July 16, 2005

FAURÉ: Requiem and Other Works

The Requiem mass of Gabriel Fauré is often unfairly overshadowed by other 19th century settings of the mass. The monumental works of Giuseppe Verdi and Hector Berlioz achieve moments of extreme drama by stretching the limits of soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Fauré's Requiem, in contrast, is an intimate vision of heavenly peace in the afterlife. The soaring melodic lines and compact harmonic progressions evoke profundity through beauty and simplicity.

This recording by Ed Spanjaard, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, and the Limburg Symphony Orchestra, Maastricht achieves the dramatic restraint in Fauré's music. The strings, in particular, play with both intensity and sensitivity. The Introit has a fervent trembling in the vibrato, and the violas' majestic melody in the Agnus Dei spins with a sumptuous warmth. Their superb musicianship combined with the inherent musical drama captures a hopeful longing for eternal rest.

The chorus carries most of the dramatic weight in the work. In the Introit, the chant-like intonation grows from a haunting pure unison to a full blossoming of light. The following melodic line of "Requiem aeternam" is sung by a warm, unified tenor section. Their sensitive flexibility establishes a gentle restrained optimism for eternal rest. In the "Sanctus" the sopranos equal the tenors as they exchange beautifully tapered arching lines. Both sections' clear spinning tone creates an ethereal halo. The sopranos also evoke heaven in the final movement, "In Paradisum." Again, they sing their unison solo line with a pure warm clarity. At the brief moment of terror in Fauré's work, in the "Libera me", the Netherlands Chamber Choir reaches a full open forte, singing with strength and force. Perhaps the most beautiful choral moment comes at the "Amen" at the end of the "Offertorium" with the soaring sopranos and precisely in tune a cappella singing.

The soloists also bring drama to the music. Baritone Harry Peeters sings his first entrance, "Hostias," with warm, open tone carried vibrantly through each phrase. He conveys a solid assurance that appropriate sacrifices will bring redemption for the dead. Peeters' best singing though, comes with the opening line of the "Libera me." His strength transforms into a fervent longing for peace and safety. Soprano Christiane Oelze's singing portrays the opposite dramatic mood. Her clear ringing tone in the Pie Jesu is sweet and cherubic. Her pure tone and soft expression emulates a child's plea for rest.

Included with the Requiem on this CD are several of Fauré's lesser known smaller choral works. Most notable is a late edition of the orchestral Pavane to which Fauré has set a poetic text. Also included is the beautiful anthem Cantique de Jean Racine, performed here with orchestral accompaniment. Packaged with this excellent performance of the Requiem, this recording is a wonderful collection of Fauré's choral music.

Adam Luebke

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Posted by Gary at 1:48 AM

MENDELSSOHN: Athalia

While the story is a complicated Old Testament plot, Mendelssohn’s music captures the tone of the tragedy with delight, whimsy, and severity.

The final version of Athalia, as presented on this recording, calls for three soloists, full chorus and orchestra, and two orators. Most of the action of the play is delivered by the orators’ narration. Ulrike Goetz and Rudolf Guckelsberger deliver the text in a sure tone with both lilting cadences and strong declamation. The solo and choral movements provide emotional responses to the action and take up roles in the story as well. Like Mendelssohn’s better know dramatic scores, his oratorio Elijah and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the music of Athalia is very vivid and colorful. The music paints a clear picture of the action with sweet melodies of praise, sorrowful laments, and strong contrapuntal choruses of damnation.

Conductor Helmuth Rilling leads the three female soloists, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR in a clean, crisp performance. The Gächinger Kantorei sings with an open tone and precise German diction. The sopranos are occasionally a little thin when attempting a soft ethereal sound in the higher register. But overall the choral singing is evenly balanced, precisely in tune, and confidently virile, particularly in the men. Sopranos Letizia Scherrer and Katalin Halmai, and alto Daniela Sindram sing with a strong sense of drama without compromising their beautiful tone. Singing mostly in duets and in concert with the chorus, they all show a subtle sensitivity to ensemble. The orchestra plays equally well bringing a festive flourish to the performance, highlighted by the bright vitality of the brass.

This obscure of work of Mendelssohn is presented handsomely on this Hänssler Classic disc. Helmut Rilling has made a career of researching and performing German choral music and this recording of Athalia maintains his high quality. Extensive program notes outlining the historical and musical background of the work accompany the fine performance. While not a groundbreaking work or recording, Athalia is another example of Mendelssohn’s mastery of evoking specific drama in his music.

Adam Luebke

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Posted by Gary at 1:36 AM

The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn

The Cambridge companion series provides one of the more scholarly and intensely interesting examinations of musical composers currently available. This is because of its in-depth and multifaceted contributions to each volume, by a variety of musicologists and musicians, as well as overall management of each volume by a well-established and known scholar in the field. The Mendelssohn volume is no exception in this area. It is a collection of fourteen essays that examine the life and work of the nineteenth-century Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. It is divided into four major sections: Issues in Biography, Situating the Compositions, Profiles of the Music, and Reception and Performance.

The editor provides an introduction titled "Mendelssohn as border-dweller." Mendelssohn is an enigma: born Jewish but baptized into Protestantism at a young age; his proficiency as a composer, pianist, organist, and conductor; and his reputation and reception during his lifetime and posthumously, to name a few. The editor provides some comments and direction on these and other dichotomies, while indicating that the book itself provides only a surface introduction for the newcomer to Mendelssohn as a musical personality in nineteenth-century Romantic music.

In Part I, three essays examine biographical issues surrounding Mendelssohn. The editor writes on Mendelssohn and the institution(s) of German art music, Michael P. Steinberg examines the many and complex weavings regarding Mendelssohn and Judaism, and Marian Wilson Kimber discusses the relationship between Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny.

In Part II, two essays provide some commentary on the context of Mendelssohn's compositions within nineteenth-century Romanticism. James Garratt looks at the rise of music historicism (Mendelssohn was the first composer to champion and perform the little-known works of an obscure Baroque German composer named Johann Sebastian Bach), and Greg Vitercik speaks on how progressive Mendelssohn's compositions were through examination of the music itself.

In Part III, a number of compositions and genres are examined. Douglass Seaton provides an overview of Mendelssohn's output in the symphony and overture; Steve Lindeman examines the works for solo instrument(s) and orchestra; Thomas Schmidt-Beste discusses his chamber music; Glenn Stanley looks at the music for keyboard; R. Larry Todd has the interesting topic of sacred music, real and imaginary; Susan Youens looks at Mendelssohn's song output; and Monika Hennemann examines dramatic compositions from Liederspiel to Lorelei.

Finally, in Part IV, the fascinating posthumous reception of Mendelssohn's musical output and life are examined in two essays. John Michael Cooper provides a brief chronological history of Mendelssohn's influence (or non-influence) on Romanticism and music history up until the present day, and Leon Botstein provides an interesting analysis of Mendelssohn's originality and musical complexity in his music for orchestra and chorus.

Overall, this is a well-constructed and thought-provoking examination of Mendelssohn's life and musical works. Whether it is appropriate as reading material for the virtual newcomer to Mendelssohn, as the marketing on the back of the book mentions, is questionable. As a musicologist, I was challenged to follow the lines of reasoning and the thought processes within many of the essays; in fact, I would state that this book is more for the graduate student, music professor, and advanced music performer rather than the music novice looking for introductory information on Mendelssohn and his life. There is a brief chronology of Mendelssohn's life at the beginning of the book, and copious notes for each chapter of the book placed at the end of the book.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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Posted by Gary at 1:28 AM

July 15, 2005

RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op.13; The Isle of the Dead, Op.29.

The March 1897 premiere under the direction of Aleksandr Glasunov was a spectacular failure that prompted a shower of criticism, including Cesar Cui's oft-cited quip that the work would thrill "the inhabitants of hell." The symphony's reception deeply affected Rachmaninov, plunging him into a long depression, during which time he all but ceased composing and instead began to hone his skills as a conductor. Although the symphony was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, it has made a comeback since its rediscovery in 1945. And rightly so: As this recording aptly demonstrates, the work has much to offer the listener (a majority of the initial negative reception was likely the result of Glasunov's supposed intoxicated state at the premiere and the disastrous outcome this undoubtedly had on the performance). This work will be refreshing and perhaps a bit surprising to those familiar only with Rachmaninov's later output. The debt to Chaikovsky and Borodin is quite distinct, especially noticeable in Rachmaninov's concern for formal and motivic unity, although the seeds of the rapturous melody and thick, sonorous textures of his more mature orchestral style lurk not far beneath the surface.

In this recording, Mariss Jansons leads the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been Associate Principal Conductor since 1985. One of Russia's most venerable and highly respected ensembles, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (known during Soviet times as the Leningrad Philharmonic), cultivated its unsurpassed skill during five decades under the baton of the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky. Listeners of Jansons recording will not be disappointed: the orchestra still packs a mighty punch and its dark, string-dominated sound is the perfect match for Rachmaninov's music. The orchestra's precision shines through most remarkably in the symphony's extroverted finale, and also makes for some thrilling passages in the development of the first movement.

Paired with the First Symphony on this recording is the composer's symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (Ostrov myortvykh). The work dates from a period of increasing political unrest in Imperial Russia that prompted Rachmaninov to resign from his conducting post at the Bolshoi Theater in February 1906 and spend an increasing amount of time abroad. After first exiling himself to Pisa, the composer then settled briefly in Dresden, where he completed The Isle of the Dead in 1909. The work draws its title and inspiration from a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, whose eerily gloomy depiction of a pall-draped casket being transported by boat to a remote island captured Rachmaninov's imagination. The work bears a number of distinctive features: The opening section is set in 5/8 meter, evocative of the gentle lilting of the boat depicted in Böcklin's painting. The Isle of the Dead is also one of the first works in which Rachmaninov quotes the Dies irae — the chant that laces so many of his later compositions. Moreover, the soaring melody and luxurious textures that were latent in the First Symphony reveal themselves in full-blown magnificence in The Isle of the Dead, making the two works offered on this CD a most satisfying pairing. As with the symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic performs beautifully in this work and Jansons delivers Rachmaninov's rich sonorities brilliantly, if at times the woodwind and brass color is a bit covered. The current recording is one of EMI's recent re-releases on their budget line "Encore," making this CD an all-around exceptional buy.

Kevin Michael Bartig
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

HELLER: Emblems of Eloquence — Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first two explore seventeenth-century treatises written about women by male misogynists and uppity female contrarians. Although these treatises, such as Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti's Tirannia paterna, ostensibly say little about women and music, they do give us a clear picture of misogyny practiced eloquently by members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a center of erudition, who found women to be the cause of evil in the world. Heller provides excellent translations and each painful prejudice is clearly rendered. We read for instance from Francesco Loredano, the Incogniti founder, "Woman, most virtuous gentlemen, is an imperfect animal, an error of nature, and a monster of our species." At least, Loredano includes women in the same species as men; Aristotle argued otherwise.

In this incandescent debate, we find opera flourishing. Heller in the next chapters of her book examines archetypical female opera roles, warriors, courtesans, and lovers. All are essentially victims of their own desires, even if most of the operas end in the lieto fine. Women in Heller's book are a complicated collection of dualities, and we have subheadings such as, "Semiramide and Musical Transvestism" and "Didone and Female Eloquence."

Heller's micro-level descriptions of the music by Monteverdi (L'incoronazione di Poppea), Cavalli (La Didone, La Calisto), Ziani (La Semiramide), and Pallavicino (La Messalina) that accompany these women are also a pleasure to read. For instance, Heller paints the cross-dressing Semiramide: "The light syncopated character and clipped phrases as well as the key of G major are associated with the militaristic Semiramide, contrasting with the metrically regular cadences and E minor with which she expresses her amorous urges." Heller's prose is silky and thoughtful as she weaves a tableau of women's foibles.

Interestingly, while women dominated libretti, it seems that there were few well-known female performers during this time. Anna Rienzi, the first discussed, was a Roman singer for whom a collection of poems and prose was written lauding her. Furthermore, there is little evidence about the way audiences received these female protagonists. In fact, we have to go Padua, Venice's lowly sister, to find the name of the first woman to attend university, one Elena Piscopia (1646-1684), who played the keyboard and was the confidant of an organist and orphaned Venetian Maddalena Cappelli for most of her adult life. While Padua did not have a burgeoning opera, it did have women writers and artists in the early Baroque period. We need to wait for Verdi for women to be given great music and virtue. Perhaps this is one of Heller's important contributions to the history of ideas: more opera libretti and theoretical treatises about women flourish in ages when women are treated particularly poorly. What does that say of our time?

Eleonora Beck
Lewis & Clark College

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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

MAHLER: Symphony No.8 in E-Flat

Every so often there appears a recording so good, so almost revelatory, that we find ourselves re-examining the work recorded and our relationship to it, no matter how well we thought we already knew it. Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake's recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe was one of the more recent recordings to do this. Now we have Kent Nagano's amazing reading of (and Harmonia Mundi's equally amazing engineering of) Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8. Many excellent recordings of this work already exist, and all of them bring a number of insights and extraordinary performances to the work. None of them, however, quite equals Nagano's overall vision of the work, and no recording of the symphony can match the impressive acoustic accomplishments found here.

No matter who records it, of course, Mahler's eighth symphony is unique in many ways. For instance, it is his one work that is hopeful and optimistic throughout. While other works may end in triumph — the first, second, and fifth symphonies immediately come to mind — they get there only after dealing with anguish and/or melancholy. By combining the Latin hymn "Veni creator spiritus" with the final scene of Goethe's Faust, the eighth sings only of salvation and spiritual transcendence, without any sorrow or pain. Further, the symphony is firmly grounded in E-flat major, beginning and ending in bold assertions of that tonality. Its solid and reaffirmed tonality is a break from other works that demonstrate what problematically has been called Mahler's "progressive" tonality, which refers to a work ending in a different tonal center than it began in. And it is the one symphony that is sung throughout. "Can you conceive of a symphony that would be sung from beginning to end?" wrote Mahler. "The singing voice becomes at the same time an instrument . . ." Add to this the massive forces needed to perform it — a large orchestra, two choruses and children's chorus, and eight vocal soloists of whom some heroic singing is required — and we have a work of unusual scope, even for Mahler.

What makes this recording unique and especially notable is the stunning clarity Nagano gets from these huge forces. His ability to bring forth Mahler's contrapuntal writing is nearly unprecedented. Not since Herbert von Karajan's chamber music-like reading of Wagner's Ring has so large a work been performed with such aural clarity. Vocal and instrumental lines grow out of each other and then work together to create the source for yet another line, and Nagano and his ensemble articulate all of this with such a sure hand that every note and every phrase seem inevitable and spontaneous. In the first movement, for instance, the difficult and often muddy passage that begins "Accende lumen sensibus" is nothing short of astounding: the choral parts remain vivid against the thick orchestration, which is immaculately executed. This passage can threaten chaos — I once heard a major symphony almost completely derail in the middle of it — but here it is as crystalline as a string quartet without losing a bit of its driving power. This clarity also helps the listener hear Mahler's sophisticated thematic unity in this work. Themes from the first movement are often used to great effect in the second movement, and Nagano is subtle but insistent in his emphasis of those themes at key moments. The final orchestral passage, for instance, which recalls the opening of the first movement, is even more transcendent than usual; all facets of the texture shimmer simultaneously, and instead of merely seeming loud — which it is — it seems full and rich and, if I may use the word again, inevitable. Even the organ in this recording has an unusally clear and bright presence.

The first movement is rather brisk but never rushed. It has an excitement, almost a fervor, as if the conductor and the performers hold the Creative Spirit of the text in a kind of breathless awe. By the time we get to the overlapping scales at the movement's climax, the excitement is palpable. The second movement is more relaxed, slower and more atmospheric. By the end, however, the hush of the "Alles Vergängliche" chorus suggests a different kind of awe, one that leads directly from introspection to the eternity-evoking power of the orchestral finale.

Nagano is aided in all of this by excellent performers and the sound of the recording. The orchestra plays with warmth and an almost delicate sense of phrasing, but it is at the same time capable of the tremendous power called for at any given moment. Perhaps the most impressive quality of the playing is the sensitivity to texture throughout the performance: the work has never before seemed such a delicate and transparent weaving of lines, even at its most extroverted moments. The players at all times seem to be vigilant listeners as well as bravura performers, a skill not encountered as often as it should be. The vocal soloists are for the most part in the same league. Tenor Robert Gambill often sounds as if he is struggling in his approach to a note, reaching up when he shouldn't have to, but his performance has other moments of memorable beauty. In the first movement, listen to the phrase "dissolve litis," as Gambill joins a third-line B-flat to an A-flat above the staff while executing a decrescendo; it is glorious, as is his singing of the "Blikket auf" section in the second movement. Likewise, while Lynne Dawson's three high B-flats (as Una Poenitentium) sound increasingly challenging, the rest of her solo work in the second movement is powerful yet serene. Sally Matthews has no such issues with her pianissimo high B-flat a bit later in the movement. One of the scarier entrances for a soprano in this or any other work, this passage floats effortlessly in Matthews's voice. The rest of the soloists deliver with unfaltering lovely sound and textual insight.

The choruses are superb and unusually sensitive to their changing roles in the symphony. In the second movement, for instance, they provide some of the most beautiful of the many beautiful moments in the performance. In the opening of the movement, after an incredibly balanced and controlled introductory orchestral passage, the male chorus enters with vocal colors that suggest, as Mahler mentioned in the quote above, that the voices are indeed instruments and the words are conveyors of specific and evocative sound as well as of literal meaning.

All of this is made possible and highlighted by disc's amazing sound. Every decibel level is equally clear and pronounced, and the loud passages shine just as the intimate passages do. The balance that Nagano accomplishes is emphasized by the production, which ensures that the listener is never unaware of the almost unending counterpoint of the work, of the melodies and phrases that weave in and out of each other in sometimes highly complex relationships. Few passages test the abilities of production (or reproduction) as well as the finale of this symphony, from the hushed final chorus "Alles Vergängliche" to the end, and this recording sets a new standard. The sound of these discs is simply breathtaking.

The CDs are beautifully packaged and come with excellent, and detailed, notes in English, German, and French by Habakuk Traber (English translation by Charles Johnston) as well as the full texts for the work.

Mahler referred to this symphony as "a great dispenser of joy." Surely that is also an apt description of this recording, an essential item for anyone serious about the symphonies of Mahler and the eighth in particular. It really is an amazing accomplishment, and it is one of, if not the, most satisfying and moving performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 I have ever heard.


Jim Lovensheimer, Ph.D.
Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University

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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

MOZART: Don Giovanni

This staging of the Mozart/da Ponte masterpiece took place in 1977, at the Glyndebourne Festival. Although the conductor is Dutch, and members of the cast come from Eastern Europe and the States, a more British performance would be hard to imagine.

The sets (or set, truthfully) and costumes evoke a Mid-Victorian setting, and the title character, a role that dominates the action, is performed by Benjamin Luxon, a tall, reasonably attractive English singer. His ample locks alone would serve to inform any survivor of the "Disco era" as to the time of filming.

Some may question how an opera of seething passion and sexuality such as Don Giovanni would work when presented in the supposedly conservative, tight-lipped world of Victoria and Albert.

Surprisingly well. This Don may look and move as if he were a proper gentleman, but his actions prove otherwise, and the disparity between appearances and reality makes for a most effective contrast. Luxon may not be a great Don, but for this production, he does very well. We don't sympathize with him much, or truly comprehend the attraction that has allowed him to rack up such a list of conquests. However, we get a strong sense of da Ponte's implied social criticism, and for once we can watch the furies drag the Don down to hell with something approaching approval.

Stafford Dean's Leporello takes top honors as a total performance. A fresh, spontaneous actor, his rich baritone and comic timing enliven all his scenes. Leo Goeke cannot overcome the crippling blandness of Don Ottavio, and he is not helped by the director's insistence on long close-ups. Goeke does manage to present his two big arias with some style, if not much beauty. Of the other men, John Rawnsley's plump Masetto is right out of a British farm, and Pierre Thau has the command of the ominous low range of the Commendatore.

The females pose problems. Horiana Branisteanu, the Donna Anna, needs to warm up, and the shrillness in the first scene remains with one for a while. By the second act her voice has settled, and though by no means a sympathetic portrayal, she renders her last aria with dramatic detail.

Rachel Yakar's Elvira makes it too clear why the Don moved on, but she also suggests the neurotic need of this woman for a man who clearly is not worthy of her. Elizabeth Gale is far from the most sensual of Zerlina's, but her modest manner gives the role an interesting dimension, and mutes some of the less appealing aspects of the words to Batti, batti.

Described in the booklet as "filmed," the production seems to have been captured without an audience present — and yet, at the end, we see curtain calls, at least of the cast. Curious, as the camera captures many scenes in ways that would seem impossible during a live performance in the theater. The serenading Masetto (disguised as the Don) is viewed from the perspective of Donna Elvira on her balcony. During the second act quartet, the singers' heads are superimposed over the stage picture. Many singers also sing directly to the camera at several points.

However the production was filmed, the sound engineer decided to include one relic of live performance — a copious amount of foot stomping and other stage noise. As Haitink leads a most energetic, detailed performance of the score, the extra noise is not welcome.

And as is so typical, the subtitles offer an amusing array of misspellings and awkward syntax.

For collectors of this opera, this Glyndebourne version can be highly recommended. It could not be a first-choice for it singers, and the production probably will enchant few, but the totality of the performance is much more than the sum of its parts. And surely some of the more recently recorded Don Giovanni DVDs will look as dated as this one in over 25 years — and possibly be of less musical distinction. Overall, a fine piece of work.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College

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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

HGO Introduces Anthony Freud

HOUSTON, TX--Anthony Freud, Welsh National Opera's General Director for more than a decade, has been named the third General Director and the first Chief Executive Officer of Houston Grand Opera (HGO). Freud will assume leadership on March 6, 2006. The appointment was announced by Houston Grand Opera's Board President John S. Arnoldy and HGO's Vice President Donald W. Short at a press conference Thursday morning (July 14, 2005) in the Wortham Center.

Posted by Gary at 6:30 PM

July 14, 2005

Turandot at Liceu

La versión de la obra póstuma e inacabada de Giacomo Puccini 'Turandot' que inauguró en 1999 el nuevo Liceu regresará al escenario del teatro lírico con ocho unicas funciones, que se representarán del 21 al 30 de julio.

Con la misma producción y dirección escénica de Nuria Espert, la obra de Puccini volverá al Liceu seis anos después con la Orquestra Simfonica i Cor del Liceu y el Cor Vivaldi, bajo la dirección Giuliano Carella.

Posted by Gary at 3:05 PM

Festspiel Baden-Baden Begins Tchaikovsky Series with The Sorceress

"Liebe - Tragik" sollen die letzten Worte gewesen sein, die Richard Wagner vor seinem Tod niederschrieb. Zuvor hatte er immerhin nicht nur einen Liebestod, sondern auch einen Liebeszauber komponiert; Letzterem widmete Tschaikowsky eine ganze Oper.

Posted by Gary at 2:41 PM

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

Like Glyndebourne, Aix treats Mozart and Rossini as "house" composers, but Rossini has traditionally taken second place. This summer, in Provence as much as in Sussex, Rossini comes off better. After its two disappointing Mozart productions in the Théâtre de l'Archevèche at the weekend, the Aix festival decamped to the gardens of a dilapidated but enchanted estate outside the town for an evening of pure joy, courtesy of a new Barber.

Click here for remainder of article.

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Posted by Gary at 2:18 PM

July 13, 2005

The Highpoint of Festivals Styriarte

Auch heuer ein Höhepunkt des steirischen Festivals: Harnoncourt in der Pfarrkirche Stainz.

Alle Jahre wieder trifft sich die steirische Gesellschaft in der Pfarrkirche Stainz. Dort hat Nikolaus Harnoncourt über lange Zeit vor allem Haydn-Messen musiziert. Und immer wieder befand das Publikum, dies sei der Höhepunkt des Festivals Styriarte gewesen.

Posted by Gary at 2:36 AM

Aix-en-Provence

with utopia. Add an inexhaustible supply of passion. Make a few informed suggestions. Then, and only then, talk politics.

It sounds like a recipe for artistic disaster, but when you marry it to the sun and locale of southern France, it has a habit of turning into paradise. That, at least, is the experience of most visitors to the Aix-en-Provence festival these past few summers. You have the perfect weather, the gastronomie, the suitably distressed 18th-century architecture and a bronzed landscape as fit for creativity as it is for relaxation. All that's needed on top is the vision, patience and political will to harness energy — the energy of performing artists.

Posted by Gary at 2:22 AM

July 12, 2005

Text of decision in Motezuma dispute

Opera Today has obtained a copy of the decision by the 12th Zivilkammer des Landgerichts Düsseldorf issued in connection with the dispute concerning the performances of Vivaldi's Motezuma by Altstadtherbst Kulturfestival Düsseldorf and Opera Barga. Adobe Acrobat is required.

Posted by Gary at 10:23 PM

Sing-Akademie Issues Press Release

Landgericht Düsseldorf verbietet Operninszenierung von Vivaldis ,Motezuma" in Italien und beim ,altstadtherbst kulturfestival" in Düsseldorf

Die Sing-Akademie zu Berlin e.V. und Hogan & Hartson Raue L.L.P. geben folgende Erklärung ab:

Auf Antrag der durch Prof. Dr. Peter Raue anwaltlich vertretenen Sing-Akademie zu Berlin und aufgrund der mündlichen Verhandlung vom 11. Juli 2005 hat die Urheberrechtskammer des Landgerichts Düsseldorf unter der Vorsitzenden Frau von Gregory heute ein Urteil im Wege des einstweiligen Verfügungsverfahrens verkündet, das der altstadtherbst gGmbH, bei einer Androhung einer Geldstrafe in Höhe bis zu 250.000,00 O untersagt, die Oper ,Motezuma" von Vivaldi anlässlich des Operabarga Festivals in Barga (Italien) und des altstadtherbst kulturfestivals in Düsseldorf aufzuführen und für die Aufführungen zu werben.

Posted by Gary at 2:11 PM

July 11, 2005

Sing-Akademie Prevails

According to a news report from RP Online, the 12th Zivilkammer des Gerichts has issued a preliminary injunction against Altstadtherbst from performing Motezuma in conjunction with Opera Barga.

Posted by Gary at 6:15 PM

High Noon in Düsseldorf

Barely a month ago, Rotterdam and the music world generally celebrated the first performance of Vivaldi's Motezuma since those held in Venice in 1733. Musicologist Steffen Voss reconstructed the opera's score in large part from a manuscript he found while examining documents recently returned to the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin by the government of Ukraine. Kees Vlaardingerbroeck, the artistic director of Rotterdam's De Doelen, declared, "This is the most important Vivaldi discovery in 75 years."

Antonio Vivaldi was unavailable for comment.

Posted by Gary at 3:16 AM

July 9, 2005

ALFANO: Cyrano de Bergerac

Franco Alfano is best known for having composed the standard ending to Puccini's Turandot. But he wrote some 12-13 operas under his own name as well. A few of these are revisions of earlier operas. The most familiar of his works have long been La resurrezione (1904), Sakuntala (1922, revised 1952) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1936). Cyrano seems to be coming into its own in the last few years, what with a performance in Kiel and a revival planned for Montpellier in 2003. The latter was cancelled due to strikes (although it was filmed anyway). This was followed by a few performances at the end of the 2004-5 Metropolitan Opera season, with more performances planned at Covent Garden in 2005 and the Met for the 2005-06 season. It is very much the tenor's opera, with the revival (that never really happened as far as the general public is concerned) in Montpellier featuring Roberto Alagna, and that at the Met featuring Placido Domingo, now approaching the end of a fantastic career. He is also scheduled to sing it at Covent Garden, and again at the Met next year. It is my understanding that Alagna will also sing some additional performances.

When Cyrano was created in Rome on Jan. 14, 1936, the original French text was translated into Italian. José Luccioni, one of the last of the great French dramatic tenors, was selected to sing the title role, while Maria Caniglia, famous for her complete opera recordings with Beniamino Gigli and Gino Bechi, was the first Roxane. It was one of the last operas of the verismo school, although much of the music was more lyrical than what we normally expect in verismo. It was finally given in French at the Opéra Comique on May 29, 1936. It then reverted to the Italian text when it opened the 1937 season at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, followed by some other performances in Italy including Naples in 1938, La Scala in 1954 with Ramon Vinay in the title role and several broadcasts by Italian radio. The last of these, from Turin in 1975, now again in French, featured William Johns and Olivia Stapp. This was issued on both LP and CD. William Johns's interpretation probably was reminiscent in many ways of Luccioni's creation of the role, at least in terms of emphasis on the dramatic side. There is no recorded evidence of Luccioni in the role, so we can only surmise what he must have sounded like from his other recordings.

The plot is relatively simple, although it has an unusual twist. Cyrano and Christian, who soon becomes his friend, are both among the cadets of Gascony and both love Cyrano's cousin Roxane. Cyrano is ugly, thanks to his huge nose, but a brilliant swordsman, and very articulate. Christian is handsome, but tongue tied. Roxane is very attracted to Christian, and, not fully realizing that Cyrano loves her himself, confides her love for Christian to Cyrano, and commends him to her cousin's care. It is very important to Roxane that her lover to be able to express his love beautifully. Perceiving that he doesn't have a chance, Cyrano decides to help Christian, and agrees to provide him with the needed declaration of love, which wins Roxane for the latter. Cyrano withdraws so that Christian can get her kiss. The Count de Guiche, the commander of the cadets, also loves Roxane. He permits the marriage, but gets his revenge by posting the two friends to the siege of Arras, where Christian is killed. Roxane retires to a convent where Cyrano visits her regularly for 15 years, but, remembering that he had once vowed to Christian to keep their secret, never tells her the truth. During the last of these visits, she gives Cyrano one of Christian's letters to read. He reads it, continuing as it gets too dark to actually see what's in the letter. It dawns on her that, since Cyrano knows the words, he was the one who wrote the letters. She, realizes that it was always Cyrano's soul that she loved. But, it is too late, and Cyrano dies in her arms.

Two of the love scenes: make for very effective theater. These are in Act III where Cyrano makes an impassioned declaration of love in Christian's name to his cousin, and the final one, where Roxane realizes the truth. The rest of the music also is very pleasant listening, and has at least two very catchy set numbers. These are Cyrano's "Ballade du duel" in Act I and the duet, "Ce sont les cadets de Gascogne," in Act II. The singing is excellent, with Alagna easily the finest French tenor active today, as well as being one of the best of today's crop of singers. However, his interpretation is much more lyric than that which Luccioni's must have been, and which Johns's was. If a new series of Athree tenor" concerts were to be organized, I would certainly recommend Alagna to be one of the participants. The supporting cast, headed by Nathalie Manfrino as Roxane, Richard Troxell as Christian, Marc Barrard as Ragueneau and Nicolas Rivenq as De Guiche, are all fine. Manfrino and Troxell seem to be relatively new, although Troxell did sing Cassio in Otello in San Diego, getting fine reviews. Barrard, who sang Manfredo in Mercadante's Il giuramento in Nantes some years ago, and Rivenq, who often sings in Martina Franca, are old hands and already familiar from other recordings.

Much as I enjoyed it, I consider it unfortunate that this recording was only released on DVD. The latter format has the tremendous advantage of providing a visual as well as as an audio experience, but it also fails to provide a multi-lingual libretto and adequate liner notes, which tell the purchaser something about the composer and the history of the opera. Much as I enjoyed it, I consider it unfortunate that this recording was only released on DVD. The latter format has the tremendous advantage of providing a visual as well as as an audio experience, but it also fails to provide a multi-lingual libretto and adequate liner notes, which tell the purchaser something about the composer and the history of the opera. The DVD does have captions (or subtitles) in both French and English, but it seems to me that the English translations are so clumsy as to detract from the enjoyment of the opera for non-French speakers. Three examples should suffice: "Fat man, if you go on, I will see myself constrained to cut off your face," "noised so loud abroad" and "he will lesson well;" but there are many more. It seems that these may have been prepared by someone who is considerably more fluent in French than in English, although at times it sounds as if the job was done by a computer.

The above comments notwithstanding, my overall impression of the opera and the DVD are that they are both excellent, and can be highly recommended.

Tom Kaufman

image=/images/716.jpg
image_description=Franco Alfano: Cyrano de Bergerac

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product_title=Cyrano de Bergerac
product_by=Nathalie Manfrino sop. (Roxane); Roberto Alagna ten. (Cyrano); Richard Troxell ten. (Christian); Nicolas Rivenq bar. (De Guiche); Marc Barrard bar. (Ragueneau); Frank Ferrari bar. (De Valvert/Carbon). Orchestre National de Montpellier; Choeur de l'Opéra National de Montpellier; Marco Guidarini (cond.)
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 476 739-6 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 8:14 PM

FELSENFELD: Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music

Felsenfeld in his introduction does offer two reasonable rationales for putting Britten and Barber side-by-side. Both composers stayed with their established styles — to some degree astringent but essentially tonal — as the avant-garde established dominance in the 1950s and '60s. Both were gay men, as well. Beyond that, little connects the two men. They apparently never met, let alone had any type of professional relationship.

The result, as the reader pages through alternating essays on each composer's life and work, is an intellectual case of "tennis match" neck, with any literary momentum achieved with one composer quickly evaporating with the next chapter on the other.

Felsenfeld seems most concerned with setting these two men up against composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen (named by the author in the "How to Listen' opening essay). The latter names represent a whole school for Felsenfeld whose compositions of "surface complexity" are as attractive as physics to the math-challenged. The critics who supported these composers, or who, in Felsenfeld's inelegant phrase, "leapt on their mercurial bandwagons," share equal blame for the current state of classical music, which Felsenfeld sees as alienated from its core audience.

Since neither Barber nor Britten ever became greatly beloved composers, though both have secure reputations, this angle tends to place the men in a no-man's-land, caught between limited popular appeal and modernistic scorn. Surely both composers deserve to more generously analyzed strictly on the basis of what they sought to achieve and how much they accomplished.

Most of the first half of this book is given over to biographical sketches. Sketchy, indeed. Some are no longer than two pages, and this is a book of relatively large print.

The center of the book contains two essays, one for each composer. The titles give a fair idea of the content here: "Dare not Speak Its Name" for Britten and for Barber, "A Truly Perfect Failure: Antony and Cleopatra at the Metropolitan." The Britten essay can't offer much more than unelucidating conjecture ("Britten, undoubtedly, knew the consequences of his actions and therefore probably never acted."), and it ends with a pale argument that the questions regarding Britten's sexuality are relevant to an understanding of the music. Since the questions mostly remain unanswerable, perhaps the point is moot.

With Barber, focusing on his last major work and its unfortunate premiere leaves the reader with a sad image of a defeated man and a lost reputation. The story of that final opera has many points of interests; surely it shouldn't have been the only essay provided on Barber's career, however.

The last section of the book ties into the provided CD. Felsenfeld offers his close analysis of such pieces as Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Barber's Second Essay for Orchestra. Perhaps the strongest part of the book, these essays walk a line between rigorous academic analysis and over-simplified commentary. Combined with the CD of mostly effective performances culled from the Naxos catalogue, this section may be quite useful to some readers. Once again, however, no meaningful topics related to a "parallel" discussion of the two composers appear, calling into question the whole point of the volume.

A stronger recommendation for those with a strong interest in either composer would be for separate volumes, but for a brief overview of the lives and issues of Britten and Barber, Felsenfeld's book makes an adequate, if insubstantial and occasionally clumsy, choice.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College

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product_by=Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2005, 220 pp.
product_id=ISBN 1-57467-108-1

Posted by Gary at 7:41 PM

On Art and Politics

When Theater Becomes Propaganda: The Problem of Political Art

Terry Teachout [Incharacter, Spring 2005]

You see a lot of plays when you're a drama critic, and you don't always get to pick them. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most of us have a way of sinking deeper into the velvet-lined ruts of our own well-established tastes when left exclusively to our own devices. To be a working drama critic, on the other hand, is to engage with what's out there, good and bad alike. Just because I expect to be exasperated by a show, or bored silly, doesn't mean I can afford to pass it by. Besides, I've been a critic long enough to know that only a fool writes his review on the way to the show. I can't tell you how often I've been surprised at the theater - both ways.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 2:55 AM

July 8, 2005

STRAUSS: The Complete Songs, Vol. 1

Richard Strauss: The Complete Songs Vol. 1.
Christine Brewer, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano
Hyperion CDA 67488 [CD]

Among the best-known works of Richard Strauss is his set of Vier letzte Lieder, the so-called four "last" songs. These are just a fraction of the music he composed in this genre, with over 200 songs for voice and piano, and around fifty of them arranged with orchestral accompaniment. The prospect of a new series of complete songs is promising, and it should augment the various recorded selections of his Lieder that are currently available. As Roger Vignoles states in the notes that accompany the first volume, the Hyperion set of Strauss's Complete Songs is based on the following criteria:

In selecting the songs for this series, it has been decided to follow musical, as much as musicological, considerations. Strauss's groupings by opus number have not necessarily been adhered to, since although some sets are unified by the choice of poet, in other cases it is not always obvious that Strauss intended a particular set of songs to be performed as a group, or indeed that they were put together for any other reason than convenience of publication. Not infrequently, songs stand side by side that are quite clearly conceived for totally different voice types, while elsewhere the variation in style and content disrupts any great sense of musical cohesion. (p. 3)

These comments put forth a false apposition of musicological method against musical judgment, when such a distinction is unnecessary, especially since musicology as it is currently practiced attempts to support artistic concerns. At the same time, the decision to change the order of the Lieder also contravenes the decisions of the composer to allow various pieces to be published together, which are the result of other factors. The generalizations about the organization of Strauss's work in this genre suggest a level of disorder that does not exist for all of the Lieder. Other considerations motivate the arrangement of Hyperion's set of Strauss's Complete Songs, and they probably entail the role of the performers involved with this recording project. As the introductory note continues, the criteria are explained:

The endeavour therefore is in each case to entice the listener with the sequence of songs while playing to the strengths of the singer concerned. In the case of Christine Brewer, who opens the series, these strengths are evident and matched by the choice of repertoire, ranging chronologically from the familiar Zueignung [Op. 10, no. 1] to the rarefied (and rarely, if ever, performed) Gesänge des Orients Op. 77. These latter songs, not to mention dramatic numbers such as Ich liebe dich [Op. 37, no. 2] and In der Campagna [Op. 41, no. 2], would be well-nigh impossible without a voice of the heft and versatility of Christine Brewer, who thereby provides us with a panoramic view of the heights and depths of Strauss's song-composing style.[p. 3]

These comments point to the performance considerations as the primary criterion for the arrangement of the Complete Songs and suggest aspects of the conventional song recital as part of the motivation for the selection of Lieder found on this CD and, most likely, on the ones to follow. It is a curious that the strengths of the performers are given such prominence, but it makes sense in the context of the music, which embraces a number of ranges and voice types. The precedent for using multiple singers may be found in the set of Strauss's Orchesterlieder conducted by Friedrich Haider, which involves seven different singers to present the forty-seven Lieder with orchestral accompaniment. Even when a single performer makes the monumental effort of recording the entirety of Strauss's Lieder with piano accompaniment, as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did with his accompanist Gerald Moore, some pieces are inevitably stronger than others. Yet such an important project like this new set of Strauss's complete songs will ultimately be difficult to consult without more transparent organization. It would be useful to have entire sets of songs kept together, and if musical judgments warrant the use of different performers in order to play to their strengths, the option of using different singers within a set is not unreasonable and might offer a more viable solution. In dealing with such a volume of songs of Strauss's 200 Lieder, one can only hope for the best when it comes to finding individual pieces that have become detached from their original groupings and are distributed among several CDs.

As to Christine Brewer's performances in this CD, they are marked by her fine, pointed soprano sound, which is characteristically focused. The quality of "heft" as indicated in the liner notes is not the best way to describe a voice that can maintain its individuality within some of the more thickly textured accompaniments that Strauss composed. "In der Campagna" is one example of a piece that requires an effective balance between voice and piano with its highly evocative accompaniment that suggests, at times, an orchestral milieu. Yet even in the song that follows in this recording, "Frühlingsfeier" (Op. 56, no. 5), the intense accompaniment sometimes forces as talented a singer as Brewer to strain a bit in the more sustained supplications to Adonis in this piece.

At the same time, Vignoles deserves recognition for his consistently fine performances. While some of the piano parts are technically challenging, other accompaniments pose problems in achieving a balance with the voice. The accompaniment of "Die heiligen drei Könige" (Op. 56, no. 6), which follows "Frühlingsfeier," is admittedly a reduction of an orchestral accompaniment and the elements of melodrama in it requires the kind of nuance and subtlety that Vignoles offers. This interpretation of this less-played song is stricter rhythmically than the Fischer-Dieskau/Moore recording and, perhaps because of the recording techniques used by Hyperion, offers some fine shadings that hint at orchestral color. Other accompaniments are notable, like that of "Wiegenlied" (Op. 41, no. 1), which demonstrates the facility and subtlety Vignoles brings to this music.

While some of the songs in this volume may be familiar, others are less so, and one of the pleasures of this recording is the set of Gesänge des Orients (Op. 77), which collects five settings of poetry by Hans Bethge. The orientalism in this work is less prominent than the Straussian lyricism, which emerges in this work completed in 1928 after a long period when the composer did not compose Lieder. Those familiar with Mahler's music will recognize the poet, Bethge, whose German adaptations of Chinese verse were the basis for the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. While Strauss's settings of Bethge are less monumental than Mahler's, the Gesänge des Orients is nonetheless notable for its effective settings of poetry inspired by Hafiz and others.

All in all, this recording is a laudable beginning of a new enterprise that should encompass some ten CDs when it is complete. Recorded 22-24 March 2004 in All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, the sound is quite fine, and the resulting balance between voice and piano is as strong as the partnership evident in their execution. For a detailed list of the contents of this CD, consult the Hyperion site, which should also list forthcoming releases in this promising set.

Those interested in this repertoire may want to consult the uniform set of Strauss's Lieder recorded on EMI by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Gerald Moore, piano. (EMI Classics, CDMF 63995, 6-CD set). The orchestral songs, which merit inclusion in Hyperion's series, have been released on CD as Richard Strauss: Die Orchesterlieder, which includes various singers performing with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, Friedrich Haider, conductor (Nightingale, NC 000072-2, 3-CD set). A thorough discussion of Strauss's Lieder is part of Normal Del Mar's study of the composer's works (Richard Strauss, 3 vol., Cornell University Press, 1986), with the section entitled "A Lifetime of Lieder Writing" (3:246-404), which benefits from a chronological treatment of the music. In fact, a useful tool in Del Mar's study is the chronological list of songs (3:499-504), and those interested are welcome to consult the present writer's table of Strauss's Lieder (with the piano-vocal versions aligned with the orchestral ones) in The Cambridge Companion to the Lied (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), reviewed elsewhere by Opera Today. These materials may be useful to those who wish to explore Strauss's Lieder further as they listen to this particular Hyperion recording and prepare for the release of other volumes in this set of the composer's Complete Songs.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 8:47 PM

July 7, 2005

Vanessa at Central City


Emily Pulley (Vanessa)

Central City gives "Vanessa" its due

By Kyle MacMillan [Denver Post, 7 Jul 05]

Central City - Perhaps because of its home in a small, historic mining town far from the two coasts, Central City Opera has long championed American opera.

For an assortment of reasons, including a long-standing cultural bias toward all things European, few works composed in this country have reached anything approaching a regular place among the operas presented by major houses.

Hovering on the fringe of the standard repertory for decades has been Samuel Barber's "Vanessa," which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1957-58.

Click here for remainder of article.

Click here for additional information on this production.

Posted by Gary at 11:49 PM

Lucie de Lammermoor at Glimmerglass


Sarah Coburn as Lucie (Photo: George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)

Soprano shines in Glimmerglass Opera's 'Lucie de Lammermoor'

Jonas Kover [Utica Observer-Dispatch, 6 Jul 05]

There is one splendid reason to see Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucie de Lammermoor" at Glimmerglass Opera this season, and her name is Sarah Coburn.

A soprano with looks to match her vocal range and strength, Coburn takes on the diva role of Lucie in this love-crazed opera with a ferocity that belies her frail appearance.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 7:39 PM

BRITTEN: Folk Song Arrangements

Benjamin Britten: Folk Song Arrangements
Felicity Lott (Soprano), Philip Langridge (Tenor), Graham Johnson (Piano), Carlos Bonell (Guitar)
NAXOS 8.557220-21 [2CDs]

Britten's folksong arrangements, which span much of his career from 1943 to 1976, provide unique insights into the composer's oeuvre. Having been strongly encouraged by his teacher, Frank Bridge, to at all times be true to himself and to develop his own voice, one might expect Britten to eschew the folksong tradition, which had been so used (and misused?) by the generation before him. But Britten, following more in the line of Grainger than Vaughan Williams, voiced his distinctive style in these arrangements with appealing results. Sometimes making merely subtle changes and the simplest of accompaniments, Britten's arrangements display artistic grace and sensitivity that has made them some of the most beloved choices of singers and audiences alike.

Reproduced from a three-CD Collins Classics set, Naxos's newest release of Britten's collected folk songs culls out a few of the lesser known pieces in order to facilitate a two-CD format. The first disc consists of arrangements of folk songs from the British Isles: Volume 1 (published in 1943), Volume 3 (1947), and Volume 5 (1961). The second disc contains Volume 4 (Moore's Irish Melodies, published in 1960), Volume 2 (French Folksongs, 1946), and Volume 6 (English Folksongs, 1961). Peppered through both discs are pieces selected from "Tom Bowling and Other Song Arrangements," a collection of songs performed during the composers lifetime but not published until 2001. An unidentified folk song ends the second disc, which, in absence of a text, is performed with cello and piano only. This release unfortunately doesn't include Volume 7 of the folk songs, the eight-song set arranged for high voice and harp that Britten wrote near the very end of his life.

The ordering of songs generally works well, with a mix of solos for tenor and soprano accompanied by piano forming the body of both discs, followed by two duets at the end of the first disc, and mixed instrumental ensembles (tenor/guitar, tenor/cello/piano, and cello/piano) at the end of the second disc. The choice to end the collection with a wordless arrangement for cello and piano seems a curious one, since, by the end of two CDs filled with song, the absence of vocal sonorities and texts is difficult to overcome.

Naxos supports this release with a detailed CD booklet. Britten's brief biography begins the notes, and historical details of the compositions follow. Particulars of first performances and song dedications complement publication details. Biographies of the performers (with the exception of cellist, Christopher Van Kampen) confirm historical details and summarize long lists of well-earned credentials. The German translation of the notes follows, and the complete lyrics (with translations where necessary) fill the remainder of the booklet.

Among the most imaginative pieces on this release are those that begin with simple, sparse accompaniments, but that then give rise to more dissonant, distinctively Britten harmonies, enacting a subtle but telling shift from folk song to art song. Examples can be found in The trees they grow so high and The Ash Grove. Complementing these songs, are those pieces that begin with Britten in full voice, like O the sight entrancing, The Shooting of his Dear, and O can ye sew cushions?. My favorite of this type, The Brisk Young Widow, opens with a bitonal canon that makes for a fascinating comparison with the original folk song collected by Cecil Sharp.

The arrangements as a whole vividly project the diegetic worlds of the texts, with the piano at times simulating objects like spinning wheels, mill wheels and other instruments such as guitar and harp. The sounds of bells, in At the mid hour of night, enact the last line of the song by "faintly answering still the notes which once were so dear," echoing Schoenberg's "bells" in his piano pieces Op. 19, No. 6 (up a half step here). Imbued with the colors of distinctive scenes, the songs employ a variety of textures and harmonies -- from canon to solitary chords, from clusters to tender monophony -- to evoke a multiplicity of moods ranging from ridiculous (Oliver Cromwell and The Crocodile) to chilling (Quand j'étais chez mon pére and Eho! Eho!) to tenderly beautiful (Sally in our Alley and Sail on, sail on).

Philip Langridge sings the lion's share of songs (34 of the 52 including two duets with Lott). His extensive experience with Britten's music (his recordings include a Grammy award winning performance of Peter Grimes) shows in these songs. Many critics have compared Langridge's lithe tenor with that of Peter Pears, and although the voices are quite distinct (for starters, Langridge's vibrato is less heavy and his consonants dryer), moments that highlight similarities can be found in Pray Goody, The Plough Boy, and particularly Greensleeves. Langridge's crystal clear enunciation and technical facility serve him well on these discs. Intonation flags a bit in a few spots, but perhaps with expressive result, especially when donning the persona of the sailor praying for beer in The Soldier and the Sailor. His dramatic pacing and lyrical phrasing lend an intimacy to the songs that makes them all the more compelling.

Felicity Lott's soprano voice sparkles on her selections (19 of the 52). Although a bit harsh on the highest notes of O can ye sew cushions?, selections such as O Waly, Waly and The last rose of summer compensate with exquisite beauty. The rolled r's in her Scottish accent in The Bonny Earl o' Moray distinctively complement the rolled piano chords in the accompaniment, and while her diction is excellent throughout, her French vowels (Voici le Printemps, Fileuse, etc.) are especially convincing. The duets with Langridge (Soldier, won't you marry me? and The Deaf Woman's Courtship) offer good-humored closure to the first disc.

Graham Johnson's accompaniments evidence his long association with Britten and Pears. Although not quite as colorful a pianist as Britten himself, his renditions here prove articulate and not overly presumptuous. Accuracy and technical facility characterize his playing, as does sensitivity to the pacing and phrasing of both soloists. It is clear that he understands this genre inside and out. Guitarist Carlos Bonell ably accompanies Langridge in the Volume 6 songs, originally written for Pears and Julian Bream. Christopher Van Kampen, cello, rounds out the list of players, accompanying a German folk song, The Stream in the Valley (sung in English), and soloing on the final unidentified folk song.

While a certain elegant simplicity characterizes the folk song genre, Britten's creative arrangements in the hands of these expressive performers exude music that is both sophisticated and full of meaning. More than just charming, the folksongs are delightfully clever and, at times, deeply moving. Even the most casual listeners will find that these songs seduce their attentions and reward careful listening.

Shersten Johnson, Ph.D.
University of St. Thomas

Posted by Gary at 6:01 PM

July 6, 2005

HÄNDEL: Admetus, King of Thessaly

Johann Quantz penned a vivid account of the opera, applauding the exquisite singing of castrato Senesino and describing in detail the contrasting musical and personalities of the sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Indeed, Admeto was one of the operas whose reception was shaped by the public’s fascination with and construction of the rivalries among the Italian singers. Audience members who attended the performances of Admeto in the evening could read about the intrigues of their favorite singers in the various satirical pamphlets that were published in London throughout March of 1727. Despite — or perhaps because of this — Admeto proved to be sufficiently popular to remain in the repertory: it was revived in 1728 and 1731, and again in 1754 for a performance at the King’s Theater, presumably without the composer’s involvement. It was thus the last of Handel’s operas to be performed during the composer’s lifetime. Handel’s setting continued to fascinate in Germany, as it was heard repeatedly both in Braunschweig and Hamburg in the 1730s. Writing some fifty years later, Charles Burney singled out Admeto for special praise, observing that it was composed during Handel’s “greatest prosperity and English patronage,” when “the whole nation seems to have united in acknowledging his superior abilities.”

Modern commentators, however, have been far less comfortable with this work, and much of this has to do with the roots of the opera both in ancient drama and seventeenth-century Venice. The story is drawn primarily from Euripides’ brilliant, but problematic play the Alcestis, presented in Athens in 438 BC. The play concerns King Admetus, who destined to die on a certain day, was given the privilege of allowing someone else to die in his place. Both of Admetus’ parents decline to sacrifice their lives for their son, and his wife Alcestis volunteers for this dubious task. After extracting the promise from him to remain faithful to her for the rest of his life and allow no other woman into their bed or to be mother to their children, she dies. Admetus slowly realizes how worthless his life is without her; meanwhile Heracles, who has been a guest in the house, descends to the underworld to rescue Alcestis, unbeknownst to his host. In the puzzling concluding scene of the play, Heracles appears before Admetus with a veiled woman, and presents her to Admetus as a spoil won in battle. Admetus, reluctant to be unfaithful to his wife, resists Heracles’ persistent pleas that he take the woman into his home and heart. Eventually, he gives in and, clasping the woman’s hand, recognizes his wife. Thus, this is one of the Greek tragedies that — like so much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera — actually ends happily. However, the veiled Alcestis remains silent to the end of the play because — according to Heracles — Admetus is not permitted to hear her voice until she has submitted to a purification ritual. There is something marvelously unsettling about a play in one of the main characters is silent for the entire second half of the work. This indeed is a curious topic for an opera!

In 1660 the Venetian librettist Aurelio Aureli and composer Pietro Andrea Ziani became the first to turn this peculiar tale into an opera. The libretto was dedicated to the two Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg: Georg Wilhelm (1624-1705) and his younger brother Ernst August (1629-1698), the latter of which was to become the father of George I. The opera was quite popular in Italy, and was even revived in Venice for the 1669-70 carnival. However, it was the 1660 version of the opera that was brought back to Hannover and used as the basis for a new opera. In 1679 L’Alceste, adapted by court poet Ortensio Mauro with new music by the court organist Matthio Trento, was presented in the Hannoverian opera theater. It was apparently sufficiently popular to receive a second performance in 1681, with some additional revisions. The libretto from this 1681 Hannoverian version was revised Handel by either Nicola Haym or Paolo Antonio Rolli, and presented in London in 1727.

Not surprisingly, given the carnivalesque nature of Venetian opera and their taste for reinventing antiquity in ingenuous and irreverent ways, the opera is by no means a faithful setting of the Greek play. As was the practice, Aureli weaves into a varied version of the Euripidean tale a second plot line involving another woman: a Trojan princess named Antigona who had previously been betrothed to Admeto. As Aureli fancifully imagines, Admeto’s brother Trasimede, who was supposed to arrange the marriage between Admeto and Antigona, had fallen in love with Antigona’s portrait and given his brother the King a portrait of a woman of interior beauty. Admeto had thus broken off the engagement with Antigona and married the noble Alceste, who subsequently chooses to die for him. The opera opens with Admeto’s illness and Alceste’s suicide. Much of the rest of the action involves the various romantic intrigues stimulated by the sudden appearance of Antigona, who incites the desire of both Trasimede and the grief-stricken Admeto. There is no lack of the usual playful operatic conventions associated with Venetian opera. When Alceste is brought out of the Underworld, for example, she dresses as a warrior so that she might better spy upon her husband to determine whether or not he’s been faithful in her absence.

The result is a work that, though far different from Euripides’s masterwork, shares some of its ambiguity with regard to genre and the moral standing of the various characters. Admeto, who allows his wife to die in his place and feels desire for her substitute, is certainly flawed, even feminized by his courageous wife. The listener is compelled to take seriously the conventions and plot devices that seem so far from the ostensibly dignified world of Attic tragedy, such as the impenetrability of disguise or the passions that can be stirred by a portrait. The libretto set by Handel, while abbreviated and dramatically tighter than the Venetian and Hannoverian versions, retains much of the original material and plot line. Handel’s music, which is extraordinarily expressive in this opera, nonetheless captures much of the inherent ambiguity in the material — the differing personalities and attractions of the two women (thus a perfect vehicle for Cuzzoni and Bordoni), the inherent weakness effeminacy of Admeto (likewise an appropriate role for the great castrato Senesino), the likeable heroism of Ercole. Moreover, the story also provided Handel with a wonderful opportunity for spectacle. The opening scene, in which the hero is languishing in bed attacked by the knife-bearings furies, provided an opportunity for pantomimic dance, and even more spectacular is the marvelous infernal scene at the opening of Act II in which Ercole rescues Alceste from the Underworld. For those familiar with Gluck’s dignified Alceste, this work may seem an oddly incongruous mix of comedy and pathos, albeit one that arguably contains much of the inherent ambiguity in Euripides’ play.

For decades there has been only one recording of Admeto available: a quite splendid performance from 1977 (Virgin Records 5613692) directed by Alan Curtis with Il complesso barocco, featuring the countertenor René Jacobs (Admeto), Rachel Yakar (Alceste), Jill Gomez (Antigona), and James Bowman (Trasimede). One of the first baroque operas to be recorded with original instruments, it reflects the best of the historical performance movement, and we can be grateful that Virgin records has had the foresight to reissue it in CD and keep it in print all of these years. It is thus with considerable anticipation and curiosity that one approaches this new release of Handel’s Admeto, sung in English (to a fine translation by Geoffrey Dunn), directed by Sir Anthony Lewis, and recorded just nine years earlier in 1968. The cast for this recording is no less remarkable. Dame Janet Baker plays the self-sacrificing Alcestis; Admetus is sung elegantly and expressively by Maureen Lehane; Sheila Armstong is a brilliant and stylish Antigona, and the mezzo soprano Margaret Lensky provides a touching portrayal of the lovesick Thrasymedes.

Without question, this recording brings the listener into a sonic realm that is quite different from that of the 1977 recording by Alan Curtis or the performances of Handel opera that have become so popular in recent years. Indeed, the use of women rather than countertenors for the castrato roles and the larger orchestra with modern instruments (and modern pitch) reminds us of the considerable changes that baroque opera performances would undergo in the decade following this recording. Nonetheless, this is a quite stylish performance and satisfying performance. Some of the quintessential elements of baroque performance practice are certainly in place. The dotted rhythms in the overture and the dance of the furies in the Introduction to Act I are handed with considerable skill, and — while it sounds slower (in part because of the larger forces) — the actual tempo is only marginally slower than in the Curtis recording. Sheila Armstrong’s rendition of Antigona’s Act I, scene 4 aria (“Oh whence the harbour”) is sung with an elegant simplicity and is skillfully ornamented. Although the ritardando at the end of the prima parte is considerably greater than contemporary performance practice would permit, it is sung with brilliance and passion, which all too often has been banished from historical performances adhering too strictly to an abstract notion of baroque purity.

The listener will certainly note that the recitative is performed at a far slower pace and more “sung” than what we are accustomed to hearing today, particularly given perennial anxieties about the tedium of recitative for contemporary audiences. This gives each utterance a more momentous feeling, and adds to the seriousness of the performance. But Lewis does not always shy away from faster tempi. Of particular note, for example, is Maureen Lehane’s lively performance of Admetus’ Act I, scene 6 aria, “My fortune changing to reconciling,” with truly athletic ornamentation, in which the listener genuinely feels the King’s return to good health.

Perhaps the most striking element of the recording is Janet Baker’s extraordinary performance of Alcestis, the generous Queen who sacrifices her life for her husband. As is so often the case, Baker’s extraordinary artistry brings a special dignity to the characters that she portrays. This is certainly the case in this performance. Of note, for example, is her highly moving rendition Alcestis’ Act I, scene 3 aria “Dearest husband your eyelids are closing,” sung to sleeping Admetus after she decides to die in his place. The tempo here is only a few notches slower than the performance by Rachel Yakar on Alan Curtis’s recording. But the difference here is not only about tempo. Baker’s performance, with eloquent pauses between the phrases, extraordinary sense of line, and throbbing intensity in the upper register, endows Alcestis with the utmost dignity, making her status as a tragic heroine completely unambiguous. (In the seconda parte, however, the modern flute is far less effective in conjuring up the sonic world of the Elysian fields to which she refers in her aria.) Baker’s highly dignified interpretation of the role is apparent even in the less ponderous moments of the work, such as the conventional jealousy aria sung in Act II, scene 7 aria (“Hate and jealousy, beguiling and rudeness”). The result, I would suggest, is that Baker’s moving portrayal of Alcestis actually erases some of the ambiguity and paradoxically comic elements in Handel’s opera (and its various antecedents), producing a version of the piece that is more in line with eighteenth-century neoclassical notions of decorum and tragic dignity. That is not to say that the performance is in any way unfaithful to Handel’s opera or inauthentic. Rather, as with any production, it necessarily emphasizes certain elements of the drama at the expense of others, in this case presenting us with an Alcestis whose dignity and moral purity are unassailable, regardless of the plot convolutions. And while we might miss some of the fun in this performance, it brilliantly captures the profound emotions that are at stake in this story of love, loss, and redemption. Indeed, in any era in which so many performances of Handel’s operas seem designed to distract the listener and avert boredom with comic antics and often ungracious cuts, this performance provides a welcome reminder of a past era when the music was allowed to speak for itself.

The recording also includes a quite wonderful bonus — Janet Baker’s performance of Bach’s Cantata “Geist und Seele” BWV 35, performed with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten, recorded live on June 12, 1969. The cantata, first performed on 8 September 1726, was part of Bach’s third cycle of cantatas for Leipzig, and is best known as an adaptation of a now lost oboe concerto. This is an moving and highly dramatic performance, demonstrating not only Baker’s consummate artistry, but also, I would suggest, Britten’s sensitivity to sonority, evident in particular in the balance of the orchestral forces and the clarity of the organ obbligato.


Wendy Heller
Princeton University

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image_description=Georg Frideric Händel: Admetus, King of Thessaly

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product_title=Georg Frideric Händel: Admetus, King of Thessaly
product_by=Admetus: Maureen Lehane; Antigona: Sheila Armstrong; Alcestis: Dame Janet Baker; Hercules: John Kitchener; Thrasymedes: Margaret Lenski; Orindo: Jean Temperley; Meraspes: Norman Welsby; Oracle of Apollo: Norman Welsby. The Baroque Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Sir Anthony Lewis. Live recording: May 1968. With J. S. Bach’s “Geist und Seele” (BWV 35) by Janet Baker. The English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten, Live recording: Blythburgh Church, June 12, 1969
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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

Mitridate, re di Ponto at Covent Garden


Bruce Ford (Photo: Clive Barda)

SKIRTS TO DIE FOR

Mozart's "Mitridate, re di Ponto" — July 9th, Covent Garden.

I can only dimly imagine how this singular and arresting production was first greeted at Covent Garden back in 1991. To this newcomer's eye it is still both amazingly original in its design and concept, and yet also oddly frustrating. Essentially, director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown and their team created a world, half historic, half fantastic, and one is left with a visual memory replete with starkly simple blood-red sets, kaleidoscopically coloured bizarrely shaped costumes and arrowed shafts of silver light, almost painfully reflecting from armoured breastplates. The time is about 65 BC and the world is one of an old Asia Minor versus a rising Rome, with an ageing King Mitridate fighting off both martial and sexual invasions of his territories. The heavy, stylised, costumes — extravagant to the point of caricature — are in themselves a theatrical tool that both enable and yet also constrain the drama of this young Mozart's early work. If the singers were disadvantaged physically by what they were wearing, they didn't seem to show it — although to be fair none had to move at anything more than a dignified pace. It was the supporting actors/dancers, Kabuki-like, who supplied the human activity — including a memorable "a capella" rhythmic foot-stamping war-interlude. All other dramatic extremes — be it fevered love declaration, jealous rage or elegant death — was conducted in an almost balletic minimalism of physical effort.

This suited some singers more than others: it was obvious that Bruce Ford was completely at home in this role that he was reprising here in London. He made a fine and oddly sympathetic tyrant bringing both inner energy and elegant singing to his mainly fairly short arias. It's generally agreed now that Mozart, only 14 years of age, wrote this opera almost entirely to suit his individual singers — possibly even more so than was usually the case at the time - and his King Mitridate then was an ageing tenor called Signor d'Ettore who pestered the young composer continually through rehearsals with his amendments and adjustments. Consequently, Ford's arias tend to be high impact but short, with fewer "da capos", or rather, "dal segnos" compared to his colleagues'. The demanding octave leaps and scales were particularly impressive although I thought I detected a slight straining by the end of Act 3 in his highest register. Perhaps a case of one high C too many that night as it's a most demanding tessitura for any high tenor.

Contrary to some oft- reported opinion, Mozart didn't, unlike with d'Ettore, have a particularly hard time dealing with his high-flying castrato singers this time - despite having to deal with the problem of a late-arriving primo uomo. Some things never change.

The king's two warring sons, Sifare (the "good" guy) and Farnace, (the conniving "baddy" son) were sung here by the British soprano Sally Matthews and the American star countertenor David Daniels, the latter best known for his Handel but singing in, I believe, his first staged Mozart opera and making a rare appearance as a countertenor on the Royal Opera stage. Today's incumbent at Covent Garden, Mr. Pappano, is not noted for his appreciation of baroque opera, and so those of us who do love it are sadly disenfranchised under his current artistic control and countertenors of Mr. Daniels stature are much missed at this venue.

Both singers were almost unrecognisable under layers of white make-up, bald-caps, long flowing tresses and over-wrought powdered wigs of terrifying dimension. However, compared to other "Mitridate" performances I have heard, here there was a very clear and very distinct vocal difference in both timbre and colour that worked extremely effectively to delineate these two pivotal characters. Matthew's ringing agile soprano, with a slight and appropriate edge to it, gave Daniels the chance to bring out his warm and mellifluous alto to contrast in a most dramatic paradox. Matthews was consistently excellent throughout, and her Mozart experience certainly showed: her resigned "Lungi da te, mio bene" was a beautifully executed example and deserved its warm reception. Daniels seemed a little less than his normal fluent self in the early scenes (as a normally very agile actor-singer was he subconsciously constrained by the heavy martial costume?) and although always wonderfully musical and correct, his Act 1 "Venga pur, manacci e frema" could have displayed a little more bite I thought. However, he quickly warmed in both voice and persona until, in his final aria of regret and reconciliation with his dying father "Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto" he let Covent Garden hear the full glory of his uniquely beautiful voice, and rightly received the ovation of the night in return.

A singer quite new to me, Aleksandra Kurzak, Polish born but working recently mainly in Germany, most successfully took on the testing role of leading lady, Aspasia, beloved by all three of the Royal house but in very different ways. She has a wonderful easy high top and truly sparkled in her Act 1 and Act 2 arias, although I felt she flagged a little in the final scenes. Her upcoming Queen of the Night at Chicago Lyric will be a much-anticipated event I would imagine. She seemed a natural actress and her dark expressive eyes and mobile face made up for a necessary lack of physical action, imprisoned as she was in huge pannier'd hooped skirts throughout. How the singers coped in the busy backstage area, not to mention in the canteen, is beyond me — talk about "exclusion zones will apply"!

Susan Gritton sang the sadly-wronged but dutifully faithful Ismene with her typical exquisite control and elegance, so obviously at home in the late baroque idiom. She, like Matthews, kept up an admirable consistency in both technique and control and although her arias couldn't make the same impact as some of the other singers' she was impeccable and musical throughout. The cast was completed by two promising young singers in the supporting roles of Arbate (Katie van Kooten) and Marzio (Colin Lee). Van Kooten had most to do, and did it well both vocally and dramatically. Lee had less to play with, and had to cope with an almost comic character of a late-arriving Roman general, but he has a clear strong voice and there will be more to come from him I hope in this sort of arena.

Richard Hickox was very much in command of the ROH orchestra who were, if not exactly inspired, certainly workmanlike and effective. Individual horn and oboe solos were neatly and idiomatically played but to be frank, my musical attention was scarcely aroused either way by the orchestra last night.

The almost-full Garden was warm in its final applause and each singer was kindly received, with the volume competition going, by a neck, to the American countertenor. I've heard that the ROH is selling remaining tickets at a discount — believe me this is a bargain and one that should be taken up whilst you can.

© Sue Loder 2005

Posted by Gary at 6:30 PM

HURWITZ: Getting the Most Out of Mozart: The Vocal Works

David Hurwitz, a prolific music critic and the executive editor of ClassicsToday www.classicstoday.com, attempts to bridge the gap between the opera novice and Mozart’s most popular vocal works with his volume, Getting the Most out of Mozart: The Vocal Works. Hurwitz’s goal with this volume, as well as his books on Mozart’s instrumental works, Mahler’s symphonies, and Dvořák’s music, is to offer the listener a “useful” and “practical” guide to particular pieces (see for example, the March 2005 interview with Hurwitz in Go Brooklyn: http://www.go-brooklyn.com/html/issues/_vol28/28_13/mahler.html). Furthermore, Hurwitz insists in several articles that the death knell that has been sounding for classical music is premature and miss-placed (see his articles at Classicstoday.com: “Finding Greatness in Strange Places” [http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_1103.asp], or “Fine Whine from Stormin’ Norman” [ http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_0104.asp]).
While some parts of this volume on Mozart’s opera are very appealing, several aspects of the book undermine Hurwitz’s own stated goal of making music accessible. Hurwitz’s book contains mostly descriptive information about each of the operas. He succinctly recounts information about the plot and each of the main characters for seven of Mozart’s mature operas. For better or for worse, Hurwitz wastes few words on their historical contexts and almost none on cultural circumstances surrounding 18th-century opera. There are six pages of color photographs from various Metropolitan Opera productions that display costumes and sets of several of the operas discussed.

The CD that accompanies the volume is a convenient feature containing several of the pieces Hurwitz describes with clear directions in the text about when to listen to each track. The pieces are drawn largely from Sir Charles Mackerras’ recordings on the Telarc label. Mackerras is a scholar of 17th- and 18th-century repertoire, and so has directed performances of very high quality. Unfortunately, the tracks are drawn directly from the original digital recordings, so there are some awkward starts and stops to some of the tracks, where in the originals there are smooth transitions between the numbers. The movements of the Requiem are taken from two recordings — Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Martin Pearlman directing Boston Baroque. These, too, are taken directly from previous Telarc releases.

Hurwitz’s prose is very casual and occasionally flippant about the potential symbolic layers of meaning in the works, which may serve to put some readers at ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, his irreverence is combined with the references to operas that may seem obscure, if not entirely inscrutable, to the opera novice. Hurwitz’s frequent references to the plots, lengths, and characters of Wagner’s operas reinforces his status as an insider and could have the effect of making the reader acutely aware of her lack of knowledge. Furthermore, for a reader who may not know who Wagner was, when he lived, or anything about his operas or musical philosophy, comparisons between Mozart and Wagner are not very useful.

Moreover, the name of the series — Unlocking the Masters — also reinscribes 19th-century attitudes about canonicity and genius that are intricately connected with and inseparable from notions of gender, class, and race. Since the 1970s the use of the word “master” has been thoroughly problematized in light of feminist and post-colonialist scholarship. Hurwitz’s insistence on “mastery” and “greatness” is consistent with his dismissals of music scholarship in Getting the Most Out of Mozart.

As with his book on Mahler (see the article in Go Brooklyn cited above), Hurwitz’s goal is description, not analysis or biography. Unfortunately, I think that there is a lot more to Mozart than whether or not the clarinets are playing in a given aria. Hurwitz “dumbs down” Mozart far more than is necessary, reducing the operas to statistics about the length of “continuous music,” and orchestration. At the same time, more could be said about historical context and the role of opera in the 18th century. Surely, some historical context would not be beyond the reader’s grasp, and it might help to pique her interest.

Hurwitz’s attempt to make Mozart accessible to the uninitiated listener is admirable and will certainly reach some readers. However, his attempt to make Mozart less obscure without acknowledging the forces at work in our culture and in Mozart’s culture seems misguided. Hurwitz’s “insider” attitude — whether real or perceived — is counter to his goals.

Megan B. Jenkins
CUNY — The Graduate Center

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Posted by Gary at 5:56 PM

ZELENKA: Die Responsorien zum Karfreitag
TUMA: Sonatas in A minor & E minor; Sinfornia in B major

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Die Responsorien zum Karfreitag
Frantisek Ignác Antonín Tuma: Sonatas in A minor & E minor; Sinfornia in B major
Boni Pueri; Musica Florea; Marek Stryncl, cond.
Supraphon SU 3806-2 [CD]

In the Baroque era, the liturgical intensity of Holy Week and the affective richness of its themes would find a powerful echo in the music of various European chapels. Old-fashioned counterpoint on antique models would solemnify the sound, while the expressive harmonic freedoms of the day would bring the affective sense of words and themes into sharp focus. This dual path is much in evidence in the Responsories for Good Friday by Jan Dismas Zelenka, recorded here by the Czech ensembles, Boni pueri and Musica Florea.

Zelenka, one of the most prominent of the eighteenth-century Bohemian composers, was a pupil of both Johann Joseph Fux in Vienna and Antonio Lotti in Venice. Fux, the author of the counterpoint treatise of the eighteenth century (and beyond), the Gradus ad Parnassum, would have undoubtedly furthered Zelenka's fugal mastery, and the Responsories offer frequent chance to savor it. Some of the fugal sections are, admittedly, straight forward and not without a degree of predictability, but where Zelenka introduces expressive contours and rhythmic animation, they are strongly compelling examples of his contrapuntal craft. With the addition of a heightened harmonic vocabulary (not unlike what one hears in Lotti's well-known settings of the Crucifixus), Zelenka's settings on occasion can rise to a memorable singularity, as in "Caligaverunt oculi mei." The most intense of the set, this responsory deploys luxuriant suspensions, augmented sixth chords, and expressive contours, in a richly affective setting.

Not all of the responsories rise to this level, and indeed, one may find that programmatically the set of nine taken together without liturgical context, is a heavy load. However, the choir's alertness to expressive demands can offset this to a degree. In "Vinea mea electa," for instance, the rhetorically articulate delivery of "crucifigeres" is immediately and powerfully engaging. That said, the performances fall short in other ways. Words are difficult to understand, and, as Zelenka is particularly alert to their setting, this is regrettable (as is the absence of text translations in the program booklet); melismas are slurry; and the choral sound with its characteristic chesty vibrancy from the boys mitigates against a timbral clarity that would well serve the style.

The recording includes several instrumental works by the Bohemian composer, Frantisek Tuma, played with panache by Musica Florea. One wishes, in the end, that the stylistic manner and timbre of the instrumental ensemble might have been more influential on the singing.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Posted by Gary at 12:57 AM

July 5, 2005

La Bohème in Zurich — Two Reviews


Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Marcello Giordani (Photo: Suzanne Schwiertz)

Zwischen Gefühl und Moderne

VON WILHELM SINKOVICZ [Die Presse, 5 July 05]

Puccinis "Bohème" in Zürich. Franz Welser-Möst las eine viel geprüfte Partitur neu.

Am Nachmittag war bekannt gege ben worden, dass Franz Welser- Möst seine Arbeit in Zürich fortset zen wird: Bis 2012 wird er als Generalmusikdirektor dem Opernhaus zur Verfügung stehen. Am Abend demonstrierte er, was das bedeuten könnte: Die Premiere von Puccinis "Bohème" wurde vor allem dank der enorm differenzierten Orchesterleistung zu einem bemerkenswerten Ereignis.

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Puccini's `La Boheme' Gets Classic Staging at Zurich Opera

By Shirley Apthorp [Bloomberg.com, 5 July 05]

Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme" is really a winter piece. It is the cold and the dark that draw seamstress Mimi together with poet Rodolfo. Christmas in Cafe Momus brings the illusion of warmth, though not even the spring of the last act can take the chill from dying Mimi's hands.

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Posted by Gary at 7:08 PM

Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne — Four Reviews


Sarah Connolly

'Julius Caesar' Finds a New Life in the Summer of the British Empire

By PAUL GRIFFITHS [NY Times, 5 July 05]

LEWES, England, July 3 - Glyndebourne's achievements are too various for one to speak of a company style, but there is certainly a Glyndebourne scent: of excellence and elegance, of singers and musicians enjoying at once the freedom gained by thorough rehearsal and the intimacy of a small, warm house. And its waft is strong, luxurious and exciting around the new production of Handel's "Giulio Cesare," which opened on Sunday afternoon.

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Giulio Cesare

Robert Thicknesse at Glyndebourne [Times Online, 5 July 05]

IMAGINE the relief that swept through Glyndebourne as the realisation filtered down that this four-hour opera seria wasn't going to be, well, serious. Phew! A grateful audience unbuttoned, and by the end they roared the house down.

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Giulio Cesare

Tim Ashley [The Guardian, 5 July 05]

First performed in London in 1724, Handel's Giulio Cesare is essentially a study of the hidden agendas at work during the creation and consolidation of empire. Its politics are at once bleak and dodgy. Julius Caesar and his supposedly noble Romans take on the manipulative world of Cleopatra's Egypt. The Romans are trying to bring their own civil war to an end, while Egypt is being pulled apart by dynastic intrigue. Peace in both camps necessitates the absorption of Egypt as a Roman province.

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Glyndebourne

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 5 July 05]

Handel returns in triumph to Glyndebourne. It is by no means a flawless show: you will look in vain for depth, nobility or heroism, all of which are part of Handel's most popular opera. And the voices lack variety of colour. But the music is so perfectly conducted by William Christie and the action sent up by David McVicar with such funky tongue-in-cheek that three-and-a-half hours fly past. After Rodelinda and now Cesare, it's clear that Handel is at home at Glyndebourne - much more so than poor old Mozart.

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Posted by Gary at 6:31 PM

July 4, 2005

Conti's Don Quichotte at Festival de Musique Baroque de Beaune


Les Hospices de Beaune

"Un "Don Quichotte" restitué avec fidélité"

Par Eric DAHAN [Libération, 2 July 05]

Ouvert vendredi soir par l'Alcina de Haendel, le festival de Beaune, qui accueille la crème des ensembles baroques jusqu'à la fin du mois, fait événement samedi avec la création française du Don Chisciotte signé, en 1719 à Vienne, par le Florentin Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, virtuose du théorbe et compositeur attitré de la cour de Charles-VI de Habsbourg. Le chef et musicologue René Jacobs a découvert cette partition il y a quinze ans, et l'a déjà donnée à Innsbruck il y a douze ans, dans des décors de Roland Topor. Il fait le point sur la version du concert qu'il dirige dans la cour des Hospices de Beaune, prélude à une nouvelle production au festival d'Innsbruck en aout.

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Posted by Gary at 5:24 PM

Turandot at Santa Fe


Jennifer Wilson (Photo: Neil Funkhouser Artists Management)

'Turandot': Lost in contradiction

CRAIG SMITH [The New Mexican, 3 July 05]

The Santa Fe Opera waited almost 50 years to mount Puccini's final opera, Turandot -- a warhorse of a work full of color and pageantry, and a heart-breaking love story. Puccini died before he could finish the work, whose story comes from myth and fable.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 4:07 PM

CNN Interviews Tony Hall

CNN Financial Editor Todd Benjamin speaks to Tony Hall -- Director of the Royal Opera House -- about the art of management.

Posted by Gary at 3:45 PM

THOMAS: Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785

The book is structured as a collection of essay-chapters that range from historical-philosophical overviews to studies of individual works by Lully, Charpentier, Rameau, and Grétry. The chapters are tied together through recurring themes of tragedy, sympathy, and identification and are grouped into two sections: "French opera in the shadow of tragedy" and "Opera and Enlightenment: from private sensation to public feeling."

The first chapter, "Song as performance and the emergence of French opera," traces the origins of French opera and its relationship to its Italian roots, and discusses the aesthetic and theoretical problems created by the use of song within a dramatic presentation. The relationship between early French opera (called tragédie en musique — literally, tragedy set to music) and staged tragedy (which had a long and tradition-filled history in France) was problematic and complex. Thomas provides an excellent distillation of the conflict between seventeeth-century writers who championed staged tragedy and those who welcomed and defended tragédie en musique. The former viewed tragedy as a moral vehicle, one that challenged the mind and enlightened the spectator; to these writers, opera was a spectacle for the eyes and ears, whose sensual distraction was an "outright sinister, malevolent force" (p. 34). The latter saw opera as another form of tragedy, one that used music as a mode of delivery; these writers argued that music contributed to the moral workings of tragedy by enhancing its effects.

Chapter 2, "The Opera King," examines opera as a representation of power during the reign of the Sun King, pointing in particular to the use of the opera prologue to create associations between Louis XIV and the fanciful narrative of the opera to follow. A major part of the chapter is devoted to discussions of architecture and painting that highlight the various types of pictorial representations of Louis XIV and how allegory could be used to make specific political allusions. Through a discussion of Cadmus et Hermione (1673), Thomas argues for the recognition of the prologues of Lully and Quinault's tragédies en musique as "celebrations of the king and his military exploits through allegorical and mythological characters, expanding the traditional poetic domain of the panegyric to spectacular extremes" (p. 75).

The next three chapters are studies of individual tragédies en musique by Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau, each highlighting different aspects of the relationship between the aesthetics of French tragedy and French opera. Chapter 3, "The ascendance of music and the disintegration of the hero in Armide," deals with the important role of merveilleux in tragédie en music and how its withdrawal in the pivotal Act 2, Scene 5, of Armide underscores the "inner scene of passion" that is at the center of tragedy; through the absence of the visual in this sung monologue, the dramatic focus is on the character of Armide and her internal struggle. In the chapter entitled "The disruption of poetics I: Médée's excessive voice," Thomas focuses on two aspects of Charpentier's opera: how seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators identified the composer with his character Medea; and how the composer and librettist worked together to leave open the possibility of Medea as a sympathetic figure. Two characteristics linked composer and character in the minds of Charpentier's contemporaries: their status as foreigners, and their knowledge and use of magic to terrible ends. Thomas argues that "the magic that Medea deploys for her revenge evoked the dubious musical wizardry of Italianate harmony" for which Charpentier was known (p. 135). Moreover, by relying more on the works of the Greek poet Euripides than on the familiar contemporary tragedy by Pierre Corneille, Charpentier and his librettist — Pierre Corneille's brother, Thomas — transformed Medea from a thoroughly monstrous character to one who finds herself "slowly spiraling beyond the confines of ordinary rationality" (p. 133).

In Chapter 5, "The disruption of poetics II: Hippolyte et Aricie and the reinvention of tragedy," the author views Rameau's tragédies en musique as both "absolutely unprecedented (in their sonorities) and completely orthodox ( as lyric tragedies in the Lullian model)" (p. 160). By using the subject of the famous playwright Racine's last tragedy, Phèdre, to set as a tragédie en musique, Rameau and his librettist, Pellegrin, were able to rely on the precedents of Racine and Lully to "soften the blow his music would make on the public" (p. 161). The chapter focuses primarily on the celebrated "Trio des parques" — with its use of the Greek enharmonic genre of composition, which includes quarter tones — as an extreme example of how Rameau used music to generate passionate responses in audiences. Thomas argues that Rameau used music and operatic narrative to change the spectator's view of tragedy; operas could no longer be viewed simply as tragedies with music, but could stand alone as a separate genre.

The chapters of the second section of the book are more closely drawn together than those of the first. Chapter 6, "Heart strings," is a discussion of changing ideas on the power of music — from the Renaissance assertion that music acted directly on the human body, to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century viewpoint of music as an imitation of the natural world. The contemporary fascination with the effects of music is exemplified by the preoccupation of writers with the ideas of sympathy and sensibility — in the eighteenth-century meaning of responding to complex emotional and aesthetic influences. Thomas' discussion of sympathy leads smoothly to the next chapter, "Music, sympathy, and identification at the Opéra-Comique," in which the author uses opéra comique — a mixture of spoken text and sung ariettes — to focus his discussion on the experience of the spectator. Thomas treats the concept of sympathy from the medical and moral perspective of eighteenth-century writers, using specific scenes from opéras comiques to show how sympathy was used to elicit identification with the characters onstage.

Chapter 8, "Architectural visions of lyric theater and spectatorship," moves to the physical space inhabited by opera. The new opera houses that were designed and built in the second half of the eighteenth century redefined the relationship between spectator and drama, and between opera house and its physical space. By rejecting the traditional jeu de paume design of early French theaters and adopting the ellipse of Italian opera houses, French architects reflected the changing relationship between spectator and spectacle. Audience members were brought closer to the stage, but were still separated by the newly sunken orchestra pit, thereby making spectators more a part of the action, but also rendering the action less artificial. Accommodations were made in the location of the boxes so that the stage was more easily visible, but the inhabitants of the boxes still could be seen by their fellow audience members. The author also discusses the design of the theater as the center of a city site, and how it reflects the development of the post-absolutist concept of the citizen.

The final chapter, "Opera and common sense: Lacépède's Poétique de la musique," focuses on how the opening of this important treatise reflects eighteenth-century attitudes toward sympathy and identification. Lacépède viewed opera as a medium for reconciling the spectator with the earliest human feelings of loss through physical responses to music within dramatic situations: "The spectator undergoes a reconciliation with the origins of his or her humanity through an emotional engagement in what could be described as a flashback of 'collective memory,' vicariously returning the spectator to the moment at which the original conditions of passionate response to loss activated intersubjective feeling" (p. 319).

Downing Thomas' book is an important addition to the study of the development of French opera, particularly for its blend of historical, philosophical, cultural, and critical studies. While a reader without an extensive knowledge of the mechanics of music should have no trouble following the author's discussion of the musical works included, the scholarly level of the writing and the loftiness of the philosophical viewpoints expressed would very likely not appeal to the casual reader.

Deborah Kauffman
University of Northern Colorado

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Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

July 3, 2005

FLECHA: Ensaladas

Mateo Flecha: Ensaladas
La Stagione Armonica; L'Amoroso
Directed by Sergio Balestracci
cpo 777 070-2 [CD]

This is a recording that makes a full meal of various salads: in this case, several ensaladas by the Spanish composer most associated with the form, Mateo Flecha, the elder (?1481-1553). Ensaladas toss together different languages and verbal quotations (sometimes musical quotation, as well) in a quodlibet that promotes an appealing sense of variety within the unified frame of their textual themes.

Flecha's ensaladas were composed in the 1540's, though not published until his nephew brought out a posthumous edition, Las ensaladas de Flecha, in 1581. The time gap itself would seem to document the persistence of the form, and moreover, the texts' association with Christmas themes would have given them a broad appeal. The three ensaladas recorded here are extended works that treat spiritual themes with metaphor and a degree of narrative invention. "La Justa," for instance, recounts a jousting tournament in which Lucifer, the knight of Lady Envy, wields his lance of gluttony against Adam, armed with his lance of innocence. When Adam falls in the field (the fall from grace) a new knight must take up the fight to redeem sinners. Who is the new knight? Christ, armed with the lance of righteousness. In "El Fuego," various aquatic tropes (the waters of penance, Jesus' birth as the flowing forth of the purest stream, Jesus offering living water) are placed in opposition to the fire of sin. If the themes are spiritual, the language itself is unlofty, and peppered with vernacularisms. Didacticism seems never to overwhelm the popular tone.

The music is contrapuntally simple and features long stretches of reduced textures. Sometimes, too, the infectious rhythmic spice of Spanish dance rhythms enlivens the music in ways that underscore its popular style. The performance by La Stagione Armonica is somewhat mixed. They bring to their rendition a stylish sense of phrasing and inflection and, where called for, an engaging rhythmic verve. However, the overall sound of the ensemble seems to suffer from a lack of clarity and definition, with too many singers on a single line, compounded by ample instrumental doubling, the culprit. This is especially noticeable in the many duo and single-line passages, but is also problematic for the tutti, as well.

The recording also features a number of instrumental pieces by the famous blind organist, Antonio de Cabezón. Mostly diferencias, or variation sets, they are played by a colorful ensemble combining winds and strings. The florid passage work is handled by the solo cornettist, Marie Garnier-Marzullo, with a natural ease, lyrically propelled by soft, period articulations. And both cornett and viol consort possess a distinctive vocality in their playing in the shaping of the phrases and in the richness of vowel in their sound.

All in all, this meal of salads left me a bit hungry for a main course, but at the same time, there was certainly much pleasure in the eating.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Posted by Gary at 10:38 PM

Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence — Sketches for a Portrait

Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence — Sketches for a Portrait
Produced and directed by Paul Smaczny
TDK Euroarts 2053278 [DVD]

Five minutes into this DVD there has been a lot of talk on Abbado's aura, his aristocratic reserve and the fact that he is a private thinker. With a deep sigh I was reminded of some of those dreadful documentaries on Arte (a German-French arts channel which I have on cable) that have promising titles and then soon lose themselves in a lot of philosophical treatises without any real content. And what was almost the last image of this documentary?: "In collaboration with Arte"

Subtitles like "hearing the silence" and "sketches" and not a portrait itself should have warned me and they keep their promises: lots and lots of vague high-minded talk with some hidden nuggets. After ten minutes into this experience we get some footage of 1968 in an interview with Marcel Prawy, the recently deceased grand old man of opera in Austria. Prawy asks some simple but really interesting questions and so we learn that Abbado as a young music student in Vienna was not allowed to attend rehearsals with the great conductors on the roster. His solution was simple: with his good bass-baritone he became a temporary member of the chorus and saw the great men in action. End of the historical footage. But an interviewer really interested in Abbado's art would have asked what he learned, if indeed he learned anything, by watching Karajan and Walter. And another inevitable question would have been: how did his own singing experiences influence his behaviour towards his singers in his many operatic performances? Nothing of this at all. The only moment we see Abbado conducting an opera is during a less typical performance of Elektra and there is no comment at all on the problems of that difficult relationship between stage and pit, of Abbado's vision on "Das Regietheater."

Of course there are a lot of interviews with some of his players and here too it is strange to note that nobody offers hard facts on Abbado's stick technique, his downbeat or other important signs of music making. We learn that everybody calls him Claudio and not maestro, that he is very democratic, charismatic, etc. but what does that tell us? Indeed, the only really interesting details are given by Abbado himself for 30 seconds and strangely enough by his friend and actor Bruno Ganz who has studied Abbado's gestures during a concert. In exchange Ganz may expand on every question of life and death, recite German poems of Hölderlin (admired by Abbado) so that the director can show some landscapes and tell us there were problems with composer Luigi Nono. What kind of problems? That's not for us to know. Ganz has almost as much to tell as Abbado himself and we should not forget that the actor is "hot" as he played (not too well in my opinion) the title role in "Der Untergang," the movie about Hitler's last days.

There is a lot of footage on Abbado's concerts and there at last we can see for ourselves how he leads with his eyes and the "pa, pa, pa" sounds he makes. But it is not clear why this or that piece is chosen. No one ever asks the conductor which kind of composers he prefers or why he conducts this and not that. It comes as a kind of surprise in this philosophical entertainment that such worldly themes as his illness — he was diagnosed with cancer 4 years ago — pop up though he now distinctly looks better than a few years ago when, with superhuman strength, he continued conducting and one feared he would not finish some concerts. We also learn that he left the Berliner Symphoniker of his own accord in 2002, though it is a lifetime post. Of course everybody deeply regrets his decision and there is no dissenting voice to tell some of the less savoury stories. The orchestra deeply loved its maestro but it loved something more: money. For one or another reason (a saturated market; Abbado's simplicity and humility compared with his predecessor's incessant marketing of himself) Abbado's records didn't sell well: often only a few thousand copies were sold worldwide. At one time, the Berliner and Abbado were even relegated to accompanying the love couple's (Alagna-Gheorgiu) Verdi duets. That didn't sit well with an orchestra that remembered too well the rich pickings on the record market during Karajan's era. The grumbling and his illness were reasons enough for Abbado to keep the honour of resigning to himself. All in all, this DVD is a missed chance.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 9:40 PM

Gerhard Hüsch Sings Die schöne Müllerin & An die ferne Geliebte

Gerhard Hüsch Sings Die schöne Müllerin & An die ferne Geliebte
Hanssler Classic 94506 [2CDs]

With a masterpiece like Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, each generation of singers seems to rediscover the music and make the work its own. The nature of music almost demands that performers arrive at their own approaches, and the resulting differences offer insights into the way the music works and, perhaps, on how perception functions. With something as familiar as Die schöne Müllerin, it is possible to gain some perspective by listening to the way a singers of earlier generations performed the work to sample it, just as aficionados appreciate wine at vertical tastings. By approaching the music in this manner, it is possible to put the differences in perspective by using the nuances as points of reference where interpretations diverge.

As indicated in the notes that accompany this release of performances by the baritone Gerhard Hüsch, this singer was the preeminent baritone in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. He belonged to the generation before Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau established his own reputation as a performer of the same voice type and with the same literature. Thus, audiences accustomed to Fischer-Dieskau's various performances might enjoy hearing the style that preceded him, by a highly respected singer from the first half of the twentieth century.

When the paradigm for performance of Die schöne Müllerin involves Fischer-Dieskau's lyric approach to Die schöne Müllerin, Hüsch's recording stands in contrast for its more dramatic perspective on the song cycle. At times Hüsch is extremely declamatory, with some passages sung with the conversational phrasing that can come with only a native speaker. The style is vivid and immediate, and it is difficult not to become caught up in the singer's immersion in the piece itself. The sound seems dated, and the technology involved with this reissue, as admirable as it is, does not restore the ambiance sufficiently not to merit some comment. The piano appears muffled, as if it were covered, and this does not represent well the facile approach that Udo Müller took in accompanying Hüsch. In fact, Hüsch sounds as though he is singing into the microphone, since the accompaniment comes off as a background sound. This aspect of the Schubert recording certain reflects the time it was made (1935), and even two years later, the performance of Beethoven cycle An die ferne Geliebte (1937) sounds incrementally crisper and slightly more refined.

Yet the sound of the recording should not be an impediment to hearing an historic performance, which is critically esteemed. Anyone interested in Schubert reception will find this CD to be of interest, not just as a curiosity, but for the strong interpretations it preserves. While Hüsch may not be as well known as he was in his day, his legacy is worth attention, especially in these legendary performances of these two major pieces of vocal literature. To put the performance of Schubert cycle in perspective, sample a selection of Hüsch's recording, and then listen to the same pieces from one of Fischer-Dieskau's, not just the famous 1962 recording, but also the ones from the 1950s and the 1970s. Take it further, with the recording by the fine baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, then move forward to recordings by contemporary performers like Matthias Goerne and Thomas Quasthoff, before retuning to Hüsch to understand his legacy.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 5:56 PM

July 2, 2005

SCHUBERT: Die Schöne Müllerin

Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; András Schiff, piano
Filmed at Schubertiade Feldkirch 1991
TDK DVDUS-CODSM [DVD]

An important thing to realize about this DVD is that it is not so much about Die Schöne Müllerin as about the performers, pianist András Schiff and especially baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There are no liner notes about the song cycle itself, and if you want to see texts or translations you watch them go by as subtitles during the performance (you may choose German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, or none.). But, since the cycle is quite well-known, largely through the earlier recordings by Fischer-Dieskau with other collaborators, this omission is not grave enough to detract from the real focus of the DVD: to make publicly available a 1991 performance at the Feldkirch Schubertiade, in which two Schubertiade regulars, Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff, performed together for the first time. The record of the performance is doubly significant because, while Fischer-Dieskau earlier in his career had been one of the preeminent performers of Die Schöne Müllerin, he had not performed it since 1971, and he was to retire from public performance two years later.

I have never seen Fischer-Dieskau perform live, but I came to this DVD with great respect for the clarity of emotional expression and the distinctive interpretations that I had heard on his audio recordings. I also had received impressions from people who had seen him perform. A friend had recalled the power of Fischer-Dieskau's live presence when she watched from a seat on the stage behind him, despite the fact that his voice was directed away from her and she never saw his facial expression. By contrast, a voice teacher with a strong preference for lyrical Italianate singing found Fischer-Dieskau too intellectual and mannered in many of his performances. As a recitalist myself who has learned much from Fischer-Dieskau's published scholarship about the songs he has performed, I was very pleased to have this belated opportunity to watch him in recital and form my own impression.

What emerges most strongly in watching this performance is the intense connection between Fischer-Dieskau and the music, the accompanist, and the audience (including the home audience, through the camera). His gestures are rarely specific, but he remains solidly grounded while leaning forward, turning toward the accompanist, or resting his hands on the piano lid, and his face is particularly expressive, vividly articulating the endings of "Tränenregen" and "Trockne Blumen", to mention just two moments. The music appears to pose no great difficulties for his voice, the tops of some phrases perhaps a bit less smooth than in a recording with Gerald Moore made decades earlier, but there is plenty of lovely tone color and dynamic control.

The DVD includes a 20-minute film of a conversation between Fischer-Dieskau and Franz Zoglauer, augmented by some narration about Fischer-Dieskau's approach to recitals, a visit to an exhibition of some of his paintings, and a brief interview with the singer's son, who was playing the cello as part of an ensemble during the 1985 Schubertiade. The conversation is wide-ranging and sheds additional light upon Fischer-Dieskau's approach to this performance, when he says he views any recording as a snapshot of a single moment, and that in any performance he aims for a spontaneous interpretation, influenced by what he senses in the accompaniment and even the audience. Some of this process is evident on the DVD performance, as the repetition of "das Wandern, das Wandern", which ends the first strophe of the first piece, is almost too obviously taken as simply a softer echo, but by the end of the cycle, the changes worked by the performers on each repeated strophe of the final song sensitively recall each aspect of the cycle's simple, sad story. So, despite the DVD's lack of helpful notes to connect the twenty-first century viewer with the Romantic tale of lost innocence, a story so naïaut;ve that even the poet Müller felt a need to gently distance himself from it, we can still connect through Schubert's wholehearted musical setting and the performers' detailed expression of it. If you have been fortunate enough to enjoy a live recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau during his career, this disk may provide a valuable reminder of the experience. For those of us who will never have that opportunity, this disk is a gift.

Barbara Miller


The legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b. 1925) made four studio recordings of Franz Schubert's song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin — two for EMI, and two for DGG, all but one with the great accompanist, Gerald Moore. That final recording (DGG) took place in 1971. For the next 20 years, Fischer-Dieskau neither performed nor recorded the piece.

In June of 1991, Fischer Dieskau and pianist András Schiff collaborated on a performance of Die schöne Müllerin at the Schubertiade Feldkirch. That performance was recorded by Austrian television. Thanks to the approval of the artists, it has been issued by TDK in honor of Fischer-Dieskau's 80th birthday.

In many ways, I think it's best to avoid comparisons of this 1991 recital with the studio recordings. At the time of the Schubertiade Feldkirche recital, Fischer-Dieskau was 66, and had been performing for almost 45 years. It would be dishonest to suggest that his voice on this occasion comes close to matching the freshness of those earlier renditions. It also takes Fischer-Dieskau a bit of time to warm up, with some pitch difficulties and breath control problems early on. For the most part however, these flaws disappear over the course of the cycle.

Even with all these reservations, I found this Schöne Müllerin to be an extraordinarily moving document. Despite the reduced vocal forces at his disposal, Fischer-Dieskau gives an unforgettable performance. I particularly recommend this DVD to people who view Fischer-Dieskau as an overly intellectual singer, who often italicizes the text and music at the expense of its overall flow. Here, Fischer-Dieskau relies on his gorgeous diction, impeccable legato, and subtle inflection of the text to the greatest effect. Likewise, Fischer-Dieskau's stage presence manages to find the perfect balance of elegance, dignity, and dramatic involvement. The singer's facial expressions alone are worth the price of this DVD. Overall, my impression of Fischer Dieskau's interpretation was one of nostalgic recollection, as opposed to a contemporaneous narrative. In that context, I found it most compelling, and a highly worthwhile addition to Fischer-Dieskau's body of recorded work.

The compelling nature of this performance is due in great part to the contribution of Fischer-Dieskau's accompanist, the superb pianist András Schiff. As in any great lieder performance, the term "accompanist" is inappropriate. Schiff plays exquisitely throughout, with a constant attention to the shifting colors that reflect the cycle's dramatic flow. It is also clear that Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff view this cycle as almost a duet for voice and piano. Time and again, Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff match the timbres and inflections of their instruments to create almost a single entity. This sense of partnership is reinforced by Fischer-Dieskau's frequent and often touching glances to his partner.

The straightforward camerawork by Austrian Television complements the understated eloquence of this performance. The sound is excellent as well. The DVD also includes a 1985 interview with Fischer-Dieskau by Franz Zoglauer, illustrated by samples of Fischer-Dieskau's recordings, performances, and paintings. The DVD includes English, French, and Italian subtitles for both the song cycle and the interview.

I think that admirers of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will find this Schöne Müllerin an inspiring and moving document. For those wishing to hear Fischer-Dieskau in this glorious cycle for the first time, I would first seek out one of the studio recordings, all of which have considerable merit. But in the final analysis, I would urge all admirers of lieder and master singing to give this DVD a try.

Kenneth H. Meltzer

Posted by Gary at 9:27 PM

A Review of Kupfer's Production of Der fliegende Holländer

When I was young, my father said: Don't judge others before hearing them through, listen before interrupting. His advice applies so well to Wagnerian opera, with its potential for diverse interpretation. The greatest works of art have the power to speak beyond restricted parameters of space and time. We may have a preference for one style or another, but when we listen to a new production, it's a good idea to listen to it for what it conveys on its own terms. Whether we like or dislike something isn't ultimately the point, for we learn something along the way.

Click here for remainder of review.

Posted by Gary at 6:28 PM

July 1, 2005

An die Musik


Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Music Without Magic

by Miles Hoffman [Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2005]

In 1817, Franz Schubert set these words of the poet Franz von Schober to music in his song "An die Musik":

O gracious Art, in how many gray hours

When life's fierce orbit encompassed me,

Hast thou kindled my heart to warm love,

Hast charmed me into a better world.

Oft has a sigh, issuing from thy harp,

A sweet, blest chord of thine,

Thrown open the heaven of better times;

O gracious Art, for that I thank thee!

Schubert's song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it's also something else. It's a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. We may view it as a statement of expectations as well. The poet thanks Music for what it has done for him, but there is nothing in his words that would make us think that Music's powers are exhausted, and indeed the noble, exalted character of Schubert's music would lead us to believe that Music's powers are, if anything, eternal, and eternally dependable.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 2:52 AM