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Classical Music Agenda: January 2012

Readers have long been asking for a monthly feature with picks for the best things to hear in the month to come. It is the sort of piece I have often written for other outlets, and now it will run here instead. My goal for this Classical Music Agenda is to have the widest possible awareness of what is being performed, from which only the most promising performances, no more than ten, will be selected each month.

As noted earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI has announced his plan to make clear and final the canonization of Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval abbess, mystic, and composer. Celebrate this most unusual woman, who will also be given the title Doctor of the Church, with a concert of her music by the outstanding vocal quartet Anonymous 4, joining with the period string players of the Folger Consort. The program also includes later medieval pieces by the composers of the Notre Dame school. January 6 and 7, 8 pm, in Washington National Cathedral, where the listening experience will be better the closer you are to the performers. Tickets: $30 to $50.

We have long been admirers of the playing of viola da gambist Paolo Pandolfo. You should not pass up the chance to hear him play at the Library of Congress, in a program that will combine music of J. S. Bach and the lesser-known Carl Friedrich Abel. January 28, 2 pm. Tickets: Free.

A recommendation for a trip to Baltimore does not come easily, but the concert by the Canadian HIP ensemble Les Violons du Roy at Shriver Hall, the only one in our area this season, is worth it. The program features music by Handel, Telemann, Sammartini, and Geminiani, with recorder player Maurice Steger as soloist. January 29, 5:30 pm. Tickets: $38.

Hannu Lintu's recent appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have been highlights of past seasons. The Finnish conductor returns to the NSO this month, with the added incentive of firecracker violinist Leila Josefowicz, to present Steven Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing. Also on the program are a set of Debussy's preludes, orchestrated by Colin Matthews, and Sibelius's fifth symphony. January 12 to 14, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $20 to $85.

Hannu Lintu
Conductor Hannu Lintu
Christoph Eschenbach also offers a striking program with the NSO later this month. Jörg Widmann will serve as soloist in Mozart's golden clarinet concerto, as well as offer one of his own compositions, Armonica, featuring Christa Schönfeldinger on the glass armonica, the zany instrument featured earlier this year in Lucia di Lammermoor. January 26 to 29, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $20 to $85.

Most of Opera Lafayette's performances recommend themselves, and even when they might disappoint it is still worth hearing lesser-known operas. Such is the case with this month's staged performance of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's opéra-comique Le Roi et le Fermier, which receives its modern-day premiere, in preparation for the company's debut in February at the Royal Opera in Versailles. January 20, Atlas Performing Arts Center (tickets, $20); January 21, 7:30 pm, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (tickets, $65 -- SOLD OUT).

I had the chance to speak to violinist Joshua Bell earlier this month, about his upcoming WPAS recital, with pianist Sam Haywood. He was quick to confirm that he will not be performing incognito in the Metro this time, and for the rest of what he said look for an interview piece here later this month. Although I characterized his program as following his typical Romantic bent, Bell sees it as contrasting classical impulses (Mendelssohn and Brahms) with Romantic ones (Ravel, Ysaÿe, Gershwin). January 23, 8 pm, Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets: $45 to $115.

In the dance slot this month, among a few excellent choices, is the outstanding choreography of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato by Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris's dances are always carefully matched to the music they set, performed live in this case by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, choral singers from the Washington Bach Consort, and four fine vocal soloists. Not to be missed. January 26 to 28, 7:30 pm, Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $19 to $69.

The National Gallery of Art is reopening its 19th-Century French Galleries, and there is un tas de concerts to celebrate the event on the last weekend of the month. Performers include Men in Blaque, an unusual all-male choir from the University of California at Irvine, the Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs, The Singers Companye, organist Alexander Frey, and the NGA Vocal Ensemble. January 28 and 29, various times, NGA West Building. Tickets: Free.

You can be the judge of the opera singers of tomorrow, by attending the Metropolitan Opera National Council's Middle Atlantic Region Auditions. The best young singers from this part of the world will have the chance to sing two arias each, competing for the chance to go to New York for the national competition and a possible spot in the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. January 29, 2 pm, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tickets: $32.

See the full calendar for the month of January.


Listen What the Cat Dragged In: Thielemann's Vienna Beethoven

available at AmazonL.v.Beethoven,
The 9 Symphonies,
C.Thielemann / WPh / A.Dasch, M.Fujimura, P.Beczala, G.Zappenfeld
Christian Thielemann's Beethoven set first came out on Blu-ray and DVD (C major / Unitel) which was, along with Weinberg's "The Passenger", reason enough to finally get into Blu-ray. The picture of the Blu-ray set does look fantastic, indeed so much that it is almost worth watching the performances, rather than (just) listening to them.

Still, I generally prefer pure audio listening (and many homes are set up with better audio-only equipment, relying on perfectly inadequate TV speakers for sound that accompanies pictures), and so I'm very happy to see the cycle out on CD. Thanks to their new-found relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, Sony jumped to the occasion and issued the set as a belated Christmas present to Beethoven-lovers on December 27th.

The first impression: The packaging is marvelous. Similar to the Chailly Beethoven-set on Decca, it's a thick book with page-sleeves... generous with pictures and text. Better yet, it is bound in white cloth and—this distinguishes it from the Decca release which comes in a comparatively flimsy paper slipcase—the slipcase is also bound in white cloth with bold magenta, gold, and white-on-white lettering. Minor, superficial details, perhaps, but all the same an asset for those who cherish haptic pleasures. Handling the set is a joy. The symphonies are spread over six CDs (no overtures included) and one 45-minute "Making van Beethoven" German/English documentary that strikes me like a luxury trailer for the DVD/Blu-ray set.

L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.4, 4th Movement (excerpt), Christian Thielemann, WPh, Sony 7927172

I am still going through the performances to gather more definite impressions, but I have already come across several gorgeous highlights on the Blu-ray that I am looking forward to re-encountering on CD. What is evident throughout is that the Vienna Philharmonic plays for "CT" like they do for no other conductor.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Chants of Angels

available at Amazon
The Chants of Angels,
Gloriæ Dei Cantores

(released on September 13, 2011)
GDCD 051 | 59'14"
Angels, of course, are a phenomenon that goes far beyond Christmas, the Christian kitsch equivalent of the New Age crystal. The idea behind this new release is to bring together as many chants as possible that contain the word "angelus" in some form (Angelis suis, Immitet angelus, Benedicite omnes angeli, Stetit angelus -- you get the idea) or that set words spoken by an angel in the Bible (the angelic hymn known as the Gloria, for example). The packaging of the disc, with a booklet fluttering with seraphic wings in various pastel hues, certainly plays to the angel market. The programming idea is not exactly brilliant, it must be said, combining chants from Michaelmas, Guardian Angels, and a couple other liturgical occasions. It does not help that the chants are all sung from the modern Solesmes editions, honorable and expertly edited, yes, but not really of historical interest. The singing is generally good, with male voices edging out the female ones for beauty and unity of sound (the woman a little pinched and nasal, and fussier of diction). There is something special about actual monks singing Gregorian chant, however, as noted earlier this week of the new recording from the Cistercians of Stift Heiligenkreuz. The voices recorded here are not those of monks, but of an ecumenical community named the Community of Jesus, founded in 1958 in a part of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The group of lay people celebrate the Divine Office together, in a form of prayer modeled on Benedictine practice, and their choir, known as the Gloriæ Dei Cantores, is heard on this disc (the sound captured in the group's resonant Church of the Transfiguration in Rock Harbor). Not the best chant recording I have heard, by any means, but a lovely diversion.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Sonia Wieder-Atherton

available at Amazon
Vita (Monteverdi / Scelsi),
S. Wieder-Atherton, S. Lancu,
M. Lejeune

(released on March 29, 2011)
Naïve V 5257 | 1h08
We have been following the work of cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, rewarding for both her playing and her daring programming. After an absorbing 2009 release, Chants d'Est (a "journey of 24 hours" through Slavic music), she has combined the music of two Italian composers, Claudio Monteverdi and Giacinto Scelsi, from opposite ends of the history of tonal music. I have my doubts about Scelsi, although his music is at the very least perplexing and therefore fun to unravel. As expected of Wieder-Atherton, the approach is a personal one, with the title of Vita derived from her first thought about the program (about "Life and Fate"). In the program notes, she writes that the combination of Scelsi and Monteverdi was inspired by her feeling "that both of them explored the forces within human nature. Both in their own particular way attempted to reach out to what binds human beings to the cosmos, to the worlds beyond." Wieder-Atherton's impassioned performances of four Scelsi movements, from the "large fresco cycle" of Trilogy (sections from the "Three Ages of Man"), are interspersed with her arrangements of Monteverdi pieces (partial credit given also to experimental composer Franck Krawczyk, who helps Wieder-Atherton design her projects), mostly from the eighth book of the composer's madrigals, on warlike and amorous subjects (joined by two younger cellists, Sarah Lancu and Mattheiu Lejeune). Wieder-Atherton has imagined a narrative to accompany the selection of music, some story about a male character and a female character, Angel and Angioletta, who are actually the same person in different periods of history, followed throughout the three ages of life. One can ignore it completely and still enjoy this diverting and rewarding disc.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Cantus

available at Amazon
Christmas with Cantus

(released on October 4, 2011)
CTS-1211 | 54'03"
We took note of Cantus, an all-male vocal ensemble formed at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, a few years ago when they performed at the Kennedy Center with Trio Mediæval. In the choice of music for that performance, the group seemed to remain too much in the world of the collegian a cappella group, and their latest recording, although it has some beautiful tracks, makes the same misstep. The sound, captured in a chapel at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, is lovely, with a beautifully blended and balanced sound coming unraveled only at a few places where volume was applied over-zealously. The group's rendition of Franz Biebl's lush Ave Maria is calm and warm, as is the world premiere recording of a new setting of the O Magnum Mysterium text by Brian A. Schmidt, not a bad piece but hard to distinguish from the work of many choral composers, like Whitacre and Tavener, whose equally undistinguished Awed by the Beauty is also featured. The typical sampling of carols from around the world, in arrangements by the group's members and others, turns up some British favorites (Nowell Nowell is the Salutacion and Coventry Carol), Native American carols (Twas in the Moon of Wintertime and Heleluyan), and other choices from France, Russia, Slovenia, and Scandinavia. Many readers will cringe, therefore, at the Bing Crosby turn the album takes, with a cute Carol of the Bells, the despicable Do You Hear What I Hear? (performed with guitar and finger-cymbals, as if at church camp), and a smarmy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Worst of all, the group sneaks in The Little Drummer Boy, a tune that is as tedious as it is impossible to erase from one's memory, weaving it in perniciously with a Burgundian carol about a drummer, echoed by a drum circle of random percussion. So, a guilty pleasure perhaps, but lovely music to play in the background at your Christmas party.


Twelve Days of Christmas: Amor et Passio

available at Amazon
Chant: Amor et Passio, Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz
(released on November 3, 2011)
Obsculta Music | 72'33"
Everything about the secular celebration of Christmas is backwards. We are suffocated with Christmas carols and decorations earlier and earlier in the fall, so that by the time Christmas arrives, when people should be decorating their houses and trimming trees and singing carols, most are tired of the idea. Christmastide is supposed to last until Epiphany, on January 6 (the so-called Twelve Days of Christmas, as in the famous song about leaping lords and partridges in pear trees), and by extension through Epiphanytide until Purification, on February 2. Instead, within a day or two of Christmas, people are throwing their Christmas trees out into the street, and just when we would be happy to hear carols, Christmas dies without the commercial drive to support it. In this period we like to offer up some brief thoughts on recent releases of music we have enjoyed, both Christmas-related and not.

The Cistercian monks at Stift Heiligenkreuz made news a couple years ago when they released a recording of chant on the Universal/Decca label. That disc was eventually repackaged as a two-disc set, with an extra disc of Advent and Christmas chants, that is worth a listen. The monks, in fact, have gone full tilt technologically speaking, even hosting their own Monastic Channel (auf Deutsch) on YouTube. The Austrian monks have now launched their own label, Obsculta Music, with this new CD that also features their community's singing (available through Amazon, but at the moment only as mp3 files). One can hear Gregorian chant performed many different ways, from the very humble to the most polished professional musicians. Some of my favorite recordings remain those made by monks and nuns, like the monks of Solesmes and Santo Domingo de Silos, and the monks of Heiligenkreuz fall into the same category -- not as purely gorgeous in sound as a group of professional singers, but imbued with a sense of devotion to this music as much more than just notes on a page.

The disc follows a Holy Week trajectory, with music from Holy Thursday (Amor), Good Friday (Passio), Easter (Silentium et Jubilatio), and finally a glimpse of heaven itself (Caelum). In that final section the monks have done something rather unusual, performing four chants that, one could say, reflect the heavenly liturgy, with piano accompaniments by the Luxembourgian composer David Ianni, who has a long relationship with Stift Heiligenkreuz. The musical style of these accompaniments is generally minimalistic, with wavelike patterns that reinforce the repetitive nature of these formulaic hymns and litanies, which could strike the ear as meditative or New Agey, depending on your tastes (perhaps a case of gilding the lily, although chant is durable music and has withstood all manner of adaptation). A sample, along with some views of the monastery and its monks, in the video embedded below.


In Brief: In Splendoribus Sanctorum Edition

Georges de La Tour, La Nativité, c. 1645
Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to good things in Blogville and Beyond. Merry Christmas!
  • For your Christmas listening today, the children of the Maîtrise de Radio France, performing music for Christmas by Britten, Finzi, Bach, and others in the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. [France Musique]

  • To conclude the Liszt year, Bertrand Chamayou performs the entire cycle of Les Années de Pèlerinage, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Concerto Romano performs sacred music by Pietro Paolo Bencini, Niccolò Jommelli, and Giovanni Battista Casali, from the church of Santa Maria dell'Anima in Rome. [France Musique]

  • Watch Pierre Boulez conduct the Orchestre de Paris in music by Schoenberg and Bartok, with Bertrand Chamayou as soloist. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • A special offer for tomorrow (December 26), with free streaming of a collection of online videos. []

  • Ilan Volkov conducts the Stuttgart Radio Vocal Ensemble and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, in a program of Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, John Cage's Seventy-Four (1992), and Pascal Dusapin's operatorio La Melancholia (1991), from the Festival d'Automne in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Valery Gergiev conduct the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, with pianist Alexander Toradze as soloist. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Hélène Grimaud joins the WDR Symphony Orchestra Koln and conductor Manfred Honeck, for music mostly by Beethoven at Bad Kissingen. [France Musique]

  • An unusual performance of Alain Moëne's Le Grand décret (2007), with Musicatreize and Ensemble L’Itinéraire. [France Musique]


For Your Consideration: 'War Horse'

Steven Spielberg has adapted War Horse, Michael Morpurgo's children's novel from the 1980s, into a film that often seems aimed at the same audience, like an after-school special, except set during World War I. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis could not have the book's title character, a horse named Joey, narrate or participate -- without a lot of voice-over, which thankfully the movie eschews -- as it did in the novel and in a stage adaptation from a few years ago, where it was played by an elaborate puppet. In the film, Joey, played by a series of beautiful horses, has a lot of staring silences, on which the viewer is meant to project his reverence for horses. Unfortunately, from the first scene one knows exactly how the story will go, from beginning to end. The faith kept between the horse and Albert Narracott, the boy who raises him (newcomer Jeremy Irvine, cast only because the young Ethan Hawke was not available), will triumph over all -- his father's tendencies toward drink and bad luck (Peter Mullan), the rapacious greed of the family's landlord (David Thewlis), even the devastation of the Great War. Some people may find this kind of movie heartwarming, but if you are like me, you will find it insincere and cloying.

Even worse, the film drags on for far too long (almost two and a half hours), as countless improbable plot twists play out, one after the other. Albert's "thoughtless" father, thinking only of trying to save what he almost lost by buying the horse in the first place, sells Joey to the British cavalry at the outbreak of the war. Joey falls in with two officers, played with straight-backed, stiff-lipped class distinction by Tom Hiddleston (seen recently in the equally saccharine Midnight in Paris) and Benedict Cumberbatch (less distinguished than in the superior Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Tragically, the British cavalry did not realize its own obsolescence in war, with the advent of the machine gun, and the horse quickly falls into German hands. We follow the horse as it gets into and escapes from a series of predicaments and changes of fortune, each less believable than the last.

Other Reviews:

Village Voice | Roger Ebert | Variety | Entertainment Weekly | New York Times
Los Angeles Times | Washington Post | TIME | NPR | Movie Review Intelligence

You have all the ingredients for a grand Spielbergian success: a broad historical sweep, an equine protagonist that no one could not love, an epic human tragedy that can be soft-pedaled into the background, an eye for the big picture in cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (working on actual film, old school), and a stirring score by John Williams that sounds very much like many of the composer's other scores. Still, Spielberg has managed to make a film that is too violent for young children and too jejune for adults. For your holiday week entertainment, stick to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and other options.


For Your Consideration: 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Because I grew up with a father obsessed with books about wars -- Civil, World I and II, and especially Cold -- the novels of John Le Carré were early on pressed into my hands. Like Anthony Lane, who wrote a long analysis of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for The New Yorker earlier this month, I thought that Tomas Alfredson's new film adaptation of this Cold War classic was a fool's errand, after the memorable BBC television miniseries, with Alec Guinness as veteran spy master George Smiley. There are definitely things that both Le Carré's novel and the longer BBC adaptation do better, but the Swedish director's two-hour film both updates the sensibilities of the story (notably on the issue of homosexuality) and remains true to its spirit. It is a brilliant follow-up to Alfredson's last feature, the stylish vampire film Let the Right One In, thanks in no small part to a streamlined screenplay by Bridget O'Connor (who died last year) and Peter Straughan (O'Connor's husband, and one of the screenwriters for another, less successful espionage thriller, The Debt). For all of the film's tautness, reducing all of the characters and Byzantine plot complications to feature length, the pacing preserves the agonized waiting, silence, and unraveling of the spy chess match, making it certainly the best Le Carré film since Richard Burton's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Those of you searching for the right movie to see during the end-of-the-year holiday season, look no further.

The film hangs on the pasty, owl-glassed face of Gary Oldman's George Smiley, impassive and calculating yet vulnerable, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with his Soviet nemesis, the mysterious Karla, in an attempt to unmask a mole at the top of the British intelligence agency MI6, known charmingly as "The Circus." Also representing the old guard is the unstoppable John Hurt (recently reviewed in Melancholia and on stage in Krapp's Last Tape) as Smiley's shadowy mentor, known only as Control. Any of the younger agents -- played, all of them admirably, by a strong supporting cast of Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, and Colin Firth -- could and do fall under suspicion. Officially retired from MI6, Smiley is entrusted with the job behind the scenes, taking with him only a couple of trusted colleagues, principally young Peter Guillam, played by a natty, tow-headed Benedict Cumberbatch, on my radar recently as the title role in the quirky new television series Sherlock. This is mostly a silent chess match of waiting, punctuated by a few moments of horror and violence, handled with terrifying austerity by Alfredson, in a palette of bright 70s colors and muted grays and browns (cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, production design by Maria Djurkovic).

Other Reviews:

Washington Post | NPR | Roger Ebert | Wall Street Journal | Village Voice
New York Times | Los Angeles Times | The New Yorker | Movie Review Intelligence

The telescoping of the story may make it difficult for some viewers to follow, as many significant developments go by without much time to process them. It is easy to miss things. What is clear is that the heaviest sacrifice of espionage is the personal happiness of family life. Any affection or relationship equals a liability, and more than once in the film, relationships -- Smiley's attachment to his less than devoted wife, Guillam's secret liaison with an older man -- must be jettisoned as something to "clean up" rather than allow one's enemies an avenue of attack, and this could come from either side as allegiances are fluid. Ricki Tarr (the 70s-haired Tom Hardy), a lesser operative who inadvertently finds an inroad into the matter of the mole, puts it best when he says that he wants out of the Circus so he can have a family: "I don't want to end up like you lot." He makes the classic mistake of the spy, falling in love with the beautiful woman, a Soviet agent played by the lovely, elfin-featured Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova. He is in the wrong line of work, one where just a few words betray him and the woman he loves. Even the grave, taciturn Smiley, who does not say a word in the movie's first twenty minutes, has his most emotional moment, over many drinks with Peter Guillam, when he recounts how he said too much at one crucial moment early in his career. He, too, has paid for it ever since.

This film is screening at many area theaters.


Best (and Worst) of 2011

It is time to take stock of the year that was, beginning with the best concerts we heard here in the Washington area. (Jens will tell us about the best performances he heard in Europe this past year.) These are in no particular order of preference, listed simply from most recent to least. A few honorable (and dishonorable) mentions, in various categories, and a remembrance of some of the artists we mourned in 2011 are added at the end.

available at Amazon
Echoes of Paris (Poulenc, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev),
A. Hadelich, R. Kulek
1. Augustin Hadelich, Kennedy Center Terrace, December 7
It is an unfortunate result of the music recording industry's obsession with photogenic marketability that second-rate violinists receive major contracts, while a far superior player like Augustin Hadelich does not. As shown again in a Wednesday night recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with pianist Rohan de Silva, the Italian-born violinist, now in his late 20s, is an extraordinary musician. [Read Review]

2. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, WPAS, November 19
Far from resting on his laurels as he nears his 70th birthday, Gardiner continues to innovate and rethink his approach to Beethoven, as heard in this extraordinary concert. The overture to Egmont was supremely expressive, with curvaceous woodwind lines in the slow introduction and violent brass underpinning the full sections. A restless, tragic, windswept feeling hovered over this performance, and the small ensemble, huddled together at the center of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, sounded crisp and unified. The third symphony, focused on a similar theme of revolutionary heroism, was an ingenious counterweight—both works were created around the time of the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor and the subsequent French assault on Vienna. [Read Review]

3. National Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, October 28
Lorin Maazel, one of the world’s most accomplished and most senior conductors, has entered a glowing, autumnal phase in his career. In rather active semi-retirement since stepping down two years ago from a sometimes rocky tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Maazel has been giving performances characterized by warm, lovingly crafted mentorship — not descriptions one could always apply to this most imperious of leaders. [Read review]

available at Amazon
Liszt, Années de pèlerinage,
Louis Lortie

(released on March 29, 2011)
CHAN 10662(2) | 161'20"
4. Louis Lortie, Library of Congress, October 19
This recital reestablished Lortie in my estimation as one of the most gifted colorists at the piano and placed him at the top of my list of the best interpreters of Liszt’s keyboard music. He took Liszt’s often over-the-top romanticism at face value, giving the music its full drama without letting it descend into vulgarity. Each vignette received its own carefully calibrated soundscape of colors, from the ringing bells and nuptial hymn of the Sposalizio to the obsessive knell-like dotted-rhythm ostinato of Il Penseroso to the Mephistophelian snatches of impish motifs and fiercely virtuosic chaos of the Dante sonata movement. Lortie differentiated many voicings within each texture, creating luxuriantly paced, multilayered portraits of scenes or ideas inspired by the paintings of Raphael or the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. [Read review]

5. Hugo Wolf Quartett, Dumbarton Concerts, October 15
Unlike some other string quartets, these four musicians did not feel the need to scrape every last ounce of sound from the strings. Beginning with a glowing rendition of Schubert’s one-movement “Quartettsatz” in C minor, D. 703, they played with a mellow amber tone that was carefully balanced and rarified. The cello did not growl, the viola did not bark and the violins did not wail over the top of the ensemble. The intensity of the performance came from the fleet tempo and the rise and fall of expressive phrasing. [Read review]

available at Amazon
Liszt Project, Pierre-Laurent Aimard

(released on October 4, 2011)
6. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, WPAS, May 5
The program, combining four one-movement re-imaginings of the piano sonata form (by Wagner, Berg, Scriabin, and Liszt), was ingenious. Three short Liszt pieces, all experiments with the dissolution of tonality and traditional musical forms from Liszt's final years, prefaced each of the first three, shorter sonatas. In every case, the ambiguous ending of the Liszt piece obscured the aural boundary with the piece that followed it, an effect enhanced by Aimard's insistence on silence throughout the entire first half, his hands held intentionally on the keyboard as if the piece had not yet ended. [Read review]

7. Christine Brewer, Vocal Arts D.C., March 23
Composer Alan Louis Smith set words taken from letters by First Lieutenant George W. Honts, who went to fight in World War II a year after he was married to his wife, Evelyn Honts. The harmonic idiom is mostly tonal and quite nostalgic, with a broad range of vocal styles that played to Brewer's strengths as a storyteller, although some songs take a more dissonant turn, like the clustered death-knell ostinato in the fifth song, as the first signs of battle are looming. The climax of the cycle, a heart-rending setting of the telegram notifying Evelyn of George's death, was devastating, especially the high-soaring shrieks at the core of the message ("THE SECRETARY OF WAR . . . DESIRES TO EXPRESS"), where each fortissimo high note sets the piano strings, thanks to a depressed pedal, shimmering with overtones. [Read review]

8. National Symphony Orchestra, Turangalîla-Symphonie, March 11
The sprawling Turangalîla-Symphonie is a dazzling, even stultifying piece that merits all of the epithets, kind and unkind, leveled at it over the years: most famously, Boulez dismissed it as "bordello music" for its obvious orgasmic moments (inspired by Messiaen's love for Yvonne Loriod, who would become his second wife) and Stravinsky said the work contained more embarrassment than riches ("plus d'embarras que de richesses") adding that "little more is needed to write such music than a copious supply of ink." Like so much of Messiaen's music, it binds together an impossible number of references and influences -- Indian rhythmic patterns, bird song, Tristan and Isolde, and much more -- with a vast orchestral palette, almost too large, too loud to absorb with the human ear. To hear it in live performance, even a less than perfect one like that led by Eschenbach, is an unforgettable experience. [Read review]

available at Amazon
Kissin Plays Liszt
Live recordings, 1987-2003
(released on April 4, 2011)
9. Evgeny Kissin, WPAS, March 6
Kissin's program was limited in chronological scope, but Liszt's music sounded tenderly poetic, as in "Ricordanza" (the ninth Transcendental Etude), and far less saccharine. Even in "Venezia e Napoli," Liszt's Italianate reworking of Italian composers' themes, Kissin steered clear of the potentially treacly sentimentality of this kind of paraphrase. To no one's surprise, he also played Liszt's Piano Sonata, a work that unites many elements of his musical style: the almost keyless ambiguity of the opening theme; the metamorphosis of that theme through variation; extraordinary technical demands, and a seemingly programmatic narrative, in the manner of his tone poems for orchestra. No one knows for certain if Liszt intended the sonata to have a story, although both the Faust legend and the passion of Christ have been suggested, among many others. Kissin gave the work a driven urgency, taking no rhythmic freedom, even in the many astonishing passages in octaves, and achieving a glowing, glossy performance, alternating between sinister and angelic. [Read review]

10. Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride, Washington National Opera, May 7
Without any daringly ornamented arias or anything extraneous that might divert attention from the story's dramatic continuity, a Gluck opera will succeed only with talented singing actors and compelling direction. There are almost none of the tried-and-true operatic clichés to fall back on, not even a romantic intrigue: the central relationship here is of brother and sister, who do not even recognize one another until the end. In the title role, soprano Patricia Racette was riveting, the searing strength of her voice underscoring the still intensity of her stage presence. Racette hit her stride, singing with lyrical abandon in the Act IV aria "Je t'implore et je tremble." [Read review]

available at Amazon
Puer Natus Est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, Stile Antico
Best Local Debut:
Stile Antico, Folger Library, April 2

Worst Concert:
Paul Appleby, Vocal Arts D.C., May 15

Best Opera Production:
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Washington National Opera, November 10 and 12 (directed by David Alden)

Worst Opera Production:
Vivaldi, Griselda, Santa Fe Opera (directed by Peter Sellars)

Best Contemporary Program:
JACK Quartet, Mansion at Strathmore, November 5

Best Early Music Program:
Le Poème Harmonique, La Maison Française, February 19

Best Christmas Concert:
Folger Consort and guests, Music of Spanish Renaissance, December 10

Lux perpetua luceat eis:
The list of beloved artistic figures we lost this year includes playwright Václav Havel; singers Cesária Évora, Montserrat Figueras, Salvatore Licitra, and Margaret Price; writer Christopher Hitchens; composers John Gardner, Daniel Catán, John Barry, Peter Lieberson, Lee Hoiby, and Milton Babbitt; film directors Ken Russell and Sidney Lumet; actors John Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, and Pete Postelthwaite; violinist Josef Suk; painter Cy Twombly; and conductor Yakov Kreizberg. We also note the passing of Denis Dutton, the founder of Arts and Letters Daily; Roman Catholic Cardinal John Foley, the voice of American broadcasts from the Vatican; and musicologists Charles Hamm, Piero Weiss, and László Dobszay.


Christmas Blah Blah Blah

Style masthead

Charles T. Downey, Choral Arts Society Christmas concert at the Kennedy Center
Washington Post, December 21, 2011

Norman Scribner, who has led the Choral Arts Society of Washington since founding it in 1965, has set the date of his retirement for next summer. Scribner’s leadership of this mammoth volunteer choir has certainly been consistent. The ensemble’s current season, offered in tribute to Scribner, is recapitulating his legacy down to the annual Christmas concert, heard Monday night.

Many people love concerts of Christmas music, certainly enough to fill most of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Much of the program was aimed at the group’s strength, which is full-bodied, strongly articulated singing, an ethos put clearly into words by Scribner when he instructed the audience for the inevitable carol singalongs with the gruff words, “Stand up and sing. LOUD.” This was true of both the rather unsubtle rendition of “Jauchzet, Frohlocket!,” from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” and a lusty waltz scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” made forceful by the sheer number of singers. [Continue reading]
It may be difficult to take seriously the idea of a war on Christmas, given how pervasive the holiday’s trappings are in the marketplace. In any case, it remains unclear on which side the forces of trivialization would be fighting.


Getting in the Spirit: Alt-Christmas

On Sunday evening, there were two Christmas concerts after my own heart. This is not really a review, because of my friendly connection to the performers, but more an appreciation. First, Jeremy Filsell gave an organ recital at Washington National Cathedral, with a rare complete performance of Olivier Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur. It is a fairly youthful work, composed when Messiaen was still in his 20s, but it still hits all the hallmarks of the composer's intensely mystical style, just with a few more plain triads, fewer hallucinatory bird songs, and some unexpected humor. Filsell chose some exciting registrations: glowing stained-glass colors, whirring intense sounds, brassy theater organ fanfare, ominous low reeds clustered like bagpipes. In a pithy presentation on the work beforehand, Filsell explained some of the pictorial devices Messiaen embedded in the score, and many of them popped out in the performance, like the pastoral cantillation of the shepherds, the crunchy dissonant chords in time-suspending rhythmic patterns (hints of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps), the chaotic dancing of the angels, the heavy-footed slog of the wise men's camels. While parts of the piece are slow, even spare, there are some technical challenges, played here as thrilling toccatas.

Later that evening, it was out to the wilds of Virginia with my passport in hand for the second Christmas concert from the local all-male choir known as the Suspicious Cheese Lords. The venue kind enough to host the ensemble was Holy Spirit Catholic Church, one of those wood-and-carpet mid-20th-century buildings, with an acoustic that sounds like a living room. Still, this concert gets high marks for programming, proof yet again that Christmas programming really does not need to regurgitate Messiah and countless other tired pieces. The Lords, as is their wont, fed us with mostly unknown Renaissance motets, by the likes of Gregorio Turini, Leonhard Paminger, Melchor Robledo, Ivo de Vento, Dominique Phinot (an expansive Ave Maria, somber except for a glorious opening up at the words "O mater dei"), Giovanni Nanino, and Francesco de Layolle, all worth knowing.

More recent pieces were just as alluring, including the moody Christmas processional Voici la nuit (featured in the splendid film Of Gods and Men), Stephen Sametz's catchy, hocket-like Noel!, the austere American hymn Shepherds Rejoice (from The Sacred Harp), and the magnificent Three Kings by Canadian composer Healey Willan, who is always worth discovering further. Russell Weismann, organist and Associate Director of Music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (where I sang for many years in the choir), added some unusual organ selections to the mix, from the theatrical use of bells and Zimbelstern in Richard Purvis's setting of Greensleeves to the crazy toccata of Keith Chapman's take on Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.


For Your Consideration: 'Melancholia'

If you have not realized it yet, you will die. If there is one thing of which you can be certain, it is that your days upon this planet are numbered. As obvious as that seems -- and most of us come to this realization quite young -- people often suddenly react to some development in life as if it suddenly makes them aware of the limits of time. Whether doomsayers are right about the supposed end predicted by the Mayan calendar, the imminent (and continually rescheduled) rapture or other world-ending cataclysm, or that enormous blue planet that was hiding behind the sun and is now hurtling toward an apocalyptic date with Earth does not alter the fact of your own inevitable demise.

In Melancholia, the stately, expansive new film from Lars von Trier, the implacable approach of the eponymous heavenly body, like an evil star in ancient astrology (and, like astrology, mostly nonsense, shown with stunning CGI effects by Pixomondo and Platige Image), may be the cause of the saturnine disposition of the leading lady, played by Kirsten Dunst -- or it may be only a justification of her own long-term negativity about the world. As Justine, a pretty, young creative writer of advertising, Dunst paints an infuriating and accurate portrayal of the personal disaster of depression, as she sabotages her own wedding (to a well-meaning but clueless Alexander Skarsgård) and alienates everyone who cares about her. No one can really blame Justine, given that she was apparently born this way and that she had despicably dysfunctional parents -- the sentimental yet suspiciously touchy John Hurt and the imperious Charlotte Rampling, who gives the acid-tongued wedding toast all of us have probably dreamed of making at some point. As is true in real life, unfortunately, people do blame her. Only her long-suffering sister and substitute maternal figure, Claire (played with patience by Charlotte Gainsbourg), remains devoted to her, in spite of Justine's many reasons to make herself hated.

In the Renaissance, melancholy was thought to inspire both artistic creativity and, in the worst cases, insanity. That combination seems to be behind Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I, from 1514, commonly interpreted as a self-portrait of the artistic temperament given over to imagination, which traps even the winged figure of genius in inaction. This seems to be the case for Dunst's Justine, who is hounded by her employer, played ruthlessly by Stellan Skarsgård, at the wedding reception for a tag line for his latest ad campaign -- and for Lars von Trier himself, who has long struggled with depression, often rendering him unable to work.

On the other hand, it is hard to feel sorry for Justine, or for Claire, whose story is brought more clearly into focus in the second part of the film. To use a contemporary metaphor, the film does not concern itself with how the 99% would react to the possibility of a cataclysm: there is no looting or lawlessness in evidence in the privileged lives of von Trier's characters. The entire film takes place at a secluded estate in an unspecified country, and in general the 1%-type tragedies that these wealthy people face, like Justine having wasted the outrageous sum spent by her brother-in-law (the vain, grouchy Kiefer Sutherland) on a failed wedding or Claire being shocked that the butler (a brilliantly dry Jesper Christensen, of The Debt) has not reported for work with a planetary collision looming, do not really garner much sympathy. I should have such problems.

Other Reviews:

TIME | Roger Ebert | Wall Street Journal | Washington Post | New York Times
Village Voice | The New Yorker | NPR | Movie Review Intelligence

Melancholia is an intensely beautiful film (cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro), with a tidal pace that may annoy many viewers, as will the frank examination of the unpleasantness of dealing with someone with depression. Von Trier has done a much better job of incorporating his story with its cosmic backdrop than a film with which it must inevitably be compared, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The film feels longer than its 2.5-hour running time, because of the sense of suspension of time produced by von Trier's looping, sometimes non-narrative storytelling. The awkward cutting and splicing of the music from the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which returns obsessively to the opening theme of that music like a manic tic or the gravitational pull of the approaching planet, bothered me at times, as it will anyone who is familiar with that opera -- but it did not annoy me as much as it did Alex Ross.

As far as von Trier's films go, Melancholia is one of the easiest to watch, since it does not confront the viewer so irritatingly with unpleasant subjects as some of his other movies (Dogville, Antichrist, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, actually pretty much all of them). He also peppers the film with humor, like the bitchy wedding planner played by Udo Kier, in ways that do not undermine the seriousness of the story but that do help put the viewer more at ease. Don't worry, von Trier will be back in that territory soon enough: Charlotte Gainsbourg, it is being reported (in spite of von Trier's ouster from the Cannes Festival last spring, over an off-the-cuff remark about being a Nazi), will star in von Trier's next film, The Nymphomaniac, to be released in two versions, more and less raunchy.

This film is still screening at the recently reopened West End Cinema, at 23rd and M Streets NW, a theater we mourned when it went out of business and are glad to see back in action.

Tim Page, Filmmaker’s audacious teaming of his ‘Melancholia’ with Wagner’s music (Washington Post, December 23)


In Brief: Chance of Snow Edition

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

  • Watch James Conlon conduct the Orchestre de Paris and the Chœur de l'Orchestre de Paris (also available as audio only) in Debussy's Trois Nocturnes and Poulenc's Gloria (with Patricia Petibon as soloist), plus Samuel Barber's violin concerto with Gil Shaham. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Listen to a performance of Philip Glass's opera Les enfants terribles, with Emmanuel Olivier conducting the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, live from the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux. [France Musique]

  • More contemporary music, most of it inspired by rock music, with the so-called Fête de l'Humanité from the Parc de La Courneuve, including pieces by Didier Benetti, Graham Fitkin, Edgard Varèse, Frank Zappa, Iannis Xenakis, Christopher Rouse, and Stewart Copeland. [France Musique]

  • A concert devoted to music of John Cage, with the vocal ensemble Exaudi and friends, from the Théâtre de la Ville as part of the Festival d'Automne in Paris. [France Musique]

  • In hagiographical news, Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will canonize Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval abbess, mystic, and composer, and name her a Doctor of the Church. Some see the move as a possible hint of movement from the Vatican to reform liturgical music practices in the Catholic Mass. [The Chant Café]

  • Watch Paul Agnew conduct Les Arts Florissants in a concert of Monteverdi's second book of madrigals. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Listen to the Chœur de Radio France perform sacred music by Liszt and Kodály, in the Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. [France Musique]

  • Watch Valery Gergiev conduct the Israel Philharmonic in Beethoven's third symphony, plus Gil Shaham in two violin concertos, by Bruch (no. 1) and Tchaikovsky. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Revisit the performances of the last two winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, Denis Kozhukhin and Anna Vinnitskaya. (Click on the headphones icon under the heading "(ré)écouter.") [France Musique]

  • Watch the Orchestre National du Capitole perform music by Tchaikovsky and Brahms, plus Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death with soloists Tugan Sokhiev and Olga Borodina. []

  • Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a program of Prokofiev, Roussel, and Strauss, with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. [France Musique]

  • For more ideas on good music to be heard, for little to nothing, Tim Page has a nice piece in this weekend's Washington Post. The paper's beloved former music critic is in town for a couple weeks as an end-of-the-year bonus for Washingtonians. [Washington Post]

  • Listen to soprano Polina Pasztirczak give a recital of German Lieder by Strauss and others, with pianists Jan Philip Schulze and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger. [France Musique]

  • As widely reported earlier this week, legendary harpsichordist, teacher, and early music luminary Gustav Leonhardt played what he says will be his last concert on Monday. Now 83 years old and appearing frail and thin at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, Leonhardt says that health concerns required him to cancel the rest of his engagements in 2012. Jacques Drillon reported on the extraordinary event of this final concert: "The theater was packed, with some listeners even being seated on cushions on the floor, and the auditorium included a striking number of musicians, especially harpsichord players, all more or less his students, or students of his students." We wish him good health and some well-deserved rest. [Le Nouvel Observateur]

  • More Strauss and Mahler, this time chamber music performed by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger and friends. [France Musique]

  • The Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris is showing an exhibit of art by the German sculptor and painter Georg Baselitz, through January 29. Here is a video (en français). [Le Point]

  • The Chœur de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France perform Beethoven's Mass in C Major, under the baton of Colin Davis, plus Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with soloist Nicholas Angelich. [France Musique]

  • In another example of the worst parts of American culture invading France, Michel Legrand, among several others, has released an album of Christmas music. An article by Jessica Rat explains to the French what a Christmas album is. [L'Express]


Best Recordings of 2011 (#1 - 10)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2011. My lists for the previous years: 2010, 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 1 - New Release

W.A. Mozart, Piano Sonatas, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Harmonia Mundi 907498

available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas v.2,
Harmonia Mundi

For the longest time (well, a couple years, at least) my favorite Mozart Sonata CD on the fortepiano had been Kristian Bezuidenhout's disc on Fleur de Son. Well, move over Bezuidenhout and make room for... Bezuidenhout. Volume 2 of his survey of Mozart's music for solo keyboard on Harmonia Mundi is played on a Paul McNulty instrument, a copy of a Anton Walter & Sohn fortepiano from around 1802. (McNulty also supplies the incandescent Ronald Brautigam, arguably the king of the fortepiano if Bezuidenhout is its “prince” [The Times, UK].) The disc is choc-full of favorites (The sonata K.330, the Rondo K.511, the Adagio K.540...) and each one of them is played with freshness and a vividness that delights from the first note to the last. The playing and the quality of the instrument are such that we get all the intended benefits from the fortepiano (note separation, quicker decay, greater nimbleness, the more heterogeneous sound) with virtually none the downsides of the often clangy, twangy sound of the badly restored, dried-up fortepianos of yesteryear. Total joy!

# 1 – Reissue

A. Bruckner, Symphonies 3 - 9, Te Deum, Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic, EMI 85578

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphonies 3-9, Te Deum,
Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic

Celibidache’s work is least controversial in Bruckner, where that mysterious touch yielded lots of magic. Even if some performances don’t come across as well on record than they must have in the concert hall (specifically the Eighth), there’s so much greatness on this near-complete set (3 - 9 + Te Deum) that it has been one of the most sought after when it was hard to get… and should be the natural complimentary set to more mainstream cycles like Eugen Jochum’s or Günter Wand’s. The Third, Fifth, and Sixth are each my favorite interpretations of those symphonies – with his incredible slow-glow, he turns the often underrated Third and Sixth into highlights of the Bruckner canon, and the Fifth—despite a similar, very fine Thielemann interpretation with the same orchestra. (“Slow Food for the Ears”)—is non-pareil anyway. Finally they’re easily available again!

# 2 - New Release

J.S. Bach, Original Works & Transcriptions, Evgeni Koroliov, Duo Koroliov, Tacet 192

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Original Works & Transcriptions,
E.Koroliov, Duo Koroliov
Tacet 192

Transcriptions in general—and of Bach’s works or by Bach in particular—are a favorite topic of mine, and I collect recordings that suit that topic in a special box. The pile is ever growing; Marimba versions of the Cello Suites and Goldberg variations variously for harp, accordion, or various saxophone conglomerations abound. My favorite release of 2009—the Goldberg Variations in the Rheinberger-Reger arrangement—belonged to the category as well and this year’s Bach-transcription choice with Evgeni Koroliov and his wife continues very neatly in that line: Adaptations and arrangements for piano duo (and solo piano) by romantic composers (Liszt, Prelude & Fugue in A minor BWV 543), by Bach via-performer (the “Organ Mass” a.k.a. Clavierübung III, which are arrangements of chorales for organ performed on the piano), by the performer (Passacaglia for two pianos), and most delightfully of them all: various organ pieces by György Kurtág for two pianos on the audiophile Tacet label.

Taking Bach’s work from the organ to the modern grand piano is perhaps the most ‘natural’ among all the transcriptive steps, despite the fact that they’re based on two as-different-as-can-be ways of producing sound. With all the differences from one organ to another, and considering the piano’s ability to create a great variety of tonal colors (further increased when two pianos are aat work), the piano is really an organ by other means. If the organ is the king of instruments (although I’ve always thought of it, for all its pipes, as more or a resplendent queen or something gender-unspecific), the grand piano is the prince (and workhorse).

Leaving the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of transcribing and transcriptions aside for the time being, this disc is an absolute marvel. The work of the creative agents isn’t in this case the equal of their lowest common denominator (which would still be lofty, given the musicians involved), but achieves something as wonderful as—and just-slightly, wonderfully different than—the Bach original.

The Passacaglia, so dear to my heart, is oft transcribed and very happily so for two pianos, a version where I feel it can achieve its greatness almost more easily than in an average organ performance. Instigated by Busoni (who never made his own transcription of it), Bösendorfer even designed its Imperial Grand Piano to accommodate Bach’s writing for the grand organ sound of the Passacaglia. Koroliov’s idiomatic transcription is one of several two-piano arrangements (most famous of them probably Max Reger’s). Whether it is Koroliov and Ljupka Hadžigeorgieva’s playing or the transcription (or both) that makes the textures sound occasionally leaner than I am used to from the Reger versions is hard to tell; easy to tell is the propulsive-compelling excellence of the performance, though. Ditto the Liszt and Clavierübung III. Koroliov’s Ricercar a 6 from “The Musical Offering” (a transcription-favorite of mine in Webern’s brilliant orchestrated version) is a superb lead-in for the six Kurtág transcriptions that are such things of beauty that they bring metaphorical, sometimes literal, tears to my eyes.

Bach-Kurtág, Sonatina from "Gottes Zeit" BWV 106 (excerpt), Duo Koroliov, Tacet 192

The two and a half minutes of the Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus alone are invaluable, just for the beauty of the piece itself. But if you listen closer, also for how Kurtág teases out the interplay of the voices that, in the original, are made up of two recorders, violas, and da gambas. Elsewhere he emulates overtones by doubling the melody a twelfth above in pppp. Everywhere he exudes musical intelligence and humble passion for the great master’s music.

(Tacet does need better distribution in the US, though, and doesn't like working with German Amazon. The best deal can usually be had on

# 2 – Reissue

W.A. Mozart, The String Quartets, Quatuor Talich, La Dolce Volta 100

available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, Complete String Quartets,
Talich Quartet
La Dolce Volta

The Talich Quartet is one of my favorite string quartets on record and their sets of Mozart’s String Quintets and Mendelssohn’s String Quartets on Calliope atop my personal list in that repertoire. What makes them special is a relaxed musicality with just a hint of old fashioned comfort and genial musicality make up for sound that isn’t the equal of the best modern recordings, and for playing with something less than laser-like precision. Their Mozart String Quartet set includes the whole 'canonic' set of 23 Quartets, starting with K.73f "Lodi", making its way through the "Milan", "Vienna", "Haydn", and "Prussian" Quartets (+ “Hoffmeister” somewhere in there)... but not the early Divertimenti for string quartet – and it’s not far behind the String Quintets in quality Anyone with a hankering for old-world deliciousness will find the set tremendously rewarding… now that it is easily available again, thanks to a new re-issuing label called “La Dolce Volta”

# 3 - New Release

M. Weinberg, "Die Passagierin", Teodor Currentzis, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Michelle Breedt et al., Neos Blu-ray & DVD

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, The Passenger ♀,
T.Currentzis / VSO / Breedt,
NEOS Blu-ray

I had tickets to Weinberg’s “The Passenger” (♀) in Bregenz, but something or other got in the way and I had to cancel. What a missed opportunity. It’s almost hard to say whether the recording of the production (NEOS) alleviates the regret, or heightens it – because everything: the work, the production (directed by David Pountney), the performance, and the transfer onto DVD/BluRay is terrific.

It is one of the happy developments of the last few years that Mieczysław Weinberg doesn’t even need an introduction anymore. When I first came across him in “Surprised by Beauty” (expanded second edition in the making) and when filing him at Tower Records (RIP), we still had about six different spellings of his name to make cross references for. Now that’s settled and Weinberg is enjoying a much deserved boom to which releases on Chandos, Toccata Classics, cpo, and Naxos (who are planning a symphony cycle with Antoni Wit) have enriched the catalog tremendously. ArkivMusic now lists over 60 CDs on which at least some Weinberg is found. (Compare that to poor Walter Braunfels who is still stuck at eight.)

Shostakovich, the most obvious reference in matters musical to Weinberg, said of this Holocaust-themed opera from 1967/68: “I simply cannot stop enthusing about Weinberg’s The Passenger. I’ve heard it three times now, studied the score, and every time I understand more of the beauty and greatness of this music. It is a work of consummate form and style and its subject extremely relevant. …Weinberg’s own life and fate have de facto dictated him the work; the drama of the opera’s music is harrowing… there isn’t a single ‘empty’ or indifferent note in it. …I’m glad for every opportunity to help this opera which I love and believe in.”

In 1960 two passengers recognize each other on an ocean liner to Brazil: Lisa – who was a guard at Auschwitz, now the wife of a West German diplomat – and Martha, who was under a polish inmate under Lisa’s direct jurisdiction. Flashbacks and Lisa’s attempts (with her husband) to deal with her past and the impossible moral schism that results from it lead the viewer through eight scenes and an epilog in two acts. Librettist Alexander Medvedev’s invention of Tadeusz, the musician-fiancé of Lisa, who fatally plays Bach’s Chaconne (which strikingly moves and morphs from soloist to orchestra to chorus) instead of the concentration camp commandant’s favorite waltz, introduces music ‘naturally’ into the opera.

Beyond brimstone, drama and harrowing bits, there are moments of radiant Britten-esque beauty and calm in the multi-lingual (German-English-Polish) Passenger; climaxes that could be found in Prokofiev, and admittedly brittle stretches. The Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Teodor Currentzis are worth singling out; ditto Michelle Breedt, who sings the part of Lisa. (Interview with her about that character here.) Production values are great throughout, except for the Chia-Pet-like shorn-hair ‘wigs’ that make the inmates look like cartoon hedgehogs in the close-ups… one of the snags of the superb picture quality of the BluRay. It comes with an exemplary booklet that includes a synopsis, Shostakovich’s text in full, and the libretto in four languages (English, German, French, and Polish). The DVD is out in Europe, and when the distributor Qualiton gets its act together, also in the US, soon.

# 3 – Reissue

G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Kent Nagano, DSO Berlin, Sophie Koch, Sally Matthews et al, Harmonia Mundi 501858

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
K.Nagano / DSO Berlin
Harmonia Mundi

With mystery and sensuality second only to Seiji Ozawa (Philips), Nagano offers that sound from other spheres that few, if any, other Mahler Eighths (recent, live, or otherwise) achieve. The prominent organ in Nagano is a much appreciated touch, too. At 88 minutes (the time it takes him for the second movement is well spent!) it comes on two CDs, which made the—unfathomably short-lived—original release pricey compared to its rivals. In the lower priced hmGold re-release, that’s no longer an issue and the Mahler-addict can be glad to have one of the finest Eighths back in the catalog.

(Review of the original [SACD] release here: Live recordings of Mahler’s Eighth. The release was maligned by a hatchet review in Grammophone when it came out and was torn apart in comparison to Simon Rattle's lame Mahler 8th on Grammophone's 'in-house' label, EMI.)

# 4 - New Release

R. Strauss, "Poesie", Diana Damrau, Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic, Virgin Classics 628664

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Orchestral Songs,
D.Damrau / C.Thielemann / MuPhil
Virgin Classics

Her playfulness, her ease, her joyfully purled high notes, her melodious allure and the coy sparkle: Whether in opera or concert, Diana Damrau is a perfect joy to experience... capable of making believers out of doubters and turning hackneyed roles into three dimensional, intriguing characters. If you haven't the opportunity to hear Mme. Damrau live, the proof is in her latest pudding... err: CD release on Virgin Classics. Strauss' finest orchestral songs, recorded with the best Strauss-team available at the time: Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic.... The loving, caring sensitivity of Thielemann's support is oozing through the music everywhere; he accompanies in the best sense: eager to let Damrau and Strauss shine in the best possible light.

(Full review here: “Diana Damrau’s Strauss Sublime”)

# 4 – Reissue

F. Schubert et al., Symphonies, Dialog & Epilog, Jonathan Nott, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Tudor 1610

available at AmazonF.Schubert, Symphonies et al.,
J.Nott / Bamberg SO
Tudor SACDs

This damn set, because it is so incredibly fancy and shiny, doesn’t fit into any CD shelf. That’s beautifully annoying, but depending on how picky you are about sorting your music, it may not matter… or you will find a creative work-around. In any case, it’s the music that (presumably) matters. And this Schubert cycle is absolutely fantastic, making the most of the lesser symphonies (1-4) and turning in highly competitive versions of the magnificent Fifth, the “Little C major”, the unfinished Eighth, and the “Great” Ninth. Better, still, it includes the “Dialog” and “Epilog” CDs of their Schubert exploration, and those two CDs alone would be worth the recommendation. I’ve written about Luciano Berio’s Rendering just recently (“Schubert’s Ghost”), and the other works included (Aribert Reimann’s Metamorphosen on a Schubert Minuet, Hans Werner Henze’s Erlkönig, Schubert Choruses by Hans Zender, and Kurt Schwertsik’s Rosamunde Epilog) are also highly intriguing, consonant works of modern beauty. The “Dialog” CD includes Schubert-infused and tuned works by Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Bruno Mantovani, and Dieter Schnebel and is just as fascinating. That’s contemporary music made very, very easy… with a generous Schubert dollop to boot.

# 5 - New Release

A. Scarlatti, Sonatas, Alexandre Tharaud, Virgin Classics 42016
available at AmazonD.Scarlatti, 18 Sonatas ,
Virgin Classics

Alexandre Tharaud is a regular on this list, with Bach (HMU, 2005), Chopin (HMU, 2006), Couperin (HMU, 2007), and the re-issue of the “baroque” trilogy (HMU, 2010). He has moved from Harmonia Mundi to the Virgin Classics label now, where he has released a decent Chopin album (“Journale intime”) and most recently a very lovely recording of Bach Concertos. But inclusion on this list comes courtesy of his Scarlatti (live review here: “A Case of Perpetual Puppy”), which is more than just lovely.

Tharaud cares about every note of Scarlatti he plays, which his D-minor Sonata Kk.64 demonstrates well. On the surface this is a straightforward firecracker that one might play faster or slower, more or less abrupt… but otherwise find little differentiation in. Yet the way Tharaud enriches every space between the notes with atmosphere is surprisingly, enjoyably distinct. In Kk.141 Tharaud proves Pletnevian spunk, and a peckish-puckish Elsewhere he shows a perfect balance of attitude and cool, quicksilver fleetness and coy bumps; is delightfully whimsical here, and employs ruffian vigor elsewhere. (Full review here: “Original and Happy Freaks”)

# 5 – Reissue

J.S. Bach, Wanda Landowska, Le Temple de la Musique Ancienne • Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, Paradizo PA0009
available at Amazon
Italian Concerto et al.,
Wanda Landowska

The collection of Bach works performed by Wanda Landowska titled “Recordings from Le Temple de la Musique Ancienne” was specially re-mastered for Skip Sempé’s “Paradizo” label. The Partita in B-flat, Three Little Preludes, the Italian Concerto, the English Suite in A minor, and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (recorded in 1935/36) present Landowska from her best side, they haven’t ever sounded that good before, and they certainly have never been re-issued with so much TLC. Sometimes her idea of “historical performance”, including her custom-built Pleyel instrument (which reminds me of Wendy Carlos' Bach, actually), are bemusedly belittled. But for all the anachronisms from a 21st century perspective, Landowska was earnestly concerned with early music, and in the 1920s its foremost champion without which the revival of old music in modern times but historical guise would certainly have come significantly slower and later. The release is a beautiful shrine to Landowska, her importance and her playing, but also to the lasting and multifaceted beauty of Bach.

(The DVD with the high resolution rare photos and documents somehow doesn’t work for me, despite having the latest version of the Adobe Reader… which means missing out on the letters from Landowska to Jean-Charles Moreux that she wrote while embarked on a concert tour of the US. I await word on how that .pdf file might be made to work and whether the file is at fault, or somehow my computer. Edit: I've been told that my troubles seem unique; a new DVD is on the way. Edit 2: Mea culpa: I did not have the latest version of the Adobe Reader, but 8.0. With 9.0 and above it works just fine and presents a real bonus, especially to those with an additional interest in architecture.)

# 6 - New Release

F. Mompou, "Silent Music", Jenny Lin, Steinway & Sons 30004

available at Amazon
F.Mompou, Música Callada ,
Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons

Frederic Mompou’s life spans modern history. He was three when Brahms died. When he died at the age of 94, Ronald Reagan had just told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall”. The British pianist Stephen Hough has aptly described Mompou as “Satie without cynicism”. Piano miniatures are the prominent output of both, but unlike his good acquaintance Satie, Mompou doesn’t seem to be hiding behind (disingenuous?) self-effacing humor. Mompou is serious about his little gems; the fact that they look humble and are short doesn’t seem to worry him. Rightly popular is his Música Callada (“Voice of Silence”) – somber yet charming, nostalgic but affirmative. Only the occasional gentle dissonance reminds of the 20th century... breaking like waves against the stoic music. Played with enough warmth, they are as enchanting and accessible as the softer hued Impresiones intimas or his lilting little dances—and apart from Herbert Henck, it is Jenny Lin who does exactly that. She creates tapestry of subtlety into which the ears can sink like an exhausted cat on extra thick shag carpeting. Since Henck’s release, I haven’t heard such felt, beautifully simple Mompou.

# 6 – Reissue

Russian & French Music, Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic, EMI 85606

available at AmazonRussian & French Music,
S.Celibidache / MPhil
EMI - 11CDs

Sergiu Celibidache, the first post-War conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, attained something of a mythical reputation in the last 17 years of his career during which he shaped the Munich Philharmonic into his instrument and celebrated music with it in unique, usually uniquely slow fashion. He divided opinions greatly—and even the orchestra had moments during which they wanted to get rid of him. Fortunately for them, they realized then that an artistic vision and a strong music director were the best shot they had at fame and glory (or even just an international reputation), even if it meant dealing with an extremely difficult individual as their boss. (How different from these days!)

The results might have been uneven (at least on recordings—which Celibidache disapproved of—they have a wildly varying success rate), but at their best they were of literally unheard-of glory. The orchestra still lives off the fame that combination attained; in Munich, of course, and in fervently devoted Asian pockets. The results in French and Russian repertoire are among the happiest and those where lasting greatness can be easily weaned off the recorded legacy. His Pictures at an Exhibition, his Sheherazade, his Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók being conveniently russified for the purposes of this set), and his Debussy Ibéria are all astonishing... In the good sense, largely. Inexplicably, his superbly lush Romeo & Julia Overture is not included, but that doesn’t keep this from being an essential re-issue for those who adore gloriously celebrated orchestral music.

# 7 - New Release

J. Friedman, Quartets, Chiara String Quartet & Matmos, New Amsterdam Records NWAM-030

available at Amazon
J.Friedman, Quartets,
Chiara SQ4t / Matmos
New Amsterdam Records

From reading the nearly non-existent liner notes, or glancing at the cover, you really don’t know what you are getting into: “Jefferson Friedman Quartets” – presumably string quartets, given the involvement of the Chiara String Quartet. With both those ingredients being unknown quantities to me, I just plopped the CD, which came recommended to me by a friend in the music-PR business whose unfailing instinct and honesty I know better than to resist, into the player and let exploration and surprise take its course.

I listened with intrigue to the 1999 Quartet no.2, which despite its three movements being suspiciously titled “I - = 120, II - Free = ca.60, and III - ♪ - 180” is a work with a strong lyrical and beauty-embracing bent... and (later) Shostakovichean drive. Modern, discernibly, but with the immediate appeal that a healthy amount of consonance brings about. Allan Kozinn calls them “neo-romantic” in his enthusing New York Times review, which is an apt, if liberal description.

As I listened, still under the fairly recent impression of Mojca Erdmann’s Yellow Lounge disaster in Salzburg (a ghastly failure of the otherwise well-intentioned experiment in forcing classical music to be hip), I thought during the propelling first and archaic-romantic slow movement, that this might actually be suited very well for a playback in a club, subtly underscored by a repetitive beat of my own imagining.

Lo and behold: the fourth track does just that. Turns out that the “Matmos” timidly emblazoned on the cover, which I therefore overlooked or ignored, is a Baltimore-based (!) two-man band that likes to amplify crayfish nerve tissue, modify the succulent sounds of liposuction surgery, and rattle rat cages. Go look, it’s all true. Friends with the young (south-of-40) Friedman, they took their re-mixing approach (fairly conventional in this case, I’d say) to the two quartets on this disc which results in two electronically re-imagined distillations (five and ten minutes, respectively) of the music one has just heard. I can imagine many listeners that are (or think themselves) allergic to that kind of treatment, which so blurs the sacred boundaries between “serious” and “entertainment” music. Well, all the power to Matmos, all the same. Both, the originals and the re-mixes on this disc make for terrific music (Gabriel Prokofiev comes to mind, although I find Jeffereson/Matmos catchier stuff) and help erode the remnants of artificial borders that wish to divide categories that need not be divided.

The long, 17 minute slow movement “Act” of the 2005 String Quartet is like a modern meditation on Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” – with an ethereal but never perfumed or esoteric quality that ends on slippery and sliding business which provides the contrast to the serene concluding “Epilogue/Lullaby”. Then comes the remix… in this case not something that would get you dirty on the dance floor, but with space-industrial qualities that make the ears perk. A refreshing, smartly entertaining release from New Amsterdam Records.

# 7 – Reissue

N. Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Valery Gergiev, Kirov (Mariinsky) Theater Orchestra & Chorus, Decca 1615802

available at AmazonN.Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh,
V.Gergiev / Kirov O&C

“Kitezh”, or if you are into full names “The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya” is the most important Russian opera you don’t know about. And if you already know about it, it’s still the most important Russian opera you haven’t heard. And if you’ve actually heard it, then you most likely already have this seminal (live) recording with of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest and (in the best sense) strangest opera. Or maybe you were so lucky to be at one of the two New York performances in 1995 and 2003, also with Gergiev. If you haven't, read Alex Ross’ article in the New Yorker about the latter performance here, and his 1998 Kitezh-themed Gergiev article.

If this is a seminal recording, it’s not because it somehow beats the competition to smithereens; there is no competition. But it’s also not just seminal because it’s the lone plausible recording, which might abuse its monopoly position with a lazy reading or shoddy performance. No, this is one of the early-ish examples on Philips (now rescued into the Decca catalog) of how Gergiev came to be the omnipresent maestro… It combines all his musical and persuasive strengths; his gruffness and his sweetness in music that is gorgeous and mystical, a Парсифаль—a Russian Parsifal—of sorts, a work that shows off why Rimsky was the undisputed master of orchestration, not just among Russian composers.

Story: The Prince Vsevolod , defender of legendary Kitezh, wishes, against family opposition, to marry the ‘common’ maiden Fevroniya, the very model of virtue. The latter endures mudslinging, then kidnapping, then the battle-field death of her betrothed. Tartars attack, but are foiled by the titular invisibility of Kitezh. Vsevolod (revived) and Fevroniya get to enjoy life-eternal within the city and the bad lead Tartar is forgiven. It’s not the worst, as far as opera story-boards go, but if you don’t understand Russian, your enjoyment-loss for this opera is minimal and the libretto very optional.

# 8 - New Release

B. Bartók, The Violin Concertos, Arabella Steinbacher, Marek Janowski, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Pentatone SACD 478 2721

available at AmazonDSCH, Piano Concertos, PQ5t,
M.Helmchen / V.Jurowski / LPO

Technically Arabella Steinbacher’s recording of the Bartók Concertos is a 2010 release. But logistical issues kept me from getting it in time for the 2010 “Best of” list and I certainly don’t want it to fall by the wayside. (The fact that her latest recording—the Brahms Violin Sonatas—is such a gruesome dud only increases my determination to sing this release’s most deserved praises.)

Since hearing this violinist in concert some 11 years ago, I’ve followed her career with interest—an interest that regularly pays dividends in the form of excellent recordings. First there were the Milhaud concertos, an interesting and intelligent, if not particularly emotional release (Orfeo). Eventually, by way of totally committed Piazzolla, came the Shostakovich concertos that gave a sneak preview of the skill of Andris Nelsons (with the BRSO, Orfeo). The release after that might be the best to-date: The Beethoven concerto because of Nelsons (and the WDR SO) and the coupled Berg concerto because of Mlle. Steinbacher’s heart-wrenchingly lyrical interpretation.

As her Chumachenco-classmate Julia Fischer moved from Pentatone to Decca, Steinbacher filled the gap and moved from Orfeo to Penatone. The first release on the new label meant tantalizing Dvořák coupled with Szymanowski ‘One’ (Marek Janowski, RSO Berlin). A straggler on Orfeo with the Brahms Concerto (coupled with a Schumann ‘Four’, all with Luisi piloting the VSO) came out this year but hasn’t made it across my desk yet.

Despite these fine releases with nary a clunker among them, I still never know what to expect from the violinist, whose interpretative range runs the gamut from earthy tenacity to dainty prettiness; from fierce to polite to bland. Perhaps I should have been less surprised at how good this Bartók is, and more at how boring the Brahms, but happy surprise isn’t the reason why this CD makes the list – it’s the combination of the above mentioned qualities applied in just the right measure in the right places.

Bela Bartók’s first, two-movement, concerto is a story of admiration and infatuation gone wrong; Bartók wishfully hoped for a relationship with the Swiss violinist Stefi Geyer who would, alas, have none of it. Image-googling the lady makes Bartók’s fixation look somewhat reasonable; pictures show a beautiful (but cool, dispassionate) face attached to the fiddling rest. Miss Geyer made sure Bartók didn’t harbor any false hopes, but she still accepted the concerto, kept the score, put it in a drawer, and never played it. It needed Paul Sacher to instigate the world premiere performance in 1958; thirteen years after Bartók’s and two years after Geyer’s death.

The liner notes call the Second Concerto “arguably [the] most important violin concerto of the 20th century”. That’s a little ambitious, given Berg, Sibelius, and Prokofiev in the wings, especially for a work that somehow manages to just fly beneath the radar, despite being well recorded. (James Ehnes, Barnabás Kelemen, and Valeriy Sokolov in 2011 alone.)

In sweetness as well as grit, the soloist, Marek Janowski, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, offer a tremendous reading that seems to get everything right, in both concertos. Hearing Bartók’s Second like this, ever tasteful but never boring, one is actually tempted to believe the bit about it being the most important violin concerto of the 20th century… or at least the most fascinating one.

# 8 – Reissue

R. Strauss, An Alpine Symphony, Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Newton Classics 8802054

available at AmazonR.Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie,
B.Haitink / RCO
Newton Classics

Newton Classics is one of the most interesting new re-issue labels. It produces high quality, mid-priced releases (rather than super-bargain budget cheapos without corporate design or liner notes) of venerable classics, emotional favorites, and curiously out-of-print performances both recent and mature. Its founder Theo Lap has worked in licensing ‘from the other side’ for EMI and Universal and knows that aspect of the business inside out. He knows that even recordings that never quite garnered universal praise (or, to be more blunt: recordings I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole) can find a nice and steady market of ‘appreciateurs’, and that the success of a performance need not depend on whether it is (or isn’t) available in other versions and at different price points. Many of Newton Classics re-releases are from the digital age that saw so many mainstream issuances that many a disc never made the splash a similar such recording might make today: a Brahms Cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic under Giulini, or a Schumann cycle with the same band under Muti, for example.

Most of Newton Classics' sources come from the Universal Music catalog so far – with lots of former Philips products among them; perhaps because Universal itself can’t catch up with re-issuing that rich catalogue on Decca, since they no longer have the rights to the Philips name. Mercury Living Presence (like Byron Janis’ Liszt) is well represented, too. Standouts are Firkusny or the Hagen Quartet in Janáček, Markevitch’s Tchaikovsky-cycle with the LSO, or a 1998 HIP “Trout” around Jos van Immerseel that Sony let slip through their fingers.

Bernard Haitink’s 1985 Alpine Symphony, with its stupendous mix of dainty touches, ferocious dynamism, and lyrical tenderness – all in excellent sound and with the colorfully glittering Royal Concertgebouw – was one of the finest Alpine Symphonies when it came out on Philips in 1986. With Haitink recordings, it’s an odd thing – the worst of them are still good and ‘tolerated’ in the catalogue as inoffensive, solidly played and usually good sounding 'also-rans'. And the best ones don’t inspire particular fervor, either… go underappreciated sometimes, and occasionally are not loved for what they were until after they have been deleted. Something like that happened to this Alpine Symphony… but Newton Classics has revived it now and the man from the Low Countries can show of his mountainous glory again.

The only snag: Haitink has since delivered another blistering account with the LSO (LSO Live, Best of 2010) that plumbs the depths a little deeper, and shines brighter atop, which would make up for the minimally smaller amount of color and surprise (present here). If one had to chose only one. Which one doesn’t, anymore.

# 9 - New Release

L. v. Beethoven, The Symphonies & Overtures, Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Decca 478 2721

available at AmazonLvB, Symphonies & Overtures,
R.Chailly et al. / LGO

Somehow Riccardo Chailly has managed never to record any Beethoven* (except for the Mass in C) in his long conducting career. Not, that is, until he performed and recorded Beethoven with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester over the last couple of years. (Interview with Chailly about Beethoven here: “The Band that Beethoven Knew”) Decca issued the recordings—which includes all the Overtures—on a beautiful, luxurious box, and for the most part the interpretations fulfill the promise of Chailly’s statements:

“If we don’t surprise with the works we play, at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations. Our Beethoven has come a long way and has shook up things a little, here in Leizpig. It was new for the orchestra, but after the initial surprise, the players saw the musical reasons behind it and followed with great believe and courage. That doesn’t mean changing the sound of the orchestra, though. You can’t ‘improve’ that. And it would be criminal to do so.”

The readings are also in line with my impression of Chailly aging into an ever more interesting, more daring, darker musician, instead of letting a mellow, routine dangle creep into his conducting. The First and Second Symphonies are bold works of romantic brawn and classical speed. The Third is very tightly argued and at 42 minutes (with repeats) one of the quickest on record. The Fourth, strangely, falls flat – at least to my ears, spoiled by the dancing Fourth from Vänskä & Minnesota, it’s a near-total dud. It remains the only unsatisfactory work… the next, the Fifth, is downright threatening with grim drama; well suited to frightening children and pets. The first time I listened to it, I underwent a strange sense of fascinating discomfort, not unlike a touch of vertigo… An experience ultimately much more fascinating than discomfiting.

The Overtures are irritable and gruff, dissonances are emphasized and while the lyrical lacunae are always serene, they are usually short. The “Name Day Overture” which kneels before Chailly a humble, forgotten work, rises a grand, superbly entertaining piece. Coupling it (plus the King Stephen Overture) with the wild but breezy Ninth Symphony further highlights Beethoven’s use of earlier works to sketch out the famous themes of his last symphony.

Part of the robust darkness of the set stems from the famously ‘dark’, varnished Gewandhaus sound, already impressive in the previous Leipzig Beethoven cycles under Franz Konwitschny (Berlin Classics) and Masur (1970s, Philips/Pentatone and again in the 90s, Philips). Masur’s first cycle has its followers, but except for the LGO-sound (not yet performed in the new hall, and sonically not ideal), it’s a drowsy affair. With superb sound taken from the new Gewandhaus hall, a contemporary interpretive edge, and brimming with personality, Chailly’s Beethoven—combining in it the new and old—isn’t just the Leipzig-cycle of choice, it is one of the most interesting and finest modern cycles, and utterly unique. Not my first-choice for a Beethoven cycle (Järvi, RCA or Vänskä, BIS currently), but one of the top complementary cycles.

* As a few readers have rightly pointed out, Chailly did record some more Beethoven; in the 80s he and Alicia DeLarrocha put down the five Piano Concertos on Decca. Long since deleted, it made a brief re-appearance on Decca Eclipse, but those recordings are also OOP.

# 9 – Reissue

D. Shostakovich, The String Quartets, Mandelring Quartet, Audite 5 SACDs 21.411

available at AmazonDSCH, SQ4ts 1-15,
Mandelring Quartet
Audite 5 SACDs

I have written about the Mandelring’s Shostakovich recordings before (2008, “Shostakovich with the Mandelring Quartet”, “First Impressions and Shostakovich” 2010, (“Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 18 )” 2011) – and always with calm enthusiasm… not unlike the playing of the German quartet in these interpretations. It goes something like this:

“The sheer beauty of all of Shostakovich’s brilliantly harrowing ugliness that these discs offer […] is something to behold… The Mandelring Quartett offers more beauty and less gore in Shostakovich than one would expect if the only reference were the performances of the (all-Russian) “Borodin”, “Beethoven”, or “Shostakovich” Quartets. They accentuate surfaces more than spikes and corners; their rhythmic beat is propulsive but rarely maniacal. They are DSCH-seducers, not DSCH-enforcers… which is not to say that they can’t work up an awesome storm. One must merely first get out of ‘Borodin-mode’ to listen to the Mandelring Quartett and gain the maximum reward from their sessions with Dmitry.”

In short: there's much awesomeness to be had here, and in state-of-the-art sound at that.

# 10 - New Release

D. Shostakovich, Piano Concertos & Piano Quintet, Martin Helmchen, Vladimir Jurowski, LPO, LPO 0053

available at AmazonDSCH, Piano Concertos, PQ5t,
M.Helmchen / V.Jurowski / LPO

During a musical tour of London in 2009, the orchestral highlight was a night with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski. A cracking, tight Mahler First was still topped when Martin Helmchen married Mozartean lightness to Chopin-romanticism in a world-class performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. The LPO’s own label recorded that performance, added it to a performance of the First Concerto (with similar qualities) from exactly one year before that, and waited another year to generously add the Piano Quintet in G Minor, performed by Helmchen with the LPO’s principal string players at Henry Wood Hall.

Helmchen, admittedly, wouldn’t have been the first pianist to come to my mind thinking of ‘great Shostakovich’. I know him as a master of moderation, terribly serious, at home with the ‘Viennese Classics’, 19th century repertoire, and of a disposition that favors subtlety over attack; refinement over edges, depth over flash. His performances usually kick in on the third listen, rarely on the first.

But then Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos—certainly not the Second and not the First, either—are hardly the gruff-and-rough works that his symphonies would suggest or as tensely focused and acerbic as his string quartets. They’re among the lightest, even fluffiest among Shostakovich’s ‘repertoire works’… closest in spirit to his Ninth Symphony, and sometimes closer still to works like Tahiti Trot or The Golden Age. Nor does Helmchen hold back when holding back would be a hindrance; the cadenzas and the furious closing gallop before the gleefully celebratory finale of the First Concerto are all played up with abandon and humor… the Andante of the Second with such superlatively touching, restrained and pliable lyricism that it must be heard to be believed.

# 10 – Reissue

A. Boito, Mefistofele, soloists, Julius Rudel, LSO, EMI 0879562

available at AmazonA.Boito, Mefistofele,
Rudel / LSO / Treigle, Domingo, Caballé et al.

Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele is one of my favorite operas; certainly one of my favorite Italian operas. Like many non-German treatments of the subject, Boito has no compunctions about going straight to Goethe for his self-written libretto. With Germanic sincerity (lacking, as Boito found, in Gounod’s Faust) and great admiration for Wagner, he tackled the daunting subject in a style that was well ahead of his time. If you wonder how important Boito and his advice were to Verdi’s last few operas, just check out Mefistofele!

For years, there have only been two realistic choices among recordings: Julius Rudel’s EMI account (1973, Treigle, Domingo, Caballé), and Oliviero de Fabritiis’ on Decca (1985, Ghiaurov, Pavarotti, Freni). Riccardo Muti’s recording from La Scala (RCA, 1995, Ramey, La Scola, Crider) was in and out of print so fast it never quite registered; ditto Giuseppe Patané’s Budapest recording (Sony, 1988, Ramey, Domingo, Marton). Everything else is either old, pirated, or negligible. Only this year did Naxos add an account from Palermo to this (also available on DVD from Dynamic).

I grabbed the excellent Decca account when it was re-issued a few years back, but the EMI recording still reigns supreme. Not only is the swift and bold conducting of Rudel so much more entertaining than the languorously celebratory style of Fabritiis, the EMI cast also seems more dramatically involved and homogenous, rather than just concerned with sounding good. That goes particularly for Norman Treigle who simply does not sound as gorgeous as Ghiaurov in his prime, but whose embodiment of the role—especially when he starts whistling with gusto—just gels. How good to have it re-released as part of EMI’s “The Home of Opera” series.