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

1.10.22

Briefly Noted: Kissin plays Salzburg

available at Amazon
Evgeny Kissin, Salzburg Recital (Berg, Chopin, Gershwin, Khrennikov)

(released on September 2, 2022)
DG 00028948629947 | 97'32"
Evgeny Kissin's most recent recital in Washington was scheduled for May of 2020. Because that was obviously canceled, it has been a long drought since the celebrated Russian pianist last appeared here. To fight the withdrawal symptoms, your critic has turned to Kissin's newest recording, captured live at the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg in August of 2021.

The last several years have brought significant changes to Kissin's life. In 2017, during a break from performing, he married a childhood friend and wrote a memoir. In July of 2021, just before Kissin played this recital, his piano teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, died at the age of 98. She was much more than a teacher to Kissin, becoming a member of his family and living with them for the last thirty years. "She was my only piano teacher, and everything I am able to do on the piano I owe to her," Kissin has written, dedicating this recital to her memory.

One imagines that the pandemic shutdowns were difficult for Kissin, who has always seemed to be most at ease while playing on stage, as if music were in a way his first language. "I’m simply more inspired in front of an audience," he is quoted saying in the liner notes of this two-disc set. He played this recital to a full house, something he said was very important to him, even in the face of coronavirus restrictions. Although he once told me backstage at the Kennedy Center that he had no interest in composing his own music, one of the Salzburg encores is his own Dodecaphonic Tango. Composition is now an interest of his: Kissin, who has been vocally critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is also composing a piano trio in response to this unprovoked war.

Among other curiosities, the program opens with a prickly performance of Berg's Piano Sonata, op. 1. A decidedly idiosyncratic rendition of Gershwin's Preludes follows a set of short pieces by Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007), a Russian composer and Soviet functionary. The choice is definitely odd for political reasons, given Khrennikov's consistent holding of the party line during the darkest years of the USSR and even after its dissolution. Listeners are then treated to the palate cleansing of Kissin's inimitable Chopin. Unable to let go of the audience, Kissin offered four encores, as usual some of the most exhilirating moments.

24.9.22

Briefly Noted: Nisi Dominus (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Vivaldi, Nisi Dominus, Eva Zaïcik, Le Poème Harmonique, Vincent Dumestre

(released on September 9, 2022)
Alpha 724 | 58'31"
The idea of this charming new disc, from Vincent Dumestre and the early music ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, is quite simple. It is anchored on two of Vivaldi's motets, Nisi Dominus and Invicti bellate, substantial works composed for the Visitation, July 2, 1716, an important feast for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. What Dumestre has programmed with it, however, is much more rare and striking.

The concert opens with O vergin santa, the first of two laude spirituali by Serafino Razzi (1531-1613), a Dominican friar from Florence. Mezzo-soprano Eva Zaïcik and soprano Déborah Cachet divide the piece between them, joined in cantillation by florid improvisations from violinist Fiona Poupard. These pieces are in the same popular vein as "Giesù diletto sposo," by Francisco Soto de Langa (1534-1619), a Spanish-born castrato and composer employed by the papal chapel, who was among the musicians hosted by the Congregation of the Oratory, established by followers of St. Filippo Neri.

Zaïcik takes the two Vivaldi motets, her richly resonant voice freely elaborating the opening solo melismas of Invicti bellate, aptly recalling the laude spirituali. The heart of this poignant work is the slow movement, a prayer for the assistance of Christ in the strain of battle. Dumestre and his musicians accompany this and the longer Nisi Dominus with limpid clarity, especially touching in movements featuring the ensemble's bevy of plucked instruments (theorbo, guitar, colascione). A trio of male voices supports the treble voices in the polyphonic laude. Le Poème Harmonique contributes two strictly instrumental works made for sacred contexts: Vivaldi's Sinfonia in B Minor ("Al Santo Sepolcro") and Locatelli's Sinfonia funebre, composed for his own wife's funeral.

17.9.22

Briefly Noted: Debussy for Four Hands

available at Amazon
Claude Debussy, Piano Duets, Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier

(released on September 9, 2022)
Chandos CHAN20228W | 81'24"
Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier have released a new recording of charming music for piano, four hands, by Claude Debussy, both originals and some delightful arrangements. The Québécois piano duo, both of whom also have solo careers, have a long-standing partnership: Washingtonians last had the chance to hear them play live at the Library of Congress in 2018. With some pieces for one piano, four hands, and others for two pianos, Mercier and Lortie (primo-secondo) play on two Bösendorfer Concert Grand 280VC instruments.

Along with the most familiar Debussy four-hands piece, Petite Suite, is found more unusual selections like the Six Épigraphes antiques, modal enigmas played with quiet mystery. The list of works Debussy wrote for two pianists is rounded out by an Andante cantabile and a four-hands version of Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire. The latter was a commission from General Meredith Read, at one time United States Consul General in France, who asked Debussy to write a piece on a Scottish tune owned by his family, the Counts of Ross, in 1890.

Arrangements and transcriptions complete the program, including some Debussy favorites that would make perfect encores, like Arabesque No. 1 and the prelude "La fille aux cheveux de lin," both in versions made by Léon Roques. Gustave Samazeuilh published a version of the sumptuously beautiful Ballade (formerly "Ballade slave") for four hands, here performed on two pianos. The triumph of the disc is a striking rendition of Debussy's three symphonic sketches titled La Mer, transcribed for two pianos by André Caplet shortly after the work's premiere, supplanting the less satisfying four-hands arrangement made earlier by the composer himself.

10.9.22

À mon chevet: Adriatic

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

book cover
Great art should affect you physically, it should "tune us like instruments," because painting is an intensification rather than a distortion of the material world. "We must look and look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it," writes Bernard Berenson. "A good rough test is whether we feel that it is reconciling us with life." Berenson, in yet another battered, age-old paperback I own, called this "the aesthetic moment," which is "that flitting instant, so brief as to be almost timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art," so that he "ceases to be his ordinary self."

I feel this with Byzantine art: an art that Berenson called, in order to be exact, "medieval Hellenistic art," that is, a remnant of ancient Greece. To him, this art is "precious refulgent, monotonous," and ends around 1200 "as a gorgeous mummy case." I don't mind the monotony, and yes, there is the touch of beauty-in-death about it. But Byzantine art to me, exactly as Berenson suggests, has always been classical, in the sense that it evokes its forebears in ancient Greece. Thus, it is a fusion of East and West, and what the Adriatic is all about -- a guidepost in my journey. I keep Berenson's thoughts in mind as I enter San Vitale.

-- Robert D. Kaplan, Adriatic, p. 46
This new book came to my attention because of a review written by Prof. Thomas F. Madden for the New York Times this spring. Kaplan is a journalist who synthesizes enormous amounts of poetry, literature, history, and academic writing in a gripping narrative, as he travels from place to place around the Adriatic Sea. In search of what he calls, in his subtitle, "A concert of civilizations at the end of the Modern Age," he begins his examination of the relationship of East and West on the Italian side of that body of water, in Rimini and Ravenna, moving to the Balkans and down to Greece. According to Prof. Madden, who not coincidentally has written a new history of Venice, Kaplan errs only in glossing over La Serenissima as a focal point.

Kaplan actually makes a sort of circular journey, noting that his interest in Rimini, where the book begins, goes back to a much earlier visit to Mistra, a ruined medieval city in southern Greece, a connection to his final destination, the Greek island of Corfu. In Mistra he became interested in Georgios Gemistos Plethon, the neoplatonist scholar who visited Florence in 1439, sparking an interest in Plato and the Greek language in Cosimo de' Medici, and thus helping to light the fire of the Renaissance.

During a visit to the home of a fellow writer, Kaplan learns that Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the rather infamous condottiere and patron of the arts, stole the remains of this great humanist figure during his occupation of Mistra. Malatesta took the scholar's body back to Rimini to be buried near the Tempio Malatestiano built with his money by Leon Battista Alberti. This Malatesta is descended from the family of Paolo Malatesta, condemned with his lover, Francesca da Rimini, to the second circle of Dante's Inferno, and thus within the first few pages the book captured my attention.

7.9.22

Dip Your Ears: No. 266 (Thomas Larcher’s Great Symphony)



available at Amazon
T.Larcher, Sy.2 "Kenotaph",
Die Nacht der Verlorenen
H.Lintu / FinnishRSO
Ondine 1393

Thomas Larcher’s Great Symphony



The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music?

When Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony *Kenotaph* was premiered at Vienna’s venerable Musikverein, almost six years ago, it felt like contemporary music was back on track, even in continental Europe. It might be naïve to assume that it’ll ever be more than a cultural niche again, but there are heartening signs that modern classical music has shaken off the ideological shackles that had kept it for so long in its specialist echo chambers, performed before self-selecting crowds celebrating their own importance… and with the taxpayers, not the attendees, paying for most of the tickets. Moreover, the habitually conservative audiences are beginning to respond to it. The “modern” piece of the dreaded education concert sandwich is not as feared anymore; sometimes it even takes center stage, and recordings on non-specialist labels are issued. Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto *Gran Toccata* is one example, *Kenotaph*, which is now out on Ondine with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra performing live under Hannu Lintu, is another. (A planned release of the Vienna Philharmonic performance on DG never happened.)

The effect of this music is not quite the same on record as in the concert hall, where all the crackle and cackle explodes vividly across a stage sprawling with musicians. But we listen to Mahler on record, about whose music the same could be said, so the complaint seems churlish and the music is too interesting to ignore. *Kenotaph* opens a bit like Ravel’s Piano Concerto, with a whack of the clapper (sounding more like a timpani thud here) that spurs the orchestra into metallic spurts of activity. Repeated mini-climaxes take turns with lacunae of Zbigniew Preisner-like string solemnity. The rhythms are catchy, the noises make sense, the tones have perceivable sequences, the violence of it keeps you awake, and the tenderness on tenterhooks.

After the Allegro-frenzy, the lyrical Adagio consoles with swaths cut perhaps from Mahler by way of Schnittke. There’s a fragile beauty in this, and a melodic phrase reminiscent of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony appears and re-appears throughout. Somewhere within the strings hides an accordion and adds its distinct color – and then the movement melts away as if taking leave. It hasn’t gone, however, and violently reminds of its continued presence only to fall back into its own, like an aborted soufflé, with the solo violin ushering the movement out with said Mahleresque phrase.

In the third movement, a “Scherzo; Molto allegro” with overtones of Prokofiev and Tim Burton films, the percussion group gets to try out every instrument they found in the storage rooms of the Finnish Broadcasting studios. A series of increasingly louder, marching chords – played by the foot-soldier-violins and a battery of percussion, deliciously primitive – ratchet up the tension before the clarinets sweetly pretend that nothing of that sort of thing had ever happened. Mischievous listeners might hear it as an allegory of Austrian history. Actually it’s an allusion to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s *Klavierstück No.9* with its 140 repeated chords, here equaled or just beaten.

The fourth movement marshals all the martial forces in contrasting blocks. The recipe still works, even 30, 35 minutes into the symphony, making *Kenotaph* a superbly entertaining symphonic tour de force… challenging and consoling, spikey and beautiful, and with that “Mahler-9” motif (if that’s what it is) coming back for a conciliatory ending. A kenotaph (or cenotaph) is an empty, symbolical tomb and the work was inspired by “the crisis of men, women, and children fleeing the clutches of war and mayhem.” In 2016 that was written with an eye towards the Middle East. So far, 2022 is seeing to it that the topic isn’t becoming any less pertinent.

*Die Nacht der Verlorenen*, a five-partite song cycle for baritone and orchestra, risks becoming an afterthought after *Kenotaph*, although it’s a substantial, half-hour work that shares much of the soundscape with the 8-year younger symphony. That might be good enough for enjoyment, but where Larcher really shines, is in his treatment of the human voice, which is perhaps the instrument that had suffered the most and for the longest, under a certain pervasive type of modernism… to the point where so much contemporary vocal music all sounded the gosh-darn same. But what Larcher writes makes sense to the ear, from Sprechgesang to lyrical, melodic lines. Nascent baritone star Andrè Schuen sings the Ingeborg Bachmann poems in neo-Diskauesque manner, slightly aloof, cerebrally, beautifully, and smooth like the oily crema on a great espresso. My only question mark: was the persistent violin-induced tinnitus-whistle in “Memorial” really necessary?

9/9






3.9.22

Briefly Noted: The Knights and the Kreutzer

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The Kreutzer Project (Beethoven, Janáček), The Knights, C. Jacobsen, E. Jacobsen

(released on August 19, 2022)
Avie AV2555 | 75'11"
The Knights bill themselves as an orchestral collective. Whether or not the future of orchestras is exclusively small and flexible, which we hope it is not, this New York-based group has shown a way forward. Violinist Colin Jacobsen and conductor (and occasionally cellist) Eric Jacobsen have woven together this disc from arrangements and new works based on the story of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata.

Responding to an inscription in Beethoven's title ("scritta in uno stile molto concertante, quasi come d’un concerto"), Colin Jacobsen has arranged Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 as a violin concerto for himself as soloist. The format retains the famous opening of the first movement, a sort of concerto cadenza out of place, in which the solo violin trades themes with the piano, now given life principally by the woodwinds. The chamber-sized group of fifteen strings plus single woodwinds and brass (except for a pair of horns) reveal many new dimensions to this familiar work.

Leoš Janáček wrote his first string quartet in reaction to Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata," in which Beethoven's virtuosic music represents illicit sexual passion, with tragic consequences. A jealous husband discovers his wife in the arms of a violinist with whom she had played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. The husband recalls hearing them play the first movement for the first time: “As for my wife, never had I seen her as she was that night. Those brilliant eyes, that severity and majestic expression while she was playing, and then that utter languor, that weak, pitiable, and happy smile after she had finished.” Although the violinist escapes, the husband stabs his wife to death with a dagger.

Michael P. Atkinson, one of the ensemble's horn players, has orchestrated Janáček's score for the same compact orchestral ensemble, with some arrangement completed by Eric Jacobsen. The piece is not even half as long as Beethoven's monumental sonata, but the arrangement amps up the turbulent nature of the music, including some atmospheric touches for harp.

Between these bookends are two new works. In a bizarre twist, French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer never played the sonata Beethoven dedicated to him (in fact, the composer wrote it for George Hightower, an Afro-British violinist). In Colin Jacobsen's Kreutzings, instrumental phrases alternate with drum kit, and hints of Richard Strauss glimmer in the harmony and orchestration. String players will recognize the homage to Kreutzer's meticulous Etude No. 2, a bugbear for bow training. Shorthand, a string sextet by Anna Clyne, puts Knights cellist Karen Ouzounian in a solo role, with Eric Jacobsen taking up the other cello part. The title comes from a line in Tolstoy's novella, and Clyne takes motifs and ideas from both Beethoven and Janáček, with some exotic melodic elements, rather gorgeous.

The Knights will perform a slightly modified version of this program to open the 50th anniversary season of the Candlelight Concert Society 4 p.m. September 11, at the presenter's home base, the Horowitz Center in Columbia, Md.

'Dear Evan Hansen' is back at the Kennedy Center

Anthony Norman, John Hemphill, Lili Thomas, and Alaina Anderson in Dear Evan Hansen (photo: Evan Zimmerman)

The extensive offering of Broadway musicals at the Kennedy Center this season may feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Touring productions of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, both repeats from a few years ago, are running simultaneously at the venue on the Potomac this month. The latter returns with a new cast after its KC debut in 2019 and opening run at Arena Stage in 2015, seen Thursday evening in the Eisenhower Theater.

Dear Evan Hansen is an oddly effective and moving show, edging mostly into tragedy like most of the musicals that appeal to people like me. The story involves a teenage title character who struggles with being friendless at school, burdened by anxiety after his father abandoned him and his mother. Evan's accidental encounter with an even more troubled classmate, who ends up committing suicide, leads to an enormous deception Evan perpetrates on the other boy's sister and parents. As this lie snowballs out of Evan's control, he is powerless to stop it, actually enjoying the notoriety, the new friends, and especially the new family to which he now belongs, replete with wealth and emotional warmth.

The different cast brought out different strengths of the score this time around. The sweet intensity of Alaina Anderson, in a striking professional debut, made the role of Zoe Murphy, the embittered sister of Evan's "friend" Connor, much more appealing, especially in "Requiem," the trio with her parents, a stoic John Hemphill and Lili Thomas. Coleen Sexton's turn as Evan's mom, Cynthia, went from unsympathetic in Act I to devastating in her big piece that ends Act II, "So Big/So Small." Nikhil Saboo provided a violent burst of energy as Connor, especially as he doubled as Evan's alter-ego after his suicide, brought back to life by the fabrications concocted by Evan and his cousin Jared, played with hilarious bite by Pablo David Laucerica.

The show's music and lyrics (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) remain simple but effective, improved considerably by the pit band orchestration by Alex Lacamoire, who provided the same service to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. The poignant string lines often tug at the heartstrings, played with quiet plangency by violinist Ko Sugiyama, violist Elizabeth Pulju-Owen, and cellist Danielle Cho, all members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and others.

Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 25. Lots of tickets remain.

27.8.22

Briefly Noted: La Passione

available at Amazon
Haydn / Mozart / Beethoven, Christina Landshamer, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck

(released on August 19, 2022)
PentaTone PTC5186987 | 71'53"
This ingenious recital program pairs soprano Christina Landshamer with Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. It is a true collaboration, with major showcases for the soloist and outstanding orchestral selections for this crackerjack ensemble playing on historical instruments, under the leadership of concertmaster Bernhard Forck. The opening salvo, with climaxes powered by the outstanding horn duo of Erwin Wieringa and Gijs Laceulle, is Haydn's Overture in D Major (Hob. Ia:4). Not an overture at all, it turns out, but an orchestral fragment dated to 1785, possibly a discarded symphonic finale.

Landshamer answers this passionate instrumental outburst with Haydn's Scena di Berenice (Hob. XXIVa:10) from 1795, near the end of the composer's second English sojourn. Haydn composed it expressly for Italian soprano Brigida Banti, himself conducting the premiere at a benefit concert in London. In a concise series of recitatives and arias, the singer runs the gamut of emotional responses to the suicide of her lover, concluding with a high-flying aria of rage. As in the orchestral movement that precedes it, the horns reinforce the shock and grief.

The program is centered on Haydn's Symphony No. 49 (Hob. I:49), nicknamed "La Passione." This epithet, like so many applied to Haydn's works, did not come from the composer, making it perhaps a tenuous anchor on which to hang an entire program. Whatever the actual origins and meaning of this music (scholar Elaine Sisman included it in her research on instrumental works Haydn likely composed to accompany plays performed at Eszterháza), the contrasts of mood and tempo are of a piece with the vocal works sung by distraught heroines.

A few rarities add zest, like No, non turbati, o Nice... Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro? (WoO 92a), a sort of exercise in operatic writing that Beethoven completed in 1802 during his lessons with Antonio Salieri. (The piece, with some of the corrections to Italian diction marked by the master, remained unpublished until the 20th century.) It is a fine companion piece to Ah! perfido, the only one of these exercises for Salieri performed while Beethoven was still alive, according to authoritative notes by musicologist Roman Hinke. In a fun twist, Landshamer sings as both Ilia and Idamante in Mozart's Non più. Tutto ascoltai... Non temer, amato bene, a substitution inserted into a later performance of the composer's opera Idomeneo. The aria features an affecting duet between Landshamer and Forck's violin solo.

20.8.22

Briefly Noted: Gabriela Lena Frank Songs

available at Amazon
Gabriela Lena Frank / Dmitri Shostakovich, Songs, A. Garland, J. Abreu, J. Reger

(released on August 5, 2022)
Art Song Colorado DASP005 | 68'31"
Gabriela Lena Frank has been on my radar since she was composer-in-residence with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra a decade ago. Her music draws on her family's rich tapestry of cultural backgrounds: Peruvian/Chinese ancestry on one side and Lithuanian/Jewish on the other. Like Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, she is a sort of musical anthropologist, mining folk traditions to enrich her musical style, which is varied, expansive, and sui generis. From Art Song Colorado this month comes this new disc by baritone Andrew Garland and pianist Jeremy Reger, containing world premiere recordings of some of the composer's songs.

The song cycle Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce (Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea) is a work completed in multiple versions. The eight songs for baritone recorded here, premiered in 2004 and 2007, were expanded into a half-hour duet with soprano, subsequently elaborated into a version with chorus and orchestra. The texts are by Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912–2002), who drew on his youth sailing on Lake Nicaragua to create the character of the mystical sailor Cifar. Frank's use of the baritone voice ranges widely, including feminine falsetto, folk techniques, and speech, with the enigmatic keyboard part often in imitation of the Nicaraguan marimba and other folk instruments. Both Garland and Reger respond to these demands with daring vulnerability.

Tenor Javier Abreu joins for Las Cinco Lunas de Lorca, composed in 2016 on a hallucinatory text about the assassination of the Spanish poet, by playwright Nilo Cruz. The two voices, often singing simultaneously, weave a horrifying dream narrative. (Cruz is also the librettist of Frank's first opera, El último sueño de Frida y Diego, which will be premiered this October at San Diego Opera.) Garland rounds out the program with Frank's Cuatro Canciones Andinas (1999), a set of four poems translated from Quechua by the folklorist José María Arguedas, and Shostakovich's culture-crossing Spanish Songs.

13.8.22

Briefly Noted: Jacobs and Schubert (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Schubert, "Great" and "Unfinished" Symphonies, B'Rock Orchestra, René Jacobs

(released on August 12, 2022)
PentaTone PTC5186894 | 87'27"

available at Amazon
Symphonies 1 and 6
(2018)

available at Amazon
Symphonies 2 and 3
(2020)

available at Amazon
Symphonies 4 and 5
(2021)
Leave it to René Jacobs to come up with a daring new way to approach Schubert. In 2018 the venerated early music conductor began a complete traversal of the symphonies of Franz Schubert, whom he described as the favorite composer of his youth. In partnership with the B'Rock Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble based in Ghent, he has reached the end with this disc of the composer's last two symphonies. Only No. 7 (the numbering of the Schubert symphonies remains in flux) remains to be recorded, but as Schubert left only sketches of it, it is even more unfinished than the Unfinished (aside from sketches or fragments of other symphonic works).

The group's use of historical instruments reveals interesting qualities in both symphonies. The horn solo that opens the "Great" Symphony has a more rustic quality, and in the first thematic section that follows, the contrasts between the brash brass and percussion and the more frail woodwinds are more stark than with modern instruments. The steady amassing of sound makes the first movement's climaxes particularly exciting. Similar juxtapositions enliven the second movement, which Jacobs gives a jaunty, propelled tempo, and the prolonged scherzo of the third movement. Jacobs thinks Schubert's quotation of the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the finale is "probably unconscious," an odd call to say the least.

For the "Unfinished" Symphony, Jacobs bases his interpretation on a theory about the work first put forward by Arnold Schering in an essay published in 1938. If the symphony is indeed not unfinished at all, Schering attempted to understand its two movements in relation to an allegorical narrative, called Mein Traum (My dream), that Schubert drafted in pencil in 1822. Within a few months of writing this unusual document, perhaps based partly on an actual dream and also on some tragic events in his early years, he was working on the "Unfinished" Symphony. As Jacobs puts it in an extensive booklet essay, including a section-by-section analysis of both works, in Mein Traum "Schubert tries to put into words what he seems far more able to say without words in his music."

Jacobs introduces each of the two completed movements of the "Unfinished" with the corresponding portion of Mein Traum, read in German by Tobias Moretti (the booklet includes an English translation). The first section of the narrative provides an arc something like the sonata-allegro form of the symphony's first movement. Schubert argues with his father and is expelled from the family home (exposition); Schubert hears of his mother's death and returns, his father allowing him to see his mother's corpse and attend her burial (development); another quarrel with the father leads to a second banishment (recapitulation). These events occurred around 1812, the year Schubert's mother died, apparently of typhus after a long life of child-bearing (Franz was the 12th of her 14 children). The "feast" and "garden" in Mein Traum, offered by the father and refused by Schubert, could be metaphors for Schubert's father's ultimately failed attempt to force his son to follow in his footsteps as a school master.

In the conclusion of Mein Traum, Schubert sees the tomb of a "pious virgin" and a circle of youths and old men around her. Jacobs suggests this could be Saint Cecilia, the martyr who became the patron saint of music, and the circle around her the devoted composers of her art. By a miracle he finds himself within the circle, experiencing the lovely sounds in it and feeling overwhelmed with bliss. He even finds himself reconciled with his father, perhaps by having succeeded as a composer. Schubert wrote this mysterious document on July 3, 1822, which happens to be 200 years ago this year. Believing, like Schering, that the symphony was intentionally left unfinished by Schubert, Jacobs does not record the fragments of the third movement. There is no way to verify if there is a connection between Mein Traum and the "Unfinished" Symphony, but this recording certainly opens a new window onto that enigmatic work.

6.8.22

Briefly Noted: Kafka-Fragments

available at Amazon
György Kurtág, Kafka-Fragmente, Anna Prohaska, Isabelle Faust

(released on August 19, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902359 | 58'06"
György Kurtág composed the Kafka-Fragmente from 1985 to 1987, a song cycle on bits of text gleaned from Franz Kafka's diaries, letters, and unpublished stories. Like much of Kurtág's music, each of the forty movements is a dense, carefully thought out nugget of music. The piece grabs the ear from the first moment: in this new recording, as violinist Isabelle Faust plods along on an oscillating major second, soprano Anna Prohaska first joins her ("the good march in step") and then spirals around her in disjointed staccato dissonance ("unaware of them, the others dance around them the dances of time").

Some movements have the chaotic feel of Sprechstimme, à la Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, while others are lushly melodic, such as the hypnotic "Berceuse I." The two performers are paired beautifully, both up to the virtuosic demands, extended techniques executed with perfect intonation. One of the longest movements, "Träumend hing die Blume" (The flower hung dreamily), is offered as an homage to Robert Schumann. Prohaska and Faust draw out its gorgeous lines beautifully, answered by the disconcerting shrieks of the movement that follows it, "Nichts dergleichen" (Nothing of the kind), which is embedded below.

Faust and Prohaska made this recording in May 2020 in a Berlin studio, which must have been surreal given the circumstances. Der wahre Weg, the longest piece in the set at almost seven minutes, is a drawn-out drone of sorts, addressed as an homage/message to Pierre Boulez. Its text, by chance, captures some of the sense of the lockdown year: "The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground. Its purpose seems to be more to make one stumble than to be walked on." The same goes for a text that appears twice in the cycle, as Fragments 11 and 25: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life." After living through the coronavirus lockdown, the sentiments of this complicated piece now strike me in new ways compared to previous years.

30.7.22

Briefly Noted: Carlos Simon Requiem

available at Amazon
Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved, Marco Pavé, MK Zulu, Hub New Music, Carlos Simon

(released on June 17, 2022)
Decca 00028948529421 | 44'53"
In 1838, the Jesuit priests in charge of what was then Georgetown College paid off that institution's debts. The money came from the sale of 272 enslaved persons, including children as young as two months old, who were sent on ships to plantations in Louisiana. In 2016, Georgetown University undertook a reckoning with this terrible event in its past. In an attempt to right a historical wrong, the university offered a free college education to all verified descendants of these enslaved people. Georgetown University was not the only Jesuit or Catholic institution in the area, founded before slavery was made illegal, to revisit this sordid part of their past, including Gonzaga College High School and Georgetown Visitation Convent.

As part of its plans aiming at restitution, Georgetown University commissioned this Requiem for the Enslaved from rising American composer Carlos Simon. It is one of many such new works being commissioned and premiered in the last few years, in the wake of widespread anti-racism protests across the country, including Damien Geter's An African American Requiem and Simon's own An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave. In this work, alternately reflective and militantly angry, Simon interweaves the structure and texts of the Catholic Requiem Mass with new texts by Memphis-based rapper Marco Pavé.

From the first movement, Simon and Pavé focus on the enslaved people sold "down the river" (that familiar saying has chilling origins), as their names are intoned over and over. Also at the beginning, a soft flute introduces the tune of "In paradisum," the Gregorian chant traditionally sung at the end of the Requiem Mass, to accompany the body of the deceased to the place of burial. MK Zulu's trumpet riffs on this ancient tune with bends and blue-note inflections, and through other movements the chant becomes a sort of motto for the whole piece. Later other melodies are introduced, including the hymn "Oh when the saints go marching in," which shares the same opening motif as the chant (do-mi-fa-sol), something that had never occurred to me before.

Simon mans the piano himself, with Hub New Music, a flute-clarinet-violin-cello quartet from Boston. Yet more tunes are woven into the tapestry, including the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the movement "Light everlasting interlude." Pop riffs pierce the aura of solemnity at times, including the pulsing piano chords in "Interlude (Isaac ran away)," reminiscent of the Foreigner song "Cold as Ice," at least to my ears. The disc, on the short side in terms of timing, is rounded out with alternate versions of three movements, for piano and for chamber ensemble alone.

23.7.22

Briefly Noted: Mouton Mass and Motets (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Jean Mouton, Missa Faulte d'argent / Motets, Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice

(released on July 1, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68385 | 72'53"

available at Amazon
Jean Mouton, Missa Tu es Petrus / Motets, Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice
(2012)
Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522) is not unknown among early music ensembles, with a number of fine recordings out there by the Tallis Scholars, among others. He was prolific enough, however, that all but one of the pieces on this second disc of the composer's choral music from the Brabant Ensemble are receiving their first recordings. Mouton's style is intricately contrapuntal, drawing comparison to the music of Josquin Desprez, with whom he was roughly contemporary.

For example, the two six-voice motets included in this recording are both notated in a single source in the Vatican Library (MS Capp. Sist. 38), one after another, for the use of the papal choir. The first of them, Confitemini domino, combines four voices in points of imitation on the outer text, proper to Easter. These unfold over a clever puzzle canon that enters later, set to a text from the Te Deum ("Per singulos dies benedicimus te"). The canon is notated in a single voice with the inscription "Preibis parare viam meam" as the only clue to how to realize it. Like St. John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way for Christ, the comes voice (follower) is supposed to enter first, followed by the dux (leader), an unexpected inversion of the normal canon process.

The Brabant Ensemble, a mixed choir of just ten voices, recorded these beautiful tracks in April 2021 in the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex. (Three of the Ashby sisters, familiar from their work with Stile Antico, populate the upper two sections.) Their conductor, Stephen Rice, has made some unusual choices in the editing of the sources, as in the conclusion of the motet discussed above, where some musica ficta additions create clashing cross relations and lead to a final chord modified to major with a raised third. The music editions, by Mick Swithinbank with some revisions by Rice and Mouton scholar Thomas MacCracken (editor of the composer's complete works), are available online in some cases.

This Mass paraphrases material from Josquin's secular chanson Faulte d'argent, with its text complaining of poverty and the complications it creates for one's love life. As Rice notes in his expert booklet essay, we should not be shocked by this juxtaposition of sacred and secular: Jean Richafort even used material from this chanson for his six-part setting of the Requiem Mass. The texture is limited to four voices, but sections in two or three voices add variety throughout. As expected of Mouton, the contrapuntal complexity is dense, particularly in the extended Agnus dei.

16.7.22

Briefly Noted: Haydn Trios with Piano

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Haydn, Trios with Piano, Marc Hantaï, Alessandro Moccia, Alix Verzier, Jérôme Hantaï

(released on June 17, 2022)
Mirare MIR636D | 67'50"
The three Hantaï brothers were familiar to Washington listeners, although they have not appeared here in over a decade. Two of them, flutist Marc Hantaï and fortepianist Jérôme Hantaï, recorded this disc of Haydn keyboard trios in February 2020, just before the world shut down, at the Théâtre élisabéthain d’Hardelot. The four pieces selected came late in the composer's career, written between 1784 and 1790, near the time Haydn retired from the service of the Esterházy family.

Marc Hantaï takes the treble part for two of these trios. His charming, breathy sound on the transverse flute blends beautifully with the mellow fortepiano played by Jérôme Hantaï, the brother who plays viola da gamba as well as keyboard instruments. The third brother, Pierre Hantaï, is a harpsichordist, who could theoretically have made these pieces an entirely family affair. Instead Alix Verzier, a long-time member of Les Arts Florissants, takes the cello part.

Violinist Alessandro Moccia, the concertmaster of Philippe Herreweghe's Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, takes the treble part in the other two trios. The effect is not as sparkling, perhaps due to the less unusual timbre of the instrument or the musical content. In all four pieces, the keyboard is always the lead voice, which accords with the composer's occasional description of them as "piano sonatas." Jérôme Hantaï draws out a svelte, precise sound from the unspecified fortepiano.

9.7.22

Briefly Noted: Respighi Songs

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Crepuscolo (Ottorino Respighi, Songs), Timothy Fallon, Ammiel Bushakevitz

(released on June 3, 2022)
BIS 2632 | 74'04"
American tenor Timothy Fallon won the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in 2013, paired with pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The duo released an album of Liszt songs together in 2017, which they have followed up with this diverting recital of rarely heard songs by Ottorino Respighi, both on the BIS label. This music, while certainly not unknown, is unfamiliar enough that listening to it was a delight. The performances are excellent as well, captured a year ago in a Munich studio.

Fallon's tenor has all the necessary qualities for this repertory - a floating lyrical quality (heard in "Nel giardino"), some heft on the top notes (as in the storm-tossed "In alto mare"), and a musical way with the text and expression of these often surprising songs. The album title, "Crepuscolo," comes from the last song of the opening set, Deità silvane (Woodland deities - sonnets by Antonio Rubino), where Bushakevitz's lively touch at the keyboard provides the caprine gambols of the titular "Fauni" in the first song and the sweetly clanging cymbals and flute in "Music in the Garden." Hints of Debussy and symbolism.

The selections range wide, beginning with three songs by the teenage Respighi, full of echoes of Verdi and Puccini. Respighi reveled in historical retrospection, featured by Gianandrea Noseda in his programming of the composer with the National Symphony Orchestra during his tenure. This program includes the five Canti all'antica, P. 71, with medieval poetry (by Giovanni Boccaccio, Andrea Falconieri, and Enzo of Sardinia) infused with aching suspensions, and for folk music flavor, the four Arie scozzesi, P. 143, Scots-English verse filtered through Italian romanticism. Fallon opts for a more English-leaning pronunciation of Robert Burns's My Heart's in the Highlands, which works with Respighi's charming melody.

2.7.22

Briefly Noted: Jean Rondeau's Goldberg Variations

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Jean Rondeau

(released on February 11, 2022)
Erato 190296508035 | 107'12"
By the time he was 30, French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau has made two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. "I will no doubt spend my life working on them," he admits in the minimal booklet for his second traversal, released earlier this year on the Erato label. In Rondeau's first version, recorded in a video for the Netherlands Bach Society in 2017, he played from a modern score, turning his own pages. That interpretation is the more straightforward of the two, with an emphasis on rhythmic regularity and the necessary technical acumen to make that happen. He played then on a modern harpsichord, a 2004 double-manual instrument built by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto.

Rondeau used a 2006 double-manual instrument by the same makers in the new recording, based on German models, captured in the Paris church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in April 2021. It has a fuller and more varied sound, brought to life with exacting precision by Rondeau's fingers. The second version is about ten minutes longer than the first, the result of a much less metronomic approach, for better or worse. Some of the tempi are much slower, and the introduction of rather mannered rubato, enough almost to induce seasickness, drags out many of the movements. For example, Variation XV is glacially paced, with an extended rallentando at the end to emphasize the upward scale trailing off into nothing, while Variation XXV is about two minutes longer because of the labored contemplation of every motif. Many of the movements start slowly and gradually reach a tempo, like a music-box cranking to life, a gesture that tires through repetition.

The best part of this interpretation is the sometimes extravagant ornamentation added to the repeats, all of which are taken in a rigorous observance of the score's indications. These embellishments are often quite striking, including right off the bat in the opening statement of the Aria. Rondeau apparently took into account an original printed edition, one marked and corrected by the composer himself. "Through delving into this precious musicological source," he writes, "I was able to make what I felt to be the most authentic choices." As he did in his first recording, Rondeau marks the end of Variation XV with a long silence, a way to draw attention to the bipartite division of the work, the second half of which opens with the Ouverture of Variation XVI.

The other subtle facet of this version is in the handling of the variations for two keyboards. Rondeau uses changes of registration and articulation to delineate the two hands, especially when they cross one another in range, often bringing out first one hand and then the other on the repeat. Variation XIV is a good example, where Rondeau even "removes" the written-out ornamentation at one point, playing one part of the repeated B section as a simple arpeggio, almost like a question mark. Rondeau cites the influence of the writings of reclusive French novelist Christian Bobin on his interpretation, although he does not specify how Bobin's Catholic mysticism relates to the way he plays. With this interpretation placed alongside his first recording, Rondeau has made a sort of diptych, a dual examination of Bach's score.

25.6.22

Briefly Noted: Supercharged Hahn Nostalgia

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Reynaldo Hahn, Le rossignol éperdu / Premières valses (selections), Pavel Kolesnikov

(released on June 3, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68383 | 71'24"
My ears are generally happy to discover more of the often overlooked music of French composer Reynaldo Hahn. That was true again in the case of this new disc from the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. The winner of the Honens International Piano Competition in 2012 has made selections from two of the composer's collections of miniatures, Le rossignol éperdu (53 poèmes pour piano) and Premières valses, with a half-dozen of the latter sandwiched between two groups from the former.

These salon pieces are visions fugitives par excellence, sepia-hued photographs of nostalgic etchings or watercolors from previous ages. The waltzes are the most sentimental evocations of Chopin and other Romantic composers, with other nods in the character pieces to the Renaissance ("Le jardin de Pétrarque" and " La fête de Terpsichore"), the Ancien Régime ("Les noces du duc de Joyeuse"), the Rococo ("Éros caché dans les bois"), and so on.

In a somewhat meandering booklet essay, Kolesnikov said that in order "to give this illusion of a powdery, old-fashioned sound," he made some unusual decisions for the sound of this recording. Working with piano technician Peter Salisbury, he plays on a Yamaha CFX concert grand "tuned in such a way as to maximize the extreme sensitivity of the keys, with closely positioned microphones." Loud passages clatter with a distracting amount of detail, but in soft passages -- the vast majority of the selections here -- one has the sense of being within a dampened cushion of sound. This heightens the feeling of daydreaming, making this disc a sleepy summer favorite for meditative listening.

18.6.22

Briefly Noted: Great Venetian Mass (CD of the Month)

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Vivaldi, The Great Venetian Mass, Sophie Karthäuser, Lucile Richardot, Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
(released on June 24, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905358 | 68'09"
One does not really need an excuse to make another recording of Vivaldi's well-known Gloria (RV 589), but it helps to have something that could set a new version apart. The distinguished French early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants hit on an ingenious solution, setting the Gloria as the centerpiece of a hypothetical reconstruction of a Great Venetian Mass by Vivaldi. The Redhead Priest, although he was required to produce several settings of the Latin Ordinary during his career at the Ospedale della Pietà, left no complete Mass that has survived. Paul Agnew, a long-time tenor with the ensemble and now serving as its musical codirector with founder William Christie, conducts a convincing interpretation that can only make the listener lament what such complete masses have been lost.

The Kyrie (RV 587) suits as a first movement, especially the second statement of "Kyrie eleison," with its playful rising chromatic scale, passed around the choir and orchestra, zipping along at a fleet tempo. A particularly nice touch comes in the motet placed between the Kyrie and Gloria, Ostro picta, armata spina (RV 642), surviving only in a manuscript in Turin. This piece, subtitled "Introduzione al Gloria," is something like a trope to preface the Gloria, because of its text likely sung for the Visitation of the Virgin on July 2, the convent-orphanage's patronal feast. Soprano Sophie Karthäuser gives a plangent edge to this solo piece, including the striking text painting of sudden silences in the main theme, "Linguis favete / Omnes silete" (Let tongues be still / Let all be silent), as the singer imposes silence so that only the words of the angelic hymn that follows can be heard.

Agnew helps his musicians shape a worthy interpretation of the famous Gloria, one of only two by Vivaldi that survive. The opening movement, adorned by two rustic natural trumpets, moves at a bubbly speed and with expressive, text-sensitive shaping of the choir's homophonic phrases. Karthäuser and steely mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot share the solo movements to optimal effect, and the aching suspensions of the "Et in terra pax" section are drawn out to languorous effect. The concluding fugue ("Cum sancto spiritu"), borrowed from another Gloria by one Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, a contemporary of Vivaldi's in Venice, is in the context of this mass reconstruction just another piece of the patchwork. Of Vivaldi's two surviving settings of the Credo, the group selected RV 591, the only one still confidently attributed to the composer. Its "Crucifixus" especially is quite lovely, a web of plaintive vocal lines over a detached walking bass.

No musical setting of the other movements of the Mass by Vivaldi survives, requiring this reconstruction to conclude with other pieces by Vivaldi retrofitted to the text of the Sanctus and Agnus dei (editions prepared by Pascal Duc). This makes perfect sense, as Vivaldi was known to cannibalize his own work in this way, as did most Baroque composers. The flowing strings of the Benedictus are particularly effective, adapted from a movement of the composer's Dixit dominus. In an apt echo of the return of the start of a cyclic mass setting at its conclusion, the final section of the Agnus dei is based on the solemn opening of the Kyrie (sadly not that zippy chromatic section of the second Kyrie). The sound, captured in 2020 in the resonant acoustic of the Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban in Paris, has a pleasing ring.

11.6.22

Briefly Noted: Bolcom's Complete Rags

available at Amazon
William Bolcom, The Complete Rags, Marc-André Hamelin

(released on June 3, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68391/2 | 133'03"
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when America had largely forgotten about Scott Joplin and ragtime. In a liner note to this dazzling new recording, composer William Bolcom describes the origins of his obsession with the rag. It began in 1967, when he first heard of Joplin and his opera Treemonisha, and continued for much of his career, as he and some fellow travelers shared new ragtime discoveries and wrote their own compositions in the style. Most of the original rags in this collection date from the ragtime revival period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When the soundtrack of the film The Sting swept the nation in 1974, Joplin's music became a rage again, so that by the time of my first piano lessons, Joplin and Joplin arrangements were common student repertory.

Marc-André Hamelin, himself a musical mimic not unlike Bolcom, gives these pieces a studied nonchalance. The two discs obviously include everything published in Bolcom's Complete Rags collection twenty years ago, with a couple of charming lagniappes. These include a few late arrivals, like Knockout 'A Rag', from 2008, in which the player raps on the piano's fallboard for a cool percussive self-accompaniment (an effect heard less extensively in the earlier Serpent's Kiss, with a bit of whistling, too), Estela 'Rag Latino' (2010), and what Bolcom thinks will be his last rag, the ultra-serene Contentment (2015). Another curiosity to discover is Brass Knuckles, a 1969 collaboration between Bolcom and another composer, William Albright, in imitation of the "collaborative rags" undertaken by Joplin and other rag composers.

The spirit of innovation runs through this music, as Bolcom merges the gestures of ragtime with other kinds of music, from more dissonant modernism to Latin genres as in the Tango-Rag. Bolcom also describes his 1969 meeting with the octogenarian Eubie Blake, the great stride master, a style Bolcom calls "urbanized ragtime." They became friends and performed together, a musical relationship that ran deep: "I consider him my last great teacher," Bolcom notes. As if to acknowledge that debt, the recording opens with Eubie's Luckey Day, a tribute to Blake's Charleston Rag.

10.6.22

New York City Ballet Returns to the Kennedy Center

New York City Ballet performed Suspended Animation, choreography by Sidra Bell (photo: Erin Baiano)

New York City Ballet has been through a disastrous period in the last four years. In 2018, the company's long-time artistic director, Peter Martins, resigned in disgrace, following accusations of sexual abuse. NYCB scrambled to find a stable way forward, naming Jonathan Stafford as its new artistic adviser, but with Wendy Whelan as associate artistic director and Justin Peck as resident choreographer and artistic adviser. As the company founded by George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Jerome Robbins struggled to address its history of sidelining the contributions of women and people of color, the coronavirus shut all of its performances down. NYCB was finally able to present a season over the past year, a selection of which the company brought to Washington for its first appearance at the Kennedy Center since 2019.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, In a terrible week, the much-needed balm of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Washington Post, June 10)

Jason Fraley, New York City Ballet’s first Black female choreographer comes to Kennedy Center (WTOP, June 6)

Gia Kourlas, A Farewell and the Promise of a New Future at City Ballet (New York Times, May 31)

---, City Ballet Gets a Modern Dance Fix (New York Times, February 4)

---, At City Ballet, Giving Voice to the Body, With Sneakers (New York Times, January 28)

Marina Harss, At City Ballet, Jamar Roberts and Dancers Find a Common Language (New York Times, January 27)

Roslyn Sulcas, Justin Peck and Collaborators Combine Gravitational Universes (New York Times, January 25)

Madelyn Sutton, Sculptor Eva LeWitt on Designing the set for Justin Peck's Partita (Playbill, May 2)

Jennifer Homans, Ballet Is Back, but All Is Not As It Was (The New Yorker, November 1, 2021)
The first two performances this week were devoted to three new choreographies, all premiered this season, seen on Tuesday evening. The first two were created by African-American choreographers, beginning with Emanon—in Two Movements by Jamar Roberts, resident choreographer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The work, whose title is "no name" spelled backwards, is set to two pieces by jazz composer Wayne Shorter, “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound.” The choreography was active but in many ways repetitive, aside from a striking solo moment for Jonathan Fahoury. The music from the pit and the dancing on stage did not always seem to line up ideally, although the visuals were beautiful, especially Jermaine Terry’s cool-purple costumes.

With her much more engaging Suspended Animation, Sidra Bell became the first black woman to choreograph a work for New York City Ballet. It opened in a whimsical way with dancers attired in technicolor costumes by the young black fashion designer Christopher John Rogers, something like Dr. Seuss characters strutting on a parody of a 1960s fashion show walkway. The dancing became more visible as the performers lost these extravagant outer layers, like birds molting their feathers. Set to music by Dosia McKay (the string quartet Is Now Not Enough? and Unveiling for strings), Oliver Davis (Solace for strings), and Nicholas Britell (The Middle of the World from his score for the film Moonlight), the piece turned from surreal to serious with an extended solo accompanied only by silence.

NYCB saved the best for last, a dynamic abstract ballet by Justin Peck, inspired by Caroline Shaw's ground-breaking Partita for 8 Voices, heard as accompaniment to the performance in the recording by Roomful of Teeth. Eight dancers, clad in white sneakers and variously colored workout clothes, moved in response to the score's often unconventional sounds. In a noteworthy tie-in, sculptor Eva LeWitt designed the sets for the ballet, hanging backdrops made of brightly colored ropes forming large discs above and behind the dancers. LeWitt is the daughter of minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, whose instructions for anyone executing his work Wall Drawing 305 were quoted extensively in Shaw's piece. Peck, who is one of the more musical choreographers working today, created a compelling work that translated music into motion, somewhat heavy-handed at times but seamless.
Sara Mearns and New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photo: Paul Kolnik)

The last four days of the run at the Kennedy Center are devoted to a recent classic, George Balanchine's innocent, child-centered story ballet based on William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, seen on Thursday evening. Premiered in 1962, the work weaves together Mendelssohn's overture and incidental music for the play with other selections by the composer, to make a convincing whole, a first act with most of the action plus a compact second act consisting largely of a divertissement. The Pennsylvania Ballet brought its utterly charming version of this Balanchine ballet to the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and this was a welcome chance to see it in the hands of the company that premiered it. (One thing that NYCB should have imitated from Pennsylvania Ballet was the placement of the singers, women from the local choir Choralis, for the vocal selections in the pit: the piping in of those performers from another location was less than satisfying.)

One of NYCB's best dancers, Sara Mearns, was a warm, almost glowing Titania, easily the stronger of the royal pairing with Daniel Ulbricht's Oberon, all vanity and strength in his tantrums and athletic leaps. Taylor Stanley made an antic, caprine Puck, running with manic exaggeration and even soaring suspended on wires in the striking final tableau. Georgina Pazcoguin displayed her own virtuosic strength as Hippolyta, bounding in impressive leaps as she hunted a pack of dancer-animals. The most gorgeous moment of the night came in the Act II pas de deux, danced with time-stopping grace by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. The swarms of faeries, especially the local children in their delightful insectoid costumes, stole the show during the scenes where they appeared.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through July 12.

4.6.22

Briefly Noted: New B Minor Mass from René Jacobs

available at Amazon
Bach, Mass in B Minor, R. Johannsen, M.-C. Chappuis, H. Rasker, S. Kohlhepp, C. Immler, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, R. Jacobs

(released on May 13, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902676.77 | 1h44
René Jacobs, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the RIAS Kammerchor made a recording of Bach's B Minor Mass in the 1990s. It was a fine interpretation, featuring solo work from Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Matthias Goerne, Axel Köhler, and Christoph Prégardien, backed up by a large complement of choral singers. Last year, Jacobs came back to this monumental score, second among Bach's achievements only to the St. Matthew Passion, in a new recording made at the Bürgerhaus in Neuenhagen bei Berlin, released last month on the Harmonia Mundi label.

Jacobs has drawn his ideas for this new interpretation from an article by musicologist and church musician Wilhelm Ehmann (an essay called ‘Concertisten’ und ‘Ripienisten’ in der h-Moll-Messe Joh. Seb. Bachs, published in 1960). As Jacobs puts it in a booklet essay, "Ehmann argued that Bach’s ideal in his choral works was a ‘vocal concerto’, that is, an alternating juxtaposition of the full choral sonority (ripieno) and a small group of soloists (concertino)."

To realize this concept, Jacobs gives the large choral sections to the entire RIAS Kammerchor (29 singers), contrasting that sound with sections for a small choir within the choir (15 singers). The quintet of soloists, all current or former choral singers, handles the solo and duet movements, as well as some of the complete choral sections, like the intimate "Et incarnatus est" and "Crucifixus," and a few passages within the large choral sections. The effect is a pleasing increase in the variety of choral textures across what is a rather long work. (Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion used a similar approach in their new recording of the St. Matthew Passion, although Pichon's soloists also sang with the chorus.)

Jacobs has sped up his tempos in several movements, noticeable from the opening Kyrie movement, choices that shave about six minutes off the total duration. Much of that time difference may come in the Sanctus, taken at breakneck speed, about twice as fast as his previous interpretation. That being said, Jacobs is not the sort to go for HIP speed all the time: the gently flowing "Et in terra pax" movement in the Gloria is very calm, just not as slow as his old recording.

All five soloists are excellent, especially in combinations, particularly the treble voices (Robin Johannsen, Marie-Claude Chappuis, and Helena Rasker) and the impeccably light tenor of Sebastian Kohlhepp, ideal for Bach. The instrumental contributions are equally fine, with a more diverse continuo sound, organ with prominent lute from Michael Freimuth mixed in to pleasing effect. Christoph Huntgeburth and Laure Mourot give the two flauti traversi a wonderful, breathy sound, featured unusually in the parts retrofitted to the "Cum sancto spiritu" fugue of the Gloria (added by Bach when he adapted the piece in his Christmas cantata Gloria in excelsis deo).

Margherita Lulli gives a rustic touch to the corno da caccia part in the "Quoniam tu solus sanctus," and the three natural trumpets and timpani add regal dignity to the largest movements. Perhaps in a nod to the nickname of the piece in the time even of Bach's sons ("‘Die große catholische Messe"), Jacobs opts in this version for the Roman pronunciation of the Latin Ordinary.

28.5.22

Briefly Noted: Monza String Quartets

available at Amazon
Carlo Monza, Six String Quartets, Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi

(released on May 6, 2022)
Naïve V7541 | 60'28"
Fabio Biondi made this world premiere recording of six string quartets by Carlo Monza (1680-1739) back in 2019, at the Sala Ghislieri of the Accademia Montis Regalis in Mondovì, Italy. Biondi plays the first violin part, joining with three musicians from his ensemble, Europa Galante - violinist Andrea Rognoni, violist Stefano Marcocchi, and cellist Alessandro Andriani. In a liner note, Biondi explains the path that led him to this relatively little-known Milanese composer, related to his attempt to understand what Mozart learned from music popular at the court theater of the Duke of Milan during his travels in Italy.

Biondi discovered a reference to these quartets in the private library of a large residence on Isola Bella, one of the Borromean islands on Lake Maggiore. Although Biondi knew the composer and his music to be of interest, the library refused to authorize the use or even photographing of the manuscript scores. A musicologist friend of his then found a copy of the quartets in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a connection that showed that that score was not a reduction of symphonies but a set of string quartets. Biondi put together a concert juxtaposing these pieces with the quartets Mozart had written during his time in Italy, and now the group has released this excellent recording of the entire set.

The quartets all have descriptive titles, as well as many of the individual movements. Even in the absence of a true program to tell us what the music is attempting to say, the titles make these pieces, in the words of the one title, like "Opera in musica." In that Quartet in D Major, both violins and the viola receive recitatives like opera singers, a convention heard in several of the other quartets as well. This helps make them like little operatic scenes, ranging from 8 to 12 minutes in length. In the String Quartet in C Major ("Gli amanti rivali") we hear two rival lovers at odds with one another. They challenge each other (second movement) and fight a duel (third movement). One of them dies (fourth movement), and the finale depicts the desperation of the women who loved them ("La disperazione delle donne amanti").

The String Quartet in B-Flat Major ("Il giuocatore") follows the misadventures of a gambler, leading up to a sad movement ("La tristezza per la perdita") and a happier conclusion as he repents of his gambling ("Il giuocatore ravveduto," or the repentent gambler). Other vignettes include the String Quartet in F Major ("La fucina di Vulcano," or the Forge of Vulcan, a scene of reconciled jealousy between Vulcan and Venus under Mount Etna), the String Quartet in G Minor ("Divertimento notturno"), and the charming String Quartet in E-Flat Major ("La caccia"). In that last one, one hears a thunderstorm ("Temporale"), the meeting of the hunters ("Unione dei cacciatori"), and rustic music played by shepherds while the hunters have their dinner ("Rondò de' Pastori frattanto che i Cacciatori cenano"). The performances are all top-notch, and these pieces could easily be confused for early Mozart.

21.5.22

Briefly Noted: Tiranno

available at Amazon
Handel / A. Scarlatti / Monteverdi / Monari, Cantatas, K. Lindsey, Arcangelo, J. Cohen

(released on May 28, 2021)
Alpha 736 | 75'34"
The latest solo recital disc from mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, released last year, is just now reaching my ears. She partners again with Jonathan Cohen and the early music ensemble Arcangelo, the same as her previous album, with Ariadne-themed pieces by Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Haydn. This new recording is devoted to the Roman emperor Nero, again with secular cantatas by Handel and Scarlatti père, as well as one by Bartolomeo Monari (1662-1697) and excerpts from Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

The program ingeniously traces an arch between the two Scarlatti cantatas, Il Nerone and La morte di Nerone, which serve as bookends. In between, we get glimpses of the women who loved Nero and were betrayed by him: his mother, Agrippina, whom he had assassinated; his wife, Octavia, foisted on him by the scheming Agrippina, whom he divorced, exiled, and then executed; and his mistress and second wife, Poppea, whose death he caused either by poisoning her or causing her to miscarry a child after he kicked her in the abdomen.

The Richmond-born mezzo-soprano remains in good form in this remarkable disc. The bottom range has become richer, although a few high notes sound squeezed and slightly off in the aria "Veder chi pena" in the first Scarlatti cantata, perhaps intended to show Nero's loss of mental stability as he relishes the suffering of his people while Rome burns. Her voice still displays amazing virtuosity overall; the melismatic technique is in a class of its own, with runs so clearly delineated, as in Handel's showpiece "Orrida, oscura" from the cantata Agrippina condotta a morire. Cohen's ensemble adds outstanding instrumental contributions all around.

In the Monteverdi selections, Lindsey matches well with tenor Andrew Staples's Lucan in "Or che Seneca è morto" and gives dramatic force to Ottavia's lament "Addio Roma!" The duet "Pur ti miro," with soprano Nardus Williams, is a less suitable pairing in some ways, but still lovely. Never has that love duet of emperor and mistress rang more hollow than when it is followed by Bartolomeo Monari's fine cantata La Poppea, on Nero's murder of his great love. The cycle of bad karma comes full circle with Scarlatti's La morte di Nerone - both of these last two cantatas are given world premiere recordings on this disc. Nero finds himself abandoned by all and, depending on the telling, commits suicide or forces someone to kill him, dying on the anniversary of Octavia's death.

Lindsey, who was born in Richmond, has been gracing these pages since 2005, when she was a young artist with Wolf Trap Opera Company. She has returned to the area the last few years mostly with Washington Concert Opera, most recently in Gluck's Orphée last month. She will come back to Wolf Trap this summer, in a recital combining Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben and Fauré's La Chanson d'Ève on July 8.

14.5.22

Briefly Noted: Polish Farewells (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Polish Songs, Jakub Józef Orliński, Michał Biel

(released on May 6, 2022)
Erato 0190296269714 | 57'14"
Not surprisingly, countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński has recorded largely Baroque music, often in partnership with the historically informed performance ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro. For this new album, the Polish singer has partnered with Polish pianist Michał Biel, his longtime friend from their student days in Warsaw and at the Juilliard School. The program is the fruit of their collaboration in song recital repertory by more recent Polish composers, all from the last 150 years, recorded in September 2021 at the Nowa Miodowa Concert Hall in Warsaw.

Some of these composers may be familiar, particularly Karol Szymanowski, although his Songs from Kurpie may not be. The words are folk texts collected by Władysław Skierkowski, a musician and priest who died in 1941 in the Soldau concentration camp. His book, The Kurpian Forest in Song, is based on his time during World War I hiding in the swampy forests of Poland's Kurpie region. Szymanowski composed beautiful musical settings for these often cryptic texts, a sort of Polish counterpart to Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Orliński gives the folk-style cantillation a natural ease of bends and blue notes. In the beautiful bird song (no. 2) his voice reaches effortlessly up to high E.

The other composers are less known outside of Poland and yield fascinating discoveries. Henryk Czyż (1923-2003) may be better known as a conductor, especially for his championing of the music of Penderecki in many recordings. He was also a gifted composer, on display in Pożegnania (Farewells), a set of three gorgeous songs on Pushkin poems translated into Polish by Julian Tuwim. The style is unabashedly Straussian, with lush chromatic turns similar to the delectable music of Joseph Marx. Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) contributes four songs on Shakespeare sonnets translated into Polish, in a pretty, neoclassical style but perhaps with serial techniques underlying it. As a teenager Baird did a period as a forced laborer for the Nazis, eventually surviving internment in a concentration camp. The last of these songs is somber and gorgeous, and Orliński plies his silken voice to the sighed downward portamenti.

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909) is represented by the largest number of songs, a dozen rather short piece, drawn mostly from two sets. His style is late Romantic and poignant, akin to Tchaikovsky, whom he admired. Some are especially fine, as the slow, aching melody of "Na spokojnym, ciemnym morzu." Sadly, Karłowicz died young, a victim of an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains. The only living composer included on this disc, Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968), has one song, "Jesień" (Autumn), on a striking text by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, the "Polish Sappho" active in the years between the two world wars. One hears the autumn rain falling in the long piano introduction, slowly dripping with splashing dissonances rebounding, just one example of Biel's sensitive work at the piano. The stark vocal writing features odd, jagged intervals, humming, portamenti, and other austere effects. The program concludes with two songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), often described as the "father of Polish opera."

7.5.22

Briefly Noted: Alice Coote Schubertiade

available at Amazon
Schubert, Songs, Alice Coote, Julius Drake

(released on May 6, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68169 | 71'36"
At the end of March here in Washington, Alice Coote was the best part of the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The British mezzo-soprano recorded this selection of twenty-one Schubert songs, back in December of 2017, in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, in London. The program is a mixture of rather simple strophic songs and more complex pieces, some relative rarities alongside some of the most often heard songs in performances with new ideas to recommend them.

Coote's wheelhouse is in the dramatic songs where she can open up her considerable vocal power, as in "Der Zwerg," which sets a truly bizarre poem about a dwarf who murders his mistress, a queen, by lowering her into the sea from a ship. Drake supports her with technical assurance, releasing from the Steinway under his fingers a broad swath of sound. Similar examples include a truly thrilling "Rastlose Liebe" and an equally restless "Der Musensohn."

Drake often works with singers to devise ingenious recital selections. In this case the program is a sort of chiasmus in structure, opening with one setting of Goethe's "An den Mond" and ending with another. This quasi-palindromic pattern is extended with other songs or themes heard at the opening of the recital and then in reverse order at the end: Schubert's "Wandrers Nachtlied I" and "Im Frühling," second and third in order, are balanced by "Frühlingsglaube" and "Wandrers Nachtlied II" in antepenultimate and penultimate positions, and so on. Coote's sometimes active vibrato is perhaps less effective in softer, less dramatic songs like these, but she is so musical that they all work.

This clever construction is not as exact beyond that, but the plan does put two famous songs in opposition to one another, yielding interesting results in comparison. In "Der Tod und das Mädchen," Coote summons up radically different vocal qualities for the terrified maiden and the comforting specter of Death. The latter features her extensive and shadowy low register (similar in some ways to her striking "Urlicht" in the NSO's "Resurrection" symphony). "Erlkönig" also involves the confrontation of a young person with the fear of death. Of the multiple vocal characterizations in this dramatic song, the haunted child is the most striking, for whom Coote lightens her tone straightens her vibrato a bit. Drake's accompaniment is not the most steady in those difficult repeated octaves, a rare shortcoming.