Il Trovatore Revisited 

(published first at ionarts)

When you don’t succeed at first…

Saturday the 13th of November, the Washington National Opera had its last show of the problem fraught Il Trovatore. Utterly miscast with few exceptions, the ‘secondary’ singers for the last two productions mercifully replaced Mikhail Davidoff’s Manrico, Wolfgang Brendel’s Count di Luna and Denyce Graves’ Azucena. There was nothing “secondary” about the respective replacements.

Picture by Karin CooperCarl Tanner as Manrico had a slightly muffled quality to his singing – but what he lacked in clarity in comparison to his predecessor he made up in agility and roundness. Roberto Sevile’s Count was a monumental improvement over Brendel’s ill pitched bear-voice. Nothing is as loud or booming as Brendel – but seeming to care about the role and singing in tune are worth something, too! Azucena, taken over by Elena Manistina, was a relief. While Denyce Graves has the dramatic part of the role down like few others, her singing was sadly inept. (And that’s being kind.) Mme. Manistina, while not a great actress, sang the challenging role admirably with her well sounding, stable mezzo and garnered much applause. Krassimira Stoyanova , who was still the same, had never been bad to begin with and only improved from performance to performance. Her acting, peppered with some well-applied wit, was as good as the production allowed for.

Of course you still had to deal with the staging of Stephen Lawless – and that’s a matter of taste. After seeing it four times, I still retain it is a very elegant solution that works better than most attempts of staging Verdi’s Troubadour. But the unbearably campy sword-scene by the chorus (a woeful addition from four years ago – what were you thinking, Herr Lawless?) had still to be coped with. The idea itself is more befitting a Mel Brooks musical than an opera – but to make matters inexorably worse, the choreography was so badly executed that it became painfully comical where it was supposed to be impressive.

This may not have been the redemption of a miserable stint of Verdi’s workhorse – but the improvement gave reason to hope that the casting will be done with more care, in the future. Even though Washingtonian’s mainly go to see the Opera to be there and be seen, big names that sing badly cannot over the long run sustain well sold performances. Meanwhile we can look forward to Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. (The WNO also – finally – published its next season’s calendar on which Charles or I will surely comment in the near future.)


Dip Your Ears... ( 18 ) 

N. Kapustin, Piano Music, Richard Osborne & Marc-Andre Hamelin
Wanted to go to the jazz section in your local record store but accidentally ended up in classical? Well, don't go back without one of these little jewels. If you listen at first, you may think Chick Corea- or Bill Evans-like piano improvisations. But it's neither American jazz nor is it improvised. It's Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin in music composed about 20 years ago and Hamelin and Osborne actually have to follow a score that is among the most difficult in the piano repertoire. Both men have the chops for it, and the music itself does not betray its difficulty, nor does their playing. It comes together much better than the best improvisation would. For those who like jazz and classical music, it's a must-have. If you like just one but are open-minded, you'll still find it a delight. Not everyday listening but likely to get more play time than many of my CDs. (When trying to chose between the two, start with Hamelin's disc for slightly more variety.)


Dip Your Ears... ( 17 ) 

A. Bruckner, Sy. #7, P. Herreweghe
Oh Boy! “Historically Informed Bruckner” – just what we needed, right? Seriously: after Roger Norrington suggesting to play Mahler without vibrato (historically correct as that may be), this seemed to be just about the next-dumbest idea. But unlike the recent and highly unnecessary Bruckner recordings of Messrs. Eschenbach and Nagano, this is actually rather a delight. Smaller forces, original instruments (gut strings and all) make for a very clean, crisp sound. Clocking in at exactly an hour, this 7th – sans cymbal crash in the Adagio – has a sheen that puts it above many conventional rivals that pander too much to the clichés of Bruckner-performance. Among modern versions it stands up to Rattle and Harnoncourt – and while I reserve a special place in my heart for G. Wand’s and E. Jochum’s recordings, this live performance is good enough even to make a first choice.


Dip Your Ears... ( 16 ) 

G.F. Handel, Arias, Renée Fleming
This highly anticipated disc starts with a wavering study in tone and dynamics that–if anything–sounds self-conscious and after repeated hearing probably annoying. The quality of the voice, though, is to be marveled at. Grating as “Oh Sleep, why dost though leave me?” is, “Endless pleasure” is far better–if not yet true to the name. Surprised, given the hype about this disc (NYT) and the unquestionable artistry of Fleming, I waited for supreme joy to come. It never did. The music is glorious, of course, but the singing sounds stretched, tried, shrill even and effortful. In short: the worst example of the usually sublime Renée Fleming that even her fans may not be entirely convinced by. In Handel she lacks the fleet tone of Bartoli or Hunt-Lieberson’s natural expressiveness. Try and compare…


Sibling Work 

(published first at ionarts)

The Shaham's, violinist Gil and his most exquisitely playing sister Orli, performed a delicacy of a concert at the Kennedy Center last Sunday (November 7). On a perfect autumn day, there was—short of staying outside—nothing more gently civilized and fun to do than follow the WPAS's call. That would have been possible even on a whim, as plenty of tickets were available at the door.

Three Mozart violin sonatas (42 to go) were the light and easily enjoyable treats in the first half. To lean back and enjoy beautiful music that, for all its undeniable quality, is not a terribly serious affair was a nice change from emotionally more taxing late Beethoven or Mahler—recent parts of my musical diet. Mlle. Shaham's fleet fingers dotted all the notes, not forgetting musicality and occasional force along the way. Her brother, meanwhile, played unpretentiously and with visible joy. It was like being witness to a friendly afternoon of Hausmusik. K. 305, K. 301, and K. 304 (in A major, G major, and E minor, respectively) showed how "light" and "pretty" need not be gentle putdowns. In fact, regularly enjoyed Mozart is like a musical detox, so naturally falls his musical idiom in place.

Available at Amazon
Gil & Orli Shaham, Prokofiev Album
Lest people come away with the idea that classical music is all about "nice" (or worse, "relaxing," like a diet of 103.5 might have you believe), the second half was all Prokofiev. Clouds moved in where sun and blue skies were before... at least on an emotional level. The "bittersweet lyricism" (Eric Bromberger) of the Five Melodies—five California-inspired songs without words, later redesignated from voice to violin—give you Prokofiev harmonies in a very seductive and rather sweet setting. The cliché of the violin singing gets its most obvious manifestation in it. Gil Shaham did his part in producing a pleasantly flowing and rich tone from his early Stradivarius, the 1699 "Countess Polignac."

Available at Amazon
Gil & Orli Shaham, The Fauré Album
Grimly the piano announces, with trills going along on the violin, what is to be expected from a War Sonata, the sonata for violin and piano, no. 1, op. 8, in F minor. The Prokofiev, all presented on the latest Shaham's release of a disc with his music and some transcriptions, was cold and aggressive at times and proved to be the worthy main course after the Mozart apéritif. Amazing fingerwork in hushed passages with intermittent arpeggios somberly moved things along to the end of a disquieting first movement. Lyrical, wistful, wild, and pouncing moments all share the second movement (Allegro brusco). Cough salvos were fired from the audience—perhaps in honor of the sonata's nickname—and after a gorgeous Andante followed the furious arpeggio-heavy Allegrissimo. Playing enjoyably well together, the Shaham's followed the work to all its depths.

More F minor Prokofiev, but of a very different character, was given as an encore, a movement from the second sonata, op. 12, topped things off with good humor. A bon-bon followed and then—Gil Shaham "promised" it would be the last one—Fauré's Clair de Lune, op. 46, no. 2, from their "Fauré Album" concluded the program.


Lunch with Brahms 

Heather LeDoux-Green & Danielle DeSwertThe historic Monroe House at I and 21st Streets NW hosts a Friday Noon Concert Series that is free and open to the public, held by the Arts Club of Washington. Not unlike the Tuesday Concert Series at the Church of the Epiphany, it offers respite and a welcome oasis of calm for the elated, alternative lunch.

While the setting at the Monroe House is more intimate than the stop-by-if-you-wish atmosphere at the bigger, more anonymous church location, the concert takes into consideration the time constraints at lunch time. Their concerts are a most convenient half-hour long (or, rather, short). That's just the right musical quick fix, and on November 12th it came courtesy of Brahms's third violin sonata in D minor, played by the Oklahoma native Heather LeDoux-Green and Brussels-born pianist Danielle DeSwert.

The D-minor Brahms needs little in the way of explaining; the performance was pleasing on a dreary, rainy Friday. Mme. LeDoux-Green's tone was rich and vibrant, tempi were well chosen, and the audiably challenging piano part mastered as befit the performance as a whole. The musical dessert was a rare and cute delicacy: from a violin sonata to which Brahms, Schumann, and Albert Dietrich (a student of Brahms) each contributed one movement the two artists culled the Brahms-made Scherzo. The work had been a birthday present for Joseph Joachim (the famous violinist and Brahms's advisor on all things violinish), and the informal nature (Hausmusik among friends who could) showed. It's made to have fun... and fun it is, playing and hearing it alike.

Upcoming concerts in this worthwile series are Jyunghwa Jang (lyric soprano) with David Ballena (piano) on November 19, the Guarneri-directed Laurel Quartet on December 3, and "Flutar"—made up of flutist Joseph Cunliffe and (go figure) guitarist Giorgia Cavallaro on December 10. Then the Friday Noon Concert Series will hibernate until Friday, February 11, 2005. For more information, visit their Web site.


Soft Lines, Heaven-bound: Abbado & the NSO 

(published first at ionarts)

Other Review:

Daniel Ginsberg, NSO Sounds Just Right With Abbado, Ohlsson (Washington Post, November 5) [NB: The Post review does mistakenly refer to Roberto Abbado and "his father, Claudio."—CTD]
Where Maurizio Pollini is my God on ivory (see Ionarts reviews of his recent Washington recital), Claudio Abbado has the same Olympic position on the podium for me. When Zeus isn't available, though, make due with Herakles. Roberto Abbado, guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in three concerts of Mahler's first symphony, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (with Garrick Ohlsson as the soloist), and a Fabio Vacchi (b. 1949) piece (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Nov. 4-6), probably wouldn't particularly appreciate such an intro. He has after all long proven that he stands on his own as a formidable conductor. Constant reference to his uncle, probably taken with the nonchalant grace of someone used to it, distracts more than it enlightens. That they somehow turn out to be father and son in many stories adds another layer of obscurity.

Roberto Abbado, who might just move in next door, if the Baltimore Symphony should be so lucky as to successfully court him, introduced Washingtonians to Fabio Vacchi's Dai calanchi di Sabbiuno. Not having read the title or the story of this composition, it sounded like midnight waves repeatedly washing ashore in a dark port over notes of resignation, repetition, bells tolling—all with an underlying melancholy taken for granted. It is a magnificent work, and it is of course delightful to hear music from composers who still have a pulse. Given the background of the work, though, I was wrong about just about every association. "At the trenches of Sabbiuno" is not about a destitute fishing village in southern Italy, it is about the infamous arrest and consequent murder of over 100 Italians by the SS in random vengeance after a German officer had been killed. Sabbiuno is in the mountainous north of Italy and rather than melancholy taken for granted, it is a Requiem. (The commander of the SS forces has recently been held accountable for his part in the mass murder of these Italians, in a highly publicized trial in Rome.)

As the Vacchi started softly, swelled and recoiled, the Beethoven concerto picked up this softest of touches, bringing it to further heights. Many music lovers hail the Fourth Piano Concerto as the finest piano concerto written. Be that as it may (my pick, Elliot Carter's second, hasn't gotten a chance in that debate, anyway), it is assuredly an unmitigated delight. We've heard Beethoven so many times that there is always a danger of it falling into a hackneyed mode of routine playing. Not with the NSO, led by the always delectable first chair Nurith Bar-Joseph and under the baton of Mr. Abbado. Textures were light enought and though some elements of the orchestra could have been a bit quicker onto their notes, there was no thumping around on the back of the beat.

Above it, fleet and light (in some contrast to his bear-like exterior), Garrick Ohlsson (a Busoni and Chopin Piano Competition winner from 1966 and 1970, respectively) did some wonderful work. Not that he played the work with kid gloves, either. Come the right moment, he could get every bit as heavily energetic as necessary. Three bars later, though, he'd be back tickling the finer notes out of Beethoven with utmost delicacy. His cadenza (I presume it was his own) was long and certainly "unique," but a bit wayward. The audience loved it so much that they gave spontaneous applause after the fierce ending of the first movement.

While Mr. Ohlsson continued with well-honed playing, Maestro Abbado accompanied in a lean, well-articulated style... crisp like fresh linen. A humming cello was a bit obvious in some parts, a snarling bassoon called undue attention to itself elsewhere, but it was a fine fit, overall. I do find, however, that Beethoven, like most Classical and early Romantic music, is not well suited to a "nouvelle cuisine" approach to music. You decidedly do not want to hear all the individual parts that make up the whole, because they don't always make sense on their own and usually don't enlighten much, either. Brahms, Haydn, Mozart & Co. more likely fall apart into incoherent strands. They are better served with the "curry style" of music making. All in one pot: one big flavor. Bach and Mahler, to name only two, are another story. Dissecting the former gives you the giddy joy of proving a mathematical equation, while with the latter it's like deconstructing a Joyce novel. The sort of stuff you like to do on any given rainy weekend in Geekland.

Available at Amazon - Still the best Mahler 1st around!
G. Mahler, Symphony No.1, Kubelik
Speaking of Mahler: after the expectedly well-received Beethoven, Mahler's first symphony was rolled out. I am still very much tempted to write simply: "Mahler 1. Ba-da-bang, Ba-da-boom: Fantastic... Try it live!" But flying through it with closed eyes as I was, the performance did merit a few more words than that.

First of all, it doesn't start with a bang, it starts just like Vacchi and Beethoven: timid, soft, tender. It then progresses, but neither as delicately as the Vacchi, nor as purposefully as the Beethoven. It's topsy-turvy with Mahler, and all to good fun. The NSO played rather well, making it easy to forgive a few rather audible weaknesses, especially in the difficult and exposed brass section. Mr. Abbado conducted decisively and got the orchestra to do his bidding with the "Titan." That the NSO is no natural Mahler orchestra can be heard by anyone who has been spoiled by live or even just recorded performances of bands that have an idiomatic and qualitative advantage. Nurith Bar-Joseph apart (she had also been the bright and shining light in Mahler's Second Symphony when Gilbert Kaplan performed it at the Kennedy Center a few months ago), I found devoted passion for the music lacking. Then, of course, I hold the stubborn conviction that the prerequisite to doing Mahler extraordinarily well involves having pranced around green Austrian pastures in Lederhosen.

The language in Mahler, especially in symphonies nos. 1, 3, and 7, is like a trip to my youth for me, and anyone I presume lacking in similar emotional connections is unjustly held suspect. The genial Roberto Abbado—while not likely to have done any Lederhosen-clad prancing anywhere—got to the core of it. Then, of course, he did spend six years in Munich as the head of the Munich Radio Orchestra. (There is talk of the Bavarian Radio planning to shut down that exciting orchestral body, often mixed up with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Read about it in the FAZ.) The spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is the first symphony ends with a clipped bang, indicative of the evening as such. Tickets had still been available at the door; encouraging to all those who like to make ad hoc plans. The reward would have been certain.


La Mission est Accomplie 

(published first at ionarts)

The second Bösendorfer in a Washington sea of New York Steinways is hiding in the Maison Française (the other one standing in the Austrian Embassy). That's where Mikhail Hallak accompanied France's premiere baritone, François Le Roux last Wednesday (November 3) in a delicious program of melodies. It was the first concert in a new series of four concerts presented by the Maison in conjunction with "Theater of Voices," the young Mr. Hallak's brainchild, devoted to preserving the art of the recital.

The softly rolling "Où voulez-vous aller?" by Charles Gounod started things off and was followed by the same composer's "Ma belle amie est morte"—both set to poems of Theophile Gautier. Dramatic and splendidly executed, it preceded "L'attente" and "Si vous n'avez rien à me dire" of Saint-Saëns and Victor Hugo. Then three Henri Duparc melodies delighted the post-election audience. I had particularly looked forward to the Duparc, coming right off the wonderful and Gramophone Award-winning reissue of Gérard Souzay's recording on Testament.

The two surviving of three Duparc songs based on the poetry of Baudelaire ("L'invitation au voyage" and "La vie antérieure"), with the Coppée-based "La vague at la cloche" sandwiched in between, had come with an explanation of the program by Mr. Le Roux. They were every bit the sumptuous joy I had hoped them to be.

Roughly progressing from the first melodies that take poetry as an equally important element of the composition to the last great examples of the mélodie française, the recital's first half commenced with the four "L’horizon chimérique" works from 1922, the last song cycle of Gabriel Fauré. Mr. Le Roux had flown to Washington especially for this inaugural concert and was quite wonderful. In fact, if this premiere was anything to judge the coming concerts by, each one will be a highlight in Washington's cultural calendar.

The affable, charming, soft-spoken, and most pleasantly speaking Mr. Le Roux—small wonder for such a supreme communicator of melodies—has a demeanor of delivery that could not have provided a starker contrast to the lively, even quirky, Wolfgang Holzmair recently in town (See Ionarts review). Where Holzmair acted out the songs with his face and entire body, Mr. Le Roux was almost stoic, immobile. No frills here, just delivery of music... and how very enchantingly done, nonetheless!

"Fêtes galantes II" by Claude Debussy—from just before Debussy started to merge the spoken and the sung word entirely—were again informatively introduced and then declaimed in a style so melodic as perhaps only the French language allows. Poulenc's first and shortened song cycle (on Apollinaire poems) is music that comes in animal prints. From "dromadaire" to Tibetan goat to grasshopper, dolphin, crayfish, and finally carp, it is silly, it is witty, mystical, and fun. Over 20 years later, another Apollinaire cycle, "Banalités," was Poulenc's doing. From stark to yearning to tenderness and anguish, it provides for many moods as 1940 must have had in store for a sensitive Frenchman between Paris and his safe country house in the south.

The torch that Gérard Souzay passed on is more than worthily carried by Mr. Le Roux, who sings equally well if a good deal more 'modern' (that is, less wobble). If it has been said about Shirley Horne that "a song is lucky if [she] picks it to sing," I felt that melodies must be similarly inclined to this impeccable ambassador of France's art song's choosing them for a recital.

It was also his performance—not a fault on Mr. Hallak's part—that had the latter's sensitive and warm accompaniment disappear without trace into the music. Perhaps it is the mark of true success of a pianist in a song recital that he shall simply merge unnoticeably. Together with the supple Bösendorfer Mikhail Hallak did just that.

Ravel's swan song—a film commission that was too difficult (and too well?), written (not quite finished) when he was already rather ill—are the "Trois Chansons de Don Quichotte à Dulcinée." Also part of the aforementioned Souzay reissue, they are a supremely moving and awfully pretty set of three songs, superior, in my sometimes humble opinion, at least, to either Schubert's "Schwanengesang" and Brahms's "Vier ernste Gesänge."

Not the least with the election having been decided as it was, the concert was perhaps the first of many important and necessary steps in French-U.S. rapprochement. The wine reception afterwards could only have reinforced this most exquisite evening's extramusical mission. The bonus chanson (also based on a 'real' poem, "La Cigale et la Fourmi", or "The Grasshopper and the Ant", by La Fontaine. Thank you to Mr. Wiecking for correcting my mortifyingly silly mistake...) by Charles Trenet was a broad smile-inducing bon-bon.


My vote for Trio Solisti 

With people in Washington glued to their television sets and high speed internet connections, a few criminally apolitical souls turned out at the Kennedy Center for either the ill fated troubadour or the “Trio Solisti” at the Terrace Theater. I went to see the latter that Wednesday, November 2nd, and a mercifully short introduction by Neale Perl, President of the Washington Performing Arts Society was followed by the entry of Mlle. Bahman, Gerlach and Mr. Klibonoff on violin, cello and piano respectively.

Available from Amazon
J. Brahms, Complete Trios, Beaux Arts Trio
Playing to a third of capacity (the disenfranchised and/or disenchanted or those in search of merciful sanity) the three American performers delivered the Brahms Trio in B-major (No.1, op.8) – a genial chamber work, indeed. The flashy and rapturing finale of the first movement always draws applause – even from crowds that know it isn’t the end of the work.

Fierce passion was ample in the first movement and the second was devoid of unnecessary lingering – letting the haunting melody speak for itself rather than clumsily interpreting on top of it. Wrapped into a stormy finale, the whole thing was a worthy affair – and not just for the fact that the fronting music-making ladies are delightfully easy on the eye.

My personal highlight (though it is indeed difficult to beat a live performance of the Brahms) was the Paul Moravec trio named “Mood Swings”. Mr. Moravec – long championed by Terry Teachout – is devastatingly young for a Pulitzer-price winning composer (he won’t turn 50 for another couple of years), which naturally has me green with envy. But unfortunately nothing bad can be said about his music. In fact, it’s quite outstanding: tonal but not backwards, easy on the ears but never lacking in depth, conservative but far from old-fashioned. “Making ordinary experience extraordinary” is his idea of a composer’s mission. The means to that is – hold your breath – “simply mak[ing] beautiful music.” Thirty years ago such a statement would have gotten him thrown out of every self-respecting conservatory.

Just like his Pulitzer Price-winning “Tempest Fantasy”, Mood Swings was dedicated to the Trio Solisti who premiered the work in 1999. It was superb fun, followed by more fun:

Available from Amazon
Ravel, Faure, Debussy, Piano Trios, Florestan Trio (Hybrid SACD)
Ravel’s Trio in A-minor is a world of color. The opening sounds like the cadenza to a concerto, the more whimsical development of the first movement spells out intimacy until a thunderstorm of chords and scurrying string notes break in. With never-ending notes on violin and cello, it exhales slowly. A last subtle spark in form of a pizzicato whisper from the cello marks the point of expiration.

The turbulent second movement – Pantoum – is almost raunchy while the third, a passacaglia, is essentially a set of nine variations on the opening theme, demarked by the pianist’s left hand in the very basement of his instrument. It goes from somber to somber with structural shifts between, ending exactly as it started. As Eric Bromberger’s notes point out, the second variation for violin with piano chords brooding underneath it is ravishing. I particularly liked the tense drama of variation six. How the movement fits into the piece as such, I cannot make out – but it’s such a beaut that I won’t ask questions. The finale is wild and crazy (as if from Bratislava) with sheer endless trills. Restlessness in music, splendidly performed by the Trio Solisti as was the entire evening’s music... with visible joy on their faces.

Let people foam at the mouths in their rabid pursuit of partisan politics, I vote for music over it all, any day. The encore – dedicated to the election – was a choice pic: “It ain’t necessarily so”!


Two for Two - Luisa Fernanda puts the WNO at .500 

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, 'Luisa Fernanda,' Spinning Fluff Into Gold (Washington Post, November 8)

Tim Smith, Domingo is right at home in a zarzuela (Baltimore Sun, November 8)

T. L. Ponick, Let down for 'Luisa' (Washington Times, November 7)
When the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented on Plácido Domingo performing Luisa Fernanda at La Scala in Milan a couple years ago, it noted that Mr. Domingo had not only lowered his register but also his standards. The Washington National Opera's choice to stage this "last of the great Romantic zarzuelas" by Federico Moreno Torroba is a direct result of the Maestro's enthusiasm for it. Domingo, Sr., and his wife, after all, were part of Torroba's touring company, and the light baritone role of Vidal Hernando runs in the WNO artistic director's blood: his father had created the role, while his mother was the premiere Luisa Fernanda.

All that history and enthusiasm doesn't make it great opera, though, not even (or especially not) at almost two hours. It was impossible to sell out a production of Luisa Fernanda a few years ago in the region (at a smaller venue, at lower prices, catered to the Spanish-speaking community in the area) and it won't be easy to sell it this time around, at WNO prices. Enthusiasts say it's better than Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, which is, if you feel like me, a rather dubious compliment to begin with.

Plácido DomingoLike some works, zarzuelas, big ones, especially, are local products and have difficult times being exported. Die Fledermaus is best done in Vienna, a production of Die Feuersnot should not even be attempted outside of Munich. Luisa Fernanda, too, should have stayed at home. That being said, the uplifting element of this performance, especially in the wake of the dismally sung Il Trovatore (see the Ionarts review), are some glorious voices. First and foremost, Plácido Domingo's Vidal—a role he knows forwards and backwards, inside and out—and a role that suits his glorious, though aging voice surprisingly well. Israel Lozano's Javier, too, was impressive enough, while Maria José Montiel's Luisa had some really beautiful moments.

But opera is so much more than singing (even if voices are the sine qua non of every performance), and a story that is so extraordinarily silly, peppered with memorable (and less than lucidly translated) lines such as "Lovely Señora, how many leaves does your basil have?" and "the parasol's shade is ideal for soft serenading, yes, blessed be the parasol" fails to convince me. The story—surely due to some fault of my own—made little to no sense to me; the synopsis confused more than it enlightened.

Vidal as an old man, even an energetic, juicy-voiced old man such as it has in Mr. Domingo, makes the character look even more silly and foolish than he (the character, not the Maestro) already is. It did little to further the believability of a plot I admittedly could not follow to begin with. I felt like an Englishman reading Derrida: not only did I not understand it, I didn't trust it, either.

Available at Amazon:

available at Amazon
F. M. Torroba, Luisa Fernanda
The staging was not particularly inventive or invocative, but very easy on the eyes. A little happy revolution, a little shooting, a little running to and fro... a lotta love... pretty costumes. An out-of-place, somewhat unsubtle construction-paper model town with cut-out letters spelling "Madrid" behind it (all no taller than ten inches) looked like something the stage manager's little kids had forgotten to take off stage once done playing with it.

Luisa Fernanda has its delightful moments, semi-catchy tunes, and for those who are culturally predisposed, it may prove to be a delight. I found it very, very long, and, quite frankly, mind-numbingly stupid. The best I can say about it is that it sounds like Johann Strauss, Jr., after one too many bad paellas.

By my count, the WNO is now two and two (after a nice start), and some magic is due to happen in the next production. Appropriately they will soon present Mozart's last Singspiel, which is said to provide for that magic on a good day. Let's hope.

P.S. Philip Kennicott's lovely review is the perfect antidote to my loathing: He could do what I was not able to do: Like the whole thing. Only that the stage wasn't minimalist, it was lean. Minimalism is something else... perhaps try a Dieter Dorn production for that.


Ivo Pogorelich: Phoenix or Swann-Song? 

F. Chopin,
Ivo Pogorelich
When Ivo Pogorelich’s playing is called “unique”, it isn’t always in the most flattering way that this description is employed. He is certainly a wilful pianist and his playing can be mannered. I, for one, rather like his Chopin Preludes and Liszt Sonata in B-minor and his recording of Scarlatti Sonatas (see Ionarts Review) is downright sublime because rather than being gratuitously eccentric he’s got something to say, musically. I am sure he also wanted to say something in “op.111”, Beethoven’s last piano sonata and according to Thomas Mann’s Wendell Kretzschmar in Dr. Faustus “a farewell to the art form of the sonata in general.” Just what that was, however, I could not discern. After the fierce passion of the momentous Allegro con brio ed appassionato (played just that way!), Pogorelich caressed the moving, gentle opening of the 2nd movement with its famous C-G-G, D-G-G notes out of his Hamburg Steinway. But as he took his time to devote attention to detail in the following variations, the coherence of the work was lost to waywardness and the sonata’s end sadly fell apart like a flower petals after bloom.

Before that, he showed why Sonata No.24, op.78 really is one of Beethoven’s best works in the genre. Two movements, lovingly played (with plenty attention to the “emotional” part, for those who need that in Beethoven) linked it wonderfully to op.111. The standard set by Maurizo Pollini’s rendition at the Kennedy Center last Wednesday was not quite reached, though.

The Croatian Pogorelich who became instantly world-famous when he was eliminated at the International Chopin Competition in 1980 (causing Martha Argerich to leave the jury in protest) was the Lang-Lang of his time. Now, nearing 50, playing to a half-filled and dimly lit Center for the Arts at the George Mason University in one of his first concerts in some time, he comes in darker, more subdued hues.

Ivo Pogorelich - looking rather different than he did on SundayWith his head shaven and in tails, he looked eerily much like Rachmaninov himself, whose Moments musicaux, op.16, No.1 he presented at the beginning of the second half. Under the soft touch of his huge hands, the work turned into fragile Whistler-like nocturnes. Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy, another two-movement work, drifted and murmured about – not inappropriately for a piece that is to reflect the sea – until he picked up force towards the end. Visibly uncomfortable with applause, Pogorelich was busy getting right back to the Piano and Franz Liszt.

While the performance had already become better from Beethoven to the Russians, it was in the Hungaro-German’s three Etudes d’ execution transcendente that Pogorelich excelled. Perfectly suited to his playing and musical personality, he mastered the exercises with panache. Precision and romantic vigor were showed off in unforced flashiness. He simply ignored applause between the pieces and plowed right through Feux follets, Wilde Jagd and Apassionata. His offering of a staggering palette of pianos and pianissimos was unlike I have heard from any pianist before.

Just to curb the frenetic applause, Pogorelich threw in another Liszt Etude as a most substantial encore that, despite the evening’s persistent sense of an odd miscommunication between artist and audience, brought the house down. A few shy acknowledging nods later he was gone. The aftertaste was peculiar puzzlement: Was the dazzling Liszt the sign that this pianist was storming back to once-held acclaim, or was an obstinate Beethoven an explanation for his step out of the limelight? If presumably neither, the concert certainly was distinctively Pogorelich – an attribute that will continue to repel distracters and lure fans from all over the country.


The Devil Perks Up 

Two Saturdays ago, the Göthe Institut wrapped up a two-day event on the topic of Faust, the German's favorite subject. More than two dozen participants - most of them German or German-speaking - were left by the time the final act of that "Faust Fest" commenced. Just looking at the program, it also seemed the real highlight: A talk by the lovely Ted Libbey on "Faust in Opera".

After Kaffee und Kuchen (my third chance in barely a fortnight to compare Hildabrötchen from Austrian, Swiss and now German sources), Irmgard Wagner of the Goethe Society introduced Ted Libbey who wondered how to fit all that he had to say, play and show into two hours - not unlike every composer who ever tried to take the Faust material and turn it into an opera.

F. Busoni, Faust, Leitner
Among the composers who were inspired by Faust - not just Goethe's version, but also the orginal 1587 "Historia von Dr. Johannes Fausten" and Marlow's "Dr. Faust" - are Mendelssohn (the Scherzo in his Octet is inspired by the last lines of the Walpurgisnacht, "Come Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Walpurgisnacht Oratorio) - who got to meet Goethe through his teacher Zelter, Beethoven ("Come Sea and Prosperous Voyage"), Schumann (setting "Alles Vergängliche..." from Faust II), Liszt's "Faust Symphonie", Wagner ("Faust Overture"), J.Strauss (no relation to the other Strauss' with "Aus Faust's Leben und Werken") as well as Boito, Busoni, Gounod, Berlioz, Schnittke, Riehm, Mansoni and a league of others.

Ted Libbey started with Busoni, the German-Italian and his Baroquish-romantic "Faust", explicitly based on the puppet play. Atmospheric, with a tiered structure, the opening Sinfonia sets the mood. A delicious recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under Fritz Leitner from 1969 shows this beauty from its best side.

H. Berlioz, Le Damnation de Faust, Sir Colin Davis
C. Gounod, Faust, Rizzi
Berlioz, who knew "Faust" through its French translation and introduced Liszt to the work, created "Le Damnation de Faust" - and Gounod's "Margarethe" (as his "Faust" is known in Germany) turns it into Grand Opera, including love-stories, choruses, ballet and all.

Schnittke's work based on the old history (he, too, was daunted by Goethe's work?) is a load of fun if you don't mind modern music. His "Historia von D.Johann Fausten" is spun out of his Faust Cantata and full of eerie effects, including musical saw.

Finally - because it is as close to an operatic treatment as Faust II comes in music - Mahler's 8th was on the menue. My favorite version with Ozawa at Tanglewood (sadly nla - though possible to get used at Amazon) is etheral in the most magnificent ways. (The legendary Solti recording is completely lost on me - I cannot but assume that its status is the lore of hype.) The last movement is, even though Mahler purists whince, one of the most sublime moments in music. Imagine between 350 and 1000 participants making music in subtle pianissimo tones... shudders of delight!

Informative and fun, thanks to Mr. Libbey, this talk was a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the everlasting strive for education. Faustian, almost, only we got to keep our souls.


High Strung at the Swiss Embassy 

If you thought the German embassy was ugly, you owe yourself a trip to the Swiss on Cathedral Road. The night the Embassy Concert Series presented the Zürich String Trio – consistent of the Brothers Livschitz and the young Armenian cellist Mikhael Hakhnazarian – it was what was on the inside that matters.

When the program notes quote Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph Eschenbach (soon to be at the Kennedy Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg [go here for more information]) and Jean Pierre Rampal with high praise for the group, it feels almost difficult to report that in the Mozart-arrangement of Bach's Preludium & Fugue KV404a they were a big disappointment. Boris Livschitz's tone on violin was muffled, thin and squeaky (though loud, when necessary), with his brother Zvi on viola only marginally better. Mr. Hakhnazarian, I thought, fared best - though troubles, including some with intonation, remained.

The piece itself is a prime example of two geniuses at work creating something far lesser than the sum of its parts would suggest. The beginning is almost unidentifiable as Bach - and not to its benefit.

The Adagio of the early Beethoven C-minor String Trio (op.9, No.3) had them produce some beautiful music. The attendeeds were so charmed, indeed, that they lavished each movement with applause... not generally a practice in performances since early last century (though Beethoven, of course, would not have known it any other way...) By the time the finale (presto) came around, either Boris' instrument or he himself had warmed up a little as the tone became more pleasing, if still far from ideal.

The intermission was skipped (perhaps to heighten the anticipation for the Swiss sweats on offer afterwards) and the Beethoven Duo for viola and cello (with a subtitle that was utterly declarified by confusing and seemingly haphazard or incomplete program notes) came upon us. Ziv Livschitz's playing was fraught with the same problems his brother had displayed while the cello again stood out with a better, fresher tone. Applause and the concluding Menuetto were heartfelt.

E.v. Dohnanyi, J. BrahmsSerenade in C, String Sextet No.2 in G, Arr. for String Orchestra
Ernst von Dohnanyi's Serenade in C-major op.10 is a gorgeous thing from a sadly underrated composer. It seems that the Embassy Series, presenting a generally conservative program, always (and laudably) manages to squeeze in one (or two) off-the-beaten-path pieces in the program... even if the Serenade in particular isn't entirely obscure. It's version for string orchestra, arranged by Dmitry Sitkovetsky is a particular luscious musical experience.

The fourth movement from Beethoven's Trio op.9, No.3 was thrown in as an encore and kept me from the receiption - Celia Porter, covering from the Washington Post, didn't let that get inbetween her and the exit, though. The following homemade sweets and other little Swiss delicacies were excellent and the Swiss Embassy and the Embassy Series are to be highly commended for their use of real glasses for the Swiss vino. That's how it ought to be - and they certainly set the standard for other events.

Talking to Boris Livschitz, who went to some length to make sure I understood he did not mean it to be an excuse, shed some light on a few of the problems with the sound: His fingerboard had been too low for some time - and he had it replaced. In that process, the bridge had also been replaced . Not liking the new bridge, Mr. Livschitz put the old one back in - which was better, but now the strings are far too close to the fingerboard. That - and perhaps exhaustion from travels? - is good enough for me. Aside, all but one other attendee who I talked to loved the concert plenty.

If that was the least satisfying event the Embassy Series has to offer, it need not worry in the least about its offerings and wonderful mission of working in the trenches of public diplomacy.

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