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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein'

Kevin Burdette (General Boum, center) and cast in La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein, Santa Fe Opera, 2013 (photo by Ken Howard)

Charles T. Downey, Fizz is off the champagne in Santa Fe Opera’s “Duchess of Gerolstein” (The Classical Review, July 31)
Listening to three hours of an Offenbach operetta will likely cause a hangover, not unlike the one caused by all the champagne that is guzzled by the operetta’s characters. This was the lesson learned at the Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein, heard Tuesday night.
[Continue reading]

Offenbach, La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
With Susan Graham, Emmanuel Villaume
Santa Fe Opera

available at Amazon
Offenbach, La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein, F. Lott, S. Piau, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, M. Minkowski (production directed by Laurent Pelly)
available at Amazon
Mike Silverman, Actress makes royal return home at the Santa Fe Opera (Associated Press, July 27)

Scott Cantrell, A hyperactive Santa Fe ‘Grand Duchess of Gerolstein’ (Dallas Morning News, July 31)

Castleton Festival Closer

Charles T. Downey, Castleton Festival offers excellent tribute for Benjamin Britten centenary
Washington Post, July 29, 2013

available at Amazon
J. Bridcut, Britten's Children
What to make of the Benjamin Britten centenary? The final concert program of the Castleton Festival, heard Saturday night, offered an excellent tribute to the British composer. How does one square one’s admiration for the beauty of Britten’s music with a clearer understanding, thanks to a well-researched and not sensationalized book by John Bridcut, of Britten’s attraction to teenage boys? [Continue reading]
Castleton Festival Orchestra
Music by Britten, Tchaikovsky
Castleton Festival

Of his song cycle Les Illuminations, Britten wrote to a performer that the eighth song, Parade, "should be made to sound creepy, evil, dirty, and really desperate." Because of the text's listing of various kinds of men, Philip Brett once wrote that this song depicts "cruising."

W. H. Auden, Rimbaud
The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky,
His horrible companions did not know it;
But in that child the rhetorician’s lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.
Drinks bought him by his weak and lyric friend
His senses systematically deranged,
To all accustomed nonsense put an end;
Till he from the lyre and weakness was estranged.
Verse was a special illness of the ear;
Integrity was not enough; that seemed
The hell of childhood: he must try again.
Now, galloping through Africa, he dreamed
Of a new self, the son, the engineer,
His truth acceptable to lying men.

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 3 )
El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra

El Sistema • Simón Bolívar Orchestra & Gustavo Dudamel

Glorious Venezuelan Mahler

A complete Mahler cycle is not terribly novel these days, nor particularly imaginative programming for a large festival. Then again, with the amount of great orchestras and Mahler-savvy conductors in town that the Salzburg Festival can boast, it’s a perfectly welcome opportunity to get one’s annual Mahler fix: A full, high octane dose of it, with Riccardo Chailly (No.9), Gustavo Dudamel (Nos.3, 8, 7), Michael Gielen (No.6), Mariss Jansons (No.2), Zubin Mehta (No.5), Cornelius Meister (No.4), and Simon Rattle (No.1).

The El Sistema flagship, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, takes on most of the Mahler duties at the Festival, with performances of the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies. The “Symphony of a Thousand” was broadcast live on, where it can be watched for another few months. Tuesday, July 30th, the Third Symphony was on the program, also conducted by Dudamel whose career was launched with Mahler when he won the inaugural Bamberg Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition nine years ago.

Dudamel, who is routinely described as a “force of nature”, has a reputation not to come across on record as well as he does in concert. He has to be seen to be heard. That’s an assertion that’s hard to judge after a Mahler Third, which isn’t exactly the rabble-rousing fireworks kind of piece that exacerbates the difference between live and canned. The particular excellence of this performance might actually have been one that could well be caught on record.

The Third is Mahler’s boldest symphony, his clichéd best, and when the finale is brought off ‘just right’, it is the symphony with the most ecstatically moving ending: A flight of music that carries the listener through a weightless journey of the imagination. Unfortunately none of the Mahler Thirds I’ve heard live in the last few years (Mariss Jansons/RCO, Vladimir Jurowski/LPO, Jansons/BRSO, Esa-Pekka Salonen/Dresden Staatskapelle, Fischer Iván/Munich Philharmonic, and Sebastian Weigle/Frankfurt O&M Orchestra) achieved quite that sense of apotheosis I always hope for. Dudamel’s, at long last

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.3 (Part 2)

This continues "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.3 (Part 1)"

Mahler wrote his Third Symphony in the summers of 1895 and 1896—having become the ‘summer composer’ only two years before, while finishing the Second Symphony. Unwilling to see himself only as a conductor and opera director rather than a composer, he compared himself to what the great composers before him had achieved at his age (then about 35), and realized that he needed to get cracking.

The Third wasn’t premiered until after the Fourth—1902 in Krefeld at the 38th annual festival of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein (the General German Music Association founded by Franz Liszt to promote the “New German School” of music). For one, it is even more unwieldy than the Second Symphony before. And the Berlin critics had called Mahler a lunatic, after hearing three excerpted movements a few years earlier, which might not have helped, either. The work is scored for quadruple-everything: flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones and five clarinets, eight horns, two harps, a huge percussion section, alto soloist, women’s choir, boys’ choir, and more strings than most orchestras could muster. The final Adagio alone, never mind the massive 35 minute first movement, is longer than most Haydn symphonies.

It also took so long to get the Third Symphony premiered, because this time around Mahler was not making any compromises. The premiere had to be perfect, or not take place at all. He had to conduct, and he had to get as much rehearsal time as necessary. He wrote Richard Strauss, who, in his position as head of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein organized the concert and overcame any and all

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.3 (Part 1)

Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.3 (Part 2)"

The Third Symphony, Mahler’s longest, has sublime moments and plenty of them, but it can be difficult to find your way to—and around—it: Its quilt of music is complicated and never just straight forward and clear-cut. It has two large outer movements around four smaller movements—the first movement alone takes over half an hour. In my traversing Mahler, only the Seventh was more stubborn in opening itself up to me. The titles that Mahler originally gave the movements, only to withdraw them later, don’t offer much help. But the fear that knowing these titles might lead to misunderstanding the symphony is no longer given either, so there is no harm in listing them. (Mahler originally planned seven movements and there are seven corresponding titles as the letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner (below the jump) shows. The seventh movement—"Was mir das Kind erzählt" ("What the Child tells me")—would become the finale of the Fourth Symphony.

The symphony itself had two working titles before Mahler opted for employing neither: “The happy life—A Summer-Morning’s Dream” (in German even more clearly a riff on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, though Mahler denied any connection to it) was one. Later Mahler chose the Nietzschean title “The Gay Science”. That Michael Gielen likens the Mahler Third to Robert Musil’s novel “The Man Without Qualities” is gratifying to read. I love Musil’s novel about—essentially—nothing, and I’d never claim to understand it, either. The feeling of being removed from life and the world that Mahler


Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'La Traviata' Redux

Michael Fabiano (Alfredo) and Brenda Rae (Violetta) in La Traviata, Santa Fe Opera, 2013 (photo by Ken Howard)

It is the last week of July, and that means press week here at the Santa Fe Opera, the chance to hear what five operas, and other goodies, are on offer. My week in New Mexico began last night with Verdi's La Traviata, one of the season's two chestnuts -- part of a brilliant programming formula here. The staging is a revival, with some reworking, of Laurent Pelly's 2009 production, then starring Natalie Dessay in her title role debut, which I covered for Opernwelt. This performance comes on the heels of a re-examination of the life of courtesan Marie Duplessis, the subject of a rewarding new book by Julie Kavanagh, The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. The book separates the life of the person -- the poor girl from Normandy, abandoned by her father and then sold by him into sexual slavery, who rose to great wealth as a Parisian courtesan, only to be doomed by her tragic love for Franz Liszt -- from the legend later concocted by Alexandre Dumas fils (who was one of her paramours) in La Dame aux Camélias and, through it, Verdi's Violetta.

available at Amazon
J. Kavanagh, The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis
Soprano Brenda Rae was not an overwhelming Violetta, with not much power at the bottom but nice high notes -- including an interpolated high note at the end of "Sempre libera" -- and agility in the fast passages. She caught the frivolous side of the character, with a shameless edge rather than coyness, and acted well. Tenor Michael Fabiano was a puissant but also sensitive Alfredo, leaving out the high note at the end of his Act II cabaletta but hitting many others, his slightly stilted manner on stage suiting the character. The Germont of British baritone Roland Wood was disappointing in its shallow tone, the center of the pitch not always apparent and the high notes sometimes strained. Without a more suave legato, the character's moving slow arias lose most of their appeal. It was also a mistake to have Germont seem impatient to leave during the Act II duet with Violetta, almost dismissing her in a way that made what is easily the most beautiful love duet in the opera seem rude and insincere.

Pelly and his set designers (Chantal Thomas, assisted by Camille Dugas), rethought the second act, running it into the first with only a short pause and improving the staging significantly. Perhaps taking Alfredo's line about being on cloud nine ("io vivo quasi in ciel"), several of the large boxes of the set were opened up, to reveal views of a perfect blue sky with fluffy clouds. The effect was somewhat surreal, almost like something you would see in a Magritte painting -- I half-expected Germont to enter in a bowler hat. It also served to lighten up what was one of Pelly's most drab stagings, with its mausoleum-like boxes serving as cemetery, party scenes, country cottage, and Parisian apartment.

Other Reviews:

James M. Keller, SFO’s ‘La traviata’ has ups, downs (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 21)

John Stege, Violetta Revisited (Santa Fe Reporter, July 23)
The 2009 production was conducted beautifully by Frédéric Chaslin, who was appointed chief conductor for the company but who then resigned last year. He will be replaced next year by Harry Bicket, after this season's carousel of conductors. At the podium for La Traviata is British conductor Leo Hussain, in his company debut, and he led with sensitive gestures, drawing out the nostalgia of the opening prelude with finesse. Unfortunately, having wrung out every bit of emotion from the first act, he proceeded to stretch the score in ways that yielded beauty sometimes -- a gorgeous, forlorn clarinet solo in Act II as Violetta wrote her letter, for example -- but also sapped the final act of most of its energy, laden as it was with lugubrious tempos and exaggerated grand pauses. One rarely has to help Verdi at all with the dramatic arc in his best operas, because it is all laid out there for you in the pacing and orchestration.

This production continues through August 22, at the Santa Fe Opera.

Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 2 )
Gawain • Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle • Gawain

Detail - click to see entire picture.
All production photos above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz

How to Explain Opera to a Dead Hare

Now with a single step, your journey starts…

One of my main reasons to attend the Salzburg Festival this year was the promise of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera Gawain (more pictures here) staged by Alvis Hermanis. Birtwistle’s symphonic synthesis of the work, Gawain’s Journey, heard in Munich (review here), was more than enough to entice me: “[This] symphonic extraction [has] a lush and literal score, much like a newer version of Bartók’s Bluebeard… [The] beguiling, flavorfully dissonant orchestral music goes down very easy: full of dramatic and descriptive color, through with the underlying opera shimmers at all times…”

Two overwhelming acts later, I must now back-paddle my enthusiasm boat a bit. There was still a good amount left of the beguiling, flavorfully dissonant orchestral music, but it decidedly did not go down easy any longer. It didn’t, because of the length of the work, each act’s last 30 minutes of which felt like they should have been dispensed with in ten. It didn’t, because of the strident, abrasive writing for the voices. It didn’t, because of the repetitive and dramatically less-than-compelling libretto. And it didn’t, because of Hermanis’ dark and often dreary and yet more often tangential production. These combined factors seemed to leach the music of its nuanced delicacy in the strings, the dark warmth of the brass, the colorfulness of the assorted idiophones and harp to the far right, and the pounding, striking brutality of the percussion section to the far left—all of which was admittedly there, courtesy of the splendid ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra (once again a credit to Austrian music-making beyond the mere custodianship of tradition) under the vital and efficient leadership of Ingo Metzmacher.

Here’s the challenge – one of you
Must swing the axe at me.
I must bow my head
and bare my neck to take the cutting-edge.
I must not turn aside or duck the blow.

“I must bow my head… I must not turn aside or duck the blow.” That’s what the Green Knight says to the Knights of the Round Table, a good third into the first act. And although I didn’t know then, I would come to empathize with that sentiment over the next few hours. Not that there was a sense of anger after leaving the Felsenreitschule, exhausted, some three and a half hours after entering. Nor even one of disappointment, although disappointment would have been easy to explain. It was more a sense of being overwhelmed and drained… but not in the good sense… not in that emotionally overpowering way that audiences left last year’s Die Soldaten with (review here). I felt blunted—an experience shared by many audience members, veterans and contemporary-newcomers alike.

The production cannot have helped in that regard—not, admittedly, that it’s the director’s principal job to help me overcome naïve expectations. It starts out promising with the disembowelment—in full sight—of one of the ruffians of Arthur’s round table. Three huge, percussion-immune doggies feast on the entrails, and the rest of the post-apocalyptic mutant knights share in the feast of offal, too. That’s not for everyone, but except for the cannibalism part, I can sympathize from a culinary point of view. A bit of tripe every once in a while—Act 1, if necessary—can add texture. But when the Green Knight shows up and asks to have his head chopped off (a task which the strapping Christopher Maltman cum Gawain cum Joseph Beuys obligingly executes), Hermanis pulls back in the graphic depiction department, and does a rather pathetic, entirely bloodless fake chainsaw action, and Gawain lifts a loosely attached Green Knight’s head off a peg on the rump.

This is the moment that waited for you
as you journeyed towards it.
This is the moment you carried with you
from the worst dream.

Speaking of Joseph Beuys: Where Hermanis’ direction and stage design and Eva Dessecker’s costumes don’t depict a post-Chernobyl dystopia on the left (representing ex-Civilization/Christianity) and Life After People images of overgrown cars on the right (representing Nature/Paganism), it’s a vast animated Joseph Beuys exhibition that they put on display. Until Christopher Maltman—dressed to look like the German genre-bending visual artist—finally pipes up that it is he who would like to trim and prune the Green Knight down to size, he slinks around in a re-make of “I Like America and America Likes Me”. (Younger generations might think of hooded Ewoks being evoked, instead.) One of the dogs acts the part of the coyote. He—Maltman, not the dog—readies himself, golden-faced, for his trip to meet the Green Knight for their revenge-rendezvous in what is a replication of “How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare”. When he sets about his journey, he takes the sleds, rolls of felt, and torches, and recreates “The Pack”… to take the three most notable examples. And if I didn’t understand the convulsing Zombie-striptease of the extras, replete with concluding mud-bath and looped, spastic gyrations, it could well possibly my lack of familiarity with Beuys that I couldn’t place it.

Hermanis writes in the program notes that the events in the opera remind him of Beuys “and his life-long endeavor towards the unity of mankind and nature.” “Beuys always seemed to me to be the only possible ambassador which the world might be able to dispatch in case of a visit of creatures from outer space. The Gawain of the opera displays many similarities with this artist: both want to unite worlds, both experience the corruptibility of man with their own bodies, both have knowledge of failure and find themselves to be their own legends already during their lifetimes…” There’s undoubtedly depth to this, but that does not


Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 1 )
El Sistema • Youth Orchestra of Caracas

El Sistema • Youth Orchestra of Caracas

Great Shostakovich, Gruesome Propaganda

Since the unstoppable rise of Gustavo Dudamel, Venezuela’s Orchestra Academy El Sistema (FESNOJIV) has become a brand. The Simón Bolivar Orchestra (SBO) became its flagship and Dudamel is the brand ambassador. A strong presence at this year’s Salzburg Festival, El Sistema is present with seven branches: four orchestras, a chorus, and two ensembles. The SBO, three genuine youth orchestras—the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, and the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble, the Simón Bolivar String Quartet, and the Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir.

On July 28th, it was the Youth Orchestra of Caracas that played in the Felsenreitschule in a romantic-fireworks program of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. With oodles of their young colleagues from the other ensembles in attendance (Dudamel among them), the Felsenreitschule was packed with a historic number of dashing young men and gorgeous, tan ladies: A marvelous spot of color amid the Salzburg-usual chalky gray white with wafts of formaldehyde.

Shostakovich’s fanfare-besotted Festive Overture, with its bloated pomposity, is an ideal work to just let it rip in… any too serious take on it would fatally expose its grave flaws as one of DSCH’s most hollow works; right down there with Beethoven’s Wellington's Victory. As was, played to the happy hilt by a 150+ strong sea of young eagerness, it was a rather wonderful curtain-raiser to one of DSCH’s finest orchestral works, the easily underrated, expectation-crushing Ninth Symphony. The snap and crackle, stop-and-go, the childish joy and toy-shop character (a sardonic toy shop, with Shostakovich, but still…) was properly torn into by the horde of Venezuelan youngsters, with frankly amazing  accuracy in the bloated string section. The guest that seems to come naturally to youth orchestras (Venezuelan or not), suited this First movement like a glove.

available at Amazon
P.I.Tchaikovsky, Sy. 5,
A.Nelsons / CBSO

available at Amazon
D.Schostakovich, Sy. 9
(+ 'faked' Mravinsky 5th),
Z.Kosler/ Czech PO
Chant du Monde

The slowly swaying second movement, drained of vivaciousness, was no less masterly performed, with the brass and wind showing what they could do in well-behaved mezzo piano and below. Ditto the electric, buzzing Presto, a helter-skelter concerto for orchestra with a fabulous trumpeter sticking out at the back. The equally marvelous bassoonist guided through the lamenting Largo, amid the brassy, threatening trombones… right into the tomfoolery of the Allegretto Finale with its polka-dancing bears and clowns on tricycles.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 was tinted with snarling brass and produced beautiful mass-pianissimos under the guiding hands of El Sistema product Dietrich Paredes. The cloying Tchaikovsky—down to the comically charicature of a romantic-symphonic ending—was swept aside in favor of an all-embracing, irresistible Tchaikovsky—mildly, briefly marred only in the Valse, when a first few concentration-lapses surfaced.

A wonderful concert, rightly rewarded by standing ovations which, had it ended then and there, would have been a subtle victory of culturally diplomacy on the strength of its music-making. But it wasn’t to be. Out came the lazy but effective encores. Out came the choreographed instrument swinging-and-twirling, the coordinated spontaneous swaying and dancing and the clap-along bits. Out came even the propaganda jackets which were finally tossed into the grateful, over-the-moon audience. It was a breathtakingly cynical, and crude display of political instrumentalization, which might have been genuine the first time around, many years back, but is scripted and calculating now. (Even the Red Army Chorus in the Kennedy Center was more subtle, back when they invaded Afghanistan). Let’s assume—for sanity’s sake—that it was all dedicated to the political prisoners in Venezuela, suppressed journalists, and the victims of state-graft and massive government corruption. Alas, it wasn’t, and even more sadly: the audience swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli


In Brief: Armchair Festival Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (After clicking to an audio or video stream, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast.) No one could possibly listen to all of it.

  • From the Festival de Beaune, Ottavio Dantone leads his Accademia Bizantina in a performance of Vivaldi's opera L'Incoronazione di Dario, from 1717, starring tenor Anders Dahlin (Dario) and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström (Statira). [France Musique]

  • Pair that with Accademia Bizantina's performance of Vivaldi's Tito Manlio, with Sergio Foresti, Roberta Invernizzi, and others, recorded last year at the Kracow Opera. [ORF]

  • Watch the recital by pianist Daniil Trifonov at the Verbier Festival, with music by Liszt, Scriabin, and Chopin -- the same program he played in Washington earlier this year. []

  • Semyon Bychkov leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the BBC Proms, starring Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) and Violetta Urmana (Isolde). [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

  • Watch William Christie conduct Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Sarah Connolly as Phaedre. [Glyndebourne]

  • Peter Phillips conducts Musica Reservata de Barcelona in a concert of sacred music by Francisco Guerrero, Joan Pau Pujol, and Victoria, recorded last April in the Eglésia de Santa Anna in Barcelona. [ORF]

  • From the beautiful church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris, watch a performance of the music from the Llibre Vermeil de Montserrat by the Musiciens de Saint-Julien and the Maîtrise de Radio France. [France Musique]


Ionarts-at-Large: A Damrau Liederabend to Harp On

A Liederabend in Munich’s National Theater is normally a compromised proposition: few singers have the voice—and fewer still the courage—to look into the vast round and still sing Lied-appropriately: light and naturally. Christian Gerhaher can do it, and I’ve heard Thomas Quasthoff do a Müllerin there in an I-can’t-be-bothered-kind-of-way that was at once insulting and splendid. But most singers flip into opera-mode and shout. Even superb (but Lieder-inexperienced) ones like Anja Harteros, who floundered at a Liederabend during one of the last Munich Opera Festivals. And Lieder shouted, no matter who does the shouting, are awful.

Diana Damrau is one of the few who have the voice, the wherewithal, the experience, and the confidence to pull it off… which made this Liederabend—full of promising Richard Strauss—one of the more attractive offerings of this year’s Munich Opera Festival. That it didn’t turn out that way was not primarily her fault, but it probably still had something to do with the choice (not her choice) of venue. It was primarily a matter of Xavier de Maistre’s harp accompaniment, which didn’t take well to the Strauss nor the venue.

Bereft of an acoustic in which its sound could nicely reverberate, the harp just pling-planged into nothingness; notes falling like dead raindrops on the floor. Above it Mme. Damrau cut through the space with her voice, but even that sounded a little harsh at first, and at least very much unsupported. Whether because of the acoustic or form that night, they never sounded together; there was no sense of unity, no sense of her voice being carried by the music, as it would be in these works’ orchestral guise or with the piano accompaniment (presuming an excellent pianist). For at least the eleven Strauss songs, Mme. Damrau was left alone, and de Maistre’s hard work amounted to little more than mildly annoying background jingle-jangle. In the third song, “Leises Lied”, Damrau developed the vocal warmth one expects in her sublime Strauss, and in “Die Verschwiegenen” operatic spunk, plenty dynamic—but surprisingly little expressive—nuance, which fit the overall acoustic (and ultimately emotional) dullness.

available at Amazon
D.Damrau, X.DeMaistre
+ Documentary "Diva Divina"
Virgin DVD

A little harp interlude separated the first two sets of Strauss, in part to pretend that there was some egality among the performers when of course exactly no one had come to the National Theater to hear Liszt transcribed for harp. The audience was well-behaved, though, and they humored Xavier de Maistre’s admittedly amazing Le Rossignol by showing their appreciation for this little divertissement before the main act was back on stage. A diva would have used the time to change dresses, but Damrau (who could pull it off) is thankfully above gimmicks (not counting the harp-accompaniment as such). Singer and harpist continued to subtract from each other, instead of adding… most notable in “Winterweihe”, which was a shadow of its orchestral self in this version. This lasted until after intermission, when three songs from Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d'Auvergne (sung in French, while the program helpfully offered the Occitan text, which caused many a confused look among the audience) worked much better for this voice-harp combination.

This was over too soon, giving way to another solo harp interlude, this time a transcription of The Moldau from Smetana’s Má vlast… a proud river, reduced to a trickle of treacle. The undeniable element of awesomeness in mastering such a difficult transcription—even if Xavier de Maistre showed neither the technical panache of his student Emmanuel Ceysson or the musical touch of Anneleen Lenaerts—is a bit like admiring someone for carving a turkey perfectly with a nail clipper. Amazing, with overtones of daftness. It was in any case overtaken by Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs (now the program offered a very different German translation from what Damrau sang), which were not the last word in idiomatic Bohemian folk-ness, but very beautifully done—especially the evergreen “Songs My Mother Taught Me”. Then Damrau announced updates on the state of the royal baby and context-matched Strauss songs as encores, goading the audience into a self-celebratory frenzy with the “Wiegenlied”, “Morgen”, “Nichts”, and the acrobatic Eva Dell'Acqua “J'ai vu passer l'hirondelle” (from Villanelle).

Not a night to remember, but I’m looking forward to catching the program in the much more intimate and appropriate setting of the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg.

Dip Your Ears, No. 148 (Double the Chorales, Double the Joy)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Orgelbüchlein
BWV 599-644

Francesco Cera (organ)
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera
Diego Fasolis (director)

A Musical Diet of Aural Respite

The label’s PR blurb claims that this release is “an original concept: the Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644 performed alternating the organ chorale with the same chorale sung by a choir.” Perhaps not that original. Ton Koopman has done a similar thing with the Schübler Chorales (with his Amsterdam Baroque Choir, Warner) and Suzuki has turned to the Clavierübung III in that way (Bach Collegium Japan, BIS). And the Orgelbüchlein has been thus recorded by at least Kevin Bowyer (with Det Fynske Kammerkor, volume 7 of his complete Organ-Bach on Nimbus), Vincent Warnier (Ensemble Vocal Jean Sourisse, BNL), Helga Schauerte (Immortal Bach Ensemble, Syrius/BNL), and Helmut Rilling (with his first ensemble, the Stuttgart Figuralchor, on Cantate).

Then again, most of the above recordings are hard to come by and hearing the organ chorales alongside the chorales they’re based on is immensely pleasing, even enlightening—so PR-exaggerations be damned: this is a magnificent release. You’d think the organ pieces, which are developed from the choral pieces, would be placed after the choral bits—to show the development. That’s certainly how most other recordings order handle it. Not Cera & Fasolis. But over a couple dozen increasingly enthusiastic listening, bafflement has given way to delight, because this order actually helps the shorter choral interludes gain in weight and become equal partners rather than mere notable appetizers. And anything that can heighten the vocal contributions here is a bonus, because the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera under Diego Fasolis is one of the great strengths of this recording and deserves every bit of the spotlight. Solo soprano duties in 14 chorales go to the equally lovely, moving Antonella Balducci, whose calm and darkly colored voice—with burnished hints of reed and wood and total lack of narcissism and bits of boyishness—puts the ears at divine ease.

Orgelbüchlein Chorale BWV639, Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (exerpt), Francesco Cera, Antonella Balducci

Francesco Cera plays with that innate rhythm that establishes that irresistible, compelling pulse in Bach. His modern Mascioni opus 1182 organ (2008) of the ancient Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Giubiasco/Bellinzona (~1387), sounds clear and clean, strong, and confident, but not at all bombastic or overwhelming (as Bowyer’s Marcussen organ of Saint Hans/Odense has a tendency to do), neither chalky or nasal as Warnier’s very fine French Grand Organ of St.Martin in Masevaux (Alfred Kern) does, and although it has a mechanical transmission, you can’t hear the nuts and bolts as you will, invariably, from the historical instrument in Luckau (in its own right a glorious Christoph Donat-built instrument) that Schauerte plays.

Det Fynske Kammerkor (Bowyers’ band) manages some chorales with almost chorister-like clarion-naïveté. The Immortal Bach Ensemble (and assorted soloists) impress with unparalleled transparency and pronounced rhythmic delivery. But the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera here comes close, and adds the amount of heft that matches the organ and allows not having to record the voices too closely. Their contribution makes up for the only criticism I might muster (by providing very decent liner notes, Brilliant nixes another potential complaint in the bud) and that’s that the Mascioni organ sounds a little neutral compared the Luckau and Masevaux instruments. Well, that’s why I wouldn’t just want to have one recording of these works… but if I had to reduce to one, it would be Cera.


Preview of the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( Gawain )

Preview of Salzburg’s Gawain • Harrison Birtwistle

One of the performances I’m most looking forward to at this year’s Salzburg Festival is Harrison Birtwistle’s Gawain, in a Alvis Hermanis production, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, and featuring the ever strapping and striking Christopher Maltman. Here are some photos (below the jump) of the production (courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Ruth Walz) which will premiere today, June 26th. Ionarts will report next week.

Armonia Nova at Church of the Epiphany

Charles T. Downey, Armonia Nova performs rarely heard medieval music at lunchtime concert
Washington Post, July 25, 2013

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G. de Machaut, Sacred and Secular Music, Ensemble Gilles Binchois
For classical-music listeners thirsting for summer concerts, the Church of the Epiphany offers a weekly oasis. The most recent concert in its free Tuesday noontime series featured rarely heard medieval music, mostly in Old French, performed by the local ensemble Armonia Nova. Even though all of the details were not in place, it was a welcome chance to hear music more than six centuries old.

With just three performers — two singers accompanied by a harpist, Artistic Director Constance Whiteside — the sound was delicate and pretty, easily heard in the Washington church’s resonant acoustics. [Continue reading]
Armonia Nova (Constance Whiteside, director)
With Nancy MacArthur Smith (soprano) and Corey McKnight (countertenor)
Church of the Epiphany