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Classical Music Agenda (April 2012)

April is shaping up to be just as busy as March, making it extremely difficult to whittle down this little list to just ten concerts we most want to hear. So we may be cheating slightly on the number, but think of it as keeping your options open. As always, there will be many more concerts to keep you entertained as the complete calendar runs through the sidebar.

The banner event for the month will be the Washington debut of the singular Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. While perhaps not well known here, she is a firebrand presence in Europe, as anyone who has watched her in performances captured on DVD. Vocal Arts D.C. will present her in a recital -- with pianist Donald Sulzen in a program entitled Echoes of the Belle Epoque (music by Fauré, Hahn, Tosti, Cilea, Mascagni, Respighi, and Refice) -- you will not want to miss (April 11, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tickets: $45.

The daring little opera company UrbanArias returns for its annual festival, in the black box theater at the Artisphere in Rosslyn. There are two productions of operas you will not hear anywhere else: the world premiere of a "self-help opera" by Conrad Cummings and Michael Korie called Positions 1956, and a double-bill of Before Breakfast (Thomas Pasatieri and Frank Corsaro) and The Filthy Habit (Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi). The productions are scheduled for various times from April 13 to 22. Tickets: $22.

For more recent opera, the Maryland Opera Studio, the collegiate company of the University of Maryland School of Music, will be giving tribute to the operas of American composer Dominick Argento this month. Performances will include stagings of Postcard from Morocco (April 20, 22, 26) and Miss Havisham's Fire (April 21, 26, 27, 29), plus a free performance of the song cycle The Andrée Expedition with baritone Robert Tudor and pianist Susan Slingland (April 22), all in the Clarice Smith Center. Tickets: $35.

Giovanni Paisiello is one of those composers whose fame in his own era is in stark contrast with the obscurity he suffers today. You have the rare opportunity to hear what is probably his most celebrated opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the inspiration for Rossini's treatment of the same story. It will be performed by Opera Lafayette (April 14 and 15), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, in a semi-staged production directed by Nick Olcott. Tickets: $65. Free tickets for kids (ages 7-17) are available for the April 15 performance.

Regular readers know that when Marc-André Hamelin plays, Ionarts listens. Following his recent recitals presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, the Canadian pianist will perform a recital next week under the auspices of Pro Musica Hebraica (April 2, 7:30 pm) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The repertory is some of Hamelin's best, virtuosic pieces by Charles-Valentin Alkan and Frédéric Chopin, in a program called The Enigma of Paris. Tickets: $38.

Speaking of virtuosity, one of the crazy things that the chamber sextet eighth blackbird does is play challenging dissonant music from memory. Next week, they will perform an unusual program centered on Schoenberg's hallucinatory Pierrot lunaire, but with some Berg, Weill, and George Perle thrown in for good measure. Soprano Lucy Shelton, dancer Elyssa Dole, and percussionist Matthew Duvall join the group for a performance choreographed by Mark DeChiazza, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (April 3, 7:30 pm). Tickets: $32.

Three string quartets that specialize in playing contemporary music will be coming to town, so consider them a package deal. The Arditti String Quartet appears with pianist Stephen Drury (April 10, 7 pm) on the free concert series at the Library of Congress. The program, marking the John Cage centennial, includes music by Cage, Berg, Adès, and Bartók. At lunchtime the following day (April 11, 12:10 pm), the JACK Quartet gives a free concert, with music by Hosokawa and Ives, at the National Gallery of Art. Finally, the French Quatuor Diotima will give two concerts this month, first at La Maison Française, a concert to include the U.S. première of Philippe Manoury’s "Tensio" for string quartet and electronics (April 12, 7:30 pm), and again in a free concert at the Library of Congress (April 13, 8 pm), in a program of older music by Schubert, Beethoven, and Smetana.

To round out your string quartet week, a trip to Charm City will give you another chance to hear the Takács Quartet (April 15, 5:30 pm), playing music by Debussy, Janáček, and Beethoven at Baltimore's Shriver Hall.

Pioneering period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln is coming to town late in the month, in a free concert at the Library of Congress (April 20, 8 pm). Cellist Jan Freiheit joins them for music by Bach, Vivaldi, Sammartini, and others. Tickets: FREE.

Violist (and conductor) Yuri Bashmet and cellist Mischa Maisky join the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra on their 20th anniversary tour this month, with a stop at the Music Center at Strathmore (April 27, 8 pm). The music includes chamber orchestra versions of pieces by Schubert, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Tickets: $35 to $95.

Alec Baldwin, star of the whimsical television series 30 Rock, is also an advocate for classical music. You can celebrate Arts Advocacy Day properly next month when Baldwin delivers what is sure to be a memorable Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (April 16, 6:30 pm). This the 25th annual installment of this lecture, hosted by the organization Americans for the Arts and named for the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Tickets: FREE.

For more concerts, see the complete calendar for the month of April.

Ionarts-at-Large: Leif Ove Andsnes - Understatement and Innovation

Haydn – yes! How wonderful to see that Leif Ove Andsnes—along with Solveig Kringlebotn and Truls Mørk Norway’s foremost classical artist—brought a Haydn Sonata to his recital at Oslo Opera House. But to see the C-Minor Sonata (No.33, Hob.XVI:20) atop of the bill irked me amid delight. Haydn is not the warm-up, not the oh-this-is-nice-too piece amid more flashy Bartók, Debussy, and Chopin. Just like Haydn Symphonies, however desperately welcome they are in Philharmonic concerts, ought not be the ‘warm-up overture’ before the ‘real composers’. But it’s hard to grumble when Haydn is played with such sincerity (a humorous sincerity, as befits the composer) and earthbound preciousness as Andsnes did. He did so, unfazed by quadraphonic bronchial utterances from the audience that pockmarked all three movements with bemusing regularity.

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J.Haydn, Five Piano Sonatas,

Bartók’s Suite for Piano op.14 is a little engine that could, chugging away with whimsy, delight, and lots of rhythmic appeal… sides that Andsnes played up perfectly. It’s a delight in concert, benefitting considerably—like so much Bartók—from live performance. Perhaps this is one reason why Andsnes, amid his vast output for Virgin Classics and EMI, has not recorded any solo-piano Bartók. Stylistically switching on a dime, Andsnes performed three of Debussy’s Images: muscular tone paintings in his hands, rich in nuance and dynamic shades and gratifyingly devoid of clichéd pastels. Here, as elsewhere, a sense of innate rightness ruled. Andsnes makes musical points with everything he plays, but they’re often so subtle, that it’s hard to tell what point that might be. His success isn’t accidental; it comes from being one of the great understated innovators among pianists.

The second half of the recital was given over to Chopin. First: four uninhibited, muscular waltzes without any faux-French flavor and none of the ‘wilting lily’ Chopin-pretensions. This was extraordinarily healthy, robust Chopin – as were the following two ballades and the first, B-Major, Nocturne. When it was over and done with, four encores placated the grateful, proud audience. The Chopin Waltz, the Rachmaninoff Étude-tableau, the Granados Spanish Dance were all welcome. But there was one more, he wanted to squeeze in. At least one bit of Grieg—the composer he has championed more than any other in his quarter of a century long career—in this otherwise Grieg-less Oslo recital. Unfortunately the Lyric Piece op.54/2 (“Gangar”) is such a bloody ear-worm that leaving the opera house—which had incidentally showed itself a quality recital space—it dominated the memory at the exclusion of all the carefully balanced diversity that had come before.


Ionarts-at-Large: Four Last Songs with Camilla Nylund

When Marin Alsop and Paul Lewis were the attractions on the program of the Oslo Philharmonic (with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto to add to the star power), the ungainly Oslo Concert Hall was sold out to the last, expanded seat. A week later Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Camilla Nylund headed the bill, with music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting, and the attendance was scarcely half as large. They missed out, for starters, on Henri Dutilleux’ atmpospheric, prettily meandering Mystére de l’instant: A 15 minute work for strings, dulcimer, and percussion that slips and slides toward its ambivalent conclusion with several neat, small solos for the first desks and timpanist along the way. Easy on the ears, nothing conservative patrons need to run away from, but nothing—admittedly—that will have tickets flying off the shelf.

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Dutilleux, Mystére de l’instant ...,
H.Graf / Bordeaux Aquitaine NO
Arte Nova

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, R.Strauss, "Transformation",
C.Nylund / H.Lintu / Tampere PO

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Mozart, "Symphonies 39 & 40,
R.Jacobs / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Harmonia Mundi
Camilla Nylund from the Finnish-Swedish town Vaasa (named after the Swedish king of crisp-bread fame) has delighted me in Munich and Salzburg and on record in the past. Her Four Last Songs continued in that line of pleasing memories. She swam herself free after a forcefully determined “Spring”, where her voice had narrow, piercing moments. Her voice is not a lush instrument, and carries very easily over the orchestra without being forced. In her more malleable lower register, at its best display in “September”, she can add just that hint of velvet that makes Strauss so seductive. An air of propriety gave way to gorgeousness with the last lines of “September”, leading into a round and homogenous “At Bedtime”. The now infamous Marimba ringtone’s disruption was only brief and caused no scandal… but the following highlight of the mini-song cycle, the last stanza of “At Bedtime”, was played as if the orchestra was not aware of the rarified beauty this moment contained. To put a positive spin on it: it wasn’t milked for its unique beauty. It fit the greater scheme of the orchestra’s performance: not perfect, very respectably, and a bit anonymously—much line with past experiences.

This combination made, for all the preceding beauty, looking forward to the concluding Mozart Symphony—No.39—difficult. It’s very easy to underestimate how challenging it is to play Mozart, even late, heavier Mozart, after a bill of 20th century modernish/romantic fare. It’s difficult enough for most modern philharmonic orchestras to play Mozart well when their musical blood has been coagulated by too much ‘oomph-music’, and Viennese classics coming out like bad-habit Schumann.

Happily it wasn’t Mozart-as-Schumann in this case. And while it also wasn’t light and tip-toed Mozart à la Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or even Concertebouw / Josef Krips, it was a thoroughly engaging, very crisply driven affair, combining sprightliness and body and energetic all the way to the finale. Sarastre steered his musicians with unfussy aplomb that made, individual kinks apart, for the best playing of the night and possibly for the best playing I have heard of the Oslo Philharmonic yet.

Basil Twist on Opium

The pioneering puppeteer Basil Twist is in the area for a couple months, supervising a city-wide retrospective of his unusual productions, the Twist Festival D.C. After thoroughly enjoying his whimsical take on Stravinsky's Petrushka earlier this month, we were not going to miss the chance to see what is his most famous, breakthrough work, Symphonie fantastique, at the Clarice Smith Center last night. Twist took the music of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, composed in 1830, and made a completely abstract visual work that does not really tell the story the Berlioz wanted to tell but that is nonetheless just as strange and compelling. The puppeteers manipulate abstractions of shape and color inside a large tank of water, viewed by the audience through a stage-like opening about as large as a wide-screen television. Feather-like objects, floating veils, glowing fiber-optic cables, flashlights reflected with mirrors, and other things are dragged through the water like fishing lures, while other parts of this strange tableau, a sort of abstract painting set into motion, are created by lights glowing in the water, dyes released in clouds, and bubbles set floating.

It is one of the oddest things I have ever witnessed, and seeing the amount of work and coordination that went into creating it -- the audience is allowed a peep at the backstage area following the performance -- one could only marvel at the determination that must have been required to make this thing happen the first time (it was premiered in 1998). Berlioz's program symphony was one of the most influential works premiered in the 19th century. In it, Berlioz depicted a series of events based on his own life, initially subtitling it "Episodes from the Life of an Artist." It concerned Berlioz's obsession with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, how he turns his life inside out because of her, even drugging himself and hallucinating about being executed for murdering her and having his soul condemned to hell. Incredibly, Smithson learned later of the tribute, and she and Berlioz were married for a time, although it ended up unhappily for both of them.

Other Articles:

Nelson Pressley, Basil Twist’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is spectacle of puppetry and fun (Washington Post, March 31)

Topher Forhecz, Classical music meets puppetry — underwater — at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (Montgomery County Gazette, March 29)

Doug Rule, Born to Puppeteer (Metro Weekly, March 29)

Elizabeth Blair, Basil Twist: A Genius, With Many A String Attached (NPR, March 24)
None of this story makes it into Twist's vision. Puppets of the sort Twist uses in his other productions would probably not seem that much different in water. In a note published in the program, Twist quotes painter Wassily Kandinsky as a way of explaining why he turned to abstraction in a puppet show of all things. As in Petrushka, the movements of the objects in the water tank are timed to the change of Berlioz's ideas in the musical score. About the only concession to Berlioz's program in Twist's vision is the swirling, almost mermaid-like object that appears whenever the symphony's main melodic idea appears in the music. Berlioz identified this theme as his idée fixe, a representation of his obsessive passion for Harriet, heard in different ways throughout the piece: played by the suave violins in first movement's "Dreams and Passions," as a waltz tune in "The Dance," just before the fall of the guillotine blade in the fourth movement, and as part of the witches sabbath in the fifth. (See this striking performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch, not without its faults, but quite daring.)

Berlioz was overwhelmed by this obsession, falling in love with both the actress and Shakespeare because of her performance (she played Ophelia, Juliet, and several other roles). Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs, a thoroughly entertaining, if not always truthful, book (trans. Ernest Newman):

I became possessed by an intense, overpowering sense of sadness, that in my then sickly, nervous state produced a mental condition adequately to describe which would take a great physiologist. I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favorite studies became distasteful to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs.
The third movement, In the Country, refers to Berlioz's reaction when another young woman, a pianist who was in love with him, told him lies about Harriet's affairs with her leading men. He left Paris and wandered around the country for a couple days, weeping and inconsolable, finally passing out in a ditch.

Twist much prefers to stage his performances with live music, something made possible by having pianist Christopher O'Riley on hand to play a transcription of Berlioz's score on the piano. O'Riley's transcription was mostly Franz Liszt's outlandishly difficult arrangement for solo piano, in which form many listeners across Europe first heard the work. In a brief conversation following the performance, O'Riley told me that he had made a few tweaks to the score, most notably by adding some appropriately doom-filled overtones to the strikes of the bells in the Witches Sabbath movement, which Liszt notated just as octaves. O'Riley got an impressive percentage of the notes (few can hit as many of them as Liszt reportedly did), grimacing with the effort in the more strenuous passages. Unfortunately, clumsy amplification of the piano ruined the effect of live music by magnifying the blemishes and giving a canned sound to the music. The barn-like acoustic of the theater may have made the amplification necessary, but with that kind of sound, one could have just as easily played a recording.

This unusual performance will be repeated tonight and tomorrow (March 30 and 31), at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.

Elias Quartet a Welcome Guest

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Charles T. Downey, Elias Quartet, at Library of Congress, proves well worth discovering
Washington Post, March 30, 2012

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Haydn / Schumann, Elias Quartet
Live, Wigmore Hall

(released on May 8)
The Czech music week at the end of the Kennedy Center’s Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna festival continued, unofficially, Wednesday night at the Library of Congress. The Elias Quartet, formed in 1998 at Manchester’s Royal Northern Music Conservatory, made its Washington debut at the venue’s free concert series, playing an all-Czech program with American pianist Jonathan Biss.

With a couple of live recordings at the Wigmore Hall (on that venue’s private label) to its name, this talented string quartet is well worth discovering. Opening with Josef Suk’s “Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas,’ ” the group found all the pathos and shimmering beauty in what could easily be an overly sentimental trifle. [Continue reading]
Elias String Quartet with Jonathan Biss (piano)
Library of Congress

Josef Suk, Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale 'St. Wenceslas' (for string orchestra or string quartet)
Janáček, String Quartet No. 1 ("Kreutzer Sonata"), played here by the Janáček Quartet
Janáček, In the Mists
Dvořák, A major piano quintet, op. 81


Superlørdag with the Kringkastingsorkestret

Yay, it’s Superlørdag with the Kringkastingsorkestret! Say what? Why, “Super-Saturday” with Oslo’s Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation Symphony Orchestra (KORK), of course.

Super Saturdays are the surprisingly casual afternoon-outings of the orchestra that take place in the University’s aula, famous for and dominated by the vast, rugged Edvard Munch paintings that hang—mural-like—on its walls. If some of them look like hasty figural studies—they’re not, as an exhibition at the Munch museum showed: for each final product there exist dozens of preliminary versions from pencil sketch to drafts in oil. The three main canvases have a more polished look to them and depict, to the left: “History”. To the right: “Alma Mater”. Up front, as the centre piece of this virtual triptych, hangs the eventually fascinating picture “The Sun”, radiating over orchestra and audience.

The KORK can’t have it easy as the third orchestra in a town that hasn’t struck me as particularly proud of the classical music element of its cultural offerings. It has journeyed from light music starting in 1946 under Øivind Bergh to a modern Radio Symphony Orchestra covering a vast repertoire that holds the flag of contemporary music up in Oslo. Along the way, which included shuddersome Eurovision Song Contest muzak-duty, they seem to have attained a smallish but loyal following. Certainly the crowd, shy of 300, that came out on this prematurely sunny Lørdag, March 24th, was distinct and much more heterogeneous than that seen at the Philharmonic or Opera.

It was rewarded, too. Principal conductor Thomas Søndergård led the orchestra in a light and breezy program that suited the weather and started with Prokofiev’s First Symphony. Aided by the surprisingly fine, resonant acoustic with just the right amount of reverb, the KORK’s performance had a definite spring in its step, yet was full and burnished and might be said to have—successfully—punched well above its weight.

Francis Poulenc’s Piano Concerto is a natural charmer and Christian Ihle Hadland, who had put a smile on my face with Mozart when he substituted for Lars Vogt at the Oslo Philharmonic last year, married the music’s light wit and ease seamlessly with its romantic sound. Poulenc himself will have known whether his Sinfonietta was meant as cute or serious, exotic or conventional, but I often can’t—until the finale when it puts all the chips down on joie de vivre. The orchestra hadn’t, by then, lost much of the engaged enthusiasm from the Prokofiev, and only little more of the initial accuracy… helping a good deal to making Superlørdag live up to its name.

Oslo Internasjonale Kirkemusikkfestival: Crux with Via Crucis

Liszt must be the most famous, least appreciated composer. Everyone knows him, no one listens to him. A sentiment that rang a bell with Esa Pekka Salonen: “Liszt is a case in point of course. As a name he is extremely well known, and who knows his music? Very few. Absolutely.” Was he doing any Liszt? “Hmmm… It so happens that the orchestral repertoire is not the best Liszt. I’m a big fan of the late piano music and some orchestral pieces, also. I like the Faust Symphony a lot. But no, I haven’t performed even that piece for the longest time.He’s a composer I should take a better look at, actually. I just got the score of Christus last year. And I’ve been looking at it from time to time. That looks very beautiful.”

It sounds beautiful, too. In fact it’s perhaps the most touching, striking Liszt among the more obscure of his compositions, unashamed of touches of conventional beauty. I’m also intrigued by The Bells of Strasbourg (from which Wagner found inspiration for Parsifal) and many other works. In fact, I’m often very intrigued about off-the-beaten-path Liszt works, ready to discover and fall in love… only to be repelled or let down or gliding back into indifference after being met by the music with emotional ambivalence.

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F.Liszt, Via crucis,
Z.Pad / Debrecen Kodaly Chorus / D.Karasszon

Via Crucis is one of those pieces that I go to in hope of finding that Liszt is indeed as popular to the ears as he is prominent… only to scurry and try again, elsewhere or with a new recording of Via Crucis again, a year later. To my ears, the original version for organ, chorus, and baritone, is more an organ work than a choral piece; a difficult one at that. Perhaps that’s why recent recordings have gone for the version for piano and chorus, which is altogether more often recorded than the original. (Among the most successful, to my jaded ears, is a brand new performance with Roland Conil with Roland Hayrabedian and Musicatreize on Phaia Music PHU001)

The Accentus Chamber Choir under Laurence Equilbey (Brigitte Engerer on piano, naïve V5061) might have the most spot-on choral performance but can’t ultimately make a case for the eclectic work. Among the versions with organ, Johannes Wenk (carus 83.144) and Dezső Karasszon (Hungaroton HCD 32685) come closest to suggestion cohesion and real, almost desperate earnestness to me.

The 2012 Oslo Church Music Festival had put the Passion and Passion music front, back, and center. Literally: it opened and closed with Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John’s Passion… and in the middle waited two domestic passion world premieres: Ketil Bjørnstad’s “A passion for John Donne” Trond Kverno’s St. Luke’s Passion. Alas, the latter had to be cancelled and the concert at the Oslo Cathedral on Wednesday, March 14th had Via Crucis coupled with Kverno’s St. Mark Passion in one of only two concerts I managed at the impressive and innovative Festival.

It’s unusually to have the established composer/work up front, and the contemporary work second. At least it doesn’t conform to standard concert programmer’s ‘sandwiching’ techniques that are designed to expose ears to new, sometimes challenging music, by giving them as little incentive or opportunity to bolt. After hearing the two works side by side, the decision made sense: Liszt’s work is the challenging one, and Kverno soothes.

The Oslo Domkor under Terje Kvam—lined up before the quaint, almost naïve carved bas-relief altar piece of the Cathedral—was not to blame for the Liszt-struggles. But the way the reminiscing organ part (Kåre Nordstoga) became a halting, staggering endurance test for the ears was. It must be anguished, handwringing expressions that Liszt wanted to compose into the often improvisatory-sounding music for the organist. And there must be a way to find the entry-point into something that’s personal, deep-felt. Alas, just playing the notes correctly has no chance of making anything but awkwardness tangible… amid which the choral outbursts seem strangely misplaced. And what might be haunting stillness, ideally, becomes just a breakdown in communication. When Veronica comes around the corner in Station VI, the question arises whether the best bit in Liszt ought to be by old Johann Sebastian Bach.

During Trond Kverno’s Markuspasjonen the chorus transformed from admirably persistent to a group that sparkled with energy and joy as they fed on the traditional, conventional harmonies of the music and its chugging rhythms. The fine acoustic of the Cathedral, with a pleasant reverb of just over one second (up to two and a half, at full throttle), made their contributions all the more effective. Roguishly handsome tenor Matthias Gillebo, with that hint of not too long ago having enjoyed a career as a mischievous chorister, sonorously crooned his part, written in close parallel to Gregorian chant, perhaps with one eye on the Graduale Romanum. With music that is always drawn back to a resting pitch from which it deviates rarely and only briefly when it does, the result bears more of a pacific, monodic quality than it remains memorable. Liszt, admittedly, has Kverno there.


More Czech Music

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Mendelssohn / Mozart / Schubert, Elias String Quartet
(live, Wigmore Hall)
The Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna festival at the Kennedy Center brought plenty of music by Czech composers to our ears last week, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. If there is no limit to the Czech music you like to hear -- especially when it comes to Leoš Janáček, in my case -- console yourself this evening with the latest free concert at the Library of Congress (March 28, 8 pm). The young Elias Quartet, an ensemble of young British musicians formed at Manchester’s Royal Northern Music Conservatory, joins American pianist Jonathan Biss for an all-Czech program.

The Elias, which has a couple of live recordings at the Wigmore Hall (on that venue's private label) to its name, will perform Josef Suk's Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale 'St. Wenceslas', composed for string orchestra (when played by a string quartet, the contrabass part is omitted), and Janáček's first string quartet, known as the "Kreutzer Sonata" (played here by the Janáček Quartet). Truthfully, I have not yet been all that impressed by the playing of Jonathan Biss, but the high opinion of other listeners and critics encourages me to keep an open ear. He will perform selections from Janáček's piano work In the Mists and join the Elias Quartet for Antonín Dvořák's A major piano quintet, op. 81.


Art of the Fugue

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Charles T. Downey, In Bach Consort’s ‘Art of the Fugue,’ dour sameness prevails
Washington Post, March 27, 2012

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Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
If the fugue is the most complex way to structure music, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is the most enigmatic example of that complexity. It is the summa of the composer’s contrapuntal endeavors, but it was still something of a surprise to see the National Presbyterian Church filled to capacity to hear the Washington Bach Consort perform it Sunday afternoon. This austere work, an elaboration of every possible fugal trick in the bag, is not one of the composer’s most popular; indeed, this was the Bach Consort’s first performance of it.

Most scholars agree that Bach intended the piece for the harpsichord, but this performance, like many others, was arranged for an ensemble: four string instruments, with some movements performed ably by J. Reilly Lewis and Scott Dettra on two harpsichords. Andrew Fouts, the group’s new concertmaster, was exemplary on the highest part, playing with clean intonation and radiant tone. Two viols on the middle parts were too easily covered and sometimes rhythmically off-center (with one false start just before intermission), and the violone seemed not quite agile nor clear enough to suit the lowest part. [Continue reading]
J. S. Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge
Washington Bach Consort
National Presbyterian Church

Artful Fugue (Ionarts, August 22, 2011)


Ehnes Takes on More Bartók

This article was first published at The Classical Review on March 26, 2012.

available at Amazon
Bartók, Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 1, J. Ehnes, A. Armstrong

(released on January 31, 2012)
CHAN 10705 | 80'30"
Canadian violinist James Ehnes is one of the most technically accomplished musicians playing today. The appeal of his performances, however, goes beyond the fireworks produced by his hands to the ideas infused into the music by his vivid musical intelligence.

He was even able to draw consistent musical interest from the sometimes vapid technical drudgery of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, which he recorded for a second time a couple years ago (Onyx; first recording for Telarc, in 2003). Now, for Chandos, he has embarked on what may turn out to be the go-to set of Bartók’s works for violin and piano.

One of the ways Ehnes lifts himself above some of the competition is by appealing to the completist streak in record buyers. He opened his Bartók traversal with an excellent recording of the composer’s two Violin Concertos last year, packaged ingeniously with a fine performance of the Viola Concerto.

Likewise, this new disc is the first volume of a promised complete set of Bartók’s works for violin and piano. With the partnership of earnestly talented pianist Andrew Armstrong, the selection of works -- the two sonatas with piano as main courses, with a sampler of smaller pieces -- receive performances that get to the heart of this music, both its savage and suave sides.

The most substantial work on the disc is the extended first Violin Sonata, in which Bartók reconciles his study of folk music and embracing of atonality.

Ehnes and Armstrong give an air of mystery to the slow section in the middle of the extended first movement of the First Sonata, the nocturnal murk of Bartók’s “night music” style. Ehnes draws out a deliciously sweet tone on the long, unaccompanied passages in the slow movement, lending an air of ethereal quiet. He plays the 1715 Ex-Marsick Stradivarius, a rather exquisite instrument loaned to him by the mathematician and instrument collector David L. Fulton, whose generosity made possible Ehnes’s 2008 recital disc Homage (Onyx), on which the violinist played 12 extraordinary instruments in Fulton’s collection.

The appeal of this disc is further enhanced by a savant booklet essay by Bartók scholar Paul Griffiths. He lays out the evolution of the style of the composer’s writing for the violin and unpicks what is happening harmonically and melodically in these works, especially drawing connections to the barbaric, disturbing score for the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (also completed around the time of the two sonatas, in the early 1920s). As Griffiths notes, the Second Sonata often sounds like a more compact rethinking of the First, and Ehnes and Armstrong bring out all of its sometimes grotesque contradictions, the Stravinsky-like motoric drive, the folk-inspired dance patterns, and barbaric violence.

The only reservation about Ehnes is that occasionally his cerebral approach misses some of the daringness showed by someone like Isabelle Faust, whose all-Bartók disc for Harmonia Mundi is the most important recent competition. To that, one should add, for authority, the immortal live recording by Joseph Szigeti and Béla Bartók himself, made at the Library of Congress. It contains only the Second Sonata and First Rhapsody, combined with Debussy and an epic performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, but it is still a must-have.

The little Andante in A major must be listed among the composer’s juvenilia -- a “salon morsel” as Griffiths puts it -- but it is the sort of piece the completist will want to hear. The performances of the two Rhapsodies emphasize the light, even humorous side of folk dance they incorporate, a mixture of Romanian and Hungarian styles -- both pieces were composed in 1928, after parts of Hungary, including the Transylvanian village where Bartók was born, had, in the aftermath of World War I, become part of Romania.

The perky main theme of the second movement of Rhapsody No. 1 sounds a lot like the Shaker tune Simple Gifts set by Copland, another reminder of the importance of folk music in Bartók’s music. The composer revisited this movement to give the end of this dreamy, Haydnesque movement a more barbaric sound.

As usual for Chandos, this disc is rendered in excellent sound, captured in Potton Hall in Dunwich, Suffolk, and engineered by Ben Connellan.

Sarcophagus Recovered in Geneva

Agathe Duparc is reporting this morning for Radio Télévision Suisse (Un sarcophage romain saisi aux Ports francs de Genève, March 26) that customs agents in Geneva have seized an invaluable Roman sarcophagus, among several other precious archeological objects. The seizure was part of an operation to investigate goods being held at the Ports Francs, where merchandise passing through customs can be stockpiled. The sarcophagus was discovered at the end of 2010, a monumental marble tomb dated to the second century AD. It is decorated with a relief sculpture showing the twelve labors of Hercules and is reportedly very similar to a sarcophagus currently on display (shown here) in the collection of the Antalya Müzesi, a Turkish archeological museum in Antalya. Turkish authorities have already made a legal claim to have the sarcophagus repatriated to Turkey, believing that it was illegally removed from the country following illegal excavations near Antalya. Other objects seized by authorities include two sarcophagi from Lebanon, in the shape of human bodies. The Hercules sarcophagues, Duparc also reports, was offered for sale in 2010 by Ali Aboutaam, owner of Phoenix Ancient Art, to Jean-Claude Gandur, archeological collector and patron of the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva. "The deal was not concluded," she notes, "because the item already aroused suspicions."


In Brief: Czech Edition

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

  • Watch Mark Minkowski lead Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble in Schubert's 9th symphony (embedded here). Also the fifth symphony, the Unfinished, and the sixth. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Emmanuel Krivine conducts La Chambre Philharmonique in two Haydn symphonies -- 82 and 83, the Bear and the Hen -- and a Mozart violin concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. [France Musique]

  • From last October, La Scala's production of Rossini's La donna del lago, with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in music of Kodály and Bartók, including the latter's second violin concerto with Christian Tetzlaff. [France Musique]

  • Hear Renée Fleming and Marcelo Álvarez in the Opera National de Paris production of Massenet's Manon. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Théâtre du Châtelet, Daniele Gatti conducts Mahler's tenth symphony in the Deryck Cooke version. [France Musique]

  • From Barcelona, a concert by the Cuarteto Casals playing music of Mozart, Shostakovich, Schubert, and Bartók. [France Musique]

  • On Tuesday, watch the video of De Munt's production of Dvořák's Rusalka, directed by Stefan Herheim. [Théâtre de la Monnaie]

  • Musicians from Les Arts Florissants perform music by Purcell and other composers at the Opéra Comique. [France Musique]

  • Yet another film on Marie-Antoinette's and the final days of the French monarchy at Versailles is coming, this time directed by Benoît Jacquot (adapted from the novel by Chantal Thomas, Les adieux à la reine, winner of the Prix Femina in 2002) and starring Diane Kruger (Marie-Antoinette) and Virginie Ledoyen (La Princesse de Polignac). [Le Point]

  • Some photos of the costumes from the new film Les adieux à la reine. [L'Express]

  • From the Église Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile, a recital by organist Benjamin Alard, with music by Scheidemann, Scheidt, and Buxtehude. [France Musique]

  • An interview with two of the stars from Les adieux à la reine, Diane Kruger (Marie-Antoinette) and Léa Seydoux, who plays Sidonie Laborde, the servant whose job it is to read to the Queen. [L'Express]

  • The Quatuor Voce performs a recital in the Auditorium du Louvre, with music by Franck and Ravel. [France Musique]

  • Lise de la Salle and the Quatuor Modigliani speak about and play music for the program Salons de la Musique. [ARTE Live Web]


NSO Keeps Things in Czech

After the National Symphony Orchestra's blockbuster performance of Dvořák's Stabat mater on Thursday night, Christoph Eschenbach gave the singers and some members of his orchestra a night off. For this week's B side performance, to match a program of Hungarian dance music and Viennese light favorites in between heavy vocal performances the previous two weeks, Christoph Eschenbach offered an evening of Czech rarities. The evening was slightly long, perhaps one work too many, and at least some were heard to grumble at intermission about the fact that the first half consisted mostly of chamber music. Still, once again, one had to admire Eschenbach for programming works that had not been heard from the NSO in twenty years or, in one case, ever.

The main attraction was two unusual pieces for larger chamber ensemble by Leoš Janáček. Young Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček was on hand to play the keyboard part in these works, which are sort of like miniature piano concertos with an odd assortment of companion instruments. The Concertino for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, from 1925, received its debut performance by the NSO. A companion work to Janáček's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, it features the instruments as forest animals: the piano in a frantic monologue with the horn in the Hedgehog first movement; a scurrying, chattering squirrel in Loren Kitt's turn on the piccolo clarinet in E♭; the three strings in discordant owl calls in the third movement; and all of them together in the final movement. It is a virtuosic piece, with a bear of a keyboard part, but it all sounded confident and well coordinated.

The results were less felicitous with Janáček's Capriccio, composed for Otakar Hollmann, a Czech pianist who had lost the use of his right hand due to injuries in the First World War. The part is no less difficult, of course, and Vondráček seemed to have it less assuredly in his fingers, his eyes remaining much more glued to the score. Six brass players (two trumpets, three trombones, and a guest musician on tenor tuba) gave the necessary anxiety to the ostinato figure that haunts the work's opening movements. The flute part, played with clarity by Aaron Goldman, dispelled those worries and took the work into a sort of Pelléas-like Symbolist ambiguity. Thanks in no small part to the leadership of the NSO's new assistant conductor, Ankush Kuman Bahl, the piece held together in spite of a few insecurities.

We probably could have done with only one of the serenades by Antonín Dvořák, although both of them had appeal. The D minor serenade, op. 44, is essentially a wind band piece, with lots of oom-pa-pa accompaniment and echoes of Mozart's Gran partita at some points. Most of the melodic weight falls to the first oboe, and principal oboist Nicholas Stovall was in good form, with strain evident only on some very high notes. If the composer's Stabat mater fell before his first experiments with incorporating folk music into his music, this piece showed some of his first successes in that direction. The serenade for strings, op. 22, was the best known piece on the program, although it, too, had not been heard from the NSO since 1992. Issues of sectional unity and intonation seemed to indicate that more rehearsal time would have been beneficial.


For Your Consideration: 'Delicacy'

Last summer, rumors started to float about because Audrey Tautou, the jolie môme of French cinema, had made some noises about quitting the screen for good. Whether it happened sooner or later, one interviewer wrote, "if you want to see Tautou on screen again, you shouldn’t hang about." Your latest chance opens today, La délicatesse, made last year by brothers Stéphane Foenkinos and David Foenkinos, adapted by the latter from his own novel, which was extremely popular in France. Tautou stars as Nathalie Kerr, a beautiful woman who has shut herself off from life after the premature death of her husband. This is not a great film by any means, a lesser example of the sort of quirky romantic comedy that is a specialty of French directors. Happily, this is not yet the end of Tautou's career: she is also working on other projects, with French directors, most notably in L'écume des jours, a new film by Michel Gondry (La science des rêves). That should be a good match.

Les frères Foenkinos followed a strange formula for a romantic comedy, in that half of the movie sets up the fairytale marriage of Nathalie with her late husband, François, played with scruffy appeal by Pio Marmaï. Happily, this does not turn into a French remake of Ghost. In reaction to her beloved husband's death, Nathalie throws herself into her work, for a vast and strange Swedish company in Paris, whose business is never really specified (nor does it need to be). The smarmy boss who hires her, played with sebaceous suavity by Bruno Todeschini, swoops in after her husband's death, hoping to consummate the attraction he has always felt. He has one of the best scenes of the film, when he is dressed down by Nathalie after a disastrous dinner of failed seduction.

In the film, the camera is seduced by Tautou, following her closely, documenting the line of her legs, her slender form, the curls of her hair (cinematography by Rémy Chevrin). Although Nathalie seems to have become cold to the influence of love, it is reawakened in the least expected of places, a plain and even unattractive man on her team at work, Markus. He is a good egg, though, a warm heart who makes Nathalie and us laugh. Nathalie's grandmother in the suburbs -- played with open-hearted sweetness by Monique Chaumette -- recognizes it immediately, saying about a minute after meeting him that he has "un bon front," a nice face. As played by Belgian actor François Damiens (who debuted with Jean Dujardin in OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions) -- he has to make an approximation of speaking Swedish at one point in a funny scene with his parents visiting from Sweden -- he is an awkward shambles, a sad sack with the good luck of being in the right place at the right time, probably for the first time in his life.

Other Reviews:

Roger Ebert | Washington Post | NPR
New York Times | Village Voice | Movie Review Intelligence

In an interview in Paris Match, David Foenkinos identifies the subject of his story as "l’étrangeté de l’amour." Nathalie's friends and co-workers struggle to understand why Nathalie, so beautiful and so successful, would fall for someone like Markus, but the point is that love, sometimes, is blind. She tries to make it go away, trying to explain to Markus in straight-laced business cant, to which he responds, "Vous parlez comme une américaine. C'est jamais de bon signe" (You're speaking like an American. That's never a good sign). He perseveres, however, encouraged hilariously by watching a televised speech by then-candidate Barack Obama, about how "our time has come," causing him to sit up in bed with a big, goofy smile.

Also from the interview in Paris Match--

Stéphane Foenkinos: "En fait, ce film est “driste” : à la fois drôle et triste."

Audrey Tautou: "Par rapport à la chronologie de l’histoire… moi je dirais que c’est un film plus 'trôle' que 'driste' !"
The screenplay is not always so ingenious but it has its moments, as when Markus declares that he is going to stop looking at Nathalie to save himself possible pain ("Je me protège," he says, apparently in earnest). When he spends conversations with his head turned to one side, she says, "Vous aurez mal au cou comme ça" (You'll give yourself a neck ache like that), to which he answers, "Je préfère mal au cou qu'au cœur" (I prefer an ache in the neck more than in the heart). The sound of those syllables, "cou qu'au cœur," which Tautou repeats, are particularly funny because they are so grandiose and sing-songy at the same time. The score, by Emilie Simon, adds the same sort of pop whimsy, with some quasi-minimalist, gamelan-style percussive cues and a few whimsical songs. Not a life-transforming movie but a charming one.

This film opens tonight exclusively at the Landmark Bethesda Row cinema.

Spring for Music

Long-time readers may recall that I declared blogging dead three years ago, and I suspect that it was actually dead long before that. What I meant was not that the best practitioners of what used to be called blogging had generally found their way into more traditional media or had otherwise dropped mostly or partially out of the game, although that is also largely true. What I meant was that acceptance of blogging by the mainstream media as something serious -- it was in 2007 and 2008 that publicists started to ask me out for coffee, flacks for horrible crossover recordings started to ask where they could send me a promo, when newspaper critics started writing "blogs" on newspaper Web sites (indeed were sometimes writing almost exclusively Web-only content in some cases), and when I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter as a local blogger -- spelled the end of the subversive blogger. It's just as well: blog and blogging are ugly-sounding words that will hopefully fall into disuse.

Well, not so fast. This week, a New York-based festival issued an Arts Blogger Challenge. This was pretty transparently a ploy to drive traffic to its site -- the group will be presenting six regional orchestras at Carnegie Hall in May, and they would like some coverage and clicks. A self-selected group of bloggers -- those who did not immediately withdraw their names in a fit of pique -- would be assembled into some sort of March Madness-like bracket and compete against one another by answering questions and being scored by a panel of judges and readers of the site. With the possibility of winning a $2,500 prize and, more importantly, the chance to have more potential readers find their way to Ionarts, it seemed unreasonable not at least to enter. To take part in the first round, all we had to do was answer the following question.

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

The answer, it seems silly to have to point out, is that the concept of a cultural capital of America is no longer relevant in the Internet Age. New York has a certain concentration of cultural events worth seeing, it's true, but one has more and more access to them from other places. The New York City Opera may be dying, and the Metropolitan Opera is losing its edge, leading Alex Ross, for one, to write recently that "The quality of operatic programming and production in New York has plummeted." People all around the world can see for themselves by watching the Met HD broadcasts or listening on satellite radio, and they can compare what they hear and see with streaming audio or video from lots of other opera houses and concert halls from around the world. In my In Brief posts, a regular Sunday link dump feature, I list a large number of worthwhile audio or video streams from that week, from around Europe and other places. One could list many more, and there are now sites devoted entirely to cataloging them.

Most of the concerts reviewed here at Ionarts are based in Washington, where I live, and in Munich, where our German correspondent lives. The fact is that we often review artists who travel and are heard in both Washington and Munich at different times of the year -- and indeed in New York, too. We both had occasion recently to write about the same Jonathan Miller production of Così fan tutte, which came to both London and Washington. We both travel around our respective continents, too, and write about lots of other places. We write about new recordings and DVDs, too, meaning that our audience is a mixture -- local people who want to read about local performances and people from around the world who want more general content. We do not need to be in any one place to do this, and neither do our readers.

See my further thoughts on this PR ploy masquerading as a contest.

New Work by Young Mozart Discovered and Performed

It’s the story of hidden treasures and attics, all over again. Not a copy of the constitution, this time, nor a hitherto unknown Rubens on the back of a canvas. But just about as neat: A genuinely new, and by all accounts genuine keyboard miniature by the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The attic was that of a brass-band Kapellmeister and church musician in the Lech river valley, Tyrol. The Mozart-piece, part of a 160 page strong collection of keyboard works, titled: “Allegro molto” by “Del Signore Giovane Wolfgango Mozart”. “Givoane”, as in “junior” to distinguish the bit from several other, also authentic inclusions by his father, “Del Signore Mozart”.

Musicologist Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider unearthed it, and the Mozarteum Foundation (Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg) brought it to light earlier today, which included a performance by Florian Birsak on Mozart’s own fortepiano. Here’s an excerpt of the Allegro, most probably written when Mozart was 11:

Excerpt from the “Allegro molto” by W.A.Mozart, perf. Florian Birsak.

The entire 84 bar long work, lasting something shy of four minutes with its two repeats, will be released on iTunes tomorrow, Saturday, March 24rd. More information at