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23.6.06

Philip Glass' 8th Symphony 

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P. Glass, Symphony No.8, D.R.Davies / Bruckner Orchestra Linz
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Sys. 2 & 3

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Sy. 2

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Sy. 3

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Sy. 5

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Sy. 6
In the most telling moment of a Q&A at the Freer Gallery after a recital a year or two back, Philip Glass consoled composition students, worried of not being able to quite “find their own voice” that they ought not worry – finding their own voice was much easier than losing it again. Charmingly self-referential point from the man whose music you can recognize within a couple bars, the effect of which, however, sets in only after trudging through the entire work.

The symphonies of the Baltimore-native Philip Glass were not his most typical work when they first came out because they stray significantly from the purely minimalist pieces like Music in 12 Parts or Einstein on the Beach. For that very reason, Symphonies 2 and 3 present the best introduction to Glass for those who are otherwise not to keen on the idea of hearing one and the same modulated triad for two hours straight. Either Marin Alsop’s budget-friendly recording on Naxos or the Dennis Russell Davies recordings on Nonesuch are perfect for that purpose. (Alsop/Bournemouth may have a slight edge in the orchestral playing and offer them on one disc but the accompanying pieces on DRD’s discs – the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet with the second symphony, The Light and interludes from Civil WarS with the third symphony – make them better introductions, still; well worth the extra cost.)

Since then, however, his music has become more schematic, using blocks of musical elements in succession or parallel to create his effects, rather than relying on one or two continuous effects to dominate an entire piece. The ‘listenability’ is increased significantly, the music sounds more interesting – but at the cost of all the hypnotizing power. It now comes closer to a sort of “Fisher-Prize Bruckner” meets Shostakovean climaxes – but the latter, for lack of sustaining power, with some coital malfunction.

That is pretty much a summary of the somewhat-enjoyable if less-than-novel Symphony No. 8 that was just issued on Glass’ own label, Orange Mountain Music. This is, lest I miscount (does his Low Symphony count?), the fifth of now eight Glass symphonies commercially available: Nos. 2 and 3 as mentioned, No. 5 (about the creation of man – harking back to his more operatic style) on Nonesuch, No. 6 (based on Allen Ginserg’s “Plutonian Ode” – for orchestra and solo soprano; his most intriguing offering in years) on Orange Mountain Music and now No. 8. They seventh symphony (“A Toltec Symphony”) will surely be issued in due time; the world premiere of that symphony (Ionarts review here) suggested it might be worth hearing that work again.

To those who know Glass’ music, his works not only sound familiar but exude the soothing effect of having heard them before. Like the first movement of Symphony no. 8 which, except for the three-tone flute steps (up – and down, up – and down, up – and down) sounds exactly like… well… some other Glass work I can’t quite put my finger on right now. It’s more like the second or third symphonies than what had come since (although the musical language of the “Toltec” already harks back to those). In Glass’ own words:
The first movement is the longest of the three, almost 20 minutes in length. It begins with a statement of eight different ‘themes’. This series is then developed in whole or in part, recombined with various harmonies and melodic elements and culminates in a series of ‘stretto’-like passages producing a highly contrapuntal effect.
The second movement, about 12 minutes long, is in the form of a passacaglia with a series of melodic variations. The harmonic basis of the passacaglia is 16 measures long, which allows for some extended, at times quite oblique, melodic embellishments.
The third movement, by comparison to the first two, is quite brief – a short 7 minutes. However, what it lacks in length it makes up in density. The theme with its accompanying harmony is heard twice then joined by a counter theme, also heard twice. An extended cadence serves as a coda to the third movement and the symphony itself.

Lucid enough a technical description; I would only question the description of the third movement as “dense”. It would suggest at least a very intense, knotty, perhaps even frantic movement: in fact it is even mellower than the rest - although, perhaps, with more notes. The Bruckner Orchester Linz plays very well under its principal conductor Dennis Russell Davies, the sound is very good, the dynamics not so wide as to make the disc unplayable on mid-fi systems.

21.6.06

For the Family: Pecking Along with the Firebird 

Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of Ionarts-recommended Surprised by Beauty, was at the Kennedy Center for Ionarts, testing the child-friendliness of the NSO's Family concert with the help of his own son.


I thought I was cheating. The National Symphony Orchestra website suggested that children be at least seven years old to attend the family concert, The Magic of the Firebird, on Sunday, June 18th. My youngest son is six. I snuck him in anyway. I was making allowances not only for his height – he could easily pass for seven or eight – but also because my children are thoroughly immersed in Classical music as a kind of amniotic sound in and ex utero. They instinctively know what bad music is because of their exposure to good music.

As an opposite kind of Gresham’s law, good music actually drives bad music out. My oldest son – then 10 – after being forced to listen to run-of-the mill, low quality rock in a friend’s father’s car, vented his frustration. Why, I asked, didn’t you like it? “It is irritating to the mind,” he replied. Exactly.

Firebird (Maryleen Schiltkamp)This concert was part of a laudable effort by the National Symphony Orchestra to expose kids to musical quality, thus inoculating them to these inevitable irritations from a lobotomized pop culture. At least they will know that they are irritations. Also, my six-year-old insisted on a concert because his older brother and sister had already been to the Kennedy Center. This was the solution.

Before the conductor appeared, I asked my son if he would like me to read to him the story of the Firebird, neatly provided in a colorful cue sheet for families by the Kennedy Center. He declined. “I’d rather listen to the music,” he said, displaying a preference for the absolute over the descriptive.

Conductor Emil de Cou took the stage, however, and told the story anyway. First, however, he introduced and conducted an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty. This seemed to transfix my son sufficiently that he never removed two fingers thoughtfully poised on his lips. Then came the Sinbad excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with the wonderful crashing waves and wrecked ship.

Finally, De Cou recited the Firebird narrative, illustrating it with orchestral excerpts. He succeeded in his delicate mission because he did not try to be cute, a terminally fatal attitude afflicting condescending adults. Then he and the NSO engagingly played The Firebird Suite (1919 version).

My son was reasonably attentive. He was also attracted by the overhead screen that displayed occasional figure drawings showing what the prince and Firebird were up to, as well as live close-ups of the featured instrumentalists. I could see he was flagging as the Firebird lulled the ogres into a deep sleep, but he was bolt upright when King Kastchei attacked. “When the music got rough, it really got my attention,” he reported.

My son has not asked to listen to more Stravinsky, but I think this was a success nonetheless. It seemed so for the general audience that included many children at least as young if not younger than my son. I saw only one baby removed. In fact, the kids were remarkably well-behaved.

Firebird (Heaven and Earth Design)What about the adults, you are wondering? The family behind me was, I hope, not typical. Before that concert began, the mother announced to herself that this was their first time in the concert hall. As she examined the surroundings, she exclaimed to her daughter, “Look, dear, the whole ceiling is made of octagons.” I looked up. They are hexagons.

The father of this family never saw fit to inform the boy behind me that kicking the chair in front of him was gauche. The boy was trying to be quiet in his paper folding exercises, but was ceaseless in them as well. Dad saw no problem with this, and only interrupted to read to the boy from the sous titres from the overhead projector during the performance. Mom also thought that whispering was part of the fun, modulating her voice to follow the volume of the sound. Orchestral tutti provided opportunities for near normal conversational levels.

But this is carping. The NSO is doing the right thing, and doing it well. How about some family concerts for parents on etiqette?

20.6.06

Mediocrity, not Betrayal, Does Giselle in 

Please note that earlier today, I misidentified the lead dancers in this review. Irina Golub and Andrian Fadeyev (neither seen nor reviewed) must be considered innocent. Olesya Novikova and Leonid Sarafanov, the other alternative couple, were reviewed (together with Pavleko/Kolb) by Jean Battey Lewis for the Washington Times.


The Kirov-slash-Mariinsky, fond of spreading its cultural riches far and wide – and surely not unaware of the benefits of hard currency – makes Washington D.C. a regular stop on its tours. We are thankful, especially if Gergiev himself manages to lead the main band an enthralling performances (Verdi Requiem); truth be told, Washington is usually just as grateful even if they give us something from a lower shelf. And the Kirov knows that. Or so it seemed when they sent the Kirov Ballet to D.C., except that they forgot to ship the best soloists in.

We are not a culturally discriminating town and ought not complain that the best is withheld from us in favor of London, St. Petersburg, or Vienna – perhaps even New York – performances. The indiscriminate applause for just about any “scene” of Giselle (even at the fact that there was “fog” on stage for the second act), last Sunday, seemed to underscore that point. If, however, some audience members were curiously unmoved or not entirely convinced that Giselle is in fact one of the best, certainly most dramatic, classical (well, romantic) ballets there is, well, it may have had something to do with Daria Pavlenko in the title role and Igor Kolb as Count Albrecht, the male lead.

Giselle - as it should have lookedThe two displayed the kind of dancing that an expert Ballet watcher will find full of flaws, fraught with sloppy execution, insufficient extension, insecure landings, and too little air. The more casual observer – and I count myself among them – merely wonders what the whole dancing business is all about; why people get quite so excited about Giselle, or any other ballet, for that matter, in the first place. Giselle has everything that should make it at the very least enjoyable: For a ballet of its time (1842), it has superior music (by Adolphe Adam; inferior still to Delibes or Tchaikovsky, but leagues above the kind professional hacks like Minkus churned out), suffers from no more a hackneyed story than ballets all tend to do (the fewer humans involved – Mandarin, Coppelia –, the better it usually is for a ballet’s story-line; but that’s based on a rather flimsy survey of mine), and comes with its tried and true, ever popular Marius Petipa choreography (with a little Jean Coralli here, a little Jules Perrot there) from 1884, in a reconstruction of which the Kirov presented this work.

I need not be detailed in my particular feelings about any interpretive art-form (like ballet or theater or opera) being offered in a way that carefully excised any and all hints of new ideas over the last 130 years – but in the combination with sub-par dancing it didn’t help the appreciation of this production. The morticians who applied the lovely (cliché-expectation fulfilling) set- and costume design are Igor Ivanov and Irina Press. In this form, Ballet has only an accidental relation with other art forms we cover at Ionarts, namely being the off-and-on paymaster – and occasionally inspiration – of some composers. Divulging so deliberately in the artificial, its stylized ways can be either entrancing to the newcomer, or more off-putting than the haughty, pompous, screeching world of opera. In fact, it makes your average Donizetti opera look like a study in dramatic realism.

Other Reviews:

Jean Battey Lewis, Kirov bows after 'Giselle' (Washington Times, June 19)

Sarah Kaufman, From the Kirov, A Bright and Buoyant 'Giselle' (Washington Post, June 19)
All this came to the fore because the listless performance of the lead dancers never managed to kindle the necessary suspense of disbelieve; because neither Pavlenko nor Kolb managed to offer that extra bit of excellence that transports the viewer, and enchants him or her. Instead, what Count Albrecht and - in this case - his rival Hans (Dmitry Pykhachev) delivered amounted to little more than homoerotic pantomime in tights. Both Giselle and Tavarisch Albrecht were artificial in the portrayal of their roles. One could tell they did not believe an iota of their character’s emotions and consequently we refused to believe ourselves. Giselle did not go mad, she became, by turn of fate, surely, idiotic. To all that, Fadeyev was digging out every effeminate and affected stock-phrase in order to undermine even the last remnant of a sense of masculinity in his role, offering but a sad stereotype of ballet dancers rather than the real thing. It only took the fine Ekaterina Osmolkina and the exemplary Vladimir Shklyarov to show, if briefly, how ballet can be danced without succumbing to all these shortfalls, when they stole the show in the first act Pas de deux. Alina Somova’s Myrtha, too, was very good (if not great) in her regal potrayal – and unlike Giselle, the Fairy-queen didn’t stumble.

On a more positive positive note the Corps de Ballet must be mentioned as having been very good – in the first scene even excellent. I grew up in a time when classical ballet – and by that we instinctively thought of the Kirov or Bolshoi as prime exponents– meant perfection, when symmetry was not something to be approximated but executed with machine-like precision. This is a skill that has all but disappeared, even from Russian troupes (the art only survives in synchronized swimming) – but here it faintly peaked through ever so often. In that, these scores of girls were already better than anything I’ve seen of late. With their quality, they tantalizing kept a hope alive that was never fulfilled by the Kirov’s second or third string of soloists. Perhaps that hope would be better invested in the Kirov not shortchanging this little backwater-town of ours, Washington, next season?

18.6.06

Long in the Waiting, Longer still in the Hearing: Cavalli's Didone Hits Washington 

Ignoti Dei Opera's La DidonePier Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone got its North American premiere in Washington over the last three days, nestled away in American University’s pretty and functional Greenberg Theatre. Ionarts promised a little star for your book if you attended; we should offer another one for everyone who sat through the entire opera. If you did, you will have gotten your secco recitativo-fill for the year, La Didone’s three-plus hours (after Ignoti dei Opera’s artistic director Timothy Nelson had mercifully cut some 45 additional minutes) consisting of three quarters recitatives as it does. Baroque audiences were more different than alike us; and they would doubtlessly have experienced and enjoyed the entertainment and novelty that La Didone provides to its patient listeners in a different, perhaps more intense way. Baroque fanatics and musicologists alike must have been spellbound at the production, though: How long has it been since we saw and heard a little orchestra replete with Cornettos, Lirone, two (!) Theorbos, Viola da Gamba, and the like?

The story is the popular myth of Aeneas (Enea), son of Venus and Anchises, the fall of Troy, his flight, the consequent stopover in Carthage, and the eventual founding of Rome. (Berlioz treats the exact same story in Les Troyens, which, at 5½ hours, feels nearly as long as La Didone.) Aeneas’ story is littered with various women, including Dido (the Didone of the opera’s title), queen of Carthage, who falls in love (Amor’s intervention helps) with him after he left most of his female family members dead and/or raped in the rubble of Troy. Add insane African Kings, assorted Gods, Children, and old Fathers to taste and you are good to go. Librettist Giovan Francesco Busenello does the inevitable (even 300 years before Hollywood), he gives the story a happy end in that Dido does not (successfully) commit suicide.

Stage, Costume, and Set Direction was all in the hands of Ignoti dei Opera’s founder, Mr. Nelson – who also shared the music direction with harpsichordist Adam Pearl (who I last heard during the Paris-on-the-Potomac celebrations). For a small company with the consequent financial limitations it is important that good ideas make up for the necessary lack of splendor. With evocative lighting (Kel Millione) and pointed use of colors (crimson red and white, mostly), the spare sets with screens and backdrops were very effective, often beautifully setting the action. Costumes were simple, modern day dress and worked well enough for this production, too, even if they were devoid of new ideas. Unused to seeing baroque opera in the US as we are, much less in a modern staging, it didn’t bother that the blatantly symbolic garb (the male, the warrior, in camouflage with boots, the frail Father – Anchise – in the latest nursing-home bespoke) smacked of 1980s theatre direction.

The orchestra performed beautifully throughout, although one felt for Anna Marsh, the Tambourine-Lady, who got to clap her instrument six, seven times every half hour, and could have knitted a sweater or two in the time between. On harpsichord and organ, Mr. Pearl led the troupe with seasoned skill that belies his relative youth. The singing, meanwhile, was a different story. To make mention of the proverbial “mixed bag” would be an understatement. There were basically three groups into which they fell: The admirably courageous, the admirably performing, and Rosa Lamoreaux.

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Cavalli, La Didone, Hengelbrock et al.
As Venus, the latter was simply a cut above the rest of the cast. Scott Elliot, in various roles, provided a nice bass and even better, well-judged and appropriately over-the-top acting. Emily Noel, as Creusa (Enea’s wife) and Anna (Didone’s sister) was very fine and arguably the best of the non-Lamoreaux singers. Aaron Sheehnan’s tenor for Enea was variable but compared nicely to the other male voices, always good for a pleasant surprise here or there and admirable for his stamina, never mind learning all that text for a role that he won’t revive very often over the course of his future career. Rebecca Duren as Ascanio, Amore, and one of Didone’s girlfriends was the most versatile singer on stage. Her portrayal of Asciano, the son of Enea’s, was so eerily on target (including the voice, which she was able to make sound like a treble’s), that I had to check the cast list to makes sure she was not in fact a little boy. Her training in dance and the ability to squeeze a casual cartwheel into her performance only enhanced matters. Bonnie McNaughton, the soprano that was Cassandra and Didone, too, was in the category of those that pleased – and not just for her ravishing appearance. Little wonder that countertenor Brian Cunmings went – literally – nuts for her. His performance, sadly, was not his best on Friday; at times he did not even seem to be at home in the role of counter-tenor. That vocal region, usually the prerogative of frustrated or failed baritones, didn’t suit him as much as when he broke into full voice in the upper tenor regions. One good recitative (on ‘women and lies being but twins’) showed that he can do better. Kristen Dubenion-Smith had fine moments – as Hecuba, Queen of Troy, more so than “Dama”, one of Didone’s playmates. Tenor Jeffry Rich (Anchise, Cacciatoro, Sicheo) did not have much to do but did that well. Elizabeth Baber (Fortuna, Juno, “Dama”) hid a good voice under the hazy veil of an insufficiently trained instrument.

With a more even cast and an opera that is more interesting to the music lover’s ear than to the scholar’s research (how I would love to hear a Lully work or Vivaldi’s La verità in cimento) Ignoti Dei Opera might even better fill that gaping baroque opera void in Washington, and one wishes them all the experience, luck, and donations they need to continue to grow into their ambitious plans.

16.6.06

"The Red Violin" in Baltimore 

Marin AlsopWhen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chose Yuri Temirkanov to succeed David Zinman (still fondly remembered in Baltimore and now hugely successful with his Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra), it went for a big name, seemingly eschewing controversy. Whether that worked out well is a matter of opinion. The orchestra has improved much in some sections and certain slices of repertoire – but has also pandered to popular taste with ‘safe’ programming (so infuriating Zinman that he resigned in protest from his position as conductor emeritus). During the Russian's time, audience numbers went down and the BSO’s financial situation worsened. Nor was Temirkanov, whose involvement and enthusiastic commitment seemed to leave something to be desired, controversy-free, either – especially towards the absence-marked end of his tenure. Last week he took his last bow as the BSO’s Music Director with a Mahler Second that must have been great on Thursday and very fine on Sunday but I thought oddly indifferent on Saturday.

In his succession, the BSO executives were bolder; courting controversy with their appointment of Marin Alsop (initially against the musician’s will) as the new Music Director, making her the first female conductor of an Orchestra of the BSO’s importance. Not coincidentally, it will also secure greater media-coverage (and scrutiny) for the orchestra. That, along with forthcoming recordings (the Corigliano Violin Concerto, recorded from the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances this week, will be issued by Sony/BMG later this year while Alsop will continue her highly successful – publicity-wise, at any rate – connection with Naxos: A Dvořák cycle is going to be started with the BSO this year) will ensure far greater exposure and visibility for the BSO and presumably lead to more, greater contributions and perhaps even increased ticket sales. Perhaps Marin Alsop will prove such an able fundraiser – passively or actively – that she can even reclaim the weeks that will be cut from her orchestra’s schedule from next season on (assuming the orchestra is not cut down in size, instead). Judging from the excitement present Thursday evening, the BSO’s future may just look a bit brighter than many observers suspect of fear.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, For Conductor Marin Alsop, An Expressive BSO Engagement (Washington Post, June 16)
Tim Smith, Alsop enjoys smooth visit to BSO podium (Baltimore Sun, June 16)
Maestra’s animated podium demeanor, like a little boy mirror-conducting, hips swaying through the bouncy 1936 Colas Breugnon Overture, op.24, by Dmitry Kabalevsky, might take a bit getting used to (less so for Slatkin-hardened audience members) but as long as the orchestra follows her bodily involvement to the degree they did in the Kabalevsky, there are not going to be any complaints. The short overture is an arch-romantic, reactionary (at least conservative), and harmlessly sunny work to an opera that is contemporaneous to DSCH’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, although the music suggests that the operas have little more than their date of creation in common. A high-quality, low-calorie charmer, charmingly dashed off.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, op. 45 is a younger work than the overture, having come late in Rachmaninov’s life. For that matter, the 1940 work is his last composition of significance. Fall and falling leaves in an ever-romantically wind-swept musical countryside, this music, written for Ormandy’s Philly Orchestra, has the distinct advantage over several other Rachmaninov works of being less concerned with squeezing every last tear out of the score but instead to work with orchestral colors and mood. Winds excelled in the first movement (where an excellent alto-sax, surrounded by clarinet-chatter, and their assorted friends outdid themselves) that was momentarily turned into a wind symphony. Impressive, at least, how Marin Alsop led the BSO through the engaged, committed performance. The brass-plated finale with bells and whistles, crashes and thuds pulled all the bombastic stops from one of the finest bombast-composers. Temirkanov’s handwriting was obvious in the orchestra's playing; it is music that would have fitted well on one of his programs.

Joshua BellWith an introduction to the concerto – replete with examples – Alsop managed to charm the audience while getting them ready to embrace John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Violin Concerto. Starting over a gentle solo violin section quickly supported by flittering strings, occasionally soft woodwinds, the concerto allows the violinist – Joshua Bell – to meander about which is exactly what the all-American sunny-boy of violinists did, in his own, somewhat peculiar style. Odd body movements, perhaps “illustrating” the music, drew more attention to himself than the music. Whether his playing suffered as a result was difficult to tell, especially as he was hard to hear whenever more than just wind and strings were playing in the orchestra. To be sure, I’ve never quite understood the fascination with Joshua Bell as a violinist – the son of a preeminent sexologist and psychotherapist, the late Alan Bell, hasn’t the most prodigious technique among his peers, nor a particularly supple or beautiful, much less a big tone. There are few works where I don’t see myself preferring another violinist – and if it be a household name, an American (perhaps even with a Baltimore connection), then Hilary Hahn obviously comes to mind as being a more interesting and, frankly, better violinist. (In a recent game of contract switcheroo, Universal (DG) picked up Ms. Hahn, formerly Sony – and Sony signed Bell, formerly Universal (Decca). Bell sells obscene amounts of CDs (The Romantic Violin, Romance of the Violin, Violinistic Romanticism et al.) but in my book, Universal got a better deal by signing the superior artist.

John CoriglianoAll that is not to say that the redoubtable Mr. Bell did not perform his job amiably: he did. Balance problems such as Bell being drowned out at the end of the first movement can surely be adjusted over the next days, or, if need be and to the extend the score demands it, on the mixing table. The nervous second movement (Pianissimo Scherzo) with enthusiastic, obviously soft, percussion participation, sounds like music that desperately wished to bark but was kept on too short a leash or was simply too well behaved to do so. It ends with a little wink, courtesy of the triangle and soloist.

Andante Flautando, the third movement, is broad and rich – with the BSO coming up with a very pleasing, sonorous sound. Bell, meanwhile, is commanded by the composer to do more of the same; the effect is rather similar, if calmer, to the opening Chaconne. It all sounds like the muted parts of several Zbigniew Preisner scores strung together and even the opening bursts of the Accelerando Finale cannot quite get rid of that impression. These quick bouts of speed merely sound hectic, the lyrical interpolations offer moments of beauty… but not always profundity. Here and there its origins as Film Music peek through.

From all this, I don’t quite understand how this work became the most performed Violin Concerto composed in the last quarter century. Philip Glass’ and John Adams’ such works do more for me, as does another BSO commission (the constant commission of new pieces, it must be said, is one of the BSO’s most commendable characteristics), the Brubaker violin concerto which I thought a small masterpiece. At least I find it reassuring that Corigliano’s own, superb Of Rage and Remembrance is performed more often than the “Red Violin Concerto”. The crowd in the very well filled Meyerhoff Hall obviously felt otherwise; perhaps stirred by the sense of occasion they received the performance and performers thunderously with enthusiastic and lasting standing ovations.

Repeat performances will take place today, Friday, at 8PM and tomorrow, Saturday, at 11AM (without the Rachmaninov).

Dip Your Ears, No. 62 

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G. Mahler, Symphony No.4, BPh / Abbado / Fleming
Abbado’s new Mahler recording of the Fourth Symphony with Renèe Fleming should have been a greater event than it was; accompanied by more palpable excitement. Somehow it came and went – along with a few other good, but not quite overwhelming Mahler releases of Oramo’s 5th and Zander’s 1st, reviews of which may well be upcoming. For someone who does not tire proclaiming Abbado “overall” the “best Mahler conductor”, I have been curiously untouched by his 5th, 9th, 6th, and now 4th from the Berlin cycle… though stunned by his perfect(!) 7th, excellent 3rd, and radiant 2nd with Lucerne. Truth be told, in the recording of the 4th, Abbado is not the one to be blamed. I like the tempi, the playing is impeccable. The liquid flow through the music fits the symphony; the slow third movement puts the fifth symphony's slow fourth movement to shame for emotional impact.

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Reiner / Della Casa

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Chailly / Bonney
But lo-and-behold there comes Renèe Fleming and adds her “I-can’t-help-but-love-myself” touch to what should be Mahler’s party, not hers’. She’s got the melodies down; sings all the music. But she sings all music - and no text. I listen and feel she’s trying to tell me a story (probably about herself) – but I’m not buying it. Like watching a man who plays a woman playing an angel, I am twice removed from the real thing and can admire the act but not 'live' the story. Innocence? Nay. One thinks of a lighter, more silvery voice as ideal; something Heidi Grant-Murphiesque, perhaps. Or a young Edita Gruberova. Even the slightly past her prime Lisa Della Casa, a bit full and mature as she may sound on the swift Reiner conducted recording with the CSO, is more pleasant to hear; brings more purity to Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden.

The 4th is generously coupled with the 7 Early Songs by Alban Berg, a great coupling that Riccardo Chailly also thought of, in his recording with Barbara Bonney. Those songs are some of the very finest songs of the time (especially in their orchestrated version, foreshadowing Richard Strauss’), and Renèe Fleming does them justice. Here she can be herself without contorting either self or the music; music that can withstand her rich, self-conscious voice. There is little attention to the text she sings (especially in the Rilke song), all the attention being lavished on the music. The low-shimmering, shuddering vocalization works splendidly in combination with her melodious approach. But then that does not come as a surprise having heard her in those songs in concert. Chosing a fourth without the Berg, I'd opt for George Szell / Cleveland / Judith Raskin on Sony (oop), Eliahu Inbal / Franfurt RSO / Helen Donath on Denon, or Guiseppe Sinopoli / Philharmonia / Edita Gruberova on DG (oop as a single disc but available in the complete box).

DG B0005759-02

15.6.06

Recent Naxos Offerings 

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A. Dorman, Piano Sonatas

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H. Willan, Choral Works

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J. M. Kraus, German Songs

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L. Spohr, StQ5t v.4

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L. Berio, Sequenzas I-XIV

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R. Sessions, StQ4t et al.

From this month’s new releases by Naxos – by some count the largest classical record label – I aimed for mostly eclectic and obscure items to come across my desk. Interest, curiosity, and the desire to always prick my musical tastes guards against complacency of appreciation and desire. While Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem might at least be at the fringe of American music lovers’ consciousness (Rorem, at least, should be better known still, as one of this country’s most important contemporary composers), I don’t expect anyone to nod appreciatively upon the mention of Avner Dorman (b. 1975, Israeli-American) or Healey Willan (1880-1968, English émigré to Canada). Luciano Berio is a known quantity even to those who have never heard a note of his or, for that matter, plan on never hearing a note of his. A recording of his monumental miniatures Sequenzas I-XIV rounds out the batch of 20th/21st-century music.

First to Avner Dorman’s solo piano works performed by Eliran Avni. À la bonheur! This is good music – of the kind that, if it were by a prominent, preferably dead, composer, would be called “eminently pleasing” and “utterly delightful.” Since it is a new face, however, that shows his “Classical” Sonata No. 1, Moments Musicaux (some competition he’s got with other works that go by that title), Prelude No. 1 (written as an 18-year-old), Sonata No. 2 and the 2005 Dance Suite: Sonata No. 3, one is tempted to be more reserved and say things like “charming, if harmless” or “quaint and unchallenging listening.” Probably a bit of both is true, but more importantly there are some ‘damn good’ moments, too – and that these works make for very enjoyable listening. Repeat listening is even more rewarding: the playful way that the “classical” first sonata mimics anything from Beethoven to Liszt (“Romantic” would have been just as good a nickname) to popular music and has all the youthful quirks of unburdened composing. Dorman has an ear for a good tune but avoids cheapness. Come to think of it, this is “damn good.”

Healey Willan, born in 1880 and “dominat[ing] the field of sacred music” in Canada, is quite a change-up from the variously enjoyable modern fare. This is easy listening with the scent of frankincense; it sounds absolutely lovely and reverently joyful. Like that beautiful anonymous church music that is anonymous not because the composers can’t be found out, but because no one bothers to find them out. It is prettiness that leaves no questions to ask or answers to probe for. Although I have one question, come to think of it: how can a composer turn 4:35 of simple beauty into something that sounds simply unending. Not even a minute in, I thought that the four minutes must just about be up. Once “Hymn – Anthem on ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’” creeps across the 4 minute mark, it feels like a movement of a Bruckner symphony could have passed. Repetitively glacial.

Willan does not offend with debased schlock in the way John Rutter does (at least to these anti-Rutterite ears), that vapid candy-cane composer of one piece of choral kitsch after another. Willan is beautiful throughout and deserves no ire. He does, however, deserve a certain anonymity. His music is of the kind that will lift your spirit and calm your soul if you should step into a dark cathedral and hear the choristers from the rafters. A little tasteful organ is employed here and there… and the beautiful Missa Brevis No. XI “Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae” strikes me as more successful than most of this disc’s other works set in English. I know people who will lap this kind of music up and I don’t blame them for it; in future I myself will turn to this disc for the purposes of mood only; not the compositions themselves. It should be said that elsewhere this disc received highest praise; David Vernier, ClassicaToday.com’s editor, would have Ontario's Elora Festival Singers declared national treasures of Canada for their (indeed) excellent singing.

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 1

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 2

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J. M. Kraus, Symphonies v. 3
The Swede Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792) is a composer of symphonies that I cherish very much as adding spice to the diet of Mozart/Haydn in classical works. I might prefer Onslow over Kraus in that category, but either composer’s works in that genre are rewarding. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Kraus’s songs, all the German ones of which are collected on a recording with soprano Birgid Steinberger and baritone Martin Hummel, accompanied by Glen Wilson. Steinberger and Hummel have light voices, appropriate for light songs; ditties, even. If it is said of Schubert to have picked his texts indiscriminately and with occasional lapse in taste, Kraus redeems him by some measure. Surely few examples of the Lied have such asinine, portentously funny, farm-animal humdrum lyrics as Die Henne. (The chicken cackles too loudly whenever laying an egg, her neighbor, the turkey, complains. The chicken retorts dourly. It’s a turkey alright, even if the chicken noises of Martin Hummel almost make its two minutes worthwhile.) Were it not for such superior art songs available in abundance (even Franz Xaver Mozart did better), I might not find these songs so sordid… alas, there are far too few pearls in this collections. While Ms. Steinberger is pleasant if unremarkable, I don’t particularly take to Mr. Hummel’s thin, brittle voice; a little too much taste of the dilettante reality of these songs, no matter how it suits the nature the works. Diction and pronunciation are just about perfect, making the lack of texts in the booklet (for economic reasons available only at www.naxos.com/libretti/krauslieder.html) unnecessary for the German speaker. It would be silly to blame Mr. Wilson for the lackluster accompaniment – there is only so much music he can work with. This is not likely how you’ll want to encounter this composer: try the symphonies instead!

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L. Spohr, Clarinet Concertos

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L. Spohr, Faust

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L. Spohr, StQ5t v. 3
Spohr is a composer I very much like – I’ve fallen in love with his music mainly because of his opera Faust which I’ve always found sounds like Mozart might have, in his 50s, had Beethoven not existed. Clarinet lovers probably know his concertos for that instrument; if they don’t, they should. The violin concertos are lovely, if not quite on the same level. His numerous string quartets and string quintets, too, are more than worth listening to and have been served well on Marco Polo’s complete survey. Now these discs are being re-released by Naxos at a price that is much more inviting to explore his works. I’ve very much enjoyed volume 3 on the Marco Polo label, and volume 4 with the Quintet No. 7 in G minor, op. 144, and the Sextet in C major, op. 140, is similarly enjoyable. This is accomplished chamber music between Mozart and Brahms – which ought to tempt you, even if you noticed the ‘soft put-down’ “accomplished” in this sentence. I can’t earnestly recommend all of Spohr to any less-than-obsessed collector, but apart from the clarinet concertos and Faust, a disc with quartets and one with quintets ought to be listened to. This recording, offering the much earlier Potpourri (not the same as the clarinet Potpourri) and the Sextet is one of the better places to start, even if I might give the nod to volume 3 if it must only be one of the quintet CDs. The New Haydn Quartet plays more then adequately. Here might be the place to say: “…plays as well as can be imagined”; which is a favorite short cut for reviewing a CD of repertory one has never heard in a different version and saying something nice without saying anything of substance. I will refrain from that phrase, for one because I actually can imagine these works played with more zest yet, with a fuller tone, and in a slightly more rewarding acoustic. Alas, given distinct lack of competition, “good” is actually “good enough.”

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Berio, Sequenzas I-XIV (Mode)

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Berio, Sequenzas I-XIII (DG)
Berio’s Sequenza now has two three (Mode's -full price- recording came on the market a week ago; I have not listened to it) complete recordings: the complete DG 20/21 recording with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and stunning soloists (Teodoro Anzellotti on the accordion, Christophe Desjardins on the viola, Alain Damiens on the clarinet) and now the complete-complete Naxos recording that comes with the 2002 addition “Sequenza XIV for cello” and not only has the alternative alto-sax version Sequenza IXb (present on the DG recording) but also the alternative soprano-sax version Sequenza VIIb (oboe and clarinet being the instruments of original intent). That Naxos’s three-disc set is half the price might make a purchase for the curious more likely – but it would be for naught if the performances were stale or sub-par. There is only so much I can meaningfully say about the performances of some of the wilder pieces in this collection – and I did not bother to compare the performances side by side. Listening to the impressive solo contributions of the Sequenzas disaffirms all worry: these are very fine performances indeed, whether it be Jasper Wood in Sequenza VIII for violin or Joaquin Valdepeñas' stand-out offering of Sequenza IXa for clarinet where his full tone contains virtually no ‘air’. He’s worth listening to just for the mastery over his instrument.

Not all the sequenzas are equally accessible or even equally intriguing – but generally this is one of the best points to start exposing oneself to high modernist music: the variety among the sequenzas and their individual focus make for fascinating and interesting listening, even when you are not necessarily enjoying what you hear (I’ve never much taken to Sequenza X for trumpet in C and pianoresonance, no matter how well Guy Few may play it here). Sequenza III for female voice, “a zoo of vocal and acting exhibitions,” is given to Tony Arnold, who hiccups and musico-stutters her way through this amusing, shifty work, although I liked it better when performed live by Phyllis Bryn-Julson with the Left Bank Concert Society a year ago. An excellent entry into the world of Berio – probably some of Berio’s best work – but only for those who know what they are getting into. If Carter’s piano sonata – for example – does not delight at all, Berio won’t likely yield more pleasure.

Roger Sessions’ Quintet for 2 violins, 2 violas, and cello from 1958 is significantly more dissonant than chamber music of contemporaries Bloch, Shostakovich, Hindemith – even Bartók… but compared to modernists, he still falls down squarely on the side of the latters' style. Second and third listening help his string quartet immensely: these are very good works indeed - and all those who would not want to live without the above mentioned (although I can see how living without the Hindemith could be possible) should probably wrap their ears around the work of Roger Sessions (1896-1985).

13.6.06

Ligeti Essentials 

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Ligeti Project I

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Ligeti Project II

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Ligeti Project III

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Ligeti Project IV

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Ligeti Project V

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Ligeti - Concertos

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Ligeti - String Quartets

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Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre
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Ligeti - V.1

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Ligeti - V.2

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Ligeti - V.3

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Ligeti - V.4

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Ligeti - V.5

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Ligeti - V.6

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Ligeti - V.7
György Ligeti (*1923) is dead. Although getting to know his music might have been a better idea when he was still alive (at the very least he would have profited from it financially), it has been long known – even before the Beatles declared Paul McCartney dead – that death sells. If you don’t know much of Ligeti’s music, you might as well make this your excuse to catch up on one of the finest and most versatile composers of the second half of the 20th century. Ligeti, whose music was suppressed and often written for the drawer in his native Hungary, became an early member of the Darmstadt school of music (think Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez, but also Xenakis, very early Penderecki, Kagel, Lachenmann, Maderna) where, after emigration, he led some of the “International Summer-Courses”. Later on, he freed himself from what he thought too limiting a view of music – one suspects that the room for humor that can be heard over and over in his music was somewhat lacking in the ideologically narrow modernism of that school and era. He became a professor at the Hamburg Music Academy in 1973.

His String Quartets, performed on at least three occasions in the last season (see side-box), are de rigeur; splendid, entertaining, eerie works full of buzzing insects, nightscapes and ear-perking quirks. If you like David Lynch films, you should also like these chamber works. There have been several recordings of those two works (all of them very well played); most recently the Artemis Quartet’s rendition on Virgin – although I prefer previous recordings of the modernist-specialists, the Arditti Quartet (volume 1 in Sony’s unfinished Ligeti-collection; coupled with the violin duo Ballade and Dance, the violin-cello duo Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg, and the two movements for string quartet), and the LaSalle Quartet (on DG 20/21, coupled with Ramifications, for 12 strings, the Cello Sonata, and Melodien, for orchestra). For the price and couplings, I’d go with the Arditti.

The Piano Sonatas, too, are something else; it is the kind of music that Pierre Laurant Aimard made his name with – his recording (volume 3 in the Sony series) being the prime example. Not only is the music worth hearing (Charles mentioned it already), but the playing is some of the finest and most dazzling pianism caught on record. Aimard also plays the astounding, blazing Piano Concerto on the Pierre Boulez conducted Deutsche Grammophon disc that combines this work with the cello and violin concertos (Saschko Gawriloff, Jean-Guihen Queyras are the performers). Aimard recorded it once more, for the Teldec Ligeti cycle that completed what Sony couldn’t. Aimard is in any case the only player you will want to hear this with – and unless you are going to collect the Teldec series, the DG is the more attractive disc; the playing impeccable in either case, the sound good on both discs.

Ligeti on Ionarts:

György Ligeti Becomes "Blue Velvet" in the Hands of the Brentano Quartet (February 15, 2006)
Boston Symphony: Yo-Yo Ma & David Robertson (March 19, 2006)
Ligeti with the Pacifica Quartet (April 11, 2005)
Left Bank Ligeti (May 09, 2005)
Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre in San Francisco (November 12, 2004
For an example of avant-garde music with wry humor, go no further than the fifth volume of the Sony edition – the album of Ligeti’s “Mechanical Music” – written for (largely) human-less instruments: player piano, prepared barrel organ and, most intriguingly, his Poème symphonique, for 100 metronomes, 10 performers & 1 conductor. Perched somewhere between the comically absurd (although ever intriguing) and academic (the studies of different times which remind of projects of Cage and the ideas behind some of the Carter string quartets), this is an ear-opener for what classical music of the kind you thought you did not like (for, on occasion, admittedly good reasons) can do.

Ligeti’s opera, Le Grand Macabre, finally, is a hoot – albeit a very dark one – and you might as well go for the whole thing, in German as it is on the complete recording for Wergo. (The Mysteries from the opera can be heard, in English, on volume 4 of the Sony edition.) It is as different from most of the above mentioned pieces of music as you can expect from Ligeti; predictable only in Ligeti’s own, unique unpredictability. (Charles previously commented on the San Francisco production in 2004.)

11.6.06

Roboto Mahler, Serial Number 002 

Sean Scully, Wall of LightThree symphonies in the course of one long weekend constituted a sort of heaven for Mahlerians in the region: the 8th with the NSO, the 5th with Michael Stern and the University of Maryland School of Music Orchestra (part of the National Orchestral Institute’s summer program at the Clarice Smith Center), and of course Yuri Temirkanov’s farewell concert of the Mahler 2nd, coming full circle with the work that started his seven year tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It should have been the crowning of a week (I didn’t go hear the 5th which fell unto the Saturday the BSO played at Strathmore) and I had the highest hopes for Temirkanov’s performance, expecting pure fire, passion, and that raw, exciting take of Mahler that Russian conductors can produce. That was not, as it turned out, what we got Saturday night.

To say that the BSO and Temirkanov executed their second anything less than expertly would be a lie. The quality of the playing (getting the notes right, not missing entries, ensemble-work) was far more than just adequate; indeed: just short of exemplary. The crux lied somewhere else: No matter how much of an outburst and a forte-fortissimo they produced, the performance felt lifeless, dutiful to near comical effect, at best impressive but never even close to moving, much less thrilling. It brought that curiously uninvolved, unexcited feeling of watching porn after having had sex or visiting a Michelin-starred restaurant after just having eaten. For nearly its entire duration I felt as if separated from the orchestra by a giant glass wall, except I could hear them.

The entry of the first movement over plasticky violins – all at excruciatingly slow-sounding speed – brought cellos and basses with it that were crass rather than ominous. You could hear all the notes, little of the music. In contrast: the winds rising from behind were divine; very present yet with distance they were a delight. But heavy brass took over, humpy… and even the brutal effects, that dark fall into a short march, did not register with maximum effect. The lightness of the strings afterwards, that difference of plane on which they enter, was underplayed. Early climaxes puffed into thin air. Here, as for the remainder there was a great detachment that made listening less involving than hearing a Mahler symphony on the radio.

After less than the Mahler-suggested five minutes break (though late-comers had the chance to enter, furthermore taking away atmosphere), the tired looking Yuri Temirkanov ably moved his players through the Andante at a speed that was either fast with a slow pulse or slow with a fast pulse; confusing to the ears, either way. (The performance on Thursday seems to have gone better, according to Tim Smith; perhaps the Maestro was tired this Sunday?) In the third movement (In ruhig fliessender Bewegung) the brass showed its glorious side that they have attained over the last years, although at times the effect bordered a blare-fest. The percussion (drums, in particular) offered one of the best crescendos I have heard; the fine-tuned Strathmore acoustic doing its part. The off-stage effects, especially in the last movement, were nicely done (save for one off-Trumpet).

Only soloists and choirs did not match the technical level of excellence. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby had no low notes in the primordial Urlicht (where is Anna Larsson when you need her?); like her soprano colleague Janice Chandler-Eterné, she had no German to speak of but more vibrato than desirable. The choirs (Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Morgan State University Choir) entered with the same curious punctuated détachée as the orchestra in the first movement – but were muddled, on top of it. The chorister-by-chorister rising to their feet for the “Resurrection” part was overdone in its faux-dramatic way, exuding zero magic nonetheless. A haywire hearing-aid and plenty patrons leaving in the middle of the last movement furthermore undermined any sense of occasion that might or should have been. The half-rousing end (the bells lost amid the noise) was too little, too late to salvage the disappointingly neutral impression, that feeling of standing vis-à-vis de rien. The performance as a whole reminded of the anecdote where a Cortot student plays for the master and, upon finishing, sees Cortot sadly shake his head. “But I made no mistakes at all” disclaims the student, with curious surprise. To which Cortot is said to have responded “Son, it was one long mistake”.

One hopes for Temirkanov to be recharged and on fire when he opens next season with the Shostakovich 5th; this Season finale for the BSO meanwhile will be conducted by the next Music Director, Marin Alsop, and will feature Joshua Bell in the Coriglian Violin Concerto, The Red Violin, from the film of the same name.

9.6.06

Glory on the Home Stretch: Mahler's 8th at the Kennedy Center 

Sean Sully, Wall of LightSome five-hundred-odd singers and instrumentalists under the baton of Leonard Slatkin filled the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Thursday evening; literally – but more importantly with the bombast, splendor and ethereal sound of Mahler’s most perverse, most ambitious, most idiosyncratic “Symphony”, the eighth. This symphony, garishly divine (or is it divinely garish?) tends not to be the favorite among Mahlerians (Schmachtfetzen – weepy-rag – is a popular derision among the ‘cognoscenti’) but is likely to leave the deepest impression on listeners with less set tastes and ideas about Mahler. Especially in concert where sheer force goes a long way in impressing. (As far as I know, only Harvergal Brian’s “Gothic” among existing symphonies demands more personnel for performance.)

Sprawling all over the Concert Hall – the sides of the first tier were lined with chorus members and brass-reinforcements – that’s exactly what the assembled forces did as a painstakingly rehearsed set of choirse (Cathedral Choral Society, J. Reilly-Lewis – Children’s Choir of Washington, Joan Gregoryk – The Choral Arts Society of Washington, Norman Scribner – The Master Chorale of Washington, Donald McCullough – The Washington Chorus, Robert Shafer) came together for combined and, more importantly, cohesive greatness.


Other Reviews:

Tim Page, A Shout-Out to Mahler's Eighth (Washington Post, June 09)

Charles T. Downey, DCist goes to the Symphony (DCist.com, June 09)

Mahler on Ionarts:

Performance, December 12th 2005: Mahler 3rd, Conlon/Juilliard Orchestra

Performance, May 10th 2005: Mahler 9th, Barenboim/CSO

Performance, April 21st 2005: Mahler 9th, Slatkin/NSO

Performance, April 12th 2005: Mahler 4th, Temirkanov/BltSO

Performance, November 29th 2004: Mahler 5th, Eschenbach/Philadelphia

Performance, November 10th 2004: Mahler 1st, R.Abbado/NSO

Recording: Mahler 9th, MTT/SFSO

Recording: Mahler 2nd, MTT/SFSO

Recording: Mahler 6th, I.Fischer/BdPFSO

Recording: Mahler 6th, Abbado/BPh et al.

Recording: Mahler 8th, Rattle, Nagano, Kubelik, Järvi

Recording: Mahler 3rd, Boulez/VPh
Gustav MahlerMahler’s 8th, premiered on September 12th, 1910 under Mahler’s baton with 1029 performers (858 singers, 171 orchestral members – impresario Emil Gutmann coined the “Symphony of a Thousand” moniker) is made up of two perfectly unconnected parts, a massive choral and organ section over orchestra set to the 1200 year old Latin hymnus Veni, creatur spiritus and then the mysterious music set to the equally mysterious closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II. The purported connection between the two texts is the third line of the third verse, accende lumen sensibus – but whether that is enough to convince most listeners really depends more on their willingness to embrace romantic mysticism than musical appreciation. The music is harmonically less daring than what came after it (Das Lied, the 9th and 10th symphonies) and even of some that came before – but more importantly it is of a completely different character. Devoid of the Angst-driven, caustic-Austrian nature that fill his symphonies to bursting with Lokalkolorit (local colors) and neuroticism, it is truly a symphony not of this world, far more universal in its style.

Ironically, it’s gotten wrong in style more often than the other symphonies. There is a, perhaps Anglo-Saxon (although Haitink and Tennstedt are honorary members, whereas Maazel isn’t), way with this work that focuses on drive, élan, a swift progression and a purposeful reading that may dazzle – but ultimately undermines the symphony by failing to bring across that extraordinary, indecisively wavering, hovering, shimmering last movement. Sir Georg Solti’s famed recording is the principal exponent of such glorious failure, Sir Simon Rattle’s a mere carbon copy of all that is wrong with it. (Ozawa for Philips, Bernstein and Abbado for DG, Mitropoulos on Orfeo, even Nagano for Harmonia Mundi seem to understand it better, do it justice.) Needless to say that I feared similar results – a “Mawler’s 8th” – from Leonard Slatkin (famously great at English and American music), a late-comer to Mahler himself. Alas…

The first movement, for sure, was strident, fast, powerful, driven. It can be given more room to breathe (Maazel takes it to the limits, for example - Järvi races through it like mad) in which case the male voices of the choir might have been less prone to slurr, but Veni, creatur spiritus is the bombast, the glory-onslaught on our senses and one continuous climax hell- (or heaven-) bent to impress and it suffers less, sometimes not at all, from this approach. It is the second part that is the symphonies’ heart and most difficult to get just right. Mahler described it as planets and suns singing, not human voices. It is disconnected from what we know, based on that most opaque romantic outburst of poetry, the drug-hazed, eccentric, yonder-worldly Faust II of Goethe’s. Minor modifications of the text may be attributable to Mahler having originally put it to the music from memory. Faust II was at the time a staple literary work for all well-educated German speakers; only over the last 100-some years has it become more obscure as people lack the stamina, will, and understanding to challenge themselves with its misty spiritualism. Mere splendor does not work here, force and ability are not enough to convey its evasive, prismatic, opaline, mist-hovering shapelessness.


Mahler, Symphony of a Thousand, National Symphony Orchestra and amassed choirs, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, June 8, 2006

The choral entry here was perhaps a little too punctuated, not as quiet as ideal, nor in perfect pitch – the woodwinds, too, struggled with this fiendishly difficult part that almost invariably sounds a bit sour on live recordings. The brass, at times, encountered difficulties. But this movement picked up mist (picking up steam would have been precisely the wrong thing) as it went along, still fairly driven, self-consciously glorious. The soloists, meanwhile, contributed according to their abilities. Soprano Jane Eaglen as Magna Peccatrix was the biggest name on the bill, but is well past her prime. With her wobble and muddled intonation, it would not have been difficult for anyone to sound good next to her – but Christine Brewer would have been considered an outstanding Mater gloriosa under any circumstances. The two mezzo sopranos, Stacey Rishoi (Mulier Samaritana) and Sally Burgess (Maria Aegyptiaca), performed most amiably, too. Among the men, supple-voiced tenor Donald Litaker as Doctor Marianus stole the show from his baritone counterparts Obed Ureña, a fine Pater estacius and the disappointing if capable Donnie Ray Albert as Pater profundus. When Christine Brandes’ Mater gloriosa chimed in from the second tier in the finale, her clear and ringing tone proved a delight. (Just where were the violin portamenti whipping upwards when she floated in?)

This symphony, despite over 70 minutes of continuous climaxes, pinnacles and orgasms, saves its best for last. Get the Chorus Mysticus right and have all previous sins, if there were any, forgiven. This is the epitome of the work; the point of accumulation of everything that makes it so special. It is a planetary sunrise, the triumphant emergence of mankind (or something better, yet) out of mortal, humble near-nothingness; it is the apotheosis and it makes Also Sprach Zarathustra’s beginning sound like a cartoon-score. Leonard Slatkin – it is difficult to believe that he long resisted Mahler when this work looks like tailored to his character – was in his element (so much opportunity to give huge cues and jump!) and crowned the performance with gloriously. Still a little too hard at work in the preceding chorus (Blicket auf zum Retterblick) where one feared he’d either not leave room for a true finale or not get back down to its exceptionally quiet, slow, organic beginning, he suddenly shifted gears and conducted the chorus like a different work. Broad, lovingly gentle, with attention to detail and then of course with all the eruptions that break loose, this was grand as grand should be. All those who had a chance to hear it on Thursday or who have tickets for today or tomorrow will be in for a very, very memorable experience. For those who did not get tickets, however, there is consolation and hope: Yuri Temirkanov is taking on Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Hall tonight and on Sunday, as well as at Strathmore on Saturday. The 2nd is the only Mahler-symphony that is at all related to the 8th, it is a Temirkanov specialty and he will likely perform the hell out of it in his farewell concert.

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