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


Briefly Noted: More Operas in Vivaldi Edition, Part 1

available at Amazon
A. Vivaldi, Catone in Utica, T. Lehtipuu, R. Mameli, A. Hallenberg, S. Prina, R. Basso, E. Baráth, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

(released on August 27, 2013)
Naïve OP30545 | 160'40"
Vivaldi premiered Catone in Utica to great success in 1737 in Verona, using an abbreviated version of Metastasio's libretto, created originally for an opera by Leonardo Vinci a decade earlier. By the time Vivaldi got to it, the libretto was already pretty far from the facts of history, surrounding the final demise of Cato the Younger in 46 B.C., when he committed suicide in a particularly gruesome way. In the opera, Catone has taken refuge with Arbace, ruler of Utica, in what is now Tunisia, a role sung with a lovely sound by soprano Emőke Baráth (Vivaldi wrote the role for a soprano castrato). Here Marzia is not Cato's faithful wife but his daughter, sung with molten voice by Sonia Prina, in the role created by Vivaldi's protegee, Anna Girò. Soprano Roberta Mameli is a little strident at times but effective as Cesare (Julius Caesar), who seeks the hand of Cato's daughter Marzia, causing him to take care in the invasion of Utica. Mameli is particularly good in Apri le luci e mira and other arias that require more finesse, but also the brassy showpiece Se in campo armato (the role was created by daring soprano Giovanna Gasparini).

The story is complicated by the presence of Pompey's widow, Emilia, rendered in high-flying fury by mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, lavish in ornamentation, especially in the sea-tempest showpiece Come invano il mare irato, which brings Act II to a big finish. A legate from Rome, Fulvio, sung forcefully by Romina Basso, is in love with Emilia, who is hell-bent on avenging her husband's death on Cesare. The only disappointment vocally is tenor Topi Lehtipuu, a talented singer who sounds a bit outclassed by the florid demands of the role of Catone and may not have been in the best voice either. The end of the opera, in which Marzia and Arbace prevent Cato from committing suicide and are then joyously wed, is a let-down. The manuscript of the opera lacks the overture and the entire first act. The sinfonia from L'Olimpiade stands in for the former, and Alessandro Ciccolini has reconstructed and, in parts, outright composed music for the first act. He is also credited with the creation of the cadenzas and ornamented repeats for the singers, which are quite brilliant. Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco are in their usual fine form.


Briefly Noted: Louis Le Prince

available at Amazon
L. Le Prince, Missa Macula non est in te (inter alia), Le Concert Spirituel, H. Niquet

(released on April 8, 2013)
Glossa GCD921627 | 63'48"
Sacred music in 17th-century France has perhaps taken a back seat to the opera of that period. French conductor Hervé Niquet here makes an ingenious attempt to provide one glimpse into the Baroque chapelle -- French pronunciation of Latin and all -- with a disc of music from the period performed by all women's voices. The backbone of the program is the first recording of the Missa Macula non est in te, a setting of the Ordinary for six voices by Louis Le Prince, the maître de chapelle at the Cathedral of Lisieux, published in 1663, the only work by him known to survive. Proceeding from sources about practices relating to music performed by convents of nuns in the 17th century, Niquet has put together a sort of Mass-Office hybrid, with the five Mass movements surrounded by other pieces suited to different feast days but all for women's voices, here ten singers beautifully balanced in ensemble. The Mass, reconstructed from the score in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France by scholars at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, is worth rediscovering, performed here with instruments (violon consort, bassoon, positive organ) doubling (and sometimes replacing) the vocal parts and captured in radiant sound in the resonant space of the church of Notre Dame du Liban in Paris. The trappings are no less charming, especially the opening motet, Gaudete fideles by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, an ecstatic tribute to St. Bernard, and Lully's rapturous motet O dulcissime domine, with a text that blurs the line just slightly between heavenly devotion and earthly lust. The other pieces, all by Charpentier and all quite charming, include a similarly contemplative Elevation motet, O pretiosum, and his florid setting of the Magnificat canticle, H. 75. Watch a few excerpts performed in the Chapelle Royale de Versailles.


In Brief: Streaming in the New Year 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.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • It is still Christmas, so here is Mikko Franck conducting the Grand concert de Noël with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Keep the Christmas cheer going with a selection of Christmas music by Michel Corrette, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Henry Du Mont, performed by the Maîtrise de Radio France and conductor Sofi Jeanin in the Eglise St-Eustache in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, recorded by Les Arts Florissants in the Eglise Saint-Séverin in 2006. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • James Conlon leads the Orchestre National de France in a performance of Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ, with Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Stéphane Degout, recorded last May in the Basilica of Saint-Denis. [ORF]

  • A nice pairing of Respighi's Lauda per la natività del Signore and Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, from the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and colleagues. [BR-Klassik]

  • A lovely Christmas program by Ensemble Gombert, recorded in Melbourne's Xavier College Chapel earlier this month, with music by Howells, Andrea Gabrieli, Palestrina, Gombert, and others. [ABC Classic]

  • Recorded for Euroradio Christmas Day in 1999, Jakub Jan Ryba's Czech Christmas Mass. [Klasika]

  • A classic recording of Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hänsel und Gretel, recorded in Vienna in 1978, with Georg Solti leading a cast starring Lucia Popp (Gretel), Brigitte Fassbaender (Hänsel), Walter Berry (Besenbinder), and Edita Gruberova (Taumännchen). [ORF]

  • From Barcelona, Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducts his Ensemble Matheus in a performance of Handel's Messiah, recorded last year, with soprano Sandrine Piau, countertenor David DQ Lee, tenor Topi Lehtipuu, and baritone Florian Boesch. [RTBF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 168 (Schubert: Goerne Delight, Eschenbach Bonus)

available at Amazon
F.Schubert Schwanengesang, Piano Sonata D.960
(Schubert Edition, v.6)
M.Goerne, C.Eschenbach
Harmonia Mundi

Canticum Cygnus

F.Schubert, Schwanengesang, "Das Fischermädchen". Goerne/Eschenbach (excerpt, mp3 transfer)

Braying is for donkeys, bugling for elks, so what about Matthias Goerne? And more importantly, how is Goerne so much better recorded than live? When I heard him last in a Liederabend in Salzburg, he sounded like a wounded elk reciting a monologue from King Lear. (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”, probably.) But in volume six of an already absolutely terrific Schubert Lieder survey, the German baritone is spellbinding in the early parts of “Schwanengesang”, full of swaying tenderness with buoyant accentuations, brief melancholic touches, and teasing, musical fermata. He’s laying it on thick and it works… and the tears are balanced by an inner smile.

F.Schubert, Schwanengesang, "Am Meer". Goerne/Eschenbach (excerpt, mp3 transfer)

No one would buy the disc for Eschenbach’s B-flat Major Sonata included as a bonus second disc. If you like your Schubert slow and end-of-the-world beautiful, you ought to have, though. There is nothing like it, apart from Hideyo Harada, perhaps. It’s amazing how Eschenbach finds the time to—obviously—practice when famous pianist-conductor colleagues don’t

(Best of 2012 – Almost List)

F.Schubert, Schwanengesang, "Liebesbotschaft". Goerne/Eschenbach (excerpt, mp3 transfer)


Briefly Noted: If It Ain't Baroque

available at Amazon
Bel Canto (Rossini, Mercadante, Mozart, Monteverdi, Bellini, Verdi, Donizetti), S. Kermes, Concerto Köln, C. M. Mueller

(released on October 29, 2013)
Sony 886443810594 | 63'20"
It is probably enough to recommend German soprano Simone Kermes to say that she has been a favorite in Baroque music for conductors like Alan Curtis, Werner Erhardt, and Andrea Marcon. Let me add that, quibbles about a few odd vocal mannerisms aside, her compilations of Baroque arias have been among my all-time favorites, especially her Amor sacro disc, a collection of operatic motets by Vivaldi, which remains my favorite recording of that composer's vocal music ever made. So when Christoph M. Mueller and Concerto Köln release an album with Kermes, stretching from Monteverdi and Mozart into the bel canto repertory, I want to hear it. Kermes is a sometimes odd person -- see this interview for a sampling ("I sang a Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen in Paris once and as an encore I did a high C on the end. In Leipzig they would kill me for that.") -- and the eccentricity comes across in the singing at times, but while she may sometimes raise your eyebrows, she is always memorable. The willingness to go out on a limb will lead to some spectacular failures, as well as exciting triumphs, and this foray into the 19th century is one of the former. Kermes does not have the dramatic soprano weight to do the bel canto pieces justice: her straightened and compressed tone sounds merely coy in "Casta diva," "Dopo l'oscuro nembo" from Bellini's Adelson e Salvini, and "Tu del mio Carlo al seno" from Verdi's I Masnadieri, for example. Her runs and fireworks, so sparkling in the Baroque repertoire, sound labored here, with lots of breathiness to separate the notes, and the high notes are too often anemic. She is better in lighter comic arias, like "In questo semplice modesto asilo" from Donizetti's comic opera Betly, and in pure showpieces like the Queen of the Night's arias, a role she was to have undertaken with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in April (and at the Baden Baden Festival) but had to cancel.


Briefly Noted: Tallis Scholars at 40

available at Amazon
Taverner, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas / Magnificats, Tallis Scholars

(released on November 12, 2013)
Gimell CDGIM045 | 79'03"

available at Amazon
Taverner, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas / Kyrie 'LeRoy', Tallis Scholars
The Tallis Scholars made a recording of John Taverner's six-voice Missa Gloria tibi trinitas back in 1984, one of the first in a series of recordings of cyclic Masses and Renaissance motets that made that era come to life for listeners like me. The Mass was one of the best known in Europe, not because it was sung widely, but because a section of its Benedictus movement, reduced to four voices, became the basis of the In Nomine, a common genre of piece composed for viol consort and other instrumental combinations. (More on the background of this Mass and its derivations here.) Director Peter Phillips, looking for a work to record for the ensemble's 40th anniversary, decided to make a new recording of this iconic work, and the pairing offers a chance to compare the group's sound over a thirty-year span -- how it has changed, but also how it has stayed true to a certain ideal of polyphonic balance.

Taverner based the work on the Mode 1 antiphon Gloria tibi trinitas, proper to the first psalm of Vespers on the feast of Trinity Sunday, which is quoted in the second voice (Mean) and often paraphrased in other parts. In their first recording, the Tallis Scholars, as they often do, raised the pitch of the Mass by a whole step, with a final of E instead of D (the original notation was pitched where the chant was, with a final of D). This puts the basses in a stronger position (there are a number of low Ds in the score), but the sopranos really had to screech at the highest parts, where the treble's high G becomes a high A. In the new recording, Phillips uses a different chant incipit to introduce the Gloria, one which is not familiar and probably came from a manuscript source. The group also chose to raise the pitch another half step, making the new version a minor third higher than the original pitch and showing off the sopranos' high B-flats.

The other major difference is tempo choice, and where the first recording sounded a bit harried because of its rapid pulse, the new recording is over a minute longer in each movement. This allows the piece a little more room to breathe, and the better sound quality makes for a more pleasant listening experience overall. Phillips chooses the pitch level not really for any historical reasons but on the basis of where the music sits best in his singers' voices, which seems to make the most sense, when you are going to use mixed voices for what would have been performed by men and boys. Another issue in the performance of polyphony, too complicated to get into at length here, is the relation of one section of music to another, especially when there is a change in mensuration. What exactly does it mean when Taverner switches the tactus from three whole notes to two or to four? Phillips, in both recordings, keeps the tactus (here, the whole note) the same, at the "Qui tollis" section of the Gloria, for example, choosing a slightly slower pulse in the old recording that sounded quite nice. The new recording is rounded out by three of Taverner's settings of the Magnificat canticle, one each for four voices (an alternatim setting for all male voices, with every other verse sung in plainchant), five voices, and six voices. Scores for all works on the recording are available for study from the Tallis Scholars Web site (click the Scores tab).


Gaudete Gaudete Christus Natus Hodie


Anno a creatione mundi, quando in principio Deus creavit caelum et terram, quinquies millesimo centesimo nonagesimo nono; a diluvio vero, anno bis millesimo nongentesimo quinquagesimo septimo; a nativitate Abrahae, anno bis millesimo quintodecimo; a Moyse et egressu populi Israel de Aegypto, anno millesimo quingentesimo decimo; ab unctione David in regem, anno millesimo trigesimo secundo; Hebdomada sexagesima quinta, juxta Danielis prophetiam; Olympiade centesima nonagesima quarta; ab urbe Roma condita, anno septingentesimo quinquagesimo secundo; anno Imperii Octaviani Augusti quadragesimo secundo; toto Orbe in pace composito, sexta mundi aetate, Jesus Christus, aeternus Deus aeternique Patris Filius, mundum volens adventu suo piissimo consecrare, de Spiritu Sancto conceptus, novemque post conceptionem decursis mensibus, in Bethlehem Judae nascitur ex Maria Virgine factus homo: NATIVITAS DOMINI NOSTRI JESU CHRISTI SECUNDUM CARNEM!



Briefly Noted: Benjamin Hochman's Homage to Schubert

available at Amazon
Homage to Schubert (Schubert, Widmann, Kurtág), B. Hochman

(released on November 12, 2013)
Avie AV2281 | 71'57"
Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman gave his Washington debut recital at the Phillips Collection last year. His new CD on the Avie label offers a glimpse of that Phillips Collection recital, which I did not hear, with two Schubert sonatas sandwiching contemporary tributes to that composer's music. The two Schubert sonatas -- no. 13 (A major, op. 120, D. 664) and no. 17 (D Major, op. 53, D. 850, "Gasteiner Sonate") -- display a forthright touch and an imaginative response to Schubert's often kaleidoscopic approach, piling up themes and textures, but Hochman does not surpass my favorite Schubert players at the moment, Martin Helmchen (who will be coming to Washington, and playing Schubert, in May) and Paul Lewis (whose Schubert recital at the Library of Congress last spring just missed my Best of the Year list). What makes Hochman stand out is his interest in and devotion to these lesser-known contemporary pieces, an interest he shares with his wife, violinist Jennifer Koh. The disc takes its name from the miniature by Ionarts favorite György Kurtág, drawn from the collection Játékok, a minute of aphoristic chords and fragments typical of the composer's compressed style. In the same vein is Jörg Widmann's Idyll and Abyss: Six Schubert Reminiscences, which receives its first recording here, most movements not much longer than the Kurtág piece. Widmann's references to Schubert are more overt and edged with sarcasm, which may irritate some listeners but not this one. The fourth movement (Scherzando) is extremely whimsical, including a moment where the pianist whistles an echo to a phrase fragment he has just played, which gets a good laugh.

Washington Performing Arts Society will present Benjamin Hochman on the Hayes Piano Series in the coming year (February 1, 2 pm). He offers a similar program juxtaposing old and new -- Brahms's Handel-Variations paired with Oliver Knussen's Variations for Piano, op. 24, and Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of variations on a Chilean political song, which was premiered by Ursula Oppens at the Kennedy Center in 1976.


Best of the Year, Live Edition

We have reviewed our last concert of 2013, which means it is time to take stock of the year that was. The following is a list of the Top Ten live performances I reviewed this year, listed in chronological order. We conclude with a few other year-end honors (and dishonors) in several categories, as well as a remembrance of the notable people we lost this year.


available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonata No. 3 (inter alia), D. Trifonov
1. Daniil Trifonov (Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, January 19)
Trifonov began Liszt's B minor piano sonata with an air of mystery, a murky opening with the initial notes of the descending motif made to ring, with the following notes slipping underneath it. When the piece took off, Trifonov raced through it, giving the sense of a soul tormented, wracked by terror, driven toward the exalted major-mode rising theme, played with relieved abandon. The slow passages were lost in rhapsody, with no need to rush through them, as Trifonov explored each whorl and curl of thought, while the fugue, which came out of nowhere, was drenched in sweat.
2. Anne Sofie von Otter (Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, March 4)
Once in a very rare while, I hear a concert that attains that crucial combination of diverting programming performed to an impeccable standard by musicians who seem perfectly matched to the music they are performing. This recital by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg, offered by the Fortas Chamber Music series in the context of the Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool festival in the Terrace Theater (both artists are Swedish), was in that category.
3. Bellini, Norma (Washington National Opera, March 9 to 24)

Soprano Angela Meade was a knockout in the title role, which she is singing on stage for the first time. It was not a standout because she was the most powerful Norma or the one with the strongest high notes, nor did she give the character the same kind of dramatic edge as some other more famous Normas. Meade deployed her velvety voice to give a truly beautiful finish to this mother of all bel canto roles, with a suave, hypnotic Casta diva, for example. There was power in Meade's voice, too, allowing her to soar over the orchestra and to stand her ground with the much more experienced and frankly just louder Adalgisa of Dolora Zajick, but it was the elegance of the performance that remains with me, both in Meade's calm presence and in the cleanness and warmth of her tone.
available at Amazon
J. Duphly, Pièces de clavecin, C. Rousset
4. Christophe Rousset (La Maison Française and Library of Congress, April 12 and 13)
The three suites that filled out the program, played without intermission, each ended with a “tombeau,” a musical tribute by one composer to another composer who has just died, like a sculpted portrait placed upon a tomb. To the dances of Johann Jakob Froberger’s 19th suite, Rousset appended Froberger’s tombeau for the lutenist Charles Fleury de Blancrocher. This cerebral piece ended with a crashing minor scale down the bass keys, a reference to Blancrocher’s death after falling down a flight of stairs, where he died in the arms of his best friend, Froberger.
5. Staatskapelle Dresden (Strathmore, April 16)
The Brahms fourth symphony, opening with that distinctive main theme, had a gentle tidal pull, no heaving, nothing overwrought, some surges -- especially at the end of the first movement -- but also real delicacy of emotion. The violin section's beautiful sound was meted out carefully, never allowed to overwhelm other parts that were more important. The second movement did not become overly sentimental, emotional pain buried deep inside, followed by a boisterous third movement, enlivened by a somewhat unpredictable approach to the tempo at the podium. The finale had serious zip to it, with Thielemann not giving us a chance to breathe until the section with that lovely flute solo, slowing down to an even more solemn pace for the trombone-heavy section, after which the performance exploded into action again.


In Brief: Christmas Listening 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.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, in a performance by the Choir of London and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, recorded in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • Hear a concert by the Ricercar Consort at the Eglise des Minimes, with music by Bach, Zelenka, Lotti, and Palestrina. [RTBF]

  • Watch the Christmas Concert by the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya, with Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ, conducted by Pablo González.]

  • Listen to a performance of Britten's opera Gloriana, starring Susan Bullock (Queen Elisabeth I), Toby Spence (Robert Devereux), Patricia Bardon (Frances Devereux), and Kate Royal (Penelope), recorded last June at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. [ORF]

  • Watch William Christie and Les Arts Florissants perform airs de cour by Michel Lambert, François Couperin, Joseph Chabanceau de La Barre, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Honoré d'Ambruys. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Listen to a performance of Gluck's Armide, from De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, recorded last October, starring Karina Gauvin (Armide) and Frédéric Antoun (Renaud) and conducted by Ivor Bolton. [France Musique]

  • Simon Rattle leads a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde plus two scenes from Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, with Magdalena Kožená, Michael Schade, and Simon Keenlyside joining the Vienna Philharmonic. [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 167 (Fauré, Heavenly Interspersed)

available at Amazon
G.Fauré / J.S.Bach Requiem et al.
N.Short /
Tenebrae, LSO Chamber Ensemble
G.Nikolitch, G.Davidson, W.Gaunt

Heavenly Interspersed

If the performance and recording of the Fauré Requiem (in the slimmer second, 1893 version) on this disc weren’t one of the most powerful and satisfying, transparent and focused, all the clever programming around it would be for naught. As it is, it’s a co-principal delight to hear a first half of Bach, chorales and the D minor Partita interspersed. Based on sheer speculation, the Partita’s Chaconne is then set to Lutheran chorale tunes; an alleged tribute to his first wife. It’s been done before (on ECM’s “Morimur”), it was silly and gorgeous then and it is silly and gorgeous now: Musicologically daft and musically satisfying… and tremendously gorgeous!

(Best of 2012 – Almost List)

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.


Ionarts-at-Large: Dancing Boots with Quatuor Mosaïques

The Vienna Philharmonic could have played with Simon Rattle next door* in the Grosser Saal, I still would have chosen the Mozart-Saal at the Wiener Konzerthaus that Friday Night, December 13th. Because such are the expectations

Goossens 'Messiah' Is Back

Charles T. Downey, NSO makes most of super-sized ‘Messiah’ (Washington Post, December 20, 2013)

available at Amazon
T. F. Kelly, First Nights: Five Musical Premiers (including Messiah)
George Frideric Handel conceived his oratorio “Messiah” on a small scale, for a chamber-size orchestra and chorus, with boy choristers on the soprano part. Such a style of performance is not really suited to the vast, acoustically challenging space of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the National Symphony Orchestra gave its annual performance of “Messiah” on Thursday night. This hall — which holds more than four times as many people as the theater where Handel premiered the work — calls for a larger palette of sound, best provided by the biggest scoring of them all, the in­famous adaptation of Handel’s music by Eugene Goossens. [Continue reading]
Handel, Messiah
National Symphony Orchestra
Choral Arts Society of Washington
Rossen Milanov, conductor
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

NSO Messiah:
2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007


Happy Stradivari Christmas!

available at Amazon
Ligeti, String Quartets, Parker Quartet
(Naxos, 2009)
The Library of Congress again celebrated "Stradivari Christmas" on Wednesday night, the anniversary of the celebrated Cremonese instrument maker's death. Although Antonio Stradivari died in 1737, he lives on through the sound of the exquisite instruments he crafted, and it is that sense of life that has been celebrated at the Library on or around December 18 since 1936. The honor of playing on the Stradivarius instruments of their choice from the Library's collection fell again to the Parker Quartet, which gave this concert for the first time in 2009. We have been following this group for several years, since not long after their formation at the New England Conservatory in 2002, and although they have impressed me before, with this performance they struck my ear as having transformed into a different class of ensemble.

Mendelssohn's string quartets can leave me cold, as one of them (op. 44/2) did at the Musicians from Marlboro concert last month. It is true that op. 44/1 (no. 3 in D major) is a more pleasing work, but it was the musicality and litheness of the playing that made the Parker Quartet's performance so pleasing. A tone was set especially in the B theme of the first movement, played sotto voce and yet with intensity, which sustained the excitement of the work. The same character appeared again in the gentle Menuetto with its somber trio and in the Corelli-like serenade of the third movement, the twin violin lines intertwined over the pizzicato lower parts. Where the first movement had seemed fast but not rushed, the finale was exceedingly fast but still beautifully phrased, with peaks and valleys to prevent the piece from becoming an empty display.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Parker Quartet uses Stradivari treasures to splendid effect at Library of Congress (Washington Post, December 20)

Mark Kanny, Parker Quartet makes strong debut in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 19)

Stradivari Anniversary:

Miró Quartet (2012)
Borromeo Quartet (2011)
Sybarite5 (2010)
Parker Quartet (2009)
Harlem Quartet (2008)
Formosa Quartet (2007)
Ensō Quartet (2006)
Jupiter Quartet (2005)
It was disappointing to hear that the program would not include the Arcadiana string quartet of Thomas Adès, which was the highlight of the same Musicians from Marlboro concert last month. (That piece's technical challenges are daunting enough without throwing in the risk of playing on unfamiliar instruments.) The disappointment faded quickly, however, because the replacement, Shostakovich's ninth string quartet (E-flat major, op. 117 -- last heard from the Jerusalem Quartet ) from 1964, was the high point of the concert anyway, as the more recent pieces have been on every performance we have heard from the Parker Quartet. The same burning intensity from the Mendelssohn was here again in the opening of the first movement, with none of the players trying to push the sound of the Stradivarius instruments too much, allowed the first violin to soar sweetly and for the cello to have room for its jolly theme later. The second movement's tragic lament, recalled in the parallel fourth movement, featured the same intelligent sense of ensemble, with no lead part ever required to give more than was needed to be heard, and the third movement, with its perverse gestures of a Rossini overture, was vicious at its loudest parts. In the fifth movement, first violinist Daniel Chong led the revolt in ferocious sounds, beginning with the heavy-handed folk-like section and reaching its climax in an obsessive, spiteful fugue section.

In every concert we have reviewed, the Parkers have collaborated with more senior musicians, with Kim Kashkashian on second viola in the Brahms G minor quintet (JCCGW, 2010), with members of the Borromeo Quartet (Library of Congress, 2008), and with Roger Tapping on second viola in Mozart's third quintet (Corcoran, 2006). Here it was Kikuei Ikeda, violist of the now-disbanded Tokyo String Quartet, who took the second viola part for Dvořák's op. 97 string quintet, where he was often featured in prominent ways (with the opening gestures in the first two movements, among others). This turned out to be the least satisfying part of the program, though, with the pristine intonation and razor-sharp ensemble unsettled just slightly by the addition of Ikeda. The first movement had a moody feel to it, in spite of the folk-like melodic material, with the second movement as rambunctious as a hoe down, followed by a melancholy slow movement and a jaunty dance finale. In spite of some shortcomings, it was a thrill to hear two Stradivari violas -- the "Tuscan-Medici" from 1690 and the "Cassavetti" from 1727 (one-fifth of the ten Stradivarius violas known to survive in the entire world) -- side by side in this delightful work.

The Parker Quartet and violist Kikeui Ikeda perform again this evening, on the concert series at Evermay in Georgetown.


Classical Music Agenda: February 2014

February, it turns out, will be the month for the Library of Congress. While more of this storied concert series's budget appears to be going to music beyond the scope of these pages, we will be looking for a seat in the Coolidge Auditorium -- the best acoustic in the city, now that the exquisite venue at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is no longer really hosting concerts -- on many nights that month. Here are my top ten picks for the concerts most important to hear in the shortest month of the year.

available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Freiburger Barockorchester, G. von der Goltz
EuroArts Invitation 2050316
The month starts with a visit by the Freiburger Barockorchester, whose recording of Bach's orchestra suites was one of my top picks among recordings and DVDs reviewed this year. The group will reportedly be performing all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at the Library of Congress (February 4). Their recording of these works is one of my must-have alternative versions, a film made in the room for which Bach possibly intended these concertos, the Spiegelsaal (Hall of Mirrors) of Schloß Köthen, recently restored. (This DVD falls into the trouble that all DVDs of musical performances have, too many uncomfortable closeups, but it has good sound and contains beautiful renditions of all six concertos. No. 1 has some of the best horn playing of any recording I know.)

We would also not miss the programs being offered by two excellent string quartets: the JACK Quartet joined by pianist Ursula Oppens (February 14) goes all contemporary, with music by Feldman, Ferneyhough, Carter, Anderson, and Adès, and the Quatuor Ébène (February 20) playing quartets by Haydn, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. The month concludes with one of my favorite musicians, harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson (February 22), who will play music by Rameau, Bach, Purcell, and others, at least partly on the nutty Pleyel harpsichord-plus owned by Wanda Landowska.

A winter journey to Charm City is required for the performance of Schubert's Winterreise by baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake (February 9) at Baltimore's Shriver Hall.

Jake Heggie's operatic adaptation of Moby-Dick lands at the Kennedy Center Opera House this month, presented by Washington National Opera in the production already seen in Dallas and San Francisco (February 22 to March 8). I have seen it only on PBS, but I concur with our esteemed reviewer, Robert R. Reilly, that the work's creators "have not completely succeeded for the simple fact that no one could," but there is much to admire in the work.

The series of recitals on the new organ in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall opened with Cameron Carpenter this fall. It continues with a performer we find much more rewarding, Paul Jacobs, who will play music by Vierne, Duruflé, Guilmant, plus Nadia Boulanger's F minor prelude and Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrement -- Le Dieu caché (February 5).

The National Symphony Orchestra presents two of our favorite violinists playing new concertos, and we cannot choose between them. Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Sebastian Currier's Time Machines, plus Martinů's first symphony and Janáček's suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, conducted by Cristian Macelaru (February 13 -- note that she replaces Currier with the Dvořák violin concerto on February 14 and 15). Christian Tetzlaff plays Jörg Widmann's violin concerto under Christoph Eschenbach, with the first and second symphonies of Beethoven rounding out the NSO's complete Beethoven symphony cycle (February 27 to March 1).

We are delighted by the annual visits by the Mark Morris Dance Group to the Center for the Arts at George Mason University. Last year's astounding Socrate is followed this year by a mixed bill of Italian Concerto, the local premiere of A Wooden Tree, Jenn and Spencer (music by Cowell), and Crosswalk (music by Weber) on February 22.

Of course we recommend any performance by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, last in the area just last spring. Pro Musica Hebraica presents Kissin for An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry (February 24) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Kissin, who just became an Israeli citizen this month, will perform music including Alexander Veprik's second sonata and Ernest Bloch's op. 40 piano sonata, interspersed with a selection of his favority Yiddish poetry.

The rest of the schedule will run through the sidebar.


Kožená Shines, Rattle Struggles, Vienna Phil Sleeps, Mahler Suffers

The final scene from Janáček’s Cunning little Vixen is a lovely curtain raiser before a performance of Das Lied von der Erde. Especially when a cunning little vixen is so readily at hand as it must be for Sir Simon Rattle who programmed this for his Vienna Philharmonic appearance at the Wiener Konzerthaus. Then again, Magdalena Kožená wasn’t technically being particularly foxy in the Cunning little Vixen excerpt, but instead took on the rôles of (surviving) Innkeeper and (new generation) Froggy. Simon Keenlyside sang


Ionarts-at-Large: Hungarian Mahler Goodness from Vienna's Konzerthaus

One of the finest current Gustav Mahler-combos—Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra—assembled before a packed Grosser Saal of the Wiener Konzerhaus December 4th. In tow their latest Mahler-project, the Ninth Symphony.

In the first movement, the orchestra displayed the qualities that make them so enjoyable to hear: playing alive with individuality, fully in control of the material (without Fischer micro-managing them into submission), organically captivating, not ducking

New WNO Children's Opera a Flop

"And, lo, the unicorn knelt down at the manger, and touched its wondrous horn to the baby (Luke 2:18)."
Henry Wager (Angel, above), Patrick O'Halloran (Joseph), Catherine Martin (Mary), Jacqueline Echols (Unicorn)
in The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)
(more photos)

If you have ever wondered if someone could make the story of the birth of Christ into something potentially offensive to Christians, wonder no more. The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, the new children's opera presented on Saturday night by Washington National Opera in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, manages to make that simple, profound, life-altering story unrecognizably banal. This version, drawn from the book by British writer Jeanette Winterson, is set on the periphery of the Biblical story, following an angel's decision to choose the humble donkey to carry Mary to Bethlehem. Whoever this Mary is, she is going to have a baby, and he is apparently going to be pretty cool. We do not, however, ever hear his name.

Lest one think that this is simply aesthetic distancing or nondenominational nicety, Winterson's approach to the Bible has a clear purpose. As she put it quite well in an interview with the Paris Review: "I don’t accept the God myth of the church. I think it’s hogwash. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t accept the essential mystery of the scriptures and of the religious faith." So the donkey becomes the focus of Winterson's story, beating out the candidacy of the noble lion and the mysterious unicorn to carry Mary to Bethlehem and then to carry her and her baby, whoever he is, away from the threats of King Herod. As adapted in the mildly amusing, repetitive libretto by poet J. D. McClatchy, Winterson's story loses none of its jejune coyness, guaranteed to charm audiences without possibly offending anyone who might be put off by a religious message. The middlebrow tone is perfectly matched by the undistinguished score composed by Broadway arranger Jeanine Tesori, a mish-mash of lite jazz and formulas familiar from countless American musicals.

Introducing children to opera is a laudable aim, to be sure. Attempting to do so by feeding children something that is more representative of a Broadway sensibility is misguided at best and underhanded deception at worst. Some coloratura moments aside, presented mostly in a mocking, undercutting way, there is little in this work that will give the opera neophyte any understanding of what most operas are about. Opera is represented in The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me most directly when a character calls out for "an opera singer," after which a caricature of Bizet's Carmen appears, to sing loudly and be more or less laughed off the stage. (This should not come as any surprise, since it is often people inside classical music institutions who are, knowingly or not, hastening the genre's demise.) The orchestra is sized for Broadway, too, with four string players, two wind players (both doubling), horn, two trumpets, harp, one percussionist, and electronic keyboards -- giving none of the orchestral sweep of opera. Conductor Kimberly Grigsby is an opera novice, too, her most recent work being leading the orchestra of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway. Only the librettist has any real experience with opera, having written libretti for Tobias Picker's Emmeline, Lorin Maazel's 1984, William Schuman's A Question of Taste, Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, and Ned Rorem's Our Town, among others that are less known.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s ‘The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me’ lacks suspense but has fresh energy and charm (Washington Post, December 16)

---, ‘The Lion, the Unicorn and Me’ and the quest for the childlike in children’s opera (Washington Post, December 15)

Moira McLaughlin, Bethesda boy stars in “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” opera at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 10)
That the work is such a dud is hardly the fault of the cast, who made the best of what they were given. Fifth-grade treble Henry Wager sang with faultless intonation, and the help of a microphone, as the boy, picked out of the audience in the work's opening conceit (right across the aisle from where Miss Ionarts and I sat), who puts on a golden backpack with wings to become the angel. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin, who stood out in the supporting cast of last summer's performance of Approaching Ali, was beautifully maternal as Mary. Soprano Jacqueline Echols and bass Soloman Howard were impressive as the Unicorn and the Lion, polar opposites like the Queen of the Night and Sarastro in this little fairy tale. Soprano Lisa Williamson was a high-flying Flamingo, baritone John Orduña was a stalwart Donkey, and all of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists -- especially Deborah Nansteel (Cat), Norman Garrett (Elk), and Wei Wu (Innkeeper) -- acquitted themselves well, as did the adorable WNO Children's Chorus, well prepared by William Breytspraak. The production by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was handsome, with colorful and inventive costumes by Erik Teague and effective sets by Michael Yeargan, although I could have done without the painful flashlights and disco ball reflections shined into my eyes. What a shame that all of the expense and effort were wasted on such pop culture pablum.


In Brief: Gaudete 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.) Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Dom Bruno Lutz and the monks of Solesmes join the Académie Vocale de Paris to perform a reconstruction of the solemn vespers of Ascension, recorded last month at the Abbaye de Solesmes. [France Musique]

  • Harpsichordist Andreas Staier plays music by Froberger, d'Anglebert, Fischer, Louis Couperin, Clérambault, and Georg Muffat, at the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes joins the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, with music by Stravinsky and Beethoven, recorded last month. [RTBF]

  • Alamire, under David Skinner, perform music by Palestrina -- Missa Nigra sum and motets from the Song of Songs -- recorded last July in the Abteikirche Maria Laach im Rahmen as part of the RheinVokal-Festival am Mittelrhein. [ORF]

  • Violinist Valery Sokolov joins the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons for music by Wagner, Sibelius, and Brahms, recorded last month in Birmingham. [RTBF]

  • Christoph Spering leads the Munich Radio Orchestra in two of Schubert's one-act Singspiels, Die Zwillingsbrüder and Der vierjährige Posten. [BR-Klassik]


Dip Your Ears, No. 166 (Nelsons’ Instant Classic Dvořák)

available at Amazon
Antonín Dvořák,
Symphony No.9, Heldenlied
Andris Nelsons / BRSO
BR Klassik

Old World New World

Late 2010, Andris Nelsons, incoming Music Director of the Boston Symphony but also loved, courted, and groomed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, performed a program of Charles Ives, John Adams, and Igor Stravinsky in Munich—capped, almost incongruously, with Dvořák’s Ninth (review here). Nicely accentuated, tastefully exaggerated with exalted exclamation points, it hit all the right buttons with the audience then. It’s even better on record! With lashings of Wagner in the first movement, unsentimental beauty in the Largo, Beethoven 9th analogies brought out fully in the Scherzo, and all the pre-echoes of Jaws (and Star Wars) in the Finale, it’s just about a modern classic. Ingenious coupling with Dvořák’s rarely played last tone poem “Hero’s Song”.

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.

Folger Consort's 'Christmas in New Spain'

available at Amazon
Villancicos y Danzas Criollas, La Capella Reial De Catalunya, J. Savall
(Alia Vox, 2004)
If you are looking for a Christmas concert without the music you dread hearing each December, the Folger Consort is a good bet. Their program this year, devoted to music from New Spain, hits all of those targets again, with a selection of music that is almost entirely unfamiliar, if without any major, life-altering discoveries. Heard at the first performance last night, this concert features six singers from Washington National Cathedral's ensemble Cathedra, supported by seven instrumentalists. It is a rather mellow affair, trading more on an easy, suave rhythmic vibe than on virtuosity or ultra-refinement.

A contrast between high and low musical cultures was built into the program, with examples of more learned polyphony, by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c. 1590-1664) and Pedro Bermudez (d. 1606), bookending popular villancicos and dance music. That such opposite styles coexisted, both composed by musicians who served in cathedrals in Mexico and Peru and elsewhere, reveals something about the mixture of cultures in the Americas. Oddly the opening work, Padilla's Exultate justi, sets a Latin text not proper to Christmas at all: its joyful tone, drawn from Psalm 32, was heard either in Easter or on feasts of apostles. Padilla drew out the exclamatory nature of the words through text painting, most notably in the phrase "Bene psallite ei in vociferatione" (sing well unto him with a loud voice). Like his setting of the Gloria, from the Ordinary of the Mass, Padilla's style was fairly simple and homophonic, effective but not all that striking. The most memorable of the Latin-texted pieces was the lovely six-voice Salve regina by Bermudez, in an alternatim style that paired elaborate and extensive polyphonic verses with a decorated form of the Marian antiphon's chant melody.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, ‘Christmas in New Spain’ offers an evening of spirited, cheerful tunes (Washington Post, December 16)
This set the popular pieces in stark relief, with texts that seemed to mix vestiges of pre-Christian celebrations with the European traditions of Christmas. The frankness of racial identity ("Let's go, blacks of Guinea, to the manger alone, / Not with the blacks from Angola -- they're all ugly!") can be shocking, as can the transparent social stratification of colonial society ("I promise this little child that although born a little white / All of us are his family. We are not afraid of the white man"), but the infectious charm of the music, and the vivacious joy with which it was performed, were hard to resist. While many of these pieces are of humble cloth, musically speaking, a few were quite affecting, like the charming "Xicochi conetzintle" by Gaspar Fernandes (c. 1570-c. 1629) and "Las coflades de la estleya" by Juan de Araujo (1646-1712). Because too many of the singers are friends and people I have sung with before, I am not really offering any thoughts on the specifics of the singing, but the instrumental contributions were excellent, especially the improvisations on ground basses led by Charles Weaver on Baroque guitar.

This concert will be repeated several times, through December 22, at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.


Briefly Noted: Mozart's Piano Concertos

available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Concertos 6/8/9, A. Hewitt, Orchestra da Camera di Mantova, C. Fabiano
(Hyperion, 2011)

Nos. 17/27 (with Hannu Lintu, 2013)

available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Concertos 20/27, R. Brautigam (fortepiano), Die Kölner Akademie, M. A. Willens

(released on October 29, 2013)
BIS-2014 | 53'34"
Two new cycles of Mozart's piano concertos are worth mentioning again, starting with the refined traversal by Angela Hewitt, on a modern grand piano and with the modern instruments of the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova, sometimes without a conductor. (The most recent volume, not yet heard, is led by Hannu Lintu.) Hewitt plays Mozart's cadenzas, except for some early ones she finds too brief, which she replaces with her own, and down to her own fastidious program notes, Hewitt's performances seem historically informed, except for the small matter of instruments. In this volume of the Salzburg-era concertos, we are two steps away from what Mozart had in mind, since at least some of these pieces were likely intended for harpsichord. Hewitt would be a pleasing option for listeners who prefer their Mozart on modern instruments, because these are immaculately polished performances (ranking with some other recent candidates, like Leif Ove Andsnes with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and Maurizio Pollini with members of the Vienna Philharmonic).

To have greater insight into what Mozart was likely dealing with in terms of the expectations he had for the instruments he used, we recommend Ronald Brautigam's traversal of the concertos on fortepiano. (The series goes back only as far as no. 9, the so-called "Jeunehomme," a sobriquet now understood as a butchering of the surname of the dedicatee, Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of the choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre, the first of the composer's concerti unambiguously conceived for fortepiano.) We have written of this series before (see my note on the third volume), and it continues high in my estimation. Brautigam performs again on an instrument by Paul McNulty, based on a fortepiano made by Anton Walter, which gives a sound that is both authentic and not ugly. Brautigam, who plays with panache, uses Mozart's cadenzas for K. 595, but as both Beethoven and Mendelssohn did when they played no. 20, Brautigam uses his own cadenzas in the D minor concerto (K. 466). The booklet essay is once again by musicologist John Irving, who literally wrote the book on the Mozart piano concerti. This set, pleasing for the interesting, contained wind sounds from Die Kölner Akademie and the brilliant fingerwork of Brautigam, does not supplant the Academy of Ancient Music recordings, with Robert Levin improvising on fortepiano (regrettably not yet re-released as a box set), but it does rank above the partial set by the Freiburger Barockorchester, with Andreas Staier on fortepiano, and the English Baroque Soloists, with Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano (collected in a box set priced to move).


Elizabeth Futral @ NMWA

Charles T. Downey, Soprano Elizabeth Futral displays vocal power at National Museum of Women in the Arts gala (Washington Post, December 13, 2013)

On Wednesday night, it was time to celebrate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. A gala event to raise money in support of the museum’s Shenson Chamber Music Concert series honored Elizabeth Futral with an award for excellence in the performing arts. The distinguished American soprano offered a brief selection of opera arias, plus a single song, before an audience of well-heeled guests.

[Continue reading]
Elizabeth Futral, soprano
Myra Huang, piano
National Museum of Women in the Arts

2012 | 2010 | 2010 | 2008


Briefly Noted: Johann Wilhem Hertel, Christmas Cantata

available at Amazon
J. H. Hertel, Die Geburt Jesu Christi, B. Solset, A. Rawohl, M. Ullmann, W.-M. Friedrich, Die Kölner Akademie, M. A. Willens

(released on November 19, 2013)
cpo 777 809-2 | 63'35"
If you have even heard of Johann Wilhelm Hertel (1727-1789), it is likely because of his trumpet or oboe concertos, already revived in the search for concertos for those instruments. He was the son of a viola da gamba player and violinist, who was a close friend of Johann Gottlieb Graun, and he served as court composer for the Dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Like J. S. Bach and other composers in this period, his compositional output varied according to the tastes and interests of his employer. During the life of Duke Christian Ludwig II, Hertel wrote mostly instrumental music, but from 1777 to 1783, he composed a series of long cantatas or oratorios for the new Stadtkirche in Ludwigslust, where his employer Duke Frederick the Pious had retired from worldly life, a building of considerable architectural and artistic interest. (Since World War II, the town has unfortunately become better known for the Wöbbelin concentration camp, located near it.) Michael Alexander Willens, who grew up in Chevy Chase (Md.), leads his Kölner Akademie in the premiere recording of Hertel's Christmas cantata, Die Geburt Jesu Christi. We have already given high marks to Willens's recording of Graun's Easter oratorio and his Mozart cycle with Ronald Brautigam, and the pile of discs I received from him just before Thanksgiving, when he comes to the area to visit family, is going to keep me busy for a while. This cantata receives an easy recommendation for those tired of listening to the same Christmas masterpieces, with some lovely arias, especially the showpiece for soprano near the end, Freuet seiner euch mit Beben. The one duet (Da prangt der Sieger ohne Heere!), for both sopranos, is particularly beautiful, with an extended cadenza for both voice, sung quite exquisitely on this recording (sopranos Berit Solset and Alexandra Rawohl), as are the choral movements at the beginning and end. This fine little recording is rounded out with authoritative program notes by Prof. Dr. Franziska Seils, the musicologist from the Evangelische Hochschule für Kirchenmusik Halle an der Saale who edited the score. A refined stocking-stuffer for that early music person in your life!


Deborah Rutter Named New President of Kennedy Center

Since the news that the President of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser, was ending his contract a little early and taking his Institute of Arts Management with him, to the University of Maryland, speculation started about his successor. When the Kennedy Center convened a press announcement this afternoon, there was little doubt that the speculation was at an end. The well-kept secret was that Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, would be leaving that position early and moving to Washington, to become the first woman to head the Kennedy Center, starting next September.

This came as a surprise to many people back in Chicago, too, but the sense was that Rutter, who has been a fiscally savvy administrator (record levels of fundraising and ticket sales, albeit still incurring some debt) with a gift for interpersonal relations, was a good choice for the Kennedy Center. At her press announcement, after an introduction by David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center, Rutter spoke warmly of her time in Chicago. In response to questions, she said that she was not going to speak about possible plans until she had taken the time to get to know the venues, the artistic leaders, and the audiences of the Kennedy Center. She had begun that process earlier in the morning, reaching Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Spain by phone, to give him advance notice of her appointment.