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


Vox Luminis Debut @ LoC

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Stabat mater (inter alia), Vox Luminis

(re-released on June 24, 2014)
Ricercar RIC258 | 61'42"
Charles T. Downey, In D.C. debut, vocal ensemble Vox Luminis offers moments of beauty despite hiccups (Washington Post, October 31, 2014)
The series of free concerts at the Library of Congress this week offered contrasting examples of rather old and rather new music.

On Wednesday night Vox Luminis, a recently formed vocal ensemble from Belgium in their Washington debut, performed a program of mostly baroque music from Italy. Though one could hardly complain about the unusual selection of rarely heard pieces, the execution, while generally fine, showed signs of vocal fatigue.

An unseen soprano opened the evening starkly with the unaccompanied “Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix”... [Continue reading]
Vox Luminis
Music by Monteverdi, D. Scarlatti, others
Library of Congress


Briefly Noted: Scarlatti the Younger

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Stabat mater (inter alia), Vox Luminis

(re-released on June 24, 2014)
Ricercar RIC258 | 61'42"
Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) now is known mostly for his bite-size keyboard sonatas, mostly composed when he worked for crowned heads in Portugal and Spain. However, like his father, Alessandro, Scarlatti filius also composed sacred music, including for the period in the second decade of the 18th century when he served as a papal composer, leading the Capella Giulia at the Vatican. The chamber choir Vox Luminis, founded in Belgium in 2004, devoted their first recording, originally released in 2007, to Domenico's sacred music. Just re-released this summer, this disc is a fine introduction to some Baroque delicacies. In the solo department, there is especially the two-voice setting of the Salve regina, the paired soprano and countertenor voices woven together in braided lines with organ, viola da gamba, and especially theorbo on the continuo line. The Stabat mater, for ten voices (SSSSAATTBB), is the major achievement, a work of intense devotion that is the musical equivalent of a Tiepolo Madonna. At almost a half-hour in length, most of that involving all of the voices, it is easy to lose oneself in its twists and turns. Less noteworthy versions of the Te deum and Miserere round out the disc, with a couple of the keyboard works for organ.


Briefly Noted: Ott and Tristano

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring (and other music for two pianos), A. S. Ott, F. Tristano

(released on September 9, 2014)
DG 4793541 | 61'42"
What has happened to the Yellow Label? The distinctive logo of Deutsche Grammophon, the home of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, used to be a standard that meant seriousness of content. Since the absorption of the company by Universal Music Group, fewer and fewer of their releases have been of much interest. By this I do not mean the holdouts, veteran artists who remain with DG, like the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maurizio Pollini, or Maria João Pires. (Although Chinese pianist Yundi Li was cut by DG in 2008, he was re-signed in 2012.) UMG pop music practices have invaded the company's handling of particularly its younger stars, or so it seems. How else can one explain the packaging of this new release by the piano duo of Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano, with a spread of "heroin chic" photographs?

This is doubly a shame because it detracts from the only thing that should really matter, which is that both of the artists featured are talented musicians. I missed the chance to hear Ott, when she played Liszt's second piano concerto with the NSO last year, but the Ionarts review of one of her Munich appearances was not encouraging. Her recordings on the other hand, especially of the Chopin waltzes, have been promising. Of course, her recordings are dutifully flogged by the flacks at Sinfini Music, which is controlled by Deutsche Grammophon: one particularly facetious post, author unspecified, is titled "Everyone's Talking about Alice Sara Ott." Well, everyone at her record label is, at least.

I first heard Ott's partner in this recording when he was still using his last name, Francesco Tristano Schlimé, and he played an intriguing recital in 2008 at the French Embassy. Their disc together, in spite of its title, Scandale, is a fairly mild affair, centered on a somewhat slow and dull two-piano performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. (Listen to Fazil Say's recording -- with Fazil Say -- to hear what is missing.) While their version of Ravel's La valse quickens one's pulse more, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade also offers little of note. The opening work, Tristano's own A soft shell groove, features a few bars where the players are heard stomping their feet or something. My opinion of his compositional style has not changed since that 2008 recital, though, when I wrote that it was "repetitive, if with appealing drive, and short on ideas able to sustain interest for long."


Belcea Quartet @ Shriver Hall

available at Amazon
Beethoven, String Quartets, Belcea Quartet
(Zig Zag, 2014)

available at Amazon
Schubert, "Rosamunde" Quartet (inter alia), Belcea Quartet
(EMI, 2009)
The Belcea Quartet contributed to one of the more memorable concerts of my listening life, with tenor Ian Bostridge at the Library of Congress in 2006. Between that time and their 2013 performances at the Schubertiade Festival in Schwarzenberg, the group had a personnel change, with Axel Schacher replacing Laura Samuel as second violinist. The group's appearance at Shriver Hall on Sunday evening was my first chance to hear the new formation, and the results were fine indeed.

They began with one of Mozart's "Prussian" quartets (F major, K. 590), which opened with such careful attacks, emerging from nothing, setting a tone of contained and balanced sound. (For some reason, the group did not observe the repeat of the exposition's first movement in any of the pieces on the program.) All players did not quite agree on the tempo, especially in the first and third movements, but the approach was characterized by remarkable simplicity and finesse, except some overplayed parts of the third movement. The fourth movement was perhaps just too fast, with some of the runs feeling somewhat glossed over, but if it was wild it was also thrilling. The Belcea Quartet has just released a box set of the complete Beethoven quartets, and their performance of the third quartet here (D major, op. 18/3) showed an easy familiarity. This quartet's slow movement, taken at a tempo just the right degree not too slow, suited their intensely quiet style, as they allowed the music to unreel from the spool without any fussiness. The short third movement was playfully delicate, and the fourth movement, although ultra-fast, was quite graceful.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Looking back on weekend's Choral Arts, Pro Musica, Shriver Hall concerts (Baltimore Sun, October 29)

Zachary Lewis, Belcea Quartet treats Chamber Music Society crowd to impassioned Brahms, Berg and Mozart (Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 22)
The final piece, Schubert's gloomy "Rosamunde" quartet (A minor, D. 804), was just in my ears thanks to the Dover Quartet. Although that performance felt unburdened and natural in its choice of tempos, the Belcea Quartet showed that one could err on even slightly more moderate choices in all the movements. In the Schubert, the soft sweetness of first violinist Corina Belcea's tone was beautifully placed, and all four musicians used a senza vibrato straight tone effectively in a few places, to draw out stark harmonies. The Minuetto's opening dotted motif, which returns in the cello many times, here was not menacing, seeming instead just to announce a serious recollection, while the Trio, slightly faster, had a folksy lightness. The finale had a dance-like weight on strong beats, and although it was taken at a quick pace, the first violinist also had all those runs light as a feather.

The next event on the Shriver Hall season will feature the Calidore String Quartet (November 8, 3 pm), in a free concert at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.


La Plus Que Douce

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

French pianist Adam Laloum came onto my radar when he won the Clara Haskil Competition in 2009. His Washington debut came on Friday night at the French Embassy, in a concert that paired Schumann's Études Symphoniques with Schubert's magisterial sonata in B-flat major, D. 960.

Laloum plays with subtle finesse, concerned with minute details of musical phrasing, making for many delicate moments in the dreamy central movements of the Schumann and the first two movements of the Schubert. Not too long into the program, however, with Laloum exploring fine gradations between pp and ppp, the style of interpretation began to cloy. To be fair, these are exactly the dynamic markings that Schubert returns to again and again in the score of this sonata, but something about Laloum's observance of those directions turned a little precious.

available at Amazon
Schumann, Grande Humoresque / Sonata No. 1, A. Laloum
(Mirare, 2013)
Part of this can be chalked up to some technical shortfalls noted before in streamed concerts by Laloum. The outer parts of the Schumann are thrilling, making the best performances -- recent ones include live performances by the likes of Alexander Melnikov and Yuja Wang -- those that push the virtuosic envelope as far as possible. Here there were a few little slips, some stickiness in the octaves that hampered some of the louder sections, and limitations in the left hand that left many interesting voicings mute on the page. Many of the same shortcomings came out in the Schubert, last heard so memorably in a live performance by Marc-André Hamelin, which was almost soporific in the first two movements, with nothing menacing about the rumbling low trills, understatement piled on understatement. Some of the best playing came in the last two movements, a quicksilver scherzo and lively rondo, capped by a daring Presto.

Laloum played this program again on Sunday at the Phillips Collection. See Simon Chin, Laloum packs emotion into Romantic masterworks (Washington Post, October 28)


Perchance to Stream: Ten Years Old Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • From the Summer Opera Festival in Munich, a performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo, recorded last July in the Prinzregententheater, starring Christian Gerhaher and Anna Virovslansy and conducted by Ivor Bolton. [RTBF]

  • The Ensemble Les Paladins and conductor Jérôme Correas accompany soprano Sandrine Piau in music by Rameau, recorded this month at the Opéra de Montpellier. [France Musique]

  • The BBC Singers perform 40-voice music by Tallis, Striggio, and contemporary composers. [BBC3]

  • The Bavarian Radio Chorus and Il Giardino Armonico perform music by Carissimi, Händel, and Vivaldi. [BR-Klassik]

  • A complete concert performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte, featuring Cappella Amsterdam. [Avro Klassiek]

  • The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Vassily Sinaiski, performs Elgar's second symphony, plus Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, with Daniil Trifonov as soloist, recorded last May in Berlin. [France Musique]

  • In a recital at the Wigmore Hall in London, pianist Angela Hewitt performs Spanish-themed music. [BBC3]

  • A performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, recorded last month at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse. [France Musique]

  • Vox Luminis performs music by Lassus in Roisin. [RTBF]

  • You can listen to Ernest Reyer's Sigurd, featuring Andrea Carè (Sigurd), Anna Caterina Antonacci (Brunehilde), and Anne Sophie Duprels (Hilda), recorded last year in Geneva. [ORF]

  • Ingo Metzmacher leads the Vienna Philharmonic in Schubert's oratorio Lazarus oder Die Feier der Auferstehung and Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum [ORF]

  • Listen to Manfred Honeck conduct the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Schnittke's (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, Haydn's 93rd symphony, and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony. [RTBF]

  • A song recital by mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova and pianist Charles Spencer, with music by Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, recorded last May in Düsseldorf, as part of the Festival Schumann. [France Musique]

  • Vasily Petrenko leads the Oslo Philharmonic in music by Halvorsen, Bernstein, Respighi, plus Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. [RTBF]

  • Sakari Oramo leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Strauss, Grieg, Sibelius, and Stravinsky. [BBC3]

  • From Bruges, Vincent Dumestre leads Le Poème Harmonique with soprano Anne Magouët and other singers, performing Monteverdi madrigals and Vincenzo Ruffo's Missa quarti toni. [ORF]

  • Raphaël Pichon leads the Ensemble Pygmalion in cantatas by J. S. Bach and family, recorded this month at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Olari Elts conducts the Halle in music by Strauss, Chopin, Beethoven, and Brett Dean. [BBC3]

  • Ensemble Initium performs wind quintets by Franz Danzi, George Onslow, and Paul Taffanel, recorded this month at the Auditorium du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • A concert by the Danish String Quartet and Nightingale String Quartet, playing music by Langgaard, Nielsen, and Mendelssohn, recorded last July at the Frederiksvaerk Music Festival. [ORF]

  • The Tana Quartet plays a concert at the Festival Musica last month in Strasbourg. [France Musique]

  • From the Edinburgh Festival last August, a concert performed by violinist Renaud Capuçon and friends, with music by Korngold, Mahler, and Webern. [ORF]

  • Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic in music by Colin Matthews, Schubert, and Beethoven. [BBC3]

  • Listen to pianist Emanuel Ax in a concert with the Orchestre National de France, recorded in 2012 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, playing Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto and Dvorak's seventh symphony, with Colin Davis conducting. [France Musique]

  • Alain Altinoglu conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in music by Rossini, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and Ravel. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the recording of Gustav Albert Lortzing's opera Der Wildschütz oder Die Stimme der Natur, starring Hermann Prey and Fritz Wunderlich, recorded in Munich in 1963. [ORF]

  • Guitarist Sean Shibe performs music by Dowland, Bach, Henze, and Britten. [France Musique]


BSO Blisses Out

available at Amazon
Scriabin, Complete Symphonies / Le Poeme de l'extase, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, V. Ashkenazy
(Decca, 2003)
This weekend's program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was tops on my list for the month, and it did not disappoint in the hearing on Thursday night. Considering that the evening's three works called for a massive orchestra, something that is rarer and rarer in these financially strapped times for the BSO, it was a shame that they are scheduled to perform the entire program only twice, with two nights given over to lecture-concerts on only one of them, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. It was even more of a shame that Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was not more full than it was. The three pieces together produced an overwhelming effect, sating the ears with a riotous palette of tonal color, with two rarely heard works by Christopher Rouse and Alexander Scriabin as lead-ins to Strauss.

Rouse, who has a long association with Baltimore and now lives there, was on hand to hear this performance of his tone poem Rapture, one of his "most unabashedly tonal" works. A slow-burning crescendo, of tempo and orchestration as well as dynamics, and mostly in triple meter, it recalls Ravel's La Valse and Bolero in profile, a gorgeous slow opening tinted by a bloom of Wagnerian brass, the addition of a percussion-heavy pulse, and pastoral woodwind solos, including striking bird calls in the flutes. A particularly nice touch was the violin solos, given not to the concertmaster but to players in the back seats of the second violin section, where hidden from view, they produced an unexpected effect. Overall it remains smooth and meditative in quality until a swath of metallic percussion signals greater movement, leading to a wild rumpus of a conclusion, with sudden crescendo swells of sound, meter-unsettling syncopation, and thunderous percussion. Following on the works of Rouse's Death Cycle in the 1990s, this piece, premiered in 2000, "inhabits a world devoid of darkness," as Rouse put it in his program note.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A feast of sonic showpieces brings out the best in Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony (Baltimore Sun, October 24)
Rouse was paired beautifully with Scriabin's Le Poème de l'extase, premiered in 1908, a lushly chromatic fever-dream equal parts cheesy theosophy and Tristan-esque Love-Death. It also opens in a slow, amorphous way, with single celesta notes topping harp arpeggios in a delicate web of sound, with lots of moaning and sighing motifs. The music turns more dark and stormy, tinged with minor harmonies, toward the middle but inexorably mounts toward a climactic conclusion, marked by bell strokes and the clangor of a large battery. After that first half, the heroic charge of the opening of Ein Heldenleben was bracing. The sound of the violin section soared, especially in the conclusion of the Strauss, while the woodwinds carped stridently as the voices of the music critics. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney seduced and cajoled playfully in the violin solos, representing Strauss's soprano wife, Pauline, bringing the orchestra back to life with her raucous laughs after the hero seemed to succumb to the ever-present critics. As one listens to Strauss quote some of his own compositional successes in the victory section of this tone poem -- themes for Don Quixote and Sancho, Till Eulenspiegel, the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra woven into the ending -- it is remarkable to realize that at this point in his life, in 1899, Strauss had not yet even composed his greatest operatic triumphs.

This program repeats on Sunday afternoon (October 26, 3 pm) at Strathmore.

Dip Your Ears, No. 178 (Wagner among the Cows)

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, in Switzerland
D.Zinman / Tonhalle Orchestra / E.Silins

Wagner With Cowbells

Wagner lived in Switzerland longer than any other one place: in Zurich 1849–58, from 1866 to 1872 in Triebschen. Reason enough for the Tonhalle Orchestra to issue a lavishly produced CD—a little postcard book with texts and colored illustrations of Wagner’s time there. At the center of it is outgoing music director David Zinman’s Wagner-conducting; long on luscious, short on dynamic, and altogether satisfying in gorgeous bleeding chunks that Wagner wrote on Confoederatio Helvetica’s territory: A Flying Dutchman overture with fantastically lilting Norwegian Dancing Party bits that contrast greatly with the stark Dutchmen-crew sounds. Rheingold-, Walküre-, and Götterdämmerung-excerpts follow in similar vein, and baritone Egils Silins is a noble and virile Wotan and Dutchman. No tourism brochure has ever sounded better! 


Choir of Westminster Abbey

available at Amazon
Music for Remembrance, Choir of Westminster Abbey, J. O'Donnell
(Hyperion, 2014)
Charles T. Downey, Westminster Abbey’s men and boys choir delights at National Cathedral (Washington Post, October 24, 2014)
The tradition of the men and boys choir is most often associated with Britain, where it is maintained more fervently than anywhere else. One of the exemplars of the genre, the Choir of Westminster Abbey, began a U.S. tour Wednesday night at the Washington National Cathedral. The concert marked the opening of the cathedral’s three-part British Choirs Festival, which in the spring will feature the choirs of King’s College, Cambridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

When one sees such a choir in an evening-darkened cathedral... [Continue reading]
Choir of Westminster Abbey
British Choirs Festival
Washington National Cathedral


Thoughts on Jordi Savall for AMS

Charles T. Downey, The Jordi Savall Phenomenon
Musicology Now, October 23

The giants of the early music movement of the 1970s have reached their golden years, a fact brought home in the last couple years by the passing of Gustav Leonhardt and Christopher Hogwood. One of them, viola da gambist and conductor Jordi Savall, 73, shows no signs of slowing down. His discography, already burgeoning with over 100 recordings by his various ensembles and other combinations, continues to grow apace each year. Savall is not only a musical luminary, though. Many of his concert programs attempt to foster peace and mutual understanding in conflicts between national and religious enemies. His example of humanist pacifism, which goes beyond mere words into actions, is an inspiration to many around the world...
[Continue reading]


Final Word on 'Death of Klinghoffer'

Death of Klinghoffer, Metropolitan Opera (photo by Ken Howard)

The reviews are in for the Metropolitan Opera's production of The Death of Klinghoffer, which opened on Monday night. The commentary (not to say, the reviews), polarized in an unappetizing political way, has been difficult to read. The excesses of both sides are absurd: "Putting on this opera is equivalent to a second Holocaust!" just as much as "No one has any right to criticize this opera for romanticizing terrorists!" Of course, John Adams, Alice Goodman, and the Metropolitan Opera have the right to produce the work -- we live in a free society. Just as obviously, Leon Klinghoffer's daughters are understandably dismayed at the way their father's murder was connected to the political grievances of his murderers.

As I wrote this past summer, if the story were rooted in another conflict but in everything else parallel, the reaction would have been different. Imagine an opera about the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria that opens with a chorus laying out the political and religious grievances of the Boko Haram militants, calling for the establishment of Sharia law. Imagine an opera about the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl that opens with a chorus describing the causes behind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's hatred of the United States. Imagine an opera about the murder of Matthew Shepard that opens with a chorus about the need to defend the American family from homosexuality. If any of those imagined operas were real, the family members of the victims would be upset -- and many other people would not only feel sympathy for those family members but also would feel outraged themselves.

"Terrorism is irrational," write Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer. "It should never be explained away or justified. Nor should the death of innocent civilians be misunderstood as an acceptable means for drawing attention to perceived political grievances. Unfortunately, The Death of Klinghoffer does all of this and sullies the memory of our father in the process."

The Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | Wall Street Journal | New York Observer | Bloomberg
Financial Times | Los Angeles Times | Justin Davidson | David Patrick Stearns | Forbes | Martin Bernheimer (1992)


Matthew Rose @ Vocal Arts D.C.

available at Amazon
Schubert, Winterreise, M. Rose, G. Matthewman
(Stone Records, 2013)
Matthew Rose's voice continues to grow, after first striking me as a little gruff and unrounded. The British bass, whose Leporello was one of the best parts of a Don Giovanni at Santa Fe in 2009, opened the Vocal Arts D.C. season on Sunday afternoon, with a lightly attended recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The program had a first half of unexpected music that brought out Rose's strengths, and a second half given over to Schubert's final song set, Schwanengesang (D. 957). It is a powerful voice, and Rose still tends in some cases to hurl it at the music, meaning that there was occasional imprecision of pitch, especially at loud dynamics, but also some truly thrilling listening.

Two longer Purcell songs featured Rose's excellent English diction, with the gloomy recitative of Job's Curse and the depression of the spurned lover in Let the Dreadful Engines of Eternal Will playing well to the dark side of Rose's timbre, especially at the low end. The latter song, on a poem by Thomas D'Urfey, has its silly moments, too, which suited the more buffo side of the voice. Rose and his accompanist, Vlad Iftinca (heard earlier this year with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong), performed these two songs in arrangements by Benjamin Britten, and the modernizing details of the piano part especially added to the appeal. A long song by Carl Loewe, a rambling ballad on an episode from the life of Scottish nobleman Archibald Douglas, was a pleasing curiosity, revealing the reasons why so many composers revered Loewe, whose work is mostly forgotten today.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, From promising UK singer Matthew Rose, inconsistent recital at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 21)
A gentler tone came through in some of the songs of the Schwanengesang set, starting with the opening song, Liebesbotschaft. Here the piano's murmuring brook echoed the singer's line endings, and Iftinca created a stark death-knell accompaniment in Kriegers Ahnung. Rose put the blustery power of his voice -- heard to great effect as Bottom in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera and as Shadow in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at Glyndebourne -- to good use here, too. The cathartic crescendi and full-throated outbursts were effective in songs like Aufenthalt and In der Ferne but out of place in others, like Ständchen, where the lack of a truly purring legato was most felt. This set is not really a song cycle, in the sense that Winterreise, which Rose has just recorded, is -- some songs, like the silly ditty of Das Fischermädchen, stick out like sore thumbs. Rose could not quite make these pieces work as part of the group, none more so than the final song, Die Taubenpost, appended to the set by Schubert's publisher. Rose would have done better to omit it, ending the evening on the most chilling and fog-benighted performance of Der Doppelgänger I have ever heard, a grim expression of Heinrich Heine's self-loathing that understandably appealed to the dying Schubert.

The next recital presented by Vocal Arts D.C. will feature soprano Pretty Yende (November 6, 7:30 pm), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.


Choral Arts Chamber Singers Go Finnish

available at Amazon
E. Rautavaara, Works for Mixed Chorus, Finnish Radio Chamber Choir, E.-O. Söderström
(Ondine, 1996)
Charles T. Downey, Choral Arts Chamber Singers perform ‘Under the Midnight Sun’ (Washington Post, October 20, 2014)
Scott Tucker was appointed artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington in 2012. As the ensemble nears its 50th anniversary next year, Tucker has instituted the Choral Arts Chamber Singers, a small chorus within the chorus that gave its first concert on Friday night at Falls Church Episcopal. The new series allows the musicians to explore a different repertoire beyond the big choral chestnuts with orchestra that are their normal bread and butter... [Continue reading]
Choral Arts Chamber Singers
Under the Midnight Sun
Music by Finnish composers
Falls Church Episcopal


Ionarts-at-Large: Aussies Rock Viennese Classics in Vienna

“Haydn solves all Problems!”

After getting happily bogged down in questions of audience, expectation, tradition, (bad) listening habits, and how to bring ears to repertoire they are likely to love but not know, time runs out for the brief interview with Richard Tognetti, backstage at the Wiener Konzerthaus, because he is off to practice before the first of two concerts—the last of the orchestra’s European tour. So I turn my last two points of proposed discussion (the above Haydn-utterance and “Chamber music is at the heart of music-appreciation”) into Yes-or-No answers.
available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Keyboard Concerti v.2 (BWV1053-57),
Angela Hewitt / Australian CO

Tognetti jumps in with the affirmative. “I couldn’t agree more.” He elaborates in the doorway: “True for listeners, but also for musicians… and if you can play Haydn well, you can play anything. And an orchestra doesn’t play Haydn well, do we trust them with the rest of the program?”

I’d forgotten that the Australian Chamber Orchestra (first appearing on my radar, on record, 10 years ago) performed a Haydn Symphony to open its Konzerthaus-concert, otherwise I might have less emphasized the point of orchestra abusing Haydn as the throw-away, instead of playing it last, where it belongs. Then again, if you play Haydn like the ACO ended up playing him, orchestras might as well play it wherever they please. No complauding™* necessary.

Said Haydn from the ACO, the “Chicken” Symphony No.83—was harsh, in the better, electrifying sense, with dynamic liveliness and spunk, pianissimo tic-tocs in the Andante that one might expect in a really HIP and truly great Four Seasons performance, a choosing of character over beauty everywhere, but with plenty beauty still, and a finale with instrumentalists like rambunctious doggies tearing at a piece of expensive curtain. What an appetizer. The applause at the end of the opening Allegro a.) proved that particular interpretative approach

Perchance to Stream: Mid-October Opera Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • The Choeur de Chambre de Namur and Les Agrémens give a concert performance of Rameau's Le temple de la gloire at the Opéra Royal de Versailles, conducted by Guy van Wass. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Christian Thielemann conduct a performance of Wagner's Flying Dutchman at Bayreuth, starring Ricarda Merbeth (Senta) and Samuel Youn (Dutchman). [RTBF]

  • From 2012, a production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos from the Wiener Staatsoper, starring Soile Isokoski (Ariadne), Johan Botha (Bacchus), and Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta). [ORF]

  • The Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform sacred music by Conrad Rein, Michael Praetorius, and others at Christ Church, Spitalfields, in London, conducted by Robert Howarth. [RTBF]

  • From the Utrecht Early Music Festival, watch Vox Luminis and Ensemble Scorpio perform the Kaiserrequiem of Johann Joseph Fux. [Avro Klassiek | Part 2]

  • Watch Concerto Palatino and La Dolcezza perform Bertali's Missa Redemptoris at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. [Avro Klassiek | Part 2]

  • From the Salle Pleyel, Vasily Petrenko conducts violinist Baiba Skride and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Szymanowski's violin concerto and Mahler's seventh symphony. [France Musique]

  • Listen as the Nash Ensemble celebrates its 50th birthday in a concert at the Wigmore Hall, with music by Faure, Debussy, Ravel, and Berlioz. [BBC3]

  • Watch Tugan Sokhiev conduct the Orchestre National du Capitole in Toulouse, with Anna Caterina Antonacci singing Berlioz's Les nuits d'été andd Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes. []

  • From Tallinn, listen to Neeme Järvi conduct the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in music of Strauss and Beach, plus Mahler songs with mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi. [Radio Clásica]

  • Via ABC Classic from Australia, listen to concerts by string quartets from the Melbourne Festival. [Flinders Quartet | Orava Quartet | Debussy Quartet | Part 2 | Part 3]

  • From the Risør Chamber Music Festival last June, countertenor David Hansen joins the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, led by Øyvor Volle and Per Kristian Skalstad, along with violinist Henning Kraggerud and friends, for music by Beethoven, Britten, and Taneyev. [ORF]

  • Christina Pluhar leads L'Arpeggiata in music of Bertali and Sances at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. [Avro Klassiek]

  • Paavo Järvi leads the Orchestre de Paris in music of Dutilleux, Lalo, and Tchaikovsky. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, clarinetist Jörg Widmann, and friends perform chamber music by Widmann, Beethoven, and Mozart at the Grafenegg Festival last August. [ORF]

  • Watch the final evening of the Armel Opera Festival. [ARTE]

  • Pianist Daniel Lebhardt, winner of first prize at the International Russian Music Piano Competition, plays music by Debussy, Alkan, and Ravel. [France Musique]

  • Franz Welser-Möst leads the Cleveland Orchestra, in music by Brahms, including the fourth symphony, and Jörg Widmann. [ORF]

  • Robin Ticciati conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in music by Mahler, Haydn, and Hosokawa. [BBC3]

  • Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Orchestre français des jeunes at the Parc floral de Paris, in music by Mozart, Strauss, Saint-Saëns, and Thierry Escaich, with the composer at the organ. [France Musique]

  • Mark Elder conduct the Hallé in music by Brahms, Wagner, and Sibelius. [BBC3]

  • From the Wigmore Hall in London, mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus performs a recital with pianist Joseph Middleton, with songs by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Brahms, Chausson, Schumann, and Saint-Saëns. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the Altenberg Trio perform music by Schubert, Haydn, and Piazzolla, recorded in the Wiener Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Philipp von Steinaecker leads the vocal ensemble Musica Saeculorum in motets by Anton Bruckner, recorded in the monastic church of the Kloster Neustift in August as part of the Brixen Church Music Festival. [ORF]

  • Jac van Steen conducts the Ulster Orchestra in music by Haydn, Strauss, Wagner, and Bartok. [BBC3]

  • Pianist Wilhem Latchoumia and violinist Nicole Léon perform at the Festival Les Solistes in Bagatelle, with music by Debussy, Campo, Ravel, and Bartok. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Danny Driver plays music by Handel, Thomas Ades, Beethoven, C.P.E. Bach, and Schumann, recorded at the Wigmore Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in sacred music by Rameau, recorded at the Proms this past July. [ORF]

  • A performance of Mitsou, an opéra-film by Claire-Mélanie Sinnhuber and Jean-Charles Fitoussi, performed by the Ensemble Multilatérale, recorded at the Musica Festival in Strasbourg. [France Musique]

  • An unusual concert by organist Valentin Fheodoroff and harpist Julia Christine Lukan, with music by Franck and others. [ORF]

  • Cornelius Meister leads the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in music of Staud, Haydn, Strauss, and Schoenberg, with Midori as soloist. [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 177 (Frankfurt Liebesverbot)

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Das Liebesverbot
S.Weigle / Frankfurt O&M Orch. & Chorus / M.Nagy, C.Libor et al.

Riccardo Wagner & Elliot Spitzer

Less Wagner in Wagner is impossible. If Wagner’s Rienzi is “Meyebeer’s best Opera” (von Bülow), Das Liebesverbot might be ‘Bellini’s worst’—in ludicrous German translation. But at its best “The Ban on Love” is entertaining Italianate grand German opera with a subject (think “Elliot Spitzer, the Opera”) that exposes Wagner’s youthful psyche. Wagner himself set the bar so high for his own work, it might relegate Das Liebesverbot—for all its musical merit—to Wagner-completists’ interest. The performance, headed by Michael Nagy and Christiane Libor, though, gives the work all it can be given and constitutes a rare bon-bon for Wagner-explorers. Oehms’ delivers with libretto (German only) and exemplary liner notes (German and English)! 

Review of the performance at which this was recorded here.

Joshua Wright @ Kennedy Center

Charles T. Downey, Pianist Joshua Wright shows his skills in recital at the Kennedy Center
Washington Post, October 18, 2014

A concert pianist must meet high technical standards, but he will gain an audience only if he has even rarer gifts — touch, intelligence and the ability to surprise.

Joshua Wright, a prize winner at this year’s Washington International Piano Competition, demonstrated those qualities in a recital Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater presented by the Friday Morning Music Club. The pianist also can be a showman, evident in his performance this year on the television show “America’s Got Talent,” which involved paint and smoke pouring out of a white grand piano... [Continue reading]
Joshua Wright, piano
Friday Morning Music Club
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


Briefly Noted: 'Become Ocean'

available at Amazon
J. L. Adams, Become Ocean, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, L. Morlot

(released on September 30, 2014)
Canteloupe CA-21101 | 43'14"
When John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music earlier this year, for his orchestral work Become Ocean, he presided over a performance of it at Carnegie Hall the following month. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned and premiered the work last year, has now released a recording on the Canteloupe label. Listening to this pelagic and puzzling work on a sound system cannot truly recreate the effect of hearing it in live performance, so my inevitable disappointment, after so much praise from so many quarters, may be partially due to that lack in my listening life. Given the work's notoriety, I may not have to wait to long for one of Washington's many orchestras to play it in concert. It was an article by Alex Ross a few years ago in The New Yorker that brought the composer to my attention (Song of the Earth, May 12, 2008), and according to that profile, Become Ocean handily achieves what Adams seeks in his compositions.

To create a sense of tidal force, three different groups in the orchestra rise and fall in pre-determined patterns throughout the course of the piece. Here, tinkling harps or searing strings or surging brass ride the peaks of waves and then recede. Curiously, the second half of the piece strikes me as more engaging than the first, somehow seeming to make more sense to my ear. After wondering about that, it occurred to me that it may have something to do with the palindromic nature of the piece: Ross notes that the work's 630 bars consist of two halves that mirror one another, with bar 316 being the midpoint. Something similar happens in the third movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: at the midpoint, you hear a five-note motif, followed by its exact retrograde, and the piece you have just heard unfurls in reverse. With Become Ocean, it seems like one hears the retrograde form first, and then the non-retrograde form, as if the second half was composed first and the first half then derived from it, but this is only an impression.


À mon chevet: 'Un début dans la vie'

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

book cover
The three young fellows were now as dull as thieves caught in the act; they dared not look at each other, and were evidently considering the consequences of their fibs.

"This is what is called 'suffering for license sake'," said Mistigris.

"You see I did know the count," said Oscar.

"Possibly. But you'll never be an ambassador," replied Georges. "When people want to talk in public conveyances, they ought to be careful, like me, to talk without saying anything."

"That's what speech is for," remarked Mistigris, by way of conclusion.

The count returned to his seat and the coucou rolled on amid the deepest silence.

"Well, my friends," said the count, when they reached the Carreau woods, "here we all are, as silent as if we were going to the scaffold."

"'Silence gives content'," muttered Mistigris.

"The weather is fine," said Georges.

"What place is that?" said Oscar, pointing to the Château de Franconville, which produces a fine effect at that particular spot, backed, as it is, by the noble forest of Saint-Martin.

"How is it," cried the count, "that you, who say you go so often to Presles, do not know Franconville?"

"Monsieur knows men, not castles," said Mistigris.

"Budding diplomatists have so much else to take their minds," remarked Georges.

"Be so good as to remember my name," replied Oscar, furious. "I am Oscar Husson, and ten years hence I shall be famous."

After that speech, uttered with bombastic assumption, Oscar flung himself back in his corner.

"Husson of what, of where?" asked Mistigris.

"It is a great family," replied the count. "Husson de la Cerisaie; monsieur was born beneath the steps of the Imperial throne."

Oscar colored crimson to the roots of his hair, and was penetrated through and through with a dreadful foreboding.

-- Honoré de Balzac, A Start in Life (translation by Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
This is one of the best stories I have read so far in Balzac's La Comédie humaine. The first half recounts in embarrassing and entertaining detail the voyage of a lumbering public carriage, of a type known as a coucou, in the territory outside of Paris. The passengers are thrown together from several overlapping narratives, all making the trip to the manor house at Presles, but they do not understand completely the identities of the other men in the carriage. Balzac lets the reader in on the secrets in advance, so that as the younger men in the carriage weave outrageous lie after outrageous lie, we can watch them hang themselves in their own dishonesty -- none worse than naive Oscar Husson, the least worldly of them all.

One of Balzac's more delightful characters appears here, Mistigris (the nickname of Léon de Lora), a rapin, or apprentice, to the painter Hippolyte Schinner. Mistigris is a garrulous but dangerous wit, always ready with a demeaning put-down and a scabrous command of Latin, taking his place in the long and honorable tradition of puns and dirty jokes in that elevated language. (When the group finally arrives at Presles, they are offered the chance to take part in the hunt, one of the few delights of the country, to which Mistigris mutters, 'Veni, vidi, cecidi,--I came, I saw, I slaughtered.') Rolling his eyes at the bald-faced whoppers told by the others, Mistigris ridicules them, pointing out "That's what speech is for" (to talk without saying anything) and, when they are finally quiet, he adds "Silence gives content." One can only hope that someone somewhere at some time actually said such things.


Madame Chairman?

Last month I took note of the Web site run by the Académie Française, through which ordinary people can ask the guardians of the purity of the French language for guidance. The organization has gotten involved in a political fracas that occurred in the Assemblée Nationale, when one of its members, Julien Aubert, addressed the body's vice-president, Sandrine Mazetier, as "Madame le Président." Mme. Mazetier took offense, demanding that Aubert address her, as the body's rules stipulate, as "Madame la Présidente," to recognize that she is a woman. Aubert stuck to the masculine form and wound up with a fine of 1,378 euros for his obstinacy. It turns out, though, that Aubert was technically right. The Académie Française intervened, declaring that traditionally one used "Madame la Présidente" when addressing the wife of a man holding the office of president, but when a woman held the office, she should be addressed as "Madame le Président." For a speaker of English, in which most feminine forms of professional names (poetess, chairwoman, even actress) are potentially offensive, this is a strange situation.

According to an article by Mohammed Aissaoui for Le Figaro (Féminisation des noms : la mise au point de l'Académie française, October 15), "les immortels," as the members of the Académie Française are known, did not stop there. In a document called La féminisation des noms de métiers, fonctions, grades ou titres - Mise au point de l'Académie française, the institution reminded the world of the rules about feminine forms of professional titles in French. For those who care, feminine nouns that evolved organically throughout history are acceptable, like artisane, postière, aviatrice, pharmacienne, avocate, bûcheronne, factrice, compositrice, éditrice, and exploratrice. However, new feminine forms, which are sometimes used against the wishes of women who hold these positions, like professeure, recteure, sapeuse-pompière, auteure, ingénieure, procureure, and (shudder) chercheure, are rejected as "barbarisms contrary to the normal rules of derivation." Officially, French will continue to use generic professional nouns, in the masculine form in keeping with its heritage in Latin, for those cases "when the sex of the person is no more important to consider than his or her other individual traits." As for the rules of the Assemblée Nationale, "no text gives to the government the power to modify, on its sole authority, the vocabulary and grammar of the French language. It is not, in effect, a tool shaped according to individual desires or political projects." Only in France.


Classical Month in Washington (December 2014)

The concert schedule in December gets all gummed up with Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and Jingle Bell nonsense, but there are still a few good things to hear. Some of this belongs in the tinsel category, but only the things that should actually be worth hearing.

Helmuth Rilling returns to the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra (December 4 to 6), leading an all-Bach program. The third orchestral suite and a concerto for oboe and violin (featuring two of the ensemble's principal musicians) set off two cantatas for Christmas Day, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110) and Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63). Bach performed the latter work, composed around 1713, for his first Christmas as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.
[See review]

The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and Wind Orchestra join forces for yet another intriguing program (December 5). Sibelius's sixth symphony is paired with Milhaud’s La Création du Monde and Stravinsky’s Octet, with conductor Michael Votta at the helm.

Francesca Zambello brings Rachel Portman's opera The Little Prince to Washington National Opera, with five performances in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (December 19 to 21). The work had a mixed reception at New York City Opera in 2005, but we are very much looking forward to forming our own opinion -- with Miss Ionarts in tow, of course.

Opera Bel Cantanti mounts a rare production of a classic Viennese operetta, Kálmán's Die Csárdásfürstin, at the Randolph Road Theater in Silver Spring (December 19 and 21). Take with several glasses of champagne and call the doctor in the morning.

The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, performs a free concert at the Library of Congress (December 6). The program includes music by Monteverdi, Britten, Schoenberg, and Irving Fine, the last as part of that composer's centennial celebration at the Library.

The always charming Baltimore Consort performs a program of music from the Spanish Renaissance on the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art (December 14).

The Emerson String Quartet performs on its Smithsonian Associates series at the National Museum of Natural History (December 7), with excerpts of Bach's Art of Fugue, paired well with Beethoven's Große Fuge.
[See review]

The Ariel Quartet performs music by Israeli composers Paul Ben-Haim, Mark Kopytman, and Menachem Wiesenberg, in a concert sponsored by Pro Musica Hebraica (December 14) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
[See review]

We always enjoy the celebration of legendary violin maker Stradivari at the Library of Congress. This year the St. Lawrence String Quartet gets the honor of taking some of the Library's Strads for a spin (December 18). The program includes one of Mozart's glorious string quintets, with violist Hsin-Yun Huang.

available at Amazon
On Yoolis Night, Anonymous 4
(Harmonia Mundi, 1993)
Anonymous 4, who know how to give a good Christmas concert, will present their On Yoolis Night program of Christmas music from British sources at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (December 11).
[See review]

The other contender for the coveted Ionarts Sugar Plum Award, for the year's best Christmas concert, will likely be the Folger Consort's Renaissance Christmas program (December 16 to 23), in the lovely venue of the Folger Shakespeare Library's theater. This year the focus is on music of Flanders and Italy around the year 1500.

Miss Ionarts insists on attending at least one (preferably several) performances of The Nutcracker each December. The one we will definitely not miss this year is presented by Ballet West, last reviewed in 2012. The choreography by William Christensen (December 10 to 14) plays beautifully in the Kennedy Center Opera House.
[See review]

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss

Charles T. Downey, Mark Padmore, Jonathan Biss give intoxicating performance
Washington Post, October 13, 2014

available at Amazon
Schumann, Dichterliebe / Liederkreis, op. 24, M. Padmore, K. Bezuidenhout
(Harmonia Mundi, 2010)
Mark Padmore has an unconventional voice, but the British tenor knows how to use it to the best effect. This he demonstrated once again in a recital heard Friday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland, performed with American pianist Jonathan Biss as collaborating artist. The audience may have filled only about half of the hall, one of the venue’s smaller ones, but the spell woven was often intoxicating.

In my favorite Padmore recording, he partnered with Kristian Bezuidenhout on a 19th-century piano, a mellow instrument that suited his lighter voice better than the modern piano. That disc included Schumann’s “Liederkreis,” Op. 24, which also opened this concert. Padmore’s enigmatic tone, sometimes thin or, oddly, almost strangled, helped evoke the often strange sentiments of Heinrich Heine’s poetry. There, as well as in Schumann’s “Six Poems and Requiem,” Padmore floated soft high notes in an otherworldly way, making the dreamy songs the high point. Although Biss was generally an able, if sometimes overpowering accompanist, he was at his best making solo contributions in the many important postludes to the songs.

Padmore’s diction was impeccable, relishing the sounds of consonants without affection. Michael Tippett’s cantata “Boyhood’s End” had some high notes that were just out of Padmore’s reach, but the almost manic passages of this unusual work were thrilling, thanks in no small part to Biss’s virtuosity at the keyboard. Biss was also essential in Gabriel Fauré’s “La bonne chanson,” in which his endlessly undulating figuration allowed Padmore to just glide over the top of the texture. A single encore, Schubert’s “Ständchen” from “Schwanengesang,” was as sweet as a nightingale’s call.
Mark Padmore (tenor) and Jonathan Biss (piano)
Music by Schumann, Tippett, Fauré
Clarice Smith Center

Matthew Guerrieri, Padmore, Biss bring character, technique to Gardner (Boston Globe, October 14, 2014)

Charles T. Downey, Briefly Noted: Padmore's HIP 'Dichterliebe' (Ionarts, August 9, 2012)


Perchance to Stream: Rainy and Cold Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • Listen to a performance of Catalani's La Wally, starring Ainhoa Artera and Yonghoon Lee, recorded last June at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Jordan conducts the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris in Bruckner's second symphony and Schubert's ninth, recorded last May at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the église du Collège St. Michel de Fribourg for the Festival de Musique Sacrée de Fribourg, the Ensemble Huelgas performs polyphony by John Sutton, William Horwood, Edmundus Sturton, John Browne, and Robert Wylkynson, conducted by Paul Van Nevel. [RTBF]

  • Watch Laurence Equilbey conduct the Insula Orchestra and the choir Accentus in Mozart's Coronation Mass, Beethoven's King Stephan, and Carl Maria von Weber's Kampf und Sieg, recorded for the first time in multicam, with four different camera angles that you can choose and change. []

  • From the Festival Les heures at the Collège des Bernardins, a concert of Renaissce polyphony by the Tallis Scholars and another of music by J. S. Bach and Arvo Pärt performed by the viol consort Sit Fast. [France Musique]

  • Ensemble Organum, conducted by Marcel Pérès, performs a program called "Voie des songes," with Byzantine and Mozarabic chant and other music. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 176 (Pachelbel and the Organ)

available at Amazon
J.Pachelbel, Complete Organ Works, volume 1
Christian Schmitt, Jürgen Essl, James David Christie, Michael Belotti

Not the Canon in D

Known primarily for that lovely but hideously overplayed Canon in D, the considerable output of Johann Pachelbel (1653—1706) has been obscured from all but specialist-view. Listening to Pachelbel isn’t listening to a prequel of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Organ Works (who was more influenced by Buxtehude and Frescobaldi); instead it is a shifted parallel kind of enjoyment, lessened by subconscious comparison to Bach, but movingly enjoyable once the ears take that hurdle and let the “Catechism Songs”—Pachelbel’s choral settings—work their own subtle magic. Coupled with the hitherto sole Pachelbel recording of Wolfgang Rübsam (Naxos), this CPO box is a terrific start for the committed Baroque- and organ-maven!