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


Messiaen's Alpine Retreat

Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992, was buried near his vacation house on the Lac de Laffrey in the Isère, where he composed most of his major works. In his will, Messiaen asked that this residence be made into a place in honor of his music, and now it will serve as a "little Villa Médicis in the Alps," with space for five artists to stay there. An article in Le Figaro (La maison de Messiaen deviendra une «petite villa Médicis des Alpes», June 29) has the details (my translation):
The three small white buildings with blue shutters will be inaugurated on July 1, 2, and 3 with a series of concerts. The residence "will be able to receive a string quartet who might come to prepare for a concert, or a composer, or an ornithologist, because Messiaen was a bird lover, going so far as inventing a system to transcribe their songs, which still remains a secret," explains Bruno Messina, general director of the Isère artistic agency that will manage the establishment.

Far from being anything like the sumptuous Renaissance palace of the Académie de France in Rome, the Messiaen house is "the anti-villa Médicis," says Messina. Significant work, costing 1.2 million euros and financed by the composer's estate, was carried out to solidify the foundations, to decorate the ceiling with images of bird, and to create three rehearsal studios. Very modern and well lit, the rooms have been cleared out of the kitschy bric-à-brac and religious objects beloved by the composer.
This sanitizing of Messiaen's Catholicism is wrong-headed, as the faith is inextricable from Messiaen's music, but critics do it all the time, too. The plan is to leave the property, where Messiaen sat every morning to make his birdsong recordings, otherwise as natural as possible, with the proximity to the Lac de Laffrey, tall trees and other plants, and views of the Taillefer and Chartreuse massifs. The opening concerts will include 14 short performances of Messiaen's music, all free, recalling the Stations of the Cross, followed by a concert in the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Salette, with Roger Muraro on piano and Nathalie Forget on Ondes Martenot, coinciding with the 170th anniversary of the Marian apparition there.


Briefly Noted: Grimaud's 'Water'

available at Amazon
Water, H. Grimaud

(released on January 29, 2016)
DG 0289 4793426-4 | 57'03"
Hélène Grimaud was last in Washington in 2008, to play Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra. This recent release is partially a live recital program on the theme of water in music, which she played in several places, captured here at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2014. In between these tracks -- by Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Albéniz, Ravel, Liszt, Janáček, and Debussy -- are ethereal "transition" pieces, recorded last summer by Nitin Sawhney. In these brief, mostly electronic pieces, Sawhney creates soundscapes on keyboard, guitar, and computer, including some pre-recorded sounds of water.

The live version of this recital, reviewed in the New York Times, sounds much more interesting than the result on disc. A collaboration with artist Douglas Gordon and lighting designer Brian Scott, the concert was staged in a pool that slowly filled with water over the course of 20 minutes: "Then, the lights darkened until the hall was almost completely dark. You heard the subdued sloshing of someone walking on the flooded space: Ms. Grimaud, of course." Some of the repertoire choices are perhaps too obvious (Ravel's Jeux d'eau, Liszt's Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este, Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie), making Grimaud's renditions of Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II and Berio's Wasserklavier stand out from the crowd. A Fauré barcarolle and Janáček's In the Mists seem like stretches thematically, especially when there are choices like Ravel's Ondine, Scriabin's second sonata, and Debussy's Poissons d'Or. That last one was reportedly Grimaud's encore at some performances.


À mon chevet: 'Dante: il romanzo della sua vita'

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

book cover
Leonardo Bruni wrote that Dante "enjoyed music and sounds" and was the only early biographer to add: "and he drew excellently by hand." It is no surprise that Dante was a competent musician. The writings of thirteenth-century Italian lyric poets circulated almost always by being read or recited and not, as the Provencal troubadours did, through sung performances with musical accompaniment, but there was still a practice of "clothing" poetry with notes. Dante makes several references to his lyric compositions having musical accompaniments, and there is a scene in Purgatorio where the musician Casella (about whom we know nothing, except that he was a friend) sings his canzone Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona (Love that discourses on my mind).

The act of drawing is quite another matter. Bruni doesn't say that Dante was a connoisseur or a cultivator of the fine arts but that he himself practiced it. He could have taken the information that Dante painted, or rather drew, from the paragraph of the Vita Nova in which he describes the day of the first anniversary of Beatrice's death, June 8, 1291, when thinking of the lady's blessed soul, he sat in an unspecified place drawing "an angel on certain tablets." He was concentrating so much on this task that he didn't realize certain distinguished gentlemen had approached and were observing him. When he noticed their presence, he stood up and greeted them but then, once they had left, returned to "drawing figures of angels." At first sight it might seem no more than an invention, but even if this were not the case, it certainly can't be assumed that these things happened at the time and in the way that Dante describes.

Yet the use of the technical words "tablets" (tavolette) is striking. Toward the end of the 1300s, the painter Cennino Cennini, a pupil of Agnolo Gaddi, wrote a practical treatise on the various techniques of drawing and painting in which, having established that "the basis of art ... is drawing and coloring," he exhorts a prospective pupil to begin by drawing, and says that this practice begins with drawing in tavolette. This consists of drawing using a "stylus" of "silver or brass" on wooden boards properly "plastered" with a layer of "well-ground bone." Here it seems as though Dante is describing himself carrying out this preliminary exercise -- an exercise which we should not imagine, in modern fashion, as being done in the open air. It would be more reasonable to think of him sitting in a closed, or semi-closed, surrounding which may have been a workshop (of a painter or apothecary). But since medieval workshops opened onto the street, the distinguished gentlemen could have easily observed him. Besides, if even respectable city figures could see him at this work without finding it unusual, this means that Dante regarded it as more than a simple impromptu leisure activity: would he have portrayed himself as a "sketcher" if he wasn't known for such activity or practice?

-- Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life (trans. Richard Dixon), pp. 77-78
We have a bit of a Dante obsession here at Ionarts. Marco Santagata, who recently posited the identity of Elena Ferrante as Naples university professor Marcella Marmo, is a professor of Italian literature at the Università di Pisa. His recent biography of the author of the Commedia draws together the archival evidence about Dante's life, wrapping it around a close reading of all of his works to glean the biographical details. While there are many things about Dante's life we just cannot know for certain, he brings to bear much about the lives of the people who figure in his works, like Guido da Montefeltro, Pope Boniface VIII, Beatrice Portinari, Guido Cavalcanti, Brunetto Latini, the nephew of Farinata degli Uberti, and the father and lover of Francesca da Rimini. There is also more information about the Guelf-Ghibelline politics of the city of Florence than most people probably need to know, but the portrait of Dante that is revealed -- his familiarity with music and drawing, for example -- is a rich one.


Who Is Elena Ferrante?

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Elena Ferrante's books have been high in our estimation at Ionarts. While the Italian author, whoever she is, has become extremely popular reading in the United States, she has met with less enthusiasm in France, where her Neapolitan novels have not been fully translated into French yet. Suspicions about Ferrante's real identity are running high in France, where the idea that she is the pseudonym of a male writer has taken root. The latest example is an article by Delphine Peras (Elena Ferrante, énigme littéraire fascinante, June 26) in L'Express (my translation):
In the era of unbridled narcissism, where the quest for celebrity has become a universal truth, here is a case completely counter-cultural: Elena Ferrante is at once a writer beloved throughout the world (more than 2.5 million copies sold, with translations in 42 countries) and the nom de plume of a writer about whom we know nothing. Or almost nothing. No photos, no media interviews, no signing sessions, no participation in a festival somewhere. She has never shown herself. She or he? For some suspect a man is hiding behind this pseudonym. [...]

Other indications have filtered through: originally from Naples and born at the start of the 1940s, like her narrator, a college graduate, she supposedly lived abroad, especially in Greece. But the mystery endures, and as her success grows, journalists are proposing other trails: in Italy, some believe the author is none other than Domenico Starnone, writer and screenwriter, also Neapolitan, born in 1943, well well... Winner of the Strega Prize, the equivalent of the Goncourt, he is notably the author of Lacci, which supposedly has strange similarities, in style and story, with Ferrante's I giorni dell'abbandono.

Unless it is his wife, Anita Raja, a translator of German, a discrete person, and even on the editorial staff at E/O [Ferrante's publisher]. The managers of the company have denied it in vain, the hypotheses are multiplying: a long article by Marco Santagata, published in March in Corriere della Sera, suggests that behind Elena Ferrante hides one Marcella Marmo, a university professor in Naples, a student at the prestigious Scuola Normale in Pisa in the 1960s, like Elena Greco. Denied again, by both the writer in question and the editors, the only ones to know the identity of the unknown author.
How long before someone tries to hack into the publishers' computers to uncover the identity of Elena Ferrante? Whoever she is, we are looking forward to reading her Frantumaglia: An Author's Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings, which will be published in the United States this November.


Perchance to Stream: End of June 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.

  • From St John's Smith Square, Paul McCreesh leads a performance of Haydn's The Seasons, in a new English translation, with the Gabrieli Consort and Players and soloists led by soprano Carolyn Sampson. [BBC3]

  • From the Lyon Piano Festival, music for two pianos by Mozart, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Ravell with Martha Argerich and friends. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, starring Véronique Gens and Nicolas Rivenq, with Jean-Claude Malgoire conducting La Grande Ecurie and la Chambre du Roy at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • The Jerusalem Quartet begins its 20th anniversary series at Wigmore Hall with music by Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms. [BBC3]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Wiener Philharmoniker in music by Webern and Bruckner. [Ö1]

  • Watch Daniele Gatti direct music of Verdi in Parma, for the 200th anniversary of the composer's death, recorded in 2013. [ARTE]

  • Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Prokofiev and Beethoven, plus Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire with pianist Kirill Gerstein, recorded last December. [CSO]

  • Dance music and arias from Rameau's Dardanus and Pigmalion, with Michi Gaigg leading L'Orfeo Barockorchester, soprano Dorothee Mields, and tenor Anders J. Dahlin, recorded last month at the Barocktage Stift Melk. [Ö1]

  • The New York Philharmonic performs Mozart's last three symphonies, with Alan Gilbert at the podium. [NY Phil]


Saturday Opera: 'La Bohème' from Liège

Puccini, La Bohème
Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège (Paolo Arrivabeni, conductor)
Production directed by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera

Patrizia Ciofi (Mimi)
Gianluca Terranova (Rodolfo)
Ionut Pascu (Marcello)
Alessandro Spina (Colline)
Laurent Kubla (Schaunard)
Patrick Delcour (Benoît)


Christo's 'Floating Piers'

As his first solo work after the death of his wife, Jeanne-Claude, Christo has installed The Floating Piers, a floating dock covered with yellow fabric in Lake Iseo, which is about 100 kilometers east of Milan. As Wired reports, it is something of an engineering marvel. Through July 3, visitors can view it from the mountains surrounding the lake, and they can walk on the work from Sulzano to Monte Isola and to the island of San Paolo. In less than a week since its opening, the work has received 275,000 visitors, which is causing some concern about the stability of the floating material, as Philippe Ridet reports (On se bouscule (trop) sur les pontons de Christo, June 23) for Le Monde (my translation):
The expectation of 500,000 visitors through July 3, when the work will be taken down, will be easily surpassed. As a result, the pontoons -- 200,000 polyethylene cubes held together by 200,000 giant screws -- are wearing down much faster than Christo had thought, even if they are limited to supporting no more than 11,000 people at the same time. The security of people walking on them is maintained by 150 people on the passwalks at all times, as well as 30 master swimmers floating in the water. [...]

Access to the work will now be closed to the public from midnight until 6 am, to allow the little villages serving as departure and arrival points for the piers to clean up after the hordes of visitors, as well as to reset and rearrange the pontoons.
The surrounding areas are also feeling the effects of the success of the art work with visitors. The town of Brescia, from which the trains to Sulzana depart, saw a pile-up of 3,000 people on Wednesday because there were not enough train cars to move them. Some 400 of these stranded people took ill due to the extreme heat that has settled over northern Italy. The regional prefect has decided to halt train service to limit the crowding around the lake.


Briefly Noted: Weingartner's 'Die Dorfschule'

available at Amazon
Felix Weingartner, Die Dorfschule, C. Bieber, F. McCarthy, Deutsche Oper Berlin, J. Lacombe

(released on March 11, 2016)
cpo 777813-2 | 43'03"
Last week I wrote about Carl Orff's early opera Gisei, an adaptation of the Japanese play Terakoya (The Temple School). That live recording from the Deutsche Oper Berlin was made at concert where the Orff one-act was featured on a double-bill with this one-act opera by Austrian composer Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) on the same Japanese source work, created in 1920. Weingartner studied composition with Liszt in Weimar, and he had a successful career as a conductor, succeeding Mahler as director of the Vienna State Opera. The CPO label has been resuscitating his works on disc, including the symphonies and chamber music, and on the basis of this world premiere recording of Die Dorfschule, his operas will be worth the same effort.

Tenor Clemens Bieber brings gravitas and authority to the role of Matsuo, the servant of the murdered chancellor who sacrifices his own son to save the son of his lord. Weingartner writes beautiful, tense music to accompany Matsuo's examination of the box containing his own child's severed head, as he solemnly identifies it as the head of his murdered lord's son. American bass-baritone Stephen Bronk is slightly covered but still effective as Genzo, the schoolteacher, surprassed by the excellent mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova as Tonami, the schoolmaster's wife. Soprano Fionnuala McCarthy is equally strong as Schio, the mother who willingly offers her son to take the place of the chancellor's son, and baritone Simon Pauly is incisive and blustering as Gemba, the evil representative of the court.

Weingartner's libretto hews more closely to the Japanese source than Orff's, which uses a clumsy prelude to set the action, including keeping one of the students with a stutter. Weingartner's use of planing harmonic structures gives the score some exotic flavor, but the harmonic style will be easy to take by anyone who enjoys the operas of Wagner and Strauss. The orchestration has none of the eccentricities of Orff's score, but the more experienced Weingartner evokes a range of sounds with greater expertise. Jacques Lacombe leads another fine performance from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.


À mon chevet: 'Min Kamp 5'

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

book cover
Life at the institution was not only different from outside, time was too. Standing by the window and looking into the forest, I knew that if I had been there, sitting under a tree and looking over at these buildings, time would have been barely noticeable, I would have drifted as lightly through the day as the clouds across the sky, whereas inside the institution and looking out, time was much heavier, almost claylike, as though here it met obstacles and was always being forced to take detours, like a river traversing a plain before joining the sea, one might imagine, winding its way in countless labyrinthine, meandering bends. [...]

It was no surprise that time went more slowly there, it was a place where nothing was supposed to happen, where no progress was possible, you noticed that as soon as you entered, this was storage, a warehouse for unwanted people, and the notion was so awful that you did whatever was in your power to act as if this were not the case. The residents had their own rooms with their own possessions, which were identical to the rooms and possessions of people outside, they had meals together with their wardmates and caregivers, which was supposed to represent their family, and every day they went to "work." What they created there had no intrinsic value, the value lay in the fact that the work gave their lives a semblance of the meaning lives outside had. And it was the same with everything in their world. What they were surrounded by looked like something, and it was in that outward semblance that its value lay. This became clearest to me on the first Friday when I was doing the afternoon shift and the whole ward was going to a "disco" after dinner. It was to take place in a function hall in the district, a large room with tables and chairs in one half and a dance floor in the other. The lighting was muted, the windows were covered with curtains. Pop music blared out of the speakers, some Down syndrome residents moved back and forth on the dance floor. The place was full of wheelchairs everywhere, gaping mouths, rolling eyes. The residents of my ward sat around a table by the windows, each with a Coke. [...]

This was deeply disturbing. Disturbing because all these misshapen bodies and crippled souls who had been trundled into the discotheque -- the most important space for youth culture, created for dreams about romantic love, charged with the future and potential -- didn't experience any dreams, any yearnings, any electric charges, all they saw was hot dogs and soft drinks. And the music, which was meant to fill the body with joy and happiness, was only noise. When they danced it was just movements and when they smiled it was because it was a charade, now they were doing what normal people did. Everything was like the world as it was, but all the meaning had been stripped from it, and what was left was a parody, a travesty, grotesque and painful. [...]

The mist hung over the trees, the rain was heavy and pummeled the ground, which glinted in the light from windows and lamps. I stood outside the admin building waiting for Gunvor, who was coming to pick me up. The evening sky was gray and shambling, seeming to sink into the countryside. It was beautiful. The pavement was damp, the grass was damp, the trees were damp, and their greenery muted the gray but was still strong and bright. The forest of twisted limbs and disordered minds. With the lights from the windows and the silence among the trees it was as disturbing a place as it was appealing. Everything aroused ambivalence, nothing was clear cut: if all the routines and the slow rhythm in which everything happened occasionally caused me to collapse into a semi-apathetic tedium, it was still always mentally agonizing to be there as well. It was as though I was running and sitting still at the same time, my breathing was accelerated and my heart hammered wildly while the rest of my body was motionless. I wanted to be a good person, full of empathy for those worse off than me, but if they came too close, what I felt for them was contempt or anger, as if their deficiencies touched something deeper inside me.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle: Part 5, pp. 344-48
The most painful, riveting part of reading Knausgård's My Struggle is the unflinching openness of Knausgård's self-regard. He explores his vanity, self-loathing, and personal and professional failures with the same patient scrutiny: his first reading of Dante's Commedia; his youthful approaches toward the alcoholism that destroyed his father, and the multiple embarrassing and dangerous things he does when he is heavily drunk; the art book he looks at to masturbate; his adulterous affairs; and his many failed years completely stymied as a writer. When he lives in Iceland for a short time, he even ends up at a party in Björk's apartment in Reykjavik, where she sits playing tracks on her CD player and he almost throws up on her staircase. By far the most uncomfortable section in the five volumes of My Struggle I have read so far is the account of Karl Ove's time working in a mental health institution as a summer job, excerpted here. I had to put the book down several times during the course of these pages, roughly in the middle of the fifth book, but I could not stay away for long.


Fête de la Musique

Today is la Fête de la Musique, an annual tradition founded by French culture minister Jack Lang and now celebrated around France and throughout the world. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where there is music all day today (and no strikes), go listen. If not and you are a musician, set up with your friends on the front porch and play. If you are stuck on the computer most of the day, then go to, where all the videos are free in honor of the day, until midnight (European time). In just a couple hours, you can watch Glyndebourne's production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, directed by Annabel Arden and starring Danielle de Niese, Taylor Stayton, and Björn Bürger. Enrique Mazzola conducts the London Philharmonic.


18th-Century Fakes Uncovered

Le Figaro has knocked the arts and antiquities world for a loop by uncovering a "vast scandal" involving the sale of fake objects to museums and collectors. Last week two experts, Laurent Kraemer and Bill Pallot, were put under investigation. This week, it was Parisian collector Guillaume Dillée, arrested for his alleged role in passing off fakes as 18th-century furniture in a sale to the Château de Versailles reportedly worth 2.7 million euro. Valérie Sasportas reported the news (Scandale des antiquaires: un troisième grand expert mis en examen, June 18) for Le Figaro (my translation):
Contacted by telephone, Guillaume Dillée has not yet responded. But this news should resound like a new thunder bolt, because the man is a reference point. The representative of the third generation of a dynasty of historical furniture and art experts working at Drouot since the 1920s. On March 18, 2015, Sotheby's auctioned off the family's collection of furniture and art objects from the 18th century for 10.2 million euros. An amazing success for the expert, who had left three months earlier to relocate in Melbourne.
The danger of having an expert in historical art involved in such counterfeiting is that some of the fake objects were of such high quality that they had even been classified as "national treasures."


Perchance to Stream: Crooked Lake Edition

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

  • Christian Thielemann leads the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in Beethoven's third piano concerto, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, Strauss songs with Anna Netrebko, and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Ivor Bolton conducts a performance of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, starring Christopher Maltman, recorded in March at the Teatro Real in Madrid. [ORF]

  • The BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen, performs at the Aldeburgh Festival. [BBC3]

  • The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France closes out its season, with Mikko Franck with a program reflecting his first season with the ensemble, including music by Lindberg, Rautavaara, and Debussy. [France Musique]

  • Leonard Slatkin conducts a concert by the Orchestre National de Lyon, with music by Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, and Bruno Mantovani, including solos from Juliette Hurel (flute) and Renaud Capuçon (violin). [France Musique]

  • Music by Schnittke, Messiaen, and Shostakovich from the Orchestre National de France, with Andris Poga leading Fazil Say at the piano. [France Musique]

  • The Marian Consort and Berkeley Ensemble perform Lennox Berkeley's Stabat Mater at the Spitalfields Festival. [BBC3]

  • From the Wiener Festwochen, Cornelius Meister leads the RSO Wien in Mahler's seventh symphony and Rainer Bischofs Totentanz. [ORF]

  • The Ensemble Amarillis, with Héloise Gaillard and soprano Patricia Petibon, performs at the Barocktage Stift Melk. [ORF]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, a recital by pianist Adam Laloum, playing Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze and Schubert's B-flat major sonata. [France Musique]


CD Review: Gergiev's Scriabin

available at Amazon
Scriabin, Symphonies 1/2, E. Sergeeva, A. Timchenko, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, V. Gergiev

(released on May 13, 2016)
LSO Live 0770 | 91'09"

available at Amazon
[Vol. 1]
Charles T. Downey, CD Reviews: Scriabin, Symphonies 1 and 2, cond. Valery Gergiev (Washington Post, June 18)
Scriabin’s symphonies don’t get much play time these days. A 2014 performance of the fourth symphony (“Le Poème de l'extase”) by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a rare exception. Near the end of Valery Gergiev’s tenure as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Russian conductor led a cycle of live recordings of the Scriabin symphonies. After a first disc containing the third and fourth symphonies, the second volume, devoted to the first two youthful symphonies, was released in May. All were recorded in a three-concert series in 2014, which also included the only remaining symphony, “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire,” hopefully also to be released soon.

Scriabin wrote his first two symphonies within a couple of years of each other, between 1899 and 1902, when he was still in his late 20s. Anatoly Lyadov, to whom Scriabin owed much in his early career, conducted both of the premieres with some success. The young composer’s musical influences are still quite obvious in the first symphony: The first movement could serve as an entirely unneeded postlude to Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and the dance-like fourth movement recalls the ballets of Tchaikovsky, including a crazy duet for piccolo and glockenspiel in a fairy tale scene with flute and solo violin. The overwrought sixth movement often sounds like a bad Italian opera, with mezzo-soprano and tenor solos, here Ekaterina Sergeeva and Alexander Timchenko, belting out Scriabin’s own doggerel poetry. Lyadov was right to omit this movement from the first performance, over Scriabin’s objections.

The second symphony is more polished, even restrained by this composer’s standards, and one misses the quirkier edges of Scriabin’s musical eccentricity. Gergiev shapes some sweetly operatic moments, with generally fine playing by the members of the LSO, including ardent violin solos, paired with avian twittering of the flute in the third movement. In both symphonies, Gergiev remains close to the timings of Vladimir Ashkenazy's excellent Scriabin cycle, which remains the gold standard for the complete set. The most striking difference from Ashkenazy's interpretation is the second movement of the first symphony (“Allegro dramatico”), which Gergiev takes much slower than Ashkenazy, wringing the drama out of the score in ways other than a fast tempo.


Briefly Noted: Orff's 'Gisei' Lives Again

available at Amazon
C. Orff, Gisei — das Opfer, R. McKinny, U. Helzel, Berlin Deutsche Oper, J. Lacombe

(released on February 12, 2016)
cpo 777819-2 | 60'26"
The precocious Carl Orff completed an opera in 1913, when he was only 18 years old, but he never allowed it to be performed. This was long before the composer fell in with the National Socialists in Germany, an association that is enough to make my skin crawl when hearing his most popular work, Carmina Burana. The opera, Gisei — das Opfer (Gisei, the victim), did not see the light of day until 2010, in a world premiere performance at the Staatstheater Darmstadt. Orff was fascinated by Japanese theater from an even younger age, and he made this adaptation of a section from the Japanese play Terakoya (The Temple School), using a translation by Karl Florenz. This was less than a decade after the premiere of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, in 1904; there is even a humming women's chorus in the prelude to Orff's opera.

The play concerns an episode from the complex world of 9th-century Japanese politics. One of the two chancellors at the time is murdered by the other, his rival. Matsuo, an official devoted to the murdered man, hides away his master's son, Kwan Shusai, in the temple school in Seryo, where the schoolmaster, Genzo, adopts him as his own. Years later, when Matsuo and his wife, Chiyo, have also enrolled his their own son, Kotaro, who is the same age, in the school, imperial officials arrive to take away the chancellor's son. Bound by the code of honor to his dead master, the schoolmaster delivers the head of Matsuo's son to the emperor's men. Matsuo, who has the charge of confirming the identity of the severed head as that of the dead chancellor's son, looks on his own son's dead face and agrees that it is the head of the dead chancellor's son. When the schoolmaster goes to kill the dead boy's mother, to keep her silent, he learns that she gave up her son to the school, knowing that he would take the place of the chancellor's son.

This is a decade before the premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces, which had a strong influence on Orff's mature style, heard in the rhythmically charged choruses of Carmina Burana. Here Orff sounds keenly interested in Debussy, especially his settings of texts by Maeterlinck, and draws forth all sorts of delicate sounds from the amassed orchestra — yes, that is the sound of a glass harmonica you hear as the stars begin to twinkle at the end of the prelude, and there is are some striking solos from what sounds like a contrabass clarinet — to create a heavily charged atmosphere of raised eyebrows and coded betrayals. As heard in this recording, broadcast on Deutschlandradio from a performance at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin in 2012, the young Orff should not have been so harsh on his early work, which he disavowed. Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Helzel is magnificent as Tonami (the schoolteacher's wife), and soprano Kathryn Lewek is just as exceptional as Kwan Shusai (the Chancellor's son). Markus Brück thunders as Matsuo, the father of the murdered boy, while Ryan McKinny has the same limitations heard in his Gunther in Washington National Opera's Götterdämmerung last month. Jacques Lacombe leads the massive orchestra with a clear hand.


'His ides of March or June': Happy Bloomsday

book cover
A smile of light brightened his darkrimmed eyes, lengthened his long lips.
—The Greek! he said again. Kyrios! Shining word! The vowels the Semite and the Saxon know not. Kyrie! The radiance of the intellect. I ought to profess Greek, the language of the mind. Kyrie eleison! The closetmaker and the cloacamaker will never be lords of our spirit. We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar and of the empire of the spirit, not an imperium, that went under with the Athenian fleets at Aegospotami. Yes, yes. They went under. Pyrrhus, misled by an oracle, made a last attempt to retrieve the fortunes of Greece. Loyal to a lost cause.
He strode away from them towards the window.
—They went forth to battle, Mr O'Madden Burke said greyly, but they always fell.
—Boohoo! Lenehan wept with a little noise. Owing to a brick received in the latter half of the matinée. Poor, poor, poor Pyrrhus!
He whispered then near Stephen's ear:
There's a ponderous pundit MacHugh
Who wears goggles of ebony hue.
As he mostly sees double
To wear them why trouble?
I can't see the Joe Miller. Can you?

In mourning for Sallust, Mulligan says. Whose mother is beastly dead.
Myles Crawford crammed the sheets into a sidepocket.
—That'll be all right, he said. I'll read the rest after. That'll be all right.
Lenehan extended his hands in protest.
—But my riddle! he said. What opera is like a railwayline?
—Opera? Mr O'Madden Burke's sphinx face reriddled.
Lenehan announced gladly:
The Rose of Castile. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel. Gee!
He poked Mr O'Madden Burke mildly in the spleen. Mr O'Madden Burke fell back with grace on his umbrella, feigning a gasp.
—Help! he sighed. I feel a strong weakness.
Lenehan, rising to tiptoe, fanned his face rapidly with the rustling tissues.
The professor, returning by way of the files, swept his hand across Stephen's and Mr O'Madden Burke's loose ties.
—Paris, past and present, he said. You look like communards.
—Like fellows who had blown up the Bastile, J. J. O'Molloy said in quiet mockery. Or was it you shot the lord lieutenant of Finland between you? You look as though you had done the deed. General Bobrikoff.
—We were only thinking about it, Stephen said.
—All the talents, Myles Crawford said. Law, the classics...
—The turf, Lenehan put in.
—Literature, the press.
—If Bloom were here, the professor said. The gentle art of advertisement.
—And Madam Bloom, Mr O'Madden Burke added. The vocal muse. Dublin's prime favourite.
Lenehan gave a loud cough.
—Ahem! he said very softly. O, for a fresh of breath air! I caught a cold in the park. The gate was open.
The editor laid a nervous hand on Stephen's shoulder.
—I want you to write something for me, he said. Something with a bite in it. You can do it. I see it in your face. In the lexicon of youth ...
See it in your face. See it in your eye. Lazy idle little schemer.
—Foot and mouth disease! the editor cried in scornful invective. Great nationalist meeting in Borris-in-Ossory. All balls! Bulldosing the public! Give them something with a bite in it. Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father, Son and Holy Ghost and Jakes M'Carthy.
—We can all supply mental pabulum, Mr O'Madden Burke said.
Stephen raised his eyes to the bold unheeding stare.
—He wants you for the pressgang, J. J. O'Molloy said.

-- James Joyce, Ulysses, pp. 117-18
Summer is almost here, which means it is time for another Bloomsday quotation from Ulysses. It is also another chance to celebrate that the works of James Joyce are now in the public domain, so quote away! If you are in the District of Columbia, you can hear the book read out loud today, for the second year in a row, in a marathon that started last night and will end at midnight tonight ("and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.") at Third Floor (4200 9th Street NW) and Petworth Citizen. Barring that, @UlyssesReader is in its eighth reading of the book, one Tweet at a time.


Briefly Noted: Schnittke's Choral Music

available at Amazon
A. Schnittke, Penitential Psalms / 3 Sacred Hymns, RIAS Kammerchor, H.-C. Rademann

(released on March 4, 2016)
HMC 902225 | 54'28"
Alfred Schnittke is a perennial obsession at Ionarts, although we have few chances to hear his music live in Washington. Best known for his symphonies, the Russian composer was also interested in choral music, most famously in his Faust Cantata. Add to that grand statement these two other works from the 1980s, the rather traditional Three Sacred Hymns and the immense, befuddling Penitential Psalms, both composed after he found his way back to Roman Catholicism, his mother's faith. His first major sacred work was an ominous setting of the Requiem Mass from the 1970s, in some ways more traditional than what Schnittke had written up to that point. Although he was a practicing Catholic, Schnittke acknowledged that his Russian upbringing made him more sympathetic to Orthodox liturgical music, and the three sacred hymns recorded on this new disc from the RIAS Kammerchor are on traditional Orthodox texts and recall the style of earlier Russian composers.

In both of his last major choral works, the Concerto for Choir and The Penitential Psalms, Schnittke turned not to liturgical texts but to devotional poetry by medieval writers. He composed The Penitential Psalms in 1988 for the millennium of the Christian conversion of Russia, following the baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir. The piece opens and closes with wordless music for chorus, with the first movement beginning on murky chromatic lines set very low, for the basses in three-part divisi. The emphasis on chromaticism continues when Schnittke adds the words, as descending strands of mostly half-steps mount to higher and higher starting points. Schnittke incorporates many elements of Orthodox liturgical music, a flexible sense of meter, often changing every measure, that allows him to notate a chant-like free rhythm in eighth notes. This allows the sense of time to adjust to the number of syllables in the text and where the word accents fall, and it is one way to notate the non-metrical rhythm of Gregorian chant, for example. Another Orthodox liturgical element is the use of drones, beginning with the low G at the start of the piece, and in other places placing complex structures over sustained unisons of fifths in the lower voices. Schnittke often uses the device of close imitation, with the stretto-like overlap of two contrapuntal voices, as a further nod to Renaissance polyphony and the music of Bach.

Conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann, in a booklet note about the recording, explains that Moscow choral conductor Ekaterina Antonenko served as language coach for the RIAS Kammerchor, helping the singers see relationships between the text and the music. She also helped Rademann obtain the autograph score of The Penitential Psalms from Irina Feodorovna, the widow of Alfred Schnittke, which revealed that the published score contains many expression marks not intended by Schnittke but added later by Viktor Suslin, another composer who edited the music, as well as some errors in the parts. Those corrections are important given the predominance of chromatic writing, a nightmare for intonation, through which Schnittke builds up staggeringly dissonant structures that sometimes melt back into traditional triads. The beauty of the performance, from a chorus of about forty singers, both rarefied and broad in sound, added to the new version of the score makes this recording an important addition to the Schnittke discography.


Briefly Noted: Gerhaher's Burr

available at Amazon
FolksLied (folk song arrangements by Haydn, Beethoven, Britten), C. Gerhaher, A. Barachovsky, S. Klinger, G. Huber

(released on March 11, 2016)
BR-Klassik 900131 | 53'33"
Christian Gerhaher continues to surprise. The German baritone, an Ionarts favorite for his authoritative renditions of Lieder, has released this new live recording of a recital of folk song arrangements by Haydn, Britten, and Beethoven, unfortunately with applause kept after some tracks. As the booklet essay by Bernhard Neuhoff acknowledges, the concept of just what we mean when we say "folk song" is a complicated matter. The difference between a living folk song and the version of that music when written down like an art song is akin to that between a butterfly on the wind and the dead specimen carefully pinned and mounted by a lepidopterist. Some of the tunes set by these composers were modified or outright composed by those who "collected" them.

The macaronic title of the disc, FolksLied refers to the fact that all of the folk tunes heard here are from the British Isles, set by German, Austrian, and English composers, some with German texts and some in English and other insular dialects. Haydn's Schottische und Walisische Lieder and Beethoven's 25 Schottische Lieder, op. 108, are for voice accompanied by piano trio. Gerhaher and his usual collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber, are joined by cellist Sebastian Klinger and violinist Anton Barachovsky, both principal musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Haydn composed his Scottish and Welsh songs working from the tunes only, without the original words, and here Gerhaher has followed tenor Fritz Wunderlich in singing them to German texts published in 1927 by Bernhard Engelke, poems that had nothing to do with the original tunes, many by nature poet Hermann Löns.

Gerhaher digs most deeply into the settings by Britten, which have the most interesting harmonic palette, after singing quite lightly in the Haydn songs. In his program note, Gerhaher admits that he was trying to imitate the sound of Wunderlich in those songs, as an acknowledgment of his debt to that earlier singer. Gerhaher's English pronunciation is quite good in the Beethoven and Britten songs, having particular fun in the drinking song "Come fill, my good fellow," where it sound likes someone has added a faint descant voice (not credited). Gerhaher even attempts the Scots dialect of Robert Burns's "Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes" in the Britten setting, down to the evocatively guttural R's (embedded below). As mentioned before, the whole Ionarts household went with my parents last summer back to Stirling, at the cusp of the Scottish Highlands, where the trail of genealogical research ended with our earliest Downey ancestors in the 16th century. Like the architecture that still stands in Stirling where those first Downeys walked, these Scottish songs make me dream of the land they left behind.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…On vinyl, Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for Violin and Piano would be on the B-Side to his über-famous Octet. But it’s so much fun, so full of his youthful genius—and the slow movement, akin to a grand Sonata for Violin and Piano, so hauntingly gorgeous, it should not have to be. And here it isn’t. The two instinct-musicians, the brilliantly causal, unfazed Polina Leschenko and the tastefully high-octane Richard Togentti perform with panache and grit…

-> Classical CD of the Week: That's Mendelssohn!


Britten's 'Lucretia' at Wolf Trap

J’Nai Bridges (Lucretia, on right in blue) and River Rogers (Child) in The Rape of Lucretia (photo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera)
With many operas produced by Wolf Trap Opera Company, it is a matter of shoehorning the work into the confines of the Barns and its tiny orchestra pit. Benjamin Britten's chamber operas, a series of works for small theaters, are perfectly suited to the venue. The first of them, The Rape of Lucretia, opens the summer season at Wolf Trap, seen in its opening night on Friday. All the major elements of staging, casting, and musical performance came together admirably, in a production that impressed in many ways, while not ultimately solving the work's basic dramatic problems. (Spoilers to follow.)

As noted in my preview article, Mary Beard discusses the story of Lucretia in some detail in her informative book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The events, which supposedly took place in the sixth century B.C., were not recorded by Livy in Ab urbe condita until the first century B.C. The virtuous Lucretia, wife of the Roman nobleman Collatinus, was raped by Tarquinius Sextus, the son of the last Etruscan king to rule Rome. Not able to suffer the shame, she commits suicide, and Collatinus and his friend, Junius Brutus, brandish the bloody knife as they rally the Romans to rise up and overthrow the Tarquins. Not coincidentally, Collatinus and Brutus (the ancestor of the Brutus who took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar) are elected the first consuls of the new Roman republic.

Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges brought dignity and a strong vocal presence to the title role, equal parts virginal lightness and tragic weight. In the wonderful women's ensemble scenes, which are the best parts of this opera, she was supported by the flighty high soprano of Amy Owens as Lucia and the steady maternal sound of Sarah Larsen as Bianca, her nurse. Will Liverman captured the transformation of Tarquinius from patrician soldier into bestial attacker, and Shea Owens stepped into the role of Junius (Brutus) effectively on only a week's notice. Christian Zaremba had the largest sound, just slightly unfocused here and there, as Collatinus, tall and noble of bearing. The framing of the story in Christian terms is an unfortunate relic of librettist Ronald Duncan's choice of source, André Obey's modern French play Le Viol de Lucrèce. Here, the Male Chorus, sung with moral force by tenor Brenton Ryan, and Female Chorus of powerhouse soprano Kerriann Otaño related the story to each other as part of what seemed like a confession, due to Kara Harmon's costuming of the characters as Catholic priest and modern lay woman.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott and Anne Midgette, A powerful opera about a horrible subject (Washington Post, June 12)
Louisa Muller's staging was simple and dramatically effective, with Erhard Rom's set evoking the marble and rusticated stone of a Roman setting, while the costumes of the soldiers suggested a modern American present. The rotating set platform, a first in Barns history, alternated between an outdoor scene with a staircase and an interior room, put to most effective use during the disturbing rape scene, where stagehands rotated the set at a dizzying rate. (The company asked counselors from the Fairfax County Rape Crisis Center to be on hand in the lobby, in case audience members had traumatic memories triggered by the story.) Craig Kier, whom we last saw at the podium in the University of Maryland production of Marc Blitzstein's Regina, again did not seem to have enough control over balances, with the sound of both singers and orchestra becoming overbearing at times.

Two aspects of Muller's directorial concept went unexplained until the final scene. She has added a supernumerary character, the daughter of Lucretia, played by the adorable and affecting River Rogers. Adding characters without any lines to a libretto that does not include them is a perilous business, as eventually a viewer will wonder why a major character is unable to speak. One also wonders why the Female Chorus, an angry woman with a nose ring, a smoking habit, and issues to resolve, is going to confession with the Male Chorus. In the final scene, Muller seems to want us to understand -- because the girl takes her dead mother's necklace, the same one around the neck of the Female Chorus -- that the Female Chorus is the daughter of the raped woman, all grown up.

This production runs through June 18, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Perchance to Stream: Summer Vacation 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 the production of Berg's Wozzeck from the Zurich Opera, with Fabio Luisi leading a cast starring Christian Gerhaher and Brandon Jovanovich. [ARTE]

  • Listen to a performance of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, recorded in April at the Göteborg Opera in Sweden, with Henrik Schaefer leading a cast starring Thomas Oliemans (Hamlet), Ditte Højgaard Andersen (Ophelia), Paul Whelan (Claudius), and Katarina Karnéus (Gertrude). [Ö1]

  • Listen to the the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under Iván Fischer, perform Beethoven's seventh symphony. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • Cellist Truls Mørk joins the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for Prokofiev's Symphonie concertante, plus Marzena Diakun conducts Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Lars Vogt and conductor Alan Gilbert join the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, with music by Nielsen, Rouse, and Mozart, recorded in Munich last December. [Ö1]

  • From Salisbury Cathedral, the choir Vox Luminis performs sacred music by members of the Bach family, culminating in Johann Sebastian's powerful motet Jesu meine Freude. [BBC3]

  • Watch Semyon Bychkov lead pianist Kirill Gerstein and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance of Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. [ARTE]

  • Under conductor Stefano Barneschi, countertenor Franco Fagioli joins the Basel Chamber Orchestra for a recital of opera arias by Cavalli, Haendel, Lully, Porpora, and others. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Daniil Trifonov plays a recital at the Wigmore Hall in London, with music by Brahms, Schubert, and Rachmaninov. [BBC3]

  • Watch some of the concerts of the Palazetto Bru Zane Festival from the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. []


Second Opinion: Bruckner and Mahler at the NSO

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

I can now lay claim to being a Christoph Eschenbach Bruckner veteran. This is because I have heard his prior NSO performances of Bruckner’s Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, and now I have heard his Fourth. In these pages (or on this site), I praised the performances of the Eighth and Ninth, and gave the Seventh a mixed review. I shall engage in almost unadulterated praise of the Fourth, which I heard on Friday evening, in the second of its three performances.

But I must speak of the first item on Friday’s itinerary – Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. It is not at all odd to pair Mahler and Bruckner together on a program. At least Mahler would not have thought so. One of the things I most admire in him is his having had all the scores of Bruckner’s symphonies printed in Vienna, at his personal expense. I take that as the tribute of one great artist to another.

I am a neophyte when it comes to the Rückert-Lieder. I have never heard them performed live and know them only from the famous John Barbirolli/Janet Baker recording. In any case, they are gems set with marvelous delicacy in Mahler’s inimitable orchestral language. They were sung by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, who seems to be an Eschenbach favorite. In past NSO appearances, I have heard her in the Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner, as orchestrated by Hans Werner Henze, and in Dvořák's Stabat Mater. She has a rich, caramel voice, which she deploys was a good deal of nuance and expressivity. But, as I noted in the past, she occasionally has trouble projecting. This seemed to be the case on Friday evening, though it was hard to tell whether this was her fault or the orchestra’s. At times, it seemed as if Eschenbach had turned up the volume behind her.

In the first song, the orchestra appeared to be playing altogether too loudly. It seemed to settle down in the second. However, in another instance, when Stutzmann was singing piano, she got swamped by an oboe playing forte. I can’t imagine this having happened when the NSO first performed the Rückert-Lieder because Jessye Norman was the soloist. She would’ve blown that oboe all the way back into the dressing room. However, I don’t want to make too much of this because Stutzmann was very expressive and particularly moving in the last two songs, with especially exquisite shading on the phrase “ich sei gestorben.” The orchestra also did its part in the last song by relaying the music’s connection to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, on which Mahler was apparently working at the same time. Eschenbach distilled its diaphanous beauty.

With the Fourth Symphony, Bruckner’s greatness comes clearly into view. All the baby fat, galumphing, and ungainliness are gone (well, nearly, depending on which of the four versions you’re listening to, which in this evening’s case was the 1878/80 edition, edited by Leopold Nowak). One does not normally associate the term diaphanous with Bruckner, but Eschenbach and the NSO delivered a performance of this work that nearly earned this appellation. The orchestra softly whispered the opening string tremolo before the horn calls summoned the main theme. This was the first exhibition of extremely fine pianissimo playing, at one edge of the tremendous range of expression that the orchestra had on display, which was just as exhilarating as the pounding fortississimos of the magnificent climaxes.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Eschenbach takes the NSO back to one of his favorites, Bruckner (Washington Post, June 10)

Charles T. Downey, NSO Ends Season with Bruckner 4, Mahler (Ionarts, June 10)

Eschenbach's Bruckner:
no. 8 (2014) | no. 7 (2012)
no. 9 (2012) | no. 6 (2010)
And in between, one could hear everything. This was a performance of tremendous transparency, never gained at the expense of a slackening tempo. As finely molded as this music was with every delicious lilt in it expressed, Eschenbach kept everything within a fairly tight grip. This is not to say that he rushed the fences; he terraced up to the climaxes very nicely, in a well-shaded and well-paced manner. This was nowhere more evident than in the way in which he built the string tremolos in the Finale to its majestic culmination. The one movement in which one might say that Eschenbach did rush the fences was the Scherzo, which he took at a blistering pace. The fact that the NSO took the breakneck tempi fully in stride provided a great deal of excitement. This was an orchestra at the top of its game in the Scherzo and throughout.

With the Symphony performed in this way, we experience the exultation of one of the mountain peaks Bruckner ascended. From its top, we can almost see the Matterhorn of the Eighth Symphony above us. I cannot imagine anyone not being thrilled with having been given this view. Anyone who hasn’t should rush for tickets for Saturday night. In fact, the only thing wrong with Friday evening was the pitiably small audience, which nonetheless proved capable of coughing above its weight class during the Rückert-Lieder. Bruckner proved to be a giant cough drop.

I close by applauding the Playbill “Notes on the Program,” written by Dr. Richard E. Rodda. A lot of space is often wasted in program notes by musicologists who try to give a technical blow-by-blow of what is happening in the music – which leaves most readers in the state of incomprehension. Dr. Rodda’s notes, on the other hand, go to the most important thing – the spirit of the music, which he eloquently captures. More of this, please.

This concert repeats this evening, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


J. Reilly Lewis (1944-2016)

J. Reilly Lewis, the indomitable organist and conductor, died suddenly last night at the age of 72. The cause was a massive heart attack, while he was at home with his wife, Beth. A vital presence on the Washington music scene for half a century, Reilly, as everyone knew him, influenced countless musicians as the conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society and Washington Bach Consort. When the news began circulating this morning, social media lit up with remembrances from almost every singer and musician friend in the area.

At some point, almost everyone who worked as a musician in some capacity in the Washington area has performed with Reilly. Everyone recalled not only his musical skills, his often excessive enthusiasm for the music he loved, but also his gifts for talking (legendary) and for making everyone he met feel cherished and the focus of all his attention. The term "gentle giant" came to more than one person's mind. Reilly was larger than life, but when it came right down to it, he was a mensch.

The many gifts he gave to Washington listeners over the years include the free noontime series of Bach cantatas he directed on the first Tuesday of most months. He once crowed that he had led a performance of every cantata Bach composed and was going back for seconds. One naturally thinks of all of the concerts of Bach and other early music that he conducted, instrumental and choral, but he had important successes with more recent music, too, like Britten's War Requiem, even working with American composer Dominick Argento on a new commission.

Reilly, like so many great musicians throughout history, got his start as a child chorister, singing in the choir of Washington National Cathedral as a boy. That place, with all of its troubles and exaltation, was his musical home in many ways. He worked as organist and choir director all these years at Clarendon United Methodist Church in Arlington, where just on Tuesday night he accompanied a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass in one of the many mass sing-along events he loved so much. This is an important reminder of the man's dual gifts: he was a top-notch organist and a talented conductor, but perhaps more importantly he loved to help others -- anyone, really -- learn to love music as he did. One suspects that the singers who will want to join the chorus at his memorial service will fill the entire Cathedral.

Latest on Forbes: The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music? The Vienna Philharmonic Plays Larcher

And they were listening to Kenotaph attentively and with only two cell phones going off during the whole affair…

…A balmy, sunny Sunday morning. A full house – twice now, counting the previous night – at the venerable Musikverein’s Golden Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic performs under top-tier conductor Semyon Bychkov. And on the program – prominently, not hidden! – is a world premiere: A living composer’s work and the ink barely dry on it. Kenotaph, by Thomas Larcher – his Second Symphony.…

->The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music? The Vienna Philharmonic Plays Larcher

NSO Ends Season with Bruckner 4, Mahler

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4 (1886 version, ed. L. Nowak), London Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink
(LSO Live, 2011)

available at Amazon
Mahler, Rückert-Lieder, V. Urmana, Vienna Philharmonic, P. Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2005)
Christoph Eschenbach extended his unofficial Bruckner cycle with the National Symphony Orchestra last night, with a rousing, buzzer-beating rendition of the fourth symphony, dubbed by the composer the "Romantic" symphony. He did so by following the formula he used with Bruckner's seventh symphony in 2012, when he paired Bruckner with Nathalie Stutzmann singing Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder. The French contralto, who last visited as the conductor of Handel's Messiah last year, gave a musically sensitive but often covered performance of Mahler's sublime Rückert-Lieder.

It had been over a year since our last Bruckner, when we heard the eighth symphony from the BSO, and the withdrawal symptoms were in full force. The NSO last played the fourth symphony, supposedly the most popular of the composer's works, in 2005, when Roger Norrington conducted Bruckner's original 1874 version. Bruckner rarely let his works alone, making obsessive revisions, taking cuts, sometimes then restoring them, and even replacing entire movements. For those keeping score, Eschenbach chose the 1878/1880 version (ed. Leopold Nowak) of the fourth symphony, the one with the joyful, programmatic Jagd-Scherzo but rejecting the colorful Volksfest finale, which he substituted in 1878, for the first in a series of revisions of the original finale. In addition to some cuts in the slow movement (which were a mistake in my opinion), the thing Bruckner was most trying to get right in all those revisions was the finale, with which he was never quite satisfied. Hearing the 1880 revision of the finale, one can understand why, as it meanders and drags through some less pleasing turns.

The piece opens with an exposed horn solo, played with assured subtlety by the NSO's principal horn player Abel Pereira, a motif that focuses on perfect fifths in the home key (B-flat to E-flat, E-flat to A-flat) with an alluring turn toward the minor subdominant (A-flat, C-flat, E-flat) that is such an important part of the thrilling crescendo at the conclusion of the last movement. Bruckner calls for so much tremolo in the string section that one feared for the players' wrists, especially when Eschenbach allowed the brass, who were magnificent, to overpower the other sections so much. At that rare moment in the first movement where the second violins get the melody, Eschenbach did little to guide the rest of the orchestra to create a space for them to sound.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Eschenbach takes the NSO back to one of his favorites, Bruckner (Washington Post, June 10)

Eschenbach's Bruckner:
no. 8 (2014) | no. 7 (2012)
no. 9 (2012) | no. 6 (2010)
Eschenbach's tempi were just slightly faster than those chosen by Bernard Haitink for his 2011 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, but with an impatience that unsettled the whole performance. This was most evident in the inner movements, as the Andante seemed to vary a lot in tempo (and not just in the ways Bruckner indicated), but with beautifully soft dynamics, especially in the introspective passages where the melody is in the viola section. There were some intonation issues in the woodwind sections, possibly due to balance problems in Eschenbach's interpretation, possibly because principal oboist Nicholas Stovall sat out.

The "hunting" Scherzo is exciting without having to be pushed as fast as Eschenbach pushed it, and by the end the initially rash tempo was mollified. The flute solo in the trio, which Bruckner said was "a dance melody which is played to the hunters during their repast," had a lovely, breathy sound, and the brass section, as throughout the symphony, was imperious from trumpets down to the tuba. Hard as it was to believe, an audience member was audibly snoring at the start of the fourth movement, in spite of all that loud brass in the scherzo. Perhaps Celibidache's expansive reading of this symphony with the Munich Philharmonic has spoiled me, with its luxurious renditions of the second and fourth movements, but Eschenbach's interpretation just seemed rushed (the fourth movement clocked in at 22 minutes), especially in that gigantic crescendo that ends the work.

Stutzmann's singing in the Rückert-Lieder was inspiring, as long as Mahler's orchestration was delicate enough that Eschenbach could keep the orchestra at pp, so as not to obliterate her tentative sound. If Stutzmann had to strain at all, her intonation, never quite on the head in the best of circumstances, suffered even more. In the third and fourth songs, where Mahler uses a larger orchestration, one just needs a larger voice than what Stutzmann could summon, and her relative lack of breath support meant that "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," performed last in a slight re-shuffling of the order of the songs, felt too rushed to disconnect from the world.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Briefly Noted: Sudbin Records More Scarlatti

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 2, Y. Sudbin

(released on March 11, 2016)
BIS-2138 | 74'30"

available at Amazon
[Vol. 1. 2005]
A decade ago, Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin came to our attention with a disc of Scarlatti sonatas. He has since released a startling number of excellent recordings and had his Washington debut recital, in 2009. His latest release is a second installment of Scarlatti sonatas, just as entertaining, varied, and gutsy as that first disc. He dives into this assortment, in the D minor sonata (K. 417), with the sort of verve that makes plain why these pieces, conceived for harpsichord, can be so effective on a modern Steinway. This "sonata" is a fugue, complete with stretto passages and numerous explorations of various segments of the subject in sequence-based episodes, which Sudbin takes at a fast tempo, never flinching and bringing to bear all of the volume and articulation-related force of today's instrument. He does so without losing any of the clarity in this piece, which in spite of having four distinct fugal voices, Scarlatti generally reduced to two or three parts.

The famous C major fanfare sonata (K. 157) is an absolute delight in Sudbin's hands, fast but more dance-inspired than merely fast and enlivened with all sorts of articulation and pedaling sleights of hand to create variations of texture. Inner voices can pop out of the score in surprising ways, as in the C minor sonata (K. 56), effects impossible to achieve on the harpsichord, often heightened by embellishments and other additions from Sudbin. The D minor sonata (K. 141), the showpiece with the repeated-note motif, is so fast that it is hard to distinguish the repeated notes, a sacrifice of the overall effect Scarlatti wanted for pure effect, a rare misstep. Like other critics, I was slightly underwhelmed when I finally heard Sudbin playing live for the first time. So it is interesting and perhaps not surprising to hear him admit, on the promotional video embedded below, that "I generally always love the process of recording. I find it actually in some ways more satisfying than the performance."


À mon chevet: 'Min Kamp 5'

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

book cover
"You can say that again," she said. "I'll be off then. Can you call me?"

What a shock. For a brief moment, no more than a second or two, I was unable to breathe.

"Yes," I said. "I can."

When, shortly afterward, I stopped at the top of the hill and saw the town beneath me, my feeling of happiness was so ecstatic that I didn't know how I would be able to make it home, sit there and write, eat, or sleep. But the world is constructed in such a way that it meets you halfway in moments precisely like these, your inner joy seeks an outer counterpart and finds it, it always does, even in the bleakest regions of the world, for nothing is as relative as beauty. Had the world been different, in my opinion, without mountains and oceans, plains and seas, deserts and forests, and consisted of something else, inconceivable to us, as we don't know anything other than this, we would also have found it beautiful. A world with gloes and raies, evanbillits and conulames, for example, or ibitera, proluffs, and lopsits, whatever they might be, we would have sung their praises because that is the way we are, we extol the world and love it although it's not necessary, the world is the world, it's all we have.

So as I walked down the steps toward the town center on this Wednesday at the end of August I had a place in my heart for everything I beheld. A slab of stone worn smooth in a flight of steps: fantastic. A swaybacked roof side by side with an austere perpendicular brick building: so beautiful. A limp hot-dog wrapper on a drain grille, which the wind lifts a couple of meters and then drops again, this time on the pavement flecked with white stepped-on chewing gum: incredible. A lean old man hobbling along in a shabby suit carrying a bag bulging with bottles in one hand: what a sight.

The world extended its hand, and I took it. All the way through the town center and up the hills on the other side, straight into my room, where I immediately sat down to write my poem.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle: Part 5, pp. 117-18
In Min Kamp, his six-volume autobiographical novel, Karl Ove Knausgård shines pitiless light on his own life and that of his family and friends. After examining his father's death (Vol. 1), the collapse of his first marriage (Vol. 2), his early childhood (Vol. 3), and his young adulthood (Vol. 4), Knausgård turns to the years of his struggle to become a writer, when he lived in Bergen from 1988 to 2002. Nothing remains of those crucial years, Knausgård writes on the novel's first page, except memories and a small stack of photographs: although he kept a diary, he burned it. It is a time of which he is not particularly proud: "I knew so little, had such ambitions, and achieved nothing." Knausgård moved to Bergen to take part in the year-long Writing Academy, and the cold-hearted skewering of the rituals and pieties of writing seminars will be familiar to anyone who has ever suffered through anything of the sort. He falls desperately in love, suffers a betrayal, and comes to think he is not destined to be a writer. Within a decade, though, he will have finished his first published novel, Ute av verden (Out of the World), which won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature in 1998.


Briefly Noted: Ana Sokolović's Imaginary Folklore

available at Amazon
A. Sokolović, Folklore Imaginaire, Ensemble Transmission

(released on March 11, 2016)
Naxos 8.573304 | 58'08"
Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolović, who resides in Montréal, is the creator of Svadba, one of the most engrossing new operas of the past decade. I reviewed the work, a tour de force for six women's voices and a few sparingly used percussion instruments, at Philadelphia Opera in 2013, and it continues to rack up productions, most recently this past April in San Francisco. (You can still watch the production of Svadba recorded at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence.) The harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic invention of Svadba had me convinced that Sokolović, now in her 40s, was a new voice to keep my ear on, but precious little by her has come my way since then, except on the always useful YouTube.

Ensemble Transmission, a contemporary music collective based in Montréal, has finally broken the drought with a new disc of Sokolović's music, including three pieces recorded here for the first time. Except for a couple of pieces from the 1990s, which have been revised in later versions, most of the repertory included for these tracks, laid down in the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur in Montréal, dates from the last decade or so. Vez, a piece for unaccompanied cello, combines sounds inspired by Serbian folk music with a rock-like rhythmic drive. Rhythm — the complex but still comprehensible rhythm of central European folk music — is the glue that holds much of Sokolović's music together and keeps one's interest. Portrait parle is a set of movements for piano trio, evoking an early 20th-century chart with descriptions given to French police officers to help identify suspects by various parts of the human body and appearance. It, too, is powered by pulsating sounds of a dizzying range, from recognizable to utterly mysterious.

The Trois Etudes for piano are action-packed miniatures, given acidic edge by the group's pianist, Brigitte Poulin, while Guy Pelletier draws forth atmospheric sounds from the bass flute in the evocative duet with piano Un bouquet de brume. Less effective is Mesh, an extended study for E-flat clarinet, which along with Vez shows that Sokolović's gifts are most pronounced in ensemble compositions. Along with Portrait parle, the other piece for larger ensemble, Ciaccona, performed here in the arrangement Sokolović created for Ensemble Transmission, generates the most consistent interest.