Christoph Eschenbach's first season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra: Messiaen's transcendent Turangalîla-Symphonie (March 10 to 12). Add to it, for an extraordinary series of concerts in one month, excerpts from Roussel's Padmâvatî (March 3 to 5), with mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, and Zemlinsky's Lyric Suite, with baritone Matthias Goerne (March 17 to 20). Our entire set of must-hear concerts in this category is rounded out by the end of the NSO season, with Eschenbach also conducting Jennifer Koh in Augusta Read Thomas's 2008 violin concerto -- no. 3, "Juggler in Paradise" (June 9 to 11).

The response of the NSO to Eschenbach on the podium has been most encouraging so far, but it is the programming in the second part of the season that pushes the NSO above the performances of several visiting orchestras: the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan (March 16), Boston Symphony (March 19), the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (April 12), and the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 20). The last one -- with Charles Dutoit conducting Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Gil Shaham in Walton's violin concerto -- receives an honorable mention. Will Eschenbach's tenure be enough to raise the NSO's stature in critical esteem higher among American orchestras? Only time and more reviews will tell.

We are looking forward to the complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, planned as part of the series of free concerts at the National Gallery of Art: the American String Quartet kicks it off on January 2, followed by the Ariel Quartet (February 6) and others. Another Beethoven quartet cycle, from the Candlelight Concert Society, continues with the Leipzig Quartet (March 5). Why not throw in the Beethoven piano trios, in a complete cycle from the Paris Piano Trio at Lorin Maazel's Châteauville Foundation down in Rappahannock County (February 12 and 13)? Hilary Hahn (Strathmore, February 27) makes the cut because of an intriguing program that combines sonatas by Ives, Antheil, and others.

For sheer pianistic fireworks, it is hard to beat Yuja Wang, who will play Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (February 10 to 13), paired with Bruckner's sixth symphony. For poetry with all that technique, we would never miss Evgeny Kissin, who comes with an all-Liszt program for the Liszt anniversary year (Kennedy Center, March 5). The same goes for what is likely to be one of the most memorable twilight moments in recent memory, the venerable Maurizio Pollini playing Beethoven's last three piano sonatas (Strathmore, March 30). Our other unmissable is Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sixth and I Synagogue, May 5), playing Scriabin's "Black Mass" sonata.

By far, the most interesting of the three productions from Washington National Opera is the company's first (!) mounting of an opera by Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride (May 6 to 28), with Patricia Racette and Plácido Domingo as the doomed brother and sister, Iphigenia and Orestes. Opera Lafayette will attempt to resurrect André Grétry's Le Magnifique (February 5) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Washington Concert Opera will perform Massenet's Werther (May 22), starring tenor Giuseppe Filianoti (long awaited in Washington) and soprano Jennifer Larmore. American Opera Theater offers two intriguing stagings in February -- Kurtág's Kafka-Fragments and a double-bill of Dido and Aeneas and Melissa Dunphy's Gonzalez Cantata (a setting of the transcript from Alberto Gonzales's congressional hearing) -- if it actually happens, that is (February 3 to 13).

Solo recitals we definitely want to hear include Joyce DiDonato (February 15), co-presented at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall by WPAS and Vocal Arts D.C., and the lustrous Christine Brewer (March 23), presented by Vocal Arts at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (fingers crossed for Strauss!). Also high on our list will be the recital by Juan Diego Flórez (February 27), in an (unspecified) program of bel canto opera selections, the tenor's specialty. Washington Bach Consort performs a beautiful program for Easter, with Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied and the Easter Oratorio Kommt, eilet und laufet (May 1) -- pair it with the group's free noontime cantata offering of the Easter cantata Die Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (May 3).

We definitely want to hear viola da gambist Paolo Pandolfo when he comes to the Library of Congress with theorbist Thomas Boysen (February 26), especially with a program of music by Marin Marais and his legendary teacher, Sainte-Colombe. Also on the docket at the Library of Congress is a solo recital by harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock (March 29), a tribute to Wanda Landowska to include some pieces performed on Landowska's own Pleyel harpsichord. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine returns to Washington with her Trio Settecento, in a concert of French Baroque music (Lully, Couperin, Marais, Leclair, et al.) at Dumbarton Oaks (February 13 and 14). After a couple years of going on about the young British choir Stile Antico, we can finally recommend their Washington debut, with the Folger Consort (April 2).

The cheeky Baltimore series Mobtown Modern continues its winning ways with a performance of Philip Glass’s Glassworks (January 12) -- there is more Glass with a performance of the composer’s new work Icarus at the Edge of Time, too, by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (January 14 to 16). The Quatuor Diotima returns to La Maison Française (January 19), with a program including recent pieces by James Dillon, Roger Reynolds, Chaya Czernowin, and Emmanuel Nunes. The quirky chamber ensemble eighth blackbird comes to the Library of Congress (May 20), for an interesting program including the world premiere of a new piece by Stephen Hartke.


Best of 2010: Live Performances

What follows are some review highlights from the most moving and noteworthy live performances we heard in Washington over the past year. Once again, remember that if you buy through the links provided (to related purchases), Ionarts receives a portion of the proceeds.

#1. Musicians from Marlboro, Freer Gallery of Art (October 26)

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Duos from Marlboro, P. Robison, R. Serkin, D. Phillips, P. Zazofsky, I. Levin, J. Denk
Marlboro Music, the venerable music festival in Vermont, comes to Washington three times a year when performers bring some of the summer's programs to the Freer Gallery of Art. The first installment of this year's three Musicians from Marlboro concerts combined one beloved gem of the chamber music repertoire, Mozart's clarinet quintet, and three less familiar, more recent pieces. The discovery of the first half was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, a current participant in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development program. She produced a rich, limpid tone, evenly balanced from a coffee-dark bottom to a ringing top that was never strained or strident, a voice one hopes to hear many times more. As for that Mozart clarinet quintet, the always marvelous K. 581, it featured the best instrumental performance of the evening in clarinetist Sarah Beaty. John Adams, himself a clarinetist, wrote in his recent autobiography that the clarinet's technical enhancements have made it a relatively easy instrument for a competent person to play: be that as it may, Beaty had a consistent and pure tone, controlled and never forced, shaped immaculately into beautiful phrases. [Read complete review]

#2. András Schiff, WPAS, Strathmore (October 20)

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Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Symphonic Etudes, A. Schiff
The periodic recitals by András Schiff presented by Washington Performing Arts Society have been a welcome opportunity to appreciate the Hungarian pianist's unaffected and meticulously detailed style of playing. He came to Strathmore with a program honoring the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann's birth. In our appreciation of Schiff's intellectually rigorous side, we may have forgotten the exquisite way that he plays Schumann -- his recordings of the German composer's works are now harder, but not impossible, to acquire. This beautifully turned performance was an irrefutable reminder of it. He opened with the lesser-played Waldszene, little forest vignettes that have a menacing, fairy-tale air to them. Here and throughout the evening, Schiff proved himself an extraordinary storyteller, a master at limning a broad range of character pieces. [Read complete review]

#3. Arcanto Quartet, Library of Congress (October 12)

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Ravel / Debussy / Dutilleux,
Arcanto Quartet
The Arcanto Quartet played a magnificent concert at the Library of Congress, to a well-filled auditorium. The group's sound was honeyed, lustrous, refined, with the players happily never feeling they had to force in the intimate space of the library's Coolidge Auditorium. Fortes were never electrified by overexertion, and the degree of differentiation among soft dynamics was impressive. As noted of their recent recording, there is an evenness in the virtuosity of the players, four equals thinking as one, creating a unified sense of ensemble playing and collaboration, as well as scrupulous intonation and phrasing. The heart of the program was a glowing, vibrant rendition of Ravel's gorgeous F major quartet, featuring some of the best viola playing, from Tabea Zimmermann, heard at the Library of Congress from any group. The first movement alternated between whitewater turbulence and the quasi-orgasmic cry of the piece's pervasive main theme. The pizzicati of the second movement were deliberate, giving the full center of each plucked note, and the soft slow section and third movement were even quieter and more expressive than on the recording. [Read complete review]

#4. Music from The Tempest, Folger Consort, David Daniels, Strathmore (June 11)

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Locke, Music for The Tempest,
Il Giardino Armonico
The Folger Consort appended a special program to their 2009–2010 season. As expected, it turned out to be the best concert of the Folger's season, for the strength of the musical selections and the accomplishment of the performers, both musical and dramatic. The performance was a two-hour distillation of Shakespeare's enigmatic and excellent play The Tempest, arranged and directed by Richard Clifford. Carefully chosen excerpts from the play gave the bare outline of the story and touched on some of its most powerful language. Two selections taken from Handel's operas were marginally related to the story: the graceful but anguished slow aria Qual nave smarrita (from Radamisto, in which Daniels starred at Santa Fe Opera a couple years ago) and the dizzyingly virtuosic fireworks display Furibondo spira il vento (from Partenope, which Daniels recorded on his album Sento amor). [Read complete review]

#5. Yuja Wang, WPAS, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (May 22)

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Yuja Wang, Transformation

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. [Read complete review]

#6. Christine Brewer, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (May 7)

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J. Marx, Orchestral Songs and Choral Works, C. Brewer, BBC SO, Trinity Boys Choir, J. Bělohlávek

Christine Brewer's voice is that rara avis, a luscious and buttery dramatic soprano that has the power to strip paint off the walls but with the control and suavity to apply that nuclear force only when needed. It is the instrument of choice for some repertories, like the songs of Wagner and Strauss, such as she sang on her last recital in the area, but Brewer has also excelled in works by other composers that can benefit from a large, broad voice. The main attraction of the first half was an extended set of songs by Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964), all of which Brewer recorded (of many more) with conductor Jiří Bělohlávek on a must-purchase CD released last year. Like Strauss, the love of Marx's life was a talented soprano, Anna Hansa (1877-1967), who remained married to another man the composer knew in Graz even during the many years of her liaison with Marx. The songs test the limits of the soprano voice without pushing it over the edge, well, at least with someone like Brewer. [Read complete review]

#7. Mitsuko Uchida, WPAS, Strathmore (April 21)

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Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze / Fantasie, M. Uchida

On Wednesday night, devotees of Mitsuko Uchida filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The technical mastery of the Japanese-born pianist, now in her 60s, does not necessarily inspire awe in the listener, although there is plenty of daring virtuosity left in her agile fingers. No, what people came to hear was her way of turning a phrase. She gave carefully measured weight to each note, evoking again and again sounds as delightful and delicate as a wildflower, small daubs of bright color on tiny petals, like minute lines carved with painstaking care into glass. Uchida performed pieces by two of her favorite composers, Mozart and Schumann, and one had the sense that in the late phase of her career she is becoming even more of a specialist. [Read complete review]

#8. Quatuor Diotima, La Maison Française (April 19)

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Thomas Larcher, Madhares
The Quatuor Diotima came back to La Maison Française, for another appearance on the French embassy's highly esteemed contemporary music series. As heard in the three recent works on this program, the group's approach to dissonance and unconventional instrumental techniques is little different from how they approached the gorgeous late tonal string quartet of Maurice Ravel: even when a more savage or pitiless interpretation could have been justified, they simply let the sound emanate and make its own point. The listener never feels beaten over the head, either by lush extended triadic harmony or by tone-neutral growls or rasps. The opening work, Bitume, is the second string quartet by French composer Gérard Pesson (b. 1958), an evocative piece, using all manner of unusual techniques to create strange combinations of sounds. A pleasing rhythmic pulse would be established, only to recede again into the cloud of strange sounds, vaguely insect-like and all of it sotto voce. [Read complete review]

#9. Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexandre Tharaud, Library of Congress (March 12)

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Debussy / Poulenc, J.-G. Queyras,
A. Tharaud
When you hear and evaluate many concerts, the excellent ones stand out from the fair, good, and even very good ones in an almost self-evident way. Not much more needs to be said about the recital by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud at the Library of Congress, other than that it rises to the top of concerts heard by these ears so far this year. As Queyras mentioned in his recent interview with our own Jens Laurson, he and Tharaud were thrown together more or less haphazardly, because they were represented by the same agency. This is extraordinarily good luck because their natural and collaborative rapport makes it seem at times like they were born to play together. The French first half opened with two of the shorter Poulenc pieces from their Debussy and Poulenc disc. The Sérénade from Chansons gaillardes warmed the room, the luscious legato of Queyras's singing cello supported by the often self-effacing Tharaud. [Read complete review]

#10. National Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Stern and Emanuel Ax, Kennedy Center Concert Hall (January 17)

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Sullivan / Sibelius, Incidental Music for The Tempest, Kansas City Symphony, M. Stern
The National Symphony Orchestra has been in a sort of leadership vacuum this season, with a carousel of guest conductors filling time until Christoph Eschenbach takes the helm next season. While the results have been varied, the month of January is shaping up to be, as expected, one of the best in recent memory for the hometown band. After a lovely performance of Elgar's violin concerto last week, with former NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, the podium featured the return of Michael Stern, who has been putting in some solid work as music director of the Kansas City Symphony. The exciting program combined two symphonies of the 20th century with an old favorite, Beethoven's second piano concerto, played by another old favorite, pianist Emanuel Ax. [Read complete review]

Best Christmas Concert of 2010: Anonymous 4, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (December 16)

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Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas, Anonymous 4
The peerless and now resurgent vocal quartet Anonymous 4 won last year's Ionarts Best Christmas Concert award last year, with their Cherry Tree program at Dumbarton Oaks. Their latest program, called Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas, is drawn from five of the group's celebrated Christmas albums: the most recent one is last year's Cherry Tree program, recorded on a CD we have already highly recommended; the group re-released a 4-CD set of the others (Wolcum Yule, Legends of St. Nicholas, On Yoolis Night, and A Star in the East) a few years ago, which is a bargain for anyone who does not already own any of those discs. Something about the austerity of the music selected -- lots of chant and other monophony, with many simple hymns and carols in unusual versions -- hit all the right Christmas buttons, as if you had wandered into the home of four talented and knowledgeable women and got to listen as they celebrated Christmas with a few old favorites. [Read complete review]


Baltimore Consort's Christmas Dances

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season, Baltimore Consort

Snow prevented me from reviewing last year's Christmas concert program from the Baltimore Consort, a version of their Christmas CD Bright Day Star (which I have yet to hear, too). The group was back at the Strathmore Mansion on Sunday evening with another Christmas program called Wassail, Wassail!, which viol player Mary Anne Ballard explained was an attempt to show that many of the most familiar Christmas melodies have roots in Renaissance dance, although most of their texts are from the 19th century or later. It could have been a recipe for disappointment, with music that is all cut from the same, very basic cloth -- not unlike my experience with Harmonious Blacksmith's Christmas program earlier this month -- but the arrangements favored by the group emphasize such lively rhythms and active divisions when ornamenting melodies that it was difficult to lose interest for long. The Baltimore Consort style of arrangement for these old tunes became fairly predictable, however, after not many numbers: a lot of active strumming and twanging from lute and cittern, percussive pizzicati and thumps on the bass notes from the viol, with floridly decorated skittering from recorder (or various kinds of flutes and whistles) and violin or rebec.

Other Articles:

Marie Gullard, Baltimore Consort wassails Renaissance-style at Strathmore (Washington Examiner, December 18)
The group proudly calls what it does a mix of early and folk music, but at times the sound leaned too close to 70s folk rock, the syncopations sounding more like the Age of Aquarius than the Age of Galileo, as in the bouncy rendition of Gaudete, Christus est natus. It seemed most effective in the hypnotic arrangement of Babe of Bethlehem, a simple tune collected in Southern Harmony. This piece also featured soprano Danielle Svonavec in a beautiful light: a clear voice perhaps straightened unnaturally a bit too much in a folksy way, skewing the pitch downward just slightly at times. She was at her best in an extraordinary, unaccompanied Scottish tune, One Yeir Begins, where she covered a broad melodic compass with superb flexibility and a credible Scottish burr. The final selection, an arrangement of the French tune Noel nouvelet, definitely crossed the border into folk rock, with the strummed strings, guitar-like, crashing rhythmically on booming, repeated bass lines. The encore was another version of the timeless melody known as Greensleeves, set to a New Year's carol text (The Old Year Now Has Passed Away).

This concert being the last Christmas program on my calendar for the year, it is time to announce that the Ionarts Best Christmas Concert Award goes, for the second year in a row, to Anonymous 4 for its Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas concert last week. Honorable mention goes to the beautiful concert by the Tallis Scholars and the Folger Consort at Georgetown, which was just as well performed but not as ingeniously programmed.


An Ode to the Sennheiser HD800 Headphones

What kind of a person are you, if you are reading this and even just the tiniest part in you is seriously considering spending well over a thousand bucks on a pair of headphones when most of the music-listening population think that $25 is a luxury expenditure on such an item.

Well, obviously you are not normal. You're the kind of person that doesn't have to ask what a headphone amplifier is... you probably already have one at home. You scoff at the idea of listening to anything except perhaps a short clip from the "Daily Show" through your computer speakers. (Actually, does anyone still watch the “Daily Show”? Is it still on?) You are most likely into classical music and you take considerable pride in your HiFi components at home, perhaps clashing with your wife over that absolute necessity to add a stereo-SACD Marantz player, which somehow, strangely, she can't quite comprehend. And yes, you are probably male.

You are considerate, however, which we know since you consider headphones in order not to annoy your surroundings beyond their breaking point with music they don't wish to hear at whatever hours of the day you deem it absolutely necessary: Bruckner's 5th with Celibidache after midnight, or Karl Richter playing the Passacaglia first thing in the morning doesn't always find enthusiastic responses in the family or among your neighbors. Hence headphones… but without sacrificing listening quality.

That's where Sennheiser comes in. Like only a few companies (Stax and Grado, possibly AKG and BeyerDynamics), Sennheiser has a history and deserved reputation of producing highest quality listening gear, suitable for recording engineers and music aficionados alike. Hitherto the top-end of the line were 'cans' like HD580, HD600, and HD650. Those are great headphones that demand a considerable outlay... but one that pales in comparison with the HD800. Are the latter that much better then? Is it just the famous 10/10 rule of HiFi... for 10% better performance one has to pay 10 times the price?

Not quite. I first listened to the HD800 at a HiFi convention where they were shown off by the manufacturer in a comparative listening set-up with their mythical "Orpheus" headphones, once produced by Sennheiser engineers with the order: "Money is no object, produce the best thing you can in the world of headphones." The Orpheus is perhaps 15 years old, or so, but with its dedicated tube-amp, it sounds unbelievably good. Accuracy, warmth, detail are unmatched.

(See also Headphone Exploration At Munich's HIGH END)

Except: not anymore. The HD800, powered by a Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear Headphone Amplifier (costing a little less than the HD800s) provided everything the Orpheus did, minus the warmth but with the addition of space and a soundstage that makes the listener forget he is wearing headphones.

Sennheiser did have a pair of HD650 off to the side, plugged into a computer with some minor headphone amp (to drive the 300Ω-hungry HD650s). Naturally, they sounded meager there... and the Sennheiser chaps were reluctant to let me try them 1-1 on the Black Cube Linear, comparing between Orpheus, HD800, and HD650. Eventually, checking that there weren’t others around who might want to follow suit, they relented. The reason for the reluctance became clear immediately...

The perfect being the enemy of the great, the HD650 sounded pathetic next to the HD800... like a muffled mess of haziness. "It's our top model for most ambitious headphone buyers", the technician said... "and since the HD800 price tag means they're probably out of the range of most of those buyers, we are not really keen on making our own model look crummy in public." His honesty was admirable... and in a way ,he was right... the idea of upgrading my HD580 to HD650 died that very second. If *ever* those needed upgrading, I thought, it would have to be the HD800 or nothing at all.

Well, the HD580 needed fixing (Sennheiser repairs all their models when you send them in; they support their lines for years, even decades, after they have ceased selling them; the HD800 even have serial numbers so they can fit the most accurate parts to them, if ever there needs to be any part replaced) and I took a moment of great courage/insanity to go out and recklessly purchase the HD800. Now they are being fed from an Italian hand-made tube amp (built for the specs of the HD580 and therefore plenty suiting the HD800) and the result is everything I hoped--or knew--it would be. Listening for seven hours daily (part of my job) is neither fatiguing physically nor mentally. The sound calls no attention to itself, it's just 'right there'. Spatial detail, airiness, clarity, absolute precision... none of the 'music-in-the-middle-of-your-head feeling... these are the equivalent of having studio monitors near your ears... just lighter and of course better. Speakers of that quality would cost a much greater amount of money (Thiel SC4 are the cheapest I can think of, they come close if not all the way there, have a weaker bass [subjective, that is, since one wears headphones on the ears, but not speakers], and cost about twice as much.

The tube-amp I use the HD800 with doesn't add particular warmth to the sound, but perhaps it takes a little of the analytical nature away from these cans. But the 'space around the ears' that these physically large speakers create is in any case more impressive than the 'beautification' of warmth that other models (incl. Sennheisers) produce. The detail, this is true for most top-model Grados, Staxes, and Sennheisers, can go as far as hearing everything you didn't want to hear (conductors turning pages of the score; digital compression, et al.), but that's something an experienced headphone listener knows and knows to ignore or avoid.

Built, construction is top notch--including cables that are designed to pop out of their sockets on the headphones if one trips or walks to far from the source... thus making sure that no headphone amps take damage from any misstep. A truly stupendous piece of equipment that naturally has its price.

Edit: An update some seven years later. The HD 800 are still top of the line, even though the market is now positively buzzing with headphones in the $1000-2000 price range. I’ve not heard anything better yet (including Sennheiser’s improved version of the HD 800), except good Stax headphones, which are a different ballgame altogether… at an according price.