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


Classical Spotify Playlist: Wiener Konzerthaus in December

The monthly playlist of the Wiener Konzerthaus tries to present all the pieces of the upcoming month's concerts on Spotify... either by the very performers that will be there or, when not available, other favorite or worthwhile recordings that can be found on Spotify. A similar such playlist is planned to be featured on Qobuz, also. This one covers December... or check it out on the Konzerthaus Magazin.

Perchance to Stream: Giving Thanks 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 Massenet's Cléopâtre, recorded earlier this month at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, with Michel Plasson conducting a cast starring Sophie Koch. [France Musique]

  • Simone Piazzola, Maria Agresta, and Francesco Meli star in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, recorded at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. [France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, recorded last February, a performance of Puccini's Le Villi and Leoncavallo's Zingari, starring Ermonelo Jaho, Thiago Arancam, Leah Crocetto, and others. [ORF]

  • Andrea Marcon leads a performance of Antonio Caldara's La concordia de' pianeti (1723), with a cast led by Delphine Galou, Veronica Cangemi, and others, and La Cetra Baroque orchestra, recorded in Dortmund last January. [ORF]

  • Lars-Ulrik Mortensen leads Concerto Copenhagen in Vivaldi's opera Ottone in Villa, starring Sonia Prina and others. [RTBF]

  • The Academy of Ancient Music performs music by Mozart and Gluck from Paris and Vienna. [BBC3]

  • Listen to music for St. Cecilia's Day by Purcell and Britten, performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players and conductor Paul McCreesh. [RTBF]

  • Music by Mendelssohn, Poulenc, and Roussel performed by Frank Braley, Eric Le Sage, and the Orchestre National de France under conductor Stéphane Denève. [France Musique]

  • Ensemble Desmarest and Mare Nostrum perform Baroque music by Biber, Blow, Purcell, plus Stradella's La forza delle stelle. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio with Peter Dijkstra leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. [BR-Klassik]

  • Peter Dijkstra leads the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent in Handel's Messiah. [BR-Klassik]

  • David Afkham conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Ligeti (Lontano), Tchaikovsky (fifth symphony), and Sibelius (violin concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist), recorded earlier this month. [ORF]

  • Marc Minkowski conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Schubert, Mahler, and Hans Rott. [BBC3]

  • Watch Philippe Jordan conduct the Vienna Symphony in music by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Beethoven, with pianist Khatia Buniatishvili as soloist. [Cité de la Musique Live]


Dip Your Ears, No. 183 (Brahms from Chailly & Kavakos)

available at Amazon
J.Brahms (B.Bartók), Violin Concerto, 4 Hungarian Dances (Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano)
Leonidas Kavakos (Péter Nagy)
R.Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Varnish and Leather

Riccardo Chailly gets more audacious and interesting with age. Where other conductors become increasingly mellow and predictably bland, Chailly (whose interpretations started out on the tepid side) is experiencing a Benjamin Button phase and delivers darkly varnished boldness. That’s true for his latest Mahler, it’s true for his recent Beethoven Symphonies, and it’s also true for this new release of the Brahms Violin Concerto in which he collaborates with Leonidas Kavakos. Kavakos, at his best capable of a wonderful mix of delicacy and a fierce leathery tone, is in fact in top form and manages tenderness while avoiding sweetness all awhile Chailly indulges in the wonderful sound of his Leipzig Orchestra. Closing the recital with a few of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances makes sense, seeing how the Concerto’s finale is full of allusions to them and the Bartók Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano (with Péter Nagy) cleanse the palate in between. No lids get blown of one’s perceptions of the Brahms concerto, but the artistry and the combination of their sound—recorded with a gutsy amount of natural reverb—is so damn beautiful, it makes this well worth adding atop your pile of Brahms Violin Concertos. The disc’s closing with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances alludes to the Concerto’s finale while the Bartók Rhapsodies for Violin and Piano (with Péter Nagy) cleanse the palate in between. 


Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Things I Liked This Year

For your Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, here are some gift ideas from the CDs, DVDs, and books I enjoyed this year, in no particular order. Jens will also offer his thoughts on the best recordings of the year. When you buy through the links provided on these pages, Ionarts receives a cut at no extra cost to you -- so you are actually giving two gifts at once.


J. H. Hertel, Die Geburt Jesu Christi, B. Solset, A. Rawohl, M. Ullmann, W.-M. Friedrich, Die Kölner Akademie, M. A. Willens (cpo 777 809-2)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
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. This includes Hertel's Christmas cantata, Die Geburt Jesu Christi, here receiving its world premiere recording. [READ REVIEW]

Enescu, Isis / Symphony No. 5, M. Vlad, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, NDR Chor, P. Ruzicka (cpo 777823-2)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
We are avid fans of the music of George Enescu here at Ionarts. The Rumanian composer kept up a restless schedule of performing (he was a talented violinist), as well as being an educator and musicologist. At the time of his death, in Paris in 1955, he apparently left a large number of pieces incomplete. Some of these are still being brought to light, thanks to Pascal Bentoiu, a Romanian composer and also Enescu biographer, who has made performance versions of them according to Enescu's intentions. This new release from the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern and conductor Peter Ruzicka offers performances of two of them, beginning with the vocal symphonic poem Isis, which Bentoiu discovered only in 1996 in an archive in Bucharest. It is an atmospheric, languid, mostly static work for orchestra, wordless women's chorus, harp, and celesta, and Bentiou connects it, composed in 1923, to Enescu's mistress, eventually wife, Maruca Cantacuzini, whom Enescu called Isis. [READ REVIEW]

Bach, Academic Cantatas (BWV 205, 207), Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki (BIS-2001)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
The completion of Masaaki Suzuki's complete cycle of Bach's sacred cantatas, undertaken from 1995 to 2013 with the Bach Collegium Japan for BIS, was one of the highlights of last year. Bach also composed secular cantatas, over a score of them that survive but likely more than twice that number actually composed, and Suzuki and his forces are releasing their fourth volume of those this month. The two cantatas brought together on this disc, BWV 205 and 207, are both academic cantatas, commissioned in honor of professors at the University of Leipzig, with texts that celebrate the honorees' achievements in allegorical and mythological terms. As we have come to expect of this series, all musical details in these sometimes surprising scores are lovingly tended. The quartet of vocal soloists is strong: forthright countertenor Robin Blaze and bass Roderick Williams, the sweet and light tenor of Wolfram Lattke, and the ethereal soprano of Joanne Lunn. [READ REVIEW]


Giving Thanks for Shock Art

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers!

In case you needed any further evidence that shock art is still a thing, there are two major exhibits taking up a lot of space in the French dailies this week: a Jeff Koons retrospective, which opened at the Centre Pompidou yesterday, and Exhibit B by South African artist Brett Bailey, a performance-installation that opens today at the Théâtre Gérard-Philipe in Saint-Denis. See Koons speak about his work in this video from L'Express. Although the outcry against Bailey's "human zoo" has been widespread, France's culture minister, Fleur Pellerin, has come out in support of the exhibit, which involves black actors in tableaux vivants re-enacting scenes of colonial enslavement. In a public statement Pellerin said (my translation): "I forcefully reaffirm the fundamental principles of liberty in artistic creation and programming that are the pride of our nation." The minister is preparing to present a law on freedom of artistic creation, architecture, and patrimony to the French parliament in 2015.


Sabine Weiss, 90, on Photography

For an exhibit in honor of photographer Sabine Weiss, La Maison européenne de la Photographie asked other photographers to make a photograph inspired by one of Weiss's works. The exhibit will open on December 24, with a selection of works featured in this week's issue of Le Nouvel Observateur. The magazine's Web site has also published a video interview with Weiss, embedded below.


À mon chevet: 'La femme de trente ans'

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

book cover
Between the Barrière d'Italie and the Barrière de la Santé, along the boulevard which leads to the Jardin des Plantes, you have a view of Paris fit to send an artist or the tourist, the most blasé in matters of landscape, into ecstasies. Reach the slightly higher ground where the line of boulevard, shaded by tall, thick-spreading trees, curves with the grace of some green and silent forest avenue, and you see spread out at your feet a deep valley populous with factories looking almost countrified among green trees and the brown streams of the Bièvre or the Gobelins.

On the opposite slope, beneath some thousands of roofs packed close together like heads in a crowd, lurks the squalor of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. The imposing cupola of the Pantheon, and the grim melancholy dome of the Val-de-Grâce, tower proudly up above a whole town in itself, built amphitheater-wise; every tier being grotesquely represented by a crooked line of street, so that the two public monuments look like a huge pair of giants dwarfing into insignificance the poor little houses and the tallest poplars in the valley. To your left behold the observatory, the daylight, pouring athwart its windows and galleries, producing such fantastical strange effects that the building looks like a black spectral skeleton. Further yet in the distance rises the elegant lantern tower of the Invalides, soaring up between the bluish pile of the Luxembourg and the gray spires of Saint-Sulpice. From this standpoint the lines of the architecture are blended with green leaves and gray shadows, and change every moment with every aspect of the heavens, every alteration of light or color in the sky. Afar, the skyey spaces themselves seem to be full of buildings; near, wind the serpentine curves of waving trees and green footpaths.

Away to your right, through a great gap in this singular landscape, you see the canal Saint-Martin, a long pale stripe with its edging of reddish stone quays and fringes of lime avenue. The long rows of buildings beside it, in genuine Roman style, are the public granaries.

Beyond, again, on the very last plane of all, see the smoke-dimmed slopes of Belleville covered with houses and windmills, which blend their freaks of outline with the chance effects of cloud. And still, between that horizon, vague as some childish recollection, and the serried range of roofs in the valley, a whole city lies out of sight: a huge city, engulfed, as it were, in a vast hollow between the pinnacles of the Hôpital de la Pitié and the ridge line of the Cimetière de l'Est, between suffering on the one hand and death on the other; a city sending up a smothered roar like Ocean grumbling at the foot of a cliff, as if to let you know that "I am here!"

When the sunlight pours like a flood over this strip of Paris, purifying and etherealizing the outlines, kindling answering lights here and there in the window panes, brightening the red tiles, flaming about the golden crosses, whitening walls and transforming the atmosphere into a gauzy veil, calling up rich contrasts of light and fantastic shadow; when the sky is blue and earth quivers in the heat, and the bells are pealing, then you shall see one of the eloquent fairy scenes which stamp themselves for ever on the imagination, a scene that shall find as fanatical worshipers as the wondrous views of Naples and Byzantium or the isles of Florida. Nothing is wanting to complete the harmony, the murmur of the world of men and the idyllic quiet of solitude, the voices of a million human creatures and the voice of God. There lies a whole capital beneath the peaceful cypresses of Père-Lachaise.

-- Honoré de Balzac, The Woman of Thirty Years (translation by Ellen Marriage)
It's back to Balzac's La Comédie Humaine after a pause to read the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. Few writers are so gifted at the evocation of the physical: sights, colors, lines, smells, sounds. This is one of the most vivid portraits of the beautiful city of Paris, as one would have taken it in from the Place de l'Italie in the 13th arrondissement in the early 19th century, one that combines the mundane details with the spiritual heights of the place: "the murmur of the world of men and the idyllic quiet of solitude." It is also a skyline of Paris without either of the two most visible structures that now dominate it: the Tour Eiffel and the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, neither of which would be built for a half-century.


Mutter and Her Brood

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Four Seasons, A.-S. Mutter, Trondheim Soloists
(DG, 1999)
Charles T. Downey, Veteran violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter brings her group of proteges to Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 25, 2014)
Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who made her mark as a teenage prodigy, is giving back through the foundation that bears her name. For the last couple years she has toured with the Mutter Virtuosi, a group of young musicians under her tutelage, and their North American tour included a stop at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday night, presented by Washington Performing Arts.

The program concluded with a guns-blazing performance of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and in the hunting-themed finale of the “Autumn” concerto, the students played the part of the pack of dogs chasing down Mutter... [Continue reading]
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Mutter Virtuosi
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Watch the Mutter Virtuosi in their concert at Carnegie Hall (November 18, 2014)

Zachary Woolfe, A Playoff, of Sorts, in Bach’s Court (New York Times, November 19)

David Allen, Ask Not for Whom the Cell Tolls (New York Times, November 12)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Mutter and young colleagues deliver fresh, exhilarating Vivaldi (Chicago Classical Review, November 20)


Perchance to Stream: End of an Era 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 Diana Damrau, Dmitry Korchak, and Nathan Gunn star in a performance of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi leading the ORF RSO Wien and Arnold Schoenberg Chor. [ORF]

  • Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent perform Bach's cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, motet O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, and Magnificat, recorded last February in Warsaw. [ORF]

  • Bernard Labadie conducts the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln in Mozart's Great C Minor Mass, plus the "Jupiter" symphony. [France Musique]

  • Christoph Eschenbach conducts Berlioz's Le Carnaval Romain, Liszt's Mazeppa, and Strauss's Burlesque with Lang Lang as soloists. [RTBF]

  • Peter Donohoe is soloist in James MacMillan's third piano concerto ("Mysteries of Light"), with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Martyn Brabbins, plus music by Sibelius and Shostakovich. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the new second string quartet by Adelaide composer Kat McGuffie, performed by the Goldner Quartet in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • Soprano Erin Wall joins the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus for Poulenc's Stabat mater and excerpts from Prokofiev's music for Romeo and Juliet, conducted by James Gaffigan. [RTBF]

  • Watch David Zinman conduct the Orchestre de Paris and cellist Gautier Capuçon in music by Hector Berlioz, Benjamin Britten, and Robert Schumann at the Salle Pleyel. [Cité de la Musique LIVE]

  • Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in music of Tchaikovsky, joined by cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. [France Musique]

  • Music by Rameau, Lully, Telemann, and Mendelssohn with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, conducted by Roger Norrington. [RTBF]

  • At the Wigmore Hall, the Prince Consort sings ensemble songs by Robert Schumann. [BBC3]

  • From the Utrecht Early Music Festival, Christina Pluhar leads her ensemble L'Arpeggiata in sacred music by Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) and Giovanni Felice Sances (1600-1679). [France Musique]
  • Violinist Luc Héry joins the Orchestre National de France and conductor Daniele Gatti, for music by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Strauss. [France Musique]

  • The Clemencic Consort performs sacred music by Giacomo Carissimi, recorded earlier this month at the Wiener Musikverein. [ORF]

  • Semyon Bychkov and pianist Kirill Gerstein join the Vienna Philharmonic for music by Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich. [ORF]

  • A program of contemporary music by Clara Iannotta, Gérard Grisey, Joanna Bailie, and Mauro Lanza, performed last month in the Eglise Saint-Merri in Paris by the Ensemble soundinitiative, conducted by Leonhard Garms. [France Musique]

  • Valery Gergiev conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in Janacek's Taras Bulba, Miaskovsky's fourth symphony, and Prokofiev's first violin concerto, with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist, recorded in September in Rotterdam. [ORF]

  • John Storgards conducts the BBC Philharmonic in music by Tchaikovsky, plus Nielsen's flute concerto. [BBC3]

  • Listen to a recital by violinist Lidia Baich and pianist Matthias Fletzberger, with music by Joseph Marx, Kreisler, Strauss, and the performers. [ORF]

  • Lisa Batiashvili plays Brahms with the NDR Sinfonieorchester and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, recorded in September in Hamburg. [ORF]

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers perform music by Respighi, Brett Dean, and Strauss. [BBC3]

  • More archived Strauss recordings from the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France and Marek Janowski. [France Musique]

  • The Borodin Quartet with clarinetist Michael Collins perform music by Borodin, Schubert, and Mozart. [BBC3]

  • Popular French songs by Offenbach, Serge Gainsbourg, and others, performed by the Choeur de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the classic recording of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, starring Edita Gruberová (Giulietta) and Agnes Baltsa (Romeo), with Riccardo Muti conducting at Covent Garden in 1984. [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 182 (Late Abbado in Early Bruckner)

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Symphony No.1
(1891 “Vienna” version)

C.Abbado / Lucerne FO

Stepchild in Lovechild Treatment

“Abbado uncovered the radical nature of [this Symphony]” wrote Die Welt after the 2012 Lucerne Festival performance. Unlikely—Abbado isn’t so much the man for musical insights and un-coverings, than simply top-notch execution. The surprise-effect isn’t what Abbado did with this one of four stepchildren among Bruckner’s 11 Symphonies, but that he played it at all. Everything typical for Bruckner is already in this work; much sounds like a pre-echo of the more famous symphonies to come, but altogether more impetuously and pithy. With the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Abbado gives the work the loving and big-name treatment that helps propel the easily overlooked gem to our deserved attention. 


For Your Consideration: 'Diplomacy'

available at Amazon
Diplomacy, directed by Volker Schlöndorff
Volker Schlöndorff, known for his film adaptation of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, has just made a film of Cyril Gély's play Diplomatie, with the playwright serving as screenwriter. The play, premiered in 2011, takes up the same events as the book and film Is Paris Burning?, on a fateful night in 1944 when the German governor of Nazi-occupied Paris decided whether to carry out his orders to blow up the French capital as a final act of retribution. The play, which imagines the fateful all-night conversation between Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling and General Dietrich von Choltitz, as the former tries to persuade the latter not to give the order, is a fictionalization, good theater but no more.

This is the strength of the film as well, as two veteran actors -- both reprising the roles they played on stage -- square off on opposing sides of this debate: can the love of art and culture ever triumph over the base instincts of war? Niels Arestrup (War Horse) is the inflexible German officer, who feels he cannot disobey an order from Berlin for fear that his wife and children will be made to pay for his insubordination. The Nordling of André Dussollier (Un Coeur en Hiver), the smooth voice that narrated Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, tries every avenue to convince von Choltitz that he can spare Paris, the city that they both love. The consul gains entry to the general's office by a secret passage, which he says was installed when the Hôtel Meurice played host to one Miss Howard, a paramour of Napoléon III. The manner of his appearance, however, suggests that this dialogue is really taking place within the mind of von Choltitz.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | The Guardian
New Yorker | Christian Science Monitor | Variety | Hollywood Reporter

This is not a suspense or action movie, although there are a few tense sequences outside the headquarters as the German army prepares the explosives. Most of the appeal comes from the verbal sparring of the two protagonists, neither of whom is being quite honest with the other, and the dialogue, in French, is beautifully articulate. Somewhat surprisingly, Schlöndorff and his cinematographer, Michel Amathieu, do not flood the movie with eye-candy images of Paris. The decision is shrewd, for each viewer is allowed to summon up those parts of the city that he cannot imagine living without.

This movie opens today at the E Street Cinema.


NSO and Busoni

available at Amazon
F. Busoni, Piano Concerto, G. Ohlsson, Cleveland Orchestra, C. von Dohnányi
(Telarc, re-released in 2002)
Ferruccio Busoni's piano concerto is an epic, crazy piece of music: over seventy minutes in length, in five movements, one of them involving a men's chorus chanting to Allah. Needless to say, one does not hear it live all that often, although there are a couple of pianists who will play it from time to time, including Marc-André Hamelin (who played the composer's second piano sonatina last year) and Garrick Ohlsson, who last night was the first to attempt it with the National Symphony Orchestra in over seventy years.

As excited as I was to hear this piece, in all its ungainly glory, what became clear in this performance is that this concerto can be a trial for the ears. Unwieldy in its proportions -- the introduction before the first solo entrance goes on forever -- there may not be enough bang for the buck when it is all said and done. Ohlsson had the piece mostly in hand, conquering the necessity of giving the solo part, at times, a scope equivalent to that of the entire orchestra, although there were a few minor blips here and there and the coordination with conductor Rossen Milanov, last heard with NSO in last year's Messiah, was not always optimal. This was most pronounced in the rather silly fourth movement, which devolves at times into an Offenbach galop and then a Rossini-overture crescendo, but perhaps too often the Lisztian excesses of the piece go too far. The Washington Men's Camerata was mostly solid in the last movement, on the text from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger, which Busoni had long considered setting as an opera, although when the tenors were exposed at one point, the sound was not pretty. In the score, Busoni directs that the chorus should be "invisibile," a request that apparently could not be honored, since the singers were placed in full view in the chorister seats above the stage.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Ohlsson brings elegance to a whiz-bang performance of massive Busoni (Washington Post, November 21)

---, Pianist Garrick Ohlsson on Busoni’s 70-minute concerto: ‘A noble, beautiful work’ (Washington Post, November 20)
The last couple performances of Stravinsky's music for The Firebird have been of the complete score, last year from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, and from the NSO in 2009 with Charles Dutoit. Milanov led the 1919 version of the suite, which greatly reduces the amount of music and the lavish orchestration, halving the numbers of woodwinds and eliminating many of the most inventive coloristic effects, and he did so with startling clarity. His approach tended to favor very slow tempi for the slow movements -- an ominous, oozing introduction, for example -- and perhaps an edge too breathless in the fast ones, like the Firebird theme. His gestures, though, were all razor-sharp, creating a delicate and warm "Round Dance of the Princesses" and a drowsy Berceuse, but also a savagely unified and harsh "Infernal Dance," with just a few fuzzy spots in the woodwinds and second violins. The only drawback was a somewhat flat conclusion, where the conductor's grim efficiency made the effect of the last few pages too mechanical.

This program repeats Friday and Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Czech Philharmonic Marks Velvet Revolution

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Smetana, Má vlast, Czech Philharmonic, K. Ančerl
(Supraphon, re-released in 2009)
At the end of a U.S. tour that began in California, with a performance marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czech Philharmonic played a tribute on November 17 for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the student-led uprising which began on that day in 1989 and led to the election of Václav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. After a concert in Fairfax on Friday and another at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, the musicians and their conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, were back in the area, seated in the crossing of Washington National Cathedral.

Like many diplomatic events, the ceremony did not begin until some time after its 7 pm start time, and after the performance of the American and Czech national anthems, there were lengthy speeches, by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Czech Prime Minsiter Bohuslav Sobotka, among others. The music that was eventually offered -- the "Vltava" movement from Smetana's Má vlast and a repeat performance of Dvořák's ninth symphony -- had something much more eloquent to say about the ties between Czechs and Americans. If the characterization of the Dvořák as a "hymn to freedom" seemed a bit of a stretch, there was no doubt the two pieces represented Czech culture quite well -- the first evoking the river that flows through Bohemia, and the second premiered here in the United States.

Vltava, or Moldau as it is also known, featured the fluttering sound of the flutes and the silvery lightness of the strings, its principal melody charged with nostalgia and the tidal surges of the conclusion rising and falling beautifully. Bělohlávek gave the orchestra its head for the most part in the Dvořák, often indicating only downbeats, which created a few mis-coordinated spots between sections. The horn solos were sterling, as were the outdoorsy, not to say rustic, woodwinds. The Wagnerian brass were lush at the start of the slow movement, with a bucolic English horn solo, answered so delicately by the strings, and Bělohlávek did not overdo the rests that cut up the end of the movement, deepening the sense of memory, coming in starts. The third movement was sprightly and light, with those clear references to Beethoven's ninth symphony, and the energy was not allowed to flag at all in the triumphant finale, the various themes woven together effortlessly.


Classical Music Agenda (January 2015)

The year is rapidly drawing to a close, so it must be time to make your concert plans for January. Here are the ten performances we most want to hear.

available at Amazon
Mozart / Haydn, A. Tharaud, J. DiDonato, Les Violons du Roy, B. Labadie
(Erato, 2014)
Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud comes to town every two years or so, most recently in 2012. For his recital at the Phillips Collection (January 25), he will play Couperin, plus sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven (op. 110) and some Schubert dances. Not to be missed.

Later the same week, the Mariinsky Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House with an assortment of choreographies, headlined by Millicent Hodson's reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's original movements for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (January 27 to February 1). Other highlights include choreographies by Fokine, Le Spectre de la Rose and The Swan.

We will also make the trip to Charm City for the recital by violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Daniil Trifonov at Shriver Hall (January 18). The pair will play music a Mozart sonata and a Schubert fantasy, and cellist Geidre Dirvanauskaite will join them for Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque No. 2.

It is indeed a good season for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which offers two excellent programs in the month of January. Günther Herbig returns to conduct Bruckner's eighth symphony, with Alon Goldstein as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (January 17 at Strathmore). Then Marin Alsop is back on the podium for Mahler's third symphony, with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as soloist (January 31 at Strathmore).

available at Amazon
Mozart / Haydn, A. Tharaud, J. DiDonato, Les Violons du Roy, B. Labadie
(Erato, 2014)
Celebrate the New Year with a program of music from medieval England, performed by the Folger Consort and Lionheart at Washington National Cathedral (January 9 and 10), including a song mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, dances, and sacred music.

The series of concerts by the Emerson Quartet at the National Museum of Natural History continues with a program of music by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven (January 10).

Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings a program of songs by Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Satie, and Barber with pianist Julius Drake, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (January 14).

Tzimon Barto joins the National Symphony Orchestra for the U.S. premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's new piano concerto, paired with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (January 15 and 17).

Finally, Washington National Opera continues its American Opera Initiative with a performance of Penny by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg (January 23 and 24), presented at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

The concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra (January 23), presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Music Center at Strathmore, was inadvertently left off the list.

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Czech Philharmonic Comes to Fairfax

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

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Complete Symphonies and Concertos, Czech Philharmonic, J. Bělohlávek
(Decca, 2014)
At the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Friday evening, November 14, 2014, the Czech Philharmonic, under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, offered an almost all-Czech program of music during the Washington-area leg of its American tour. The first half of the evening consisted of Leos Janáček’s rhapsody Taras Bulba and Franz Liszt’s second piano concerto (A Major, S. 125), with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. The second half was taken up with Antonin Dvořák’s ninth symphony (E minor, op. 95, B. 178, "From the New World").

This orchestra has been my gold standard in Czech music for many years. I think the last time I heard them live was in a volcanic performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass back in the 1980s in Carnegie Hall. My very favorite recordings of Janáček and Martinů remain those of the Czech Philharmonic, under the late, great conductor Karel Ančerl. I wondered how well served my memories would be by the current iteration of this orchestra, under a conductor who brought with him great expectations, having just been awarded this year’s Antonín Dvořák Prize (and last heard here with the Prague Philharmonia in 2012).

The answer is well served, indeed. From the beginning of the Janáček, it was clear that Bělohlávek deserves his fine reputation in the Czech repertory, particularly with the works of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Suk, and Martinů. He and the Czech Philharmonic are native to the wildness of Janáček’s eccentric music, its orchestral brilliance, and its use of punchy motifs and dramatic abbreviation. Together, they brought Taras Bulba vividly to life, with all its wild swagger, clashing swords, pounding hooves, swirling dances, and poignant melodies. The piece was pulsing with life, with finely articulated playing from the winds and brass, and a very strong, surging string section. An early entry of the chimes seemed to stick out a little too far from the orchestral fabric, but that could be due to the acoustics of the room. In any case, every instrument is answering every other instrument in this vital portrayal of its subject matter, and these forces caught the urgent sense of communication.

I confess that Franz Liszt is not one of my favorite composers, except for his magnificent oratorio Christus. In any case, it was a great pleasure to hear Thibaudet’s superb pianism in the second concerto. I could not imagine a more limpid touch in the opening Adagio or a stronger forte in the soon-to-follow Allegro. The work itself has a wild, almost improvisatory character that, to me, verges on hodgepodge. It certainly contains a lot of ear candy and has dazzling moments in the mercurial flow of marches, dances, and whatever else Liszt chooses to throw in. Because of the quality of playing by both the orchestra and soloist, this display piece made for an enjoyable romp.

Other Articles:

James R. Oestreich, Regardless of Offstage Worries, Onstage It’s All Artistry (New York Times, November 17)

Eric C. Simpson, Home dishes prove ideal menu for Czech Philharmonic (New York Classical Review, November 17)

Tom Huizenga, Played by Czech Philharmonic, 1890s Dvorak sounds fresh as ever (Washington Post, November 17)

Zachary Woolfe, A Maestro Returns, First There, Now Here (New York Times, November 14)
I admit that it was the Janáček that I principally came to hear. I am not sure I would have struggled out on a cold night to listen to another performance of the hugely popular Dvořák ninth. However, the Czech Philharmonic played with such warmth, power, and precision that my reservations at hearing this piece again were soon swept away.

The reaction of the audience was so enthusiastic that Bělohlávek offered two encores -- a scintillating rendition of Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride, and then a sweet Valse Triste by Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930), a Dvořák student, who later became conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Bělohlávek conducted effectively with an economy of motion -- no histrionics for him. Whatever he is feeling he lets the music express. He and his forces produced a wonderfully rich sound without sacrificing clarity.

Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic will perform Smetana’s Vltava, a symphonic poem from Ma Vlast, and Dvořák’s ninth symphony this evening at Washington National Cathedral (November 17, 7 pm) in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the legacy of Václav Havel.


Perchance to Stream: New Hall 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.

  • To inaugurate the new Auditorium de la Maison de Radio France, a double concert by the Orchestre National de France, under Daniele Gatti, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under Myung-Whun Chung. [France Musique]

  • Check out the new production of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina, in the revision completed by Shostakovich, from the Wiener Staatsoper with Semyon Bychkov conducting Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Elena Maximova, and others. [ORF]

  • Listen to the gala season opening concert of the Opéra Comique, with contributions from Anna Caterina Antonacci, Patricia Petibon, and others. [France Musique]

  • Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov play all of Beethoven's works for cello and piano at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. [France Musique | Part 2]

  • From the Festival Baroque de Pontoise, Sabine Devieilhe and Les Ambassadeurs perform arias and symphonies by Rameau with conductor Alexis Kosseko. [France Musique]

  • Harpsichordist Blandine Rannou plays the world premiere of Gérard Pesson's Le Tombeau de Rameau, plus some pieces from Rameau's Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of Handel's Solomon with La Chapelle de Québec and Les Violons du Roy, with Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Karina Gauvin and conducted by Bernard Labadie, recorded last March at the Palais Montcalm de Québec. [France Musique]

  • A song recital by soprano Christina Landshamer and pianist Gerold Huber, with music by Schumann, Brahms, and Ullmann, recorded last May for the Bad Arolser Schlosskonzerte. [ORF]

  • Herbert Blomstedt leads the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Haydn and Beethoven. [ORF | Part 2]

  • The Ensemble Psallentes, directed by Hendrik Van Den Abeele performs with organist Arnaud Van De Cauter in a concert in the Eglise de La Chapelle in Brussels, recorded last August, introduced with the recording of Palestrina's Missa "Nasce la gioia mia" performed by the Tallis Scholars. [RTBF]

  • Arias by Alessandro Scarlatti with the English Concert, conductor Laurence Cummings, and soprano Elizabeth Watts, recorded at Milton Court in London. [BBC3]
  • Violist Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad joins the Oslo Philharmonic and conductor Eivind Aadland for music by Christian Sinding, Henri Vieuxtemps, and Robert Schumann. [RTBF]

  • The Netherlands Radio Choir performs Rachmaninoff's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • A concert by violinist Ray Chen and pianist Timothy Young, presented by Musica Viva Australia at the Melbourne Recital Centre, with music by Mozart, Prokofiev, Bach, and Sarasate. [ABC Classic]

  • Simon Trpceski plays Tchaikovsky's first piano concert with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and conductor Daniele Rustioni. [France Musique]

  • A recital by Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya at the Wiener Konzerthaus, with music by Brahms, Debussy, Bach, and Prokofiev. [ORF]

  • Sequenza 9.3, the Jeune Chœur de Paris, and others perform new music by Daniel Moreira and others at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. [France Musique]

  • Chamber music by Poulenc, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Dukas performed by violinist Gautier Capuçon and pianists Francesco Piemontesi, Nicholas Angelich, and Martha Argerich. [RTBF]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts Concerto Copenhagen and clarinetist Nicola Baud in music of Mozart ("Haffner" and "Jupiter" Symphonies, plus the clarinet concerto). [ORF]

  • From Glasgow, Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in music by Mozart and Beethoven, to mark the conductor's 60th birthday. [BBC3]

  • A concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Daniel Barenboim conducting music by Nicolai, Elgar (the symphonic study Falstaff), and Tchaikovsky, recorded last January in Berlin. [RTBF]

  • The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest performs music by Liszt, Schumann, and Macmillan. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • Pianist Kirill Gerstein joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Herrmann, Schoenberg, Gershwin, and Bartok. [BBC3]

  • Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform music by Respighi, plus William Walton's Sinfonia Concertante with pianist Danny Driver, recorded at the Proms last September. [ORF]

  • The Henschel Quartet performs music by Beethoven, Dvorak, and Brahms at St John's, Smith Square. [BBC3]

  • A tribute to Belgian composer Albert Huybrechts (1899-1938), with some rare recordings of his music. [RTBF]

  • Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with commentary for a family concert. [France Musique]

  • Esther Hoppe (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), and Alexander Lonquich (piano) perform music by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Britten, recorded at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival in July. [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 181 (Doctor Atomic, Listener’s Digest)

available at Amazon
John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine
P.Oundjian / Royal Scottish NO
Chandos SACD

Scotch Doktarr Atommac

John Adams’ single movement tripartite Doctor Atomic Symphony is a splendid primer (even time-saving substitute) for his opera on the J. Robert Oppenheimer subject. From the opening shot of “The Laboratory”, the expansive central “Panic”, and the closing meditation “Trinity”, Adams takes the listener through a wild then subdued, brooding, organic, very much tonal and always loud work that owes to Varèse, occasionally reminds of Bruckner, and radiates original Adams. It is coupled with the classic quasi-Symphony of Adams’, Harmonielehre which is to Adams what Mathis der Maler is to Hindemith. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is exactly what the title says; a wild 4-minute romp that is among Adams’ most easily enjoyable orchestral amuse-bouches. 

Charles’ review of the whole shebang on DVD here.

Two Pianos, Naughton Twins

available at Amazon
Piano Duets, Christina and Michelle Naughton
(Orfeo, 2012)
Charles T. Downey, Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin piano act, are perfectly in sync at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 15, 2014)
College friends of mine who were identical twin sisters and both music majors used to claim they could communicate secretly with each other when they performed together. By this they were poking fun at other people’s often rude curiosity about what it was like to be an identical twin. Other twins embrace this phenomenon, like Christina and Michelle Naughton, one of several piano duos formed by identical twins. They gave a recital on the Fortas Chamber Music series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday night.

There were hints of the circus act in their performance of music for two pianos... [Continue reading]
Christina and Michelle Naughton, piano duo
Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Debussy, En blanc et noir
Lutosławski, Variations on a Theme of Paganini
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


For Your Consideration: 'The Better Angels'

available at Amazon
The Better Angels, directed by A. J. Edwards
If Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals brought the administration of Abraham Lincoln to life, Steven Spielberg's dour, overstuffed hagiography Lincoln seemed to stiffen the 16th President of the United States back into a statue. The Better Angels, the directorial debut of A. J. Edwards, an assistant to Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life and other films, going back to The New World, attempts to pierce the veil of saintliness, not by tearing down the image of the man but by focusing on his childhood, long before he had become the man we now venerate. Edwards, who directs his own screenplay, picks up the story in southern Indiana in 1817. There, Lincoln's father, Thomas, after losing all of his land holdings in Kentucky, had moved his family to a log cabin in what is now Spencer County.

There is little dialogue in the film, and what there is often hard to understand, one of several signs of Malick's influence on Edwards's style: what comes across is that the modern counterparts to these 19th-century Hoosiers, extremely taciturn by nature, are chatterboxes in comparison. In fact, the names "Abraham" and "Lincoln" are rarely (if ever) heard, even when the boy's first schoolmaster calls roll in his classroom. Most of the information the viewer needs to follow the story is related by voiceover (another Malick influence), based largely on the remembrances of Dennis Hanks, a cousin who grew up with Abraham Lincoln (the character is played in the film by newcomer Cameron Mitchell Williams), as interviewed for a book by Eleanor Atkinson.

We see how Lincoln's intellectual gifts were fostered by his mother, Nancy (the ethereal Brit Marling), who dies about a year into the story from milk sickness, when the family's cows graze on white snakeroot -- a type of poisoning that caused many deaths on the American frontier. His father, played with stoic severity by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky, leaving young Abe and his sister (as played by McKenzie Blankenship, seemingly younger than her brother, although she was two years older) to fend for themselves for the winter. The father returns with a second wife, with three more children in tow, who is just as beautiful and fostering as Nancy, played with golden felicity by Diane Kruger (Farewell, My Queen).

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | Variety
Village Voice | Hollywood Reporter

The film does not make clear to which of these maternal figures Lincoln was referring in the quotation attributed to him -- "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" -- shown at the beginning of the film, as the camera examines the marble surfaces of the Lincoln Memorial. The title, drawn from the first inaugural address, seems to indicate it may have been both, although Lincoln gave just as much recognition to his older sister, who helped raise him. If you are hoping to learn from the film the childhood sources of Lincoln's later greatness, you will be disappointed, for there is little so heavy-handed here. On the boy's first trip away from the log cabin, he watches a group of slaves in shackles and chains pass by. There are references to his honesty and his bookishness, but all we see is potential and the rough necessities of the life he lived.

The film is slow-moving but beautifully shot, with the wilds of Indiana recreated in the Mohonk Preserve in the Appalachians, 90 miles north of New York City. The final Malick trait that shows up is the gorgeous music, with some original contributions by composer Hanan Townshend, including arrangements of other composers' music. The playlist includes some beautiful passages from Bruckner's seventh and eighth symphonies, the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin, the slow movement of Dvořák's ninth symphony. For some of the Americana flavor, there are bits of Copland's Rodeo, John Adams's Shaker Loops, and symphonies by Alan Hovhaness -- no. 2 ("Mysterious Mountain"), no. 60 ("To the Appalachian Mountains"), and no. 50 (Mount St. Helens: Volcano"). Just as in Malick's film, the music speaks more than the characters, giving voice to thoughts and atmospheres.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.


Golliwog Makes a Run for It

available at Amazon
Debussy, Complete Works for Solo Piano, A. Planès
(Harmonia Mundi, 2009)
Charles T. Downey, Salzburg Marionette Theater gets tangled in uneven production (Washington Post, November 4, 2014)
Sometimes child’s play can be serious business. The Salzburg Marionette Theater, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, returned to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. By contrast with their last visit, for a charming and traditional “Magic Flute” in 2005, this was a double-bill of Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy, with live music performed by pianist Orion Weiss, in an unusual concert presented by Washington Performing Arts.

Schumann’s “Papillons” tells a story from the end of Jean Paul’s novel “Flegeljahre,” slightly modified by the Salzburg puppeteers. Schumann’s two musical personalities, Eusebius and Florestan... [Continue reading]
Orion Weiss, piano
Salzburg Marionette Theater
Debussy, La boîte à joujoux
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Philip Kennicott, A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created (Washington Post, October 4)

Magic Flute in 2005

Illustration by André Hellé


À mon chevet: 'Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta'

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

book cover
I came out of the bookshop, I stopped in Piazza Cavour. The day was fine, Via Foria seemed unnaturally clean and solid in spite of the scaffolding that shored up the Galleria. I imposed on myself the usual discipline. I took out a notebook that I had bought recently, I wished to start acting like a real writer, putting down thoughts, observations, useful information. I read l'Unità from beginning to end, I took notes on the things I didn't know. I found the article by Pietro's father in Il Ponte and skimmed it with curiosity, but it didn't seem as important as Nino had claimed. Rather, it put me off for two reasons: first, Guido Airota used the same professorial language as the man with the thick eyeglasses but even more rigorously; second, in a passage in which he spoke about women students ("It's a new crowd," he wrote, "and by all the evidence they are not from well-off families, young ladies in modest dresses and of modest upbringing who justly expect from the immense labor of their studies a future not of domestic rituals alone"), it seemed to me that I saw an allusion to myself, whether deliberate or completely unconscious. I made a note of that in my notebook as well (What am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?) and, not exactly in a good mood, in fact with some irritation, I began to leaf through the Corriere della Sera.

I remember that the air was warm, and I've preserved an olfactory memory -- invented or real -- a mixture of printed paper and fried pizza. Page after page I looked at the headlines, until one took my breath away. There was a photograph of me, set amid four dense columns of type. In the background was a view of the neighborhood, with the tunnel. The headline said: Salacious Memoirs of an Ambitious Girl: Elena Greco's Début Novel. The byline was that of the man with the thick eyeglasses.

I was covered in a cold sweat while I read; I had the impression that I was close to fainting. My book was treated as an occasion to assert that in the past decade, in all areas of productive, social, and cultural life, from factories to offices, to the university, publishing, and cinema, an entire world had collapsed under the pressure of a spoiled youth, without values. Occasionally he cited some phrase of mine, in quotation marks, to demonstrate that I was a fitting exponent of my badly brought-up generation. In conclusion he called me "a girl concerned with hiding her lack of talent behind titillating pages of mediocre triviality."

I burst into tears. It was the harshest thing I had read since the book came out, and not in a daily with a small circulation but in the most widely read newspaper in Italy. Most of all, the image of my smiling face seemed to me intolerable in the middle of a text so offensive. I walked home, not before getting rid of the Corriere. I was afraid my mother might read the review and use it against me. I imagined that she would have liked to put it, too, in her album, to throw in my face whenever I upset her.

-- Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translation by Ann Goldstein), pp. 53-55
I have taken a break from Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to read the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, published in Italian last year (see Part 1 and Part 2). Toward the end of the second novel, the protagonist, Elena Greco, describes how she came to write her first novel, about the disturbing way that she lost her virginity. In all aspects except the date of publication, this corresponds to Ferrante's first novel L'amore molesto, just in 1992 instead of the 1960s. The protagonist is on the verge of marrying into one of the leading intellectual families of Italy, the Airotas, who have helped her to publish that first novel, which becomes an emblem of the opening of Italian society in that turbulent decade. Men start to speak openly to her about their sexual exploits, all of her friends and acquaintances in the old neighborhood in Naples read the book, focusing on its "risqué pages," and reviews appear, alternately condemning and exalting her as the model of the liberated woman. Worst of all, her mother becomes furious with her when she learns that the wedding will happen at city hall instead of in a church. The Italian author known as Elena Ferrante has just published a fourth volume this year, called Storia della bambina perduta, so we have that to look forward to as well.


Academy of Ancient Music, Orchestral Suites

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suites, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on November 18, 2014)
AAM003 | 93'49"
Christopher Hogwood is no longer with us, but the Academy of Ancient Music, the group he founded in 1973, is still going strong. Under the leadership of Richard Egarr, the group has made tour stops in Washington in 2009, to perform the Brandenburg Concertos, and in 2007, at the National Gallery of Art. The distinguished historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble appeared on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, playing all four of Bach's orchestral suites, music to be released later this month on their new new personal record label, inaugurated this year.

As examined in some detail in my round-up of recent recordings of the orchestral suites, we have a lot more questions about these pieces than we used to. (In the booklet essay for the new AAM recording, scholar Christoph Wolff lays out the current understanding of when and why Bach composed these works.) Egarr has chosen to perform them with extremely small forces, all one musician on a part, including the string parts. On one hand the small ensemble made a sound perhaps too delicate for the large hall at Strathmore, where the audience was not able to fill the space either. On the other hand, this solved most of the balance problems, caused by delicate wind instruments, especially the historical versions played by this ensemble, being covered by too many strings. This worked just fine in the largest of the suites, no. 4, which came first on the program, with the three trumpets and timpani well behind the other players and never overpowering them. Bassoonist Ursula Leveaux had the first of many virtuosic turns in the Bourrées, cascades of smooth running notes over which the oboes chirped contentedly. Egarr, seated at the harpsichord, had considerable fun adding effects here and there on the continuo part, like a sort earthquake rumble in the concluding Réjouissance.

Other Reviews:

Patrick Rucker, Academy of Ancient Music gives Bach's Orchestral Suites the royal treatment (Washington Post, November 10)
Having just one string player on each part helped most obviously in no. 2, where the delicate traverso sound of Rachel Brown could be heard more clearly. The Rondeau was pleasingly sparkly, the Sarabande suave, and the Polonaise weighty and pleasingly rustic. The Badinerie, accelerated to a breathless pace on some recordings, here was more chatty than manic, leaving room for some complex embellishments. No. 1 put the three fine oboe players, and again the bassoon, in the spotlight and to good effect, with a breezy Courante, a smooth Forlane and Passepied, and exceptionally mellow Minuets, the last featuring just the highest four string instruments and plenty of embellishments from first violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and Egarr at the harpischord. Only in no. 3 did Egarr seem to push the tempo of the Overture, again displaying the remarkable accuracy of the three trumpets, who benefited most from the lowered pitch used by the ensemble. Wisely, the musicians did not allow this suite's famous Air to wallow in a slow tempo, but not pushing it beyond a graceful pacing, again with Beznosiuk shaking things up with many embellishments.