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


Briefly Noted: Lalande's grands motets

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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.


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

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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 latter? 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 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 but let down by the male soloists. (I haven’t listened to Noseda’s LSO discyet; his Verdi Requiems live, however, have been splendid.) In short: Listen to it!



Briefly Noted: Melodramas with the Vogts

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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.


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.


Briefly Noted: Christophe Rousset (CD of the Month)

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Le Manuscrit de Madame Théobon, C. Rousset

(released on February 18, 2022)
Aparté 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.


Briefly Noted: Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes

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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.