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


Dip Your Ears: No. 264 (A Sibelius-Classic Revisited)

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphony No.4-7++
H.v.Karajan / Berlin Phil

Karajan’s Sibelius is – rightly – uncontroversial, simply because it’s pretty darn good and often better than just that. Still, he would probably not be mentioned among the first five, or even ten names, when talking great Sibelius conductors today. Probably because he never conducted a complete cycle, having eschewed the Third entirely and the First all but once. I can’t deny that I, too, haven’t thought of Karajan as my go-to Sibelius choice in a while, having comfortably settled on a few other favorites. But on re-listening to his recording of the Fourth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon with the Berlin Philharmonic (1965), the force of this ironfisted interpretation was borne on my mind again. The sound is absolute reference class, has depth and transparency to deliver every nuance as well as every bit of oomph. The playing is deadly precise but not wall-of-sound homogenous. The music darkly glides along in all its abstract sparseness… daubed unto the musical canvas like a monochrome Seurat at moonlight. It’s a gripping experience that sounds better than memory would have suggested. In fact, so good was the impression that a comparison was in order – more or less at random. The choice fell to Berglund and his Helsinki recording for EMI. What a difference! Almost – as the cliché would have it – as if it weren’t the same work.

With Berglund, everything is lighter, gayer in comparison. He makes the music sound like the soundtrack to a Czech animated feature film about trolls and forest animals. Berglund is nice enough in each moment… and impressive when the symphony finally reaches a more conventional climax. But nothing among the niceties inexorably leads to the next moment. Nothing is woven together with the single-minded or organic determination as it is with Karajan. The latter, as the scientific phrase goes, grabs you by the lapels – the others don’t. And man, is Karajan’s version dark. There’s always a bit of “Ring Cycle without Strings” to the Fourth, but the way Wagner and Bruckner shine through in Karajan’s pristinely controlled and thereby ultimately impassioned performance is notable. I don’t mean to suggest that Karajan is bending Sibelius away from the Finn’s essence towards composers he is more familiar with or changed the character of Sibelius’ music (as might be argued to have happened with early Colin Davis, who gave Sibelius the across-the-board accessibility of a Richard Strauss tone poem). But even if he did, it’s to such tremendous, Sibelius-enhancing effect, that I couldn’t possibly object. Another Sibelius-favorite, Kurt Sanderling (Berlin Classics), also doesn’t come close to the intensity of the Karajan reading; the music – admittedly the trickiest of Sibelius masterpieces to get one’s ears around – sounds too incidental or distracted. Just about everyone can make Sibelius’ Fifth sound as if carved out of one block… Karajan does that with the Fourth! And all to tremendous effect. Listen to it! It is a unique Sibelian experience and more than deserves to retain the classic status that it long held.

The recording is part of the DG Originals Twofer of Karajan’s Sibelius for that label, part of the spotty-yet-interesting Sibelius Edition box, and on the Kamu/Karajan Berlin Philharmonic cycle on a budget TRIO set.


'Hadestown' tour opens at the Kennedy Center

(from top left, clockwise) Kevyn Morrow, Kimberly Marable, Nicholas Barsch, Levi Kreis, and Morgan Siobhan Green in the Hadestown North American Tour. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Months before the coronavirus pandemic unraveled the world of theater, Hadestown received fourteen nominations at the 2019 Tony Awards and won eight awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It was the debut musical for Anaïs Mitchell, the American folk singer-songwriter and musician who had converted her album project into the music, lyrics, and book for a Broadway show that opened in 2019. A new production touring the U.S. and Canada was announced for 2020, obviously made impossible by Covid-19. The tour has finally begun with a maiden run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, which opened Friday evening.

The story modernizes the ancient tale of Orpheus, who uses his musical gifts to charm his way into the underworld to rescue his dead wife, Eurydice. Mitchell comes to this sort of literary material quite naturally. Her father is a novelist and college professor who named her after author Anaïs Nin, and she has described herself as a voracious reader. The genesis of Hadestown came as part of a larger project to reimagine Greek myths.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, ‘Hadestown’ ushers Broadway back to the Kennedy Center in style (Washington Post, October 15)

Thomas Floyd, As ‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center, the show’s creators explain the magic behind one great song (Washington Post, October 13)

D. Kevin McNeir, Actress Kimberly Marable Embraces Her ‘Dream Role’ in ‘Hadestown’ (Washington Informer, October 13)
Although Mitchell is primarily a folk singer and guitarist, the musical style of the score is heavy with 1930s jazz influences, once described as "the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America." In an interview Mitchell said of the vintage ideas she took from the 1930s, “It’s a time that is very evocative for me, I think for the whole folk world, the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and the obviousness of the corruption and exploitation of workers. I think it still goes on now, but it’s less obvious, it’s more globally oriented.” Her regular musical collaborators, Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, provided the arrangements and orchestrations. There are echoes of both Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

The cast is led in vocal beauty by the suave and resonant bass Kevyn Morrow as Hades, recast as a ruthless oil magnate crushing the souls of his damned workforce. His rhythmically propelled, bassline-thudding showpiece with the company at the end of Act I, "Why We Build the Wall," was the most memorable part of the evening. Kimberly Marable's Persephone hit her stride in the second act, in her big song "Our Lady of the Underground" and the moving duet with Hades, "How Long?" (Marable is the only cast member who was in the Broadway production, which is still running after it reopened last month.)

Monteverdi used a high voice, a tenor, to capture the strange beauty of Orpheus's semi-divine voice, and Mitchell did something similar by using a very high tenor extended out with falsetto. Marked on stage by his red hair, 23-year-old Nicholas Barasch crooned angelically and with charming naivete, especially in "Epic III," sung to remind jaded Hades of his forgotten love for Persephone. In earlier versions of Hadestown, Mitchell herself sang the role of Eurydice, and the role seemed not to sit as easily for Morgan Siobhan Green, especially in its lower ranges, where she sometimes could not be heard clearly.

The role of Hermes was created on Broadway by André De Shields, a Baltimore-raised actor and dancer in his 70s who is a hard act to follow. Levi Kreis channeled his inner Harry Connick, Jr. in this new interpretation, combining a clarion tenor and an easy comfort with dance and movement. The most complex vocal harmony came from the Three Fates - Belén Montayo, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne - a sharp-talking, menacing trio reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters, especially in their acidic number "When the Chips Are Down."

Rachel Chavkin's production is snappy and engaging, with mostly grim set design (Rachel Hauck) and costumes, except for the bright colors given to Persephone when she breaks out of hell to bring back spring (Michael Krass). A company of five singers plays both honky-tonk extras and the condemned souls, accompanied by an onstage 7-piece band, led by pianist Cody Owen Stine (percussionist Anthony Johnson is offstage). Audrey Ochoa on the trombone gets the most dynamic instrumental solos of the show. One word to the wise: don't duck out after what seems like the final number (and is so listed in the program). After the reprise of "Road to Hell," there is a company encore piece, the affecting toast "Goodnight, my brothers, goodnight."

Hadestown runs through October 31 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


On ClassicsToday: Bernard Labadie's Orchestra Goldberg Variations Re-Issued

 Goldberg Variations Variations (Les Violons du Roy Edition)

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

You name any instrument or combination thereof and I give you a recording of the Goldberg Variations to match it. Nearly, anyway. The good versions entice the ears or tug the heartstrings; here is a re-release that errs on the right side of success, adding its spin to old Bach’s perennial masterpiece. It’s the period band Les Violons du Roy performing an arrangement for strings and continuo, concocted and conducted by the orchestra’s founder/director Bernard Labadie. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this recording on Atma Classique was originally released on the Dorian label in 2000. It got a 10/10 rating then (see reviews archive) and the re-issue ... (Read the entire review at ClassicsToday)


Dip Your Ears: No. 263 (Mullova's 2009 Bach Sonatas & Partitas)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Sonatas & Partitas
Viktoria Mullova

Of Bach’s Cello Suites, there has been such a plethora of recent recordings lately that greatness (Queyras) and extroverted excellence (Lipkind) relegated the merely superb (Klinger) and the very good (Gastinel) (never mind the dishwater variety—Isserlis) to shadowy spots they didn’t necessarily reserve and wouldn’t have received had the timing been better.

The timing is excellent, however, for Viktoria Mullova’s Sonatas & Partitas because there hasn’t been an important recording issued since Julia Fischer’s (Pentatone) and Gidon Kremer’s on ECM in 2005, and Christian Tetzlaff’s on Hänssler in 2007. (Ed. He’s since released a wonderful new recording on Ondine.)

Her recording is big news, then, and better yet: it’s good news. In brief and thoughtful liner notes that peel right through to the essence of why she added hers to the long list of violinists’ names on the Sonata & Partita roll call, she outlines her musical transformation as it relates to Bach. She has come from a decidedly old-school approach (she describes it as a sort of Russian robotic approach with continuous vibrato, sans liberties, and little articulation) to what is for all theoretical purposes a Historically Informed Performance account. She even plays with gut strings and a baroque bow, one or the other or both of which she has been doing for years in all repertoire where appropriate. (Her recordings of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Concertos are on gut string and she uses the baroque setup for her recent Bach and Vivaldi recordings.) As with her latest Bach release and the Vivaldi concertos on Archiv, she is playing a 1750 Guadagnini (and a Walter Barbiero baroque bow) tuned to A=415, not her 1723 “Julius Falk” Stradivari.

Listening to it at first, my first response to it was rather cool. Her playing is not always beautiful. Short bow strokes in the D minor Sarabande certainly don’t aim for prettiness. The sound is close, but with lots of room around her, direct but spacious, allowing the sound to bloom, and hiding nothing—for better and worse. I found it occasionally too close, leaving me with the feeling of standing a little too close to a painting that I admire. Her former rigor in Bach—perhaps even stiffness—is gone, although that approach I actually find myself appreciating.

It wasn’t until direct comparison that the scales fell off my ears , revealing not only relative excellence but greatness. If upon the first few listens she didn’t seem to be delivering something truly out of the ordinary, now she shines. I matched her against Tetzlaff’s new recording and—difference of pitch apart—the dissimilarities are vast and instructive. The relative lack of ambiance gives a yet more immediate, more contained impression of Tetzlaff’s instrument (presumably his modern Guarneri del Gesu copy by Peter Greiner). When listened to on its own, Tetzlaff’s Hänssler recording is striking to a degree, but the allure is lost: the violin sound comes across as squeaky, the playing constrained and lacking spontaneity.

Mullova works hard to get momentum by way of her rather aggressive rhythmic dotting and double-stopping, enjoying the hard edges that Bach offers. Although it doesn’t quite sound like it, it feels more like Nathan Milstein than anyone else. The touches of gentleness amid that overt vigor betray the amount of thought put into making the recording, making Tetzlaff’s approach seem rather academic and deliberate (check the Siciliana ) in comparison. Mullova really does play with guts—not just gut strings—which gives the Sonatas & Partitas a feel of being lived rather than just read. When Mullova is faster (throughout most of the First Sonata) she strikes as more pointed and lively. When she is slower (most extreme—4:04 to 2:21—in the first Double ), less trying to master a technical challenge than communicating the spirit of the music. In the second Double , taken fast by both but faster still by Tetzlaff, the latter comes perilously close to sounding like a sewing machine.

With first impressions manifesting themselves as hardened opinions, the differences between her and Tetzlaff, which I originally thought would be small despite Mullova’s quasi-HIP approach, became ever more obvious. Painfully so, after a while. After a while, the audio quality of the Hänssler recording gives you the impression of being thrown back 25 years. And the interpretation becomes more and more uninteresting. Not skipping ahead whenever it was Tetzlaff‘s turn grew ever more difficult. When Mullova came back on (say, with the A minor Fuga after Tetzlaff’s Grave ), it felt like relief.

That the differences are—or become—so striking, is all the more surprising since I cherish Tetzlaff in general and cherished his Bach in particular. This drop in appreciation (despite some terrific instances on his part—the A minor Allegro, D minor Giga, and his Ciaconna among them) isn’t just a matter of appreciating a particular interpretive style, either. Spot-light comparisons with other favorite recordings (Milstein on DG, my eternal touchstone; Podger, my HIP-standard bearer; Fischer, my favorite among modern, honeyed versions) did not yield the same discrepancies despite being very different from Mullova. Especially Julia Fischer offers drastic contrast (only Shlomo Mintz’ mellifluous account might be further from Mullova than Fischer) and yet she delights equally.

Mullova, for all her HIP-training and gear, will not replace Rachel Podger as the favorite of that particular approach: there is modern spirit to it all that makes it stand too tall and too proud as to be a vehicle for the authenticists’ ideology. Nor will she end all arguments on style with this HIP-means/modern spirit approach. That’s incidentally not what a recording is intended or supposed to do. What Mullova will achieve, however, is as much a splash in the world of Sonata & Partita connoisseurs as Fischer created, and that by wonderfully different means. The time it took to get to appreciate, like, and finally love this recording was well invested.


On ClassicsToday: New Beethoven Concerto Cycle from Mitsuko Uchida

 Mitsuko Uchida’s Second Beethoven Concerto Cycle

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Mitsuko Uchida’s slightly-under-the-radar cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the artless Kurt Sanderling (Philips/Decca) is one of my favorites for its almost self-effacing musicality and the orchestral precision that translates into lightness without sacrificing oomph. On Jed Distler praised the “Emperor” as ranking “with Schnabel, Solomon, Kempff, Arrau, Fleisher, and Gieseking among [the] finest recorded versions.” Naturally, Uchida’s new cycle elicited my interest. (Read the entire review at ClassicsToday)


On ClassicsToday: A Vikingur Retrospective, Musicianship over Hype

 Triad: Víkingur Ólafsson’s Greatest Hits

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

Triad, the latest release by Icelandic pianist Vikingur (Heiðar) Ólafsson, isn’t a new album. It’s simply a fancy repackaging of his last three main releases for Deutsche Grammophon. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy if all three of those releases weren’t absolute corkers. There’s a disc of Bach–transcriptions both original, third-party, and by Bach himself–that was an easy 10/10 choice when we reviewed it here (see reviews archive). Both of the other two albums are similarly lofty achievements... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday


On ClassicsToday: Wonderful Józef Elsner String Quartets


String Quartet Discoveries: A Polish Haydn?

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: ?

Sound Quality: ?

This disc of the first-ever recordings of the String Quartets Op. 1 Nos.1-3 by Józef Elsner (1769-1854) is not the first disc of Elsner string quartets, but it marks the first time I took note of a name I’ll now never forget. They are such good works, much in the vein of Haydn, that I fell in love right away. But could they really be that good? Perhaps I was getting carried away. Yet on the tenth–or fifteenth–hearing they still hold up. These are varied, mature classical string quartets of the first order, not second tier also-rans... (read the entire review at ClassicsToday)


For Your Consideration: Oscar-Nominated Short Films

For a film industry devastated by the coronavirus, the nominees in the major categories of the Academy Awards felt of lower quality as a group. Not really a surprise as most Americans have not seen a movie in an actual cinema for over a year, and the rules on qualifying for the awards were relaxed to allow entries from streaming platforms. At the top of the pile for this critic was The Father, which should win Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (by Christopher Hampton and daring French author Florian Zeller, from Zeller's play), Film Editing, and Actor in a Leading Role (for Anthony Hopkins). Also noteworthy were Nomadland, which should win Frances McDormand the award for Actress in a Leading Role; Mank, for Cinematography; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design; Minari for Original Screenplay and Actress in a Supporting Role for the hilarious Yuh-Jung Youn; Sound of Metal for Sound; and the charming, disturbing Another Round for Best Director and International Feature Film.


On the other hand, the short films nominated for awards in their three categories were of a remarkable quality this year, or perhaps it is just that they are at their normal level and shine by comparison. The movies up for Animated Short Film took on subjects tragic (If Anything Happens I Love You and Genius Loci), whimsical (Burrow), and weird (Opera). The most charming, watchable nominee in this category was Yes-People, the entry from Iceland written and directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson. A microcosm of existential desperation and human coping set in an apartment building, the film develops several stories in a deceptively compact eight minutes.

Among the nominees for Documentary Short Subject the entries were intensely personal, including A Love Song for Latasha (commemorating the shooting of Latasha Harlins in a Los Angeles convenience store in 1991), Hunger Ward (filmed inside the famine crisis in Yemen), and Do Not Split (shot from behind the lines of the Hong Kong democracy protests). Near the top was Colette, a searing look back at a very uncomfortable topic in France, the resistance to the Nazi occupation, involving the meeting between a young historian seeking to document the era and an elderly woman who fought in the resistance. Their visit to the concentration camp where the older woman's brother was killed is overwhelming to watch. The winner for me was A Concerto is a Conversation, a love song between jazz pianist and composer Kris Bowers and his grandfather, whose sacrifices and triumphs over racism laid the foundation for the younger man's success.

In the Live Action Short column, The Letter Room was strong, starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Two Distant Strangers put an odd, almost witty spin on the issue of police murders of black men in the United States. The strongest nominee is The Present, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi. It tells the story of the humiliating day-long journey made by a husband with his young daughter to buy a new refrigerator as an anniversary gift for his wife. This seemingly mundane outing is complicated because the man lives in the West Bank and must pass Israeli Checkpoint 300, near Bethlehem, to reach the store. One early morning scene was actually filmed guerrilla-style at the checkpoint, with the actor among actual Palestinians waiting to cross.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight at 8 p.m.


Dip Your Ears: No. 263 (Klieser's Baroque Horn Arias)

available at Amazon
Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, "Beyond Words"
Felix Klieser / Chaarts Chamber Artists
(Berlin Classics)

Felix Klieser’s latest release, “Beyond Words”, is a trip up and down the most beloved and touching Bach-Haendel-Vivaldi arias and choruses, arranged for his instrument and chamber orchestra. “Vergnügte Ruh”, “Lascia ch’io pianga”, “Gloria”, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Ombra mai fu”, and “Hallelujah”: If you can whistle it, it’s included here. Except that Klieser does not whistle the tunes, he performs them beautifully on the French horn. The result sounds a bit like a collection of known-unknown baroque trumpet concertos, except a good deal mellower. Festive, comforting. Working well enough even in the most predictable arrangements and very nicely everywhere else, the result is an unintentional must-have Christmas-CD.

The Chaarts Chamber Artists, a Switzerland-based modular pick-up ensemble, provide the band. Although they don’t play themselves into the foreground, they’re essential in the disc’s accomplishment of grand pleasantry: Supple and pliable, with beautifully flowing tempi exactly where we’d expect them in 2021; neither sluggish nor rushed. The cembalo – the liner notes don’t divulge who’s at the wheel (perhaps Naoki Kitaya?) – sounds particularly juicy and judicious. Finally there’s Klieser’s mellifluous play with which he regales us. Beautifully muted and executed with casual panache, “Sielant Zephyri” from Vivaldi’s Filiae Maeste Jerusalem – with the dotted string accompaniment reminiscent of “Winter” – is a beautiful, warm-timbred, dark-toned example. And that’s the story for the whole entertaining hour of music. An album for an occasion, equally suitable to close listening and letting it drift into the background, guilt-free.

P.S. If you did not already know: Klieser plays the horn with his feet. But that’s really neither here nor there: The playing would be impressive even if he had hands to do it with.