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Ionarts-at-Large: Berg is Best with Metzmacher

When the schedule dictates, compromises might include attending a matinée orchestral performance. No musician I know does AM particularly well, but with a program of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina Preludes, and Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre, the last of the Munich Philharmonic’s three concerts in that series was unmissable.

For the Wagner and Mahler, baritone Michael Volle was won to perform alongside Ingo Metzmacher. After eight successful years in Zurich, Michael Volle became a cast member of the Bavarian State Opera in 2007 and in his five years there, he rose to locally acknowledged fame for reliable, even excellent performances. But fame at home is a tricky thing. Many talented footballers that make their way through the ranks of one team, from junior to Pro, find that they hit a ceiling beyond which they won’t be appreciated. Familiarity—and a decided lack of exoticism—has led to being taken for granted. They often hire elsewhere, with transfer fee and new salary indicative of their newfound respect away from home.

available at Amazon
A.Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra et al.,
I.Metzmacher / Bamberg SO

available at Amazon
H.Pfitzner, Palestrina Preludes et al.,
C.Thielemann / O.d.Deutschen Oper Berlin

Pfitzner on ionarts:

Best Recordings of 2012 (Palestrina, K.Petrenko)

Best Recordings of 2008 (Von Deutscher Seele, Metzmacher)

Pfitzner and Schumann's Requiem (C.Thielemann / MPhil)

Palestrina (S.Young / Bavarian State Opera)
It’s perhaps a little similar with singers. Volle was appreciated as stalwart, not admired as extraordinary. He left the State Opera and now he is fêted as a soloist around all the renowned opera houses in the world. A little more at this all-too-early hour, in Mahler but especially in Wagner as Wotan would have gone some way in underscoring how extraordinary he is. But for all the difficulties of making oneself heard in Munich’s Philharmonic Hall, with an Wagnerian orchestra whirring behind him, Wotan’s Abschied could have been a good deal more poised, clearer, and audible. As it was, it fit in with a surprisingly slack, if largely accident-free performance from the less-than-sanguine strings & Co.

In Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Volle’s softness of hue on this occasion fit much better: There is no point heroically trumpeting about dead children with stentorian precision. And so he sang with a gentle transparency instead, which gave these Songs on the Death of Children touching nuance, occasional raspy notes and uneasy heights notwithstanding. The orchestra was more eager, too, in Mahler just before intermission, diving into “In diesem Wetter” with rare gusto.

So far so decent, but the bonbons were clearly Pfitzner’s Palestrina Overtures, tailored by the composer to better fit the concert setting, and Berg. Pfitzner—the composer, not the music—needs advocates like Ingo Metzmacher. There are enough politically charged music critics in Germany just waiting for Christian Thielemann to tackle Pfitzer on a more regular basis in order to insinuate—with words in hues of insidious brown—that “CT” is, gasp!, a conservative. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge.Metzmacher, with his solid background in championing “Degenerate Art” that the Third Reich had shunned, exiled, or gassed, is politically above suspicion to any left-leaning journalist. Since he has discovered Pfitzner a few years ago (resulting in terrific recording of Pfitzner’s Eichendorff Cantata) the responses are enthusiastic and fawning, and questionable motives aside, rightly so. The music is wonderful and the performances justify any enthusiasm. The Munich Philharmonic was one of Pfitzner’s favorite orchestras with whom he performed plenty, but that legacy has been long felt a poisoned endowment more than opportunity. Understandable, but musically a shame, because the tendency for a deep and darkly romantic sound makes the orchestra very suitable for Pfitzner’s music. That’s true even for the delicate Prelude to the First Act (where Pfitzner plays with a music at once wholly new yet harking back to the 16th century of his opera’s protagonist) and certainly for the wham-bang intensity of the second Prelude. It’s such satisfactory music that even a Pfitzner-friendly colleague suggested: “If you can have that, why bother with the whole thing in the first place.” (In our defense, we both last saw the opera in the drab Munich production; not in the superior Frankfurt outing.)

Saving the best for first, the concert-opening Berg Three Pieces op.6 was unlike any I have heard before: Rich, dedicated, and muscular, with plenty and raw meat especially in the Preludium, where a proximity to Wagner’s Walküre came to the fore that I had never picked up on quite like that. Transparency and lean textures are all well and good and appreciated in Berg, but this was a case in point that sumptuousness is also a most viable option. And still there was plenty room for delicacy amid

Whenever I lean back, wholeheartedly enjoying this glorious, ultimately romantic work, I also enjoy the smug, self-satisfied glow that comes from knowing that my musical tastes are merely 100 years behind. That’s good to know: by the time Beethoven died, I would have appreciated Johann Heinrich Buttstett and François Couperin.


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra -- Whither WPAS?

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The Neale Perl era at Washington Performing Arts Society is coming to an end, and the organization has just announced its new leader, Jenny Bilfield, who will take over as President and CEO of WPAS in April. The official announcement was made last night, before WPAS's presentation of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. What will it mean for WPAS's schedule to have Bilfield -- whose previous work at Stanford emphasized more cross-cultural programming than purely classical music -- at the helm?

No one really knows yet. Anne Midgette has some thoughts on the appointment -- although, as she is quick to make clear, she and Bilfield are friends -- and she thinks it is a good sign that WPAS is "shaking off the 'stodginess' label with a vengeance." We can perhaps guess what that means in concrete terms for WPAS: less Takács Quartet and more Kronos Quartet, less Royal Concertgebouw and more eighth blackbird, less Angela Hewitt and more Esperanza Spalding. The programming at Stanford Lively Arts is indeed quite like what Susie Farr, formerly programming director at the University of California at Berkeley's Cal Performances, has brought to the Clarice Smith Center in recent years -- a position from which Farr will be retiring at the end of this season. There is nothing wrong with broader programming, and WPAS could benefit from a slight shaking up of its "big name" programming -- how many times hearing Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma is too many? -- but we would hate to see the otherwise laudable goal of broader programming come with the sacrifice of not hearing the marquee musicians that only WPAS has tended to sponsor here in Washington.

After all, WPAS already hosts a number of jazz and popular music events, and like this concert they are often beautiful and high-profile performances. With the programming narrated by Wynton Marsalis, from his place in the back row with the other trumpets, this concert began with a first half in tribute to a great Washingtonian, Duke Ellington. Wailing reeds and the chatter of dirty trumpets marked The Mooche, with a howling solo by trombonist Chris Crenshaw, followed by some late Ellington in Chinoiserie. The only really familiar tune in the set was Mood Indigo, with a cool trio of clarinet, trumpet, and trombone out in front, paired with a rarity in Braggin' in Brass, with a rapid-fire solo from Marsalis. The tribute concluded with the substantial Toot Suite, which showed off the big orchestration that was the hallmark of the Ellington Orchestra. Listening to this set silenced the expected objections that Marsalis is a sort of museum curator, ignoring the newest developments in jazz -- that may be true, but what he aims to preserve is so good and so important. I, for one, do not care if the ensemble is on the conservative side -- even the Vienna Philharmonic has some women players now, one might observe -- because to listen to Ellington's music revived this way was such a thrill.

Other Articles:

Max Radwin, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to return to Hill for anniversary tour (The Michigan Daily, January 30)

Alison Samuels, Wynton Marsalis Celebrates 25 Years of Jazz at Lincoln Center (The Daily Beast, January 25)

The second half was bound to disappoint by comparison, but pieces by John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, and some members of the orchestra brought in other facets of the history of jazz. Mulligan's Over the Hill and Out of the Woods, with its parts for flutes, was a happy-go-lucky multi-metric frolic, while Sherman Irby's Insatiable Hunger was a raucous tribute to Dante's Inferno. The closing Kenny Dorham tune (Stage West?) featured Irby's alto saxophone in a crazy solo and brought the house down. A long ovation prevailed in coaxing an encore from a small group -- just Marsalis and his rhythm section, joined later by Irby -- in Billy Strayhorn's iconic Take the 'A' Train.

With the important goal of keeping this music alive for future generations, Jazz at Lincoln Center is starting a Summer Music Institute for young jazz musicians this summer, on the beautiful campus of Santa Barbara City College. Pass the word along to the young musicians in your life.


Hamelin @ Shriver Hall

available at Amazon
Haydn, Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3, M.-A. Hamelin

available at Amazon
Liszt, Piano Sonata (inter alia), M.-A. Hamelin
Marc-André Hamelin is a showman, but far from an empty-headed one. The program he played on Sunday evening, for his debut at Baltimore's Shriver Hall, combined the Canadian-born pianist's cardinal virtues: ear-tickling virtuosity, an exploratory curiosity for unlikely repertory, and an unexpected approach to the familiar.

In the first category was the opening work, Bach's Great G Minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 542, in the expansive transcription by Tivadar Szántó. Conceived by Bach for the organ, it is a piece beloved of many composers and performers -- Liszt, among others, arranged it for piano -- and one had the sense of Hamelin meditating on one of music's ancient scriptures. With a liberal use of the sustaining pedal, applied in all sorts of interesting ways, Hamelin gave the prelude a vast scope, both crushing in volume on fully voiced chords and glowing in a haze of sound at other points. The fugue had both crystalline clarity and massive textures in turn, astounding in fortitude of tone. Put Hamelin's own set of variations on a theme of Paganini -- the theme of Paganini, the one subjected to outrageous variations in his 24th Caprice -- in the same category. Part circus march, part homage to various composers -- snippets of Beethoven, Mozart, and tribute to Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Stravinsky -- the piece is a hoot and Hamelin played it fearlessly.

For our pianistic edification, there was Ferrucio Busoni's rarely played Piano Sonatina No. 2, an enigmatic piece that is radically unlike what is implied by the unassuming word "sonatina." Hamelin sought to unravel every eccentric tangle of the piece, reveling in its contrapuntal complexities -- a connection to the Bach that had preceded it -- and its harmonic extravagance. To draw a connection between Busoni and the Debussy that followed it, he used the work's odd conclusion to hold the audience in silence, beginning the first book of Images after a short pause. Through his scrupulous control of hand weight, Hamelin gave these three pieces an extraordinary transparency, creating the sense of imperceptible mists in Reflets dans l'eau and a blurred, almost atomic instability in Mouvement, of motion captured in a series of frozen stills. Only the middle movement, Hommage à Rameau, disappointed slightly -- sultry, but a little slow and dull, not catching the Baroque delight in rhythm. The set was capped off by a virtuostic, aquatically shimmering reading of L'Isle joyeuse.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin gives compelling recital at Shriver Hall (Baltimore Sun, January 28)

---, Marc-Andre Hamelin to make Shriver Hall recital debut (Baltimore Sun, January 26)

Jens F. Laurson, Ionarts-at-Large: Marc-André Hamelin at the Herkulessaal (Ionarts, December 16, 2012)
Not many pianists really make me want to hear the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but Hamelin is one of them. He gave a pearl-like finish to two of the op. 32 preludes: a wistful, rubato-stretched no. 5 (G major) and an aphoristic no. 12 (G♯ minor), marked by a restlessly fluttering right hand. The program concluded with the composer's second piano sonata, wisely played in the revised 1931 version -- trusting the composer's later (perhaps too late) impulses toward self-editing. Hamelin raged through the fast parts of the first movement with technical aplomb but left room for poetry, giving the second movement a voluminous sweep without letting it become too sugary. The third movement rocketed with vitality. Hopes for a Haydn sonata encore -- from Hamelin's growing set devoted to that Ionarts favorite composer -- were almost met, with a guileless, crisp reading of the first movement of Mozart's C major piano sonata, K. 545. This famous little piece, which Mozart entered into his catalog of compositions with the words "Eine kleine klavier Sonate für anfänger" (A little keyboard sonata for beginners), was a last wink of the eye and nudge of the elbow from Hamelin the showman.

We will be back at Shriver Hall next month for the recital by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and pianist Yefim Bronfman (February 17, 5:30 pm).


Isserlis, Gut Strings and All

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Photo by Kim P. Witman/Courtesy of Wolf Trap
Steven Isserlis was back in town on Friday night, this time in the Barns at Wolf Trap, with pianist Kirill Gerstein. The program was different from what they played in 2010 at the Kennedy Center (he also appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011), but it had many similar qualities. The British cellist is at his best with a soaring melodic line, with some limitations at the loud end of the dynamic spectrum, at least partly because of his preference for wound-gut strings. At the Q&A session that generally occurs at intermissions at Wolf Trap, Isserlis spoke about his preference for gut, noting that all cellists played on them until the years of World War II. With obvious conviction, he said he stands by gut because their sound has a "more human quality," and that steel strings are "harsher" in tone. "I love them: they're my voice," he concluded, and indeed the sound he makes on those strings in soft moments is one of the indelible qualities that makes Isserlis Isserlis.

available at Amazon
Brahms, Cello Sonatas, S. Isserlis, S. Hough
He was at his best in the moody opening theme of the first Brahms cello sonata, op. 38, letting the sound bloom and not giving any sense of being pressed. The two cello sonatas of Brahms are the centerpiece of the program he is touring right now, and Gerstein was a graceful partner for both of them, bringing out embedded motifs in the development of the first movement and embroidering that melancholy first theme with countermelodies at the recapitulation. The second movement was wistful without becoming cloying, and both musicians gave the third movement some Puckish folk inflections. It is, on the whole, a more affecting work than the more outgoing second sonata, op. 99, which concluded this recital. Without some more oomph in the cello tone in the bigger or more agitated movements, really all but the slow one -- and Gerstein was excellent at scaling the power of the piano to his partner's sound -- it just had less to offer here.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, A characteristically furious Isserlis, at his best and most middling (Washington Post, January 28)

Steve Smith, Echoes, 21 Years Apart, in a Homage to Brahms (New York Times, January 28)
Although the Brahms sonatas were certainly fine, the outstanding contributions came in the small pieces dotted around them. Bartók's Rhapsody No. 1 had a free rhythmic approach and dancing pulse, but also a smoldering tone in the slow passages. It was paired beautifully with Ferruccio Busoni's Kultaselle, a set of sweet, longing variations on a Finnish folksong, a memento from the composer's time teaching in Helsinki. Best of all were a pair of Liszt delicacies, the Romance oubliée and Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, both tinged with unexpected harmonies and arching melodic lines that gave voice to expanses of Romantic longing. The encore offered one more chance to wallow in that singing cello tone, an arrangement of Schubert's Lied Nacht und Träume.


Bang on a Can at the Atlas

Stalwarts of the new music scene for the past twenty years, the Bang on a Can All-Stars brought the kind of engaging, genre-bending performance they are known for to the Atlas Center on Friday. Throughout a fresh and varied program, they showed closer affinities to jazz and popular music than to the avant-garde. All the instruments, which included drum set and electric guitar, were miked as if for a jazz show, and the compositions mostly avoided the atonality and extended techniques that often challenge audiences. Unsurprisingly, they attracted what seemed like the biggest crowd of this season’s new music series at the Atlas.

The first half of the program featured pieces by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the three composer-leaders of Bang on a Can, the collective of which the All-Stars are a part. Lang’s minimalist Sunray obsessively reiterated a few simple, mantric motifs, seeming at first like an unsettled dream but ending up as a protracted nightmare. Even so, it evoked an enjoyable trance-like state. Gordon’s For Madeline was a poignant memorial to his mother. It presented an incessantly pulsing minor third interval, around which a series of moaning glissandi created a bleak, grief-stricken mood. Big Beautiful Dark and Scary by Wolfe depicted an ominous, gathering tumult that finally erupted, receded, and gathered again like stormy waves at sea. But beyond this excitement, it didn’t add up to much.

The second half opened with two pieces by Don Byron. Basquiat was a rich, melancholy waltz memorializing the street artist of that name. Show Him Some Lub was a stale exercise in musical identity politics. Over some spunky, oppositional rhythms, the players were called on to state their ethnicities into the microphone along with the date -- past or conjectured future -- of that ethnic group’s liberation. The tackiness of this was exacerbated by uneven amplification and by the obvious discomfort with which certain of the players mumbled their lines.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, Bang on a Can All-Stars brings a storm to D.C. (Washington Post, January 28)
The hypnotic Ridgeway was commissioned by Bang on a Can from young Australian composer Kate Moore. It was a promising contribution, at times creating a meditative atmosphere like that of David Lang’s piece. But many of its transitions were not convincingly organic; it seemed to jump from one section to another without following each one to the conclusion of its minimalist logic.

Finally, Stroking Piece #1 by Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), featuring a defiantly nonsensical program note, began with a simple chord progression played quietly over and over on the guitar. Then it grew into a full-throated rock ballad by the whole ensemble, seeming like it should accompany a montage showing an aged musician relearning how to rock after suffering a stroke. A quirky end to the program, it was performed with the All-Stars’ typical absorbing intensity.

In Brief: 11 Years 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 opening night of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna Staatsoper. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • A performance of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot from the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and Prague Philharmonic Chorus. [BR-Klassik]

  • For the 50th anniversary of the Traité de l'Élysée, some historical music from France and Germany performed by Ratsmusik from Hamburg at the University of Göttingen. [France Musique]

  • Also for the anniversary, a new work by Fabien Lévy called Après tout, for six singers and six instrumentalists, given its world premiere by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and Ensemble 2e2m. [France Musique]

  • From the Mozartwoche Salzburg, Gustavo Dudamel leads the Vienna Philharmonic, with pianist Maria João Pires as soloist. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • A recital by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet and pianist Anne Le Bozec, with songs by Mahler, Zemlinksy, and others. [France Musique]

  • A concert of music by Rameau from La Simphonie du Marais and Le Choeur du Marais, conducted by Hugo Reyne, from Vienna. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, music by Johannes Brahms from pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja and the Orchestre National de France, under Kurt Masur. [France Musique]

  • Vincent Dumestre leads Le Poème Harmonique in a program of music from 17th-century France, in Vienna. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Hear some new music by Mediterranean composers David El Malek and Ibrahim Maalouf from the Présences Festival in Aix-en-Provence. [France Musique]

  • More from Présences, with pieces by Marco-Antonio Perez-Ramirez, Henri Tomasi, and Roberto Gerhard, the last featuring Michaël Lonsdale as narrator. [France Musique]

  • New chamber music by Croatian composers featuring Ensemble Cantus and other performers, from France Musique. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • Also, some historical music from Croatia, by Luka Sorkočević (1734-1789), Julije Bajamonti (1744-1800), and Haydn. [France Musique]

  • The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in concert with pianist Boris Giltburg, from the Grzegorz Fitelber-Konzertsaal in Katowice, music by Ravel, Shostakovich, and Bartók. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Hear a recital by baritone Michal Partyka and pianist Alissa Zoubritski, with Russian songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Medtner. [France Musique]

  • A recital by cellist Truls Mørk and pianist Havard Gimse, recorded last May at the Schwetzinger Festspiele. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Early music, by Martin Codax and from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, performed by the Ensemble Micrologus and Patrizia Bovi. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • A recital of songs by Liszt, Schumann, and others by mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman and pianist Eduard Kutrowatz. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen again to the 1986 recording of Auber's La Muette de Portici with Alfredo Kraus, John Aler, and June Anderson. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]


NSO Ready for Tour

Image by Jens Laurson

As reported last week, the National Symphony Orchestra is preparing for a European tour this month. Along with a recording contract with Ondine, this is the most visible sign of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure with the orchestra outside of Washington. Tours raise the NSO's profile and bring its playing to the ears of critics in other countries. We will try to follow the results by bringing you whatever reviews we can find. Readers in those countries are invited to send their impressions if they attend one of the concerts.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, National Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert seems like a dress rehearsal (Washington Post, January 25)
The trip begins in Spain, with two concerts at the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid (January 31 and February 1) and one at the Auditorio y Centro de Congresos Victor Villegas in Murcia (February 2). The NSO then travels to Germany for concerts at Düsseldorf's Tonhalle (February 4), Hamburg's Laeiszhalle (February 6), Nürnberg's Meistersingerhalle (February 7), and Frankfurt's Alte Oper (February 9). These concerts will feature various combinations of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (arr. for string orchestra by Weingartner), Mozart's fifth violin concerto, and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, and Brahms's second symphony. The soloist for the Mozart will be Arabella Steinbacher, who has stepped in to replace Julia Fischer. The European phase of the tour ends on February 10 at the Salle Pleyel, Eschenbach's old stomping grounds from when he was music director of the Orchestre de Paris. This is the only concert that will feature Tzimon Barto in Bartók's second piano concerto.

From Paris, the NSO will make one final stop before returning home, to perform a concert at the Royal Opera House in Oman on February 13. The local Kennedy Center connection there is that theater's new CEO is Christina Scheppelmann, formerly of our own Washington National Opera. This concert is the only one to feature violinist Dan Zhu in the Mozart fifth violin concerto -- he is playing the piece this week with the NSO at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. A bout with the stomach flu prevented me from hearing the performance, but Anne Midgette's report is not encouraging.


For Your Consideration: 'Quartet'

Some of you may remember Daniel Schmid's delightful documentary Il Bacio di Tosca from the 1980s. It examined the lives of the residents of the Casa Verdi in Milan, the retirement home for poor opera singers that Verdi established with some of his fortune. He and his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, even decided to be buried there, instead of at their home at Sant'Agata, and thus the wily old composer keeps watch over the devoted nuts who sang and adored his music. This may have been the inspiration for Ronald Harwood's play Quartet, which takes place at just such a retirement home for aging opera singers (and musicians), but a fictitious one called Beecham House, supposedly established by the British conductor Thomas Beecham. The establishment is struggling to balance its budget, which makes the upcoming fundraising gala, held on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday and featuring the residents themselves, such an important event. The eponymous group of four singers -- who once recorded the famous quartet from Rigoletto to great acclaim -- find themselves reunited at Beecham House, and the possibility of performing the Rigoletto ensemble again for the gala, and the money it could raise, are too much to resist.

What made Schmid's documentary so memorable was that it included conversations with and performances by the singers themselves, a zany bunch who had lost none of their wit, competitiveness, or hunger for ovation. Having the eponymous group of four singers here played by actors seemed unlikely to have the same charm. Happily (and quite intentionally) Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, pads the film with actual retired musicians: singers Patricia Varley, John Rawnsley, Cynthia Mosey, Nuala Willis, David Ryall, Melodie Waddingham; clarinetist Colin Bradbury (BBC Symphony Orchestra), jazz trumpeter Ronnie Hughes, violinists John Georgiadis (London Symphony Orchestra) and Ita Herbert (English Chamber Orchestra), cellist John Heley (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), and violist Graeme Scott (BBC Symphony Orchestra), conductor Jack Honeyborne, and pianist Patricia Loveland. These are only the names of those specially listed in the credits, accompanied by black-and-white head shots from the height of their careers.

Other Reviews:

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

Best of all, soprano Gwyneth Jones has a guest appearance as a rival soprano, and a performance of Tosca's aria Vissi d'arte at the gala -- with Maggie Smith's Jean Horton sneaking up back stage to listen with admiration. Smith, of course, fits into the role of a temperamental, often nasty diva only too well, matched in theatrics by the baritone, Billy Connolly's Wilf (the role was reportedly conceived for Albert Finney), who continues to throw himself at everything female near at hand, but with some of his inhibitions removed by a recent stroke. Their Maddalena, Pauline Collins (Albert Nobbs), is deep in the ravages of dementia but very sunny, while the touchy tenor, Tom Courtenay (Little Dorrit, The Dresser), has to get over the bitterness caused by his divorce from Smith's character. They are a virtuoso bunch of actors, and their interactions are all delightful to watch, with a campy Michael Gambon as their willful and colorful director. For anyone who loves opera, the soundtrack will be a highlight, too, featuring parts of several performances of the Rigoletto quartet, as well as lots of other opera, and original music by Dario Marianelli which incorporates many motifs from Rigoletto (especially the tenor's smarmy line "Bella figlia dell'amore"). Hoffman's debut behind the camera is warm, snappy, and fun -- if not exactly a triumph -- mostly because he stays out of his actors' way. His love of opera -- as a young man he and Robert Duvall lived with opera singers as roommates -- comes through loud and clear.

This film opens in Washington-area theaters today, including Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas.


Briefly Noted: Nielsen's Piano Music

available at Amazon
C. Nielsen, Complete Piano Music, C. Bjørkøe
(2008, 2 CDs)
The music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is always worth discovering, rare as it is. Nielsen made his musical living as a violinist, but he learned the piano from a young age and began most of his compositional work at the keyboard. Over the course of his life he composed enough solo piano pieces (see also the extraordinary Carl Nielsen Edition) to fill only two discs, presented in chronological order on this recent set from Danish pianist Christina Bjørkøe. Other pianists have recorded all or some of Nielsen's piano music, most famously Leif Ove Andsnes, but Bjørkøe's introspective, sometimes wild-hearted approach makes this an attractive option. Nielsen excelled at the charming miniature -- with examples collected together as the Five Piano Pieces, op. 3, Humoresque-Bagatelles, op. 11, and the Piano Music for Young and Old, op. 53 -- many of which could make delightful little encore pieces. His more substantial works are especially interesting as his harmonic idiom became more unusual, after about the Chaconne, op. 32, and the Theme and Variations, op. 40.


Briefly Noted: Schumann with Melnikov

available at Amazon
Schumann, Opp. 44, 47, Jerusalem Quartet, A. Melnikov

(released on May 8, 2012)
HMC 902122 | 54'56"
Alexander Melnikov is a pianist after my own heart. He is in many ways an old-fashioned virtuoso, with solo recordings to his credit in the big 20th-century repertory (fine discs of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich). To his credit, he has also shown an interest in historical instruments and performance practice, both of the 19th century and earlier. For this excellent disc of the two giants of Schumann's relatively small body of chamber music -- the piano quintet, op. 44, and the piano quartet, op. 47 -- Melnikov teamed up with the esteemed Jerusalem Quartet, a combination with much to recommend it. Both of these pieces are near-perfect examples of their genre in the Romantic era, and both have been recorded many times, a starry discography into which these performances fit quite nicely.

The piano quintet is centered on its second movement, marked "In modo d'una Marcia," a funeral march that may have been played at Schumann's funeral, here given a moody, not too slow performance, while the big movements have an appropriately orchestral scope. The piano quartet has one of those quintessential Romantic slow movements that aches with delicate harmonic clashes (that of Brahms's third symphony is another that quickly comes to mind) -- heard recently with Mark Morris choreography and with the outstanding Takács Quartet (their recording of the piano quintet, with Marc-André Hamelin, is hard to beat). The only omission is Schumann's early attempt at a piano quartet (WoO 32, C minor, completed in 1829), which scholar Martin Geck says Schumann remembered fondly. The composer said the trio of its scherzo movement seemed to him to be one of the first indications of the sort of romantic music he wanted to compose, "in which a spirit at variance with the older character of music first revealed itself to me." Geck is quick to note that the passage in question "ultimately fails to embody the sort of 'aha' experience that Schumann himself ascribed to it." That assessment holds true when listening to a work that is clearly juvenilia, not much recorded after André Previn and friends first recorded it. At about 25 minutes it may not have fit on this single disc anyway.


Classical Music Agenda (February 2013)

In February the second half of the classical music season really gets going, making whittling down our monthly concert picks to just ten choices rather difficult. Suffice it to say that there will be many other worthy concerts that will scroll by in our sidebar calendar throughout the month.

China's National Symphony Orchestra is making its first U.S. tour since 2006, with many stops all over the country. That includes, for some reason, two concerts in our area: in the Music Center at Strathmore (February 1, 8 pm) and the GMU Center for the Arts (February 2, 8 pm). The programs will be different, except for the Earth Requiem by Xia Guan, a composer who serves as the ensemble's director. North Bethesda will get Beethoven's seventh symphony and pianist Peng-Peng Gong as soloist in Chengzong Yin/Zhuang Liu's Yellow River Concerto, while Fairfax will hear Rachmaninoff's second symphony and violinist Yang Xu in the Sibelius violin concerto. Tickets: $60 to $22.

Mariss Jansons comes to town with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (February 12, 8 pm), presented by Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program does not include Bruckner's seventh symphony, which they will perform at Carnegie Hall, but Mahler's first symphony and Bartók's second violin concerto with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist. Tickets: $115 to $45.

One week later, Sakari Oramo brings the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (February 19, 7:30 pm). The music is all Scandinavian, including Sibelius, Grieg, Alfven, Leifs, and Nielsen's fourth symphony ("Inextinguishable"). Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen is featured as soloist. Tickets: $64 to $10.


Daniil Trifonov, Anguished Soul

available at Amazon
Chopin, Preludes, op. 28, G. Sokolov


available at Amazon
Scriabin, Piano Sonatas, M.-A. Hamelin
In the calculated pursuit of technical perfection, a virtuoso can lose that most exciting musical quality, the adventurous taking of risks. This was one of the things that most impressed me hearing Daniil Trifonov play with the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra in 2011, in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, with which he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition earlier that year. His technique was astounding, but it was the sense of daring in his playing that stuck with me, that he was willing to play at the edge of security, to push himself over that edge. The same quality stood out in his recital on Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. Not all of the performances would be at the top of my list, but with each composer Trifonov smashed expectations, reordered my thinking about the composer and his music, and left one with much to ponder.

The opening work, Scriabin's second sonata (Sonate-fantaisie, op. 19, 1892-97), was the one that seemed likely to be the best match for Trifonov's temperament. Scriabin was staying in Genoa and the Crimea while working on it, and the sounds and feel of the ocean waves are what drive the piece. According to his letters, he reworked it many times, settling on a two-movement form: a slow introduction (supposedly a moonlit southern sea) followed by a turbulent Presto (the ocean roiling with agitated waves). He packed exceptional beauty into just the introduction, taking care to craft and shape each sound, layering voicing upon voicing to give a sense of depth to the oceanic texture. In the first movement, the moonlight sections are cast in the key of E major, which the synesthete Scriabin saw as a light blue or sea blue color (Rimsky-Korsakov, who also confused colors and sounds, often used the same key for his seascapes), given a transparent, gleaming finish by Trifonov. His take on the second movement was breathtakingly fast, a storm-tossed tea that seethed with movement. Anatole Leikin's study of the piano rolls that Scriabin made of this piece indicates that Scriabin took broad liberties with the tempo in both movements, especially the first, taking the second faster than the tempo he marked and emphasizing the right-hand material over the left-hand octaves, even distorting the rhythms he marked to enhance the sense of agitation. Much of that, intentional or no, seemed reflected in Trifonov's performance.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, At Kennedy Center, Daniil Trifonov proves himself an heir to Liszt (Washington Post, January 21)

Marie-Aude Roux, La fascinante maturité de Daniil Trifonov, jeune prodige russe (Le Monde, January 11)
Liszt's B minor piano sonata is overplayed, but one is always thrilled by the occasional mind-blowing performance. Scholar Alan Walker has called this singular work, which Liszt composed under the influence of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, a "sonata across a sonata, [in which] the material is constantly making contributions to two sonata forms simultaneously." Liszt often thought in terms of a program, but if this sonata had one, Liszt never specified what it was, although it is an inherently dramatic work. Trifonov opened with an air of mystery, a murky opening with the initial notes of the descending motif made to ring, with the following notes slipping underneath it. When the piece took off, Trifonov raced through it, giving the sense of a soul tormented, wracked by terror, driven toward the exalted major-mode rising theme, played with relieved abandon. The slow passages were lost in rhapsody, with no need to rush through them, as Trifonov explored each whorl and curl of thought, while the fugue, which came out of nowhere, was drenched in sweat. (You can get a sense of what I experienced by watching Trifonov's recital at the Louvre earlier this month, which featured the Liszt sonata, Agosti's arrangement of Stravinsky's Firebird, and Trifonov's own composition, Rachmaniana.)

Trifonov brought many of the same qualities to a complete performance of Chopin's Preludes, op. 28 (search through the list of works to see the first editions of these pieces), playing the shorter pieces impetuously, as if they were not complete thoughts but brief flashes of inspiration. His rubato was free and mercurial, but the extremes of technical accomplishment -- the sparkle of his left hand in no. 3, for example -- were not at the center of the interpretation, and often previously unnoticed details (at least by me) materialized. Three encores were the reward for a rousing ovation: Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung (drenched in emotion); Rachmaninoff's arrangement of a Bach Gavotte, from the third violin partita (odd harmonies mixed with sprightly spring -- see video embedded below); and Agosti's arrangement of the "Danse Infernale" from Stravinsky's Firebird (diabolical mania of orchestral scope).

Canadian 'Wonderland'

Ballet is largely about fantasy, and the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy it is perhaps the greatest among all the arts, even more than in opera. How exactly that aura of fantasy has been achieved through the centuries has changed significantly, and some companies are moving past the traditional means of frilly costumes and carefully choreographed movements to make the dancers seem lighter than air. There are all kinds of theatrical and cinematographic possibilities that remain more or less unexplored, perhaps because these things can take away from the dancing part of ballet. The best use of modern technology in a ballet, which did not take away from the dancing, that we have seen is the work of the Royal Danish Ballet and their director Nikolaj Hübbe, who has used fly wires, mechanized sets, and advanced lighting to lift his choreography beyond the ordinary. The new Alice in Wonderland from the National Ballet of Canada (co-produced with London's Royal Ballet), which opened for a run at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday night, went even further in this regard, but too often at the expense of the dancing.

This leaves no complaints in the entertainment department, as this three-hour extravaganza, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and staged by Jacquelin Barrett, goes full out in bringing Lewis Carroll's phantasmagorical world to life. Moving screens with video projections (designed by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) create the effects of the fall down the rabbit hole and the doors that grow enormous next to the shrinking Alice; ingenious set pieces (sets and costumes by Bob Crowley) provide others, like the room-shaped box Alice crawls into when she grows huge, accompanied by massive arms and legs that descend onto the stage; gigantic marionettes operated by black-clothed puppeteers form the floating and sometimes separating parts of the Cheshire Cat; there is even tap dance, in the choreography of the Mad Hatter (danced energetically by Robert Stephen). It is a multimedia production, in which ballet places a part.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, At Kennedy Center, a jubilant ‘Alice’ that doesn’t worry about ravens or writing desks (Washington Post, January 21)
Perhaps not enough of a part for some enthusiasts. Alice and the Knave of Hearts have a couple of romantic duets, neither extended enough really to qualify as a pas de deux, danced longingly by handsome dancers Jillian Vanstone and Naoya Ebe, the latter an up-and-coming dancer promoted to First Soloist last year. There are some fun comic moments, especially from the herky-jerky queen of Greta Hodgkinson, and some exotic touches like the Caterpillar-cum-Arabian dancer of Jiří Jelínek (his dance concluded with a group of en pointe dancers making up a many-legged caterpillar). Still, for all its appeal -- a series of pleasing episodes rather than a dramatic arc (this is partly due to the source material, also adapted by Septime Webre just last year) -- the work's repetitive qualities grated on my nerves after a while. Part of the fault goes to the rather pedestrian score by Joby Talbot, like the staging full of bells and whistles -- celesta! glockenspiel! synthesized voices from a keyboard! The style is what one might call cinematic quasi-minimalism, lots of percolating repetition but few memorable melodies.

This production continues through January 27, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Schubert, Schumann, Ives: Not Beautiful, Courageous!

available at Amazon

C.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
J.Wood / D.Riley

available at AmazonC.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
C.Thompson / R.Waters

available at AmazonC.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
H.Hahn / V.Lisitsa

It may look like Violinist Carolin Widmann has emerged from a contemporary music niche to the much larger niche of classical music in general; from Boulez and Salonen to Schumann and Schubert. That’s not quite right in the sense that she had never eschewed the classics in the first place. And it’s not quite right in the sense that she isn’t abstaining from Morton Feldman or John Cage, either. Except if her next album were Feldman, you wouldn’t as likely hear about it as her recent Schubert and 2008 Schumann recitals for ECM.

Widman put her enthusiastically championed, but ear- and brain-demanding modern repertoire to a pragmatic side for her BR-Klassik studio recital. Bavarian Radio’s “Studio 2” was packed on the evening of January 16th despite snowy roads outside, where Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert lurked on the bill, to be broadcast live. And the coy shock of musical hair of Charles Ives peeked out from safe Viennese Classicism—in the form of his brief “Children’s Day at the Camp MeetingFourth Violin Sonata, a terrific palate cleanser full of jocular collages and irreverent references. Hearing Ives live is usually bliss or excitement: in any case wide-open ears... and certainly proved so on this occasion.

Perhaps in a further concession to commercial realities, the opening act of Schumann’s vast first Violin Sonata No.1 (performed dry, aggressively, accentuated, slightly put-on, but certainly full blooded) sat next to Schubert’s Fantasie D934. The two pieces are uneasy benchmates, with the latter—despite it’s own classical, carefully structured brilliance—exposed as backwards by the brooding forward hurdling Schumann. Yes, the composers’ names sound so similar, but their music doesn’t… and yet they trigger easily assumed false equivalencies that help neither.

Schumann-Ives is a more natural combination and bookending the recital with Schumann’s two staple sonatas (the composite Third is less popular, though just as intriguing) made dramatic sense, too. It helped that the playing was more comfortable, with all the agogics, little twists and turns and emphases now naturally in place, where they had stood out as potentially self-serving in the first sonata. Among the aural joys of her playing is that Widmann uses vibrato for color and shaping of notes, not to give a homogenizing perma-glow to her notes. Her varied musical pizzicatos—no-two-ever-the-same—are ever a delight. I would go hear her just for the pizzicatos (op.121, third movement!)… something the war-torn beauty of the Poulenc encore (“La guitare fait pleurer les songes...”) further emphasized.

See also:

Sometimes the Beauty Isn't So Obvious - Interview with Violinist Carolin Widmann
Best Recordings of 2012 (4)
Dip Your Ears, No.97
Best Recordings of 2008 “Almost List”
Widmann is so compelling because she isn’t primarily beautiful, but courageous. Daring means risks, and risks mean mistakes. A little something off in intonation here or there. A hesitant wiggle in the soft, breathy, and scarily, endlessly long opening of the Fantasie. Nor isWidmann afraid of mannerisms and exaggerations. But the impression of the whole is not married to any infelicities. Instead it is tied to the riveting approach of the music and the ravenous appetite with which she devours tasty notes. I carry my nose high, and my expectations low, and I’m not a fan of much or many, but Carolin Widmann, even in imperfect form, is a delight.

In Brief: Inauguration Edition

There is something big going on here in Washington this weekend: best to stay inside and listen to some music. 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.) It's a long list this week.

  • The Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles mounted a production of the Ballet des fées des forêts de Saint-Germain, a court ballet danced at the Louvre by Louis XIII and his court in 1625. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Valery Gergiev leads the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel, in two Shostakovich symphonies (nos. 3 and 13) and the second cello concerto, with cellist Mario Brunello and bass Mikhail Petrenko. [France Musique]

  • More Shostakovich from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, this time three symphonies (nos. 1, 2, and 15), plus the second piano concerto with Denis Matsuev. [France Musique]

  • A new year's concert from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the RIAS Kammerchor in J. S. Bach's Magnificat and C. P. E. Bach's Heilig, heilig ist Gott, Wq 217, and Magnificat, Wq 215, at the Berlin Philharmonie. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Daniel Harding leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Robert Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust. [BR-Klassik]

  • Marek Janowski leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in excerpts of Wagner operas, with tenor Stephen Gould, bass Albert Dohmen, and soprano Violeta Urmana. [France Musique]

  • Catch Joyce DiDonato in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Salle Pleyel, watch Herbert Blomstedt lead the Orchestre de Paris, in an all-Beethoven program with pianist Lars Vogt. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • A concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Mariss Jansons and recorded last November: Beethoven's second and sixth symphonies, plus a new piece by Misato Mochizuki, Nirai, composed as an intermezzo to go between those two symphonies. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Pianist Edna Stern plays music of Debussy as part of a play called La Boîte à joujoux by Pierre Senges, recorded this past fall. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a recital of French and Spanish songs recorded last November, featuring the young artists of Les Solistes de l’Atelier Lyrique in the Amphithéâtre Bastille in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Hear the New World program from Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Tembembe Ensemble Continuo under Jordi Savall. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • I have been on a 19th-century historical piano kick the last year or so. Here is a recital by Philippe Bianconi, playing on two such pianos, an 1860 Pleyel and an 1890 Érard from the Musée de la musique. [France Musique]

  • Claudio Abbado conducts the Orchestra Mozart and violinist Isabelle Faust in Schumann's second symphony plus Mozart's Linz symphony and K. 219 violin concerto. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Pianist Boris Berezovski joins the Orchestre National de Lyon, under conductor Josep Pons, for music of Ginastera and Falla. [France Musique]

  • Two concerts from Stockholm: Sakari Oramo conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Per Nørgård and Jean Sibelius; plus the Trio con brio Copenhagen with a piano trio by Per Nørgård. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, conducted by Frans Brüggen, performs Haydn and Fauré, plus Chopin's second piano concerto with soloist Nelson Goerner. [France Musique]

  • From the Proms last July, Hervé Niquet leads Le Concert Spirituel in Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Wiener Mozartisten and friends perform music by Leó Weiner, Debussy, and Strauss. [France Musique]

  • Fabio Luisi conducts the Wiener Symphoniker and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien in Bruckner's seventh symphony and Gerd Kühr's Jetzt wohin? for speaker, chorus, and orchestra. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Listen to a recital from the Auditorium du Louvre with cellist Yan Levionnois and pianist Guillaume Vincent, playing music by Schumann, Britten, and Debussy, introduced by Vincent's recording of Rachmaninoff preludes. [France Musique]

  • Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts a 1983 performance of Wagner's Die Feen in Munich, with Kurt Moll, Linda Ester Gray, June Anderson, and Cheryl Studer. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]


NSO Prepares for Tour, Week 1

Christoph Eschenbach is back in town, for two weeks of concerts. To prepare the National Symphony Orchestra for its upcoming European tour (January 31 to February 10), Eschenbach is giving test runs of most of the planned repertory this week and next at the NSO's regular concerts. (They trotted out Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche this past November.) Last night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, one of the tour's soloists, Tzimon Barto, joined the orchestra for Béla Bartók's second piano concerto, sandwiched between Beethoven's Egmont overture and Brahms's second symphony. Next week will feature Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (in the Weingartner edition for string orchestra), and Mozart's fifth violin concerto, with Dan Zhu standing in as soloist. Julia Fischer was to have been the violinist on the tour, but she has had to withdraw and will be replaced by Arabella Steinbacher.

Barto is an odd duck in many ways, but it is unlikely that anyone would ever complain of a lack of theatricality in his playing. He certainly had the technical acumen, stamina, and guts to pull off this dastardly concerto, not heard from the NSO since 1973 when Antal Doráti conducted it. Barto played from a score, even turning his own pages, but the cascades of notes poured out in the first movement, with its tour de force cadenza, and he made the most of the barbaro octaves and pointed syncopations in the finale. There is an element of chaos built into the score, and Eschenbach and the orchestra had to make many tiny adjustments to keep this crazy train on the tracks, as Barto careened his way through it. It was exciting without wracking the listener's nerves too much, listening to him white-knuckle his way through it. The second movement, with its languid halo of string sound, was the high point, especially the soloist's odd duet with groaning (glissando) timpani. A hearty ovation also offered the chance to try out the encore for Paris, a slow, sotto voce version of the Largo from Bach's F Minor keyboard concerto (BWV 1056).

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Under Christoph Eschenbach’s baton, Tzimon Barto plays Bartok with NSO (Washington Post, January 18)
Beethoven's overture for Egmont had a forceful touch, which gave the right sense of the story's heroic but doomed struggle for liberty but also caused some aggressive intonation stridency in the low strings and woodwinds at times. The piccolo's whoops and hollers and jubilant brass made the conclusion triumphant and martial. Eschenbach had excellent ideas in the Brahms second symphony, and the NSO executed the piece beautifully. The opening movement glowed with moments of sunrise from its slow introduction filled with reverie. Eschenbach seemed to hold back on tempi and dynamics, allowing the second theme to smolder in the cellos, for example. The second movement, not one of the best Brahms composed, brooded and exulted, outshone by the pastoral simplicity and folk-inspired dance of the third. Only the fourth movement seemed not quite ready for the main event, not always sure-footed in the sense of ensemble cohesion. The signs are good, however, that this Brahms will make a fine centerpiece to showcase the NSO as Eschenbach leads them through Spain, his native Germany, and ending up in his old stomping grounds with the Orchestre de Paris at the Salle Pleyel.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.