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


Briefly Noted: La Passione

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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 (The piece, with some of the corrections to Italian diction marked by the master, remained unpublished until the 20th century.)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.


Briefly Noted: Gabriela Lena Frank Songs

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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.


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

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

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

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Symphonies 1 and 6

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Symphonies 2 and 3

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Symphonies 4 and 5
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.


Briefly Noted: Kafka-Fragments

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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.