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


City Ballet marks diamond jubilee with resplendent "Jewels"

Sara Mearns in "Diamonds," from Balanchine's Jewels, New York City Ballet. Photo: Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet celebrated its 75th anniversary by opening the season last fall with its blockbuster staging of George Balanchine's Jewels. A full-length abstract ballet, composed of three rather different acts, it is often described as having no plot. Watching this choreography in the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night, for the first time in a decade, brought home the purely visual stories the work presents, matched ideally with the pulse of the music.

"Emeralds," Balanchine's opening tribute to French Romanticism, remains a graceful but melancholy affair. Set to Gabriel Fauré's incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock, the sense of profound tragedy pervaded the act, made more rueful by the lack of understanding of this unnamed pain from all those who see it. Indiana Woodward and Tyler Angle seemed graceful and settled in to the lead pairing in this part of Jewels, which they performed for the first time last fall. The delicate flute solo movement of the Pelléas music felt especially poignant, and the sadness of the group of men at the tableau's end, gazing up through the murky light to something unseen, felt funereal.

Balanchine's tribute to American dynamism in "Rubies" came across with delightful humor. Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley led the light-footed corps through the unorthodox steps and movements, timed with verve to Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, energized by the lively piano playing of Stephen Gosling. The red-costumed dancers flirted with all sorts of Americana: they were cowboys, they were flappers, they were the chorus line of the Rockettes. In the most openly sexual moment of the whole ballet, the tall, elegant Mira Nadon was moved about by four male dancers, positioning her like a doll.

After tragedy and mirth came a sense of Russian classicism that stopped time, in the concluding "Diamonds." Sara Mearns, one of the company's most celebrated dancers, brought a reserved nobility to the role that Balanchine created for his muse, Suzanne Farrell. Her partner, Chun Wai Chan, became City Ballet's first Chinese principal dancer two years ago, and he provided all of the athletic power of their scenes, lifting Mearns with effortless strength and leaping with remarkable balance and agility. Andrew Litton paced the movements (all but one) from Tchaikovsky's dance-infused Third Symphony ideally with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, bringing to an end a grand tribute to Balanchine and the company he helped create.

Jewels runs through June 9.


A Survey of Enescu Symphony Cycles

► An Index of ionarts Discographies

Continuing my discographies, while in the middle of a massive update of the Bach Organ Cycle Survey, I thought I'd squeeze in one with the symphonies of George Enescu, not the least because on the outset it appeared to be a bit of a quicky, with seemingly just five (?) sets out there. Even cursory research revealed this to be an illusion. There are, from what I’ve found out so far, eight cycles, and who knows what might yet turn up, with the help of the readers.

It is prompted, quite obviously, by the appearance of the most recent set, which Cristian Măcelaru managed to have appear on DG. (Quite neat, how DG likes to add nifty off-the-beaten-path cycles to their catalogue, like Franz Schmidt with Paavo Järvi or Carl Nielsen with Fabio Luisi, so long as they don't have to pay for it.)

As always, every such discographic post, even one of such limited scope as this one, 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!) Where good reviews have appeared by serious reviewers, links are included.

Now what’s in a symphony cycle? That’s often a question, when it comes to these recorded surveys, be it in Schubert (1-7, 9 or more?), Bruckner (1-9 or all 11?), Mahler (Lied von der Erde or not? Blumine?). In Enescu, too, it’s far less straightforward than the obvious answer – Symphonies One through Three – might seem. There are, after all, two more symphonies that Enescu never finished but which have since been presented in performing versions by composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu. To convolute things further, there are four “Study Symphonies”, a Symphonia concertante (for Cello and Orchestra), a Symphonic Suite for Orchestra (the Poème Roumain), and the great symphonic poem Vox maris for tenor, three-part choir and orchestra.

Among other orchestral works that are popularly (if that’s the right word) coupled with the symphonies, are his other orchestral works. They include primarily the two Romanian Rhapsodies, of which the first might be his most popular works, three Orchestral Suites, the Overture on Popular Romanian Themes, two Intermezzi for strings, “Three Overtures for orchestra”, the Tragic Overture, the Triumphal Overture, a Sonata for Orchestra, the Andantino from an orchestral suite, “Four Divertissements for orchestra”, a Pastorale-Fantaisie for orchestra, the symphonic poem Isis (also completed by Pascal Bentoiu), and the Suite chatelaine for orchestra (completed by Remus Georgescu).

The three numbered, completed works appear to be just scratching the surface of the deep Enescu-waters. For the purposes of this survey, however, Nos. 1 to 3 is what counts and will be considered complete. Boni and links to other works are, however, included at the end of it.

The fact that much of Enescu’s music can appear as episodic is, in part, probably as possibly an outcome of our own lack of familiarity with these works and Enescu’s idiom, as of the performances themselves. Enescu needs attention, more often than he demands it. As such, the listening experience either requires more concentration and commitment from the listener than listening to yet another performance of La Mer, or greater exposure. But like other Surprised-by-Beauty composers (Martinů comes to mind), Enescu pays back that investment – and more consistently than some. Dip your ears – maybe start with the Third Symphony or Vox maris, among the orchestral works; the First Rhapsody is almost too easy to like, do that a few times, and see where it takes you if you haven’t arrived yet.

Orchestra names: Usually, I use standardized English names for orchestras, but sometiemes I like the original, because it is pithier. Or I use both, to confuse people. In any case, the George Enescu State Philhamonic Bucharest Filarmonica George Enescu (GESP) is the Filarmonica George Enescu in Romanian. The Orchestra Națională Radio used to be Orchestra of The Romanian Radio and Television and, in English, is now the Romanian Radio National Orchestra (or National Radio Orchestra of Romania, RRNO). For the Iași “Moldova” Philharmonic Orchestra (also: Moldova Philharmonic or Philharmonia Moldova) I used its Romanian name: Filarmonica Moldova Iași, which strikes me as less clunky. Ditto the Timisoara Banatul Philharmonic Orchestra, which is either refered to here as the Filarmonica Banatul (din Timișoara) or more simply as the Bantul PO.
Enjoy and leave a comment in some form!

Edits Date: TBA

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Downsized Mozart in Mary Zimmerman's 'Matchbox Magic Flute' at STC

Russell Mernagh (Monostatos), Dave Belden (violinist), and Emily Rohm (Queen of the Night) in The Matchbox Magic Flute.
Photo: Liz Lauren

Mary Zimmerman is known for her adaptations of classic works, like her transformation of Ovid's Metamorphoses currently showing in a new production at Folger Theatre. This year the American director took on Mozart's late Singspiel masterpiece, which she titled The Matchbox Magic Flute, premiered in February at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where she is resident director. This charming but decidedly non-operatic production closes out the season at Shakespeare Theatre Company, seen Saturday night at the Klein Theatre in downtown Washington.

Listeners hoping to see Mozart's classic as it is staged in an opera theater will likely be disappointed. Zimmerman has cut the work down to theatrical size, an approach implied by the word added to its title, an allusion to the tiny toy cars. Everything about the production is "miniaturized," as the director put it in her program note. The set is a theater within the theater, an evocation of the small but ornate theaters of the European nobility, with a constricted stage, antique footlights, and tiny jewel-like loges. Mozart's silhouette fills a coat of arms at the top of the proscenium arch (set design by Todd Rosenthal). The fairytale costumes, props, and stage effects (costumes by Ana Kuzmanić) are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's movie adaptation, Trollflöjten, filmed in a sound stage replica of the Drottningholms Slottsteater outside Stockholm.

Zimmerman adapted the libretto in her own English translation, deleting a lot of spoken dialogue and updating and shortening most of what remains. She has also excised about an hour's worth of Mozart's score, including the entire overture and most of the music for the priests in Act II, like the chorus "O Isis und Osiris." Of Mozart's colorful orchestration, only a flute, a violin, a cello, and a percussionist remain (marimba, timpani, tambourine, other drums), with the rest absorbed into the piano played by Laura Bergquist (music adapted and directed by Amanda Dehnert and Andre Pluess). Some of the most striking musical effects remain, with Bergquist turning to play the celesta for Papageno's magic bells. The birdcatcher played his characteristic whistle on stage, and at one point an accordion was added to the mix. The pit musicians also wear costumes, gowns and black fezzes, and flutist, cellist, and violinist all take the stage for certain major solos.

Reese Parish (the Spirit, center) and Cast in The Matchbox Magic Flute. Photo: Liz Lauren

Zimmerman has cast mostly singing actors, who do their best with Mozart's sometimes daunting vocal writing, aided by the small instrumental accompaniment and generous amplification. What this approach lost in vocal thrill, it gained in liveliness of action and comic timing. Soprano Emily Rohm got most of the Queen of the Night's notes off the top of the staff, her scenery-chewing acting style suiting the dramatic lighting and costuming for the character. (Her entrance for the Act II showpiece, "Der Hölle Rache," spinning while suspended over the stage, took the cake.) Marlene Fernandez nailed Pamina's high notes with a light tone, adding a music theater belt to the low range. Likewise, Billy Rude's tall and handsome Tamino took advantage of a pretty head voice as much as possible. Bass Keanon Kyles felt light in the bottom register for Sarastro, but he gave the role considerable dignity otherwise.

One delightful addition was the character of the Spirit, played and sung by Reese Parish. Her airy soprano suited the top part of the Three Spirits, but her balletic movements throughout the evening added a whimsical air to the proceedings, especially as she carried humorous signs at moments of transition to guide the audience. Reducing the cast to ten roles meant some double-casting, with the trio of the Queen's ladies (Tina Muñoz Pandya, Lauren Molina, and Monica West) among the several actors who took on more than one part (the two other Boys, the speakers in the temple, the animals summoned by the magic flute). Particularly charming were the nerdy Papageno of Shawn Pfautsch, played with improvisatory flourish and decent singing, matched by the manic Papagena of Lauren Molina, in one of those double-castings.

The Matchbox Magic Flute runs through June 16.


Trans-Continental Myths in Folger's African-centered "Metamorphoses"

Miss Kitty as the Water Nymph in Metamorphoses, Folger Theatre. Photo: Brittany Diliberto

Mythology may be rooted in national or ethnic identity, but the virtues or foibles of human nature it references make it universal. Folger Theatre's new production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, seen Thursday evening at the newly renovated and reopened Folger Shakespeare Library, brought this point home. Director Psalmayene 24 has adapted the play, a selection of stories from Ovid's epic-like poem of the same name premiered in 2001, for an all-black cast. The latter is a first for the Folger, a fitting way to rebaptize the Elizabethan theater at the end of the company's first season since the lengthy renovation of the building began in 2020.

While the stories remain the familiar Greco-Roman ones, the production refracts the frame of telling through the experience of African-Americans. Zimmerman anchored her play on stories connected to the theme of water, with stage directions referring to an on-stage pool of water. Psalmayene 24 did without the on-stage water, initially for practical reasons in the newly reopened theater, transforming the pool into a remarkable character called the Water Nymph. Played with chimerical grace by Miss Kitty, the character opens the play in a costume recalling the tradition of African masquerade, the ritualized evocation of an ancestor or other powerful spirit (costumes designed by Mika Eubanks). Rattles on her wrists recall the rustle of water, and her movements in colored light or with aquatic-hued fabric suggest the ocean or a pool at different times. The presence of her unmasked face, covered with makeup calling to mind scarification practices or religious designs, is a perennial reminder of African origins.

Psalmayene 24 has a strong background in dance, which has a powerful role in the story-telling of this production (choreography by Tony Thomas). The opening sequence is a dumbshow, with the rest of the cast costumed in colorful outfits and vocalizing without words: they dance joyfully, seem to be captured and transported over the sea, sold into slavery, and then killed one by one. (The director writes of the brutal beating and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols, by five black police officers in Memphis in 2023, as a motivating factor in creating the production.) Against this backdrop, the Ovid stories take on new meanings.

Photo: Brittany Diliberto

The adaptation, enlivened with dance and music, is an ensemble affair: the program bills the actors equally, listing them in alphabetical order and not even identifying all of the roles they play. Jon Hudson Odom had hilarious turns as Midas, a clueless billionaire cursed for his unchecked greed (one of many parts of the play that resonated in our age); Orpheus, a strutting James Brown-like figure; and Apollo, the absent father to Edwin Brown's impetuous Phaeton. Zimmerman enhances Ovid's version of the Orpheus tale by quoting Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." in Stephen Mitchell's translation: the poem added depth to the Eurydice of Billie Krishawn. As so often in Greek mythology, the gods are like people but even more bratty and irresponsible, ready to punish mortals for the sins they themselves commit with impunity: Gerrad Alex Taylor gave Bacchus the breezy air of a player, while Yesenia Iglesias brought animal terror to the character of Hunger.

The performance also offered a first glance of the renovated Folger Library. You now enter by ramps leading downward on the east and west sides, rather than through the old doorway on East Capitol Street. These new paths lead through garden spaces to the interior, an expansion opening up new exhibit and public spaces below ground. Although that means that patrons now have to go down a level, only then to have to up again to the Elizabethan theater, which has not been altered, the redesign does alleviate the crowding in the small room leading into the theater. The Folger Library will open completely to the public on June 21.

Metamorphoses runs through June 16.


Remembering John Browning: A Short Portrait

available at Amazon
Piano Concerto, Sy.1
J.Browning, L.Slatkin, St. Louis SO

available at Amazon
Piano Concertos
J.Browning, E.Leinsdorf, Boston SO

available at Amazon
Complete Songs
C.Studer, T.Hampson, Emerson SQ4t, J.Browning

available at Amazon
The Complete RCA Album Collection,

John Browning

Born on this day, May 23rd, in 1933, in Denver, pianist John Browning was a student of the famed Rosina Lhévinne, who taught the cream of the pianistic crop at the Institute of Musical Art (the Juilliard School) in New York. He was a direct contemporary of a North American group of pianists that might be dubbed the ‘Tragic Five’, namely Julius Katchen (1926), Byron Janis, Leon Fleisher, and Gary Graffman (all 1928), and his classmate Van Cliburn (1934). These pianists all started with the very highest hopes and for one reason or other had their careers prematurely ended, curtailed, or fizzle. John Browning's career, too, took a dip – caused by the strain of too many concerts and a subsequent decline in pianistic standards – when it should have been at its peak, but perhaps not sufficiently to make it a ‘Tragic Six’. By the time he played his last recital, at the National Gallery of Arts in 2002, which included a memorable Sonata in E-flat Minor by Samuel Barber, I attended ignorant of who he really was. Those in the know valued him for his “unremitting application and vast reserve of talent… [and] invariable dignity, without recourse to ballyhoo and banality.” (LA Times)

John Browning’s career was jumpstarted when he won the Steinway Centennial Award in 1954 and the Leventritt Competition the next year, then taking the second prize behind Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956, the prize won by fellow Americans Leon Fleisher before him and Malcolm Frager after him. That same year he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, which is where Samuel Barber heard him play and was much impressed with his great technique. So impressed, indeed, that Barber wrote difficulties into his piano concerto, with Browning in mind, that were beyond what was humanly possible to play. Browning, in an interview with NPR, recalled Barber taking him to Vladimir Horowitz, to have a look at the score. Horowitz browsed through it and said: “The young man iz right, this iz impossible to play”—whereupon Barber toned the demands down a little.

John Browning’s recitals notably included much Bach and Scarlatti, composers that were not then considered repertoire staples and probably still weren't, even after the landmark recordings of Gould’s Goldberg Variations (1955) and Horowitz’s Scarlatti (1964). But he will be foremost remembered as a champion of Barber. Browning premiered Barber’s piano concerto under Erich Leinsdorf in 1962, and for his second recording of the Piano Concerto, with Leonard Slatkin, he won his first Grammy. Recording the complete solo works of Barber garnered him his second Grammy. In his surprisingly small discography, much of which is hiding on minor labels, his Prokofiev Concertos with Erich Leinsdorf on RCA also stand out. John Browning died on January 26th, 2003, of heart failure.


Dip Your Ears: No. 275 (Szymanowski's Music for Violin and Piano)

available at Amazon
Music for Violin & Piano
Bruno Monteiro, João Paulo Santos
Brilliant, 2015

available at Amazon
Music for Violin & Piano
Duo Brüggen-Plank
Genuin, 2017

Szymanowski Due Dilligence

Here are two releases of Szymanowski’s works for violin and piano that feature neither big names nor famous labels. This is very inconvenient, because instead of being able to make up one’s mind ahead of time, it requires close listening. Fortunately, the composer more than merits this exposure and so do these two very different approaches.

Bruno Monteiro is more direct and explosive in his approach; Marie Radauer-Plank has a more lyrical, lighter way with the music, with the notes separated further without being slower. It’s mobile (she) vs. direct (he). She: A slightly emaciated violin sound, dryly recorded, and spritely. He: Round, bold, rather resonant (especially the piano), in slightly wooly sound and his violin with an emphatic, viola-esque sound. The combination on Brilliant features softer, velvety pianism courtesy of João Paulo Santos, while the Duo on Genuin is more intense and tight in the finale of “Harnesie”, despite over-all more relaxed tempo. Henrike Brüggen plays absolutely marvelously in the Nocturne – as adroitly as soothing. Similarly, Radauer-Plank displays a great beauty and purity in her tone where Bruno Monteiro offers a broader, hazier, arguably more sultry sound as an alternative.

If you still can’t decide which might be more suitable to your Szymanowski-preferences, go listen to Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien on Hyperion to make up your mind.


Simon Godwin's modern-dress 'Macbeth' comes to Washington

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Photo: Marc Brenner

The demand for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Macbeth has reportedly been off the charts. Simon Godwin, artistic director of STC since 2019, directed this staging in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and London, and it makes its final stop here. In each city, the venue has not been a traditional theater, but a larger building like a warehouse, adapted to the purpose. In Washington, theater-goers must make their way to the former campus of Black Entertainment Television headquarters in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast. The cast, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, has remained the same in each location.

To reach the stage, viewers pass through a room made to look like a modern war zone, with the wreck of a bombed-out car and the glow of fires. Even before the show begins, actors costumed like soldiers patrol the space. The action unfolds not in medieval Scotland, but in a 21st-century location torn apart by warfare. Through the sometimes overwhelming sound system, which surrounds the audience, the sonic boom of jet fighters and explosions punctuates the evening (sound design by Christopher Shutt). Macbeth and the other thanes and soldiers wore military fatigues, tactical vests, and helmets while in the field. In the court scenes, they wore elegant gowns, suits, and dress military uniforms with a faintly fascist edge, at times reminiscent of the updated Richard III starring Ian McKellen from over twenty years ago.
The technical bells and whistles are impressive, but other than the battle scenes at the opening and close, the Scottish play is really about private ambitions: it hardly matters where or when the war is happening. The adaptation by Emily Burns streamlines some parts of the play without removing most of the best parts. The three witches (Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya, and Lola Shalam) appear out of one of several loud explosions, looking like victims of an urban bombing mission who have narrowly escaped death and bear the psychic trauma of it. Bright lights often assist their covert entrances and exits, as Godwin's staging walks a fine line between the witches being supernatural powers or just shell-shocked ghosts.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes plays the title role older and a little more seasoned and wise. His Macbeth has been worn down by age, as well as by the demanding nature of his wife, played with vehement force by Indira Varma. Younger than her husband, Lady Macbeth drives him where his ambition might not have taken him. She spurs him beyond the life of a sort of dutiful also-ran in the service of Duncan to grasp at the throne after hearing the strange prophecies of the women harmed by his own military exploits.

If the supernatural business is downplayed a bit (no Hecate appears in the final prophecy scene), the physical elements of violence are amplified: much blood from the murder of Duncan, and even more from the onstage killing of Banquo, among the most graphic stagings in recent memory. Steffan Rhodri's Banquo proved a highlight, an older veteran of many battles by Macbeth's side, with the grim humor to show for it. Ben Turner had the most affecting moments of the evening, drawing out the paternal grief of Macduff as he learned of the murder of his family.

Macbeth runs through May 5. A filmed version will be released in theaters starting on May 2.


Thoughts on Thoughts About Klaus Mäkelä

A Word or Two on the (Negative) Reaction to Klaus Mäkelä’s Appointment in Chicago

The Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is 28 and has just been named the next Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, starting with the 2027/28 season. When he does, the current MD, Riccardo Muti, will be 86. As classical music knows all too well, there’s nothing wrong with old age per se, but a bit of young blood surely can’t hurt. You would think.

However, there has been considerable opining, grumbling, and bloviating, following this announcement, mostly because Klaus Mäkelä, who is currently the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and music director of the Orchestre de Paris, will also take on the role of chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027. “Too young!” are the cries. “Too hyped!” goes the faux indignation on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s behalf. “Spread too thin”, weigh in the armchair experts. And, as a most tediously predictable sideshow, every 5th comment on social media will invariably be: “Not a woman! Shame. Shame!” (A different topic for another day.)

The aggregator/master click-baiter Norman Lebrecht goes all insinuation and pessimism in “Chicago Ends up Second City, Maybe Third”, the usual hodge-podge of three snarky, substance-less sentences and four lazy quotes. He refers to the conductor in question as “frequent-flier Klaus Mäkelä”. Newsflash: Every conductor is a frequent flier, these days; the slight comes out only when convenient. Then comes the original content: “Chicago is going to have to get used to waiting in line for its music director. They won’t like that. With Riccardo Muti (pictured), Chicago had bragging rights. Now it has to beg and borrow its shared time, like a telephone user in distant memory.”

Says who? Sharing a conductor with another orchestra isn’t new. Not for any orchestra, and certainly not for the Chicago Symphony. Throughout his time as Chicago’s music director, the orchestra somehow survived George Solti also being music director at Covent Garden, of the Orchestre de Paris, and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim was the head of the Berlin State Opera (a more labor-intensive task than being the music director of a philharmonic orchestra) for all but the first year of his Chicago tenure. Double tenures are not unusual, they are the norm and have been, for well over half a century. Mariss Jansons was never head of the Concertgebouw (RCO) without also being the music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Haitink was head of the LPO for twelve years, allawhile running...


Critic’s Notebook: An Odd Liederabend from Goerne and Kissin

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Ein Liederabend, bei dem vieles auf der Strecke blieb

available at Amazon
R. Schumann,
Dichterliebe, Liederkreis
M.Goerne, V.Ashkenazy
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
J. Brahms,
4 Serious Songs, 4 Songs op.32
M.Goerne, C.Eschenbach
Harmonia Mundi

A Walrus in Love

The trick to turn a Liederabend from a connoisseur’s event into a big-ticket item, appears to be the addition of a pianist superstar to the singer in question. At the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, on March 13th, the magic ingredient to bolster Matthias Goerne’s already considerable draw was Evgeny Kissin. It makes sense, too, because in theory it’s much more interesting to hear, what two veritable artists come up with, as part of their collaboration, rather than simply having a singer be followed by an accompanist. I mean, no one goes to a concert to hear Helmut Deutsch – and few singers form as organic a duo with their ivory-partner, as do/does GerhaherHuber (one word)™.

In practice, that didn’t quite work out on this occasion. For starters, the Golden Hall was decidedly not built for Lieder-recitals. When Lieder-singers hit the big-time, they almost invariably become the victim of their own success, location-wise. And yes, there were smile-inducing moments from Kissin, such as his brawny-pawed opening of Robert Schumann’s “Am Strand”. But for the most part, there seemed little input from him… or if there was, it didn’t appear to be picked up on by Goerne. (Certainly his understanding with Christoph Eschenbach as his pianist, for example, suggested more of a give and take, both, on record and live.)

Also: The whole evening was full of mannerisms galore. Goerne can barrel through a song and braw like a donkey. And a lot of fun it sometimes is. On this occasion, a red-faced Goerne danced as if on tippy-toes, contorting himself, and reminded vaguely of a lovelorn walrus. Much of Dichterliebe, for example, was purred in honeyed tones but mumbled in such nasal tones, that it had to be an interpretative choice. Albeit one I did not comprehend. Half the text was impossible to understand and sounded more French than German. This approach was interrupted occasionally, such as for the blistering “Die Rose, die Lilie”, or in stentorian turns for the last of the nine Brahms op.32 songs, “Wie bist du, meine Königin”. Here, Kissin, hunched over the keyboard as though he had forgotten his reading glasses at home, provided for tantalizing contrast with his tone, ringing out clear as a bell, and his lullaby-esque take on it.

But that was too little, too late. Too much text fell by the wayside. Whatever was left had a strangely impersonal quality about it and was – and this can’t just be blamed on Brahms – somewhat brittle and wearisome.


Critic’s Notebook: Daniel Harding brings a touch of Sweden to the Konzerthaus

Also reviewed for Die Presse: Hugo Alfvén muss man entdeckt haben: Hinreißende Schweden-Romantik im Konzerthaus

available at Amazon
Hugo Alfvén,
Complete Symphonies, Suites & Rhapsodies
var. Orch., Niklas Willén

available at Amazon
G. Mahler,
Orchestral Songs
C.Gerhaher, K.Nagano, OSMontreal

Swedish bonbon and Gerhaherisms

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s gig at the Vienna Konzerthaus was notable for its inclusion of Hugo Alfvén on the program, and Christian Gerhaher (who loves working with Harding) singing Mahler’s Rückert songs. Less attractive on paper perhaps was Also sprach Zarathustra lurking on the back of the program, which, of course, features one of the most memorable openings in all of classical music… followed by thirty minutes of tedium. But “Strauss” sells tickets, is fun, and already in the repertoire of the orchestra, whereas something really cool, romantic, and Swedish – say, the Viola Concerto of Allan Petterson or a Symphony by him or by Erland von Koch, Wilhelm Stenhammar, or Kurt Atterberg – would admittedly have been box office poison. Sånt är livet.

Incidentally, it was a pretty good Zarathustra, that Harding and his Swedes (he’s been their MD since 2007) delivered. Listening closely, you could hear how Strauss, in 1896, opens almost all the doors to his future works: In the octet of first desks (very nicely played!) we have premonitions of the Capriccio Sextet. Further down the road, there are glimmers of the Alpine Symphony, in those somewhat meandering, intertwining musical strands. And for the “Tanzlied”, a waltz on near-infinite loop, Harding mercifully took the reins tight, as a result of which the precision suffered, but at considerable benefit to the work.

The opening Alfvén (who should, but unfathomably does not, have a chapter in Surprised by Beauty) was En skärgårdssägen, op.20. Naturally the first-ever performance in the Konzerthaus, much like a visiting Viennese orchestra would probably be the first, if they played a Robert Fuchs Serenade on a visit to Stockholm. As the ear clamors for familiar references in this 1904 sea-themed tone poem about the group of islets outside of Stockholm, it finds them in Debussy during the impressionistic heaves, in Zemlinsky when the flame begins to lick in the strings, or even in Wagner, when the brass and timpani get going.

In between Hugo and Richard, it was Gerhaher to impress with his usual, unparalleled ‘intoned parlando’ in the Mahler. The fact that you have to listen closely, sometimes, when he drops the color from his voice (one of several trademark Gerhaherisms), is easily put up with; in fact, it probably enhances the experience – though Harding and his lustily playing orchestra didn’t exactly help out, either. The cries of nocturnal pain in “Um Mitternacht” were harrowing, and “Liebst du um Schönheit” was, interestingly, stripped of any overt cynicism. Mahler didn’t know it, when he composed it, but he custom tailored “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to Gerhaher’s style. Hearing him suffer, while simultaneously exposing the vanity in the lines “Nor am I all that much concerned / If she should think me dead”, by not so much intoning rather than de-toning them, was as touching as anything.


In Memoriam Aribert Reimann: His Lear in Frankfurt (2008)

In memory of Aribert Reimann, who passed away on March 13th, nine days after his 88th birthday, I post this hitherto unpublished review of the 2008 Frankfurt Opera premiere of his most important stage work, Lear, in Keith Warner's production. Re-listening to Medea recently, I found myself taken aback by the sheer ugliness of Reimann's music, the "dead-on-arrival avant-garde hideousness", found it to be "joyless, deliberately ungainly music, 30-years behind its time when it premiered in 2010", and how it was "music to feel clever, by pretending to like it." Part of it will have been the lack of visible drama, which, as I suggest below, is important, possibly essential to make anything of this music at all. And, in Lear's defense, it came more than 30 years before Medea. This prompted a brief exchange with a colleague who thought (and wrote), already around the time of the premiere of Lear, that the opera was overrated - to which a critical outcry predictably followed promptly. True: Not all music that is difficult and first appears ungainly is The-Emperor's-New-Clothes-Music. And yet, there is a line, eventually, for each of us, that we would not cross for purely musical purposes. Where is that line and is it important? These are all thoughts that came back up, re-reading my 16-year old review, written with the milk of human kindness still sloshing liberally within me. Perhaps partly not to look the dunce. And partly because it's not like I didn't in enjoy the evening some way. Anyway, here it is.

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Aribert Reimann,
Wolfgang Koch et al.
Frankfurt Opera, S.Weigle

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Aribert Reimann,
Frankfurt Opera, E.Nielsen

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Aribert Reimann,
Fischer-Dieskaus et al.
Bavarian State Opera, G.Albrecht

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…und soll es Tod bedeuten
Song arrangements & SQ4t#3
Petersen Quartet, C.Schäfer

Gabor Halasz called Aribert Reimann’s 1978 opera Lear “the great music-theater achievement of the [70s], probably the most important opera since [Bernd Alois] Zimmermann’s The Soldiers. The work’s premiere in Munich – a Jean-Pierre Ponelle production, conducted by Gerd Albrecht and with the work’s initiator Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Dieskau’s wife Julia Varady as Cordelia – was a smashing success with critics and audiences alike – even conservative ears.

Dieskau first suggested the topic to Reimann in 1968 and nudged him to pursue it. What Reimann didn’t know until long after he finished his Lear, is that Dieskau also pitched the idea of a Lear-opera to Britten who, however, chose to compose Death in Venice, instead.

How much of Lear’s success depended on Dieskau’s participation and Ponelle’s inspired, beautiful production was once again, for the 21st time, put to the test in the Frankfurt Opera’s season-opening premiere of their Keith Warner production on September 28th. Not very much, as it turns out, as long as the theatrical direction is as extraordinary as it was in Frankfurt.

Lear's effectiveness is critically dependent on the theatrical element and makes a primarily theatrical impression – not unlike Henze’s Bassarids, but without the latter’s relatively luscious grand operatic musical moments. Lear is essentially theater music (a hint of Maurizio Kagel), and its considerable success abroad has undoubtedly been due to the use of the respective vernacular. Like the San Francisco production (where Thomas Stewart took the title role) which used the translation of Desmond Clayton.

The music alone is dense and difficult stuff; wild and loud plenty and even grating at times. Suppose you only read Claus H. Henneberg’s analysis of it: You’d have to imagine a series of shrieking vocal parts and jarring string and brass chord clusters, one piled upon another – interrupted only occasionally with the tone rows that represent Cordelia and Edgar, or the string quartet that accompanies the Fool’s simple songs.

What is true enough in theory gets a life of its own on stage. Even if the tone-rows don’t obviously reveal the relationship between Cordelia and Edgar as being the sole characters aiming at a common, noble goal, the semi-tone steps of their tone rows (Edgar’s is developed out of Cordelia’s by switching the first and last six-note sequences; see below) are in marked and notable contrast to the shrill sounds of Goneril and Regan. Clusters of sounds may dominate much of the score, but since the music works as support for the theatrical element and dramatizes the story with sound, it isn’t (necessarily) perceived as unnecessarily spiky and brutal. Indeed, it was astounding how vividly it depicted the various moods and actions on stage – madness, wistful longing, and of course wickedness and massive brutality. The 30-year-old music, still sounding more modern than much that is composed these days, doesn’t aim to make it easy for the audience, it aims to be true to