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


In Brief: R.I.P Google Reader 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.)

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Till Fellner plays music by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Schumann. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • A recital by the excellent pianist Alexander Melnikov, with music by Arthur Lourié, Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Debussy, all of it published in 1913, the year of the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. [France Musique]

  • More music from around 1913, by Albert Roussel, Szymanowski, Berg, Honegger, and others, performed by pianist Ariane Saguet, mezzo-soprano Andrea Hill, and musicians of the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Jean Deroyer. [France Musique]

  • For the 250th birthday of Johann Simon Mayr, the Munich Radio Orchestra, conducted by George Petrou, performs the composer's opera La Ginevra di Scozia. [BR-Klassik]

  • Emmanuelle Haïm conducts her ensemble, the Concert d'Astrée, in a performance of Charpentier's opera Médée, starring Michèle Loisier (Médèe), Anders Dahlin, Sophie Karthäuser, Stéphane Degout, Laurent Naouri, and others, recorded last year at the Opéra de Lille. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • A performance of Rossini's Petite Messe solennelle, recorded in May at the Musikverein in Vienna, with Daniele Gatti leading the Orchestre National de France and the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, plus soloists Barbara Frittoli, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Saimir Pirgu, and Carlo Colombara. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • José Miguel Perez-Sierra conducts a performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, with Hui He (Cio-Cio San) and Roberto Alagna (Pinkerton), at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona last May. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées a recital by Nicholas Angelich, with music by Ravel and Musorgsky. [France Musique]

  • The Prague Chamber Orchestra performs music by Martinů, Dussek, Zdeněk Lukáš, and Jan Baptist Vanhal, recorded earlier this month in Prague, with harpist Kateřina Englichová. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • At the Cathedral of Saint-Denis, watch a performance of the "Et incarnatus est" from Mozart's Grande Messe in C minor and Mahler's fourth symphony, featuring soprano Mojca Erdmann and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. [ARTE Live Web]

  • A selection of unusual music by Schubert, including the overture to Der Teufel als Hydraulicus and the F major octet, with violinists Hanna Weinmeister and Daniel Sepec and friends, recorded at the Schwarzenberg Festival. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • The Trio Ernest Chausson plays trios by Cécile Chaminade and its namesake, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. [France Musique]

  • From the Cathedral of Saint-Denis, watch the Choeur de Radio France and Maîtrise de Radio France join the Orchestre National de France under Kristjan Järvi for Arvo Pärt's Cecilia, vergine romana (2000-2002) and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Semyon Bychkov conducts the Webern Symphony Orchestra in Debussy's La Mer and Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensymphonie, in Vienna. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • A recital by mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa and pianist Alphonse Cemin, with music by Chausson, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc, as part of the Festival de Saint-Denis. [France Musique]

  • Music by Debussy, Chausson, Meyerbeer, Poulenc, Brahms, and Schubert at the Schwarzenberg Festival, performed by soprano Brenda Rae, clarinetist Martin Fröst, and pianist Roland Pöntinen. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Organist Olivier Wyrwas plays a recital in the church of Notre Dame des Blanc Manteaux. [France Musique]

  • Claudio Abbado turned 80 years old this week. To celebrate, listen to his 1994 recording of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with the Vienna Philharmonic, starring Bo Skovhus (Conte), Cheryl Studer (Contessa), Lucio Gallo (Figaro), Sylvia McNair (Susanna), and Cecilia Bartoli (Cherubino). [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • You can watch a few concerts from the Flâneries Musicales de Reims, including 14-year-old trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin-Vary playing Hummel's trumpet concerto. []

  • A recital by cellist Edgard Moreau and pianist Pierre-Yves Hodique. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of Rameau's Les Indes galantes, recorded in January at the Vienna Konzerthaus for the Festival Rezonanzen, with the Simphonie de Marais. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 144 (Papa Järvi's Raff)

available at Amazon
J.J.Raff, Symphony No.2, Shakespeare Preludes
N.Järvi / Orchestre de la Suisse Romande


From his bold First Symphony (“To the Fatherland”) to his four “Seasons” Symphonies (Nos. 8-11), Joseph Joachim Raff’s symphonic output is as important as it is ignored. Raff—who taught Liszt orchestration—combines dark Brahmsean ardor, Rheinbergerish touches, and Mendelssohn-flavors in his orchestral works. So much of Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony in the first movement of his own Second Symphony, in fact, that I scurried to look up the composition date: 1866. Mendelssohn, 1840. (Not suggesting anything.) Neem Järvi’s new recording gives the terrific Bamberg/Stadlmair recordings (Tudor, see Best of 2010) a run for their money, and benefits from great sound. It also includes the Four Shakespeare Preludes, not found on the Tudor set of the symphonies.


'For a long time, I went to bed early'

This year is also the centenary of the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of Marcel Proust's landmark roman-fleuve À la recherche du temps perdu. In June 1913 Proust was correcting the proofs, making significant changes, and the book would finally appear that November. The following year, the love of Proust's life, his one-time taxi driver and then secretary, Alfred Agostinelli, would die in a plane accident, to be resurrected as Albertine, the (female) love interest of the book's narrator. Edouard Launet wrote an article about the anniversary (L’atelier d’écriture de Proust, June 26) for Libération (my translation):
In September an avalanche of books analyzing and commemorating the anniversary will sweep into libraries. An avalanche, it must be said, that began at the beginning of this year. The most unusual of these works, and most certainly the most expensive (189 euros), is a large coffee-table book published by Gallimard and edited by Jean-Yves Tadié, who traces one of the most unbelievable literary paths of the 20th century. At the beginning of the month of April 1913, Proust received from his editor, Grasset, the first proofs of Swann, which he would completely rewrite in two months. "There is only one line out of every twenty in the original text that remains unchanged," the pale writer confided to his friend, the art historian Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, in a letter dated April 12. "It is striped with words, corrections in all the white space I could find, and I glued papers to the top, bottom, right, left, etc." In April and May, the amount of text would double, characters would be redefined, the famous opening phrase («Longtemps je me suis couché…») would be the object of much indecision, and most importantly the title of the novel sequence would change: goodbye, Les Intermittences du Cœur; hello, A la Recherche du temps perdu. That is, the work was truly born during these few weeks of almost hieroglyphic scratching, between the sound-proofed walls of a bedroom at no. 102, Boulevard Haussmann, in Paris.
These first galley proofs, which so altered the identity of the book, were for many years in private hands and largely impossible to consult. Shortly before the death of their owner, collector Jacques Guérin, they were sold at auction for a large sum, and the book includes a facsimile of the first 29 pages of the proofs.


Picasso in Oslo

Before Anders Breivik perpetrated his terrorist attack on the island of Utøya in 2011, he set off a bomb near a building in Oslo that housed the offices of the ministries of justice and police. Two of those buildings are likely to be demolished because of the damage to the structure. As Jean-Jacques Larrochelle reports (A Oslo, Picasso au secours d'un bâtiment ministériel, June 26) for Le Monde, an unlikely coincidence may make the government's plan difficult (my translation):
Is a mural inseparable from the place for which it was conceived? The leadership of Norwegian cultural patrimony thinks so. Its director, Jorn Holme, is opposed to the destruction of buildings in Oslo where artworks on concrete were created on the basis of drawings by Pablo Picasso. "If these buildings were destroyed and the murals moved to other sites, the works would no longer be the ones that Picasso intended," the director says.

Created in 1958 by the architect Erling Viksjø (1910-1971), the 14-story building in a modern style, occupies a site in the government complex next to Building Y, built in 1969 and also ornamented with pieces by Picasso. Influenced by the sculptural fiber of Le Corbusier and his use of raw concrete, the Norwegian architect clung to the idea of the overlap of artistic creation and building technique. Erling Viksjø developed a specific technique (naturbetong) that took advantage of the surface characteristics of this material. Viksjø entrusted the creation of large frescos on each of the interior landings of Building H to the artists of his time: Kai Fjell, Tore Haaland, Inger Sitter, Odd Tandberg, and especially Carl Nesjar. It was the last who carefully "etched" the mural of Picasso according to the indications written in notebooks provided by the Spanish artist.
The work shown above -- The Fisherman, from 1970 -- remains in excellent condition, while the other major work, on Building H, was badly damaged in the bombing.

Zeke Turner, Is Oslo the Next Art Capital? (Wall Street Journal, June 28)


À mon chevet: The First Four Notes

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

book cover
Of course, only the perceiving subject could know whether their judgment is concept free and therefore aesthetically valid, and Kant admits that the perceiving subject is an unreliable witness, often unaware that a perception of beauty is based on a concept. That makes it difficult to tell whether an aesthetic judgment can be universally valid, which is Kant's ultimate goal. We can all too easily fool ourselves into mistakenly believing that dependent beauty is free, as when Kant takes in a seemingly spontaneous concert:

"Even a bird's song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to be richer for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes. . . . Yet here most likely our sympathy with the mirth of a dear little creature is confused with the beauty of its song, for if exactly imitated by man (as has been sometimes done with the notes of the nightingale) it would strike our ear as wholly destitute of taste."

In other words, we could consider what one thought to be a yellowhammer's song and consider it free beauty, only to have to backpedal furiously to dependent beauty once we realized it was only the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In Kant's opinion, we were simply misleading ourselves from the get-go ("our sympathy" confused with the song's beauty).

-- Matthew Guerrieri, The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination, pp. 91-92
This dense, excellent book is more about the place of Beethoven's fifth symphony in the history of human thought and philosophy, rather than an analysis of the work's compositional history and structure. The reference to the yellowhammer in this passage is to perhaps the most plausible source for the famous theme that opens the symphony, the song of a small bird that Beethoven heard on his regular walks. It is not nearly as satisfying as my favorite story about the meaning of the theme, so good that it must be apocryphal, cited by Guerrieri at the end of his preface, as a handwritten addition to a copy of Anton Schindler's biography of Beethoven. When asked about the meaning of the opening theme, an annoyed Beethoven supposedly said -- one can only assume, to make the story perfect, singing his response to the tune -- "It means, 'You are too dumb'."


Summer Reading: French Edition

available at Amazon
Andrus Kivirähk, L'Homme qui savait la
langue des serpents
(Attila, 2013)
Here is a selection of some French beach reads (Les coups de coeur du "Monde des livres" pour l'été, June 21) recommended by Le Monde (my translation):
Andrus Kivirähk, L'Homme qui savait la langue des serpents (Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu), trans. Jean-Pierre Minaudier, Attila, 422 pp., 23 €.

In this novel by Andrus Kivirähk, born in 1970, some German knights pursue young girls and chase the Estonians out of the forest where they were living in communion with nature. An uproarious reflection on a new age, a crazy fantasy, and a grand book on solitude, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is like nothing else and respects no one. Precious like a secret language. (Nils C. Ahl)

Antoine Compagnon, La Classe de rhéto, 336 pp., 19,90 €.

At once traditional and facetious, this superb Bildungsroman recounts a year in a military school: group law and rituals of humiliation, but also gestures of solidarity and sentimental education. Its hero is an antimodern boy who takes refuge in literature. Antoine Compagnon issues of brotherly greeting here to all those heady types out there, to those disciplined rebels for whom the love of tradition is united to the thrill of disobedience. (Jean Birnbaum)

Michela Murgia, La Guerre des saints (L'Incontro), trans. Nathalie Bauer, Seuil, 120 pp., 15 €.

At the edges of a subtle novel of apprenticeship, bright and elliptical, Michela Murgia creates a somewhat ethnographic portrait of a universal Sardinia beyond time. The time of words creates a world of real space: fables told in a soft voice, holy chants launched to the sky, promises exchanged as part of adult rites create a sense of membership. A diffuse but never volatile book. (Philippe-Jean Catinchi)

Philippe Jaccottet, Taches de soleil, ou d'ombre: Notes sauvegardées, 1952-2005. Le Bruit du temps, 206p., 22 €.

Rereading his notebooks for the last time, the great poet Philippe Jaccottet, 87 years old, has saved up precious unread pages where, for the first time, he leaves room for his friends and favorite poets. Everything in these notes provokes meditation and reverie: the beauty of a landscape, the freshness of a sensation, but also admiration for the poetry of Mandelstam, the painting of Morandi, the music of Schubert. (Moniqute Petillon)
There are several more novels and some choices for essays.


Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Peter and the Wolf at Lake Wobegon

PETERING The Tomten and the Fox: New Classical Music for Children • Mississippi Gulf Coast Suite, Journey for Two Violins, String Quartet for Pet Rabbit, The Tomten and the Fox • Norene Smith, Mark Petering, Charles Sena (narrators); Stephen Colburn, cond; Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra New Music Ensemble • Zebrina Records ZR1075 (50:30)

available at Amazon
M.Petering , The Tomten and the Fox et al.,
N.Smith, M.Petering et al.,
S.Colburn, Milwaukee CO, New Music Ensemble
Zebrina Records ZR1075

This is a CD for children with music composed for children and extensive narration presumably tailored to a child’s preferences. Lacking children of my own, or accessible nieces and nephews for testing purposes, I tried to listen to this CD with child’s ears of my own. (Incidentally, a childlike state of mind doesn’t present particular difficulties to me.) Not all children are the same, however, and consequently not every child will react to this disc in similar ways as did my six year old alter ego. I happen to have been a child that could not stand condescension and the particular tone of fawning excitement that adults would put on to excite us—and I still can’t abide it.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The title work—The Tomten and the Fox—is a perfectly amiable setting of the Astrid Lindgren story for chamber orchestra and narrator. Oozing wholesomeness, it’s a lightweight version of Peter and the Wolf fresh from Lake Wobegon. Not as good as the original so obviously modeled on, but good enough to recommend as a sequel when the youngster has heard and seen enough of Prokofiev’s duck being swallowed.

Unfortunately that remains the gently elevated highpoint on this disc. As narrator Norene Smith and composer Mark Petering (b. 1972) proceed with the painfully obviously scripted dialog, the cringe factor increases steadily. They introduce and recap “Five Animals” represented by Woodwind quintet, among other items, and after every musically misrepresented beast (cub, fawn, rabbit, skunk, wolf) Smith exclaims in breathless sycophantism how that was totally like a rabbit, or a fawn, or—unintentionally best of all—“this was skunk!”. If you want to teach your child the meaning of servile flattery, you’ve got a winner at hand. The music, utterly competent throughout, lacks variety and sometimes misses the intended characterization entirely. What kind of squirrel is represented by a bassoon, anyway?

The CD ends on a note addressing the children listeners of how Norene and Mark hope that they will make music a part of their every day life. Neat thought, but if instructions to that extend become necessary, perhaps the music simply wasn’t spellbinding enough? Any smart kid and sympathetic teacher or parent will have more from an hour with Messiaen (when it comes to ‘readying’ the youngsters for “new classical music”) or, more conventionally, an audio biography of Haydn or Beethoven. In the end, what you have here is a CD full of good intentions and modest music, the result being the very lowest common denominator of a Garrison Keillor show (the Midwestern niceness) and Peter and the Wolf.

(Marketed directly, here.)


In Brief: At the Lake 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 concert of the three prize-winners at the Concours Musical International de Montréal for violin: Marc Bouchkov (Belgium), Stephen Waarts (USA), and Zeyu Victor Li (China). [France Musique]

  • Daniel Harding leads the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hindemith's violin concerto, with Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Britten's A Spring Symphony, with Anne Sofie von Otter, Mark Padmore, and others. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • From the Théâtre Antique d’Orange, opera excerpts with Patrizia Ciofi, Ruggero Raimondi, Vittorio Grigolo, Julia Lezhneva, and friends. [France Musique]

  • La Fenice and the Nederlands Kamerkoor join for a program of music by Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, at the Cité de la Musique. [France Musique]

  • From the Schwartzenberg Festival, the Apollon Musagète Quartet plays music by Tchaikovsky and Schubert. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Members of Les Arts Florissants perform Monteverdi's fifth book of madrigals, in the Abbaye de Saint-Michel en Thiérache. [France Musique]

  • A recital by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, with music by Chopin, Scriabin, and Granados, recorded in Waidhofen. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Profeti Della Quinta performs music by Salomone Rossi, at the Abbaye de Saint-Michel en Thiérache. [France Musique]

  • Starting on Wednesday, you can watch Michael Haneke's staging of Mozart's Così fan tutte, from Brussels. [De Munt]

  • Tune in today for the annual summer concert of the Berlin Philharmonic in the Waldbühne in Berlin, with violinist Christian Tetzlaff in Mendelssohn's E minor violin concerto, plus Beethoven's ninth symphony with Camilla Tilling, Joseph Kaiser, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Dimitry Ivashchenko. []

  • Manfred Honeck conducts the Vienna Symphony in Bruckner's ninth symphony and Thomas Daniel Schlee's second symphony. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Robert King leads the King's Consort in Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante RV 693 (1726), in the Auditorium du Musée d’Orsay. [France Musique]

  • Monica Huggett leads the Irish Baroque Orchestra in a selection of Irish music, at the Internationalen Barocktage Stift Melk. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]

  • Have a listen to Henri Rabaud's comic opera Mârouf, Savetier du Caire, recorded last month at the Opéra Comique -- stream not available until Monday. [France Musique]

  • An old recording of Giuseppe Verdi's I Lombardi alla prima Crociata, made in 1996 with James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera, starring Luciano Pavarotti, June Anderson, and Samuel Ramey. [Österreichischer Rundfunk]


The Currentzis Dances II & Ravel’s Wonderful Rubbish

Teodor Currentzis’ look is half Emo, half Marilyn Manson. It’s rather dreadful, but I suppose anything to differentiate oneself from the crowd will do and serves a purpose. And if rebel one must, it is surely better to rebel with black carrot pants and a white dinner jacket and greasy side-shaved hair than, say, youthful swastikas. From a PR point of view, at least. (Also with the difference that one of them grew out of the phase and the other one clings to it with tenacity. In any case: for conducting Weinberg's Passenger as well as he did, he should get away wearing pink hot-pants, for all I care.)

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was an ambitious curtain raiser for the concert, and it spoiled the ears with superb clarinet and oboe contributions in the brawny first movement. Undeterred by the jumping jacks of Currentzis’—who is decidedly of the interpretative dance school of conducting—the orchestra finished the piece in fine, if not exciting ways, and muscular colorful sound.

That Rubbish Bolero

The popularity of the Bolero exposes the need for simplistic structures, for the primitive in music, for the decidedly unsophisticated element that needs nourishment, too. We’re lucky it’s considered classical music, or else we couldn’t feel cozy and sophisticated, listening to this rubbish. That’s not a bad thing, “rubbish”. Surely the Bolero is great rubbish, perhaps like Midsomer Murders is total rubbish TV… but “good rubbish”. But don’t ever, ever tut-tut or pshaw! Pop songs or techno or down-tempo songs (not that the type to do so would be able to distinguish), while professing a love for Ravel’s confessedly music-devoid Bolero. Like it, by all means. We all do. But then don’t thumb your nose at the popularity of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (featuring Pharrell Williams & Nile Rodgers, for good measure), which is exactly the same piece of music, except that Daft Punk have the decency to stop the joke after 4 minutes. Get your simplistic groove on to that, too. On an almost tangential note: it wasn’t even performed all that well… just good enough and loud enough in the end to elicit the instinctive applause.

available at Amazon
DSCH, Piano Concertos,
A.Melnikov / T.Currentzis / Mahler CO
Harmonia Mundi

The Melnikov Treat

What if the concert had ended just before the Bolero? It would have been a whole different ball-game, ending on a high that combined the well oiled, unfussy musicality of Alexander Melnikov with the best of high-octane Currentzis in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Melnikov is a player free of effect and show, and enough reason to attend a concert or recital for anyone in the know. The Prokofiev was the confirmation of this optimistic prejudice in three movements—from jaunty to lyrical and back, playful, adept, and—or so I imagined—with a self-deprecating twinkle in his eye. More of Melnikov, please.

For a Melnikov discography click here.

Dip Your Ears, No. 143 (Jansons' Lutosławski & Friends)

available at Amazon
Lutosławski, Szymanowski, A.Tchaikovsky , Cto. for Orchestra, Sy.#3, Sy.#4
M.Jansons / BRSO
Rafał Bartmiński (tenor), Andreas Röhn (violin), Nimrod Guez (viola)
BR Klassik

Lutosławski Touchstone

Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is of a rare, invigorating quality: here pounding, there lyrical, then flitting like reveling grasshoppers. Success depends on painstaking precision, fitting each layer of different shades and timbres atop the next. Extreme virtuosity and difficulties stand in the service of the music and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons is suited to this challenge like few orchestras; the resulting live recordings is one of the finest of the Concerto yet. Szymanowski’s Third Symphony is a coupling on equal footing. Amid wordless chorus and ecstatic climaxes, the BRSO sounds at home and uncommonly full-bodied. Alexander (!) Tchaikovsky—not related—is a contemporary Jansons favorite; his post-Mahlerian Fourth Symphony for Viola and Chorus makes clear why.

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.


NSO Ends Season with a Modern Bang

available at Amazon
W. Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra (inter alia), Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, W. Lutosławski
The regular season of the National Symphony Orchestra came to a memorable close last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Before heading off for summer shits and giggles at Wolf Trap, the ensemble brought back Witold Lutosławski's virtuosic Concerto for Orchestra, not heard from the NSO since 1998, pairing it with the one-night-only local premiere of the new piano concerto by James MacMillan, Mysteries of Light, completed in 2008 and premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011. It was daring programming that rewarded the hard-working musicians, who gave one of their finer performances of the season.

It was a rare enough thing to have heard one Lutosławski piece performed this month, but two is pretty much unheard of around these parts. Where the later Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux is experimental and just downright weird -- a good weird, but still -- the earlier Concerto for Orchestra is sheer delight, in harmonic adventure, melodic appeal, rhythmic complexity, and most of all, orchestrational variety. The word tour de force truly applies. Most of the melodic material comes from a collection of Polish folk songs, treated in a fragmented, repetitive, motivic way. Stasis is one of the piece's hallmarks, with an F# pedal in the opening of the first movement later pinged by the celesta in a section for woodwinds and high strings. The second movement's rushing runs were stunningly fast but with pleasing subtlety, down to the enigmatic coda in the double basses and percussion. The passacaglia of the third movement began suavely, shot through with bluesy touches, the many orchestral colors and metric shifts preventing the relentless triple meter from becoming monotonous.

This was the NSO debut of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who took over the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra after Mario Venzago's contract was not renewed. He had a clear beat and a no-nonsense way of helping the musicians shape the music, rarely seeming at odds with them. He did have a regrettable tendency to use his cue hand to give showy gestures, like little finger flicks for trills or grace notes here and there, which were meant only for the audience's benefit. Still, he coaxed some murky pianissimi from the musicians in the second movement of the first suite from Grieg's music for Peer Gynt, "Åse's death." The strings, in particular, had a unified and pretty sound in this piece, leading a manic dance in "In the Hall of the Mountain King."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Polish conductor, Kennedy Center organ impress as NSO closes season (Washington Post, June 21)

Robert Reilly, Second Opinion: NSO with Tough MacMillan Nuts, Lutosławski Excitement (Ionarts, June 21)
MacMillan's new piano concerto struck me in much the same way as his second piano concerto did, its five movements, each representing one of the Luminous Mysteries added to the Rosary by Pope John Paul II in 2002, forming a multistylistic melange. MacMillan's Catholic devotion was on display in the quotation of Gregorian chant, most prominently the incipit of the Ave Maria chant, heard in increasingly dissonant settings, often hammered out like a motto (some of the rest of the chant is heard later). At the keyboard, Jean-Yves Thibaudet handled the often frenetic solo part with aplomb, a sort of commentary, sometimes urgent and sometimes reflective, on the mishmash of sounds from the orchestra. Each mystery had odd touches: the brass fanfare and trombone chorale of "Miraculum in Cana," the piano's atonal bird songs (a tribute to another Catholic modernist, Olivier Messiaen) against lush low string strings in "Proclamatio Regni Dei," a hymn tune that rose above multimetric chaos in "Transfiguratio Domini Nostri." It would be hard to meditate to this music while praying the Rosary, which was not MacMillan's goal, but it made for fun and diverting listening.

The evening was capped by only the second "Postlude" recital on the new Kennedy Center Concert Hall Organ this season, a series that the NSO hopes to broaden next season. At the console was Russell J. Weismann, whom I know from my time singing in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, who charmed in both his spoken introductions to the pieces and how he played them. He brought out the instrument's many colors, including the rather awful "Filene" stop, the only set of pipes that was kept from the old instrument that this organ replaced. The brief recital concluded with a trashy showpiece, Dudley Buck's Concert Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner, which was everything I dreaded it would be. If you were wondering if the American national anthem's melody could be made into a fugue, wonder no longer.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night, with Saint-Saëns's fifth piano concerto unfortunately replacing the MacMillan piece and no organ recital.

Second Opinion: NSO with Tough MacMillan Nuts, Lutosławski Excitement

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from The Kennedy Center.

Thursday night, at the Kennedy Center,the National Symphony Orchestra welcomed Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski in a program of Edvard Grieg, James MacMillan, and Witold Lutosławski.

Grieg’s Suite No.1 from Peer Gynt made for a nice curtain raiser and warm-up piece. It also revealed the style of the very young conductor, who only graduated from the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw in 2007. Mr. Urbanski kept the beat with his baton in his right hand, and did a good deal of expressive sculpting with his left hand—almost as if he was playing it as an instrument. I don’t think this was an affectation and even if it was, it seemed to produce very good results. I was particularly struck by the second movement, Ase’s Death, which is a threnody for strings alone, with all but the double basses playing with mutes. The NSO string section positively glowed with warmth and feeling, down to the final, exquisite pianissimo. In the last movement, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Urbanski showed that he knew how to build a movement with the whole orchestra to an impressive climax.

Other Reviews:

Charles Downey, NSO Ends Season with a Modern Bang (21.6.13)
I was very interested to hear MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No.3, which was composed for performing pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who premiered the piece with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2011. It has taken some time for me to be won over by this Scottish Catholic composer, but the work that finally did it was his Seven Last Words, an ineffably moving Good Friday meditation. Still, much of his music is difficult, and so were parts of this Concerto. (I would suggest that those who have assimilated the musical and extra-musical language of French composer Olivier Messiaen would not have much of a problem with it. The programmers at the NSO must have known that this was the case [Ed. or simply don’t trust their audience], which is why they have placed Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No. 5 in lieu of the MacMillan, for the remaining two performances of the program. The piece is subtitled The Mysteries of Light. MacMillan said he wished “to revive the ancient practice of writing based on the structure of the rosary”. The Mysteries of Light title is a reference to the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary introduced by Pope John Paul II in 2002. They are, in English: the baptism of Jesus Christ; the miracle in Cana; the proclamation of the reign of God; the Transfiguration of our Lord; and the institution of the Eucharist.The five movements are played continuously.


Flying Dutchman Sketches & Doodles

Jotted down during Minkowski's performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus. (Not creatures of boredom.)

The Gal

Minkowski's Sons of Meyerbeer: Wagner & Dietsch

A Double Bill of Flying Dutchmen

While in Vienna, do as the Viennese and attend concerts. At least that’s the cliché about the allegedly culture-loving town, and I’m not above it. After tremendous Verdi at the Konzerthaus (Requiem, Noseda), I was in for another anniversary-boy in the same venue. This time Wagner, but with a two-hour twist. When Wagner wrote the libretto for his Flying Dutchman, inspired by accounts and variants of the story he found in Heinrich Heine (Reisebilder, Memoirs of Mr. von Schabelewopski), Wilhelm Hauff (Das Gespensterschiff), and Walter Scott (The Pirate), he offered the French version (Heine helped to make the French more idiomatic) to the Paris opera. They said “merci”, gave him 500 Francs for the draft (which Wagner could not afford not to take), and gave it to Paul Foucher and Henri Révoil for a good working over… then asked their chorus-master and conductor Pierre-Louis Dietsch to turn it into an opera (which they then claimed was not based on Wagner’s libretto after all). Dietsch, whom his student Fauré called “by nature frigid, methodical, but reactionary in mind” and who would go on to alienate Wagner and Verdi by ineptly conducting their Tannhäuser, resp. Les vêpres siciliennes, did as was demanded and came up with

Briefly Noted: MacMillan Piano Concerto

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J. MacMillan, Piano Concerto No. 2, W. Marshall, BBC Philharmonic, J. MacMillan
(Chandos, 2006)
Krzysztof Urbanski is conducting quite a program with the National Symphony Orchestra tonight, combining Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, op. 46, and Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra. In between will be Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing a piano concerto, either the new third piano concerto by Scottish composer James MacMillan -- tonight only -- or the old Thibaudet standby, one of the Saint-Saëns concertos (no. 5, "Egyptian"). Urbanski is the chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and, since the peremptory dismissal of Mario Venzago, the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. MacMillan's third piano concerto, premiered in 2011 by Thibaudet and the Minnesota Orchestra, is based on the structure of the Rosary, specifically the Luminous Mysteries added to the meditation of the Rosary by Pope John Paul II.

The third concerto has not been recorded yet, but tonight's local premiere sent me back to have another listen to MacMillan's second piano concerto, in a recording conducted by the composer. This score was expanded from a single-movement work, Cumnock Fair, which remains the first movement of the concerto, to serve as the accompaniment of a choreography by Christopher Wheeldon for New York City Ballet in 2004. The first movement begins with a frenetic orchestral unison, an introduction to a sometimes dissonant fantasy on 18th-century melodies by John French, a friend of Robert Burns who lived in Cumnock, with the piano often reflecting on them nostalgically. The slow movement has an old-fashioned, even schmaltzy quotation of the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in the middle, which comes back like a nostalgic memory at the end of the third movement. The finale is a high-spirited reel, with all sorts of interesting percussive and harmonic effects laid over the top. It receives a fine if not all that remarkable performance by Wayne Marshall and the BBC Philharmonic on this Chandos disc, which is frankly overshadowed by the same soloist's rendition of MacMillan's hallucinatory organ concerto A Scotch Bestiary, from 2004, which is a wild ride worth your time. Hopefully, it is on Christoph Eschenbach's To-Do list.

The National Symphony Orchestra will play James MacMillan's third piano concerto only this evening (June 20, 7 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Also only tonight is one of the free recitals on the Concert Hall's new organ, just following the concert. This time, Russell J. Weismann, Associate Director of Music at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where we spent time imprisoned as a chorister, will play the Cortège et Litanie by Marcel Duprè, Herbert Nanney's Sonata in E minor, and Dudley Buck's Concert Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner.


'Sostegno e gloria d'umanità': Arts and Wine

British art historian Norman Rosenthal has a theory about Dionysian references in the history of art. Valérie Duponchelle spoke to him about it for an article (Sir Norman Rosenthal : «De Dionysos à Picasso», June 19) for Le Figaro (my translation):
LE FIGARO. - Art and wine, is it a long, loving marriage?
Seated in my library, I see all my art history books which are filled with endless references to wine, from Dionysos and Homer to Velázquez and Picasso. Wine was cited abundantly in the Bible and the Gospels, which fed an entire pictorial tradition in the West. Veronese's Wedding at Cana, made in 1562 for the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and conserved today in the Louvre, is a striking example of it. We could include literature, like Falstaff, the character created by Shakespeare in the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, whose pen described drunks wondrously. Jovial and red-faced, he is the perfect incarnation of the English attitude to drinking, consisting of exacerbated conviviality -- it's the pub culture! -- and different from the silent solitude of the French absinthe drinker painted by Manet, Degas, and the young Picasso at the very start of the 20th century in Paris.

What do Dionysos and Bacchus represent in art?
The pleasure of losing control, as illustrated by Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, a large oil painted in 1520 to 1523 for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, by chance today one of the glories of the National Gallery in London. The way in which Bacchus, god of wine, descends from the chariot pulled by two panthers to go meet Ariadne, with whom he has fallen in love at first sight. The joyous nudity of his handsome body, barely covered by the pink drapery, his light and freeing movement posed at the very center of the large canvas (176.5 x 191 cm), his laughter and carefree attitude, make of this Titian one of the great representations of drunkenness. Of all the examples of drunkenness, that is. From 1470, Andrea Mantegna represented it in his engravings of mad bacchanals, expressing both a caricature and the eroticism of the Renaissance, as shown by the exposition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1992. This unrestrained world is very often masculine. Very few women have been immortalized as drunkards, or even as drinkers.
Some modern artists, like Franz West or Damien Hirst, may drink heavily but, Rosenthal concludes, it has had little influence in their art, and he discussed only a couple examples that came to mind. His theory about women not being shown as heavy drinkers is interesting, since the primary worshippers of Dionysos were the Maenads, shown above in the amphora painted by the Amasis Painter in the 6th century B.C. The dithyramb, the frenzied choral piece sung and danced in honor of Dionysos, can be said to have influenced the development of music, dance, and theater, too.


Montserrat on Montserrat

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Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, M. Figueras, Hespèrion XX (inter alii), J. Savall

(re-released on October 25, 2010)
Virgin 628658 2 1 | 59'18"
Hard as it is to believe, this fine little disc was recorded 35 years ago, in the heyday of the early music movement. In it Jordi Savall offers alternately mysterious and earthy performances of the ten pieces notated in the Llibre vermell, a 14th-century codex from the Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat in the mountains of Catalonia. This monastery was often frequented by pilgrims, as a final destination or as one of the stops along the route to Santiago de Compostela. A note in the margins of the "red book," as it came to be known because of the red velvet cover made for it in the 19th century, specifies that these ten pieces are for the use of pilgrims keeping vigil in the abbey church or in the square in front of it. Instead of singing inappropriate folk songs, they should sing and dance to this more pious music. (One of the pieces was also recorded by John Eliot Gardiner recently, in the context of a selection of music for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.) Jordi Savall and his instrumental ensemble Hespèrion XX -- at this time including Christophe Coin and Hopkinson Smith, among others -- give a folksy twist to the dance and popular song-like pieces. The late Montserrat Figueras leads a large consort of voices, both men and women in various combinations, to give the impression of a large group of pilgrims united on the cammino, of both washed and unwashed varieties.

The only drawback of this re-release, priced to move, is that the booklet contains neither texts nor translations of the fascinating texts, some in Latin and some in Catalan, but you can find both here and they are worth reading, intense in their pious sentiments and specific to the mountaintop monastic house for which they were composed, like a vivid slice of late medieval life. Perhaps only in the "calamitous 14th century," as historian Barbara Tuchman termed it, could such dancing enthusiasm be matched to lyrics about hastening toward death ("You will become a vile cadaver, why will you not avoid sin?") in the final piece. In a nice touch, the male schola reprises the opening piece at the end of the disc, the serene chant O virgo splendens hic in monte celso miraculis serrato (O virgin, shining brightly, on this high serrated mountain -- Montserrat), which fades into the distance as the pilgrimage continues.


NOI's Strauss

Charles T. Downey, National Orchestral Institute’s presentation of young musicians displays talent, haste
Washington Post, June 17, 2013

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R. Strauss, Tone Poems, Philadelphia Orchestra, W. Sawallisch
The best way to learn is to do. That is the goal of the National Orchestral Institute, the summer apprenticeship program for young classical musicians at the University of Maryland. Its National Festival Orchestra prepares weekly programs of symphonic repertoire with different conductors in a short turnaround time. The latest one was presented Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The performance, which centered on two of Richard Strauss’s virtuosic tone poems, might have been construed as biting off more than a less-experienced group could chew. That it was not was a credit to these talented musicians and to the savvy of this week’s conductor, Rossen Milanov. [Continue reading]
National Orchestral Institute
University of Maryland
Clarice Smith Center

James Hepokowski, in his study of Don Juan ("Fiery-Pulsed Libertine or Domestic Hero? Strauss's Don Juan Reinvestigated," in Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam), wrote that analysis of a Strauss tone poem should be focused on understanding the work's ambiguities, how it takes shape in the pull of "unresolved tensions" between the musical narrative, the supposed literary one, and even how or if the two coincide. One example of this ambiguity is in the formal structure of Don Juan, which has been described as some kind of sonata form or some kind of rondo form.

Hepokowski inclines somewhat toward the rondo in his analysis, noting that there are four episodes between the returns of the Don Juan theme (Heldenthema): three of the hero's seductions, followed by what he calls a masked ball or orgy. The work ends with what is sometimes identified as the duel that concludes Nikolaus Lenau's version of the Don Juan story, in which Don Juan lets himself be killed, heard at the conclusion of final statement of the Heldenthema. Hepokowski notes, however, that the theme does not always return in the tonic, so it is more like a ritornello form than a rondo. As for the program, Hepokowski proposed a theory that the duel at the end is not an actual death but the seducer figure giving up his old ways and accepting a new persona as husband. This is similar to what was happening in Strauss's life at the time: he had met his future wife, Pauline, just before the composition of Don Juan, which was completed in 1888. This makes the pairing of Don Juan with the more transparently autobiographical Ein Heldenleben, composed a decade later and incorporating quotations from Don Juan and other Strauss tone poems, even more apt.

Ionarts-at-Large: AkAMus Rocks Corelli

In the fourth concert of their little mini-residency in Munich’s Prinzregenten Theater, the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin (AkAMus) appeared before a very decent crowd last Saturday. Not like on their last outing, where the concert venue, a smaller scaled Bayreuth replica, was apparently two thirds empty. It’s heartening, that the rather un-adventurous Munich crowd cared enough about one of the world’s best early music groups to turn out in decent numbers. And what a gift they got!

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Giovanni Bendedetto Platti,
Concerti Grossi,
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi

Akamus on ionarts:

But first they were treated to an exhibit of the great acoustic of the venue by one particularly persistent cougher, so persistently, so loudly, that the crowed veered between amusement and reaching for their death-ray guns. The simple joys and pleasures, the uplifting joie de vivre of Corelli in the Concerto Gross op.6/4 in the feathery AkAMus musicking, was like having a fresh PIMM’S shoved in your hand as you enter a promising summer party of new friends.

My neophyte company, still raw from a mindlessly boring, achingly sincere violin recital the week before, immediately picked up what they were all about: “It’s like a rock band, the way they play. It just happens to be classical music.” Which is exactly what they did: all in the service of unstuffy, immediate musical entertainment… allowing the music to do what it was meant to do—entertain!—rather than stifling it with decorum. With sprits this high, who would begrudge the natural horns—in Vivaldi’s Concerto for two Horns (RV 538), at a fiendish tempo—being more on the lively and liberal side than that of accuracy.

The unsuspected pleasures of Giovanni Benedetto Platti and his Concerto Grosso in G minor (after Corelli’s Violin Sonata op.5/5) were a soothing-riveting-soothing-riveting-soothing delight in five movements. A concerto chimera for recorder, cobbled together mostly from Platti and based on Corelli, was the last of four sets before intermission, and the recorder acrobatics of Christoph Huntgeburth in this fun-house tour-de-force left the audience itching to come back for more after intermission, rather than silently regret that they can’t go home already, because it would look bad with their subscription holder seat neighbors.

It went on like this, lightly thrilling all along the way, with the Corelli Sonata for Violin & Basso Continuo op.5/6 a particular pleasure during which violinist and leader Georg Kallweit and Lutenist galore Lee Santana (subbing for the indisposed AkAMus regular) displayed their musical instincts and keen ears. Only the unnecessary theatrical, tip-toed, one-by-one walking entry for Corelli’s La Follia Sonata (in Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso version) struck me as unnecessarily artificial (and corny à la Tafelmusik) in a concert that had refreshingly been stripping away artifice all evening. No matter, amid such enchantment.