Happily Stranded on the Left Bank 

The cheap quip would be that whenever metronome markings are given as movement titles, you know you are in for a long evening. Alas, I was at the Left Bank Concert Series’ concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater last Saturday where such works as George Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1979) are to be expected. And whenever modern music from that perilous time of the latter half of the 20th century doesn’t show us why modernism should be embraced (because it is so much more than a mere intellectual exercise, discarded as its listeners get older), it usually shows us why many people think differently and run away. Walker’s piece is surely not in the first category, but to be fair, it isn’t in the latter either. crotchet = 50, especially has touches that delight in their own way, crotchet = 69 has a spunky ending of considerable wit. The very opening – in quaver = 60 – seemed least digested.

Wherever Mr. Salness and Ms. Valentine’s performance wasn’t of virtuoso caliber, it was served plenty well with bounds of passion and commitment. The composer was present – which mean spirits proclaim assured trouble for the fine senses. At Ionarts we have a stern “tsk, tsk, tsk” reserved for such attitudes, but acknowledge that George Walker’s music – here or in the following song selections – is of a nature that would only have had those sharp tongues think their statement proven once more. Well, perhaps not the songs. “Softly, Blow Softly” on a D. S. Hayes poem was Walker’s (he accompanied Patricia Green himself) most recent work, and of five accessible and clever and enjoyably slight works, it was perhaps the finest. Themes and poems ranged from the cutesy (Mother Goose – ca. 2054 “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall / A nonelectromagnetic ball / All the supers’ polariscopes / Couldn’t revitalize his isotopes / His isotopes”) to the spiritual influenced, Porgy & Bess-like “Mary Wore Three Links of Chain,” which included a moment where the mentioned train’s ‘toot-tooot’ was banged out on the keyboard in hilarious manner.

I would have said that I needn’t hear “Amazing Grace” ever again after the disgrace of Fleming/O’Connor’s performance… but I’ll take that back for Curt Calioppo’s Contrapuntal Fantasy on John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1996). Shostakovich’s Preludes & Fugues, op. 87 it isn’t quite… (despite a few bars that sounded as if lifted quoted from it) but close enough to qualify an unqualified delight. Ms. Valentine’s performance must surely have met with the composer’s (yes: present) warm approval.

What else could you ask for on an innocent Saturday night but a “Cycle of Afro-American Spirituals for Voice, Percussion Quartet (!), and Amplified Piano”? Welcome to George Crumb’s booming, variously ethereal, and sometimes downright silly work. You’ll never have heard “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” like that before – with Indian camel bells, Chinese temple blocks, (international?) knitting needles, and eighty-three other percussion instruments aimed at the singer (Ms. Green – mercifully amplified within that mess of sound) from the four batteries of noise paraphernalia in the four corners of the stage. Nor with such an Asian touch “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go).” Clearly excess is part of the game plan in this work – the frenzy alone was worth watching; it had its own (un?)intended humorous effect. A fun composition, no doubt, but the real prize should go to the composition student who can inventively trim this work down to a dozen instruments and have it sound just as fine. But once again the mighty percussion instrument manufacturing complex and its lobbyists stand between this noble wish and its realization. Mr. Crumb has a tom-tom addiction… but at least he did something for otherwise New York cab-driving percussion-majoring music school graduates. The tentacled beneficiaries of his songs were Sean Harleem, Lee Hinkle, Tom Jones, and Douglas Marween. Caught in the middle were Colette Valentine (piano) and the aforementioned Ms. Green. James Ross, with only a baton to defend himself, was given the kind illusion of bringing order into designed chaos. Surprising, perhaps, amid all the commotion, how tender these songs were on more than one occasion.

The nature of the Left Bank Concert Series (LBCS) performances is such that when the LBCS Quartet performs another quartet of the standard repertoire, they do so to the expectations of ‘professional Hausmusik’… out of competition with the many top quartets that play in Washington. As such their third of the Razumovsky quartets – Beethoven’s op. 59, no. 3 – was charming, worthy and enjoyable to all but the most pitch-sensitive.

The next concert will take place on April 15th, with a program that includes music by recent Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec, Ewazen, Dutilleux, Stucky, and Bartók.


Dip Your Ears... ( 53 ) 

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J.Haydn, Scottish Songs, v. 1, Anderson, MacDougall, Haydn Trio Eisenstadt

At barn or byre thou shalt na drudge,
Or naething else to trouble thee,
But stray amang the heather bells,
And tent the waving corn wi' me.
Now what could artless Jeanie do?
She had na will to say him na:
At length she blushe'd a sweet consent,
And love was ay between them twa.

There are nether-regions in the output of almost every composer, even the most famous ones; works that even most classical music aficionados have not heard or even heard of. Many of us are familiar with Brahms’s output: symphonies, serenades, concertos, piano works, and the great chamber music. Add to that the songs (Die schöne Magelone, Deutsche Volkslieder, Vier ernste Lieder), the Alto-Rhapsody, and perhaps even the Liebeslieder-Waltzer. But what about a slew of choral music – enough music to fill some ten hours with Brahms. More music, still, comes from Brahms’s own transcriptions of his music for two pianos or piano, four hands. Similarly, Mendelssohn’s secular and sacred choral music would fill a dozen or so CDs. Schubert’s songs for unaccompanied male voices? Another four hours for those who have exhausted his 600+ songs.

But there is a whole other world of obscure compositions: arrangements of Scottish folk songs. I had long stayed away from Beethoven’s such works (a substantial 7-disc collection in a DG Collectors Edition box), thinking that it is likely second-rate and derivative stuff… more a filler for his own pockets than a filler for the chronicles of great music. Now I have read about, and immediately purchased, the first volume of Joseph Haydn’s Schottische Lieder. George Thomson was one of three independent Scottish publishers who, between themselves, commissioned well over a thousand such folksong arrangements. Their choice of composers was rather sophisticated, too: Beethoven and Haydn, Hummel and Weber, as well as the nowadays less luminary Pleyel and Kozeluch – then still referred to as “the three (together with Haydn) greatest luminaries of modern music.” Haydn apparently delighted in the comission – he delivered over 400 (!) arrangements. If we didn’t know from the correspondence that he enjoyed the work, we’d know from listening to them. Goodness, what little marvels they are. Songs with piano trio accompaniment, they are rich in ideas, infectiously melodious; in short: a light delight. Some of the songs – given their material – have a tad ‘sameness’ about them – and after listening to the super-budget-priced CD that makes up volume 1 of a series that will hopefully go beyond volume 2 (an equally inexpensive 4-CD set) you will have a pretty good idea of what melodic turns make a song ‘Scottish’. That is not to say that they will become boring to you because for their sheer beauty they can’t be had enough of. For now I hit ‘shuffle’ on my CD player to listen to them in a new order, but next week I’ll get the second volume. That split, by the way, is ingenious. For $7 you can get a ‘sampler’, without duplicating any of the songs you get in the more substantial set (at $22 no luxury acquisition, either). That arrangement is something to copy for other companies that offer large sets of lesser-known works.

Singing are the native Scots Lorna Anderson (soprano) and Jamie MacDougall (tenor), wonderful voices and the necessary idiomatic advantage – particularly when it comes to singing in the Scottish dialect. The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt gets into the spirit with them.

Brilliant Classics 92278


Redemption the Conductor 

Valery GergievPerforming the Verdi Requiem in the Opera house – which is where the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev played on Friday night – is a musical smirk (even if there was also a more practical reason behind that choice of venue: Next door played Midori), given that it already has the reputation of being a “sacred Opera”. It does so, because of its highly dramatic, even bombastic nature and the demands it makes on the singers. Verdi doing what he did best, such an outcome should not have been surprising.

There are now many hundreds of pages written in the attempt to free the Verdi Requiem from that early and allegedly cheap pun (coined by none other than Hans von Bülow) that some see a stigma sticking stubbornly to the work. Leave it to Gergiev and his band to obliterate any and all such efforts with a performance like the one conducted one at the Kennedy Center. With brilliant support from his four soloists – as even a cast as that work could reasonably expect live – Gergiev delivered a performance of proportions such as I have not heard at the Kennedy Center (or anywhere else, for that matter) in a long, long time. The NSO’s performance last year – which didn’t impress me then, either – was a malnourished urban pussy next to Gergiev’s Liger. The orchestra may not have known quite what to do with the oddly spiritual sound-world of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel (too religious?) – but this language they could believe in and respond to with their best and most dedicated playing all week. Every nervous hand-flicker of Gergiev’s was responded to, their trademark sloppiness all but gone. The timpani attacks in the Dies irae and again the Tuba mirum were ripping through the Opera House with intimidating force in an acoustic that revealed itself as not only superior to the Concert Hall’s but altogether good.

Ekaterina SemenchukThe soloists make or break a performance of the Requiem. Whether they are up to the challenge (and a challenge it is) is established right off the bat as Verdi has them all ‘present themselves’ in the Kyrie, right after the Requiem aeternam in the order of tenor, bass, soprano, mezzo soprano. Daniil Shtoda was first with the fiendishly difficult tenor part and he kept the portamento within reason and proved honey voiced and good. The voice could have been a bit more open or forceful – but it sounded fine by all accounts. If he was the weakest link in the soloist-chain, it was a strong chain. Ildar Abdrazakov, in a slightly more comfortable, easier range, upped the ante a bit further... very good, indeed. An absolute strong point amidst many strong points in the whole performance, solid and reliable like a rock, supple and with a beautiful tone. Olga Kondina – a dark silver snow-queen next to her younger colleague’s black penitential dress – was clean, clear, flawless. Her voice rang, she didn’t narrow on the high notes (especially important toward the end) and performed with an admirable mix of pure skill and experience. And then Belarussian Ekaterina Semenchuk opened her mouth to a low growl that had your blood freeze. An animal of the kind that immediately said: “Kundry”. Where were you, last Tuesday, when we needed you?
What. A. Voice! Low notes like I’ve not heard hurled at me since Waltraud Meier; nor sung like that since Anna Larsson. A spine in her voice, a fierce brilliance, unfailing confidence and an unfailing sound: Beautiful, tasteful, note perfect; if anything a little too subtle at the beginning of the Agnus Dei. It had a quality that was so immediately outstanding that it wanted to make me shout “Brava” mid-Liber Scriptus, blow kisses at the sounds that swooshed by my ears. Her lower register easily challenged Daniil Shotda’s higher. You couldn’t have foreseen such a performance by her CV as of yet, but it should be easy to project her future career based on it.

Take that and a choir that – a slightly ‘sticky’ beginning apart – performed as well as one might expect from this crack ensemble and the elements combined for a lavish splendor fit for no other venue than an opera house. (Which itself is, of course, the successful combination of arts temple and bordello.) A Requiem is supposed to soothe and appease the heavens on behalf of the deceased: Gergiev unrepentantly raised hell. Even the searing soft moments were devilishly good, a tail of sulphur flames never far from his frock. Let him be the most overrated conductor of our times, in the hour and-a-half of the Verdi Requiem he redeemed himself from all past and future musical sins, as far as I am concerned. Bravi!

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Gergiev / Fleming, Borodina, Bocelli, D'Arcangelo
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Giulini / Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda, Ghiaurov
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Gardiner / Orgonasova, von Otter, Canonici, Miles
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Harnoncourt / Mei, Fink, Schade, D'Arcangelo
Gergiev has a recording out with the Requiem. Resist the urge to buy it, though. While the heft and thunder and glory (which I hoped to gain when I bought it a few years ago) is more or less present in the orchestra, it’s hopelessly ruined by Andrea Bocelli who turns in one of his worst, most egregious performances. Step on a cat’s tail and you’ll likely get a better opening “Kyrie”. The rest of the starry cast (pre-mannerism Fleming, Borodina, D’Arcangelo) is good but can’t make up for the sonic crimes committed on this recording. Gardiner has the most impressive chorus and incredibly deft touches; Giulini a feel for theater and stupendous soloists (Schwarzkopf – Ludwig – Gedda – Ghiaurov); his recording on EMI is rightly a classic. Harnoncourt’s is the least operatic, the voices unmannered (Michael Schade very open sounding, but strechted after a while, D’Arcangelo brooding but not very deep, Fink with unusual affectation). The violins come through in astounding detail, nuances can be heard - in part due to glacial tempi - that are quite revealing. My current choice – although that’s in good part because of my personal dislike of portamento. Although impressive, it's quite a different kettle of fish than the type of performance Gergiev gave.


Operation Successful, Patient Dead 

Parsifal - Illustration by Pierre MendellParsifal is an opera great, grand, glorious, weird, absurd in equal measures. Add daunting, challenging, difficult, transporting, and long. There are those whom nothing can stop from attending a performance thereof, or those who nothing can convince to endure five hours of Wagner’s final musical statement – and very little between those two extremes. Should it have been surprising – or natural – that the Kennedy Center’s Opera House was very well filled on a Tuesday evening at 6PM? Or should it have been astonishing – or expected – that it wasn’t sold out? With the Kirov and Gergiev in town, Ionarts thought it was a unique opportunity to hear and see Wagner as good as it will get. While I still think it’s a unique opportunity that ought not be missed, I am not sure witnessed anything the WNO can’t improve upon on a good day.

Parsifal is one of the most interesting operas to direct, because it offers inexhaustible material for interpretation, excavation of meaning, super-imposition of ideas that are usually buried deep within the text. It’s so complex – philosophically, psychologically, religiously, musicologically – that directors are more likely err by including too much in their setting. Bayreuth’s current Parsifal is a case in point; although Mr. Schlingensief will surely boil his overwrought production down to the essentials over the next few years. Does it go to the credit of director Tony Palmer that this Parsifal did not fall prey to too much meaning but instead suffered from the utter absence of stimulus courtesy of the staging? Or are the travelling-kit restrictions to blame? If so, the limitations and monotony of the set became painfully obvious over five hours. Turandot’s – cheap Chinese Restaurant or not – was better (for a less demanding opera), the brilliance of Boris Godunov wasn’t nearly matched. There is nothing wrong with bringing out the multiplicity of elements that are part of this opera, accentuating details, nuances, allusions that today’s audience will otherwise understand as little as the original audience did. Indeed, it might be expected.

If left with but a frame for the opera, one would expect that at least the music would be well performed, the singing be excellent. Sadly, that wasn’t so. Valery Gergiev didn’t infuse his orchestra with the enthusiasm necessary for a band to brave five hours of music, although, in their defense, they didn’t dilapidate over the course of the opera; if anything, they improved slightly. Whereas brass was the weak-spot in Turandot, the woodwinds were the culprits in Parsifal and offered the weakest performance and the greatest blunders. The synthesizer produced bell sound was a distorted, god-awful nightmare. Would it have been so difficult to rent a decent bell from the local orchestras? Oversized pasta pots would have made a better noise than whatever came out of the speakers of the Opera House. Gergiev’s interpretation was one of heft: Slow but not crawling, he enjoyed the brassy solid moments (as did his orchestra) more than anything ethereal, this Parsifal stepped confidently along with neither idiosyncratic tick nor particular character. Unlike the sugary sounding Wagner I have heard from Gergiev on the radio, he did not bother to sweeten the deal any more than necessary on Tuesday. In the Vorspiel, the overture, there was little by way of mystery but insecurity, instead.

The singing – well… it improved from act to act and ended at “good” with stops at “decent” and “modest”. All had weak moments, none were great, some better. Among the latter was Oleg Balashov’s Parsifal. Much improved from the young man who sang into the ground, chin firmly on his chest, during Mazeppa two years ago, he was consistent and good as that figure in opera that goes from Tarzan to Jesus in just under five hours. But Parsifal is not about Parsifal, as far as the singing is concerned. The opera is – granted great voices – about either Kundry or Gurnemanz or both. Gurnemanz was Gennady Bezzubenkov. He, too, turned in a solid performance with notable peaks and some lows and wobbles. I’ve heard older men sing the role with greater authority and clarity (Kurt Moll, to be specific) but in this cast he managed to stand out.
A fairly small role is that of second-Act-only Klingsor. With a amusingly evil, charmingly dark costume (Nadhezhda Pavlova), make-up and hair Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa in that production here in D.C.) was already fetching. An excellent voice put to good use made me wish that he might actually win the grail and go on singing in the third act. Better, at any rate, than ailing Amfortas Evgeny Nikitin who, even when he found a pitch he could live with, managed only a very few moments of glory.
Kundry, finally, the real star of the opera, was a failure vocally and visually. A meek Hausfrau and odd hag, she looked and acted off-character (a fierce and wild she-beast that has enough sexyness lingering beneath the surface to seduce every knight of the order twice over). Temporarily slipping into a gown and donning some make-up for the second act didn’t turn her into a bomb-shell, either (although the right size, literally) and the suspension of disbelief worked overtime imagining that Parsifal might fall for this, after just having rejected a selection of two dozen delightful flower-maidens. At least her second act was sung infinitely better than the first in which one had to wonder what she was doing on stage, in the first place.
Pronunciation was variable, too, not only from singer to singer but moreso even from moment to moment. The Maryland Boy Choir as behind-the-scenes angels didn’t sound so much otherworldly but irresolute, the solo alto voice and the three soprano voices at the end of act one were off, the Kirov’s male chorus was one of the strong points of the performance. Assorted squires and Knights did their job, some of the flower maidens sang exquisitely in their scene that is so unlike most other Wagner; a scene where he sounds genuinely French – perhaps a touch of Delibes – and much more so than in Tannhäuser even.

The opera itself had the look of a Russian icon. The heavy frame, saturated with warm brass and gold colors, the static action, the flat plane, naively painted or heavily jewel encrusted backdrops: No individual item may have been particularly Russianesque; the over-all impression, though, very much. Grail Knights were heavily decked out in baroque armor with gold ornaments, as if they had stepped out of a Rubens with a lot of old varnish. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came to mind upon seeing Amfortas’ Sheppard-Snow-King frock, Gurnemanz became Gandalf for the third act. Kundry stepped into act two as a Castlevania dominatrix, in act three she's a very unsubtle Mary-Magdalene. The flower maidens looked like a after hours at the Papagena-convention. The concluding dove was AWOL. Still, the incense laden atmosphere, the slow procession and the literal takes of the Christian rituals gave the production a feel that had merits on its own right.

Unfortunately, a discussion of Parsifal and its plot would be beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say (for now) that there is much juice in this Anti-Nietzschean, mother-kissing, self-castrating, Schopenhauer-distorting, Jesus-referencing, Nymphomaniac-chastizing, ‘pity-by-fire’-touting, Buddhism-influenced opera – and enough of that remained intriguing on Tuesday night, even if untouched beneath the surface. That, and of course the glorious, transforming, slow music of Wagner’s that had Nietzsche admit through his teeth that Wagner may never have done anything better. As such – having the opportunity to see a live Parsifal in Washington – was a great experience. As far as Parsifals go, it was a rather modest affair. Time permitting, I’d probably go again on Sunday, February 27th at 3PM.

Best Parsifal recordings

Recordings of Parsifal can be divided into two categories: Knappertsbusch and not-Knappertsbusch. The former are glorious and very slow and marred by less than ideal sound. The latter include some excellent contenders in various styles and generally excellent sound. Some recommended versions are: Knappertsbusch from 1951 (live - mono), 1952 (live - mono), Boulez1962 (live - stereo), (1970 - live - stereo), Kubelik (1980 - studio - stereo), Karajan (1982 - studio - stereo), Barenboim (1991 - studio - stereo).


Playful With Mariss Jansons' Toy 

Mariss Jansons in actionThe Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam under one of the finest conductors of our day, Mariss Jansons, hit Washington D.C. on their two cities–three concerts mini-tour of the U.S.A.; all courtesy WPAS. With them they brought a program that, on paper, may not have been the stuff ones dreams are made of. Instead of completely indulging us with an “event” such as would have been a Mahler symphony – or Bruckner or Shostakovich (of which the RCO plays a complete cycle this year: oh, to live in Amsterdam) – the opted for a Haydn symphony of all things and the sumptuous, big Heldenleben which isn’t exactly standard fare in these latitudes, either. Not just to be contrarian Ionarts had argued that that was in fact the strength of the concert: To hear classical repertoire superbly done by a large, traditional orchestra more associated with the big, heavy hitting romantics. Along the same lines of thinking, we were hoping that attendance be made mandatory for every NSO (and BSO) member. In all humility: We were right – and we hope that, apart from the concert master, a few more members of the local band got to enjoy one of the most riveting displays of orchestral control and color we have heard.

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J. Haydn, 12 London Symphonies et al., E.Jochum / LSO
To call the Concertgebouw’s Haydn “old fashioned” because most of the strings are summoned for it might be correct – but only in a very meaningless way. The performance made the point that great Haydn is best measured in how light the orchestra can tip-toe across the staves, how gay its jump, how moving its performance; not how close an orchestra comes to the limitation-bound Esterhazy- or London orchestras of Haydn or whether gut strings are used or not. I love hearing good HIP (Historically Informed Performance practice) orchestras in this repertoire but a full bodied orchestra doing this really well (difficult as that is without muddying everything) sounds glorious in concert, glows. Instead of obscuring or blaring or trampling on the notes and textures, a richness comes into play - and never so at the cost of agility. Rather than merely adding a darkening, dulling varnish of the symphony, they offered genuine sumptuousness and extra color.

The Concertgebouw’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony no.94 (“Surprise”) was exactly such a performance. It may well have been a performance as any other in Amsterdam or Vienna, Berlin or Munich… but given the dearth of that repertoire here, it was very special, indeed. As Charles has mentioned, the nickname is not as obvious as we’d have it – the surprise is not (pace Eric Bromberger who claims so in the program notes) the ‘wake-up’ fortissimo at the end of the ditty that makes the Adagio but the mentioned timpani blast in the fourth movement. The slow movement, though, is lovely and funny in its own right; based on a simple folk tune that Haydn (and all his contemporaries in the German speaking lands) knew – about walking up and down the alleyway and picking plums.

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R. Strauss, Heldenleben, Mariss Jansons
Very special, too, to hear the orchestra with perhaps the most recognizable ‘house-sound’ and the richest wood-wind section there is, in a work specifically set out to show off all these colors and abilities. Ein Heldenleben is something that European audiences have more difficulties avoiding than hearing in any given year, but here we don’t often come across it. (I only know of Yuri Temirkanov having done it once in recent years.) Just like on his RCO live recording, Mariss Jansons used the work to show off all the aforementioned qualities of his orchestra. As a result of it, the lyrical moments towards the end of the work are unparalleled, the ribbed structure of the “Hero” and his subsequent musical mentions not as pronounced as they are in other interpretations. On interpretation, my allegiance is with those who drive the music a little harder, tauter – a hero with a six pack, not that little soft flab around its belly. But as pure sound was concerned, I could bask in the glow of Jansons’ sun forever.
The concertmaster’s solos in this work are such that they make every back-bencher be glad they’re not it – and every soloist wish they were, for a night. Vesko Eschkenazy performed them impeccably.

With enthusiastic and prolonged applause, the audience, earned itself an encore: To hear a Heldenleben-sized string section play a Boccherini quintet transcription Haydn Andante cantabile with endless delicacy, softer and softer to a point where they were less audible than a single violin could be – and in absolute perfect unison – was stunning, even a gratuitous show of ability. Jansons, smiling from one ear to another, must have delighted in this, too: “I have a great toy, and look what I can make it do!” The RCO left the bar awfully high, for other orchestras to play in their wake. And they left a hall of Washingtonians with memories of a concert that will last for many years.


The Art of the Lied: Schubert & Wolf Songs 

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F. Schubert, An den Mond, D. Henschel/Helmut Deutsch
Every label usually has an ‘in-house’ tenor or baritone Lieder singer. While EMI fares best with its tenor Ian Bostridge, baritones dominate the Lieder domain of some of the other major labels. Decca brings Matthias Goerne into the fray; for Deutsche Gramophone the estimable and real baritone Thomas Quasthoff has stepped into the oversized footsteps of the tenor-baritone Fischer-Dieskau. For RCA, it is Christian Gerhaher who sings in the lower register. Harmonia Mundi luxuriates in having both a tenor and a baritone of the highest caliber to unleash on Schubert, Beethoven, Wolf & Co. Wolfgang Güra is far and away my favorite tenor these days; a voice that is completely natural and unstrained, round and comforting. He brings all the tonal qualities of a baritone to the register of a tenor. The baritone is Dietrich Henschel. His voice can occasionally, even by experienced ears, be mistaken for Fischer-Dieskau’s. It hasn’t a very dark timber, and he is an intelligent singer who defines the text with nuance. He is, however, not quite as obsessed with detail and every expressive nook and cranny as Bostridge can sometimes be (and when so, is at his least pleasurable). I’ve enjoyed Henschel’s Beethoven disc, even if Adelaïde (one of the most beautiful songs ever composed) in particular is a realm that is still occupied by Fischer-Dieskau’s timeless interpretation. And An die ferne Geliebte was given a recent and very fine outing courtesy of Goerne and Brendel.

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H. Wolf, Mörike Lieder, W. Güra/J. Schultsz
It is his year-old Schubert recital, An den Mond (To the Moon), that particularly enchants me. From the opening Der Wanderer and den Mond, Henschel sets an example of fine, clear singing with perfect diction, pronunciation, absence of theatrics and operatic touches that so often wreak havoc with Lieder, Mélodies, and Art Song. One song after another is a highlight -– an excellent Sehnsucht following on the first song’s heels, the felt Im Freien after that; 19 delights in all, dedicated to nature, night, restlessness, and solitude. As always with Schubert, the quality of the poem underlying his songs has little to do with the quality of the result: indeed, the often modest poetic achievements of his roommate Johann Mayrhoffer end up being songs of a quality on par with or exceeding those that are set to Goethe or Schlegel. Lebensmut is strong and forceful and virtually forces you to (try to) sing along. When you think it could not get better, Der Schiffer tops all those efforts once more. Listen to the piano whipping the waves mercilessly beneath Henschel's supple voice! Or thundering through what turns out to be one of Schubert's most gripping songs, Totengräbers Heimwehe. Speaking of the piano, Helmut Deutsch shines in the pre- and postludes - partakes as much as Henschel in the interpretation of songs. Even the slower tempi of his are marbled with a pulse that never allows any of the music to sag or drag.

Werner Güra has received highest praise when he recorded the nearly perfect Lieder CD Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden, a disc where the selection of the songs (Brahms and Mr. & Ms. Schumann), the presentation (including letters between the three composers), and the execution (with a perfect contribution by pianist Christoph Berner on a superbly balanced 1877 Friedrich Ehrbar piano) answered to about everything one could wish such a CD to bring with it. His latest release is dedicated to 23 of Wolf’s Mörike songs. Wolf’s songs demand that the listener be into the art of the Lied in the first place (at least more so than the “Schöne Wiege…” selection) to fully enjoy it, but those who are will find Güra at the top of his game, again. Never harsh, never shrill, and never strained he manages the (difficult enough) sine qua non of such a recital. But beyond the absence of the negative, he adds a bewildering array of positively positive elements into his traversal of beauties such as the touching heartache of Gebet, the surging, threatened and gloomy Denk’ es, o Seele, the wild and stormy Der Feuerreiter, and the humorous Storchenbotschaft (Stork-tidings: “I guess you’ve paid my girl a visit? […] / But wait! Why have two of you come? / It can’t, I hope, be a case of twins? / –At that the storks burst out chattering / They nod and curtsey and fly away”).

Jan Schultsz offers sensitive and musical accompaniment, always underscoring the lyricism of Wolf, never neglecting the bubbles and the nimble moments.

No harm in celebrating the 80th birthday of the greatest Lieder singer there ever was; Fischer-Dieskau, whether we consider his legacy impressive but controversial or simply unequalled. But better yet is it to know that between the singers mentioned above and the two singers on the marvelous discs discussed here, we are not bound to run out of future greatness in that field of classical music.

HMU 901822 (Schubert) / HMU 901882 (Wolf)


His Soft Touch, Powerfully Moving: Alfred Brendel at the Kennedy Center 

Alfred BrendelAlfred Brendel is as big a superstar as you’ll find in the world of classical music. The well-filled Kennedy Center Concert Hall was teeming with the highest expectations from a pianist who has, for half a century, represented the highest form of musical craftsmanship in the classical repertoire (well confined on record; more diverse in recitals) to Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn. The term “craftsmanship” is deliberately chosen: Brendel has attained his fame solely through the quality and consistency of his performances, not through flashy appearances or particularly dazzling playing. He does not impress with sheer brilliance (as might Maurizio Pollini) or through eccentricity (as did Gould, Michelangeli or Cziffra) or immediately appealing soft and seductive touch (such as is Mitsuko Uchida’s). He is more likely to endear piano music lovers with his musical faculties, impeccable judgement; subtly extracting more sense from a sonata, a movement, a phrase, than most of the (technically more endowed) colleagues half or one third his age ever could. Given the extraordinary expectations and this particular style of playing, some listeners may leave a Brendel recital a bit underwhelmed (though hardly disappointed). But knowing what one is in for – and even just getting a hint of the depth of his interpretation, the intellectual and emotional grasp he has on the presented works, Brendel will amaze. And do so as is his style: unassuming, subtly.

Alfred Brendel at the grave of Franz SchubertThe Haydn sonata in D major, Hob. XVI:42 (no. 56), that opened the recital, a speciality of his and much appreciated in a town that is a comparative Haydn wasteland, exemplified that all too well. Schubert’s G major sonata, D894, is a different beast than the witty Haydn. Assertive and yet mildly sung its opening, Austrian lilt in every phrase: Brendel was able to string the music into a gripping narrative, a story that had you on the edge of your seat, hungrily soaking up every word from the master storyteller who read it to his audience with passion and authority, softly here, dominant there, compelling at every moment. If there had been worry that he might fail to impress, it was eradicated at this moment, at the latest.

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F. Schubert, Three Last Piano Sonatas, Sir Alfred Brendel, live, 1988 - London
Not infallibility but the humanist touch that every note came with designated the performance as special and inescapably so even as soon as half way through the (admittedly long) Molto moderato e cantabile of the first movement (played without the repeat). Brendel, in his intimate relation with his Hamburg Steinway, created an atmosphere that would have compelled Beckmesser to drop his chalk and sit with – not amazement… but joyous awe. Between the soft bubbles and the long, energetic steps of the Andante, this casual piece, mellow despite a wide range of dynamics, made clear that no other sonata (none that I could think of off the top of my head, at any rate) could have better shown a light on the particular strengths of Sir Alfred Brendel’s playing.

Additional Remarks by Charles T. Downey:

Even played without repeats, this Schubert sonata is an example of the "heavenly length" often attributed to this composer's works. Composed in 1826, it is in Schubert's mature style -- well, as much as we can say that about someone who died in his early 30s -- and Brendel handled its four rather different movements with consummate artistry. Schubert had such melodic facility, seemingly able to write nothing more easily than a beautiful tune. If a pianist doesn't have a beautiful touch on the keys, Schubert is not the right music to be playing, and this is one of Brendel's greatest strengths.

Alfred Brendel, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, February 7, 2006

Intellectually, Brendel is one of the most perceptive interpreters, too, without bringing any of the aridity one fears from cerebral players. When the first theme of the first movement deceptively returned in the development, in a foreign key, it was so bittersweet, preparing for its triumphal return at the recapitulation. This is possible because Brendel understands form and can back up that understanding with such color and texture in his fingertips. His greatest strength is in soft, delicate, nuanced music, and the Schubert second movement had an astonishing sotto voce ending that was pure Brendel. The fourth movement, with its ricocheting repeated notes, was a marvel, as was the music-box tinkling of the third movement's trio.

It was Mozart that opened the second half, two rather small pieces presented as delightful miniatures. The solemn Fantasia in C Minor, K. 476, is the better-known of the two, played with finesse and intelligent handling of the motivic fragmentation that seems to be Mozart looking forward to Beethoven. However, it was the Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, that most impressed, a work heard much more rarely. It strikes me as a private piece, full of chromatic experimentation, a sort of harmonic notebook that records Mozart's fascination with the counterpoint and extended chromatic harmony found in the works of J. S. Bach.

We could not have asked for a better conclusion than one of Haydn's best comic piano pieces, the Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, composed during Haydn's trip to London in 1794. Here Brendel showed off his ability to play runs in thirds in his right hand, done not only accurately but with flair. To compensate for the shorter length of the second half, he took all of the repeats, to our delight. By the time that Brendel got to the rondo, after an exquisite slow movement, we were really having fun. The third movement is a textbook example of Haydn's wit, with its chippy theme that sometimes takes one or two false harmonic shifts to get started or conclude. With a twinkle in his eye, Alfred Brendel gave the joke its due, with none of the vulgarity that could come from too heavy of a musical guffaw. Haydn requires only a devilishly raised eyebrow, not a jab of the elbow in our sides.
What we get in Brendel is the simultaneously serious and comic, the orderly and the absurd. Little wonder one of his favorite quotes is Novalis’s sentence that “Chaos, in a work of art, should shimmer through the veil of order.” In Brendel on stage you see the veil; in his playing you hear what is going on behind it. The machinations of joyous re-recreation at every turn of a phrase. In the book Me of All People, a conversation of Brendel with Martin Meyer, he paraphrases Schwitters: “If I had to choose between sense and nonsense, I personally would prefer nonsense… Not in piano playing, where one hopes for performances that do not maltreat masterpieces, but elsewhere.” His admiration of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Woody Allen shed further light on the man and performer – inseparable – Brendel. The veil of this old-European, dignified, and serious man (a persona we already don’t believe in anymore, by the time we've heard this much music from him) is finally lifted – quickly, as if for a peak – when Brendel ends a concert, a last piece, an encore. Out of the corner of his eyes comes a puckish glance through which we see the almost child-like joy that he took in offering a sly last chord, an abrupt ending, a musical joke.

Tuesdays could end worse than with Mozart-Mozart-Haydn, courtesy of Alfred Brendel, even if Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, may not touch quite as profoundly as the preceding Schubert. Then again, the way Brendel carved his turns in the music, combined with some of the wit of Haydn and the trademark sound of (often deceptive) effortlessness, it nearly does. This – as the following Mozart Rondo (A minor, K. 571) and Haydn sonata (Hob. XVI:50) – is the daily bread of Brendel’s – which is not to say he treats it as Bread & Butter work. In the faster passages over the rumble from the right hand, the ‘old man’ showed that he needn’t retire any time soon, after all. Suddenly his playing was all fleet, his fingers plenty nimble.
Let this be the first warning to the Mozart performer: piano playing, be it ever so faultless, must not be considered sufficient. Mozart's piano works should be for the player a receptacle full of latent musical possibilities which often go far beyond the purely pianistic. It is not the limitations of Mozart's pianoforte (which I refuse to accept) that point the way, but rather Mozart's dynamism, colourfulness, and expressiveness in operatic singing, in the orchestra, in ensembles of all kinds.

A. Brendel - A Mozart Player Gives Himself Advice - Music Sounded Out
Alfred Brendel - ''Who's coughing?''A complete mastery was achieved during the Fantasia’s five little movements such that it can keep the young pianist Turks at bay for a good while. Especially since no one has ever succeeded with Mozart on account of technical ability alone; while few can match the (more important) musical spirit that is Brendel’s, the ingenuity of his touch. I, for one, should be happy to leave Hammerklavier sonatas or Petrouchka suites to others (a hand injury ruled those works out years ago) and hear similar… heck: identical programs from Brendel until he decides to end one of the most illustrious pianistic careers of our time, an impression the Rondo only further underscored. Particularly in Mozart, the Brendel of 75 years in flesh and blood outplayed the Brendel of any age on record. His recordings are always good – but nothing that I ever heard of his in Mozart had prepared me for the ease and easily discernable superiority of his playing.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Alfred Brendel at the Kennedy Center (DCist, February 8)

Tim Page, Alfred Brendel's Transcendental Sonatas (Washington Post, February 9)
Nothing could have been more head-boppingly delightful than Haydn’s sonata at the end of what was already a great recital. I hope that his Haydn, perhaps in duo with the Concertgebouw’s Surprise Symphony next Monday, gives that most quintessential Austrian composer a little, more than deserved, boost. His piano sonatas, piano trios, Scottish folksong arrangements, concertos all deserve more attention. Sonata no. 60 was infectious from Allegro to Adagio (masterfully as always with Haydn) to Allegro molto (a silvery brook). Towards the end it was difficult to tell who had more fun – Haydn, Brendel, or the audience. Their enthusiastic response earned them a Mozart encore – the Andante cantabile con espressione from the A minor sonata, K. 310. An evening after which everyone seemed to glow – Brendel included.


Now That's Cross-Over: Ayre & You've Stolen My Heart 

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O. Golijov/L. Berio, Ayre, Folk Songs, Andalucian Dogs / D. Upshaw
Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre has received plenty of attention among classical and non-classical music lovers – including here on Ionarts, where we published a critical review of Charles’s. I didn’t react to Ayre very positively either – albeit for different reasons than Charles. But the night that I read his review, I listened to it once more and suddenly had a very different reaction to it. Listening to it alone, at night, without any expectations, I rather liked it. And suddenly it wasn’t classical music anymore… it was just music. If it had to be categorized, I would have assigned it to classically informed folk-rock. It has its Silk Road / Middle Eastern influences. At one point it is hard-driving Armenian 21st-century folk, at another moment you are transported to a Beirut disco, one track further down you are placed back in the South-East European classical tradition.

Those who are used to Golijov’s previous works – although influences can be traced – are in for a surprise; those expecting classical music à la Penderecki, Pärt, or even Berio might be disappointed… those who leave categories behind might find it very enjoyable indeed. I myself thought at several points of Hubert von Goisern – an Austrian musician who has probably done more than any other musician to repopularize traditional Austrian and Bavarian folk music by collecting it. At first he placed them in the context of rock – as his fame grew and his style progressed, he barely altered these songs and had success with them, anyway. Since then he has gone on to explore African, Caribbean, and central Asian sounds in his unique and always honest blend of music. Golijov sounds more calculating and more polished, even in his roughest moments (those, for example, that had Charles exclaim that Ms. Upshaw was simply singing “ugly”).

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You've Broken My Heart, Asha Boshle/Kronos Quartet
Still, Ayre is successful because it taps into our sensibilities as music that is, although not ‘authentic’ in any meaningful sense, so at least novel. It also represents Cross-Over in the only way that we wish that genre would exist. Instead of Amici, Il Divo, Andre Rieu, Andrea Bocelli, and that travesty called “Bond” we now have music and albums that are “Cross-Over” not because they try to reach the musical insipidity of the Top 40 under the pretense of aiming for “classical,” but music that is genuinely straddling musical worlds that had hitherto been narrowly (and conveniently) defined. Especially the introduction of non-Western music (certainly considered “classical” in their culture, for the most part) into what we generally understand to be “Classical Music” (‘notational music’ that succeeds according to how much it adheres to the principles of the music we are used to) has us reconsider what exactly classical music is. Mahler, who gave us the mandolin as part of the orchestra, still operated in the (although already extended) framework of classical music. Now we not only have the Oud in ‘classical music’, but also the rhythms of that instrument’s country of origin, or the harmonic language of the Sitar.

Ayre is but one example of that. A few steps south we’ll find a culture that put its stamp on another disc that is a part of that relatively new breed of ‘true Cross-Over’. This time it’s by the pioneers and veterans in that field, the Kronos Quartet, who worked together with Asha Bhosle on their new disc You’ve Stolen My Heart. Asha Bhosle is one of the most revered Bollywood veteran singers, and the world’s most beautiful women have moved their lips to her voice. Hearing her on this record (which does not make any pretensions about being classical – it’s pretty straight Bollywood songs with string quartet) makes one marvel how fresh and young sounding she keeps her voice. The disc does not venture into unique blends of sound as does Ayre, nor does it come with the Berio (those Italian folk songs being perhaps the most intriguing folk/classical fusion since Bela Bartók’s recordings and compositions) that graces Dawn Upshaw’s disc. For those, however, who do not (or do not want to) listen only to classical music (and for all my love for the genre: why would anyone listen to classical music exclusively?), either disc should be worth giving a listen to. They may just offer the fare of high-quality “different” music that will delight them and their company on any given casual evening.

DG 02894775414 / Nonesuch 79856


Dohnanyi's Brahms Wins the Day 

Alban GerhardtAt 76 years old, Christoph von Dohnányi is one of the elder statesmen of conducting, well known in this country from his 18-year tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra (1984-2002). On Thursday he graced Washington with a hearty central-European program of Bartók, Schumann, and Brahms. A relaxed and fluid account of the Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra opened the evening. Apart from a brief sour moment among the violins, the National Symphony Orchestra responded well to Dohnányi’s precise and gentle leadership. Concertmaster Nurith Bar-Josef had nice opportunities to shine in the solo passages. The Molto Adagio flowed expansively, the Allegro assai had – naturally – more bite and reminded of the Haydn sonatas heard on Tuesday; less enchanting though the whole thing may have been.

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Dohnányi / D'Albert/ Enescu, Works for Cello and Orchestra, Gerhardt / BBCScO / Kalmar
Strange that I had not heard of German cellist Alban Gerhardt. It is difficult to align his youthful good looks (although that hair is just two years from being designated a comb-over) with the fact that he already looks back on an illustrious 15-year career in Europe. He’s played with just about every important orchestra on the continent and under the most prominent conductors. In the U.S., too, he’s left a mark with appearances that included Boston and Chicago and – locally – the Baltimore SO. If his bio made for impressive reading, the opening movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto did not make for impressive listening. Hesitant and wooden, some notes were whiney, others just approximated. Mr. Gerhardt warmed up over the course of the double-stop-riddled concerto, but neither playing nor tone became very involving. And not all blame for that can be laid at the feet of Schumann for having provided a somewhat less than perfect concerto. (All quite unlike what I heard on his most recent CD: Hyperion’s opening shot in their Romantic Cello Concerto series which includes the Ernő von Dohnányi – grandfather to Christoph – Konzertstück.) The finale is perhaps most likable, sounding more like his symphonies. The NSO played faultlessly, steadily, and remarkably well (woodwinds and strings deserve special mention) but didn’t start a fire where the soloist didn’t ignite one. It all made for very pleasant – just not exciting – listening.

Christoph von DohnányiBroad and muscular the timpani-driven opening of Brahms’s first symphony… before a gentler tone enters – only for the swell to return like the tide. Brahms is one of the surprisingly few composers to have composed Romantic symphonies in the classic(al) symphonic form. Apart from Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven (who already left that form behind in the 9th), we might include Tchaikovsky and Dvořák among the first-rate composers who operated in that field. That our idea of a symphony is so closely linked to their model says something about the quality of their output. And Brahms’s work is of the highest quality, indeed. It may seem silly to us to look back on the great Brahms’s worries about writing a symphony in a post-Beethoven musical world, but whether his doubts and patience were justified or necessary, the result certainly was worth waiting for. Few composers (any?) have written such a masterwork as their first symphony. Indeed, it is impossible for casual ears to detect any difference in maturity and mastery among the four that constitute Brahms’s entire output in that genre.

Particularly nice, then, to hear a splendid performance of it under Dohnányi. Levelheaded and involving, I wouldn’t expect any other orchestra to turn in a better one on any given Thursday. If I can say “plain good” without insinuating damnation by faint praise, I’ll do that. The orchestra noticeably followed every one of Dohnanyi’s instructions and gestures incisively. The brass delivered time and again. It was a good thing to have heard – and can be heard again this afternoon at 1:30PM and on Saturday at 8PM. Tim Page's review - more enthusiastic, still - can be read at the Washington Post's Web site: "Dohnanyi's NSO Debut Is One for the Ages."


Kennedy Center Chamber Players Knock the Wind out of Poulenc 

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F. Poulenc, Complete Chamber Music, v. 1
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F. Poulenc, Complete Chamber Music, v. 2
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F. Poulenc, Complete Chamber Music, v. 3
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F. Poulenc, Complete Chamber Music, v. 4
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F. Poulenc, Complete Chamber Music, v. 5
Last Sunday, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players – fortified with NSO colleagues – offered a wind- and brass-heavy program of Poulenc, Brahms, and Beethoven. Preceded by a speech of Orkis’s that was a kind trickle, never obtrusive: he hears “barnyard” in the Poulenc Sextet for Piano and Woodwind in C Major; I hear enraged poultry mucking about in the Allegro Vivace – perhaps there is something to Richard Freed’s observation of “a good deal of music-hall hanging about the sextet.” Poulenc’s music is, music-hall or barnyard, always an entertaining affair, rarely easy to categorize. Not only over the course of his career but even within individual pieces can you can find the spirit of Satie, then suddenly Martinů, perhaps Martin, then definitely Hindemith. But Poulenc is much more than a mere mélange – he turns out to be authentic in ever instance (something that I couldn’t claim for Martinů, although I love the latter’s music, too).

If you are unfamiliar with Poulenc you can best discover his musical palette (none of which should be intimmidating: Poulenc is among the most accessible of the important 20th century composers) with a selection from his chamber and orchestral works as well as his opera Dialogues des Carmélites. The chamber music has been well recorded by Naxos with none less than Alexandre Tharaud on the piano. The best orchestral overview (and in fact the best starting place for Poulenc newbies) is the Double-Decca disc of his concertos (piano, two pianos, harpsichord, organ) and the Gloria. The Dialogues has received a seminal recording from Dervaux in the 50s (EMI), and it took half a century to be challenged seriously with Nagano’s account on Virgin.

The players that tackled this fun – but by no means easy – work were Lambert Orkis (piano), Toshiko Kohno (flute), Rudolf Vrbsky (oboe), Loren Kitt (clarinet), Sue Heinemann (bassoon), and Martin Hackleman (horn), who combined for a very enjoyable performance.

It was a day of considerate, informative, and mercifully brief speeches – Hackleman’s before the Brahms horn trio superior especially on the third count. Mr. Orkis ‘accompanied’ nicely on the piano, Hackleman performed his part quite well, too, and Marissa Regni (the NSO’s principal second violin) got into the spirit before long, too… although sounding conspicuously like a viola for most of the trio. The work is lovely and pleased even in something short of an inspirational performance. The lugubrious slow movement didn’t help; it went beyond ‘funereal’ towards ‘boring’), but a lively finale made up for it.

Other Reviews:

Daniel "Il Divo" Ginsberg, Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Washington Post, February 6)
Beethoven’s Septet was extraordinarily popular in its time, and there is no reason to feel guilty about loving it in our days, either, even if Beethoven ‘disowned it’. Loren Kitt’s clarinet tone was a particular joy, but all the other six musicians -- Nurith Bar Josef (violin), Daniel Foster (viola), David Hardy (cello), Robert Oppelt (bass), Heinemann, and Hackleman -- contributed to its success. The Adagio cantabile alone justified the trip to the (all too chilly) Terrace Theater. That slow movement didn’t have the spontaneity of the other movements with their ‘near-sight-reading’ feel and was beautifully put together. The next Kennedy Center Chamber Players concert – a great way to get to know the NSO’s musicians better; great mostly since it usually doesn’t involve speeches – will take place on Sunday, March 19th, at 2PM.


Dip You Ears... ( 52 ) 

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A. Scriabin, Symphonies, R. Muti/Philadelphia
Scriabin is not in the first rank of composers - but at the very least his piano sonatas are fairly well known and reasonably popular. There is certainly no dearth of good recordings, our favorite currently being Håkon Austbø’s – perhaps in part because of his excellent presentation at the Hirshhorn last September. His symphonies are not exactly obscure – but neither as well known as they should be. That’s a shame, because they are – all three – wonderful works. Symphony No. 1 is an audacious work of a 28-year-old composer, who based it on no less a work than Beethoven’s Ninth. It is in six movements and employs vocal soloists and choir in the last. If it should somehow not be a great symphony, it’s certainly a greatly entertaining one, with plenty of sweep and grandeur – enjoyable at every listen. Ricardo Muti’s EMI recording of all the symphonies has just been re-released by Brilliant. In the first, just like in symphonies nos. 2 and 3 (with its ecstatic climax), his Philadelphia forces play with the utmost of polish and urgency; two qualities that seem more pertinent in these works than the less pronounced elements of abandon and raw drive might bring. Coupled with Le Poème de l’Extase and Prométhée – two 20-minute one-movement works that are sometimes considered the fourth and fifth symphonies – the set offers stunning sound. Dmitri Alexeev plays the piano in Prométhée. Even with the EMI set or Ashkenazy’s Decca “Trio” (which includes the Piano Concerto) acquaintance with these works has always been affordable. But with the super-budget Brilliant box it now stands that you cannot afford not to get acquainted with them.

Brilliant 92744


Lunch on the Sacred Pineapple 

The Washington Bach Consort’s Noontime Cantata Series is a wonderful, 17 year old, tradition at the Church of the Epiphany on 13th and G Street every first Tuesday of the month. The cantata on offer was Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind (Behold, dear God, how all my foes) BWV 153, preceded by the 15 year old, Georg Boehm influenced, Bach’s slight and experimental Prelude and Fugue in C-major BWV 531. That little thing (safely in under five minutes) was introduced by the WBC’s J.Reilly Lewis and ably played by Todd Fickley.

Conducting the cantata was, in his debut in that role, the organist who had delighted with a brilliant Passacaglia the last time I attended a Noontime Cantata concert, Scott Dettra. The five players would have been better served by a dedicated conductor, though, as Dettra was busy at the continuo organ and didn’t have the time to tend to the increasingly more obvious intonation issues and the strings eventual refusal to play in unison. Reilly Lewis, enjoying his role as a listener, still gave his traditional introduction to the work and whether one likes these introductions in principle or not, there is no denying he does them very well, with charm and filled with easily digestible information. The young alto Tracy Cowart sang well and she still has a lot of time to improve her German pronunciation. Tenor Robert Petrillo pleased with barely a strain in his voice. Bass Robert Tudor’s contribution was a delight.

The rest of the 17th season for the Noontime Cantata concerts will take place on March 7th (Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101), April 4th (Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort BWV 168), and May 2nd (Höchsterwüschtes Freudenfest, BWV 194).


Glorious Bruckner at Strathmore 

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Bruckner, Mozart and Stucky may have sold few tickets at Meyerhoff Hall – but on Saturday, Strathmore Hall was reliably well filled, if not at capacity. Opening with Steven Stucky’s “Anniversary Greeting” (written for and premiered at the BSO’s 75th birthday celebration, now dug out for its 90th) the audience heard the music’s heat flickering, receding threateningly, and the a quick, small and fierce blaze. That’s about all there is to that composition and that is also all one could jot down during the minute and a half that it lasts.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto no.3 in E-flat major K.447 with the BSO’s own Philip Munds as soloist was next. Under guest conductor Günther Herbig (ex East Berlin, Detroit, Toronto, now Saarbrücken) who is the quintessential Kapellmeister, most of the strings got to partake in a performance that was surprisingly lean and streamlined. For the quantity of players involved and given the last few bouts with Mozart, the BSO sounded pretty nimble and found itself by the third movement. It was, as far as the orchestra is concerned, much better than I remember the violin concerto played (Kraggerud/Ryan) last May and a bit better, too, than the recent piano concerto (Fleisher/Alsop). Fortunately we are not running out of Mozart concertos any time soon – so there is hope that the musicians will continue with them on a regular basis. They’d be a much improved orchestra at the end of the Mozart tunnel, with classical repertoire ‘cleaning the pipes’ of an orchestra on a too-high calorie diet of romanticism, forcing them to be more flexible, adjust their style of playing from one moment to the next and tip-toe around music with a sprightly gait whenever necessary. In fact, the first orchestra in the region to play consistently sublime Mozart could likely claim supremacy in the local, alleged “Battle of the Bands”, just for the effects it would have on non-Mozart repertoire. BSO principle horn Munds – a great horn player, although no virtuoso – meanwhile, played along nicely with his solo parts well executed to Maestro Herbig’s gentle speeds.

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A. Bruckner, Symphony No.9, G.Wand/BPh
When Tim Smith opened his review of the same program on Friday with the caveat that a room of music lovers could be cleared out pretty quickly with the music of Bruckner, my first instinct was to wonder what kind of questionable acquaintances Baltimore’s music critic surrounds himself with. But while the sentiment he expressed is completely alien to me these days (I and most of my musical acquaintances worship Bruckner’s grand, honest, somber symphonies), it hasn’t always been that way for me. I vaguely remember my first concert to have been a Bruckner/Mozart matinee at the Bavarian State Opera (me, in my blue velvet suit, joyously sucking my thumb and being amazed how half the orchestra could go home [after the Bruckner] and continue to play such beautiful music). Still, I didn’t take to the music of St.Florian’s organist easily. I had to recordings of his symphonies without any particular awareness of that fact – and listened to them with even less comprehension. CDs of his Eighth Symphony left so little an impression on me that I continued to by successive recordings each time I forgot I had ever gotten one such in the first place. All that changed when I hit upon Günter Wand’s live recording of the 8th with the Berlin Philharmonic from his long Indian summer in the late 90s and 2000. It was the long overdue epiphany, the beginning of a personal obsession with Bruckner in a way few other composers affect me. So I should remember how it was not to ‘get’ Bruckner. That I almost didn’t, anymore, says something about the power of Bruckner’s work.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO gives Bruckner a break, with fine Symphony No. 9 (Baltimore Sun, February 4)
Before the BSO’s performance under Herbig I was nervous with anticipation. Just putting Bruckner on the program had me indebted to them, bound to love every note. At the same time, my standards would probably be higher, still, than in other repertoire. Thankfully, all such concerns and notions disappeared when the symphony got under way. Notebook and pen tucked away, eyes closed, the BSO played so well and engaged that Bruckner’s 9th symphony was an hour-long smile on my face. Herbig led – I peeked a few times, after all – with the understatement of a old-school band leader; the very opposite of the type of Maestro who indulges in sweeping, grand and majestic gestures to which Bruckner would seem to invite. Idiomatic shortcomings or the occasional ensemble issues were negligible amidst the over-all quality of the performance. It was a night the BSO played itself into my heart.


Alsop at Strathmore 

Marin Alsop's only appearance at Strathmore Hall this season will take place Monday, February 13th. I point this out because I completely bungled the concert dates of her appearance in the review of her Meyerhoff appearance in January where I claimed it would take place that same weekend. Now Tim Page, notoriously kind, has tried to make me feel better by announcing the wrong date, too; February 6th – today. If you have read that and want to go: Don’t. You’d stand before closed doors or at least doors that would open to anything – just not an Alsop performance. The program on February 13th will be Rouse and Dvořák again, with the Mozart concerto being replaced by Brahms "Tragic Overture".

Brendel's Choice 

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J.Haydn, W.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas,
Alfred Brendel
Just in time for his recital in Washinton, courtesy WPAS, Philips issued a series of CDs of Alfred Brendel in a series entitled “Artist’s Choice”. I don’t know who else is included, for now it seems solely the prerogative of Brendel who also celebrates his 75th birthday this year. “Artist’s Choice” is like the “Signum” series that ECM put out for its Jazz artists, in that the artist gets to pick his favorite recordings and have them issued on disc. While ECM’s Jazz musicians might have looked out for particular pieces or collaborations, filling one CD with the best of them, Brendel gets to look back at half a century of recording activity and a huge catalogue of recorded, re-recorded and re-re-recorded material. His pleasantly candid liner notes (written this January) lack all false modesty but exude confidence and the appropriate humility of one of the greatest pianists alive. He muses about particularly successful recordings, touches he likes from earlier attempts, where he find a later recording better, or how he’s recently discovered a live recording he particularly cherishes.

The two disc sets published so far include one with Liszt (Piano Sonata, Totentanz, Vallee d'Obermann and the second Piano Concerto) and Schumann (Kreisleriana, Fantasie in C), one with the five last Schumann sonatas and one with Beethoven (4th Piano Concerto with Rattle/WPh, “Waldstein” Sonata, Bagatelles, Sonatas opp.109, 111). And, most interesting with regards to the upcoming concert, one with Haydn and Mozart. It isn’t surprising that Haydn made it onto Brendel’s list… his recordings of some of the sonatas is not only the most enjoyable Haydn but also some of the best Brendel I have heard on record. For the first disc of this compilation he chooses sonatas Hob.XVI:34, 40, 42 and 52 – also known as Nos.53, 54, 56 and 62. The third movement (Vivace molto, innocentemente) of H16-34 is one of the most enjoyable, ‘funnest’ and infectious of its kind. The Presto from H16-40 a wild ride and Brendel is lightly forgiven for a little humming in the first movement of that G-major sonata. H16-42 is the one he will play in his recital at the Kennedy Center, along with H16-50, Schubert’s G-major sonata D894, Mozart’s Fantasia in c-minor and – also on this CD – the K.511 Rondo in a-minor.

The Mozart is represented with the Sonata K.332 in F-major, the Fantsia K.397 in d-minor, the Rondo in a-minor as well as the Marriner/St.Martin supported Concert Rondo in D-major (K.382) and the Piano Concerto no.20 in d-minor (K.466 - with Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra). Except the Concert Rondo (from his integral Mozart cycle with Marriner in 1976), the recordings are all from his recent batch - the same line that the disc Charles reviewed is from. It's musical, it's no-nonsense, it's always delight- and wonderful, it's solid and reliable. Not as romantically indulgent as Schiff’s, not quite the no-nonsense approach of De Larrocha, not with the lithe and emotional supremacy that Uchida brings to it. But after fifty years of playing those works, you won’t find a more unapologetic, self-assured way of playing Mozart.

Philips 208947 57185
released January 10, 2006

Dip Your Ears... ( 51 ) 

available at Amazon
G. F. Handel, Radamisto, Curtis/Il Complesso Barocco
You have to be thick into Handel to really care whether you are listening to the first 1720 version of Radamisto or the second 1720 version. But then you probably have to care lots about Handel to be likely to acquire either version and may thus appreciate Anthony Hicks’s detailed notes in the latest (and second) recording of this opera by Alan Curtis and his team who chose -- unlike Nicholas McGegan in a currently unavailable Harmonia Mundi recording -- the latter. (Don’t ask me which edition Horst-Tanu Margraf recorded for Berlin Classics… perhaps the third, 1727, version?) Right now it’s the only Radamisto game in town, though, and if you want to hear arias like Quando mai, spietata sorte or Dolce bene di quest’alma, you might as well make a bee-line for the Virgin recording where Curtis’s Il Complesso Barocco again proves to be among the finest groups for Handel; this recording coming close on the heels of the previously reviewed Rodelinda from the same forces (with different singers). Radamisto may not be as apt as Rodelinda in keeping your continued interest, nor do the soloists Joyce DiDonato, Maite Beaumont, Zachary Stains, Laura Cherici, Patrizia Ciofi, and Carlo Lepore necessarily outdo Kermes, Davislim, Lemieux, and Mijanović – but the Handelians among us should lap this up with delight. Another wonderful proof from Virgin that high-quality opera recordings are still very much alive and coming at us in rapid succession.

Virgin 7243 5 457673 2 2


Bruckner in Baltimore 

This account from Baltimore was kindly contributed by Ionarts guest reviewer John Henry Crosby.

Günther HerbigUnder the guidance of the German conductor Günther Herbig, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a Thursday evening concert featuring the music of Steven Stucky, Mozart, and Bruckner. With a hall that could hardly have been more than half full, the electricity of an audience full of anticipation was sadly lacking. Stucky’s Anniversary Greeting did not lose much for lack of listeners, given that it was over almost before it had begun, in about 80 seconds. Stucky is a reasonably well-known American composer, but so brief a composition wasn’t able to do much to serve his cause.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 received a capable performance by Philip Munds, the BSO’s principal horn player. Supported by the lovely and spirited playing of the BSO, Munds offered a somewhat predictable rendition of an old favorite, an impression that was only heightened by a certain lack of stage presence on his part and a tendency to peruse the audience between his solos. Perhaps this was his way of dealing with performance anxiety, but greater composure and concentration throughout would certainly have enhanced the presentation.

The real event of the evening, however, was the BSO’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Guest conductor Günther Herbig, a student of Scherchen's and Karajan's who succeeded Kurt Sanderling at the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and has been at the helm in Detroit and Toronto, not only demonstrated a grasp of the Ninth’s massive architectonic structure, its thematic groupings, and its dramatic trajectory, but he also managed to communicate this to the very responsive musicians of the BSO. The great Brucknerian conductor Günter Wand once described the experiencing of falling into the abyss of Bruckner’s music as “falling upwards,” and it was this upward surge, this rush into transcendence, which Herbig achieved to a remarkable degree, especially in the sublime first theme of the third movement, the Adagio, with its remarkable kinship to the inexpressibly pure music of the grail theme in Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Herbig’s skillful conducting also manifested itself in a special ability to “draw out” the musical line: while Bruckner is often performed rather one-dimensionally as a series of transitions between loud and soft, the moments of culmination under Herbig’s guidance were not just climaxes in terms of sheer volume but, so to speak, moments of “opening outward,” of blossoming.

Anton BrucknerHerbig’s rendition of the Ninth Symphony was perhaps somewhat subdued in its treatment of the darker, even ominous, passages that pervade the entire work. “The abyss in man cries out to the abyss in God: tell me, which is deeper!” -- so the medieval mystic Angelius Silesius expressed the immensity and even terrifying depth of the human heart. This experience of depth and of the abyss in man is ever present in the music of Bruckner, yet the Ninth under Herbig did not, perhaps, plumb this depth sufficiently. Bruckner in the hands of conductors such as Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Günter Wand, and even Carlo Maria Giulini is more terrifying, more overwhelming, in its daring confrontation with the abyss in Bruckner’s music, yet the full effect of the contrast between these moments and those of consolation and resolution are thereby assured. In this sense of the totality of the Brucknerian spectrum, Herbig’s interpretation of the Ninth was still (yet appropriately?) unfinished.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, BSO gives Bruckner a break, with fine Symphony No. 9 (Baltimore Sun, February 4)
Aside from a few places in which the intonation left something to be desired, as well as one, perhaps two, passages where the violins appeared to be ever so slightly at odds with the pace being set by Herbig, the BSO gave a very beautiful performance of an extremely difficult piece of music. Particularly challenging are the quick exchanges between instruments, transitions which did not always occur smoothly. Overall, however, this reviewer could not quite overcome his abiding sense that Bruckner always sounds a little foreign in the hands of American orchestras. (This should hardly be a surprise, considering that only the Fourth Symphony can really be said to receive frequent performances in the USA.) One had the sense that certain sections -- such as the rapid pizzicato passages in the second movement -- were played with an effort and deliberateness stemming not so much from poor musicianship but from the lack of a real American Bruckner tradition. This belabored playing was frequently manifested by the fact that one could hear the pronounced leadership of the BSO’s excellent concertmaster, Jonathan Carney.

Herbig may not be one of the defining conductors of his age, yet his interpretation of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was compelling and challenging. In an age of traveling musicians, performances can so often leave an impression of being automatic and even standardized. And though he stands squarely within the tradition of Bruckner conducting, Herbig offered not just a performance of the Ninth Symphony but succeeded in bringing the Ninth Symphony to life in a very beautiful, dignified, and inspiring manner. Unlike so many other baton-waving conductors, one had the sense that he was really doing justice to a magnificent piece of music.

Repeat performances will take place at Meyerhoff Hall at 8PM on Friday and at 3PM on Sunday. On Saturday, the BSO will play this program at Strathmore at 8PM. This reviewer, for one, will not miss the opportunity for a second helping of Bruckner.


Robert Sierra's Missa Latina Premiered 

Thursday was another World Premiere-day for the audience at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, the Choral Arts Society of Washington (Norman Scribner) and soloists Heidi Grant Murphy and Nathaniel Webster presented Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina (“Pro Pax”) that had been commissioned by the performing forces. A work based on the Latin Mass as Mr. Sierra remembers it from childhood, a plea for peace (hence “Pro Pax”), it is also a showcase for Sierra’s Hispanic background “which” he is quoted in the notes by Richard Freed, “comes across through the fabric of my musical language”. That might just be a bit of an understatement, as it turned out. It’s a catholic work alright, set to the text of the traditional Latin mass with the Kyrie (Hello, Carmina Burana!), Gloria, Credo (ever-lasting), Sanctus and Agnus Dei as well as an Introitus and Offertorium (wild and smashing), but it has more than a shade of Caribbean or South American flair to it; it carries that most prominently on its sleeve.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, 'Abduction': Taken With a Grain of Salt (Washington Post, February 3)
A large work for a very large orchestra (everyone on the orchestra’s pay-roll seemed involved) and a long work, the Missa Latina is rich in ideas and high in promise. The return on these promises is difficult to judge upon first hearing but there were elements that stood out as distracting rather than aiding the work. These were, namely, the Hispanic ‘influences’ that were not so much “part of the fabric” but stitched onto it, in screaming colors and very narrowly defined moments. What started and often reverted to a large choral work with soft falls and rises of the musical line, with a powerful swoosh here and there and in a language that should be accessible to those who know and like their Arvo Pärt (Litany), Morten Lauridsen (Lux Eterna) and especially John Adams (El Niño) was consistently interrupted (not accentuated or enhanced) with Latin ‘effects’ that spelled out “Speedy Gonzales” more than “Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spritu Sancto”. The rhythm section’s cabaza and maracas’ ambushes on the music felt alien and cut and pasted atop the music, not part of its fabric. In the Sanctus, the chorus nearly began swaying in a form of Caribbean doo-wop to the words “Pleni sunt caeli et terra Gloria tua” and quickly again to “Hosanna” only to stop as abruptly as they started. Same at “Lauda, Jerusalem Dominum” (Offertorium) and the “Laudamus te” in the Gloria.

Speedy GonzalesI admit to seeing a connection between text and the added Latin spice, but while Mr. Sierra’s God might shake the Maracas and bang the Bongos, I feel more like Robert R. Reilly (he, pre-cognizant, stayed away) who wrote (albeit about Golijov’s Passion) that “I cannot salsa down the via dolorosa.” The image fits perfectly, because the percussion’s sections contributions often felt like a mime dancing in front of the orchestra, hips swinging ostentatiously, pointing out the underlying rhythm in painfully obvious ways. I think that the work might have truly impressed me, were it for Sierra to cut the snare drum, bass drum, Cuban timbales, bongos, congas, tom toms, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, tam-tam, gong, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, hi-hat, cencerros, triangle, maracas, claves, güiro, vibra-slap, and cabaza (all present) out of the score. What are obstructions to and detractions from the music may be highlights to someone else… but there was, despite much beautiful music, another quibble I had. The constant regular musical eruptions and swooping mini-climaxes that lacked – unlike in Bruckner – the grand design of overarching ideas and structure or – as in Mahler – the cumulative power of neurotic outbursts left one with the feeling of impotence, after a while.

Leonard Slatkin conducted with visible enthusiasm and engagement, evidently believing in the work (as he should, of course) and enjoying the many theatrical entries of various loud instrument groups. In the grand final gesture – attended by the trademark ‘Slatkin-hop’ – his baton touched his back before he flung it orchestra-wards one last time. Heidi Grant Murphy (appearing in an intriguing, steel/power-blue dress) is one of the finest lighter voices of her generation. Her always agile voice navigated through the whole affair with ease and soft and hushed tones were particularly impressive. She was seconded by they young baritone Nathaniel Webster who offered a performance no lesser than that of his more seasoned and famous colleague.

Repeat performances will take place Friday and Saturday at 8PM.

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