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


Phillips Camerata Marks the Phillips Terquasquigenary

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (inter alia), Orchestra of St. Luke's, R. Craft
Charles T. Downey, Phillips Collection reproduces 1941 inaugural concert of weekly series (Washington Post, May 31)
The Phillips Collection presented its first public concert in 1941. On Sunday afternoon, the museum marked the 75th anniversary of its weekly concert series by reproducing the music played at that first concert, a program of pieces for two pianos. The Phillips Camerata, the venue’s resident ensemble, performed some of the pieces in the same format and others in expanded arrangements.

Pianists Audrey Andrist and Lisa Emenheiser played the ­two-piano pieces, and previous partnerships together, for the 21st Century Consort, gave them a solid ensemble footing. The daunting technical challenges of Saint-Saëns’s “Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 35,” were not exactly smooth in this performance, but the duo never played it safe, perhaps taking the funeral march variation a tad too fast to savor its harmonic vagaries... [Continue reading]
Phillips Camerata
With Audrey Andrist and Lisa Emenheiser, pianists
Phillips Collection


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…After a master-class tour of the Who’s-Who of late-baroque/post-baroque composers – Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Adolph Hasse, C.P.E. Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann – the aspiring composer Johann Gottfried Müthel settled in Riga with his new-won skills and composed. But, in his own words, only when he was in the mood. He didn’t think much of working for work’s sake or whenever anything but fully inspired and convivial. Sounds as prototypical romantic as impractical an attitude to have. J.S. Bach and P.G. Wodehouse would certainly have disapproved and look where steady hard work has got them!…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Post-Baroque Sluggard Demi-Genius

Gordon's 'Van Gogh'

available at Amazon
M. Gordon, Van Gogh, Alarm Will Sound
(Canteloupe, 2008)
Charles T. Downey, A ‘Van Gogh’ opera without the video
Washington Post, May 30

When Michael Gordon premiered his opera “Van Gogh” in 1991, performances were accompanied by an Elliot Caplan video. When presented without the video, as in a concert by the Great Noise Ensemble on Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the work comes across more as a static song cycle than an opera. The effect is the same as on the recording made by the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, released by the Cantaloupe Music label in 2008.

Gordon set to music several disjointed passages from Van Gogh’s letters, which give a psychological portrait of the Dutch painter. Soprano Lisa Perry, tenor Michael Dodge and baritone Andrew Sauvageau gave voice to the artist’s observations, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in solo moments... [Continue reading]
Michael Gordon, Van Gogh
Great Noise Ensemble
Atlas Performing Arts Center


Perchance to Stream: Memorial Day 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.

  • For the opening of the Festival de Saint-Denis, Mikko Franck leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a performance of Mahler's third symphony. [ARTE | France Musique]

  • In case you missed it, listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Strauss's Elektra, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a cast starring Nina Stemme (Elektra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra), and Eric Owens (Orest). [Ö1]

  • From the Wiener Konzerthaus, the Belcea Quartet plays chamber music by Beethoven, Webern, Brahms, and Britten. [France Musique]

  • Antonio Pappano conducts a concert with cellist Jan Vogler and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, in music of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Rossini. [France Musique]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, a concert by Daniil Trifonov as soloist in Liszt's first piano concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under Manfred Honeck. [Ö1]

  • Listen to a 1977 recording of Handel's Alexander's Feast or The Power of Musick, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading Concentus Musicus Wien. [Ö1]

The Sounds of Korngold

Discographies on ionarts: Bach Organ Cycles | Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycles I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX | Beethoven Symphony Cycles Index | Beethoven String Quartet Cycles | Bruckner Symphony Cycles | Dvořák Symphony Cycles | Shostakovich Symphony Cycles | Sibelius Symphony Cycles | Mozart Keyboard Sonata Cycles

Today is Korngold's 119th Birthday, so to go along with the birthday tribute over on as well as the chapter in Surprised by Beauty 2, I’ve put together a list of what I think are essential (and non-essential, but beautiful) Korngold works – and my favorite recordings thereof:

Let’s start with the perennial favorite (and favorite to sneer at):


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The three Schumann String Quartets (op.41/1-3) are not as present on the recital- or recording scene as one might assume, given the fame of the composer and the relative popularity of the genre. We notice this when there comes a recording our way – as seems to happen every decade or so – that turns our heads and makes us go: “Woha! Right – those works!”

The last time that has happened, it was the Zehetmair Quartet on ECM who delved into these works (Nos. 1 & 3, but not 2) and came out convincing winners in 2002. Before that, I suppose it was the Guarneri- and then the Melos Quartet’s recordings in the late 70s and late 80s, respectively, but even those haven’t consistently stayed in print. This recording with the French Quatuor Hermès (formed in 2008 at the Lyon Conservatory) is the newest in this line…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Once-In-A-Decade Schumann

McGegan's B Minor Mass

available at Amazon
G. B. Stauffer, Bach: The Mass in B Minor
(Yale University Press, 2003)
British early music conductor Nicholas McGegan has been guest conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra every year since 2012. He has made his name mostly in the United States, as music director of Philharmonia Baroque in California, although he is a frequent guest with other ensembles, including having led the NSO Messiah in 2014. His latest project with the band from Charm City is Bach's B Minor Mass, which he conducted on Thursday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, reportedly the first performance of the work by the ensemble in decades.

Washington certainly has no shortage of performances of the B Minor Mass, and in more historically informed versions. Although Joshua Rifkin's assertion that this work and others by Bach should be performed with one singer on each part has not been widely accepted, most scholars agree that the performing forces were modest. Bach specialist George B. Stauffer, who has published a fine book on the B Minor Mass, estimates that Bach destined the work for a chorus of ten to fifteen singers and an instrumental ensemble of twenty to twenty-five players, the forces used in most of our favorite recordings. McGegan compromised at about sixty singers (drawn from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society) and thirty-some instrumentalists, reduced forces certainly but with the acoustic demands of a larger hall in mind.

Tom Hall is stepping down this year after a distinguished career leading the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. That may be one reason why significant problems plagued the ensemble's accustomed clarity of intonation (especially in the soprano sections, who often trended flat) and well-aligned coordination, which may be due to some occasionally frenetic shifts of tempo from McGegan. Perhaps it was because the full ensemble was not present, perhaps it was because they sang in mixed formation: whatever the reason, the success of the B Minor Mass rests largely on the chorus, and this had some effective parts but was underwhelming as a whole. Masaaski Suzuki had greater success with the University of Maryland Concert Choir last year.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A concert mass gets an intimate performance (Washington Post, May 28)

Tim Smith, BSO offers Bach's B minor Mass in style (Baltimore Sun, May 28)

David Rohde, Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Choral Arts Society (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, May 27)
The solo quartet featured especially fine work from bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who was outstanding in the "Quoniam tu solus" section of the Gloria, with a few minor struggles at the top in the "Et in spiritum sanctum" movement of the Credo. Soprano Yulia Van Doren melded well with light-voiced tenor Thomas Cooley, while generally overpowering countertenor Christopher Ainslie, who had the least satisfying sound of the quartet. The timbre of countertenor can work with a boy treble or a lighter soprano in this work, but with a full-bodied voice like Van Doren, it did not.

The playing from the selected members of the BSO was generally polished, with McGegan helping to keep the balance with the singers at the proper level. Excellent solos came from flute and horn principals, with Katherine Needleman standing out on both oboe and oboe d'amore. Although the instruments and pitch were all modern, including the electronic Allen organ for the continuo, McGegan included some aspects from historical research, such as using the articulation marks from the 1733 Dresden orchestral parts, partly written by Bach himself. Still it was hard not to miss the rougher edges of historical instruments, like the sometimes bumptious corno da caccia.

This concert repeats tonight, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

CD Review: Mayr's 'Saffo'

available at Amazon
J.S. Mayr, Saffo, A.L. Brown, J. Yun, Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Simon Mayr Chorus, Concerto de Bassus, F. Hauk

(released on January 8, 2016)
Naxos 8.660367-68 | 121'24"
Charles T. Downey, CD Reviews: Johann Simon Mayr
Washington Post, May 27

Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) composed more than 70 operas, which early music specialists are now rediscovering and recording. Born in Bavaria, Mayr composed his first attempt at opera, “Saffo ossia I riti d’Apollo Leucadio,” in 1794 for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

Mayr settled in Bergamo in 1802, studying with the music director of the city’s cathedral, whom he would eventually succeed. He remained there the rest of his life, composing a copious amount of church music but also symphonies, chamber music and operas. Mayr is perhaps best remembered for having plucked a young boy named Gaetano Donizetti from obscurity in his adopted city to become one of his students.

“Saffo’s” libretto by Antonio Simeone Sografi embroiders on the story, almost certainly invented, of the death of Sappho, the renowned poet of ancient Lesbos. In love with a hunter named Phaon, who is mourning the death of his wife, Sappho goes to Cape Leucadia to visit the temple to Leucadian Apollo. From high on the white cliffs, those accused of crimes were sometimes made to leap into the sea 200 feet below, as a way to prove themselves innocent or cleanse themselves of burning passion, if they survived.

Andrea Lauren Brown, a soprano from Wilmington, Del., brings a strong mixture of vocal colors to the demanding role. There is occasional stridency at the top of her voice, but Brown excels in slow arias such as “Soave, dolce, cara è la morte” (death is gentle, sweet, and dear) in Act II. The role of Phaon, created for castrato Girolamo Crescentini, here is performed beautifully by the Korean soprano Jaewon Yun.

The mezzo-soprano Marie Sande Papenmeyer brings a solid chest voice to the role of Apollo’s consecrated prophetess, the Pythia, at the center of an agitated prophecy scene in Act II, while soprano Katharina Ruckgaber and tenor Daniel Preis have fine supporting turns as friends of Sappho.

Franz Hauk plays the harpsichord for recitatives and conducts the instrumentalists of the Concerto de Bassus, an ensemble devoted to the resurrection of Mayr’s works, joined by the Simon Mayr Chorus and members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus.

The singular nature of this world premiere recording excuses its few shortcomings, including tenor Markus Schäfer, too often shy of the mark in terms of intonation as Sappho’s fellow poet Alcaeus of Mytilene.

In love with Sappho himself, Alcaeus tries to stop her from making the Leucadian leap but ultimately steps aside in favor of Phaon, who comes to his senses and brings Sappho back from the edge of disaster.


A less than tamed 'Shrew' at STC

Maulik Pancholy (Kate) in Taming of the Shrew
(photo courtesy of Shakespeare Theater Company)
In the last few years, local theaters have staged Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew several times. In the fall of 2009, the Shakespeare Theater Company mounted its take on this man-vs-woman “comedy” for its annual “Free for All” production. In 2012 the Folger Shakespeare Library produced a well-received “western” version of this often disagreeable text, winning the 2013 Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Resident Play. Now the Shakespeare Theater Company has a new staging. One might go into the production asking, Why choose this vexing play again?

Upon entering the lobby of Sidney Harman Hall, it became clear that the artistic team sought to bring Shakespearean conventions to the forefront of not only the play, but the entire theater. With the all-male cast wandering the lobby, playing music and conversing with audience members, director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has succeeded to some extent in creating something like Padua, where the play takes place. As the houselights dim the cast all take part in an opening song providing vocals with live instrumental music on stage. Once the opening number ended, though, the productions lost its focus.

The world of the play is visually glamorous. The inconsistencies, namely in costume design, make it hard for the reality of the play to set in. The scenic designer (Jason Sherwood) offers a clever golden tower on a rotating stage, which allows for simple, seamless transitions and provides choreographer Chase Brock a lovely playground. The actors follow suit with well-paced scene work that allows the many sub-plots to be woven into one grand story.

Sadly, the actors' hard work is squandered on the attempt to make this play a musical. Perhaps seeking out a unique voice to tackle the problems provided by the play, Iskandar, composer Duncan Sheik, and arranger David Dabbon create giant gaps between scenes and fill the gaps with music and lyrics that only warp the characters into something that goes against the original text. The two handfuls of original songs are full of contemporary, ambiguous lyrics somewhat reminiscent of Sheik's well-known original score for the Tony-award winning musical Spring Awakening. However, unlike Sheik’s Broadway hit, this production lacks any type of contextual unity binding the lyrics of the songs and the words of Shakespeare’s text, breaking up the otherwise successful scene-work.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Shrew’: An all-male muddle (Washington Post, May 25)

Missy Frederick, Shakespeare Theatre Company's All-Male Shrew is Sincere and Stunning (DCist, May 25)
The fun and playful acting is the breath that drives this otherwise lacking production. The quick-paced verse works nicely and is showcased best by the “Shrew” Katherine (Maulik Pancholy) and the “Tamer” Petruchio (Peter Gadiot). When the music and repetitive choreography are stripped away, the production is left with the original text. This is when the play is fun but also extremely powerful and Pancholy displays a masterful understanding of the character Katherine. The sharp-tongued character is easy for Pancholy but so also are the moments of vulnerability which allows this production to keeps its head just above water.

The Taming of the Shrew runs 3 hours and 5 minutes including a 30-minute “intermezzo.” The production continues through until June 26 at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.


Promising New Quartet by Lembit Beecher

available at Amazon
Schubert, String Quartets 9/14 ("Der Tod und das Mädchen"), Quatuor Mosaïques
(Alliance, 2010)
Charles T. Downey, The Diderot String Quartet wins some converts
Washington Post, May 26

The idea of hearing a string quartet play in Washington National Cathedral sounds crazy, but the building’s semi-enclosed Great Choir provides quite a backdrop for a series of chamber music concerts. The young Diderot String Quartet, formed in 2012, offered a pairing of contemporary and romantic quartets there on Tuesday evening, and while the seconds-long acoustic ring was still audible, one had enough nearness to the sound to have an intimate experience of it.

Lembit Beecher’s “Small Infinities,” a Diderot Quartet commission, was the more pleasing contemporary half... [Continue reading]
Diderot String Quartet
Music by Schubert, Lembit Beecher
Washington National Cathedral

Anne Midgette, You be the critic: Lembit Beecher's new trio (Washington Post, April 5, 2012)


Tara Erraught Sings Ireland

Charles T. Downey, Audience can’t help but show its appreciation for Irish song and opera
Washington Post, May 25

The Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 festival continued Monday evening with a performance by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who provided the substance of a recital of Irish song and opera in the Terrace Theater, supplemented by tenor Anthony Kearns in some lighter fare.

Erraught may be familiar to D.C. audiences from her charming Washington National Opera debut last year in Rossini’s “Cinderella.” She brought similar vocal fireworks to “Non v’e donna sulla terra,” an aria from “Falstaff,” an Italian opera by Irish composer Michael William Balfe (1808-1870). The musical style is pure Rossini, whom the composer, also an opera singer, was close to in Paris, but it’s filtered through an Irish lens... [Continue reading]
Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano) and Anthony Kearns (tenor)
Ireland 100 Festival
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Charles T. Downey, Mezzos alternate to fine effect in D.C. (Classical Voice North America, May 13, 2015)


The Proverbial Fat Lady Sang

Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) in Siegfried
(photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)
Washington National Opera's first complete Ring Cycle came to a fiery conclusion this weekend. Musically so many things were excellent in this production, beginning with Philippe Auguin's revolutionary reading of the scores. The final performance of an opera's run is often a special night in the theater, charged with extra emotion as the performers go the extra mile and leave some blood on the stage. This was true of all four of the last Ring performances, given an extra bump of energy by the new Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. By the end of the last Götterdämmerung on Sunday evening, we were all more than a little sad to realize that it was all over.

Stemme's characterization of Wotan's renegade daughter, vocally and physically, was remarkable, a photon of girlish energy that became warmer and more powerful as hour succeeded hour. Her Siegfried, the outstanding Daniel Brenna, responded to her in new and striking ways, too, making the end of Siegfried on Friday night the most memorable of the three cycles. The joy of youth and laughter bubbled through their ecstatic duet at the close of Act III, as they pushed each other to new heights vocally. One could only treat this perhaps silly moment with utter seriousness as a result.

The sincerity of that moment made the crushing betrayal of the final opera all the more tragic, as Stemme experienced all the emotions of the Siegfried duet in reverse, first in the chilling end of Act I of Götterdämmerung -- the darkest moment in the cycle, with music that incarnates the evil of Siegfried's action -- and Brünnhilde's later realization of Siegfried's deception. The standout performances in the cast remained the same throughout the three cycles: the volcanic Erda of Lindsay Ammann (also memorable as the First Norn), the fluttery Forest Bird of Jacqueline Echols, and the long-awaited and triumphant debut of Jamie Barton (as both the Second Norn and Waltraute).

Sometimes multiple viewings of a new opera production cause me to change my opinion of the staging for the better. Inevitably, you see things the second and third time around that you did not see on opening night, or you understand the director's ideas from a new angle. To my surprise, the reverse happened with Francesca Zambello's American Ring Cycle, as what I had found intriguing or at least passable the first time around bothered me more and more. My disappointment did not stem from the transposition of time or location, as long as the meaning of Wagner's libretto and music remained legible in the scenery and action. The Valkyries as WWII WASPs worked because the Valkyries were still landing on the rock as brave warrior maidens.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Charles T. Downey, Das Rheingold (May 2) | Die Walküre (May 4) | Siegfried (May 6) | Götterdämmerung (May 7)

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)

Charles T. Downey, One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All (Ionarts May 17)

Cycle III: Anne Midgette, The Three Sopranos, “Ring” style (Washington Post, May 19)

--- and Philip Kennicott, A historic ‘Ring’ at a historic moment: Two critics’ thoughts (Washington Post, May 23)

Charles T. Downey, WNO 'Ring' Cycle III: Nina Stemme (Ionarts, May 20)

Alex Baker, A choice, not an ecosystem (Parterre Box, May 26)
In Götterdämmerung, the staging came off the rails because Zambello forced her political message too far to the forefront, at increasing odds with the music and text, which no staging can silence. The place naturally to assert the theme of environmental damage is in the Norn scene, where the Norns sing about how they used to spin by the World Ash-tree. When Wotan cut off a branch to form his spear, they say, the tree withered and the waters dried up in the spring that fed it. Wotan orders the branches stripped away and placed as logs, ready for the burning at the end he knows is inevitable. Instead Zambello turned that prelude into the business with the fiber-optic cables.

Zambello instead forced her environmental theme on the transition music for Siegfried's journey down the Rhine, where in the accompanying videos the water dries up and the river is replaced by images of a strip mine. This is so audibly in opposition to the beauty of the music, which does not turn dark until the opening of Act I, that it just made no sense. Nowhere was this problem more evident than the final scene of Götterdämmerung, where Zambello makes a wholesale replacement of Wagner's libretto and tries to shoehorn the music into her political theme, as the oppressed women of the Gibichungs establish a gynarchy, suffocating Hagen with a plastic bag, and a girl plants a tree.

Unfortunately, Wagner's music tells you exactly what is supposed to happen, what is written in the libretto. Brünnhilde sings the Liebeserlösung theme, hearkening back to Sieglinde's ecstatic recognition of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, as her last expression of love before she throws herself on the pyre and ignites the flames. The Rhinemaiden music is heard as they reclaim the Ring; the curse theme as Hagen becomes the last victim of the curse. We hear the Valhalla music because the last thing we are supposed to see is Valhalla ("in which gods and heroes sit assembled, just as Waltraute described them in the first act," Wagner writes) being engulfed in flames, with the Liebeserlösung soaring in the violins as Brünnhilde's love burns in the fire ("helles Feuer das Herz mir erfaßt," she sings). There are echoes of Wotan's farewell from Die Walküre ("Leb wohl!") in the orchestra, and then the curse is broken musically, with the curse theme played incomplete in a triumphant moment. As the fire burns, the last theme heard is that of Brünnhilde's love, finally completing what her father could not.

In all three performances of Götterdämmerung, Catherine Foster (Cycles I and II) and Nina Stemme (Cycle III) seemed to fall short, not able to power the scene to its expected heights. At the end of Cycle III, it became clear to me why the musical performance seemed to fall short but in fact had not. The fault was not in the orchestra, the conductor, or the two sopranos: it was in the visual element. The temptation to mess with the ending of this opera has brought more than one director to a bad end, and it did here, too. The failure of that final scene and of most of Götterdämmerung was due to Zambello's mishandling of the staging.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane & Sock Monkeys

This post, originally published on WETA’s blog on September 15th, 2007, has been resuscitated to go along with upcoming Korngold-posts on ionarts and that honor the composer’s 119th birthday.

available at Amazon
Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane,
Berlin RSO / J.Mauceri / Soloists
Decca 829402

“Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s three act opera Das Wunder der Heliane is arguably the composer’s greatest work.” This is the opening line of Brendan G. Carroll’s extensive and helpful liner notes to the only recording of this opera – just re-released on Decca/Philips’ budget “Classic Opera” series. (A series distinguished by the very laudable inclusion of such texts and the libretti!) The German translation of the text goes even further and declares it “without a doubt the composer’s greatest work”.

That’s saying quite a bit about a work that has never been much more than a side note in the history of German 20th century opera and one that – apart from the immediate aftermath of its hailed 1927 premiere – could probably be considered a failure.

And yet, hearing the work one is bound to agree with the Korngold Society President, his eager translator, and Korngold himself, too, who thought Heliane his finest work. Never before and never thereafter has the Zemlinsky-student Korngold (1897 – 1957) achieved the profundity he reaches in his fourth (of five) opera. There are many touches that remind of Richard Strauss’ Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), and Die ägyptische Helena (1928).

The Wunderkind years produced marvelous (if slight) chamber and orchestral pieces which had him hailed as the next great composer, a titan on par with Mozart or Beethoven. Of course it didn’t quite turn out like that – and he ended up writing film music for Hollywood. Much regarded then and now famous-again scores such as “Captain Blood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. Lovely stuff but, well… still film music when all is said, told, and listened to.

His well known, if not often performed, opera Die Tote Stadt (1920) is full of loveliness, of course, but not so much a better work than Heliane as it is an ‘easier’ one. The former has the catchier tunes, the greater hits (“Mariettas’ Lied” – the duet cum Soprano aria – most notably), and a longer successful run in opera houses around the world. But Heliane, more taxing and demanding with its polytonal harmony and more ambitious than sweet, strikes as a much more satisfying and deeper work.

When it came out, however, it was immediately embroiled in the culture war of the time in which young Korngold was pitched (not the least by his father, a prominent Viennese music critic) against more modern composers. And compared to Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová (1922), Schoenberg’s Erwartung (1924), Berg’sWozzek (1925), Hindemith’s Cardillac (1926), Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927), and especially Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (1927), Korngold’s opera does seem hopelessly (now: charmingly) outdated. Even if it is none the less wonderful for it, it is harmonically less daring even (or elegantly elusive) than Franz Schreker’s sublime Die Gezeichneten (available on DVD in a tremendous and disturbing production from Salzburg) or Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande – notably operas from 1902 and 1911, respectively. More French, but also similar, is the 1907 opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas (more of which in another post). The similarity with the latter is not too surprising: Korngold, coy or blunt, said he’d copied from no other opera as much as Dukas’.

Das Wunder der Heliane is not only a victim of the musico-political (and then political – as it was considered Entartete Kunst and banned under the Nazis) fights of its day. It is also hampered by a modest libretto and odd story. Not speaking German is no disadvantage to the enjoyment of this opera! Heliane offers a rich score, thick with eroticism, busy and shrill at times, luscious and elegant elsewhere… and three hours of that.

Why Sock Monkeys?

When this post was originally written (for WETA 90.9), it served as a tie in with a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming, in which she was going to sing the “Ich geh’ zu Ihm” aria from the above work, along with other rarities such as an aria from Korngold’s last, even less known opera, Die Kathrin:

…Add to that Mozart, Suppé, Waltz-Strauss, and music from Strauss’ second (justly unknown) opera, Die Feuersnot (“Fire Famine”).

It’s a curiously interesting program – looking a little like a hodgepodge of music, but an attractive one. The center of gravity of the concert meanwhile is Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Soloist – I’m not making this up – “Peng Peng”. China’s latest-latest, 14-year old ivory smashing prodigy. Type “Peng Peng” into Google and you’ll find he’s already replaced “Peng Peng Bears & Sock Monkeys©” from the top position. (I’m not making that up, either.) I don’t know if you feel like you can’t miss our-all-favorite Renée (ever charming in concert, if you’ve seen her in either of the last two seasons) or Peng Peng Gong. But you definitely shouldn’t miss Korngold.

A small survey of Korngold recordings can be found here: The Sounds of Korngold.
An essay on Korngold and his father can be found here on on May 29th

Use of Sock Monkey picture kindly tolerated by Peng Peng, the Sock Monkey artist lady.


BSO Ends Up All Wet

We have been fans of John Storgårds, who recently concluded his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, since his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011. The Finnish conductor's debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, was less auspicious. The fault was not with the conducting, which was incendiary in a house-crushing performance of Holst's The Planets, but with the programming, which opened with Tan Dun's pedestrian Water Concerto.

When the Chinese composer hit the big time, winning the Grawemeyer Award in 1998 for his opera Marco Polo, his use of Chinese instruments in works for European orchestra was revolutionary. Over the last twenty years, though, he has not had a great track record, often recycling similar ideas over and over. Christopher Lamb, principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, worked with the composer to create the range of water-based percussion used in the Water Concerto, premiered in 1998. Lamb returned to play it this week over a decade since his last BSO appearance, in 2003, when he also played -- you guessed it -- Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Lamb, assisted by two percussionists, bowed and splashed their way through the piece, using waterphones and a range of other objects splashed and submerged in big plastic bowls of water. (For long stretches, it was maddeningly repetitive, making me think of the gross Robot Chicken skit embedded below.) The woodwinds made duck calls with their mouthpieces, there was an erhu-like solo for the principal cellist, and largely heterophonic writing brought little of interest in harmony or orchestration. The effect could be achieved much more inexpensively with a small ensemble, rather than using up a symphony orchestra's time.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Storgards makes brilliant BSO debut (Baltimore Sun, May 21)

Joan Reinthaler, ‘Water Concerto’ splashes eloquently onto the BSO stage (Washington Post, May 23)
The string of world premieres, commissioned by the BSO for its 100th anniversary season, continued with a new piece by Libby Larsen, Earth (Holst Trope). It was created to fill a misunderstood lacuna in Holst's The Planets, which is not about the planets as heavenly bodies, but about their influence on humanity through astrology, meaning that Earth is not really germane (nor is Pluto for that matter). A Space Age vocabulary of sounds in a triple-meter pulsating texture was pleasant enough, until Larsen wove a cantus firmus into the piece, the hymn tune usually sung to the words "For the Beauty of the Earth." It was a gesture that unfortunately recalled P.D.Q. Bach's use of the tune Jesus Loves Me, This I Know in Iphigenia in Brooklyn.

The last time that we heard the BSO play The Planets, in 2008, there was a similar confusion about the piece. Unlike Alsop's interpretation back then, Storgårds clearly saw his targets and helped the orchestra hit all of them: the col legno strikes in the strings and apocalyptic brass in the death march of Mars, but with plenty of quiet space in the Mercury movement for the delicate solos of celesta, piccolo, English horn bass oboe, and others. Holst's piece is a manual on devastating orchestration, imitated for decades by John Williams and other film composers, and the comparison to the Tan Dun Water Concerto on the same program was damning.


Perchance to Stream: Twilight of the #DCRing Edition

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

  • Listen to a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt from Westminster Abbey, with James O'Donnell leading the Westminster Abbey Choir and St James's Baroque. [BBC3]

  • Semyon Bychkov leads a performance of Wagner's Parsifal starring Detlef Roth, Christian Elsner, Evgeny Nikitin, Anja Kampe, and others, from the Teatro Real in Madrid. [Radio Clásica]

  • Watch a recital of chamber music for soprano and strings with soprano Anna Prohaska recorded at the Schwetzingen Festival. [ARTE]

  • Antonio Pappano conducts Mahler's sixth symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra, plus Shostakovich's first violin concerto. [BBC3]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's ninth symphony, recorded at the Musikverein. [ORF]

  • From the Royal Festival Hall in London, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a Stravinsky program, including the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Agon, and the Rite of Spring. [BBC3]

  • Jukka-Pekka Sarasate leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a concert of music by Magnus Lindberg, including his violin concerto with Simone Lamsma. [France Musique]

  • Music from 16th-century Bruges, by Adrian Willaert, Jean de Castro, Philippe de Monte, Thomas Crequillon, and others, performed by the Ensemble Doulce Mémoire. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Mahler's second symphony, with Vassily Sinaisky conducting the BBC Philharmonic, soprano Olena Tokar, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, and the CBSO Chorus. [BBC3]

  • Daniel Harding leads the Orchestre de Paris in Mahler's fourth symphony, plus Isabelle Faust in Berg's violin concerto. [Philharmonie de Paris]


#morninglistening: Stravinsky Does Himself Edition - Petrouchka

He must get a chapter in the next edition of #SurprisedByBeauty.

WNO 'Ring' Cycle III: Nina Stemme

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, San Francisco Opera (photo by Cory Weaver)

In most regards, Washington National Opera's first complete performances of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen have been an astounding success for the company. By the time the first cycle got under way, two weeks ago, tickets had been sold out, in spite of a pricing protocol that raised the prices higher than normal due to the demand. A few days before the start of Cycle III, with Das Rheingold on Tuesday night, some standing room tickets went on sale at the not particularly bargain price of $50 per opera; they also sold out in almost no time. It has been exciting to see the Kennedy Center Opera House full and abuzz at these performances, and I have been to all of them except the second performance of Das Rheingold. The excitement will have to tide us over through the lackluster lineup recently announced for next season -- three over-performed chestnuts, the jazz piece Champion, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, last heard from Baltimore Opera in 2006.

With the third performance of Die Walküre on Wednesday came the cycle's third Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Fresh off a triumphant run as the title character in Strauss's Elektra, which ran through May 7 at the Metropolitan Opera, Stemme reverted easily to the role in which she triumphed in San Francisco in 2011. The differences with her two predecessors this month began with her wig, red rather than platinum blond, but really boiled down to an effervescent quality announced immediately when she bounded on stage. Lifted up by Alan Held's Wotan in a bear hug, she kicked out her legs high in the air and later even bounded onto the board room table. Diminutive in stature, this was a girlish, pixie Brünnhilde, with a voice that started slowly, a little hesitant in the early high notes of the first scene, but then blossomed into an extraordinary sound.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Charles T. Downey, Das Rheingold (May 2) | Die Walküre (May 4) | Siegfried (May 6) | Götterdämmerung (May 7)

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)

Charles T. Downey, One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All (Ionarts May 17)

Cycle III: Anne Midgette, The Three Sopranos, “Ring” style (Washington Post, May 19)
A special energy suffuses the final performance of an opera's run, and one sensed many in the cast going for broke in a way that is not usually heard earlier in a production. Elizabeth Bishop made me forget any misgivings I had about her Fricka earlier in the run, as she cowed Wotan with her withering glance and powerful voice. David Cangelosi remains a spastic but effective Mime, and William Burden's vivid performance of Loge ranks up there with Heinz Zednik's puppet master Loge in Patrice Chéreau Centennial Ring Cycle and Loge zipping around on a Segwaytype scooter in the staging with La Fura dels Baus.

Alan Held understands the role of Wotan very well and acted it quite beautifully, particularly pathetic in the farewell to Brünnhilde this time around. Parts of the role in terms of pitch and volume he could only approximate, though, earning a loud ovation nevertheless for the strength of his characterization. The other shortcomings in the casting -- Gordon Hawkins's Alberich, both Donner and Froh -- remained shortcomings, especially the Fasolt of Julian Close, who still could not find the beat or the exact pitch very well. Fortunately, so many other parts of the casting, including the Rhinemaidens, the Erda of Lindsay Ammann, the Freia of Melody Moore, and the parachuting Valkyrie ensemble, remained excellent throughout all three cycles. Philippe Auguin, who has already performed the cycle many times, carefully considered every aspect of these scores, with gorgeous results in the sound. Das Rheingold was almost perfect this time around, while the new energy of Stemme seemed to throw off the concentration of both conductor and orchestral musicians just a bit here and there in Die Walküre.

Cycle III continues tonight with Siegfried.


#morninglistening: Asger Hamerik - Surprised By Beauty Material

He must get a chapter in the next edition of #SurprisedByBeauty.


Reader Comment: 'Second Opinion: Ring Cycle'

We received the following long comment from reader Dennis Teti, in reaction to Robert R. Reilly's review of Washington National Opera's Ring cycle, which we publish separately here.

Robert R. Reilly’s review of the Washington National Opera’s Ring of the Nibelung is on the mark. I have seen the Ring cycle in three different versions over the years (including Herbert Von Karajan’s), plus the earlier WNO performances under the baton of the late Heinz Fricke. I was deeply impressed with the balance of powerful voices and magnificent orchestra under both Fricke and Phillippe Auguin.

As musically satisfying as this “American” version is, director Francesca Zambello’s botched misconception of Wagner’s intention is both ugly and insolent.

For example, I had thought the final “Immolation” scene of Twilight of the Gods, focused on the transcendent farewell of Brünnhilde, could not be spoiled. Yet Zambello managed to make a travesty of it, distracting attention from the suffering heroine with a cast meandering around, hurling plastic garbage bags from the back of the stage, and the Rhinemaidens joyfully executing a hooded Hagen down stage. Valhalla with the gods in flames was never seen, but a mysterious little girl with a small potted plant emerged from somewhere. In Wagner’s conception, nature is restored by the cleansing of the overflowing river as the maidens capture the fateful ring from Hagen.

Ring Reviews:

Cycle I: Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)
The Ring cycle is replete with Wagner’s thoughtful musical and representational symbolism. Yet the director superimposed her own alien ideas on the final visual and throughout. Maybe she thought History has moved beyond Wagner, so we should as well. I found it almost repulsive — even more so because Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde was glorious, perhaps the best I have ever heard.

The director has a right to her ecological viewpoint, but by turning the Ring into propaganda, she despoiled Wagner’s myth. Zambello took a beautiful work of creative nature, Wagner’s incomparable telling of the ultimate things — nature, will, gods, good and evil — and made it ugly, a pollution of art as much as the belching smoke she depicted is a pollution of nature. This was not an “environmental allegory,” it was an act of artistic spite.

#morninglistening: Stravinsky Does Himself A Fairy's Kiss


One Brünnhilde to Rule Them All

Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) and Alan Held (Wotan) in Die Walküre (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The second cycle in Washington National Opera's first complete production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen ended in flames on Sunday night, reviewed by Robert R. Reilly. A quirk of fate meant that Cycle II was the first complete performance by Catherine Foster in the crucial role of Brünnhilde. The British soprano had injured her foot during rehearsals, leading to a completely unexpected but delectable substitution in the role by Christine Goerke in Die Walküre in Cycle I. Foster has sung the role many times, more than once at the Bayreuth Festival, but this was her debut in the role in an American production, as described in a preview article by Adam Wasserman in Opera News (By Way of Bayreuth, April 2016).

Goerke's presence infused Cycle I with a burst of energy, and although Foster was still hesitant physically when she took the stage in the last two operas, she was extremely strong of voice. In Cycle II Foster continued to gain confidence in her movements, although she did not jump on any tables in Die Walküre (as pictured above at the dress rehearsal). Vocally she reached her peak at the conclusion of the Cycle II Siegfried, the ecstatic duet scene with the man who breaks through the ring of fire to awaken her. That climax was almost matched by the bloodthirsty vengeance with which she attacked the end of Act II in Götterdämmerung, followed by a mysterious slackening of vocal strength in the final act, not to say total collapse by any means, but lacking the oomph one was hoping for from her final moments on the stage this season.

Other Reviews:

Cycle I: Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Cycle II: Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung' (Ionarts, May 16)
Foster shared some of her thoughts about the role with that Opera News interviewer, and some of it came across in her performances the last two weeks, that "Wagner wrote for three different vocal types." Die Walküre, she said, "was intended as a speaking-singing type of thing," likening it to "chit-chat and discussion." Goerke, perhaps because she was brought in to sing only Die Walküre, went for broke in a way that Foster did not. Siegfried, written after the break to compose Tristan is, by contrast, "as lyrical as you could possibly get. You have to get the light colors to convey the lyricism." The part also lies much higher, the part of her tessitura where Foster really excels, with her chest range sometimes going slightly pale.

With WNO's third performance of Die Walküre, we will have our third Brünnhilde. As originally planned, Nina Stemme takes over the role in Cycle III, which opens this evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on the reviews of her 2011 cycle in San Francisco, the third Brünnhilde could be the best.

#morninglistening: Beethoven Re-Issued

AMong the Best Recordings of 2015 (#7)


Second Opinion: WNO Re-Cycle of 'The Ring of the Nibelung'

Gordon Hawkins (Alberich, center), David Cangelosi (Mime, right), and Nibelungs in Das Rheingold,
Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

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

Until now, I have never seen Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through. I’ve only experienced some of the individual operas. I decided to approach the production of The Ring of the Nibelung by the Washington National Opera (cycle II: May 10, May 11, May 13, and May 15) cold turkey. I did not want to carry in any preconceptions, though I had heard it has a modern setting. I was hoping that this production, ten years in the works, would not be as misguided as the one I partially experienced back in the late 1980s when Deutsche Oper Berlin brought its Ring to the Kennedy Center as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. (How nice that the GDR did not live long enough to celebrate its 50th.) Its Ring was set in an underground subway station. Go figure, though the gray drabness comported with my experiences in East Germany.

I did not emerge from the experience of this Ring unscathed. First, I should generally state what went exceptionally well: the splendid singing and the superb orchestral playing, under conductor Philippe Auguin. That’s a lot; it puts us two-thirds of the way to a big success. One could’ve shut one’s eyes and been perfectly happy throughout (as I would be with a live recording of what I heard). The problem with the final one-third of the formula was the overall conception of the production. Famously, George Bernard Shaw argued that the Ring was Wagner’s attack on capitalism. His thesis gained at least some plausibility from the fact that Wagner was a socialist, though we may be grateful that Shaw did not mount a production of the Ring based upon his interpretation (though others have).

But was Wagner an environmentalist? Would he have recycled? This may seem an exceedingly silly question, and it is. However, Francesca Zambello's production posed it, and answered in the affirmative. Kip Cranna writes in the program notes, the “theme of mankind’s devastation of nature is of course extraordinarily relevant to our own time, and the Washington National Opera production vividly reflects that.” The problem is whether it was relevant to Wagner. Had it been so, Wagner could have cast his conception in its terms, but he did not. (In fact, it is non-humans who cause the destruction in the Ring, not humans.) Is that because Wagner was limited to and by his own times? Any good German historicist would say that this was so and suggest that this is why Wagner needs to be made “relevant” to us, who, after all, live in our own times. In other words, to buy fully the premise of this production one should be an historicist. Wagner cannot be understood on his own terms, but only on ours. I find this approach condescending both to Wagner and to ourselves.

I think it has also shaped a somewhat schizophrenic production that is occasionally painful in its inappropriateness and in its obviousness. Why schizophrenic? Because when the production is not straining against the mythical quality that Wagner strove so hard to give the Ring (including with his deliberately archaic German, rendered in completely prosaic English in the super titles), the production works very well, indeed. When it insists upon superimposing its modern environmental relevance upon it, it comes up a stinker. It takes us from the mythic to the mundane. The scenes or acts least affected by the production’s misconceptions go best because they have nothing to distract from the singing and the music. In fact, they often enhance them. I hope to make this clearer as I briefly give some examples through the four operas, without recounting much in the way of plot, which can be easily found elsewhere.

For instance, the opening scene of The Rheingold is very successful. It does not try to locate itself in America (where apparently this Ring takes place) or anywhere else for that matter – its ambiguity allows for the mythical. The back projections of falling water are majestic and the river is imaginatively rendered. The Rhine maidens are well portrayed, and the fact that Alberich shows up in a vaguely modern miner’s outfit needn’t cause any disquiet.

The next scene is a disaster. Wotan, ruler of the gods, is introduced lying on a lawn-furniture chaise lounge on a terrace somewhere in the mountains. He is wearing riding jodhpurs and a double-breasted jacket – what looks like a late 1920s movie director’s outfit. In fact, his stock gestures seem to be out of a silent movie. The rest of the gods and goddesses are also in 1920s garb. The theatrical body language of Wotan’s introduction leaves him so diminished that I thought his character would never recover sufficient stature to carry off his role in the remaining operas. (He did, but not till The Valkyrie.)

#morninglistening: Bach Sublime


#morninglistening: Polish Goodies from Berlin

On Forbes: Boston Symphony Orchestra & Andris Nelsons in Vienna

Boston Symphony's Gift To Mahler In Vienna

…As always with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in combination with Andris Nelsons, expectations are extremely high – even or especially after they were somewhat disappointing when I heard them last summer at Grafenegg. (Forbes review here.) The opening, especially that cor anglais (courtesy Robert Sheena) gorgeously emerging with lots of personality from a sweet swell of strings, was most auspicious. Not just for the coherence and sweep, but especially for the well-shaped many little climaxes that didn’t overly tax the acoustic of the Golden Hall which might be famous but is hardly a natural fit for the really big romantic repertoire. Many – most – visiting orchestras struggle, but the BSO this night kept it perfectly within the limits. Overly picky ears might have pointed to peaks of volume reached in the third movement (Rondo-Burleske), as going to the limit of what the hall can comfortably handle. But then again this movement, “very defiant”, is not primarily meant to be comfortable.

Hungry Bears and Blauer Portugieser

What distinguishes the Ninth Symphony from its ten siblings – making it unique in that sense among Mahler’s symphonies – is its sense of calm and contentment. Granted, there’s still a good deal of the usual Angst and those twisted question marks in the first movement, where hints of music-on-the-edge-of-the seat (foreshadowing the Tenth Symphony) pop up to screaming…

Continued at

Perchance to Stream: Ring Cycle 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.

  • Roger Norrington leads the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with Philippe Cassard in Mozart's 22nd piano concerto. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto recorded at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [ARTE]

  • Paul Agnew leads Les Arts Florissants in a concert of music by Monteverdi, Pallavicino, and de Wert, recorded at the Philharmonie de Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with the Orchestra of the 18th Century and Cappella Amsterdam. [AVRO Klassiek | Part 2 | Part 3]

  • A performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust with the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris, starring Sophie Koch (Marguerite), Jonas Kaufmann (Faust), and Bryn Terfel (Méphistophélès) and conducted by Philippe Jordan. [ORF]

  • Watch a Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini's Turandot recorded at the Arena di Verona in 2010, starring Maria Guleghina and Salvatore Licitra. [ARTE]

  • The Regensburger Domspatzen perform sacred music of Haydn with L'Orfeo Barockorchester, recorded at the Tage Alter Musik in Regensburg. [BR-Klassik]

  • Watch Tugan Sokhiev lead a concert by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester with cellist Gautier Capuçon in Berlin. [ARTE]

  • The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, under conductor Herbert Blomstedt, performs Beethoven's second symphony and Sibelius's second symphony, in a concert recorded last December in Leipzig. [ORF | Part 2]


#morninglistening: HIP Goodness in Haydn

Delightful but Slava holds up surprisingly well, too.