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


Dip Your Ears, No. 192 (Schmelzer, Sacro-Profanus)

available at Amazon
J.H.Schmelzer, Sacro-Profanus
Olivier Fortin / Ensemble Masques
Zig-Zag Territories

The Humors of Early Bassoons

The small, picturesque Austrian town of Scheibbs, three carriage hours South-East of Amstetten, was the birthplace of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer—some time around 1621. He worked his way up to become a musician at the Viennese court of Ferdinand III and Vice-Kapellmeister under Leopold I in 1671. He was made a nobleman and eventually the first native, non-Italian Holy Roman Empire’s Kapellmeister in 1679 only to die in Prague of the plague the next spring. His musical legacy includes his students Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and Johann Joseph Fux, but also various violin sonatas.

And those—in particular the 1662 collection of Sacro-profanus concentus musicus recorded here—are very worthy (fire-) works, perhaps suitable to the “pious veneration of the saints”, but certainly highly entertaining and serving “the honest pleasure of mankind” as Schmelzer suggested. The “occasional works” that dot the recital include the animated “Fencing School Baletto” which has—appropriately enough and thanks to the Ensemble Masques—wallop enough to make most Vivaldi pale. Julien Debordes’ bassoon, in its appearance in the “Sonata on the day of the Bean Feast” adds wonderful color and humor and a hilarious whiff of insouciance (preempting Blazing Saddles by 300 years). 

'Gigi' at the Kennedy Center

Victoria Clark (Mamita), Vanessa Hudgens (Gigi), Corey Cott (Gaston), Dee Hoty (Alicia), and Cast in Gigi (photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

It is hard to believe that anyone could make Colette tame, but that is what the new adaptation of the musical Gigi does. Aiming for Broadway, the show is on a trial run in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, where we saw it on Thursday night. True, the play and then musical are based on one of Colette's less controversial stories, but the courtesan culture of Belle Epoque Paris has been almost completely written out of this revision by Heidi Thomas. Lerner and Loewe wrote a fairly good show for the film version, but the staged musical did not have the same success, possibly because of the difficulties of reproducing the film locations on a stage. This production, directed by Eric Schaeffer on a multimillion-dollar budget, goes a long way toward rectifying that shortcoming, but although it looks handsome and has a generally good cast, the show is over-stuffed with restored songs and wears on one's patience.

The show's producers are likely counting on the draw of Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) in the title role, and she has a certain gamine appeal. Her voice, amplified but without the benefit of Auto-Tune, is light and pretty, if slightly nasal, although she comes across as far more innocent than coquettish. Corey Cott is a supercilious and off-putting Gaston, a little mannered but with clean high notes. Veteran Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) was a strong presence, although somewhat vocally faded, as Mamita, the grandmother who wants to stop Gigi from falling into the courtesan's life, sparring with the caustic Dee Hoty as Alicia, who is trying to push her into it. With the edge taken off his lechery -- no more Maurice Chevalier perviness on Thank Heaven for Little Girls, which is now sung by Mamita and Alicia -- the Honoré of Howard McGillin was left plain and dull, although his duets with Clark were still charming, especially I Remember It Well. The best singing, appropriately, came from Steffanie Leigh as Liane, the singer kept by Gaston at the opening of the show and then dropped.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Kennedy Center’s ‘Gigi,’ starring Vanessa Hudgens, affirms its undistinguished status (Washington Post, January 30)

Nelson Pressley, ‘Midwife’ writer and rookie producer deliver new ‘Gigi’ to Kennedy Center (Washington Post, January 9)
The basic set present in all the scenes was an Art Nouveau staircase, in an iron-framed atrium recalling the Grand Palais, a nod to the references to new technologies and the World's Fair in the book. Little scenes were flown in for Mamita's and Alicia's apartments, as well as Maxim's, while lighting and props suggested the train station and the beach at Trouville. James Moore was effective leading a small group from the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra -- three strings, three wind players, four brass players, percussion, and two keyboard players -- an unbalanced ensemble in terms of sound and cohesiveness, in spite of sometimes clumsy amplification. A small group of dancers did the heavy lifting in that department, supplemented by other cast members and choreographed smartly by Joshua Bergasse, making the Gossips at Maxim's a hoot and giving the finale of Act I, The Night They Invented Champagne, a fizzy punch. By the end of the second act, though, the bubbly had gone flat.

This production continues through February 12, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.


Wolfgang Rihm, Violin Concerto No.6 World Premiere

Poème du Peintre

Wolfgang Rihm is on—minimally—fire. He knocks out new, major works at a rate that it makes you wonder if anybody else is still composing at all, in Germany. A Horn Concerto in Lucerne, a Triple Concerto, the "Second" Piano Concerto (terrific, yet be reported on!) in Salzburg, and now his Sixth Violin Concerto*, written for and dedicated to Renaud Capuçon, performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra [on Twitter] under Philippe Jordan and played in their new “Fridays@7” concert series at the Wiener Konzerthaus.

available at Amazon
W.Rihm (+A.Berg), Time Chant (+ VC),
A.S.Mutter / J.Levine / CSO

available at Amazon
W.Rihm (+S.Currier), WORK_in_QUESTION (+Time Machines etc.),
A.S.Mutter / NYPhil / M.Francis, A.Gilbert

That series is a stab at the short-form concert, aiming at about an hour’s length, without an intermission. So far that hour-thing has not quite worked out, as concert length is predictably, habitually underestimated… but whereas the first time around the concert was a whole work too long, this time it was just one movement too long. In any case, if that aimed-at-brevity weren’t laudable enough, the concert series also comes with booze and music at the optional long tail in the foyer downstairs, with a VSO band playing and/or soloists and the conductor performing in a reasonably relaxed atmosphere. On this occasion, the format meant that Schubert’s Fifth—part of the laudable Schubert Cycle of the VSO—was axed from the program also containing Dvořák’s Eight.

Having had a chance to watch the violin concerto come together throughout three rehearsals, it was enormous how much the work had developed by the time it hit the stage at prime time. Wolfgang Rihm took himself back for the first rehearsal, even though what he heard must have been a good deal from what he might have imagined. Only when orchestra and conductor had made the natural progress that occurs in rehearsal, did he more frequently interject, questioning stray notes that were either wrong in the printed score or the parts, and suggesting occasional interpretative adjustments. Repeated timpani notes toward the end of the concerto weren’t quite right to him. Helpfully, Jordan interpreted his request: “Oh, advancing like a steam engine?” Rihm, whose gigantic cranium makes him look like his own bobble-head figure, shook said head: “No—breathing, hovering, advancing. Like a thing, a being, like a creature.” Jordan: “Ok. One more time; this time more like a Thing!”

Just as Rihm has written the Piano Concerto specifically for and around Tzimon Barto, or violin concertos for the specific talents of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Carolin Widmann, Poème du Peintre is tailored to Renaud Capuçon. After the first rehearsal, the soloist suggested that it was really his language. It’s hard to say for me what that exactly is, not knowing Capuçon’s playing and style intimately enough. Perhaps it is the nervous, or rather: alert energy that is woven through the concert like a silver thread. The concerto’s name, “Painter’s Poem”, stems from the idea of composing a work that is to Max Beckmann’s portrait of Max Reger a concerto to portray Ysaÿe. Rihm and Capuçon both adore Ysaÿe (well beyond the—rightly—hailed solo violin sonatas), which might serve as the basis for the French violinist so taking to the work. The clichéd description of his performance, without any fear of saying something controvertible would be, and is: “totally committed”.

Other Reviews:

Chanda VanderHart, Pleasing Rihm and Dvorak from Capuçon and the Symphoniker, but 'concept' falters (bachtrack, January 11, 2015)
The concerto begins tentatively. On the surface it is considerably less French than the Piano Concerto from Salzburg (with its overt Chopin references and subtle air of Debussy creeping in). It is less overtly romantic and also a good deal less intuitively comprehensible. That’s not to say that it doesn’t come around and enchant the willing listener. The orchestra, for much of the almost continuous violin part, engages in color and contrast work, breathing and heaving and rhythmically advancing things to a searing solo-part. The general tone is, a few eruptions apart, and in spite of the tenacious soloist, soft-hued; the dissonances plush and more feathered than in-your-face. Then, a bit more than half-way through the 17-some minute work, there are crackling, gnarling, brassy chord that would open the gates to Mordor in a movie. There comes a short moment where it feels like a famous quotation (that on-the-tip-of-the-tongue-feeling); melting away, off to the side, Schnittke-style. Perhaps it’s one of the many presumed Ysaÿe-references and the only one that pierced the level of my awareness—just not wholly. The claves’ click-click solo of the percussionist was meant as an impulse for the soloist to take and play off it, but it did not quite yet come across as presumably intended. At least not in this first performance. But with any optimism, the work will get a decent amount of repeat performances (if less likely so as the repertoire-suitable piano concerto) and claves and violin will forevermore work in perfect


For Your Consideration: 'Selma'

available at Amazon
Selma, directed
by Ava DuVernay
Ellen DeGeneres's best joke at the Academy Awards ceremony last year was to tell the assembled members that there were two possibilities that night: either 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, or "you're all racists." It did win, of course, but the joke zeroed in on the role of politics in the Academy Awards. It does not seem likely that the same concerns will come into play this year with Selma, Ava DuVernay's feature about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in the period surrounding the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The King family has expressed its opposition to the film's portrayal of the civil rights leader, in a strong performance by David Oyelowo, and the screenplay by first-time writer Paul Webb therefore does not use any actual words spoken by King, out of fear of the family's unrelenting copyright control. The film has too many weaknesses to win Best Film, but it might win the only other award for which it was nominated, Best Original Song for Glory, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn, as consolation prize.

The story opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and follows him through the struggle to convince President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act. Without a doubt, the film's most powerful moments are the crowd-scene dramatizations of the iconic struggles of that year, none more than the fight to be allowed to have a march walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma and take the road to Montgomery. DuVernay trades away some of that power in the inclusion of some big names in small cameo roles: Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, trying to register to vote in Alabama and being turned away, only later to clock the local sheriff in the head; Tim Roth as the unbending, bigoted governor, George Wallace; Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the civil rights attorney Fred Gray. The runaway performance of the film is the towering, foul-mouthed Lyndon Johnson of Tom Wilkinson (The Debt), who manages to make the viewer understand and even sympathize with the concessions necessary in politics. Carmen Ejogo brings a certain dignity to the role of King's long-suffering wife, but without much to distinguish the performance.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | Los Angeles Times | Variety
The Atlantic | NPR | TIME | Village Voice | Rolling Stone | Hollywood Reporter

What the film and its star, David Oyelowo, do well is to bring King back down from the pedestal, the pharaonic leader depicted on his monument on the National Mall. We see him cracking jokes, smoking a cigarette, doubting himself and others, and there is no cover given to his own weaknesses, sexual and otherwise, that come close to destroying him. One of the more authentic touches is to narrate the film through the device of type-set notices from the FBI surveillance of King, all part of J. Edgar Hoover's preparation of a case that could be launched against King, whom he saw as a degenerate agitator, in the court of public opinion. So much was riding on an imperfect organization and on imperfect leaders, making the man's achievements all the more remarkable.


Mariinsky Ballet's 'Rite of Spring'

Everyone knows about the debacle caused by The Rite of Spring. In spite of having caused a riot, the score quickly became not only accepted but beloved, with a section even used by Walt Disney in Fantasia less than thirty years after the controversial Paris premiere. The uproar was caused not only by the music, which was hard for the musicians to understand and reportedly not played very well, but by the daring choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky. Although we have the score, we do not have the choreography, which was performed as Nijinsky created it for fewer than ten performances and then lost. What we do have is a scholarly reconstruction, by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, premiered by the Joffrey Ballet back in 1987. True, this version is far from perfect: dance historian Jennifer Homans, in her book Apollo's Angels, dismisses it as "American postmodern dance masquerading as a seminal modernist work." Even so, the Mariinsky Ballet leads off its current program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, seen on Tuesday night, with it.

Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, 1911
While the reconstruction may be a "travesty," as Homans put it, "a radical and shocking dance rendered tame and kitschy, a souvenir from an exotic past," it is the closest we are going to get to one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. (The choreography for Debussy's Jeux is also on my wishlist.) The experience of watching it live, with the music performed by an expanded Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, brought home the raw power of the work -- dance, music, artistic designs -- in a way that was not clear to me before. The music, conducted here by Gavriel Heine, was not always in top form and neither was the dancing, but when you see the movements -- or, at least, Hodson and Archer's most educated guess at the movements -- line up with the music, it makes sense in a way it did not before. A few striking moments will suffice as explanation. The stillness and then ecstatic writhing of the tribesmen incited by the music that accompanies the Cortège du Sage is followed by the agonized lowering of the Sage's body to the ground as he kisses the earth (L'Adoration de la Terre). The night vigil of the Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes reveals the selection of the Chosen One, standing in the center as if planted in the ground, danced here in the final scenes with crazed agitation, all flying braids and anguished shudders, by Daria Pavlenko.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s lush, bright and visually spectacular ‘Rite of Spring’ (Washington Post, January 29)

---, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Rite of Spring’: Ode to the human savage, still untamed (Washington Post, January 23)

Alastair Macaulay, Tweaking an Illustrious Tradition to Incorporate Western Notions (New York Times, January 26)

---, An Age-Old Romantic Introduction, With Revitalizing Touches (New York Times, January 19)

Gia Kourlas, Young Performers Spreading Their Wings (New York Times, January 23)
It was hard to imagine anything following such a performance, but the Mariinsky pulled some surprises out of their bag of tricks, with a middle act of two short but celebrated Michel Fokine choreographies. The first, Le spectre de la rose, was created by Vaslav Nijinsky, as the spirit of a rose brought home by a young woman returning from her first ball, made memorable by the bepetaled dancer's triumphant entrance and exit (costumes designed by Léon Bakst), both made by leaps through large windows. Vladimir Shklyarov, last seen in the Mariinsky Romeo and Juliet, was androgynous in the title role, both strong and delicate as, unseen but smelled and remembered by the girl, he wafted the lovely Kristina Shapran around the stage, to Berlioz's orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance. This paired elegantly with Fokine's solo choreography The Swan, set to Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne, with Ulyana Lopatkina, trembling en pointe and with undulating, graceful arms, taking the role created by Anna Pavlova.

The final act was given over to Paquita Grand Pas, a lengthy divertissement by Marius Petipa inserted into Paquita. Set to largely undistinguished music by Ludwig Minkus, it ran the risk of anticlimax, and indeed many empty seats were left after second intermission. For the energetic Pas de Trois, the variation of Kristina Shapran (a dancer to watch), and the lovely return of Ulyana Lopatkina, it was worth the wait.

This program repeats all week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through February 1, but with different casts.


Alexandre Tharaud's Crushing Fortissimo Power

available at Amazon
Bach / Rameau / Couperin, A. Tharaud
(3-CD re-release, Harmonia Mundi)

available at Amazon
Scarlatti, A. Tharaud
(Erato, 2011)
Alexandre Tharaud continues to surprise me. At his latest recital here, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, it was not surprising to hear him play jewel-like Couperin (his opening set) or a delightful Scarlatti sonata as an encore (the guitar-like K. 141). The bulk of the program, though, showed the French pianist going in new directions, with composers not previously associated with him, at least by these ears.

Even in the set of eight Couperin pieces, drawn from all over the place, Tharaud seemed to be questing after new sounds and approaches, adding many changes and embellishments on repeats, not afraid to use the pedals copiously, strongly differentiating polyphonic voices, even hammering out some accents for percussive effect. His Les calotines clicked and clacked, as if with mechanical sounds, and he stretched Les rozeaux and the gorgeous Les barricades mistérieuses with taffy-like rubato. The pairing of Les ombres errantes and La triomphante was played for maximal contrast, delicate and ultra-slow for the former, trumpeted motifs bustling with agitation for the latter. After the clanging, sonorous bells of Le Carillon de Cythère (an effect easier to produce on the modern piano than on the harpsichord), the rhythmic infusion of Le tic-toc-choc, now synonymous with Tharaud, was played with more force than in his recording (or his 2008 recital at the French Embassy).

Mozart's A major sonata (K. 331) followed, the variations on its gentle lullaby theme given accented wrong-note grace notes and expertly voiced hand crossings. The menuetto was organized around its big orchestral unison motif, which set off more fast and delicate music, the trio a little slower and warmer in tone. Tharaud took the piece's famous finale, Alla Turca, at a perfect Allegretto tempo, not too fast, which allowed him to make strongly marked dynamic contrasts and apply a hard-biting touch in the loud Janissary sections, enlivened by percussive attacks. Tharaud's last performance of Schubert, the Moments musicaux at his 2010 recital at the Library of Congress with Jean-Guihen Queyras, was somewhat disappointing. Here he dove into that composer's set of sixteen German dances, D. 783, with much more variety of interpretation, from big and gutsy to forlorn and enigmatic, technically solid in the many challenges (parallel thirds, filigree rising scales, and so on) but with that free, lovely sense of rubato applied in the slow pieces.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, A limited program and an inscrutable pianist at the Phillips (Washington Post, January 27)
The program was designed as a long crescendo toward the final piece, Beethoven's sonata in A-flat major, op. 110, or really toward that sonata's finale. Tharaud took the first movement at a slow, expressive tempo, emphasizing the music's delicate side and telling a compelling story with it through gradations of color in sound. The middle movement, marked Allegro molto, was taken at a rather slow speed, startling at first and perhaps not right for the joking quotations of folk songs (snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt, or 'Our cat has had kittens', and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, or 'I'm a slob, you're a slob'), but again with the payoff of being able to make maximal dynamic contrasts and to exaggerate sforzando attacks, as well as giving the piece a more legato feel than it usually has. The Klagender Gesang section was steeped in tragic gloom, through which the fugue subject pierced like a ray of sunshine. The tempo of the fugue was perfect, floating weightlessly, allowing all the voices to be delineated cleanly, even in the stretto sections, and making possible a furious cranking up of tempo as the piece rocketed to its conclusion. One of the remarks I made about Tharaud's 2012 recital at the French Embassy was that "crushing fortissimo power is the only weapon missing from [his] arsenal." The exultant hammered chords at the conclusion of the Beethoven made clear that this reservation was no longer justified.

The next recital not to be missed at the Phillips Collection will feature violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov (February 8).


Rest in Peace, Jennifer Holbrook

The news of the tragic death of the gifted young soprano Jennifer Holbrook rippled through the community of singers and musicians who knew her in Baltimore and Washington this past week. Described by her colleagues as "a beautiful and outrageously talented singer and mother" and a "wonderful colleague and friend," Jennifer was an accomplished alumna of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

While I did not have the privilege of knowing her personally, I do remember quite well some of the outstanding performances I heard her give in the area in the last several years. She was beyond radiant as the soloist in the Cantilena from Villa-Lobos's Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 with the cello section of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at their season-opening gala in 2010, which I reviewed for the Washington Post, and she gave what I called "the standout performance of the evening" in the lead role of Catherine Reid's new opera The Yellow Wallpaper, which I reviewed from the Peabody Chamber Opera in 2008. She was singled out in many other performances by Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith and others, in performances with Baltimore Concert Opera, Chesapeake Chamber Opera, and Opera Bel Cantanti, among others.

On behalf of Jennifer's friends and colleagues, as well as all those who have listened to her sing over the years, we extend our deepest condolences to her family, especially her partner, Billy Davenport, and their two-year-old daughter, Eleanor.


Perchance to Stream: Alberta Clipper 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.

  • In a concert from Amsterdam, Ivan Fischer conducts the sixth and seventh symphonies of Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • A rare performance of Bellini's La Straniera, starring Marlis Petersen, Norman Reinhardt, and Franco Vassallo, recorded at the Theater an der Wien, with Paolo Arrivabeni conducting the ORF RSO Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor. [ORF]

  • Listen to the Jerusalem Quartet play music by Haydn, Elias, and Schumann at the Wigmore Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and Verdi's Requiem, from the Royal Festival Hall. [BBC3]

  • Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and conductor Daniel Harding join the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for music by Beethoven and Berg. [France Musique]

  • Mozart's Idomeneo, recorded at the Vienna Staatsoper last fall, with Chen Reiss, Michael Schade, and Maria Bengtson, under conductor Christoph Eschenbach. [RTBF]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen leads a performance of Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa in Copenhagen, starring Sine Bundgaard, Sonia Prina, Deborah York, and others, recorded last September. [Radio Clásica]

  • From the Wigmore Hall in London, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough perform music by Josef Suk, Edvard Grieg, and Stephen Hough. [France Musique]

  • Chamber music of Berg and Beethoven, performed by pianist Lars Vogt, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. [France Musique]

  • Jonathan Nott conducts the Vienna Symphony in a concert recorded in Graz, with music by Bartók (the first violin concerto, with Vilde Frang as soloist) and Bruckner (third symphony). [ORF | Part 2]

  • Andras Schiff leads a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, recorded last April in Lucerne, with the Capella Andrea Barca and the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor. [Radio Clásica]

  • Songs and dances by Schubert with tenor Julian Prégardien, flutist Marc Hantai, and others. [ORF]

  • Listen to Wolfgang Rihm's Nähe fern 2, performed by the ORF RSO, plus Schumann's piano concerto (with Lars Vogt) and Martinu's fifth symphony, recorded at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • A concert by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Hannu Lintu, performing music by Magnus Lindberg, Beethoven, and Berg (the violin concerto with Alina Ibragimova, recorded in 2013 in Helsinki. [ORF]

  • Dirk Snellings leads La Capilla Flamenca in Renaissance music by Lassus and others at the Pieterskerk in Utrecht, recorded in 2013. [France Musique]

  • Paul Daniel conducts the Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine in music of Brett Dean and Beethoven, with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. [France Musique]

  • A concert of Vivaldi concertos performed by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, directed by Andrea Marcon and recorded in 1997. [ORF]

  • Pianist Philippe Bianconi and the Orchestre National de Lille play music by Honegger, Dutilleux, and Brahms under conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus. [France Musique]

  • Daniele Gatti leads the Orchestre National de France, with Sarah Nemtanu and Nicolas Bône, in music by Schumann and Mozart. [France Musique]

  • Emmanuel Pahud joins the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for the world premiere of a new flute concerto by Simon Holt, plus Durufle's Requiem with Ruby Hughes and Gerald Finley as soloists. [RTBF]

  • A selection of chamber music by Laurent Lefrançois, performed by the Quatuor Parisii and friends. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Nicholas Angelich joins the Orchestre Royal Philharmonique de Liège, under director Christian Arming. [RTBF]

  • Anne Marie Dragosits leads a performance by Vivante, devoted to music by Girolamo Kapsberger and others, recorded in the Wiener Konzerthaus for the Resonanzen Festival. [ORF]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Nicholas Angelich, playing music by Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann, recorded last June at the Cully Festival in Switzerland. [ORF]

  • The first anniversary of the death of Claudio Abbado was this past week. Celebrate his memory with three concerts he conducted, in Vienna and Salzburg, in the late 1980s. [ORF]

  • The Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille music by Berlioz, Henri Tomasi, Debussy, and others. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the recording of Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore, starring Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes and conducted by Richard Bonynge, made in London in 1979. [ORF]


Ionarts-at-Large: Two Concertos for the Price of One!

Kirill Gerstein & James Gaffigan in Vienna

If the Konzerthaus presents the cream of the crop among orchestras in its own orchestral cycle, the Jeunesse concert organizer—active in all of Austria but incidentally based out of the Konzerthaus—brings that second tier that has less clout with the finicky Viennese concert-goers but means no necessary decrease in quality and often a considerable increase in programming-finesse. Orchestras like the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra (on October 18th with Markus Stenz and Vilde Frang in the Korngold Violin Concerto) or, on this occasion, Gürzenich Orchestra (where Markus Stenz is music director until 2015) under its principal guest conductor James Gaffigan (on Twitter) with pianist Kirill Gerstein (who only recently knocked out a stunning Enoch Arden together with Bruno Ganz at the Konzerthaus).

The program featured to Piano Concertos-by-another-name: Richard Strauss’ difficult Burleske and Carl Maria von Weber’s bravura-pianistic (= more-difficult-sounding-than-it-is) Konzertstück. These right-before-and-right-after intermission works were bracketed by Schumann’s Genoveva Overture and his Fourth Symphony. A string of influences—Schumann influences Weber, Weber influences Strauss—and topical relations—Genoveva sees her lover part and return; ditto the dame in the Konzertstück—gave the arrangement a bit of appreciated dramaturgical backbone. Add to that that both concertos were rebellious, because-no-one-likes-them favorites of Glenn Gould which he both recorded.

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Burleske et al.,
M.Argerich / C.Abbado / BPh

available at Amazon
C.M.v.Weber, Konzertztück et al.,
M.Pletnev / RNO

available at Amazon
F.Liszt, R.Schumann, O.Knussen, Sonata in B-minor et al.,

The Konzertstück sounds like it must be lovely for audience (evidently) and the performers (surmisedly) alike. As Gerstein pointed out during a pre-concert chat about the new, cleaned-up edition of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, all the big pianists of bygone days used to have the Konzertstück ready to pull out at every opportune moment that called for a little dainty flash and a bang. “But have you ever heard it live?” Indeed, I had not. Now I have. And you can really hear the story, to the point of almost-cringe-worthy, when the march-music of the returning crusaders sounds rather like a cheap toy punched out of tin: ‘Obvious’ at least, if not outright cheap.

Before it got there, the Genoveva Overture had to be sat through which the Gürzenich and Gaffigan made a distinctively pleasant affair. Because James Gaffigan is younger than I (if not by much), I think of him as “disgustingly young”—that coquettish-envious compliment I pull out reflexively at these occasions. Turns out he isn’t all that young anymore, though he was, when I was first impressed with him stepping in for an indisposed James Conlon with the Munich Philharmonic in 2009. Fastidious and with a clear and elegant beat, a confident and assured demeanor, he looks like nothing comes more naturally to him than conducting. (What a contrast!)

Kirill Gerstein (on Twitter) takes the Strauss-Anniversary quite seriously. First Enoch Arden, now the Burleske, neither standard repertoire works he can expect to play every season. All that despite Gerstein not even being a Straussian: “I just happen to find something in these pieces… and of course to be able to do Enoch Arden with someone Ganz, why wouldn’t you!” From his sensitive playing, alongside and with a well-balanced orchestra, one could never have told that he isn’t a particular Strauss-appréciateur. The work has some regularly occurring Straussianisms, but relatively few, actually, for a composer with such a recognizable idiom. Perhaps that contributes to its middling popularity and also to why it is so refreshing to hear when it does pop up on the menu. As if to pay homage to Gould, who happily embraced the work, Gerstein happily hummed along; more in tune than the Canadian master, but still to arguable benefit of the presentation. His liberal rubato let Strauss breathe, traded the music back and forth with the orchestra, all of which suited the piece well (as did the excellent piano/pianissimo solo passages) and gave it a more understated tone, rather than hearing it banged out, all athletically.

To have another symphony after these three works, which so far (if unwittingly) celebrated brevity, struck as a bit much at first. Still, it had to be done, and so the ears readied themselves for a Schuman Fourth Symphony: Shaped with oceanic movements, cohesive enough without setting new records, sounding good without sounding great, it was the kind of performance above-average enough to give the listener-with-pen neither chance to criticize nor the opportunity to trip over him or herself with joyous raving. In short: Critic’s Hell!

The swift tempi after the gorgeous-but-portentous opening were invigorating, the vigor and momentum of it uplifting, the concertmistress elegant and gorgeous-toned, with a darkish weightlessness to her playing, perfectly nimble and on-pitch. The brass was sure-footed and never blared, even in the loud bits. The zip of the finale was catchy, the whole symphony feeling much shorter than it actually is. Some achievement for a finale that is perpetually finishing up: much like a guest in the door forever saying “I must really go home now”. (Or the Duddley Moore Beethoven joke.) As it turned out, the performance was a good many notches above average, after all. Which in the case of any partnership, musical or otherwise, should be the stated aim: A few notches above average. Everything else (more) would be indecent to ask for and must simply be enjoyed when it occurs.

Dip Your Ears, No. 191 (Corelli Concerti Grossi)

available at Amazon
A.Corelli, Concerto Grossi (complete)
A.Beyer / Gli Incogniti
Zig-Zag Territoires

The Mother of Concerti Grossi

All twelve Concerti Grossi of Arcangelo Corelli—plus two unpublished rarities—from the freewheeling, rollicking Gli Incogniti with Amandine Beyer are bound to attract any baroque lover’s attention. The group and soloist’s playing fits right into the currently and happily popular type that emphasizes wallop, liveliness, and punch over courtly mien. Along with his Sonatas (which the Avison Ensemble has recorded splendidly for Linn), these concerti—themselves magnificent—were models for just about any great (or minor) baroque composers to follow in these genres. Especially in energetic yet warm performances like these, they rank alongside Handel and Vivaldi and Geminiani and perhaps even the Brandenburg Concertos