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30.3.05

La Freni: She's got it Maid! 

(published first at ionarts)


Mirella Freni as Jean of Arc

Last saturday, the Washington National Opera premiered The Maid of Orleans, one of Tchaikovsky's rarely heard operas. For those who do not think that the chance to hear an operatic rarity by a master of the genre is reason enough to purchase a ticket, the WNO put a woman on stage that no opera-lover can resist: Mirella Freni. The woman was considered one of the finest sopranos on stage and record before I was even born. After 50 years of performing - now at the tender age of seventy - she can still sing and, as the reviews show, impressively portray a seventeen-year old.

Ionarts will review tomorrow's performance and for all the works' shortcomings (T.L. Ponick's review in the Washington Times pretty much sums it up), it is an exciting opportunity we are not wont to miss. Since recordings are very difficult to come by (pirated copies of a 1960's Russian performance may float around and the officially available scrawny 1944 recording seems unavailable. A 1993 Bolshoi performance has found its way unto video, but isn't likely to be carried by your neighborhood record store, either), it is likely your first and only chance to hear the work which, although no Eugene Onegin, contains marvelous moments from the tune-smith Tchaikovsky.

And then there is still La Freni, perfectly adapt at playing it to the crowd to this day. Remaining performances take place on March 31st (7:30 PM), April 3rd (2 PM), 5th (7:30 PM), 8th (7:30 PM)and the 11th (7 PM).

Reviews: Tim Page, Washington Post, Bernard Holland, New York Times, T.L. Ponick, Washington Times, Clarke Bustard, Richmond Times-Dispatch

28.3.05

Concert Schedule for Early April 

(published first at ionarts)

Performances in bold are considered to be particularly noteworthy. Abbreviations used here are:Sunday, April 3, 2 pm
The only opera broadcast on PBS for the whole year, so don't miss it: Metropolitan Opera, Otto Schenk's production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), with Karita Mattila (Eva), James Morris (Hans Sachs), Thomas Allen (Beckmesser), and René Pape (Pogner)

Thursday, April 14, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part I: Prologue-Souvenirs! (Hopeful songs from many wars, presented by music theater students)
Catholic University of America, Edward J. Pryzbyla Center

Friday, April 15, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part II: Lessons (CUA Symphony Orchestra: Music of Gorecki, Bernstein, Schoenberg, Penderecki)
Catholic University of America, Edward J. Pryzbyla Center

Saturday, April 16, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part III: Dialogues (Chamber music of Shostakovich, Ullmann, Rorem, and world premiere of "Korean War Memorial," a collective composition by 17 regional composers)
Catholic University of America, Edward J. Pryzbyla Center

Sunday, April 17, 7:30 pm
2005 President's Concert (Waging Peace: Music in Time of War)
Part IV: "...and then Silent Bugles" (Benjamin Britten, War Requiem)
Catholic University of America, Edward J. Pryzbyla Center

26.3.05

DG Originals Reviewed 

DG has re-issued a whole slew of their classic LP’s on the excellent DG Originals mid-priced label – most of which had also been available as CDs at full price. The line does not have the same hyperbole-laden title as EMI’s “Greatest Recordings of the Century” but, somewhat more modestly, claims that these are critically acclaimed “milestone recordings” from their vinyl catalogue. That is true for every release that has been reissued. Whether or not they still hold up to today’s competition is another question, altogether.

Available at Tower Records
R. Wagner Tristan & Isolde, C. Kleiber
One that does is clearly Carlos Kleiber’s Tristan & Isolde. Now on three discs instead of four, it still comes with a full libretto (German, French, English) and notes; a wonderful touch. As I have mentioned before, it isn’t the first and only Tristan you would want to have and it might not even be as exciting as Kleiber filslive recording from Bayreuth (Melodram – expensive and not as easily available). But it is definitely an exciting reading and a must for any lover of that finest opera this side of Don Giovanni. Furtwängler (several version on EMI, in Europe available on Naxos), Böhm (DG Originals) and Barenboim (my favorite, Teldec) may have more merits as the standard versions… but no one lets the orchestra charge as meaningful as Kleiber. With him, the orchestral score speaks and acts as dramatically as any of the singers and becomes an active part of the drama. Details that cannot be found in other recordings suddenly peak out of a score that Kleiber knew by heart. If the sixty-some dollar price tag had hitherto kept you from adding this to your collection, you now have twenty-odd reasons less to resist.

Available at Amazon
C. Debussy Images, Preludes, A.B. Michelangeli
Another temple to music is the Debussy disc of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s. Combining most of the two full priced discs previously available on one for less money makes perfect sense. Now the Préludes (book 1) and both books of the Images come together. This is one of the finest possible additions to anyone’s Debussy Piano collection (speak: Walter Gieseking’s complete EMI set) along Mitsuko Uchida’s incandescent Etudes and Krystian Zimerman’s complete set of Préludes. Unfortunately, Children’s Corner, coupled with the full priced disc of the Images did not fit onto the disc – a shame, because the semi-professional Ferrari driving, airplane flying, Medical Doctor’s recording of that particular piece is one of those pianistic marvels that don’t come around often – but in light of what is included, such quibbles seem petty.

Available at Amazon
L.v. Beethoven / J. Brahms Triple, Double Concerti, Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda, Starker, Fricsay
The Beethoven Triple and Brahms Double Concertos with Schneiderhahn, Fournier, Anda and Starker (under Fricsay and the RIAS Berlin), is a more questionable inclusion. Not that their playing isn’t gorgeous and in the finest tradition of central European masters of their respective instruments… with grace, humility and musicality to spare. But the sound is not the freshest – and on occasion intonation gets a bit awry. Listening to it once or twice is a great joy, but the third time around, one cringes in anticipation of those rare moments. Especially the Beethoven is well served with the recent Harnoncourt/Zehetmaier/Aimard/Coe recording on Warner and the classic Karajan/Richter/Rostropovich/Oistrakh (EMI).

Available at Amazon
F. Schubert Sy. Nos. 5 & 9, E. Jochum
Franz Schubert’s 5th and 9th symphonies are well served by Eugen Jochum with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But the 5th, lighter and far more enjoyable than the Karajan re-issue I recently reviewed, suffers from a dated sound (excellent mono that it is) and the 9th, sounding better (stereo), could use even more ‘greatness’. Neither version touches my favorite versions, both with Günter Wand on RCA/BMG. (5th - 9th)

Available at Amazon
H. Purcell, Dido & Aneas, Ode to St.C's Day, Mackerras
Henry Purcell lovers – Ionarts is known to harbor one of them in its midsts – will delight at Sir Charles Mackerras’ 1968 / 1970 (then not yet a COE [???DOE?]) recording of Dido and Aeneas and the Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day. Many good Dido’s exist – and to recommend this Hamburg recording with the North German Radio Chamber Orchestra, Tatiana Troyanos, Barry McDaniel and Sheila Armstrong over famous Janet Baker (Decca) or Jessey Norman (Philips) recordings might stretch it. But the neatly added Ode with Simon Woolf (treble), Paul Esswood, Roland Tatnell (countertenors), Alex Young (tenor), Michael Rippon and John Shirely-Quirk (basses) on the second Archiv disc makes this wonderfully sounding addition to the collection. Mackerras then as today sounds fresh and energetic.

Available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Organ Works (3 CDs), Karl Richter
Karl Richter was impressive in pretty much any Bach he did – whether he led his Munich Bach troupe in Oratorios, Cantatas and Passions or played the old masters’ organ works. (That always and inevitably reminds me of a precious student paper’s first sentence I once read. “Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children. He was an old master of the grand organ.”) From his near complete survey of Bach’s organ work, DG has culled three discs with some of the most famous and important works. The famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor BWV 565 (think movie-villain in his castle, laughing maniacally) is there, as is my favorite, Prelude and Fugue BWV 553 (which has also seen a very smart and catchy orchestration from Arnold Schoenberg). When the three discs of Tristan could justify the higher price through the effort and expense of including a 100-plus page booklet, here I am truly puzzled why the set costs a relatively steep $46 when $39 would seem both: more natural and appropriate. The booklet here is painfully flimsy.
If you love Bach’s organ works, don’t already have too many of those pieces and have not heard Richter playing them, it would still be a very worthy acquisition. The Silberman Organ in Freiburg and the Kopenhagen Organ sound magnificent, the resonance of the churches is well caught in those recordings from the late 1965 through 1979 – and Richter plays with verve, with near romantic dedication but also clarity – in short: without fail. There are too many different works to generalize – but Koopman is generally dryer, Stockmeier (on the complete-complete 20 disc set of Art & Music) more professorial and sometimes labored. The completist of course will want to have them all… but stopping short of that insanity, this might be the right fix for your Bach-organ needs.

Available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, String Quintets, Amadeus Quartet
Mozart String Quintets with the Amadeus Quartet and the additional viola of Cecil Aronowitz’s (who died during a Mozart Quintet performance) are most amiable. Whether or not they surpass the set with the Grumiaux on the inexpensive Philips Trio I cannot say – I haven’t listened to that set in too long. But it does add a third wonderful set of the complete Quintets to the catalogue, even when I think they could hopp more light-footedly through some passages.
Squeezed onto two discs as they are (almost 80 minutes each) has obvious economic benefits – but the Philips Trio is less expensive still and offers the String Trio K563. The third exquisite set comes courtesy of the Talich Quartet (3 discs, Calliope), has the most modern sound, includes the Clarinet Quintet and costs yet even less. The Amadeus’ recordings are the stereo versions from 1957 and 68 – with the “wrong” finale of K.593 (they had used a mis- edited score in their two previous recordings) substituted with their 1975 ‘patch’. Whichever set it will be, you can’t go wrong with what are Mozart’s most successful adventures in chamber music.

Available at Amazon
G. Bizet, Carmen, C. Abbado
Claudio Abbado’s Carmen with Berganza, Domingo, Cotrubas and Milnes is an excellent performance that has ranked among the top choices ever since being issued in 1978. With the full libretto, the only difference to the version available until now is the neatly reduced price. If you don’t already have Nietzsche’s favorite opera, this would not be a bad place to start with. (Other recommendable versions are Solti with the lithe, agile Troyanos (London), Karajan/Price (perhaps with some reservations regarding Price’s singing - RCA) and Plasson/Gheorghiu/Alagna (EMI), the best modern recording. Domingo’s French isn’t what a Frenchman would call idiomatic, but he is dramatically more convincing than in his earlier recording with Solti. Abbado uses the Oeser edition and opts for the original dialogue, not the Guiraud composed recicatives. His tempi have been called “idiosyncratic” by the Penguin Guide’s editor who goes one to mention that thereby the “whole entertainment hangs together with keen compassion”. In short: It’s fast and furious. Alan Blythe writes an excellent short essay for the new liner notes. The LSO under Abbado plays excellently.
In unrelated Abbado news: He has just renewed his Lucerne Festival contract until 2010 – which, according to my logic, forbids him from dying for another five years – great news to the music world. Thereby heading the best pick-up ensemble in the history of music, too, is an enticing prospect and should yield more stellar performances such as the recent Mahler 2nd / Debussy La Mer (DG).

Available at Amazon
div., Orchestral bon-bons, Paul Strauss
I briefly sampled Offenbach/Johann Strauss/Berlioz/Dvořák/Auber offerings with American Paul Strauss at the helm of the RIAS Berlin. Not a fan of such hodge-podge recordings, I still succumbed reluctantly to the easy going charm Gaîié Parisienne in Manuel Rosenthal’s arrangement and assemblage for the Monte Carlo Ballet. The selection of this generous fare of light music had much to do with the restrictions of 10 inch and 12 inch LP’s back in the days – but for all the cuts and compromises, this is hardly going to be much of a concern in this repertoire. The purist will cringe just looking at the offerings that offer more joy than musical substance – and stay far away.
For me it was a fun tour through all of Offenbach’s Operas without having to listen to them in full length. La Vie Parisienne, Orphée aux Enfers, La Belle Hélène, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Mesdames de la Halle, Le Voyage dans la Lune, Trom-al-Cazar and Robinson Crusoé all in under half an hour is a splendid ride to that effect. Before I knew it, I was whistling along. Le Beau Danube is a Roger Désormière bastardization of the Blue Danube – turned into a ballet score again, and fortified with Fledermaus elements and a slew of other Waltzes, some of which apparently are of Johann Strauss I origin. At least it stays in the family – a family of which the conductor is not a member. It’s big and swinging and light fun – the sort that has casual crowds swing back and forth in classical music open airs – with children eating roasted almonds and bemused parents drinking beer brought from home. Taking that image as a cue and opening a cold one were one and the same fore me – and sure enough, the disc became even more enjoyable.
Berlioz’s Le Corsaire and Auber’s Fra Diavolo overtures are left unmolested. The most substantial offering is probably the Dvořák Carnival overture – but here, too, does the purveying Gypsy-spirit keep with the theme of lightness and faux-exoticism.
The recording – taken from 1958, 59 and 60 originals – are stereo and sound marvelous, especially given their age. The Penguin guide called the Offenbach selections “vivacious” and offering “sheer vitality”. This is not familiar musical ground for me, but I heard no evidence to the contrary.

Available at Amazon
M. Ravel, Piano Concertos, etc., M. Haas, P. Paray
Ravel’s piano concerto(s) have been well served with recordings. No one plays with the helter-skelter excitement that Argerich brings to her DG recording of the G-major concerto (DG Originals, coupled with Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto, Abbado conducting); Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s version on EMI (GRoC – with his unrivalled Rachmaninov 4th piano concerto) is stellar and precise. Krystian Zimerman and Pierre Boulez have had the last word so far – and they give us the concerto for left hand, also. Their sparkle, their precision gives you every note and still all excitement you could wish for. Add to that Pascal Rogé (who recently recorded the G-major again, logically coupled with the Gershwin concerto, in SACD surround sound from Oehms) and now, reissued, Monique Haas in her 1965 recording with Paul Paray and the Orchestre National de la RTF, Paris.
The added bonus on this disc is the Sonatine and, for good measure, the Valses nobles et sentimentales. The latter two are from 1956 – and their mono sound makes them more “interesting” than indispensable. The sound is, hardly surprising, nothing like the latter versions – especially the crystalline sound of the DG issue with Zimerman. Slightly recessed, it demands more concentration to get to the fierceness of the concerto’s movements one and three or the unsurpassed lyrical beauty of the solo that starts the second movement. The concerto for left hand suffers even more from recessed orchestral colors where the pianissimo passages hardly register. Even without the bonus of the extra solo works (especially the beautiful and less often heard Sonatine) and the price advantage, it cannot be a serious challenger to Zimmerman/Boulez which, for both concertos, ought to be to go-to disc.

25.3.05

Verdi's Requiem at the Kennedy Center 


Stéphane Denève
Conductor Stéphane Denève’s Verdi Requiem at the Kenney Center stopped being special after 35 seconds. In the kernel of Verdi’s hushed, almost inaudible ppp beginning lie all the emotions, thrills, and the fire that then supply the rest of the 90-some minute work. In that sense, I see a kinship with Wagner’s Rheingold (may I be spared the wrath of ACD for such a comparison) and Bruckner’s 5th and 8th symphonies – only that the latter has about tenfold the spirituality of the Verdi Requiem.) The difficultly is to take this awe inspiring beginning and continue keep going the sense of something special going on, to keep the listener in the state of awe and emotional surrender. Muddled choral entries with fuzzy edges and the basses’ and tenors’ uninhibited belching out at the first sight of a ff put a quick end to that state, as did incessant and ruthless coughing during the quietest passages.

Daniel Ginsberg’s statement about the Choral Arts Society’s Matthew Passion - the performance having been more than the sum of its parts – applied then in the sense of good things coming together to form something sublime. It applied to the to the Requiem this Thursday also – albeit on a different, somewhat lower level.

Among the performers, only mezzo Olga Borodina was beyond reproach. (Her recording of the Verdi Requiem under Gergiev is sadly rendered unlistenable by Andrea Bocelli’s horrific performance. [He’s much better now, actually.]) Tenor Marcus Haddock, who enjoys a career that brings him to all the respected opera houses in the world, was very dramatic and had a tendency to substitute loudness for volume – causing passages to sound narrow and forced, especially early on in the work. The MET-hardened Verdi-soprano Marina Mescheriakova had a few characteristically glorious moments but unfortunately also many lesser ones. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov was consistent and solid.

Robert Shafer’s Washington Chorus performed mightily – but without the definition, flexibility and responsiveness that I have heard it display on other occasions. The NSO was blameless without going beyond the call of duty.

The work is a bear to perform, much less to conduct, so the young French counductor Stéphane Denève, too, cannot be faulted with losing grasp of the many threads. It goes to the credit of all of those involved that the performance still convinced. It had drama to spare – explosive and attention grabbing moments with brass-broadsides, timpani-thunder and trumpet calls from all directions. The NSO and The Washington Chorus will perform again today, Friday, and Saturday at 8 PM.

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
G. Verdi, Requiem, Giulini
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
G. Verdi, Requiem, J.E. Gardiner
Great recordings exemplify, although without the thrill that a live performance invariably brings, what the Verdi Requiem can be. Giulini’s EMI account radiates and glows since 1964. Gardiner on Philips has a perfect choir (Monteverdi Choir) and modern sound among his many assets.

Tim Page's more positive review can be read here.

24.3.05

The Yellow Barn Road to Chamber Music Excellence 

Sunday, April 3rd at 7 pm, the Peabody Trio will feature in a musical soirée for the benefit of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival Scholarship Fund. Good cause and exquisite enjoyment seldom go hand in hand as much as when you can attend a chamber music concert at the intimate setting of the home of Sasha and Thaîs Mark, local music lovers of the first order.

Having had the immense pleasure of their musical-evening hospitality before, I can attest to the additional excellence of the following wine, cheese and dessert reception following an evening of Beethoven. The evening will serve as an “insider’s look” at the Archduke Trio in B-flat major op.97. Both, discussed and performed, the event fits neatly into the schedule of the three subsequent performances of the Peabody Trio in Beethoven’s Piano Trios at the Corcoran’s last Musical Evening Series concerts on April 15th, 29th and May 13th. Washingtonians probably don’t need much introduction to the Naumburg Chamber Music Award winning Peabody Trio, which has performed at the highest musical level for the last 15 years and brought their skill to Washington on numerous occasions.

The Yellow Barn Music School and Festival is an annual gathering of 60 musicians from around the world in Putney, Vermont. For five weeks they explore the riches of the chamber music repertoire and present more than 30 public concerts. World-renowned artists play alongside exceptionally gifted young professionals, and a distinctive and compelling kind of music-making results: fresh, impassioned, and keenly alive. More information can be found at their website, www.yellowbarn.org or at 1-800 639-3819.

A silent auction after the concert (a private concert by the Peabody Trio, excellent vino, weekend getaways to Vermont with Yellow Barn tickets and much more can be attained) will supplement the suggested (and very appreciated) donation of $60. Given the ‘venue’, seating is naturally limited and if you wish to attend, replying by March 28th is encouraged (Call 202 363 4353 or 1-800 639 3819 x 101). What better way to get your classical music and contribute to music’s benefit – especially now that we don’t know what to do with the money we no longer give to WETA.

German River of Tears 

(published first at ionarts)

Sometimes a performance, a certain music, can impress in us the dawn of understanding why music is; what music means to us; why it has been composed, performed, discussed, written, and commented about since time immemorial. It taps into the deepest parts of our brain or emotions (others might like to say, soul); it shakes us to the core. Any work that makes me cry from the first bar on for the next 15 minutes must be such music.

Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion is of such perfection, beauty, and spiritual purity that any good performance should be enough to communicate the sublime and the eternal. Still, it goes to the credit of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and their director Norman Scribner that from the first notes of the orchestral introduction the music bypassed mental processing and went straight to my innermost, leaving me a weeping mess. Palm Sunday (March 20) with the St. Matthew Passion seems to be too much even for my hardened atheist self. Memories of my father giving me my first Matthew Passion at the age of five—meticulously copied from a radio broadcast, neatly labeled, on three cassette tapes—came back with almost disturbing vividness.

The fact that I was unable to taken notes and unable to focus much on the performance when the whole was so overwhelming should probably be comment enough in and of itself about the job done by soloists, choir(s), and orchestra(s). If not, I can call eight soaked Kleenexes to witness the subtle excellence of the performance. Pronunciation and diction were consistently good to excellent, especially among the soloists, whose every word I understood whenever I paid attention to the text.

Available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, Karl Richter
The almost 200-head strong choral forces (including 30+ trebles) were a visible sign that this was a big-boned performance, mildly informed by the success and discoveries of "authentic performance practice" over the last 30 years, but much more in the vain of a Karl Richter (or Helmut Rilling) than a Sir John Eliot Gardiner or, at the small-scale extremes, a McCreesh or Junghaenel. Soloists employed their vibrato, and the orchestras were big enough to hold their own against the eager throats.

The performance of viola-da-gambaist Jay Elfenbein demanded special mention for his beautiful accompaniment of "Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen," though tenor Stanford Olson had trouble in this particular aria. Similarly, Eva Capelli Chao's violin solo and accompaniment were outstanding, especially coupled with the outstanding mezzo Stacy Roshoi's "Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen." Exquisite oboes and oboe d'amores contributed to the overall excellence that, for the band's relatively big size, managed to keep the textures clear and the musical lines audible. The combination of soprano Ellen Hargis's "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" and Karen Johnson's flute was yet another gem among the many highlights.

The Evangelist was a wonderful Alan Bennett, Christópheren Nomura was Jesus, while multi-tasking baritone Steven Combs was Judas, Peter, the High Priest, and Pilate and thus got to betray, deny, accuse, and sentence Mr. Normura, respectively. He did so in great vocal style. Bass-baritone Michael Dean was the fourth aria soloist and did not disappoint, either. The continuo players constantly tugged on my heartstrings, especially William Neil, whose organs blended very much with the lower strings, sometimes to near-indistinguishability.

The continuous stream of late audience members—especially after the first chorus—was lamentable. I am usually all for late seating, but five dozen people taking several minutes to find their seats disrupted my enrapture regrettably. Another, albeit very minor, negative element was the realization that unfortunately we live in a country and in times in which a St. Matthew Passion's performance needs a disclaimer. Printed on the inside of the text of the Passion according to Matthew, the Choral Arts Society of Washington felt compelled to point out that
every work of art is a product of the time and place of its creation and that its meaning and relevance change through the ages. We have included the text and translation of the Passion according to St. Matthew for your review and we hope that it will assist you in your appreciation of this performance.
Now there are moments in Christian history that merit apologizing. The current pope, for example, has done so on more than one occasion now. But there is nothing about Bach's St. Matthew Passion that could justify such politically correct babble. If anything, it is insulting to music lovers and Christians alike that we have become so spineless about anything associated with religion that a Passion on Palm Sunday ought to be inoculated against the accusation of anti-Semitism or the Choral Arts Society against spreading the gospel by including the text. (For all I can tell, they don't receive any public funding, in which case the very performance of a sacred work by Bach would probably be unthinkable.) Finally I am convinced that to many listeners—believers and nonbelievers alike—Bach's work has changed little, if at all, in "meaning and relevance" since his time. If musical works can claim timelessness, the St. Matthew Passion surely would be among the first to deserve that distinction.

That is a nonmusical qualm, though, and could not distract for long from an incandescent performance of one of the finest works in Western Civilization, a work that, when compared to the recent Messiah, made clear why some people get angry when Bach and Handel are mentioned in the same sentence. A stone could have been moved.

23.3.05

¼ Emerson 

(published first at ionarts)

The Smithsonian Associates present recitals with the individual members of the Emerson String Quartet—one each a year. Perhaps because "Emerson String Quartet" sounds better than "Dutton/Ilic Recital," the information focused on the former aspect and was somewhat confusing. I am sure that if I now go back to the concert's description, I will find mention of its exact nature, and subscribers surely know. But casual ticket purchasers, including acquaintances of mine, have called the billing everything from "misleading" to "bait and switch" to "false advertising."

Possible false expectations aside, there was still a fine recital to enjoy, namely that of pianist Marija Ilic and violist Lawrence Dutton. The perfection of execution and intonation that always marks the Emerson Quartet's recordings were oddly missing from Brahms's Viola Sonata, op. 120, #2 (E-flat major), though the sonority of Dutton's instrument was amply present in the good-sounding Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History. The young Serbian pianist accompanied him perfectly adequately and often with considerable rhythmic insight, though a slip in the op. 120, no. 2, seemed to affect her security and resulted in the remainder of the Brahms being played safe.

The Brahms also raised questions about the viola as such. Daring the scorn of already much (and unfairly?) maligned viola players, I dare say that there is a reason as to why there are more viola jokes than there are about all other instruments in the orchestra combined. (And that includes the bassoon, a highly silly instrument!)

Mozart's favorite instrument, unless exposed to its most refined advantage by composer and soloist alike, has a few problems to overcome. Its sound can be less than ethereal. Where the cello yearns, the viola's low passages sound like a cicada in love. Where the violin sings, the viola imitates an 80-year-old mezzo soprano. Where either cello or violin laments, the viola whines. There are, of course, players who can make me eat my words. In a case of most delicious irony, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman is one of them, Roger Tapping and Anita Mitterer others. At least in the first half of the recital, Lawrence Dutton was not one of them.

But in my book, most everything is forgiven when you program Hindemith. The Viola Sonata in F, op. 11, no. 4, deserves to reach many more ears than it does. Exposing it to the audience at the Museum of Natural History made more than up for quibbles about intonation and unpleasant rawness of tone. Thus kindly disposed to Dutton/Ilic (even though I received the icy stare of death from Mr. Dutton when I audibly blew my nose while he was tuning between Brahms's movements one and two, which felt like a Nažgul had flown by), I went into the second half of the program that started with Gardens and Pools by John Patitucci, a jazz bass player.

"Crossover in the best sense of the word," according to Dutton, it comes fresh off the composer's desk, the ink still wet. What the audience got was the unofficial world premiere of a work that didn't strike me as being "crossover" at all, whether in the good or bad sense. It was an excellent, tonal, mildly modern, spiky here, lush there work for viola and piano. The remotely jazzy elements were more subtle than many a Russian classical composer's over the last 80 years. It was accessible without pandering, sweet and short, and the most charming part of the recital.

Brahms bookended the concert with the first of the op. 120 sonatas in F minor. I find it the more pleasing of the two, but it was also noticeable that most of the intonation and sharpness had dissipated from the performance. Indeed, there were moments of true beauty in this performance that had been conspicuously absent from the E-flat major sonata.

With Hindemith and the lovely discovery of Patitucci to the rescue, with a consoling closing Brahms, the recital of the "Emerson Quartet minus three" was a fine Saturday afternoon well spent, after all. The first of the four Romantic Pieces of Dvořák's, transposed down to the viola's level, err, range, made for an encore where, finally, Dutton showed that the viola does have a lyrical side, making it more than the Sancho Panza of the Orchestra.

21.3.05

Pražák Magnificence 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Leoš Janáček, String Quartets, Pražák Quartet
Nothing screams "Irish" more than seeing the Pražák Quartet playing Haydn, Janáček, and Brahms, so I followed those Irish roots of mine dutifully to the Corcoran on March 17. Somehow this has only been my second time in the Francis and Armand Hammer Auditorium (the last time there, I saw the Quartet of Quartets, the Takács—read Ionarts review here), but there can't be any doubt that this is the best small venue to see and hear chamber music in D.C.

The Pražák Quartet, almost unchanged in its formation since their establishment at the Prague Conservatory in 1974, consists of Vaclav Remes (1st violin), Vlastimil Holek (2nd violin), Josef Klusoň (viola), and Michal Kaňka (cello). Piatigorsky-student Kaňka replaced Josef Pražák in 1986. Mr. Kaňka's Giovanni Grancino cello (c. 1710) has a wonderfully supple tone, just as the modern viola (1985, Tomás Pilar) of Mr. Klusoň convinces through sheer sound alone. Then of course it matters that the intimacy of the Corcoran's auditorium makes for a sound that is very present, "in your face (ears)" in the best imaginable way. Attending a concert there comes very close to the spirit of chamber music.

Alas, it matters who is behind the wheel, and that's where the well-honed Pražáks come in. The richness of their sound was part their doing, enhanced by the venue. The perfect intonation went entirely to their credit. Almost flawlessly executed, the Haydn Quartet in G (op. 74, no. 3, "The Rider") had verve, thickness of tone, and yet lightness of touch: near ideal for a "modern practices" quartet. The opening Allegro and the Finale: Allegro con brio, which refers back to the opening, were full of zest and energy; the Largo assai painfully beautiful and lyrical. Little wonder that the press (especially in France, like Le Monde de la Musique and Repertoire) consistently award their recordings the highest honors.

Next on the program was the first of Janáček's two excellent quartets. Entitled "The Kreutzer Sonata," it is Janáček's (protofeminist) response to Tolstoy's short story (that is, in turn, centered around Beethoven's sonata), where marital infidelity leads to the murder of the heroine. Where Tolstoy seems to imply that it is understandable and, due to all the emotions running high, somehow "OK" to kill your unfaithful wife, Janáček seems to interject and say, "No, that is not 'OK'." It is a ravishing work, hardly less so than the more often performed second quartet, "Intimate Letters." The link to the preceding Haydn is the reoccurrence of the "driving agitato passages" from op. 74, no. 3's last movement. Admittedly, it was easier for me to tell from the accompanying notes than from the quartet itself. After the quartet ended, there was a half-minute pause of awe (not ignorance) that I had never experienced in a chamber concert.

Brahms, Mozart, and Schumann all are prime examples of how difficult it is to write really well for the string quartet. All three manage to write moments of enormous beauty, passion, energy, and lyricism into their œuvre, but they could not do so at a level as consistently high as their other chamber works, making the achievements of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, Shostakovich, and Villa-Lobos only all the more impressive. Mozart had always been very well served on record, even before the Quatuor Mosaïques set the new standard in the last ten quartets. Brahms, however, needed the Alban Berg Quartet to show a wider audience what can be done with what is considered Brahms's least strong chamber output. (The first EMI recording is the most successful.) Schumann had to wait for the Zehetmair Quartet's ECM recording to redeem his quartets in the eyes of many critics. (Immediately thereafter, the Talich—as if inspired—followed with an excellent complete set.)

Hearing a quartet live and played as well as the Pražák did helps immensely. Brahms's serene and gorgeous moments get a presence that carries one over the slightly more awkward or less interesting passages so that the third quartet in B-flat major, op. 67, was still a very lovely experience. Long and heartfelt applause elicited a final movement from Dvořák's American Quartet (even less "American" than his 9th symphony, but if the misnomer is necessary to make this sublime work more popular, so be it). The Pražák was every bit as good in it as might be expected. It was a fitting end to a stupendous concert.

The last three concerts of this season of the Musical Evening Series at the Corcoran will feature the Peabody Trio in Beethoven Piano Trios on April 15th, April 29th, and May 13th.

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 18, no. 1-3, Pražák Quartet
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven, String Quartets, op. 59, no. 1-3, Pražák Quartet
Available at Amazon
A. Borodin, String Quartet No. 2, Piano Quintet, Pražák Quartet
Available at Amazon
A. Dvořák, String Quartets No. 10 and 13, Pražák Quartet

18.3.05

"Weinen, Klagen..." - Herreweghe's new Bach 


"Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" (BWV 12) is one of Bach's 1723/24 cantatas that deal with sorrow and consolation - based on or relating to Psalms 22 and 130 (De Profundis & Luther's German popularization thereof, "Aus tiefer Not"). The other two Cantatas on Philippe Herreweghe's new Harmonia Mundi disc are that very "Aus tiefer Not" BWV 38 and "Die Elenden sollen essen" (The Miserable Shall Eat) BWV 75. "Aus tiefer Not" is set not only to the words of Luther but also on the melody of his hymn. Though sparse as few other of Bach's cantatas, it impresses with its fine and meticulous weaving of vocal lines, doubled by the accompanying instruments

All three are masterly performed by Philippe Herreweghe (back in more familiar territory after his recent foray into Bruckner – see Ionarts review), his Collegium Vocale Gent and the outstanding Bach singers Carolyn Sampson, Daniel Taylor, Mark Padmore and Peter Kooy. Especially the latter two are exquisite; not surprisingly, as Bach cantata veterans that may be familiar to the listener from their collaboration with Gardiner’s and Ton Koopman’s respective cantata projects.

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
J.S. Bach Cantatas BWV 12, 38, 75, P. Herreweghe
Herreweghe must have ‘secretly’ climbed a good part of the way to a complete cantata cycle by now. That he does it – if he has any such aspirations – without fanfare and announcement would make sense if one considers that neither Sir John Elliot Gardiner nor Ton Koopman were allowed to finish their traversals with their original labels Archiv and Erato. Koopman co-founded Challenge Classics in order to finish/re-issue his cycle. And just this month the first Bach cantata-CD’s on Gardiner’s new own label (Soli Deo Gloria) came out to much acclaim, suggesting that he, too, may yet complete a project. Otherwise the field of complete cantatas would be left to the old and scarcely available Harnoncourt, Haenssler’s Rilling or the excellent Suzuki on his loyal and enterprising BIS label.

Of course choosing and sticking with a cantata cycle is one thing – grabbing this disc for the sheer enjoyment of lamenting is another. The no-vibrato style delivers the cleanest held lines and – assuming one likes it that way, the contributions leave no musical wish unfulfilled.

16.3.05

Levine: The Munich Years 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Tower Records:
Available at Tower Records
L.v. Beethoven, R. Wagner Sy. No.7, Siegfried, Act III, J. Levine, Munich Philharmonic
The German Oehms label is in the process of bringing us a good “Levine – the Munich years” retrospective – now standing at volume eight. The Munich Philharmonic (I am biased to this premiere orchestral body from my hometown) is one of the three best orchestras in Germany, though I suppose that among good orchestras the condition on a given day is more important than ratings that are difficult to quantify. (The other two symphony orchestras are the Berlin Philharmonic, of course – and the underrated Bamberg SO.)

While I am far more excited about Christian Thielemann having taken over the MuPhil than I am or was about Levine’s tenure, it is good to have Levine’s account with this orchestra available. (Thielemann’s debut as resident conductor was Bruckner’s 5th Symphony – the work with which Furtwängler and Celibidache opened their tenures – and I count the days until DG releases the recording, at 82 minutes the longest that DG ever squeezed unto one disc.)

Oehm’s discs are mostly stuff for Levine and MuPhil afficionados – perhaps more for the former, because it gives us the opportunity to hear excellently captured live recordings of material that Levine loved but was and is unable to champion in front of his more conservative US audiences in New York and Boston. Carter, Wuorinen, Schoenberg, Webern are all present. Indeed, his Gurrelieder is one of the finest I have heard on disc – and has by far the greatest mainstream appeal of the issues, so far.

But of course there are also a few standards – and such concerts were recorded in February 2001 (his acclaimed “Beethoven-Schoenberg” season) and June 2000. Beethoven’s 7th and Wagner’s Siegfried, Act III respectively. The Beethoven is a free-roaming, or rather: free running, jumping performance with excitement of the moment well caught. It has drive drive and is as topsy turvy as the 7th should be – in short: an eminently worthy 7th that pleased the audience and is fit to continue to do so on disc.

The Wagner is a bit more a curator’s egg. Who really wants just the third act of Siegfried? It’s likely to be nothing or all for the listener at home. Linda Watson has some very nice moments as Brünnhilde and behind her is the glorious sheen of the Munich strings. Levine is particularly good at “moments” in Wagner (judging from his Ring Cycle and the Parsifal DVD I have seen he’s not a man for the continuous flow of narrative) – so it’s pleasant to listen to. Ben Heppner’s Siegfried is better than most Siegfried’s these days. Brigitte Svendén gives sound advice to the Wanderer whose organ (his voice, that is) is one size too small (James Morris).

While the Gurrelieder disc is near-indispensable, this one can probably only interest fans of LvB’s 7th that happen to like Levine. As such it will easily live up to high expectations… no more.

15.3.05

Schubert for Two 

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
F. Schubert Piano Works 4 Hands, M.J. Pires, R. Castro
I thought Hélène Grimaud’s liner notes for her Chopin – Rachmaninov CD were pretty bad, but Maria João Pires’ new CD with fellow pianist Ricardo Castro (Schubert – works for four hands plus sonatas D664, A-major and D784, a-minor) take the cake. The double disc, titled “Résonance de l’Originaire”, contains the most pretentious, abstruse, impenetrable notes you will ever have encountered. Even the re-re translation of my Japan-bought electric shaver’s instructions seem to make sense, in comparison. (“Extra-zip mini-pulley through lever with, then ready for happy sun-shine…”)

The perpetrator, psychoanalyst Loïse Barbey-Caussé, may think me an uneducated ignoramus, but even with two years of psychology (admittedly, many years ago), I cannot make heads or tails out of a sentence/paragraph like:

“A primary sensitivity which would be doomed to the fatal lacerations of intensity in all its implacability, were it not entirely surrounded, enfolded, so that it registers any “impact” only as filtered, sifted. It is not yet a “skin” capable of a certain degree of self-defence.”

I’d like to quote it all, but it would be excessive and cruel. One preceding and five following such paragraphs (only longer) later, and we get the overdue tie-in with Schubert: “Schubert never stopped emphasizing his dream of “community”. He was haunted by it throughout his life. He expresses it directly, consciously in the guise of his almost visceral attachment to all his “brothers and sisters”, in a communion of the soul incorporating either explicitly or as a watermark all his ineluctable need for creativity.”

I almost understood that one… but what does it really mean to express something “directly, consciously in the guise of [an] almost visceral attachment to all [ones] ‘brothers and sisters’”? Do bloggers have an almost visceral attachment to their “brothers and sisters”?

Just to make sure that my sometimes shaky English wasn’t to blame, I read through the liner notes in German (“Er drückte ihn direkt und bewusst in seiner fast irrationalen Bindung an all seine “Brüder und Schwestern” aus,…). It’s only marginally better. French and Spanish are also available – because if Loïse Barbey-Caussé gets credited in the same font size as the artists (at least on the booklet cover), you want the world to be able to read her thoughts.

Perhaps she is a good friend of Mme. Pires’ and her husband Augustin Dumay's and Mr. Castro's – and maybe they indulge in such speculations and discussions on wine- and music-heavy evenings… but I doubt that they help the average (and non-average) listener/reader to truly understand how “Maria João Pires and Ricardo Castro allow us to share their inner belief in this inexpressible element… enfolded together as in a dyad…” But, apparently it “is there as a real resonance, doubtless awakened individually in each, but unified within the enfolding musical context in which they are immersed together, that of the duetto for four hands.”

Couldn’t make it up, if I wanted to. Fortunately, however, the music is extraordinarily delicious. The two sonatas (D784 and D664), played by Mme. Pires and Mr. Castro, respectively, are fine and musical and insightful - if perhaps lacking in the special (and different) qualities that Mitsuko Uchida, Wilhelm Kempf or Leif Ove Andsnes bring to those works. But the works for Piano-Four Hands are truly outstanding. Not only are these gems less often heard and found on record, they are executed with complete dedication and the joy of music making that can only come from collaborative efforts. Whether the Fantasie in f-minor, or the Rondo in A, or the Allegro in a-minor, these two discs - sold for the price of one (given a playing time of just over 90 minutes a wise decision on the part of DG) - are a delightful addition to anyone's collection. And after the initial laugh and disbelief about the liner notes, you don't have to read those again.

13.3.05

Sizing Up Strathmore 

(published first at ionarts)

Music Center at StrathmoreIt was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro ride from D.C.) for Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony on February 19. Strathmore itself, which still has that "new concert-hall smell," is gorgeous with its light wood, round, inviting curves, isolated balconies along the sides, and despite a capacity of almost 2,000 (1,976, to be precise), it has a very intimate feel to it from the orchestra seating area. The seats are comfortable, and the excitement about the region's new toy still runs high. The shoebox design has a sloping ceiling that rises to some 60 feet at the back end of the hall.

From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) uncommon woman No.1 had a proper forward edge. The recital from the same position, only on the right (K101) also offered appropriate sound. Accoustic problems can, according to Washington Post stringers and Tim Page, be found on the sides and behind the orchestra.


The real problem, anyway, is that Strathmore isn't quite designed for a concert hall of 2,000. Getting in, everyone is stuck in the narrow walkway towards the entrance and the small cafeteria that fills up in no time, offering far to few seats. Concession stands are few and far between, and one such stand staffed by two bartenders isn't enough for the entire orchestra-seating audience. Which brings me to other bottlenecks. It can't go on that one elevator and one, if broad, stairway is the only way for all the orchestra-seating audience to exit the building. After the concert, a slow crowd aches up those stairs at a snail's pace... amusing from afar, annoying when stuck within.


Another such bottleneck is at the coat check, but even if that is bypassed, there is the worst of them all still waiting at the entrance to the parking garage, where one narrow door is the seemingly only way (there is actually another, but it's not obvious to most visitors) up- or downstairs to the other parking garage levels. Also curious is the decision to have many doors at the lower level lead to a terrace (no smoking, remember!) and design them in such a way that, once out, you can't get back in. (Lest you get noticed and some kind soul opens from within.)

On the upside: It's pretty, there is free parking on the weekends, cheap parking on weekdays, it is right next to the Metro...

Other Reviews of Strathmore:

Tim Page, Philharmonic Puts the Lie to 'Hear No Evil' (Washington Post, February 14)

Tim Page, Strathmore: Off to a Sound Beginning (Washington Post, February 7)

Superb start at Strathmore (Washington Times, February 6)
Additional Comments by Charles T. Downey

On Saturday, I sang a farewell Mass for the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Michael Bransfield, who was installed as Bishop of Charleston-Wheeling, West Virginia, on Tuesday. This left me slightly short on time to get all the way out to Strathmore in time for the Baltimore Symphony's concert with Hilary Hahn. Fortunately, I drove like the wind and the concert began a little late, so I was able to find my seat just as the lights began to dim. Even at the quickest pace, it was forty minutes from northeast Washington, and it is more like fifty to sixty minutes of driving from Capitol Hill. I live in the city and I hate commuting (my drive to work is usually no more than 20 minutes), so I am sure that my visits to Strathmore will be limited to those concerts I just can't bear to miss.

This was my first drive out there, and I was sure that once I got off the Beltway, I would just follow helpful signs to Strathmore, but there are no such signs that I saw. This meant that I missed the first turn, had to turn around illegally, and double back, and I was nearly hit by an angry suburban commuter as I searched for the place to turn. That is the first thing Strathmore needs to do: put up more signs. There is parking, plenty of it, in the Metro garage, and on a Saturday or Sunday it appears to be free (much preferable to the price gauging $15 fee at the Kennedy Center). Even on Fridays, the parking will be limited to $4 for those with concert tickets.

Based on one hearing, with admittedly a close seat, the sound in the Concert Hall is good. There was good balance among the instrumental sections of the Baltimore Symphony, and clarity in Hilary Hahn's solo part. I will reserve further judgment until I have heard a few more concerts, perhaps from one of the balconies (which struck me as somewhat like those of the Senate in the more recent Star Wars movies).

12.3.05

A Royal Sound With Chills 

(published first at ionarts)

With the Norwegian Royalty looking on, André Previn led the Oslo Philharmonic in a WPAS-presented program of Ravel and Gershwin last Monday. Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, the fourth of the five Miroirs piano pieces was given in Ravel's own orchestration. With plenty of pretty "Spanish" accents, it's a fun, rambunctious thing and did not fail to entertain in the Norwegian Orchestra's well-honed rendition.

The Gershwin Piano Concerto in F was played by Previn himself, and if his walking betrayed a certain frailty, his conducting and playing certainly did not. With plenty of snap and crackle he led the orchestra through the work by flinging whichever free hand he had at them. The 1925 concerto fit the bill, with its good amount of similarities to the Ravel Piano Concerto in the first movement. Towards the second movement (with a very R. Straussian violin solo) it becomes more reminiscent of its more famous, if less interesting, predecessor, the Rhapsody in Blue. The audience thanked Mr. Previn for the taut, energetic performance with warm applause and (automatic) standing ovations.

The second half was opened with Ravel’s Shéhérazade, to a text by Wagner nut Arthur Leclaire (pen name: Tristan Klingsor...), sung by local Denyce Graves. The orchestra was consistently smooth, cohesive, and agile. I wish the same could be said about Mme. Graves, but she seemed to be running on empty. Though her mezzo showed at points that it was based on the ruins of greatness, between Washington’s Il Trovatore, last Saturday's Met broadcast of Samson et Dalila and the Ravel, I dare say that her career is all but over. The high notes are no longer there, everything below mezzo-forte is weak, and the stability of the voice betrayed by occasional wobbles. (The faint hope remains that 2004/05 was a particularly hard year for her and that she might recover yet.)

The second Daphnis and Chloé suite is an orchestral show piece that allows a good band to produce extraordinary colors and textures. Under the eyes of a gorgeous Anne-Sophie Mutter (my tact forbids me from pointing to possible questions her marriage to a man who had trouble mounting the rostrum might raise), Previn coaxed choice playing from the Scandinavians. Never feverishly inspired, but not just lifeless polish and politeness, either. Ravel's woodwind arpeggios behind the shimmering strings would make a Philip Glass proud, and a sound world filled the Kennedy Center's concert hall that left no one unmoved.

11.3.05

Where's My Takács? 

(published first at ionarts)

I myself had touted the Takács Quartet's appearance at the National Gallery of Art "the greatest chamber music event of 2005" for over half a year. But, somehow, the word about the formidable Takács must have gotten out far beyond that, because the line for the free Sunday concert in the NGA's West Garden Court extended out of the building and had to be cut off. What a curious surprise then, after all that anticipation, to see a piano on stage; an instrument rarely used in the Bartók string quartets. My fever had played no tricks on me: it was the right date, the right venue... but unfortunately the Takács Quartet had to cancel their appearance due to sickness of one of its members.

Hats off to Claudia Chudacoff (violin), Marie-France Lefebvre (piano), and Nathaniel Chaitkin (cello), three Washington Chamber Players, who bravely jumped in on a couple of days' notice. They presented Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Mendelssohn's Second Piano Trio (C minor, op. 66), and a work that I thought particularly delightful, Gaspar Cassadó's Sonata for Cello and Piano. A work of considerable beauty and filled with pleasant Spanish accents, it had a delectable Paso-doble to offer as its last movement (even including the dances' foot stomp) and made for some consolation and a pleasant new musical acquaintance.

The concert went some way to console me for the missed, last opportunity to see the Takács Quartet in the formation with which they have dazzled me before, both in concert (Freer, Corcoran) and on disc (Beethoven, Bartók). To see one more of their unparalleled Bartók performances Roger Tapping, their violist, who will leave for a teaching position at some northeastern music school (it has escaped me which one) in the summer, would have made my day after a week of battling a bronchitis with a vengeance. (Mr. Tapping can't be replaced, but the new violist for the Takács Quartet will be Geraldine Walther, erstwhile assistant principal violist of the Pittsburgh [or is it SF?] Symphony.)

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