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


Briefly Noted: Nisi Dominus (CD of the Month)

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

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

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

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


Briefly Noted: Debussy for Four Hands

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

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

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

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


À mon chevet: Adriatic

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thomas Larcher’s Great Symphony

The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music?

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

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

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

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

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

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



Briefly Noted: The Knights and the Kreutzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Dear Evan Hansen' is back at the Kennedy Center

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

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

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

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

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

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