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


Dip Your Ears, No. 119 (Grażina Bacewicz Concertos)

available at AmazonG.Bacewicz, Violin Concertos, Kurkowicz / Borowicz / Polish RSO
CHAN 10533 (63:47)

In time for Grażina Bacewicz’ 100 anniversary (read about the composer in my anniversary tribute), Chandos—already among the labels that have done Bacewicz proud with fine releases—added an important recording of three of Bacewicz’ seven violin concertos to the discography.

Joanna Kurkowicz, already responsible for the violin sonatas on Chandos, doesn’t just contribute with tautly-beautiful playing in Concertos № 1 (ebullient like an excited, neo-classical puppy), № 3 (weltering in lyricism + Bartok) and № 7 (sophisticated complexity), but also lucid liner notes; a respite from the self-indulgent treacle some colleagues are guilty of. The Polish-American soloist is supported by the (Wroclaw) Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under their new Artistic Director Łukasz Borowicz, a former assistant to Iván Fischer and Antoni Wit.

The three concertos provide a nice cross section of Bacewicz’s work for her own instrument and their dates of composition—1937, 1948, and 1965—show off her various and continuously evolving styles. Together with Krystian Zimerman’s recording of the Piano Sonata № 2 and the Piano Quintets (forever delayed and finally released April 2011 on Deutsche Grammophon), this is the most important Bacewicz release on a major label.


Dip Your Ears, No. 118 (Fantasy-Lied von der Erde)

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Lied von der Erde,
K.Nagano / C.Gerhaher, K.F.Vogt

Some people play Fantasy-Football, others Fantasy-Das Lied von der Erde. Restricting myself to active artists, I’d cast the Concertgebouw Amsterdam or the Munich Philharmonic (the latter gave the premiere performance), I’d want Pierre Boulez or Daniele Gatti to conduct. In the unthankful, difficult tenor part I’d want to hear Jonas Kaufman or Klaus Florian Vogt (just to see how his choir-boy voice could ring above the orchestra without having to push too hard). There might be several mezzos I could imagine adding magnificently to it, but for the version with two men singing there is only one baritone I’m really keen on seeing cast in Das LiedChristian Gerhaher.

Sony comes awfully close to fulfilling my wishes: Klaus Florian Vogt and Christian Gerhaher perform together with Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Not an orchestra I would admittedly have thought of, but like Kent Nagano—whose recordings I often prefer over his live performances (terrific Mahler 8th)—they turn in an atmospheric, sensitive account that is the most pleasant surprise. Gerhaher is his usual self: The most self-effacing baritone of our time, natural, clear, and incredibly unaware of just how good he is. Perhaps not everyone will be impressed as much as I by his voice, it’s not the most powerful instrument, after all. But it is the most intelligently used, and has a vibrato that Gerhaher uses like string players used to: Only to emphasize certain points. If violinists strive to sound like certain sopranos, cellists should listen to Gerhaher.

If there was anything at fault with this disc to keep it from a straight shot into the “Best of 2009” list (which it made), it's Klaus Florian Vogt: I still think he could be ideal, in his own, certainly idiosyncratic way. There is nothing that need keep his detached, nasal, treble-ish voice from navigating Mahler’s score with the greatest success. He hints at it enough on this recording, too. But at times Vogt sounds so incredibly uninspired that it can’t be shrugged off as just an introverted interpretation. Instead, it sounds like he phoned his contribution in. Actually, he did, in a way: not in perfect health at the concerts, he recorded his parts later, in Munich. But I’m not sure why Vogt’s blandness should be the result of dubbing his part in, a month after the live performances.

I can accommodate myself with his stiff “Drunkard in Spring”, but it keeps the entire effort from being closer to idel than any recording of this work I’ve yet heard. And whether Vogt’s contribution pleases or displeases, the disc must be heard for Gerhaher’s “Farewell” alone, which suffices to make it the Mahler-recording of the year. (The booklet notes are detailed and useful, but money was saved by not including the text.)

Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.

Mahler Songs at Clarice Smith

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Charles T. Downey, Asher Fisch leads National Orchestral Institute in Mahler lecture-recital
Washington Post, June 29, 2012

available at Amazon
Lamenti (Hasse, Haydn, Handel), S. Irányi, Hofkapelle München, M. Hofstetter
Song and symphony are opposites in many ways on the spectrum between simplicity and complexity. Gustav Mahler not only composed almost exclusively in these two genres; he combined them seamlessly, transforming both by hybridizing. The young musicians of the National Orchestral Institute, at the University of Maryland, are preparing for a performance of Mahler’s third symphony on Saturday. Their guest conductor for the week, Asher Fisch, sought to give his players some background with a lecture-recital on some of the composer’s songs on Wednesday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The distance between song and symphony is mirrored by the divide between vocalists and instrumentalists, who often know relatively little about the music their counterparts perform. Fisch presented his ideas on Mahler with authority and charm. He referred more than once to concepts the NOI orchestra had worked on in rehearsal, making connections to the simple folk style of Mahler’s poetry and that of the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” collection, explaining how Mahler quoted from or adapted the songs in the symphonies, and analyzing some of the more striking harmonic progressions. [Continue reading]
Robert Battey, McTee’s ‘Double Play’ stands out in NOI concert led by Slatkin (Washington Post, June 18)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Playing with Fire: National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland (DMV Classical, June 17)


Poppea: In Munich with Ivor Bolton

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, A. C. Antonacci, D. Daniels, K. Moll, Bayerische Staatsoper, I. Bolton

Farao B 108 020 | 2h49
British conductor Ivor Bolton cut his teeth at the Glyndebourne Festival, before leading a celebrated series of productions at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich -- he now conducts the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and the newly formed Dresden Music Festival Orchestra. Bolton's Poppea came across my desk a couple years ago, in a re-release, and there is much to enjoy, beginning with the title role in the dramatic hands and shattering voice of soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. Her Italian diction and sense of the flow of the role, shifting so effortlessly between recitative and metered pieces, are impeccable.

This cast also featured a countertenor as Nerone, in this case the excellent David Daniels, but the role, created originally for a rather high soprano castrato voice, stretches Daniels (and Philippe Jaroussky, reviewed yesterday) to some shrill unpleasantness at the top. The musical requirements seem to justify the less satisfying solution dramatically in this case, casting a woman as Nerone. Ottone, a lower role, works better for countertenors, but not really for Axel Köhler here. Dominique Visse makes an acid-voiced Arnalta, Kurt Moll is a woolly, dignified Seneca with some puissant low notes. Other high points include Dorothea Röschmann as a manic, cute Drusilla, and the innocent sound of a child treble, from the Tölzer Knabenchor, in the role of Amore. There are enough disappointments in the other bit parts that go against this version, as well as tenor Claes-Håkan Ahnsjö, who as Lucan has an unattractive duet with Daniels in the second act.

David Alden staged this production (more about that later), recorded live at the Munich Opera Festival in 1997 in not outstanding sound. There is lots of rustling of costumes and clatter of shoes caught by the mikes, and too much distance and room in the overall sound. To be fair, that was one of the aims of the Farao label, according to a booklet note by Peter Jonas, Intendant of the Munich State Opera. Bolton leads an excellent reading of the score, conducting from the harpsichord, with fine variation in the sound of the continuo section, with none other than Christina Pluhar on harp and Baroque guitar. That variation of the continuo sound is a principal attraction of the Christie recording, too, which helps cut down on the monotony of the recitative. Unlike Christie, Bolton uses only strings plus his varied continuo group (Christie gave some parts to recorders -- the score says next to nothing about the instrumentation), and he takes some unusual but striking liberties, like the glacial tempo of the opera's glorious concluding duet ("Pur ti miro"), which gives the piece a sensual quality rather than making it stall.


Poppea: 'Di questo seno i pomi?'

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, D. de Niese, P. Jaroussky, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on April 3, 2012)
Virgin 07095191 | 180'

available at Amazon
E. Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
Claudio Monteverdi is the father of opera, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea, his final opera, is a twilight masterpiece, the Magic Flute, the Falstaff, the Parsifal of the early Baroque period. The problem is that, while no one doubts the ingenuity and dramatic force of this opera, it may not be by Monteverdi at all. As Ellen Rosand has written in her masterful survey of Monteverdi's Venetian operas, the source situation for Poppea is by far the most complicated of any Venetian opera of the period -- two distinct and rather different manuscripts, multiple versions of the libretto. The libretto's approach to characterization, its moral ambiguity, strikes us now as particularly modern, and the proliferation of productions and recordings of the opera in recent years (René Jacobs, Emmanuelle Haïm, William Christie at the Opéra de Lyon, David Alden, to name just a few) has only amplified the study of the work. As Rosand puts it, "no modern performance could be attempted without coming to grips with the numerous variant readings" of the score.

A number of new recordings of Poppea have crossed my desk recently, the first to consider being this DVD of a staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi, recorded at Madrid's Teatro Real. It is another production featuring Les Arts Florissants and William Christie in the pit, which means that the playing and the scholarly consideration given to the score are a known quantity (here using a new edition of the Venetian version of the opera, edited by Jonathan Cable, who plays violone in christie's continuo group). Christie returned again to Danielle de Niese for the title role, after grooming her for the role in his production in Lyon in 2005, and for once Christie's taste in voices seems way off base. On one hand de Niese, a beautiful woman, is an obvious choice to play Poppea -- according to Tacitus, one of the most beautiful women of her age but also one who would focus her lust on whatever object was most to her advantage. Poppea has to seduce the viewer, yes, but more importantly she has to seduce the listener, and de Niese's voice, if not her looks, falls short -- too many mannerisms (straight tone popping into vibrato, as if she were singing Whitney Houston), questionable Italian pronunciation, and shallowness of tone. De Niese also starred as Poppea at Glyndebourne, where she is now mistress of the house, a performance released on DVD by Decca a couple of years ago (with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a production by Robert Carsen) and with the same issues.

There are other problems, too, beginning with the rest of the casting, a group of high-profile names that do not really mesh with one another, beginning with the boyish Nerone of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (in Lyon, Christie cast Nerone as a tenor rather than a countertenor), who strikes no sparks with de Niese. This is at least partially due to the ridiculous costuming and makeup (design all credited to Pizzi) that in the first act makes him look like a Goth vampire-gorilla, but here Nerone's most sultry duet is not with Poppea but in the little scene with Lucano in the second act, where Nero is supposed to be rhapsodizing in poetry with his court poet (Lucan) -- about Poppea -- interpreted here as its own sort of love scene, with the two men singing the words to one another. Bass Antonio Abete, who has an odd way of singing out of one corner of his mouth, is a sententious Seneca, while the Ottone of Max Emanuel Cencic and the Ottavia of Anna Bonitatibus are sharp-edged and sometimes shrill, musically satisfying in a way but not creating much sympathy for either character. In the uneven supporting cast (so many bit parts!), countertenor José Lemos has a charming turn in en travesti role of the Nurse (matched by the less vocally attractive but high-kitsch Arnalta of Robert Burt, in a bright purple Dame Edna moment in the bizarrely timed comic scene near the end of Act III). The one standout is soprano Ana Quintans as a coquettish Drusilla, the sort of clean but potent voice that would actually make a much better Poppea. The set, a sort of Baroque version of Rome, with modernized costumes, is somber and mostly nondescript.


Leslie Amper @ NGA

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Charles T. Downey, Pianist Leslie Amper offers a slice of the soundtrack to George Bellows’s era
Washington Post, June 26, 2012

available at Amazon
Henry Cowell Plays
His Own Piano Music
Can we re-create the sound world of a previous era? That was the goal of pianist Leslie Amper in a concert hosted by the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening. In conjunction with the museum’s exhibition of the works of American painter George Bellows, Amper performed American music from the first quarter of the 20th century, when Bellows was active, and Chopin’s music admired by the painter’s pianist wife.

In terms of technical or interpretative accomplishment, there was not much to inspire wonder, but the American selections, rarely heard in concert, proved worthwhile. Amper dived into Henry Cowell’s “Tides of Manaunaun,” creating a vast rumble of waves on the elbow-to-fist left-hand clusters under an almost trite, vaguely Celtic right-hand melody. Amper grouped this daring work with more tonal selections, Edward MacDowell’s “Joy of Autumn” and Amy Beach’s “Honeysuckle” (from her collection “From Grandmother’s Garden”), the latter a sort of Chopinesque polonaise. The more demanding sections of Charles Griffes’s piano sonata were rough around the edges, including a couple of memory slips. But the “Thoreau” movement from Charles Ives’s “Concord” sonata had an idyllic dreaminess, wandering amid half-voiced echoes and wistful rhythmic freedom, albeit without the optional flute part that Ives added, a ghostly evocation of the instrument that Thoreau often played while boating on Walden Pond. [Continue reading]
Leslie Amper, piano
Lecture and Concert
National Gallery of Art

Screening of The New York Hat, a 16-minute silent short by D. W. Griffith, made just three years before The Birth of a Nation, starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore

Recital program:
Charles Griffes, Piano Sonata
Henry Cowell, The Tides of Manaunaun
Charles Macdowell, New England Idyls
Ives, Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840-60") -- fourth movement ("Thoreau")

From Thoreau's Flute by Louisa May Alcott:
"Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low, harmonious breath:
'For such as he there is no death;
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man's aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent
And turned to poetry life's prose'."


George Bellows @ NGA

Yesterday afforded the opportunity to take in the relatively new George Bellows retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. George Bellows (1882-1925) has been eclipsed in recent years by Edward Hopper, the other famous student of Robert Henri, who led what was later called the Ashcan School in New York. Hopper hit his stride in the late 20s, just around the time that Bellows died -- prematurely, from complications arising from a burst appendix -- when Bellows, in fact, seemed poised to make a breakthrough. What Bellows was able to create ranges from unforgettable to regrettable, and this exhibit of over a hundred prints, drawings, and paintings makes clear that it is perhaps not only for painting that he should be remembered.

Pierre Henri pushed his students to go back into art history beyond Impressionism, and the influence of Manet and the Realists weighs heavily in Bellows's work. The many fine lithographs and ink drawings in the exhibit are the best examples of how Bellows brought the satirical and political leanings of Daumier and the graphic shock tactics of Goya to his focus on the common man in New York City in the early 20th century. A well-meaning socialist, Bellows documented the squalor and hunger of the tenements like a journalist: the urchins in street fights or run-ins with the law, a brawl in Times Square on the night of a New York gubernatorial election, the grueling excavation to build Penn Station, hungry stray dogs prowling for scraps on a garbage heap, the hardships of prison, and the grim view of executions both state-sponsored and vigilante. Bellows achieved a Rembrandt-like intensity in many of these works, which he was not always able to transfer to paint, but he also crossed the border into bathos with a series of sensationalist propaganda images relating the human rights abuses perpetrated by German soldiers in Belgium in World War I.

Where Daumier loved the stage and performers of all kinds, it was the boxing ring that most memorably caught Bellows's eye. It was here that he was best able to catch in paint the newspaper-like immediacy he accomplished in lithographs, especially in Stag at Sharkey's, a boxing portrait that is one of his best paintings, grouped in the exhibit with two other less familiar boxing portraits and complimented by lots of print images on the subject (the NGA has quite a collection of the boxing works, including the lithograph of Stag at Sharkey's, which is even better than the painting). Bellows was also particularly moved by the plight of children in the poor neighborhoods of New York, a subject that he caught so memorably in the Corcoran's Forty-Two Kids, capturing the rubbery bodies of poor kids at the industrial river's edge with beautifully brushed loops and whorls of paint. The same subject is explored in a selection of other paintings from private collections and museum loans, including River Rats and Hals-like portraits of these tough-nosed urchins -- Paddy Flanigan and Frankie the Organ Boy (an orphan organ grinder) -- who might later become the blood-spattered pugilists of the private boxing clubs.

Other Reviews:

Peter Schjeldahl, Young and Gifted (The New Yorker, June 25)

---, Audio Slide Show: George Bellows (The New Yorker, June 21)

Rupert Cornwell, Streetwise scenes with plenty of punch (The Independent, June 18)

Philip Kennicott, National Gallery takes a holistic view of George Bellows’s art and career (Washington Post, June 7)

Kevin Nance, Another Round for a Realist Contender (Wall Street Journal, June 1)
Working in paint, Bellows seemed to be distracted by the possibilities of color, a part of what caused the linear clarity of his lithographic approach to become indistinct on canvas. The landscapes and seascapes in the show are beautifully composed but often unbalanced by the bright color palette: without the edgy subject matter, that love of the marginalized, Bellows lost his punch in most cases. The human figure likewise fared poorly under Bellows's brush, when a single body, and especially a single face, becomes the focus of a painting, at least until the final paintings of the 20s. In the works shown in the exhibit's final room, the influence of newer modernist styles was shaking up Bellows's approach.

The George Bellows exhibit will remain on view at the National Gallery of Art through October 8, after which it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (November 15, 2012, to February 18, 2013) and the Royal Academy of Arts in London (March 16 to June 9, 2013).


In Brief: Waldbühne Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond.

  • Watch René Jacobs lead Concerto Vocale, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the Konzertchor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin in Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo (or you can listen to audio only from France Musique). [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Listen to the finalists of the singing competition of the Concours Musical International de Montréal earlier this month, with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Alan Trudel. [France Musique]

  • Daniel Barenboim leads the Berlin Staatskapelle in Bruckner's fifth symphony at the Wiener Festwochen. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, pianist Makoto Ozone joins the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris under the direction of Thomas Zehetmair, for a concert of music by Haydn, Ravel, and Mozart. It concludes with Ozone's improvisations on themes by Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Festival Mozart at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Jérémie Rhorer leads an all-Mozart program with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, including the Coronation Mass. [France Musique]

  • More Mozart from the Festival de Saint-Denis, as Colin Davis conducts the Orchestre National de France and the Chœur de Radio France, in the Requiem Mass and other works. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Festival de Saint-Denis, the Chœur and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under the baton of Daniel Harding, perform Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht and Schubert's B-flat major Mass, D. 950. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Kyrill Karabits leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, in music of Rachmaninoff and Walton. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Charles Dutoit leads the Dresden Staatskapelle, with Yuja Wang as soloist, in music of Prokofiev, Debussy, and Respighi. [France Musique]

  • There is a new exhibit of work by Laurent Grasso at the Musée du Jeu de Paume: take a look at some images. [Le Monde]

  • Hear the Borodin Quartet play Tchaikovsky and Brahms at the Wiener Musikverein, as part of the Wiener Festwochen. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Live from the Parc André Citroën, a banner concert for the annual Fête de la Musique, with the Orchestre National de France. [France Musique]

  • A 1983 performance of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot in Munich, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Hermann Prey and Wolfgang Fassler. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From Les Chorégies d'Orange, a concert of operatic excerpts featuring Joseph Calleja and other singers with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. [France Musique]

  • From London last September, the Royal Opera's performance of Gounod's Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From Vienna last year, pianist Till Fellner and the Minetti String Quartet perform music by Dvořák, Szymanowski, and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Jean-Claude Casadesus and the Orchestre National de Lille celebrate the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy. On the menu are Le Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, La Mer, Les Nocturnes, and a suite version of the orchestral interludes that Debussy added to Pelléas et Melisande to cover scene changes. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Les Cris de Paris performs the world premiere of Johannes Maria Staud's Le voyage, as well as music by Jonathan Harvey and Marta Gentilucci. [France Musique]

  • Andris Nelsons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in today's annual outdoor concert at the Waldbühne, with music by Tchaikovsky including the fifth symphony and the 1812 Overture. The live broadcast begins at 2:15 pm EDT. [ARTE Live Web]


Briefly Noted: Chris Fitzgerald-Lombard

available at Amazon
Passiontide: Holy Week in the Courts of Europe, 1600-1745, C. Fitzgerald-Lombard, Apollo Baroque Consort,
J. Waggott

(released on June 12, 2012)
Convivium CR015 | 48'
The solo motet was one of the more important, and now less understood and known, genres of the the Baroque era, the sacred counterpart of the operatic aria. This little disc is a worthy debut for the recently formed ensemble known as the Apollo Baroque Consort, bringing together three longer works that are all mostly solo settings of important texts associated with Holy Week: the penitential psalm Miserere mei deus by Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726); the sequence Stabat mater dolorosa, in the Pianto della Madonna by Giovanni-Felice Sances (1600-1679), last heard on a recording by Philippe Jaroussky; and a section of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, proper to Good Friday, by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745). The composers' life spans cover most of the Baroque period and three different geographic and stylistic areas: the elegant and expressive French style, the more florid Italian, and the more polyphonic and complex German. The solo motet will work only with a beautiful voice that holds the ear, which this disc has in tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard, who founded Apollo Baroque Consort with Joe Waggott last year; Waggott ably provides most of the accompaniment on continuo organ (plus cello and theorbo), in keeping with the relatively simple style of the solo motet, sometimes in alternation with a small chorus. Only the Zelenka, the most complicated score by far, requires a larger, but still relatively small, consort of instruments. Minor technical blemishes (intonation, perhaps overdone French-inflected Latin in the Lalande) may limit my recommendation, but the combination of unusual repertoire and generally beautiful sound, recorded this past February at St. Alban the Martyr in Highgate, Birmingham, make for an accomplished debut.


Christian Gerhaher, Othmar Schoeck – A Love Story

On the occasion of Christian Gerhaher's release of Schoenberg's "The Book of the Hanging Gardens" (Sony, June 26 2012), here's a rescued and republished article from the WETA column:

What does “romantic” in music really mean? It is easy to use to describe music as ‘romantic’, precisely because it is such a broad concept that it is almost never wrong. From Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony via Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, to Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg, “romantic” is the word. Now add an organ symphony by Widor, ChopinÉtudes, a Tchaikovsky opera, a Rachmaninoff concerto… “romantic” all. It’s easy to see the phrase as a cop-out, even when enriched with clarifications like “French-” or “Classical-” or “late-romantic”. But it remains a ubiquitous phrase all the same, because it does have its uses. It’s at the very least a broadly common denominator that reader and the struggling music-journalist share. If the composer died before 1830 and his music is described as romantic we know not to expect some Amadeus-come-lately; if he was born after 1890 we need not fear strict atonality or aleatoric music.

Schoeck: Notturno – 1. Ruhig – Mertens & Minguet Quartet (excerpt)

Describing Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno (1931-33) as romantic is fairly useless in the sense that it won’t prepare one for what the music actually sounds like… it would mislead. But describing the work for string quartet and baritone (a rare combination very likely inspired by Schoenberg’s 1908 String Quartet op.10) as romantic is essential to understanding it. Notturno is the epitome of extreme, late romantic music; the squeezing of chromaticism and the stretching of our common harmonic understanding to, and often beyond, the breaking point.

Schoeck: Notturno – 2. Presto – Gerhaher & Rosamunde Quartet (excerpt)

The difference is similar to describing Webern’s Langsamer Satz as ‘romantic’ (it still, very obviously, is) and the contemporaneous Berg Sonata op.1 as ‘romantic’. (It certainly is, but not at all so obviously.) What makes the difference between perceiving Berg’s op.1 as an early exercise in pantonalism and perceiving it as an achingly beautiful, wistful romantic statement heavy with the airs of Viennese coffee-house atmosphere, is the ability to keep the notes ‘in the air’, in your RAM(Random Access Memory) if you will, and recall them when the notes that give them their proper context finally arrive. It’s chromatic, but with incredibly long, intertwined lines. I can think of no better analogy than a thoroughly constructed, impressive German sentence the length of two paragraphs (think Kant) where, to paraphrase Mark Twain, you won’t know the meaning until the writer, who dives into a sentence, emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb between his teeth.

Schoeck: Notturno – 3. Unruhig & Bewegt – Gerhaher & Rosamunde Quartet (excerpt)

available at AmazonO.Schoeck, Notturno,
C.Gerhaher / Rosamunde Quartet

available at AmazonO.Schoeck / R.Zechlin, Notturno / Hamlet Fragments,
K.Mertens / Minguet Quartet

If you hold out for the long elusive ‘verbs’ in Berg’s sonata, they will then fall into place and make harmonic sense where previously there was only dissonance. Now I can gainfully say that Notturnoought to be understood as a romantic work, namely in the sense of Berg’s op.1 or his Lyric Suite. Perhaps you know Schoeck’s Elegie, which might make the Swiss composer seem more like a pocket-sized Richard Strauss; Four-Last-Songs-au-miniature, with a shorter attention span and a sense of very amiable sameness. I likeElegie very much, but Notturno is a different caliber composition in every sense. Notturno pushes boundaries, while Elegie confirms them (from the safe side). Notturno is stern stuff for those expecting more Strauss than Berg, and when Christian Gerhaher and the Rosamunde Quartet performed the work at the Dachau Palace concert series two, three years back, there was a small but steady trickle of audience members who voted against Schoeck (1858-1947, James Joyce’s favorite composer) with their feet.

Schoeck: Notturno – 4. Ruhig & Leise – Mertens & Minguet Quartet (excerpt)

Schoeck would seem to please anyone who is also inclined to the likes of Raff,Rheinberger, Zemlinsky, Reznicek, Schreker, Pfitzner, Marx, Wellesz, Krenekand the like (I’m casting my net deliberately wide)… but Notturno, eight poems by Nikolaus Lenau and a short text by Gottfried Keller in five movements, flirts with the outer, ‘a-tonal’, harmonic reaches from a late-romantic vantage point. It is played with the utmost precision if those long horizontal lines are to be revealed, if the listener is to be able to follow the long, thin strands of music that wind through the score, emerging and submerging – in and out of audibility but with Schoeck’s melodiousness-stretched-to-vanishing always felt. To achieve this effect, the players must not count beats but ‘feel’ their way from phrase to phrase. At least that’s Schoeck’s hyper-romanticism in theory.

Schoeck: Notturno – 5. Rasch & Kräftig (Quasi Recit.) – Gerhaher & Rosamunde Quartet (excerpt)

It isn’t an easy work and the usually excellent, now defunct, Rosamunde Quartet was rather off that night at the Dachau concert, with the first violinist missing much of the potential beauty. But even so, it was obvious what a magnificent piece this is, once one has gotten (to) it. It’s of such fragile and faint beauty; it is so intense despite its thinly woven strands—moments in the fifth movement is as if suspended in mid-air—shimmering of all the colors of tearful yearning. Gerhaher and the quartet took their time in the recording process, and the result is devoid of the flaws the performance was held back by. Gerhaher, in any case, was and is perfect for the role. The dark subject and mood of the poem is right up his alley, and his extraordinarily unaffected voice means that it is only a small, effortless step to the sprechgesang that Notturno demands. That’s a step Gerhaher can go back and forth unnoticed, because he has hit upon artlessness as great art. Whether he is aware of it or not (I reckon the latter), he is unsurpassed at this.

It’s the inclusion of Gerhaher that possibly gives the ECM recording (#2 in the ionarts “Best of 2009“) a marginal edge over the splendid performance of the Minguet Quartet (who seem a bit more at ease with the ‘romantic’ strain inNotturno than the Rosamunde Quartet) with Klaus Mertens on the small and creative NCA (“New Classical Adventure”) label.

When I spoke to Christian Gerhaher on a wet and cold February afternoon in Salzburg in 2009, he had just finished the recording, but wasn’t sure when the disc would be released.”It’s difficult to place and market a recording like that because the work has only a small circle of admirers. But I think it turned out quite well and should be able to enthuse people. But I reckon that [ECM tries] to time it together with some concerts or small tours. Then again, touring with Schoeck is really almost inconceivable – it’s more likely going to be individual concerts here and there.”

available at AmazonO.Schoeck, Elegie,
Mutare Ensemble / K.Mertens

Gerhaher, who always seems stern and with a little black, troubling cloud hovering over him, has a somber enthusiasm all of his own, and he warms up – relatively speaking – talking about Notturno: “Schoeck’s music is unbelievably beautiful music, but it’s a difficult mix. All in all it’s late romantic music, but these melodies… melodically it’s a-tonal. Wrapping your ears around it takes a while; I don’t think you can grasp the work upon first hearing. It has immense depth and what is so great about it, looking at the temporal aspect, is how much time these movements get to develop. There’s a similar work of Schoeck’s, Elegie for chamber orchestra and baritone, which is roughly as long, perhaps even longer… but separated in oh-I-don’t-know-how-many movements. Twenty? Twenty-four? [24 is right.] And when you start splitting this comparable music into such small bits, it doesn’t quite manage to come across, I think. Well, I don’t cherish Elegie as much as Notturno at any rate. Notturno is an absolute solitaire – there is no comparable work. There are several lighter, brighter works of Schoeck, too… easily digestible songs, and then a few that dig deeper, too. But not that many… and none so immensely rasping and pricklish as the Notturno.”

Gerhaher continues on the topic, and even where it isn’t technically about Notturno, what he says (and how) is so felt, that one could neither interrupt him, nor now cut the ensuing plea for great art:

“Well, there’s an ‘Italian Songbook’ by Joseph Marx with the same lineup – including baritone – and Resphigi’s Tramonto, but that’s not really for baritone. Then there is Dover Beach of Barber, but those are all small pieces. And in any case, nothing is comparable to the Notturno. I don’t know the Marx yet, but I’m trying to get to know it at some point… perhaps it could be combined in concert with the Schoeck. Then again, that will probably be a futile exercise, too. It is really difficult to find something to build a program around Notturno. We’re now trying to perform it in the first half and then in the second half some Berg and Mahler and Berg again – Seven Early Songs, a few Mahler songs and then theAltenberg Lieder or – that was my idea – Haydn… But that’s pretty experimental, too: first of all to do the Altenberg Songs with piano… and then with a baritone, for which they lie awfully high. You just have to see what works. Maybe Schoenberg’s Book of Hanging Gardens. But that’ll be one of those programs where only a few people will show up, and with even fewer actually enjoying themselves.”

available at AmazonA.Schoenberg, Songs,
Glenn Gould & D.Gramm, E.Faull, H.Vanni, C.Opthof

available at AmazonSchoenberg, Beethoven, Berg, HaydnAn die Ferne Geliebte, Hanging Gardens et al.,
Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber

“That’s partly the trouble with all these borderline romantics… think Reger or Pfitzner: when you first lunge at it, there’s a lot of enthusiasm present… but after some scrutiny there remains less substance – for me personally – than one would like there to be left. It ends up not having quite the profundity nor – this something I love so much about the Notturno – this cyclical character. That’s the thing that you don’t find anywhere else. True, great cycles of that sort don’t exist anymore, anyway… Of genuine cycles that have a proper cyclical conception, that can sustain their idea and sustain the tension, there are soooo few around. I can only find a couple. They have to be a little longer than just a quarter hour, of course. I think a true, interesting cycle starts at around 20, 25 minutes. There are the William Blake songs of Britten, of course, which I sing with great enthusiasm, and they’re about fifteen minutes long and great… but that’s just short of the threshold of pain… but that’s precisely what it has to go beyond.

That’s why I think Schoenberg’s Book of Hanging Gardens, about which Adorno said that it intends to seduce one to the cause of new music, is one of the last great, truly great and important cycles. And that’s leaving aside the fact that the love story – or rather: not-love story – it tells is so incredibly fascinating. And Stefan George, who is my far-and-away favorite poet (or at least the poet I can most relate to), depicts it in such a stirring and aptly poignant way. That the homosexual George of all people, surrounded by a largely male – though not necessary homosexual – circle of friends, could fall in love with a woman; a woman who, on top of everything else, found him repulsive… With this unbelievable idea of him having fallen in love with a woman in the first place, George was sort of simultaneously offended and puzzled by himself – and, crowning that, being turned down… that’s one or two levels removed from your average love story. It’s fascinating and unbelievably well depicted in these 15 songs. This parallel story of not being able to sort things out and how in the end it gets infused with true peace: Fascinating indeed!”

Schoenberg: Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten - G.Gould, J.DeGaetani & G.Kalish – Hain in diesen paradiesen

If perhaps second in fascination to Schoeck’s Notturno.