Norway at its finest 

The Norwegian cultural events in and around Washington, celebrating 100 years of independence, had another gem to offer this Saturday when the young Coucheron siblings (despite their un-Scandinavian name David and Julie are bona-fide Norwegians) were presented by The Embassy Series.
Generally “Speech!” applies – but when Jerome Barry took on the candy-unwrapping-crowd, he had my full empathy. (How some audience members still try to ‘silently’ unwrap cellophane-packaged candy over the course of five agonizing minutes is beyond me.)

Appropriately enough, the program at the beautiful Norwegian ambassador’s residence was all Norwegian – offering the three Grieg sonatas. To hear them in one sitting and chronological order is more of a delight than the same program of some other composers I can think of would be, because Grieg’s opp.8, 13 and 45 represent three distinct phases in Grieg’s composing. Sonata no.1 from 1865 is early Grieg. A life-affirming, youthful and romantic work strapped unto the classical sonata form, it bubbles along and dispels all Ibsen-colored (or rather: grayed) ideas of Norwegian gloom.
The second sonata, composed only two years later, already marks a new stage with Grieg. It is less free-wheeling and more economical in expression. Its fiery last movement is the ideal antidote against long, cold winter evenings for the listeners but especially the performers. The third, finally, hails from 1887 and is composed by the then 44 years old and mature Grieg. It is more ambitious yet and beautiful and grand in equal measure.

It is hard to complain about such a program – indeed pointless when presented with the passion and consummate skill the Coucheron’s brought to it – but it would have been nice, also, to get a reminder that Grieg is hardly the only Norwegian composer that knew how to write great music. Among many that deserve wider recognition and more exposure, Christian Sinding is only one. His two violin sonatas must be heard and perhaps the Coucheron’s will turn to them in a future Embassy Concert Series program.

Both performers, David on the violin and Julie on piano, have been showered with awards and competition placements for their solo, as well as their team work. While David had a two year head start and perhaps a more impressive bio printed in the program, I found his younger sister to be even more impressive. The confident and warm touches that she applied to the Residence’s Baby Grand presented the instrument and Grieg in the best possible light – a warm, glowing light that never failed to embed David’s playing in the most congenial manner. The latter’s technical skills are unquestionably impressive – and accuracy was rarely less than pristine. Only his tone failed to impress on the highest level. Size might be there (it is difficult to tell in an such an intimate setting – nor is it desirable to blast away on such an occasion), but more of a burnished quality, more nuance, variation on one hand and more evenness between the beginning and end of a given note on the other would have given his interpretation the last bit of quality that makes the difference between “very good” or “impressive” and “stunning” or “utterly convincing” – to use these stock phrases from the critics review-writing kit. Generally better in the animated passages, his performance of the Allegro Animato of the second sonata, meanwhile, was little short of inspired.

A Sonata performance is more than the sum of its parts (or less, on more unfortunate occasions) and energy and passion coupled with high quality performance clearly elevated all three sonatas above single quibbles that could be had. The Coucheron’s did everyone – from the composer to Norway’s reputation to the Embassy Series, their audience and not the least themselves a great favor. Then, however, came a miscalculation. Franz Waxman’s “Carmen Fantasy” as an encore was a choice that may have highlighted David Coucheron’s virtuosic playing (although in fact it only exposed several weaknesses) but it was more certainly a wasted opportunity when a Sinding, Bull, Svendsen or Halvorsen encore would have been more fitting, equally virtuosic and more interesting encores. Still, it had that predicable effect on enough audience members that makes these kind of works tempting encores.

We’ve been effusive about the Embassy Series’ offers this year already (some might even say uncritical). And while the musical contributions can be uneven, the mission and purpose of these gatherings go well beyond just the musical content. This particular event, however, must be noted as another success on both counts. The Coucheron’s gave it a heard start; the Norwegian Embassy’s absolutely impeccable reception afterwards sealed the deal. It may even have done so, had it been preceded by an organ-grinder recital. Other embassies should take note on how self-representation and cultural diplomacy is done best.


Corigliano at the LoC 

Speeches before a concert should be considered emergency-only measures to illustrate difficult works that need context. Other than that they ought to be avoided, especially when most of the information is contained in the accompanying notes. I am afraid I’ll encounter that sort of speech many more times; to avoid writing similar introductions I will simply state the cause by writing “Speech!” Consider this review of the Corigliano Quartet’s appearance at the Library of Congress on Friday the first such occasion.

I usually don’t go to the events at the Library of Congress anymore, but with Charles’s ears contained elsewhere and with a program that included Aulis Sallinen, Elliot Carter, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (as well as some Brahms), I simply could not resist. Aside – with that kind of a program seating was bound not to be a problem.

The Sallinen Oboe Quintet, Echoes from a Play, is a tone- and tuneful little thing. The “more than a touch of irony” that Sallinen says is concealed beneath that “overt tunefulness” escaped me entirely, but I enjoyed the work tremendously, nonetheless. Perhaps it was hiding in that beer-hall jaunty one-two–one-two pizzicato accompaniment of the lower strings. With a string quartet and superimposed oboe, the work establishes a modern-music atmosphere that other composers – Tan Dun comes to mind, although he, too, can be economical – need a few more instruments for. (Upon checking the program again, the work is not an “Oboe Quintet” but a work “for Oboe and String Quartet” – which is exactly how it sounds.) Oboist Thomas Gallant, who performed it with the Corigliano Quartet, had commissioned the work and played its world premiere 14 years ago at Ravinia.

Before the Carter, the four young members of the quartet introduced the Library of Congress’s instruments they were playing. Before I cry Speech! again, I’ll admit that their presentation of these instruments’ strengths was actually interesting. (I just don’t know why they felt compelled to praise the Library ever so effusively for lending the instruments to them: playing these instruments does the Library as much or more a favor than it is one for the Library to lend them in the first place. Consequently, virtually every artist performing there is offered that privilege.) Michael Jinsoo Lim, first violinist, gushed about the Guarneri del Gesù Kreisler violin and proceeded to voluntarily out himself as a “huge, huge fan of Kreisler.” Second violinist Lina Bahn loved ‘her’ Amati Brookings, violist Melia Watras the Stradivari Cassevetti, and Amy Sue Barston the Strad Castelbarco cello.

These musicians minus second violin but with the continued support of Mr. Gallant got together for the 2001 Oboe Quartet of Carter’s – originally written for Heinz Holliger. I am not sure how much of the just-displayed sweetness of the strings came across to the audience in that work. With the oboe in prominent position, such works tend to sound like a nervous chicken on acid. I don’t love the work, I just like it… and I would not hold it against anyone if they didn’t. If the quartet is not one of Carter’s pieces that was particular meaningful to me upon first exposure, it certainly wasn’t ugly or abrasive even by modestly conservative standards. As long as I don’t have to pretend to “understand” such works, I find them an enjoyable listening experience. The audience, filtered by the principle of self-selection, appreciated it, too – which was heartening.

Both, the Sallinen and the Carter were written as complementary pieces for the Mozart Oboe Quartet. It would have been a delight to hear the Mozart between Sallinen and Carter, but it was not to be. Not to spare oboist Gallant, however: he had plenty more lung power which he put to good use in the Coolidge Sonata for Oboe and Piano from 1947. It is an ambitious work with a mighty and earnest struggle to claim some bittersweet, some pastoral, sweeping melody. If it were infused with more musical talent, it might have succeeded, too. As it was, we heard a work that struggles audibly, mightily towards greatness (however futile), an underrated work perhaps... and balm to those ears that had been offended by the Carter. Pedja Muzijevic accompanied gallantly.

The Corigliano Quartet was united again in the Brahms, where they played the ever-gorgeous Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34 from 1865, with Mr. Muzijevic. He had more opportunity here to display his skill and sensitive playing. Some intonation and tone-production problems of Ms. Bahn – now on first violin with the Kreisler-fiddle – were no hindrance to a warm embrace of this music. Ms. Bartson’s cello work was the most impressive and consistent of the four, alone in making the most of her instrument’s potential. If some of this sounds overly critical, it must be said that the concert was far more than the sum of its parts. In particular because of exciting and intelligent programming, it was an utterly enjoyable evening.

The concert was the Library of Congress’s Founders Day Concert and marked the 80th anniversary of the first concert. Then it included only works of E. S. Coolidge. With its great auditorium, good artists and vibrant (usually Coolidge-free) programs, it’s no wonder the concert series is still around and well.


Takács with Hurdles 

Getting to the National Gallery of Art in the nick of time is not advisable. Especially not if you don't like the idea of getting roughed up by security guard L. Jones. After being barked at, accused of lying, having my ID inspected twice, my guest refused entry and being held up long enough to assuredly miss the beginning of the Haydn "Emperor Quartet" op.76 no.3, I got to listen to the remainder from behind the curtains outside the West Garden Court. On the other side played the Takács quartet.

Also on N&A/Ionarts:

Takács Marathon, Part II (October 17, 2005)

Takács Addiction (October 4, 2005)

Where's My Takács? (March 10, 2005)

Amazing Audial Alliteration: Borodin, Bartók, Beethoven (October 17, 2004)

Dip Your Ears, No. 8: Béla Bartók, The Six String Quartets, Takács Quartet (August 5, 2004)
There was serene beauty in the dampened sound of my national anthem - not only the playing (to the extent that one could tell) but also in the way the music trickled through from the other room. And although I hardly recommend the experience as such, it added an intriguingly melancholic character to that second movement (Poco adagio, cantabile) that went some way in calming my senses.

Borodin's second quartet in D-Major I last heard a year ago when the Takács gave a moving rendition at the Corcoran the day after the Corcoran's Chairman of the Board, Otto J. Ruesch, had passed away. I haven't sat in the back of the NGA's venue in a while. It is a healthy corrective and reminder that the sound is not as bad as we often complain: it's much worse. The tubby accoustic turned the (avowedly excellent, as trustworthy sources with better seats assured me) Borodin into a mush that belied the quality of the source. I wonder if the William Nelson Cromwell & F. Lammont Berlin Concerts - despite a glorious and prestigious 64 year tradition at their present location - might ever be moved into the larger and more appropriate space of the NGA's East Building Auditorium.

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L.v. Beethoven, Late String Quartets + op.95, Takács Quartet
Beethoven's op.127 was the second half's offering and you can't ask for much more than that. Having meandered a couple yards up, I had now a tree in front of my nose but the sound was much better. So much better, indeed, that it allowed for judgement of the quartet's performance. At least since the Alban Berg Quartet, almost every quartet plays Beethoven with technical precision unheard of just half a century ago. The cold perfection of that approach is the Emerson Quartet who also added a smidgen aggression to the mix. Fairly agressive playing has since become the norm, too... not always to Beethoven's benefit. In the Takács you can hear all these trends - but thankfully they are either put in the service of the music (their usually perfect intonation and execution) or capped at a reasonable level. They stay on that side of energetic playing that is still called "vivacious" and "vibrant", not agressive. That they also have a soft side was came out in the Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile - the first movement's first part. Violist Geraldine Walther, judging from the Beethoven, is starting to really fit in "with the boys" - it will be interesting to hear their gain in cohesion when they return to Washington for a concert at the Corcoran Gallery on March 31st.

Presto towards the finale. The Takács may be very good in the slow movements of op.127, but they are superb when it gets a bit faster. (That's just one reason why it is nice to have a 'warmer' set of quartets next to the Takács - preferably the Vegh's second.) The finale itself sounded slightly rushed but lived up to the high expectations, still. The crowd met the performance with unanimous standing ovations.

Philippe Entremont presents Beethoven from Munich 

On a gloomy and rainy Saturday evening, Philippe Entremont presented to the Munich Symphony Orchestra at the GMU Center for the Arts conducting and playing an all-Beethoven program. A full-bodied and very well played Prometheus Overture with a disciplined and tight string section belied the fact that the MSO is a solid fifth (of five) among Munich’s professional symphony orchestras. (The MuPhil and the Bavarian Radio SO, the Bavarian State Orchestra – the opera orchestra, and the Munich Radio SO are the other four.) Following the overture was the perhaps most perfect piano concerto ever written, Beethoven’s 4th in G-Major op.58. Maestro Entremont still had the band under control from the piano bench, but in his nimble-fingered performance he and Beethoven would not have suffered from a wee bit more attention to detail – especially in the Allegro moderato. The string’s wooden and heavy introduction to the Andante con moto jarred with Entremont’s soft touches. The entries, too, could have been cleaner. At times, first violinist Mirian Kraew led the pack by as much as 16th notes. Mr. Entremont’s playing became less clear in the Rondo but wherever heft was asked for, the Munich forces performed better and, with an old-fashioned touch, very enjoyably so.

In the 7th Symphony Munich’s “Film-Music Orchestra” (the MSO provides most soundtracks to films in Germany) found back to much of the quality they displayed in the overture. Basses, violas and cellos were well coordinated sonorous in the funereal Allegretto with its slow pulse. Then again, I was pretty much sitting in that section which affected the balance of the experience. The concluding Allegro con brio suited the band: Fast, loud and in multitudes. If winds and brass were not the subtlest bunch, that did not keep the MSO from making a favorable impression. Those in the audience who were not looking for flaws but enjoyment instead had a very good time, judging from the enthusiastic applause and standing ovations after the rousing finale. The Munich players are not likely ever to have been so cheered in their hometown. They could not even play their encore on the first attempt. When they were able to do so, it continued the Beethoven theme with Entremont and his players digging deep for a somber Egmont Overture, a very substantial treat with which the performers only further played themselves into their audience’s heart.


By Jove, That Jupiter Quartet 

That Ionarts loves the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium is no secret, and since the Corcoran’s is also one of the highest-quality chamber series, we usually love the content, too. Little wonder that the first concert of the season this Friday with the Jupiter Quartet (fairly unknown, still – but not likely for much longer) should have turned out well. Since the Jupiter Quartet is a ‘repeat offender’ at the Corcoran, it was not likely just the substantial cameo of ex-Takács Roger Tapping that filled the auditorium’s round to near capacity. The Schubert Quartettsatz stood out for the quartet’s ability to let the first notes swell from eerie sul tasto-like notes to a ff in four bars.

Maybe you can love Britten quartets when listening to them on CD. But you certainly cannot fall in love with them. For that you need as felt and accomplished a performance as the Jupiter Quartet delivered. The speech of cellist Dan McDonough before it was good, could have been shorter, and turned out to be entirely unnecessary as the powerful performance spoke volumes. The intertwined lines of the long last movement (Chacony: sostenuto) were presented in a rich sound, extremely well played with a wide palette of expressive dynamics, that made the Britten a most welcoming and lyrical work, a real pleasure for the ears.

Jupiter Quartet with Roger Tapping, Corcoran Gallery of Art, October 21, 2005Roger Tapping, who incredibly chose family over art when he left the Takács, is one of the finest (chamber-) violists around. Seeing this éminence grise among four players, all of whom could be his children, was charming. Nelson Lee (first violin), Meg Freivogel (second violin), Liz Freivogel (viola) and Dan McDonough at least didn’t appear intimidated and continued in the Mozart Quintet No. 4, K. 516, where they had ended in the Britten while Mr. Tapping visibly enjoyed the enthusiasm of his music-making junior colleagues. Liz Freivogel’s supple tone had already stood out in the Schubert and the Britten. In the Mozart (with an Adagio ma non troppo that was grave rather than lamenting) where she emitted first-viola-sounds right next to Tapping, it was even more impressive, both on its own account and in comparison. None of the boxiness that viola players often tickle out of their instruments but instead very burnished – a tonal quality that the quartet as a whole may also claim among their assets. Helped by the superior acoustic as compared to the Landon School’s Auditorium, I cannot say that I missed the Takács for a moment, even with their performance of K. 516 still in my ears from last week. That is – as those who know how I feel about the Takács – as high praise as I can muster.

To correct the imbalance of having mentioned the Takács twice as often as the quartet that actually did the playing: Jupiter Quartet, Jupiter Quartet, Jupiter Quartet. (That may incidentally have been the crowd’s reaction to the performance, had the average age not been above 60. Instead, they opted for sustained applause and standing ovations.) The quartet's accomplishment – some very minor slips in the Mozart only added a human face to it; not even the beeping of a hearing aid diminished the pleasure much – was deeply impressing and would have been so for a quartet of any age or, for that matter, with hands bigger than the notably filligrane paws of at least the three fiddlers of the Jupiter.

Upcoming performances at the Corcoran are the Garth Newel Piano Quartet on November 18th (notable for piano quartets by Arthur Foote and Joaquín Turina) and the Klavier Trio Amsterdam in Beethoven, Brahms, and the Fauré (which triggers Roger Tapping alert at Ionarts). The Jupiter Quartet’s next performance in the region is on December 16th at the Library of Congress. To hear their Sunrise (Haydn), Ainsi la nuit (Dutilleux), and Razumovsky no. 1 (Beethoven) I might even give up my boycott of that particular venue.


Last Song for Shirley Horn 

photo by Larry Basacca"A song is lucky if Shirley Horn chooses to sing it" was once said about this grand lady of jazz singing. A Washington native and Howard University graduate, she has performed countless times in D.C. How I have missed all these opportunities, I do not know. Sadly, I shall never get to hear her live - Ms. Horne passed away last night.

Shirley Horn has performed with every big name in jazz and leaves a legacy of her art on Verve records. Her art was such that it transcended categories. Another Washington native, Duke Ellington, once said about music: "If it sounds good, it is good." Shirley Horn, who just earlier this year won the The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowships, did sound good!


No Applause for Montreal 

As reported by Gramophone and Andrew Taylor at Adaptistration, Montreal's Symphony Orchestra is back at work after a six-month-long strike. That's six months less Kent Nagano than the town could have had - and I am not sure if I'd be very kindly disposed to the symphony's demand for more money in light of the significant ammount of debt the MSO has to deal with. But what is so bizarrely loathsome about the situation is one particular demand the players had (and thankfully were not granted). They "insisted that if audiences continued to applaud beyond the designated service period, overtime rates would go into effect." ("In the new agreement, the musicians conceded that concerts will be considered finished when the music stops.")

I don't even know where to begin - that demand is so wrong, so despicable, so indicative of musicians that I actually don't want to hear. But I know that if any orchestra in my vicinity were ever have the gall to think in that direction, my post-concert behavior would be marked by two extended fingers - one on each hand - and a rather crass vocalization of my displeasure. (All that, of course, only after shouting: "Maestro - get out of the way!") How naive was I to think that the orchestra's demand to be paid by the note (as put forward by string players of a German orchestra) was the epitome of stupidity among orchestral folk.


Dip Your Ears... ( 48 ) 

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Beethoven / Mendelssohn, Violin Concerti, N. Znaider / Z. Mehta / IsraelPh
Nikolaj Znaider's concert at the Kennedy Center coincided well with the release of his new disc. Given the disc's Beethoven and Mendelssohn and my habit of not checking concert programs beforehand, I assumed that he would be playing either one of those. Kudos to Mr. Znaider that he resisted the temptation to 'plug' his recording, playing Bruch instead. Perhaps it is a sign of his confidence in playing anything so well that it speaks for whatever else he does. You need only have been at the concert to figure that he is probably right.

Other Articles:

Jessica Duchen, The Naked Violinist (a substantial Znaider interview in The Strad, October 2005)
The disc of his arrived yesterday. I've heard positive things from fairly cynical critics - and thus forewarned, I did not dismiss the somewhat tried combination of Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, and [insert whichever young soloist-star has been around in the last 20 years] out of hand. Mehta, who has admitted that he probably recorded a couple discs too many, may not conjure sudden magic from his well-playing band, but he gives Znaider very apt and amiable support and lays the groundwork from which Znaider can display his superb soft touch in the Mendelssohn. I don't mind when a young female violinist rips through that concerto like her life depended on it... there is something to be said about that energy, after all. But Znaider sounds confident in more subtle ways; plays the violin as though he was wise far beyond his (30) years. It is something I've noticed in his concert, and I am glad to hear it again, captured on record.

The Beethoven is similarly fine - the lines from the often unmelodic material nicely accentuated. The concerto flows along level-headed, neither agressive nor indulgent, rhythmical and with confident, light steps. It is not the 'needle through leather' approach that makes Milstein's recording great - it is mellower but never boring. Is this a disc you must have? Nah... few discs are of such caliber. But it is a disc you won't regret getting, one you will enjoy listening to many times - especially so if you actually saw him in concert.


Ich liebe Dich, Daphne 

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Palazzo BarberiniElke Wilm Schulte is not likely to have been known to many of the audience members who packed the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for Strauss’s Daphne Tuesday night. But he was the most outstanding and impressive singer in the performance that came with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming to Washington on the last leg of a U.S. mini-tour. Mr. Schulte was the first shepherd – the largest of the minor roles in the opera – and he made the most of it. Clarity, diction, volume, and richness of sound were all most impressive and made a few of his colleagues (some of them singing admittedly far more difficult roles) look pale in comparison. ‘La Fleming’ herself impressed on the account of her very ability to navigate the cliffs of this treacherous role. The stamina and seeming ease with which she mastered even the longest and most fiendish arias, too, were amazing. It must have helped that she enjoyed herself on stage during the performance – “for the first time ever” as she mentioned after the concert. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was the very last performance she would ever give of this work that took away some of the tension and pressure. Her mannerisms were not entirely missing, but they rarely disturbed the enjoyment of this very rarely heard delight. There is no point in mentioning diction or pronunciation with any of the main characters. Their vocal lines lie in such extremes of the vocal registers that the most perfectly enunciating native speaker could not be understood. I tried and failed on many instances – despite reading along from the libretto.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Renee Fleming's Burnished 'Daphne' (Washington Post, October 20)

Charles T. Downey, Renée Fleming at the Kennedy Center (DCist, October 19)

Anthony Tommasini, Soprano Taking Chances as a Feisty Wood Nymph (New York Times, October 17)

Anne Midgette, Unsingable Maybe, Yet 'Daphne' Blooms (New York Times, October 14

Lawrence B. Johnson, Soprano Renee Fleming is fit for the gods (Detroit News, October 13)

Susan Barnes, Fleming, Bychkov and company offer stunning concert revival of 'Daphne' (Ann Arbor News, October 14)
I didn’t recognize Jon Fredric West from four years ago in Munich’s Tristan – he seems half the man he used to be, half the hair, none of the beard – and the face that once looked like the flat death-mask of Agamemnon was perfectly three-dimensional. His tone, however, was the same still. Now emitting from an almost smallish tenor, it can be huge. Not always flawless or particularly smooth, but given the demands of the role he performed amiably. The advice to singers must always be not to push the voice – not even in Wagner. But sometimes – in Daphne for example, live, on stage, you gotta push. And push he did, and if it wasn’t pretty he still got an “A” for effort. (Fritz Wunderlich sails through the role with perverse ease on the Böhm recording, and Johan Botha manages surprisingly well on the new Decca recording with Fleming.)

Anna Larsson as Gaea was wonderful. Complete control of her instrument from the lowest to the highest notes, as well as an impressive stage presence (in a concert performance you may well equate that with “very good looks”) made her appearances in the work highlights. In the most minor of major roles, Robert Holl did a fine job as Peneios and was much appreciated by the audience. He sang meticulously, but I found the voice could have used more volume. Roberto Saccà was Leukippos and when Mr. West (as Apollo) killed him, I first thought it was due to jealousy about the voice, not Daphne.

The orchestra under Semyon Bychkov played very well for the most part. The string section and the first cellist deserve special mention. The wind and horn section, especially towards the end of this opera that makes outrageous demands not only on the singers but most of the players as well, had a few weak spots that were noticeable but could hardly have diminished the joy of partaking in what was clearly a very special event.


Universal Releases, Fall 2005 

Universal Classics – the behemoth of a company that includes DG, Decca/London, Philips, Mercury and distributes ECM in the US – had and continues to have a busy fall peppered with interesting new releases and re-releases. We list a few here that caught our attention, we have heard or, even if not heard, have something to say about. The list doesn’t claim to be complete – it reflects our tastes and exposure to the new releases. Discs that have gotten more extensive reviews previously will be linked to and recordings that have more substantial reviews coming are excluded.

Like Gidon Kremer’s new recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin (ECM 1926/27) that Charles and I are going to discuss in greater detail later this week. Or András Schiff’s start of a Beethoven sonata cycle on the same label which I have dissected thoroughly. Or the Taneyev Quintet and Trio with Pletnev and friends. Or the funky-folksy "Ayre" of Golijov with Dawn Upshaw. The same goes for La Fleming's Daphne, which we will post about later today.

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October 11th began Universal’s “Assemble and Reissue” month. Bernhard Haitink’s complete Bruckner is put into one convenient package. (We have little to say about that, other than there cannot be enough Bruckner issued, ever! The set includes “0” but not “00.” Philips 4756740, 9 CDs, ~$70)

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K. Höller, Orchestral Works, E. Jochum / BRSO
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K.A. Hartmann, Symphony No.6 et al., F. Fricsay / RIAS
Decca takes Christopher Hogwood’s Messiah, Athalia, Esther, and La Resurrezione and puts them into a slim, 8-CD Handel box (Decca 4756731) that runs a reasonable $57. (Do that with McCreesh’s and Gardiner’s Handel and we’ll be all over that!)

“Musik… Sprache der Welt” is now on its second volume of a 10-CD box (DG 4775494, ~$100). These boxes are like a trip into the past of continental European recordings in the 50s. Since getting the entire second volume does not entail any savings over collecting the titles individually (try to make sense of that, if you will), I don’t know why anyone would want to go the way of the box -- especially since it contains some choices (Grieg conducted by Fritz Lehmann) that will appeal mostly to Euro-nostalgics. I’d pick the cream of the crop -- and apart from interesting Böhm and Jochum in standard fare like Dvořák or Bruckner, it contains a Jochum-conducted Höller CD (Symphonic Phantasie for Orchestra, op. 20 and the Sweelinck-Variations - DG 4775488) as well as the K. A. Hartmann 6th symphony (plus the final movement of the 4th, the finale of Wolfgang Fortner's 4th, and a good version of Blacher's excellent Paganini-Variations - DG 4774587), both of which I like very much. The sound is surprisingly vivid and the music is very intriguing. Anyone interested in music from that time, a music that combines Romanticism with the experience of war and destruction while working on a new (third) musical language that never really succeeded amid the struggle between pantonal modernism and anachronistic Romanticism, might like to dip his or her ears. At ~$10 or less a pop, it’s a wonderful off-the-beaten-path snag.

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Neeme Järvi’s Sibelius symphonies on DG have been issued over a month ago (DG -- now they follow in a 4-SACD set, DG 4775688, ~$57). To my shame I admit that I realize only now that these are brand new recordings for DG -- not reissues of earlier recordings with the same Götheburg SO… which were, in any case, made for BIS. That I have not dipped my own ears yet is unforgivable, although it is not likely to shake things up radically in the Sibelius symphony cycle world. There are so many exquisite sets (Davis I - III, Ashkenazy, Barbirolli, Karajan II, Berglund) that one more would surely be welcome – alas not awaited with desperation. Järvi’s Sibelius tone poems were issued on an economic DG-Trio (4775522, ~$25), and those I have enjoyed quite a bit. They seem like sensible and felt recordings that have appropriate Nordic hues about them.

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Sticking with prolific Järvi Sr. (he is, according to my own rough estimate, the third most recorded conductor after, far and away, Karajan and runner-up Bernstein), his complete Nielsen symphonies (DG Trio 4775514, ~$25) were similarly re-released, and they certainly took Schonwandt (Dacapo) to town on the account of sound alone. The old Bloomstedt still loom large on their two double-Deccas; individual symphonies can be found with more outstanding attributes, but this compilation is a treat. The 3rd and 5th symphonies are particularly well played, and if you don’t know the Nielsen symphonies at all, this is just the emergency patch you needed.

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Two other Trios that were released are Beethoven's complete violin sonatas and Max Reger's complete string quartets. The latter are most welcome and probably my favorite among the latest batch. Of course, that may well be related to my particular penchant for the music of Reger & Co., a penchant that I am aware is not universally shared. Reger 101 is: too much counterpoint (= too conservative) for modernists, too much chromaticism and dissonance for Romantics. 'Sitting between two chairs', his popularity plummeted among all but the most ardent organ lovers. (If nothing else, Reger's claim to fame is that he penned one of the best replies from an artist to a critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!") With the Clarinet Quintet (with the young Karl Leister!) thrown into the bag, the Drolc Quartet's set can more than stand its own against the Leipzig (MDG) and the Bern (cpo) Quartets. The sound is warm and at the price it is a bargain.

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Beethoven’s violin sonatas are reissued in the second set that this last exponent of the German school of violinists, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, recorded. His first – mono – was with Wilhelm Kempff; this is with the less famous but perhaps more sensitive Carl Seeman. There is some fine playing in this set, too – but I found it more interesting as a contrast to the playing of the excellent Perlman/Ahskenazy or Kremer/Argerich than anything else. Violinists might be interested in a touch here or there that Schneiderhan pulls out of his schoolmaster's hat.

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Stuck into one 3-CD Philips box are now also Mitsuko Uchida’s Beethoven piano concertos with the bonus of the 32 Variations in C-Minor, WoO 80 (4756757). Kurt Sanderling leads the Concertgebouw and the Bavarian RSO in these exquisitely musical and unassuming performances (I have 1, 3, 4, 5 - on #2 my disc skips) that I never tire of. As a ‘standard set’ I might prefer it even over my favorite (opinion-dividing) Pollini/Abbado recordings, but who hasn’t already all the Beethoven piano concerti? Uchida lovers, at least, will want to think about spending just over $20 for it.

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DVDs get the same treatment. Boulez’s Ring – including the “Making of” disc – is now in its complete box. I’ve written about them individually and Der Ring as a whole only makes sense. Warner may issue the Barenboim-Ring… at least they put his Walküre out this month – but with the first and last opera of the centennial Ring being as strong as they are, this set won’t cede pride of place so easily. The set contains 8 DVDs and runs you a Christmas-sized chunk of cash in the vicinity of $160.

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The Sellars-DaPonte-Mozart trilogy (6 DVDs, B000530309) of Don Giovanni (reviewed here), Cosí fan tutte, and Le Nozze di Figaro is now stuck into one set, also. We said that you have to see (if not necessarily buy) the Don Giovanni set, but these formerly revolutionary ways with Mozart have largely been overrun by the now common staging trends that Sellars helped create. While the interpretation of Don Giovanni sets that version apart, the other two can be all-too 80s. Netflix it, if you ask me.

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A third DVD set includes the Philips and DG Carlos Kleiber discs (5 DVDs, B000529409, ~$150). If you need his two Neujahrskonzerte, by all means… go ahead. He’s a genius, and it is difficult to have too much of his work preserved on film or disc. I would pick the Beethoven and Brahms out of the lot. The 7th with the Concertgebouw, in particular, is superb – better yet, perhaps, than the famous WPh recording on DG.

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La Clemenza di Tito feels at home with the Universal company. With the reissue of Karl Böhm’s recording with Peter Schreier and Julia Varady, UNI now holds all four mainstream releases of that particular work. (Later this year to be seen at the Washington National Opera.) I have a habit of mercilessly mocking La Clemenza - especially together with non-clarinetist friends – but when I gave this 1979 recording a listen, I actually quite liked it. At first I thought that Böhm had irreverently cut some of the recitativos (and all the power to him), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I haven’t heard the oldest of the four recordings (Colin Davis, Philips, 1977) and I agree with most critics that Gardiner (live, original instruments, Archiv, 1991) is the best. I certainly did not get much from Cristopher Hogwood’s 1995 recording (original instruments, L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca, 1995), other than great clarinet playing. Still, Böhm seems the one that I enjoy the most. (No, it’s still not a great opera.)

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From the throat of Fritz Wunderlich comes pure gold, and that 2-CD/1-DVD issue “Magic of Wunderlich” (DG 4775575, ~$20) makes that point, too. But it is worth noting that this is very German gold. To hear Handel's "Crude furie degl'orridi abissi" as "Finstre Furien, ihr Geister der Hölle" makes no difference. It's wonderfully sung and that is all that matters. Following Mozart and Lortzing are in German, anyway. The Pêcheurs de perles duet as "Nadir, du stehst wirklich vor mir..." (with Hermann Prey) is curious but not disturbing yet. (After all, the French just have to speak German every so often.) Ditto Lensky's famous Eugene Onegin aria "Wohin seid ihr entschwunden." But when Rigoletto famously sings "Ich denk ihn lieber mir von meinem Stande - Liebe ist Seligkeit, ist Licht und Leben," even I might draw the line. It would not be so bad, of course, if it weren't for the dreadful Gilda of Erika Köth. She sounds like she is interpreting the 'old' Papagena - and then replayed a few RPM's too fast. The 1961 mono sound does not help this excerpt. Do you remember Cavaradossi's "Und es blitzen die Sterne"? Let's just say that's not how Licitra did it. I've heard singers say that they admired Wunderlich, in particular, because he sang (he had to) Italianate opera in German and still made it sound beautiful. Well, perhaps. The first disc peters out with rare operetta arias and songs. His English is quite astounding in the film-music-like "Be my love" (Nicholas Brodzky/Sammy Cahn). But the rest of disc two gives (apart from great Haydn and -- italian! -- Don Ottavio) more opportunities to test if that is true for you, too, with Gluck and Bellini. Works in the first, not so much in the latter. Maillart and Kreutzer are interesting because rarely heard works... but they only kill time until the true beauty, marvel even, comes with a previously unreleased Sänger from a 1966 Rosenkavalier. Oh... you want to kill Kurt Böhme for interrupting that singer, that voice. I have a recording of a Rosenkavalier with Fritzi from the previous year (Böhme does himself no favor by interrupting him here, either), and I've claimed it was worth getting the entire opera just for those four minutes. The one on this disc is not as lyrical but, if anything, more expressive.

If Wunderlich hadn’t fallen down the stairs in drunken stupor, he would have accidentally killed himself in some other fashion sooner or later, I am sure. Still – every time you hear his voice it is impossible not to speculate about ‘what would have been’ if he had lived as long as the inextinguishable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There are other ways to get your Wunderlich fix, but this isn't the worst one.

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Speaking of the devil: apart from being showered with 80th birthday reissues he’s also produced a new CD set. Melodramen is a compilation of the substantial R. Strauss’s Eunoch Arden and Victor Ullmann's Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, as well as the shorter Schumann works Schön Hedwig, Ballade vom Heideknaben, Die Flüchtlinge, and finally Liszt's haunting Der traurige Mönch and Lenore. Spoken text to piano accompaniment – and well over two hours of it - will land you one of the most underappreciated Christmas gifts of the season lest you have German-speaking friends with a taste for the wacky and obscure. (Yours truly already has his copy.)

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Janine Jansen gathered friends and family members and recorded the Four Seasons. Before you yawn collectively, I’ll say she does many a nice thing with her playing. She also does many a fairly normal thing with the work or tries too hard in other places. The chamber ensemble that accompanies her is a let-down. Now you may yawn. (And remember that, despite your dismissive attitude towards the work, you absolutely must hear and have Alessandrini’s recording with Concerto Italiano!)

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Bryn Terfel, the greatest Falstaff on stage these days and generally a wonderful singer, explores the not-so-classical world with his new recording “Simple Gifts” (DG 4775563). I feel he almost pulled a ‘Ray-nay’ with this one – simple gifts simply wasted. Thumbs down and waiting for his next record.

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Barbara Bonney is another artist Ionarts admires live and on record, but her songs of “the other Mozart,” namely Franz Xaver, who is Wolfgang Amadeus’s son of dubious talent, isn’t a hit, either. The songs themselves are “neither good nor bad,” but singing makes them so. (Sorry, Shakespeare – I had to.) What they lack in intrinsic quality is not – repeat, Ms. Bonney – not made up with extra operatic interpretation. For the most part these are simple songs and they would stand a simple approach much better. As it is, Barbara Bonney sounds sadly like a billy goat. The fast and overdone vibrato lessens in intensity when one moves to another room of the house, but that still doesn’t improve the quality of the music. Interesting for the rare repertoire but not on our wish list for 2005.

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L. van Beethoven, String Quartets, opp. 127, 132, Hagen Quartett
The Hagen Quartett continues with Beethoven (DG 4775705). This marvelous quartet is too rarely heard in the U.S. – even their recordings are often hard to get here. With the Peterson Quartet and the inimitable Zehetmair Quartet they are among the finest operating German string quartets. (Just don’t touch my Takács!) I assume you have purchased or will purchase or plan to get as a gift the latest and final Beethoven installment of the Takács, so talking you into yet more Beethoven might be difficult. Their recent Mozart was not bad, but in Mozart their strength is not played out as much as in Beethoven. And in Beethoven nowhere more than in the late quartets. What the Hagens (Lukas, Veronika, Clemens -- with Rainer Schmidt on second violin) do to the Heiliger Dankgesang in op. 132 is almost creepy. They are to Beethoven what Boulez is to Mahler. You see (or hear, rather) details and connections that you can't in the score or other interpretations, because their playing is of the most nuanced order. It is light, modern, clean. It reminds me of minimalist architecture -- lots of glass, brushed aluminum, clean and bright wood. Light-flooded, by all means, these performances are not clinical, though. It isn't the perfection of the Emerson they bring... it is a more refined perfection, a more introspective type. Neither here nor in op. 127 do they resemble the Takács in any way... nor any quartet I know of. Theirs is Beethoven like that hot, unattainable supermodel. We adore it from afar, but we know that we are not going home with her. Our girlfriend is more approachable, cuddles with us, and eats Chunky Monkey ice cream on occasion. Our girlfriend's name is Vegh. Or Budapest, Juilliard, Guarneri, Italiano. Not Hagen. The chance to spend a night with her, alas, is irresistable. Just don't tell Takács.

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W. A. Mozart, Violin Sonatas, Hahn / Zhu
Hilary Hahn and her friend Natalie Zhu do much for Mozart with their recording of the F major (K. 376), G major (K. 301), E minor (K. 304), and A major (K. 526) sonatas for piano and violin. They are played on conventional instruments, but the reading is more than just conventional. It is spirited and most enjoyable. Still, these are not Mozart’s strongest works. Of course, you’d never know by the slew of violin sonata issues that await us this year: the Manze/Egarr team treat us to original instruments. I thought that Rachel Podger and Gary Cooper (whose volume two of the complete set is coming soon) would be difficult to surpass. The new recording of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, however, seems to do so. (For lack of any overlap between the two discs a comparison is a little unfair, perhaps, but Manze/Egarr skate more melodiously through the sonatas.) To be honest, even the best original instruments version would not really do it for me – I like the sound of a healthy grand piano in works that should not automatically have the violinist named first on the cover. There was one album that did that this year – and completely out of the blue, too. Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Steinberg (who? - Exactly!) are the only two players to date that have convinced me that K. 377, K. 303, K. 304, and K. 526 are truly great works of music. Youthful energy that Hahn/Zhu bring to the table, they may not stop Uchida/Steinberg on their way to a ‘Records of 2005’ spot at ionarts.

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Gidon Kremer is one of the most intelligent musicians out there, and his projects are always exciting. (His Bach, so much up front, certainly is!) Still, that doesn’t mean that he always strikes gold. For example his Kremerata Baltica’s recording of the Schubert Quartet in G Major, D. 887 (ECM 1883). You wouldn’t need the entire Kremerata if the quartet had not been orchestrated by Kissiner… and although it is all ever so pleasant, full-bodied, and very good-sounding, we wouldn’t really have needed Mr. Kissiner to do that in the first place, either. It is a recording that sounds pretty impressive (especially the beginning of the first movement Allegro) in the moment but has no lasting impact.

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Clifford Curzon, Decca Recordings 1938-1971, vol. 3
So as not to end on a low note, let's extol the virtues of volume three of the Clifford Curzon series. Curzon is one of the most pleasingly musical pianists, an artist who has a touch that a fellow artist will immediately respond to with admiration (or envy, if they are a pianist). Volume One was received with unalloyed enthusiasm, while Volume Two got a slightly less raving response - perhaps because of the success of the first. Now Volume Three, presumably the final box, is out, and the six discs contain a great variety of music. It starts with that concerto, you know... the - uh... give me one second... Beethoven? No, I know it well - but it isn't one of the Beethoven concerti... dammit. It turns out to be Schubert's Wandererfantasie as turned into a concerto by Franz Liszt. It is in mediocre sound (1937) but a very interesting rarity (Louis Lortie and, of course, Leslie Howard have also recorded it) - at least upon hearing the first couple of times. There is lovingly played chamber music with Mozart piano quartets (and the Amadeus Quartet -1), solo works like one disc of Liszt's (including the B minor sonata, Gnomenreigen, Liebestraum No. 3, et al.), both Brahms concerti, "Tchaik.1", Rachmaninov #2, Grieg, and a 1945 recording with Boyd Neel conducting the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, which is not a sonic spectacular but delicious. Schubert impromptus, Moments Musicaux, and Beethoven's Eroica Variations close the set with well-recorded performances from 1964 and 1971. In one way, this box contains nothing 'special', nothing that would make it an obvious buy for even casual listeners of casual musical inclination. But it offers an immense joy of highly sensitive music making that should make this box (and Curzon) a favorite among those who earn their living through music.


Takács Marathon, Part II 

The opening Adagio of Mozart’s Quartet, K. 465, is an alien delight – and while a single dissonant A-G hardly suffices to speak of proto-Wagnerism, its long weaving, chromatic lines are visionary and beautiful. Especially so when a group like the Takács Quartet plays it, as they did to open their concert on Sunday, October 16th, at the Landon School Mondzac Performing Arts Center. What follows that introduction is as good and perfectly conventional (in so far as a great Mozart work can ever be called that) a string quartet as Mozart ever wrote. Little wonder it led Papa Haydn to his famous praise of Mozart as “the greatest composer known to [him] in person or by name.” The Takács’s beautiful tone and energetic allegros only underscored its beauty.

The second movement of the Debussy that followed seems custom tailored to the Hungarian/American quartet. Happily plucking away in the pizzicato-dominated passages of the Assez vif et bien rythmé, these musicians brought all the playfulness and joy they could to the work. On second violinist Károly Schanz in particular, an excitable guitarist was lost. The playing, for the entire concert, had the usual energy and enthusiasm that make the Takács one of our favorites; the cohesion of the group was fine and the occasional technical infelicities were atypical but barely worth even this mention.

Also on Ionarts:

Takács Addiction (October 4, 2005)

Where's My Takács? (March 10, 2005)

Amazing Audial Alliteration: Borodin, Bartók, Beethoven (October 17, 2004)

Dip Your Ears, No. 8: Béla Bartók, The Six String Quartets, Takács Quartet (August 5, 2004)
Of Mozart’s chamber – and perhaps entire musical – output, the string quintets are rightly considered the apex. The G Minor Quintet, K. 516 from 1787 stands out among its quintet-siblings for its somber, anguished, and pained nature. Drawing biographical analogies to Mozart’s life makes little sense (even if he did go through dark moods at the time of composition) because Mozart was as likely to counter the blues with especially light and sunny works as he was to let the darkness infiltrate his music. Joining Edward Dusinberre (first violin), the aforementioned Mr. Schranz, András Fejér (cello), and 2005 addition Geraldine Walther for the second viola part was ex-Cleveland Quartet violist James Dunham.

The Takács+ played out the long, wailing lines of the Adagio, creating a lamento that did not dwell on sadness, much less overly sentimental tristesse. Instead it contained somber clarity and almost matter-of-fact grief. It did not capitulate to the tragic, it accepted it. Perhaps it is from that acceptance that the fresh air and nearly elated mood of the finale’s Allegro can come? In that sense K. 516 is like a miniature Mahler symphony.

Too few people made it to the Mondzac Hall, given the reputation and quality of the performers. For the public transportation-bound it might be helpful to know that – on a beautiful day at least – it is only a 25-30 minute walk from the Bethesda Metro Station. Surely not too far a distance to hear the Takács or, for that matter the Belcea Quartet on November 13th or Steven Osborne on December 11th.

For more information about the F.A.E.S. Chamber Music Series, call (301) 496-7975.


Music First, Excitement Later in von Eckardstein's Recital 

The 40th season of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s popular Hayes Piano Series opened this Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater with the German pianist Severin von Eckardstein. Highly decorated with prizes (including a third and special at Leeds and a win the following year at the Queen Elizabeth), he seems one of those players that steadily and smartly build their career over the years rather than being teenage flavors of the day, catapulted to instant fame by marketing campaigns. (It makes for the kind of career that sacrifices material gains in the early years for the small chance of achieving lasting greatness… although I am probably wrong in assuming that either type of artist ever really had a choice.)

Eckardstein played the Schumann Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, as his first piece – a substantial and challenging work for any pianist. Programming the Fantasie pleasantly put the emphasis on interpretive qualities rather than mere technical skill. If the motivation behind it was a good one, the execution may have been, too, but no more than that. None of the three movements consistently convinced on an emotional level. Between nice touches here and there (especially in the more fulminant passages) the playing veered dangerously close to routine. When I read about him in the Financial Times well over a year ago, David Murray effusively praised Severin von Eckardstein’s performance at Wigmore Hall, pointing out “ultra-deft” pedaling and “ultra-lucid” everything; playing that has “infinitely precise graduations of touch and timbre […] lending astonishing depth.” The risk he was taking in the same Fantasie then was conspicuously absent at the Terrace Theater.

His widely praised qualities (in the Dutch press this “introverted young man” has been called “a new Horowitz” and a “genius”) came out much better in the Franck Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. Whereas critics from past performances heard harp and organ sounds elicited, I still heard only a piano. But his undeniable quality started shining through the music in subtle ways. There was an assurance in his way of creating sound that can come across as rather plain one second and then suddenly points to unfailing and deep musicality. Instead of being bored at the sound, you settle for observance of nuances while awaiting the glorious. The result is that you are drawn into the music. The outward ‘glory’ never comes but the more intimate relation to the music begins to show its rewards after a while. (Anyway, most great soloists were and are great not on account of superior ability of playing but because of their ability to make the audience listen to the music better.) Just as much as the performer had warmed up, my ears, too, started to understand his playing.

Only a few of the surprising amount of unclaimed seats (the series is sold out on subscription, but it is always worth checking on the day of the performance to get a returned ticket) were filled during the Schumann. But the shuffling and huffing during the second movement was much less disturbing than one painfully slowly yet very audibly unwrapped piece of candy. It caused me a seemingly endless minute of anguish.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit – interrupted only by a cell phone and the subtle white noise of either the loudspeaker or AC system – once more took the listener on the trip towards the music. With the playing almost self-effacing on the surface, one went from curiously untouched to almost unwillingly seeking more – only to be surprised when there was more to find, after all. Eckardstein’s unsentimental, intelligent and mature playing can, depending on the occasion, be refreshing and presumably be worth all the past praise. I doubt if this particular recital showed enough to elicit such a rapturous response, though. It turned out to be a more educational experience, sprinkled with very impressive moments such as the dreamlike and precise Scarbo movement of Gaspard.

In a concert awash in Romantic pianism where all borders, lines, and structures were soft, faded, or hazy, a hard-edged Prokofiev sonata could have been relief; a well-defined and graspable raft amid the sea of sound. Not the ‘soft’ fourth sonata, however, which came out curiously if appropriately French. It was not missing in power, and the Allegro molto sostenuto’s rounded corners and mellow core were very well done even where I was wishing for the bite of some of the other sonatas. The third movement (Allegro con brio, ma non troppo) was a highlight of an unflashy, unspectacular recital that was the piano connoisseur’s prerogative to enjoy.

Severin’s encore of choice is Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the fourth of Rzewski’s North American Ballads. A work that slowly works itself away from repetitive Darmstadt-type of muzak in the left hand (swelling to the point where the piano and some of the audience were at the breaking point) into a blues that is so infecting and surprising to the suspiciously reserved audience that it caused chuckles of delighted relief when the blues first set in. A gasp went through the hall when he came to the passage that is played with the elbow. The mechanical repetitions (one may think of the left hand in Chopin’s A-flat major Polonaise, op. 53) release a storm of energy that Severin knew to unleash better even than the composer himself on his Nonesuch recording. Needless to say that the ten/eleven-minute piece made for a tremendously effective concert closer.

Von Eckardstein has just released a Scriabin album, his second, on MDG. The Hayes Piano Series's next peformance will feature this year's Van Cliburn Competition winner Alex Kobrin on November 12th.


Bach gets Raff Treatment under Slatkin 

(published first at ionarts)

This week’s batch of concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra featured Pinchas Zukerman as violinist and violist in Berg and Berlioz. Before those two “B’s” came Joachim Raff’s working-over of the Bach Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied Violin in D-Minor. Romantic lushinization of baroque music is not anymore in sync with our current musical Zeitgeist, just like Albert Coates/Thomas Beecham-style Matthew Passions and Messiahs have fallen out of favor pretty hard. If the Ruff-ed up Chaconne was a success or worth hearing will thus much depend on your attitude towards that sort of thing. Raff was no Berg or Webern or Schoenberg when it came to treating the old master. The latter threesome’s adaptations are often a miracle on top of a wonder; at the least they are finely composed precision works. Raff, a contemporary of Brahms’ who was thought highly of by Tchaikovsky, is more a handyman tackling Bach like a musical plumber. That doesn’t mean that Bach goes down the drain – so long as you listen to his creation with romantic ears. I myself am a complete sucker for these kinds of things and found the whole affair wonderful. Better yet, the NSO did not torpedo the odd programming choice of the Maestro and played the work with considerable engagement. If it sounded even less like Bach than most Stokowsky transcriptions, it was not because of even greater bombast but because of the surprisingly unselfconscious, happy-go-lucky romanticism.

It is telling of Pinchas Zukerman's skill in adapting to the viola that to some listeners he is principally known as a violist. (To me, at any rate.) The first gig of his, though, had him wield the smaller fiddle in the Berg Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The concerto is the pantonalist’s default defense against the accusations of those with more conservative tastes that no beauty can come of Schoenberg’s “advancements”. Well, Berg’s concerto contains more than enough beauty – after all, no one writes ‘gratuitously ugly music’ “in memory of an angel”. (The concerto was written in dedication to Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius daughter that died at 19 of polio.) Then again, the concerto is not pure atonality, either. Tonal relationships blink throughout the entire composition, providing even a neophyte listener with at least seconds of beauty amidst dissonance. Pinchas Zukerman navigated through the work with great routine and consummate skill. The more demanding (on the listener, at any rate) Adagio of the second movement contained fragility and aplomb – and always Zukerman’s steady, firm tone. The steadiness was underscored by the fact that Zukerman, once he started playing, stood on the stage like nailed to the ground. His feet, I think, never moved an inch. The performance was difficult to judge – Berg proved to be bigger than his interpreters. But the concerto didn’t need brilliance, it merely needed to be performed well - and that it certainly was.

Berlioz’ Harold in Italy saw the white-haired, yet strangely young looking (he’s been around so long, it surprises that he is only 57) Pinchas Zukerman back with the viola. Harold, a “Symphony with viola obligato” is a faux viola concerto commissioned by and written for none other than Paganini himself. Of course Paganini wasn’t going to like a work that did not have him show off his formidable skill throughout the whole piece (much less sit down and join the orchestra in the last movement!). He paid for; but never played it. Richard Freed’s program notes (which make excellent use of Donald Tovey’s essay on HiT) point out that Paganini’s Stradivarius viola for which he had the work written is now in the collection of the Corcoran collection and is used by the performing violist whenever the NSO plays Harold.

The performance was solid (cleaner brass entries in the third movement would have been nice), the irregular stops and goes of the Pilgrims’ March were nicely accentuated, and the final Orgy of the Brigands was a rambunctious affair that woke those up, for whom the evening had begun to get long. The Straussian quartet passage just before the wild finish came across particularly well.

Repeat performances will take place today and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.


Iván Fischer Tops the Rostrum in DC 

(published first at ionarts)

Iván FischerAs can be read here and in an article by Tim Page here, the NSO board has appointed Iván Fischer, founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, as the Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra for the 2006/07, 07/08, and 08/09 season. That means between a fortnight and three weeks of Fischer in Washington per annum - and this is excellent news! Iván Fischer, Adam Fischer's little brother, is a splendid conductor. If the orchestra liked him the last two times he was here, it is also a splendid choice. We may look forward to exquisite performances of Bartók, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and much, much more.

A principal guest conductorship may or may not lead to the position of Music Director, but whether Fischer succeeds Slatkin or not, Washington is very much the richer for his arrival. Ionarts recommends you whet your appetite and get your ears into gear by listening to some of the recordings listed below. You'll understand why 'tis a happy day. (By the way, when looking for recordings, Iván is not to be mistaken with the redoubtable brother, Adam - also a very fine conductor... it was the latter who did the impressive complete Haydn symphonies for Nimbus [now also a complete set on Brilliant] and an equally complete set of Bartók's orchestral works. Both have recorded Blaubart's Burg. To add just a little confusion, Hungaroton recordings will list the younger brother as "István Fischer.")

available at Amazon
S. Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2, Vocalise, I. Fischer/BFO
available at Amazon
B. Bartók, The Miraculous Mandarin, Rumanian Folk Dances, Hungarian Peasant Songs, I. Fischer/BFO
available at Amazon
J. Brahms, Hungarian Dances, I. Fischer/BFO
available at Amazon
F. Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsodies, I. Fischer/BFO


Twisted Symphony 

(published first at ionarts)

“Symphony with a Twist” is the name of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concept that tries to draw a young audience to their concerts. Rumors have it that these concerts once were cool – getting (and retaining) a Martini-glass clinking crowd of mid-twenties and early thirties to the Mayerhoff Hall. Not so much on Friday at the Strathmore. Yes, there was some fine jazz being played by Wayne Wilentz & Co to three, four people timidly moving along to the beat and a few youngish people showed up (many with their parents… eeeewy) – but it was more sad and dull than hip and exciting. Then again, where are the young people supposed to come from? Certainly not from Montgomery county. There are a lot of BSO programs that I’d love to see at Strathmore that aren’t coming down to DC – but the one that tries to put a ‘twist’ into a symphony probably need not have made the cameo in a county that has the highest average age in the region.

The program started with Offenbach’s overture to Orphée aux enfers. Or, to be more precise, it did so after a speech that the Viennese/Uruguayan Carlos Kalmar amiably staggered through with some humor. Ditto before the Linz symphony of Mozart’s, where the speech rivaled the symphony in length. It is important for an orchestra to play Mozart every so often, but it isn’t easy. Maestro Kalmar must know Wolfgang Amade’ Mozart’s music inside out, living and working in Vienna as he does, but even he could not prevent a flattened and doughy interpretation that lacked much of the zany quality of the work. (The recent recording with Bélohlávek and the Prague Philharmonic shows how it can be done.)

For the Wagner Vorspiel und Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde, the City Dance Theater was summoned on stage to do an interpretive dance to the music. The allusion was one of a soldier being called to the military at the eve of World War I. Maybe it took place in Paris, maybe in Schweinfurt, maybe in Niederöblarn. Not that I was able to discern that on my own – but the Maestro said so, in his third lengthy talk… and did so not before he furthered the myth that Tristan & Isolde need a love potion to explain their fate. (Maybe at the MET where two obese ‘lovers’ need all the help they can get.)

Three dancers were involved. One mostly sat around and sulked – I guess he was lover No.2 (King Marke), rejected by the dame for a more exciting last night with the soldier (Tristan). The other two jumped about pleasantly. Later, Isolde and Marke walk out together – but come back when Tristan dies. The brightly orange clad Isolde looks consternated into the distance (her internal death?) as Marke dances excitedly, alone. (I had and still have no idea why.) I don’t know exactly how much more it detracted from the sublime music than it added. Carlos Kalmar got wonderfully soft playing out of the BSO (the dancers obscured a little bit of it with their trampling-noises) and the playing certainly was good enough to have stood on its own. It may have been confusing or distracting, but no matter: It was good. Wagner survived Cosima, he survived (Winifred and) Hitler, he survived Schlingensief – he probably doesn’t even blink what the City Ballet Theater comes his way.

Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite (the actual suite is not his – but the content is) was the last work on the program. Of course Herr Kalmar couldn’t get that under way without taking a dig at Bavarians trying to compose a Viennese opera. Of course that shouldn’t have been surprising. Everyone knows that the Viennese are jealous snakes. Naturally I was shaking with anger inside my Lederhosen. (I am not kidding either… well, at least not about the Lederhosen part.)

The suite is not very smooth at the seams – but it is a decent compendium of so much beautiful music. It wasn’t played quite as well as the Wagner, but well enough to bring enjoyment to my Richard Strauss-starved Bavarian soul. Also good enough to get standing ovations that demanded a little encore. Not bad, I guess… for a Viennese, at least.

P.S. Carlos Kalmar has - all jest aside - made some very fine recordings, in particular the Joachim Violin Concerto with the excellent Rachel Barton-Pine and orchestral works of the American composer Robert Kurka whose second symphony sounds a little like "Shostakovich on the cheap" - but is really quite good.


Znaider & Corigliano 

It is a good season in the Washington/Baltimore area for violin lovers. We had old all-star Perlman two weeks ago and many of the elite Players will grace the local stages over the next months. Julia Fischer, Arabella Steinbacher (you may not have heard of her yet, but even if you miss her concerts at the Châteauville Foundation Maazel Theatre House, Castleton Farms on October 9th or on October 18th at the Library of Congress you will soon!), Hilary Hahn, Midori, Vadim Repin will make the music lover’s mouth (ears?) water. Joshua Bell will also be here – worthy mention in particular for the Corigliano Violin Concerto that he’ll present with Marin Alsop in Baltimore on June 15th.
Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s (once again sparsely filled) Concert Hall Nikolaj Znaider had his turn. He too may not be on everyone’s radar screen yet, but he is right up there with the Repins, Vengeroffs and Hahns of his generation’s player. He just released a Beethoven and Mendelssohn concerto recording with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (of all combos) that has earned kind words from critics (including Tim Page) – and under Leonard Slatkin’s baton the NSO and Znaider presented another staple romantic violin concerto: Max Bruch’s.

The Bruch concerto is one of those that may get a “oh… haven’t we heard that a few too many times already” questioning look from the hardened and cynical concert goers, but actualy: No. We haven’t heard it too many times yet – at least not when it is played very well. Suffice it to say that I would willingly hear it a few more times this week, the way it was presented this Thursday. Steady but searching, ‘looking around’ was the first entry. Phenomenal the transition from the first note of the second short entry played with gusto to the flittering tail it dragged behind it. The third entry finally gets things under way in the music and the way Znaider jumped at the notes without the playing becoming crass or vulgar was a delight. He’s not got the big tone that is Vengeroff’s, nor the stunning color palette of Repin – perhaps not even the rock-solid intonation of Akiko Suwanai - but he has bucket-loads of elegance (never mind the odd metaphor there) and a refined tone that allowed him to shine, seemingly without effort. The way he plays any one note, elicits different tones and lets it wonder through the hall is so noticeable that it borders on a miracle that it never sounded artificial, mannered or self-conscious. Interestingly (and thankfully) he never crossed that line. That his extremely soft touches (he plays one of the most confident pianissimos I’ve heard) that emerged out of nowhere were able to impress as much as they did was in good part the achievement of Slatkin who had the NSO tightly controlled during those moments. It more than made up for the occasional thumping in the animated sections.

Znaider, who must be upwards of 6’4’’, towered over the orchestra. With his extra long suite-frock and the stiff upper torso, he looked like a European schoolmaster ca. 1870… ready to give the first bench of violinists twenty clicks with the bow-cum-ruler. It belied the flexibility of individual phrases but suited the refreshingly angular structure in which all of the music, especially the Adagio, was placed. Instead of turning the work into a hyper-romantic piece of mush he trusted Bruch’s written instructions – a.k.a. the score. I’ve heard the piece pulled around enough to have gotten motion sickness – with Znaider it was a clean ride.

All this may sound overly effusive – but I suppose that isn’t entirely inappropriate for a performance that was simply very good and sounded ‘right’. The Bruch violin concert itself needs no additional comment except that its very popularity and fame obscures the fact that Bruch wrote two more violin concertos that are hardly of lesser quality and should be heard far more often.

available at Amazon
J. Corigliano, Of Rage and Remembrance, L.Slatkin / BPh
Corigliano is one of the great American composers of the younger generation (40s – 60s) who knows how to combine popular appeal with the high-brow mandate. Famous for his Red Violin concerto, his Symphony No.1 (“onA”)is only marginally less popular. Better known under its title “Of Rage and Remembrance”, its ‘popularity’ may not best be measured by a conservative’s audience’s reaction to Corigliano’s musical statement about the horrors and helplessness when being faced with AIDS among friends, but instead the fact that it has received nearly 800 performances since its premiere under Barenboim in Chicago in 1990. Leonard Slatkin, who pointed this out in his appropriately brief remarks before the performance, is a champion of Corigliano’s and it comes as a surprise that this was only the second performance of the symphony with the NSO.

It may also have been titled “Of Anger and tearful exhaustion”; it plays well with emotions and orchestral color. The uni-sono A of the opening elicits a sound from the string section that you will not likely have heard before. Fits from the timpani interrupt in a brutal way that would have done Mahler proud. The sound veers between the edged, abrasive, bombastic, and the hauntingly melodious and calm. Especially intriguing is the piano’s reoccurring Godowsky transcription of Albéniz’ melancholic Tango ‘in the Apartment next door’, courtesy of Lambert Orkis who played it from off-stage. If I didn’t know before why Robert R. Reilly so cherishes Corigliano, I certainly do now. It’s an effectual symphony without being cheap, it’s impressive but not gratuitous. Most importantly, it contains emotional and spiritual truth.

I really hate to have to say that it was ‘risky’ or ‘gutsy’ to program the work last, without some Mozart or Tchaikovsky to follow – because that would then not give people the incentive to stay and hear it out. Indeed, if an audience cannot appreciate a work like this, music with a pulse about as close to the heart (and stomach) as it gets, I cannot appreciate the audience. People who run at the first hint of dissonance are not capable of appreciating the greater beauty of classical music. (And I am not talking about modernist works here, at all. Run to the hills at a Lee Hoiby sighting, if you so desire… but with this symphony??)

This (patronizing?) rant having been aired I am happy to say that only a limited number of audience members left after the first half, and fewer yet during the movements. It seemed to have grabbed many of the listeners just enough at an earthy, intrinsically emotional level to pull their souls into their seats, even if their ears were already half-way to the exits. And I must that this symphony is music (the second movement Tarantella especially) that grabs you by the [pardon me] balls and if it doesn’t, you ain’t got any. The more plaintive third movement (Chaconne: Giulio’s Song) allowed cellists David Hardy and Glenn Garlick shine in extensive solo and duo passages. The symphony continues in high style during the Epliogue, becoming threatening and soothing in turn. If you are not scared of a Shostakovich symphony, you’ll enjoy every bit of this one. Apparently Slatkin’s enthusiasm for the work fell on fruitful ground with the players because they seemed to willingly play the heck out of it in front of an audience that contained its creator. Still, the audience was split into those who rushed out after meager applause and those who tried to make up for that with boisterous roars of ‘bravo’.

The concerto and symphony were preceded by a full-bodied, energetic but un-spectacular Brahms Tragic Overture wherein the brass did better than in last week’s Dvořák. I know some ionarts readers went to see the last performance of the NSO on account of our recommendation of Truls Mørk’s Elgar (and that alone); they would do well to do so again, this time for the Bruch and the Corigliano, either of which would earn the recommendation on its own merits. Ionarts is not getting soft on the NSO (there will be plenty of clunkers to come, I am sure) – this concert just happens to be rather good, too. Repeat performances will take place today at 1.30PM and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. There’s plenty of room everywhere in the hall to accommodate all willing to come.

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