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


Tchaikovsky Competition in Final Round

You may already have been following the 15th Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which concludes its third and final round today. Viewers worldwide have been able to stream the competition online, but if you want to catch up, you can also stream the competition on demand. The piano competition has come down to six finalists: the Russian-trained Lukas Geniušas (from Lithuania), Sergey Redkin, Daniel Kharitonov, and Dmitry Masleev; Frenchman Lucas Debargue; and the American prodigy George Li, still only 19, whom you may recall from his appearance on the NPR show From the Top, when he was 10. The Tchaikovsky is a notoriously grueling competition, with the final round requiring each contestant to play two major concertos back to back, and the listener has to slog through enough Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Liszt to stun a small cat. If that is not enough, you can watch all of the first and second rounds, too, and the competitions in violin, cello, and voice.

Watch the contestants in the final round:


Luciana D'Intino Upstages Gheorghiu in Paris

The "departing gift" of Nicolas Joel, who stepped down as director of the Opéra de Paris last summer, is a production of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, on the stage now. Like so much of Joel's work in Paris, as far as the critics were concerned, this was not exactly a novelty, in a production by David McVicar, created for soprano Angela Gheorghiu, which has already made the rounds in London, Barcelona, and Vienna, as well as being released on DVD. Marie-Aude Roux has an assessment (A l’Opéra de Paris, Adriana Lecouvreur est éclipsée par sa rivale, June 29) for Le Monde (my translation):
The masterpiece of the Calabrian composer, written at the turn of the 20th century and premiered in 1902, was inspired by the tragic fate of the great French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730), who died young. An unusual fate striking enough to have inspired several poems, plays, and films -- she has been played by Sarah Bernhardt, Joan Crawford, and Yvonne Printemps. That was why Voltaire, whose interpreter and mistress she was, lionized her, despising the religious practices that caused her to be excommunicated (and refused Christian burial), while omitting any reference to her affair with Count Maurice de Saxe and the murderous hate conceived for her by her rival, the Princesse de Bouillon. [...]

Angela Gheorghiu, at 49, has kept her pretty figure, her mellow timbre, and her marvelous, spidery pianissimos -- a silken thread of burnished gold, woven with art into an impalpable shimmer. But the diva could not make up for, even through outrageous acting, a lack of projection made even more noticeable in the face of the maelstrom of Luciana D'Intino, a Princesse de Bouillon of deep timbre and biting style, at ease across the entire tessitura, quite simply terrifying.
This production continues through July 15, at the Opéra de Paris.


Perchance to Stream: Back from the Lake 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.

  • Peter Dijkstra leads a performance of Bach's St. John Passion in the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Concerto Köln. [ARTE]

  • Celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with a performance conducted by David Robertson with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, starring Lance Ryan and Christine Brewer, recorded at the Sydney Opera House. [ABC Classic]

  • Watch the production of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. [ARTE | Audio from France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, listen to a production of Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery, with Tugan Sokhiev conducting a cast starring Anastasia Kalagina, recorded last month. [France Musique]

  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by George Benjamin, Ligeti's Piano Concerto, plus music of Birtwistle, Knussen, Saed Haddad, and George Benjamin, recorded at the Aldeburgh Festival. [BBC3]

  • Music of Berlioz, Strauss (with soprano Anna Netrebko), and Prokofiev performed by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Daniele Gatti at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Laurence Equilbey conducts Accentus and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris in Dvorak's Stabat Mater with Sara Mingardo and other soloists. [France Musique]

  • Symphonies of Shostakovich (A major, op. 141) and Nielsen (no. 6, "Sinfonia semplice") performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Sakari Oramo, in a concert recorded in April in Stockholm. [ORF]

  • Richard Egarr joins the Australian Chamber Orchestra for a concert of music by Purcell, Lawes, and Haydn, recorded in Queensland. [ABC Classic]

  • From the Aldeburgh Festival, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform music by Britten, Bridge, Mahler (with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote), and Sibelius. [BBC3]

  • Listen to Puccini's La Bohème, recorded at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, with Dan Attinger conducting a cast starring Anna Netrebko (Mimì) and Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo). [Radio Clásica]

  • From the Festival de Saint-Denis, Myung-Whun Chung conducts a performance of Verdi's Requiem, with soprano Patrizia Ciofi and the Orchestre Philharmonique and Choeur de Radio France. [ARTE]

  • Ensemble Doulce Mémoire and soprano Véronique Bourin perform music by Claudin de Sermisy, Pierre Certon, and others. [France Musique]

  • Cornelius Meister leads the ORF RSO Wien and Wiener Singakademie in Bruckner's F minor Mass and Messiaen's L'Ascension, recorded at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Watch Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in its free, open-air concert at the Bebelplatz, with music by Wagner and Beethoven. [ARTE]

  • Listen to a performance of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, with Roberto Zarpellon conducting the Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte and the Coro Santo Spirito di Ferrara, recorded last month in Ferrara. [ORF]

  • Anne Thivierge and friends play music of Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, Marin Marais, and Debussy at the Musée d'Orsay. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Myung-Whun Chung's last concert as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Maison de la Radio, recorded earlier this month with violinist Gil Shaham. [France Musique]

  • Cecilia Bartoli, Christoph Pregardien, and Patricia Petibon star in Joseph Haydn's opera Armida, recorded in Vienna in 2000 by Concentus Musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. [ORF]

  • Jean-Bernard Pommier plays a recital of music by Beethoven at the Festival de l'Epau. [France Musique]

  • Olga Peretyatko stars in a production of Verdi's La Traviata, directed by Rolando Villazón and conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. [ARTE]


Dip Your Ears, No. 197 (Crossing Bach and Kurtág)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach / G.Kurtág, Piano Transcriptions for 4 Hands,
Duo Stephanie & Saar
New Focus Recordings

Aural Godliness

When György Kurtág sets out to transcribe Bach for himself and his wife to play on the piano, something special happens: The fragile wit of Kurtág is married to the eternal genius of Bach and, unbelievably, something even greater than the individual parts emerges. Piano Duo Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia must feel similarly about them, focusing on Kurtág transcriptions (alongside some of Reger et al.), in their delightful album “Crossings”. The performances are a few percentage points short of perfection, but the music is perfection. Bach-Kurtág is a bit like getting G*d injected in the ears. Very much recommended.


À mon chevet: 'The Arabian Nights'

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

book cover
The following night Dinarzad said to her sister Shahrazad, "Sister, tell us the rest of the story and what happened to the fisherman." Shahrazad replied, "With the greatest pleasure":

I heard, O King, that when the fisherman presented the [four] fish to the king, and the king looked at them and saw that they were colored [one red, one white, one blue, one yellow], he took one of them in his hand and looked at it with great amazement. Then he said to his vizier, "Take them to the cook whom the emperor of Byzantium has given us as a present." The vizier took the fish and brought them to the girl and said to her, "Girl, as the saying goes, 'I save my tears for the time of trial.' The king has been presented these four fish, and he bids you fry them well." Then the vizier went back to report to the king, and the king ordered him to give the fisherman four hundred dirhams. The vizier gave the money to the fisherman, who, receiving it, gathered it in the folds of his robe and went away, running, and as he ran, he stumbled and kept falling and getting up, thinking that he was in a dream. Then he stopped and bought some provisions for his family.

So far for the fisherman, O King. In the meantime, the girl scaled the fish, cleaned them, and cut them into pieces. Then she placed the frying pan on the fire and poured in the sesame oil, and when it began to boil, she placed the fish in the frying pan. When the pieces were done on one side, she turned them over, but no sooner had she done this than the kitchen wall split open and there emerged a maiden with a beautiful figure, smooth cheeks, perfect features, and dark eyes. She wore a short-sleeved silk shirt in the Egyptian style, embroidered all around with lace and gold spangles. In her ears she wore dangling earrings; on her wrists she wore bracelets; and in her hand she held a bamboo wand. She thrust the wand into the frying pan and said in clear Arabic, "O fish, O fish, have you kept the pledge?" When the cook saw what had happened, she fainted. Then the maiden repeated what she had said, and the fish raised their heads from the frying pan and replied in clear Arabic, "Yes, yes. If you return, we shall return; if you keep your vow, we shall keep ours; and if you forsake us, we shall be even." At that moment the maiden overturned the frying pan and disappeared as she had come, and the kitchen wall closed behind her.

-- The Arabian Nights, pp. 60-61 (trans. Husain Haddawy)
I had been wanting to reread these famous tales and decided to do so in the new, more accurate translation by Baghdad-born scholar Husain Haddawy, based on the earliest, most definitive manuscript of the work, copied in Syria in the 14th century. The book now seems closer to its Arabic original, with the spelling of names adjusted to reflect the transliteration of Arabic and the cultural and historical details clearly rendered and annotated. Good fortune comes to the teller of a good tale in the world evoked here: not only angry kings will relent of their murderous rage to hear the end of a compelling story, but also horrible demons and other powerful creatures.


James Horner (1953-2015)

A Hollywood legend has passed: film composer James Horner died on Monday morning, when the small plane he was flying crashed in California. For most people Horner's fame rests on the soundtracks he composed for the James Cameron blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, films that were both so awful that his music for them does not stick out in my mind. For me and all my friends who were also children of the 1970s and 80s, Horner's music for so many of our favorite (often pulpy) movies fueled our imagination. Starting in the 1980s with Oliver Stone's The Hand, Albert Finney's Wolfen, Krull, and especially Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, our hearts soared with his beautifully orchestrated melodies. He had a particular way with using music to heighten suspense, tension, and climax, heard in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Cocoon, Aliens, Patriot Games, and Apollo 13, among many others.

In those years especially, Horner was extraordinarily prolific, producing soundtracks at a staggering rate but becoming more selective in recent years. As is the case with most top film composers, that meant he repeated himself a lot and that he was more a gifted mimic than a truly creative voice. His music was often derivative of the work of greater composers, but because he had exquisite taste in music, that yielded excellent results. In an interview published last year, he spoke about the composers he admired, including Shostakovich, Strauss, Mahler, Britten, Tallis, Prokofiev, Debussy, and medieval and Renaissance music -- in short, most of the Ionarts pantheon -- and the sounds pop out of his scores.

Horner was a musician's musician, with a conservatory training, advanced degrees, and an academic side career through which he continued to study and refine his knowledge of classical music. He did all of his own orchestration because he could, a part of film composition that is not always credited: "I like Danny Elfman's music very much," Horner said in that interview. "His orchestrator is great. He owes a lot to his orchestrator, he's brilliant." He did not have much respect for the way much film music is written now: "You can do so much, with just two lines that cross each other, you don't even need an orchestra," he said in the same interview. "And most of the scores that are being written are done with orchestras that are bigger than Mahler. It's crazy, just crazy. You don't need anything like that. But it's a different aesthetic; it's not just the composer who's asking for it, it's the director. They want it to sound like something else."

Horner also spoke in that interview about how he came to hate the committee-like approach to composing a score for empty action movies, and indeed he wrote his best scores for beautifully made, character-driven dramas, where he could bring some unusual sounds into play. The devastating sound of the Harlem Boys Choir in Glory, the medieval style of The Name of the Rose, the poignancy of Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Dresser, or A Beautiful Mind are all favorites, both movie and score, perfectly matched. Both clips embedded here are examples of moments where the score of James Horner made a film what it was, telling the story through music and image only.


Avignon Festival Opens Next Week

The Avignon Festival is set to open next week, and its director, Olivier Py, stirred the pot by drawing a parallel between the story of Shakespeare's King Lear and the legacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the ultra-right party Le Front National, in an interview for France Inter. Jérôme Lachasse has a report (Olivier Py : «Le roi Lear est plus métaphysique que Le Pen», June 24) for Le Figaro (my translation):

"[He insisted] on the importance of culture and education: "What will always make our country shine is culture. Politicians would do well to understand that culture and education -- personally, I do not separate the two -- are the future of our country. I am one of those people who think we are saved by others. A great culture, a great civilization is marked by its capacity to welcome others," he added. "I also think it is the glory of France, the welcoming of others." The theme of this year's festival is "I am the other," with a "focus on Argentina and an important presence from the Arab world." [...]

Among the planned performances will be a King Lear opening on July 4, directed by Olivier Py himself: "It is the greatest play of the 20th century, even if it was written in the 17th century," jokes the Avignon Festival director. "It tells the story of a catastrophe, the death of politics, which concerns us today quite violently." Patrick Cohen, morning host of France Inter, then brought up a parallel between the theme of Shakespeare's play, about an aging king betrayed by his daughters, with the life today of the ex-president of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen. "King Lear is not only an aging king, he is also a king facing death, who confronts his own body, his own failure. It is much more metaphysical than Jean-Marie Le Pen!"
Against the backdrop of the cancellation of many summer festivals, due to lack of funding, even the Avignon Festival has had its budget cut back, forcing a shortening of the festival by two days this year. Local governments especially have had to cut funding, although Py points out that the Avignon Festival brings in 25 to 30 million euro to Avignon and its surroundings.


Reading Booths in Rueil-Malmaison

When was the last time you used a pay phone? In the era of the cell phone, one is far less likely to see a coin-operated pay phone, either at the back of a bar or in a booth on the corner. The mayor's office in Rueil-Malmaison has come up with an intriguing plan to re-purpose the phone booths in that small town in the Ile de France: turn them into mini-warehouses for its "Livres en Liberté" project. An article by Marie-Lucie Walch (Des "Cabines à Lire" dans les Hauts-de-Seine: le pari du libre-service, June 20) for L'Express has the details (my translation):

Wooden shelves freshly mounted on the inside will hold books furnished by the mayor's office at first. The stock of these "reading booths" should be renewed as users borrow books from them, because they are also invited to books to them. According to the mayor's office, which created the project, "this outdoor library encourages public reading by giving greater and free access to the books, favoring a social aspect and creating an exchange among readers." To realize this sweet dream, the booths will be spread out through the town according to the different types of target population. Top priority: young people and those who would not go to traditional cultural spots of their own accord. That is the reason why the second of these mini-libraries was placed in a poor neighborhood. The first, opened last week, was put in a park for children.
Similar projects have been inaugurated in France and other countries. So far, the mayor's office reports, there has been no vandalism and very positive feedback. About ten more booths are planned if the first two are well received.


On Forbes: Kirill Petrenko New Chief Conductor Of The Berliner Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko New Chief Conductor Of The Berliner Philharmonic

Radio Berlin-Brandenburg reports that the Berlin Philharmonic has elected Kirill Petrenko as their new music director and successor to Simon Rattle. An inquiry by that station was neither confirmed nor denied, but there will be a press conference later today. (The press conference will be transmitted live via Digital Concert Hall.) The news is suggestive of Petrenko not renewing his contract in Munich, where he is currently music director of the Bavarian State Opera, worshiped by the orchestra and adored by the audience which he managed to galvanize like few conductors in the past...

Continue reading here, at

Kirill Petrenko has been reviewed a few times on ionarts; those reviews can be read here.


Perchance to Stream: Golden Anniversary 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.

  • Australian conductor Simone Young bids farewell to Hamburg, where for ten years she has served as music director of the opera and orchestra, by conducting a performance of Franz Schmidt's oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln, from 1937. [ARTE]

  • Simone Young conducts a performance of Verdi's Luisa Miller, starring George Petean and Nino Machaidze, recorded last November at the Staatsoper Hamburg. [ORF]

  • Michel Tabachnik leads the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart in a performance of Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Requiem für einen jungen Dichter, recorded during the Festival ManiFeste at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Opéra National du Rhin, listen to a performance of Paul Dukas's opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, starring Marc Barrard and Lori Phillips, recorded last month. [France Musique]

  • From the Opéra Comique in Paris, a rare performance of Louis Varney's operetta Les Mousquetaires au Couvent, from 1880. [ARTE (video) | France Musique (audio)]

  • Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, directs a production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, recorded at the Dutch National Opera with Mark Elder leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic. [ARTE]

  • Watch the conclusion of the Beethoven cycle from Philippe Jordan and the Orchestre and Choeurs de l’Opéra de Paris, with the ninth symphony, plus Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Beethoven's C major Fantasy for piano, chorus, and orchestra. [ARTE]

  • A recital by pianist Till Fellner, recorded earlier this month at the Wiener Konzerthaus, with music by Mozart, Bach, Schumann, and Alexander Stankovski. [ORF]

  • Listen to a recital by baritone Stéphane Degout, with music by Wolf, Strauss, and Liszt, recorded at the Opéra de Lyon. [France Musique]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts Concerto Copenhagen in instrumental music by J.S. Bach and other members of the Bach family, at a concert recorded last March in Copenhagen. [ORF]

  • You can watch the rounds of the Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg. []

  • Mariss Jansons leads the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler's third symphony, with Bernarda Fink as soloist. [ORF]

  • From the Aldeburgh Festival, François-Xavier Roth joins the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for music by Mozart, Bedford, Ravel, Benjamin, and Schubert. [BBC3]

  • Listen to Sibelius's fourth symphony and Nielsen's fifth symphony, recorded in Copenhagen last January by Herbert Blomstedt and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. [ORF]

  • Andris Nelsons conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's third symphony and Ešenvalds's Lakes Awake at Dawn. [BBC3]

  • The Bruckner Orchester Linz, under conductor Dennis Russell Davies, performs music by Dvorak, Wolfgang Rihm (the Austrian premiere of the horn concerto), and Mozart, recorded in May in Linz. [ORF]

  • John Storgards leads the BBC Philharmonic in Nielsen's third and sixth symphonies, plus some Mahler songs. [BBC3]

  • Violist Veronika Hagen joins the Wiener Klaviertrio for a concert of chamber music by Mozart, Schoenberg, and Brahms, recorded earlier this month at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • The City of London Sinfonia plays a concert with music by Haydn, Mozart, J.C. Bach, and Handel. [BBC3]

  • David Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn, Berlioz, and Schubert, with mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus as soloist. [ABC Classic]

  • Olena Tokar sings songs by Fauré , Ravel, Medtner, and Strauss with pianist Igor Gryshyn. [BBC3]

  • The Artemis Quartet plays music by Mozart, Vasks, and Dvorak at the Auditorium du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • Kristian Bezuidenhout, at the pianoforte, plays music of Haydn and Mozart at the Wratislavia Festival last September. [RTBF]

  • Listen to Fly Away Peter, the new work by Elliott Gyger commissioned by Sydney Chamber Opera as a companion piece to Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale. [ABC Classic]

  • Monteverdi's madrigali amorosi from the 8th book (1638), performed by members of Les Arts Florissants led by Paul Agnew. [France Musique]

  • For the opening of the Lille Piano Festival, pianist Kun-Woo Paik joins Jean-Claude Casadesus and the Orchestre National de Lille for music of Liszt and Beethoven. [France Musique]

  • From the Internationalen Barocktage Stift Melk last month, Hiro Kurosaki and friends perform music by Antonio Cesti, Antonio Caldara, Domenico Zipoli, Domenico Scarlatti, and Angelo Conti. [ORF]

  • To mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Carlo Maria Giulini, listen to him conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Mozart and Brahms, recorded in the 1980s. [ORF]

  • From the Festival Palazzetto Bru Zane at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, the Quatuor Diotima plays music by Georges Onslow, Guillaume Lekeu, and Claude Debussy. [France Musique]

  • Also from the Festival Palazzetto Bru Zane, pianist Pascal Amoyel and cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand play music by Chopin, George Onslow, and Charles-Valentin Alkan at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 196 (Music from Eighteenth Century Prague)

available at Amazon
A.Reichenauer, Concertos,
V.Luks / Collegium 1704 / S.Azzolini, X.Löffler, L.Torgersen

Spectacularly Baroque

We don’t know Antonín Reichenauer’s exact birth date—around 1694—or much anything about him from before 1722, eight years before his untimely death. Count Wenzel Morzin employed him, which meant the standards were set by his predecessor Johann Friedrich Fasch and Vivaldi. The bassoon, oboe, and violin concertos on this disc from Supraphon’s “Music from Eighteenth Century Prague” series live up to the comparison. En route they manage the feat of sounding like a direct bridge between the baroque and classical style, untouched by any Gallant cuteness. The playing of the period instrument Collegium 1704 under Václav Luks and soloists (perfect intonation and gorgeous tone throughout) makes this release special beyond discovering new repertoire.


'Book of Mormon' Loud and Vulgar

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, lampoon all hypocrisies, religious and otherwise, equally. South Park's jabs at Scientology, Catholicism, and Islam -- only the last one has actually led to censorship of the show -- are not for the faint of heart, sensitively minded, or easily offended, but they are all funny. Their musical The Book of Mormon, produced with Robert Lopez, takes aim at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints with deadly accuracy. Now on its third U.S. tour, which will reportedly take the show to Salt Lake City for the first time, The Book of Mormon is back at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where we finally saw it on Thursday evening.

The story follows a pair of Mormon missionaries, as they are trained in Utah and sent to convert the people of a war-torn village in Uganda. Elder Price, played by David Larsen with a Teflon smile, is the perfect Mormon boy, but his faith is shaken when his prayer to be sent to his favorite place in the world, Orlando, is not granted. He is paired up with Cody Jamison Strand's Elder Cunningham, a misfit who has not even read the Book of Mormon and is something of a pathological liar, and they set off for Africa full of pep and Mormon good manners. Along the way, they learn about the local catchphrase that makes life easier ("Hasa diga eebowai," the Disney Lion King send-up embedded above, which I do not recommend clicking on if you are at work), and meet the local band of fellow missionaries, who have managed to baptize not a single convert.

Other Reviews:

Ben Brantley, A New Set of Believers, but the Same Peppy Faith (New York Times, August 20, 2014)

Peter Marks, Review of Broadway’s ‘The Book of Mormon’ (Washington Post, March 24, 2011)
As in South Park's vivisection of Scientology, the best jokes are all simply statements of Mormonism's actual beliefs: Joseph Smith and the disappearing golden plates, Starbucks coffee cups that dance across the "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" number, and the line "I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." The LDS Church, which takes it all squarely on the chin, has not raised much of a fuss, even taking the opportunity to pass out copies of the actual Book of Mormon at some performances. An LDS-sponsored advertisement for the Book of Mormon in the Kennedy Center Playbill features a smiling black face with the words, "You've seen the play... Now read the book." Anyone who takes up the offer will find that the book is pretty much how it is depicted in the musical.

This production runs through August 16, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. My usual complaints about amplification are more pronounced in this case, because the volume level, for someone who is just not used to it, was too painful for my ears. Amplification ruins the theatrical experience, too, because one has no sense of the location of the person speaking or singing, distancing the viewer from the actors.


Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.2 (Part 2)

This continues "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.2 (Part 1)"

The early performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony were always a success, which must have been relieve and comfort after his First—“it is and always will be my child of sorrow”—continued to be harangued as, for example, a “conglomeration of nervous impressions”. (That was after the 1899 Dresden performance and, although part of a thoroughly negative review in the Dresdner Nachrichten, the characterization actually rings true for the First and several subsequent Mahler symphonies.)

Around the same time, a Sylvain Dupuis championed the Second Symphony in Liége with his “mediocre and choppy” (Mahler) orchestra. When Mahler came to conduct a performance himself, he had to re-arrange the orchestration to accommodate the lack of bass tubas, contrabassoons, and five-stringed double basses. He didn’t like the experience, but he was hardly above making any host of changes to get his works performed at all. Following the performance, on critic (Gazette de Liége) called it the “most masterly work of its kind since Mendelssohn [sic!]”. Perhaps the writer was fresh under the impression of Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony, but surely this was the only time a Mahler symphony has been likened to one of Felix’. What follows are empty phrases of exaltation that mean nothing. Much more perceptive and articulate are two slightly more critical reviews. One points out that the symphony was audibly “the work of a sceptic [, a] vast poem of life [that] exalts fatality [and] a joy which is lacking abandonment or confidence… The work seems to be analyzing itself…”. The other finds it an “uneven work… very beautiful in parts, weak in others. One is to aware of effort, of its desire to be original…” Whether you love the Second Symphony or not, both statements ring true of Mahler in general and the work in particular.

After the Mahler-conducted Munich performance, another critical review—Henri-Louis de La Grange calls the author Rudolf Louis a convinced anti-Semite—gets the essence of the Symphony surprisingly right when he attests that Mahler’s dynamic and fiery temperament rendered the musical language captivating... and compelled the audience… to ‘surrender unconditionally to the composer’… and that the audience found itself ‘overwhelmed rather than convinced’. The difference is that today, audiences are both.

Mahler prepared that Munich performance of the Second Symphony in 1900, although not with the Mahler-championing Kaim Orchestra (the Munich Philharmonic-to-be, which at the time was lead by Felix Weingartner), but in this case by the “Munich Society for Modern Composition”, formerly the Hugo Wolf Fan Club. This time he had to deal with small string sections and added a clarinet to a section of the chorus, to support the shaky tenors. After the performance, concerned about sufficient contrast between movements, Mahler still toyed with the idea of placing the Scherzo second. He didn’t, because the Andante would have been too similar in mood with the following—Urlicht—movement. In the case of this symphony, that is not too important… but it is helpful in remembering that ‘finished’ symphonies are not works necessarily cast in stone the way we know them. More about that when we reach Sixth Symphony.

Also for the Munich performance, Mahler demanded for the contralto part a “voice and expression of a child, since I myself, when I heard the tinkling of a small bell, imagined the soul to be in heaven where it will have to start afresh… as a small child.” That sounds similar to his demands for

Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.2 (Part 1)

Preceded by "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.1 (Part 1 & Part 2)"
Continued here: "Gustav Mahler — Symphony No.2 (Part 2)"

The gestation period for the Second Symphony was the longest of any of Mahler’s symphonies, and with nearly 59 months of labor—from the first sketches on July 8th 1888 to the final touches on March 29th 1894—it is only appropriate that the resulting baby should be a musical elephant of grand proportions.

At ~80 minutes (usually a few more, occasionally a few less), it is not the longest of Mahler’s symphonies (the Third is), nor the most opulently orchestrated (the Eight is). But it has one of the boldest opening movements (as “Totenfeier” it could and did stand on its own as a symphonic poem) and a grandiose finale that is composed so that it must, invariably, be overwhelming. For someone who never had any resounding success or external encouragement as a composer, this Second Symphony is almost more impressive than his First.

Moving, in the interim, from jobs in Leipzig via Budapest to Hamburg and dealing with

Jean Rondeau, No Smoke or Mirrors

available at Amazon
Imagine (Bach), J. Rondeau

(released on January 27, 2015)
Erato 825646220045 | 79'56"
For many listeners, even those judging high-level music competitions, what they see is more important than what they hear. This phenomenon is likely made worse with an instrument like the harpsichord, which listeners may not have heard all that many times, meaning that image or superficial appeal can sometimes trump musical substance. One worries that something like that is at play in the packaging of young French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, who made his Washington debut on Tuesday night at the French Embassy. The youngest first-prize winner at the Bruges competition, Rondeau's star is on the rise, as seen in his selection to play with Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée at the Victoires de la musique this year.

In this program, Rondeau excelled in several slow-tempo sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, often slathering on a thick layer of rubato, teasing out curled phrases in the C major and F minor sonatas (KK. 132 and 481, both marked "cantabile"). He used the instrument, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf and now owned by the University of Maryland, in a fairly straightforward way, combining the two 8' stops for occasional antiphonal effects and changes on repeats, as in the D minor sonata (K. 213) and the A major sonata (K. 208), and not using the instrument's other stops. Seeming to recognize his strength, Rondeau included only two sonatas in faster tempos, not to the most pleasing effect, with inelegant hand crossings in the D major (K. 119) but savoring the piled-up dissonant chords and guitar-like figuration in the A minor (K. 175).

Other Reviews:

Patrick Rucker, Young harpsichordist continues to amaze (Washington Post, June 18)
More interesting were the transcriptions of Bach pieces that filled out the program, featured on Rondeau's new disc for Erato. In his slightly odd program notes for the recording, Rondeau describes his interest in "slipping in" to Bach's works, so daunting, by a "smaller human-sized door" by way of such transcriptions, which are "an apprentice's exercise," a way "to learn how the music is made." (To read more of Rondeau's thoughts in his own words, see the interview he gave this month to La Tribune de Genève.) The prelude from the C minor suite (BWV 997, originally for the Lautenwerk) was in the same vein as the slow Scarlatti pieces, not requiring many changes to be played on the harpsichord. With the famous D minor chaconne (from the second sonata for solo violin), Rondeau began with the transcription by Brahms, for the piano, left hand, but filled it out for both hands, although not in any way as vast as the devilish transcription by Busoni. The recital ended with the Italian Concerto (BWV 971), offered as a sort of "negative image" of transcription, since this is an orchestral genre rendered by Bach on a single keyboard, and played with almost mechanical regularity of tempo. A single encore sounded like another Scarlatti sonata.


Recreating the Funeral Ceremony of Louis XIV

Louis XIV died 300 years ago, in 1715, and the Festival de Saint-Denis in the basilique des rois, where he and the other members of the French royal family were buried, marked the anniversary with a concert on June 8. This being France, where most people still hate the Bourbons, the royal funeral ceremony was recalled in a sort of theatrical way. One satirical epitaph from around the time of Louis XIV's death reads, "Ci-gît au milieu de l’église/Celui qui nous mit en chemise/Et s’il eût plus longtemps vécu/Il nous eût fait montrer le cul" (Here lies, in the middle of the church, / The one who took the shirt off our backs / And if he had lived any longer / He would have stripped our ass). Marie-Aude Roux has a review (De nouvelles funérailles pour le Roi-Soleil, June 17) for Le Monde (my translation):
No fewer than three organizations collaborated to produced this spectacle, in the form of a musico-theatrical cenotaph: the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, the Festival de Saint-Denis, and the Théâtre Gérard Philipe from Saint-Denis, with its new music-loving director, Jean Bellorini. Something like a pseudo-ritual, the theatrical presentation, elaborated with the help of Mathieu Coblentz, stuffed the music with royal funeral addresses taken from the funeral oration for Louis XIV, hagiography, and epitaphs, but also Biblical and philosophical texts from Job and Bossuet. Actors Sophie Botte and Samuel Glaumé, perched on a sort of funeral bier-stage, pedaled around on a bike trailer, shared a family meal, or lay down face up, like sarcophagus sculptures, on a bed draped with funeral shrouds. [...]

The unusual arrangement of the seats, lengthwise along the nave in two blocs facing each other, somewhat disoriented the audience. A long procession of men (the vocal ensemble Vox Cantoris) entered singing a plainchant responsory in use in the French court. Time came to a halt. Amassed on a riser at the entrance of the church, the musicians of the Chœur de chambre de Namur, La Cappella Mediterranea, and the Orchestre Millenium waited their turn: the magnificent funeral march from Lully's Alceste, conducted flamboyantly by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon.
Other musical selections included the Missa pro defunctis by Charles d’Helfer (1598-1661), music often performed in the Chapelle Royale and required for royal funerals at Saint-Denis until the end of the Ancien Régime, and some appropriate grands motets by Lully. Hopefully, a video or audio stream will become available.


Ionarts-at-Large: Heinz Holliger, Haydn-Master

If anyone can elicit great—or even just respectable—Haydn from the Vienna Chamber Orchestra at a musician-unfriendly 10.30am, I should think it’d be Heinz Holliger. Ever since hearing the septuagenarian conduct the Camerata Salzburg at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg some years back (review here), I’ve considered him the finest living Haydn conductor I know of. Perhaps something to do with him being a composer and thus communicating from one bird of a feather to the other?

To hear Holliger in Haydn was consequently the main reason to go to the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, the building’s gem of a hall and probably as ideally suited to this kind of music—if not more so—than their neighbor’s more famous Goldener Saal.

available at Amazon Haydn, Sy.57 et al., T.Fey / Heidelberg Symphony

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Haydn, Sy.44 et al., F.Fricsay / RIAS SO

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Handel, Oboe Concertos, H.Holliger / R.Leppard/ ECO

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Leclair et al., Oboe Concerto(s), H.Holliger / V.Negri / Stakap.Dresden

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon S.Veress, Hommage à Paul Klee, H.Holliger / A.Schiff et al. / Budapest FO

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon J.S.Bach, Concertos & Sinfonias for Oboe, H.Holliger / Camerata Bern

UK | DE | FR
The first look at the program hurt and baffled, though: Even Heinz Holliger programs Haydn first? Him of all conductors, who should be so sympatico to the composer and know better than to abuse Joseph H. as the warm-up, as the throw-away overture? When clearly, to all who hold the composer dear, he should rather be the last pi… Oh! It appears, upon further reading the program, that Holliger also programmed a Haydn symphony exactly there, at the end of the concert! All internal curses retracted and apologized for.

The reason for not placing Haydn first, sense though it makes to bookend a concert with his music, was made clear by the performance of Symphony No.57 in D major which sounded, Holliger or not, like the process of getting the machine lubed. The middle movements came across as tired, regardless of the (moderate) tempos, and the Menuet as heavy. A spirited Finale, however, showed that improvement was just around the corner.

Come the end of the concert, came Haydn’s Symphony No.44 in E minor. And this “Mourning” Symphony opened with plenty of zip… alas it, too, experienced a lull in the inner movements that cannot be blamed just on this listener who, at an equally critic-unfriendly (now) 11.30am, might not have been at his most alert. Haydn was the grand master of the slow movement, but it still takes lots to pull it off. Of that which it takes, there was too little. Again, the finale—very nearly scintillating (well: rejuvenating, at least)—made up for much.

If the Haydn ultimately proved disappointing, the works between did not. Since most average concert-goers are less likely to associate Holliger with the best chance to hear Haydn done well—specialist bands apart—their main draw might have been the two oboe concertos coming after Haydn in the first half. Holliger’s reputation as an oboist still wildly exceeds that of Holliger-the-conductor or Holliger-the-composer, after all. And Holliger-as-oboist still works… and works amazingly well: Fleet and nimble, with an authoritative tone and capable of great sweetness through subtle phrasing, as he displayed in Handel’s Oboe Concerto No.3 in G minor.

Better still than the Handel, where the Vienna Chamber Orchestra capably limped along, was the Jean Marie Leclair concerto op.7/3—cleverly written so that violinists, flutists, and oboists alike might buy the parts and perform it in public. The orchestra’s sudden infusion of a sunny, warm and flexible buoyancy was very apropos to French baroque. The Britten-encore—“Niobe” from his Six Metamorphoses for solo oboe—gave the audience an unexpected but unthreatening and appreciated introduction of 20th century music into an otherwise ‘safe’ half. Fortunately “Niobe” sounds like a work fluctuating between Tristan & Isolde, baroque music phrases, and Peter Grimes. And it’s scarcely three minutes long!

Perhaps it was meant to prepare for the opening work of the second half, a work of Sándor Veress’. Judging from the little I’ve heard in concert and on disc, he is a woefully under-exposed, underrated, and definitely under-recorded composer—and his presence on the program was just about as welcome as that of Haydn. Since Veress worked and studied with Bartók, it’s a bit daft (or lazy) to call his music post-Bartókian; ditto to call him a bridge between the latter and the generation of Kurtág and Ligety, since he taught both of them. But if you appreciate these composers and further have an interest in, say, Zoltán Kodály and Boris Blacher, then Veress should be up your alley, too. His Four Transylvanian Dances might do the trick. Part one, Lassú, opts for the lyrical over the jolly, with a mourning quality closer to the year of its writing (1944) than any dance I know. (Though I don’t, actually, know the Lassú… if I did, I might know that Wikipedia describes it as “generally [having] a dark, somber tone or a formal, stately one.”)

Like the following, Ugrós, it was off to a sluggish start before developing into something lively, even jaunty. It just takes a bit of patience as does the third dance, Lejtös, the only one composed six years later and no brighter for it. It’s the Fourth dance, Dobbantós, finally, that is animated right out of the gates and the most easily appreciable. The work might not have converted the audience to Veress on the spot, but it contributed to making the matinée an above-average interesting concert which, for the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, isn’t so bad.


Wolf Trap Opera's 'Figaro'

Kerriann Otaño (Countess), Talya Lieberman (Susanna), Reginald Smith, Jr. (Count), Alex Rosen (Antonio), and Thomas Richards (Figaro), in Le Nozze di Figaro, Wolf Trap Opera, 2015 (photo by Teddy Wolff)

Wolf Trap Opera last performed Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in 2006, in the vast outdoor setting of the Filene Center. For a performance in the smaller, indoor theater of the Barns, we have to go back to 1986, which is a very long time indeed for this evergreen comic opera. The truth is, no matter how many times I see Figaro, it is such a perfectly crafted opera that it satisfies more than disappoints. What this production had going for it was a charming production and acting direction by David Paul (part of a larger directorial concept including the production of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles next month), strong musical direction by conductor Kathleen Kelly, and conversation-aping recitative with mercurial accompaniment on fortepiano by Joseph Li, placed outside the pit and without a cello or other instrument to slow him down.

What it did not have so much was a perfect cast. There were large voices, both the powerhouse Count of Reginald Smith, Jr., and the dramatic, swath-cutting Countess of Kerriann Otaño, creating a sort of aristocracy of volume as they towered above most of the rest of the cast, but not always in the best way musically. Otaño's voice packed a punch but was not easy to lighten, although her strong acting helped her use the vocal power to create a devastating sense of sadness in the Countess. The Figaro of Thomas Richards was strained at the top of the range (as in the off-key high note he tried to add to Non più andrai), unpleasantly nasal, and stiff of presence, while the charms of Talya Lieberman were mostly in excellent comic timing, because the fluttery vibrato and fragility on the top notes (that rise to high C in the Susanna or via sortite terzetto just vanished) did not really suit the role's musical demands. Abigail Levis made a boyish Cherubino, thanks to believable costumes (designed by Stephanie Cluggish) and hair style (Anne Nesmith) but also because of a sweet, pure tone and natural-sounding embellishments added in both her major arias.

Other Articles:

Joan Reinthaler, A ‘Marriage of Figaro’ weds energy and delicacy, slapstick and pathos (Washington Post, June 15)

Anne Midgette, Wolf Trap Opera Company: The house that Kim built (Washington Post, June 12)
Jenni Bank was a stitch as a corrosive, cigarette-smoking Marcellina -- Paul updates the story to the late 19th century -- with a contribution so strong one regretted that the character's usually deleted aria, Il capro e la capretta, was not restored to the fourth act for her. In fact, I would rather have this piece, which further humanizes the character of Marcellina, instead of Barbarina's L'ho perduta, if it came right down to it.

Wilson Chin's sets gave the sense of a run-down palazzo, especially in the scenes in the servants' quarters, and made the most of the venue's small stage, subdividing it in the first act and giving new views of the manor as the action unfolded, finally opening to make the fourth act's garden scene the largest. (The same sets will return in The Ghosts of Versailles, altered to show the passage of time.) At the podium, Kathleen Kelly was authoritative, insisting on her tempi when the singers strayed, perhaps stretching out the fourth act in a way that stalled the drama but admirably firm, consolidating a generally fine sound from the musicians, some sour notes from the horns aside.

This performance repeats on June 17 and 20, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

National Orchestral Institute to Record for Naxos

available at Amazon
J. Corigliano, Symphony No. 1 ("Of Rage and Remembrance"), National Symphony Orchestra, L. Slatkin
(RCA Red Seal, 1996)
Charles T. Downey, National Festival Orchestra’s bright performance is a gift
Washington Post, June 15
The ambitions and hard work of the National Orchestral Institute, the training program for young musicians at the University of Maryland, continue to pay dividends. The concert of American music by this year’s National Festival Orchestra, heard Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, was the first to be recorded in a new series for the Naxos label. Richard Freed, who writes the NOI program notes, made the suggestion to the leader of Naxos.

Guest conductor David Alan Miller, who has long championed the music of Michael Torke, opened with that composer’s “Bright Blue Music”... [Continue reading]
National Festival Orchestra
National Orchestral Institute
With David Alan Miller, conductor
Clarice Smith Center

2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011

On Forbes: Boxing Classical Music: Claudio Abbado on Sony/RCA

Boxing Classical Music: Claudio Abbado on Sony/RCA

The preamble to this review—a cursory glance at the state of the state of box sets in classical music—precedes the first of what will be three (the orchestral works conducted by Ferenc Fricsay’s on Deutsche Grammophon) This second installment takes Claudio Abbado’s recordings for Sony/RCA as its example.

Having covered Ferenc Fricsay box set, let’s turn to the Abbado Box that Sony put forth. It covers his output for that label spanning 22 years (1976-1997) and his most important orchestral stations (including La Scala, 1971-1986, the LSO, 1975-1987, Vienna State Opera, 1986-1991, and Chicago, where he was the principal guest conductor for three years in the 80s) up to and including (some of) his taking stewardship of the Berlin Philharmonic (1989-2002)....

Continue reading here, at


Perchance to Stream: Ornette Coleman 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.

  • Matthias Pintscher leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in a performance of Pierre Boulez's Répons at the Philharmonie de Paris. [ARTE]

  • Myung-Whun Chung is stepping down as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, to be succeeded by Mikko Franck. Gil Shaham joined the orchestra for Bruch's first violin concerto, paired with a performance of Mahler's fifth symphony. [ARTE]

  • Listen to a performance of The Tempest by Thomas Adès from the Wiener Staatsoper, with the composer conducting a cast starring Adrian Eröd (Prospero), Audrey Luna (Ariel), Stephanie Houtzeel (Miranda), and David Daniels (Trinculo). [ORF]

  • From the Philharmonie de Paris, Ivan Fischer leads the Budapest Festival Orchestra in performances of the third and fourth symphonies of Brahms. [France Musique]

  • Carlo Rizzi conducts a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the Théâtre de La Monnaie last month. [RTBF]

  • From the Lyric Opera de Chicago, Patrick Summers conducts a performance of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, starring Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna Bolena), John Relyea (Enrico VIII), Jamie Barton (Giovanna Seymour), and Brian Hymel (Lord Riccardo Percy). [Radio Clásica]

  • Pianist Nikolai Lugansy and cellist Alexander Kniazev play a recital of music by Shostakovich, Franck, and Rachmaninoff at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the performance of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from the Metropolitan Opera, starring Paul Appleby, Layla Claire, and Gerald Finley. [ABC Classic]

  • Daniil Trifonov joins the Orchestre National de Belgique, under Andrey Boreyko, for Chopin's first piano concerto, paired with Sebastian Currier's Divisions, recorded at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. [RTBF]

  • The BBC Philharmonic marks the Nielsen anniversary with a performance of the composer's second symphony, conducted by John Storgards and recorded at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. [BBC3]

  • Roberto Zarpellon conducts the Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte and Venice Monteverdi Academy in sacred music by Mozart, recorded last month at the Cathedral of Conegliano. [ORF]

  • Bass-baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau perform a recital of songs by Wolf, Brahms, and Schumann, recorded at the Wigmore Hall in London. [BBC3]

  • Antonio Pappano leads the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in music by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky (the Rococo Variations with cellist Jan Vogler), and Sibelius's second symphony, recorded last month at the Wiener Festwochen. [ORF | Part 2]

  • The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs music by Beethoven (the third piano concerto, with Stephen Hough as soloist) and Bruckner (the eighth symphony), conducted by Thomas Sondergard and recorded in Swansea. [BBC3]

  • From the Festival ManiFeste, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France performs Philippe Hurel's Tour à tour, conducted by Jean Deroyer. [France Musique]

  • Herbert Blomstedt leads the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Carl Nielsen's third symphony and Beethoven's seventh, recorded last month in Stockholm. [ORF]

  • Johannes Fritzsch conducts the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in music by Berlioz (King Lear), Beethoven (first symphony), and Cherubini's Requiem in C minor. [ABC Classic]

  • Music of Vivaldi, including the Four Seasons, performed by violinist Giuliano Carmignola and the Basel Chamber Orchestra. [RTBF]

  • Violinist Vilde Frang and conductor Vasily Petrenko join the European Union Youth Orchestra to play music of Bruch and Shostakovich at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria. [France Musique]

  • Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich and the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien in music of Brahms, Strauss, and Bruckner. [ORF]

  • Watch cellist Gautier Capuçon and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra perform music of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky under conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada. [ARTE]

  • The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Aapo Häkkinen, perform music by Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Johann Joseph Fux, Georg Muffat, and Antonio Caldara, recorded last month at the Abbey of Melk. [ORF]

  • Music by Musorgsky, Scriabin, and Shostakovich, with Donald Runnicles leading the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and pianist Barry Douglas, recorded last year in Glasgow. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a recital b pianist Lars Vogt, with music by Schoenberg, Schubert, and Beethoven, recorded last month at the Musik im Riesen Kammermusikfestival. [ORF]

  • Paul Agnew leads members of Les Arts Florissants in the madrigali guerrieri of Monteverdi. [France Musique]

  • The Orchestre Français des Jeunes Baroque plays music by Charpentier, Aubert, Mascitti, Bodin de Boismortier, and Johann Berhard Bach under conductor Reinhard Goebel. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 195 (Bach for Baroque Violin & Guitar)

available at Amazon
L.Spohr, String Sextet, Nonet,
camerata freden

A beginner’s Bach library will contain Pierre Fournier (DG), Jean-Guihen Queyras (Harmonia Mundi), and Peter Wispelwey II (Channel) for the Suites and Nathan Milstein II (DG), Rachel Podger (Channel), and Viktoria Mullova (Onyx) for the Sonatas & Partitas. Only a few steps later will the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (BWV 1014-1019) and the Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord (BWV 1027-29) enter the picture. Or the Lute works—which aren’t for lute, actually, but let’s ignore that for now.

Beyond that, we get into rarified territory, which is surprising that any such should still exist in as safely grazed-over a composer as Bach. In fact there are more chamber works in his output than the abovementioned, and this disc presents five of them … from second-tier popularity (BWV 1020) to absolute rarity (BWV 1022).

Part of the problem for these works yonder the popular divide is that it’s not clear when they were written, or what instruments they should be played on, or even who wrote them. Why and when that actually contributes to obscurity is hard to say, also. Certainly any legitimate doubts as to the Cello Suites and their specifically intended instrument—never mind the perennial inscrutability of the Art of the Fugue—haven’t kept these pieces from being recorded dozens, hundreds of times. Even so, for one reason or another, some works fall through the cracks, even with Bach; some are picked up by some instrumentalists, but not others.

Flautists for example, a very repertoire-eager breed of musician, have tackled every Bach piece that could even just conceivably be suited to the flute, and recorded it … apocryphal attribution or not. The problem with the flute sonatas—of which BWV 1020 was eventually deemed not by Bach (not Johann Sebastian, anyway) but now is considered Echt-Bach after all, and two more (BWV 1031 and 1033) probably, possibly not by Bach—is that they’re usually rather boring on the flute and only a little more interesting on the recorder; but still no greatest hits.

This makes it so intriguing to hear these five works on this disc—the Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo BWV 1021 and 1023, the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1022, and the Sonata for Recorder and Basso Continuo BWV 1033 (otherwise found together only on Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Cologne’s 8 disc set of the complete chamber music on Archiv): They’re not played on the flute, but as the violin sonatas which at least some of them were intended to be and, equally important, the keyboard and continuo parts are given to the guitar, something that already worked wonders for Marina Piccinini’s release of the Flute Sonatas (review here) where João Luiz and Douglas Lora inject a unique liveliness into the music.

Nils-Erik Sparf performs on a baroque violin and David Härenstam on the guitar, which is a curious mix of the historically informed and the historically blithely indifferent, since the guitar is very little like anything that Bach would actually have had in mind. Musically it works beautifully* and that’s what the two are after: Beauty and musicality in the service of Bach and the listener, not musicology. For the same reason they recorded these sonatas live in the studio, whole movements in one take.

Indeed, free flowing and improvised, sparkling with wit and invention, the question about Bach-or-Not never arises while listening to these sonatas. The tenacity of Sparf melds perfectly with Härenstam’s mellow, but keenly accentuated lines—at once an alien and a timeless fit in this Bach-combination.

BWV 1020, which has seen action in all kinds of imaginable combinations on record (despite the sketchy provenance)—mostly flute with piano, fortepiano, harpsichord, harp, claviorgan, or clavichord but also recorder (or traverso) with harpsichord or clavichord. Ditto oboe and harpsichord, harp, or organ. Violin and harpsichord. Baroque oboe and harpsichord. Violin with harp. Violin, Viola da gamba, and fortepiano. Harp and harp (the horror!). Pan Flute with Accordion. Viola and Piano. Viola and Harpsichord. Mandolin and Guitar. Euphonium and Tuba. Harmonica and Accordion—this, a recording by Joe Sakimoto and Mie Miki, I must get—and solo euphonium—sounds here like resurrected and at home at last. On the other hand, even the greatest enthusiasm doesn’t turn the opening movement of BWV 1033 into one of Bach’s greatest hits.

All the same, this is so much more than just a convenient stopgap for the missing BWV numbers in your aspiring Bach collection … it’s a superb Bach release in its own right. 

* That, according to the liner notes, it did only after Härenstam tuned down to meet Sparf’s historical pitch; when going the other way turned out to be unsatisfactory.

Previously appeared on MusicWeb International