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Dip Your Ears, No. 247 (Bach, Jazzed Up: An Austrian Attempt)

available at Amazon
Bach Improvisations
Benjamin Schmid & Friends

Oehms Classics has released several recordings of Benjamin Schmid, one of Austria’s premier violinists. This time we are treated to “Improvisations on J.S. Bach”. Color me interested! If keen observers notice that the cover photo of Schmid’s is not just of oddly shoddy quality but also rather dated, they might be onto something: A hint at the fact that the recording was made a decade ago and is only now being released? Pondering this raises the question: Why release it now? Listening to the album raises the question: Why release it at all? That’s not to insinuate that all’s bad with the music on this disc – the opposite. The approach and the general idea are great: Let a collection of extraordinary musicians – certainly Schmid himself, the locally famous Austrian bassist and all-purpose musician Georg Breinschmid, and major marimbist Emiko Uchiyama – loose on Bach in jazzy arrangements speckled with jazz standards (Kurt Weill’s Youkali, a bit of Django Reinhardt, Jerome Kern) and semi-improvisations. And in its idealized form, the result here is somewhere between Jacques Loussier and Edgar Meyer. Several of the arrangements are very groovy, indeed. It’s just that this exalted level is reached rarely – and when it isn’t, it leaves you wanting. The opening E major Prelude is a case in point: A dab of hoedown, as re-imagined by Austrian boys, a touch of bluegrass raises the spirits. And then some woeful off-key notes that are sold as on-purpose but which are not finding any buyers at that price.

After several foot-tapping episodes, the project reaches the nadir in a freewheeling violin-rumination on the Well-Tempered Clavier Prelude No. 1 that is played by the marimba. If you hesitate before figuring that the violin’s part is not just aimless noodling, it’s already too late. What’s lacking is conviction. Every improviser has essentially two modes: “Searching” and “rolling with the material”. To the extent any of the works on this disc are truly improvised in the moment (it’s a mix of studio and live takes), they sound like they are only searching and never really rolling with it. There is a hesitancy about the material that does not befit any groove nor, importantly, the instrument. You can be hesitant on the piano and maybe get away with it. But on the violin, the instrument betrays its player at once. A phrase that might have been probing becomes a whimper, in-stead. Much of what sounds promising among these tracks, also sounds as though it would have been much better had performers had much more time under their belts with this music. (In fact, Schmid has recently released a very well regarded Jazz album on Gramola, suggesting that he isn’t the problem.) The liner notes are a few curiously offhand comments from Schimd: to the point at best, brusque and meaningless at worst. It’s almost as if he could not quite be bothered to revisit this project, which is also how it sounds. It’s a strange recording, flawed and full of good ingredients. Yet rather than ending up reasonably satisfying, it makes you wish for a very similar, better one. Unfortunately, that little difference makes *all* the difference.



On ClassicsToday: Swiss Bach Cantata Cycle Continues to Delight (Bach-Stiftung)

Volume 26: St. Gallen’s Bach Cantata Cycle Marches On

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Step by lively step, the St. Gallen Bach Foundation’s cantata series moves ahead with its sneakily magnificent releases. One of the latest efforts, Volume 26, features the usual qualities: Unspectacular, buoyant, deeply felt readings with fine singers with clear, natural voices.
BWV 25 opens the proceedings with its sighing, teeth-gnashing stepped introduction in the violins—in a tangy minor mode that belies the E major on the written page. The tug and pull leads to a constant repetition of “There is naught of soundness about my body before thy dire anger, nor any rest in my bones in light of my sins” in the chorus—operating in free counterpoint to the double fugue to the chorale in the brass with three trombones and a horn. [continue reading]


Briefly Noted: More Beauty Farm

available at Amazon
Obrecht, Masses, Beauty Farm

(released on April 5, 2019)
Fra Bernardo FB1905157 | 94'11"
Beauty Farm came to my attention a couple years back, when I reviewed two of their discs for the Washington Post. They are a male vocal ensemble, formed in 2014 by members of leading early music groups and based in the cultural center at the former Carthusian monastery of Mauerbach, Austria. I am happy to report that they are still active and recording. As you can see, they are still using the same quirky style of cover art for their releases on the Fra Bernardo label.

Just four of the group's roster perform in these two four-voice Mass settings by Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505), Missa Fortuna desperata and Missa Maria zart, enough music to require two CDs. Each polyphonic Ordinary by Obrecht is prefaced by its source material, Antoine Busnois's three-voice Italian canzona Fortuna desperata and the monophonic song Maria zart, von edler Art, an example of popular sacred music of the time.

The quartet sings one to a part, a practice that reflects the likely performance standard in the Renaissance and also exposes the slightest weakness in any singer. The Missa Maria zart, in particular, is a sort of super-work of the period, a feat of endurance lasting almost an hour and making use of extended vocal ranges in all parts. As is usually the case in all-male performances of this repertory, it is the two upper voices' top ranges that are most sorely tested. All in all, though, these are superbly balanced renditions of exceedingly difficult repertory, an honor to the memory of Obrecht, who died in the final days of July 1505 in Ferrara during an outbreak of the plague.


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Die Götterdämmerung 2019

The Chorus: Honvéd Male Choir (Honvéd Férfikar) & Hungarian Radio Choir (Magyar Rádió Énekkara)

From the third day of the 2019 Budapest Wagner Days come these pictures of Die Götterdämmerung. (See production pictures of Das Rheingold here, Die Walküre here, and Siegfried here - and the ClassicsToday review here.) If the Rheingold stunned with a (largely) no-name cast that was absolutely bona-fide world class (most especially Alberich, Loge, Mime, and Fasolt along with the established Wotan of Johan Reuter's), this most popular opera of the Ring boasted a cast with world class names that, happily, lived up to their billing. Stuart Skelton, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, and especially Catherine Foster gave of their best.

Here is part two (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung
Here is part one of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Die Götterdämmerung to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)


Dip Your Ears, No. 246 (Accordion-Journey: Teodoro Anzellotti in Satie)

available at Amazon
Erik Satie, Keyboard Works arr. for Accordion
Teodoro Anzellotti
(Winter & Winter)

Transcriptions and adaptations of music for accordion are not that hard to find; it’s an instrument that lends itself to grabbing music written for other – especially keyboard – instruments and it hasn’t that much original classical music in the repertoire to fall back on. But there are few accordion players who so consistently pick interesting material and reshape it with such skill and genius as does Teodoro Anzellotti, as his recordings on the boutique label Winter & Winter over the last 20 years testify.

This one, of works by Erik Satie recorded in 1998, was the first to come out. The interpretations depict just the playful whimsy, the witty and coy sides of Satie we know – certainly in the opening cycle of piano-vignettes titled Sports et divertissements. But Anzellotti can also be somber and grave, as in the Jules Massenet-based Rêverie Du Pauvre. The barcarole-like swing of Petite ouverture à danser is sweetly lulling and the famous Gnossiennes are of contemplative beauty, with their long lines enhanced on the accordion, compared to the percussive piano. There’s a meditative quality to the accordion that Anzellotti can tap into, that would make a pianist’s version sound mellow to the point of sedate, while his interpretation still seems alert. The resulting alienation-effect is one of the many aspects that makes this recording a niche-classic.



On ClassicsToday: Karajan's best Beethoven or the best Karajan-Beethoven? (DG)

Karajan’s 1970s Beethoven In Blu-ray Audio: A Controversial Set Revisited

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Herbert von Karajan was once the high-holy name in classical music. So much so it was inevitable that the historical pendulum would swing the other way. And so he became something of an outcast among the self-declared cognoscenti. When customers asked for Karajan at the Tower Records store I worked at, we subtly sneered: “Karajan in whichever-composer? Pooh-pooh. Tut-tut!” His seminal 1960s Beethoven cycle might have been given a grudging exemption, ditto a bit of late Bruckner and an opera or two. But not a whole lot else. And certainly not the later Beethoven recordings.. [continue reading]

See also: The Beethoven Symphonies, A Survey of Complete* Recordings


Briefly Noted: Parfenov's Goldberg Riff

available at Amazon
Bach, Goldberg Variations / Parfenov, New Goldberg Variations, A. Parfenov

(released on July 19, 2019)
Naxos 8.551399 | 79'50"
André Parfenov, born in Kaliningrad in 1972, is in the line of composer-pianists that includes Lera Auerbach, among others. The Russian-born composer resettled in Germany, where he has been working at the Theater in Mönchengladbach/Krefeld, including a collaboration creating original ballet scores for the choreographies of Robert North. This new recording combines his performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations with his own New Goldberg Variations, a set of reactions to the famous Bach work.

Parfenov's Bach is somewhat rough-hewn, with plenty of sustaining pedal and rubato. The playing is heavy-handed, meaning both a deficit in terms of refinement and some striking differentiation of polyphonic voices in the canons and double-keyboard variations. The "Quodlibet" is quite striking in this regard, with the popular song fragments popping out of the texture in unexpected ways. Both performances fit in the space of a single disc in part because Parfenov eschews the repeats, meaning that ornamentation is limited.

In his composer's note, printed only in German, Parfenov makes a point of discussing the polyphonic dimensions of Bach's work. This element permeates his tribute variations as well, which often dwell on contrapuntal expansion, as in his version of the aria with an imitation of the melody at the fifth added like a ghostly echo. Other variations create otherworldly effects, like the harp-strumming washes of sound produced directly on the piano strings in the Introduction. Further highlights include the Debussy-like moto perpetuo of the "Tonale arpeggio" variation, the Bartók barbarism of the "Quarten," and the clanging bells of "Overture: Kirchenglocken." Stylistically, Parfenov veers among various poles, from tonality to jazz to atonality and back again.


On ClassicsToday: Italian Decca Reissues Peter Hurford's Bright and Glorious Bach

Back in Print: Peter Hurford’s Seminal Bach Survey On Argo/Decca

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Peter Hurford’s traversal of Bach’s complete organ works has been out of print for years. As a result, all that I had to go by, for assessing Hurford’s take on that oeuvre—which, outside the cantatas, best shows Bach at his essence—was a well-loved, much-played best-selling Double Decca of “Bach: Great Organ Works”. It was among the earliest Bach organ recordings I owned, next to some splendid Karl Richter, and it made quite an impression. But that was a long time ago and I had moved on, accumulating some two dozen sets in the meantime. Now Italian Decca has re-issued the set and I finally took the chance to check out the rest of Hurford. It turns out, that Twofer really is a very good primer for things to come: Hurford’s Bach is glorious, organistic, and initiation-friendly. [continue reading / insider content]

See also: A Survey of Bach Organ Cycles. Audio samples below:


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Siegfried 2019

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke)

From the third day of the 2019 Budapest Wagner Days come these pictures of Siegfried. (See production pictures of Das Rheingold here and Die Walküre here - and the ClassicsToday review here.) If the Rheingold stunned with a (largely) no-name cast that was absolutely bona-fide world class (most especially Alberich, Loge, Mime, and Fasolt along with the established Wotan of Johan Reuter's), this most popular opera of the Ring boasted a cast with world class names that, happily, lived up to their billing. Stuart Skelton, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, and especially Catherine Foster gave of their best.

Here is part two (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung
Here is part one of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Siegfried to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)

On ClassicsToday: Marcin Świątkiewicz’s Recording of Bach Harpsichord Concertos (Channel Classics)

One-To-A-Part Bach Harpsichord Concertos: Great In Detail But Big-Picture Pale

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Ideology has done much to shape how we listen to baroque music. There was, for one, the one-voice-per-part coterie around Joshua Rifkin that insisted on undernourished performances of cantatas and now-no-longer “choral” works. Analogously, in instrumental works, the concertos have been recast (or restored) as chamber works, also one-voice-per-part. This at least is less controversial, because size-wise that’s exactly what Bach himself did to his earlier, beefier works written in Köthen when he transcribed and down-sampled them for the purpose of performances at Café Zimmerman in Leipzig. [continue reading]


Dip Your Ears, No. 245 (The Delectable Lightness of John Ireland)

available at Amazon
J.Ireland, Music arranged for String Orchestra
D.Curtis / Orchestra of the Swan

John Ireland’s legacy as a teacher might be greater than as a composer; he taught a good swath of England’s 20th century music—most notably Benjamin Britten—at the Royal College of Music. But his music, too, is worthwhile. True “Surprised by Beauty” material… in fact, so beautiful is his music, that it not only got the invariable ‘tonality shrug’ in the 20th century but even now, where ideology in music is no longer an important deciding factor anymore as to whether we may or may not appreciate a particular composition, it runs a good chance of being tagged as “Light Music”.

Well, light it is, if you listen to his Downland [sic] Suite (in the arrangement of the brass band work that Ireland started and his student Geoffrey Bush finished), or pretty much any other of the string orchestra arrangements on this disc. But it isn’t fluff. Not even works like the dance-happy brief Bagatelle or the sensual Cavatina—early compositions in a salon-music-style that might remind you of Chabrier and Offenbach (or maybe Elgar in the Berceuse)—which makes for sweet interludes. Raphael Wallfisch takes all the notable cello parts—most prominently in the arranged Cello Sonata in G minor, of which a recording with Wallfisch (on Marco Polo) also exists in its original form—and lends them his regal tone without sounding overly serious in this highly entertaining music.

Is it the ideal introduction to Ireland—considering that all the works are ‘but transcriptions’? Probably as good as any, actually, given that the Downland Suite in this very arrangement is an obvious starting point for the Ireland-experience. (It is also included on this particular fine Chandos recording with Richard Hickox, which would make as good an introduction.) Whichever way you go, enjoy the breezy delight. 


On ClassicsToday: Concerto Budapest and András Keller in Bruckner (Tacet)

Budapest Bruckner: Unimpressive Sublime

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

If you dig deep enough into this Bruckner Ninth, if you are set up for SACD-Surround Sound and have no neighbors, and if you care about orchestral nuance more than goosebumps, this recording by Concerto Budapest might be for you. There is no doubt that András Keller (of Keller Quartet fame) has turned this full-fledged symphonic orchestra with its 100-year history around, having transformed a third-rate band into a classy ensemble that, on a good day, can outplay any orchestra in neighboring Vienna. [continue reading]


On ClassicsToday: Thomas Zehetmair conducts Bruckner (MDG)

Bruckner From Switzerland, Handicapped And Below Par

Review by: Jens F. Laurson

Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

I wouldn’t rule out that a small orchestra with something to say can’t do invigorating romantic music—even Bruckner. Thomas Dausgaard’s Bruckner Second comes to mind, where the incense-free très sportif atmosphere does its part to bring out Bruckner’s kinship with Schubert. So when Thomas Zehetmair (whose musicianship as a violinist and string quartet player is of the very highest order) recorded Bruckner’s Third symphony with his Musikkollegium Winterthur (which itself has some very nice recordings of Frank Martin and, for that matter, Schubert, to its name), my expectations weren’t particularly low, though not particularly high, either. [continue reading]


Briefly Noted: More of Rousset's Salieri (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
A. Salieri, Tarare, C. Dubois, K. Deshayes, J.-S. Bou, J. van Wanroij, Les Talens Lyriques, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, C. Rousset

(released on July 12, 2019)
Aparté AP208 | 2h45
Among Christophe Rousset's major accomplishments as a conductor is his revival of the operas of Antonio Salieri. We took note of his recording of the composer's Les Danaïdes a few years ago. The latest in the project, Tarare, coincides with Alex Ross's on-point reconsideration of Salieri's place in music history. The superlative playing of Les Talens Lyriques, especially the whisper-fine traverso flutes, reveals this melodically rich score in its best light.

Tarare has some interesting overlaps with Mozart's career at the same time. Beaumarchais himself wrote the libretto for the French premiere in 1787, the version recorded here. Then Lorenzo da Ponte reworked it in Italian as Axur, re d'Ormus for the Viennese premiere the following year. (In the film Amadeus, Salieri is seen conducting the finale of the Viennese version, its success earning Mozart's scorn.)

Beaumarchais drew the story from a curious literary source, a collection of English exotic tales published as The Tales of the Genii, or The Delightful Lessons of Horam, the Son of Asmar. The author, James Ridley (the pseudonym of Sir Charles Morell), claimed to have translated the stories from a Persian source, but they are decidedly European visions of the East. Salieri, master of the dramatic gesture, has the orchestral intro to the Prologue interrupted by entrance of the soprano Judith van Wanroij as Nature, accompanied by the chorus of unchained winds. In the frame narrative of the French version, the shades nominate one of their number to become the despotic ruler Atar and another the soldier Tarare. The five acts that follow are the account of what became of them in their lives.

The king, jealous of the happiness and popularity of the soldier, orders Tarare's wife, Astasie, to be kidnapped and transferred to his harem. In a twist of reversal from stories like The Magic Flute, the slaves in Atar's household are Europeans -- and singers to boot. The chief eunuch, Calpigi, is even a castrato from Ferrara, who reveals his king's evil plan to have Tarare killed. Tarare manages to elude all of the plots to torture and kill him and is eventually named king after the suicide of Atar. Salieri uses jangling Janissary sounds throughout the opera, starting with the loud overture that introduces Act I. One unusual facet of the plot involves the disguise of Tarare as a black slave, who is then to be married to his own wife, who ends up sending another servant in her place. Such wife-swapping aspects crop up in Figaro and Cosi, among other works of the period.


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Die Walküre

Hunding (Albert Pesendorfer) and his dogs

From the second day of the 2019 Budapest Wagner Days come these pictures of Die Walküre. (See production pictures of Das Rheingold here - and the ClassicsToday review here.) If the Rheingold stunned with a (largely) no-name cast that was absolutely bona-fide world class (most especially Alberich, Loge, Mime, and Fasolt along with the established Wotan of Johan Reuter's), this most popular opera of the Ring boasted a cast with world class names that, happily, lived up to their billing. Stuart Skelton, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, and especially Catherine Foster gave of their best.

Here is part two (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring, Part 2: Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung
Here is part one of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Die Walküre to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)


À mon chevet: My Struggle, Book 6

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

book cover
For my own part, the transgressional was associated with an enormous sense of freedom on the one hand, and enormous shame on the other, played out in a rather unsophisticated fashion in a few too many beers followed by a couple of hours of undesirable yet delightfully unfettered behavior as a result. It was low and vile and wretched, even if it didn't necessarily feel like it, whereas the crimes that took place in the Third Reich were transgressional in a radically different and fundamentally incomprehensible yet not less compelling sense altogether. It was as if they exceeded the very limits of what was human. How was that possible? The allure of death, the allure of destruction, the allure of total annihilation, of what did it consist? The world burned, and they were joyful.

I read about it, I wondered about it, and never without feeling some small measure of that same allure myself as I sat there far from war and death, destruction and genocide, on a chair in Bergen, surrounded by all my books, usually with a cigarette in my hand and a cup of coffee next to me on the desk, the dwindling hum of the evening's traffic outside the window, sometimes with a warm cat asleep on my lap. I read about the final days of Hitler, the utterly demented atmosphere far beneath the ground where he lived with his attendants and those closest to him, the city above them, bombed to rubble by the Russians, a blazing inferno. At one point he ascended to inspire some boys of the Hitler Youth, I had seen the footage that was shot, he is ill, tries to stop his hand from shaking as he goes from one boy to the next, it must have been Parkinson's disease. but in his eyes there is a gleam, something unexpectedly warm.

Surely it couldn't be possible?

When Dad died, Yngve and I found a Nazi pin among his belongings, a pin with a German eagle to put in the lapel of a jacket. Where did he get it from? He was not the type to have bought something of that nature and therefore he must have been given it or come across it in some way. When Grandma died, a year and a half after Dad, and we went through the house to divide things up, we found a Norwegian edition of Mein Kampf in the chest in the living room. What was it doing there? It must have been there since the war. It was a fairly common book at the time, with thousands of copies sold, someone might have given it to them as a present, without it having any signficance for them, but nevertheless it was still strange that they hadn't got rid of it after the war, for they would hardly have been unaware that it was incriminating. After the initial sensation the discovery of something so illicit gave rise to, I thought little more of it. I knew the people they were, Grandad and Grandma, and I knew that they were from another age, in which other rules applied.

-- Karl Ove Knausgård, Min kamp Sjette bok, pp. 490-92
It was a long three years since I read Book 5 of Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle. In some ways I put off reading the last volume because I was a little sad that the book would come to an end. The first five volumes are in a disturbingly direct style, as Knausgård painfully examines his own life in a style that is half-memoir, half-novel. The sixth book begins in the same manner, but quickly veers into uncharted territory.

He is writing about the period when he was finishing the book. His publisher asked him to contact all the people who appear in the novel, to make sure they will not raise a fuss about the use of their names and private lives. Novelists make use of this kind of material all the time, of course, but usually they at least change the names to disguise identities. Most of his friends and family do not object, but one uncle, his father's brother, adamantly refuses and threatens to sue. The basis of his complaint is that Karl Ove's recollections are entirely false, an absurd invention that will bring harm to the family name.

Knausgård uses the fear this instills in his own heart as a way to lead the reader to question everything in the first five volumes. Is it possible that a book that gained Knausgård fame for its brutal honesty is in fact not to be trusted? Language itself becomes suspect, as does memory. The middle part of the book is an exhaustive analysis of the topic, beginning with a near-indigestible coprolith of literary analysis devoted to the author's favorite poem by Paul Celan. This leads to a long consideration of the book's namesake, Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, which Karl Ove and his brother found among his grandmother's belongings after her death (the section quoted here).

Knausgård combs through Hitler's book, obsessively comparing it with other primary texts about Hitler's life, all of this by way of pointing out that Hitler's account of his own life is not all that accurate. Literary critics have not been kind to this wordy section weighing down the middle of Book 6, but the author's brother, Yngve, had perhaps the best reaction to this idea. After reading an early draft of the novel to see how it depicted him, Yngve wrote Karl Ove an e-mail. "Your fucking struggle, said the subject line," he recalls.


Dip Your Ears, No. 244 (Tempting Brahms 4th from Saraste & WDR)

available at Amazon
J.Brahms, Sy.#4, Academic Festival Ovt, Tragic Ovt.
J-P.Saraste / WDR SO
(Profil Hänssler)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste (on Twitter) has just conducted his last concert as the chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (with Mahler 5th, Zimmermann’s Photoptosis and the Felix Weingartner arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge) where he succeeded Semyon Bychkov and will be succeeded by Cristian Măcelaru (on Twitter). Nine productive years seem to have just flown by. It might be recency bias, but towards the end, it felt, recordings were coming out left and right – including a cycle of the complete Beethoven Symphonies which, despite the accumulating cynicisms of life in a Beethoven-saturated market, was rather splendid (ClassicsToday: Mightily Superfluous Excellence: Saraste and Beethoven Cycle No. 176).

Also among the recordings was a set of the Brahms Symphonies. I have before me the Fourth, which, on its own, sounded pretty darn good on casual hearing. Good enough to merit a little comparison, and so out came two versions from favorite cycles: Simon Rattle’s—reviewed here: Dip Your Ears, No. 100 (Rattle and Brahms)—and Günter Wand’s 1996/97 live NDR set on RCA (his last of three cycles with that orchestra). Günter Wand’s magnificently unhurried way and cool-as-a-cucumber flow is something to behold, still. Ditto Rattle’s tension and the quality of playing. (Although I don’t think that rather broad Fourth is the absolute strong-point of a generally terrific set). In many ways Saraste sits between these two approaches: Nearly the bite of Rattle, but not quite. Nearly the impossibly effortless movement of Wand, but not quite.

That might sound like a bit of Vanilla neither-nor, but that’s not the case. With excellent sound a shade on the bright side, fine playing from all the instrument groups (all caught in good presence without any awkward spotlighting) and niftily chosen, lively tempos (not that being faster than Rattle and nimble Wand suggests breaking any speed-records), the result is actually subtly outstanding. A truly joyous Academic Festival Overture and a meaty Tragic Overture round the disc out very gratifyingly. If all the senses didn’t scream: No-one needs a 2Xth set of the Brahms symphonies, one might almost be tempted to find out how the rest of Saraste’s Brahms sounds!


Bayreuth on the Danube: The Budapest Wagner Days. Production Photos from Das Rheingold

Freia (Lilla Horti), Fasolt (Per Bach Nissen) & Fafner (Walter Fink)

The Budapest Wagner Days are a 15-year old institution that I only got to know this year. Shame on me. At the heart of the Wagner Days, initiated by Ádám Fischer and taking place at the Müpa, Budapest’s splendid modern arts center, has been an annual Ring Cycle, always coupled with another Wagner opera. Last year, this cycle was on hiatus in favor of two non-Ring Operas. The feedback was immediate: "We want our Ring back", chanted the international crowd that had come to love the tradition and the semi-staged production by Hartmut Schörghofer & his wife. I don't know if they went to the Müpa Center with placards in their hands and horns on their helmets, but the Wagner Days were quick about bringing the Ring back, with the videos - an essential part of the production(s) - overhauled and brought up to technological date. Blood now splatters in HD. A good thing that they did that, too, one must assume (not having seen the previous incarnation), because these things tend to stale quickly. (Take the La fura dels Baus' vapid Ring Cycle, where the video elements looked like HAL 9000 had mated with a Windows 95 Screen Saver soon after that Ring first hit the stage.) To make up for the hiatus, the Ring was put on twice, from June 13. until 16. and from June 20. until the 23.

Here is part one (of two) of my review on ClassicsToday: A Magnificent Budapest Ring: Prelude and Rheingold

Below are loads of production photos from Das Rheingold to go with that review (or titillate you all on their own.)

Briefly Noted: Piemontesi's Colorful Liszt

available at Amazon
Liszt, Années de pèlerinage, 2ème Année ("Italie") / Légende No. 1 , F. Piemontesi

(released on May 24, 2019)
Orfeo C982191 | 62'19"

available at Amazon
1ère Année
It was a pleasure to discover Francesco Piemontesi earlier this year when he made his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra. Far more impressive than his take on a Rachmaninoff blockbuster was his encore, a sensitively voiced rendition of the slow movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. That experience led me to push the Swiss-Italian pianist's recordings toward the top of my listening rotation. His most recent release, the second year of Liszt's Années de pèlerinage, gives a varied and delightful cast to the composer's memories of his years in Italy.

Rather than Venezia e Napoli, the supplement Liszt later added to the second volume of his collection, Piemontesi prefaces it with the first of the Deux Légendes, pieces dedicated to miracles associated with Liszt's two name saints. This turns out to be the highlight of the disc, with pastel-light avian trills twittering around the unison lines of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds.

More than the technical exploits of the Petrarch Sonnets and the dizzying excesses of "Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata," it is these more musical moments that stand out. In the dreamy "Sposalizio," inspired by Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin in Milan, tinkling motifs rain down in the seraphic postlude. In the dirge-like "Penseroso," inspired by the moody sculpture of Michelangelo for the tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici in the "new sacristy" of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, Liszt explores the somber bass end of the keyboard. The latter artwork made quite an impression on Liszt, as he published the music with a quatrain of Michelangelo's he felt applied to the sculptor's portrait of Lorenzo: "I am thankful to sleep, and more thankful to be made of stone. So long as injustice and shame remain on earth, I count it a blessing not to see or feel; so do not wake me – speak softly!"