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


Briefly Noted: Faust Channels Locatelli

available at Amazon
P. Locatelli, Violin Concertos / Concerti Grossi, I. Faust, Il Giardino Armonico, G. Antonini

(released on August 25, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902398 | 68'22"
If you've heard of Pietro 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. He was born in Bergamo in 1695, but his peregrinations took him from Rome, where he trained, throughout Italy and Germany and eventually to Amsterdam, where he died in 1764.

This recording features two of Locatelli's concerti grossi, including the intriguing and intensely introspective Op. 7, no. 6, given the subtitle "Il pianto d'Arianna." Likely a sort of programmatic setting of an unknown text about the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus, it is a sort of quasi-operatic instrumental drama: conductor Giovanni Antonini compares its structure to that of Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna for clues to each movement's meaning. Broken into ten movements, the first five, all quite short and featuring turbulent contrasts, are joined together here in a single track. The ensemble's lead violinist, Stefano Barneschi, takes the second solo violin parts under Faust in this and the less noteworthy Op. 1, no. 11, with opulent results.

While the concerti grossi emphasize Locatelli's melodic invention and musicality, two solo violin concerti showcase his other compositional side, the virtuosic exploits of a true showman. Locatelli ornamented his solo concertos with astounding cadenzas, each of which he gave the title of Capriccio. These Capricci, twenty-four in number, are an important forerunner of and likely influence on Paganini's 24 Caprices. Faust is magical in the insane runs of whistle-tone harmonics in the Capriccio from the first movement of Op. 3, no. 11. Likewise, she somehow navigates the perilous extended positions in the Capriccio for the third movement, so high in range that it reminds one of the anecdote that Locatelli once stunned a canary off its perch with his sound. Melodically these pieces are often as dull as a Hanon exercise, but the facility of the playing is nothing less than amazing. Locatelli also often marked a fermata in places where the soloist was meant to improvise, and here Faust plays written-out cadenzas by Godefridus Domenicus Reber from an edition of 1743.

As Faust puts it in her booklet essay on the solo concertos, these excessive cadenzas "are of such great technical difficulty that Locatelli expressly left it up to the performer whether to play them or not. He was obviously aware that not every violinist’s hand could master these cadenzas." Fortunately with Faust, her hands are up to the challenge. The tender Pastorale movement from another concerto grosso, Op. 1, no. 8, serves as an encore to cool down the strings.

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Remember the Blogroll?

Ionarts was born during the golden age of blogging, in the millennium's first decade. The subsequent rise of social media proved the demise of blogging, as mini-posts on Facebook, Twitter, and soon a multiplicity of such apps pushed longer-form writing aside. It may be time to reconsider that shift.

One much-admired writer who has ultimately decided to eschew social media, first Facebook and now Twitter and (I think) everything else, is Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker. I have missed Alex's wry commentary on the site now known as "X," although I still always read his articles in the magazine. I noted this summer that, instead of feeding the social media noise, Alex has continued to post more-or-less regular (if not daily) items on his old blog, The Rest Is Noise.

Once I realized that, I began to check his site periodically, which made me nostalgic for the era of Ye Olde Blogge. During a look-in yesterday, Alex's excellent post on critic Olin Downes was in the top position. Comparing Downes with a contemporary voice, Virgil Thomson, Alex notes:

[Thomson] cannily shifted with the political tides, switching from New Deal-ish writings in the thirties to a sterner, anti-populist line after 1945. He spoke unswervingly for an élite musical community and mocked crowd-pleasing musicians such as Toscanini, Heifetz, and Horowitz. Downes, it might be said, was a lesser critic but a better musical citizen.
A discontinued feature known as the Blogroll is back in this site's right column, headed by none other than Alex's site. If you know of other active blogs, new or veterans, please suggest them in the comments section. The main activity of the old Ionarts, publishing performance reviews and a concert calendar for the Washington area, has moved to and remains at Washington Classical Review, which you should be reading every day. Check here periodically for reviews of new recordings and links to published articles in other places. Please join me in going to read things directly, and circumvent the irritating social media middlemen.


Dip Your Ears: No. 269 (Gergiev’s London Tchaikovsky)

available at Amazon
Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Symphonies 1, 2, 3
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev
(LSO Live SACD 0710)

The Crude and the Dainty

In anticipation of the upcoming #TchaikovskySymphonyCycleSurvey™, here comes a review that had been lying in the drawer for a while. Back when I initially drafted it, Gergiev was as reflexively venerated as he is reflexively reviled now. I never quite felt comfortable with either (simplistic) position. While the latter is a matter of politics, conviction, and righteousness, the former was (and still ought to be) one of aesthetics, however subjective. On those counts, Gergiev was always perplexing, veering between the routine and hackneyed and the furiously inspired. This release catches him, as Tchaikovsky generally did, on the good side, if not quite his peak.

When this LSO Live release of Tchaikovsky’s first three Symphonies came out, Gergiev had released the last three symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic on Philips but not yet with his St. Petersburg orchestra on the (then) LSO Live's sister-label of the Mariinsky Orchestra. (Effectively forming a 21st century Gergiev Tchaikovsky-cycle.) To my ears, they nicely dovetailed with Daniele Gatti’s exhilarating recording of Symphonies Four to Six with the Royal Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi, and incidentally another conductor who has felt the brunt of moral outrage, since). That made for one of the most satisfying 21st century Tchaikovsky Symphony cycles to be an all-London affair. Not surprising, actually: Good Tchaikovsky just seems to ooze out of that town: Markevtich (LSO) provided the best cycle in the 20th century, and Jurowski (LPO) has since provided its successor. (Alas, both are currently out of print.)

But back to the recording at hand: Despite the catchy nicknames “Winter Daydreams”, “Little Russian”, and “Polish”, these inventive, vigorous symphonies haven’t caught on like their three imposingly-saccharine successors. This set won’t challenge the Pathetique-dominance, but it should make new converts out of those who have hitherto skipped these gems of sheer beauty. Happily, instead of wading through sentimentalism, Gergiev puts on his riding boots—mud-crusted in the Third—which balances the energetically crude with the extant daintiness. The live recordings, two from the Barbican, one from Zurich’s Tonhalle, could be crisper but they still pack a real sonic punch if listened to at high volume.



Briefly Noted: London, Circa 1740 (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
London, circa 1740: Handel's Musicians, La Rêveuse, F. Bolton, B. Perrot

(released on August 18, 2023)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902613 | 68'57"
Gambist Florence Bolton and theorbist Benjamin Perrot, who co-direct the early music ensemble La Rêveuse, continue to survey the lesser-known corners of 18th-century music in England. The concept for the first half of their latest release is to bring together music of Handel with other pieces by the virtuosos who performed under him during his English period.

Flutist Carl Friedrich Wiedemann and oboist (and flutist) Giuseppe Sammartini both became principal players in Handel's orchestra. Both were likely featured in humorous engravings by William Hogarth: Sammartini's notorious bad temper was lampooned in The Enraged Musician. Traverso player Oliver Riehl and soprano recorder player Sébastien Marq contribute remarkable solo playing in concertos by Wiedemann and Sammartini, respectively.

Violinist Pietro Castrucci, whom Handel met when they both worked for the Ruspoli family in Rome, later came to London and became the concertmaster of Handel's opera orchestra. Florence Bolton takes the solo part in a gamba sonata by Castrucci, as well as contributing a wide-ranging booklet essay giving a vivid portrayal of musical taste in the period. Handel is represented by a fine trio sonata, featuring the gorgeous, intertwined violins of Stéphan Dudermel and Ajay Ranganathan. As lagniappe, there is the Hornpipe that Handel wrote for the budding concert series at Vauxhall Gardens, organized by the entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers at one of the summer retreats from London for the nobility. (The Prince of Wales, who used his artistic patronage in his ongoing campaign for popularity against his father, King George II, was a patron and even maintained a Prince's Pavilion there.).

The second half of this pleasing disc goes in a completely different, folk music-influenced direction. Cellist and composer James Oswald, although not directly connected to Handel, was a Scotsman active in London from the 1740s on, later even becoming chamber composer for King George III. Born in Crail, a town in Fife (the region where my own Scottish ancestors lived for a time), he made many arrangements of Scottish folk tunes, beginning with a popular Sonata of Scots Tunes in five movements. The recording also features a selection of melodies from his Caledonian Pocket Companion, an anthology of twelve volumes, rounding out this diverting late-summer delight.


Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of "Mockingbird" returns to the KC

Maeve Moynihan and Richard Thomas in To Kill a Mockingbird
at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Harper Lee published one novel in the first half-century of her career, To Kill a Mockingbird. Most Americans read the book in middle school, but the most popular movie adaptation, starring Gregory Peck, likely has the upper hand in people's memory. Aaron Sorkin adapted the play for Broadway in 2018, where it had enormous success, leading to a national touring production that came to the Kennedy Center Opera House last year, a venue critiqued as too large for it. The staging has returned to the arts center on the Potomac, with most of the same cast members, but this time in the much more appropriately scaled Eisenhower Theater, seen on Thursday evening.

The movie version shifted the story's focus from young Scout Finch, Lee's alter-ego, to Atticus Finch, played by Peck, as a sort of white savior figure in his legal defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama. Sorkin followed the movie's lead, putting a few monologues of eloquent progressive pieties into the mouths of Atticus, Scout, and other characters, West Wing-style. The play's alterations to the role of Atticus were so profound that a legal battle with the Lee estate ensued. Following in the footsteps of Jeff Daniels and other actors, television actor Richard Thomas gave Atticus a lachrymose, supercilious quality that did not always seem the most fitting. On the other hand, this Atticus at least acknowledged his own shortcomings and racist assumptions. Lee's father, on whom the character was based, was related to Robert E. Lee, after all.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, A resonant ‘Mockingbird’ recalls American racism then — and now (Washington Post, June 23, 2022)
Sorkin intentionally emphasized the two black roles, Tom Robinson (a dignified Yaegel T. Welch) and the Finches' maid and cook, Calpurnia (played by Jacqueline Williams with caustic wit that almost stole the show), giving them more of a voice. This is undercut in some ways by having the Ewells, Joey Collins's cartoonish Bob and Mariah Lee's fragile Mayella, become caricatures. The truest portrayal of a southerner, equal parts polish and hate, was the vicious Mrs. Dubose of Mary Badham. Few are likely to recognize her as the same 10-year-old actress who played young Scout across from Gregory Peck in the movie. It was a stretch to cast adults in the three child roles, but Maeve Moynihan (Scout), Justin Mark (Gem), and especially Steven Lee Johnson's Dill used physical elements to appear more awkward and young. In his vocal and physical choices, Johnson seemed to point up the idea that Lee based the character of Dill on her real-life childhood friendship with Truman Capote.

Sorkin's main conceit, that the three children narrate the action, which shifts back and forth between the trial and other scenes, made theatrical sense. The repeated breaking of the fourth wall wearied before the evening was over, especially when Thomas's Atticus directed some of his final summation from the trial pointedly at the audience rather than the jury box (drawing attention, perhaps, to the reason why there were no jurors seated in it). The change to the final scene, where the now-dead Tom Robinson appears and points a line in a Bible out to Atticus, remains in the production.

The elephant in the room for this play is Harper Lee's second book, Go Set a Watchman, published rightly or wrongly in 2015, a few years before the play was adapted. It is Lee's first draft of the book that became Mockingbird, and in it the 26-year-old version of Scout returns from New York to her home town in Alabama to visit Atticus. She is disappointed to realize that Atticus is not the saint he seems in Mockingbird, that he is trying to slow down racial progress in the county, even working against the NAACP. Lee's first take on the material makes Atticus a more human, fallible character than how he is often interpreted. He is a more realistic version of a white man living in the Jim Crow south, rather than the version encouraged by Lee's northern editor, when as Lee herself put it, she was young and did as she was told.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through August 27.


Briefly Noted: A Trio of 20th-century Piano Trios

available at Amazon
Montsalvatge / Tailleferre / Korngold, Piano Trios, Andrist-Stern-Honigberg Trio

(released on August 4, 2023)
Centaur CRC4037 | 57'11"
Audrey Andrist has been a long-time fixture at Washington-area concerts, particularly in contemporary repertoire. The Canadian-born pianist plays often with her husband, violinist James Stern, as a duo and, with National Symphony Orchestra cellist Steven Honigberg, as the anchor of a rather fine piano trio.

While beautifully played, the new disc from the Andrist-Stern-Honigberg Trio, released by Centaur Records, is of interest primarily because of its intriguing combination of music. First is the Piano Trio by Xavier Montsalvatge, dating from the 1980s, when the Catalan composer was in his 70s. This suave, refined work, infused with jazz and folk elements, feels like a love letter to Spain. Its first movement is a "Balada a Dulcinea," infused with tender sweetness for Don Quixote's imagined sweetheart, followed by a "Diálogo con Mompou," referring to another composer, Montsalvatge's contemporary from Barcelona.

Adding to the recent rediscovery of Germaine Tailleferre's piano music is her Piano Trio, composed during World War I, when it went unnoticed and unpublished. The French composer took the piece up again in 1978, when she was in her 80s, and the revised version is a mixture of early and late styles, as she wrote a new second movement and added a fourth-movement finale. With each of the four movements clocking in at a balanced three minutes each, the piece has a pleasing unity.

Erich Korngold composed the final Piano Trio on this disc, the longest of the three works, when he was only twelve years old. The piece was among the fruit of his tutelage with Zemlinsky, study recommended by Gustav Mahler, who had heard a cantata the boy had written. A child prodigy, Korngold had already had a ballet score performed professionally in Vienna, and Artur Schnabel was performing his piano sonata around Europe. This trio is a tour de force for the pianist, and Andrist rises to the occasion, especially in the rollicking Scherzo, an hommage to the Viennese waltz redolent of both Strauss and Mahler.