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


Royal Family Memorabilia

Descendants of Louis-Philippe, the last king of France, are selling a trove of over two hundred objects that belonged to their family, raising fears that relics of France's history will leave France. An article by Baudouin Eschapasse (Patrimoine : le trésor de la couronne de France dispersé, September 29) for Le Point has the details (my translation):
The eleven heirs of the Count and Countess of Paris, descendants of Louis-Philippe (1773-1850), the last king of France, are letting go of furniture, paintings, and other family jewels during an exceptional sale on September 29 and 30. In the catalog, works signed by major artists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Such as gouaches by the painter-decorator Louis Carrogis, known as Carmontelle; or Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié, royal portraitist, who affords an intimate glimpse of the French royal family. One of these canvases, depicting the Duke of Valois in his cradle [shown at right], the future Louis-Philippe, is particularly moving.
The French Minister of Culture could oppose the sale of only three works (out of almost 250), which are not allowed to leave France: that includes the account book of the Château d'Amboise, portraits of Louis XIII by Philippe de Champaigne, and the portrait of the Duchesse d'Orléans by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. The government reportedly purchased these three items, secretly, a few days ago.


Grigory Sokolov refuses Cremona Music Award because this Guy's also on the List

Update: On An Overgrown Path weighs in: Churnalism is destroying classical music
Update: A response from the Cremona Music Award's Paolo Bodini can be found in the comment section.
Update: A response from Norman Lebrecht, after two days of silence, also below.
Update: Gavin Dixon on the specific reasons behind Sokolov's distaste for Lebrecht.
Update: On An Overgrown Path delves into what the "Cremona Music Awards" actually are all about.

Because he shares a prize of the new Cremona Mondo Musica Awards with past (2014) winner Norman Lebrecht (check his tweets here), Grigory Sokolov refused his prize, calling it “a shame to appear on the same list”.

Translated into English, more or less, the text reads:

Dear Mr Bianchedi, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Artistic Committee of the Cremona Mondomusica Piano Experience

I refuse to receive the 2015 Cremona Music Award, because it goes against my ideas of elementary decency, and is [indeed] a shame to appear on the [same] list of winners with Lebrecht.

G. Sokolov

Original letter in Italian (above) and Russian below.

Production Photos from the Zurich Opera's Wozzeck with Christian Gerhaher

Spoiled by a masterful, cinematic production by Andreas Kriegenburg for the Munich State Opera, I was trying not to expect all that much – and certainly not something to supplant my experiences with Kriegenburg’s Wozzeck. And yet, the deceivingly simple production of the director (and Intendant of the Zurich Opera) Andreas Homoki did just that. Anchored by the set and costumes of Michael Levine (with further costume-help from Meta Bronski), it looked at first like a simple frame – yellow paint on black wood; the setup for a grim and grimy Punch & Judy show. As more and more frames opened behind the first one, revealing up to six layers, it became clear that it was a little cleverer than that, and wickedly effective to boot...

Full review on Click on excerpted images below to find a higher resolution version of the full picture.

All images courtesy Zurich Opera, © Monika Rittershaus


Juanjo Mena and the BSO

Conductor Juanjo Mena

A talented conductor puts an orchestra at ease in the most natural way, taking the musicians and the listener alike along for the ride. This was the case with Juanjo Mena's latest appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore. Last heard with the BSO in 2012, the Spanish conductor currently serves as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and they are lucky to have him.

Prokofiev's first symphony, a neoclassical bagatelle that shows off the young composer's bona fides, made a sweet opener. With the first movement set at a genial tempo, the musicians seemed comfortable right from the start, giving a cute, lopsided quality to the charming second theme, especially when it returned off the beat. Mena had ensured that the balances were all optimal, so that no other gestures were required during performance, revealing delicate, pearly sounds at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum. The Gavotte had a slightly exaggerated, pompous feel, followed by a finale with Offenbach zing.

Glazunov's violin concerto provided some Romantic meat in the middle of the program, with BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney giving a rich, loamy sound on the opening theme. Intonation issues cropped up again and again, perhaps from a lack of agreement between orchestra and soloist. Carney is a first-rate soloist, and he had some beautiful moments, like the flautando introduction to the big cadenza, but the more daring spiccato and double-stop stuff in the third movement was not always as clean as it could have been.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, BSO at Strathmore: A confident, open-hearted guest conductor (Washington Post, September 28)

Tim Smith, Juanjo Mena, BSO and eloquent music-making; Carney shines in concerto (Washington Post, September 27)
Mena's approach to the main course, Beethoven's sixth symphony, was refreshingly old school -- big string sections, tempos on the moderate to slow side, much of the possible roughness smoothed out in undulating legato phrasing. In such familiar music, he could often set the tempo and then allow the orchestra to regulate itself, using his arms and body to show the long lines he wanted, although with some of the slow tempos he seemed to reconsider midway through, moving the pace ahead slightly.

With the emphasis on somewhat leisurely speeds, the third movement felt especially reserved, the horn fanfares less like boisterous intrusions. On the other hand, Beethoven's additive orchestration -- trumpets joining in the third movement; trombones, thunderous timpani, and fife-bright piccolo in the fourth -- stood out. Only in the especially drawn out fifth movement did the musicians not quite seem all to agree, causing some ensemble uncertainty, further muting the sense of climax to the somewhat odd conclusion to this symphony.

Next week Markus Stenz returns to the podium of the BSO, for the first time as Principal Guest Conductor, with an all-Mozart program including scenes from Don Giovanni with Jennifer Black and Angela Meade (October 1 and 4).

Second Cast of WNO 'Carmen'

Charles T. Downey, Washington National Opera’s ‘Carmen’ is halfway through run
Washington Post, September 28

Washington National Opera’s production of “Carmen” is halfway through its run. The company has fielded a second cast for the four lead roles, heard on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

French mezzo-soprano Géraldine Chauvet, who was a nondescript Fenena in WNO’s “Nabucco” in 2012, had much less vocal heft than Clémentine Margaine, her counterpart in the first cast. Chauvet’s Carmen was a saucy flirt rather than a femme fatale, and where there was almost no laughter in the audience on opening night... [Continue reading]
Bizet, Carmen (second cast)
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House

Charles T. Downey, Clémentine Margaine Seduces Vocally in WNO 'Carmen' (Ionarts, September 21)


Perchance to Stream: Lunar Eclipse 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.

  • Watch Kent Nagano conduct a performance of Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Staatsoper Hamburg. [ARTE]

  • Listen to Antonio Pappano conduct a performance of Szymanowski's King Roger, starring Mariusz Kwiecien, Georgia Jarman, and others, recorded in May at the Royal Opera House in London. [ORF]

  • Hervé Niquet leads Le Concert Spirituel in a performance of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier's Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse, with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Marc Labonnette, and others, recorded last July in Montpellier. [ORF]

  • Watch Laurence Equilbey conduct Accentus and Insula Orchestra in Mozart's Vesperae solennes de confessore and C.P.E. Bach's Magnificat, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • Vilde Frang plays the Korngold violin concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Mikko Franck also conducts Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexander Melnikov play music by Beethoven and Schumann, recorded at the Wigmore Hall in London. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Bertrand Chamayou and friends perform Boulez's Sur Incises and music of Bartok, during the Journées du Patrimoine in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin in Beethoven's second piano concerto, with Martha Argerich as soloist, plus Elgar's first symphony, recorded earlier this month in Vienna. [ORF | Part 2]

  • From the Church of Mary Magdalen in Warsaw, Lydia Teuscher, Florian Boesch, the Bavarian Radio Chorus, and Il Giardino Armonico perform settings of the Magnificat by Vivaldi and Bach. [RTBF]

  • The European Union Youth Orchestra and violinist Vilde Frang perform music of Bruch and Shostakovich, conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Grafenegg Festival. [France Musique]

  • From the Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije, tenor Cyrille Dubois, soprano Marie-Laure Garnier, violinist Olivia Hughes, and pianist Anne le Bozec perform music of Messiaen (La mort du nombre), Debussy, and Szymanowski. [France Musique]

  • For the Journées du Patrimoine, a concert by the Choeur de Radio France, conducted by Sofi Jeannin. [France Musique]

  • The season opening concert of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, with music by Schumann, Beethoven, and Bruckner (fourth symphony). [RTBF]

  • François Morel and the Orchestre National de France perform Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Alexandro Markéas's Le Retour du Loup. [France Musique]

  • Rafal Blechacz joins the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and conductor Candida Thompson in music by Mozart, Rautavaara, and others, recorded last June in Geneva. [RTBF]

  • A recital by David Kadouch, playing Bach, Schumann, Liszt, and others, recorded during the Journées du Patrimoine. [France Musique]

  • Le Poème Harmonique, conducted by Vincent Dumestra, perform a concert for the Journées du Patrimoine. [France Musique]

  • The Con Moto String Quartet play music by Haydn and Schubert, recorded at the Schloss Esterházy for the Internationale Haydntage. [ORF]

  • From the Internationales Musikfest Schloss Eggenberg in Graz, pianist Markus Schirmer and friends play chamber music by Leclair, Ravel, and others. [ORF]

  • From the Festival de Sablé, harpsichordist Mahan Estafani plays Bach's Goldberg Variations. [France Musique]

  • The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France plays music of Mozart, Clementi, Schubert, and Strauss, recorded for the Journées du Patrimoine. [France Musique]

  • Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music by Moncayo, Beethoven (second symphony), and Dvořák's cello concerto with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, recorded in 2012. [CSO]


Ionarts at Large: English Chamber Orchestra in London

We welcome this review by guest contributor Martin Fraenkel, from the Royal Festival Hall in London.

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos, A. A. Meyers, English Chamber Orchestra, S. Mercurio
With the Proms over, the London musical scene moves eastward, and the programs tend to the more conventional. The English Chamber Orchestra’s all-Mozart program featured three of his best-known works, while showcasing some of the new generation of British musicians. On the basis of this showing, the future looks bright.

The ECO claims to be the most recorded chamber orchestra in the world, with a discography of 860 recordings. The string section, however, looked unusually youthful, with most members likely not yet born at the time of its association with such distinguished luminaries as Benjamin Britten. With several of them forging solo careers in their own right, they were lively and insightful throughout, carrying forward the orchestra’s tradition with gusto. The distinctly more experienced wind section provided excellent bassoon and trombone solos in the second half.

This second half was filled entirely by Mozart’s setting of the Requiem Mass. Conductor Robin Newton chose aggressive tempi to set a dramatic, almost menacing scene, before driving directly into a particularly rapid Dies Irae. The outstanding Philharmonic Chorus sustained his ambition marvelously. Superbly drilled, they were crisp and incisive with the male voices particularly noteworthy. Their positioned on the upper tiers of the orchestral podium, rather than the vacant choir seats above them, enhanced an already intense interaction with the audience. Newton adeptly maintained this mood through the later movements. Mozart left the Lacrimosa largely incomplete, and Süssmayr’s finished movement can often seem indulgently mournful, but Newton kept the easier emotional stimuli in check.

Among a generally adequate solo quartet, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, already a BBC New Generation Artist and the winner of multiple prizes, was particularly noteworthy. She produced a controlled warm sound, which promises much. This contrasted rather sharply at times with the too-heavy vibrato of soprano Stephanie Edwards, which was disappointingly obtrusive in her solo in the opening Introitus. Tenor Leonel Pinheiro and baritone Matthew Stiff were solid.

In the first half, Mei Yi Foo, the 2013 winner of the BBC Best Newcomer of the Year award, gave a polished and insightful rendering of the 21st piano concerto. Barenboim, Peraia, and Uchida in their youth all established enduring partnerships with the ECO, but Foo was certainly not overawed by this heritage. Warmly applauded by both audience and orchestra, on this showing she is likely to be invited back. Not afraid to take some risks with expression in the first movement, she displayed some lovely crisp playing, respecting the classical tradition and not seeking to impose herself on the orchestra. Only in the second Andante movement, the emotional core of the piece, did she not quite explore the intensity often lurking in later Mozart.

The overture to The Magic Flute opened the concert. Newton’s slow, sombre introduction seemed to place the comic opera closer to Don Giovanni than the frivolity of The Marriage of Figaro.

Briefly Noted: Simone Young's Bruckner

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Philharmoniker Hamburg, S. Young

(released on July 10, 2015)
Oehms Classics OC693 | 59'01"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Trifonov channels Rachmaninoff, Young’s Bruckner (Washington Post, September 27)
Conductor Simone Young has led the Hamburg State Opera and the Hamburg Philharmonic, to widespread praise, since 2005. This summer, coinciding with the end of her tenure with the orchestra, she completed her live recorded cycle of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies with this compact version of the Ninth.

Young, who was principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic several years before Marin Alsop was appointed to lead the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra...
[Continue reading]

Andrew Taylor, Conductor Simone Young: still the odd one out (Sidney Morning Herald, August 14)


New Novel by Carole Martinez

book cover
This time of year in France, when kids go back to school, is also the rentrée littéraire, when many books are published in hopes of getting notice in one of the literary competitions. The new novel by French writer Carole Martinez, La terre qui penche, got a positive reaction from François Busnel (Carole Martinez donne vie à une Antigone médiévale, September 24) in L'Express (my translation):
We had left Carole Martinez in the 12th century [in her last novel, Du domaine des Murmures], in the fascinating backdrop of the Domaine des Murmures: then we were following the striking history of Esclarmonde, a young girl, victim of rape, who made the choice to wall herself up alive, raising the child of her suffering alone and passing for a saint in the eyes of the people. In her new book, we have the narrative of the short life of Blanche, who arrives at the Domaine des Murmures two hundred years later, and whose fate is also intriguing.

Blanche is 11 years old. Within a year, she will be dead. We know all this within the first few lines. Her story is recounted by two voices: "the old soul" and "the little girl." The old soul has haunted the place for more than six hundred years. Does she remember everything? Or does she indeed do what all of us do when we dig around in our memories -- does she make things up? In any case, her version of events differs sometimes from that of the little girl, Blanche, who in the present tells what she experiences. This alternation gives this labyrinthine novel all of its force.
By the way, Martinez writes books intended for teenage readers, and Du domaine des Murmures won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, judged by a group of book-minded high school students, in 2011. Her first book, Le Cœur cousu, was recently translated into English as The Threads of the Heart (linked at right).


À mon chevet: 'Albert Savarus'

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

book cover
When the song was ended Rodolphe could make his way to the Prince, who graciously led him to his wife. Rodolphe went through the ceremonial of a formal introduction to Princess and Prince Colonna, and to Francesca. When this was over, the Princess had to take part in the famous quartette, Mi manca la voce, which was sung by her with Tinti, the famous Genovese tenor, and with a well-known Italian Prince then in exile, whose voice, if he had not been a Prince, would have made him one of the Princes of Art.

"Take that seat," said Francesca to Rodolphe, pointing to her own chair. "Oime! I think there is some mistake in my name; I have for the last minute been Princess Rodolphini."

It was said with the artless grace which revived, in this avowal hidden beneath a jest, the happy days at Gersau. Rodolphe reveled in the exquisite sensation of listening to the voice of the woman he adored, while sitting so close to her that one cheek was almost touched by the stuff of her dress and the gauze of her scarf. But when, at such a moment, Mi manca la voce is being sung, and by the finest voices in Italy, it is easy to understand what it was that brought the tears to Rodolphe's eyes.

In love, as perhaps in all else, there are certain circumstances, trivial in themselves, but the outcome of a thousand little previous incidents, of which the importance is immense, as an epitome of the past and as a link with the future. A hundred times already we have felt the preciousness of the one we love; but a trifle -- the perfect touch of two souls united during a walk perhaps by a single word, by some unlooked-for proof of affection -- will carry the feeling to its supremest pitch. In short, to express this truth by an image which has been pre-eminently successful from the earliest ages of the world, there are in a long chain points of attachment needed where the cohesion is stronger than in the intermediate loops of rings. This recognition between Rodolphe and Francesca, at this party, in the face of the world, was one of those intense moments which join the future to the past, and rivet a real attachment more deeply in the heart. It was perhaps of these incidental rivets that Bossuet spoke when he compared to them the rarity of happy moments in our lives -- he who had such a living and secret experience of love.

-- Honoré de Balzac, Albert Savarus (trans. Ellen Marriage)
I am back to working my way through Balzac's La Comédie Humaine. This longer novel is a complex narrative, involving a young woman who wants to meet the mysterious lawyer who has moved into her small provincial town. Details of the mystery are unraveled by way of a short story and letters embedded in the novel, which reveal the secret love that is described in this passage. The quartet in question is from Rossini's Mosè in Egitto, embedded in the video below.


Briefly Noted: Leçons de Ténèbres

available at Amazon
Lalande, Leçons de Ténèbres, S. Karthäuser, Ensemble Correspondances, S. Daucé

(released on March 10, 2015)
HMC902206 | 76'
Charles T. Downey, CD review: An enlightened new recording of Lalande
Washington Post, September 18
From the Passions of J. S. Bach to the Masses of Mozart, dramatic and operatic styles invaded church music in the 18th century; while in France, Louis XIV’s love of opera and dance was reflected in the music for his Chapelle Royale. This recording examines some elaborate solo music composed by the most important composer who served the French royal chapel, Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726).

Many Catholic composers created elaborate musical settings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah to frame readings proper to the three final days of Holy Week, leading up to Easter. Lalande created his operatic solo versions of these readings, the “Leçons de Ténèbres,” for celebrations at the Couvent de l’Assomption, a community of nuns on the Rue Saint-Honore in Paris. It was not uncommon for the more musically refined religious communities in Paris to decorate their liturgies with pieces sung by professional musicians. Lalande often wrote these for his gifted daughters to sing, until they died of smallpox in 1711...
[Continue reading]


Ionarts-at-Large: Involuntary Exclusivity At Mozart’s Home

Violist Julia Rebekka Adler and pianist Axel Gremmelspacher presented a program—and their latest CD—in the sub-basement of the Mozart House in Vienna, just in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The program and disc are titled “Viola in Exile”, concocted of composers, threatened, prosecuted, and eventually forgotten, that they all huddled at the very back of the alphabet: Leo Weiner, Karl Weigl, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Erich Zeisl.

available at Amazon
K.Weigl, E.Zeisl, H.Gál Viola Sonatas,
J.R.Adler / A.Gremmelspacher

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Complete Sonatas for Solo Viola,
J.R.Adler / J.Nemtsov

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, Complete Works for Violin & Piano,
L.Roth / J.Gallardo

I’ve followed the projects of Mme. Adler (assistant principal viola of the Munich Philharmonic, in her day job) with keen interest ever since writing a feature interview about her and her Weinberg solo viola project for the pages of Fanfare, some years ago. As part of that project, she had found and arranged Weinberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano for the viola, one of the catchiest piece of this often thorny composer and the opening work of this evening’s proceedings.

Viola in Exile

It was an unusual concert in that it took place before an audience of seven or—deducting the record producer, his wife, the music critic, friends of the performers and the page turner—zero: Empty chairs to the right of them, empty chairs to the left of them, empty chairs in front of them, was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the artists knew… someone had blunder’d.

Weinberg, so injected very directly into the ear as in the intimate acoustic of the little Bösendorfer Saal (it used to be Mozart’s wine cellar, almost guaranteeing that the vibes are good!), is always an ear-opening, not to say ear-splitting experience. A fragile-looking pale and ginger wisp of a woman, Julia Rebekka Adler’s sound is—for all the dance it contains—like a giant redwood falling on your roof: Big, and anything in its way better watch out. It’s just the thing for Weinberg who must be able to disturb as much as he must occasionally smile.

Karl Weigl’s Viola Sonata has more Shostakovich in its first movement than all of Weinberg (who is routinely, if lazily, accused of being a pocket-size Shostakovich, due to his close friendship and collaboration with the iconic Soviet composer). Smokey, throaty beauty with edges, it was given a terrific and intense performance here and in the folk-music embracing second movement and the lyrical third movement, and thanks to it, was able to convince as music as I hadn’t known it could. It is also included on the two artists’ recording (and I have to re-listen), but my ears were opened to the very considerable quality and beauty of the work only on this occasion.

Also included on the CD and present on the program was Eric Zeisl’s Violin Sonata. Eric Zeisl, like Weigl and Weinberg, is a 20th century composer who has a chapter dedicated in the upcoming second edition of Robert Reilly’s “Surprised by Beauty (A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of 20th and 21st Century Music)”. He’s one of those fascinating neglected minor-yet-wonderful composers I love to write about (I contributed that particular chapter to Reilly’s book). Insiders know that his daughter married Arnold Schoenberg’s son, and that they two men were close, but that is about the closest Zeisl’s music gets to Schoenberg’s in a sentence. Zeisl’s music is post-romantic, sometimes naïve, and perfectly Austrian (though after 1940 increasingly imbued with Hebrew overtones, as he watched the horrors from California, having escaped Hitler-Europe himself). It lacks all pretensions and this viola sonata is one of the more astounding, powerful and tensely melodious pieces of 20th century chamber music. A jewel, not only within the viola repertoire, and haunting with its shivering slow movement that never fails to get under my skin or that insistent, forceful and exotic edge of the modal third movement. Leo Weiner’ Csárdás Peregi Verbunk, which was wedged into the program, is a uplifting mix between a variation-movement viola sonata and a send-up of Brahms’s Hungarian dances. A little soufflé to lighten the mood.

If a concert takes place and there is no audience to hear it, does it make a sound? Most certainly, as it turns out. And what a sound, indeed. It was a performance to end all viola jokes (if that were possible) and caused such a surprising amount of clapping noise from the 14 enthused hands, that the performers indulged the 14 attached ears in an encore of Paul Ben Haim’s Sepphardic Melody.


Yefim Bronfman Opens Shriver Hall's 50th Season

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Concertos / Sonatas, Y. Bronfman
(Sony, 2013)
Charles T. Downey, Pianist Yefim Bronfman performs Prokofiev sonatas
Washington Post, September 22
Among the concert-presenting organizations marking significant anniversaries, Shriver Hall opened its 50th season in Baltimore on Sunday evening. Pianist Yefim Bronfman did the honors, with a recital centered on the first four sonatas of Prokofiev, one of his specialties. Some musical luminaries were in the audience for the occasion, including violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Leon Fleisher, Bronfman’s onetime teacher.

The program was an abridged version of the complete Prokofiev piano sonata cycle that Bronfman is playing around the world this season, generally spaced over three evenings... [Continue reading]
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Music by Prokofiev, Schumann
Shriver Hall

Lawrence A. Johnson, Bronfman ignites a Prokofiev storm at Ravinia (Chicago Classical Review, August 12)

John von Rhein, Bronfman begins his Prokofiev sonata cycle in grand Russian manner (Chicago Tribune, August 12)

Charles T. Downey, Magdalena Kožená at Shriver Hall (Washington Post, February 19, 2013)

Michael Lodico, Yefim Bronfman at Strathmore (Ionarts, March 4, 2012)


Clémentine Margaine Seduces Vocally in WNO 'Carmen'

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen), Michael Todd Simpson (Escamillo), and cast, Carmen, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)

It is too soon for another production of Bizet's Carmen, reviewed just last year at Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and Virginia Opera. The last time Washington National Opera mounted the work was only in 2008, and yet here it was again, opening the company's 60th anniversary season on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The thing that this version has going for it, in an otherwise variable production, is French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine at the top of the first cast.

Carmen is not a dancing role, and it is not about playing the castanets, although a singer who can do either of those things convincingly may have a leg up in her characterization. Carmen is a role for an operatic mezzo-soprano, and that is where Margaine excelled, by using her powerful voice, which filled the hall amply with a sort of whiskey-infused burn, to create the character. This was a Carmen who demanded attention, who could roar and impose herself on others, who could seduce -- all principally with her voice, which is ideally how an operatic character should reveal her nature.

The dancing was mostly handled by a pair of flamenco dancers (Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez, choreography by Sara Erde), and the castanets were left to a capable player in the pit. Margaine got off to a slightly rough start, pushing her pitch flat in the first act a couple times, but the voice only grew on me as an exemplar of the brusque, almost mannish type of Carmen, able to shake the rafters with her cries of "La liberté!" One moment could stand for an entire evening of such vocal characterization: when Escamillo, at the end of the Toreador Song, exchanged a motif ("L'amour") with Frasquita, Mercédès, and Carmen, there was no doubt to whom he would be attracted, for her voice left the others in the dust (see picture above).

Unfortunately, little else in this production was quite so certain. Tenor Bryan Hymel took part of the summer off for vocal rest this year, backing out of Rigoletto at Santa Fe Opera, and it sounded like that was a good idea. Some uneven moments crept into the voice here and there as Don José, although he still had the goods for a mostly polished performance of "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée." Soprano Janai Brugger was not as free and pure on the high notes of Micaëla as best suits the character's innocence, and Michael Todd Simpson had an extremely off night as Escamillo, singing out of tune and often not really reaching either low or high notes. The robust Mercédès of mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano stood out in the supporting cast.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s ‘Carmen’: Enlivening the familiar (Washington Post, September 21)

Philip Kennicott, The 2015-2016 Season begns at WNO (, September 20)

Alex Baker, Thank you for smoking (Parterre Box, September 21)

Jessica Vaughan, ‘Carmen’ at Washington National Opera (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, September 20)
Other than the flamenco dancers and some colorful costumes (designed by François St-Aubin), the production directed by E. Loren Meeker was fairly workaday, with abstract painted backdrops in lieu of sets for some of the scenes (designed by Michael Yeargan). The last act's arena was done cheaply but effectively as an audience stand that cut across the stage, where the chorus waved and cheered. In the third act, the smugglers make camp in a ruined church, with the vestiges of what looked like a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which might imply that the action has been transposed to Mexico. Superimposed on the image of the Virgin was a mysterious hand marked with symbols, probably meant to be a reference to the Tarot and palm-reading activities of Carmen and her compatriots, but looking to me like a Guidonian hand more than anything else.

It was surprising to see conductor Evan Rogister back on the podium after his somewhat shaky outing in Moby-Dick last season. Rogister's technique remains baffling to my eye, as he seems to conduct with his head, arms, and shoulders simultaneously, sometimes in different tempi. The frenetic style of gesture did little to unify the performers, either in the pit or on the platform, leading to a couple near-disasters in big choral scenes. Rogister and Meeker chose to use some of the spoken dialogue and some of the later recitatives, all in French, with the aim of keeping the drama moving. Any impetus gained was counteracted by Rogister's tempo and rubato choices, which dragged out many parts of the score.

This production runs through October 3, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Some performances feature a second cast, whom we will review later this week.

Recommended Recordings: "Vienna Philharmonic @ Grafenegg /"

...I’d say something about the Vienna Philharmonic having Haydn in their blood, except I don’t think they play Haydn that much more or better than other large philharmonic orchestra and certainly their Haydn discography is small and spotty. It’s just that on this occasion they were fresher, the strings more together, the execution tighter, and the tempos more appropriate than with the BSO earlier. Granted, there was a little too much pleasantness here, also, especially in the sticky-boots Minuet, but not to a debilitating degree...

Full review on


Perchance to Stream: Pontifical Edition

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

  • Listen to music of Dutilleux, Poulenc, and Strauss performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Maîtrise de Radio France under the baton of Mikko Franck for the season opener. [ARTE | France Musique]

  • The season opening concert of the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Daniele Gatti, featuring Beethoven's violin concerto (wtih Sergey Khachatryan as soloist) and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. [France Musique]

  • Semyon Bychkov leads the season opener of the Vienna Philharmonic, with music of Haydn, Wagner, and Franz Schmidt (the second symphony). [ORF | Part 2]

  • Stéphane Denève opens his first season with the Brussels Philharmonic, with music by Rouse, Franck, Connesson, and Debussy. [RTBF]

  • Angela Denoke, Michael Nagy, Katerina Tretyakova, and Stephanie Houtzeel star in a performance of Heinrich Marschner's Hans Heiling, conducted by Constantin Trinks last weekend at the Theater an der Wien. [ORF]

  • From La Chaise-Dieu the Basel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Julia Schröder, perform arias by Lully, Handel, Porpora, and Leo with countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. [France Musique]

  • Music of Giacinto Scelsi (Yamaon) and world premieres by the Ensemble C Barré, recorded at the Festival de Chaillol. [France Musique]

  • Patricia Bovi leads Micrologus in a performance of music from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, recorded earlier this month in Liège for the Nuits de Septembre. [RTBF]

  • The Graz Philharmonic plays music of Mozart, Hérold, and Beethoven at the Internationales Musikfest Schloss Eggenberg in Graz. [ORF]

  • Jérôme Correas leads the ensemble Les Paladins, with soprano Sandrine Piau, in arias and dance music from the operas of Rameau, recorded last month at the Innsbruck Early Music Festival. [ORF]

  • The Trio Frühstück plays piano trios by Schubert and Haydn at the Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt. [ORF]

  • From the Grafenegg Festival, Matthias Pintscher leads the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich in music by Pintscher, Dukas, and others. [ORF]

  • Michel Tabachnik says farewell to the Brussels Philharmonic, with a performance of Bruckner's seventh symphony, recorded last June. [RTBF]

  • From a concert recorded last month, Daniel Harding leads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in music by Dvorak and Mozart, with Kristian Bezuidenhout as soloist. [RTBF]

  • Two older concerts by the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France and Mikko Franck, with Magnus Lindberg's clarinet concerto (recorded in 2003) and the first act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, featuring Nina Stemme and Christian Franz (recorded in 2012). [France Musique]

  • Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony and Scriabin's second symphony, recorded last spring. [CSO]

  • Pianist Muye Wu plays a recital of music by Chopin at the Festival Les Pianos Folies au Touquet. [France Musique]

  • Johannes Fritzsch leads the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Haydn's Harmoniemesse, as well as music by Mozart and Schnittke. [ABC Classic]


BSO, Now with More Cowbell

available at Amazon
Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie, London Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink
(LSO Live, 2010)
Charles T. Downey, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra finds its rhythm in Thursday’s concert (Washington Post, September 19)
After lackluster season openers last week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra season truly got under way with its first subscription concert Thursday night at Strathmore. Music director Marin Alsopm fresh from conducting last weekend's Last Night at the Proms, finally returned to the podium, along with the news that she will step down as music director of California’s Cabrillo Festival next summer.

British-born composer Anna Clyne’s introduction to her piece, “Masquerade,” was even more concise than the work, a five-minute wild rumpus... [Continue reading]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Anna Clyne: Masquerade
Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (with Olga Kern)
R. Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie
Music Center at Strathmore

Tim Smith, Alsop opens BSO subscription season with return to 'Alpine Symphony' (Baltimore Sun, September 19)

David Rohde, Pianist Olga Kern and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, September 18)

Charles T. Downey, Renée Fleming in Recital (Ionarts, February 25)

---, Philippe Jordan's Strauss (Ionarts, June 26, 2010)


For Your Consideration: 'Une nouvelle amie'

François Ozon's new feature Une nouvelle amie is perfectly timed. The story, about a young woman who discovers that her best friend's husband wants to become a woman, resonates in the post-Caitlyn Jenner era. At the same time, it is bracing to see the transgender issue from outside the American context, where a politically correct sanctimony, so perfectly satirized this week on the television show South Park, makes discussion impossible. In fact, transitioning from male to female may indeed be ridiculous, it may alienate one's friends and family, and it may even destroy one's life. Nonetheless, it is the only possible option for some people.

Ozon drew the idea, quite loosely, from a lurid short story written by Ruth Rendell in the 1980s, where the transgender issue is presented from a sort of horror-story perspective. Some of that uneasy quality is transferred to the female character, Claire, played with prim androgyny by Anaïs Demoustier (Belle épine) as someone who is uncomfortably close to her childhood girlfriend Laura (Isild Le Besco). When Laura dies, Claire cannot seem to go on, but her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz, from The Princess of Montpensier), tries to get her to heal by helping out Laura's husband, David, and infant daughter. The four friends are BCBG (bon chic, bon genre) to the max, living in American-style McMansions in the wealthy far exurbs of Paris, and it is a shock when Claire finds David dressed in Laura's frock and a blond wig.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Hollywood Reporter | Washington Post
Variety | Los Angeles Times | A.V. Club

This is where the movie became so weird and absurd, so infatuated with its own kitsch, that I almost stopped watching. Actor Romain Duris, whom you may recall as one of the students in Cédric Klapisch's L'auberge espagnole or in the title role in Laurent Tirard's Molière, is not bad in drag. Claire helps David sort out his feelings about becoming a woman, on shopping excursions and most memorably at a drag show one weekend (featuring the 1970s pop song Une femme avec toi, sung by Nicole Croisille, which apparently became a French gay anthem). What kept me watching was Ozon's directorial tics, swerving between his tendencies as a filmmaker, alternately towards screwball comedy (Potiche) and psychological thriller (Dans la maison). While not a good film exactly, it is at the least an unusual one, albeit with some explicit sexual themes that may make some viewers uncomfortable.

This film opens today at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.


Briefly Noted: Kraggerud's 'Equinox'

available at Amazon
H. Kraggerud, Equinox, H. Kraggerud, Arctic Philharmonic

(released on September 11, 2015)
Simax Classics PSC1348 | 72'58"
Washingtonians may remember Henning Kraggerud the performer, last heard here as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The Norwegian violinist is less familiar in his other role, that of composer. In this new release on the Simax Classics label, he performs as soloist in his new composition, a set of four violin concertos called Equinox. Twenty-four short movements, divided into four six-movement concertos, are given titles of cities around the world, one in each time zone, starting in Greenwich, England (UTC), and proceeding east hour by hour (Prague, Alexandria, Baghdad, etc.) to reach Horn, Iceland, almost back to the same time zone (UTC -1).

Kraggerud's music is also organized according to the twenty-four chromatic key areas, following the cycle of fifths, beginning in C major, then moving down a fifth to F major, by way of F major's relative key, D minor, and so on. This order also puts each concerto's final movement into the parallel minor of its first movement's key, setting a darkening tone as the piece progresses. This progress from parallel minor (sixth movement) to relative major (first movement of the next concerto) brings the cycle to a somber end at A minor in Iceland, switching from key signatures with flats to those with sharps as the path crosses the International Date Line. In this way, the key centers of movements 1 to 12 are, respectively, a tritone away from those of movements 13 to 24, and Kraggerud relates the musical material from each piece in the first half to its "tritone variation," as he puts it. At the end of the voyage, Kraggerud closes with a piece in C major, ironically called Overture. Equinox also has a curious subtitle, "24 postludes in all keys," perhaps indicating that the work may be running in reverse.

The narrative program of Equinox is found in a mini-short story in the booklet, written by Jostein Gaarder and Kraggerud, that provides some, slightly mystifying explanation. "I am supposed to write about this spring equinox," the narrator states, relating "a small sample from each of the time zones" to the twenty-four musical keys. He has had a neurological exam and, waiting for news about whether he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, begins a voyage around the world on the same trajectory as the musical work, led by "a man of short stature dressed in black" and carrying a flashlight. The United States is featured in three movements: Santa Barbara (E major), New Orleans (A major), and New York (B minor).

It should be obvious by now that the style of the work is quite intentionally tonal, with some chromatic coloration in most of the movements but in general quite old-fashioned harmonically. That tendency is not necessarily a fault, depending on your musical inclinations: with each of the movements kept brief and concentrated, there is enough melodic and textural variation to keep the ear occupied. Rather than introduce obvious musical regionalisms, Kraggerud relies instead on the qualities often associated with key areas, drawing upon ideas and quotations from Rita Steblin’s book A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Kraggerud is polished and mercurial on the solo parts, and the chamber orchestra of the Arctic Philharmonic, an ensemble based in northern Norway, matches him step for step.


Fragonard Still Naughty

The Musée du Luxembourg in Paris is opening an exhibit on Fragonard tomorrow called Fragonard amoureux, galant et libertin. An article by Frédéric Lewino (Visitez avant tout le monde l'exposition libertine de Fragonard, September 15) for Le Point has a video that includes many of the paintings in the show (my translation):
A worthy son of his century (the licentious 18th), "Le divin Frago" loved to depict country affairs with a saucy brush, inspired by the poissarde (lower class) literary genre. According to one witness, the artist supposedly declared, in typical southern eloquence, "I will paint with my ass."
In addition to his famous "intrigue paintings," Fragonard made illustrations for erotic stories, including the Contes by Jean de la Fontaine, tales that take quite a different tone from that author's celebrated fables. The exhibit brings together sixty-three works and remains open to the public through January 24.


For Your Consideration: 'Deux jours, une nuit'

available at Amazon
Two Days, One Night, by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who form a writer-director team, had good critical attention once again at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Their 2014 film Two Days, One Night played earlier this year at Landmark's Bethesda Row and again, on Tuesday night, on the French Cinémathèque series at the Embassy of France. Like most of their films, including their most recent Le gamin au vélo, this film focuses its lens on the less than glamorous working neighborhoods of Wallonie.

Leadership at Solwal, a company that makes solar panels, has laid off one of its workers, Sandra, played with gritty beauty by Marion Cotillard. The Dardennes' script slowly reveals the details: Sandra was on medical leave because she suffers from depression, and while she was gone her boss discovered he could run his shop with one less salary to pay. The workers voted to accept a thousand-euro bonus in return for agreeing to Sandra losing her job, but Sandra's friend in the group has convinced the owner to allow the group to vote again, to give Sandra a chance to speak to them. Sandra has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so she can have her job back.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | The New Yorker | Washington Post | NPR
Christian Science Monitor | Los Angeles Times | Wall Street Journal

It may not seem like enough to sustain a viewer's interest over an hour and a half, but Cotillard and the Dardennes' script make this unlikely story compelling. Cotillard is as plain as possible, with no makeup, discount store clothes, and her hair unstyled. Sandra struggles to make it through her day, sleeping late and popping Xanax after Xanax. The lingering symptoms of depression make it difficult for her even to fight for the chance to hold on to her job. Her gentle husband, Manu, played by Fabrizio Rongione in a way reminiscent of Daniel Auteuil, does his best to keep her on task, because his salary at a fast food restaurant only goes so far and their two children are worried that their mother will be "sick again." The stories of the coworkers make you realize that this whole community is hurting, and that theme is personal for the Dardennes: they grew up in Seraing, where some of the locations in the film were shot.


Susan Graham Celebrates Vocal Arts D.C.

available at Amazon
Berlioz, Les nuits d’été, S. Graham, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, J. Nelson
Charles T. Downey, With lissome French and a premier, Susan Graham sings a fine program (Washington Post, September 13)
Gerald Perman founded the Vocal Arts Society in 1990, and it is still going strong under the name Vocal Arts D.C. American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who gave her first Vocal Arts recital in the organization’s first decade, was back Saturday night to celebrate the start of its 25th-anniversary season. Her sold-out recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater featured a world premiere, by American composer Jake Heggie, and some of Graham’s signature French repertoire.

A switch of the program put the French half first... [Continue reading]
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) and Jake Heggie (piano)
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


Perchance to Stream: Jonas Kaufmann 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.

  • Jonas Kaufmann sings his first Andrea Chénier, recorded last January at Covent Garden, with Eva Maria Westbroek, Željko Lučić, and conductor Antonio Pappano. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a recital by Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch, with songs by Liszt, Mahler, Duparc, and Richard Strauss, recorded at the Vienna Musikverein in 2012. [France Musique]

  • Jonas Kaufmann, soprano Daneille De Niese, and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor star in the Last Night of the Proms, conducted at the Royal Albert Hall by Marin Alsop. [RTBF]

  • Watch Stefan Herheim's production of Puccini's La bohème, recorded in Oslo. [ARTE]

  • From the Chorégies d'Orange, Roberto Alagna and Marie-Nicole Lemieux star in Verdi's Il Trovatore, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. [RTBF]

  • Semyon Bychkov conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in symphonies of Brahms and Schmidt, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Frank Peter Zimmermann plays the Brahms violin concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mariss Jansons. [ARTE]

  • From the Internationale Haydntage, Adam Fischer leads the Österreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie and Wiener Kammerchor in Schubert's music for Rosamunde, Haydn's Te Deum, and other works. [ORF | Part 2]

  • The Auryn Quartett, Hugo Wolf Quartett, and violinist Carolin Widmann perform chamber music by Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Thomas Daniel Schlee, recorded at the Musiktage Mondsee. [ORF]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Daniel Harding leads the Vienna Philharmonic, with tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and baritone Matthias Goerne, in the Austrian premiere of Olga Neuwirth's Masaot/clocks without Hands and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, recorded last May. [ORF]

  • Watch the soprano Sophie Karthäuser join the Orchestre Baroque du Conservatoire de Bruxelles for music by Haydn at the Musiq’3 Festival. [ARTE]

  • Christian Tetzlaff, Hanna Weinmeister, Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, Alois Posch, and pianist Martin Helmchen perform chamber music by Schubert and Dvorak at the Schwarzenberg Festival. [ORF]

  • Listen to many rounds of the ARD International Music Competition from Munich. [BR-Klassik]

  • Simon Rattle leads the Berliner Philharmoniker and pianist Lang Lang in music of Grieg, Korngold, and Rózsa, recorded last June at the Waldbühne. [ORF]

  • Andrew Litton conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music of Nielsen and Ives. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Music of Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky performed by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • L'Arpeggiata and Voces 8 perform Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Utrecht Early Music Festival. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • Cellist Daniel Müller-Schott makes his debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit. [ABC Classic]

  • Listen to the second act of Tristan und Isolde, with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, plus Stefan Vinke, Linda Watson, and Michelle DeYoung, recorded in 2014. [CSO]

  • Vasily Petrenko leads the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia and pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in music of Prokofiev and Schumann, recorded at the Grafenegg Festival. [ORF]

  • Richard Tognetti leads a performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with music by Brahms and Mozart. [ABC Classic]

  • Andreas Staier joins the Freiburger Barockorchester for music by Telemann, Bach, Fasch, and Zelenka, recorded last August in Warsaw. [ORF]

  • Watch the final rounds of the Honens Piano Competition in Calgary. []

  • Robert Trevino conducts the Sinfonia Varsovia in Mozart concertos at the Festival International de Piano de la Roque d'Anthéron, with Jean-Claude Pennetier as soloist. [France Musique]

  • Music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky at the Lucerne Festival, with conductor Claudio Abbado and pianist Hélène Grimaud, recorded in 2008. [ARTE]

Recommended Recordings: "Boston Symphony @ Grafenegg /"

...It’s almost impossible to ruin this work, and the Boston Symphony certainly didn’t, getting plenty, if slightly lukewarm applause. But this wasn’t “Boston-Symphony-Good”, some of which the band had apparently shown in their Salzburg performances – and which needs to be “Knock-Your-Socks-Off Good”… it was merely an afterthought. Pity, really. Perhaps the orchestra was tired, at the back end of their tour, or Andris Nelsons distracted by negotiations to succeed Riccardo Chailly as next music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Full review on