Mozart's Birthday - but a Minetti Quartet(t) Celebration 

Minetti QuartettIf, after this week, we have passed the peak of the Mozart inundation/bonanza, it wasn’t half as painful as we thought it might be. Really, it wasn’t painful at all. Sure, there were a few concerts were an unseasonably lot of WAM showed up, but those were mostly minor events we would not have felt guilty skipping one way or the other. The NSO performing a semi-staged Mozart opera would have been a good idea in any given year – and with one lonely “La Clemenza di Tito” sticking out of the miniscule National Opera’s season, you couldn’t tell that anything special was going on in 2006. When Mitsuko Uchida played all-Mozart at Strathmore it was still 2005, unrelated to the Mozart hoopla, and great! When Brendel will squeeze the Mozart Fantasia in C minor, K. 475 and the Rondo in A minor, K. 511 into his recital at the Kennedy Center on February 7th, we would have expected him to do so, anyway.

All that inconspicuous Mozart left the two-concert Mozart celebration at the Austrian Embassy (presented by the Embassy Series) one of the more notable Mozart-at-250 events. It featured the young Austrian Minetti Quartett… and even they dedicated only a part of their play-time to Mozart; the lion share of the program going to Schubert. Two early, Sammartini-influenced quartets, K156 (134b) and K157, came first. They are not the greatest of his works nor gems among his quartets, they show no influence of the already written and published quartets of Haydn, but they are improvements over the ‘Divertimenti’ Quartets that came a year earlier, in 1772. But what they positively bring to an evening of Mozart celebration is carefree beauty and boundless joy that isn’t reined in by the determination to make a great gesture or profound statement full of looming ‘meaning’.

Minetti Quartett - official PhotoFor those reasons it is all the better to hear the 17 year old composer’s work played with unburdened freshness, by a quartet that is nearer to him in age than would be most. Instead of killing the works with undue polish, the Minetti Quartett worked their way through them with just the right amount of a light touch. Lest anyone think that “without undue polish” is code for “flawed and out of tune” (for which it usually is code), these four musicians who, as a quartet, have already established themselves in Austria as ‘the next big thing’, were as flawless as desirable in a live performance. Their exhaustion from a long trip and limited time to practice were not noticeable to the ear. Even hearing them in minor works, one is inclined to take out shares on their future stardom. One thing that struck in particular – or rather: what remarkably didn’t strike me – was that no one player stood out of this group as a superior or lesser member. I’ve heard plenty of young string quartets in the last few years and usually you can hear pretty quickly that the viola is perhaps above and beyond the rest or that the second violinist doesn’t match the first. Not so here. Maria Ehmer (first violin), Anna Knopp (second violin), Markus Huber (viola), and Leonhard Roczek (cello) played as a collective, counted supreme balancing among their assets and succeeded not on individual ability (though plenty endowed in that field, too) but as a group.

The E-flat major String Quartet D87 (formerly known as quartet no.10, op.125 #1) of Schubert continues the Mozart’s level of classical beauty, here touched up with a romantic and denser feel. Lovely it is and surprisingly mature – only the Andante might have done well in a tighter version. The finale (Allegro) seemed just made for rummaging around in like four puppies, which is what the Minetti Quartett did… if with fleet fingers rather than big paws.

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F. Schubert, Complete Songs, G.Johnson et al.
The beginning of the D810 was a little thin sounding – but a stave or two into that supreme quartet Mlle. Ehmer & Co made up for it with extraordinary élan. Like the “Trout” Quintet, “Death and the Maiden” gets its name from one of Schubert’s songs that stood model for one of the inner movements – in this case the second, the Andante con moto. Unlike the quintet, where the song is nearly as well known as the chamber work based on it, the song “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (D531) is more obscure. If the 209th birthday of Schubert on January 31st is not sufficient motivation or excuse to indulge in the monumental Schubert song collection on Hyperion (now out in a chronologically ordered box), do seek out volume 11 of the original series. A single disc of Brigitte Fassbänder singing songs relating to death. Not only will you find on it one of the finest renderings of “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, it’s altogether one of the best volumes among 40 already exquisite CDs.

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F. Schubert, Songs of Death, B.Fassbänder / G.Johnson
At the Austrian Embassy, meanwhile, the Minetti Quartett followed a good first movement with a dreamlike, grabbing performance of the second. Such beautiful pianissimos; suddenly such seamless swells. The dedication of young hearts in the music elevated the performance far, far above the few individual flaws coming from the exquisitely delicate violins or that one moment in the movement's climax where things threatened to fly apart. The third and fourth movement were not much less convincing. More than worthy for Mozart’s birthday party and one of the finest chamber performances I’ve heard as part of the Embassy Series so far.

Too bad that the Austrian’s Presidency of the European Union occupied the back room though – it wrought havoc on the recently improving receptions at the Austrian Embassy. But what could have possibly necessitated that the wine was served in plastic cups and poured from Tupperware pitchers (I shudder at the very memory), I can’t imagine. But that surprising lapse in taste on the part of the Austrian hosts was quickly forgotten with that special musical performance in the ears still, and the teeth sunk into the parting gift of a Mozart-Kugel.


The Abduction From the Opera House 

Robert R. Reilly, a one time Pasha Selim in New York (vis-à-vis Faye Robinson), did Ionarts the honor to review last night's Abduction performance of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

The Abduction from the Seraglio is a lovable but silly opera, an no one should expect less than silly when going to a performance, be it in the opera house or semi-staged as it was at the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance this Thursday (to be repeated today, Friday and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM). If you are fine with a healthy amount of slapstick, you’ll be served well with the NSO’s production and TV anchor Sam Donaldson as TV anchor Pasha Selim.

The production, though, before the charm assault wears the critics' defenses down by the end of the nearly three-hour long program (two intermissions account for some of that length), raises a few questions. It seems, in all, an odd compromise between fully staged opera and a concert performance. The right third of the stage was reserved for the opera’s action that also spread out in front of the orchestra and into the hall via a walkway. The orchestra itself was seated in an aqua-colored enclosure to the left, their chairs and music stands wrapped in cloth of the same color. The singers acted the opera out and appeared in costume – if not exactly elaborate ones. There were no supertitles but the Power Point™-like projections onto a screen above the orchestra gave spunky summaries of what the singers were singing about. The ample dialogue was in English, adapted and re-written for this performance by librettist Richard Sparks. All this added up to a questionable hybrid. The insistence on dialogue in English assured that the producers wanted the audience to understand the funny bits. But the music’s text was left alone, perhaps for fear of mulling too much with Mozart. But since we all know that virtually no one understands a lick of what the singers mumble about in some foreign language and given that no supertitles were provided, the music is for all practical purposes expected to stand on its own, to be absolute music. It’s Mozart’s music and it manages fairly well. But then why bother hamming it up with that English-language play in-between? It thus becomes a high-quality variétée performance, although perhaps with wide appeal.

Leonard Slatkin led an indistinct, somewhat heavy but well playing NSO. He also partook a little in the fun’n’games in what was probably the wittiest scene. Ordered by Kevin Short’s Osmin to meddle around stage-left, the NSO took its own cue, starting to play before Slatkin could race back to the podium to resume pretending to conduct. Said Osmin was one of the highlights of the performance - at least after some vocal posturing in his first appearance. The other one was Jiyoung Lee’s Bonde. A clean and big voice, she had audible fun with her role. Size was not Jennifer Casey Cabot’s problem – but she never seemed to warm to her role of Constanze and although singing well, never made much of an impression. Trills in her first aria were merely a wider sort of vibrato. Richard Clement’s Belmonte was underpowered and not the most pleasing voice, either, but handled himself well and efficiently. His “Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden” enchanted. Robert Baker’s Pedrillo (Baker was reviewed on Ionarts as Baron Jacobi in Democracy) had a fair performance. He will have been entertaining to most in the sparse audience; I found his interpretation of “Pedrillo as Will to Blonde’s Grace” less funny. The “Ach Belmonte! Ach mein Leben!” quartet that closes act two was excellent – but the opera's penultimate number, the Vaudeville “Nie werd’ ich deine Huld verkennen”, seemed a bit rushed and all-too jolly. Not of the same quality as the Gardiner recording offered when I replayed that part five times at Gramercy Park last summer. The overture was accompanied with a faux naïve cartoon by director Douglas Fitch that will have passed as cute with most. Sam Donaldson's enthusiastic Pasha, performed via video feed live from the green-room behind stage (perhaps to make him look like the newscaster we know him as? But then the direction should have zoomed out a little to let us see the big desk behind which he was sitting) and came out for the last scene. Washington loves its celebrity appearances – and after Supreme Court Justices in Die Fledermaus, this seemed the logical extension. We now await Wolfowitz as Alberich in the upcoming Rheingold.

Altogether the concert was a jollier affair than dissecting its parts may make it sound like. I could have imagined Mozart served better (perhaps with a concert performance of Cosí) but for those who know what to expect, this will do.
Thursday night, the NSO, soloists, and the Master Choral of Washington, under Leonard Slatkin, offered a 250th birthday salute to Mozart. These forces gave a semi-staged performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio, the first of three performances held not in the Opera House, but in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center. Abduction is perhaps Mozart’s most effervescent opera. It put him on the map in Vienna in 1782 and was, according to some sources, his most popular opera while he was alive. Thursday night was not the champagne evening it could have been, but neither was it flat beer. It was a good-hearted, if sometimes silly effort under less than ideal circumstances.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, 'Abduction': Taken With a Grain of Salt (Washington Post, January 27)
The setting inevitably imparted a kind of “we can do it in the barn” atmosphere to the proceedings, not entirely inappropriate to the spirit of a singspiel. Stage left served as the platform for most of the action, while the orchestra was seated stage right. Over it was placed a screen on which was projected various cartoon drawings, a few super titles, aria summaries, and, oddest of all, Sam Donaldson, who had been advertised as playing the role of Pasha Selim -- the longest non-singing role in opera -- but who appeared on video – perhaps to make those accustomed to seeing him on TV more comfortable. The overture was illustrated by some cartoons that looked like Edward Gorey works from a bad day in grade school. I cannot give a thoroughly honest account of them because, of all things, I shut my eyes in order to listen to the music.

Anyway, the cartoons served as fair warning that Abduction would be interpreted broadly and with some slapstick. And this was the case. Two seats in front of me were seated a father and his son, probably not more than eight years old. I liked seeing this and wished that my own son were with me, as it appeared the production would be largely aimed at his age level.

From left to right: Casey-Cabot, Clement, Lee, Baker, Short
I can point out a number of minor faults with the production’s attitude – minor, because, after all, this is a light-hearted comedy. The new English language libretto for the spoken dialogue – the singing was in the original German -- is forgivably and forgettably sophomoric. The solecisms – such as Korean soprano JiYoung Lee (Blonde) telling Osmin, “I am not a slave; I’m a free-born Korean girl – may get a cheap chuckle, but it transgresses the necessary conventions of comedy. Letting us know that they know that this is funny does not add to the fun. It deflates it. The fiction makes it fun. Maintain the fiction. Too often, the singers were, figuratively speaking, sticking their heads out from behind the scrim to wink at us in a knowing way about something we already knew.

Vocally, the star of the evening was bass Kevin Short as Osmin. While that is a well-deserved compliment to him, it also may be less than flattering to the other principals who certainly had the opportunity to cover themselves with glory in the wonderful opportunities their roles afforded them. Short also excelled in his characterization of Osmin, as opposed to the “opera-acting” the passes for acting in opera.

For perspective, I should say that no one was really less than adequate. JiYoung as Blonde was more than that with her rich, syrupy voice, though her Korean accent made a few words of the English dialogue difficult to grasp. She also had some fun with her role. Tenor Richard Clement as Belmonte started with a slight rasp in his voice that soon disappeared in some lovely lyrical singing, but his voice was simply too small to carry this role convincingly. When faced with soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot as Constanze, he was swamped. Cabot has a big voice, easily reaching the upper registers with plenty of power. She can project it into every cranny of the hall. The problem is that her vibrato tended to swallow her performance and give a kind of sameness to her singing. One’s enjoyment of her performance was in part determined by one’s tolerance of vibrato, which in my case was not very wide. Tenor Robert Baker as Pedrillo had a strong first half, but seemed to lose some steam in parts of the second.

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W.A. Mozart, Die Entführung aud dem Serail, Krips/WPh/Popp,Gedda,Rothenberger,Unger,Frics
The unevenness in vocal powers made the ensemble singing in the gentler moments the highlight of the evening, aside from Short's performance. That is because, piano or pianissimo, all singers are equal, at least when they are as talented as this group. The quartet at the end of act two was a particularly lovely example.

Slatkin and the NSO may not have been the last word in élan, but their support throughout the evening was more than fine. If the tempos were somewhat leisurely, the lyrical moments were given tender loving care. I did not hear one misstep in the orchestra.

Sam Donaldson finally showed up in person on stage to condemn the lovers to death mid-point in act three. I had begun to speculate that he would take a live curtain call after what seemed like a canned performance, which would have been something new. I will not comment on his performance as I am prejudiced. I knew Pasha Selim. I played Pasha Selim (with members of the Metropolitan Opera Studio in a production back in 1973). Sam is no Pasha Selim. Nonetheless as a celebrity gimmick, it kept one’s attention.

Eavesdropping On Our Knees: Mozart 1756 - 2006 

This appreciation of Mozart has been adapted for Ionarts from an article by Robert R. Reillyfor the February Issue of Crisis Magazine.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born two hundred and fifty years ago this month. In 1991, the bicentennial of his death was the occasion for massive Mozart festivals and grand recording projects, as well as reappraisals of his genius and meaning. Fifteen years later, the reappraisals continue. Unfortunately, they often tell us more about ourselves than they do about Mozart. Here is an assessment from the highly praised biography of Mozart, Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon: "[Mozart] was put on earth, it seems, not merely to provide an anodyne to sorrow and an antidote to loss, but to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that things are not what they seem to be, that masquerade and reality may well be interchangeable, that love is frail, life transient, faith unstable" (p. 509). Really? I would have thought that description, but for its first part, fit for almost any 20th century artist of angst. But for Mozart? Perhaps this is another attempt to help us understand Mozart by making him more like us. There have been a range of such attempts, many of them centering around the bicentennial, most of them concluding that we can relate to Mozart because he was really a modern neurotic man.

W.A.MozartMozart has been enfolded in the modern perspective by transforming him into a proto-Romantic, if not a revolutionary. This has been done in a popular, vulgar way and also through modern scholarship. The first was accomplished by Milos Forman's very popular but perverse film adaptation of Peter Schaeffer's brilliant play, Amadeus. In the play, Mozart's infantilization serves a legitimate dramatic purpose in firing Salieri's anger at God: how dare God assign to an idiot savant, Mozart, greater musical powers than He did to an obedient and faithful servant, Salieri? The more ridiculous Mozart is made to appear, the more dramatic the question of God's providence becomes. In his film, Forman shifts the focus from Salieri to Mozart, whom we are invited to see, not within the context of Salieri's relationship with God, but as a misunderstood genius who transcended the conventions of his time. This is stylistically conveyed by having Mozart alone act as if he were thrown from the 20th century back into the 18th. The message was clear on a large poster in the foyer of the movie theater in which I saw the film: "Mozart -- the first punk rocker." Indeed, the spasmodic gestures, the bug-eyed looks, the gyrations and hand movements of actor Tom Hulce were unique to the punk rock youth of the 1980s. This trivialization served no dramatic purpose but was understandably popular for its implicit message: Mozart, just a punk rocker ahead of his time.

The more sophisticated way of revolutionizing Mozart is to psychoanalyze him and his works with the diagnosis: "an obsessional, anal-fixated, paranoiac personality." This is actually a compliment. It shows Mozart as out of tune with his times, and therefore ahead of them. Several years ago in The New York Times arts section, music professor Richard Taruskin says that for radical critic Rose Rosengard Subotnik, "Mozart is the first composer who suffers as we do from the malaise of modernity." She finds evidence in Mozart's last three symphonies of a unique "critical world view" and a mind under stress from the pressures of constructing a personal reality outside of social norms. Likewise, fellow radical critic Susan McClary suggests that the piano soloist in the Piano Concerto in G Major (K. 453) is "blatantly sacrificed to the overpowering requirements of social convention," just like Mozart supposedly was. This is a Mozart for the end of the 20th century: a modern alienated man like us.

But Mozart was not like us. We cannot understand him by assimilating him into our own times -- by pretending that he was a premonition of what we now are. This kind of temporal provincialism requires either denigrating Mozart as a punk rocker or as anal-fixated. We should not look forward in history to understand him, but backward, not because he was a product of his times, but because he wasn't. In fact, if anything, we should look to prehistory, to the preternatural for some grasp of his genius.

All the models through which the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are trying to grasp the meaning of Mozart are flawed with our own failings. Mozart was not a deviant or a revolutionary. He went beyond the musical conventions of his time without changing them. Unlike Beethoven, he worked within the formulas of harmonic development and motivic usage that he received. Mozart expressed his artistic credo in a letter in 1781,in which he wrote that, "passions, violent or not, may never be expressed to the point of revulsion, that even in the most frightening situation music must never offend the ear but must even then offer enjoyment, i.e., music must always remain music." Through an inspired level of basic material, Mozart brought the received forms to their greatest level of perfection. Never trite or even predictable, he had originality without overstatement. But perhaps as much could have been said of Haydn.

Mozart has something else, something close to ineffable that is nonetheless expressed in his music. Every culture tells of a golden age from which man fell. Almost every culture tells of some path to its restoration. Within Western culture, the story of Eden contains an account of man's preternatural powers, taken from him at the Fall. Mozart is our musical Eden. Somehow, in his musical ability, he escaped the stamp of original sin and sings with purity of the first days. Aaron Copland expressed it this way: "Mozart . . . tapped once against the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness that has never since been duplicated."

But as a fallen man in every other way, Mozart also expresses the depth of loss. This is the sadness of his perfection. Even Mozart's galant music can provoke longings that belie its sparkle and lightness. The delight it induces ironically produces a sense of loss that the imperfect feels when faced with the perfect. As someone once put it, "his lightness is infinitely grave." But loss is not despair. Karl Barth pointed out that, at the end of Mozart's last opera, The Magic Flute, we hear "The rays of the sun drive out the night." This is not a facile happy ending. It is rather Mozart's supernal connection with something essential in existence itself. Barth, like Copland after him, speculated that Mozart's "'sound' . . . is in fact the primal sound of music absolutely." Primal, ontological. In other words, this very preternatural quality of Mozart's music, which occasions a sense of loss in hearing it, also points to a recovery from that loss. Yes, as Mr. Solomon would have it, Mozart reminds us that "all is not well." But Mozart's music is a sign that it will be. The existence of Mozart's music is almost a promise that the loss is not irretrievable. The world to which it refers and out of which it comes really does exist. True happiness exists; true love exists; so does complete joy -- but not here. As it preceded us, it will follow us. The sense of loss behind is also a sense of hope ahead. This is why Mozart's mention of death as man's true best friend is not morbid. Death is our means to completion.

Though he died while writing the Requiem at nearly thirty-six years of age, two hundred and five years ago, a sense of completion also exists in respect to Mozart's work. It is hard to believe that there could have been more. The question as to why he died so young is always superseded by: How could he have existed at all? How could you ask more of a miracle? Miracle is the exact word used by Goethe and by other agnostics and unbelievers in reference to Mozart while he was alive and shortly after he died. The Voltairean encyclopedist Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, who heard Mozart in Paris in 1763, said of the seven-year old prodigy, "I truly fear that this child will turn my head if I hear him again; he has shown me how difficult it is to preserve one's sanity in the face of a miracle."

Karl Barth, who accepted the sanity of the miracle, had perhaps the most beautiful thing to say in his "Letter of Thanks to Mozart." "I have only a hazy feeling about the music played there where you now dwell. I once formulated my surmise about that as follows: whether the angels play only Bach in praising God I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart and that then also is the Lord God especially delighted to listen to them."

We are mere mortals eavesdropping.

Mozart, our Birthday Gift 

It is so easy to beat up on Mozart. All it takes is just a tiny bit of cynicism on the critic’s part. Intellectual pretension doesn’t hurt either. The result is a predictable set of contrivedly controversial accusations. “Mozart the composer who didn’t advance music. Mozart the composer who ‘merely’ perfected the itty-bitty prettiness of music. Mozart, the facile (in all meanings of the word) human being. Mozart the composer the Nazis first exploited with something disturbingly like the celebratory vigor of our times.”

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W. A. Mozart / J. Brahms / L. van Beethoven, Piano Concertos K459, K488 / no. 2 B-flat op. 83 / no. 3 op. 37, no. 5 op. 73, Pollini/Böhm, Abbado/WPh
It is easy to point out that his work is indeed not ‘all perfect’ and that his output was uneven. That his early symphonies may or may not be better than those of contemporaries. That Mendelssohn was a greater child prodigy, writing better music at an earlier age. In the juvenile drive to dismantle gods in order to look like an outré intellectual who shocks by not following the masses’ appreciation of Picasso, Mozart, or Shakespeare we turn our back on all that which is too widely acclaimed, too popular with the ‘plebs’. Glenn Gould loved that sort of behavior when, as an undoubtedly insufferably precocious kid, he claimed that "Mozart could not write a piano concerto and was, anyway, a mediocre composer." Can you sense the deep thinker behind such contrarian claims? Maybe as a fellow second- or seventh-grader? But sooner or later we are bound to get bored with this point of view, even if Gould, who so loved his outrageous-for-the-sake-of-it ideas that he espoused them for the rest of his life, never did.

But with Mozart everywhere in this year of his 250th birthday, one is likely to encounter that one piece too many of Mozart that will send us to the dark, Mozart-denouncing side. Some will open alternative Shostakovich camps (his 100th anniversary falling somewhat by the wayside this year) and try to compare Mozart unfavorably to Bach. I understand them and sympathize with them. Often, the Mozart work is not the highlight of a concert I attend, and it is hardly ever the reason I attend. And I agree that I could listen to Bach endlessly whereas I would, sooner or later, tire of Mozart. But if I had to listen to half as much of Shostakovich, whom I love, as Mozart, whom I appreciate, I’d become a brooding mess and nervous wreck. With a Mozart overdose, the worst that can happen is that you’d grow a set of wings or act unnaturally nice (or fall back on the above-mentioned infantile arguments).

Mozart, score of piano concertoMozart, after all is said and done, is a genius. Listen, for example, to the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 23 (KV488). There is such an irresistible beauty, such perfection, such clarity of purpose in these couple of minutes, that over and over I am compelled to completely surrender myself to that music. My arms move away a bit from my body, the hands and face turn heavenward ever so slightly. It is here – and in many other works of his (too many to mention here – which is why he must be considered such a great, unique composer) where the arguments and the bickering end. I wish I could instantly play a movement such as that concerto’s every time I or someone else made a smart remark about Mozart. By snapping my fingers Karl Böhm might conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and Maurizio Pollini in front of them. Such delicacy (but never in the “Dresden China” approach), such beauty!

Nietzsche, for example - and like many of us and every solid ‘if-it-feels-good-it-can’t-be-good-for-us’ Lutheran/Protestant - may have been instinctively inclined to critique Mozart on the issues of being too rococo, on "his tender enthusiasms, his childlike delight in curlicues." Mozart was softer than the mountain-top philosopher should have liked, but too genial for him not to love. The power of the music is such that we can only do it away from the music. That is Mozart.


Natalia Gutman & Friends at the Kennedy Center 

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D.Shostakovich / F.Schubert, Piano Trio no.2 op.67 / Violin Sonata D574, Gutman, Kagan, Richter
Natalia Gutman’s bio in the program to her concert on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater came with a recommendation of none other than Vladimir Putin. Although I won’t dismiss the possibility that the great leader enjoys a good performance of a Bach suite when he ponders which neighboring country to screw next, audiences may have given more credence to a quote from a musician; perhaps her long time piano trio partner Sviatoslav Richter or other musical collaborators such as Rostropovich, Abbado, Argerich, Muti or Stern. Then again, I suspect that most of the audience members didn’t need any such introduction. As with the Hvorostovsky concert, the crowd was saturated with Mme. Gutman’s compatriots.

The Bach suite with which she opened the concert (no. 3 in C-major) was played rather fast and only got better from ‘dance’ to ‘dance’. The Gigue, in particularly, was a joy. Playing together with Messrs. Moroz (violin) and Shteinberg (piano), the audience was treated to the Brahms Trio no.3 in c-minor – and a high-powered performance it was, indeed. Nothing leisurely, much less soothing, about this Brahms with edges, drive and excess energy. I am sure there might be times I should like my Brahms more mellow, but those times have not yet come and are not likely to arrive soon in the case of live performances. Instead it was just what I needed from the work.

The second half started with the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata (too beautiful to listen to and too fascinating to watch the fingering, making occasional unclean notes all but disappear – Dmitri Shteinberg’s accompaniment excellent) and then concluded – much to my delight – with the Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in e-minor. The Trio’s opening cello notes were insecure, bleak and soft. If so on purpose, it evoked the naïve, plain song of a child. The trio’s first movement is very much unlike the string quartets and seems more like a miniature version a (but no particular) Shostakovich symphony. The propelling rhythms drive the work along after the searching introduction ends – other instruments can do their shenanigans over that basic, unfailing pulse. It’s music that flies bye the ear as pointless if you don’t find that pulse that will drive you along and through. All relieve and tension stem from the adherence to, and loosening from, that pulse’s grip. The second movement’s Allegro non troppo came together and proved very exciting before the long, aching Largo took over. Like chicken pecking away, the finale - Allegretto – combines humor and beauty with aforementioned propelling drive, moving to a tremendously built-up climax (especially considering that only three instruments create all that hullabaloo) before it dies down again for a haunting end. Splendid way to have kicked off the Shostakovich centenary celebrations! Not surprisingly, the audience refused to leave and force-applauded the three artists onto stage for another Shostakovich-encore.

Dip Your Ears... ( 50 ) 

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L.v. Beethoven, Violin Concerto, Romances, Zehetmair/Brüggen/O.d.18th Ct.
There are some works that are undisputed members of the classical music pantheon that I just don’t quite appreciate at the level I feel I should. Apart from the perennial struggle with Verdi, three of these works are by Beethoven. They are his Missa Solemnis, his Fidelio and his Violin Concerto. Strike the latter off that list.

I’ve liked recordings of this work (Milstein, Grumiaux), I’ve appreciated others (Hahn, Znaider, Oistrakh) and I’ve found others, still, wanting (Mutter, Perlman). But unlike the other “Concerto against the Violin”, the Brahms, I’ve never loved this one - nor felt, rather than understood, its greatness.
All awhile I have often read the remark that a new recording of the Beethoven concerto was good – but would not supplant Thomas Zehetmair’s in the estimation of the reviewer. Eager to explore if there was anything to that claim, I snagged the recording (for a long time not readily available in the U.S.) the second I saw it at the local store. The overused cliché of “hearing a work as if for the first time” must be used. Actually, I immediately felt like I remember feeling when I first listened to Beethoven as a little kid. A large part of that experience is the excellent, brilliant sound that was captured on this live recording. That, and Frans Brüggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century which plays (vibrato free) with such gusto and force, with such heft (listen to the timpani rolling into your room threateningly) one moment and then with the most subtle delicacy the next, that the experience of listening to this concerto becomes eerily visceral.

Enter Zehetmair (with vibrato and playing the Schneiderhan cadenzas) in the Violin Concerto and the two Romances. He does play with some vibrato, he’s fast but never rushed, he’s fresh and energetic. The communication between orchestra and violin seems symbiotic, the execution is flawless. The word “fresh” is the one that wants to insert itself in every sentence describing the performance… to me, it feels like a crisp, perfect Sunday family breakfast in the mansion. Whatever it may ‘feel’ like to you, be assured this recording is not just marginally better or different than others, it is, in the most literal meaning of the word, outstanding. Do try and hear for yourself!

Philips 02894621232


Tapping Along With the Klavier Trio Amsterdam 

The program notes to the Klaviertrio Amsterdam’s (KTA) performance at the Corcoran this Friday, ever lucid and intelligently written by the Musical Evening Series’ chair-woman Dr. Susan Joseph, opened with the bold claim that “[m]usic is not about progress.” I propose you wade through an entire year of ubiquitous Mozart and then reconsider – but meanwhile the three works on the program were supposed to support that point. Yet, highlighting the continuous appeal of Beethoven’s op. 70 no.1 (“The Ghost”) with its innovative form – especially the first movement – vis-a-vis the later Brahms trio no.1, op.8 and Fauré Piano Quartet op.15 (works much and justly beloved in their own right) only underscored the extraordinary position of Beethoven among composers… presumably because his music pushed new modes of expressiveness. It is our very 20th and 21st century understanding of classical music as a repertory art form that has, to a certain degree, divorced our appreciation of music from its progress.

The KTA’s performance, at any rate, did not concern itself with these matters – at least not on the surface of their stimulating rendition. A softly surging Largo in the Beethoven was especially appealing in a performance that was all one might expect (if lacking that wondrous ‘extra’ that makes for ultimate bliss) and compared favorably to the Peabody Trio’s performance last year. Although I would have loved to hear Klára Würtz (the nominal pianist and founding member of the KTA), it is questionable if she could have gotten more out of the Corcoran’s rickety Steinway B (an instrument that is more liability than asset for the Corcoran’s concerts, with its flattened and somewhat hazy, uneven sound) than her much appreciated substitute, Rob Mann – himself a founding member of the Amsterdam Piano Trio. His colleagues that night, who, together with Mme. Würtz are the founding members, were Joan Berkhemer (violin) and Nadia David (cello). Minor waywardness in individual notes not withstanding, the Brahms, too, was an assured joy. The Allegro con brio of this one trio alone would qualify Brahms for the pantheon of chamber music. The Andante celebrated the long melodies and led nicely to a busy closing Allegro.

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Fauré, Debussy, Ravel Piano Trios, Florestan Trio
The second half was dedicated to a work that is as beautiful as it is rarely performed: Fauré’s Piano Quartet. Adding his viola to the mix was none less than Ionarts-favorite and ex-Takács Roger Tapping. I noticed no deviation from his usual excellence – and everyone around him, too, seemed to have performed at a level that was another notch higher. The Scherzo, not easy to keep together with its cross rhythms, bubbled with coherence.

With performers like the KTA/Tapping combination, the above argument of music and progress rephrases itself: Music may still be insisted upon as being about progress – but everyone should on occasion be retrogressive and smell the flowers!

Roger Tapping will be back at the Corcoran for the remainder of the great Mozart Quintets on March 3rd with the Parker String Quartet (Tower, Schumann) and May 12th with the Daedalus Quartet (Mendelssohn, Britten no.2). The Takács will play at the Corcoran on March 31st (Mozart “Dissonance”, Bartók No.2, Schubert “Death & Maiden”)


Four Lost Songs 

Lorin (Varencove) Maazel has never been accused of being the most exciting orchestra leader but this quintessential child protégé (conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of nine, the NBC Symphony Orchestra at 11 and every other major U.S. orchestra before hitting puberty) is among the most competent conductors alive. Nothing that happens in an orchestra goes by him, his control over the bands he conducts is probably second only to Boulez’. If I didn’t cry a tear when he left the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2002 (replaced by Mariss Jansons), it was probably because the BRSO was not so much in need of being drilled to play well but rather inspired to play like possessed and in more challenging repertory. There are, however, orchestras that can only benefit from his exactitude and attention to detail. The National Symphony Orchestra, for all its qualities, is still such a body. This Thursday night they had their chance to showcase the amalgamation of their collaboration in an all Richard Strauss program – and didn’t.

Metamorphosen, the “Study for 23 Solo Strings” and the first Strauss on the program can, ideally, be an ethereal, otherworldly experience that completely envelopes the listener and transports us into the Straussian harmonic world somewhere far, far away. If the NSO’s twenty-three string players under Maazel didn’t, it was perhaps the labored, unidiomatic way in which they slowly advanced through the notes without leaving much behind in ways of conjured mystery or awe. The conductor Maazel (what a precise stick, though! he’s a joy to watch) prepped the players well enough but I would have expected the violinist Maazel to have infused his players with a greater sense of emotion – even if Metamorphosen should have been considered the least important work of the night by the performers.

The Four Last Songs of Strauss contain what must surely be one of the most beautiful phrases in all of music. Specifically in Beim Schlafengehen – these days generally sung at the third position. It is the proof of Strauss’ genius that he touches upon this phrase once, then one more time – less than two minutes in all – and lets go, never to use it again. Listen to what starts at about two minutes into the song, after the second stanza, with the violin solo, has a pre-climax on the word “Seele” (“Und die Seele unbewacht…”) and then encompasses the first two lines of “will in freien Flügen schweben / um im Zauberkreis der Nacht / tief und tausendfach zu leben” . Any lesser composer would have milked an entire career out of it. (No disrespect to Mr. Elgar, but such an example might be how the sublime Nimrod-phrase pops up just about every other work of the Englishman.) Music that is this spine-tingling gorgeous will impress under most circumstances. Unfortunately the soprano on duty seriously challenged that assumption. Held against such supreme – albeit all very different from each other – accounts of the Vier Letzten Lieder as Jessye Norman, Lisa Della Casa, Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Gundula Janowitz and Renèe Fleming, her contribution was simply foul.

Inferior breath control ruined musical lines despite Maazel’s already brisk pace, she sang into the ground in front of her (or alternatively the note stand) and despite her towering presence on stage (almost as tall as Maazel on the podium) she was drowned out by the orchestra most of the time. The soprano is supposed to soar here – not make the effort audible. Together with a somewhat inadequate contribution from the orchestra (only Nurith Bar-Josef’s solo in “Beim Schlafengehen” managed to please), this was a dud as disappointing as I’ve not before experienced from an NSO performance.
It wasn’t until after the actual performance that I noticed the leaflet in the program that pointed out that this had not been Katarina Karnéus singing (she had to cancel due to illness), but Nancy Gustafson who graciously filled in for her. That may go some way in explaining the mishap – but then again, it doesn’t, really. Ms. Gustavson’s bio is easily as impressive as Ms. Karnéus’ – and judging from her roles at the finest opera houses (including Daphne under Thielemann at the Deutsche Oper Berlin), the Four Last Songs should be well within her reach. I can’t imagine what went wrong and I’d rather not spend any more time thinking about the performance, either.

Last week, modest Mozart was eradicated from the memory by wondrous Wagner. Performance of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel didn’t quite achieve what would in any case have amounted to a Herculean task, but they provided for a very amelioratory experience. Don Juan was muscular, throwing his weight into the music. Based on a lesser known re-telling of the Don Juan story (poor Juan merely has so many girlfriends because they all turn out to be unfit for a future of domestic bliss at chez Tenorio), Strauss packed it with good-hearted elements, lyrical moments and an abrupt, unceremonious end. With Maazel and the NSO telling the story we heard an accentuated element of brashness in a bold Don Juan. It served to highlight the contrast between op.20 and the op.28 that followed – the lighter, sprightlier Till Eulenspiegel. The opening of “Till” already has a light gait. Just a little mud on the shoes in this performance but not enough to drag it down. The players seemed to enjoy themselves and the collected hundred-plus crew made a merry noise, indeed. The many solo passages were largely mastered with aplomb.

Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 1:30PM.

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R. Strauss, Vier Letzte Lieder, Schwartzkopf/Szell
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R. Strauss, Vier Letzte Lieder, Della Casa/Böhm
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R. Strauss, Vier Letzte Lieder, Norman/Masur

The recordings of the Vier Letzten Lieder that must be heard are the first three I mentioned above. Norman (with Masur and the Gewandhaus, either with more Strauss or with the Wesendonk-Lieder on Philips) is not the most sensitive to the text, nor does she offer the most nuanced reading. But by God, in Beim Schlafengehen her big, creamy voice is the most gorgeous thing ever to have come from a human throat and Masur is there with her, all the way. She seems to take all four songs in one breath, no matter how slow Masur gets. “The Classic” is Schwartzkopf's reading. For reasons of sound quality and orchestral accompaniment her second, 1965, recording with George Szell (EMI GrOC) is usually chosen over the one where Otto Ackermann accompanies her in 1953 (EMI Historical Recordings). It’s a smidgen overrated but must be heard, all the same. Lisa Della Casa, Strauss’ favorite Arabella, has vocal beauty in scores, takes the songs in the original order under the guiding baton of Karl Böhm (Decca Legendary Performances). A brook to Norman’s stream, a deer to Norman’s Elk – the connoisseur’s choice. Janowitz under Karajan (DG Originals) is the most different. A voice of flattened silver, perhaps with tin, she flitters along with more vibrato than most and better breath control than all but Norman.

Elvis Hvorostovsky: Crooning the Russians 

One of the advantages of hearing a string of choruses and arias of Russian operas is the convenient fact that you can enjoy music of some of the more (and rightly so) obscure operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov and Rubinstein without having to sit through the whole thing. Also: You get a years' supply of "Slava-Slava" slapped around your ears. In the chorus of the "Procession of the nobles" from the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Mlada my ‘slava-counter’ broke down at 27. All that before Dmitri Hvorostovsky had even taken the stage on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

The Russian Mafia community turned out in full strength for his WPAS presented program of “Russia at War” and they certainly got what they hoped for. No genuine Russian left the building without their fur-coat drenched in salty tears. The rest of us, meanwhile, was entertained. Entertainment, coincidentally, is the business of Mr. Hvorostovsky. The French press created a priceless headline for an article about their publicity-intellectual, Henry Bernard Levy – the “anti-anti American” known for his love of publicity, dress-sense and slim-waisted wife. “God is Dead, But My Hair is Perfect!”. That could similarly apply to Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose stage entrance for the second work, Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninov’s opera of the same name, did not just make fans of the Russian baritone hearts beat faster but was similarly a stylists’ vision of perfection. With his bright white hair, nay: mane, crisp white shirt and unnaturally wrinkle free black suit (collar up), elevatingly dramatic but controlled gestures and finely honed facial expressions, Hvorostovsky understands the quintessential American skill of self-presentation and image portrayal better than most Hollywood starlets.

His sumptuous, never over-sized, baritone with slight shades of the Russian Basso Profundo but more agility and lighter tone only furthers that impression. There are bigger voices and more individual or beautiful ones out there – and there are probably singers that look better, still… but as a package he is near unbeatable. Tchaikovsky’s “Polonaise” from Eugene Onegin was an engaging orchestral interlude before “Ne plach ditja” out of Rubinstein’s The Demon brought the Cathedral Choral Society (drilled by J. Reilly Lewis) together with Hvorostovsky who went on to show just how long a set of well trained lungs can hold a note. (Very long, indeed. First ‘uuhs’ and ‘aahs’ in the audience were noticable.)

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Moscow Nights, Hvorostovsky / Orbelian
“Na vozdushnom oceane” from the same work followed – a most pleasant, lyrical and sweeping passage where baritone, orchestra and pianist can indulge in melody and more long-held notes that never miss their desired effect. It reminds why Rubinstein’s second symphony is rightly among the more popular of the obscure Russian symphonic works. Perky (or, more honestly: coarse) woodwinds from the Constantine Orbelian led Philharmonia of Russia jolted the gorgeous and usually calm prelude from Khovanchina (Mussorgsky) a bit more than expected. Just like Khovanchina, Borodin’s Prince Igor is an opera that I’d actually like to see performed on a Washington stage. “Ne sna ne Otdikha” form that work made a good case for it. The lesser known Snowmaiden opera of Tchaikovsky’s entered its “Dance of the Skomorokhs” into the program before Anton Rubinstein’s “Poju tebe Bog Gimeneja” (out of Nero) concluded the first half.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, From Russia With Love and Patriotism (Washington Post, January 20)
The “War Songs”, songs that attained a life of their own during and after the second World War through popular rather than state-enforced appeal, were the real draw for most of the ethnically inclined crowd. They were popularized by soldiers and civilians who sang them during these difficult times and they still tap into an important and susceptible part of the Russian psyche. They are not propagandistic songs of victory and glorious triumph but instead of love, loss, hope and pain – filled with longing and Slavic melancholy. Appropriate during times of war-inflicted suffering and doubly so during the aftermath of a Phyrric victory that drove the Wehrmacht back but also defeated its own people.

The Shostakovich waltz from his film music to “The First Echelon” is anonymously famous. I certainly have never seen that film but the music is hum-along familiar; seemingly the soundtrack to every film where the director wants music that says “Russia”. Although catchy, it’s a reminder that DSCH was not above writing the occasional piece of awful and trite schlock. Allegedly it was Shostakovich’s film music that kept the composer in Stalin’s more-or-less good graces for many years. If true, it is proof that, apart from having attained a secure spot in the triumvirate of 'most horrendous leaders in world history', he also had bad taste. Nothing sours me as much as standing on a heap of 50 million-plus rotten corpses and having a deficient aesthetic.

Noodling off a couple more tearjerkers (if I were Russian, I would have been a sobbing mess, too – I know too well how I react to Bavarian and Austrian folk fare when it smells of Heimat), Hvorostovsky had the audience eat out of his hand. That he was miked for these songs was the necessary compromise of not wanting to have to belch these songs out like opera arias but still being heard in the last rows of the filled hall. Along with him, the Russian folk-instrument ensemble "Style of Five" provided some authentic sounds with bayan (accordion), balalayka and a balalayka cousin of Mongolian origin, the three string domra.

Although the Chorus’ contribution was well received, I imagine that a Russian Choir might have brought more to the performance than the timid Cathedral Chorus Society’s singing. That full, sonorous and ringing tone was never even approximated. Three encores of the most loved and famous of these “War Songs”, “Katyusha”, “Podmoskovnye Vechera” (Moscow Nights) and “Ochi Chernye” (Dark Eyes), brought the swooning crowd to their feet. Then Elvis Hvorostovsky left the building; alas not before signing CDs to exited hordes of fans.


Birgit Nilsson on Disc 

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R. Strauss, Elektra, Solti, WPh
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R. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, K. Böhm, Bayreuth
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R. Wagner, Ring der Niebelungen (Highlights), K. Böhm, Bayreuth
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G. Puccini, Turandot, E. Leinsdorf, Rome Opera Orchestra
If I don't feel particularly moved by the fact that Birgit Nilsson has passed away, it may be because she has left us recordings of her art that will have her live on for us, as long as we can cling to our mortal shell. I hardly have a comprehensive collection of what she has left us (no recitals, since I am no fan of those on disc), but among those recordings that I have and have heard, some of the finest singing ever produced has been captured. In fact, Nilsson was so good in what she did best (which is Wagner, followed by Strauss), that she is one of the three main contributors to that trite and ever-repeated conviction that the singers of the past have never been paralleled in our times. Well... if you listen to Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstadt, and said Birgit Nilsson, you might just start to believe that there is something to that.

Nilsson's voice was particularly apt at expressing certain emotions and cutting through any orchestra and orchestration with apparent ease. The emotion of biting irony has never been more harrowing than in Act I of her Tristan und Isolde. The genius of Wagner, perhaps the first to make an unambiguously ironic statement by musical means, has Isolde repeat Kurnewal's line about "Tristan, the Hero" and by switching key declares, "Tristan, the dishonorable coward." Nilsson imbues that with hair-raising bitterness and the ancient anger of a thwarted love. Then there is her moment of “Agamemnon hört dich!” in Elektra. You can aurally see how suddenly, for the first time, she stands erect… how cruel pride fills her eyes as she pronounces those words that are the same as a death sentence. If you don’t get goose-bumps hearing Nilsson declaim these words you should check your pulse! (Her Liebestod is undoubtedly haunting, but she swallows a few too many syllables for me: here I prefer Behrens or Meier in better sound and diction.)

Nilsson’s Brünnhilde, too, must be heard. If you don’t rush out for (or already have) either of the two great commercially released Ring cycles of her (Solti or Böhm), you should try the “Best of” CD from the Böhm Ring. I tend to find “Best of” collections of anything pretty reprehensible stuff, but this double disc is indeed marvelously and tastefully done; easily the best ‘Ring sampler’ ever put together on both counts: performance and style. There were other roles she was famous for; Leonora, for example. But few rivaled her icy supremacy in Turandot. Hard like steel and softening only when finally transformed, she tickled Puccini-lovers’ ears for many years with that role. This is the first of two studio recordings with Leinsdorf conducting, Björling, Tebaldi, and Tozzi. Singing: Yay, Conducting/Orchestra: Who cares, at this point. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli isn’t much more insightful with the same orchestra on a later EMI recording – this time you hear Nilsson vis-à-vis Corelli, Scotto, and Giaiotti. Then there are several live recordings of her in that role. Believable accounts claim pride of place for the Nilsson/Corelli recording from La Scala. There are also plenty of recordings from the MET with those two. On one of these occasions, on tour in Boston, Corelli lost the stage fight over the longest held high C (was Fellini thinking about that when he wrote the boiler-room scene for E la Nave va?), but got back by biting – instead of kissing – Nilsson’s neck an act later. (Allegedly she cancelled her next performance, citing “rabies” as the reason to Rudolf Bing.)


A Taste of the Future: Marin Alsop with the BSO 

Thursday’s appearance of Maestra Alsop at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a special one, by all means: her first concert with the band to which she was (controversially) appointed Music Director last Summer. On the program were works that may have presented the future symbiosis of a post-Temirkanov, Alsop led BSO. Heavy hitting romantic (Dvořák) and 20th century tonal American composer (Christopher Rouse). Replacing the indisposed Piotr Anderszewski was Leon Fleisher – and instead of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.14 we got No.12 in A-major.

The first symphony of Christopher Rouse, a work of less than 30 minutes duration (24, according to the program) but sounding 40 minutes long, was a 1986 commission of the BSO from the native of Baltimore. It plays with B-A-C-H, but despite claims to the contrary, there isn’t much of Bach’s influence audible behind the romanticism. More surefooted and cleaner entries would have helped in the brass-led (including “Wagner tubas”) theme that was adopted from Bruckner; a theme of the 7th symphony molten like Dalí might have. A solid and unwavering rhythm kept the work simple even where complex orchestral colors may otherwise have obfuscated matters. When the Bruckner-theme is picked up again, later in the symphony, it has transformed itself from volcanic stone into a tranquil sunrise over which the symphony seems to peter out slowly safe for one thundering crash en route. It’s modern music written not to alienate conservative audiences while being just challenging enough to have them think themselves borderline avant-garde for enduring it. Most importantly it is music that convinces upon first hearing that there is more to be gained from repeated exposure of this and other Rouse works, especially if Dominick Argento and George Rochberg appeal. The only doubt the work stimulated in my mind was whether or not that endless end could not have done with half as many bars. There were times when I felt as though listening to the prelude to the prelude to Das Rheingold. After the initial ‘finding-process’ of the brass, the performance was – watch out – rouseing!

Also on Ionarts:

Alsop and the BSO III (July 26, 2005)

Alsop After All... (July 19, 2005)

Marin Alsop in Baltimore... or Not? (July 18, 2005)

Hilary Hahn at Strathmore [with the BSO] (February 21, 2005)
Leonard Bernstein (Marin Alsop’s mentor) was often accused of conducting his emotions rather than the orchestra in front of him. But no one ever doubted the authenticity of these emotions, which is why “Lennie” was forgiven by most for much of his overt exuberance. Marin Alsop conducts with the same level of physical investment – but somehow she doesn’t quite look genuine. I don’t doubt that she is – but her grand gestures and over-articulated motions seem more parody of the flamboyant maestro of our imagination than the real thing. Fortunately the look of a conductor at work can be gotten used to – it shouldn’t count towards assessing Ms. Alsop’s performance. It is the music that counts in the end since we are free to close our eyes during a concert, but can’t well close our ears. In the Mozart, for the time being, she accompanied a work that bore the stamp of Leon Fleisher.

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W.A. Mozart, Piano Concertos Nos.11, 12 & 14, M.Perahia
Fleisher’s story is one that touches the heart and stirs the soul – and unlike the sad (pianistic) demise of Van Cliburn or the odd and disturbing turn to eccentricity of Glenn Gould – this North American story of a Pianist seems to have arrived on the finishing lane to a Hollywood-worthy happy end. The performance of the Mozart A-major Concerto K.414 was only another couple of steps into that direction. The story of Fleisher’s forced inactivity in the two-handed realm is sufficiently well known and need not be meted out any further here. Suffice it to say that his presence on the stage alone makes you overlook the occasional slip and slur – even if you didn’t grow up on his seminal recordings with George Szell from the 60’s. Fleisher’s bio quotes this 5th generation Beethoven student (there is nothing to the myth of passing down performance trades that far down the line – but the lineage Beethoven-Czerny-Leschetizky-Schnabel-Fleisher is too cool not to mention) as having learned “passion, not technique […] from Schnabel.” If you’ve heard any of Schnabel’s records, you’d never doubt that – nor would you have, judging from Thursday’s performance. Certainly warmth and expression were not missing in his performance of the beautiful Andante, for example. Mozart’s silent good-bye from his friend and mentor Johann Christian – the “London” – Bach surely ranks among the (admittedly many) highlights of Mozart’s piano concertos. To say that the BSO was plagued by more unclean passages would be overstating it – but the relatively short notice switch from one concerto to another might have affected a performance bound only to get better over the next few days.

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Leon Fleisher, "Two Hands"
Marin Alsop’s standing in contemporary American music is unchallenged. There are, however, some remaining doubts about her way with the romantic staples that the BSO’s audience has gotten used to under Temirkanov’s leadership. Dvořák was among the composers that the Russian visibly and audibly reveled in – and Alsop is going to have to throw that audience these musical bones, for better or worse. The performance of what can be one of Dvořák’s greatest symphonic statements was not all that it could have been. That may not have struck every listener as obvious, but Dvořák was probably not to be blamed for that. Generally the performances was good and professionally executed – with smooth transitions. It was above criticism but also well below ecstasy. The second movement’s surge was elastic and generally well played but at the same time rather lukewarm, limping sadly rather than strutting tragically. In the third movement the difference between a long symphony and a great symphony could have been made clearer with more lively playing. But even so, things sprawled along nicely enough. The conclusion was cut from the same cloth. An important base hit for Alsop, but not a home run.

Repeat performances will take place Friday at 8PM and Sunday at 11AM. On Saturday she will conduct a similar program in her only scheduled performance at Strathmore at 8PM. (The Mozart concerto will be replaced by the Brahms "Tragic Overture".)

Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muss ich rasten. (and Mozart) 

Robert R. Reilly has once again lent his ears, pen and expertise to ionarts and we gratefully receive his review of last nights' performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. Don't forget to buy "Surprised by Beauty" (and a copy for all your friends, too) - it's the right thing to do. $20 for a guilt-free conscience is a bargain and with it comes a free and excellent (and bold) book about composers you have likely not heard about, but should.

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W.A. Mozart, Complete Symphonies, J.Krips (& N.Marriner)

Why juxtapose Mozart and Wagner in the same concert, I wondered as I approached the Kennedy Center for last night’s program of the Linz Symphony, coupled with a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre. Perhaps because both works have great operatic music in them? I remember when it was the fashion to play an opera as if it were a symphony, and I also fondly remember how Josef Krips, in his marvelous Philips recording, treated this symphony operatically, with a wonderfully singing approach.

At first, I thought that was what James Conlon (back in town again after a Mahler 3rd in December) was going to try to do in his interpretation of the Linz. From the start, it was certainly not a big-band or a big-picture approach. But soon I began to wonder about the low energy level and leisureliness. The lack of drama was not compensated for by the kind of melting loveliness that a finely detailed performance of Mozart can deliver. The Andante bordered on the soporific. Then so did the Menuetto.

Conlon did not seem to be doing anything in particular with this music. It was under-characterized and suffered from a lack of crispness and a slackness of tempo. Small-band, small-picture. Where was the esprit? Where was the excitement? Conlon finally brought things to life in the last movement, but that was far too little to save an otherwise plodding performance of this symphony from its far too long warm-up.

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R. Wagner, Die Walküre, Acts I & II, O.Klemperer (B.Seidler-Winkler) / Lehmann, Melchior, Hotter, et al.
After intermission, Conlon, mike-in-hand, turned to the audience and did a stand-up routine from the podium to justify doing Wagner. Did we really need that in 2006? (In any case, it did not seem to work with the several couples who walked out in the middle of the Wagner.) Then, he gave a synopsis of the plot, replete with jokes. Was I at a Young People’s concert? Why tell us, when you are about to show us (particularly when the Kennedy Center had thoughtfully passed out librettos)? Anna Russell did this kind of thing better.

However, Conlon did speak of passion and, from the first bar of the Wagner, he and the orchestra exhibited exactly that in this performance, which he movingly dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Birgit Nilsson. Conlon’s heart was as obviously in this music as it seemed absent from the Mozart. Throughout, the orchestra was completely on the mark and played gorgeously (how often to you get to hear the glorious sound of 8 double basses?).

Soprano Anja Kampe gave a tremendously stirring performance as Sieglinde. (See ionarts review of her previous appearance as Sieglinde in Washington) She has a very big voice and knows how to use its full range expressively. At first, Clifton Forbis as Siegmund seemed to have a somewhat constricted range and limited expression. But he was just warming up, and later delivered some thrilling moments, most especially an electrifying “Walse! Walse! Wo ist dein Schwert?” Bass Eric Halfvarson as Hunding was a commanding presence with a full-bore bass voice that shook the hall with its rich sound.

The particulars of the performance are not really that important when something like this -- soloists, orchestra, and conductor -- coalesces into some supreme moments of expression that surpass them all, when the things at which they were aiming together have been achieved. There were moments like that Thursday night.

No one stood for the Mozart, but the audience was on its feet at the end of the Wagner. Deservedly so. From Valhalla, Birgit Nilsson must have been smiling down.

Repeat performances will be held today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.


Harnoncourt's Reminder: It's Missa Da Requiem 

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G. Verdi, Missa Da Requiem, N.Harnoncourt / WPh, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been on a run lately – not unlike René Jacobs. Recording after recording stun because of their quality, inventiveness and musicality. Although Harnoncourt has proven mortal with a Messiah released just before Christmas (an oddly disengaged and rather dull live recording that attracts the label “rush job”), the live recording of the Verdi Requiem from the Musikverein in Vienna is a different matter. The recording has gotten some positive reviews, if not the universally glowing ones that his latest Mozart Requiem received, but then that is to be expected; Verdi being a more divisive composer when it comes to approaching him with any certain style. And ‘style’ is where Harnoncourt scores or doesn’t score – depending on your predilections.

The label ‘sacred Opera’ has stuck with this work ever since Hans von Bülow penned his critique “Oper im Kirchengewande” (Opera in Church-cloth). George Bernhard Shaw, who knew a good phrase when he saw one, didn’t hesitate to pick it up in his review after the London premier. Eduard Hanslick, interestingly, was more differentiated – but if he didn’t blame Verdi so much for what he heard, he took exception to an all-too operatic delivery of several lines in the work. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’ informative liner notes in the Harnoncourt recording try to establish that the critique of Verdi’s work as ‘operatic’ was mostly unfair… but then goes on to detail how even Verdi objected to it being interpreted as Opera by his singers. (“…this mass should not be sung like an opera; phrases and dynamics as would be appropriate in the theater would not, not in the least, please me here!”) Whether the label was ill-applied or not, it went on to be worn as a badge of honor over the years – and many operatic-as-can-be recordings testify to that effect. Gardiner’s recording on Philips (helped by perhaps the best chorus) was a welcome break from that routine.

Now comes Harnoncourt and goes some steps further. If his recording immediately moves to the top of my list, it does so for a general quality of the music making, but also because of those interpretive decisions that others might find the very detriment to this recording. His singers are veterans of the great opera houses but they are not primarily Verdians and have voices that are on the lighter and expressive, rather than heavy, dramatic side. Eva Mei (soprano), Bernada Fink (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor) and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (bass) bring agility to the Requiem and sing extraordinarily unmannered. D’Arcangelo is not the deepest of basses to have sung this role, nor are he and his colleague Schade the most authoritative. Even singing with delicacy in mind as they do, more power would not necessarily hurt (if judiciously applied) – although if choosing between either extreme, I’d at once opt for the way this recording presents the male voices. The women are not lacking vocal reserves; it is to their credit that they don’t dispense it all at once. The effect is one of occasional understatement, the extreme grandeur, that moving and over-powering sweep that the Verdi Requiem can have in the best of the ‘heavy’ performances is missing, especially towards the end of the work. Precision and detail are present in spades, though. If you have set expectations of the emotional effect of this work on you, you might experience (initial) disappointment. But if slurred, indiscriminate and excessive portamento annoys the living hell out of you, this is the recording to have. Harnoncourt mercifully cut that habit down to the very minimum – and I am all for it. (Even just one dose of Andrea Bocelli’s – can I mention that name on ionarts? – cat-like howl in the opening of the Gergiev recording will forever cure you of any fondness you might have had for that technique.)

Harnoncourt also uses an edition that includes corrected dynamics and instrumentation. It probably enters the result – which I love for the mentioned reasons – but I cannot say that shy of following the score meticulously, this would be noticeable in any particular instance. The SACD sound (this disc is only available as a SACD hybrid) only helps the immense detail and clarity. There are no audience noises that I was able to discern.

RCA Red Seal 82876 61244 2

Other recomended recordings of Harnoncourt:

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W.A. Mozart (Ed.Beyer/Süssmayr), Requiem, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Choir
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B. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra, N.Harnoncourt / Chamber Orchestra of Europe
available at Amazon
J. Haydn, Paris Symphonies, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien
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W.A. Mozart, Early Symphonies, N.Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Wien


Gilligan Goes to the Kennedy Center 

Gilligan greets from the Kennedy Center
Gilligan greets from the Kennedy Center

This review has been co-written by Gilligan, the bear, who attended his first concert at the Kennedy Center and discovered a budding literary talent thereupon. Some unique spellings have been adjusted and excessive puns involving ‘bears’ and ‘bees’ (his favorite animals) have been reduced to a bear bare minimum.

Gilligan gives his opinions
Gilligan gives his opinions
Last Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, one of the NSO’s Teddy Bear Concerts, this one entitled “Tunes ‘n’ Tales”, took place. Ionarts’ mini-critic was indisposed and so Gilligan had to fill in. I duly tagged along with him, ready to meet up with another Teddy-friend that had promised Gilligan to go with him. After sitting outside the Kennedy Center, alone and waiting in vain, he shed a few tears having been stood up and we ventured upstairs to the theater. Crammed into a room full of little children isn’t my idea of a Saturday afternoon well spent and would normally hasten that appointment for the vasectomy, but NSO violinist Marissa Regni and veteran NSO harpist Dotian Levalier made it very painless affair. Attractive for children (and bears) but never cringe inducing, they joked, talked, played and explained their way through some 40 minutes of stories and music. After a little cat-chased-by-a-dog episode on harp and violin, Twinkle, twinkle little star on the instruments that the soloists themselves started out on (the tiny violin admittedly adorable) inspired a wonderfully cacophonous sing-along. The story of Ferdinand the Bull, musically enhanced, had a reasonable amount of kids transfixed. One kid remarked deadpan to his father: “I liked the story but I didn’t like the music.” Asked about the essentials that ought to be brought to a picnic, some other kid got very excited about Peanutbutter sandwiches and other foods they insisted be taken to that picnic – even long after the music had started. My kind of kid. An entertaining afternoon – but next time Gilligan wants to go, he’ll have to go with mini-critic and Charles.

Gilligan's first Stravinsky
Gilligan's first Stravinsky
Uuhhh! I could bearly barely wait to Bee be at the Kennedy Center. I think I didn’t sleep at all the night before. A “Teddy-Bear Concert”… it’s even named after me! And there was even a story about a bumble-bee! And there is a bull, too. But I don’t understand how the bumble-bee stings the bull because bumble-bees can’t sting. I know, because I, too, sat on one, once. They’re cute! And then they told a teddy-bear story. I hoped it was about Paddington, but it wasn’t. I think he is still in London. We got to know what culennyo col legno and pittsycuttoo pizzicato are! Mostly in a story about some bunny-rabbit. But I don’t think bunny-rabbits have anything to do with bears or bees so I took a nap to the beautiful music. I dreamt of a music box and I opened it and there was honey in it! Then Jens woke me because he said I was snoring. I don’t snore, but the other kids were very loud. And just as I was about to lick my honeyed paw. I think I’ll go again.

Gilligan pleads for a return visit
Gilligan pleads for a return visit
Upcoming concerts appropriate for children (and bears) will take place on February 18th (1PM and 3:30PM - NSO Kinderkonzert: Musical Opposites), February 19th (1PM and 3:30PM - NSO Ensemble: Connections: Math and Music, ages 9 and up) and March 12th (1PM and 3PM - NSO Family Concert: Happy Birthday W.A.M!, ages 7 and up, Emil de Cou conducting).


András Schiff at the Beginning of a Long, Musical Journey 

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L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op.2 & 7, A.Schiff
Two very exciting ECM releases came out in late September and early October. With Gidon Kremer one of the most intelligent musicians takes on one of the most intellectual works in classical music – the holy grail of the solo violin’s repertoire - the unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach. First listening revealed a bold, exciting, and edgy account. (Charles has since written a review for Ionarts.) The other project, monumental in promise, is a complete Beethoven sonata cycle – all to be recorded live in Zurich – from András Schiff. It looks like he will tackle it in chronological order, starting with the first four sonatas in this first volume. That the sonatas come together and open the cycle should give these too rarely heard and more rarely yet performed works some of the attention they undoubtedly deserve.

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L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op.2 & 7, A.Kurti
I compared the sonatas, starting with Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, op. 2, no. 1, in four movements (Allegro – Adagio – Menuetto: Allegretto – Prestissimo), against Anton Kuerti’s version from his complete cycle for Analekta and against Willhelm Kempff’s mono recording on DG. (Actually, my Kempff recording, alleged to be the “official mainland China release” and looking much like the German yellow label, turns out to be part of the “Encyclopedia of Holy Classical Music.” A pirate with a sense of humor or a bad translating program. Either way, the Chinese route is not Ionarts’ recommended way to get this great cycle that is, lamentably, not available in the U.S. Apart from being pirate or unlicensed issues, the discs don’t all play properly, either. Ditto for Kubelik’s Mahler cycle attained through the same channels.)

The movements of the sonata broken down by timing show the following:

Sonata no. 1IIIIIIIVTotal
Kempff (I)4’33’’4’41’’3’02’’5’23’’17’33’’

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L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op.2 & 7, W.Kempff (mono)
It tells us little, however, because Schiff isn’t a sloth – he merely takes all the indicated repeats (and then some) whereas neither Kempff nor Kuerti take those that are regularly ignored. Anton Kuerti lets the first movement (and generally all the sonatas he plays) breathe more, is gentler at the theme in bar 10 and its recurrence in bar 110. He lingers over notes and fermatas. Schiff takes a second repeat (bars 49-152) in that Allegro, presenting the movement as two repeated halves. (My Schenker score does not indicate that repeat. While I can see that it may well make sense in terms of balance, I have, as a listener, no preference one way or the other. The material is just about strong enough to sustain it, but not so complex or interesting as to demand it.) In the Adagio Kuerti is much slower – to the point of lumpiness. 6’35’’ vs. 4’18’’ is a significant difference – Schiff is 40 percent faster! Kempff’s soft touch makes his 4’41’’ seem more like a middle way between the two than the time difference alone would indicate. In the Menuetto: Allegretto Schiff is more robust than the others; Kuerti gooey in the Allegretto part, Kempff fleet and the fastest. None take the pianissimo in bar 35/36 of that movement very seriously. The fourth movement is unmistakably Beethoven. At 4’50’’ Schiff is marginally slower than Kuerti (who really shows that he doesn’t play so slow so often for lack of ability) but a good bit quicker than the less forward-driving, heavier Kempff. Then Schiff proceeds to take the second repeat that neither of the other two bothers with.

I prefer Kuerti in the first, Kempff in the second, and Schiff in the third and fourth movement. It’s a shame I didn’t have my Ashkenazy set around, because I remember that, although disappointing as a whole, it was a delight in the early sonatas. Then again, dissecting and comparing the sonata any further would only have detracted too much from the enjoyment of listening to it. As it was, comparison became tedious toward the end because the sonata may withstand repeated listening – but not movement by movement some eight, nine times in a row. Since few buyers of this disc would listen to it in the same manner, I tried to give sonatas 2 to 4 a slightly more casual ear.

Sonata no. 2IIIIIIIVTotal
Kempff (I)5’32’’7’02’’3’17’’7’13’’22’21’’

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L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op.2 & 7, W.Kempff (stereo)
The rumbling, thunderous theme of the first movement (at bars 130ff) of the second sonata of op. 2 (all three are dedicated to Joseph Haydn) is so dry with Kempff (the bass notes don’t ring very long) that I all but miss it if I don’t concentrate on the music. On occasion a couple of notes here and there clatter about with the old master – but he is pretty nimble all the same. Kempff skips the first repeat entirely, Schiff is so thorough that he takes bars 122 to 336 a second time. Since that happens to include my favorite part (the above-mentioned ‘theme’), I am all for it. Compared to Schiff, who takes everything at a very relaxed pace, Kuerti surprises with speed, takes the first repeat, and delivers an altogether very agreeable first movement.

The Largo appassionato sounds slow, almost no matter how you play it. The difference between Schiff (6’46’’) and Kuerti (8’33’’ – the last 15 bars alone take over 1½ minutes) looks larger than it sounds. In the Scherzo - Allegretto Kempff is wispy and speeds through things in a refreshing no-nonsense manner. Kuerti works the material perhaps a bit beyond its worth, whereas Schiff’s approach is very fluid. After all-too exhaustive listening, however, the initial pleasure of these works receded a little and I needed a few weeks distance to return for sonatas nos. 3 and 4. It has actually been months, since then; the works have been released and reviewed and now, finally, called me back to the unfinished review.

available at Amazon
L.v. Beethoven, Piano Sonatas op.2 & 7, V.Ashkenazy
In Beethoven’s op. 7, dedicated to Babette von Keglevics, the composer is already noticeably bolder in his statements than in the three preceding sonatas. It isn’t a much longer work than the second sonata, but it is clearly an important step towards the musical language that we now associate with Beethoven in his piano works and ‘feels’ larger. Not surprisingly, it was published as “The Great Sonata.” That it is written in E-flat major, the same key that his Eroica Symphony would be written in six years later, shouldn’t be made out as too important; for one, the sense of the tragic that the 3rd Symphony has is mostly absent in the sonata once nicknamed “Verliebte” (Nominative, Singular, Feminine for “in love”). Toscanini’s immortal (and probably slightly misquoted) words, applicable to any work bound to be overinterpreted, about the Beethoven 3rd might be considered: “Is not ‘Napoleon’, is not ‘Erocia’… is ‘Allegro con brio’.” Similarly, “E-flat major” isn’t always ‘heroic’, even if op. 55 and Ein Heldenleben are prominent exponents of that link.

Schiff takes some repeats that are generally not taken and brings a fast but hardly blistering Allegro molto e con brio home in just over nine minutes. The dynamic, punctuated way he tackles the notes doesn’t benefit the flow of the movement and seems exaggerated compared to an equally fleet (7:31) - if not even faster but much more fluid - approach by Kurti. Some notes are plunked down in ungainly fashion. The lovely Largo con gran espressione grinds down almost to a halt, a near-complete loss of musical line. When the music gatheres a little more speed (but still not enough) after some very ponderous chords (at about the 7-minute mark), it’s too late to make much of a difference. Although needing considerably less time than the contemplative Kuerti (8:52 against 10:37), the latter does not sound worse and much of the extra time Kuerti needs to finish the slow movement comes in form of pauses and strategically placed silences. In either case, the ‘gran espressione’ should not have come at the cost of slouching through it all. Schiff’s third movement (Allegro - 5:11) in comparison is perfectly judged, with a light touch that sparkles. Here, as in the preceding movement, I found the audience and environmental noises a little more noticeable than in the other sonatas – a cough, page turning, a creaking floor board audible here and there. This comes through in any noticeable (and hardly disturbing) way only on good and analytical speakers or excellent headphones. His Bösendorfer (Schiff plays the sonatas, depending on their style, on a Bösendorfer or Steinway - although the notes don't tell, this one seems to have been recorded on the former) sounds a bit brittle at times and not particularly round on top. That's quite contrary to the natural Bösendorfer sound, actually, and is more likely a matter of the miking being very close. He finishes the sonata with a very solid but not necessarily memorable Rondo. Poco allegretto e grazioso.

A successful but not miraculous start to what will be a promising if unlikely definitive cycle (all sonatas will be recorded after touring and playing them in numerous live recitals). On its own, the disc – although more expensive than it should be – might well and justifiably appeal to someone looking for the first couple of Beethoven’s sonatas which are not likely to be found so easily outside complete or at least larger collections. Listening and comparing to those four works was a case in point that I have not yet come across a cycle that I enjoy equally in all sonatas (or even all movements) and that even the much adored Kempff mono cycle is hardly the non plus ultra it is sometimes made out to be. Versions I do not have but would have been interested in judging this set against would have been Goode (Nonesuch), Brendel (Philips), and Kovacevich (EMI). And there is, of course, Pollini on the horizon – sooner or later to issue a complete cycle on DG. His un-Romantic, unmannered, and straight-laced approach, coupled with the usual perfection, should be very interesting to hear and might well be the refreshing interpretations that the first four sonatas are yearning for.

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