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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 60th Anniversary Season (Part 1 of 2)

available at Amazon
Barber, Vanessa (orig. version), E. Steber, N. Gedda, R. Elias, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, D. Mitropoulos
Charles T. Downey, Santa Fe Opera, part 1: Celebrating 60 with two rarities and Strauss (of course) (Washington Post, July 31)
Some companies celebrate anniversaries with a world premiere; but the Santa Fe Opera, which has staged its share of them over the years, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer with three rarely-performed 20th-century masterpieces, instead. Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” heard for the first time in the company’s history, crowned the season in its opening performance on Saturday evening.

In Gian Carlo Menotti’s taut libretto, set in a manor house in rural Denmark, Vanessa has been waiting for over twenty years for her lost love, Anatol, with her silently hostile mother and her niece Erika. At the start of the opera, an Anatol arrives who turns out to be the lost lover’s son, and he sets about seducing both aunt and niece. When Vanessa asks Erika to read to her in the first scene, Erika chooses Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” lines spoken by Oedipus just at the moment when he is revealed on stage having struck out his own eyes. You can guess that the story will not end well.

Soprano Erin Wall had shattering power in the title role, her voice revealing all of Vanessa’s pent-up frustration, but with a striking high pianissimo also in her arsenal...
[Continue reading]

Perchance to Stream: Santa Fe 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.

  • Damien Guillon conducts Le Banquet Céleste and soloists in a performance of Handel's Acis et Galatée, recorded at the Basilica of Notre-Dame for the Festival de Beaune. [France Musique]

  • Watch the premiere of the production of Wagner's Parsifal, recorded at the Bayreuth Festival. [BR-Klassik]

  • Also from the Festival de Beaune, Sébastien Daucé leads the ensemble Correspondances and soloists in Charpentier's La descente d'Orphée aux enfers and part of Purcell's Ode to Saint Cecilia. [France Musique]

  • Watch Les Arts Florissants perform Bach Cantatas at the Festival de Beaune. [ARTE]

  • Watch the production of Hamlet by Franco Faccio staged at the Bregenz Festival. [ARTE]

  • The ensemble Les Accents performs Vivaldi's Tamerlano at the Festival de Beaune, under the baton of Thibault Noally. [France Musique]

  • From the Waldbühne, Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Berlin Philharmonic and violinist Lisa Batiashvili in music by Smetana and Dvorak. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • From the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, a performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. [Ö1]

  • A rare performance of Francesco Cavalli's opera Veremonda, l'amazzone di Aragona, recorded by Concerto Köln at the Schwetzinger Festspiele in April. [Ö1]

  • Domingo Hindoyan conducts a performance of Mascagni's bizarre opera Iris, starring soprano Sonya Yoncheva, recorded at the Festival de Radio France in Montpellier. [France Musique]

  • Have a listen to some of the concerts at the Proms in London. [BBC Proms]

  • A production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Opera Australia. [ABC Classic]

  • From the Festival de Radio France, pianist Beatrice Rana plays Bach's Goldberg Variations, plus music by Corette, Boismortier, and Rebel performed by the Ensemble Meridiana, recorded at the Rougemont Festival in 2015. [France Musique]

  • Music of Vivaldi and others recorded by L'Orfeo Barockorchester, under violinist Michi Gaigg, from the Brunnenthaler Konzertsommer Festival. [Ö1]

  • The Orchestre Baroque de Montauban "Les Passions" and the chamber chorus Les Eléments, under Jean-Marc Andrieu, perform the modern world premiere of three grands motets by Antoine-Esprit Blanchard, recorded at the Festival de Radio France. [France Musique]


Ionarts in Santa Fe: Santa Fe Songs

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
New American Art Song, D. Okulitch, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, L. Liebermann, G. Roven
(GPR Records, 2013)
It is time for press week at the Santa Fe Opera, although I arrived a little earlier than normal this year. In between the five operas, there are some recitals presented by Performance Santa Fe, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. The first concert of the season is part of a four-part Festival of Song, two of which are falling on days when the opera house is dark this week. On Thursday afternoon, soprano Keri Alkema and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch teamed up with composer Glen Roven to perform a program mostly of Roven's songs, at the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Center.

Roven has worked mostly as a Broadway composer, conductor, and arranger, and his art songs, unknown to me up to this point, have something in common with those of Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie. Roven credited Chinese soprano Hui He with the inspiration for his song cycle Six Ancient Chinese Poems, a set of six songs set to Chinese poetry translated by Jane Hirshfield, sung here by Keri Alkema, who made her Santa Fe Opera debut this summer as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (more about that later). The more dramatic soprano writing suited Alkema's powerful voice beautifully, particularly thrilling at the end of the second song and at the exclamation "O wind, do not stop" in the final song, while songs that required a softer approach at the top were not as easily negotiated.

Roven's harmonic and melodic palette in these songs did not have Chinese elements, other than perhaps a tinge of something like Debussy's Pagodes, but in a second cycle, The Santa Fe Songs, Roven ranged into many other styles and sounds. It seemed tailored to the voice of Daniel Okulitch, who sings the title role of Don Giovanni across from Alkema's Donna Elvira this season, a rich, refined sound across the whole ambitus and with excellent diction. The second song, "Listening to Jazz Now," was a highlight, with a pitch-perfect jazz style, as was the harmonic tension that mirrored the poetry of the third song. In all of his songs, Roven played his own accompaniments with poise. Here Roven set all texts by poets from Santa Fe, encountered on a previous visit, and three of the poets were in attendance.

Other Articles:

Jennifer Levin, Poetry and music intersection: Glen Roven's "The Santa Fe Songs" (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 22)
Two songs by Jake Heggie, sung by Alkema and accompanied by Joe Illick, reinforced the impression of Heggie's songs as musical equivalents of Hallmark cards, complete with a soupy cello solo played well by Joe Johnson, the principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera orchestra. Stylistically similar was Evan Mack's A Little More Perfect, set to excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which was utterly nondescript musically while meaningful in its words. Roven's weakest work was in a poorly judged, overblown setting of Goodnight Moon, the dulcet children's book by Margaret Wise Brown, heard here in the first performance of a new duet version made for these two singers. An encore of You're Just in Love, from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, was an eye-roller.

The next concert in the Performance Santa Fe Festival of Song series will feature soprano Angela Meade (July 31, 4 pm), in a program including Strauss songs and some opera arias.

Latest on Forbes: Einojuhani Rautavaara, Giant Of Beauty, An Obituary

Einojuhani Rautavaara, 9 October 1928 – 27 July 2016

…Einojuhani Rautavaara is a giant of beauty. The Finnish composer, who was born in Helsinki on October 9, 1928, and who died yesterday, wrote mesmerizingly beautiful music in the 20th and 21st century; the kind that–when properly appreciated and popularized beyond the considerable niches that already champion his cause–will continue Rautavaara’s beautiful song for generations and generations to come. That is one of the great privileges of great artists such as Rautavaara: They may die, but they cannot pass away.…

->Einojuhani Rautavaara, Giant Of Beauty: An Obituary


CD Reviews: Gilbert Champions Rouse / Fairyland of Songs

available at Amazon
C. Rouse, Symphonies 3-4 (inter alia), New York Philharmonic, A. Gilbert

(released on May 13, 2016)
Dacapo 8.226110 | 76'15"

[NY Phil Watch & Listen]

available at Amazon
"Schöne Welt..." (Schubert / Schreker / Korngold), A. Schwanewilms, C. Spencer

(released on May 13, 2016)
Capriccio C5233 | 63'40"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: A modern symphonic master
Washington Post, July 29

Next year, Alan Gilbert will step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which is a shame, not least for the way he has excelled at programming contemporary music. This disc features four new pieces by Christopher Rouse, three of which Gilbert premiered with the Philharmonic. These are high-quality live recordings, like those available on the orchestra’s “Watch & Listen” web streaming feature, which offers many of its recent concerts online.

Rouse composed his first two symphonies in 1986 and 1994, and didn’t return to the genre for more than 20 years. In 2011, he completed the Third Symphony, a “rewrite” of Prokofiev’s Second Symphony. Gilbert and his players dig into the first movement’s crisp rhythms and militaristic edge with biting attacks. The last minute of the movement is particularly thrilling, playing to the group’s forte, a crashing full-orchestra sound, while some of the smaller vignettes in the second movement’s theme and variations are less effective.

Rouse has said that he had “a particular meaning in mind” when he composed his Fourth Symphony, from 2013, but he prefers to keep it to himself. The titles of the two movements, “Felice” and “Doloroso,” point to something like mania and depression, borne out in the jaunty rollick of the first movement that collapses, without a pause, into the forlorn, weighted-down gestures of the second. Both of these symphonies constitute yet more examples of Rouse’s supremacy among living American composers in terms of melodic invention and calculated use of the orchestra. Happily, Rouse’s symphonic renaissance will continue, as Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra are set to premiere the Fifth Symphony in 2017.

In both of the one-movement works that round out the disc, Rouse broadens the sonic landscape with a large battery of instruments filled with more exotic colors. In “Odna Zhizn,” he overlays dissonant themes derived from names in a Russian friend’s life to chaotic and bewildering effect. “Prospero’s Rooms” contains some of the musical ideas Rouse sketched for an operatic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Given this work’s musical and literary creepiness, reminiscent in some ways of Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” if Rouse still wants to write an opera, companies should be commissioning him.
[Continue reading]

Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…Daniel Behle… tackled this problem head-on by striking with novelty value: He arranged Die Winterreise for piano trio, which features on the first disc of this set. Then he added the standard version to show his mettle more traditionally. Good stuff, the latter, but it’s the Trio version you’ll want this set for…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Winterreise Threesome


Touring 'Merchant' Makes Quick Visit to D.C.

Jonathan Pryce and Dominic Mafham in The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare's Globe)

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has proven a burdensome undertaking for some local companies over the past decade. With its anti-Semitic themes and ambiguous hero/villain distinctions, it is a play that requires directors and actors to make clear choices, in order to keep the production from seeming anti-Semitic as a whole. A talented company from Shakespeare’s Globe has brought their touring version, directed by Jonathan Munby, to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, and while one does walk away with many questions, there is no trace of pandering, bigotry, or public service announcements.

The play opens with Antonio, a wealthy merchant, and his friend Bassanio. Bassanio, having fallen in love with a beautiful Venetian woman named Portia, needs money to pay his debts. Antonio confesses to being cash-poor but agrees to bond Bassanio’s debt if Bassanio can find a lender. Here we are introduced to Shylock, a wealthy Jewish merchant who, after some back and forth regarding Antonio’s folly in lending out money so freely, agrees to lend Bassonio the needed amount without interest. Shylock does lay one condition upon the agreement, made somewhat in jest: if Bassanio cannot pay back the loan at a determined date, Shylock shall have a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The key to everything is the conflict between Antonio, a Christian, and Shylock, a Jew. As we find out, the debt between them is trivial compared to their personal conflict.

Taking the helm of this production is Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. Pryce, known most recently for his portrayal of the High Sparrow in HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones, obviously brings name recognition to the production, but more importantly he brings a refreshing take on a complex character. Shylock lives in a world where he is openly spat on, abused, and mocked. He has spent his life in a society not made for him and has still done well in terms of wealth and property. This character is often portrayed with moments of rage and a thirst for revenge, and while slightly two-dimensional, those qualities can work in this play. Knowing that Shylock has lived in a world where he is small and seemingly weak to those around him, Pryce has instead provided a character whose subtle workings and speeches landed without effort, needing only sparing use of excessive volume. When mocked by Antonio, he accepted it with a slight grin. Pryce has transformed a character usually associated with rage and revenge, into a character seeking justice through the simplest forms of logic and legalities. Pryce did provide moments of great anger and lashing out, but because they were limited, they became that much more poignant.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Jonathan Pryce puts a new stamp on Shylock (Washington Post, July 25)

Steve Frank, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ perpetuates vile stereotypes of Jews. So why do we still produce it? (Washington Post, July 28)

Charles Isherwood, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral and Atmospheric (New York Times, July 24)

Marilyn Stasio, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Starring Jonathan Pryce (Variety, July 24)

Catherine Jones, Game of Thrones' Jonathan Pryce on his return to the Liverpool stage (Liverpool Echo, July 6)
Supporting Pryce's Shylock is a fairly talented cast. Rachel Pickup, portraying Portia, provided pace and lightness, while at the same time creating some desperately needed fun moments with her maid Narissa, played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett. When it comes to fun, none in the cast compared to Stefan Adegbola, portraying the servant Launcelot Gobbo. Caught in his own moral dilemma, Adegbola was the play's adrenaline rush. His mastery of the “aside” was a highlight of the evening, except for the unsuspecting audience members who were pulled on stage. Adegbola gave the play a true sense of Shakespearean convention, along with a very strong opening, complete with live music (composed by Jules Maxwell), as actors mingled in the house with no grand announcement over the speakers that the play was starting.

While Act I did drag two-thirds of the way through, the best was truly saved for last where Munby added a scene that doesn’t appear in the text, Shylock's forced baptism. The company processed in as if at the beginning of a Catholic mass, singing Latin with thunderous instrumental support. Shylock, standing center stage in a simple white robe (an ode to the High Sparrow), resisted uttering the Latin phrase “Credo,” signifying he had accepted his new Christian faith. Knowing he must, he barely let the word escape his mouth. As the water was poured over his head, there was no sense of cleansing, as the water instead seemed to burn Shylock to the core. While a simple moment and one all contemporary eyes have seen, this outward sign of Christian faith was transformed into the most tragic form of torture.

The Merchant of Venice continues at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Saturday evening. The play runs roughly 3 hours with a 15-minute intermission.


Quirky, Failed 'Firebird' with NSO

Firebird, directed by Janni Younge (photo by Luke Younge, Lucid Pictures)

The so-called "heat dome" that has settled over most of the country made the prospect of an outdoor concert on Saturday night not so pleasant. Fans and programs fluttered furiously at the Filene Center, but few breezes came to cool the air at Wolf Trap for the latest concert by the National Symphony Orchestra. Featuring the much-anticipated return of Handspring Puppet Company, last in Washington for a slightly weird Midsummer Night's Dream with the Bristol Old Vic and for Warhorse before that, this concert was a disappointment for many reasons, the main one being the poorly amplified sound.

This adaptation of Stravinsky's Firebird, on the second half, required a large space at the front of the stage. As a result, in both halves the NSO was crammed into the extreme rear of the stage. For most NSO concerts in this admittedly dreadful acoustic, inside the theater one hears mostly natural sound. In this arrangement the only sound that really came out to the house was through the speakers, and it was like listening to an ancient transistor radio in the garage. Neither conductor Cristian Măcelaru nor the musicians, even if they had monitors to hear the sound produced by the speakers, could calibrate balances in the same way they do with live sound. In the first movement of Prokofiev's first symphony ("Classical"), that lightly tripping second theme in the violins was so delicate as to be almost inaudible, while the bassoon theme that accompanied it, more closely miked, was far more prominent. The finale, with its panoply of moving parts, was reduced to mush by amplification best suited to loud, not particularly nuanced types of music. The suite from Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye, although beautifully played (I would guess), fared no better.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, “Firebird” at Wolf Trap proves long on statement, short on puppets (Washington Post, July 25)

Peter Dobrin, At the Mann Center, a Firebird that soars (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21)
Abstract music can be adapted to a ballet for which it was not created, as choreographer Mark Morris has shown again and again. When the music was created specifically to tell a different story, the challenges are much greater. This was the problem faced by this new South African Firebird, directed by Janni Younge and with choreography by Jay Pather. It could have succeeded in the way that the South African Magic Flute by Isango Ensemble, seen in 2014 at the Shakespeare Theater, did. Unfortunately, rather than gently pull Stravinsky and Fokine's story into a new shape, the director substituted a completely different one, not really having anything to do with the contours of Stravinsky's music.

The previous times we have seen Handspring creations, the troupe has augmented a story already fully developed by others. Here, the burden of narrating fell entirely to them, and it was overburdened and ineffective. Mostly, the director was trying to tell too many stories simultaneously, with dancing, not always seeming related to the music, competing with the puppets, mostly in the last ten minutes or so, and busy animations (created by Michael Clark). The video was projected on an object hanging over the stage, which looked something like a dirigible but turned out to be the largest puppet of them all, and a rather unwieldy one at that. Ballet is in many ways the total art form (pace Richard Wagner), with a visual element merged with an auditory one. My eyes focused almost entirely on the dancers, ignoring the video projection, so much of the story, reportedly about the history of post-Apartheid South Africa, passed me by. The NSO played well, through the veil of amplification, giving a sense of mystery to the additions to the score by Daniel Eppel.

This article has been edited to make a necessary correction.


New Life for 'Phantom' at Kennedy Center

The Phantom of the Opera (photo by Alastair Muir)

As a heat wave pours through the area, Washingtonians want to go out and yet stay cool. Fortunately, the Kennedy Center has welcomed a “new production” of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. The 1909 Gaston Leroux novel turned Broadway hit tells the story of a young talented soprano, Christine Daae, and a haunted opera house in Paris. As the story begins, the ownership of the opera house is being transferred to two eager businessmen. As they become familiar with the opera house and its performers a sudden “accident” takes place, but they learn that this is not a random accident but one of many incidents caused by the infamous “Phantom of the Opera,” who is the real owner. As the businessmen and the stars of the opera house try to gain control, more extreme “accidents” occur. Caught in the danger is Christine and her young suitor, Raoul, as they seek freedom from the snares of the Phantom.

This production has an appealing design (quite impressive for a touring production), music, and individual performances. One of the most notable pulls of the show is its Phantom, Chris Mann. Mann is well known for his time on the NBC hit vocal contest The Voice. To some extent, Mann’s personal style seems to clash with Webber’s composition. Mann’s decision to speak or whisper certain phrases in the middle of famous songs not only made the words hard to understand, but poked a sore thumb within the production as the rest of the characters were making more consistent, traditional choices. It is Phantom of the OPERA after all, and such choices hint that Mann may be trying to create something new and different, which should be appreciated, but he should trust his voice and its ability to deliver the emotion of the songs without filling the story with contemporary flair. At many points throughout the performance, Mann proved that his talents are more than enough to carry such a demanding lead role.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Anne Midgette, and Nelson Pressley, A musical whose time has gone: Three Post critics take on ‘Phantom’ (Washington Post, July 22)

Cheryl Danehart, The new ‘Phantom’: Masking some of the mystique (Washington Times, July 24)
One of the best examples of unifying the integrity of the composition, while still breathing new life into the character, was Kaitlyn Davis as the young, wide-eyed Christine Daae. Davis, an understudy in the role, turned her performance into the highlight of the evening. Her control over such famous and challenging music seemed easy. Thankfully, Davis also provided a sense of tenderness and hopefulness, qualities this production was lacking at times. This shortcoming came at the hands of Mann and Christine’s young love Raoul, played by Storm Lineberger. In a play centered on passion and love, it’s unfortunate that the two suitors for Christine’s affections failed to display any believable attraction to her. Lineberger especially played a melancholy frown for the entire performance. Even when provided with tender dialogue, Lineberger somehow managed to contradict what he was saying, with how he was saying it. Due to this lack of love surrounding the three main characters, one might hope the young Christine finds a way to win without either the Phantom or Raoul.

The Phantom of the Opera runs 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission. This production continues at the Kennedy Center through August 20.

Perchance to Stream: Tour de France 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 Stravinsky's Œdipus Rex, paired with the same composer's Symphonie de Psaumes, unfortunately staged by Peter Sellars, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. [Culturebox]

  • From the Festival de Radio France Montpellier Occitanie, a performance of Rameau's Zoroastre with Raphaël Pichon leading the Ensemble Pygmalion and soloists. [France Musique]

  • From the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Kirill Petrenko leads a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg starring Wolfgang Koch (Hans Sachs), Jonas Kaufmann (Stolzing), Benjamin Bruns (David), and Sara Jakubiak (Eva). [Ö1]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Chamber Orchesra of Europe, the Bavarian Radio Choir, and soloists Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Werner Güra, and Gerald Finley in Haydn's Die Schöpfung, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [Ö1]

  • At the Festival della Valle d'Itria, Fabio Luisi leads a performance of Mayr's opera Medea in Corinto, starring Davinia Rodríguez (Medea), Michael Spyres (Giasone), Roberto Lorenzi (Creonte), and others, recorded in the Palazzo Ducale de Martina Franca. [Radio Clásica]

  • Jérémie Rhorer leads Concentus Musicus Wien in Beethoven's third and sixth symphonies, recorded earlier this month at the Styriarte Festival in Graz. [Ö1]

  • Laurence Cummings leads a gala concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Internationalen Händel-Festspiele Göttingen. [Ö1]

  • Valery Gergiev conducts the U.S. National Youth Orchestra in music by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev from the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Occitanie with pianist Denis Matsuev as soloist. [France Musique]

  • From the Bach Festival at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performs music of Bach and selections from Reger's Requiem Mass, with the St. Thomas Choir. [Radio Clásica]


Perchance to Stream: Almost 13th Anniversary Edition

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

  • Schubert's Winterreise, performed last month by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber, at the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg. [Ö1]

  • From the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, a concert by the Quatuor Arcanto, with music by Purcell, Britten, and Beethoven, followed by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras as soloist with the Orchestra de Chambre de Paris, recorded in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre de l'Archevêché at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra plays music by Handel and Bach, including the fifth Brandenburg Concerto. [France Musique]

  • Mikko Franck conducts Puccini's Madama Butterfly, with Ermonela Jaho, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Bryan Hymel, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, recorded at Les Chorégies d'Orange, preceded by a recital by pianist Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter. [France Musique]

  • Watch the production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Glyndebourne Festival. [Glyndebourne]

  • Listen to Bernard Haitink conduct the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's ninth symphony, recorded this past April. [NY Phil]

  • Cantus Cölln, conducted by Konrad Junghänel, performs Bach cantatas (BWV 172, 131, and 234), recorded last May in the Kirche St. Joseph in Speyer, as part of the Schwetzinger Festival. [Ö1]

  • The Dresdner Barockorchester and Kammerchor, conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, perform Heinrich Schütz's Aus den "Psalmen Davids" at the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg in May. [Ö1]

  • A performance of Offenbach's Ba-Ta-Clan, conducted by Jean-Christophe Keck, recorded in the Salle Pasteur of the Corum de Montpellier. [France Musique]

  • A concert by the Wiener Philharmoniker with conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada and violinist Hilary Hahn, recorded last month. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • The Proms opened on Friday night in London: you can listen to the performances. [BBC Proms]

  • Listen again to Benjamin Godard's Dante, starring Véronique Gens, with Ulf Schirmer conducting the Munich Radio Orchestra. [Ö1]

  • From the Styriarte Festival, Karina Canellakis leads Concentus Musicus Wien in the second and seventh symphonies of Beethoven, recorded last month in Graz. [Ö1]

  • Listen to the conclusion of Opera North's Ring Cycle, with this performance of Götterdammerung. [BBC3]

  • Watch more concerts from the Flâneries Musicales d'été de Reims. []

  • Listen to the performances from the Sydney International Piano Competition. [BBC Classic]

  • From the Festival Radio France Montpellier Occitanie, music by Nielsen (Aladdin), Ravel (Shéhérazade), and Rimsky-Korsakov (Shéhérazade) recorded at the Opéra Berlioz, with Michaël Schonwandt leading Karine Deshayes, Lambert Wilson, and the Orchestre National Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. [France Musique]

  • Semyon Bychkov leads the Sommernachtskonzert of the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Schönbrunn Park, with Katia Labèque and Marielle Labèque playing Poulec's Concerto for Two Pianos, plus music by Bizet, Berlioz, and Ravel. [Ö1]

  • A recital by violinist Ragnild Hemsing and pianist Tor Espen Aspaas, with music by Grieg, Johan Svendsen, Nielsen, and Lasse Thoresen, recorded at the Schwetzinger Festival. [Ö1]

  • The Artemis Quartet plays music by Mozart, Grieg, and Eduard Demetz at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [Ö1]

  • A recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko, starring Vladimir Galusin (Sadko) and Marianna Tarassova (Ljubawa), recorded live at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1993. [Ö1]

  • Listen to concerts from the Montreux Jazz Festival. [France Musique | Part 2]


'2666' at Avignon Festival

Roberto Bolaño's roman-fleuve 2666 was quite a sensation a few years back. Julien Gosselin has adapted that sprawling novel in play form for the Avignon Festival, a marathon viewing experience that lasts thirteen hours. Sorin Etienne recounts the experience (Avignon : 2666, onze heures trente de marathon avec le Mal, July 13) for Le Figaro (my translation):
The 11 hours of Antoine Vitez's Soulier de satin in the Cour d'honneur in 1987. The 18 hours of Thomas Jolly's Henri VI at the FabricA in 2014. Or the trilogy by Wajdi Mouawad (Littoral, Incendies, Forêts) in 2009. At the Avignon Festival, artists and viewers like marathons. This year Julien Gosselin runs long at the FabricA by adapting 2666, the novel by Chile's Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003 before being able to finish this monster of a book (1,352 pages in the Folio edition). Eleven hours and some theater dust, cut off from the world, from 2 pm to 1 am. A labyrinthine work, an exploration of evil from Nazism up to the serial murders of Mexican women in the town of Ciudad Juarez, here renamed Santa Teresa. [...]

8 pm
"We have lost track of where we are," says a spectator in the line for drinks. "In Mexico? In Harlem? In any case, we are not in Avignon." We are also a little bit in La Réunion, because the intermission menu offers rougail with sausage and rice, the lone alternative to the salads. Good news, the restroom lines have been moving. A viewer coming back into the hall and nostalgic for the European soccer championship is encouraging: "More than two halves." Our neighbor on the left has ended up going to bed. We learn that yesterday he was at the Carrière Boulbon to see Karamazov, directed by Jean Bellorini. Five hours in the theater, from 10 pm to 3 am. Fatal chain of events.
The last intermission was at 11 pm, and people were wiped out. The true scandal, writes Etienne, is that the theater charged 1 euro 50 for a coffee at that hour.


Cool Summer Suggestions

Summer is upon us in western New England, and baby, it's hot out there! The first thing that comes to my mind is a nice nude swim to cool off. On second thought, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes From the Prado is on view in the Clark Art Institute's beautiful new air-conditioned wing (through October 9).

Twenty-eight luscious, sensuous old master canvases by the likes of Velazquez, Titian, Tintoretto, and the lover of luscious flesh himself, Rubens. Collected by the Spanish royals during the early 17th century, these risque paintings were kept in private salons, "salas reservadas," where they could be secretly viewed. Eventually the work ended up in the Prado's collection around 1830. Several of the paintings are traveling to the U.S. for the first time.

Over at Mass MoCA, where there are always several changing exhibits, Richard Nonas takes over Building 5. This big hall can easily overpower, but Nonas's meditative sculptural work turns this massive industrial space into a Zen-like garden. Another exhibit, The Space Between, sets seven artists loose around the campus, using a variety of media, both inside and out, to investigate ways to actively inhabit this state of “just passing through.” It's the kind of installation art that MassMoCA is perfect for.

In Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder, MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish and co-curator, Columbus, Ohio-based artist Sean Foley, enlist 23 artists to consider what the writer Ray Bradbury often spoke of, the need to retain a sense of wonder: you remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode.

The Hall Art Foundation has a satellite program on the Mass MoCA campus, in the spotlessly renovated Building 15, filled with the work of Anselm Kiefer. Included in this on-going exhibition are Étroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels), an 82-foot long, undulating wave-like sculpture made of cast concrete, exposed rebar, and lead; The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Revolution, 1992), comprised of more than twenty lead beds with photographs and wall text; Velimir Chlebnikov (2004), a steel pavilion containing 30 paintings dealing with nautical warfare and inspired by the quixotic theories of the Russian mathematical experimentalist Velimir Chlebnikov; and a new, large-format photograph on lead created by the artist for the installation at MASS MoCA.

Something About Summer is the title of an exhibit by Yours Truly, which opened on June 16 at the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, Vermont. Guaranteed to cool you off or drive you in search of a cold drink.


Perchance to Stream: Margaritaville 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 the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, starring Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, and Laurent Naouri, in the Grand Théâtre de Provence. [France Musique]

  • Emmanuelle Haïm conducts Le Concert d'Astrée in Handel's Il Trionfo Del Tempo e Del Disinganno at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, starring Sabine Devieilhe, Franco Fagioli, Sara Mingardo, and Michael Spyres and recorded at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Opera North Ring Cycle, recorded in Sage Gateshead, led by the Brünnhilde of Kelly Cae Hogan. [Das Rheingold | Die Walküre | Siegfried]

  • Watch Christophe Rousset lead Les Talens Lyriques in a "Tribute to Shakespeare" at the Théâtre Elisabéthain d'Hardelot with soprano Maria Grazia Schiavo. [ARTE]

  • From the Wigmore Hall in London, a recital of Beethoven violin sonatas played by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Igor Levit. [BBC3]

  • The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin performs Brandenburg Concertos and orchestral suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, recorded last May in Barcelona. [Ö1]

  • The European Union Baroque Orchestra, under violinist Rachel Podger, perform last May in the Basilika St. Emmeram as part of the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg. [Ö1]

  • From the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, soprano Marlis Petersen, tenor Werner Güra, and pianist Christoph Berner perform a concert of songs, recorded last month in the Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenberg. [Ö1]

  • Listen to a performance of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, starring Jean-François Lapointe (Tell), John Osborne (Arnold), and Nadine Koutcher, recorded last September with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in the Grand Théâtre de Geneve. [Ö1]

  • Pianist Lukas Vondracek won this year's Queen Elisabeth Competition, and you can watch all of the finalists. [Queen Elisabeth Competition]

  • Tenor Ian Bostridge performs Schubert's Winterreise with pianist Saskia Giorgini, recorded at the Utrecht Chamber Music Festival. [Avro Klassiek]

  • The New York Philharmonic performs his Third Symphony with mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and conductor Bernard Haitink. [NY Phil]

  • From the Royal Festival Hall in London, a recital by pianist Paul Lewis, with music by Schubert, Brahms and Liszt. [BBC3]

  • Watch Krzysztof Urbanski conduct the NDR Philharmonic Hamburg in an open-air concert in the port of Hamburg, with cellist Sol Gabetta. [ARTE]

  • The Wiener Symphoniker, with conductor Robert Trevino and pianist Alice Sara Ott, perform music by Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • The Vienna Piano Trio plays music by C.P.E. Bach and Rebecca Clarke, recorded at the Vienna Konzerthaus, and Andrew Manze leads Mendelssohn's third symphony with the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. [BBC3]

  • From the Opéra de Lausanne, Roberto Rizzi Brignoli leads a performance of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment, starring Julie Fuchs (Marie) and Frédéric Antoun (Tonio), recorded last March. [Radio Clásica]

  • From the Styriarte Festival, pianist Bernd Glemser plays music by Liszt and Chopin, recorded last month at the Helmut-List-Halle in Graz. [Ö1]

  • Juanjo Mena leads the BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Hallé Youth Chorus, and harpist Marie-Pierre Langlemat in Ginastera's harp concerto and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. [Ö1]

  • Dennis Russell Davies leads the Bruckner Orchester Linz, with trumpeter Till Brönner, in music by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (Metamorphose), Miles Davis, and Wolfgang Dauner. [Ö1]

  • Chamber music by Hindemith, Mozart, Boulez, and Tchaikovsky performed by Liana Gourdija and friends, recorded for the Festival Juventus at the Théâtre de Cambrai. [France Musique]

Ionarts-at-Large: Troubled Matthew Passion, Saved By Excitement

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is dead and the future of his Concentus Musicus in question. Its power base, the cycle in Vienna’s Musikverein, has been moved to the small Brahms Hall for the time being; an unknown student and assistant of Harnoncourt’s (Stefan Gottfried) is slated to take over the next few concerts; Concentus violinists Erich Höbarth and Andrea Bischof (of Quatuor Mosaïques fame) help lead the ensemble. That leaves more of the early-music work – heavy lifting in a town not particularly keen on HIP-shenanigans, despite Harnoncourt’s great success – to the other early music band in Vienna, Martin Haselck’s 30-year young Vienna Academy Orchestra who do have their cycle in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. They did their part on March 16th, when they presented Bach’s Matthew Passion. With the sublime Dorothee Mields as the lead soloist and memory of an absolutely superb Susanna (Handel; December 13th, 2015) still fresh, this was a promising proposition. So promising, alas, that it fell a good deal short; but also so proximate to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s lackluster Mass in B Minor here) that for all the hot mess it turned out to be, it was at least hot.

For the most part, the singers were good or even outstanding. Mezzo Ida Aldrian has a slightly dramatizing voice with a nice spot-vibrato that switches on for brief accentuations; part of the brain wants to raise a warning flag – the other part finds itself enjoying it immensely. It is a pointed way of treating text and music and makes the text easy to follow. She pleased more and more as the evening went on, and either by power of (her) suggestion or sheer luck, she got reasonably appropriate tempi thrown her way.

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Matthew Passion,
Enoch zu Guttenberg / Klangverwaltung / Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern
M.Ullman, K.Mertens, A.Korondi, A.Vondung, W.Güra, H.C.Begemann

Tenor Samuel Boden’s Evangelist – I loved the suit (a striking gray cutaway? Surely not regulation-dress at the old-fogey stuffy Musikverein but damned dashing) of the boyish-looking 30-something – hasn’t quite arrived at Evangelist-maturity yet, sounded overtaxed at times, but his pronunciation and enunciation were excellent already and his effort top notch. A more natural delivery, more regal dignity and ease and less ‘eager sportscaster’ approach will do the trick in the years to come, of which he has very many. Of course any kind of judgement is a tad unfair when the current mental comparison is Mark Padmore. Bass-baritone José Antonio López is a robust, burly Jesus – one whom one is inclined not to worry about (as a character – which is in great contrast to the touching fragility that Roderick Williams shows in the Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars production from Berlin). Moments of beauty and moments of rudeness are side by side with him. (He’s a regular with the Vienna Academy Orchestra and had impressed in the Beethoven Ninth ‘premiere-like’ performance.)

Soprano Dorothee Mields’ top-of-the-voice vibrato could be less pronounced and just as effective or more, but the love for the text and the join in the music came through every note – as it did through the swaying gently along to the music with her whole body. The racing clip – borderline absurd – at which her aria (“Ich will Dir mein Herze schenken”) was taken did not seem to faze her in the least – she looks always totally relaxed when singing, though for a second I thought that the maestro had meant to conduct in two something he ended up conducting in one.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…The Zurich Opera Orchestra recently re-branded itself as the Zurich Philharmonia. Along with its relaunch it launched its own CD label. With an energized, undistracted Fabio Luisi at the helm (who also made their recent Wozzeck – see ‘Wozzeck’ Opens Zurich Opera Season With Uncommon, Resounding Success – one of the best performances I’ve been at in years), this is paying big dividends in this CD of popular Wagner overtures…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Wagner In Switzerland


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…If “no plot, no characters, no dialogue” doesn’t sound like a promising premise for an entertaining musical work, think again:…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Handel At His Most English


Latest on Forbes: Making Music Visible: Peter Sellars' St John Passion From Berlin

The Bach Passion ceases to be a spectator sport, it becomes a passively participatory event…

…The St John Passion performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle (with a stellar cast) wouldn’t be an unusual thing, even in times where fewer and fewer big romantic orchestras perform early music that has become the provenance of Historically Informed Performance groups. But as the Berlin Radio Chorus assembles – then lies down – on the blank space of Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall (space the much reduced and original-instrument-studded baroque core of the Berlin Phil. does not need), one begins to suspect that something is different. Or, more likely, the watcher of this DVD/Blu-ray set already knows that they are watching Peter Sellars’ staging of the St John Passion…

->Making Music Visible: Peter Sellars' St John Passion From Berlin


Forbes Classical CD of the Week

…Riccardo Muti’s Otello, his first commercial audio recording of Verdi’s far-and-away greatest opera, hasn’t got an all-star cast by name but hand-picked singers instead, who contribute to one of the most wholly satisfying performances of the opera I’ve heard on record…

-> Classical CD of the Week: Serenading The Green Eyed Monster

New Paleolithic Sculpture Discovered

The prehistoric era is a period of art history where major discoveries remain to be made. A paleolithic sculpture has turned up in the cave of Foissac, carved from a large bovine bone and, somewhat unusually, with designs engraved upon it. Marie-Amélie Blin has a report (Une statuette découverte dans la grotte de Foissac, July 5) for Le Figaro (my translation):
The underground waters of the cave of Foissac (Aveyron) have just brought up to the surface a new prehistoric treasure: a statue carved with a flint tool into a bone of a bison or auroch. Found last month during winter work and authenticated by an expert from La Direction régionale des affaires culturelles (Drac), it was apparently made 20,000 years ago. The opening of the Foissac cave had remained sealed for five millennia following a landslide. It was reopened in 1959, after a team of scouts discovered it by chance. Since then the site has continued to reveal bit by bit its prehistoric treasures, buried in its waters and underground caverns.

The statuette that has just been discovered is particularly striking. It represents a human being, although paleolithic artists generally preferred to sculpt and draw animals. It is a piece of portable art, such as one finds rarely in caves. And it has come to us in a state of perfect preservation, despite being submerged in water and having survived thousands of years.
The cave is closed to the public from October to June. Sébastien du Fayet de La Tour, who made the discovery, explained how it happened: "During this period the rising river washes the soil, deposing silt, and it is not uncommon to find bone shards flushed out of the cavities, which we pick up in the summer. I was not surprised to find this year something that looked like a large bovine bone, covered with mud. After washing it, I saw that it was incised. Not just with one or two large incisions, but hundreds that form eyes, a mouth, a nose, hair -- it was then I realized I was holding a real statuette in my hands." The researchers, having learned the lessons of disastrous conservation attempts of the past, are keeping the object in the cave, in conditions as much as possible identical to those in which it has survived so perfectly this far.

Without any other historical sources, analysis of prehistoric art has to be made primarily, almost exclusively, on visual evidence. Du Fayet de La Tour identifies other marks that may be interpreted as tattoos or scarification on the cheeks; the figure appears female and the arms are carrying something, perhaps a child, a fetus, or an animal ("in the manner of a Virgin and Child," he says); one part has been polished with an unknown tool. A three-dimensional scan may allow researchers to understand more completely what the artist may have intended to depict. This will be a great way to open the prehistoric unit of my A.P. Art History class this fall.


Disparition d'Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)

Film Reviews:

Like Someone in Love (2012)
Copie conforme (2010)
Shirin (2008)
Ten (2002)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Taste of Cherry (1997)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Life and Nothing More (And Life Goes On, 1992)
Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987)
We are admirers of the Iranian New Wave here at Ionarts, and the biggest fish in that lake was Abbas Kiarostami. After making his last two films outside Iran, he died yesterday in Paris, after a long battle with cancer. Jacques Mandelbaum has a moving tribute (Abbas Kiarostami, emporté par le vent, July 5) today in Le Monde (my translation)
It is a major loss, of an immense artist -- photographer, poet, and painter -- who has left an indelible mark on the history of world cinema. According to the press agency ISNA, the director, whose health had worsened, had left Tehran last week to undergo a treatment in France, after having had an operation in mid-March in the Iranian capital.

So life comes to an end, even for the director of And Life Goes On. In that magnificent film from 1992, a filmmaker in Tehran, the director's double, is returning with his son to the locations of a previous film, where a deadly earthquake has just occurred, to search for survivors among the children who took part in the film. That search for life in a landscape of death, that humanistic aspiration under the straitjacket of oppression, was in truth the admirable constant of Abbas Kiarostami's work. A work undertaken with courage under the yoke of Islamic censorship, to the point of the director's exhaustion, having left to make films under other skies when the regime hardened its authority.
A master of the slow burn, Kiarostami made movies driven by characters and dialogue, or by the lack thereof, and he will be missed. We will be revisiting his masterpieces this month (see video embedded below).


Basilica of St. Denis to Have Its Tower Restored

My students are almost always bothered when we study the birth of Gothic architecture, because the façade of the Basilica of Saint-Denis currently has only one spire. Medieval church spires are often mismatched by design, but it turns out that the missing spire at Saint-Denis was toppled during a bad storm in the 19th century. There is finally a plan to rebuild it, according to an article by Florence Evin (La basilique de Saint-Denis devrait retrouver sa flèche, July 2) in Le Monde (my translation):
"Today we have the green light," rejoiced Didier Paillard, the mayor of Saint-Denis. "Preliminary feasibility studies can begin for technical studies and financing." No question of building it new: "all the materials have been kept in storage in the church, according to the mayor. It is only a matter of putting the carved stones back in place, which have been resting for 150 years at the basilica's feet." The Basilica of Saint-Denis, prototype of Gothic cathedrals, the rival of Notre-Dame de Paris, founded in the 6th century, enlarged by Saint Louis in the 13th century, to house the necropolis of the kings of France, has been abandoned for decades, without the necessary conservation care, not even heat, despite receiving 300,000 visitors each year. Without the government, its owner, caring until the recent restoration of the façade.

In 1846, a tornado called the « Trombe de Gonesse » (Gonesse Waterspout) hit Saint-Denis. It destabilized the spire raised from 1190 to 1230, reaching 85 meters (90 meters with the cross), while twelve other bell towers in the region collapsed. François Debret, chief architect of historic monuments, who was then responsible for the building, judged the fragility of the spire dangerous. He decided, in 1847, to take it down, stone by stone, as was the practice then, according to the principle of anastylosis still used today.

"M. Debret took care to number each block and to make careful linear drawings of the dismantling, with a precision like that of a scanner," says Jacques Moulin, the chief architect today in charge of the basilica, who carried out the restoration of the façade. "The 70 drawings are have been preserved as well as the plan to put them back in place," claims the architect.
Viollet-le-Duc, the successor of M. Debret, had no plan to restore the spire, instead having the idea to completely remake the entire basilica façade. Fortunately, he did not have the money to carry out his plans, and the medieval basilica remained in place, under centuries of detritus, down to its 12th-century sculpture. This is happily the reverse of Viollet-le-Duc's disastrous reconstruction of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which has turned out to be one of the embarrassing debacles of architectural history.


Perchance to Stream: Independence 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.

  • Collegium Vocale Gent, under Philippe Herreweghe, performs the Le Lagrime di San Pietro of Orlando Lassus, recorded in April at the Oratoire du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • Watch a performance of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks at the Château de Chambord, with Hervé Niquet conducting Le Concert Spirituel. [ARTE]

  • Watch Philippe Jordan conduct the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris in arias by Verdi, Bizet, Puccini, and others, with Sondra Radvanovsky, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Anita Rachvelishvili, and others. [ARTE]

  • Watch the double-bill of Senza Sangue by Péter Eötvös and Bartók's Bluebeard’s Castle at the Armel Opera Festival. [ARTE]

  • Listen to Handel's Jephtha performed by Accademia Bizantina and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur, recorded in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Beaune. [Radio Clásica]

  • A recital by pianist Marc-André Hamelin from the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, with music by Maria Szymanowska, Mozart, Schubert, and Liszt. [Ö1]

  • Listen to the performance of Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, in an English translation by Tom Stoppard, performed by Opera Australia. [ABC Classic]

  • Watch the production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from the Opéra Grand Avignon. [CultureBox]

  • Daniele Gatti conducts the Orchestre National de France in a concert of Liszt, Wagner, and Bruckner, with tenor Jonas Kaufmann, recorded last May. [France Musique]

  • Concentus Musicus Wien, conducted by Karina Canellakis, performs three Beethoven symphonies in Graz. [Ö1 | Part 2]

  • Laurence Commings conducts the NDR Chor at the Göttingen Festival in Handel's Susanna, with Emily Fons (Susanna) leading the soloists. [Ö1]


CD Review: Joan Tower String Quartets

available at Amazon
J. Tower, String Quartets 3-5 / Dumbarton Quintet, Daedalus Quartet, Miami String Quartet, B. McMillen

(released on April 8, 2016)
Naxos 8.559795 | 63'40"
Charles T. Downey, Joan Tower, String Quartets (Washington Post, July 1)
In 2009, Joan Tower presided over a somewhat disappointing performance of her own chamber music here in Washington, during the Kennedy Center’s CrossCurrents Festival. Two of the works on that program, the third string quartet (“Incandescent”) and the “Dumbarton Quintet,” have been recorded for the first time on a recent Naxos release, along with the American composer’s two most recent string quartets, No. 4 (“Angels”) and No. 5 (“White Water”), from 2008 and 2012, respectively.

Two prominent quartets have presented Tower’s music in the best light, beginning with the Miami String Quartet, which recorded the third and fourth quartets. The third quartet, commissioned for a new concert hall at Bard College, creates the sense of heat through many repeated-note motifs, small cells that are repeated and passed around the four instruments many times. The four players have communicated the intensity Tower wanted, including in three cadenzas for violin, viola and cello, but the composer’s hammering of the same motifs grows tiresome with repeated listening.

The fourth quartet, dedicated to the “angels” who helped Tower’s brother recover from a stroke, opens the same way, with an oscillating motif presented in alternate sections with more keening material in longer note values, often with glissandi. Tower has traced this focus on percussive, obsessive rhythm to her childhood in South America and her love of Stravinsky, and the use of brief rhythmically charged motifs is a tribute to one of her favorite composers, Beethoven. As the glissandi grow more and more frenetic, the piece comes suddenly to a close on a shining E major chord.

The Daedalus Quartet, formed in 2000, has recorded the fifth quartet, which also features glissandi as an important motivic element, evocative of flowing water, as Tower put it. In its original formation, the group won first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, and since taking on two members a few years ago, it has continued to specialize in contemporary music. Tower’s music sounds more compelling, more animated, but also more balanced in this group’s hands, including in the “Dumbarton Quintet,” joined by Blair McMillen, who has succeeded Tower as pianist with her ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players. Commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation in 2003, the work is an example of Tower’s focus on unison textures, which permeate the writing, including for piano alone. More extended harmonic structures are reminiscent of Messiaen, another of Tower’s favorite composers.


Briefly Noted: Hasse's 'Artaserse'

available at Amazon
J.A. Hasse, Artaserse, A. Giustiniani, F. Fagioli, Ensemble Barocco dell'Orchestra Internationale d'Italia, C. Rovaris

(released on February 26, 2016)
Dynamic CDS7715/1-3 | 178'17"

available at Amazon
[DVD version]
Persian history figures in a number of early operas, including Metastasio's Artaserse. This libretto about the son of Xerxes was set to music twice in 1730 by Leonardo Vinci (in Rome, where all the roles had to be sung by men) and Johann Adolf Hasse, as well as in countless other versions, including one by Domènec Terradellas. Artaxerxes was a younger son of Xerxes, who took the throne after a powerful court official named Artabanus murdered his father and older brother. (Ancient historians vary; Metastasio follows the version in which Artabanus murders Xerxes and blames the king's older son, Darius, so that Artaxerxes is forced to execute him.) The rest of the opera's story is an invented pairing of love interests, with Artaserse enamored of Semira, the sister of his best friend, Arbace, and Arbace in love with Artaserse's sister, Mandane. In this version, Arbace is the son of Artabano, who murders the king because he opposes his son's marriage to Mandane, and the suspicion that falls on Arbace, because he exchanges swords with his father after the murder, prevents the two marriages from going forward until the expected Metastasian lieto fine.

In this first recording of the entire opera, Corrado Rovaris conducts Hasse's original score, made for the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice in 1730, rather than the remix he made for Naples thirty years later. The edition is by Marco Beghelli, a professor at the Università di Bologna, assisted by Raffaele Mellace from the University of Genoa, and it was recorded live in the Palazzo Ducale of the town of Martina Franca, during the Festival della Valle d'Itria in the summer of 2012. Superstar castrato Carlo Broschi, known as "Farinelli," created the role of Arbace, and its pyrotechnical arias (like Act III's Parto qual pastorello) were some of his most celebrated hits. He underwent the surgical alteration that preserved his treble voice at the age of twelve, in the wake of the sudden death of his father, who was maestro di cappella of the cathedral of his hometown, Andria. Countertenor Franco Fagioli stands in for that legendary voice, with an impressive sound across the role's large ambitus, going shrill just at the very top but rock-solid at the bottom, and with thrilling agility in the runs.

Mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina takes on the role of Artabano, created by alto castrato Nicolo Grimaldi ("Nicolini"), who was often cast with the much younger Farinelli around this time. She sounds a little breathless but nails the melismas, with a gorgeous legato sound in the showpiece Pallido il sole at the conclusion of the second act. Maria Grazia Schiavo has a fine turn as Mandane, the role created by soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, matched by mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove as Semira. Tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani is an effective Artaserse, and a third countertenor, Antonio Giovannini, makes the best of the small role of Megabyzus, a real Persian general at this time. The drawbacks of live recording are worse than normal in this case, with weirdly scattered, not always enthusiastic applause interrupting far too often, as well as some sporadic cheering, which is even more annoying. For that reason as well as its lower price, the DVD version of this performance (not reviewed) may be the better deal.