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Briefly Notedest: Some of the Year's Best Recordings

I wish I could listen to and review more new recordings, but there are just too many crossing my desk. Below are the six new releases that really stuck with me this year.

available at Amazon
Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della beata vergine. Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (Harmonia Mundi HMM902710.11)
Claudio Monteverdi is a favorite composer, and there is no piece of his greater in my estimation than the Vespro della beata vergine. The Vespers of 1610, as the piece is sometimes known, has been reviewed in these pages many times, both in recordings and live. In other words, it would take a lot for me to be surprised by a new recording of this piece, but that is precisely what conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble, Pygmalion, have done in their newly released recording.

available at Amazon
Franz Schubert, Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt (Ondine ODE1394-2D)
Lars Vogt delayed checking into a hospital in 2021 for further analysis of the cancer that would eventually take his life last September. Instead, he traveled to Bremen to make the first part of this double-album of Schubert's chamber music with Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja Tetzlaff. In addition to the two numbered trios is the Notturno, a single slow movement possibly composed for and then removed from the first piano trio. Vogt wrote that it "feels a little bit like everything, at least in my life, has developed toward this Trio in E flat major.”

available at Amazon
Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole. Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexandre Tharaud (Harmonia Mundi HMM902315)
Alexandre Tharaud has not visited Washington since 2015, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras was last here in 2017. The two esteemed French musicians have continued their long and fruitful collaboration in a striking new Baroque album, with delightful transcriptions of Marin Marais’s pièces de viole, originally for viola da gamba and continuo, for cello and piano. The performances, in the spirit of Baroque elaboration but taking full advantage of modern dynamic range and harmonic content, are delightful.

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Malheur me bat. Gli Angeli Genève, Stephan MacLeod (Aparté AP338)
One cannot have too many recordings of Josquin's cyclic Masses, at least not yet. The complete set by the Tallis Scholars remains hard to beat, but then along comes Gli Angeli Genève with this new release of a program centered on the elusive Renaissance composer's Missa Malheur me bat. The sound, recorded at the Eglise Saint-Germain in Geneva, is less aggressive than the Tallis Scholars, who recorded this Mass only about a decade ago: slightly smaller in number of voices, but also more intimate, more rarefied and refined.

available at Amazon
Pietro Locatelli, Violin Concertos / Concerti Grossi. Isabelle Faust, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (Harmonia Mundi HMM902398)
If you've heard of Locatelli, it is likely as part of a list of other 18th-century violinist-composers in the mold of Corelli and Vivaldi: one of those Italian -i names. At most, early music groups will include a Locatelli piece along with more famous composers in a program from time to time. So be prepared to be wowed when you take in the latest disc from Il Giardino Armonico and the mesmerizing violinist Isabelle Faust, which is devoted entirely to the works of this under-played composer.

available at Amazon
Gabriel Fauré, Nocturnes and Barcarolles / Dolly Suite. Marc-André Hamelin, Cathy Fuller (Hyperion CDA68331/2)
Marc-André Hamelin has made a name for himself by playing extremely difficult music with ease and musicality. The latest in the Canadian-born pianist's excellent series of deeply probing recitals of unusual music, all on the Hyperion label, is devoted to Gabriel Fauré, specifically to all thirteen of the French composer's Nocturnes and all thirteen of his Barcarolles. Solidifying the qualifications of this double-CD set as the best to own is the addition of a lovely rendition of Fauré's Dolly Suite, with Hamelin's wife, Cathy Fuller, on the primo part.

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Dip Your Ears: No. 271 (Danish Choral Gems)

available at Amazon
Carl Nielsen
sung by
Danish National Choral Ensembles
Conductors: Michael Schonwandt, Phillip Feber, Susanne Wendt
(dacapo 8.226112)

Easy-on-the-Ears Choral Nielsen

The song vocabulary of Denmark was created in large part by Carl Nielsen, who has some 300 songs and about 100 choral compositions to his name. It’s an occurrence that – in the listening and better yet in the singing! – fuses high art with popularity in the literal meaning of the word. If you like choral music, easy-on-the-ear tunes, then these 25 hymns and choral songs of Carl Nielsen’s in wonderful, mostly calm, occasionally bracing performances by the various Danish National Choruses, are just the ticket. The selections are evenly distributed between pieces for mixed, male, and childrens’ (including girls’) choirs. The adult ensembles are splendid; the kids are very good but not quite as exceptional. With “Kom Gudsengel, stille død (“Come, God’s angel, silent Death”) a more complex, particularly dark but exquisite and clouded gem, for alto, tenor and bass, is at the center of the program. The Nordic, ever so slightly wistful air, lingers amid these works as it does – albeit more subtly – with similar pieces by Grieg. Lightly stirring and gently swaying – with the mist of a nostalgic past, where singing still united congregations and generations wafting by – Carl Nielsen shows himself with a popular and deft touch that adds to the perception we may have of him as a symphonist.


Shakespeare Theatre's Age of Aquarius Beatles Musical ('As You Like It')

Jennifer Lines (center) and cast in As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo: Teresa Castracane Photography

Shakespeare Theatre Company is offering its own cheery December production, in answer to all the Nutcrackers and Messiahs and carol sing-alongs, to drive away the winter doldrums. It has revived an updating of Shakespeare's As You Like It, set in the 1960s and first conceived by Daryl Cloran for Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. Seen Wednesday evening at Harman Hall, this antic, technicolor production weaves together a critical mass of Beatles songs, often just salient excerpts, with the Shakespeare text. The grafting process required some heavy cuts to the play, which could be a plus or a minus, depending on your disposition.

The updating works best in the Forest of Arden, where the exiled Duke's lines about life in the woods do sound convincingly like something a hippie might say: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." Life is groovy, man, and nature is our university. The tie-dye brightness of a VW bus as backdrop and the band's costumes bring Woodstock to mind. The Dukes, the older usurped in rule by the younger, become Dames, both played convincingly by Jennifer Lines: the usurper as an establishment figure, costumed like Jackie Kennedy, and the elder a long-haired flower child. The decision to amp up the wrestling bit in Act I into a WWE extravaganza, expanded into a preshow entertainment, while fun (with exciting fight direction by Jonathan Hawley Purvis, complete with believable piledrivers), tired long before it was over.

Various 60s types are evoked in the costuming of the characters (colorful costume design by Carmen Alatorre): Orlando, turned into a loveable spaz by Jeff Irving, channels Elvis in his dance numbers; Kayvon Khoshkam's Touchstone wears glittery sunglasses and elevator shoes, a combination of Elton John and Austin Powers; Chelsea Rose's Rosalind and Naomi Ngebulana's Celia sport beehive hairstyles like Natalie Wood; Andrew Cownden's downer Jaques seems like a mash-up of a beat poet and Andy Warhol. The whole affair, kept at a jumpy tempo by Cloran's direction, has the attention span you might expect from an episode of Laugh-In.

If your idea of fun is sitting through two and a half hours of Beatles karaoke, you will surely enjoy the evening. The Forest of Arden has a cover band, made up also of cast members, under the musical direction of Ben Elliott, who plays the country rube Silvius with adorable backwardness. The singing is of varied quality, with the best song of the twenty-three (!) songs turning out to be "Let It Be," sung beautifully by Evan Rein as Amiens and with soft harmony from others in the cast. Audience participation is encouraged, with the cast pausing just long enough mid-lyric for someone in the house to supply a word that everyone knew should be next. Shakespeare included a number of celebrated songs in As You Like It, set by numerous composers over the centuries. This perhaps helps to justify turning it into a musical pastiche, but it is a shame to lose all the Shakespeare songs in the process.

Few would argue that As You Like It is one of the bard's best plays, but if you are expecting to hear all of your favorite scenes, you may be disappointed. The most famous speech, Jacques's "All the World's a Stage," survives the cuts, a rare sober moment as recited by the grumpy Andrew Cownden in what is otherwise a noisy performance continually undercut by pop song interruptions. In the scene in which characters roast Orlando's painfully sophomoric poetry ("If a hart do lack a hind, / Let him seek out Rosalind"), the doggerel is switched out for some of the more insipid lines from Beatles songs. That this works, more or less, is not exactly a strong argument for replacing so many of Shakespeare's words with Beatles songs.

As You Like It runs through January 7.


Dip Your Ears: No. 270 (Shadowy Cello Sonatas)

available at Amazon
C.Schumann, Mendelessohn Frère et Sœur, G.Jenner
Lorenzo Meseguer (c), Mario Mora (pf)
(Eudora SACD 2204)

Clara, Fanny, and Gustav in the Shadows

“SHADOWS” is an album combining two single-movement works for cello and piano by Fanny Mendelssohn (Fantasia in G minor) and Clara Schumann (Three Romances op.22) with two cello sonatas, Felix Mendelssohn’s Second Sonata and that of the Brahmsian Gustav Jenner (also in D major). The title of the CD, goes the argument in the booklet, comes from the fact that each composer lived in the shadow of another. The gals in that of their brother and husband, respectively, and Jenner in that of Brahms, whose only student Jenner had been. Fair enough: While it might be argued that Clara Schumann was not much less – if at all – famous than her husband at the height of her concertizing career, at least as a composer she certainly wasn’t a known quantity. With Felix Mendelssohn, the claim is stretched too far. Only because he was “denigrated by some European musicologists in the early 20th century, in part because of his Jewish origins”, doesn’t mean that Mendelssohn, the man who invented classical music as we know it (from the conservatory system to the figure of the conductor to the idea of repertoire; salvaging Bach as a bonus) and who wrote a slew of masterpieces that were never not loved and acclaimed, has, for all the accusations of an excess of facileness or not pushing musical boundaries, ever been in anyone’s shadow.

But no matter, the music matters, not the title of the CD. And the performances are splendid, indeed. Cellist Lorenzo Meseguer has a surefooted, none-too-sweet tone and gorgeous round low notes that come out very nicely on the Eudora recording, which is proximate to the instruments (more so than, say, the fine Naxos recording with Maria Kliegel and Kristin Merscher) but leaves enough air. The second-movement pizzicatos are nearly as coy as those of Pieter Wispelwey’s (with Paolo Giacometti on Onyx) while Mario Mora’s piano part – naturally, given he is playing a modern Steinway – is more supple than Giacometti’s 1837 Érard. The tempi are not extreme in either direction, although the Adagio is certainly milked for its wistful beauty… if not as wickedly as Christophe Coin and Patrick do, who make it sound as though Tzimon Barto broke into a fortepiano shop. (In a good way, I suppose, although that’s bound to be rather subjective.) The finale is a nicely contrasting firecracker and the contrast. Comparison to a golden-oldie favorite of mine, János Starker and György Sebők on Mercury, make Meseguer’s cello appear comparatively prominent – perhaps more a question of engineering than playing.

The Mendelssohn may be the main ingredient of this CD, but the USP is probably the shadowy composers in front and after him, where there’s little competition. Only two other recordings exist of the fine Jenner sonata; only four of the beautiful Fanny Mendelssohn Fantasia which is here given all its considerable worth. Both, Jenner’s work, which is very obviously (but also very deftly) post-Brahmsian, and Fanny’s piece, are reasons to tune in. The key is not to be turned off by the Three Romances which, after a few minutes of vapid beauty, become so obviously trite that they’re hard to bear: ambling melodies in the cello connected by clichéd phrases and clumsy chords. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.



Briefly Noted: Schumann for Four and Five (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Schumann, Piano Quartet/Piano Quintet, I. Faust, A.K. Schreiber, A. Tamestit, J.-G. Queyras, A. Melnikov

(released on November 24, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902695 | 52'42"
Many musicologists have described Robert Schumann's youthful piano quartet and piano quintet as twin works, not least because they were composed in the same key, E-flat major, and within a few weeks of one another. Neither of these pieces, early experiments by Schumann with pairing his favorite instrument, the piano, with different combination of string instruments, lasts over a half-hour, but the young composer, still only 19 years old, laid the foundations for many later examples of both of these still relatively rare genres.

This delectable new release assembles a dream team for these exemplary works: violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Antoine Tamestit, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov. All play on historical instruments, with the strings all made roughly around the year 1700, as early as 1672, in the case of Tamestit's Stradivarius viola. Melnikov plays on a historical fortepiano made by Ignace Pleyel (Paris, 1851), technically constructed after Schumann composed these pieces, but that is a minor point.

Even though it was composed slightly later, the quartet is the lesser work to my ears, but its slow movement, with ardent cello solos here played subtly by Queyras, is nothing short of gorgeous. Schumann's piano quintet, however, has always struck me as one of the most perfect pieces of chamber music ever written. This performance, with Anne Katharina Schreiber joining on second violin, is going to be rather difficult to improve on, and it is certainly in competition with Melnikov's own recording of the same pairing from a decade ago (with the Jerusalem String Quartet) and the version made around the same time by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin. The second movement surprises, both by the detached, somewhat brisk pacing of the funeral march and the understated rubato of the B section. The use of historical instruments and the individual strengths of each player put this disc a notch above.

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Briefly Noted: Distler's Modern Christmas Oratorio

available at Amazon
Hugo Distler, Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, Adam Riis, Concert Clemens, Carsten Seyer-Hansen

(released on November 1, 2023)
OUR Recordings 6.220684 | 40'17"
available at Amazon
Athesinus Consort Berlin,
Klaus-Martin Bresgott
This recording of Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte, while not the first, is the one that finally made me study this sadly lesser-known work. Many choral musicians, myself included, know Distler's austere arrangement of the late medieval tune "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." This larger piece for unaccompanied SATB choir uses that tune to unify its 40 minutes of music: many verses of it are sung, interwoven with the Gospel account of the Nativity, sung in chant-like unaccompanied recitative by several soloists.

In this sense, the piece is akin to one of Bach's chorale cantatas, just without solo arias, but it also has much in common with the sacred music of Heinrich Schütz. The ingenuity of the chorale device reaches its climax when the chorale is touchingly interwoven with the part of the dialogue where Mary sings the words now known as the Magnificat, as if all souls ever born are present in that moment to praise Mary's submission to God. Shortly after, in another brilliant moment, there is a verse with the basses on a lullabye ostinato ("Eia, eia, eia"), soothing the newborn Jesus laid in the manger.

The Evangelist, on this disc the refined tenor Adam Riis, gets the bulk of the recitative between choruses, with other singers from the choir appearing as the angel Gabriel (high soprano), Mary and Elizabeth (mezzo-sopranos), and Herod and Simeon (basses). The main competition for this disc is the 2015 recording by the Athesinus Consort Berlin, conducted by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, who is also the editor of the critical edition of the score that appeared the same year (Carus-Verlag, 2015). Individual soloists may be slightly better on one disc or the other, but the overall performance of the Danish choir Concert Clemens on this new disc, directed with great sensitivity by Carsten Seyer-Hansen, is more moving. In particular, the disc's resonant sound preserves the sense of hearing it in an open space with acoustic ring, the Skt. Markus Kirken in Århus, where it was captured last year.

Distler composed this gorgeous piece of modern sacred music in 1933, as his life became entwined with the fate of the Nazi party. Born in Nuremberg, the young German composer had done collegiate studies at Leipzig Conservatory but was forced to withdraw from them for financial reasons in 1931. He took a job as organist at the church of St. Jacobi in Lübeck and got married in 1933. That same year he joined the Nazi party and left written records, documented by historians, showing his support for the regime. Distler rose to better positions in Stuttgart and eventually Berlin, but the Nazi party eventually turned on him, labeling his music "degenerate" and threatening to conscript him into military service. In 1942, at the age of 34, he committed suicide in Berlin.

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Briefly Noted: Merry Charpentier Christmas

available at Amazon
Charpentier, Messe de Minuit, Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé

(released on October 13, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902707DI2 | 80'52"
The French early music group Ensemble Correspondances has quickly become a favorite. For that unusual Christmas gift, conductor Sébastien Daucé has put together a most entertaining Noël program on this new release. In splendid performances, it pairs Marc-Antoine Charpentier's more familiar Messe de Minuit, a setting of popular Noël melodies to the Ordinary of the Mass, with two of the same composer's oratorio-like dramatic motets for Christmas.

In his excellent booklet essay, Graham Sadler notes a musical self-borrowing not often commented on, in which Charpentier based the "Gloria" movement of the Midnight Mass on the music that went with a parallel text in his motet In nativitatem Domini canticum, H. 416. Having always been struck by the beauty of this moment in the Mass, so much more reflective and introspective than the general take on the "Gloria" text, I was delighted to learn of this connection with the earlier work, which I did not know at all.

Daucé rounds out a Christmas Eve celebration with a number of charming selections, including two of Charpentier's instrumental settings of Noëls used in the Mass. The setting of "Laissez paître vos bêtes" for recorder consort is an absolute delight, as is a motet for the elevation of the host, excerpted from a longer work by Charpentier's contemporary, Sébastien de Brossard, a real find for music directors looking for something unusual to program next month. The disc ends with one of Charpentier's versions of the Te Deum, H. 147, likely used during the Christmas season at the Jesuit church of St. Louis in Paris, where Charpentier was maître de musique. Sung at the end of Matins, it would have directly preceded Midnight Mass.

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A Survey of Tchaikovsky Symphony Cycles

► An Index of ionarts Discographies

Continuing my discographies, this is a survey of - hopefully - every extant recorded cycle of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. For now, I have listed them alphabetically by conductor. This is not as interesting as listing them chronologically, but it gives a quicker overview of conductors having done multiple cycles. (If anyone knows how to construct a working html/css table that I can sort by either year or name, do let me know! I'm still failing with that for my LvB Symphony Survey.) I do not, by and large, include incomplete cycles (which is to say, not all Symphonies 1-6)... but then I make a lot of exceptions, anyway. "+M" indicates the presence of the Manfred Symphony.

I'll happily grant that Tchaikovsky is not my favorite composer and that I never went through a near-obsessive phase with his symphonies as I did with Mahler, Bruckner, DSCH, Sibelius, or even Martinů. But it's still great music and I do find myself viscerally reacting to performances. It's just that I then either find them great (rarely) or outrigh boring.

I am sitting on the data for several new discographic entries under work. Ring cycles, Mahler, Nielsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven symphony cycles, Mozart Piano Concerto and String Quartet-cycles, among others. They take an awful lot of time to research, however, and even more time to put into html-presentable shape. And even then they are rarely complete or mistake-free. Neither will this one be, and every such post is also a plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae.

I am explicitly grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize for any bloomers. (Preferably on Twitter, where I'll read the comment much sooner than here, but either works!) Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful when I have sets that I have missed (such that only ever appeared on LP, for example) pointed out to me. I have not listened to them all, but favorites are indicated with the "ionarts choice" graphic. Ditto recommended cycles by ClassicsToday/David Hurwitz. Links to reputable reviews are included where I thought of it and could find any. With hundreds of links in this document, there are, despite my best efforts, bound to be some that are broken or misplaced; I am glad about every correction that comes my way re. those, too.

Enjoy and leave a comment in some form!

Edits Nov.6.2023: The Survey wasn't five hours hold that I had already been kindly reminded of two oversights (thanks, Decca & Danny!) Zdeněk Mácal's cycle on EXTON with the Czech Phil vand Alexander Sladkovsky's 2019 cycle w/the Tartastan NSO have been added.

(Survey begins after the break, if you didn't land on this page directly)


Briefly Noted: Noseda's cycle of Walker sinfonias

available at Amazon
George Walker, Five Sinfonias, National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda

(released on September 29, 2023)
NSO0007D | 65'17"
Gianandrea Noseda had planned to lead a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The twist was that the NSO would perform all nine symphonies in just three weeks, beginning in late May of 2020, a plan wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Fate intervened further with the murder of George Floyd that month, igniting a national reaction that led the NSO and other classical music institutions into self-reflection about representative programming. The eventual cycle, led by Noseda from 2022 to 2023, was a pairing of Beethoven with symphonies by African-American composers George Walker and William Grant Still.

One of the benefits was this complete cycle of the five sinfonias of George Walker, all recorded live in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall under Noseda's fastidious baton. Remarkably, for all the effort and time involved in bringing this composite cycle to completion, this single disc clocks in at just over an hour. None of the Walker Sinfonias is longer than about fifteen minutes, and the most slender is the one the NSO itself commissioned in 2012, when the esteemed American composer was 90 years old, Sinfonia No. 4. Walker's subtitle, “Strands,” refers to the way he interwove two spiritual melodies (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll”) almost imperceptibly into this one-movement piece, which the NSO took on its 2023 visit to Carnegie Hall. Sinfonia No. 2 stands out among the Walker symphonies for its originality, especially the short second movement (“Lamentoso e quasi senza misura”) where a mournful flute solo is accompanied by enigmatic clusters and melodic snippets from the cellos and even guitar.

Sinfonia No. 3 has a percussion-laden third movement bustling with rhythmic activity, reminscent at times of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. However, like Sinfonia No. 1 and portions of most of these pieces, a disappointing sameness and arid quality prevail. Sinfonia No. 5 ("Visions"), premiered after Walker's death in 2018, has the most overt programmatic elements of the five. While Walker was working on the piece, in 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, after which the composer added words to the symphony, spoken by a soprano, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. The composer's last symphonic statement thus took up the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States, made more explicit by a video by Frank Schramm shown at the premiere, including ocean scenes and photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston.

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Briefly Noted: Tetzlaff siblings play Brahms Double (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Brahms, Double Concerto / Viotti / Dvořák, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Paavo Järvi

(released on October 1, 2023)
Ondine ODE1423-2 | 60'43"
Earlier this year, I singled out Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff's last recording with Lars Vogt. After the late pianist died last September, the Tetzlaff siblings recorded this program as a memorial to their dear friend in December. They turned to a piece they have played many times before, the Double Concerto of Brahms, as a tribute. The opening cadenza for cello, later joined by violin, is quiet and intimate, with a sense of plaint suitable to the tone of remembrance. The siblings do well in this unusual concerto, where the two instruments, after that opening cadenza, almost always play together, one finishing the thoughts of the other.

Brahms wrote this piece very late in life, for cellist Robert Hausmann and his old friend Joseph Joachim. At that point Brahms and Joachim were no longer on speaking terms, as Brahms had "gone with" (as Larry David put it) Joachim's ex-wife following their divorce. In a gesture of friendship, Brahms meant the piece as a reconciliation, even including a varied form of the F-A-E motif he had used in the movement of the collaborative sonata dedicated to Joachim 30 years earlier. The Tetzlaffs' rendition of the slow movement is especially free and elegiac. Järvi excels at keeping the musicians of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin together with the soloists, giving them room rhythmically and with careful dynamics. The third movement could perhaps be more daring from the soloists, but it has a fine seriousness about it.

Christian Tetzlaff ingeniously pairs the piece with something unexpected, Giovanni Battista Viotta's Violin Concerto No. 22, from the end of the 18th century. It is a piece that Brahms and Joachim both loved. Tetzlaff notes in his booklet comments that Brahms used it as a model for the Double Concerto, including the choice of key (A minor) and some motifs that are borrowed. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann of the Viotti concerto as one of his "very special raptures," and by including it in the Double Concerto, it is a way to recall to Joachim one aspect of their early friendship through this music. The first movement may not much to speak of, other than some showy bits in the solo part, but the second movement is quite gorgeous, in addition to its significance in relation to the Brahms. The younger Tetzlaff gets her solo piece as well, an encore-like lagniappe of Dvořák's "Silent Woods," an Adagio arranged for cello and orchestra from From the Bohemian Forest.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Mythical Recording of the Donizetti Requiem

available at Amazon
Gaetano Donizetti
Messa da requiem
Leonard Bernstein
P.Domingo, K.Ricciarelli, A.Baltsa,
S.Ramey, R.Lloyd
LA Phil, LA Master Chorale
DG 420 574-2

The Record that Wasn't

If you have ever done a reasonably thorough search for various recordings of the gorgeous but somewhat neglected Requiem Mass of Gaetano Donizetti’s, you might have come across a reference to a recording made in 1982, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with a superlative cast of singers (Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Agnes Baltsa, Samuel Ramey and Robert Lloyd) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. To have appeared on Deutsche Grammophon. It is even assigned a catalog number: “420 574-2”.

This all looks fairly plausible. Domingo has either recorded with these artists (Domingo, Baltsa, Ramey, Lloyd) or could have. The catalog number looks legit enough for the early 80s. But why is there no reference to be found to this album outside of Wikipedia, where it was listed among the available recordings for the Donizetti Requiem (since removed) and among the discographies of some of the alleged participants? And why isn’t there a cover of such a recording to be found in the vast vestiges of the internets?

The answer is simple enough: There never was such a recording. Nor is it an innocent switcharoo, perhaps mistaking Donizetti’s Requiem with an extant Bernstein recording Verdi’s. It’s a deliberate, clever, and reasonbably carefully constructed little joke that someone snuck in, almost an “Otto Jägermeier” of Wikipedia. One the one hand, it cost me a few hours of research. On the other, I don’t want to be a complete spoilsport, so I thought I’d add the graphic element—the cover—to complete the illusion. So here it is. Enjoy the mischief.


Briefly Noted: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff Romances

available at Amazon
Rachmaninoff / Tchaikovsky, Romances, Piotr Beczała, Helmut Deutsch

(released on August 25, 2023)
PentaTone PTC 5186 866 | 81'01"
Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are not composers likely to come up glowing in my estimation. The exceptions to this rule include their songs. The temporal limits of the text to be set helped both composers avoid their usual sin of going on far too long, especially in symphonies and concertos. The late, beloved baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky owned this repertoire, but in his wake, the Polish tenor Piotr Beczała has made a strong case in this new release for a different voice type to swoon and complain of the hardships of Russian life.

Rachmaninoff's overwrought style so suited the poems he chose, such as the tender "Lilacs" and the world-weary "They answered." Beczała draws out the marrow of this sweet suffering, as in the aching rubato of "How Fair This Spot," in which he applies a dulcet, sighing head voice to the high note at the end. That is a standout in this selection of 31 romances by these two giant figures of Russian Romanticism, a series of charming miniatures, only one lasting longer than four minutes.

The nostalgic tone of many of these pieces seems apt for autumn listening. Beczała wields heroic power as well, deployed at climactic moments in Rachmaninoff's "In the silence of the secret night" and in "Do not sing, my beauty," a poem set by countless composers, of which Rachmaninoff's is the most moving. Pianist Helmut Deutsch supports his singer in every way, moving out of his way when necessary and infusing the introductions and postludes with their own poignancy, including in the most demanding accompaniment, that of "Spring Waters."

The Tchaikovsky songs account for more than half of the disc, in spite of standing out less. Most are piecemeal selections from several different sets, with the exception of the six romances of Op. 73, which Beczała and Deutsch recorded in its entirety. In these melancholy songs, Tchaikovsky turned to the poetry of Daniil Rathaus, a 20-something student who sent the composer these poems as an unsolicited submission. These songs certainly touch on the "Ambiguous Speech and Eloquent Silence" that scholar Philip Ross Bullock has noted in his assessment of the "queerness" of Tchaikovsky's songs. This mini-song cycle, the last work Tchaikovsky completed before his death in 1893, also features musical reminiscences of his "Pathétique" symphony.

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Briefly Noted: Josquin and Phrygian Pain

available at Amazon
Josquin Desprez, Missa Malheur me bat, Gli Angeli Genève, Stephan MacLeod

(released on September 22, 2023)
Aparté AP338 | 67'
One cannot have too many recordings of Josquin's cyclic Masses, at least not yet. The complete set by the Tallis Scholars remains hard to beat, but then along comes Gli Angeli Genève with this new release of a program centered on the elusive Renaissance composer's Missa Malheur me bat. The group, founded in 2005, is mostly known for Baroque repertoire, especially Bach. This turn to the High Renaissance was a bit of a surprise, at least to me. The group's director, bass Stephan MacLeod, anchors a group of nine singers. They sing mostly two on each of the four parts in most pieces, with baritone Frederik Sjollema swinging back and forth between tenor and bass.

The sound, recorded at the Eglise Saint-Germain in Geneva, is less aggressive than the Tallis Scholars, who recorded this Mass only about a decade ago: slightly smaller in number of voices, but also more intimate, more rarefied and refined. MacLeod uses one-on-a-part textures in interesting ways, as in building up to the climax with all nine singers in the long Miserere mei deus. This Mass is one of several based on the three-part chanson "Malheur me bat" (formerly attributed to Ockeghem, but now thought to be the work of a composer named Malcort), transcribed along with the Mass in the old Smijers edition of Josquin's music. (The chanson has not survived in any manuscript source with its complete text.)

In a booklet interview, MacLeod said that the appeal of this particular Mass setting was its mode, the Phyrgian (mode 3). Since the chronology of Josquin's music is almost impossible to establish with any certainty, the modality serves instead as programmatic theme, as all the motets placed between the movements of the Mass are in the same mode. With its distinctive half-step above the final, the Phrygian often served as a musical marker for lamentation, which it does in these motets and in the chanson on which the Mass is based, describing both sacred and secular grief: Douleur me bat, Nymphes des bois (for death of Ockeghem), Miserere mei deus, and Mille regretz (of which the attribution to Josquin is now challenged by scholars).

The only non-Phrygian piece is the final motet, Praeter rerum seriem, which follows the last movement of the Mass. (MacLeod's assertion that the text of this motet expresses doubt about the perpetual virginity of Mary is a misreading: no matter what it may mean for MacLeod's beliefs, the text is about wonder and mystery, not doubt.) Praeter rerum seriem is a hymn set in six parts: Josquin has the superius and the tenor answer one another on the original Gregorian melody. To point this out, the choir introduces the motet by singing a verse of the hymn melody by itself in this way, antiphonally back and forth, phrase by phrase, with the triple meter of the polyphony sped up.

The Mass is a compositional wonder, in four voices, but with some two-voice sections in the Sanctus, where the "Hosanna" is over 50 measures long, with interesting shifts of triple and duple and extremely dense textures. The amazing second statement of the Agnus dei, for alto and tenor, is an extended canon at the 2nd, of remarkable complexity. Josquin then outdoes himself in the third Agnus, expanding to six parts: both altus and bassus are split into two, doubled in close canon at the unison. MacLeod and his ensemble sing the piece at the pitch where it was notated (E), just as the Tallis Scholars did, and with women's voices on the superius part.

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Ionarts-at-Large: First-time @ Munich's Isarphilharmonie with the Munich Philharmonic

For Munich having been 'my beat' for so long, it felt shocking that I had not yet been at the new, provisional “Isarphilharmonie” concert hall (bound to be a permanent fixture) that was built on a dime (30-some million Euros, a wild bargain), opened two years ago, and that is being accepted, even loved, by audiences and musicians, and necessary, of course, because the Gasteig – the Munich Phil’s home and BRSO’s secondary venue (for the big-ticket composers) had been closed for renovation and revamping (bound never to take place).

This Wednesday, September 20th, the opportunity presented itself to see and hear the place, with the Munich Philharmonic giving the German premiere of a new piano concerto by Thierry Escaich [pronounced, more or less: “ɛz-kɛsh”] and Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony. Escaich’s Etudes symphoniques for piano and orchestra (co-commissioned by the MPhil and the Czech Phil) operates in the post-Messiaenesque, marginally-spectralist, color-as-composition realm that offers more beauty than structure (the fourth movement, notably titled “Toccata”, apart), and with the pill of contemporaneousness generously hidden at the center of an exotically flavored musical marshmallow. Dreamy, suggestive, rhythmic, colorful: All the boxes are checked. Impressionist here, pointillist there. Replete with classical cadenzas. The subscription audience that decidedly did not come for this piece – they were probably just happy to escape the Octoberfest going on outside – really could not complain.

Seon-Jin Cho (2015 Chopin Competition winner; reviews of Chopin and Mozart here and here), Dima Slobodeniouk, and the Munich Philharmonic navigated deftly though the deliciously inoffensive score. The music may not probe its own existential question of “why”, much less attempt to answer it: it just is. And it is enjoyable. There shouldn’t be a greater compliment… even if the work eventually forgets to be over and might be better if only it were a little tighter.

The same applies, let’s be honest, to the Rachmaninov. Had the scheduled conductor, Semyon Bychkov led the charge, it would probably have been loud. With the calmly leading Slobodeniouk conducting this high-caloric piece, it was sensitive but not saccharine in the first movement, and that movement’s finale not milked but laid out almost matter-of-factly. The Scherzo, which could have been written by Prokofiev on one of his ‘classical’ days, zipped by nicely, and for much of the Adagio, where Rachmaninov enters Tchaikovsky-mode (not for the last time), Slobodeniouk (you just know his nickname has got to be “Slobo” among his sauna-buddies back home) managed to transform sugar into energy and, yes, loudness. But you can’t underplay Rachmaninov all the time, lest it sound silly. The sweetly carnivalesque-pompous finale showed the orchestra in good form in every section and with every exposed instrument: clarinet, flute, first violin, etc. Even Slobodeniouk couldn’t make the work feel short – but his to-the-point conducting was surreptitiously impressive. No small feat, in a work that, especially uncut, meanders enough to make the Amazon green with envy.

The hall, meanwhile, disappeared in the best sense, offering a neutral, neither dry nor wet acoustic experience, with the sound mixing well in the first and second third of the stalls. No Yasuhisa Toyota hyper-transparency. The looks of the black wood panelling are simple but pleasing and the integration with the old industrial building that serves as the auditorium in front of it is very well done. Only filing out is tedious, with exits existing only to one side. But for now, I am more interesting in getting into the place than getting out again.

Pictures courtesy Munich Philharmonic, © Tobias Haase


Briefly Noted: More Schubert on Fortepiano

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Schubert, Impromptus, Op. 90 and Op. 142, Ronald Brautigam

(released on September 1, 2023)
BIS-2614 | 61'47"
Ronald Brautigam is one of this century's leading proponents of the fortepiano, noted in these pages for his traversals of the music of Beethoven and Mozart, among others. His new release is a set of Schubert's eight impromptus -- not including the three piano pieces of D. 946 once known, incorrectly, as impromptus -- recorded on a fortepiano built by Paul McNulty in 2007, modeled on a Conrad Graf instrument from around 1819.

Schubert never actually owned a piano, and his only opportunity to play the keyboard came in the homes of friends. The composer almost surely never heard the particular instrument imitated by McNulty: Graf's opus 318, located in a Czech castle. Ardent admirers of Graf's pianos in the early 19th century included Beethoven, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Brahms, among others. What you hear on this recording is a likely approximation of the sound in Schubert's ears as he composed and played these arch-Romantic pieces.

Even though a Graf had a smaller sound than the later modern piano, because of its thin soundboard and smaller hammers, its fortes are still resonant, as in the middle section of Op. 90, no. 2, or Brautigam's devilish trills in Op. 142, no. 4. The pianoforte's advantage over earlier keyboard instruments was its range of soft sound: this Graf had four pedals, a sustaining pedal and una corda pedal like the modern piano, but with a moderator and even a double moderator as well. This device pushes a thin layer (or double-layer) of cloth between the strings and the hammers, and it was the pianoforte's "secret weapon," in the words of András Schiff, who once sneered at early keyboard revivalists before making his own Schubert recording on a reconstructed fortepiano. Hearing those soft effects helps one understand what Schubert had in mind when he wrote pianississimo.

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Briefly Noted: Pichon's 1610 Vespers (CD of the Month)

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Monteverdi, Vespro della beata vergine, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on September 1, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902710.11 | xx'xx
Claudio Monteverdi is a favorite composer, and there is no piece of his greater in my estimation than the Vespro della beata vergine. The Vespers of 1610, as the piece is sometimes known, has been reviewed in these pages many times, both in recordings and live. In other words, it would take a lot for me to be surprised by a new recording of this piece, but that is precisely what conductor Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble, Pygmalion, have done in their newly released recording. The opening movement, in which Monteverdi interweaves his brilliant brass fanfare from Orfeo with the opening versicle of the Vespers service, is adorned with added brass riffs. Then, just when I thought that Pichon was going to omit the final statement of "Alleluia" from this compact section, his forces delivered it, after a long pause, with expansive delicacy.

Pichon's St. Matthew Passion was a CD of the Month last year, and this release is no less fulfilling a listen. An older version of the Vespro, led by Frieder Bernius, remains my favorite because it is presented liturgically, rounded out with exquisitely performed chant. Pichon's approach could not be more different: where Bernius favors reserve and propriety, Pygmalion goes for spectacle, with a big chorus on many numbers, clarion brass, and splashy surprises of sound.

Not surprisingly, Pichon says in his booklet interview that he feels that "the Vespro is the first cinematic work in the history of music. Monteverdi’s dramatic genius means that each psalm (and especially the first three) is presented as a genuine scene of dramatic action. He sets the scene, and makes us feel, visualise, even touch it!" This situates the work in that most dramatic of stylistic periods, the Baroque, the same era that created the genre of opera. The experience Pichon wants is "immersive," and it is: as he puts it, "to attend a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers is to experience ecstasy," in a way similar to a viewing of a room-filling work by Bernini.

Many elements will strike a listener familiar with the work as quite different. Pichon opts to eschew the "chiavette" system, by which the often high tessitura of some music of this period was transposed down by a fourth, as heard on many recordings. By not only adhering to the original keys, but also resorting to the high pitch standard of Italian tunings of the time (A set somewhere between 440 and 465 Hz), the singers add further virtuosic, one might say "operatic," intensity to many key climaxes.

Like most conductors, Pichon shuffles the order of numbers slightly in the work's final section. The most significant change is the interpolation of another piece by Monteverdi, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris (SV 328) from Promptuarium musicum, published in 1627, to serve as the "antiphon" to the Magnificat. (In his "liturgical" recording, Bernius added a chant antiphon with an almost identical text in this position.) The motet is followed by the litany-like Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, with which it shares intriguing melodic elements, as if the composer were alluding to one in the other. The concluding number is also a nod to cinematic style, as the Orfeo fanfare that opened the work returns, retrofitted to the closing formulas of Vespers.

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Briefly Noted: Hamelin Surveys Fauré

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Fauré, Nocturnes and Barcarolles / Dolly Suite, Marc-André Hamelin, Cathy Fuller

(released on September 1, 2023)
Hyperion CDA68331/2 | 163'40"
Marc-André Hamelin has made a name for himself by playing extremely difficult music with ease and musicality. The latest in the Canadian-born pianist's excellent series of deeply probing recitals of unusual music, all on the Hyperion label, is devoted to Gabriel Fauré, specifically to all thirteen of the French composer's Nocturnes and all thirteen of his Barcarolles. Hamelin played a few of these pieces during his most recent appearance in the area, last year on the Candlelight Concert Society's series. (He had just put this recording in the can the previous July and September, in London.)

Fauré apparently disdained programmatic titles, and the genre of nocturne and barcarolle were instead suggested by publishers: the composer's son Philippe famously joked that if left to his own devices, Fauré would have called every piano piece "Piano Piece No. so-and-so." Yet while the nocturnes are not all placid and nocturnal, the Barcarolles are set in the expected compound meter, like the Venetian gondolier songs for which the genre is named. Hamelin approaches these often melancholic, curious works with tasteful reserve, never overstating but leaving no question of technical mastery over them. The stylistic development of harmonic vocabulary and melodic fancy is fascinating to hear, from the first pieces composed in the late 1870s up to the last from 1921, shortly before Fauré's death.

Solidifying the qualifications of this double-CD set as the best to own is the addition of a lovely rendition of Fauré's Dolly Suite, with Hamelin's wife, Cathy Fuller, on the primo part. Fuller is a trained pianist who now works as a broadcaster, and she makes a lovely impression on the upper part, which Fauré intentionally made simpler, for the dedicatee, Regina-Hélène (nicknamed Dolly), the young daughter of his lover, Emma Bardac. (Emma eventually became Debussy's wife.) A perceptive booklet essay by Jessica Duchen, erstwhile blogger and author of an authoritative biography of Fauré (Phaidon Press, 2000), rounds out this most alluring new release.

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Anatol Ugorski, the Great Bewilderer: An Obituary

To say that Anatol Ugorski – born on September 28th, 1942 in Rubtsovsk – was not a favored artist in the Soviet Union is putting it mildly. Something about his character had always seemed to rankle the regime and those in its service. His piano teacher, once Anatol had received his formal training, pretty much left him to his own devices as regarded interpretative personality. (She did insist on Bach.) The talent of this quasi-autodidactic pianist showed early, however, and it couldn’t be quenched entirely: At the Fourth George Enescu International Piano Competition in Bucharest (in a very much Soviet-supervised Romania), he was awarded a Third Prize the year that Radu Lupu won the First. This might have given him a boost, but an early talent for squirreling-out – and performing – the standards of the Western avant-garde gave rise to early suspicions about his political reliability. (Which, in the Soviet Union, was tantamount to being considered morally defective.) He went on to prove the apparatchiks right as best he could by clapping so ostentatiously, demonstratively loud and hard, both hands flat against each other, after a 1967 performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Pierre Boulez, that he was consequently ivory-blocked by the powers-that-be and from then on played to school children in the vast provinces of the Soviet hinterlands or at private soirées.

In this artistic vacuum, Anatol Ugorski was, to paraphrase Haydn, ‘forced to become original’. And “original” may be an understatement. To quote Jed Distler: “If Deutsche Gramophone thought they had the eccentricity market locked up with Ivo Pogorelich, they hadn’t reckoned with… Ugorski.” Two heaping spoons full of crazy (or inspired or insightful or revealing – which is exactly the question that surrounds his artistry) are most notable in the recording that ended up launching his spell with DG, his Diabelli Variations. These recordings made his name after fleeing post-communist Russia to Berlin – but the transition had been anything but smooth.

Broke and homeless, he resided in a refugee camp with his wife and pianist-daughter Dina in eastern Berlin for a while, before eventually upgrading to regular poverty and a tiny flat, living on the outskirts of town for nearly a year and – once again – on the outskirts of his profession. Dressed in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Anatol Ugorski certainly made an impression wherever he went. There was something quintessential Soviet, even alien, about him. When he came into a small amount of money, he decided to invest it in a digital piano.

With a dear friend, he set out to go to a store in Berlin that sold such equipment. He wore a black rubber coat, way too large for him, but effectively warming his body and spirits. Looking like something a scarecrow would have glanced at askance, he entered the store, where the German sales staff descended on him at once and tried to shoo him back out of the store. Oblivious and undeterred, Ugorski, made a beeline to the most expensive e-piano model in the store, sat down to the silent gasps of a horrified staff, switched it on, and proceeded to play. Pictures at an Exhibition. The whole way through! It must have been his first performance in the West, technically, and afterwards, the audience, stunned into submission and having successively grown over the course of his playing, burst into loud applause. The episode sounds like an amplified scene that the filmmakers of “Shine”, about David Helfgott, would use a few years later. With the significant difference that, unlike Helfgott, who is a cultural phenomenon but decidedly not a proper pianist, Ugorski could really play!

“Could”, not “can”, because Anatol Ugorski, who passed away earlier today in Berlin> Lemgo, had spent the last four years – since his daughter Dina died of cancer – no longer playing. Instead, he spent his free time listening to music and living – together with his new, young pianist wife.

As a pianist, Ugorski zeroed in on the essence of a work as he, un-influenced by any performing tradition, perceived it – and then he exhumed exactly that essence out of the notes. When he recorded Beethoven’s last piano sonata, he slowed it down to a contemplative crawl – taking as much time for the variation movement alone as the aforementioned Pogorelich took for the whole sonata on his DG recording ten years earlier. The resulting gravitas befits the pathos that Thomas Mann ascribed to this work in his Dr. Faustus. To Ugorski’s great credit, the second movement – while it opens itself to reveal maximum fragrance – does not fall apart like a wilted rose dropping all its petals. His passive-aggressive pianissimos, a specialty of his were a tactical delight as they enforced close listening. Amid his musical finger-pointing with acutely slow tempi and punched-out notes, there was never a sense of any particular school of pianism audible. Just Ugorski for better or, arguably, worse. To what extent this approach succeeded in unveiling hitherto hidden musical details always depended very much on the listener’s subjective response. Those who responded to it never forgot a performance of his.

His name will live on, not the least in his perfectly uncontroversially great recordings of Scriabin and Messiaen. In the latter’s Catalogue d’oiseaux feathers are ruffled here, beaks beckon and claws clutch: The aviary is filled with trilling, thrilling sounds. Colors abound, as they do in and the piano concerto where he performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, whom Ugorsky had once applauded so much 30 years earlier, that it almost cost him his career.