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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.1 (Part 2)

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

available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
Walter / Columbia SO

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Symphony No.1 (+ Adagio, Sy.10),
Bernstein / NYP

UK | DE | FR
Bruno Walter, the conductor most closely associated with Mahler, recorded his mentor’s work gladly and often. He stood on the rostrum for the (posthumous) Mahler premieres of the Lied von der Erde (1911, Munich Philharmonic) and the Ninth Symphony (1912, Vienna Philharmonic). In his recordings for Columbia/Sony half a century later he is still strongly advocating the causa Mahler. His First (in good sound, his second official recording and the last of at least seven, at this point) stands out, along with his Ninth that he recorded during the same sessions in January and February of that year. By way of contrast, Walter is a fine example of how the late romantic repertoire (Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner) has continuously been slowed down over the last decades, even as historical performance practice groups have sped up everything from Bach to Beethoven. But slowness rarely equals gravitas and Walter keeps things moving before they end up a cliché. That doesn’t mean he’ll hold back: In the opening of the finale he throws everything at his disposal at the listener—and with more energy than Solti has ever mustered. Just why Walter’s timpanist is pitched a semi-tone higher than is the norm I don’t know—but it becomes rather obvious during the “Frère Jacques” round where his bassist plays—just perfectly—in that panicky, dread-struck way. Upon re-listening, I find Leonard Bernstein’s New York recording (Sony) not too dissimilar; riveting and zippy.

available at Amazon Symphony No.1 + B.,
Judd / Florida Ph
Harmonia Mundi
Musique D'Abord

UK | DE | FR
There are things to be said about James Judd and the sadly defunct Florida Philharmonic. In what must be the most unlikely combination—a lesser known (if excellent) conductor from New Zealand leading a distinctively third-rate orchestra, from Florida of all places, into the sound world of Mahler—one is re-taught not to judge a book by its cover. Not this book, at any rate, and its exceedingly ugly budget-label cover. The playing is first class, Mahler’s idiom well approximated and, apart from the attractive budget price of the Harmonia Mundi Musique D'Abord line of recordings (previously on "Classical Express"), the disc includes the Blumine movement that Mahler originally included in this symphony but later threw out. There are others that include this movement—Ozawa I (Philips, oop), Rattle (EMI), Muti (EMI), Ormandy (Sony), Halasz (Naxos)—but none of them suggest themselves as superior.

available at Amazon Symphony No.1 + B.,
Zinman / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

UK | DE | FR
The most recent addition to the “M1+Blumine” recordings is David Zinman’s opening salvo in the Mahler-cycle contest on RCA (). After Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media), Zinman’s was the second integral cycle available on SACD (ahead of Gergiev, LSO Live and Stenz, Oehms), a technology that never quite entered the mainstream music market but has found a strong and enthusiastic niche among classical music lovers. (Especially among Mahler-lovers, it seems, which is why I try to indicate SACD-availability of a recording with the little SACD logo and indicate for each symphony my top-choice on SACD.) It is good to see that some companies—notably Harmonia Mundi, cpo, Chandos and RCA—stick to releasing convenient SACD-hybrids that play like a regular (“Red Book”) CD in any normal player but offer their sonic advantages (usually including surround sound) when played on an SACD compatible machine.

Zinman has flexibility and idiom, a generally warm and round approach, less militaristic. He’s generally rather ‘soft’ and awfully gentle in the third movement, his timpani muted. (No sense of dread among the basses, either... his first bass playing with way to much ease and skill to ever be pushed to his limits.) He’s stately bordering tame in the finale, but helped by the excellent depth of the burnished, dark RCA sound that gives even this less abrasive and ‘never in your face’ approach (just) enough heft.

available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
Kondrashin / NDR SO

UK | DE | FR
Kyrill Kondrashin with the NDR Symphony orchestra looks attractive at mid-price on an EMI import. It is his last recording—he died the very night he conducted this performance. I’d like to extol the virtues of a particularly riveting Russian Mahler, but the interpretation is not so different that it would merit sitting through what are too many individual flaws in the playing. Repeat listening would be no joy here. ">His 1969 Melodiya recording (oop) with the Moscow PO—coherent, marvelously untroubled—is certainly and much preferable.

available at Amazon Der Titan,
A.Hermus / Phil.O.Hagen

UK | DE | FR
The obscure audiophile Acousence label has released a live recording of Mahler’s First Symphony that might not be notable for the playing of the Philharmonic Orchestra Hagen led by Antony Hermus (although they do their job beautifully), but because it is a performance of the 1893 Hamburg version of the work (“Titan—A tone poem in symphonic form” split in two parts: “From the Days of Youth” and “Commedia humana”). Apart from extant programmatic titles that means inclusion of “Blumine” as part of its natural, considerably different environment, rather than having the movement simply tacked on a performance of the otherwise revised version (as is the case with Judd, Zinman, Rattle, Ormandy, et al.). It’s also notable for its absolutely gorgeous recorded sound: Politely distant, elastic, very vivid yet refined and atmospheric. More of a dark horse recording, still, than Judd’s. Too bad Acousence’s distribution is haphazard, at best, and the recording out of print as of writing [September 2013].

available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
Suitner/ Stakap.Dresden
Berlin Classics

UK | DE | FR
available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
Jansons / RCO
RCO Live

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
SFS Media

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Symphony No.1,
Gergiev / LSO
LSO Live

UK | DE | FR
Otmar Suitner’s 1963 LP for the East German VEB Schallplatten (People’s-Owned Company – Records) with the Staatskapelle Dresden is the only truly exciting “First” that I have recently discovered for myself (save Haitink/CSO). Superb, rich mono [Ed.1961 stereo] sound [the original LP was a mono issue but subsequent releases were in stereo], compelling conducting, wild climaxes, musicality and frenzy in perfect balance! Little wonder Berlin Classics has re-issued this on their “Eterna Collection”—both as a heavy vinyl LP and a beautifully produced CD with the original cover and liner notes. It further helps this release that it is coupled with an equally—or even more—gorgeous rendition of the “Songs of a Wayfarer”. The (East-) Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kurt Sanderling and booming roundness of Herrmann Prey were recorded in 1961 and it’d all be a perfect match were it not for the considerable distortion. All the same a true joy to listen to.

Mariss Jansons has been recorded in Mahler’s First three times. Live with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1999, in concert with the Concertgebouw in 2006, and again in 2007 with his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—also live. (The latter isn’t commercially available, so not as to compete with the RCO recording, even as Bavarian Radio has—finally—launched its own record label.) The description of Jansons’ Mahler will occur more often throughout this overview: “Impeccable and well mannered”. Far too good to be outright boring. But never quite exciting, either, which is deadly in Mahler.

Much more involving versions can be had by Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media ) and, brand new, Bernard Haitink (the above mentioned CSO Resound issue). Although no speed-demon himself, MTT is a little quicker, a little tighter of the two. Both, in any case, nail the symphony; the best version on SACD need only be sought among those two and I’d hate to choose.

The First (and the Sixth) Symphony would seem most suited to a gruff, unkempt, and wild-eyed style that one could well imagine Valery Gergiev (LSO Live ) to bring to his Mahler. The First isn’t an outright disappointment, but ultimately the impression is flabby-flimsy rather than bristling with personality and the sound lacks presence.

The font used in the title is “Arnold Boecklin Regular”

Mahler 1 Choices

1. Rafael Kubelik, BRSO, Audite

2. Rafael Kubelik, BRSO, DG

3. Pierre Boulez, CSO, DG

4. Otmar Suitner, Staatskapelle Dresden, Berlin Classics

5. Bernard Haitink, CSO, CSO Resound

5. Michael Tilson Thomas, SFS, SFSMedia

Mahler 1 SACD Choice

Bernard Haitink, CSO, CSO Resound

Appropriate Oddity Prize Winner: Bernstein, RCO, DG

Find a list of the Mahler Posts (formerly) on WETA here:

Cornago Mass with Folger Consort

Charles T. Downey, Folger Consort starts season with a polyphonic setting of Catholic Mass
Washington Post, September 30, 2013

available at Amazon
J. Cornago, Missa de la mapa mundi, His Majestie's Clerkes, P. Hillier
A pop song as the basis for a musical setting of the Catholic Mass sounds like a peculiarly modern thing to do, but the practice can be traced back to the 15th century. One of the oldest examples, the “Missa Ayo visto lo mappamundi” by Juan Cornago, was the centerpiece of the first program in the Folger Consort’s new season, its 36th, heard early Saturday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

It is a beautiful polyphonic setting of the Mass, for three male voices, with florid parts woven around the long notes of the Sicilian folk song “Ayo visto lo mappamundi.” Countertenor Martin Near, tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Richard Giarusso sang it mostly from a balcony above the stage, in a way that was evenly matched and blended, with just one rough patch in the “Sanctus” movement. [Continue reading]
Folger Consort
With Martin Near (countertenor), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), Richard Giarusso (baritone), and Emily Noel (soprano)
Folger Shakespeare Library


In Brief: Season Opening 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 William Christie conduct music of Rameau and Handel with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and soprano Sandrine Piau, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Hervé Niquet leads his ensemble Le Concert Spirituel in music of Henry Purcell at the Festival Sinfonia in Périgord. [France Musique]

  • Have a listen to the prizewinners from this year's ARD Music Competition, in concertos accompanied by the Munich Radio Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. [BR-Klassik]

  • From the Utrecht Early Music Festival last month, Fabio Bonizzoni leads his ensemble La Risonanza, in Antonio Vivaldi's cantata La Senna festeggiante. [ORF]

  • From the Internationales Brucknerfest Linz, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under conductor Yuri Temirkanov performs Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, plus music by Rachmaninoff and Bruckner, with pianist Nikolai Lugansky as soloist in Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. [ORF]

  • Watch a concert by the Orchestre de Paris, with music by Poulenc (the suite from the ballet Les animaux modèles and the concert for two pianos, with Katia and Marielle Labèque as soloists) and Franck. [Cité de la Musique Live]


Synetic's Rock-Infused Take on 'Dorian Gray'

Joseph Carlson (Lord Henry), Dallas Tolentino (Dorian Gray), Robert Bowen Smith (Basil), and Ensemble
in The Picture of Dorian Gray, 2013 (photo by Koko Lanham, Synetic Theater)

It has been an Oscar Wilde kind of year, albeit in an unsatisfactory sense. After Theodore Morrison's disappointing new opera Oscar at Santa Fe Opera this summer, Synetic Theater has created a new stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which opened on Friday night. Wilde's strength, the one-line zinger, at which he remains almost unparalleled, is happily on display, with most of the book's best aphorisms placed in the dialogue, but this version, overburdened with orgiastic rock ballet sections, lost its luster and turned boring not long into the second half -- oddly, for a company that specializes in physical, fast-paced theater.

Dip Your Ears, No. 155 (Haydn with Sudbin)

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Three Sonatas , Fantasia in C, Andante con Variazioni,
Yevgeny Sudbin

Sublime Lark

Out of Haydn’s ~62 Keyboard Sonatas, Yevgeny Sudbin picks some of the choicest morsels (47, 53, 60), true. But that’s not the reason why his recital is such a breath of fresh air and tremendously witty success. Haydn is the Alpha and Omega of musical phrasing, his sonatas all gems, but in truth not all recitals make that as obvious as Alfred Brendel did. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet now surveys Haydn successfully on Chandos, but it is Sudbin’s one-off among recent Haydn releases that sparkles the most. The Fantasia in C and Andante and Variations in F further add to the mix, as does Sudbin’s free-wheeling arrangement of the Finale of the “Lark Quartet”. Named “Larking with Haydn”, it’s emblematic of the spirit of this desert-island-disc.

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.


'Tristan': Thoughts on Fourth Performance

Ian Storey (Tristan), Iréne Theorin (Isolde), and Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne)
in Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Director Neil Armfield, in his production of Tristan und Isolde currently at Washington National Opera, adds action to all three of Wagner's preludes. This generally irritates me, distracting from a moment intended for non-visual listening with extraneous movement. It struck me at the fourth performance, heard on Tuesday night, that the dumb show that leads into Act I changes the context of the prelude music, from a rumination on what is to come to some of the background of the two title characters. Armfield has the singers playing Tristan and Isolde walk slowly toward one another, on the raised walkway at the back of the stage. As they come near, Tristan turns away from the welcoming gesture of Isolde, leaving her to enter the ship cabin alone, where she remains until the end of the prelude, reacting to some of the music.

Joseph Kerman, in an essay in the compilation on Tristan in the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, believed that the prelude to Act I is a key to understanding the whole work, in a way more profound than in any opera before or since: "Wagner's dramatic vision," he writes, "hinges on the way the opera emerges from the Prelude, on the way the Prelude plays in to the opera." Kerman analyzes more than just the over-analyzed harmony in this music, taking into account the slowed-down, hard-to-parse rhythm (the least dance-like 6/8 ever conceived) and the orgasmic dynamics, which give the listener the "first explicitly sexual tinge" in the score, a "spasm of desire" that is pulled back as Wagner returns to the cello, in the same range and sound as the opening theme of longing. If we accept Kerman's idea about the prelude, to add action to that music, which Wagner did not intend, is risky business. Armfield's decision reinforces what is already in the score, however, that the love story predates the drinking of the potion.


Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 10 ) • The ChristianeKargGeroldHuber-Duo

Bronzed Schubert and Mahler

The plenty and proximity of Schwarzenberg’s genial surroundings—culinary-, scenery-, and otherwise— brings with it, on occasion, a genuinely good reason (or two) to skip half of a recital. And seeing how it is rare that the second half of a program isn’t better than the first, one need not feel excessively guilty about it. This by way spurious excuse to pick up on the ChristianeKargGeroldHuber (one word) afternoon-recital (September 1st) as they performed three Schubert songs to open the second half with, all three of which actually did make one regret not having also caught the selection of Schubert and Schumann (Clara & Robert) before the break. Mlle. Karg, an animated statue cast in soft bronze and distractingly beautiful, delivered her Schubert with a quality—occasionally—of determination but also lots of natural, albeit never casual singing.

>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 1 ) • An Introduction
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 2 ) • Prégardien Père et Fils
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 3 ) • Belcea Quartet & Thomas Quasthoff
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 4 ) • Belcea Quartet & Till Fellner
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 5 ) • Diana Damrau & Xavier de Maistre
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 6 ) • Lemony Bostridge, Lascivious Röschmann
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett II
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 8 ) • Andreas Scholl & Tamar Halperin
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 9 ) • Angelika Kirchschlager & Schrammeln

Natural front-man—front-gal—though she is, her presence could net skew the impression that the quality of the recital was specifically thanks to the KargHuber Duo and not just one element (her) thereof. The eight Mahler (Alma & Gustav) songs, were better, still… more suited to that particular determined element of Karg’s; beautiful songs, beautifully sung. Demanding pieces (Alma’s with overt hints of Zemlinsky), they left interpretative room for an admirable performance but not the opportunity for shenanigans nor moments in which Karg could be tempted to push and wail, but instead infuse and whisper, relate and communicate. After a recital of such diverting quality, Schumann’s “Lotusblume” was a positively welcome encore.



Lost Art of the Diorama

Louis Daguerre, one of the pioneers of photography, made a very unusual diorama piece called La cathédrale imaginaire, installed in the small church of Sts. Gervais and Protais in Bry-sur-Marne (Val-de-Marne). It has been undergoing a complete renovation for the last seven years and was just reopened to the public earlier this month. In the specially lighted space behind the church's altar, a sleight of hand makes a cathedral-like nave appear to open up into the distance. Even stranger, as the sunlight in the church changes, the illusion can appear to shift from day to night. Claire Guillot reported on the work in a post (Le diorama, la cathédrale imaginaire de Louis Daguerre, de retour dans l’église Bry-sur-Marne, September 16) on the Instantanés blog hosted by Le Monde (my translation):
This magical trompe-l’œil dates from the 19th century and it is the work of Louis Daguerre (1787-1851). What one knows less about Daguerre is that before he worked on the technique that became the daguerrotype, he had known glory and fortune with another invention, the diorama. At a time when neither photography nor cinema existed, this inventor had imagined the 19th century's "sound and light show." A painter specializing in theater backdrops, he had had the idea to paint a canvas on both sides, then to illuminate the canvas with a complex system of mirrors and colored glass, hiding certain parts and lighting others. The whole thing works together to tell stories and give the illusion of animation.

The success of his dioramas was such that in 1822 he had a building constructed, to be dedicated to his invention, on the Rue Samson in Paris. The location, armed with huge windows designed to make sunlight enter, was in use until 1839, when a fire completely destroyed it. People came from all over France and abroad to discover the immense painted canvases of faraway countries: Rome, Egypt... They also went there to follow the news, as people would do in movie theaters later on.

With all of the paintings having been destroyed, the only Daguerre diorama that survives today is the one in Bry-sur-Marne, in the Val-de-Marne, where it was installed in 1842. Louis Daguerre had bought an immense property in the town, thanks to the income from the French government for his discovery of photography and his work on the diorama. At the request of a wealthy resident, Daguerre took on the mission of transforming the modest village church into a Gothic cathedral.
Guillot's post has many more pictures and details.


Rare Performance of 'I masnadieri' from WCO

Charles T. Downey, Washington Concert Opera offers Verdi rarity ‘I masnadieri’ in time for composer’s birthday (Washington Post, September 24, 2013)

available at Amazon
Verdi, I masnadieri, M. Caballé, C. Bergonzi, New Philharmonia Orchesra, L. Gardelli
It need not take the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth to appreciate his importance in the history of opera, but it is a good excuse. Washington Concert Opera has dedicated its 2013-14 season to the Italian composer, beginning with a performance of the lesser-known “I masnadieri” on Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium. (Another Verdi rarity, “Il corsaro,” will follow in March.) [Continue reading]
Verdi, I masnadieri
Washington Concert Opera
Lisner Auditorium

Additional thoughts:
Soprano Lisette Oropesa has a pretty voice, with some fiery notes at the very top (taxed just a bit when she was challenged by the ensemble in tutti scenes), although minor intonation issues, caused partially by an intense vibrato that creeps in at points and perhaps a slight lack of breath support, brought the performance down a notch. Her physical beauty, however, will endear her to opera directors looking for high-definition closeups, and her face is highly expressive: in the "hate duet" with Francesco in Act II, she shot a large repertoire of angry glances in his direction, perfectly camera-ready.

Tenor Russell Thomas sang with an impressive squillo throughout a long evening, flagging just a bit in the last half-hour of the opera. The strain got to Scott Hendricks, who looked like he would burst a vein by the time of Francesco's Sogno (Hell nightmare) in Act IV. Although the choral numbers are risible, there are several rather gorgeous arias and ensembles: Amalia's Act II cavatina ("Tu del mio Carlo al sena"), with its harp and woodwind introduction; the slow part of Amalia's duet with Carlo in Act III, with its tender cadenza for both singers (and the optional E-flat at the final cadence of the fast section for Amalia, which Oropesa took); and Francesco's melodramatic hell aria in Act IV.


'Tristan': Thoughts on Third Performance

Iréne Theorin (Isolde) in Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)
One of the meta-experiences of listening to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is the perception of opera history shifting under the weight of this powerful score. In terms of its harmony, dramatic construction, orchestration, narrative pacing, and many other parameters, it cast a spell that altered the way opera worked. The stark contrast between this work, composed in the late 1850s and heard in the third performance of Washington National Opera's production on Saturday night, and Verdi's 1847 opera I masnadieri, heard last night from Washington Concert Opera (review forthcoming), was disturbing. What a difference a decade can make.

Not all operas or productions merit covering as many performances as possible, but in the case of Tristan, Ionarts will be present at all five performances: see my thoughts on opening night and those of Robert R. Reilly on the second performance. There is a special energy at a first performance, and the absence of that buzz may have accounted for a less sterling account on the part of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. It was still very good, but with more blemishes than opening night.

My impressions of the cast remained largely unchanged, except perhaps for having the experience of James Rutherford's Kurwenal grow on me quite a bit. This was not so much that he was in that much better voice at the third performance, although that was probably part of it, but that his broad-shouldered bonhomie, so earnest in his devotion to Tristan, made sense. Ian Storey did not really improve vocally as Tristan, but as on opening night, he was very effective in terms of acting and presence in the softer parts of the love scene and the bleak opening to the third act. Iréne Theorin's Isolde continued to dominate every scene she was in, eclipsed only briefly by the King Marke of Wilhelm Schwinghammer, a singer we hope to hear in Washington many more times. Theorin did this not only by her singing, which continued to be powerful, sweet, and sultry, but by her stage manner and movements.

Part of the credit for Theorin's striking moments on stage must go to director Neil Armfield, whose work with Theorin was obviously cut short because she replaced Deborah Voigt late in the process. Theorin was imperious and angry in the first act, but still moved by her memories of the first meeting with Tantris, Tristan in disguise, in the narration scene. She was also girlish and fun, kicking up water in the pool beneath her at one point. Tristan is a static work, which this staging underscores in a beautiful way, with a visual approach that helps the music submerge the viewer in its tidal pull. In the second act, Armfield went more for tender than torrid in the love scene, with a duet ("O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe") that was placid and understated. Perhaps this would have appealed more to Clara Schumann, who was so repulsed by having "to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening" that she almost left in the middle of Tristan. Then again, Clara had the same reaction to Wagner that many people have: dislike of the person limited her enjoyment of the music. (She wrote in her diary of Wagner that he was "a person who never stops talking about himself, is highly arrogant, and laughs continually in a whining tone.") Philippe Auguin did not take any more time with the prelude to the third act, and it still seems a shame to sacrifice that gloomy moment to the goal of getting the audience out of the theater in under five hours.

Two more performances of this production remain, on Tuesday (September 24) and Friday (September 27), the latter with Alwyn Mellor and Clifton Forbis taking over the title roles.


In Brief: Start of Fall 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.)

  • Michael Boder conducts a production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at the Theater an der Wien, starring Toby Spence (Tom Rakewell), Bo Skovhus (Nick Shadow), Anna Prohaska (Anne Truelove), and Anne Sofie von Otter (Baba the Turk), with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester. [ORF]

  • The Heidelberg Symphony plays the Internationale Haydntage in Esterhazy, a concert including Haydn's symphonies no. 98 and 105. [ORF]

  • From the Festival de La Chaise-Dieu, Robert King conducts the King's Consort in music of Bach (Geist und Seele sind verwirret, a Sanctus, the Ascension Oratorio) and Handel (Dixit Dominus). [France Musique]

  • Pianist Nikolai Lugansky plays a recital at the Edinburgh Festival, recorded last month, with music by Janáček, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt. [ORF]

  • Listen to Lorin Maazel lead the Vienna Philharmonic in Shostakovich's fifth symphony and Tchaikovsky's third orchestral suite. [ORF]

  • Fabien Gabel leads a concert by the Orchestre philharmonique de Bruxelles at the Berlioz Festival, with music by Berlioz, Wagner (the Wesendonck Lieder, with Jennifer Larmore as soloist), Boulez (Notations I-IV and VII), and Musorgsky. [France Musique]

  • More Berlioz at the Berlioz Festival, with the Orchestre National de Lyon and soprano Véronique Gens. [France Musique]

  • Recorded last April in Graz, the Mandelring Quartet performs music by Mozart, Ligeti, and Schubert. [ORF]

  • Music of Haydn, Grieg, and Shostakovich performed by the Fine Arts Quartet and the Quatuor Talich at the Pablo Casals Festival. [France Musique]

  • The Cappella Nova Graz and Domkantorei St. Pölten, under the direction of Otto Kargl, perform sacred music by Bruckner (motets, plus the Mass in E minor) and Mendelssohn. [ORF]

  • From earlier this week, Daniele Gatti leads the Orchestre National de France in music by Verdi and Henri Dutilleux (Mystère de l'instant), with tenor Joseph Calleja and soprano Leah Crocetto, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Styriarte Festival last July, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Concentus Musicus Wien in music by Joseph Lanner and Franz Schubert, with contralto Bernarda Fink. [France Musique]

  • Have a listen to Grace Bumbry's Carmen recorded in 1969 and 1970 at the Opéra de Paris, with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and a cast that included Mirella Freni (Micaela) and Jon Vickers (Don José). [ORF]


The Anti-Aristotelian Seduction that is Tristan & Isolde

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

For the second performance of the Washington National Opera’s production of Tristan and Isolde, on September 18, I brought my oldest daughter, almost 16 years-old, with me. It was her first opera. This was a bit like asking someone to read War and Peace as their first novel—not exactly fair.

On the other hand, under any circumstances, Tristan is not a fair opera. By this I mean that the music is better than any production of the opera could possibly be. This must be what 20th-century music critic Paul Bekker, quoted in the Kennedy Centers Playbill, meant when he said that this is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.”

On that score, the passionate sounds of Wagner’s work walked confidently and expressively under the surefooted direction of company music director Philippe Auguin, who led WNO Orchestra to a night of glory. By itself, this made the evening worthwhile.

However, Wagner said that the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.” So what did we see? First of all, we saw a raked glass floor suspended on either side by cables, surrounded by billowy, white, ceiling-to-floor fabric. Under it was water, reflections of which dappled the fabric, which stood in for sails. This was a neat abstraction of a ship, brilliantly uncomplicated. It set the tone for the evening—the simplicity of the set and the staging were effectively set against the richness of the music.

However, it turned out that this was all the set there was going to be, for all three acts. It did not serve quite so brilliantly as an evocation of King Marke’s palace or of Tristan’s home. On the upside, it did not interfere. It also practically served the purpose of reducing the width of the stage to a manageable proportion for the action of the opera – which for long stretches has only two people on stage.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, who substituted for Deborah Voigt, was a satisfying Isolde, which is not faint praise. She reached her first expressive peak in the third scene of Act I when she related how she was forestalled from slaying Tristan when he looked into her eyes. This was a marvelously delicate and touching moment, which displayed the softly lyrical side of her voice. The second expressive peak for Isolde was her ferocious embrace of the idea of death later in the same scene. Here, Theorin showed her impressive

John Adams' New Saxophone Concerto

Charles T. Downey, John Adams’ new concerto shows sax appeal in American premiere (The Classical Review, September 21)
By composing a saxophone concerto, John Adams has elevated the saxophone from its second-class status in the classical world. At least such were the hopes of some people, including perhaps the composer, for this new half-hour work. It is a heavy burden for a concerto, indeed just one of a growing number of concertos to feature the saxophone, to bear.
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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
With Tim McAllister, saxophone
Adams, Saxophone Concerto (inter alia)

Some thoughts that did not make it into the review:

The saxophone has actually fared far better than other instruments invented in the 19th and 20th centuries: where are the concertos for the heckelphone, the sarrusophone, the Ondes Martenot, the electric guitar, the synthesizer, the Holztrompete? The saxophone seems to be doing just fine, and in any case, one new saxophone concerto is not going to cause saxophone parts to be added to all of those orchestral scores completed before the instrument’s invention in 1846 and its widespread acceptance. Because orchestras play so much music that predates or otherwise excludes the saxophone, it is naïve to expect that the instrument should be a part of every concert.

A live broadcast of the St. Louis Symphony's performance of the Saxophone Concerto will be available online on October 5, and Nonesuch will release a recording of the work in 2014.

Tim Smith, BSO opens season with U.S. premiere of John Adams' Saxophone Concerto (Baltimore Sun, September 21)

William Robin, Classical Saxophone, an Outlier, Is Anointed by John Adams Concerto (New York Times, September 17)

Harriet Cunningham, Restless riffs and delicacy in Adams' saxophone concerto (Sydney Morning Herald, August 25)


Eric Coble's 'Velocity of Autumn'

(L to R) Stephen Spinella (Chris) and Estelle Parsons (Alexandra), The Velocity of Autumn, Arena Stage (photo by Teresa Wood)

Getting old is hell, but it is better than the alternative, or so the saying goes. A vast sector of American society is entering the so-called golden years, and the 60s generation's ideas about how they want to spend the ends of their lives are likely to be as fixed and free-thinking as all their other ideas. Alexandra, the octogenarian protagonist of Cleveland-based playwright Eric Coble's new play, The Velocity of Autumn, has decided that she is going to end her days in the familiar setting of her Brooklyn brownstone, and no one -- not even her well-meaning but annoying older children -- is going to stop her. To make sure of that, she barricades herself inside with many bottles of explosive liquid in jars and her father's Zippo at the ready.


Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 9 ) • Angelika Kirchschlager & Philharmonia Schrammeln

Darling Salzburg-Earnestness

At 11 on a rainy Sunday morning, it’s nice not to be yelled at right off the bat, however high-brow artistically that yelling (a.k.a. Lied-recital) may be. Instead it’s nice to be eased into to a long concert-listening day with the light geniality of the Philharmonia Schrammeln Wien—that arch-Viennese ensemble on the threshold between classical and folk music from before the time when a strict distinction was made.

>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 1 ) • An Introduction
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 2 ) • Prégardien Père et Fils
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 3 ) • Belcea Quartet & Thomas Quasthoff
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 4 ) • Belcea Quartet & Till Fellner
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 5 ) • Diana Damrau & Xavier de Maistre
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 6 ) • Lemony Bostridge, Lascivious Röschmann
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 7 ) • Hagen Quartett II
>Notes from the 2013 Schubertiade ( 8 ) • Andreas Scholl & Tamar Halperin

German Dances by Schubert in their arrangement for violins, high G clarinet (Viennese name:  “Treacle-Stick”), contraguitar, and button accordion calmed the soul that had been painfully stirred by insidious background muzak in the hotel’s breakfast room (most perniciously a Pachelbel Canon apparently played by an uninspired student on an electric piano). Those dances set the mood for when Angelika Kirchschlager waltzed on stage, strutting a Dirndl as befits her Salzburg-native self and the occasion. She needed two Schubert songs (“Heimliches Lieben” and “Erlafsee”) to get into things, after a breathy start that sounded strident in the higher notes. But personality goes a long way to mediate, and hers brought across that high- and low-brow distinction-shattering naturalness.

Then came “Die Unterscheidung” and—Presto!—she was in the grove and wouldn’t leave it. “Im Frühling” showed that the Schrammel-treatment—unlike the harp- or harmonizing treatment—enhanced these works very considerably; perfectly suited to this music of beauty, wit, and wistful smirk.

Joseph Lanner’s “Dampf-Walzer” was a cute interlude before it continued with more Schubert songs, among which “Florio” took the cordially same-ish air out and turned it briefly into one of bitter-sweet somberness. “Der Musensohn” was cancelled outright, because—as Kirschlager charmingly, refreshingly-honestly conveyed—the artists had started to rehearse a bit too late and then couldn’t find a workable tempo to pull it off.  Her darling Salzburg-earnestness continued to show through the rest of the morning—especially the Wienerlied-compilation during which she believably mimed the seediness and seductive shadiness that the Viennese make part of their language.

So unpretentious, charming, and refreshing was the whole affair, that mistakes, infelicities, or the creaking among of performers, songs, and instrumental pieces—including the unholy potpourri-piece of everything vaguely Viennese and Imperially-Royally Austrian, named “Verklungenes Alt-Österreich”—didn’t detract: it added.


Ionarts-at-Large: Enescu-Surprise and Mahler-Mediocrity

Enescu’s Symphonie concertante—his Cello Concerto by another name—is excellent programming (with an eye toward repeating the program in Bucharest for the George Enescu Festival) and wonderful music. The Munich Philharmonic’s crowd was drawn in by Mahler 1 (and a few ladies and boys perhaps because of the presence of Gautier Capuçon) and what they got was one of the most beautiful 20th century cello concertos. If, that is, something written in 1901 can be called “20th century” without misleading one’s expectations. Certainly its late romantic idiom that even the unadventurous subscription audience found agreeable is spiritually more at home in the 19th century, post-Wagnerian, with hints of Saint-Saëns, somewhere between Brahms in tone and Korngold in sweep and grand gesture—which the orchestra brought out nicely under Semyon Bychkov. In good form, Capuçon played it with strong, concentrated, and slightly nasal—in the best sense—tone, focusing on the fleet passages more than sheer beauty of sound and variety of expression. Mistaking friendly applause for universal rapture, he felt compelled to give an encore.

available at Amazon
G.Enescu, E.Dohnanyi, E.D'Albert, Cello Concertos,
A.Gerhardt / C.Kalmar / BBC Scottish SO

Somewhat like the Golden Gate Bridge is being perennially painted, Orchestras seem to have taken to Mahler in a never ending convulsion of cycles. Ending one means starting another. Understandable: Mahler draws audiences (for now), and it’s a lot easier to impress with that repertoire than something difficult like Haydn.

At least with the Munich Philharmonic, the Mahleria™ (Prokofiev) makes a good deal of sense: they are historically one of the three most important Mahler orchestras, having premiered three of his symphonies (No. 4, No.8, and Das Lied—more than any other orchestra). But they had elongated Mahler droughts under music directors Sergiu Celibidache and Christian Thielemann who believed in the power of Bruckner. Now the orchestra is making up for it, in this particular case with Mahler’s First. Tedium, sadly, reigned: Mahler turned to inoffensive entertainment, adding to the glut of Mahler without making it an exclamation mark. After a swiftly musical opening, the performance quickly went down into banality, charming but perfunctory even in the Klezmer bits, dotted with lots of individual mistakes and at its best (and also most effective) simply loud. Even discounting the fact that this was the first performance, otherwise known to the orchestra as “de-facto dress rehearsal”, that’s not enough, not even in Mahler.