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


CD Review: Couperin's Lessons

Tom Huizenga and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Joyce DiDonato looks at war, peace and the Baroque
Washington Post, November 18

available at Amazon
F. Couperin, Leçons de Ténèbres, L. Crowe, E. Watts, La Nuova Musica, D. Bates

(released on September 9, 2016)
HMU 807659 | 70'32"
Lucy Crowe’s first solo disc in 2011, a selection of Handel arias recorded with Harry Bicket and the English Concert, was such a stunning debut that it’s surprising that the British soprano had not recorded another solo album until now, and it’s an equally sensuous recording. This time, the focus is on François Couperin’s “Trois Leçons de Ténèbres,” the first three of the nine musical readings from the Book of Lamentations for the end of Holy Week.

Couperin composed these glorious pieces for the nuns of the Abbaye Royale de Longchamp, a convent founded with the dowry of the sister of King Louis IX, Isabelle de France, who lived there until her death. This famous monastic house in the Bois de Boulogne, just outside Paris, was destroyed, like so many, during the French Revolution. A racetrack now occupies the site.

Crowe is outstanding in this expressive music, especially as the soloist in the first lesson. Her top range is limpid, free of all strain and perfectly suited to the needs of the music. Breath support is effortless. Take, for instance, the melismatic extension of the final note of the first little section, which encapsulates the appeal of her voice in a mere 40 seconds.

In the opening “Aleph,” the first of the exotic vocalizes that accompany the text’s initial letters in Hebrew, preserved in the Latin translation, long melodic arcs swell delicately toward dissonance and then realign with the harmony in ornamented resolutions. The accompaniment is a pale watercolor wash underneath Crowe, provided by Jonathan Rees on viola da gamba, Alex McCartney on theorbo and David Bates on delicately registered organ.

Elizabeth Watts, the soloist in the second lesson, has a more full-bodied voice that carries some excessive weight toward the top and sometimes overpowers the accompanying forces. Although less pleasing on its own, her voice pushes and pulls in beautiful ways against Crowe’s lighter sound in the third Couperin lesson.

Two of Sébastien de Brossard’s trio sonatas are a pretty lagniappe, with two violins playing the same intertwining roles as the two sopranos in the “Leçons.” They complement La Nuova Musica’s performance of Brossard’s chromatically infused setting of the “Stabat Mater,” although in this piece the solos, by members of the chorus, vary in quality.
Charles T. Downey, Briefly Noted: Lucy Crowe's Handel (Ionarts, August 29, 2012)


CD Review: Jerusalem Quartet's Bartók

Patrick Rucker and Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Bartók by heart, for the heart
Washington Post, November 11

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets 2/4/6, Jerusalem Quartet

(released on November 4, 2016)
HMC902235 | 78'51"
Béla Bartók’s six string quartets are a cross-section of his musical development. Over 30 years, 1909 to 1939, the Hungarian composer can be heard working his way through the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century. A late Romantic in the mold of Liszt and Wagner, Bartók became a modernist through his study both of pre-tonal folk music from Hungary and other countries, and of post-tonal incorporation of dissonance.

The gold standard for the Bartók quartets up to this point, live and in two versions on disc, has been the Takács Quartet, which gave an exemplary performance of the entire cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2014. The Jerusalem Quartet excels in 20th-century repertoire, including its fine partial traversal of the Shostakovich quartets. To judge from the first disc of its new recorded Bartók set, with the even-numbered quartets, the group’s account will not displace the Takács but promises to be in its league.

The second quartet receives the most convincing rendition, especially the dizzying fluidity in the dancing rhythms of Arabian folk dance in the second movement. One of the first movement’s principal motifs, outlining a minor third in stepwise motion, receives just the right caressing attention from all four players.

The success of the fourth quartet rests on the gently creeping night music of the slow movement, the centerpiece of five movements written in palindromic form (a Bartók signature). The Jerusalem Quartet does not captivate with an eclectic variety of sound like the Takács, and the conclusion of the fifth movement feels too polite to be bloodthirsty. On the other hand, the quartet creates a fun interplay of Stravinsky-esque metric shifts and off-beat accents in the first movement. The inner movements are the most delightful — a restless, questing Prestissimo in the second movement, with mutes on, and an astounding variety of plucked sounds in the fourth movement.

No. 6 is a piece steeped in sadness, composed just before Bartók was compelled to flee Europe for an unhappy few final years in New York. Laments (marked Mesto) open each movement and become the central subject of the finale. The solos that permeate the work are all polished, perhaps too polished. One misses the quirky individualism of the Takács Quartet’s approach.


Runnicles leads French music with the NSO

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

On Thursday evening, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, visiting British conductor Donald Runnicles led the National Symphony Orchestra and the University of Maryland Concert Choir in performances of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Duruflé. It was a delectable French-flavored evening before a very sparse audience.

The first half of the concert was dedicated to Debussy. It may be helpful to recall its genesis. Erik Satie wrote, “I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn’t the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own — if possible, without any sauerkraut.” Ingeniously, Satie suggested that the way out for French music was French painting. Why not look to “the means that Claude Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others had made known? Why could we not transpose these means into music?” It is a measure of French musical genius that it was able to do so, as so brilliantly exemplified in the works of Debussy.

The concert began with four of Debussy’s piano Préludes, arranged for orchestra by English composer Colin Matthews. Matthews is no stranger to this kind of thing as he, along with his brother David, assisted Deryck Cooke in Cooke’s revised performing version of Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony. While I am an avid fan of David Matthews’ music, I cannot say the same for what little of Colin Matthews’ music I have heard. Regardless, his Debussy orchestrations reveal a very fine ear for color and are so well done that they sound completely natural to the music. But does it still sound like Debussy? Whether you think so or not makes the music nonetheless enjoyable, particularly in the NSO’s subtle, mellow, finely articulated performances.

In Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, his inspiration may not have been so much French painting, as it was the American paintings of James McNeill Whistler. In any case, Runnicles' finely shaded, diaphanous traversal of them also earned the same adjectives applied to the performances of the Préludes. Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds) floated by in an appropriately delicious, dreamy way, capturing “the slow motion of the clouds,” just as Fêtes was suitably bracing and festive. Orchestra and chorus were quite excellent in elucidating a broad range of dynamic range in Sirènes, from the lapping of the waves, to the first gentle and then strengthening wordless song of the Sirens.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem from 1947 originated in a suite of organ pieces based on plainsong from the Mass for the Dead. When he received a commission from Durand Publishers, he expanded them into the Requiem. The Requiem is listed as Op. 9, which would normally indicate an early work. In his lifetime, however, the meticulous Duruflé was to publish only a dozen works, mostly for organ. The Requiem is the chef d’oeuvre of his maturity. Add to plainchant the sensuous harmonies of Debussy and Ravel, which Duruflé had learned so well, and you have a mesmerizing combination, simultaneously modern and archaic. As Duruflé wrote, “In general, I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style and have tried to reconcile, as far as possible, the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation.”

The Requiem opens very dreamily. Gentle orchestral undulations underlie the smoothly flowing plainchant of the Introit. Runnicles took this rather too briskly. The cushion of sound was invitingly there, but not the leisure to lie upon it. If we are dying, what’s the rush? I know Duruflé makes death relatively attractive but this displayed too much alacrity. There was certainly nothing imploring about the Kyrie, but Runnicles effectively conveyed its sense of celebration as in mercy received. In the Offertorium, one glimpses the inferno from which the soul has been saved. Dissonances depict the “punishments of hell,” but even the request for deliverance from them is almost triumphant. The vigor with which Runnicles approached this scene guaranteed an effective rescue from the “lion’s mouth.” Baritone Christian Bowers was fine at the Hostias et preces tibi, but not notably expressive.

The Sanctus slowly builds with cushioned strings to a triple-forte climax at “Hosanna in excelsis,” then subsides peacefully back into the rippling moto perpetuo with which it began. This was very well done. The Pie Jesu is a very poignant, gentle supplication, the point of repose at the heart of the work. It was delivered with both strength and nuance by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, with a fine supporting contribution from cellist David Hardy. The Agnus Dei restores a sense of motion and confidence that the “requiem sempiternam” has been granted. Lux Aeterna evokes what the eternal rest might be like, and In Paradisum represents the trip there, what Duruflé called “the ultimate answer of Faith to all the questions, by the flight of the soul to Paradise.”

In the first part of the Requiem’s performance, I was given to wonder if Runnicles simply considered it another exquisitely beautiful piece of music, much like the Debussy, because of what I detected as the missing ardency of faith, the core of what Duruflé was trying to express. That impression, along with my reservations concerning the pace that he was taking early on, completely vanished from the Lux Aeterna onwards.

Anyone with a taste for secular or religious Impressionism, should enjoy this French feast.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow.


Forbes Classical CD of the Week


…Johann Friedrich Fasch was in line for a major renaissance in the early 20th century, when enthusiasts worldwide worked toward a better appreciation of his genius. Unfortunately, history steamrolled over the First International Union of Faschists*. (My apologies. In a Sunday cartoon, you’d call that the ‘throw-away joke’.) What’s true, though, …

-> Classical CD of the Week: Fasch, A Classical Misunderstanding


Dip Your Ears, No. 215 (A Grand Steinway Romance)

available at Amazon

A Grand Romance,
Jeffrey Biegel

From the most aggressively self-promoting, social-media-mongering pianist since the invention of the internet comes this cornucopia of musical miniatures and technical dazzlers from the likes of Moszkowski, Henselt, and Rubinstein. (It is a disc purporting to “[celebrate] the intimacy of the relationship between pianist and public, wiht a sampling of finely honed pieces of the Romantic era.”) If you’ve ever as much as published an Amazon review, nothing shy of a restraining order will spare you the sycophantic flattery of Jeffrey Biegel.

Annoying, needy, and desperate as it is, it would only be poetic justice of the finest kind if he was the absolute pits as a pianist. He disappoints even on that count, because he’s actually quite gifted and so it is with decidedly begrudging emotion that I’ve taken great pleasure in this medley of piano-bonbons. I can’t believe I’m reading myself write this, but compared with the usually wonderful Jenny Lin’s similar-ish (“get happy”) bag of assorted goodies, “A Grand Romance” is the musically far more pleasing and sophisticated venture, without interpretative blemishes and full of surprises.

Washington Bach Consort struggles onward

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Flute Sonatas, B. Kuijken, E. Demeyere
(Accent, 2000)

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Viola da Gamba Sonatas, J. Savall, T. Koopman
(Alia Vox, 2000)
Washington's entire community of musicians was shocked and saddened when J. Reilly Lewis died from a sudden heart attack this past June. No group of musicians, however, was more deeply affected than the members of the Washington Bach Consort. Since its founding in 1977, the group has known no other leader, and it is difficult to imagine this particular ensemble managing to go on for long without him to inspire and unify it.

The first of the group's chamber music concerts this year, heard last night at First Congregational United Church of Christ, offered some hope. Executive Director Marc Eisenberg explained that a provisional plan to follow if the Consort lost its leader was put into effect. Harpsichordist Todd Fickley, who led this concert, will serve this season as acting artistic director, while the board of directors conducts a search for a replacement. Fickley certainly knows the musicians, having served as Reilly's assistant for many years. He provided sparkling, technically assured accompaniment in four instrumental sonatas, a welcome constant as the quality of his partners fluctuated. Fickley even supplied one of Reilly's most omnipresent, if occasionally vexing contributions to a Bach Consort event: the gift of gab, in long narrations before each piece. The idea for the program was Reilly's, but it was Fickley who managed to bring it to execution.

Colin St. Martin's performance of Bach's second flute sonata (E minor, BWV 1034) was what brought me out to Penn Quarter on a Friday night, with the streets clogged by a Wizards game at Verizon Center. St. Martin's playing on the Baroque traverso is a regular highlight of many concerts by the Bach Consort, Opera Lafayette, and other ensembles. Here he worked marvels with the old instrument, creating pleasing forward motion while at the same time taking time to place all those tricky high notes just right in the first movement. The fingerwork was astonishing in the fast movements, especially the devilish arpeggiated passages in the second movement (all flutists know the sections I am referring to), where the breath support was seemingly endless. Unlike the other soloists for the most part, St. Martin added graceful ornamentation to the third movement, accompanied by Fickley on the delicate lute stop of Reilly's harpsichord. The only slight misstep was Fickley's over-registration of the harpsichord in the closing movement, which worked against the flutist but did not faze him at all. It was a performance that could rival my favorite recording, by Barthold Kuijken, who was one of St. Martin's teachers.

The sonatas for viola da gamba are perhaps my favorites among Bach's instrumental sonatas. This performance of the second sonata (D major, BWV 1028) was disappointing, for its caution, for its intonation issues especially in the double-stop passages. One of the violin sonatas (E major, BWV 1016) was better, with fewer but still noticeable shortcomings of intonation in the solo part. The concluding work was the G major trio sonata (G major, BWV 1039), which brought together all three soloists, with the gamba finally providing the sustaining bass line that had been missed in the other pieces. The decision to perform it with traverso on one line and violin on the other was not felicitous. The violinist was able to hold back her sound to allow the flute to be heard for the most part, but she also tended to rush, especially in the second movement.


Latest on Forbes: Emmanuelle Haïm Can 'Handel' The Vienna Philharmonic

It’s more or less a tradition in the ten years of the Theater-an-der-Wien that the season opens with a concert, and more or less a tradition that that concert is played by the Vienna Philharmonic – even if this year’s concert was preceded by the world premiere of Arno Schreier’s Hamlet. (Forbes review here.) It is decidedly not a tradition, and certainly not one for the Vienna Philharmonic, that it was a concert of baroque music. Nor is it a tradition for the Vienna Philharmonic to be led by a woman conductor. (A French female woman, even, as a gender-, nationalism- and click-baiting hack like Norman Lebrecht might take pains to point out.)

An thus the audience in the not-entirely-filled house (and with most of the journalists away, covering a Ralph Benatzky operetta at the Volksoper) experienced an unusual sight: The Vienna Philharmonic on stage with two harpsichords, a continuo organ, and a theorbo (a HIP trope that instrument; a symbol more than a sign of authenticity and in any case inaudible in the entire first half). Unusual and in a way typical for the Theater-an-der-Wien, which likenexts to think outside the box. Emmanuelle Haïm, the third woman[1] to ever conduct the Vienna Philharmonic (or at least a small, baroque-ensemble sized section thereof), had conducted the same George Frideric Handel program at the Lucerne Festival and repeated it here: A first half of orchestral works and the solo cantata Il delirio amoroso (HWV 99) in the second half.

Full review here:

Emmanuelle Haïm Can 'Handel' The Vienna Philharmonic


At WCR: Noseda takes the helm

Charles T. Downey, Noseda, NSO bring out the steel and serenity of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”
Washington Classical Review, November 4

Charles T. Downey, Noseda Brings the Casella (Ionarts, November 13, 2015)

---, Noseda Pumps up the Volume with the NSO (Ionarts, February 12, 2011)

Prokofiev’s 'Romeo and Juliet'

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda

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

On Thursday evening, November 3, 2016, the National Symphony Orchestra essayed Sergei Prokofiev’s great ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center. It did so under the direction of Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who will assume his full duties as replacement for NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach in the fall of 2017.

On the evening’s evidence, this is good news for Washington, D.C. Noseda galvanized the NSO to give a thoroughly compelling performance of this masterpiece. It was a concert performance of the (almost) complete ballet music, but I am tempted to say that, even without dancers, we saw a ballet nevertheless. It is astonishing to realize that Prokofiev’s score was turned down by the Bolshoi in 1935 as “unsuitable for dancing.” Since it contains waltzes, minuets, gavottes, and tarantellas, what’s not to dance to? I have difficulty remaining still in my seat when I listen to it. The music demands movement. Noseda did not resist the impulse. He conducts with more than his baton; his body is his baton. He moved expressively with the music in a balletic way that was neither gratuitous nor histrionic (though his few deep knee bends startled). He clearly communicated. The NSO responded with glorious playing. I think that Romeo and Juliet was not the only love story transpiring on stage.

Noseda’s strong emotional commitment did not compromise orchestral discipline (which is what I sometimes thought was occasionally the problem with the conducting of Mstislav Rostropovich, to whose memory the performance was dedicated). To extend the ballet analogy, the players were on their toes the entire time. They needed to be as Prokofiev’s score has frequent, often abrupt changes of rhythm and pace. To break with the ballet analogy, they turned on a dime. It was a breathtaking level of execution (though there were a few minor flubs, which is to be expected in an opening night performance of a score this demanding, but not once in the many opening or closing cues). The discipline of the playing added to the drama and never subverted the warmth. In other words, technical excellence was never the point.

Thus one was able to appreciate the broad range of expression Noseda and the NSO players captured in the mercurial character of this music. The big moments, such as Tybalt and Mercutio’s fight, Romeo’s reaction to Mercutio’s death (great staccato chords hammered home), the killing of Tybalt, and Romeo’s exile by the Prince, were shockingly visceral and harrowing in their impact. The gentle and gloriously lyrical love music, including the “parting is such sweet sorrow” moment at the end of Act I, the Act II marriage music, and the Act III scene in Juliet’s chamber, were delivered with delicacy and refinement. The music shimmered in all the right places. The Juliet funeral music at the opening of Act IV was a lesson in how searingly sorrowful pianissimo, tremolo string playing can be when done as well as the NSO violins did it.

One hardly knows where to begin in complementing the other members and sections of the orchestra. I never knew how good the tuba music was in depicting Juliet’s growing stupor under the influence of the sleeping potion until I heard it tonight. Kudos to Stephen Dumaine. Perhaps that’s unfair, because I would have to single out so many other individuals. The flute is Juliet’s instrument, and Aaron Goldman played it so well in, so to speak, singing her song. But what of the rest of the brass, the clarinets, the oboes, the bassoons, the saxophone – to say nothing of the outstanding timpani? They were all generally excellent. The undergirding provided by the cellos and double basses was formidable, as were the violas when given their chance to sing.

Anyone who has the faintest appreciation for one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th century, or who may be curious as to what Maestro Noseda is bringing to our fair city, should not tarry seeing one of the remaining performances.

Romeo and Juliet repeat on Friday and Saturday nights, November 4 and 5. I want to go again.

The Cello Suites, Bach IV (Sebastian Klinger)

Bach’s music – specifically his Cello Suites – excites and enthuses necessarily. And the extraordinary recordings of Jean-Guihen Queyras (Harmonia Mundi) and Sebastian Klinger (Oehms, 2007) further contribute to making over two hours of non-stop solo cello unusually entertaining. Both sway the ears with impeccable technique and a wonderfully caught, natural tone. Klinger (on a 1736 Camillus Camilli) more by more means of dynamism and flexing his well oiled muscles – Queyras (on a 1696 Gioffredo Cappa) with beautifully controlled ardor. 

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
Sebastian Klinger

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cello Suites,
Harmonia Mundi

Queyras, the former cellist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain has already made a name for himself outside of France with performances and wonderful recordings – including Schubert’s Arpeggione with Alexandre Tharaud and the Dvořák Cello Concerto, where he put one of the most moving slow movements on record down. Klinger, a student of Heinrich Schiff’s and Boris Pergamenschikow’s, became the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s first solo cellist at 27 and is of yet unknown to most American concert going audiences. He has an active solo career by now, but perhaps not quite the presence for international stardom. Some years back, reviewing him in concert as a soloist, I found him having a deficit in soloist-attitude. That hardly speaks against him, though, and certainly not on this recording in the ultimately intimate music of Bach.

Both recordings are similar in many ways – superior technical quality, rich tone, generous acoustic (both were recorded in a church), tempos – but Klinger uses a six-stringed cello for the last Suite, which makes for a slightly calmer, more fragile impression and at 420 hertz Klinger also uses a slightly lower-than-usual tuning for a less edgy and, well, ‘high-strung’, sound. That points to Klinger having absorbed many lessons from the ‘Historically Informed’ school, even if his interpretation is decidedly not “HIP”. (Peter Wispelwey would be the choice for that.)

Anyone who wants to place a modern recording next to their Pierre Fournier in their collection but shies away from the wilful individualism of Gavriel Lipkind will be exceedingly well served by either of these interpretations.

The Bach Cello Suites elsewhere on ionarts:

Just What Are the Bach Cello Suites? [Pandolfo, Cocset]
Solo Bach Cello Suites [Ma, Haimovitz]
Dip Your Ears, No. 4 [Wispelwey]
Dip Your Ears, No. 25 [Fournier]
Dip Your Ears, No. 111 [S.Kuijken, Viola Pomposa]
Dip Your Ears, No. 145 [Vogler]
Bach Cello Suites [Baumann, Boettcher]
The Cello Suites, Bach I [Maisky, DVD]
The Cello Suites, Bach II [Rostropovich, Fournier, Isserlis, Harnoncourt]

● CD Pick & Recent Releases [Bailey]
● Suites for Dancing [Curtis]