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31.7.06

Dip Your Ears, No. 67 

available at Tower Records
A.Zemlinksy, A.Enna, Die Seejungfrau / Matchstick Girl, T.Dausgaard, Danish NSO & Chorus
available at Amazon
Conlon / Seejungfrau


available at Amazon
Beaumont / Seejungfrau - SACD


available at Amazon
Dausgaard / Seejungfrau - Chandos
Any Mermaid coming my way is highly welcome – and if I have to content myself with Alexander (von) Zemlinsky’s tone poem of that name (as I had to, so far), that’s fine, too. Die Seejungfrau, in its original German title, is 104 years old but its attraction remains undiminished. Zemlinsky is one of those sadly neglected composers of the turn of the last century that should appeal to all those who like Richard Strauss’ tone poems and Metamorphosen or early Schoenberg (think Verklärte Nacht or Pelleas & Melisande) or Mahler. (Zemlinsky was also the subject of "Dip Your Ears, No. 56".)

So far, Chandos has the Mermaid-market cornered – both Beaumont (esp. on SACD) and Dausgaard (my favorite) have come up with excellent versions that have eclipsed even James Conlon’s EMI recording in my estimation. Here comes Dausgaard’s second recording with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra – this time live and on the Dacapo label. I can’t say it improves on his earlier version or Conlon's or Beaumont's, but it is another exquisite reading and welcome to the catalog. Particularly so, because the Mermaid gets the show stolen by the accompanying Matchstick girl. August Enna, a Zemlinksy contemporary, makes the latter seem like a super-star of music. Few are likely to be familiar with his work – and if, then probably only with his little one-act opera on H.C.Andersen’s tale. Incidentally, that’s a good start – because it’s a thirty-plus minute work of immense charm. There is Sibelius and R.Strauss washed together with some distinctively Russian opera turns of phrases and a strangely Italianate atmosphere amidst the use of Danish tunes. At points during this opera, you would be excused to think “La Bohème” but with bearable music and delightfully short. Written for orchestra, choir, and two soloists (Inger Dam-Jensen and Ylva Kihlberg are the affectionate sopranos), it's a little gem to be appreciated by anyone whose musical shores it has washed on to.

Those who know well enough to be interested in Northern European romantics (Langaard, Halvorsen, Nielsen, Norgard, Rautavaara, Ruders, Sibelius, Sinding, Svendsen – to name just a few) but don’t have Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne in their collection yet, this is worth getting just for the Enna. If intrigued and inexcusably without a Seejungfrau on your shelves, it might prove the ideal patch.

Dacapo 8.226048

29.7.06

Visconti: Restored and Airconditioned 

Il gattopardoAmid the plethora of cultural offerings in D.C. are the many film screenings at various museums (Freer, NGA, etc.), Embassies, and the AFI Silver which I tend to forget about or neglect when the concert season is under way. When D.C. turns into a muggy swamp for the summer and – as far as music is concerned – cultural wasteland, these events appear from under the radar screen and offer diversion of the best kind.

The finest example is the Visconti retrospective at the National Gallery of Art where from last Sunday until September 4th, newly and very well restored prints (with new subtitles) of six Lucchino Visconti films are being shown – five of which are collaborations with his screen-play writer Suso Cecchi d'Amico. The series opened with Luca Verdone’s 1983 biographic film of Visconti the film, theater, and opera director… and included contributions by many of his collaborators like d’Amica, Marcello Mastroianni, and Franco Zefirelli. Alas, the subtitles chose only to translate a quarter of the comments and even then rather liberally. It was followed by the beautiful L’Innocente, a compelling drama in its own right, even without the sub-stories of (male) self-delusion, chauvinism and the tint of an appeal to socialism.

Tomorrow at 4pm and again on August 2nd at 12:30 the NGA will screen Il gattopardo with the famous score of Nino Rota and more or less the beginning of Alain Delon's career. Check out the NGA’s schedule for the other films.

28.7.06

BSO Summer Thursdays at Strathmore: Beethoven's Ninth 

[Beethoven, 34x21] - by László Környei - www.painter.hu/kornyei The rank and file of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society finished the Summer Thursday Series at Strathmore this year, as last year, with Beethoven’s 9th – perhaps the most iconic of all works in classical music. Conducting was the young and energetic Edward Gardiner who proved so energetic, indeed, that he proceeded to rid himself of excess energy by means of a most curious and surely inefficient “Edward Scissorhands” conducting technique replete with nervously militaristic spasms and convulsions. The result looked like a persiflage of the ‘modern, young and dynamic conductor’.

Fortunately the result with the principle-less but principled playing BSO was of a more relaxed nature – an autopilot performance that started and landed smoothly and safely and nary a bit of turbulence in between. After an engaging second but rather less inspiring third movement with many a detail awry, the finale heralded. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society provided the highlight of the evening with a cogent, rousing performance. Among the soloists – Alexandra Deshorties (soprano – at turns impressive), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo – drowned out), Gordin Gietz (tenor – strained) and Stephen Powell (baritone – very solid) – no one detracted nor particularly excelled.

Before a summery, liberally behaved but ultimately enchanted and frenetically applauding audience, Gardiner was faultless and delivered the necessities without, however, giving one ever the sense to have partaken in a great night of music making.

25.7.06

Alles Vergängliche: Ozawa's Mahler Eighth 

available at Amazon
G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Boston/Ozawa
available at Amazon
Wit / Warsaw


available at Amazon
Bernstein / WPh


available at Amazon
Nagano / DSO Berlin


available at Amazon
Kubelik / BRSO / Audite
Ozawa's tenure with Boston was not a very happy one towards the end of its stretch... and that muddles our memory of him as a conductor. But at his best, he had the ability to be truly spell-binding and when the BSO/Ozawa affair was still young, they could create magic. This recording from 1980 at Tanglewood is such an occasion.

This is far and away the best recording of Mahler's 8th owing to an intensity (especially in the last movement) that is not matched by even the best of contenders (Abbado/DG oop, Bernstein/DG, Sinopoli/DG oop, Wit/Naxos, and with reservations: Kubelik/Audite, Nagano/HMU). This is the Solti anti-dote. For all those who don't understand why the famous Solti Decca recording (great sound, good singers) is so hyped by the (English) press, here is what they need. Unlike Solti, who does not seem to understand the drug-hazed Goethe’s Faust II or, indeed, the abstruse mysticism of the Mahler 8th, and consequently energetically drives through it with elan, speed, and determination (all good qualities in most other works, but not here), Ozawa gives this – frankly weird – work all the time it needs to develop. Not excessively so, either – 80 minutes is enough for him and not all that much, on paper, to spend on this work. Ozawa does not let it sag, but rolls out the wafty, nebulous, foggy, misty parts so tenderly, so other-worldly (and with no audible gear changes whenever he nudges the work forward again), that in a very eerie, beautiful way, times seems to stand still. After a mighty, powerful, broad Veni, Creatur Spiritus (23:07), a marvel itself, he lunges into Faust II. Although ‘lunge’ is probably not the proper word: He carves it out of the score and supported by a cast of singers that, seemingly infected by the momentous occasion, outdo themselves, delivers the most satisfying reading of this second movement. Better yet, he crowns it with an indescribably perfect Chorus Mysticus. For me, a performance of the 8th stands and falls with “Alles Vergängliche”, and Ozawa’s 6:02 are like a one-way ticket to heaven.

Whatever negative things have been said about Ozawa’s Boston Mahler (his Saito Kinen 2nd is actually excellent; the 9th with that band very good, too), this performance alone should have redeemed him. In Japan it was inducted into the “Philips Super Best 100” [sic!] collection, in the West it still awaits re-issue. I cannot quite understand why… but then, as a German, I don’t understand the obsession with the inappropriate Anglo-drive through this work a la Solti or Rattle. The most recent Mahler 8th issued – with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos – is currently the only recording easily available in the U.S. that comes close to Ozawa’s splendor. The timings, incidentally, are similar: 6:25 for “Alles Vergängliche”, 23:56 for “Veni, Creator Spiritus” – although minutes and seconds rarely tell the whole story about a Mahler symphony. Available alternatives to Wit, lest you get Ozawa directly from Japan (or myself – I usually have a few new copies on hand), are Bernstein in the DG box of Symphonies 8, 9, 10 and Das Lied, as well as Kent Nagano’s broad HMU recording.

[Philips - Japan: Mahler, Symphony 8. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa / Faye Robinson (soprano 1 and Magna Peccatrix), Judith Blegen (soprano II & Una poenitentium), Deborah Sasson (soprano III & Mater Gloriosa), Florence Quivar (alto I & Mulier Samaritana), Lorna Myers (alto II and Maria Aegyptiaca), Kenneth Riegel (tenor I and Doctor Marianus), Benjamin Luxon (baritone & Pater Ecstaticus), Gwynne Howell (bass & Pater Profondus) / Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Boys Choir / Joseph Silverstein (solo violin), James Christie (organ)]

23.7.06

Kill the Wabbit - Wagner at the Wolf Trap 

Buggs Bunny as BrünnhildeI now know why Emil DeCou does not mind leading an orchestra at the Wolf Trap: where else would he get an announcement over the speaker-system like the team’s star quarterback taking to the gridiron. Thus opened a musical saga that began in the footsteps of hairy-footed hobbits meandering their way through Howard Shore’s score depicting Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings – a medley of appropriations, plagiarism, and appealing banalities.

It was followed by a little speech on the part of Wolf Trap Festival Conductor DeCou that would have had my eyes rolling at the Kennedy Center but was appropriate and funny at the Wolf Trap’s setting… reading the mood of the summery crowd just perfectly. Except, perhaps, when he made reference to the incestuous traditions of the deep south… even if such a reference is rather difficult to avoid when summarizing Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

available at Amazon
The Anna Russell Album
The jokes about the Ring (Brother-Sister-Nephew-Aunt-Fat-Ladies-in-armor etc.) were not particularly new, but they are nearly as timeless as the music itself – and truth be told, I am thankful if the conductor gets a good amount of Wagner neophytes thinking about Elmer Fudd and ‘killing that wabbit’, rather than proto-Nazism, Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, and the Holocaust.

Emil DeCou is one of the most affectionate and passionate conductors I have heard or seen on the podium – but the efficiency of that is near-impossible to tell in the setting of the Filene Center… much like it would be difficult to judge the lumen efficiency of a light bulb on a Sahara afternoon. The short-sleeved, substitute studded National Symphony Orchestra did play with panache and skill (first violins were a little underpowered and occasionally scrappy – but it featured happy brass) and Wagner was appropriately played for beauty (which it should be, anyway) and effect (which served the setting’s purpose). From the Rhine Journey to the Funeral March it lead to the orchestral hum-along blockbuster, the Ride of the Valkyries that sent the thousands at the Wolf Trap into half time with Germanic vigor and imaginary horns.

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, July 23)
The impact of an orgiastic choral and orchestral bonanza, like the ever-popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, is undeniable in its amplified bombast. The Robert Shafer trained Washington Chorus may not have come across with particularly detail – but the gain in dramatic effect more than made up for this. Subtleties subside but Carmina needs to be heard like this, every once in a while. (Although if you feel inspired to found or join a political party within an hour of listening: Don’t!) Unlike opera, which is a damnable mess in the acoustic of the Filene Center, these kind of showpieces can shine.

The capable young singers were baritone Weston Hunt, the heavily miked tenor/swan (not a goose, last time I checked) Javier Abreau and the radiant soprano Maureen McKay, a Filene Young Artist who acted her part charmingly and kept an effective, maximum distance to the microphone. For an unpretentious, un-intimidating classical-music evening with beer and bug spray, the Wolf Trap offers a few more concerts this summer.

21.7.06

Seven Ways of Listening to a Klee 

By Richard Kopf, Guest Reviewer



Clover LeafIn association with its fine exhibit, “Klee and America” (running through September 10), the Phillips Collection presented a very interesting Thursday lecture by lecturer-composer-performer-jazz/classical-Third Stream Guru Gunther Schuller on the subject “The Harmonies of Schuller and Klee”. No ego involved here: music was the main focus, so Schuller gets listed first.

Paul KleeSchuller was indeed an apt choice to explore the interface between painting and music. Not only is he a long-time Klee aficionado (as made clear by his remarks), his affinity for Paul Klee’s painting and drawing inspired him to compose “Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee” commissioned by the Minneapolis Orchestra back in 1959 (or, as the 80-year old Schuller put it, ‘50 or 60 years ago’, an obvious attempt to cheat Father Time). That piece, illustrated with recordings of four of the Studies and projections of the paintings themselves, was the focal point of the talk.

Schuller made several overarching points, all quite valid: that music and painting have an ancient history together; that the influence between two goes in both directions, i.e. music inspired by paintings and painting inspired by music and its performance; and that it is literally impossible to translate visual art directly into musical notation (he cited Scriabin’s obsession with assigning specific colors to each note of the scale).

None of this stops a good composer from trying, however, and Schuller’s attempt is as good as any. Schuller found a personal affinity in Klee’s musical background (amateur performer with folks like Paul Hindemith) and in the fact that Klee, by Schuller’s count, created 700 works with reference points to music and musicians. Paul Klee’s art, characterized by fine detail, abstraction anchored in familiar images, and often archaic-looking technique (metallic tones, wood-block styles) is actually pretty good material for musical extrapolation. The four pieces Schuller shared with his audience—“Antique Harmonies”, “Pastorale”, “Abstract Trio” (the only painting Schuller used that is included in the Phillips exhibit) and “Twittering Machine”—all are rendered in rather pointillist music, mostly chamber-like. Though “Seven Studies” calls for full orchestra, that large ensemble is used with exceptional restraint.

Paul KleeSchuller put a lot of emphasis on both the rhythm of Klee’s work (as in ‘Pastorale’ which layers a thin line of blue – i.e. sky – on top of repeated rectilinear displays of abstracted organic figures – i.e. stick trees, etc.). He also notes that while color and sound have no direct correlations, light and dark indeed can be rendered in music: “[in] antique harmonies…the use of subtle color gradations from light to dark to light invites the viewer to ‘read’ the picture from lower left to upper right…the color progression from near black through ochre and green-tinged brown to bright yellow (and back again) finds its parallel in a timbre progression from low, dark strings and woodwinds to the bright ‘yellow’ of high trumpets and strings…” The quote is from Schuller’s liner notes to the old Leinsdorf/Boston Symphony recording of “Seven Studies” but pretty much duplicates what he said at the Phillips.

Interesting stuff, and indeed given the visual clues from Klee one can hear what Schuller means throughout this piece. Those who are intrigued by the idea should see the exhibit, a very fine cross-secion of the artist’s work (third floor of the new Phillips Annex, unfortunately a bit harshly lit for some of the more delicate works). Those who enjoy “Pictures at an Exhibition” should also hear Schuller’s music, readily available on his own GM record (CD) label conducted by himself (an all-Schuller program recorded in Frankfurt, Germany) or in a Mercury bargain box of major orchestral works recorded by Antal Dorati (5 CDs, a mixed bag ranging from Stravinsky to Schuller and Berg to Bloch and Albeniz).

The event, by the way, was one of the Phillips’ ‘Artful Evenings’ which start at 6 p.m. Thursdays. In this case there was also a 6 p.m. piano recital Gilles Vonsattel, with works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Martin, and Debussy (all with some arguable connection to the artist). Unfortunately this was not advertised on the Phillips website, not to mention that one could not attend both the recital the lecture. Too bad—both clearly are aimed at the same audience, and lots of folks missed out as a result of the schedule conflict.

18.7.06

Dip Your Ears, No. 66 

available at Amazon
J. Brahms / C. Saint-Saëns Sonata for Two Pianos et al., G. & S. Pekinel
available at Amazon
Lizt/-LvB, Katsaris


available at Amazon
Lizt/-LvB, Howard


available at Amazon
Schoenberg/-Brahms/-Bach, Eschenbach


available at Amazon
4 Seasons, Alessandrini
Rediscovering familiar, great music is always a wonderful affair. It may be through a stunning performance of a war horse (just think of Alessandrini’s Four Seasons!) or, perhaps more controversially, through an orchestration or reduction of a familiar work. Liszt’s piano versions for the Beethoven Symphonies are one example (play the 8th or 7th to a friend and have them guess what they are listening to: they can hum along with it but are driven nuts because they can’t figure out why they know it; Leslie Howard’s hyperion recording is fine – but better, more evoking of the orchestral colors still is Cyprien Katsaris’ re-released recording for Teldec), another is Schoenberg’s way with Brahms’ Piano Quartet (nick-named Brahm’s Fifth Symphony – I love the RCA/Eschenbach recording and only wish RCA would re-issue it; I don’t even know of a recording of it currently in print in the U.S.).

Brahms is also involved in this re-discovery of a work. If his F minor sonata for two pianos sounds familiar, it’s probably because you know it in its later incarnation, the Piano Quintet. Brahms, who arranged most of his works for two pianos, knew the genre well and it shows in this sonata. Far from being a mere study for the later, more famous work, or a slimmed-down version of it, it stands on its own solid legs (six, I suppose) and instead of pointing toward the quintet, perhaps Brahms' quintessential chamber work, it suggests an orchestral piece underneath. The Turkish-delight piano duo, the Pekinel sisters Güher and Süher, are up for anything (Bach á la Jacques Loussier was a recent album of theirs) and they make this substantial (40 minute) work the main attraction of a disc that also includes two Hungarian Dances (5 and 17) and the Five Waltzes, op.39 as well as Saint-Saëns’ Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, op.25. All of them entertaining and delightful-novel in their own right as they are, you should want to dip your ears for the Sonata alone!

Warner Classics 2564 61050-2

15.7.06

Jeering Tchaikovsky: Summer Thursdays with the BSO at Strathmore 

P.I. Tchaikovsky (Chaikovsky)A sweltering hot Thursday hosted the second of four “Cool Summer Nights with the BSO at Strathmore” – and after the alliterative “Best of Baroque” last week, “Cheering Tchaikovsky” was the literary questionable but musically appealing program for July 13th. Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero (whose entertaining introduction to the programmed works could have been shorter) and 18-year old Russian-American pianist Natasha Paremski jumped into the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto (No.1, of course – as if his second or fragment of the third were ever played in concert). Before an almost capacity crowd at Strathmore – again a fair share of young listeners seem to have made use of the $10 tickets – this was an ideal, popular opener for the occasion and an attractive, technically well healed, glitzy performance was all that was needed.

Superficially beautiful and romantic Tchaikovsky with fine support from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was exactly what we got and to have asked for more would have been folly on this occasion. Tchaikovsky is, after all, a composer who positively revels in surface-beauty and who eschews any sense of the ‘deep’, ponderous, and restrained in his concertos and ballet music. Hearing a probing, philosophizing, or ‘revealing’ performance of this particular work is like reading a dissertation on the socio-economic tensions and resulting inter-personal emotional dynamics in Duckburg rather than reading the real thing: Interesting every once in a while but no good as regular fare.

As such it was a harmless joy and delight to listen to Ms. Paremski bubble along in the first movement where the sound she got out of Strathmore’s Steinway was great – especially in the opening. Energetic passages were played with the tempestuous and wild style that is often the marquee of young lady-soloists. The second movement suffered slightly from the lack of long lines and was rather assembled from blocks rather than made of a whole. The finale was flying with high colors again. Even if the playing – especially the muddy sounding orchestra’s – was a bit routine, that could not keep the audience – leaping to their feet, of course – from rapturous applause.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Flashy Paremski gives Tchaikovsky a pounding (Baltimore Sun, July 15)

Mark J. Estren, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, July 15)
The BSO should be well equipped to play symphonies like Tchaikovksy’s Fourth after Yuri Temirkanov’s tenure – but rehearsals, mood, and the present conductor matter, too. And while the professionalism of the BSO surely does not diminish when they don their white jackets for the Summer Concerts, a performance during the regular season with a more prominent conductor on the podium would certainly have had that final touch that turns an interpretation from perfunctory to admirable and from admirable to outstanding. Cell phones and a chatty conversation among two insistent patrons dented the second and the even the charming pizzicato third movement where the country-fair spirit came across. (A strident piccolo was perhaps a little too bold in that tonal carnival.) Maestro Guerrero chose to conduct from memory and under his animated, attention-grabbing flailing, the BSO reached the decibel level in the first and fourth movement that is necessary to impress an audience even when finesse is in short supply. Surely enough to qualify as a success for this Thursday night. Next Thursday the magically magnificent Mozart medley is on the program and the crowning finale will be a LvB Ninth – like last year – on July 27th.

14.7.06

Recent Naxos Offerings - II 

available at Amazon
C. Loewe, Passion Oratorio
Carl Loewe (1796-1869) is one of the great Lied composers, even if much less renown than Wolf (nevermind Brahms, Schubert and Schumann), who is also mainly remembered for his song output. Indeed, Loewe's Lieder – beautifully recorded on the cpo label – ought to be checked out by anyone with an interest in the genre. Now Naxos brings us Das Sühneopfer des neuen Bundes (“The Expiatory Sacrifice of the New Covenant”) which they wisely dub “Passion Oratorio”. Udo Reinemann leads the capable forces of the Ensemble Instrumental & Vocal des Heures Romantiques in a live performance captured on tape on August 2nd 2003 at the St. John the Baptist in Villedieu-le-Château. Soprano Nathalie Gaudefroy, contralto Christianne Stotjin, tenor Jacky da Cunha, and basses Henk Neven and Edwin Crossley-Mercer are his soloists. The performance quality is such that it pleases or, at the very least, does not deter from listening to this charming, though hardly monumental, piece of curiosita. The recording quality is, well… very “live” and a bit cavernous. Page turning, rustling and bustling, coughing, and occasionally breathing from the artists can all be heard. The sound is on the bright side and a little thin. During the playing, however, the audience is - as one might expect in a church - very well behaved.

But this, too, is not terribly important given that this is the only recording of the work (and likely to remain the only one for a while, I should think). The music is more important – and therein lies the rub. Loewe’s “Passion Oratorio” is basically a romantically touched-up, second-flush Bach Oratorio. It maddeningly veers between absolutely divine touches here and occasional ineptness there; moments that delight and moments where the music gets stuck in a rut, especially during some of the recitatives. Whenever it comes closest to Bach – either by text or style – its shortcomings are obvious. “Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt”, one of the most moving moments in the Johannes Passion, is conjured by Loewe (who also sets Jesus' text for bass/baritone) and marks one of those moments where you wish for echt-Bach. The Passion Oratorio reminds me of an old piece of furniture with scuff marks and worn-out upholstery, but dear to ones heart. You know its flaws and you can see (or hear) them, but you hold onto it just the same. I won’t claim this work is great but I’d never throw it out. It’s a hundred minutes of the type of music that I could not turn off on a Sunday morning; although I know a few people around me who might try.

available at Amazon
J. Ireland, String Quartets, Holy Boy
Much less controversially beautiful is the recording of string quartets by John Ireland (1879-1962). Played by the (usually) most excellent Maggini Quartet who specialize in English chamber works from Vaughan Williams to Elgar to Moeran, Britten, Bridge, Walton and Maxwell-Davies (a “Best of 2004” choice), these are again stunningly entertaining works that don’t deserve the neglect they have met. As a continental European, it is very easy to ignore the fact that England has had any composers other than Handel and, perhaps, Elgar. But with Bax, Bliss, Bridge, Delius, Ireland, Standford, and the like, the fair isle has happy musical surprises in spades up its sleeves.

available at Amazon
Ireland, Piano Concerto
John Ireland’s two quartets in D minor and C minor, student works, stem from 1897. The models of Beethoven and Brahms (as far as the string quartets are concernd a little more of the former than the latter to my ears) are easily audible – and so, too, is the fact that neither are mature Ireland. But that should not concern anyone who knows the magnificent youthful chamber works of Bridge (or, more famously, Mendelssohn or even Korngold). Charles Villier Stanford was at the receiving end of the first Ireland quartet (Ireland, so Andrew Burn’s liner notes tell us, was trying to impress Stanford into accepting him as a student) but thought it “Dull as ditchwater, m’bhoy”. That was harsh, to say the least, because even if the development of themes is not the epitome of refined string quartet writing, these are very much worthy pieces, whether from a student or veteran composer! Too bad, indeed, that Ireland never returned to the genre – “The Holy Boy”, a three minute string quartet arrangement of a piano prelude doesn’t quite count but it’s nice to see it included on the Naxos disc. As far as Ireland is concerned, I’d start with the Piano Concerto before exploring his other works – but string quartet mavens may go straigh to this issue.

available at Amazon
L. Stokowski / "Bach", Transcriptions
Stokowski is gaining back a little of his good reputation as his arrangements and transcriptions have gone out of favor so hard in the last twenty years that now they are almost ‘cool’ again. At the very least they are charming guilty-pleasures and there is, among classical music lovers, no longer the fierce ideological waft of the authentic performance militia present anymore, that would have you instantly condemned upon sighting of a Stokowskiïzed Orchestral Suite. Few, if any, conductors have done more to champion Stokowski’s cause than José Serebrier. For the sake of full disclosure, it might be good to know that Serebrier owns a good deal of his early career to Stokowski to whom Serebrier was a Associate Conductor at Carnegie, who premiered the young Serebrier’s first symphony and who sent Serebrier, at 21, into the world of music with the tag of “greatest master of orchestral balance” to live up to.

Stokowski and Bach has been frowned upon, not the least because it combines divine mastery, spiritual purity, and seeming musical perfection with a few ladles of unabashed showmanship and effect. Oomped up and inflated, showy and shiny, self-conscious and even gaudy, this was quick to be discredited in times where the strive towards authenticity was at the front of every serious music lovers’ mind. Now we can listen to these works in a more relaxed manner again; we know what HIP Bach is and sounds like and Stokowski is not a threat to anyone’s image or idea of Bach. They are what they ought to be: Alternative approaches that enrich out Bach-fare much like Busoni transcriptions of Bach or even Mahler orchestrations of Beethoven and Schumann do. Which is why the pedal-down, all-stops-pulled “Air” from the third Orchestral Suite is enjoyable and beautiful as can be: instantly seductive, the sound of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Serebrier as lush as they could possibly muster.

available at Amazon
Musorgksy/Stokowski, "Pictures"
Not all of the treatments work equally well, though. “Sheep may safely graze” (for five-and-a-half minutes) is still overwhelmingly beautiful – but makes the preceding track look downright subtle. The orchestration – dominant flutes, especially – is often more effect-full than effective. Sudden ritartandos and swelling crescendos often feel overly self-conscious and while one part of me smiles, the other rolls his eyes. The Passacaglia and Fugue that closes the album exposes the point that this album makes to me overall: What a great orchestrator and transcriber was Arnold Schoenberg! There are still - and are again - a good number of Stokowski transcription aficionados that won’t care about such quibbles and they will be pleased to know that the execution - sound, playing - is exemplary, outshining Stokowski's own recordings on either account. I myself prefer to enjoy the Stokowski revival with his splendid Pictures at an Exhibition orchestration (also a Serebrier recording, to be reviewed shortly on Ionarts).

8.7.06

BSO Summer Thursdays at Strathmore No.1: "Almost Baroque" 

Bach, VerunglimpftThe Best of Baroque as programmed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s associate conductor Andrew Constantine for the first of the BSO’s Summer Thursday Classical Hitparade concerts at Strathmore consisted of liberally lushified fare; Handel via Hamilton Harty (Overture to the Music for a Royal Fireworks), Bach amplified by Stokowski, more “Bach”, but á la Elgar, Handel cum Brahms as imagined by Rubbra. Somewhere in between was hiding a bit of echt Telemann and Pachelbel.

Speaking of the latter: after having successfully avoided and averted Pachelbel’s ominously famous Canon in two decades of concert-going, it finally caught up with me. Maestro Constantine bothered to conduct (one imagines a “start” and a “stop” signal should have sufficed) and the result was most unhappy. Some back-seat fiddles of the temporarily reduced orchestra did not agree on the same intonation – but more worryingly, the whole canon lumped about like a troglodyte with one leg shorter than the other.

The preceding mostly-strings reworking of the Royal Firework Music produced a much finer – if not per se “refined” – sound, delighting in its own right. Similarly pleased the following Telemann Concerto for two Violas. It’s always good to hear Telemann’s name and music spread – especially with this, one of his most popular works.

Sheep may safely graze in Bach’s aria from the “Hunt” Cantata – and since that was a success, Leopold Stokowski had the brilliant idea to let even more sheeps graze, and even more safely! The result is at the edge of good taste, but still on the right side – and one of the prettier Stokowski transcriptions of Bach. “Elgar or Bach?” was the question in the orchestration of the Fantasia & Fugue in C-minor BWV537 and the answer is clearly “Elgar” – especially in the Fantasia. But that probably works to its advantage: Personal coleur of a composer is more interesting in an orchestration than straight forward enlargement and bombastization. Webern’s and Berg’s transcriptions (be it Johann Strauss II or Bach or Schubert) are more interesting to listen to than Stokowski’s or Raff’s for that reason… because you can hear their own idiom and how it relates to the original.

Baltimore Symphony Associate Conductor Andrew ConstantineAlas, this is not a necessary prerequisite for a successful orchestration. Schoenberg, easily the best transcriber/orchestrater since Musorgsky and Mahler, was able to stay astonishingly close to original compositions and still managed to add more to a work than he took away. And so the Handel-twice-removed Variations & Fugue in B-flat op.24 came as a very welcome curiosity on that Thursday program. Brahms, who arranged nearly his entire orchestral output for piano-four hands, knew his share of taking and reshaping the Handel Aria (from the B-flat keyboard suite) in his image. Edmund Rubbra (1901 – 1986), one of the great (!), though sadly neglected, English composers, orchestrated it tastefully and with an entertaining variety of textures, all the way to the great concluding fugue. Whereas some of the pieces in this “Baroque Hitparade” felt a little like sucking on a can of whipped cream (your mouth is full but with very little substance), this made for a very strong anchor and highlight in the program. Well worth attending for alone, although perhaps a bit taxing on the younger listeners by virtue of length and structure.


Other Reviews:

Gail Wein, Best of Baroque (Washington Post, July 7th)
The finale was the Stokowski brutalization of the probably-not-Bach Toccata & Fugue in D-minor which is, shortcomings aside, still dear to us from the orginial Fantasia and which, presumably transcribed from violin to organ in the first place, is still the quintessential organ piece to our ears, anyway. The trudging orchestral version substitutes dignity and gravitas with showmanship and awkwardness and gives only a few really beautiful moments in return. I’d rather have heard the Passacaglia transcription – and then ideally Schoenberg’s, not Stokowski’s. Or, perhaps, one actual piece of Bach instead: perhaps an Orchestral Suite.

Quibbles aside, though, the evening was full of pleasant, accessible fare for the many kids and teenagers present; it was good to see that the $10 tickets for 6-16 year olds had been made good use of. Next Thursday it’s “Chugging Tchaikovsky” with the 1st Piano Concerto and 4th Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero and with the 18-year old Russian-American Natasha Paremski on piano.

7.7.06

Le Clemenze di Titi 

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W.A. Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Harnoncourt / WPh / Röschmann, Kasarova, Schade, Garanča


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W.A. Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Östman / Drottningholm / Soldh, Poulson, Dahlberg, Höglund
In short succession, I have been deluged with one of my least favorite Mozart operas - La Clemenza di Tito. Last year the re-issue of the Böhm recording kicked things off - and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed listening to it. (Yes: despite Peter Schreier’s comically bad Italian.) Then came Charles Mackerras’ new recording which, lest René Jacobs’ (to be issued later this year in North America but already out to much acclaim in Europe) outshines it, sets a new standard. Then of course there was the Washington National Opera production with Michael Schade (Tito), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Vitellia), Marina Domashenko (Sesto) and now I sit before two productions on DVD. From Drottningholm an Arnold Östman conducted Göran Järvefelt directed all-Swedish traditional production and from the 2003 Salzburger Festspiele a Harnoncourt-led Martin Kušej production. In between, Charles reviewed the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directed film on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD.

I may still not be convinced that La Clemenza is as great an opera as some of its supporters wish to make it out to be, but I must admit it is growing on me. So much right off the bat: Had I seen the Salzburg production and consequently some of the possibilities in how to present this story with at least some degree of credibility and believability before last May, I would not have been quite as forgiving to the Washington National Opera’s production which, in contrast, never bothered to go through the trouble of trying to do the same and contented itself with letting La Clemenza helplessly slide into the ridiculous; with audiences laughing outright at story and production. No one was laughing at the Salzburg performance, be assured – and not just because the high-society types in attendance at the Felsenreitschule are such dour snobs.

Staged in a three level industrial concrete building stretching the width of the wide stage, only the royal quarters at the centre of the lowest level are set off from the rough-hewn look of the set. The tier structure allows not only for some visually arresting shots of the singers but also for subtler points about story and plot to be made – such as the conspiring and going-ons that surround, but never involve Titus, who sits or lies alone on his bed. When the chorus first enters, it does as a horde of photographing and gawking tourists. Amidst all, at the center of all the action, Titus is yet alone, isolated, prisoner of his fame and status; an animal exhibited and for all his omnipotence: powerless.

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W. A. Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Mackerras, Scottish ChO / Trost, Martinpelto, Kožená
Above him turn up Vitellia and Sesto: Dorothea Röschmann and Vesselina Kasarova. Oozing a sensual, aggressive sexuality with a touch of exoticism - perhaps even a slightly vulgar tinge - Röschmann stands out as the kind of Vitellia that not only would seduce and entice to murder, but also could do it. She and Kasarova’s Sesto are indeed the key to this production’s ability to make Clemenza believable. The direction of the two characters, their characterization and especially their looks, are probably more important than the sometimes ingenious, always inventive staging and setting of everything around them. Kasarova, an attractive woman in her own right, does look like a man (though never butch); her square jaw showing the troubled determination that may well be a young, beautiful man’s. More importantly, together with the justifying excuse of Vitellia’s odd but powerful seductiveness, Sesto seems like his own man – not a weak tool but under the yoke of his own sexual – perhaps also emotional – drive. In all other productions I have seen, Sesto comes across as the most pathetic little puppet, devoid of willpower, reason or credible motivation for any of his actions.

Compare to that the fake, stilted, awkward Drottningholm production where La Clemenza is stomped back into a period piece full of costumes, fake smiles, women in unflattering trouser costumes that make them look like, well… women in trousers or, worst of all, in Maria Höglind’s case, a fat cow that she really isn’t. The chorus is an assortment of brown-faced tributaries to Tito... replete with Leopard Skins, Palms, Gold, Myrtle – the entire cliché-ridden treasure chamber on their arms and clad in every equally clichéd costume that might have found its way out of a 1970’s B-movie about Sinbad and the Seven Seas. I don't believe that Anita Soldh's mannered, cold, superficially involved Vitellia could motivate any man with a spine even to open the door for her, much less murder a best friend. Pretty Pia-Marie Nilsson is similarly hampered by the direction and the costume but likeable. This production also makes visible the qualities that might go unnoticed in the Salzburg version seen on its own: Namely that direction is most important for the moments in which a singer does not sing. On the small Drottningholm stage, there is lots of meaningful looking and head-nodding and shaking, small meaningful hand gestures, a few, tiny anticipatory steps forward or backward. (Wide-eyed Lani Poulson’s Sesto, always and ever so moved, overjoyed, distraught, remorseful is the worst offender.) All in all: The kind of behaving that makes the “acting” in Opera wooden and unnatural. Those who think that ignoring the theatrical aspects of opera is the calling card of a true Opera aficionado and voice-snob will be delighted: Such beautiful glittering costumes, such amply applied rouge on those cheeks.

La Clemenza di Tito: Kasarova & Röschmann - Photo by Hans-Jörg MichelPoulson’s portrayal of Sesto coupled with the stilted, beautiful but completely unattractive, cartoonish Vitellia (part Queen of the Night, part Marshallin) of Ms. Soldh alone are enough to drive me far away from this production. Poulson undermines Sesto’s every emotion with feeble, overdone 'acting' and ill judged accentuations. With Kasarova, we accept that she is determined to do whatever it takes to get with Vitellia. When her Sesto stops to regret, the viewer is relieved for a brief moment. When she continues, we are not surprised. But when the Drottningholm Sesto pretends to be on evil’s foot, it seems laughable – the relapse to moral concern ridiculous. Meanwhile, the smiles of Höglind’s are maddening in their sugary artificiality. Like Poulson she turns her character into an effeminate, sappy naïf. Her Kušej-Harnoncourt pendant, Aline Garanča, does exactly the opposite. Although also a beautiful woman with soft facial features, her long face and its laconic expression (it rarely ever changes from its somber look and ‘sits’ on her like a mask, in great contrast to Kasarova, where every emotion grinds and moves her face, brows, jaw), she, too, makes her character a believable young man of stern conviction.

I have slight difficulties with Schade’s (whose singing I admire) characterization of Titus – although that character is admittedly hard to pull off for any singer/actor – being on a relentless forgiving-spree and deciding to marry three different women in one day as he is or does. Compared to Stefan Dahlberg’s picture perfect little prince in ermine and purple coats, however, Schade is brimming with life and realism. Still: Less neurotic, modestly more composed, not as much ‘acted’ and I’d find the character much more appealing. Dahlberg’s singing is good, Schade’s better.

The Chorus and Orchestra of the Drottningholm Court Theatre under the Mozart Veteran Arnold Östman know how to do ‘HIPerformances’ of Wolfgang Amadeus’ operas and have recorded much admired versions of the Da Ponte operas and especially the Magic Flute for Decca. With original instruments but also costumes and wigs (!!) (this performance was originally recorded for Television and the musicians are very visible in this small theatre) they turn in a fine, not always secure, very fast performance with some arias taken at speeds that first appear implausible. Harnoncourt’s Vienna Philharmonic is of course not a period instrument band, emits a mightier sound (necessary for the larger space) but can be light-footed just the same which is not surprising since arguably no great modern orchestra has more Mozart in their blood, than the Viennese. Harnoncourt’s undogmatic understanding of period performance surely helps, too. He allows for a more relaxed reading than Östman which supports the beautiful arias and duets to really shine.

La Clemenza di Tito - Photo by Hans-Jörg Michel
The singing, meanwhile, if it still mattered for me, is very fine on the Östman performance – with Poulson as the stand out and the restrained, noble Dahlberg in good form. The Orchestra plays well and fleet, but is no match for the recordings on CD (Hogwood and presumably Jacobs if you want period instruments, Mackerras - my favorite recording - if you will take either). The Harnoncourt cast has not only two great actors but also two great singers in the main roles: Röschmann is radiant, Kasarova better still, with her characterful, strong voice. Schade’s Tito doesn’t need my praise; he’s carved that role out of the repertoire for himself… only at times do I sense a little strain and push that betrays that this isn’t quite so easy to sing, after all. Servilia in Salzburg is none other than Barbara Bonney, a very mature lass, to be sure, but vocally assured. She looks a bit like an intrusion into the cast; a different kind of actor and singer... but like an upper-class American tourist on Lago Como, she fits in just fine after a while and is generally welcomed.

Recorded live for Television (they show things like Clemenza on Swedish Television, believe it or not), the production is obviously not as meticulously thought out as the one Brian Large directed for release on DVD. There are understandably no fireworks or billowing clouds of smoke when the Capitol is set ablaze (in Drottningholm there are a few bleached-out orange projections cast on the painted backdrop – in Salzburg the chorus is forced to the edge of the three-tier construction by a truly threatening smoke) and there are some - albeit judicious - cuts that make (together with the faster tempi) the performance almost half an hour shorter. The quickness does not redeem this performance, the bredth and length does not harm the Salzburg performance.

It is the Salzburg production that shows the possibilities of reviving an opera like La Clemenza, making it meaningful and riveting, despite its inherent weaknesses. Bravo. The Drottningholm production, however, for all its beauty of playing and singing, only goes to show why the opera fell out of favor in the first place.

5.7.06

Dip Your Ears, No. 65 

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G.P. Telemann, Suites & Concerto for recorder and orchestra, Akamus / Maurice Steger
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G.P. Telemann, Recorder Quartets, MAK / Goebel


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G.P. Telemann, "Water Music", MAK / Goebel
Georg Philipp Telemann is dear to my heart, admittedly, but even if he is not always as inspired as J. S. Bach, in his best moments he rivals his (then far less famous) colleague and friend easily and proves every bit if not more enjoyable than his London-based good friend G. F. Handel. (Telemann was Godfather to C. P. E. Bach, Johann Sebastian’s second son – and Handel sent exotic flowers from London to Hamburg that the florophile Telemann loved.) Apart from the Tafelmusik and several violin concertos, his overtures are the most immediately appealing. The “Water-overture” (Hamburger Ebb und Flut or Musica maritime) is one of them – and gives the more famous Handel work of similar name a run for its money. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin’s recording (led by first violinist Georg Kallweit) is the third I’ve come across and it shoots to the top of the list, right next to Musica Antiqua Köln’s with Reinhard Goebel. You can feel the waves rolling softly in and out of the Hamburg harbor – but programmatic as this might be, it’s sublime music on its own account and the musicians of Akamus dig in that it is a joy. Preceding this marvel is the Suite in A minor TWV 55:a2 for treble recorder, strings and basso continuo as well as the dazzling treble recorder concerto in C major TWV 51:C1. The recorder may still not be taken seriously as a solo instrument by those who only remember it as an awfully squeaky blow-stick from primary school music class – but Maurice Steger (already impressive in the Recorder Quartets on Archiv) plays with such breathtaking virtuosity that any silly smile is wiped off anyone’s face and replaced with the look of bewilderment: the man plays like possessed – just check out the furiously paced Tempo di Minuet that closes the concerto. Brilliant. And good enough to mint new recorder-lovers among those who listen.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901917

1.7.06

Dip Your Ears, No. 64 

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J. Haydn, Symphonies Nos. 44, 95, 98, Ferenc Fricsay, RIAS SO Berlin
Perhaps the coupling of Haydn’s 44th, 95th, and 98th symphonies strikes you as slightly random – a little Sturm & Drang (no. 44, the Trauersymphonie - “Mourning-Symphony”), a little London (nos. 95, 98). Perhaps a 1954 mono recording doesn’t obviously kindle your interest or tickle your fancy? And maybe you have not thought much of the short-lived (1914-1963) Ferenc Fricsay – apart perhaps from enjoying a wonderful Beethoven or Dvořák 9th or his Don Giovanni. Well, here it is then, to point out that this budget disc from Deutsche Grammophon’s Europe-centric “Musik…… Sprache der Welt” collection is an absolute gem and that (at least for those who do not have a Haydn #44 in their collection) there is no reason not to indulge in this recording. The sound quality belies its age (better still than the remastered 58/60 Beecham EMI recordings), the playing of the RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin under Fricsay is positively infectious. And “mourning” as may be its title, it is actually an unadulterated joy to listen to; the kind of Angst- and tension-free music that allows you to smile, apprehending only skilled, honest beauty and goodness. It’s music with little wings. And a delighting 70 minutes of it.

DG 474 981-2

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