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


Glimmerglass: 'Armide'

available at Amazon
Lully, Armide, G. Laurens, H. Crook, V. Gens, Collegium Vocale, La Chapelle Royale, P. Herreweghe
Charles T. Downey, Glimmerglass scores with a colorful, sumptuous “Armide” (The Classical Review, July 29)
Baroque opera, thankfully, is flourishing at the Glimmerglass Festival. The willingness to stage operas from the century and a half before Mozart — Monteverdi, Handel, Purcell, Gluck, and Cavalli have all been featured since 1994 — is part of what brought the company to greater prominence.

The name of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was added to that list this year, with a sumptuously beautiful staging of Armide, heard Sunday afternoon, that was the high point of an otherwise mixed season. The production was imported from Toronto’s Opera Atelier and its fine Baroque ballet company, a smart decision for the realization of the ballet music, so crucial to the Lullian style.
[Continue reading]

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Armide (new critical edition by Lois Rosow, 2003)
With Peggy Kriha Dye, Colin Ainsworth, Atelier Ballet
Directed by Marshall Pynkoski
Glimmerglass Festival and Atelier Opera

This production continues through August 23.

Heidi Waleson, Cooperstown Home Run (Wall Street Journal, July 31)

David Abrams, Lully: Armide (Musical Criticism, July 29)

Mike Silverman, Waterboarding 'Aida,' buoyant 'Music Man' (Associated Press, July 16)


Glimmerglass: 'Lost in the Stars'

available at Amazon
Weill, Lost in the Stars, G. Hopkins,
A. Woodley, Orchestra of St. Luke's,
J. Rudel
Charles T. Downey, Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” proves a bit lost itself at Glimmerglass (The Classical Review, July 29)
After many seasons mounting four operas each summer, the Glimmerglass Festival is presenting only two operas this year, while it spends the other half of its budget on musicals. Glimmerglass’s flirtation with musicals began in 2008 — not counting Gilbert and Sullivan operettas earlier in its history — with a staging of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. That was prior to the tenure of Francesca Zambello as artistic director, but she has pledged to stage a musical each season, beginning with Annie, Get Your Gun last year and continuing this year with The Music Man. To make matters worse for opera fans, the fourth production this summer is Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, the last musical that Kurt Weill managed to complete for Broadway in the final phase of his multifaceted career. If the trend continues this way, Glimmerglass is on its way to becoming a sort of glorified summer stock theater. Nothing wrong with summer stock musicals, if you like that sort of thing, but it is a step in the wrong direction for an opera festival seeking an international reputation.
[Continue reading]

Kurt Weill, Lost in the Stars
With Eric Owens and Sean Panikkar
Directed by Tazewell Thompson
Glimmerglass Festival

This production continues through August 25.


Glimmerglass: 'Aida'

available at Amazon
Verdi, Aida, M. Caballé, P. Domingo, New Philharmonia Orchestra, R. Muti
Charles T. Downey, A fine “Aida” cast gets water-boarded by clumsy staging at Glimmerglass (The Classical Review, July 29)
Nestled on the idyllic shores of New York’s picturesque Otsego Lake, between the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains and just north of Cooperstown, is the home of the Glimmerglass Festival. With a relatively brief but distinguished 20-year history, this summer festival came under the artistic direction of the American opera director Francesca Zambello in 2010. She opened her second season, quite ambitiously, with Verdi’s Aida, the grandest of grand operas.
[Continue reading]

Verdi, Aida
With Michelle Johnson, Noah Stewart, Eric Owens
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Glimmerglass Festival

In Brief: Green Hill Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.)

  • Listen to the performance of Der Fliegende Holländer, the one that was supposed to have featured Evgeny Nikitin, from the opening of the Bayreuth Festival. [France Musique]

  • At the Verbier Festival, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande with Magdalena Kožená and Stéphane Degout. []

  • Alexander Verdernikov conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a performance of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836) at the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon. [France Musique]

  • Christophe Rousset conducts Lully's Phaëton at the Festival de Beaune, to go along with the Pergolesi Seven Last Words with René Jacobs (embedded above). [ARTE Live Web]

  • Watch Andrea Moses's modern production of Don Giovanni, from the Staatsoper Stuttgart. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Listen to a 1971 recording of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, from London, with Beverly Sills and Eileen Farrell. Aldo Ceccato conducts the London Philharmonic. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • French conductor Philippe Jordan, music director at the Opéra national de Paris, will make his debut at the Bayreuth Festival today, conducting Parsifal. Christian Merlin caught up with him to get his thoughts on being called up the Green Hill, a place he did not really want to go until he conducted the Ring cycle in Paris. "That was when I decided I had to get to know the acoustic of the place for which this music was composed," he said. "I found the place fascinating: the silence that reigns there, the tranquility of nature, the simplicity, the childish spirit, almost of summer camp." No sense of snobbery? Merlin asked. "Oh non, ce n'est pas Salzbourg!" [Le Figaro]

  • Watch Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud play a recital of music by Debussy and Scarlatti, at the Verbier Festival. []

  • Also from Verbier, watch Paul McCreesh conduct a performance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. []

  • Pianist Nicholas Angelich plays three Beethoven sonatas, in Jerwood Hall, St Luke's. [France Musique]

  • Get a look at these etchings by Max Klinger (1857-1920), now on exhibit at the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg, through September 16. [Le Monde]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Fazil Say, including his famous transcription of Stravinsky's Petruchka, from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon, the Quatuor Zaïde performs music by Hindemith, Matthias Pintscher, and Beethoven. [France Musique]

  • Olivier Dubois scored a success with his choreography Tragédie at the Avignon Festival, featuring 18 nude dancers. [Le Monde]

  • The viol consort Sit Fast performs at the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon, including a few movements from Bach's Art of Fugue. [France Musique]

  • The Quintette Aquilon plays music for winds by Cambini, Mozart, Anton Reicha, and Jacques Ibert, from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon. [France Musique]


Glimmerglass: Let's Put on a Show!

One of the more recent summer opera festivals in the northeast is Glimmerglass, with a rural theater outside of Cooperstown, N.Y. Styling itself the Glimmerglass Festival since last season, one of the changes instituted by current artistic and general director Francesca Zambello, who was appointed in the fall of 2010. Since the late 1980s, when it opened a new theater, Glimmerglass has presented three or four operas each summer, and a quick look through the company's production history shows an adventurous spirit. Operas from the 20th century and from the 17th and 18th centuries were represented, alongside some audience favorites, a recipe that has worked quite well for Santa Fe Opera and other companies. This season, however, Glimmerglass is presenting only two operas, Verdi's grand opera Aida (ambitious) and Lully's Armide (esoteric). The other half of its budget is being spent on musicals.

available at Amazon
Verdi, Aida, M. Caballé, P. Domingo, New Philharmonia Orchestra, R. Muti

available at Amazon
Weill, Lost in the Stars, G. Hopkins,
A. Woodley, Orchestra of St. Luke's,
J. Rudel

available at Amazon
Lully, Armide G. Laurens, H. Crook, V. Gens, Collegium Vocale, La Chapelle Royale, P. Herreweghe

available at Amazon
Noah, Noah Stewart
(not recommended)
Glimmerglass's flirtation with musicals began in 2008, with a staging of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (not counting some Gilbert and Sullivan operettas earlier in its history). That was prior to the tenure of Francesca Zambello as artistic director, but she has perpetuated the bad decision since last season with Annie, Get Your Gun, pledging to stage a musical each season and continuing this year with The Music Man. To make matters worse, the fourth production this summer is Lost in the Stars, the last musical that Kurt Weill managed to complete for Broadway in the final phase of his multifaceted career (an adaptation of Huck Finn, sadly left unfinished). If the trend continues this way, Glimmerglass is on its way to becoming a sort of glorified summer stock theater -- indeed, some people already think of it that way. (The plans for the 2013 season show again two operas, plus Nathan Gunn in Camelot and a mixed double-bill of David Lang's brilliant Little Match Girl Passion and Pergolesi's setting of the Stabat mater.) Nothing wrong with a summer stock theater producing musicals, if you like that sort of thing, but it is a step in the wrong direction for an opera festival seeking an international reputation.

Julius Rudel championed Lost in the Stars at the New York City Opera, and his recording with the Orchestra of St. Luke's is still worth hearing. Weill created the title role for Todd Duncan: the original cast recording, premiered on Broadway in 1949, is still available from Decca. Maxwell Anderson adapted the libretto from Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), set in South Africa, and the story of black life finally satisfied Weill's desire to write an opera for black characters (supposedly dating back to the period after his arrival in New York, when he saw a dress rehearsal of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess). Critic Howard Taubman panned the City Opera revival in the New York Times, not on the grounds that it was a musical, but because it was "more play than opera," adding that "Weill's score rarely probes beneath the surface." As Taubman put it, the score "rarely adds the depth and compassion that it can and should bring to a big theme."

Aida, the grandest of grand operas, can actually work in a small-scale production, as Virginia Opera showed last season. The Glimmerglass production by Francesca Zambello, which updates the story to recent events in a modern Islamic country, brings together two rising African-American singers -- soprano Michelle Johnson and tenor Noah Stewart -- with a more established one -- bass-baritone Eric Owens. Johnson won the Grand Prize at the Met Council Auditions last year. She was reportedly put on vocal rest at the start of the run, replaced by Adina Aaron for the first three performances. The trouble may have been partly due to having taken on the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut with Opera Company of Philadelphia, during time she told one interviewer she had planned "to start preparing more diligently" for Aida, but she is now back in the title role. Her Radamès is Noah Stewart, whose good looks and rags-to-riches story have made him PR gold, with news outlets of all kinds falling over themselves to interview him. He has an embarrassingly corny crossover album out from Decca this month, which has done brisk business in its U.K. release, and a contract to make more recordings.

The slot for Baroque opera at Glimmerglass has happily been maintained, with an all too rare staging of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide, without a doubt the most successful and popular French opera of the 17th century. In regular revivals in Paris, it continued to be influential and beloved in Paris through the 18th century, inspiring composers in the debate between gluckistes and piccinnistes, for example. We have had only one opportunity to review the opera live, with Opera Lafayette, a concert performance that was later released as a live recording. This co-production between Glimmerglass and Toronto's Opera Atelier brings with it some singers and musicians from Canada, which may have been partially to account for the last-minute renegotiation of the Glimmerglass Orchestra's contract. Thoughts on three of the productions, not including The Music Man, are forthcoming.


A Century of Toys and More @ MoMA

In 1900, Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key published Century of the Child, a manifesto for change -- social, political, aesthetic, and psychological -- that presented the universal rights and well-being of children as the defining mission of the century to come.
Those were the days, at the turn of the last century, when children were adults and brought home a pay check -- or a coin. The youngsters felt good about themselves, responsible, after a 14-hour day at the factory. That was until we started thinking of them as "children." Young individuals with minds and bodies to be cultivated: strong minds, strong bodies -- the future of nations. If we could streamline the production of goods, why not mass education and a little indoctrination while you're at it. Let's also design environments, furniture, games, curriculum, and uniforms.

Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000, now showing at the Museum of Modern Art and organized by curator Juliet Kinchin and curatorial assistant Aidan O’Connor, give what for many visitors may be a flashback -- sorry that doesn't come until the 60s, galleries full of memories -- as it did for me.

With Ellen Key, along with education pioneers Maria Montessori and Friedrich Froebel, came the idea of a childhood as separate and distinct: a child's mind was pure and with simple measures could be encouraged through experiences, to blossom into a creative, modern being. As Picasso supposedly put it, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Artists longed for a child's purity, intellectuals wrote of children's rights and welfare, designers embraced a dream world of furniture, clothing, and toys. Europe and the United States -- Chicago, Glasgow, Rome, Vienna, and Budapest -- had some of the original experiential living communities. The future was limitless.

Of course adults always tend to get in the way of purity: enter the oh so boring Fascists attempting to create little perfect little war clones with propaganda and lots of marching. You know the drill, kind of like today's North Korean May Day parade or the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Thankfully, a different "greatest generation" prevailed.

After World War II in the Western world the movement continued with the enlightenment of the Boomers: boys could be astronauts and girls could be homemakers. Erector Sets and Etch-a-sketch, Easy Bake Ovens, Hula-Hoops, Lego's and Slinkys bring us towards the end of the century, which also includes Gary Panter's fantastic set for The Pee-wee Herman Show.

Are we better off? In many ways, yes. For many complex reasons the enlightened movement has gone astray. Children have not taken control of every family (a trend that anthopologists are studying), although they are now the major consumers in a typical Western family and the focus of intense marketing. The concept of play includes way too much electronics and our education system is in disarray.

The 21st century has much promise. We need to regain our role as adults and stoke the vision of a society that could be. It takes a lot of dedication, just as it did at the turn of the last century. We have no future without quality education for all and basic human rights for children the world over! This wonderful exhibit is a reminder.

More images on Flickr.


À mon chevet: 'Pauline Kael'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
With all of the enthusiasm New Yorkers showed for the movies, it wasn't surprising that the activities of the New York Film Critics Circle were more frequently reported than they had been in years. Pauline was, by 1970, an integral member, having been admitted in 1968, following her appointment at The New Yorker. When it was founded in 1935, the NYFCC had been composed of newspaper critics only, but over time, the membership restrictions had been relaxed to include prominent magazine reviewers as well. From its inception the NYFCC had earned a reputation for going its own way, its members being less susceptible to a movie's box-office standing than were the voting members of the Motion Picture Academy. As far back as the 1940s, the NYFCC sometimes awarded top prizes to performers not even nominated in that year's Oscar race -- Ida Lupino in The Hard Way, Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. Pauline believed it was important to uphold the integrity of the group, as she believed that a good critic's review was the only genuine truth on which moviegoers could depend: Everything else, she was fond of saying, was nothing but advertising in one form or another.

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, p. 143
That problem has only gotten worse, in my opinion, as blogs and tweets from performers, performance organizations, actors, studios, and so on have become part of a massive PR assault on listeners of music and viewers of movies. These resources can be entertaining reads, of course, and I read many of them, but I am uncomfortable with what they represent, as they can have a powerful influence on the opinion of the very public to whom they are hoping to sell their products.
"At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. [...] There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. [...] Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?"

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, p. 178
Kellow took that quotation from Pauline Kael's review of A Clockwork Orange, published in 1971, but almost everything that she said in that review is still true, and the violence portrayed in film and television has become many times more disgusting. Kael was one of the few critics of the time who did not heap praise on A Clockwork Orange, a film I have always found gruesome and unrewarding -- worse, unenlightening -- to watch. Kael did not care for Terrence Malick's Badlands either, and she had to stand firm to get her opinion into the pages of The New Yorker:
[Pauline] was bored, however, by Badlands, which she judged to be yet another oppressively sour film about the dead end of American life, with no ray of light and not much humor. She found this study of two killers named Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in flight through the Plains states "an intellectualized movie -- shrewd and artful, carefully styled to sustain its low-key view of dissociation. Kit and Holly are kept at a distance, doing things for no explained purpose; it's as if the director had taped gauze over their characters, so that we wouldn't be able to take a reading on them." Badlands wasn't playful enough for Pauline; the violence had no comic edge to it, and she was bound to tire of Holly's "poetic" voice-over narration.

Her review, however, caused her unexpected difficulties with William Shawn. When he read her March 8, 1974, column while it was in production, he cornered her in The New Yorker offices. Terrence Malick was a Harvard friend of Shawn's son, Wallace. Shawn said, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me."

"Tough shit, Bill," Pauline answered.

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, pp. 212-13
That is a critic with balls.

Nathan Heller, What She Said: The Doings and Undoings of Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, October 24, 2011)


Bayreuth and its Swastikas - Dutchman Overboard

updated, 7.26.12

Today the Bayreuth Festival opens its gates with The Flying Dutchman, broadcast live on BR Klassik. The Dutchman will be sung by the German-based South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn. It might well be best to hear the broadcast of this performance, rather than see it in the theater, since Mr. Youn (vocally fine, dramatically nothing to write home about) was cast last minute, and can’t possibly have mastered all the finer points of the production that had planned and rehearsed with Evgeny Nikitin for months and weeks.

Evgeny Nikitin, of course, has been asked by the Festival’s direction to voluntarily withdraw from the production after the Wagner sisters became aware that others had become aware that Nikitin once sported fascist-looking tattoos on his chest—grainy old footage of which had been shown on the German state television program “aspekte”.

It’s just a short 4-minute introductory mini-feature, presenting Nikitin as a new kind of punk-Dutchman, the first Russian to take on a leading role at Bayreuth in the Festival’s history. It’s an account of how much this meant to Nikitin, how far he has come in becoming a tame and responsible 4138-year old, and how unusual his background as a heavy-metal drummer is for a Wagnerian singer. And then, a good minute into the report, there is a 14 second clip that shows the young Nikitin working his drum kit, with what seems to be an obscured swastika tattooed on the upper right part of his chest. Fourteen seconds that may have seriously dented his career, and certainly destroyed his dreams of singing in Bayreuth, because in their clumsy attempt to pre-empt a scandal that might reflect badly on them, the Festival asked him to recuse himself. Because goodness knows, Bayreuth mustn’t be associated in any way with swastikas. It didn’t help that in the following segment—talking about his tattoos generally, not specifically about those that allow Third Reich associations—he called his youthful excesses “good, crazy things”.

On the surface, it’s an understandable reaction of the Festival administration, and one is glad that there's a (publically paraded) sensitivity in Bayreuth about matters Third Reich. At last. Symbolism has consequences. But if Bayreuth had a clean conscience itself, they might have been able to argue common sense for keeping Nikitin on: “No longer extant tattoo”, “Follies of Youth”, “Different cultural sensibility in 1990s Russia”. If their decision is understandable, it’s still unfortunate in every way and it is troublingly hypocritical.

Never mind the irony that Evgeny Nikitin would be the first baritone with a swastika tattoo who is not allowed to sing in Bayreuth. But all the opera houses that have worked with Nikitin knew about his tattoos, and presumably even about how they looked before Nikitin had them covered and altered to the point where they have long stopped being specifically offensive. Nikitin, no one suggests otherwise, is well above harboring any right-wing or fascist tendencies. The level-headed Munich State Opera Intendant Nikolaus Bachler, who has worked with Nikitin in Wagner, suggested that the half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier are pointing the finger at someone else, “because they have a problem with their own history. Nikitin is not only sorry about the incident, but has also shown remorse; the kind of remorse that I have never heard come from the Wagner family in the last 50 years.” (Nordbayerischer Kurier) “How hypocritical that the Wagner-family, of all, sets about punishing the foolishness of a sixteen year old who has long since tried to make that undone.”

Christian Thielemann, de-facto music director in Bayreuth, wasn’t going to bite the Wagner hand that feeds him (meagerly), but his defense of their decision seems unenthused (“A swastika is a no-go, not just in Bayreuth”), and his purported criticism of Nikitin tempered. He suggests that Nikitin should not have answered the question about whether he sported a swastika tattoo with “No”, but with “there was one, once, but it’s since been covered up”… after which he went on to attack Nikitin’s management for not handling the case professionally and letting their client go right to the slaughter. (BZ)

In a statement issued via the Mariinsky Theater’s website, Nikitin (or a spokesperson doing it for him) suggests, not entirely believably, that his body featured and features ‘Scandinavian runes from the time of his heavy metal days, during which he was fascinated by the Norse epics’ and that the would-be swastika wasn’t a swastika at all. (Though it would fit right in with the gratuitously–purposefully provocative, Nordic/Mythological affectations or a rebellious teen who found refuge in the heavy-metal subculture while studying to be an opera singer on the side.)

Apart from the political hoopla, Nikitin’s departure is an immense dramatic and vocal loss to the production. His superb Herald (Munich, 2009) and a very fine Telramund (Munich, 2011), a much younger Fasolt (Met, 2004), or Napoleon (Mariinsky @ Kennedy Center, 2010) all suggested great things.  Understandably, the director of this year’s Bayreuth Dutchman, the braggadocio youngster Jan Philipp Gloger, is miffed. To lose his principal actor after weeks and weeks of intensive work a few days before the premiere is a blow to his and his team’s work, just in time for the premiere that means much also to his career. The damage to the production, he had let it made known in a terse statement, is immense and unfixable.

As he had told Klaus Kalchschmid in an interview for the Almanach of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, his work heavily depends on the singer material he works with: “[Meeting singers well before rehearsals start] is a luxury we afforded ourselves. Very early on I met with Mr. Nikitin, Mme. Pieczonka [Senta],  and Mr. König [Erik]. It’s exceptionally important to work off real people, whether they are singers or actors. Costume designer Karin Jud added: “We can’t possibly separate the way we imagine a character from the individual that is going to embody it. That’s why one of us has to meet them beforehand. You have to know them to at least some degree.” And Dramaturg Sophie Becker piped up: “We don’t do concept-costumes that try to forcefully tell a story without regard to who is stuck wearing it.”

Well, now he and the audience will have to deal with precisely that, just because their baritone of choice was once an idiotic Russian teen, and because the Bayreuth administration lacks confidence, assurance, and grace—a tradition even more deeply rooted in the Festival than swastikas.


Apparently the largest Germany tabloid, BILD, had threatened to make the tattoo story public and a big, juicy front-page issue on the day of the festival opening (when all the politicians, including chancellor and almost the entire Bavarian cabinet, are coming), which put additional pressure on the Festival Administration to 'solve' the issue. That heightens their conflict, but doesn't change anything.

Rumors that the tattoo story was just an excuse (!?) to get rid of Nikitin for other reasons -- related or not to the fact that no rehearsal audio or pictures of Nikitin were released -- are flying about, but as of yet I've not found them credible.

Tanglewood at 75

available at Amazon
Schoenberg / Liszt, Piano Concertos, E. Ax, Philharmonia Orchestra, E.-P. Salonen

available at Amazon
Ives, Three Places in New England (chamber orch. version), Boston Symphony Orchestra, M. Tilson Thomas

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Petruchka (1911 version), New York Philharmonic, P. Boulez
Charles T. Downey, Tanglewood continues its traditions with student musicians tackling Ives (The Classical Review, July 24)
In 1936, members of the Tappan family donated their estate in the Berkshires to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Under the guidance of music director Serge Koussevitzky, the Tanglewood summer festival was born, officially 75 years ago this August. The organization is celebrating the anniversary with a new digital streaming audio project, offering 75 historic performances from Tanglewood for online listening and purchase.

While the festival remembers its past, the tradition continues, with an orchestra full of talented young musicians in residence at the Tanglewood Music Center, where they study with members of the BSO. On Monday night, the students played the third of four weekly concerts, this time under guest conductor Stefan Asbury in Seiji Ozawa Hall.

Not one to let the kids down easy, Asbury led a daunting program by any professional standard. They responded with sparkling energy and vitality, and more than their share of poise in the face of pressure. If the evening had an air of the carnival about it, it was because two of the most famous orchestral evocations of the chaotic fair began and concluded the concert.

An almost imperceptible whoosh of sound began Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England, with blurred chords undulating under the soft quotations of tunes evoking the Civil War, an elegiac tribute to the soldiers commemorated in the portrait of Colonel Shaw’s regiment by Augustus St. Gaudens. The middle movement was as boisterous and multiphonic as the dream-memory of the Fourth of July picnic that inspired it, with its clash of quoted patriotic tunes and out-of-sync bands. The third movement, a tribute to a walk Ives enjoyed with his new bride along the Housatonic River — which has its source not far from Tanglewood — rolled tidally, a sort of American Rhine music of soft chords and burbling woodwinds. Although not all of the members of the vast orchestra performed fluently — and not only in the ways that Ives intended — there was plenty of gusto in the big crescendos. [Continue reading]
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Ives, Three Places in New England
Schoenberg, Piano Concerto, op. 42 (with Emanuel Ax, piano)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911 version)
Stefan Asbury, conductor
Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood

James R. Oestreich, Tanglewood’s Archival Magic Still Casts a Spell (New York Times, June 28)


Dip Your Ears, No. 122 (Kuijken's Third Brandenburgs)

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
S.Kuijken / La Petite Bande
Accent SACD

In a way Sigiswald Kuijken’s honest liner notes (set in the beautiful rotis font) are the best thing about this recording. They start out by putting the phrases “original” and “authentic” in deserving quotation marks. Then they continue acknowledging that neither of those things are in any way truly possible in musical performance, and that the state of performance and listening is always, necessarily in flux. But that’s not to say that anyone should stop trying to bring new or fresh-old ideas to this music, and Kuijken does just that.

Kuijken had already recorded the Brandenburg Concertos twice before he set out to record them yet again in 2009: First in 1977 on SEON/Sony (v.1, v.2) with Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Brüggen, then again in 1994 for DHM/MBG with his group, La Petite Bande. The improvement in period instrument (PI) performance since the 70s and even 90s has been significant and might merit a new recording alone, but Kuijken implements other changes, too. For one, he uses a true, valve- and hole-less trumpet in the Second Concerto and he has the man to do it—Jean-François Madeuf. For the violoncello part, Kuijken uses a violoncello da spalla (a.k.a. viola pomposa) with which he also recorded the Cello Suites (see Dip Your Ears, No. 111 (Bach and the Viola Pomposa)

They are the most chamber-music like of Kuijken’s Brandenburgs yet, with that crisp, uncompromising attack that makes his one-year cantata cycle on the same label such a thrilling proposition. (See Best Recordings of 2009 - "Almost List" & Best Recordings of 2010 (# 7).) But the thrill isn’t maintained throughout as swaying, temperate speeds introduce mellower tones. The natural horns that sound nowhere as secure as those of Richard Egarr who, along with Jordi Savall, takes a similar lilt-infected, warm, unhurried approach. (This as opposed to the admittedly exciting, unrelenting citius, altius, fortius style of Alessandrini and Il Giardino Armonico.) Le Petite Bande’s performance is pleasure and a treat, but Egarr—whose recording since originally reviewing it in 2009 has only risen in my estimation—remains the current top-choice for non-aggressively purling PI Brandenburgs.

Nine Years of Ionarts

The improbable experiment of Ionarts was born nine years ago today, in the prehistory of the blogosphere when few people knew what I was talking about when I said I was starting a blog. In that time we have published over 5,400 articles, at least one per day and often more than that. In response, dear readers, you have posted over 4,400 comments, most thoughtful, some thoughtless, some kind, others brash. At the time of this writing, these pages have been visited almost 3 million times, and you have read from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Since adding a Twitter feed to the arsenal (pace, Bob Shingleton), we have sent over 2,800 tweets of news and other tidbits. We thank you for reading: your devotion has raised Ionarts, according to one ranking (whatever), to the exalted place of No. 6 among classical music blogs. Not too shabby. Now -- as you were.

Bellini @ Caramoor

available at Amazon
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, A. Baltsa, E. Gruberova, Royal Opera House, R. Muti

(re-released on November 9, 2010)
DG 477 8031 | 2h10
Charles T. Downey, Caramoor presents a historically scrupulous yet vocally uneven “Capuleti” (The Classical Review, July 22)
The Bel Canto opera series at the Caramoor Festival, situated on a sprawling country estate near Katonah, New York, is generally one of the high points of the summer opera season in the Northeast. The music director, Will Crutchfield, chooses rarities from 19th-century Italy, presented with scholarly attention to the score and often with excellent casts.

The main attraction of this Caramoor season was a rare staging of Rossini’s early opera Ciro in Babilonia, presented earlier this month in the 200th year after its premiere and featuring the outstanding Polish mezzo-soprano Ewa Podleś. That performance was produced in conjunction with the Rossini Opera Festival, in Pesaro, Italy, where it will travel next month.

By comparison, the second opera, Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi — performed in Caramoor’s usual semi-staged concert format and heard on Saturday night — was a less starry affair. Still, Bellini’s 1830 take on the classic story of Romeo and Juliet — bearing little relation to the version by William Shakespeare — is enough of a rarity to warrant interest. [Continue reading]
Vincenzo Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi (better in the critical edition, not online)
Caramoor Festival

Charles T. Downey, Caramoor: Capulets and Montagues (Ionarts, July 20)

Steve Smith, Uncovering the Roots of an Oft-Told Love Story (New York Times, July 23)


In Brief: Summer Festival Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.)

  • You can listen to a rare performance of Jules Massenet's Thérèse (1907), from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon, with Johann Christoph Vogel's Démophon (1788) as an appetizer. [France Musique]

  • The Verbier Festival gets under way this week: coming up are performances by Elisabeth Leonskaja, Alexandre Tharaud, Denis Matsuev, and more. []

  • Jérémie Rhorer leads violinist Julien Chauvin and Le Cercle de l’Harmonie in an all-Mozart concert, from the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. [France Musique]

  • William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's opera David et Jonathas, at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. [France Musique]

  • Paul Agnew, in his new role as conductor, leads Les Arts Florissants in excerpts from five Baroque operas, also at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. [France Musique]

  • Don't forget that it is also time from the Proms -- listen to the latest performances from the Royal Albert Hall in London. [BBC Proms]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Luka Geniusas, winner of the Second Prize at the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Yes, he plays Chopin but also music of Anton Reicha, Hindemith, and Alexey Sergunin (b. 1988). [France Musique]

  • From the Styriarte Festival, the Zemlinsky Quartet performs music by Dvořák. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Lutenist Thomas Dunford plays music of John Dowland and contemporary composer Jules Matton (b. 1988), from the Festival de Radio France Montpellier-Languedoc Roussillon. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Styriarte Festival, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor performs sacred music by J. S. Bach and sons. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Finally, congratulations to Yekwon Sunwoo, who weathered this year's Kapell Competition to take First Prize, followed by Jin Uk Kim (Second Prize), and Steven Lin (Third Prize). [2012 William Capell International Piano Festival]

Adolf Busch’s Brandenburg Concertos

Recordings can be a stark reminder how time flies. It didn’t seem that long ago that historically informed performances of, say, the Brandenburg Concertos, still had an air of novelty about them. Now the first HIP recordings could be considered historical. Formerly progressive approaches - first Richter, then Rilling – strike one as old-fashioned, and what once were historical recordings seem downright ancient. That contrast could not have been made more clear with one of the most recent and one of the oldest recordings of these Brandenburg concertos appearing on my desk at the same time.

Richard Egarr’s recording with his Academy of Ancient Musick on Harmonia Mundi represents the latest in HIP Bach (see YouTube video) and is reviewed here. EMI’s re-issue of the 1935/36 recordings of Adolf Busch and his Busch Chamber Players (made at the Abbey Road Studios in London) stands at the other extreme. That said, Busch & Co. could be said to have been the HIPsters of their time.

Direct comparison is telling and interesting, but useless when it comes to deciding whether they are competitive releases. The purposes are different. No one will or should get a 70+ year old recording as the first or only recording of these works, even one where the sound is as decent as on these newly re-mastered discs. Busch operates outside the competition or, rather, within the historic division which includes Alfred Cortot and his École Normal de Musique - the first recording of all six concertos, also on EMI Classics - as the obvious competitor. You can perhaps count Pablo Casals’ 1950 Prades Festival recording (Pearl ) or his Marloboro Festival Recordings (Sony, 1-3, 4-6) in the same company.

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Overtures,
Adolf Busch / Busch Chamber Players

What does state of the art 1935 sound mean in 2009? Well, it means “perfectly listenable”. It means that all the necessary musical and interpretive information is easily communicated. It means that the re-mastering did not have to zap the recording’s soul to leave us with the kind of minimal background hiss that does not cause quick listening fatigue... in other words: a quality that still beats listening to (non digital) radio by a good margin.

My impression of the Busch recording was bemused skepticism at first. It has, upon a few more listens, changed to bemused admiration and casual joy. I don’t see myself becoming zealous about this recording, but the felt and warm urgency of the music-making combined with the glory that is Bach induces a broad smile. The First Concerto might open with an Allegro that our spoiled ears find staid, but at the very latest when we reach the galloping Third Concerto (played one-to-a-part by Busch’s proto-HIPsters!) it becomes clear that Busch and his friends were, when playing Bach, not bound by the traditions of their time. How much of a Bach playing tradition was there, anyway, in these works? Nor are they shackled to the interpretive styles then associated with other music.

Sure, there are ‘anachronisms’ here and there - and a few off-notes - but this is miles away from the British “bigger-is-better” Handel oratorio style that occasionally spilled over to Bach’s choral works around that time. What Karl Richter was to Bach performance in the 1960s, Busch must have been in the 1930s. The Busch Players used viola da gambas and George Eskdale played on a Bach trumpet he had made. Only Busch’s son-in-law - Rudolf Serkin – opted for a concert grand rather than a harpsichord.

In the thoughtful new liner-notes, Tully Potter suggests that knowing the dreary big-band performances that Busch was reacting against would heighten our appreciation especially of the novelty of these interpretations. More important for me, Busch’s relative modernity allows us to hear much of what was different in the musical approach to Bach in that time without having to hear all that which was unambiguously worse. It's like opening a page of a history book to which we can still relate enough for it to be meaningful.

I find slightly less appeal in the old-style Orchestral Suites that are also included on this three disc set, but for curiosity’s sake alone they’re a fine bonus.

The Brandenburg Concertos on ionarts:

Dip Your Ears, No. 122 (Kuijken's Third Brandenburgs) [23.7.12]

Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concertos [21.7.12]

Best Recordings of 2010 (# 8) [10.12.10]

More Brandenburgs, Top Shelf (Part 1) [9.8.10]

Savall's Brandenburgs [7.8.10]

Brandenburg Concertos, Part 1 [11.3.09]

Brandenburg Concertos, Part 2 [25.3.09]

Old School Brandenburgs [21.12.07]

Trever Pinnock: Bach Again, at 61 [14.12.07]

Dip Your Ears, No. 75 (Loussier's Brandenburgs) [26.1.07]


Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concertos

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Brandenburg Concertos,
R.Egarr / Academy of Ancient Music
Harmonia Mundi

Recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are ample; deducting for duplications and compilations, ArkivMusic lists about 50 available complete versions. Most of them could be lumped into two categories: Historically Informed Performances (HIP), and ‘old fashioned performances’. Of course that’s a gross simplification, especially when the latter category is supposed to contain, much less describe, interpretations by performers as different as the Busch Chamber Players (re-issued on EMI Great Recordings of the Century), Cortot / Orchestre de l’École Normale de MusiqueKarajan / BPOBenjamin Britten / ECO, Karl Richter/Munich Bach Orchestra, and Marinner/Academy of St.Martin in the Fields. But then man is a categorizing animal and likes those kinds of classifications and won’t be deterred, even when some performances, like Helmut Rilling / Oregon Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra and Helmut Müller-Brühl / Cologne Chamber Orchestra, peskily straddle the fence.

Conveniently, this fairly recent addition to the catalog on Harmonia Mundi with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) under its (then new) Music Director Richard Egarr fits the much more confined former category of “HIP”, though that hardly means less competition. On a twofer of the same label (and re-issued in 2010), we can find the truly excellent version of the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin. Egarr’s predecessor Christopher Hogwood recorded theBrandenburg Concertos with the AAM, not even 20 years ago (still available on L’oiseau-Lyre / London). Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus (Teldec) vie for our attention, as do Il Giardino Armonico (also Teldec), Ton Koopman / ABO (Erato, oop / Apex), Martin Perlman / Boston Baroque (Telarc), Jan Willem de Vriend / Combattimento Consort Amsterdam (Challenge), Reinhard Goebel / Musica Antiqua Köln, and Pinnock/English Concert (both Archiv). And that’s just of the top of my head (or CD shelf, as it were).

Unfortunately I didn’t have the old AAM disc handy for comparison, but the two most recent major period instrument releases—Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano on Naïve and Pinnock/Brandenburg Ensemble on Avie (reviewed in concert and on CD)—served nicely to elucidate contrast and similarities. Egarr and Alessandrini use one player per part; Pinnock mostly uses a small ensemble, switching to one-to-a-part only for the Fifth Concerto...

Richard Egarr: 'History is fun'

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Das wohltemperierte Clavier, Book 1, R. Egarr

available at Amazon
Mozart, Fantasias and
Rondos, R. Egarr
On the international jury for the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition is an unexpected member, Richard Egarr. The British historically informed performance (HIP) specialist is known for his careful scholarship, pursuit of rare historical instruments (including surviving instruments once played by important composers or performers), and facility in playing them -- organ, harpsichord, pianoforte, and others. (This was his third appearance at the Clarice Smith Center, and we have heard them all.) Still it was surprising to see his name on the jury of a major piano competition, a realm where the pianos are grand and the music of Bach is regarded as the ancient limit of music history. In the competition’s preliminary round, most competitors played a piece from the 18th century, and there was plenty of evidence in the playing that young musicians, even those gearing up for major competitions, are aware of the influence of the HIP movement and listen to recordings made on original instruments. This has appeared true to me for some time, but Egarr’s presence on the jury seemed to formalize it.

At the end of the semifinal round, Egarr agreed to give a recital-seminar on a fortepiano, on Thursday night. If the conservatory world is coming to grips with the HIP movement -- jury chairman Santiago Rodriguez was in the audience -- listeners are not always in step. More than one Kapell regular who has attended almost every performance told me that they had no interest in hearing a pianoforte, and indeed the audience in the small recital was the sparsest it has been for any of these feature recitals. This was doubly sad, because grand piano aficionados should have their universes expanded beyond the historical continuum between Mozart and Rachmaninoff, and because Egarr, who spoke with considerable charm about the sort of historical information he uses to guide him in his performances (touching on types of instruments used by the composers he was playing, temperament and tuning -- including the infamous affair of the squiggle -- articulation, embellishment), presented the HIP process knowledgeably but without any hint of snobbish orthodoxy.

If he had been obsessed with historical correctness, Egarr observed, he would have had to use at least four different instruments, but he played on only one, a Thomas and Barbara Wolf fortepiano, modeled on a Johann Schantz instrument from Austria. In fact, keyboard technology was advancing at a dizzying pace in the 18th and 19th centuries -- Egarr likened it to advances in computer technology today -- and most composers had access over their lifetimes to several different instruments, and most would have been happy to perform music on any of them and take advantage of whatever advances in sound and control they could. Egarr began with the first prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, explaining that Bach wrote at one point that he often played the now-famous prelude by leaving out the second half of each measure, that is, playing only one iteration of each arpeggiated chord. Egarr also played the fugue’s subject with a straight rhythm (eighth-note followed by two sixteenths, instead of the dotted pattern usually heard). This, he explained, was what manuscript evidence showed was the rhythm first written down: much later, someone carefully went through the manuscript adding dots and extra beams.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Richard Egarr demonstrates pianoforte’s elegance with music and musings at Clarice Smith Center (Washington Post, July 21)
In demonstrating the instrument, which had a pedal to control the damper mechanism and a moderator pedal (which vastly softens the possible attack on the string), Egarr explained how knowledge of the instruments composers knew can help performers understand some of the effects they were going for in their music. This came across in two Mozart pieces, the K. 511 rondo and K. 475 fantasia (the former from Egarr's fine Mozart recording), and in the prodigious decorations of the first movement, a major-minor double variation set, of Haydn's G major sonata (Hob. XVI:40). The most interesting discovery of the program, however, was two pieces by Jan Ladislav Dussek, a Czech forerunner of the Romantic style who died 200 years ago this past March. The Sufferings of the Queen of France, a dramatic homage to his one-time patron, Marie Antoinette, composed in 1793, showed the sharp contrasts of loud and soft and harmonic twists we more usually associate with Beethoven. The Fantasia and Fugue in F Minor was even more harmonically complex and showed Dussek to be perhaps the most accomplished contrapuntist of his age. In all, Egarr played with remarkable facility in his fingers, achieving a broad range of color and sound from the much smaller instrument.


The Cocooned Cadaver: Kriegenburg’s Walküre

Klaus Florian Vogt as Siegmund, Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde, and Anja Kampe as Sieglinde in a Walküre at the Bavarian State Opera were a proposition that the very international Munich Opera Festival audience wasn’t going to resist as they filled the National Opera House with excited expectations. Depending on whether they had seen the promising Rheingold or the comic-charming Siegfried, their expectations may have been disappointed. Andreas Kriegenburg’s Walküre seems to be from a different Ring Cycle altogether, and where there are visual and directorial cues that closely link the first and third installment of the Ring, the famous second chapter had little to nothing to offer by way of continuity.

It starts with a bewilderingly clumsy slow-motion fight sequence of Siegmund vs. a posse of Hunding-henchmen ninjas during the overture—which couldn’t, fortunately, distract from the finest musical moment of the night: Nagano’s electric, raw prelude that hovered at various dynamic level like a dragonfly over a summer’s mid-day pond. For all their technical excellence, conductor and orchestra would never again reach that buzzing thrill during this performance, nor the seamless fluidity of their Rheingold. Instead Nagano slowed matters ever further down, until tension and attention floundered and the performance repeatedly descended into boredom.

Where populating Siegfried’s act 1 with busy extras, provided ingenious entertainment (to those who didn’t think frown at the idea of having a bit of childlike fun with Wagner), the WWI nurses, prolifically mummifying fallen warriors in the background to turn them into cocooned cadavers, never became an organic part of the intimate scene between the Wolfings. Pretty conventionalism dominated the second act amid a few lovely vistas making use of elevated floors. In sharp contrast to the Rheingold and Siegfried, there was little abstraction or use of bodies besides the Penguin ballet of butlers in livery who serve smash-plastic tumblers that are broken two-a-minute.

The third act opens with a several-minute long Riverdance™ episode of the Walkyres’ horses who stomp about more or less rhythmically: A pointless, harmless, successful, tedious attempt to provoke the audience who, sure enough, allow themselves to be goaded into public displays of derision, mockery, and half-hearted support. It’s the kind of thing that might make the Intendant smile, except that Nikolaus Bachler savvily skipped the bit and didn’t return to his box until the actual Ride of the Walkyres began.

available at AmazonR.Wagner, Die Walküre,
D.Barenboim / Bayreuth O & Ch.
Elming, Secunde, Tomlinson, Evans, Hölle, Finnie et al.
Warner DVD

Klaus Florian Vogt surprised with unusually unsubtle acting: a repeated, grossly fake double handed cupping of his beaker, a tired stock gesture for ever-so-impetuous-drinking, was just one of many lazy elements where the theater-trained stage-direction of Kriegenburg seemed inexplicably absent. Empty phrases, superficially matched to the music, replaced palpable psychological motivation. And while there is much to be admired in Vogt’s voice—I love his introverted Lohengrin, Erik, and Stolzing—as Siegmund, at least that night, he vacillated between gorgeous lyric (especially touching in the intimate 2nd act scene), and unbecomingly whiney.

Whenever I encounter Sieglinde, it is Anja Kampe (previously heard in that role in 2004, 2006, and 2007) who is doing the singing. There could be worse things: She fills out that role increasingly, in a manner of speaking; ideal in many ways except that she was woefully under-employed as an actress. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde , meanwhile, sounded much like the orchestra: technically above reproach, but neither involving nor particularly touching: A bit like an improved and more sympathetic version of Linda Watson. That was most evident in the final scene—lit by a witty but puny magic fire—that had only the music to work with, with little support form direction or musicians to make something emotional out of it yet.

Munich Ring on ionarts:

Awash in Beautiful Music: Munich's Promising Rheingold

Childlike, not Childish Siegfried: Munich's Ring Cycle
Sophie Koch was marvelous as Fricka, a role that a good singer/actor can turned from mere cut-out cliché of kill-joy harpy into a strong, essential, sympathetic character who is in fact the moral backbone of the Ring-world. Koch brings beauty, warmth, class, and style to her Ficka, and was in considerably better form than during the performance of the Rheingold in February.

While Thomas J. Mayer’s Wotan/Wanderer sounded curiously underpowered in Siegfried, he fitted more naturally into this cast (especially given Vogt’s Siegmund), but Johan Reuter lyrical-authoritative Wotan from Das Rheingold was still missed. Ain Anger’s Hunding was nasal and soundly booming, occasionally pitch-approximating, dramatically very pleasing, and did things to a watermelon that were more creative even than Gallagher ever managed. Altogether a curious let-down amid the very specific expectations that musical and dramatic direction of the first (and third) installment had raised.

All pictures courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl. (More pictures below the break.)