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

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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.