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

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)

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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

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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.

30.4.22

Briefly Noted: Tailleferre's Piano Music

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Germaine Tailleferre, Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1, Nicolas Horvath

(released on April 1, 2022)
Grand Piano GP891 | 83'21"
Germaine Tailleferre was the only woman included in the group of French composers styled as Les Six. Even the writer Jean Cocteau, whose leadership brought the group to fame, pushed her into the background, at one point deriding her as "une Marie Laurencin pour l'oreille." (Laurencin, in fact, painted a portrait of Cocteau in the 1920s.) That brief period of association was just the first phase of Tailleferre's long compositional career, that lasted into her 90s, almost until her death in 1983. She lived in the United States twice, in the 1920s, with her first husband, and again in Philadelphia during World War II.

Her music is not well known here, although hopefully that will change as ensembles seek to include more music composed by women: for example, last spring, Chiarina Chamber Players performed her Harp Sonata and her Piano Trio. Pianist Nicolas Horvath, known for his marathon complete performances and recordings of many modern composers such as Satie, Stockhausen, and Glass, is undertaking a complete recording of her piano music. These three volumes will bring together all of the composer's pieces for piano, many recorded for the first time, thanks to permission granted by the composer's granddaughter and sole heir.

Most of the pieces in this first volume are short character pieces, many collected into longer suites. Like Nadia Boulanger she was interested in the monuments of French music history. She collected transcriptions of bits of music by Lully and other French and Italian composers in her Petites ouvertures d'airs anciens, while the influence of baroque style runs through her collection Fleurs de France and the Suite dans le style Louis XV. She was, among other things, talented at mimicry, with many of these brief pieces in imitation of various types of music both real and fanciful (Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Sicilienne, Inca, Amazon).

The only track longer than a few minutes is the piano version of her unusual score for Sous le rampart d'Athènes, music dominated by trilling figures that is probably much more interesting in its orchestral incarnation. Tailleferre met the writer Paul Claudel, the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel, on a ship returning to Europe after her first American stay. He commissioned her to write incidental music for this "philosophical dialogue" written to commemorate the centenary of the scholar Marcellin Berthelot's birth. Horvath's interpretations are sensitive and profound, although at times there are some technical shortcomings, as in repeated-note sections, which can be a little hesitant and clotted.

Washington Ballet returns to its new and improved 'Giselle' at the Warner

Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez in the Washington Ballet's Giselle (xmb Photography)

In some ways the Julie Kent era at Washington Ballet began with Giselle, the big classical story ballet on her first season in 2017. After two years of pandemic struggles, the company has brought back its artistic director's production of this romantic ghost story, described by Kent as "revised and refined," this time at the Warner Theater instead of the Kennedy Center's slightly larger Eisenhower Theater. The venue change brought with it some box office woes, as delays in picking up tickets delayed the start of the performance by a half-hour, problems that can hopefully be prevented going forward.
Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, Washington Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ brims with charm and musical delights (Washington Post, April 29)

Other Productions:
American Ballet Theater (2020)
Bolshoi (2014)
Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris (2012)
Mariinsky (2011)

Eun Won Lee, the Korean étoile who came to Washington to dance for Kent, remained remarkable in the title role. She was equally fragile in both acts, a bubbly girl weakened by a bad heart. As one of the Wilis in the Act II ballet blanc she was less a vaporous spirit this time, it seemed, than a soul that yearned to be still corporeal, a living woman now just out of Albrecht's reach. Her Albrecht, the strong and nobly comported Gian Carlo Perez, in an admirable debut, seemed to see her but could not grasp her at first in that darkened second act.

To their credit Kent and her partner, associate artistic director Victor Barbee, have certainly captured the frightening side of the ballet's "Halloween" act. Adelaide Clauss glowered with menace in her debut as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, the avenging spirits of wronged women. The absurdly pompous Hilarion of Oscar Sanchez, another fine debut, got his just deserts when the ghosts drove him to his agonizing death.

The most impressive debut came in the peasant dance scene in Act I, an extended pairing often used to feature rising dancers. The chipper Tamako Miyazaki danced with Rench Soriano, who joined the Washington Ballet studio company in 2019. He was compact and strong in this athletic choreography, all leg musicle and clean vertical line in his leaps. The corps bounced with fervor in the peasant scenes in Act I, changing into rigid, forbidding spirits in Act II. The surprise moment when their white veils are ripped away, pulled by strings into the wings, added to the aura of mystery.

Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theater, returned to the pit in his ongoing collaboration with Kent. He presided over a stripped-down chamber arrangement of Adolphe Adam's score, which other than some occasional weakness in the strings (parts covered by only twelve musicians total) was remarkably effective. Nicolette Oppelt's flute and Ron Erler Fatma Daglar's oboe were highlights in the woodwinds, with fine contributions from harpist Nadia Pessoa and an ardent viola solo from Jennifer Ries in the touching Act II pas de deux. The horns and trumpets provided heraldic hunt sounds in Act I.

The Washington Ballet's Giselle runs through May 1 at the Warner Theater.

23.4.22

Briefly Noted: Triduum at Notre-Dame (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Pâques à Notre-Dame, Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, Yves Castagnet, Henri Chalet

(released on April 1, 2022)
Warner 190296396892 | 63'45"
On April 15, 2019, fire destroyed the spire and vault of the most beloved Gothic church in the world, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. This new release from Warner Classics is devoted to the last polyphonic works to be performed in the cathedral before the fire, which occurred in the days leading up to Easter. The children and adults of the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris, under conductor Henri Chalet, recorded this program in the neo-Gothic Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde.

Since the fire, the Maîtrise has continued its liturgical service at the older Église Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois. A training choir for young voices, from children up to age 30, they perform at the highest professional level. Various combinations of the group's voices sing music that was prepared for the feasts of the Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Yves Castagnet accompanies many of the pieces on Sainte-Clotilde's venerable Cavaillé-Coll organ, once played by César Franck, Gabriel Pierné, Charles Tournemire, and Jean Langlais, to name just the most famous of the church's celebrated organists.

About half of the disc consists of music performed on these sacred days by choirs around the world, including two of Maurice Duruflé's celebrated Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, proper to Holy Thursday and sung with gorgeous subtlety. Antonio Lotti's complex Crucifixus for eight voices, proper to Good Friday, revels in its massive pile-up of dissonant suspensions, balanced by the joy of Jehan Revert's metrical arrangements of the beloved Easter tune O filii et filiae and the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes. The concise Missa Octo vocum by Hans Leo Hassler goes nicely with a motet by Monteverdi and Dextera domini, César Franck's gentle, pastoral offertory proper to Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil.

Quite pleasingly, the disc also features recent liturgical music composed by three living French composers. Two hymns on French texts and the intriguing Messe brève showcase the compelling style of Yves Castagnet (b. 1964), titulaire of the orgue de chœur at Notre-Dame, where he regularly accompanied Vespers. (From 2010 to 2013, Castagnet published seven books of his Heures de Notre-Dame, bringing together the music he oversaw for Vespers at the cathedral.) Jean-Charles Gandrille (b. 1982) is represented by a simple, rather hypnotic setting of the Marian sequence Stabat Mater for organ and treble voices, which cranks up in intensity towards its ecstatic conclusion. There is also a striking new piece by Lise Borel (b. 1993), one of the choir's assistant directors and a rather interesting composer. Her Regina caeli, for seven women's voices accompanying themselves with murmuring repetions of "regina regina," can be heard in the video embedded below.

16.4.22

Briefly Noted: Domenico Scarlatti

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Stabat Mater (inter alia), Emmanuelle de Negri, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, Le Caravansérail, Bertrand Cuiller

(released on April 8, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM905340DI | 76'22"
The little surviving sacred music by Domenico Scarlatti should be sung more often than it is. In my limited experience with it as a choral singer, it is always worth knowing. Bertrand Cuiller puts a setting of the Stabat Mater at the center of this recent survey of the composer's music with Le Caravansérail, the early music ensemble he founded in 2015. Cuiller conducts the work from the organ, leading a small continuo ensemble consisting of cellist Bruno Cocset, plus double bass and archlute. This puts the emphasis appropriately on the voices, soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, blossoming into a rarefied choral sound at climaxes with eight other singers.

Cuiller shifts gears with the remaining pieces on the disc, all of a secular nature, which he performs on or leads from a harpsichord. The selections highlight the melodic variety of Scarlatti the Younger, from the somber Keyboard Sonata in D Minor, K.213 (Cuiller on harpsichord), to an unusual arrangement of the Sonata in G Major, K. 144, for harpist Bérengère Sardin. The group's lead violinist plays the diverting Sonata in D Minor, K. 90, one of the multi-movement sonatas Scarlatti left open to the possibility of performing with added instruments. The disc also includes a movement from one of the Scarlatti sonatas enlarged as a concerto grosso by English composer Charles Avison.

Other vocal works include three arias from the opera Amor d’un’Ombra e Gelosia d’un’aura, composed in Rome and later adapted as Narciso for London, as well as the cantata Pur nel sonno almen tal'ora, composed during Scarlatti's later period in Madrid. Sardin gets another pleasing harp turn on the Minuetto that forms the latter's second movement. Of the two leading soloists, de Negri is the more consistenly pleasing, featured beautifully in the cantata's three vocal movements, as Bénos-Djian at times falls into the nasal shrillness associated with some countertenor voices at loud dynamics. The two singers are heard together to their best effect, as Narcissus and Echo, in the final selection from Amor d'un'Ombra.

9.4.22

Briefly Noted: Mendelssohn Violin Sonatas

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Mendelssohn, Violin Sonatas, Alina Ibragimova, Cédric Tiberghien

(released on March 4, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68322 | 67'04"
Both violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien got into my ears through their recordings of the music of Bach. Neither performer has made the trip to Washington in several years, so it has been a delight to keep up with their musical partnership on disc, which has extended into Romantic music. After their wonderful Brahms album was briefly noted a few years ago, this collection of the Mendelssohn violin sonatas now gets a mention. Washington classical music presenters, if you are reading, someone needs to bring this duo here soon.

As one is reminded in the superb program notes by preeminent Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy not only as a composer and pianist but as a violinist. He began to study the instrument at age 10, forming a long friendship with his teacher, the virtuoso Eduard Rietz. According to Mendelssohn's composition teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the composer became a violinist "of professional calibre," taking part as both violinist and violist in a number of public performances. Mendelssohn dedicated to Rietz, who died of consumption at only 30 years old, the only violin sonata he ever published, his Op. 4, as well as the brilliant, youthful String Octet, with its extra-florid first violin part as a tribute to his teacher.

This disc includes excellent renditions of Op. 4 and of the two complete violin sonatas in F major that Mendelssohn never published. All three pieces are worth hearing, but the second one, from much later in Mendelssohn's life, stands out. He drafted the piece in 1838, when he held the director's post in Leipzig, intending it for the hands of Ferdinand David but ultimately abandoned it. Mendelssohn's two original autograph versions of the piece's first movement, one a revision of the other, remained unpublished until the Mendelssohn anniversary in 2009: this recording uses the initial, unrevised first movement. The other curiosity is the fragment of a violin sonata in D major, left incomplete after 367 measures of its first movement. It opens oddly, with a probing violin melody over quiet chords, leading to a fast theme that turns toward minor. An unexpected return to the major key feels like a temporary solution to make some sort of ending, after which the music trails off.

2.4.22

Briefly Noted: Alessandrini's Harmonic Fury

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Vivaldi/Bach, L'estro armonico, Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini

(released on March 25, 2022)
Naïve OP 7367 | 158'06"
Antonio Vivaldi's L’estro armonico was a shot across the bow of musical Europe, so to speak. Vivaldi published this collection, a set of twelve string concertos he called his Op. 3, in Amsterdam in 1711. Following upon two sets of sonatas, they were the first concertos published by the Venetian composer, identified by Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot as "perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century." Scholars have shown that Vivaldi composed some of these works specifically for the publication, while others had been composed earlier. The ensemble for which Vivaldi wrote them, the orchestra of orphaned girls at the Ospedale della Pietà, was becoming widely known. Vivaldi dedicated the set to Ferdinando de' Medici, a frequent visitor to Venice and a financial supporter of the orphanage.

Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have made a new, lean recording of L'estro armonico, performing the seven instrumental parts of the score essentially one on a part. In a pleasing pairing, this new 2-CD set also includes performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's transcriptions of six of the twelve concertos. Bach came into contact with L'estro armonico in 1713 or 1714, shortly after its publication, because his employer, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, returned from a stay in the Netherlands with a copy of the score. Bach made five of these transcriptions while he held the post in Weimar, adapating three of the solo violin concertos for harpsichord and two of the double-violin concertos for organ.

It has to be said that not every one of the concertos in the Vivaldi set is equally brilliant. For the most part, Bach picked the most interesting ones to transcribe. Perhaps the best is No. 10, one of the concertos for four violins, which Bach realized as a concerto for four harpsichords in the late 1720s or early 1730s when he held the cantor position in Leipzig. Alessandrini is joined by three other Italian harpsichordists (Andrea Buccarella, Salvatore Carchiolo, and Ignazio Schifani) for a fine rendition of this famous piece. Alessandrini plays the three solo harpsichord arrangements himself, ably enough, but perhaps he could have spread the wealth with his colleagues. As Alessandrini observes in his program note, these are not mere transcriptions, as Bach reworked the music to the keyboard idiom and even made structural changes, to enhance the counterpoint, for example.

Each component of Concerto Italiano's performances in the Vivaldi pieces is in prime form, with admirable parity among the four violinists and their lower-string counterparts (recorded at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome in December 2020). One of the great concertos that Bach did not transcribe is the E minor for four violins, which receives an exemplary performance in this recording. Among the other high points are the two organ transcriptions made by Bach, played with fleet fluency by Lorenzo Ghielmi on the Mascioni organ in the parish church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Morbio, Switzerland. Built in 2001 but in the Italian Baroque style, the instrument sounds authentic, but without the clutzy action of a historical organ. Alessandrini notes that all performances are tuned to the high Classical pitch used in Venice, including the Bach pieces, which is more or less at modern pitch.

26.3.22

Briefly Noted: Pichon's Pygmalion Passion (CD of the Month)

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Bach, St. Matthew Passion, J. Prégardien, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on March 25, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902691.93 | 2h42
Raphaël Pichon's ensemble Pygmalion, founded in 2006, is another early music group I have been following closely in recent years. Although they have yet to make the trip to Washington, we have had plenty of chances to hear them via stream and recording. The group has released some fine Bach discs over the years, all with a specific goal in mind. As Pichon put it in an interview about their newest recording, "When I founded Pygmalion, I had a single certainty, one big dream: that we would give our first St. Matthew Passion for our tenth birthday." That is exactly what happened in 2016, with most of the musicians who ended up being recorded on this excellent set at sessions in April 2021 at the Philharmonie de Paris.

Pichon calls this "a consciously choral performance," with the solo singers also serving as section leaders in what is an exquisite choral sound. As the finishing touch, fifteen young singers from the Maîtrise de Radio France take the chorale tunes woven into the complex textures of the opening and closing movements of Part I, a part marked by Bach as "soprani in ripieno." The solo parts range from very good to excellent, with soloists from each choir taking the arias as Bach indicated and some of the characters named in dialogues given to other chorus members. The two superb sopranos, Sabine Devieilhe (whose solo album with Pygmalion has also been in my ears recently) and Hana Blažíková, lead the topmost sections of Choir I and II, respectively, as well as splitting the soprano arias.

Mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is sublime in "Erbarme dich," as she was when she sang with Ensemble Correspondances recently. (She sang with the Maîtrise de Radio France in her youth, which is a nice connection to the young performers in the group now.) Julian Prégardien takes the part of the Evangelist with authority and beauty of tone, while baritone Stéphane Degout brings a plangent resonance to the part of Jesus, wreathed in its halo of strings. The instrumental contributions are all lovely, especially the soft flutes. The continuo realization has a pleasing variety, split among organ, harpsichord, and theorbo, all used quite inventively. Pichon has thought deeply about this massive score, which he has spoken about in interviews. There is no small chorale or bit of recitative that does not reflect the conductor's care for it, such as the last chorale in the work, "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden," performed by the singers alone after the death of Christ. This marvelous rendition is both full-textured and brimming with the intimacy of historically informed performance practice.

19.3.22

Briefly Noted: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

available at Amazon
Brahms / Shostakovich, Piano Quintets, Olga Kern, Dalí Quartet

(released on March 1, 2022)
Delos DE3587 | 71'56"
It is good to see that Olga Kern is recording again. For her first disc since 2012, she has teamed up with the Dalí Quartet in two monuments of the piano quintet repertoire. The tracks were captured in 2019 in Norfolk, under the auspices of the Virginia Arts Festival, for whom Kern serves as director of chamber music. The Brahms selection, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, is a monument of the chamber music repertoire, but this rendition is too brash and forceful to hit the mark. Brahms was careful to note that three of the four movements are not to be taken too fast. Kern and the Dalí Quartet give the Scherzo a blistering air of excitement but rush through the other three movements and miss the wistful qualities of the music.

The other selection, Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G Minor, makes for much better listening and mostly for the same reasons. The Lento first movement bristles with searing intensity, from both Kern and the quartet. The strings-only sections of the second movement are lush and contained, with Kern's rumbling octaves adding an air of distant menace. This quintet's Scherzo, a happy-go-lucky romp with plucky melodies that turn a little maniacal, could not be more different from the one composed by Brahms. Yearning string lines sing sweetly in the Intermezzo, accompanied by soft pizzicati or pulsed piano chords. Kern's bold touch at the keyboard propels the finale, which subsides to an understated finish.

Shostakovich composed the Piano Quintet just before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1940. Born and trained in Russia, Kern broke a year-long Twitter silence earlier this month to demand an end to the brutal Russian war in Ukraine. As she explained in her message, her grandfather was from Ukraine, and her family had a connection with Kharkov, one of many cities recently bombed. She also toured with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in 2019. Kern became an American citizen in 2016 and is now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Her son, Vladislav Kern, is also a pianist who graduated from Juilliard's pre-college program in 2016. Mother and son have even performed together in recent years.

12.3.22

Briefly Noted: Jupiter and Lea Desandre

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Amazone, L. Desandre, Jupiter, T. Dunford

(released on September 17, 2021)
Erato 190295065805 | 75'37"
Last Sunday, the early music ensemble known as Jupiter made its maiden appearance in the Washington area, with a stupendous all-Vivaldi concert at the Phillips Collection with mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre. (Although unreviewed in Washington, the group's debut at Carnegie Hall on Thursday received a well-deserved laudatory review in the New York Times.) Founded in 2018 by the talented lutenist Thomas Dunford, this crackerjack group has already released two fine albums. Following their debut disc in 2019, an exciting selection of Vivaldi arias and instrumental pieces for Alpha, this program of music inspired by the theme of Amazons came out last fall on the Erato label. Their Phillips recital was a mixture of repertory from the two.

The Amazons, presented often as the stuff of legend in Greek mythology, were likely based on real warrior women among the Scythians, as shown by recent research. Yannis François helped mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre design the program, selecting examples from Amazon characters in French and Italian Baroque operas, many of which had never been recorded before. Percussionists Keyvan Chemirani and Marie-Ange Petit add a touch of exotic savagery to some of the tracks, including the opener, "Non posso far" from Provenzale's Lo schiavo di sua moglie. A wind machine and thunder sheet set the scene for the storm sinfonia from Georg Caspar Schürmann's Die getreue Alceste, and castanets make "Sdegni, furori barbari" from Pallavicino's L’Antiope into a fandango. The two arias from Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte make as fine a climax as they did at the Phillips concert.

The arias are often paired in fast and slow combinations, like the two from Mitilene, regina delle Amazzoni by Giuseppe de Bottis, featuring both Desandre's rapid-fire melismatic technique and luscious legato line. In one of several memorable guest appearances, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli soars in tandem with Desandre in the marvelous duet "Io piango / Io peno" from the Bottis opera. Soprano Véronique Gens joins with Desandre in a scene from Philidor's Les Amazones, and William Christie contributes a Passacaille in C by Louis Couperin, shadowed by Dunford on therbo. Virtuoso Jean Rondeau, who serves as the group's regular harpsichordist, improvises a postlude to one aria and performs the dance "L’Amazône" from François Couperin's Second Livre. A curious Thomas Dunford original, Amazones, rounds out the disc, although it is not listed in the booklet or provided with translations like the other vocal pieces.

5.3.22

Briefly Noted: Albert Roussel's...operetta?

available at Amazon
A. Roussel, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, M. Lenormand, M. Gomar, L. Komitès, Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes, D. Corlay

(released on March 1, 2022)
Naxos 8.660479 | 78'56"
How many delightful surprises are left in the oeuvre of Albert Roussel? The chances to hear the French composer's music in live performance remain sadly limited: we have written warmly of his opera-ballet Padmâvatî and his marvelous score Le Festin de l'Araignée, both performed by the National Symphony Orchestra in recent years. Because he had both a conservative education in historical counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum and an interest in jazz and Asian music, his music tends to be erudite and unclassifiable.

Among the least expected works of Roussel is a rather absurd operetta, Le Testament de la Tante Caroline, premiered the Czech Republic in 1936 and then at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1937. The composer died a few months later, but in 1964, at the request of Roussel's widow, the librettist cut it from its three-act original form to a compact single act. Marcel Mihalovici adapted the music for this revised version, in some ways a response to critics who had found the composer had trouble "adapting himself to simplicity."

Benjamin El Arbi and Mathieu Franot founded Les Frivolités Parisiennes in 2012, with the goal of reviving lesser-known light French musical comedies. This disc is the world premiere recording of the one-act version of Tante Caroline, made from a live performance in June 2019, at the L'Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet in Paris. The titular aunt of the venal family in this farce was, somewhat scandalously, a prostitute. She apparently enjoyed much success in her chosen career, as she amassed an impressive fortune.

Now that she is dead her three greedy nieces, who normally keep their distance out of propriety, show up hoping to inherit. Tante Caroline's will stipulates that the wealth will pass to the child of whichever childless niece can produce an heir within a year. Much of the middle nonsense is cut, leading to the conclusion, in which one niece is reunited with her illegitimate son, whom she gave up before taking religious vows. To everyone's surprise, the young man now serves as Tante Caroline's chauffeur, and the old lady has the last laugh.

The orchestra sparkles under the baton of Dylan Corlay, with a capable cast of singer-actors. Bass-baritone Till Fechner excels in both vocal and spoken patter as the lawyer, Maitre Corbeau, and Marie Perbost displays a limpid light soprano as Lucine, Tante Caroline's maid, especially in the pleasant little aria "Mlle Irene d'Anjou." Sadly there is no libretto included with this recording, and none to be found online, making this mostly of interest to francophone listeners. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has made available a portfolio of newspaper clippings about the work.

26.2.22

Briefly Noted: Lalande's grands motets

available at Amazon
Michel Richard de Lalande, Grands motets, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé

(released on February 4, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902625 | 80'20"
Long-time readers are already aware of my admiration for the French early music group Ensemble Correspondances. Their streamed concert, aired by the Library of Congress, was one of the highlights of 2021, and a few years ago they made a stellar disc of music by this composer, Michel Richard de Lalande, back when the Washington Post was still publishing recording reviews. While that earlier recording focused on Lalande's solo motets, this even more satisfying disc brings together three grands motets, large-scale choral works that also feature parts for solo voices, recorded February 2021 at the Arsenal de Metz.

The new recording immediately grabbed my ears with the opening verse of Lalande's Dies irae, a substantial work composed for the funeral of the Dauphine Marie-Anne-Christine of Bavaria, who had died in Versailles on April 20, 1690. Likely performed when she was interred in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, on May 5, the dessus (treble) part makes an intoxicating, dance-like quotation of the first verse of the famous chant melody. The direct reference to the chant melody ceases after that first verse: an almost fandango-like spirit invades the "Tuba mirum" movement, and the happy setting of "Confutatis" dances, a curious opposition to the "Voca me" music. Gorgeous choral textures return in the "Lachyrmosa" and "Pie Jesu" movements.

The group's earlier recording included the solo version of the composer's most celebrated motet, Miserere, an expansive setting of the penitential psalm. Daucé has now added an authoritative recording of the original choral motet, composed in 1687. The group's female voices excel over the male voices, especially in the opening section and the "Asperges me," composed on the ground bass pattern associated with the chaconne, with lovely paired flutes and chiffy organ. The closing choral section, "Benigne fac deus," is fast and taut.

The most complex of the motets, in terms of choral textures, is Veni creator spiritus, composed in 1684 on the Gregorian hymn text for Pentecost. The performances, full of many running lines taken at generally rapid tempos, are exceptional. This is a motet likely heard many times, not only at Pentecost but at other ceremonies for the Ordre du Saint-Esprit, of which the King was Grand Maître, on other significant feast days. Lalande also served as composer of the king's secular music, and there are three instrumental pieces included from that part of his work. Thomas Leconte, a researcher at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, contributes not only authoritative program notes but editions of the scores for some of these pieces, taken from the Symphonies pour les Soupers du Roi and other sources. The most interesting is an unlisted final track, the disc's Easter egg, a lengthy, complex Grande pièce en G-ré-sol.

23.2.22

Dip Your Ears: No. 265 (Muti’s 1981 Verdi Requiem)



available at Amazon
G.Verdi, Missa da Requiem
R.Muti / BRSO
BR Klassik

Riccardo Muti’s Star-Studded 1981 Verdi Requiem



Bewildering Muti

Riccardo Muti is as Janus-faced a conductor as I know. His best is the best, his worst the worst. He can blow the roof off with one type of repertoire and he can bore the life out of every note with another. Groping through his discography and sitting through enough of his concerts, I’ve come up with the following theorems: Younger Muti is marginally more interesting than older Muti, but if that’s the case, it’s completely overshadowed by the differences in repertoire. Great repertoire includes: Anything post-romantic Russian is great. Think Prokofiev and Scriabin, where his symphonic recordings are still unsurpassed. Almost anything Italian, too, but especially these: Cherubini, which he lovingly tends to. Nino Rota, his mentor, whom he champions. Verdi, whom – softly and fiery – he knows inside out. And Respighi, where he over-the-tops it to jaw-dropping effect. So-so repertoire: Everything else. Atrocious: Bruckner, Schubert.

On-Paper Excellence

This view colors my expectations, which isn’t always aiding a reasonably objective opinion, but it’s not clear in which direction. Will I necessarily like that which I assume to be great and loathe what I expect to be junk? Or will I have too-high expectations disappointed in the former case and very low expectations exceeded in the former? So much to think about and I haven’t even put BR Klassik’s new release of a 1981 live recording of Muti conducting the Verdi Requiem into the CD tray yet. Well, it really is the corker that it promises to be. The soloists Jessye Norman, Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, and Yevgeny Nesterenko promise and deliver. Baltsa isn’t the smokiest, haunting alto (as, say, Ekaterina Semenchuk), but gorgeous and at the height of her powers. José Carreras has the mellifluous lightness that lets him navigate his tricky part without the embarrassing slurs and wails that so often undo this work. Norman plows through the score with aplomb but also creamy finesse. And Nesterenko, who passed away last year, doesn’t rumble in the basement but adds a welcome lyrical quality to the proceedings. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with the perfection that was already then its hallmark (delicate string whispers, turn-on-a-dime dynamic changes) but also lets itself be whipped into an absolute frenzy by Muti, as is true for the BR Chorus, who Muti audibly loves working with. His take is dramatic rather than sulfurous, deliberately powerful rather than violently thrusting but crucially: never Zeffirelli-harmless. I am in theory partial towards darker, brisker, more biting readings, but not only do I not know any half-way flawless recordings in that vein, Muti also just convinces on sheer quality and decibels. And there is nothing about the event being live that detracts from the sonic experience.

Compared to what?

The whole thing is, in short, a top-notch recording, every bit as good or – thanks to Norman – actually better than his 1979 EMI/Warner take (Scotto, Baltsa, Luchetti, Nesterenko) and much more moving than the grand, self-conscious, stilted 1987 effort (EMI, Studer, Zajic, Pavarotti, Ramey). His latest recording, from Chicago (CSO-Resound, Frittoli, Borodina, Zeffiri, Abdrazakov) packs a punch but is let down by the high voices. Most Verdi Requiem recordings have some flaw or another that one has to overlook for true enjoyment. This leaves some very old accounts still among my favorites, starting with bracing Leinsdorf (oop) and Fricsay by way of Solti II, Gardiner’s HIP take, and, most recently Barenboim: another good slow-burn reading. (I haven’t heard Noseda’s LSO disc; his Verdi Requiems live, however, have been splendid.)
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.

19.2.22

Briefly Noted: Melodramas with the Vogts

available at Amazon
Schumann / Strauss, Melodramas, Isabelle Vogt, Lars Vogt

(released on February 4, 2022)
CAvi 8553576D | 61'25"
File this one under the heading of Curiosities. German pianist Lars Vogt and his daughter, actress Isabelle Vogt, have recorded these three melodramas, Romantic poems recited to musical accompaniment. They are live recordings of performances given in 2018 at the Spannungen Festival, held in a hydroelectric plant in Heimbach, Germany, and then virtually in 2020, due to the pandemic. First are Robert Schumann's Zwei Balladen für Deklamation, op. 122, composed from 1852 to 1853, a short time before the composer's confinement to an asylum. In the "Ballade vom Haideknaben," written by Christian Friedrich Hebbel, a moorland apprentice is forced by his master to carry a sum of money to the next village. He dreams that he is murdered along the way for the money, and in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, it happens.

In "Die Flüchtlinge," a poem by Percy Shelley translated into German by Julius Seybt, a woman flees her wedding day with her lover. They set out on the storm-tossed ocean in a small boat while her father and intended bridegroom watch from the castle above the port. This is arch-Romantic stuff, recited with emotional fervor by Isabelle Vogt. Schumann meant the musical phrases in the piano to be timed meticulously with the declamation of the poetry for maximal effect, and Lars Vogt does this with precision and a sense of wild abandon.

These more modest works, each only a few minutes, are dwarfed by Richard Strauss's "Enoch Arden," written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and translated into German by Adolf Strodtmann. At almost an hour to recite, this long poem tells the story of three childhood friends, a girl and two boys. The girl, Annie Lee, falls in love with the poorer and rougher boy, a sailor's lad named Enoch Arden. After they are married and have children, Enoch sets to sea and is thought lost. After a time, Annie, agrees to marry the wealthy Philip Ray, their mutual friend, who loves her and raises her children as his own. When Enoch miraculously returns home, he chooses not to let Annie know he is alive, seeing that all are happy. The poem was so famous that it gave its name to the Enoch Arden doctrine, a legal concept that a divorce may be granted if a spouse is believed dead, even if the lost spouse later returns. Strauss's music is in some ways more complex, but there are long stretches of poetry left unaccompanied.

13.2.22

Washington Ballet takes flight in long-delayed return to Kennedy Center

Washington Ballet corps in “Swan Lake,” at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. (xmb Photography)


Sometimes this season it feels like the last two years didn't happen or were some sort of bad dream. This was the feeling last night watching Julie Kent and Victor Barbee's long-awaited Swan Lake finally make it to the Kennedy Center. It was as if we were back in 2020, a few years into the Kent era at Washington Ballet. Somehow, the company's new production of Swan Lake, a marquee event for any dance company, was not canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Watching this group continue to move in an encouraging direction made one realize again how culturally deprived we have been during the lockdowns.

Ballet is back, or almost. This run is taking place in the Eisenhower Theater rather than the Opera House (occupied instead by something Broadway). Things felt a little cramped: the scenery (designed by Peter Cazalet and on loan from Ballet West) crowded the dancers at times on the smaller stage. The limited number of strings, with the Washington Ballet Orchestra packed into the venue's smaller pit, limited some of the musical climaxes of Tchaikovsky's often wondrous score. The important thing was that the company made its return accompanied by live music, with Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theater, again invited to take the podium. With some shortcomings in the collective string sound, the instrumental contributions were excellent, including the violin solos of concertmaster Sally McLain, the bright trumpet of Chris Gekker, brilliant flute and oboe of Sara Stern and Ron Erler, and the magical harp of Nadia Pessoa.


Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, Washington Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ is finally at the Kennedy Center, intimate and also more ambitious than ever (Washington Post, February 10)

Lisa Traiger, Washington Ballet shows a so-so ‘Swan Lake’ at Kennedy Center (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, February 11)

Kent and Barbee built their production on the choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, made for the 1895 revision of the ballet. It has more in common with Kevin McKenzie's version, last seen from American Ballet Theater in 2017 (see video), than the reconfigured version created by Konstantin Sergeyev, last seen with the Mariinsky Ballet in 2014. Spoiler Alert: At the end, Odette leaps from a cliff into the lake rather than live with Prince Siegfried's betrayal. Siegfried joins her in death, leaping as well, and their union destroys the power of the demonic von Rothbart over the flock of women he has turned into swans.

Some things were different. Kent and Barbee did not distract from the orchestral prelude to the first act with any added action, allowing the music to set the stage by itself, leaving the first appearance of the villain, von Rothbart, to the lake scene in Act II. In the original libretto, he appeared in the form of an owl, recalled in some ways by the movements and costume worn by Daniel Roberge, although his wings were more like those of a butterfly or moth. Child dancers featured prominently in the first act as girls and boys from the village celebrating Prince Siegfried's birthday, a charming way to showcase the company's training program. Their choreography, prominently featuring a roundel dance about a May pole, created an idyllic backdrop to the prince's life.

The dancing was all extraordinary. The leads of Eun Won Lee and Gian Carlo Perez are the same as in the company's Romeo and Juliet from 2018, and they have become a beautiful pairing together. Lee seemed both proud and fragile in the Act II pas de deux, and Perez's lifts and leaps showed exceptional strength. Lee seemed less a natural fit as the evil twin, Odile, in the third act, but there was no lack of technique to be sure, not least in that demanding sequence of 32 fouetté turns. The Friday night audience ended up with a bit of luxury casting, as Masanori Takiguchi, who is dancing the role of Siegfried in the alternate cast, took over the role of Benno from Lope Lim. (The reason for Lim being indisposed was not given.) The substitution gave an extra spark to the Pas de Trois in Act I, with Ayano Kimura and the spirited, girlish Ashley Murphy-Wilson.

The corps de ballet danced with near-flawless precision, to beautiful and sometimes comic effect. When the men first encountered the swan-women in the second act, an attempt to touch one of them provoked a unison snapping down of their raised arms. The four cygnets, arm in arm in that famous scene in Act II, moved with crisp unity, and the big swans (Adelaide Clauss and Brittany Stone) presided with elegance over the corps in Act IV. For once the divertissment of national dances did not drag down Act III, with fine contributions from both the men and women of the company, in particular the Czardas, led by Kateryna Derechnya and Tamás Krisza. The richly colored costumes in this scene (also designed by Peter Cazalet and on loan from Ballet West) sparkled under vivid lighting by Brad Fields.

Swan Lake runs through February 13 in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. kennedy-center.org

12.2.22

Briefly Noted: Christophe Rousset (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Le Manuscrit de Madame Théobon, C. Rousset

(released on February 18, 2022)
Aparte AP256 | 122'
The story behind this delightful disc is almost too good. First, Christophe Rousset is the musician, one of the most exciting harpsichordists playing today, last heard live in Washington in 2013. Second, he is playing two discs of music drawn from a newly rediscovered manuscript, now in the private collection of Rousset, who managed to acquire it from a bookseller over Ebay. Third, he is playing this wide array of brief pieces, arranged in the order of their key centers, on a harpischord made by Nicolas Dumont in 1704, around the same time that the music was likely copied. David Ley restored this instrument, which Rousset owns, from 2006 to 2016. It is one of only three Dumont harpsichords known to have survived.

Rousset has identified the manuscript's first owner as Lydie de Théobon, a one-time attendant on Queen Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV. The king began a two-year affair with her at the Château de Chambord in 1670, shortly before Molière and Lully premiered Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme there. The king's powerful mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, ousted Lydie from the queen's retinue in 1673, after which Lydie moved to the household of the Princesse Palatine, wife of the king's brother. She died at the Château de Marly in 1708, still in the orbit of the Sun-King. Although there is no record of her having been a great lover of music, the collection was likely compiled by her clavecin teachers.

The pieces copied into the book represent a sort of favorites list for the period. Music by prominent composers (Lully, d'Anglebert, Chambonnières) rubs shoulders with less known names like Ennemond Gaultier, Jacques Hardel, Nicolas Lebègue, and Pierre Gautier. Rousset identified some of the pieces because of his wide knowledge of the period, but others remain anonymous. Quite a few have been recorded here for the first time, at sessions in November 2020 at the Hôtel de l’Industrie in Paris. All are fairly brief, some as short as thirty seconds in duration. Rousset notes in his program notes that only one of the pieces in the manuscript ("Les Échos") explicitly requires a two-keyboard instrument, with the echo effect written out on the page.

The Dumont instrument has a big, brash sound, heard to orchestral effect in the Overture from La Grotte de Versailles, for example. That piece is one of many arrangements of excerpts from the most popular operas at the French court, including Armide and Atys. In a time without recordings, this was the only way to relive one's favorite past performances. Rousset also reveals the intimate side of this harpsichord, with delicate registrations in pieces like the "Sommeil d'Armide." A charming little Menuet by an unknown composer is recorded here for the first time, along with its "doubles," written-out ornamented repeats that give a glimpse into the ephemeral art of embellishment. As he often does, Rousset brings out many unexpected sounds, as in the "Branle des gueux," a pugnacious, folksy tune over a raucous drone pattern in left hand, made to twang almost like the timbre of a mouth harp.

5.2.22

Briefly Noted: Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes

available at Amazon
E. Grieg, Haugtussa / Songs, L. Davidsen, L. O. Andsnes

(released on January 7, 2022)
Decca 00028948526543 | 75'32"
Soprano Lise Davidsen lifted my spirits during the pandemic, with an extraordinary recital for Vocal Arts DC that, even though it was virtual, was one of my favorite performances of 2021. That program included a wonderful rendition of Edvard Grieg's Sechs Lieder, op. 48, on German poetry and in a German romantic vein. As it turned out, it was also a tease for her new release, a beguiling recital of songs by Norway's most beloved composer. To seal the deal, the Norwegian soprano partnered with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The two musicians, working together for the first time, recorded the album last September in the town of Bodø in the Arctic Circle, where a new cultural center, the Stormen Konserthus, opened in 2014.

This collection supplants what was up to this point my reference recording for the Grieg songs, by Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg from the 1990s. This disc, like that one, is anchored on Grieg's only song cycle, the mysterious Haugtussa (The Fairy Maid), with poetry by Arne Garborg in Nynorsk, the New Norwegian that had been reinstated after Norway had finally regained its independence from Denmark. Davidsen sings with both shimmering transparency and, where needed, overwhelming power, incarnating the voice of Veslemøy, the young Norwegian girl with psychic powers. Andsnes accompanies with sensitivity and variety of tone, including magical flourishes upward in "Det syng," impetuous shifts of mood in "Blåbær-Li" and "Killingdans," and tender longing in "Møte." The lover's betrayal of the girl and her suicide in the brook in the final two songs are heart-breaking.

Grieg's nationalist reputation lies in his interest in Norwegian folk music, but living as he was in the period just after Norway's independence, this song cycle and other songs in Nynorsk are just as important. The other songs on this disc range widely in style, from the forlorn "En Svane" to the rousing "Og jeg vil ha mig en Hjertenskjær," where both Davidsen and Andsnes test the forceful dynamic power of their respective instruments to thrilling effect. In addition to gorgeous excerpts from various collections, the album comprises complete performances of the folk music-inspired Five Songs, op. 69, including the very moving poem and music for "Ved Moders Grav" (At Mother's Grave) and the playful "Snegl, Snegl!" (Snail, Snail!). The aforementioned six German songs, op. 48, are just as poignant as remembered from Davidsen's virtual recital, but with more powerful contributions from Andsnes at the keyboard.

29.1.22

Briefly Noted: MAH takes on CPE

available at Amazon
C.P.E. Bach, Sonatas and Rondos, Marc-André Hamelin

(released on January 7, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68368 | 141'01"
The keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach can be a hard sell, often rendered either too understated or too flashy. It is music that tends to work best on instruments more like what the composer heard when he played it. Marc-André Hamelin has done something quite difficult, recording over two hours of selected pieces, mostly sonatas and rondos, on a Steinway last January and doing so with consummate style. Hamelin's impeccable virtuosity gives him the range of touch to capture the quicksilver emotional shifts in this music. For example, the varied movements of the Fantasia in C Major, with its comic back-and-forth of buffo repeated-note gestures, never descend into glibness. Hamelin approaches the more sentimental slow movements with equally earnest sincerity, which is also an advantage in the way he plays Liszt. It works so well because he wears his heart on his sleeve.

The best tracks on these two stellar discs are the curiosities, like the Sonata in E Minor, which is actually a five-movement suite of dances based on and quite reminiscent of his father's prelude-less French Suites. Another highlight is the Abschied von meinem Silbermannische Klaviere, in einem Rondo, a musical leave-taking of his beloved Silbermann clavichord, bequeathed to his pupil Ewald von Grotthuss in 1781. In one sign of how recently appreciation for this Bach son's music has come, this piece was not widely known until it was finally published in the 1980s. It explores the expressive possibilities of this gentle instrument, the contrasts of loud and soft, the pointed accents, even the ornamental vibrato effect possible on it, which Hamelin can only approximate.

Hamelin mines a number of odd character pieces for their beguiling quirks, vivid portraits of people who mostly cannot be identified. At first one wonders if the C Major Arioso with nine variations was worth including, but it heats up wonderfully around the charming fourth variation, set in the parallel minor. Hamelin delights in the circus-like tricks of the subsequent variations, too. Finally, added like encores are two miscellanea likely familiar to all denizens of after-school piano lessons: the rollicking Solfeggio in C Minor and the perky March in G Major (a piece of juvenilia, once wrongly attributed to the elder Bach, included in the Anna Magdalena Notebook).

22.1.22

Briefly Noted: Sandrine Piau Enchants (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Handel, Opera Arias and Concerti Grossi, S. Piau, Les Paladins, J. Correas

(released on January 7, 2022)
Alpha 765 | 72'08"
This new release from Alpha had me at Sandrine Piau, whose recordings and live performances we have followed for twenty years (last reviewed in Washington in 2016). Add to that the programming, which allows Piau to incarnate some of Handel's notorious seductresses, sirens, sorceresses, and wronged women: Alcina, Lucrezia, Cleopatra, Melissa, Almirena, Adelaide. One final point to recommend it even before listening: this is the fourth collaboration of Piau with Jérôme Correas and his ensemble Les Paladins. Correas, a bass-baritone known from several blockbuster operas recorded by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, founded this group in 2001. In these tracks recorded at the Théâtre de Poissy, "on the eve of a lockdown" in October 2020, is the sense of urgency that Correas describes, as the musicians "raced against the clock to bring this recording to life." Piau adds that the location was also the site of her first recital recording, an auspicious return.

The musical relationship is one of comfort and trust, judging by the ease in Piau's voice, as Correas and his musicians move as one with her every whim, from soaring antics down to breathy depths in an amazing cadenza and embellished da capo adorning "Da tempesta" from Giulio Cesare. In "Piangerò la sorte mia" from the same opera, taken at a lush crawl, Piau's plangent floating tone is matched by warm strings and active continuo from Benjamin Narvey's theorbo. Correas, taking the harpsichord part himself, accompanies the brilliant, tortured gem "Alla salma infedel" from the cantata La Lucrezia. In the equally unfamiliar "Desterò dall'empia dite" from Amadigi di Gaula, there are amazing acrobatics among Piau, trumpet, and oboe. Instrumental selections, including movements from Handel's concerti grossi and one sparkling overture (from Amadigi di Gaula), round out a phenomenal disc, complete with authoritative program notes by Barbara Nestola, head of research at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.

18.1.22

In Very Loving, Admiring, Cheery Memory of the Wonderful Roger Tapping

Roger Tapping was instrumental in my falling in love with the viola. I owe Roger countless hours of peerless chamber-music education, courtesy #TakácsQuartet (and a bit of @theJSQ). I admired him as a person and as a player. Roger Tapping has passed away. I will always remember him very warmly.

Here's a conversation with him from a few years back that hopefully conveys a small bit of how much I have cherished Roger Tapping.

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Life After Takács – Roger Tapping’s Washington Recital


Roger Tapping is a known quantity among chamber music aficionados in Washington – especially those who have followed the Takács Quartet’s performances when he was on violist-duty for that formidable group. Since leaving the Takács Quartet in 2005 to spend more time with his family, Roger Tapping has continuously shown up in performances with (often very young) quartets at the Corcoran Gallery and Bethesda Music Society where he performed all of Mozart’s String Quintets with the JupiterParkerDaedalus, and Auryn Quartets. Last January he joined the Klavier Trio Amsterdam for the Fauré Piano Quartet.

available at Amazon Beethoven, String Quartets op.18,
Takács Quartet
Decca

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Beethoven, String Quartets opp.59, 74,
Takács Quartet
Decca

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Beethoven, The Late String Quartets,
Takács Quartet
Decca

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Bartók, The String Quartets,
Takács Quartet (II)
Decca

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Korngold / Schoenberg, Sextet / Verklärte Nacht,
Raphael Ensemble
Hyperion

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon Dvořák, Quintet, Sextet,
Raphael Ensemble
Hyperion

UK | DE | FR
Retiring from playing in a professional chamber group must be tantamount to enjoying a new life. Instead of being on tour four, five weeks at a time, Tapping – who had previously served in the Raphael Ensemble and the Allegri Quartet – is now away from home for only a few days at a time. This not only means that Tapping can enjoy family life and focus more on teaching at the New England Conservatory but also that he can observe other string quartets he performs with from a detached point of view. Being one step removed, the intricacies of quartet–life become “sociologically interesting”: to see how four young players approach musical problems or react to new music; to observe how veteran groups resolve their differences in as many different – and the same – ways as, for example, married couples might approach theirs.

Though the occasional, wistful pangs of nostalgia for the Takács days still occur, Tapping – who recently spoke to me about his current activities and plans – seems to quite enjoy his newfound peace and the ability to moonlight with great chamber groups, both young and established. For example the Pražák Quartet which Tapping attested to feeling immediately comfortable with – perhaps because their wonderful balance of vigor and warmth is, at least to my ears, related to the playing of the Takács.

For the future we can expect lots of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven Quintets with Tapping and a host of fine string quartets but also the Beethoven String Trios, the type of chamber music formation that Tapping generally considers the ‘scariest’ to play because they offer no place to hide. Beethoven’s op.9, specifically, he described as particularly honest, unsentimental exponents thereof – in short: “The real thing”. (In so elucidating these works – works that I have hitherto not responded to with much enthusiasm – Tapping makes me want to seek out the Leopold Trio’s recordings that he recommends.)

Roger Tapping also plans on doing more viola recitals – such as will take place this Friday, the 29th at La Maison Française (7.30PM) where Tapping and pianist Judith Gordon will present a diverse program of Bach (a Gamba Sonata) , Fauré (Après un rêve), Hindemith (Sonata for solo iola), Schumann (Adagio & Allegro op.70), and Shostakovich (Sonata op.147). These recitals (and concerts) are an aspect of a non-chamber violist’s life he finds most pleasing, not the least because getting to play the melody for more than just two bars at a time is a completely new experience.

After talking about his present and future plans, I could not help harking back once more on his time in previous chamber groups. With the Raphael Ensemble from 1983 until 1990 he played alongside composer/performer Sally Beamish and participated in highly regarded recordings on Hyperion, including the BrahmsDvořák, and KorngoldSextets. With the Allegri Quartet he got to play next to the Pablo Casals student Bruno Schrecker who Tapping recalls fondly as the best bass line player he’d met. With this longest continually performing of British string quartets he played from 1990 until 1995 when, seeking a clean break in his private life, he auditioned for the Takács Quartet who needed to fill the violist’s seat after Gábor Omai had passed away.

He joined Károly Schranz, András Fejér, and Edward Dusinberre (who had himself just become a Takácsi 18 months before Tapping’s arrival), and contributed what was doubtlessly a golden age for the quartet, culminating in CD surveys of the complete Bartók and Beethoven quartets. They are widely considered first choices among modern digital recordings of either. Tapping mentions both when asked about his favorite recordings from that time. When he recently put on the Beethoven (which he had not listened to for a while, in part to avoid overt nostalgia) to see how his group had solved certain problems back then, he found himself “pleasantly surprised” how, despite the continuous development and evolution of how the Quartet approached these works, very nicely the Beethoven still held up. When pressed to chose between them, though, he points to the Bartók as their proudest achievement. (I’m not surprised: I fell in love with that recording nearly four years ago and that love has never ceased.)

The finest way to enjoy Mr. Tapping’s art, short of attending his recitals and concerts in the region, is through his recordings with the Takács Quartet and Raphael Ensemble. On the right I have listed some of my favorites in which he participates – none of which I would want to be without.



The recital at La Maison Française will be recorded by WETA and broadcast later in the year.