Dip Your Ears... ( 40 ) 

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A. Knaifl, Amieta Sole, M. Rostropovich
Psalm 51 (50) is an austere, spheric, single instrument pursuit of a musical line that has the meditative, solitary quality of Orthodox church music. The instrument is the cello, and it's played by none other than "Slava," Mstislav Rostropovich. It's almost unbearable in its static monotony, but then that may just be its point. The title piece, Amieta Sole (“Clothed with the Sun”), is similar, but the voices of boys' choir, solo soprano, other assorted throats, and orchestra give it colors that easily sustain interest over its thirty-some minutes. Its subtitle “for soloist (female) of soloists” invites to ponder – the music should appeal to those who like Paert, Silvestri, Kancheli, and the like.


Dip Your Ears... ( 39 ) 

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J. S. Bach, Keyboard Concerti v.2 (BWV1053-57), Angela Hewitt
Bach is like an oasis or refuge… or both – whichever you need. Hearing these keyboard concertos with Angela Hewitt and the Australian Chamber Orchestra from a double-release on the Hyperion label (to be released late this July) reminded me more than anything else in recent months of my belief that classical music (or maybe just Bach) is an inherently superior music, after all. While most of that credit does go to the Old Master himself, I would certainly not hear him so well and the music would not be communicated so well, were it not for the immaculate, energetic, and utterly tasteful playing of Ms. Hewitt.

Playing Bach on a Steinway hardly needs justification anymore, but Angela Hewitt (who also wrote the informative liner notes) provides one of the most elegantly convincing arguments I have yet read:
It is said that if we sat down and copied out all of the music Bach wrote it would take us a lifetime. Yet he was composing it as well. So it is no wonder that from time to time he borrowed from himself. Such is the case with the keyboard concertos. If an original version has not been handed down to us, then there probably was one but it has been lost. Concerto movements also ended up in cantatas, often with florid parts being added to an already busy original. This recycling is one of the arguments I used to defend the performance of Bach on the modern piano. If he could write for the violin, oboe, or voice a singing, melodic line that would have its natural inflections, phrasing, and rise and fall, then why would he not have wanted to hear it on a keyboard instrument that was capable of doing the same thing (since the harpsichord could not)?
The concertos are indeed all either source material for other music or arrangements themselves. If Concerto no. 6 (BWV 1057) isn’t often heard, it must be because of its famous parent, the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. Keyboard Concerto no. 3 in D major, BWV 1054, formerly known as the A minor violin concerto, BWV 1042, has a similar story to tell. Hewitt unfailingly sparkles throughout, and BWV 1057 making use of the harpsichord continuo alongside the grand piano (neither unique nor common as it were) makes for a particularly interesting and well-judged aural experience. The ACO proves to be a most amiable partner: responsive, flexible, and energetic.

(Going back to my collection, I was surprised to find out that up until now I had had these works [minus BWV 1057] only in two other versions: Trevor Pinnock’s on harpsichord [Archiv] and Glenn Gould’s [Sony]. Perhaps that goes some way in explaining my desire to use phrases such as “utterly tasteful,” “well-judged,” “immaculate,” and “unfailingly this-and-that?”)

This is volume two of the final Bach offerings of Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, lest she can be convinced to do the works for multiple keyboard also. It is as wholly recommendable as all previous installments of her solo Bach – which is to say: very much!


Dip Your Ears... ( 38 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

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J. S. Bach, Cantatas, vol. 24, J. E. Gardiner
What was true for the two first issues of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata cycle on Soli Deo Gloria also goes for the third, volume 24. Bach CD-sets don’t come more magnificently than that (packaging, liner notes, ‘feel’), and Gardiner’s insight coupled with the spontaneity of these live recordings is an insurance policy for exquisite performances of cantatas BWV 12, 103 (Ihr werdet Weinen und Heulen), 146 (recorded at Altenburg), 166 (Wo gehest Du hin?), 108 (Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe), and 117 (Sei Lob und Ehr dem hoechsten Gut) (recorded at Warwick). In BWV 12 (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen) I must again think of Philip Herreweghe’s recent, eponymous disc, and I am left marveling at both. This time, I find no flaws in Gardiner but must give the nod to the superb Herreweghe, in that particular cantata anyway. (I begin to suspect that that CD is going to prove itself one of the great cantata recordings of our time.)

On the SDG label, Julian Clarkson’s bass makes a very impressive and delightful contribution, especially in Weinen, Klagen. The spectacular Baroque organ at Altenburg gets to shine radiantly in the sinfonia of BWV 146 (Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen). If that cantata’s opening sounds a bit familiar, the harpsichord concerto BWV 1052a might provide the answer. An outstanding issue from Gardiner again and this time without quibbles on my part. (A BBC Music Magazine reviewer and Gramophone’s Andrew Farach-Colton, though very positive in their reception, think this volume a tad less convincing than volumes one and eight; in part due to the singers other than Messrs. Padmore and Clarkson.) If you can fit it into your Bach budget, “go get!”


Dip Your Ears... ( 37 ) 

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J.S.Bach, Concertos italiens, A.Tharaud / BPh
I've played Alexandre Tharaud's latest recording almost non-stop for the last few months and it hast consistently given me utter enjoyment and many a relieved smile since. In fact, I've been so enchanted by it, I forgot to write about it. Now that (almost) everyone agrees that it's one of the finest recital-discs in a long time, I'll get to chime in by agreeing enthusiastically. This is indeed the finest Bach recital on the piano on record - period. Profoundly moving with immaculate musicality and technique to match, this discs makes me decry that Ionarts missed his Washington DC recital (a WPAS presentation at the Terrace Theater). Surrounding the centre-piece Italian Concerto with other transcriptions by Bach is a good idea and lets us hear some less familiar works that all bear Bach's stamp quite audibly. Bookmark this for one of Ionarts' "Best Recordings in 2005".


New York City Soundtrack 

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S.Reich, City Life, New York Counterpoint, Eight Lines, Violin Phase..., Ensemble Modern
The soundtrack for New York is Steve Reich’s City Life / New York Counterpoint. It’s an accessible and very involving modern work and if you want to find out where John Adams got his ideas for the Grammy-winning 9/11 memorial “The Transmigration of Souls” from, go no further. The soundtrack of New York is the bustling of pedestrians, cars honking, tourists chattering and (though less and less) someone screaming obscenities in broad daylight that would leave a Yugoslavian truck driver green with envy. I opted out and imposed my own audio-footprint onto the city.

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W.A.Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, HvK
Thanks to my Koss headphones that double as earplugs, I blocked out the sound of everything but the honking of those cars that almost ran me over (since I didn’t hear them coming while habitually jaywalking). Last week, Chinatown was transformed into a Seraglio from which J.E.Gardiner abducted me. Wiggling my head in infantile delight to “Martern aller Arten” (admittedly one of the lesser numbers of Mozart’s “Entführung aus dem Seraill”), the walk to Gramercy Park received a janissary lilt that was most enjoyable. Part of DG/Archiv’s new “opera_House” line of budget reissues, the recording can’t be a first choice for lack of a libretto – but given the circumstance and the fair diction of Cornelius Hauptmann (Osmin), Stanford Olsen (Belmonte), Luba Orgonasova (Konstanze), Hans-Peter Minetti (Selim), Cyndia Sieden (Blonde) and Uwe Pepper (Pedrillo), that wasn’t an issue.

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W.A.Mozart, Don Giovanni, dir. Peter Sellars
The Mozartean New York experience inexorably evoked a living Peter Sellars production of one of Mozart’s DaPonte operas, Don Giovanni especially. Speaking of which… Don Giovanni is by far the best of the recently released three Sellars-DaPonte-Mozart collaborations. (As the Unitel archives are finally open to Universal, we saw and will see some very fine performances – not just in opera – appear on DVD for the first time!) From the overture over pictures of dilapidated areas in the Bronx to the brilliant depiction of Don Giovanni as a rapist (not one ounce of comedy here!) it is a must-borrow-and-watch-at-least-once kind-of DVD. Some find the singing good – I think it is pretty awful and not to well recorded, either. One very notable exception though: The bubblegum chewing, second generation Italian Donna Anna! The blonde singer/actress turns out to be none less than Lorraine Hunt (pre-Lieberson) and she’s splendid all around, with acting that stands out in a cast of mostly fine actors. I can’t believe it’s the Vienna Philharmonic playing, though… the band sounds scrawny at times, and underpowered. And the production is at a few points so dated, so 80’s, that it hurts. Still, the portrayal, acting and especially characterization makes it one of the most important Don Giovanni’s to see, especially if you are interested in the interpretive possibilities this opera offers. How the Perry borthers' twin-pair Don Giovanni / Leporello leaves no humor in the second act's opening scene and rape, threaten and bully their way through this most perfect of all operas will forever change your perceiption of Don Giovanni.

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G.Donizetti, L'elisir d'amore, Ferro
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R.Strauss / R.Wagner, Orchestral Works (rec.1953), H.v.Karajan
Keeping with the Mozartean spirit (roughly) was the most enjoyable L’Elisir D’Amore/Irving Street experience. I may come around to Italian opera yet, given how I took to Barbara Bonney, Gösta Winbergh, Bernd Weikl, Rolando Panerai and Antonella Bandelli under Gabriele Ferro’s leadership in the reissue on the mentioned opera_House line. Donizetti and Mozart both aided my operatic recovery after the “Shadowtime” experience the previous night that had already been treated with a late-night emergency download of Alfred Brendel’s late Beethoven sonatas (iTunes.com) the same night.

Before Marc-André Hamelin’s recital at the Mannes School, I gave my ears to Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia in Strauss and Wagner on a new Testament release. With a superb Till Eulenspiegel I took the L-Train out of Greenpoint with the reasonable goal of 8th Ave./14th St. to then switch to the A or B train to 86th. Not quite, though. For lack of hearing anything other than Strauss (least of all any announcements over the intercom), I entered Union Square station and… before I had even heard the last note of a fine Don Juan, found myself back at 1st Avenue. The L simply refused to go further than Union Square. Still plenty of time, though, Tod und Verklärung played, and back again. Venus Mountain music (from Wagner’s Tannhäuser), the transfer-bus 14D to 8th Avenue – and maybe a bit late for my meeting with an acquaintance to get good seats at the first-come/first-serve concert. Jumping on the train and listening to that Till again is one smooth move. Excellent. Times Square. Plush Strings, exquisite pacing. 59th Street. Great rhythmic energy in the Philharmonia’s playing. 125th Street. Shit. E-train was a bad (Express) decision. Don Juan and back again on the next train. The D-train, unfortunately, wasn’t a wise choice, either – as I reckon when I get off to T&V, rather annoyed, at 59th Street again. Maybe I’d get to the Mannes for the second half? The A-train (good pick) back up and at 8.05 (two hours after my departure from a lovely Polish Bakery) I sat at the back of the stage, behind the Steinway, after all. I may forego music on future metro rides.

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L.v.Beethoven / J.Brahms, Symphony No.2, M.Jansons / Concertebouw
To be on the safe side altogether, I walked back from 85th to Gramercy – stopped at the Lincoln Center Tower classical department and cried. It’s a temple! They have CD’s that are not even supposed to be available in the US. And a separate room for opera – tons and tons of opera and every available Parsifal recording under the sun. The rest of the way was Beethoven’s 2nd, which, in Mariss Jansons’ live recording with the Concertgebouw (to be released in early September) sounds like broad, flattened Mozart. Times Square at night to the second movement of that symphony is an experience – slightly on the surreal side – I recommend to everyone. I whistled (badly, probably) all the way to 37th, where Brahms’ second symphony took over. A tremendous performance under Jansons. While the Beethoven is very good in its backwards-looking, robust way (pointing to the Jupiter more than the Eroica), the Brahms is energetic with great momentum that propels the listener through the first movement in no time. The strings sound excellent (they must sound even better if played on an SACD player) and the brass and woodwind have character on top of impeccable playing. It lasted until L’Express a 24-hour Bouchon and alleged hang-out of Joshua Bell’s. The rest of the Symphony was enjoyed many hours and several Ricard’s later at my pod around the corner.


Marc-André Hamelin in New York 

(published first at ionarts)

Marc-André Hamelin, appearing at the Mannes College of Music as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival played Schubert's A-major sonata D664 out on its lightest, gentlest side. It was treatment that the work can not only withstand but one that, in the right hands, becomes it. (This in contrast to the Mozart that Ionarts thought too 'Dresden China-y' when we last heard him at the National Gallery.) Given Mr. Hamelin's famous technical faculties, I am convinced that his neurons don't even bother firing up certain parts of his brain until he starts playing Godowsky or Liszt... both of which, conincidentally, were served up after the Schubert. The A-major sonata meanwhile did not suffer from his excess skill - though the outer movements (Allegro moderato and Allegro) were more convincing than a slightly angular Andante.

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L. Godowsky, Complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes, M-A. Hamelin
But let's be honest: Godowsky or Alkan is what you'd want to hear in a Hamelin recital. Everything else would be like going to the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company and see them do Becket - until someone yells "Get to the 'to-be-or-not-to-be part'!". It's part sensationalism, part voyerism - but I consume it unapologetically because it is simply awsome to see someone play a work by a composer/pianist who thought that those Chopin Etudes really were too darn easy. Hamelin seems to agree, as he played 9 of the 53 Studies after Chopin's Etudes as fleet and assuredly as one expects from him, even if it is against all pianistic probability. Some, if not most, of the studies are the keyboard equivalent of a violinist playing the melody in the left hand's pizzicato over a series of arpeggios on one string. Hearing the one dropped note in Mr. Hamelin's performance is as satisfying a rarity as spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker and takes nothing away from the awe that sets in rather quickly. I may have used the quip one too many times already, but it really was one of those performances that made you want to start playing the piano - or quit, if you already do. Hearing Study No.1 (Etude No.1, op.10 on steroids and acid) alone was a perverse and stunning delight. Next time, though, I want him to play the mirror inversion backwards with a blindfold.

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F. Liszt, "Liszt at the Opera", Leslie Howard
More of the daunting, delicious stuff after intermission. The Liebestod via Franz Liszt asks for Liszt-typical technical proficiency, Wagner-appropriate weight and Debussy-like colours. Two out of three - and I am not being facetious - ain't bad. To say that the last bit of evocativenes was missing might be true - but it would be criticism of playing on such a highl level that it would border casuistry. If I thought no such thing missing from the concert paraphrase of Verdi's Ernani, I hope that was due to the playing (super fine, drizzled arpeggios) or the character and demands of the work and not due to my (inherent?) bias towards Verdi. Reminiscanses de 'Norma', as the name suggests, is another step further removed from a straight-forward transcription such as Isolden's Liebestod or the already more losely based 'Ernani'. Whether these works are worthy compositions in their own right or concert-hall hodge-podge entertainers doesn't really matter because they are impressive and, well..., entertaining enough to remain in the repertoire even in an age where we could all go home and download the whole of Ernani, Tristan & Isolde, and Norma onto our iPods or at least listen to it in the library the next day. Yes, they are in part show-off works, but then that's why we stand in line to see a a pianist's pianist like Marc-Andre Hamelin, isn't it? Spectacular it was and impressive - or depressing - depending on your level of piano-playing ambition.

Anyone, meanwhile, who saw the jam-packed Mannes College concert hall with an audience of an average age of near or even below 30 might hestiate to spell out doom for the future of American classical music concert audiences. By the time all the piano connoisseur-tweens have reached their 40's, they'll have spread the passion manifold among acquaintances, friends and lovers. They also got a few encores on the way, including a Chopin/Liszt Polish Song, a work titled "Anamorphosis" by a Salvatore Sciarrino that was a hilarious and self-deprecating study part Ravel, part "Singing in the Rain" and Antheil's riotous and painfully funny Jazz Sonata - one of the "most perfect musical crimes ever comitted" according to Mr. Hamelin.

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