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12.8.06

Vivaldi ³ 

Archiv has been pushing Vivaldi lately – a composer for whom I usually experience benevolent indifference. But I am not likely to miss out on great new performances, whether it be a new opera (like Motezuma, reviewed by Charles), or a newly found choral work like Dixit Dominus or world premiere recordings of Violin Concertos RV 5837-5841.

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Violin Concertos, Carmignola, Marcon / VBO
These late Vivaldi Concertos (actually, they are RV386, 235, 296, 258, RV389, and RV251) are on Giuliano Carmignola's new disc with Andrea Marcon’s Venice Baroque Orchestra (released on July 4th) and it’s a show case of exciting, virtuosic Baroque fiddling and the highly skilled craftsmanship of Vivaldi who churns out one charming tune after another. There is much wonderful and nothing wrong with this disc – and Vivaldi lovers need not hesitate. If I fail to warm up completely, it may just be the above mentioned indifference to hearing yet another Vivaldi concerto, no matter how many experts allege that it ‘once again shows how varied Vivaldi’s style was’. For better or worse, it’s unmistakably Vivaldi and I have a hard time shaking the suspicion that music like this could not easily be recreated by an excellent musicologist and Vivaldi scholar, presuming a Testosterone level like Floyd Landis’.

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Concertos for Strings, Marcon / VBO
I much prefer the more neglected Concerti di Archi that Vivaldi wrote – and Andrea Marcon and the VBO bring us 12 of those (3 are denominated “Sinfonia”) in an even more recent Archiv recording (released on August 8th). Because everyone in the ensemble (strings, continuo, lute) gets a crack at virtuosity at some point, the concertos (and consequently the recording) make for much more variegated listening while a good deal of what some might consider the excessive (if not vapid) virtuosity of the solo concertos. The booklet’s subtitle reads “Joyous Celebrations of the Art of Orchestral Playing” and that precisely what it is. This is just the disc for anyone who casually wants to pick up a lovely Vivaldi CD.

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"Dixit Dominus", Invernizzi, Mingardo, Agnew et al. / Kopp / Dresdner Instrumental-Concert
Of Archiv’s current Vivaldi bonaza, the most intriguing release may well be the disc they released on June 13th: “Dixit Dominus” is the title of the CD and the newly ‘discovered’ work; previously thought to be by Baldassarre Galuppi (1706 – 1785) due to fraud on part of a copyist. (Apparently there was once a time when it was lucrative to make a Vivaldi appear a Galuppi.) The very recording of this work is symbolic of how we react to ‘big names’ much more viscerally than the actual quality of the music, because when thought a Galuppi work, no one ever bothered to think about recording it; now designated a Vivaldi, it immediately gets a public life on a big label.

Actually, Dixit Dominus is so beautiful that it much deserved that public life, whether thought of as by Baldassarre Galuppi or Ignatz Leopold Nepumuk Küchelmeister or some other obscure (or made-up) baroque composer. Of the 24 minutes, the introductory coro alone would justify hearing the entire CD and the gentle reading it receives under Peter Kopp and his Körnerscher Sing-Verein Dresden and the Dresdner Instrumental-Concert does it proud. Roberta Invernizzi and Lucia Cirillo are the sopranos, Sara Mingardo the contralto, Paul Agnew and Thomas Cooley the tenors, Sergio Foresti and Georg Zeppenfeld the basses. As if to make up for neglect hitherto, the rest of the CD is filled with three – also very beautiful – Galuppi works: Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus, and Lauda Jerusalem - all for strings, bassoon, and basso continuo with choir and vocalists.

11.8.06

Style Instead of Glamour in Willy Decker's La Traviata 

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G. Verdi, La Traviata, Rizzi, Decker, Netrebko, Villazon, Hampson et al.
Few opera recordings – CD or DVD – have been more looked forward to (or more heavily promoted) than the famed 2003 Traviata from Salzburg with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. The marketing was carefully devised: first the complete opera, then the arias and highlights with a preview of the DVD, and finally, a few months ago, the DVD itself. The recording was fine but not quite as special as the event must have been for those who saw it live. DVD is the second best thing and manages sufficiently to convey that sense of occasion. This Traviata is a triumph of beauty and sensuality achieving what I suppose La Traviata was supposed to achieve in the first place (the music is an admittedly good place to start) and does for the early 21st century what Visconti did with his production half a century ago. This production does not so much update the opera but adjusts it to a modern aesthetic sensibility. Peopled with a beautiful cast – Netrebko, Villazón, Hampson, and impeccably clad chorus members – it lures us with promises of that beauty. Amid all this, Netrebko sings and act and does most of that promising. She succeeds wonderfully as Violetta, because we react to her viscerally.

Willy Decker's Traviata - NetrebkoAnd we react to her, because she is – foremost – stunningly beautiful, sexy and attractive. “We,” because classical music, more so still than other trades, is largely driven by the actions and opinions of men, “we” because those among us that are not heterosexual lustmongers who have channeled their urges into expressing through or appreciation of art are homosexual aesthetes similarly taken in by grace and good looks. “We,” because the kind of beauty generated by Netrebko in this particular setting is of a kind that transcends gender and sexuality. We all react to that which pleases the eye and imagination. And when the visual feeds into heart or groin, the ear will nod in timid agreement, little matter the fare it is served. In a sense, Netrebko is like a restaurant of great repute with the finest décor – where the food is good (never more) but all the right people meet. We take it as the greatest joy – and rightly so: let’s not feel guilty for being charmed by that which was designed by nature (and marketing people) to charm us. La Traviata with Netrebko is a sensual feast and deserves to be embraced as a whole.

Willy Decker's Traviata - Villazon / HampsonBut what makes this Traviata great, is the direction, the set, and the acting. True, Netrebko has a tendency to over-act and forget the singing while she is at it, busily wiggling her toes or attempting somersaults. Fortunately here she does not attempt such feats. Against the wide, white semicircle that encloses the stage (a dream in simple elegance of design and texture) her reds and blacks are as vivid as lip-stick smears on champagne glasses and tuxedos. Her torment, too, becomes believable – not via a stuffy setting from the olden days but because the direction takes the drama from the social surroundings into Violetta Valéry herself – juxtaposed by a father-figure representing Death or Fate which is, in her case, one and the same. And while Violetta is a well-established modern woman, aware of her charms and what she can make men do because of them, she succumbs to a deeper self, the inner child that wishes itself a past innocence with wide and begging eyes, that still wishes to believe in all those things that her cynical veneer has long cast to the four winds. It is this that makes her believable to us, because we believe in an inner naturalness that does not feel like a merely acted front like with, for example, the insufferably self-obsessed Angela Gheorghiu.

Willy Decker's Traviata - NetrebkoSpeaking of insufferably self-obsessed: Thomas Hampson is a very fine Germont and Villazón’s Alfredo meets Netrebko’s acting every step of the way: innocent, helplessly nasty, broken, and lovelorn. No actor could probably make his initial obsession seem real, but that part of the opera is quickly gotten past. What remains are two hours of opera as it should be: involving, beautiful, musical, a drama even the un-inclined are willing to follow, mainly because it casts out the dusty scraps that ‘tradition’ thoughtlessly passes down and instead successfully focuses on a very few, but the right essentials: beauty, emotion, and – of course – music. (Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic apply the necessary musical touches.) For those who don’t fall for the empty glitz of Zefirelli productions, Willy Decker's on this DVD is mandatory viewing and makes the CD alone not worth owning.

5.8.06

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dies at 90 

Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin
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Capriccio


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Four Last Songs - Szell


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Four Last Songs - Ackermann


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Rosenkavalier

Last night, on August 3rd, 2006, the soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf died age 90. There is little to be added to Anthony Tommasini’s excellent obituary. (Skip Adam Bernstein's, go straight to Tim Page's.) Her undisputed fame and yet strangely controversial ability – never mind the even more controversial part of her bio that covers the 1930s and 1940s – are all discussed. The way Walter Legge transformed her from a little German starlet (beautiful and allegedly very popular with a select few Wehrmacht Generals at the time) into a grand Lady is hinted at, although Tommasini is of course right in focusing on the artistic impact Legge had of her.

He was largely responsible for turning her into a singer that cared (overly) about the accentuation of every note and phrase… the very quality that had her so admired by some and rejected as draining every music she sang of its naturalness by others. Nor does everyone respond well to the grain in her voice – a little grain of sand that splits it into two parallel strands. Or, were you compare voices to a knife, Schwarzkopf’s is one of those knifes that have a hollow edge. To some ears, the result is an ever present, very slight sharpness, although there is none, measurably. While it is true that she could make Fischer-Dieskau seem a spontaneous singer, there are undoubted and near-universally admired moments of glory in her singing – all well captured on disc.


Obituaries:

Anthony Tommasini, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Opera Singer, Dies at 90 (New York Times, August 4)

Adam Bernstein, Renowned Coloratura [sic!] Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90 (Washington Post, August 4)

Tim Page, The Plaintive Last Song of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Washington Post, August 4)

Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (London Times, August 3)
Both accounts (or more correctly: either one) of her Four Last Songs ought to be heard and had. Szell offers better sound, Ackermann features Schwarzkopf in fresher voice. The trio in the 1956 mono Rosenkavalier (Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall) is among the most delicious operatic events on record. Whether for Schwarzkopf – who is perfect as the wistful, dignified countess – or the rest of the cast and Sawallisch’s felt conducting (a bit more engaging than Karajan in the Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos), Capriccio is possibly my favorite Strauss opera and this certainly my favorite Strauss recording.

I can't claim to have any particular interest in her artistry as such - but whenever it lent itself to a grand results, it was admirable. Beyond the Strauss, there is also lovely Mozart and intriguing Wolf - explore: Somehow there is never a better time than an artist's death to do so.

4.8.06

Renée Fleming Thunderoulsy Received at the Wolf Trap 

Record heat in the DC area was probably to blame for the Wolf Trap not being sold out – despite our every favorite Renée Fleming performing on Thursday night. The threat of thunderstorms may not have helped either – and as if to reinforce that there is a certain inherent risk in opting for outside seating, a thunder slowly shuddered into Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The performance of the Summer-NSO led by Emil de Cou was beautifully and dramatically accentuated by lightning – although the enjoyment of that show was probably predicated on having a claim to seats under the Filene Center’s roof.

Mickey in the RainPaul Dukas’ claim to fame, The Socerer’s Apprentice is more likely to associate memories of Mickey Mouse frantically trying to control the flood his controlled-uncontrollable broom-servants create, rather than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem upon which it is all based. But it couldn’t have been a more appropriate scene to think of as the sluices of heaven opened wide. Amidst more thunder and lightning, the music started to be the soundtrack to the excitement outside and accompanied by thuds from the speaker systems and flickering lamps, the work finished only seconds before a total power outage left the stage and audience in the dark, causing the audience only to redouble its cheers. At least on the inside, the audience’s mood was not the least (forgive) dampened… despite the spray being felt by even those sitting in the very center of the orchestra seating. NSO Wolf Trap Festival conductor Emil de Cou meanwhile used the forced intermission to hone his already considerable comedic stand-up skills – much to the amusement of the crowd.

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C. Debussy, Orchestrations, E. de Cou / SFBSO
The weather calmed down appropriately for the beautiful calm and serenity of Debussy’s Claire de Lune as orchestrated by André Caplet. (It is something of a de Cou specialty; he was also the first one to record this work, available on a disc with other Debussy orchestrations played by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.) Electricity was restored, more or less, even if now part of the audience, instead of the orchestra, was illuminated by the selectively functioning spotlights.

After that, all radiating was done by Renée Fleming who sang Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – and continued in her luminous way even after the spotlight on her went back into remission, leaving her to sing out of the dark. The performance was a good one, with her passionate, creamy voice (in live performance always with fewer of the unfortunate Renéeisms that can turn her sound into stilted, unnatural mush) aptly recreating the mood of sedated Tennessee summer evenings. The harsh metallic hue given to her voice by the (otherwise discrete) amplification was a small drawback. The orchestra, more in accompanying position than partnership, did its job as well as could have been expected – especially with half of them barely able to decipher the notes in front of them. To hear the audience enthusiastic about 20th century orchestral songs apart from the popular Richard Strauss fare only added value.


Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Dark Victory for Fleming and the NSO (Washington Post, August 5)
Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloë-Suite No.2 opened the second half – lights fixed and adjusted – and murmured along gaily and enjoyably. It was here that the NSO and de Cou showed their best and most engaged playing of the night. A gracious and amusing speech by Miss Fleming (bad and successively worse weather seems to follow her to the Wolf Trap – for her next appearance there she demanded a blizzard) preceded Francesco Cilea’s “Poveri fiori” from Adriana Lecouvreur and the soprano-evergreens “O, mio babbino caro” and “Vissi d’arte” of Puccini. Less edge from the microphone allowed for a consequently better sound. Classics as these arias are, they were upstaged by what followed. Saving the best for last, as Ms. Fleming often does, Richard Strauss’ (no concert of hers without it, thankfully) “Morgen” was the finest work to be heard and presents what Renée Fleming was and still is best at. An affected, slurred, and pulled-around “Summertime” made up for qualitative shortcomings in general popularity, as did “I could have danced all night” with (surprisingly tuneful) audience participation. In all, Maestro de Cou offered a keen and sensitive accompaniment from his instrument, the orchestra, allowing Fleming to milk every phrase exactly to her heart’s content. Flotow’s “The Last Rose of Summer” sent the audience back into a pleasantly cooled down night, and Ms. Fleming home with all the applause she could have wished for.

1.8.06

Dip Your Ears, No. 68 

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W.A. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, Abbado / Mahler Chamber Orchestra /
Claudio Abbado is enjoying his Indian Summer and conducts bands he feels particularly drawn to… among them the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (more or less made up of the best players of his previous orchestras, united by their love and respect for Abbado) and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It is with the latter that he performed the Magic Flute in a production of his son, Daniele Abbado. Recorded live in Modena, it is Abbado’s first Zauberflöte and at once a great success.

A joyous performance that gives lie to the notion that conductors get slower and slower with age, this Flute has generally brisk (but also very flexible) tempi; there is no dwelling and lingering. As a dramatic comedy it is tightly and tidily presented and supported by wonderful singers. Dorothea Röschmann is a charming Pamina because she never whines – a flaw of so many Paminas. Christoph Strehl may not be a Wunderlich but is just right for the young, serious, noble Tamino: a delight! René Pape hardly needs my praise – are there any better Sarastro’s out there? Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a young, fresh Pamino who, in front of an Italian audience, does not feel the need to add some southern-German joviality to his light and breezy, humorous enough Papageno: much funnier and light-hearted than, for example, Fischer-Dieskau who was once perfectly characterized as sounding like “a tourist in Lederhosen” (Böhm, DG – with Wunderlich as an unforgettable Tamino). The three ladies look better than they sing - but since they look very good, there is some room for variance without becoming a detriment to the recording. so The three boys are actually boys (from the Tözer Knabenchor) - which has obvious disadvantages as far as the strenght of the voices is concerned but works better dramatically. I tend to prefer that solution over three women. Erika Miklósa’s Queen of the Night offers partly stellar (pun intended) singing but her atrocious German makes the spoken dialogue involving her rather an ordeal.

Speaking of speaking, Abbado is quick enough in his conducting to include plenty, nearly all, dialogue in this Magic Flute (since it was recorded live) and still fit the Singspiel on two discs. I often read reviews that bemoan the missing dialogue in recordings of this opera (most conductors cut at least some – to my knowledge only Haitink includes every last word) – but find most of it rather distracting than adding to the experience. For those who understand German it’s pleasant to have the option, I suppose, and the others can either ignore it or skip it with a click of the button.

The Magic Flute is an opera I very much like (it was the first I ever had on record), but I don’t obsess about it. I’ve heard a few versions (Solti/Decca, Klemperer/EMI, Böhm/DG) but always return to my trusty Böhm/Decca when I do listen to it. This new recording, however, might change the habit – fresh and sparkly as it is it blows away much dust, it’s the best Zauberflöte to have appeared since Arnold Östman’s period performance at Drottningholm (Decca).

DG B0006428

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