September 30, 2005

Fall Theater

Odd_couple.jpgBy Robert J. Hughes [WSJ, 30 September 2005]

The autumn Broadway season has starry revivals such as "The Odd Couple," with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and lavish new musicals such as "The Color Purple" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Woman in White."

Posted by Gary at 10:37 AM


Except for the music he composed for William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, Mendelssohn’s other dramatic works are relatively unknown. The catalog of his works includes seventeen works for the stage, and among them is Der Onkel aus Boston, oder Die beiden Neffen (1822-23; performed privately in1824), a comic opera in three acts to a libretto by Johann Ludwig Casper. This is the last of the young Mendelssohn’s collaborations with Casper, who contributed librettos to three other youthful works: Die Soldatenliebschaft (1820), a Singspiel in one act, and Die beiden Pädagogen (1821) and Die wandernden Komödianten (1822), another single-act work. Mendelssohn’s next work is the Die Hochzeit des Camacho, a work based on a portion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the only opera of Mendelssohn to receive a public performance in his lifetime.

As to Der Onkel aus Boston, Mendelssohn composed this work when he was around thirteen or fourteen years old, a time when he was experimenting with various kinds of music, including other music for the stage, like the Overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826; in 1843, he composed the other incidental music for the play). The extant criticism of Mendelssohn’s operas places Der Onkel aus Boston in the Singspiel tradition, but a closer examination of the music reveals a young composer under the influence of Mozart and Weber. In some ways, Der Onkel aus Boston is reminiscent of some of the Schubert’s wonderfully lyrical operas that have never held the stage as much as they have earned some esteem for the music they contain.

The plot for Der Onkel aus Boston involves the return of a former Hessian, Baron von Felsig, from New England to Brandenburg around 1780 to enter into the romantic and political activities of his erstwhile family. Comic situations exist when family members meet for the first time under difficult circumstances, including the wooing of Felsig’s niece. Mistaken identities and miscommunication abound sufficiently to inspire three acts of complications that require resolution in some fine ensembles. It is by no means a memorable libretto, nor is it out of the tradition of opera plots requiring the suspension of disbelief to follow the action. While the dialogue is lost for the third act, it is possible to piece together its dramatic situation, but the extant text for the first two acts points to the weakness of this work and Mendelssohn’s other operas in weak texts or, perhaps, the lack of a librettist who could work well with such a talented composer.

Mendelssohn’s search for a workable libretto spanned his career, and he rejected collaborations with some of the best-known writers of his day. Along with Eugene Scribe and J. R. Planché are individuals like Helminie von Chézy and Eduard Devrient, all names familiar to those familiar with nineteenth-century opera. The topics rejected include the usual array of historical topics, and even extend to myth. In fact, Mendelssohn started working on an opera about the Lorelei near the end of his life, and left it unfinished at his death. It is impossible to know what could have emerged from that effort, but finished scores like Der Onkel aus Boston give an idea of the kind of music Mendelssohn conceived for the works he did bring to completion.

Der Onkel aus Boston contains much music that is competently composed and pleasant to hear. The recitative and aria “O Himmel” (Act 1, no. 3) is sung well by Carsten Süß, whose fine tenor sound would lend itself to any number of roles from the period in which Mendelssohn composed this work (it is possible, for example, to imagine him as Belmonte in Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail). In the quartet that follows, “Nein das ist nicht auszustehn!”(Act 1, no. 4) Mendelssohn makes wonderful use of the contrapuntal possibilities for this ensemble, and the accompaniment itself is quite effective. The woodwind textures betray some stylistic choices that Mendelssohn would used in other works from this period, but the instrumental writing never outpaces the voices here or elsewhere in this work. The Finale “Laut ertönt der Jubelklang” (Act 1, no. 5) echoes some of Weber’s music from the same period and also shows the influence of Mozart in the extended instrumental interlude that divides the number. It is well-crafted scena that bears listening to hear Mendelssohn making his own ideas emerge while simultaneously bowing to operatic convention.

In the second act, the opening number, the aria with chorus “Nur stille, still, leise, leise, liebe Leute” (Act. 2, no. 6) bears an onomatopoeic resemblance to Papageno’s music in Mozart’s Zauberflöte, but the textures of divisi chorus voices, and some fine solo writing are Mendelssohn’s own. The consciousness of Die Zauberflöte explicitly in this work, since the characters of Tamino and Pamino are central to the text of the second-act quintet (Act 2, no. 9), where Mozart’s pair are points of reference of the resolution of the amorous difficulties in the present work. The quintet also embodies some of the intricate structures found in some of Mozart’s ensembles.

Likewise, the inclusion of ballet passages in the subsequent number contributes to the ardently operatic nature of this work. This tone is conveyed in Fanny’s aria “Schon naht der Abend” (Act 3, no. 11), which is sung by the soprano Kate Royal, whose seamless approach to the florid passages is laudable in its own right. As the opera draws to its conclusion, the ensemble textures intensify, with the penultimate number, the quartet “In dieser Mann voll Gnad’ und Huld” (Act 3, no 13) serving as a fine counterpart to the more choral resolution with which the work ends.

Helmut Rilling’s fine sense of style makes this recording immediately accessible, with tempos that suite the music quite well. At the same time, his deft handling of the orchestra contributes another dimension to this score. His years of experience with the Gächinger Kantorei are borne out in the choral passages, that are clearly sung, with the delicacy that this music demands. Moreover, beyond Süß and Royal, the other principals give fine performances that contribute to the overall quality of the concert that serves as the basis for the CD.

This is the premiere recording of a work that would work well in concert performances. A work like this not only demonstrates some of Mendelssohn’s promise as an aspiring opera composer, but also reflects his own stylistic development, as he moves from echoing known models to expressing his own voice stylistically. Der Onkel aus Boston truly shows a composer whose efforts in this idiom have some engaging qualities. More importantly, this well-performed recording makes available a side of Mendelssohn often neglected in the current repertoire.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Der Onkel aus Boston

product_title=Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Der Onkel aus Boston
Komische Oper in drei Aufzügen
product_by=Bernd Valentin, Istvàn Kovács, Andreas Daum, Kate Royal, Julia Bauer, Alexandra Gouton, Brigitte Bayer, Amarillis Bilbenny, Lothar Odinius, Carsten Süß. Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart. Helmuth Rilling, conductor.
product_id=Hänssler Classics 98.221 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 9:37 AM

Adams & Atoms

adams_small.jpg[Photo: Deborah O'Grady © 2003]

By Richard Scheinin [Mercury News, 29 September 2005]

John Adams is the Tiger Woods of classical music -- a marquee name, known even to people who don't really pay attention to what he does. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who lives in Berkeley, also happens to make music that is relevant. Just look at the titles of his operas: "Nixon in China'' and "The Death of Klinghoffer,'' about the terrorist hijacking in 1984 of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

Posted by Gary at 9:15 AM

Conductor dropped by record label returns in triumph with Bach award

gardiner_small.jpgBy Louise Jury [The Independent, 30 September 2005]

The conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who was dumped by a major record label after a long and distinguished career, has had the last laugh after his self-released album of Bach cantatas was named record of the year.

Posted by Gary at 9:05 AM

Dear Mr. Gillinson

Carnegie Hall_small.jpgBy Fred Kirshnit [NY Sun, 30 September 2005]

It would be a daunting task for the director of Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, West Virginia, to maintain that facility as the world's most respected venue for classical music performance, but it ought to be easy for his New York counterpart to do the same. Carnegie Hall's management, though, seems to be consciously watering down its repertoire and, in the process, transforming its employer's image from that of the shining city on the hill to simply another unfocused performance space.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

The Complete Conductor

By Jay Nordlinger [NY Sun, 30 September 2005]

Sir Colin Davis has blown into town for a three-concert series with the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he is principal conductor. The concerts take place under the aegis of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Indeed, Wednesday's concert - offering the Verdi Requiem - opened the Great Performers season. Tonight, Sir Colin et al. will present an all-Sibelius program. And on Sunday afternoon, they will play two British symphonies: one by Vaughan Williams, the other by Walton. Sir Colin has long been a Sibelius specialist, and no one is better in the British repertory. But then, Sir Colin is a complete conductor, weak in nothing.

Posted by Gary at 8:43 AM

September 29, 2005

Brigitte Fassbaender: Lieder — Mahler, Berg, Ogermann

Yet it is difficult to imagine Fassbaender as anything but a consummate performer through her work in opera and her Lieder recitals. Those who know her voice from live performances are aware of the rich timbre, nuanced expression, and sensitivity to texts in a variety of repertoire.

This release of Lieder: Mahler, Berg, Ogermann makes available music recorded between September and November, 1986 in New York, and includes works by three composers of Lieder. In terms of order, the program moves from the Vier Lieder, op. 2, of Alban Berg (1885-1935) which date from 1910 to Claus Ogermann’s Tagore-Lieder (1975). The final portion of the recording is devoted a selection from Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and, specifically, several composed between 1892-96, not around 1883, as indicated in the liner notes.

In fact, the selections by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) are noteworthy because Fassbaender sings the versions for voice and piano in lieu of the arrangements with orchestral accompaniment. While the piano arrangements are not unknown, singers sometimes choose to record the versions with orchestra, which are overtly more colorful. In these songs, Fassbaender’s facile voice is never obscured. If anything, the choice of piano is all the more impressive in the colorings that she gives each song.

One of the earliest settings is “Rheinlegendchen,” and the folk-like melody Mahler used for it adds to the charm of this ironic piece. The text concerns the enduring love that is embodied in a ring, which seems to be difficult for the protagonist to hold. This is, after all, set by the Rhine river, and Mahler was hardly unaware of the implications for the famous golden ring associated with Wagner’s cycle. Yet this music ventures nowhere near Wagner’s, and Mahler avoided even passing reference to the music of the Rhine-maidens in his setting. In interpreting this song, Fassbaender treats the line with masterful fluidity, such that the rubato she uses colors the phrases musically and textually. With another song, like “Lob des hohen Verstands,” irony is still important, and the earnest tone Fassbaender contributes is critical for this successful performance, which rings true, even in the vocal sound effects of trills and braying “ija.” The final note sits squarely in Fassbaender’s exciting low register.

Yet the recording of “Des Antonius Fischpredigt” is the high point of the CD, and credit must be given to the pianist John Wustmann for giving the accompaniment shadings that suggest the orchestra in varying the textures and touch of the instrument. Here the singer and pianist are a single force, presenting the Lied as though it were chamber music. There is a delicacy here that the performers bring to “Verlorene Muh’” – a delightful dialogue-song that depicts the interchange between a couple as they toy with each other from attraction to distraction. The latter is one of Mahler’s more compressed songs, and shows his subtlety as a composer of Lieder.

Likewise, both “Das irdische Leben” and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” are fine performances that demonstrate Fassbaender’s facility in performing Mahler’s music. For those who wish to hear how she handles the orchestral version, a selection of those settings sung with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and conducted by Hans Zender, has been released by CPO. Another selection, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, is worth seeking out for the fine performances it preserves.

As with her performances of Mahler’s music Fassbaender’s sense of text makes the Tagore-Lieder a memorable part of this recording. Claus Ogermann (b. 1930) is a contemporary figure, and he composed the set of Lieder to Tagore’s texts in 1975. In the subsequent decades, those Lieder have attracted a following in Germany. Ogermann is associated with popular music, but in these pieces uses a more classically oriented style and pays respect to the tradition associated with Lieder, in lieu of pursuing an overtly popular idiom. These modern explorations of German orientalism result in some very effective songs. “Zeit ist endlos, Herr” is a good example of Ogermann’s sense of style. Likewise, “Er kommt” is highly effective at conveying Tagore’s text, with its well-crafted accompaniment that intersects the vocal line. Fassbaender is quite expressive in these pieces, and gives them the same kind of intensity she uses for singing Berg’s seminal set of Vier Lieder.

For those unfamiliar with Fassbaender’s voice, this CD gives an opportunity to hear her performing literature that she made her specialty. Fassbaender’s legacy includes recordings like these, which stand as tribute to her fine voice, and the music she wisely chose. This is a recording that anyone interested in Fassbaender should have, and those who know Mahler’s music will find her interpretations of his Lieder engaging. One can hope that Arts Archives will produce more such recordings.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Brigitte Fassbaender: Lieder — Mahler, Berg, Ogermann

product_title=Brigitte Fassbaender: Lieder — Mahler, Berg, Ogermann
product_by=Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; John Wustmann, piano.
product_id=Arts Archives 43028-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 9:44 AM

FALLA: El amor brujo; El sombrero de tres picos; La vida breve

Falla’s output, though well respected, lacks the popularity it deserves among vocal enthusiasts. One reason may well be Falla’s overall limited output. He composed mainly for piano and orchestra, though he wrote several songs, six zarzuelas, a full scale opera, La vida breve (Brief Life), and the posthumous Atlántida, which occupied him the last nineteen years of his life. Another reason may be that, though Fallas’s music is forward looking and tinged with the influence of the French composers he met in Paris between 1905 and 1914, it is very esoteric in the composer’s use of the haunting melodies of his youth—Spanish folk music—part flamenco, part gypsy, and Cante jondo. However, that in itself is what makes his music so interesting and unique.

The vocal line in the two pieces on this disc is minimal but crucial to the story, especially in El amor brujo (Love, the Magician).

El amor brujo which premiered in 1915, and later revised, is the story of thwarted love between Candelas and her new lover, Carmelo, who cannot kiss her to break the spell of Cadelas’ dead lover. Alicia Nafé delivers a solid performance, at once eerie and intoxicating. Her dark, yet unmistakably feminine voice comes from the depths of a bottomless well to, at once, become all four characters in the story. The music too is intoxicating, with several very definite Andalusian folk themes woven in. The Danza ritual del fuego is probably the best known segment of the ballet, with its images of fire and doom, however the Introducción y escena, a bright outburst of sound and fanfare in contrast to the dark mood of the piece, is also worthy of praise.

El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) is a much lighter work: the stereotypical corrupt government official trying to take advantage of the simple people, but the plan backfires. The name of the piece derives from the three cornered hat that the Corregidor (magistrate) wears to signify his position. Soprano María José Martos gets little chance to display her instrument but when she does, it is a beautiful, secure lyric voice. The Jota is a lively dance at the end of the piece with many “Spanish” themes, one of which foretells Ravel’s La Valse composed two years after the premiere of Falla’s work.

Danza, from La vida breve, is thoroughly “Spanish” and quintessential Falla. Considered to be one of the finest moments of the opera, it takes place during a wedding celebration.

Maximiano Valdés knows the orchestra well and brings out the best from his players without neglecting or compromising the vocal parts.

Daniel Pardo

image_description=Manuel de Falla: El amor brujo; El sombrero de tres picos; La vida breve

product_title=Manuel de Falla: El amor brujo; El sombrero de tres picos; La vida breve
product_by=Alicia Nafé, Mezzo-soprano; María José Martos, Soprano. Asturias Symphony Orchestra (OSPA), Maximiano Valdés (cond.)
product_id=Naxos 5.110018 [DVD-A]

Posted by Gary at 9:27 AM

Finding Shicoff: Opera Meets Music Video

Shicoff_La_Juive.jpg[Photo: Axel Zeininger]
By Menachem Wecker [, 28 September 2005]

A music video is perhaps the last place to expect an opera singer. Opera singers are held to have egos as high as Narcissus` himself; the ones I count as friends worry endlessly about their voices (with wardrobes stuffed full of scarves), and each could write encyclopedias on the processes of breathing and vocal cords.

Posted by Gary at 9:04 AM

Haydn at Esterházá

haydn_small.jpgby Dominic McHugh [, 28 September 2005]

It seems to be Haydn month in London.

Hot on the heels of Bampton Opera's jolly semi-staging of the rarely heard L'infedeltà delusa, the Classical Opera Company brought a programme of items from the composer's symphonic, operatic and sacred repertoires to the Wigmore Hall.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

Concert: John Rutter 60th Birthday Gala

rutter.jpgby Neil Fisher [Times Online, 28 September 2005]

Would you invite a guest to your 60th-birthday party if you were worried that they might upstage you? Nor me. But then John Rutter devotees probably don’t think he is upstageable, and they have some pretty powerful reasons to argue their case. Where would so many choirs of Britain and America be without his eminently singable music? What would happen to the classical record industry without his seemingly unshakeable commercial appeal?

Posted by Gary at 8:37 AM

Colin Davis Opens Great Performers Series With the Verdi Requiem

Colin-Davis.jpgBy Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 28 September 2005]

Lincoln Center can rightfully claim to practice truth in advertising. This season's Great Performers series began on Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall with a truly great performance: Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Verdi's Requiem.

Posted by Gary at 8:18 AM

New World Symphony

By Russell Platt [The Nation, 3 October 2005]

Classical music in America, we are frequently told, is in its death throes: its orchestras bled dry by expensive guest soloists and greedy musicians unions, its media presence shrinking, its prestige diminished, its educational role ignored, its big record labels dying out or merging into faceless corporate entities. We seem to have too many well-trained musicians in need of work, too many good composers going without commissions, too many concerts to offer an already satiated public.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Mozart in the Jungle

Posted by Gary at 7:43 AM

September 28, 2005

Beito and Madame Butterfly in Berlin

Madame_Butterfly_Berlin.jpgCalixto Bieito zerlegt Puccinis "Madame Butterfly" - von der Musik bleibt fast nichts
Von Klaus Geitel [Berliner Morgenpost, 27 September 2005]

Zimperlich war der umstrittene spanische Regisseur nie. Nach Calixto Bieitos Inszenierung von Mozarts "Entführung aus dem Serail", die in den Puff führte, ist "Madame Butterfly" seine zweite Arbeit an der Komischen Oper.

Posted by Gary at 10:25 PM

Entranced by a heartbreakingly magical Verdi

[Photo: Marty Sohl / The Metropolitan Opera]
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg [Newsday, 27 September 2005]

Sir Isaiah Berlin deemed Verdi the last of the great "naive" composers: simple, un-self-conscious, concealed by his work. There is truth to Sir Isaiah's claim, but it withers before the bittersweet fancy of "Falstaff" (1893), crafted by the 79-year-old Verdi as his farewell to the stage.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 PM

The Very Best of Thomas Hampson

His recordings with EMI include both studio recordings and live performances, and this CD represents him well through the depth and variety of repertoire it contains.

Of the two CDs in this set, the first CD is devoted primarily Italian and French composers, with the focus mainly on opera, while the second has mostly German composers, with many of the selections being Lieder. There are some exceptions on both CDs, with some songs by Rossini augmenting the Italian repertoire on the first one; similarly, some songs by American composers like Griffes and Foster round out the Lieder on the second.

Hampson’s work in opera includes a number of prominent Italian roles, like the character of Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and his performance of “Largo al factotum” is characteristic of his clear and straightforward delivery of the text. A parallel piece not usually associated with baritones is “Von der Schönheit,” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which requires a comparable approach to diction that must also preserve the musicality implicit in the title of the piece. The latter is an excerpt from the recording of the less familiar version of Das Lied that involves two male singers (tenor and baritone), which Hampson made with Peter Seiffert and conducted by Simon Rattle.

Likewise, Hampson is part of some excellent recordings of French opera, such as Gounod’s Faust, and his interpretation of Valentin’s aria “Avant de quitter des lieux” is among the finest from recent decades. His intelligent approach to French repertoire is also represented from a selection from Massenet’s Hérodiade, another fine recording, which also calls to mind his memorable performance several years ago in the new production of the same composer’s Thaïs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In addition, Hampson has performed some of the French versions of Verdi’s operas, and he made an exceptional contribution in Don Carlos, which is represented here with two excerpts. For those not familiar with the recording, the selections should give an idea of its merits, not only for Hampson’s contribution, but the other performers, as well.

When it comes to the German repertoire, the selection from Weber’s Euryanthe represents Hampson’s fine diction and nuanced phrasing. Likewise the excerpt from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is an excellent choice, and the aria “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhaüser conveys some of the power of Hampson’s voice. Yet the baritone’s performances of Lieder are critical for an understanding of his contribution to this repertoire. Hampson’s fine, resonant tone is well suited to Lieder, and his interpretations of Schumann are outstanding, as is shown in the selection from his recording of the Dichterliebe as well as several of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. As a Mahler interpreter, Hampson is highly respected, and those who enjoy the music included on this CD may wish to explore the singer’s interpretations of Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

As difficult as it sometimes may be to find a representative sampling in any CD entitled “The Very Best,” this selection meets the challenge. Yet it would have been convenient to have the texts and translations of the works included. A discography would be of some assistance for this retrospective CD set and others like it, rather than the selective listings of recordings that were apparently made with EMI alone. These are minor quibbles, however, and should by no means suggest any reservations about this fine collection.

James L. Zychwoicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=The very best of Thomas Hampson

product_title=The very best of Thomas Hampson
product_by=Thomas Hampson, baritone. With Sir Roger Norrington, Michel Plasson, Placido Domingo, Eugene Kohn, Antonio de Almeida, Roberto Alagna, Csaba Airizer, Antonio Pappano, Richard Armstrong, Sir Andrew Davis, Geoffrey Parsons, Fabio Luisi, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Wolfram Rieger, Sir Simon Rattle, Franz Welser-Möst, London Voices, Kenneth Sillito, Armen Guzelimian, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Michael Parloff, David Alpher.
product_id=EMI Classics 5863322 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 5:12 PM


The fairy tale aspect of the ballet helped to make it a resounding success all over Europe in the nineteenth century. There are many opportunities in the ballet to focus on this “otherworld” aspect: the village wedding, the sylvan setting, the eerie gaslights to mark the passage of the fairies, the costumes and the ballerina’s variations on pointes. But what made it even more enchanting to nineteenth-century onlookers was the fusion by the ballet master Filippo Taglioni of artistic dance and mime, that gave birth to the first acte blanc in the history of ballet; and the fact that Taglioni’s daughter, Marie, enchanted and fascinated her audiences in the lead role. This infatuation spread throughout France: newspapers began calling themselves La Sylphide, words such as sylphide and taglioniser were added to the French language, and fashions saw diaphanous blouses and turbans sylphide. With this ballet, tutus became the standard “uniform” of ballet dancers. In spite of its huge success, La Sylphide disappeared from the Paris Opera’s repertoire for over a century, reconstituted in a version by Pierre Lacotte in 1971 that was based on Taglioni’s dance style, and the basis for this performance.

Set in Scotland, the story recounts the love of a mortal for a supernatural creature. James prepares for his marriage to Effie, a peasant girl. Secretly, though, his thoughts are possessed by a nocturnal vision of the beautiful Sylph. When the Sylph appears to him in real life, he follows her into the aerial realm inhabited by winged beings. His love for her is doomed, however, as the Sylph is no more than a frail and faint ghost, and the evil spells of the witch Madge eventually transform James into a hapless assassin.

The performance is rich and colorful, with numerous individual and group dance performances, lavish costumes, and spectacular scenery. Various levels of staging allow many of the dancers to observe and fly through the scenery throughout Act 2, when the drama takes place in the fairy realm. All the performers, including the witch, are magnificent in this recreation of one of the important ballets of the Romantic period.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

image_description=La Sylphide

product_title=Schneitzhoeffer: La Sylphide
product_by=Choreography by Pierre Lacotte, after Filippo Taglioni. Aurélie Dupont, Mathieu Ganio, Corps de Ballet and Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris, Ermanno Florio.
product_id=TDK DVW-BYSYL [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 5:09 PM

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 8

The group performed all 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J. S. Bach in the course of one year, traveling to a variety of churches in Europe beginning in Weimar, and culminating in three Christmastime concerts at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. For the most part, each performance featured cantatas written by Bach for the particular liturgical feast day on which the concert was presented. All the concerts were recorded live, this set containing the programs of September 28 and October 7, 2000, the fifteenth and sixteenth Sundays after Trinity, at the churches Unser Lieben Frauen in Bremen and Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santiago de Compostela, respectively.

Given that the group had been traveling, rehearsing, and peforming a different handful of cantatas week after week for nine months, one would think the members would have run out of steam when these concerts took place. Indeed, Sir John writes in the liner notes that “our approach was influenced by several factors: time (never enough), geography (the initial retracing of Bach’s footsteps in Thuringia and Saxony), architecture (the churches both great and small where we performed), the impact of one week’s music on the next and on the different permutations of players and singers joining and rejoining the pilgrimage, and, inevitably, the hazards of weather, travel and fatigue.” So do these performances reflect the ravages of this devilish performance schedule? Far from it, the performances are fresh, energetic, sensitive, and suffused with the spirit of Bach at its finest.

This set, one of the first two to be released—the other, recorded in London, includes three cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist and three for the First Sunday after Trinity—contains two of my favorites (well, really, my favorite is whichever one I’m listening to at the moment), “Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? BWV 138” and the solo cantata for soprano “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV 51.” In the heart-rending opening movement of BWV 138, Bach gives us a wonderful mixture of recitative for the middle voices—alto and tenor soloists—skilfully intermeshed with the chorale of the title (Why are you troubled, my heart) sung by the full chorus. The same forces are employed in the third movement, which follows a bass recitative and is itself followed by solo movements for tenor, bass, and alto. For the closing chorale, Bach foregoes the usual plain, chordal setting and instead gives us a full-scale “chorale-prelude”-type setting.

The mood of next cantata on the program, “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan II” BWV 99, contrasts greatly, reflecting the praiseful text (What God does, is well done). In BWV 51 (Rejoice unto God in all lands!), the talented soprano soloist Marlin Hartelius acquits herself extremely well, as does the trumpet soloist, Niklas Eklund. Following a recitative, we hear a beautifully sensitive rendition of the aria “Höchster, mache deine Güte ferner alle Morgen neu” (Highest One, extend Thy goodness newly each morning). Next we get another chorale-prelude setting, but with the soloist instead of a chorus singing the chorale melody. The trumpet returns for the rousing “Alleluja!” that brings the work to a close.

The final cantata on disc 1, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan III” BWV 100, presents all six verses of the chorale text, each in a different setting: chorale-prelude setting for full chorus and orchestra, including flute, 2 oboes 2 horns, and strings; a contrapuntal duet between alto and tenor, with continuo; a soprano aria with flute obbligato; a bass aria with string accompaniment; an alto aria with oboe obbligato; and full chorus together with the full orchestra to balance the opening chorus and frame the whole work. There is no intermediate text, therefore no recitatives.

Disc 2 contains four cantatas: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” BWV 161; “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” BWV 27; Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben?” BWV 8; and “Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95. Translations of these titles—“Come, Sweet Hour of Death,” “Who Knows How Near My End Is?” “Dearest God, When Will I Die?” and “Christ Who Is My Life, which continues “to die is my reward”—clearly proclaim their subject. Death, according to the Lutheran tradition of Bach’s time, is viewed as sweet, desirable, and a release from what is regarded as an unfulfilled and difficult life. Nevertheless, in most of the music to which Bach set these words is not as happy and joyful as one might expect, given those—one might say lugubrious—texts. Indeed, as John Eliot Gardiner points out in his excellent program notes, BWV 95 uses four successive funeral hymns.

If this set is indicative of what is to come, Bach cantata fans should start saving now to purchase all of them. Of course, these same listeners should already own the 17 or so volumes released so far of the complete cantatas recorded by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir. But just think, you’ll never have to buy Bach cantatas again unless, of course, another group comes out with such first-class performances as these.

Note a possible confusion: four CDs of cantatas from the Pilgrimage were issued on the Archiv label by Deutsche Grammophon, which then backed out of the project. Sir John then established his own label, Moteverdi Productions, to continue the set, picking up from where DG left off.

Michael Ochs

image_description=Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8

product_title=Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8
product_by=Malin Hartelius; Katharine Fuge; William Towers; Robin Tyson; James Gilchrist; Mark Padmore; Peter Harvey; Thomas Guthrie; The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
product_id=Monteverdi Productions SDG 104 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 5:01 PM

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 6

Moreover, the cantatas have also been closely associated with the blossoming of the historical performance movement: the Leonhardt-Harnoncourt complete recordings on Teldec (begun in 1971) remain one of the movement’s distinctive and galvanizing achievements. The Leonhardt-Harnoncourt recordings were in many ways pioneering, nurturing the aesthetic appeal of period performance, establishing its commercial viability, and helping to define stylistic idioms. In 1994 Ton Koopman inaugurated a new cantata project that would combine public concert performances with a new complete recording series for Erato. If Leonhardt and Harnoncourt can be seen as establishing a new sense of historical style in their series, Koopman may be seen as celebrating the fluency of historical style in his.

The “house style” here favors shapely phrases that unfold with an easy swell and natural decay, often elegant, always contoured. Rhetorical inflection and dramatic dynamism are characteristic, though always in tension with a sense of decorum. The vocal sound favors a forward placement and a controlled vibrancy; rapid passage work is accomplished with seeming ease and impressive glottal articulation. And, though much of the expression is rooted in the gestural details, singers and instrumentalists alike render the details with a naturalness that allows them easily to integrate with the larger units of phrase. In contrast to a number of modern Bach interpreters who favor one-to-a-part choral forces, Koopman employs multiple singers in choral tuttis, reserving one-to-a-part textures for concertino passages. The tutti ensemble maintains throughout, however, a remarkable clarity of execution.

Volume Six of the series, initially issued in 1997 and re-issued here on the Antoine Marchand Challenge Classics label—Marchand took over the series from Erato in 2003—presents ten cantatas, the majority of which were written during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, 1723-24. For the large part of his first two years in Leipzig, Bach composed, rehearsed, and performed a new cantata weekly. This pace carried on at such length is impressive, to say the least, but it also might lead us to expect that in an output so large, the quality could not possibly be maintained at a consistently high level. Surely there must have been an “off” Sunday or two! However, undermining that expectation, the selection here teems with some of Bach’s most engaging and impressive music. Volume Six includes Bach’s first two cantatas as Thomaskantor, “Die Elenden sollen essen,” BWV 75 and “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes,” BWV 76. Both are large-scale works in two parts—Bach trying to impress his new employer with his fortitude?—and the latter is particularly compelling for the richness of its festive orchestration and the remarkable buoyancy of its opening fugue subject. Similarly, it would be difficult to surpass the fugues of “Nun ist das Heil,” BWV 50 and “Du Hirte Israel,” BWV104 for memorability. The latter may draw on the clichés of the pastoral idiom, but Bach turns the predictable into the sublime with a fugue subject of remarkable fluidity and grace. There are stunning moments of intimate expression, as well, as the tenor-bass duet, “Jesus soll mein alles sein” from “Singet dem Herrn,” BWV 190 with its haunting viola d’amore obligatto reveals. Thus the selected works document not only the remarkable inventiveness of Bach and his allegiance to the excellence of his work, but also his wide expressive range.

Volume Six also satisfies in a pedagogical way in which we can hear and ponder various scholarly attempts to deal with historical anomalies. Cantata 190, for instance, features Koopman’s reconstruction of missing parts; Cantata 59 offers a hypothetical solution to the problems of movement order; Cantata 50 is performed not only in its familiar double-choir form (likely a later revision), but also in a hypothetical, reconstructed version for one choir. The volume also includes two versions of “Lobe den Herrn,” BWV 69 and 69a, which gives the listener the chance to compare the interesting effects of revision in both transposition and instrumentation.

My criticisms of the volume are few, and chiefly lie outside the recordings themselves. A closer English translation would be beneficial. Bach’s musical language is often wonderfully sensitive to the imageful engagement of individual words, and the degree of freedom in the translations here sometimes makes this difficult to track. In other cases the translations are not so much free as wrong: “Der schlug in Demut an die Brust,” the publican’s beating his breast in repentance becomes mysteriously “Did smile upon his breast” (BWV 179); the Savior’s placing a crown on the heads of the faithful, “Setzt er den Gläubigen die Krone auf,” becomes “Around the Throne the Faithful may attend” (BWV 186). And to these infelicities, one might also add typographical errors in the program booklet that a fuller copy-editing might have caught.

Without question, the cantatas of J. S. Bach must loom large in our understanding and appreciation of the composer. Equally without question, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir have given us renditions that gratify and inform in great measure, indeed.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 5:00 PM

Trouble at the Volksoper

volksoper.jpgRudolf Berger has declared that he will be leaving his post as director of the Wiener Volksoper before his term expires. Der Standard looks at the troubled company — its second-class status, its search for an identity, its management problems — along with an interview of the departing Berger.

Posted by Gary at 9:14 AM

Florilegium at Wigmore Hall

wigmorehallinterior.gifby George Hall [The Guardian, 28 September 2005]

Bach's cantatas open a window onto the intensity of early 18th-century Lutheran piety. The text of No 199 begins with the image of a heart swimming in blood, then dwells on the anguished guilt of the sinner before he is reconciled to God in the joyful final aria.

Posted by Gary at 8:54 AM

September 27, 2005

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5

Such is the case with this recording, which stems from concerts given at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, on 30 June and 1 July 2004. As noted in the accompanying booklet, this recording is the result of a conscious effort to preserve some of the fine performances given in France in a series of recordings issued in conjunction with the Institut National de l’Audiovisual.

The seasoned Mahler conductor Bernard Haitink gives this performance the shape that it requires. Since he recorded Mahler’s Fifth Symphony several times in his career, the music is certainly familiar to him. Yet the freshness and spontaneity he brings to some of the tempo changes and transitional passages enhances the sense of continuity that Haitink brings to the work. This is particularly apparent in the Scherzo, which needs thoughtful conducting to make it function organically, rather than give the impression of a number of ideas strung together. Clarity is the hallmark of this movement, and some of the details found in this recording are not present in others. While some conductors maintain the line as the motives move through the orchestra, Haitink goes further, to bring out the accompanying lines that are essential to the textures Mahler intended for the work. Mahler had discussed the primacy of counterpoint around the time he composed this Symphony, and this recording confirms his consciousness of that musical element. Likewise, the clarity of orchestration that Mahler wanted to include in the score emerges in this performance. The brass have a burnished color that fits well with the rest of the ensemble, and they do not dominate the movement. The listener gets a sense that they have the capacity to intensify the sound and that the conductor is reserving that ability for those places that absolutely require it. As a result, the details emerge in this performance are not always evident in others. Haitink has met the challenge of this movement very well, and each movement of this Symphony bears the stamp of his insightful conducting.

The Adagietto that follows is a character piece in comparison to the Scherzo. Not only is the Adagietto much shorter in duration, but the scoring is for a smaller number of instruments, strings and harp only, in contrast to the full orchestra that is part of the Scherzo that precedes it. Haitink performs the Adagietto at a thoughtful pace, placing it among the longer interpretations of the score. Yet his tempos allow him to bring out the intensity of the strings of the Orchestra National de France, an aspect of their ensemble that other conductors do not always achieve so well. For him, this movement is a song without words for the orchestra, and the slower tempos create a sense of timelessness that fits the text of the song that serves as its basis.

Likewise, the Rondo-Finale’s sprawling dimensions pose no problems in Haitink’s interpretation, which makes use of spacious tempos that allow the various tunes that comprise the movement to be heard clearly. He brings out the motives from Mahler’s settings of poetry from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with an emphasis on the lyrical elements in this movement. By giving the thematic passages this slant, Haitink makes it easier for the listener to recall the music when Mahler dissolves those ideas into fragments later in the movement. Likewise, when Mahler reprises the chorale from the second movement, Haitink recalls the intensity that he had given its first occurrence. In fact, Haitink has given the first two movements a somber, imposing, character that allows the finale movement, the Rondo-Finale, with its well-paced tempos and clear form, to serve well as a foil for the earlier ones.

Again, it is the details that set this recording apart from others, since Haitink creates textures that are faithful to the score. Nowhere does a solo part or solo section overbalance the orchestra, which maintains its ensemble throughout. This approach is at once sensible and definitely satisfying. While some performances that make use of breathtaking, this recording presents a more measured interpretation of the score.

This recording taken from live concert performances benefits well from the hall, which is one of Paris’s finer ones. Audience sounds are imperceptible until the end, when the extended applause responds appropriately to the work. It is even possible hear the moment when Haitink must have returned to the stage or taken a solo bow, because of the audience’s suddenly increased enthusiasm. The audience clearly appreciated the performance and responded accordingly. This concert is memorable for a number of reasons, and certainly worthy of the criteria Radio France established for preserving this and other fine performances as a means of preserving those “unique moments, often highly charged with emotion.”

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

image_description=Mahler: Symphony No. 5

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Posted by Gary at 10:03 PM

Cardillac at l'Opéra de Paris

nagano.jpgL'événement "Cardillac" déçoit à demi par défaut de finesse et de fantastique

[Le Monde, 26 September 2005]

Cardillac (1926), du compositeur allemand naturalisé américain Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), d'après une nouvelle d'E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mademoiselle de Scudéry (1819), est devenu une rareté à laquelle les scènes lyriques préfèrent aujourd'hui Matthis le peintre, (1935), un ouvrage plus long, plus lourd, plus typique du Hindemith de la maturité. C'est dire que sa création, samedi 24 septembre, à l'Opéra de Paris, dans une mise en scène d'André Engel, est un événement singulier, d'autant que la musique de Hindemith est rarement jouée en France.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

A timeless jest is polished

rossini_char.jpgBy Justin Davidson [Newsday, 27 September 2005]

An assortment of 19th century European nobility sequestered in a sumptuous hotel: What could be the setup for a murder mystery or a reality show serves equally well for a comic opera, Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims." The title speaks of a voyage, but these pampered travelers aren't going anywhere: There's a shortage of horses, it seems. Instead, they while away a couple of acts in vocal arabesques.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 AM

A Lithuanian Soprano Creates Her Own Ariadne

Urmana_small.jpgBy Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 27 September 2005]

Since 1993, when she first sang the title role of Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Metropolitan Opera, the soprano Deborah Voigt has pretty much owned the role at the house. But Ms. Voigt has other challenges on the horizon now. So the company brought back its alluring Elijah Moshinsky production of this Strauss favorite on Saturday afternoon with the Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana.

Posted by Gary at 8:31 AM

September 26, 2005

Tosca at the Wiener Staatsoper

Nadja MichaelGroße Versprechen und erhebliche Erosions-Wunden

[Die Presse, 26 September 2005]

Nadja Michael und Samuel Ramey debütierten, Johan Botha überzeugte in Puccinis "Tosca".

Da war einmal die Freude über die Wiederkehr von Samuel Ramey, der sich erstmals in Wien als Scarpia präsentierte: ein weder dämonischer, noch spürbar aggressiver, sondern sehr nobel wirkender, stimmschön - also, wenn man so will, besonders hinterfotzig agierender - Polizeichef.

Posted by Gary at 10:07 PM

On Wings of Jewish Songs — Music from the New Jewish School

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, serious writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Mendele Moicher Sforim produced poetry, stories, and novels in Yiddish that captured the imagination of Jews worldwide. At the same time, Jews became conscious of a repertoire of songs and melodies--old ones passed down from earlier generations and new ones that sprang up--in Yiddish, as well as sacred music in Hebrew. Collections of such music were published, beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing till today.

What is called the “New Jewish School of Music” has its roots in these secular and sacred songs, which from the early twentieth century were also used by “serious” or “classical” composers. For this recording, the artists have chosen 36 items that date primarily from the first half of the twentieth century, some for solo piano, most for voice and piano.

The singer featured on this CD is the American-born and -educated mezzo-soprano Helene Schneidermann, who has been with the Stuttgart State Opera for more than twenty years. She has performed dozens of roles in opera houses in the United States, Europe, and Israel, including Carmen, Orlofsy in Fledermaus, Maddalena in Rigoletto, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Her rich mezzo voice is excellent for the more serious works on the recording, but Schneidermann also gives a spirited and light-hearted rendering when it is called for. One of the latter, “Ich bin a bal-agole” (I am a coachman), was written by Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962). Son of the cantor and composer Baruch Leib Rosowsky, Solomon was a composer, musicologist, collector and editor of Jewish music, music critic, teacher, and author of The Cantillation of the Bible: The Five Books of Moses.

Interspersed between the songs are four sets of works for solo piano by Alexander Krejn, his “Jewish Dances,” op. 50, performed by Jascha Nemtsov. Born and educated in Russia, Nemtsov graduated with distinction from the Leningrad Conservatory in 1986, and six years later moved to Stuttgart, Germany, where he still lives. His sensitive playing of the solo works and the relatively simple accompaniments suits the music very well.

Like Rosovsky, Krejn (1883-1951) was born into a musical family. His father was a klezmer musician who played violin at Jewish weddings, and his six brothers all became musicians. Kreijn achieved his greatet success as a composer for the Yiddish theater in Russia during the 1920s. The Opus 50 dances are drawn from some of his theater works. After Jewish music was banned in the Soviet Union, Kreijn wrote works unrelated to his career up till then.

The best-known of the composers on this CD is Lazare Saminsky, who is represented by four works at the beginning and three at the end of the recording. Saminsky, who grew up in Russia and emigrated to New York when he was nearly 40, became music director for Temple Emanuel, which has been called the “Vatican” of the Reform Jewish movement. If anyone can be called the Grand Old Man of New Jewish Music, it is Saminsky (whose dates, 1882-1959, are erroneously given as 1959-1982!).

The first work on the recording is “Shir Hashirim,” Saminsky’s setting of the first few sentences of the Song of Songs in Hebrew. It is appropriately prayer-like, featuring simple harmonies played mostly in chords in the piano. It sticks close to the tonic, like Torah chanting, and features flourishes at ends of some of the sentences. The Hebrew pronunciation (as well as the transliteration in the booklet) are inconsistent and, in some places, simply wrong. Nevertheless, starting off the recital with a prayerful Bible passage sets a good tone for what is to come.

Of the other composers represented on this CD, the best known is Joseph Achron (1886-1943), whose “Po En-Harod” (Here is En-Harod) in Hebrew is a tribute to a kibbutz in Israel.

Michael Ochs

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Posted by Gary at 8:46 PM

SCHUMANN: Liederkreis, op. 24; Dichterliebe, op. 48

The first release includes the cycles Liederkreis, op.24 and Dichterliebe, op. 48, as well as “Der arme Peter” from Schumann’s Romances and Ballades, op. 53 (no. 3), and the song “Belsatzar”, op. 57. Bauer has an engaging sound, and his command of the text is unquestionably solid. Working together, Bauer and Hielscher achieve a remarkably fine balance and convincing interpretation of these two major sets of Lieder. As familiar as the music may be, their approach conveys a freshness often found in live performances that is sometimes difficult to capture on a recording.

Bauer’s voice is natural for Lieder, and his range of expression is well within the scope of the literature selected for this recording. He is sensitive to the poetry, and brings out critical lines, as occurs with the telling treatment of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden,” the fifth of Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 24, with the short utterances and pauses that are appropriate to the text. At the same time, he allows some lines to linger just enough to reinforce the meaning. His tone rings, at times, like a warm cello, and this adds to the ambiance of the performance.

Hielscher’s accompanying is at once discreet and authoritative. She sets a tone in “Warte, warter, wilder Schiffmann,” the next song in the Liederkreis, that allows the singer to open the piece with the necessary brilliance. Her playing reflects a sensitivity that is often extolled, but not always heard. It is welcome here, where the accompanist and the vocalist must unite to present the Lieder as a kind of chamber music. At times the piano must be prominent, but not for the extended passages as occurs with some of Brahms’s Lieder. At some points, the accompaniment requires a full sound that must not overpower the singer, and Hielscher is clearly sensitive to such moments in the score. The give-and-take of these performers is entirely appropriate to these songs, and is borne out in the later set, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, where the accompaniment has a more involved role in that cycle.

The opening song of the Dichterliebe is particularly effective with its tentative, somewhat hovering sense of rhythm that solidifies once the voice enters. Upon entering, Bauer conveys a musing, dreaming quality, which sets the tone for the cycle. This contrasts their more decisive approach to “Ich grolle nicht,” a turning point in the cycle, where the perspective of the narrator shifts, and this is clear in Bauer’s dramatic – and wholly musical – execution of the final strophe. Such definition is evident in the subsequent song and those that follow, and Hielscher confirms that in her approach to the accompaniment, which is prominent without being intrusive. “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” has a dance-like quality that suggests in its conclusion the kind of gesture Mahler would use in “Des Antonius Fischpredigt” and some other points in his Wunderhorn settings. (In fact, the couple has released a recording of Mahler’s Lieder, which merits attention for the effective performances it captures.)

“Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen” retreats from this more extroverted style, allowing the ditty in the title to emerge from the lingering tempo they use to approach this song. From the pacing given to this and the remaining pieces in the cycle, it is clear that Bauer and Hielscher worked out their interpretation of this familiar music, and it is a convincing one. Those who want to hear a fine singer matched with an equally sensitive pianist will enjoy their performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. The title “Die alten bösen Lieder” [“The old, bad songs”] is hardly appropriate for this fresh and convincing performance of that song and the entire cycle. For those who wish to hear more from these performers the two additional pieces included on this recording, “Der arme Peter” and “Belsazar,” are worth hearing in Bauer’s interpretation. In these more sustained Lieder, Bauer offers a laudable presentation of the text with his clear diction and sensitivity to both the rhythms of the music and those of the poetry.

In these songs and the others on this CD, the couple demonstrates a masterful approach to Schumann’s Lieder, and they should offer some excellent interpretations in the remainder of his repertoire in subsequent volumes of the series. Already the second volume of the series is announced, and it includes selections from Liebesfruhling, op. 37, “Minnespiel”, op. 101, and Lieder aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 98a. Given the quality of the first release, the next should be worth hearing, along with the rest of this exciting new edition of Schumann’s Lieder.

While it is not entirely essential when the focus should be on the fine performance, the liner notes are minimal, with the entire insert typeset on two pages. Since this is well-known repertoire by Schumann, it should not be a problem to find texts elsewhere, either by consulting editions of the music or other CDs. Naxos makes texts and translations available at the following URL: This is a small concession that should be no means detract from the fine performance found on this recording.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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Schumann Lieder 1 (series).
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Posted by Gary at 8:23 PM

Arvo Pärt: A Tribute

Arvo Pärt: A Tribute, was released in celebration of Arvo Pärt's 70th birthday on September 11, 2005. This compilation disc offers an exquisite retrospective of the composer’s choral music. Nearly all of Pärt's choral music comes from his second period, in the now familiar tintinnabuli style and with sacred texts. Despite the technique's strict rigidity, the sustaining of a single triad throughout the work, the works on this recording represent great variety. Over the past thirty years or so Pärt has expanded his emotional palette by varying the textures of tintinnabuli.

The second track, the Women With The Alabaster Box, evokes the cold artic north of the Baltic. The sound is hollow and stark with wide voicings and slow moving tempo and harmonic motion. In a complete contrast the short Bogoroditse Djevo, the Eastern Orthodox Ave Maria, is light and quick. This joyous setting is Russian in style with a thick but bright harmonic texture. Pärt also achieves great warmth in his setting of I am the True Vine. The harmonic progressions are rich and sonorous and even include occasional, vague melodic ideas in the soprano. The piece with the densest and fullest sound is the fabulous Which Was The Son Of... . The frequently repeated words “which was the son of” are set with great variety from pulsing incantation to strong declamation. Driving rhythmic patterns build up to large full climactic cluster chords and ultimately a beautiful resolution at the final cadence at “God.”

As a compilation, this disc includes three choirs all led by Paul Hillier. There is also variety in the performances because of the nature of the choirs. The Estonian Chamber Choir has quickly risen in the public eye as one of the leading European Choirs. Their singing is robust yet clean, virtuosic yet subtle, and extremely passionate. The Theater of Voices, Hillier's regular ensemble, carries the bulk of the CD with beautiful clarity. A smaller group, their sound is quite refined and clear with precise intonation and uniformity across all parts. Joining them on three tracks is the Pro Arte Singers, bulking their numbers, but maintaining the exquisite sound.

The liner notes provide a little background to Pärt's music, the tintinnabuli style, and the text and origin of each work. But it is the music and the performance that sets this recording apart from many contemporary choral releases. Hillier's scholarship and artistry bring out the subtlety and passion in Pärt's music with honesty and integrity. Hillier notes in the liner booklet that “Arvo Pårt's music is now famous.” What he humbly fails to mention, is that in large part it is due to him.

Adam Luebke

image_description=Arvo Pärt: A Tribute

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Posted by Gary at 8:07 PM

LIDERMAN: The Song of Songs

The text is a new translation by Chana and Ariel Bloch. In their notes to the work, they remark how exceptional the text is in a Biblical context, principally by its erotic nature, a compelling evocation of love at times quite physical. By its eroticism, amid the stern Biblical passages that surround it, the “Song of Songs” is indeed exceptional. The tone of the text itself, however, is entirely Biblical, deeply passionate about its subject matter, the narration of a lovers’ tale in sensuous detail.

While there is some fine writing for voice, chorus, and for a small ensemble of instruments (including a rocketing line for piccolo that returns as a refrain), the way in which the piece is put together shows Liderman’s accomplishment as a composer. New ideas are introduced sparingly, and one has the impression of material reused and reworked so as to create an immediate sense of familiarity. Like a finely tailored suit, the work fits one’s sensibility immediately; the effect is of something quite familiar and yet refreshingly new. This is the hallmark of craft: unobtrusive and yet substantial, fresh but not grating or intrusive.

The work owes something to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, although it is nowhere like the hard scrabble of that most curious thing. The progress of the piece is a little like Stravinsky’s “ribbon of time”--the sense of being immersed in the narrative, as if one were looking on at a lovers’ tryst, almost but not quite to point of voyeurism (whereas in Noces one has the sense of having wandered into the wedding proceedings almost against one’s better judgement). This is the gift of opera, and it would behoove Bridge to give us something of Liderman’s operatic oeuvre, perhaps his award winning Antigona Furiousa from 1991.

The use of the various ensembles also resembles Noces : their juxtaposition, pleasantly surprising and subtle at times, adds to the spontaneity of the narrative. The soprano Elissa Johnston does fine work as the Shulamite; her lover, the tenor Charles Bland, is a little overshadowed by both her voice and the voluptuousness of her role. The Chamber Chorus of the University of California at Berkeley, under the direction of Marika Kuzma, and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, David Milnes conductor, round out the complement with some good work. Liderman’s writing for the chorus is particularly notable: unobtrusive but solid, it hovers above the proceedings, again a sign of fine operatic chorus writing.

Bridge Records, like Lovely Music (reviewed elsewhere on this site), has been around long enough to establish a reputation at the capable hands of Becky and David Starobin. Bridge and Lovely stand at the forefront of a host of small labels that give the term independent label an authentic and reputable meaning. Their website is The presence of funding from the Alice M. Ditson fund should be noted here: Ms. Ditson’s bequest, made over a half century ago now, has come in aid of a quite remarkable number of musical enterprises, invariably of good quality. Were the world peopled with a few more patron like Alice Ditson, new music and good musicology would be in a much better state than it is today.

The recording would make a wonderful gift to someone inclined toward good vocal music or with an interest in Biblical literature. The dissonant nature of the work, like everything else about it, is held in firm hand, and thus someone who is not an amateur of new music will find it agreeable none the less. Highly recomended.

Murray Dineen
University of Ottawa

image_description=Jorge Liderman: The Song of Songs

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Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

The Opera That Chooses the Nuclear Option

By Matthew Gurewitsch [NY Times, 25 September 2005]

JULY 16, 1945. The gadget, as the scientists are calling it, has been hoisted up its tower. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army commander of the Manhattan Project, is beating up on the weatherman. Thunderheads have materialized from nowhere, threatening to set off the blast too soon. "The test will proceed as scheduled," Groves insists. "I demand a signed weather forecast. I warn you, if you are wrong, I will hang you."

The test in question - code name, Trinity - is the detonation of the first atomic bomb. And no one knows how it will go: the atmosphere itself could catch fire, scorching the planet, singeing the blue from the sky.

Posted by Gary at 9:39 AM

Mathis der Maler in Hamburg

Klangkultur als Hochleistungssport

Von Werner Theurich [Spiegel Online, 26 September 2005]

Saisonstart an der Hamburgischen Staatsoper: Die neue Chefin Simone Young bot zum Auftakt Paul Hindemiths Oper "Mathis der Maler" als klangmächtiges Prachtstück samt Kunstkontroverse. Ein kapitaler Kraftakt für das Ensemble - und fürs Publikum.

Ein sensibler Künstler ist zu besichtigen, nicht im Elfenbeinturm, sondern mitten im Leben, zwischen Politik, Krieg und Unterdrückung: Hamburgs neue Opernintendantin Simone Young wählte Paul Hindemiths klangmächtige Künstleroper "Mathis der Maler" als erste Premiere ihrer Amtszeit und bestätigte damit ihre Liebe zur Opulenz, Dramatik und orchestraler Prachtentfaltung, wie sie sie schon mit ihrer deftigen Interpretation der "Turangalila"-Sinfonie von Olivier Messiaen bei ihrem Konzertstart zelebrierte.

Posted by Gary at 9:24 AM

Cardillac at Opéra Bastille, Paris

By Andrew Clements [The Guardian, 26 September 2005]

Productions of Hindemith's Cardillac since the composer's death in 1963 can probably be counted on one hand. Even the substantial revision of the score carried out in the 1950s failed to cement its place in the repertory. Now the Paris Opera is trying to rehabilitate it, and, while the new production is not a total triumph, it would be hard today to make a better case for Cardillac than this.

Posted by Gary at 9:16 AM

Plenty of Gallic grace, but a lack of passion

[Financial Times, 25 September 2005]

The mighty Met inaugurated its season last Monday with the usual brouhaha, conspicuous social consumption and some operatic vaudeville, writes Martin Bernheimer.

The first item on the programme – a bit of this and a bit of that – was Act One of Le Nozze di Figaro, with Bryn Terfel impersonating the amiable former barber of Seville and James Levine, the resident übermaestro, serving Mozart in the pit.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

De Simone rewrites Paisiello

By Pier Paolo De Martino [Il giornale della musica, 26 September 2005]

'Socrate immaginario', a biting and provocative 'commedia per musica' – the text of which was probably the result of collaboration between an expert librettist the likes of Giovan Battista Lorenzi and the keen intellect of Ferdinando Galiani – returns to the San Carlo Theatre after forty years, thanks to Roberto De Simone, who, as the playbill explains, has edited the music and come up with a 'dramaturgical rewriting' of the opera.

Posted by Gary at 9:01 AM

Damrau, soprano with big future, stars in Met debut

By Ronald Blum [AP, 26 September 2005]

NEW YORK (AP) — Diana Damrau smiled, giggled and pranced around the stage as her brilliant coloratura filled the Metropolitan Opera House. She needed only a few notes to show she has a big future.

The 34-year-old German soprano made her Met debut Saturday as saucy Zerbinetta in the first performance this season of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” and when she finished her big second-act aria, “Grossmaechtige Prinzessin,” she was rewarded with a 70-second cheering ovation.

Posted by Gary at 8:56 AM

'Carmen' glistens, fascinates

By Wynne Delacoma [Chicago Sun-Times, 26 September 2005]

When it comes to operatic icons, Bizet's Carmen is in a class by herself. She has strong competition from leading ladies of the other operas that perennially top audience's Most Favorite lists -- Mimi in Puccini's "La boheme'' and two of Verdi's most memorable creations: Violetta of "La traviata'' and Aida. This being opera, they all wind up as corpses.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 AM

A Celebratory Crown of Froth Fit for a King

By Anne Midgette [NY Times, 26 September 2005]

Il Giglio d'Oro, the Golden Lily, is the name of the inn where Rossini's "Viaggio a Reims" is set. And Rossini gilded this lily with a vengeance.

An occasional piece written to celebrate the coronation of Charles X of France in 1825, "Il Viaggio" impractically called for 10 or 12 soloists. It is a long and almost plotless excuse for one musical set piece, one star turn, after another.

Posted by Gary at 8:49 AM

'Falstaff' With All the Details in Place

By Anne Midgette [NY Times, 26 September 2005]

Verdi's rich "Falstaff" pours out ideas in a fast-moving stream of glinting music. In James Levine's hands at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening, the score emerged from the first notes as burnished, full-bodied and warm as the title character himself. Then Dr. Caius (Peter Bronder in his Met debut) took the stage and began singing in a strong, firm tenor.

When such a small part is so well cast, you are in for an unusual evening; the attention to detail that characterized this performance has become, unfortunately, unusual.

Posted by Gary at 8:46 AM

Welcome to the Golden Age

By Jay Nordlinger [NY Sun, 26 September 2005]

Over the weekend, the Metropolitan Opera presented two great operas, to magnificent effect. On Friday night, it was Verdi's "Falstaff." And on Saturday afternoon, it was Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos." We'll consider the second performance first.

In recent memory, the Met has had many top singers in "Ariadne": Jessye Norman and Deborah Voigt as the Prima Donna; Tatiana Troyanos and Susanne Mentzer as the Composer; Kathleen Battle and Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta. The current cast includes Violeta Urmana (the Prima Donna), Susan Graham (the Composer), and Diana Damrau (Zerbinetta). It's hard to imagine that this team could ever be outdone.

Posted by Gary at 8:42 AM

September 25, 2005

BENNETT: The Mines of Sulphur

Until now, however, the work of this important company has not been featured on a commercially produced recording. Now that the precedent has been set for audio recording, perhaps some of their cutting edge productions can be recorded for DVD release as well. At any rate, this magnificent recording of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Beverly Cross’s little known opera The Mines of Sulphur sets the bar high for whatever releases might follow.

This is an extremely stage worthy work, which is probably why it will be a part of the New York City Opera’s 2005 season. Cross’s libretto, based on his earlier one-act play Scarlet Ribbons, is an eerie Gothic story of murder, moral decay, and characters of retribution who may or may not be real. Featuring a play-within-a-play that recalls the one in Hamlet – here, too, the consciences of the characters watching the play are troubled by it – and a delicious twist at the end, the work is memorably set in a decaying manor house in the West Country during a long dark winter. Cross creates realistic and / or enigmatic characters — one set of each — and writes a singable yet dramatically effective libretto. For the most part, the libretto could be produced successfully as a highly atmospheric and gripping play.

Such a production, however, would deprive us of Bennett’s score, and we would be the poorer for that. From his interest in jazz to his pursuit of the avant-garde at Darmstadt, Bennett has always been a composer and performer with a versatile range. But it is his experience with film scoring that perhaps served him best here. Although the first film he scored, a documentary about the history of insurance, probably did not stretch his dramatic insight, later scores, such as that for Stanley Donan’s 1958 classic Indiscreet, did. By the time he began working with Cross’s libretto, he knew how to create atmosphere and suggest character with deft and skillful gestures, and his insight into, and expressive writing for, characters are talents he shares with the best composers for the operatic stage. Reviewing the 2004 Glimmerglass Opera production for the New York Times, Johanna Keller wrote, “The musical language could be called loose serialism: atonal, but with recurrent melodic fragments and fleeting tonal centers.” The orchestral scoring is evocative and atmospheric as well as character-specific. The duet at the end of the original act 1 – more about the act divisions in a moment – for Rosalind (mezzo) and Jenny (soprano) is a wonderful, haunting, and prescient scene for the two women, and it is masterful writing for the voice as well as exemplary text setting. And, later, Rosalind’s “I want to leave this house” is one of the most effective passages in the work. The scene preceding the women’s duet, in which the troupe of actors set up and pointedly but playfully banter with each other, is terrific character-specific writing in which we quickly get a good sense of whom each of the actors is. It invites good singing-acting.

In this performance, the work for the most part gets the singing-acting it deserves. This recording was drawn from live performances, so we must remember that what works in the theater does not always transfer with equal success to a recording: we are only getting one dimension of the performance. While Beth Clayton’s sung performance as Rosalind is gorgeous and dramatically convincing, for instance, her spoken lines are less so. Caroline Worra as Jenny, the mysterious actress with a potent secret to share at the end, is very good as well, although she must deal with one of Bennett’s few problematic pieces of writing. At the end of her ballad about a troupe of actors, near the end of the opera, she must sing the important line, “They were infected with the plague,” which ends on a very high note and which is unintelligible. Bennett had to decide between musical and literal expressivity, and the former won. However, with the use of supertitles at the NYCO, everyone should get both effects. James Maddelena is tremendous as always; he could give diction lessons to about anyone singing in English today, and he executes that diction with a baritone voice of sustained and notable beauty. Brandon Jovanovich uses his powerful tenor voice well, and Kristopher Irmiter is convincing as Braxton, the landowner killed early in act 1, and the actor-manager of the acting troupe. The doubling of these two roles is required by the script, and it may tell us something about the strange appearance and disappearance of the actors. Are they even real? Finally, I must mention Michael Todd Simpson, who has several extended scenes as Tooley, one of the actors. Mr. Simpson, who possesses a strong rich baritone voice and who handles the acting chores of his two monologues with impressive craft, was a member of Glimmerglass Opera’s Young American Artists Program. He unfortunately will not be repeating the role at the NYCO. I’m sure whoever is engaged will be good, perhaps even as good as Mr. Simpson. But I doubt if he is better.

With the permission of Bennett, the three act opera is presented in two acts. The division between acts 1 and 2 bothered me. It seemed ill advised to interrupt the play-within-the-play. But doing away with the original break between acts 2 and 3 is a decided improvement, so I guess it works out even. (And makes for a somewhat shorter evening, although the work is not particularly long.)

Stewart Robinson, who has a keen sense of the work’s dramatic structure, conducts the performance. If at times the orchestra verges on overpowering the singers, we must remember that this is taken from live performances; it is not ever a threat to the singers. The orchestra plays for Robinson with brilliance and produces the stunning palette of colors required by Bennett’s orchestrations. Bennett should be grateful his work is in such gifted hands.

The recorded sound is outstanding, thanks to producer Blanton Alspaugh and sound engineer John Newton. The two CD set comes attractively packaged with substantial notes by the conductor.

Anyone able to see the work in New York should make a point of doing so. It is richly theatrical and, like all opera, is meant to be experienced in the theater. With many in this cast repeating their performances, it should be a memorable evening. For those unable to make it to Lincoln Center, however, this is an important recording of an opera that deserves a wider audience. Don’t miss it if you care about modern opera.

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

image_description=Sir Richard Rodney Bennett: The Mines of Sulphur

product_title=Sir Richard Rodney Bennett: The Mines of Sulphur.
Libretto by Beverly Cross.
product_by=Kristopher Irmiter, bass-baritone; Beth Clayton, mezzo-soprano; Brandon Jovanovich, tenor; James Maddelena, baritone; Caroline Worra, soprano; and members of the Glimmerglass Opera cast. Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra conducted by Stewart Robertson.
product_id=Chandos CHSA 5036(2) [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 10:28 PM

GLINKA: Ruslan and Lyudmila

The opera, known to most Western listeners primarily through its showpiece overture, is one of the most brilliant creations of 19th-century Russian music. In five acts with a prolog, it is enormous and difficult, requiring high virtuosity from both singers and instrumentalists; the score also presents a host of problems for stage directors as it defies all attempts at realistic staging. Meanwhile, conductors face numerous textological conundrums caused by the divergences in the existing sources and the lack of an authorial manuscript, believed to have perished in a fire.

A new Bolshoi Theater recording of the opera, made live in 2003 and recently released by PentaTone Classics, may help to solve some mysteries of Glinka’s masterpiece. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov claims that his production represents “the original version” of the work recreated from the newly found authoritative copies of the lost manuscript. Fans of the opera should not expect major revelations, however: while there are several discrepancies in pitch and rhythm throughout the score, the sequence and content of the material is essentially intact. Indeed, if some music on this recording proves unrecognizable, it is the unfortunate consequence of the performance quality of the new production.

To start with the singers, the ladies generally did better than the men. Alexandra Durseneva’s voice is a deep, rich contralto, a little heavy for my taste, but just sexy enough for the Middle-Eastern exotica of her character, prince Ratmir. Maria Gavrilova is a lovely Gorislava; she is by far the best singer in the lineup, which makes one wish that the composer had given her more than a cameo role. Ekaterina Morozova as Lyudmila is more disappointing: her coloratura is clean and precise, but is suitable more for the Queen of the Night (her signature part) than for a warm-blooded Russian princess; this is particularly noticeable in her Act 4 aria. Still more disappointing is Lyudmila’s beloved, Ruslan; the voice of Taras Shtonda, particularly in the barely perceptible low register, is thoroughly uninspiring. Valery Gilmanov appears to have given up on the whirlwind tempi of Farlaf’s buffo part: the Vivace assai of the famously Rossini-esque Act 2 rondo barely qualifies as a Moderato, completely destroying the hilarious effects of the scene. Maxim Paster’s ringing tenor with steady yet sweet upper register is perfect for Bayan; Vitaly Panfilov’s Finn, however, while technically flawless, is painfully devoid of color. Indeed, several singers on the recording seem to have sacrificed both richness of timbre and richness of interpretation to the goal of precisely rendering the notes of the carefully restored score. One wonders if such an approach would win any converts to Glinka’s genius.

It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous importance of the chorus in Glinka’s epic. According to Vedernikov, the emphasis placed in his production on the chorus as an ever-present commentator led him to abandon the realistic costume drama for an oratorio-like “mystery” (the one with a more contemporary look, as evident from the CD cover art). Unfortunately, as I have already commented in an earlier review for this site, the Bolshoi Theater’s chorus is weak, and has trouble keeping both the pitch and the beat. The introduction and finale – scenes that require more volume than precision – are less affected by this, but the quality is disastrous, for instance, in the Act 2 scene of Ruslan with the giant Head – the character represented by the unison male choir that must be perfectly in sync to achieve the desired effect.

Last but not least, Glinka’s opera lives and dies by its orchestration: as Vedernikov points out, apart from the complex, delicate accompaniment, there are more than 40 minutes of purely instrumental music in Ruslan. The fiendishly difficult score presents an evidently insurmountable challenge to the Bolshoi orchestra, the weakest spot of that theater’s productions over the past few years. As a result, Glinka’s sparkling orchestra comes across as dull, colorless, heavy, and more than occasionally out of tune. The tempo of the brilliant overture is sluggish at best, and even in that tempo the musicians are struggling.

Overall, the new Ruslan and Lyudmila recording is of value for a performer in need of consulting an authoritative version of Glinka’s score without visiting the notoriously mysterious Moscow archives. The rest of us may be better off staying faithful to the Mariinsky recording, or even the vintage 1978 Bolshoi production with Nesterenko, which Melodiya recently re-released on CD. After all, as the conductor tells us, this work is first and foremost a musical masterpiece; it should be approached as such.

Olga Haldey
University of Missouri—Columbia

image_description=Mikhail Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmilla

product_title=Mikhail Glinka: Ruslan and Lyudmilla
product_by=Taras Shtonda (Ruslan), Ekaterina Morozova (Lyudmila), Vadim Lynkovsky (Svetosar), Aleksandra Durseneva (Ratmir), Vitaly Panfilov (Finn), Maria Gavrilova (Gorislava), Valery Gilmanov (Farlaf), Maksim Paster (Bayan), Irina Dolzhenko (Naina); Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow; Alexander Vedernikov (cond.)
product_id=PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 034 [3CDs]

Posted by Gary at 8:00 PM

September 24, 2005

ROSSINI: L’Italiana in Algieri

By far one of the finest comedies in the operatic repertoire, L’Italiana in Algieri has always played the “little sister” to Rossini’s more famous Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but unlike the “older sister,” L’Italiana had a successful launch, and the proceeds from its 1813 premiere season saved the Teatro San Benedetto from bankruptcy. L’Italiana in Algieri also made its twenty-one year old composer the toast of Venice. The librettist, Angelo Anelli loosely based his drama on the legend of Roxelana, a young Russian girl who in 1523 was captured into slavery by the Turks, and who later, through her guile and intrigue married the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. There is another legend involving a young Italian noblewoman who was captured and sent to a harem in Algiers. The young woman was later set free and returned to Italy to, no less, sing the role of Isabella!

As was the custom in the nineteenth century and before, L’Italiana had previously been set to music by another composer, in this case Luigi Mosca, in 1808.

After a somber but comical beginning symbolizing the Sultan’s omnipresence, the overture which Stendhal considered frivolous, quickly and effectively mixes the love and mad cap themes in the opera, bringing to mind the different characters and situations in the opera.

Mario Pietri in the role of Mustafà sets the tone in the opening scene: a bit gruff, but gentle. His basso voice is well suited for this role, as is his perfect timing and comic mastery. A young Graziela Sciuti in the role of Elvira, delivers a delicate and solid performance as Elvira, the Sultan’s rejected love interest. Her crystal clear soprano shines in the Quintetto of Act 1. Baritone Marcello Cortis delivers a fine performance as the quintessential pompous and elderly suitor, Taddeo; however of all the principals, his is the least interesting rendition.

Of special notice is Cesare Valetti, a key participant in this recording. His Lindoro is expressive and graceful without being weak or affected, and from the start of his opening aria “Languir per una bella,” Valetti’s brilliant lyric voice soars over the orchestra with ease. There is no need for Valetti to worry over other younger singers of today in this role. Many speculate that operas are neglected for lack of female voices to carry the work, but in the case of L’Italiana one would venture to include the lack of tenors like Valetti.

Giulietta Simionato is somewhat limited in her coloratura, but her fluid singing, masterful technique, and elegant phrasing show her as a qualified and adept performer of Rossini’s and early nineteenth century music. In fact, it can be argued that Simionato’s participation in the revival of these early operas paved the way for future generations of singers. A great Dalila, Amneris, Mignon, Carmen and Azucena among others, Simionato is perfectly at ease in lighter roles, having successfully sung a number of comedies before taking on the role of Isabella.

Simionato imbues Isabella’s “Cruda sorte” with the fragility of a lost, bewildered young woman in search of the man she loves—a lullaby in sharp contrast to the subsequent “Qua ci vuol disinvolture” in which Isabella sheds her innocent image to disclose her determination and true intentions. In “Oh! Che muso, che figura!” rather than addressing the listener with mocking intentions, as the aria is often sung, Simionato, very effectively, almost whispers the words to herself, going back to the image of the bewildered young woman, as though she were laughing with, instead of at Mustafà’s unpleasant appearance. Her high notes are never forced, and her chest notes are natural. Likewise, her interpretation of “Per lui che adoro” is lovingly slow and deliberate, leaving one wandering who the recipient of her lament really is—just as intended by Rossini.

The music and story are fast paced, providing the audience with one musical situation after the next, and Giulini conducts with restraint and attention to detail—thus the nuances in the score are never lost or overshadowed by unnecessary embellishments or loudness. Rossini’s melodic invention is evident throughout, as is his superb use of the sound of the language in the riotous finale to Act 1, in which all the characters relate their state of mind to a sound, which the composer parallels to an instrument in the pit. The cast and orchestra are superb in the handling of this situation, capturing the Rossinian genius with an engaging verve, yet never overpowering one another.

Not only is this a delightful opera, overflowing with the composer’s magic, but all the interpreters are in top form, making for a most enjoyable listening experience. Though there are some cuts—few operas were not “cut” throughout the first half of the twentieth century—the recording holds its own against better known, more complete, later versions of Rossini’s masterpiece.

Daniel Pardo

image_description=Gioacchino Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri

product_title=Gioacchino Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri
product_by=Giulietta Simionato; Cesare Valletti; Mario Petri; Marcello Cortis; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala/Carlo Maria Giulini. BONUS: Unpublished excerpts from the Concert given by G. Simionato and C. Valletti in San Francisco – Live recordings: 1953 & 1954
product_id=Urania 22.275 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

Canadian Opera Co.'s 'Macbeth' falls flat

By JOHN COULBOURN [Toronto Sun, 24 September 2005]

TORONTO - If you don't believe that setting is important, chances are you've never tried falling asleep at a rock concert. Or making love in a cactus patch.

Or watching the Canadian Opera Company's latest staging of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth, for that matter.

Posted by Gary at 4:20 PM

The hopelessness of modern opera

[Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2005]

Andrew O'Hagan on why opera is not the kind of drama he can believe in when set in a modern context

The heart lifts whenever the great opera houses try their hands at something modern. But why does it lift? Why are we so married to the notion that the arts must go forward? We are always scampering after something new and progressive, perhaps to feel refreshed, perhaps to see our own time's reflection, but the classic operas require no updating.

Posted by Gary at 4:16 PM

Mimi Lives, as Bohème Hits Performance 1,166

By JEREMY EICHLER [NY Times, 24 September 2005]

Three days after opening its new season, the Metropolitan Opera wheeled out its popular production of "La Bohème" on Thursday night. It was the 1,166th performance of the work in the Met's history. That is a staggeringly high number, but then again, "Bohème" has become more than just one opera among others - it is a kind of ritual, an anthem. It is as if the season hasn't really begun until the consumptive lady sings.

Posted by Gary at 4:12 PM


by ALEX ROSS [New Yorker, 26 September 2005]

New recordings, from Wagner to Golijov.

The EMI label’s new version of “Tristan und Isolde,” starring Plácido Domingo, has received weirdly apocalyptic advance publicity: it has been described as the final large-scale opera recording in history. “Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio ‘Tristan’ May Be the Last Ever,” read a headline in the Times. With its opulent production values and showy cameos in minor roles—Ian Bostridge as the Shepherd; Rolando Villazón, Domingo’s heir apparent in the Italian tenor repertory, as the Young Seaman—the set is a throwback to the golden age of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when EMI summoned all-star casts to make generally unsurpassed recordings of “Don Giovanni,” “The Magic Flute,” “Fidelio,” “Tosca,” and, under the helm of Wilhelm Furtwängler, “Tristan.” They don’t make them like that anymore, but they are still making them. Virgin Classics, which is distributed by EMI, just issued a glamorous recording of Vivaldi’s previously unknown “Bajazet.” Decca is releasing a sumptuous studio recording of Richard Strauss’s “Daphne,” with Renée Fleming in the title role. There’s even a competing “Tristan” out, a feisty budget effort from the Naxos label. Where did the end-ofeverything story about EMI’s “Tristan” get started? Probably in EMI’s publicity department. Only in classical music would the alleged death of a genre be used to hype it.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Tristan und Isolde

Posted by Gary at 4:00 PM

SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar")

Lacking the bold thematic statements characteristic of his other works, the Thirteenth, both in music and text, is riddled with subtleties and innuendos designed to expose the musical oppression posed by the Soviet regime through a series of cleverly disguised understatements. The simplicity through which these ideas are realized is a compliment to Shostakovich’s pensive and mature style. If well-executed, a thoughtful interpretation would reveal the heart of what Shostakovich so desperately needed to express.

Shostakovich chose a collection of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko as the text. The title of the most notable of these poems, “Babi Yar,” is often used as a distinctive title for the whole symphony. Originally, the poem described the death and suffering of Ukrainian Jews by the hands of the Nazi Fascists. However, pressure from the government necessitated revisions that glorified the role of the Soviets in defeating the Nazi threat. Even though Yevtushenko adamantly denied having succumbed to the government pressure when revising the text of “Babi Yar,” outside of the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko was known to have reverted back to the original text.

As expected, Mariss Jansons led the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfinks in a faithful and insightful delivery of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.The opening Adagio begins in a hauntingly steady tempo. As indicated, the fluctuations in dynamics are gradual, and amazingly controlled in this recording. A carefully articulated chromatic motive sets the stage for the entrance of the chorus of male voices in a low register. The bass soloist, Sergei Aleksashkin, certainly captures the mood of the movement by echoing the somber style established by the orchestra and chorus. Later in the movement, moments of mounting tension characterized by painstakingly slow-moving crescendos add a sense of rising tension, ending suddenly through abrupt subito pianos.

The second movement is set to one of Yevtushenko’s more witty poems entitled, “Humor.” The text of this poem seems to imply the farcical nature of governments (in the general sense, not of specific governments), boasting that the powers in authority may control many aspects in the lives of people, but that they were impotent against humor. The lightest of all the other movements, the Allegretto tempo is a hair on the fast side which actually adds to the levity. A violin solo masterfully played expresses the playful style of this movement, which seems to poke fun at oppressive governments.

“In the Store,” a movement honoring the strength and courage of Russian women, can only be described as utterly respectful. The melodic lines are predominantly in the lowest registers, and are never rushed. It takes enormous patience and control to keep from rushing or inserting superfluous gestures into a movement that should be defined by rich harmonic textures. Kudos to Mariss Jansons for a demonstrating infinite patience and control to provide a performance that never once seemed hurried or exasperated. The bass soloist also proved his incredible versatility through changes in the color and timbre of his voice necessitated by the commanding score.
Appropriately named, “Fears,” the fourth movement of this symphony, fully lives up to its title. If listening to this movement in isolation without any of the background information, it would be easy to assume that the movement was part of a requiem mass. In actuality, the text urges the audience to remember their fears and fight complacent tendencies. It is no wonder the Soviet government may have been fearful of a work that encouraged outspokenness in the face of adversity. Once again, Aleksashkin portrays the severity of Yevtushenko’s poem with great facility. His voice was powerful and unwavering in a way that would please Shostakovich.

The final movement, “A Career,” opens with a refreshing statement from the flutes. In this coy Allegretto, Yevtushenko and Shostakovich threw caution to wind with a text that explicitly defies the pressure that would have them shape their careers through conformity and resignation. A credit to the performers, the untamed spirit of this movement was vividly illustrated on all levels. Certainly, EMI Classics has done a great service by releasing this authoritative recording of a brilliantly executed masterpiece.

Nathalie Hristov
Music Librarian
University of Tennessee

image_description=Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13

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product_id=EMI Classics 7243 5 57902 2 4 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:43 PM

September 22, 2005

TALLIS: Spem in alium – Missa Salve intemerata

The famous turbulence of England’s religious establishment in the sixteenth century, a bumpy see-saw ride between Roman and Protestant sensibilities, required of Tallis an unusual degree of adaptability. The range of his style, from pre-Reformation complex polyphony to the simple homophony of the English anthem, shows a composer attuned to his own compositional development, but equally mindful of the practical necessities of his vocation.

Much of the music on this recent release from Jeremy Summerly and the Oxford Camerata is from the early part of Tallis’s career, when the large-scale votive antiphon and florid counterpoint were pervasive. The recording focuses on the antiphon “Salve intemerata” and Tallis’s parody or “imitation” mass upon it. The antiphon is sumptuously expansive, and both it and the mass are rich in the contrapuntal interplay of lines and textures. The recording also features Tallis’s most extravagant work, the famous forty-voice motet, “Spem in alium.” Tallis here is perhaps responding to Alessandro Striggio’s “Ecce beata lucem,” another forty-voice tour de force, which the Italian composer could have brought with him to England on a diplomatic mission in 1567. But if its origins are speculative, its stature is not. One of the greatest manifestations of polychoralism, “Spem in alium” weaves imitative lines through the succession of eight choirs, unites all voices in sublime chordal homophony, and brings fragments of the tutti ensemble into exciting antiphonal dialogue.

These works and the few short English anthems that round out the recording are rendered with a welcome sense of direction. Summerly leads the Oxford Camerata with a sensitivity towards blossom and climax; the performances are dynamic and compellingly set in motion, never static. The choir sings generally with a full and robust sound--this is not the pristine, innocent blend of the Oxbridge chapel—and the strength of the singing can be exhilarating. However, maintained over vast stretches, it also can be a bit overwhelming. Here more variety in the level and intensity of the sound would be welcome, and might also encourage a more nuanced contour to the lines and overall clarity. The issue of blend seems most pressing in the treble. Significantly, however, in “Spem in alium,” the individuality of the treble voices underscore the linear nature of much of the work, something that can easily be veiled in the midst of so grand a sonority.

The Oxford Camerata, now in its twenty-first year, has been prolific in the recording of Renaissance polyphony. Here, on the five-hundreth anniversary of Tallis’ birth, their contribution to that celebration is a welcome one.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium – Missa Salve intemerata

product_title=Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium – Missa Salve intemerata
product_by=Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly, Director
product_id=Naxos 8.557770 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 4:47 PM

DONIZETTI: Francesca di Foix

A case in point is the melodramma giocoso entitled Francesca di Foix (1831). For instance, William Ashbrook, perhaps the most noted interpreter of Donizetti’s career, deemed this score “largely inconsequential,” suggesting as well that it was “not the expected sequel to Anna Bolena” (1830) and that it must have been composed with “minimal exertion.” The current re-examination of opera’s narrative has compelled scholars to take a different approach. No longer is it protocol to separate out works that somehow seem apart from the norm; rather it is important, especially in light of slow but steady publication of sets of critical editions, to acknowledge each work as a step in a composer’s compositional development. Hence, a recording of Francesca di Foix, especially one as well-performed as this latest addition to Opera Rara’s CDs of the works of Donizetti, becomes as important as it is entertaining.

Francesca di Foix was written for performance at the San Carlo in Naples for the onomastico or name day of Ferdinando II. Jeremy Commons, author of the CD liner notes, seems surprised by the subject of the work: it revolves around jealousy rather than love. Given the importance and international vogue of French opéra comique, the libretto, based on a subject set by Henri-Montan Berton, hardly seems out of place at all. Furthermore, the history of Donizetti’s opera speaks to its popularity. The gala starred the most important baritone of the primo Ottocento stage: Antonio Tamburini (who, let it be noted, sang the role of the King, the character who not only sorts of Francesca’s problems with her husband but who would have symbolized Ferdinando). Given that there was no such thing as an operatic repertory, it is unfair to judge the quality of Francesca’s music on its seven-performance run. Moved to the Teatro Fondo from the massive venue in which it was premiered, it nonetheless was returned to the San Carlo, where it was sung three more times. Its future after that is predictable; since occasional pieces generally were associated with the celebrations for which they were commissioned, it is highly unlikely that Donizetti would have considered offering his name-day present to the ruler of the city in which he was employed to theaters outside of Naples. He may have gained nothing more than fame from the work, but the fact that he plumbed it later for self-borrowings suggests that he was confident about the score. The comment of music publisher Guglielmo Cottrau (“the music is very feeble”) can easily be explained away; it was par for the course, indeed obligatory for publishers to speak ill of the music of composers in whose works they did not deal (in fact, Cottrau would not publish Donizetti’s music until later).

Assuming that Patric Schmid and Robert Roberts’ performing edition, based on the holograph score at the Naples Conservatory, has preserved the work’s historical integrity, Opera Rara’s Francesco di Foix is a delight. The recording’s cast features a now-familiar set of performers who excell in this repertory. Among these regulars are Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Pietro Spagnoli, and in another “breeches role,” Jennifer Larmore, all joined by Alfonso Antoniozzi. One comes to expect the highest quality from this core group and no one disappoints in this production. Particularly notable is Massis’ rendition of the cabaletta “Donzelle, si vi stimola,” a perfect example of the some of the inventive elements in this score. Massis and Ford offer a spectacular rendition of the stretta “Quante son delle civette” of Francesca and the Duke’s duet. As usual, Larmore’s performance is consistently excellent as is Spagnoli’s. If it is Opera Rara’s intent (and one must go by the liner notes in this case) to highlight Francesca di Foix as an opera semiseria, Antoniozzi’s interpretation, heard even in his entrance, “Che vita, della caccia” emphasizes the buffo elements of his role a bit too strongly. On the other hand, this interpretation may serve well for it allows listeners to link this score with roles like Dulcamara and Don Pasquale. Finally, the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir offers non-intrusive but substantive support that is right on the mark.

Francesca di Foix is no inconsequential work; rather it is a gem in miniature, featuring all of the stylistic elements of primo Ottocento opera in one single act. Kudos to Opera Rara for (re)introducing it to the world.

Denise Gallo

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product_id=Opera Rara ORC 28

Posted by Gary at 3:22 PM

STOCKMANN: Musica Nuptialis

In 1590 Bartholomaeus Stockmann published a collection of wedding motets, a number of which are associated with particular weddings, including that of the Danish Princess Elisabeth to Duke Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in 1590. This present recording on the Danish national record label, Da Capo, is in turn dedicated to the present Crown Prince and Princess—the Prince is a descendant of the 1590 royal couple—on the occasion of their first wedding anniversary. A gratifying confluence of events!

We know little of Stockmann. For a brief period he was Cantor in Flensburg. Later he surfaces as a bass singer in the royal choir in Copenhagen, significantly only a few weeks after being jailed for a now unknown offense. Musica Nuptialis claims historical distinction as the earliest collection of motets composed in Denmark.

The motets, perhaps owing to their nuptial context, are generally bright and animated works. Where motivic imitation is used, the material tends towards the lively. And this, with much use of chordal material, ornamental melisma, and even some sprightly dance-like rhythms, sounds closer to the madrigal vocabulary than the late sixteenth-century motet, albeit without the madrigal’s representational bent. The Latin texts are sometimes marked with Classical allusion; other times they present Biblical love poetry from the “Song of Songs.” Interestingly, the “Song of Songs” texts can be erotically intense, and with Stockmann’s distance from a staid view of the motet, one might have expected a more impassioned engagement of these texts.

The performances by Capella Hafniensis are accomplished renditions. The ensemble has effectively attended to expressive contour at the level of both the note and the phrase, and their bright and free sound is well matched to the affectivity of the motets. Additionally, the members of the ensemble seem particularly responsive one to another, with gestural interplay a refined part of their performance.

The recording also includes a few New Years’ motets from 1584 and a handful of organ intabulations of motets and chansons. These latter pieces, unattributed in the sources but conjecturally associated with Cajus Schmiedtlein, are “division” or “diminution” works, a popular ornamental style where the keyboardist plays a transcription of a polyphonic vocal piece whose upper voice has been decorated with florid passage work. The organist, Allan Rasmussen, plays these with engaging confidence, and he does so on the famous Compenius organ now at Frederiksborg Castle. The organ is a jewel of color and vocality, and its presence on this recording is a most satisfying coda in this salute to Danish music.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 3:08 PM

Lado Ataneli — Opera Arias

The liner notes, taken verbatim from Ataneli’s web page (, praise the singer as “one of the world’s most sought after interpreters of Verdi, Puccini and verismo roles,” and as such, the disc features Ataneli in fourteen well known musical excerpts from operas by Puccini, Leoncavallo, Ponchielli, Giordano, and Verdi. Regretfully, in the “verismo” canon as with Ponchielli, there is only one selection per composer, and the rest of the tracks are devoted to some of Verdi’s most demanding music for the baritone.

Pagliacci: Si puo? (Tonio)

Un Ballo in maschera: Alla vita (Renato)
Un Ballo in maschera: Alzati!...Eri tu (Renato)
Rigoletto: Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (Rigoletto)
La Traviata: Di provenza il mar (Giorgo Germont)
Don Carlo: O Carlo, ascolta (Posa)
Otello: Vanne…Credo in un Dio crudel (Iago)
Il Trovatore: Il balen del suo sorriso (Conte di Luna)
Macbeth: Perfidi!...Pieta, rispetto, amore (Macbeth)
Nabucco: Ah prigionero io sono!...Dio di Giuda (Nabucco)
La Forza del Destino: Morir! Tremenda cosa!...Urna fatale del mio destino (Don Carlo)

La Fanciulla del West: Minnie, della mia casa son partito (Jack Rance)

La Gioconda: O monumento! (Barnaba)

Andrea Chénier: Nemico della patria?! (Gerard)

After listening to this disc several times, and in spite of some very positive and encouraging reviews of live performances, I cannot warm up to this singer—he can deliver some clear high notes, he has excellent diction, and his instrument has a pleasant timbre and the warm, dark quality required to sing some of these roles. To this listener, however, Ataneli offers little interpretive understanding of the subtleties inherent in each of the characters’ emotions. Through most of the recording Ataneli sounds as though he is holding back or bored (Otello’s Credo, Trovatore’s Il balen del suo sorriso, Pagliacci’s Si puo), that he is singing outside of his range (Ballo’s Alla vita…Alzati…Eri tu!) or that he is singing without knowing what the words mean. Though he has been praised for “glittering high notes and irreproachable legato,” on this recording, he occasionally eliminates or avoids legato, at times the forte is unpleasant, and more than once the heavy vibrato almost becomes an annoying wobble.

Ataneli has been compared to the greatest baritones of yesteryear and hailed as their successor, and in fact his instrument is reminiscent to the likes of Bastianini, Bruson, Milnes, Capuccilli, but listening to this disc makes one wish one were listening to them, instead.

Chénier’s Nemico della patria!, and Rigoletto’s Cortigiani, vi razza dannata come closest to the interpretation which one would expect, and are by far the best tracks in the disc, filled with emotion and conviction. Ataneli’s first disc is sincere, and well intentioned, but marred by some inconsistencies which in time he will overcome, and at a time when there is a dearth of baritones, he is a welcomed addition.

Daniel Pardo

image_description=Lado Ataneli — Opera Arias

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Posted by Gary at 12:09 PM

Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England

The Beggar’s Opera consisted of an original book and lyrics, with music taken from a wide variety of sources, everything from the actual operas of Handel to the popular broadside ballads that were sung between the acts of serious plays at the theatre, or in coffee houses or on the streets. It is these broadside ballads that are presented on this recording, and if the increased popularity of opera seria during the past few decades has left some opera-lovers surfeited with its motifs and conventions, they might find a suitable tonic on this disc.

This is not to say that royalty, great battles, mad lovers, and even women dressed as men are not to be found here. Shall we just say that they are viewed from a different angle. The program begins with “The Courtiers Health, or The Merry Boys of the Times,” which celebrates the restoration of Charles II to the British throne as a grand justification for drinking. We see William and Mary through the eyes of a country bumpkin who stretches his resources to go to London for the coronation. And Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance in “An Old Song on the Spanish Armada,” which describes the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588. While this song describes a historic event, it was also quite customary for ballads to present news reports and commentary on current events, as is done in “London Mourning in Ashes”, which presents eyewitness accounts of the London fire of 1688 and warns the citizens to mend their sinful ways or face an even worse disaster in the future. Another ballad that is apparently based upon an actual event is “The Female Captain, or The Counterfeit Bridegroom”, in which a woman who needs money dresses as a man and successfully courts and marries an heiress. The song describes with relish how the Counterfeit Bridegroom manages to keep the bride satisfied for a month, until “his” true identity is revealed. Not all the songs are comical or topical; “Grim King of the Ghosts” sets a text in which a jilted lover tortures himself with thoughts of his lover in the arms of another and appeals to the dark forces to take him away from the world.

The haunting tune used in “Grim King of the Ghosts” was used in a number of ballad operas, including The Beggar’s Opera. Other familiar tunes appear on the program, including “Greensleeves”, to which is set a text bemoaning the “good old days” of England, and “Liliburlero”, to which is set “Good Advice to Batchelors, How to Court and Obtain a Young Lass”, advice that is decidedly insensitive to the feminist question “what part of no don’t you understand?” In fact, sensitivity could hardly have been what the ballads’ audiences were seeking, as other songs lampoon country bumpkins, Quakers, and all sorts of sexual follies, shortcomings, and misadventures.

In keeping with the variety of venues in which these songs might have been heard in the seventeenth century, the arrangements vary from a cappella, as might have been heard on the street, to accompaniments by one or more period instruments. One of the most imaginative of these arrangements combines a ballad about two members of a band who create trouble when they choose to “play the game of Uptails All” with an instrumental presentation of a tune entitled “Uptails All.” The instrumental palette on the disc includes such instruments as lute, recorder, fiddle, and bagpipes (mercifully not all at once). The voices of the singers, Lucie Skeaping, Douglas Wootton, and Richard Wistreich, are, of course, not operatic, but I personally find them quite pleasant to listen to, as they present the stories and characters with great energy and flair. To my American ears they handle the various dialects convincingly and humorously. It is the combination of the dialects and the sometimes outmoded language that will probably send all but the most specialized listeners to seek the texts. These, in order to keep the disc in the budget category, are not included in the notes distributed with the CD, but can be accessed online at

Barbara Miller

image_description=Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England

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product_by=Lucie Skeaping, soprano; Douglas Wootton, tenor; Richard Wistreich, Bass-baritone; The City Waites
product_id=Naxos 8.557672 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 11:56 AM

MAHLER: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”

That CD (Deutsche Grammophon CD B 0003397-02, which includes Debussy’s La mer) was recorded between 14 and 19-20 August 2003 at the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland, and this DVD is a video of the concert given on 21 August 2003. Since the DVD was recorded as a single take, it was subject to less manipulation of the sound in the studio than the multiple sessions involved with the CD. Most of all, the DVD also conveys visually the interactions between the conductor, orchestra, soloists, and chorus.

Mahler’s Second Symphony is a particularly visual work, and seeing it performed contributes to an understanding of the musical sounds involved. Given the large forces used for it, the visual space has a bearing on the sonic landscape, and this is an important aspect of Mahler’s music, and it is important to see how the music takes shape as it is performed. Some sounds are idiomatic to the work, like the “Rute” (bundle of sticks) used in the Scherzo (the third movement), the various points where bells of instruments must be lifted in the air, and other places where the techniques that Mahler wrote into his score help to create the sound world of the Second Symphony.

At the same time, Abbado is a dynamic conductor, and as much as his recordings are effective, it is useful to see him in action. The camera angles in this DVD offer various glimpses of the conductor at work with his ensemble, including shots from the perspective of the orchestra and also from above the podium, as well as conventional views from the audience. Without focusing overly much on Abbado, this DVD shows him engaging the orchestra in the performance, as he refines the shape of the work from this well-rehearsed and highly perceptive orchestra.

The camera moves from conductor to orchestra somewhat frequently in the first movement, and that underscores the way Mahler used the various motives that develop into the piece that was once performed as the tone poem “Todtenfeier.” Yet the images change just as rapidly in the second movement, the slow movement of the Symphony, and at that point it is somewhat distracting. To have the camera shift every few seconds disrupts the longer musical lines that are integral to the slow movement. By allowing the images to shift so rapidly, with the camera moving from one solo instrument to another, the DVD gives the impression of a kind of highlighted score, with the graphics geared toward a predetermined effect.

In terms of visuals, this movement in particular would work better if the images were fitted better to the music, with longer pans, including images of sections, instead of the predisposition for close-ups. At the same time, some shots in this movement are not entirely appropriate. When the trumpet entrance intersects the transition (before rehearsal no. 7, for example), the sight of the very red-faced trumpet player does not match the effortless-sounding passage. These are small points compared to the overall effect of the DVD, which is to capture the excellent performance and to convey something of its spirit. Yet when they do occur, the kind of longer shots and transitions that occur around rehearsal number 3 of the final movement are effective and suit the music well.

Moreover, the impressive chorus is a prominent visual image in the Finale, and while the singers are seated throughout much of that movement, their stolid faces make the sounds all the more effective. At some point the chorus stands, and it is to the credit of the producer that their rising is not captured, since such physical movement is often a cliché in performances of this work. Yet when the standing chorus intones the fortissimo sections, their attention is as impressive as that of the orchestra, with all the performers incredibly focused on making music with gazes fixed on the conductor.

Likewise, it is useful to see Abbado’s expressive touch with the orchestra as he shapes the sounds. His visual cues suggest how he makes this score work so well. The nodding approval he gives to a player executing a solo part well shows his personable manner with the ensemble in medias res, and reflects his involvement with the music. This is especially evident near the ending of the Finale, where a close-up of the musician playing the tubular bells frames Abbado, and creates a particularly striking image. The camera then takes the viewer to Abbado, whose image in the closing moments contributes an appropriate tone to the music. Abbado’s gracious gesture to the orchestra, with his hands folded (as in a namaskara), as the applause swells says more than spoken words from a conductor about being indebted to his performers. To see the conductor’s deference to the other musicians is impressive, as is the enthusiastic response of the audience.

The soloists are quite fine, with Anna Larson’s rich contralto sound contributing a particularly memorable quality to the vocal line of the fourth movement, Mahler’s setting of the Wunderhorn poem “Urlicht.” Larson works well with the soprano Eteri Gvazava in the Finale, where the solo lines carry the text that is critical to the choral passages with which the Symphony concludes. Gvazava has an engaging sound, and both women perform their roles with apparent ease and from a position within the ensemble, where their voices can blend with the accompanying instruments.

All in all, the DVD is well produced, with crisp images and fine sound. While the sound is not entirely as resonant as that found on the Deutsche Grammophon CD, the recording levels used with the DVD serve the music well enough, with the softer passages clearly present, and the sometimes shattering crescendos rendered well. The DVD offers subtitles in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English, so that viewers can follow the sung portions of the work. Nevertheless, this is not a substitute for including the sung text and translations in the booklet that accompanies such an otherwise fine DVD as this one. In addition to including those texts, a further refinement that would assist a large-scale work like this is the banding of various sections of the movements as found on the audio CD. Other refinements of a DVD like this would be to include tracking to coordinate the performance to measures in the score; related to this would be the inclusion of a scanned image of the score on a DVD, for those who might want to view it while hearing the music or simply have easy access to the notation. Suggestions like these should by no means infer problems with this specific DVD. It is an outstanding performance, and we are fortunate to have it preserved in this format.

Beyond the performance of the Symphony itself, the credits on the DVD are interestingly placed over the scene of the orchestra taking its leave from the stage. The camera continued to roll as orchestra members took their leave from each other and captured apparently old friends and acquaintances saying good-bye to each other or exchanging a few words to their colleagues. More than the concert itself, these scenes contribute a sense of the camaraderie that was implicit the performance. These fleeting moments, which are ultimately separate from the recorded work, help to set this particular DVD apart, too, from other filmed concerts.

The performance captured on this DVD also attests to Abbado’s dedication to Mahler’s music and his inspired leadership at the podium. While others may have their own preferred recordings of Mahler’s Second Symphony, this DVD, like the CD recorded around the same time, has much to recommend. Abbado and all the performers meet the challenge of the score, which is essentially a symphonic cantata that is made up of chamber-music-like sections. An effective performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony should not rely solely on the broad, theatrical strokes that are indeed part of the Finale of the work, but also the subtle moments in the score that must be executed well, to create the effective performance that is found on this DVD.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”

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Posted by Gary at 11:45 AM

SCHOENBERG: Accentus | Ensemble intercontemporain

Schoenberg believed that music had an evolutional history that included the development and perfection of tonal systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Schoenberg deeply respected tonal music and he trained his composition pupils thoroughly in tonality and traditional counterpoint; however, he viewed the increasing use of chromaticism and non-diatonic chords in the later nineteenth century as a teleological process leading to the necessary—if uncomfortable—abandonment of tonality in the twentieth century. The pieces on this album illustrate Schoenberg’s compositional development and his strange position as both conservative and herald of “the music of the future.”

Two powerhouse ensembles specializing in modernist music performance joined together on this album. The result of this collaboration is an outstanding collection of some of Arnold Schoenberg’s lesser-known pieces along with better-known classics from his oeuvre. Ensemble Intercontemporain—a group of 31 soloists—has been an institution since its founding in 1976 by Pierre Boulez. And, in 1991, Laurence Equilbey brought together 32 professional singers to form the choir Accentus. Equilbey’s primary goal was the revival of an a capella choir tradition, and his group tackles a largely modernist repertoire. In addition to a capella performances, Accentus collaborates with instrumental groups in order to perform and record mixed ensemble pieces, and this is not the first time they’ve worked with Ensemble Intercontemporain.
Particularly exceptional about this recording is the inclusion of two versions of Schoenberg’s choral work, Frieden Auf Erden. Track 1 is the version with the orchestral accompaniment that Schoenberg write in 1911 because the original a capella version was declared “unperformable.” Time and many performances have proven that Frieden Auf Erden is indeed performable, though I think rarely with such grace and confidence as displayed by Accentus on this recording.

Also of note is a transcription of the third movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchetra by Franck Krawczyk completed in 2002. According to the liner notes, Krawczyk was motivated to do this transcription by the Second Viennese School’s practice of doing transcriptions in order to “shed light” on someone else’s musical composition. What Krawczyk and Accentus accomplish is an extraordinary piece of music.
Nestled among the less frequently performed choral works is the Schoenberg Kammersymphonie, opus 9 (1906) performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain. Although this piece is available on other high-quality recordings, its inclusion adds variety and interest to this assortment of pieces.

Schoenberg’s music was met with great resistance and little understanding from critics and audiences. At the end of his life, having been exiled from the very country whose music he had hoped to progress and forced to teach lower-level courses to UCLA undergraduates, it is probably fair to say that Schoenberg was disillusioned by the future of music in general, and his music in particular.

While popular opinion may have it that Schoenberg brought ruin to classical music with his “emancipation of the dissonance,” sensitive and smart performances like those by Accentus and Ensemble Intercontemporain prove that Schoenberg’s output contains more than just theoretical pieces; rather, his music is rich, varied, and emotionally compelling as well as intellectually challenging.

Megan Jenkins
CUNY – The Graduate Center

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Posted by Gary at 11:27 AM

Maskarade at ROH

by Tom Service [The Guardian, 21 September 2005]

It has taken 100 years for Carl Nielsen's Maskarade to reach the London stage, and David Pountney's production is a valiant attempt to make a case for the piece that has become Denmark's national opera. It's a staging of sparkling energy and spectacular visual delights.

Posted by Gary at 11:17 AM

A lightweight Jenůfa

But Janáček's morality tale still mesmerizes

By Frank Kuznik [The Prague Post, 21 September 2005]

What a difference 100 years makes.

When Leoš Janáček finished his opera Jenůfa in 1903, he sent it to National Theater Director Gustav Schmoranz, who promptly rejected it. "For our sake and for yours we would like your work to be fully successful on the stage, but we fear that it would not be so," Schmoranz wrote back.

Posted by Gary at 11:12 AM

Autumn enchantment

By Kristina Alda [The Prague Post, 21 September 2005]

Bad luck comes in many guises, and in Prague its modus operandi can sometimes be unnervingly Kafkaesque. Such was the case with Strings of Autumn, a festival that offers a broad spectrum of both classical and crossover concerts, which used to be held at Prague Castle.

Posted by Gary at 11:02 AM

Motezuma in Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf (dto). Nachdem lange vor Gericht darüber gestritten wurde, konnte wenige Wochen vor Start des Düsseldorfer Altstadtherbstes grünes Licht für die Aufführung der Vivaldi-Oper "Motezuma" gegeben werden. Am Mittwochabend wurde in den Böhler-Werken die deutsche Erstaufführung der Jahrhunderte lang verschollenen Oper in einer Inszenierung von Uwe Schmitz-Gielsdorf gefeiert.

Posted by Gary at 10:56 AM

Tom Sutcliffe - Behind the scenes

[New Statesman, 26 September 2005]

Opera - Crucifixes and Christmas chic overwhelm Verdi and Nielsen, writes Tom Sutcliffe

Don Carlos
Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Royal Opera House, London WC2

Sheridan Morley, impressed with Michael Grandage's staging of Schiller's Don Carlos last February, turned to a fellow critic at the Gielgud Theatre and asked if they had known that it was such a terrific piece, adding jocularly that somebody ought to make an opera of it. Verdi's operatic version of Schiller's play is one of his most psychologically fascinating and musically rewarding works. It is also his longest opera, which he fiddled with a lot when it was put into Italian, having been less than properly appreciated in French when it was performed in Paris.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller

Posted by Gary at 10:38 AM

A Rare 'Manon' Sighting

By Allan Koznin [NY Time 22 September 2005]

The Metropolitan Opera's current production of Massenet's "Manon" has appeared only fleetingly, like some exotic bird with an odd migratory path. After its initial run in 1987, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's staging was sent into storage for a decade, turning up again in 1997 and 2001. It returned to the Met on Tuesday evening, with Renée Fleming in the title role and Marcelo Álvarez as the Chevalier des Grieux.

Posted by Gary at 10:35 AM

Immortal Moments, Intermittently

By Jay Nordlinger [NY Sun, 22 September 2005]

Massenet's "Manon" — not to be confused with Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" — has some of the most beloved music in opera. I think, particularly, of two soprano arias: "Adieu, notre petite table," a haunting G-minor beauty; and the Gavotte, kind of a showy party piece. And I think of the two tenor arias: "Le Reve" ("The Dream"), a piece of gentle D-major perfection; and "Ah, fuyez, douce image," a romantic outburst in E-flat major.

Posted by Gary at 10:33 AM

September 21, 2005

Marilyn Horne to be Distinguished Professor of Voice

marilyn_horne_small.jpgOBERLIN, OHIO — The legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, whose five-decade career in opera, concert, and recital has been celebrated throughout the world, will be in residence as Distinguished Professor of Voice at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music from October 14 through 17, 2005.

Posted by Gary at 5:24 PM

WEILL: The Firebrand of Florence

Later, I cornered the thing in the closet: "If you're so smart, what's 2 plus 2?" The blouse sat there mute and insolent. I tried all the equations my four-year old mind knew: 3 plus 3, 4 plus 4, and the tricky 5 plus 5. Not a word in response. "You're not so smart!" I triumphed and quit the field victorious.

My four-year old mind was incapable of making the distinction between the two meanings of the term current at that time: smart as in intelligent and smart as in looking like the acme of style. This smartly dressed "Broadway Operetta" by Weill strikes one as firmly inscibed in the latter; its status in terms of the former, however, is questionable.

The fault lies principally with the libretto, which reputes to be about Benvenutto Cellini, but from the onset substitutes a cardboard character — the shallowest of Broadway portraits — for its namesake. The subject matter has (as well evidenced elsewhere) operatic potential; its realization here is a travesty — Cellini as a "regular guy," as they said in Weill's day. The result might challenged the average four-year old mind, but above that seems merely tedious.

Not that Weill doesn't try to salvage the proceedings: there are some fleeting moments of very good writing. But nothing comes across as truly exceptional, along the standards of Weill's other work.

The audience, accordingly, voted with their feet. After an investment of a quarter of a million dollars, the thing flopped to a standstill on its fourty-third performance.

To the historian, the operetta will be of critical interest. Weill's work in the 1940's shows his considerable ability when confronted with the tastes and genres of wartime New York, and thus Weill scholars will want to compare this score with his other work. Perhaps more importantly, however, the genre of "Broadway Operetta" is suggestive and needs examination. It may be an essential component (if in large part only by its failures) in assessing the aesthetics of North American musical theater at mid century. (Which is a polite way of saying that all in all the work is not a complete write off: feed it to the scholars.)

There are redeeming features. The notes by Joel Galand are excellent. His appraisal of the work's genesis and of its failures is exemplary criticism. Galand edited the scholarly edition, and thus he is perhaps the most familiar with the work. (The recording here is based on a pre-publication version of the score.)

The recording is done live, a concert version presented by the BBC Symphony under Andrew Davis in early 2000. If the voices are largely undistinguished, they are enthusiastic, which unfortunately merely adds to the incongruity. One has the sense of everyone looking the other way while a crime is being perpetrated.

It has been proven again and again that most operas survive in spite of the best efforts of their librettists. Let us say that here the librettist got the upper hand. When this happens with a lesser composer, we are prepared to write the thing off. When this happens with a composer of the caliber of Weill, well, ouch that smarts!

Murray Dineen
University of Ottawa

image_description=Kurt Weill: The Firebrand of Florence

product_title=Kurt Weill: The Firebrand of Florence
product_by=Rodney Gilfry, Lori Ann Fuller, George Dvorsky, Felicity Palmer, Lucy Schaufer and the BBC Singers
Steven Betteridge, chorus master. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, director.
product_id=Capriccio 60091-92 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 5:01 PM

September 20, 2005

"Ich bin gern bunt"

Sonntag startet Simone Youngs erste Spielzeit in Hamburg: Ein Gespräch mit der neuen Opernintendantin

von Manuel Brug [Die Welt, 21 September 2005]

DIE WELT: Sie zeigen sich auf den überall in Hamburg hängenden Plakaten als Perugino-Madonna. Wo ist denn die Stiletto-Domina Young geblieben?

Simone Young: Andere sagen, die Fotos seien wie von da Vinci gemalt! Ich finde sie schön. Sonst bin ich immer nur die Toughe. Ich mochte dieses Geheimnisvolle, nachdenkliche Hintergründige auf den Bildern. So kann ich eben auch sein.

Posted by Gary at 9:10 PM

Widerhall des Romantik-Urknalls

von Wilhelm Sinkovicz [Die Presse, 21 September 2005]

Die Staatsoper wagt sich noch einmal an Rossinis "Wilhelm Tell".

Mag die gar nicht reiz- und witzlose Inszenierung David Pountneys auch schon in unzusammenhängende, von Renato Zanellas unsäglichen Choreographien gestörte Einzel-Gags zerfallen: Musikalisch gelingt diesmal eine Aufführung auf sehr hohem Niveau. Bertrand de Billy steht am Pult. Er hat in den Proben zur Wiederaufnahme gründlich geputzt und geschliffen. Dem Spiel der Philharmoniker hört man an, dass es in dieser Partitur nichts Nebensächliches gibt. Auch was in den Noten nach simpler Begleitfigur aussehen mag, klingt in der tönende Realität brillant, auch brisant die politisch explosive Handlung vorantreibend.

Posted by Gary at 9:01 PM

Don Carlos

Andrew Clements [The Guardian, 20 September 2005]

Staging Don Carlos is a great challenge for any opera company, dramatically and financially, but the potential rewards are huge. Welsh National Opera's plans for a production go back a decade; now the company has finally realised them, and the result can be recommended unreservedly.

Posted by Gary at 8:54 PM

Don Carlos, WMC, Cardiff

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 20 September 2005]

Welsh National Opera has begun its first full season at the Wales Millennium Centre with Don Carlos, using a text as complete as anyone could wish. That means inserting the parts Verdi cut, for reasons of expediency, during rehearsals for the 1867 Paris premiere, and which lay unperformed until Andrew Porter discovered them in the Opéra’s archive a century later.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 PM

Verdi Onstage and Domingo on the Podium

By Bernard Holland [NY Times, 19 September 2005]

WASHINGTON. Sept. 18 - The Washington National Opera enters middle age looking as healthy as it ever has. Fifty years ago there was no real company and no real season. Operas were put on one by one if someone found a way to pay for them. Sets were borrowed. A place at the Kennedy Center added legitimacy in 1971. An independent opera house in an old department store building was planned 10 years ago but proved impractical. Selling the property, however, put a lot of money in the company's bank account.

Posted by Gary at 8:50 PM

Met Season Opens With Domingo, Among Other Coming Attractions

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 21 September 2005]

The Metropolitan Opera opened its season on Monday night, which meant a traditional gala evening of people-watching, celebrity-spotting (Sean Connery was unmistakable in the general manager's box) and, for patrons who paid the top ticket price of $1,000, a postperformance dinner on the grand tier. Oh, and there was also opera, of course, a sampling of the season to come, with performances of Act I of Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro," Act II of Puccini's "Tosca" and Act III of Saint-Saëns's "Samson et Dalila," all conducted by the Met's music director, James Levine.

Posted by Gary at 8:46 PM

September 19, 2005

La Fanciulla del West at ROH

José Cura and Andrea Gruber (Photo by Catherine Ashmore)by Andrew Clements [Guardian, 17 September 2005]

Piero Faggioni's 1977 staging of Puccini's spaghetti western, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) hasn't been seen at Covent Garden for 10 years, but it has remained fondly regarded for the sheer monumentality of its sets by James Bond movie designer Ken Adam.

Posted by Gary at 4:43 PM

S.F. Opera defies expectations in 'Rodelinda'

Naglestad_small.jpg[Left: Catherine Naglestad (Photo: Artists Management Zurich)]
By Georgia Rowe [Contra Costa Times, 19 September 2005]

"Rodelinda" made its first appearance at San Francisco Opera on Saturday night, and it was sensational. Handel's 1725 baroque masterpiece had never been presented on the company's main stage before; the demands of the work are colossal, and many opera companies simply leave it to early music specialists. But the 3-hour, 35-minute production unveiled at the War Memorial Opera House defied expectations.

Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

All My Heart — Deborah Voigt sings American Songs

The program begins with seven songs of Charles Ives, followed by three by Leonard Bernstein. Interestingly, these very complex composers are represented by songs of innocence and nostalgia, generally easy to listen to, although not necessarily easy to perform well. “Two Little Flowers,” for instance, sets its charming little text about the composer’s young daughter and her friend to an accompaniment whose phrasing is half a beat off from that of the voice; and “The Side Show”, which opens the program, alternates triple and duple meter in imitation of a waltz tune being produced by a faulty mechanism. In these songs we can appreciate the artists’ impeccable rhythm and phrasing. “Down East” and “At the River” pass familiar tunes through the distorting power of memory, while “Berceuse” and “The Children’s Hour” share a sense of childhood viewed through adult eyes. This gentle nostalgia is set off by the liveliness of “The Circus Band”, that challenging rite of passage for any aspiring American accompanist. While Deborah Voigt sings it skillfully, pianist Brian Zeger is the real star in this song, bringing off the dense accompaniment with admirable energy and clarity. At first I was disappointed that the performers chose not to speak Ives’s written comment “hear the trombones” at the end of the bravura final interlude but, without the words to distract me, I realized just how well Zeger was in fact allowing me to hear the trombones in the bass line of Ives’s passing parade.

The short set of songs by Bernstein continues the evocation of childhood (or perhaps of second childhood, as in the playful “Piccola Serenata” written for the occasion of Karl Böhm’s eighty-fifth birthday). “Greeting,” which tells of the wonder around the birth of a new child, and “So Pretty,” which expresses a child’s bewilderment at the human cost of war, are both presented in a simple and heartfelt way. Without having to modify her large voice, Voigt is able to scale it back to sound childlike but not childish.

At the heart of the program is a fine set of art songs by the contemporary composer Ben Moore, who has composed several musical shows and cabaret pieces as well as humorous encore pieces for classical singers. While the songs earlier in the program evoked childhood, in many of Moore’s songs we see the dilemmas of people coming to terms with romantic love and the choices it invites them to make. These songs are all melodic, with interesting and singable texts, and harmonies and accompaniments that reinforce the poetry. It is fortunate that such talented artists have chosen to devote at least half of the recording to Moore’s songs, since they deserve to be heard. A particularly memorable song at first hearing is the setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Ivy Wife,” which deflates the Victorian metaphor of the wife as clinging vine, faithful to the strong tree who is her husband. In a setting of great energy which eschews the delicacy and gentleness associated with that image, we hear a woman on a mission, telling us of how she set out to find the man whom she could cling to and eventually completely contain, and of the resultant destruction to them both.

From these most contemporary of songs, the program moves to the early twentieth century for a short but well-chosen set of songs by the often under-recognized Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The simplicity of “The Half-Ring Moon” and “Pierrot” are as well presented as the complex rhythms of “Cleopatra to the Asp” and the soaring passion of “Evening Song”, which recalls the late Romantic arias of Voigt’s debut recording. But for unabashed Romanticism, nothing on this disk can top the “Three Browning Songs” of Amy Beach, and in this case particularly it seems that the singer and songs were made for each other. The extended swelling phrases, culminating in notes held for multiple measures above the staff, the dynamic range, the skips between registers, all of these in support of the straightforward expression of emotion deeply felt and believed, cry out for the capabilities of a dramatic operatic voice like Voigt’s, and she navigates them with aplomb, as always fully and capably supported by Zeger. The order of the songs is modified slightly, placing “The Year’s at the Spring” at the end, so that the last thing we hear on the recording is the ecstatic declaration “All’s right, all’s right with the world!” Yes, indeed.

Barbara Miller

image_description=All My Heart—Deborah Voigt sings American Songs

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product_by=Deborah Voigt, soprano; Brian Zeger, piano
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Posted by Gary at 3:58 PM

HANDEL: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55

Handel, with works like the allegorical Il Trionfo del Tempo or the distinctly non-narrative Messiah, embraced this flexible sense of the genre well. Here a concoction blending texts from Milton’s poems of outlook, “L’Allegro,” and “il Penseroso,” and Charles Jennens’ via media between them (“il Moderato”) becomes an oratorio extolling a moderate, temperate path between the affective extremes of cheerful mirth and brooding melancholy. No dramatic narrative, no plot, no explicit religious theme, no scriptural text. The premise of the libretto then may stretch our sense of the genre, but it requires little if any stretch to see how well it accords with larger Handelian themes. Decades ago, Donald Grout, in a memorable phrase, urged us to think of eighteenth-century opera seria as an “opera of moods,” a dramatic form in which the conflict of plot and characters is subsumed by the conflict of the emotions they represent. In L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato we find a trope of that same idea in the oratorio: rival moods are in conflict and they seek a harmonic resolution.

There are a number of compelling aspects of this recording. Martini’s interpretation is stylistically convincing, born, one suspects, of his deep immersion in this repertory. The solo playing of the Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra is of a high order, and with the wonderful obligatto writing for solo flute, horn, viola da gamba, trumpet, oboe, and bassoon, Handel highlights them in many of the oratorio’s most memorable movements. The Canadian soprano, Linda Perillo, offers a gratifyingly clear and pure high register that she uses to advantage in her Penseroso sections. And this, with her ability to negotiate ornamental passagework with flair and precision, makes her the most stylistically adept of the soloists. Admittedly, some of her singing here suffers from pitch problems in the low register, but the overall impression is of one much at home in this style. Her Allegro soprano counterpart is Barbara Hannigan, a casting that proves advantageous, for the contrast of sound between the two sopranos heightens the sense of character. Perillo’s pensive pose is well served by her purity of sound; similarly Hannigan’s mirthful milieu is enhanced by the vibrancy of her voice. To some ears, this vibrancy will seem exaggerated in this style. Though not totally pervasive, her vibrato seems to go beyond ornamental discretion to the point that much sounds trilled—even on uneventful weak syllables. Nevertheless, her vibrancy does not hamper her agility and articulation, and she brings to her airs a compelling sense of character. The men have a bit less to do. Bass Stephan MacLeod possesses a congenial sound and a well deployed technical agility. However, both he and tenor Knut Schoch on occasion lapse into an English pronunciation that is more foreign than one might wish. And Schoch’s lack of attention to articulation in rapid passagework can also be problematic.

As with other of Martini’s Handel recordings, this is a recording of a live concert given at the Cistercian Kloster Eberbach. This generous acoustic seems to have created a number of problems, as well. The chorus sounds as though it is singing in a cavern, distant and with little presence. The soloists seem welcomingly much closer at hand, but whatever engineering has brought them there also seems to have veiled their sound. As a result of live recording in a challenging setting, balance issues emerge problematically, as well, particularly among the instrumental forces in the hauntingly beautiful air, “But oh, sad Virgin.”

I have reserved the final criticism for the recording company, Naxos, whose failure to supply a libretto within the CD package is a frustrating economy. Though sung in English, the text is both long and literary, and listening without a libretto tends to leave the listener lost in Handel’s sounds, pleasantly diverted, but lost nonetheless. Naxos does invite the listener to download a libretto from their website, however. This I did. Now I wonder what to do with the twelve full-size pages! If this is the way of the future, the loss of convenience is a nettlesome one.

In the final reckoning, this recording of L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderatopresents a fair number of blemishes. However, it also provides a reading that rewards and gratifies in a number of instances. At the end of the oratorio the libretto extols moderation; at the end of this review, I find myself gravitating to a moderate position as well.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=George Frideric Handel. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55

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Posted by Gary at 3:38 PM

GOUNOD: Musica Sacra

Among the 21 Masses and 4 Requiems of Charles Gounod, his most memorable and popular work is the Messe solennelle de Ste Cécile (1855), a large-scale setting for soloists, orchestra and organ, filled with marvellous melodies. This composition is the concluding work of that group of Masses referred to as the “first collection.” The two Masses featured on this CD, are from the “second collection” or those composed during the last years of his life: Messe brève no. 5 in C aux séminaires (soli TBB, Choir TBB, and organ) first published in 1871 and re-issued in 1892 with the phrase séminaires; and Messe brève no. 7 in C aux chapelles (soli TB, Choir SATB, and organ), first published for two equal voices and organ in 1877, re-worked and re-issued in 1890 with the phrase aux chapelles and arranged for soli and mixed choir. Both works are atypical settings as they omit the Credo, which the congregation sang. Further, in Messe no. 7, Gounod takes a liturgical liberty by replacing the text of the Benedictus, the second half of the Sanctus, which is often treated as a solo or even a separate movement, with the first verse of O salutaris hostia (O Saving Victim). This hymn commonly sung at Benediction, is composed of the last two verses of Verbum supernum, one of the five Eucharistic hymns written by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) at the request of Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) for the newly instituted Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. Given its liturgical history and use, the substitution of this Eucharistic text for the Benedictus makes sense only if its performance occurs during the consecration, which would have required impeccable timing. Even then, it is a deviation that borders on personal piety rather than corporate worship, the latter of which is the purpose of the Mass.

The delightful and lyrical Noël (1866), a Christmas song for equal voices, soli and chorus, received some notoriety in 1948, when sung by the Robert Mitchell Boy Choir in the MGM classic The Bishop’s Wife. This rendition by the women of I Vocalisti has potential but is compromised by the tense, piercing sound of the soprano soloist and the soprano section. In addition, the French is difficult to understand even when utilizing the booklet.

One of the redeeming selections on this CD is Les sept paroles du Christ sur la croix (1855, a capella, soli SATB, Choir SATB / SATB). Profoundly influenced by the music of Palestrina during his years in Rome (1840-1842), the close connection between text and music characterizes this period of Gounod’s compositions and this work. Predominantly homophonic in texture, Gounod’s descriptive musical figures, which ornament and illustrate the texts, are effectively rendered vocally, e.g., in No.4, the cascading phrase Eli, lama sabachtahni (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”) and in No. 5, the biting chromaticism on the word Sitio . . . “I thirst.”

Perhaps the best performance on this CD is Béthléem (1882-1884), a Christmas choral work (SATB) of three verses with organ interludes. Its simplicity is its joy; the obvious goal when one conducts and composes for amateur choirs.

I Vocalisti presents itself as performers of “demanding sacred and secular choral music on a professional level.” The selections presented here, highlights of Gounod’s affiliation with and affection for amateur choirs, seem at odds with the stated mission. While the general ensemble of the choir is good, there are vocal problems not worthy of “professionals”. Diction is less than desirable; pronunciation problems affect intonation, most noticeably with the tenors; placement of open vowels, particularly with the tenors and sopranos, is harsh and unpleasant; and there are actual intonation concerns. The lack of melodic contour by the choir, principally in the Mass settings, burdens the music unnecessarily. The over riding fault however, is the sound engineering (Tritonus Musikproduktion, Stuttgart, Stephan Schellmann, sound engineer). Volume levels are irritating, particularly when the soli, choir, and organ are in dialogue. In general, performance of the choir suffers at the hands of the engineers.

Even among his admirers, Gounod is known for his predictable rhythms, ordinary chromatic harmonies, particularly at the frequent cadences that illustrate what Gounod defined as avoiding “disproportion long windedness,” and what Martin Cooper terms “short-breathed” melodies. While this recording serves musicological and historical interests—demonstrating national and stylistic differences—aesthetically, it is bland.

Geraldine M. Rohling

image_description=Charles Gounod: Musica Sacra

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product_by=Raphaela Mayhaus, Soprano; Christa Bonhoff, Alto; Tobias Götting, Organ; Kammerchor “I Vocalisti,” Hans-Joachim Lustig.
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Posted by Gary at 3:27 PM

September 18, 2005

An Introduction to Pacini’s Saffo

‘‘‘He tried his hand once again during the carnival season of 1835, writing Carlo di Borgogna for the Teatro La Fenice, but it was a dismal failure. Pacini’s judgments about his operas through 1835 are harsh, even unduly so:

I gave little thought to honor myself and my art as I should have. . . . They called me Maestro delle cabalette because my cabalettas generally had the virtue of spontaneity, elegance, and form. Everyone believed it cost me little to find a melodic thought of some novelty, since, it was said, that was a matter of innate talent and nothing else.

Though Pacini insisted he worked hard even on cabaletta tunes, always seeking to fashion them in ways different from his contemporaries, he admitted that his music had defects:

My instrumentation was never careful enough, and if it was sometimes beautiful or brilliant, this resulted not from reflection but rather from that natural taste God granted me. I frequently slighted the string section, nor did I take pains about the effects that might be drawn from instrumental families.

He concentrated too much energy on suiting his vocal lines to the needs of individual singers. And though he loved his art, his rivals were ever more admired and his own work thought to be increasingly old-fashioned.

Thus, Pacini decided to abandon the stage. He retired to Viareggio, were he founded and directed a music school, organized a band and small orchestra for his fellow townsmen, and built a theater for his students. In 1837 he was appointed head of the Ducal chapel in nearby Lucca and turned his attention increasingly to sacred music. These years away from the theater were ones of reflection and personal growth. When Pacini decided to accept a commission from the Roman impresario Vincenzo Jacovacci for a new opera to open the carnival season of 1839-40 at the Teatro Apollo, he was determined to strike out on a new path:

During my period of repose, I had meditated on new developments, on the changing taste of the audience, and on what should be the path to follow. Rossini after 1829 had ceased to grace the musical world with further masterpieces. Bellini, the touching Bellini, had been stolen from art in 1835. . . . The versatile Donizetti and the severe Mercadante were the only ones who dominated the stage, since Verdi had just appeared on the horizon in that year 1839 with this Oberto di San Bonifazio. The others, such as Coccia, Ricci, Lauro Rossi, rarely gave their works on our stages. All this made me seriously consider on what path to begin anew. If my compositions were to have any hope for long life, I had to develop that esthetic sense I had previously sought but rarely achieved. I set to work, with the firm intention of putting aside the procedures I had followed in my earlier career, and I looked for characteristic ideas from the diverse melodies of different peoples, drawing them from traditional sources, so that I could inform my works with that truth so difficult to achieve in our art.

This statement and similar ones Pacini made about Saffo (see below) suggest impatience with the artificiality of Italian operatic melody. The desire to revitalize art through new sources in folk or traditional music was common to much European musical thought in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of his opera for Rome, Furio Camillo, to a libretto by the congenial librettist and literary figure Jacopo Ferretti, Pacini wrote only:

The experiment with Furio Camillo was not a complete success, but I felt that I had made progress. Its reception did not correspond to my hopes, but was not entirely unhappy; indeed, several pieces were enormously effective.

No complete edition of Furio Camillo was published, but Ricordi issued three excerpts from the opera in 1841; a fourth was printed by the Litografia Pittarelli of Rome.

* * * *

In June 1840 Pacini, at home in Lucca, received an offer from the Teatro San Carlo of Naples to write a new opera to a text by Salvatore Cammarano. Saffo was to be the first of five collaborations between them. Cammarano sent the poetry of the first act together with an outline of the whole, and Pacini set to work at once. His description of his preparations for the composition of Saffo are fascinating:

Reading and rereading, the story of that people, which opened a path to all human understanding, and seeking to discover what music was used by that heroic nation, whose sons included Euripedes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristoxenus, Homer, Tyrtaeus, and Aristides (who in his Trattato musicale gives a precise idea of the principles that governed music in those times, and particularly speaks of rhythm), I learned that the Greeks attributed a more ample meaning to the word music, consisting not only of the art which excites various sentiments through sound, but also poetry, aesthetics, rhetoric, philosophy, and that science the Romans called politior humanitas. Giving heed to the modes they (the Greeks) employed, Doric, Ionic, Phrygian, Aeolian, Lydian, and of their related forms, Hypodoric, Hyperdoric, etc., I gained an understanding of their system. Keeping always before me what Aristides said about the qualities of the three genera, Diatonic, Chromatic, and Enharmonic (the first noble and austere, the second very sweet and plaintive, the third both gentle and exciting), I attempted, as I said, to approximate their art of melody. I set to work with a joy that I cannot explain. . . .

Pacini completed two numbers, but gradually lost courage for the project.

He arrived in Naples in early September with the intention of asking Cammarano for a new libretto. The librettist asked to hear the numbers already set, and Pacini sat down at the piano and sang them through:

All of a sudden I saw the poet of Saffo grow pale and full of emotion at the words “Di sua voce il suon giungea”. He did not let me finish, but threw his arms around my neck: “My Maestro (he exclaimed), for heaven’s sake continue the work; you will give Italy a masterpiece.”

Pacini did continue, and Saffo had its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo on 29 November 1840. It was an outstanding success, judged universally to be Pacini’s masterpiece. “In the autumn of 1840 I was therefore baptized by public opinion no longer as the composer of facile cabalettas, but rather of elaborated works and carefully meditated compositions.” He claimed to have composed Saffo in twenty-eight days and created (by which he surely meant “sketched”) the final scene in only two hours. But Saffo had been in his thoughts since June and had benefitted both from the preceding years of reflection and from Pacini’s efforts to find a characteristic color for this setting of a Greek legend. It would be fascinating to analyze Saffo with Pacini’s statement about its creation in mind.

Although the Ricordi edition divides Saffo into nineteen separate sections, Pacini’s score is really much more integrated than this dismemberment for commercial purposes would imply. Indeed, orchestral manuscripts of the opera and Pacini’s own description suggest its original divisions were as follows:

Act I
1. Introduzione (= Ricordi #1-2)
2. Recitativo e Scena drammatica (= Ricordi #3-4)

Act II
3. Coro e Cavatina Climene (= Ricordi #5-6)
4. Recitativo e Duetto (= Ricordi #7-8)
5. Coro e Finale II (= Ricordi #9-12)

6. Scena, Coro e Terzetto (= Ricordi #13-15)
7. Scena ed Aria Faone (= Ricordi #16)
8. Coro, Scena ed Aria Finale Saffo (= Ricordi #17-19)

It is worth stopping over this scheme to recognize the extent to which Saffo is constructed of remarkably extended musical numbers. There are only three solo compositions in the opera, for Climene (#3), Faone (#7), and Saffo (#8), all with either chorus or pertichini or both. The first two are arias in traditional designs, although both are marvelously rendered. Notice the syncopated theme of Climene’s Cavatine (p. 63); the sumptuous clarinet solo that opens Faone’s Scena (p. 221); the lovely canonic writing in its primo tempo (p. 225: the voice is at first dux to the orchestra’s comes, with the pattern reversed at the repetition); and Faone’s cabaletta, worthy of the “maestro delle cabalette,” in which Pacini sends his tenor, Gaetano Fraschini, hurtling up to a high D[-flat], then stratospherically and à la Rubini to a high E[-flat] (p. 232).

Saffo’s final scene is a worthy heir to the final scene of Anna Bolena. The heroine is about to take the fatal leap from the rock of Leucade so as to put behind her earthly passion. Throughout the recitative, Pacini recalls other tunes and designs from earlier in the opera. The reappearance of Climene and Alcandro drives Saffo into madness, and she imagines herself singing in honor of Climene’s wedding, as she had promised to do. Saffo’s beautiful melody (accompanied by harp and winds alone) gives way to an expansive, passionate outburst (“addio; ti lascio in terra”), a melodic topos Pacini associated with Saffo elsewhere in the opera (cf. pp. 37, 114-15, 165, and 206, for just a few examples). A less original but appropriately designed cabaletta concludes the finale, with a startling cadential progression marking her leap to death and bringing down the curtain (p. 266).

The greatest achievements of Pacini’s score, though, lie in the ensembles, particularly the glorious finale of the second act. To do justice to the sources of Verdi’s style, one must recognize that his great Largo movements owe more direct debt to the second-act finale of Saffo (pp. 113-32) than to either Bellini or Donizetti. The strength of this music, its passion and scope, the interaction of an introductory solo and an ensemble, the building of enormous musical climaxes, all elements we hold to be typical of the great early Verdi Largos, are present here in ample measure. Nor does the tension dissipate in the final stretta, with its wonderful reprise of the opening melody transposed up a third at first (from B[-flat] major to D[-flat] major) and assigned to the full ensemble instead of to Saffo alone.

Pacini sought to create a more continuous drama in much of the work, and the extent to which he gives lyrical expression to scenes of dialogue is remarkable. A scene that will repay close study from this perspective is the opening of the final act, where Saffo asks permission to take the leap of Leucade. Only after she has sworn to throw herself into the sea is her identity as the daughter of Alcandro and sister of Climene revealed, leading to another beautiful ensemble, “al seno mi stringi” (pp. 184-95). But it is Pacini’s handling of the dialogue that is particularly noteworthy: he tries, usually with great success, to lend lyrical and dramatic force to each expression. In this he is greatly aided by Cammarano’s libretto, long held to be the poet’s finest achievement. . . .

Philip Gossett
The University of Chicago

Copyright 1986 by Philip Gossett

Reprinted with permission of the author from his Introduction to SAFFO and Excerpts from FURIO CAMILLO, A Facsimile Edition of the Printed Piano-Vocal Scores, New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986. Page references are to the facsimile score. Endnotes have been omitted.

Schematic from Ricordi's Piano-Vocal Score

Section Title/Description
Atto I La Corona Olimpica
Preludio e Coro D'Introduzione -- Divini carmi!
Scena e Cavatina -- Di sua voce il suon giungea
Rec. Precedente La Scene Drammatica -- Faon qui volge
Scena Drammatica -- Finale Della Parte I -- Quando il mil caldo genio
Atto II Le Nozze di Faone
Coro di Donne -- Al crin le cringete la rosea corona
Scena e Cavatine -- Ah! con lui mi fu rapita
Rec. Precedente il Duetto -- Uno stranier!
Duetto -- Di quai sozvi lagrime
Coro Dell'Imeneo e Ballabile -- Le cetre, le tibie confondano i suoni
Scena e Finale Della Parte II -- Or citaristi, echeggino
Largo Del Finale II -- ai mortali, o crudo, ai numi
Séguito e Stretta Del Finale II -- Saffo, qui siamo in Leucade!
Atto III Il Salto di Leucade
Scena e Coro Degli Aruspici -- Signor di Leucade -- occhio del cielo
Scena -- Il nume accolse la domanda
Pezzo Concertato -- Terzetto -- Al seno mi stringi . . . ripeti l'amplesso
Scena ed Aria -- Ah! giusta pena io colsi
Coro di Popolo e Sacerdoti -- S'ella paventa o dubita
Scena Che Precede L'Aria Finale -- Premio d'amor
Scena ed Aria Finale -- Teco dall'are pronube

image_description=Sappho as represented in a fresco in Pompeii

first_audio_name=Saffo, tragedia lirica in tre atti

product_title=Saffo, tragedia lirica in tre atti
product_by=Leyla Gencer (Saffo); Franca Mattiucci (Climene); Tito Del Bianco (Faone); Louis Quilico (Alcandro). Orchestra e Coro del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Franco Capuana, dir. Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, 7 April 1967.

Posted by Gary at 9:30 PM

Sappho and the Leucadian Leap

Her work was collected in nine books at the great library in Alexandria, where she was canonized as one of the great lyric poets. Indeed, an epigram attributed to Plato proclaimed her the Tenth Muse. Eventually, however, all nine books disappeared. What remains today are mostly fragments. Nonetheless, Sappho is the first surviving female author in the Western tradition who, some claim, is on equal footing with the likes of Homer.

According to Margaret Reynolds, it was during the 4th Century (B.C.E.) that the legend of Sappho’s leap made its first appearance in Menander’s drama, The Lady from Leukas.

Though Menander made Sappho the first to take the Leucadian leap, he was employing poetic license, for the legends actually tell of many others who had tried the leap, which was supposed to be a kill-or-cure remedy for hopeless passion. That too, was an invention, based on folk memories of a primitive ritual sacrifice to Apollo, in which some guilty and unlucky person was thrown off the cliff in order to propitiate the god.

[Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, New York: Palgrave, 2000] She goes on to point out that the significance of Phaon in Sappho’s story was probably “a literary mix-up.” It seems that “Phaon” is another name for Adonis, the beloved of Aphrodite.

Sappho wrote poems naming Adonis and lamenting his demise in the name of Aphrodite, and later interpreters seem to have assumed that she was speaking in her own persona and confessing a personal passion. Little changes in the literary world: the same assumptions are regularly made today about writers, especially women writers.

It was Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum that truly immortalized the legend of Sappho, Phaon and the Leucadian leap. Commonly referred to as the Heroides, this is a collection of fictional letters from women to men, mostly to men who had betrayed their love and abandoned them for other women. The fifteenth letter, entitled “Sappho to Phaon,” tells the story of Sappho in anguish following her abandonment by Phaon, which leaves her devoid of all self-worth, unable to draw upon her powers of song. It is to the rock at Leucadia that her mind turns where, according to a Naiad, she may cast her body into the sea without harm and thereupon immediately ease her of all passion. But, Sappho is of two minds:

My old powers of song won’t awaken for me:
the plectrum falls silent through grief, and silent the lyre.
Lesbian women of the waves, those to be married: those married,
Lesbian women, names sung to the Aeolian lyre,
Lesbian women, beloved women, who made me infamous,
cease to come, in a crowd, to the melodies of my lyre!
Phaon has stolen what pleased you so before,
ah me! I nearly said, as once I did: ‘My Phaon.’
Make him return. Your singer too will return.
He gave my genius power: he snatched it away.

Ovid leaves us, then, uncertain whether she means to take the leap and live free of all passions or to wait for Phaon’s return.

In her book, Fictions of Sappho 1546-1937, Joan DeJean shows in detail how the legend of Sappho was received in the West from the beginning of the Early Modern era. That reception has been replete with unresolved ambiguities and uncertainties as the Sapphic narrative was repeated and recast over the centuries. These ambiguities and uncertainties relate to a host of issues regarding her sexuality, her gender, her identity, all of which are beyond the scope of this brief note. Nonetheless, the essential point is that the Sappho of legend is a complex character and the Leucadian leap is a complex event such that they are the well-spring of myriad combinations and permutations that defy a rational reductionalism which yields a clear-cut solution. Hence, the Sappho of Pacini can be wildly different from that of Gounod, yet both be consistent with the Sapphic narrative.

Gary Hoffman

image_description=Sappho by Charles-August Mengin (1853-1933)

product_title=Sappho and the Leucadian Leap
product_by=By Gary Hoffman
product_id=Above: Sappho by Charles-August Mengin (1853-1933)

Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

September 16, 2005

RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37

When one places Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil in the historical context of other compositions written at about the same time, one is amazed at the variety of musical languages spoken in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1912, three years before the Vigil, audiences heard Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire for the first time; Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps had caused an uproar in Paris the next year. In America, Charles Ives (whose music would not become known for some time to come) was close to “finishing” his revolutionary fourth symphony. It is little wonder that Rachmaninov felt lost.

As it often does, history began to repeat itself in the late years of the nineteenth century as composers began to find new ways to invest their music with a tonal center. Neo-Romantic music and the “spiritual” sounds of Gorecki and Pärt began to attract an audience the size of which competed with that which listened to the music of Schoenberg and his followers--music that was academically correct, but seemingly devoid of emotional bearings. In this rediscovery of emotional and tonal centers, Rachmaninov’s music found ready allies. It was no longer fashionable to dismiss Rachmaninov, the composer. His symphonies, the piano concertos, and many of his songs found their way back on to the concert stage in performances by a younger generation of performers for whom Rachmaninov’s musical language was not an anathema.

The All Night Vigil, Op. 37, whose 90th birthday we celebrate this year, has also enjoyed that renewal of interest in Rachmaninov. Composed in less than two months during January and February, 1915, the Vigil met with immense success at its first hearing in the Great Hall of the Russian Noble Assembly on the tenth of March; it received thunderous applause from the audience despite a rule that prohibited such outbursts for sacred music. So popular was the work that it was performed four more times in the same month. Despite this early success, it would prove to be slow-going for performances beyond Russia.

Problems of the First World War, coupled with the Russia’s own internal problems, worked against the work receiving international performances and its due success. Once the 1917 October Revolution swept away Imperial Russia and all the evil and stability it stood for, there was no place for sacred music in the plans for the country’s future for such a sacred piece as Rachmaninov’s. Over the years since it was composed, and especially in the past three decades, however, the piece has attained the position of the finest example of Russian sacred choral music and one of the masterpieces of all sacred choral literature.

Alexander Kastalsky inspired the forty-one year old Rachmaninov to compose these fifteen unaccompanied choral pieces for the Moscow Synodal School, of which Kastalsky was the Director. Rachmaninov, in turn, dedicated the Vigil to the memory of Stepan Smolensky, Kastalsky’s predecessor at the Synodal School and the man who had introduced Rachmaninov to the treasures of early Russian chant.

The Vigil continues the tradition of polyphonic settings of the Russian liturgy of Vespers and Matins composed by Tchaikovsky, Bortniansky, Alexei Livov, and Nicolai Tcherepnin, among others. By the time he composed the Vigil, Rachmaninov had already tried his hand at writing sacred choral music with The Mother of God, Ever-Vigilant in Prayer. A result of his creative work in summer of 1893, shortly after his twentieth birthday, this early concerto for chorus was his last large-scale sacred composition for seventeen years. In June, 1910, Rachmaninov returned to church music, and in the short span of three weeks, composed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 31. By that time, the composer had achieved an international reputation as pianist, conductor, and as composer with The Isle of the Dead and the second and third piano concertos, among the major works.

Following the narrow rules that dictated the composition of specific parts of the Vigil, Rachmaninov drew musical inspiration from old Znammeny chants--sacred monophonic vocal music that had been published in 1772--for six of the fifteen movements; he turned to newer “Greek” and Kievan chants for melodic material for four other movements. For the remainder of the movements, Rachmaninov turned to his own invention of chant-like melodies which he described as “conscious counterfeits.” The music of the three chant sources would not have been lost on the religious faithful in Rachmaninov’s audience; that the entire Vigil is a cohesive whole is, in a sense, a true indication of how successful Rachmaninov was in creating, out of the whole cloth of his “conscious counterfeits,” a unity of sound and style that blended in seamlessly with the “derived” music.

In the Russian liturgy, the Vigil is observed Saturday evening and the evenings before other holy days. Consisting of spoken prayers, litanies, various readings, and the singing of unaccompanied music, the six sections which comprise the Vigil--the Invitatory; Verses from Psalm 104; Verses from Psalms 1-3; the Vesper Hymn; Nunc dimittis; and the Ave Maria--unfold, followed by the nine sections of Matins: the Gloria; Laudate Dominum; the Resurrection Hymn; the Veneration of the Cross; Magnificat; a second Gloria; two additional Resurrection Hymns; and the concluding Theotokion--Hymn to the Mother of God.

There are any number of transcendent moments in the music Rachmaninov composed for the Vigil, moments when his music transcends the normal boundaries of musical expression. The hushed opening of the fourth chorus--Gladsome Light--begins in E flat major, but as the tenor soloist enters for a moment, the original key moves up half a step, brightening even more that “Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal One….” Rachmaninov sets aside the word Slava (“Glory”) for special emphasis in the seventh movement--“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.” Here, sopranos, then tenors, both divided into three parts, utter Slava twice apieceas a prelude to the forthcoming outburst of the entire chorus. Rachmaninov chooses this moment to divide his choir into eleven parts, each part simultaneously repeating the single word, Slava. The overwhelming aural splendor is that of the magnificent sound of Russian church bells pealing joyfully in celebration. “Angelic choiring,” that wonderful turn of phrase that Henry Cowell used to describe some of the music of Charles Ives, also comes to mind for this very moment. Space prohibits dwelling on other equally magical moments, but I must also single out the entire fourteenth movement (“Thou didst rise from the tomb and burst the bonds of Hades!”) where Rachmaninov’s gentle and serene setting contains none of the obvious word painting that one might expect for the triumph of life over death. Rather, the composer dwells on the message that Christ, through His apostles has granted peace to the world. Certainly, this must be one of the most beautiful examples of writing for the voice; the sound is of a transcendent beauty; the serenity and sheer loveliness of the music are nearly ineffable. Finally, belonging to a special category are those moments when the lowest of the bass voices--those renowned and exceptional Russian basses--descend to the subterranean depths of their ranges. The effect is wondrous to hear.

Four recent recordings of the Vigil join a long list of recorded performances of this magnificent choral work. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Michael Gläser Conductor, and the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, under the direction of Nikolai Korniev, recorded their versions of the Vigil in 2002, while the two remaining CDs date from only a year ago: the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed conductor, and Paul Hillier’s Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

When four conductors and their ensembles take on a given piece of music, there are bound to be differences in interpretations, notably in the subjective areas of dynamics and tempi. Rachmaninov carefully gives the performers tempo markings, but provides no hint as to precise metronomic speeds for any of the movements. How does one, for example, interpret Poco allegro, ma tranquillo e dolce or even Moderato? Certainly, there are acceptable parameters within which a conductor works for most metronome-free speeds, but what are the allowable boundaries? These dilemmas, certainly not newcomers to music, can be viewed positively, however, for they allow a certain flexibility in one’s re-creation of the music.

These flexibilities are readily apparent as one listens to, and compares, these four recordings. At one end of the tempo spectrum, Michael Gläser and his Bavarian ensemble’s leisurely interpretation of the fifteen movements of the Vigil takes nearly an hour and three minutes. The St. Petersburg group, on the other hand, dispatches the music in less than fifty minutes. That timing, however, is somewhat misleading because Nikolai Korniev’s ensemble omits a movement that the other three choirs include and sing in approximately two minutes. Assuming the inclusion of the omitted movement, Korniev’s performance would still be about ten minutes quicker than the Bavarian interpretation.

More important than the total timing are the tempos of the individual movements. For example, Rachmaninov says that the third movement should be sung “rather fast, but calmly and gently” (Poco allegro, ma tranquillo e dolce). Of the four performances under consideration here, only that of the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir successfully realizes the composer’s intentions. Their tempo is, indeed, a “rather fast” one, bordering on briskness. But the total effect is one of calm and gentleness as the singers dance their way through the movement, and bring a sparkle to the “Alleluia” refrains. The same music sounds labored and lugubrious in the much slower tempo and frequent ritards (although Rachmaninov calls for few) of Gläser and his Bavarian ensemble. Somewhere in the middle ground is the performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with its less than Poco allegro tempo, but with the spirit of calm and gentleness called for. The ensemble brings a certain sense of urgency to the “Alleluias,” by quickening the tempo at each one of these refrains, although Rachmaninov does not indicate this change of tempo.

Now--who is to say which interpretation is the correct one? Certainly, the St. Petersburg performance is closest to the composer’s intentions, but there is also much to be said about Paul Hillier’s reading of the score. To this listener’s mind, the liberties that Hillier takes fall within the boundaries of allowable artistic license, whereas those of Gläser do not because they plainly do not come close to the composer’s call for “rather fast, but calmly and gently.”

One could make similar cases for many of the interpretations of the other fourteen movements of the Vigil, but one more will suffice. Rachmaninov sets the eighth movement, “Praise the Name of the Lord,” to a Znammeny chant which he specifies should be sung spiritoso, molto marcato e ritmico--literally “brilliantly, with a firm and energetic rhythm.” There is no question that all four ensembles do exactly that, but it is in the interpretation of the over-all tempo of Andante where the conductors differ widely.

There is rarely a consensus on the meaning of Andante, one of those truly nebulous tempo markings often translated as “not fast.” Not fast means different things to different performers; the four conductors of this movement clearly illustrate the divergence of opinions as to the interpretation of Rachmaninov’s tempo marking: they range from the very, very slow version of Michael Glaser--again, ponderous and lugubrious in its impact, to the decidedly fast tempo that Nikolai Kergiev brings to the St. Petersburg recording--a speed well above that called for by Rachmaninov and a result that is nearly a full minute faster than Gläser’s performance. In the middle of that range fall the performances of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart.

One would be remiss if the performances by the soloists were not taken into account. Rachmaninov calls for an alto soloist in one movement and for a tenor soloist in three other movements. In each instance, the soloist is given musical material derived from respective chant melodies for the given movement. The tenor makes a brief appearance for only seven measures in the ninth movement. There, he is given the words “The time for sorrow has come to an end! Do not weep, but announce the resurrection to the apostles,” followed shortly by “but the Angel said to [the myrrhbearers].” In the fourth movement, “Gladsome Light,” the tenor makes an equally short visit, singing ‘we praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--God.”

If one wonders why Rachmaninov called for a soloist for such brief appearances, the same question cannot be asked of the tenor’s lengthy appearance in the fifth movement, the Nunc dimmitis, with its moving words uttered by Simeon: “Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Rachmaninov said of this movement: “My favorite number in the work, which I love as I do The Bells, is the fifth canticle….I should like this sung at my funeral.” Regrettably, this was not to be.

The tenor, singing the melody of a Kievan chant, is accompanied by the rest of the choir which sings a gently rocking musical pattern. Alexander Yudenkov and Mati Turi, the tenor soloists for the Stuttgart and the Estonian choral groups, respectively, acquit themselves well in their performances. Both possess full, beautiful, and impressive voices, fully capable of meeting the demands Rachmaninov makes. Anton Rosner, the tenor soloist for the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, has sung with this ensemble for longer than any other member. There are hints in this performance of what his voice must have sounded like when he was younger. Unfortunately, for this recording, Rosner cannot recapture that voice. He sharpens notes, loses the “center” of the pitch, and appears to struggle for notes that must have been easy for him earlier in his career.

Regrettably, neither the tenor soloist nor the alto soloist are given credit in the recording by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. The unidentified tenor soloist possesses a light, lyric voice that at times does not quite cut through the accompanying choir. Is this the voice of a young singer? One is tempted to think so because it seems that the soloist is not yet comfortable singing Rachmaninov’s notes--he has yet to make the part his own.

Ulrike Koch, the alto soloist in the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart recording, possesses a voice capable of being heard above and through the choir, but her performance here seems like that of a neutral observer, as if she is not fully engaged in the performance. Theresa Blank’s singing for the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks is marked by a full voice that is, unfortunately, not always centered. The lyrical flow to the melody is often missing in her performance, which tends to be “notey.” The unidentified alto soloist on the St. Petersburg recording tends to gasp for air at inopportune moments, resulting in numerous interruptions of phrases. Additionally, she takes considerable liberties with the tempo and often sings just a bit under the pitch. Iris Oja, singing for the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, has a full, earthy sound, one that occasionally is a bit rough around the edges. Having said that, however, hers is an excellent performance that brings to the music a warmth missing in the three other interpretations.

One of the glories of Russian sacred music is the bass voice and the ability, among some basses, to descend to the subterrestrial regions of the human voice. The best of these basses can produce a tone that seems to rumble throughout the chord in which the tone appears and which adds a depth to the chord. The effect is unsurpassable in its warmth and richness. The Vigil is replete with examples of the lowest of the basses descending to the nether areas of low D, C, and even B-flat. Criticized by N. M. Danilin, the conductor of the first performance of the Vigil, who said of the slow descent of the lowest basses to a concluding low B-flat in the Nunc dimmitis movement, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas,” Rachmaninov replied that Danilin “…did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make upon Russian basses!”

While the basses in three of these recordings attain varying degrees of success in pulling off those low notes, it is Vladimir Miller of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir who stands head and shoulders above the others. Miller, listed as the basso profundo, brings to the performance all that that term means as he adds immeasurably to the total performance, not only in leading the way to the lowest notes required by Rachmaninov, but in singing intonations--intonations on pitches that absolutely rumble in their intensity, strength, and sureness--that precede four of the movements. Would that conductor Danilin been able to hear Vladimir Miller sing he would have realized that here was one of those rare examples of “asparagus at Christmas.”

In considering the choral ensembles for all four recordings, I should point out a number of the positive ingredients that each brings to their performance. The SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart’s performance exhibits fine control, a good blend, and a warm sound in its singing. Conductor Marcus Creed, who received his training, in part, at King’s College, Cambridge, brings to this performance an intelligent and musical grasp of the demands that Rachmaninov places on singers. For the most part, he and his musicians have succeeded in making a recording that compares favorably with performances of some other groups in the past

The performance of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks suffers initially from an interpretation that seems to lack spontaneity, that seems to be too calculated early on. This may well be owing to the very slow tempos of Michael Gläser’s reading. The ponderous quality of the performance does not allow for any dancing of the music--when that is called for. Having said these things, I feel that the performance improves consistently as the work progresses. Nevertheless, the early impression is what one remembers most.

The St. Petersburg Chamber Choir’s recording is something of a puzzle. When one invests the time, energy, and expense of preparing for a recording, one would think that all due care would be exercised in making certain that the final product would be as first-class as is possible. This simply does not seem to be the case here. Alto and tenor soloists should have received the professional courtesy of identification somewhere in the liner notes. Even Nikolai Korniev, the conductor, receives nothing more than the printing of his name on two occasions. There is no choir roster. The error that gives, in at least two places, the incorrect date of 1945 for Rachmaninov’s death, rather than the correct 1943, may seem a simple one, but it is enough to make one wonder about the level of care with which the entire enterprise was undertaken. Without giving any reason, the performance omits the thirteenth movement--the Troparion, “Today salvation has come to the world,” skipping to the fourteenth--the Troparion, “Thou didst rise from the tomb.” While one Troparion, rather than both, is sung within the context of a Resurrectional All-Night Vigil service, it has become common practice, in concert performances of the Vigil, to sing both Troparia. The performance itself suffers from tempi that are generally faster--and sometimes a good deal faster--than those called for by Rachmaninov; from the many ritards and fermatas placed where Rachmaninov has not specified any; and from a zealous choir that tends to over-sing fortes and fortissimos that too often result in an unpleasant choral sound.

Of the four ensembles represented here, it is Paul Hillier’s Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir that most demands of the Rachmaninov Vigil. The blend of the voices, the precision of their entries, the singing of the alto and tenor soloists, the superb intonations by the bassso profundo, Hillier’s attention to detail, and the subtleties that he and his singers bring to the performance all create a first-rate recording. An excellent example of the subtlety with which Hillier and his choir approach the music can be seen is in the penultimate movement--“Thou didst rise from the the tomb.” Beginning at a bit past the midpoint of the movement and going to its end (measures 21 through 31 in the score), the choir is given music of ineffable beauty (not that this doesn’t occur elsewhere) if the altos, then the tenors, and finally the sopranos, in succession, bring out their notes ever so slightly. This, the Estonian singers do with great subtlety; the result is a sound that leaves the listener awestruck at the power that even the quietest of some music has when it is performed superbly.

“I felt like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.” Looking back at that particular time in the twentieth century, it is easy to understand Rachmaninov’s despondency. There was no room in the musical mainstream for his sort of expression once the twentieth century began. As that century wore on, however, we could see that, in being true to himself and to his musical language, Rachmaninov’s style was prophetic of what was to come. By century’s end, more began to embrace a music in which a tonal center, in which emotion, had significant places--a musical world that, for the time, restored Rachmaninov, the composer, to his rightful place.

What Sergei Rachmaninov accomplished in the short span of six weeks in 1915 was the creation of the greatest piece of Russian sacred choral music--a miraculous blend of Russian chant and a musical language that did not fear emotion or passion. In its own way, the Vigil belongs to that rank of compositions given over to the glory of God, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis being chief among them.

The recording of Paul Hillier and his Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is one worthy of standing along side the best recordings of the Vigil that have been made in the past.

Clayton Henderson
Saint Mary’s College
Notre Dame, Indiana

image_description=RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37

product_title=RACHMANINOV: All Night Vigil, op. 37

  • Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier, dir., Harmonia Mundi HMU907384 [CD]

  • Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Michael Gläser, dir., Oehms Classics OC 351 [CD]

  • SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, Marcus Creed, dir., Hänssler 093112000 [CD]

  • St Petersburg Chamber Choir, Nikolai Korniev, cond., Pentatone PTC 5186 027 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:02 PM

ADÈS: Piano Quintet

A convincing performance of Adès’ Piano Quintet is a formidable challenge to even the most seasoned and notable chamber players. Adès demands impeccable technical ability from each individual player, challenging the limitations of the stringed instruments, forcing performers to achieve new levels of technical ability, particularly in the first violin part. Fortunately for the listener, Irvine Arditti of the Arditti Quartet rises to meet that challenge delivering a seemingly flawless performance that evenly maintains the tone and timbre, even in passages executed in an unusually high register. Re-emphasizing Arditti’s command of the violin in this setting, it should be noted that his playing was confident and unwavering throughout.

The piece itself takes audiences on a journey, beginning with tonal, melodic lines that often mirror themselves. Gradually, the individual parts begin traveling in different meters, depriving listeners of a pulse they can hold on to, particularly in the more subdued development section. In an energetic final section, the instruments converge with material from the exposition, only this time, with an infusion of energy characterized by a much faster tempo and stronger dynamics. Although mentally taxing at times, the work was genuinely satisfying as well as impressive.

Overall, the most impressive feature of the Adès performance is not the unquestioned technical abilities of the performers, but rather the holistic experience of listening to five instrumentalists sharing a defined musical vision. In other words, the different personalities (including that of Thomas Adès playing the piano) came to a mutual understanding, so that all members shared the same interpretation for each of the numerous musical ideas presented, maintaining these congruencies throughout the work. In doing so, the ensemble had to master an unforgiving score which often required that each individual performer execute their passages in different meters simultaneously, the effect of which was both disconcerting and dramatic. Thomas Adès provides audiences with an authoritative performance of a strikingly original work.

In this recording, Franz Schubert’s well-known “Trout” Quintet appropriately complements Adès’ more contemporary work. Exemplifying Schubert’s forward-thinking compositional style, the “Trout” Quintet demonstrates how infusing classical forms with unconventional, yet delightful musical inventions can result in the creation of a highly revered classic. Thomas Adès joins members of the Belcea Quartet and bassist Corin Long in delivering an energetic and pleasurable performance of Schubert’s timeless classic.
Overall, the performance was energetic and engaging, emphasizing Schubert’s more “romantic” side. In many of the more lyrical passages, the first violinist exaggerated the phrasing somewhat more than the other instrumentalists, and often infused the performance with added intensity using very fast vibrato. Overall, one can expect a very satisfying performance from the violinist, although occasionally, overshadowing the more delicate and gentle deliveries from the other players. At times, it almost seemed as though the violinist is gifted with tremendous soloistic qualities that may be a bit too pronounced in a chamber setting.

Among things to look forward to in the Schubert are beautiful and well balanced lyrical lines from the viola and cello. The string bass provides solid rhythmic accompaniment with a warm tone. Tempos for the first and third movements are generally on the fast side, lending the performance some excitement. For those familiar with this Schubert signature, and even for those who have yet to experience this legendary quintet, this recording is both enjoyable and rewarding.

M. Nathalie Hristov
University of Tennessee

image_description=ADÈS: Piano Quintet

product_title=ADÈS: Piano Quintet; SCHUBERT: Piano Quintet
product_by=Thomas Adès, piano; Belcea Quartet
product_id= EMI Classics 7243 5 57664 2 7 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 1:40 PM

Myth, Muzak and Mozart

[The Guardian, 16 September 2005]

How do we know what we think we know about Mozart? And why is he still the most popular composer of the western classical tradition? He is one of the most written-about, dissected and mythologised composers in the history of western music. A Google search just before the 250th anniversary of his birth offers more than 5m entries. My mobile phone's predictive text spells Mozart, but not Haydn or Beethoven. The number of books published about him ranks with those about Shakespeare, Christ and (his nearest rival among composers) Wagner. Of the making of theories about his life, death, relationships, personal habits, not to mention his music, there is no end.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Posted by Gary at 1:03 PM

September 15, 2005

La fanciulla del West at Covent Garden

José Cura and Andrea Gruber (Photo by Catherine Ashmore)After the success of his operas up to and including Madama Butterfly, Puccini could afford to spend more time in choosing subjects which were different in style and form from anything he had already written. His mid- to late-period operas are, in consequence, amongst his most innovative. The fruits of this artistic freedom include the semi-operetta La rondine, the trilogy of contrasting one-acters Il trittico, and the depiction of the California gold rush, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West).

Posted by Gary at 9:53 PM

WEBBER: Phantasia; The Woman in White

Geoffrey Alexander, building on an idea of Sir Lloyd Webber and his brother, renowned cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, and drawing from the original score as well as from new material written for the only moderately successful film version, has arranged the work for orchestra and two soloists. The violin solo represents Christine, the soprano heroine, and the cello represents the Phantom, and both Sarah Chang and Lloyd Webber play beautifully. Indeed, Chang’s violin is a far more expressive Christine than Sarah Brightman ever was. Passages of lyricism contrast with virtuosic passages, as is customary in such concert pieces, and the bravura sections are well written for the instruments. But in a work this long – the selection clocks in somewhere between thirty minutes and eternity – repetition is inevitable, and, by the end, only devotees will fail to grow antsy for the final cadence. The cheese factor is not as prevalent or pronounced as it could have been, given the material, although there are some modulations that would cause a first-year music theory student to blush. And Alexander’s orchestration is reminiscent of his film scoring, which means the whole thing is a bit overblown, but it is professional and colorful.

In arranging a suite from the recent musical The Woman in White, Laurence Roman was faced with the old sow’s ear-silk purse conundrum: how can a largely tuneless score be turned into an orchestral suite of any interest? The answer: don’t expect a silk purse. While we occasionally hear snippets that recall earlier scores – a little Evita here, a little Phantom there – for the most part this is, at least based on the tunes used in this suite, probably Lloyd Webber’s least interesting score. Even gussied up in the once more overblown arrangements (Andrew Stewart’s booklet notes calls them “full-blooded”), the score never catches fire. Actually, it never even smolders. This is definitely what would once have been called “B-side material.”

The Phantasia will delight fans of the show and will probably have a long shelf life as a pops concert staple. After all, there is no denying the music’s popularity, and soloists will find it rewarding. Fans of the show will treasure the medley, and many will find the virtuosic fancies a highbrow treatment of melodies they could, and perhaps do, sing in their sleep. And in all fairness, the whole thing could have been much worse. For its intended audience, this should find much success.

The recording quality is superb, as is the orchestra’s playing under Simon Lee. (Lee conducted the film version of Phantom as well as the stage production of The Woman in White and other Lloyd Webber creations, so he definitely knows what he’s doing here.) As mentioned above, the solo playing is exemplary and perhaps does more with the material than is warranted. Still, this is a work for the listener who is already a Lloyd Webber and, in particular, a Phantom fan. The rest of us will continue to prefer our Puccini straight up.

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


product_title=Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantasia (arr. Geoffrey Alexander) and The Woman in White Suite (arr. Laurence Roman).
product_by=Sarah Chang, violin, and Julian Lloyd Webber, cello (on Phantasia). The London Orchestra conducted by Simon Lee.
product_id=EMI Classics 7 243-5-5804327 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 4:47 PM

THEILE: Arias; Canzonettas

As a young man, Theile began law studies at the University of Leipzig in 1666, and while a student he was a member of the Collegium Musicum, the same ensemble that J. S. Bach would lead in the eighteenth century. Anthologies of student song must have been common enough in Leipzig—there are surviving collections by Adam Krieger, Sebastian Knüpfer, and Johann Pezel—and in 1667, Theile published his own: Weltlichen Arien und Canzonetten.

The songs are strophic airs for one or two voices with basso continuo and instrumental ritornelli, and their texts unsurprisingly treat the themes of unrequited love, the pain of departure and separation, the pleasures of the bed, and the difficulties of malicious women. One song even offers a philosophy of student life: “It’s good to wake up with the Muses/ and consult one’s books for their uses./ But one also has to have some fun/ instead of studying from early to late./ Frequent kisses and a little reading:/ it offers a fine change of pace.” The songs are naturally varied in their tone and mood, but throughout they are the fruits of a careful and inventive hand. Where the text leads, the music can be rollicking or serious, even poignant, in response, but in any event, these seem “student” works in venue and chronology only.

The performances are unflaggingly first-rate. All four singers command period style with notable ease, and with their lithe and flexible voices imbue the songs with ornamental grace and character. The instrumentalists of Les Amis Philippe make a substantial contribution here with richly textured, contoured playing. Though relegated largely to ritornelli, these are not ancilliary “throw aways.” Rather, they occasion some of the most expressive music making on the disc, and powerfully add dimensionality to the strophic forms.

Rémy has sought to maximize the flexibility of seventeenth-century music making in his approach to his program. The continuo ensemble is a varied one and the ritornelli similarly employ a range of instrumental color. Duets are rendered in various ways: both parts sung or one part sung, the other one played, following the lead of Theile’s teacher, Heinrich Schütz. And, unsurprisingly, the singers employ ornamentation as one way of keeping the strophic forms alive and in motion. In only one instance did I find the variability unsuccessful. The performance of the aria “Gehab dich wohl, o Schönste” divided the stanzas between tenor and soprano. Inevitably the octave disposition invites us to hear this as a gendered dialogue—the man sings, now the woman—and yet, the text is continuously one voice, not a dialogue. In other instances where the stanzas are divided between two singers, it is a division between soprano and alto in the same octave, and thus a more unified sense is maintained.

There is great delight in these songs and in these very accomplished performances. That in itself might be a sufficient conclusion here. But it is important to note, as well, that in bringing these songs to life, Rémy and his colleagues have also substantially enlarged our sense of student music-making--both its quality and its nature. And ultimately, given the roots of these songs in Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, they have helped us better to understand the world of J.S Bach, too.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Theile: Arias; Canzonettas

product_title=Johann Theile: Arias; Canzonettas
product_by=Schirin Partowi, soprano; Werner Buchin, alto; Henning Kaiser, tenor, Matthias Vieweg, bass; Les Amis de Philippe; Ludger Rémy, Director.
product_id=cpo 777 002-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 4:01 PM

This Season in St. Petersburg

pique_dame_mariinsky_small.jpgOpen season

By Galina Stolyarova [St. Petersburg Times, 16 September 2005]

After summer’s slumber, St. Petersburg’s classical music titans are waking with the 2005/2006 season opening this week.

Posted by Gary at 3:30 PM


“People are staring at us,” Arlen whispered to Monroe. “They must know who you are!” she replied. The joke, as Arlen knew, was on him. Although his catalogue included “I've Got the World on a String,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” “Get Happy,” and “Over the Rainbow”—which was voted the twentieth century's No. 1 song by the Recording Industry Association of America—Arlen was virtually anonymous. “Who's Harold Arlen?” Truman Capote asked in 1953, when it was suggested that he collaborate with the composer on the musical version of his short story “House of Flowers.” In 1955, at a concert in Cairo partly devoted to American music, five Arlen songs—“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Ill Wind,” “Blues in the Night,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” and “Stormy Weather”—were billed, without attribution, as American “folk songs.” Even this year, which happens to be the centennial of Arlen's birth (he died in 1986), at a celebration for a postage stamp honoring the late lyricist E. Y. Harburg, with whom Arlen wrote a hundred and eleven songs, including the score for “The Wizard of Oz,” no one thought to even mention Arlen.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Harold Arlen

product_title=Come Rain or Come Shine
product_by=by John Lahr, New Yorker [Issue of 19 September 2005]

Posted by Gary at 3:14 PM

MONTSALVATGE: Integral de canto

Aware of this situation, shortly before his death and with a light dose of acrimony, he declared in an interview:

The weight of these compositions has followed me all my life, and I have not yet solved it. I don’t want to boast, but the songs are popular from Nepal to South Africa, which has the inconvenience that they overshadow the rest of my works.

[Carlos del Amo, “Xavier Montsalvatge,” EFE News Services (December 2, 1999).]

And indeed, they do. Recorded, completely, by Victoria de los Angeles, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Teresa Berganza and, partially, by Bartoli and Gheorghiu, these songs are among the most popular of the twentieth-century repertoire and—given its irresistible melodic charm—a favorite encore of all singers. Needless to say, all this results in a general lack of familiarity with his other, equally appealing, compositions. The fact is that Montsalvatge’s music has been premiered by internationally renown performers such as Nicanor Zabaleta, Alicia de Larrocha, Rostropovich, Rampal, Szeryng and many others. In addition, it has also been performed at the BBC Proms and at Lincoln Center (by the New York Philharmonic). Besides Columna, several international labels, including ASV and Marco Polo, have issued many recordings entirely dedicated to his music as well. Therefore, Montsalvatge’s so-called “problem” is not that he is unknown or that his works are poorly disseminated, but rather that his music is unevenly circulated and appreciated. To be sure, these two CDs will palliate this problem.

In recent times, Columna Música, the small, independent Barcelona label, has issued an incredible amount of Spanish music, including an on-going series dedicated to the issuance of the complete works of Montsalvatge. This latest installment includes the composer’s whole production for voice and piano. Volume I includes the composer’s songs cycles Canciones para niños, Canciones negras, and Quatre rimes breus de Josep Carner. Volume II focuses on single, self-standing songs as well as opera arias arranged for voice and piano. For the first time, therefore, listeners can appreciate the full spectrum of Montsalvatge’s vocal output and not only one of its segments. The songs, as a matter of fact, cover chronologically all his career as a composer since the first song dates from 1933 and the last was written in 2001.

Montsalvatge’s musical language overtly departs from the Germanic tradition prevalent in earlier Catalan composers (Pedrell and Gerhard among others). Instead, it shows a penchant for the irony, playfulness, and popular appeal of Les Six, as well as the rhythmic experimentation and formal clarity of Stravinsky. Although his language evolved and passed through different phases (including a serialist one), he is best known for his so-called “West Indian” style (early critics called it antillanismo), which was inspired by the sounds of the Spanish Caribbean. This period includes compositions such as Tres divertimenti (1941), Cuarteto indiano (1952), and of course the popular Cinco canciones negras (1945, orchestrated in 1949). On these two CDs the antillanismo is only audible in the celebrated Canciones negras. The rest of the songs, generally speaking, use relatively simple, appealing melodic lines accompanied by astringent, modern harmonies. A predilection for the world of children is also prevalent in most of his works (as is the case in Frederic Mompou’s oeuvre, another eminent Catalan composer), but especially in his Canciones para niños (with texts by García Lorca), also included here.
Some of the performers on these CDs seem to own, in the best sense of the word, Xavier Montsalvatge’s music. American-born, Barcelona educated pianist Mac MacClure was a friend of the composer and he worked closely with him in many projects, including the recording of his complete works. His accompaniment is subtle, expressive, and clean, as well as sensitive to the singers’ quirks. Soprano Rosa Mateu was the composer’s protégé and had the privilege of premiering many of his late vocal compositions. She brings to these recordings an intimate knowledge of the music and its world, as well as her remarkable vocal qualities. Marisa Martins is one of the rising stars in Barcelona’s vocal scene. Born in Argentina and educated in Barcelona, she has already sang opera at the venerable Gran Teatre del Liceu in her adoptive city. These recordings show her great talent for the song repertoire, too, and she brings to them an exact diction and a deep understanding of the text. All things considered, one only wishes that the popularity of the greatly admired versions of Cinco canciones negras by Victoria de los Ángeles et al. do not overshadow these performances the way the compositions themselves “followed” and became a “weight” for the composer. God forbid.

Antoni Pizà, Director
Foundation for Iberian Music, CUNY Graduate Center

image_description=MONTSALVATGE: Integral de canto

product_title=Xavier Montsalvatge: Integral de canto (vol. I) and Integral de canto (vol. II)
product_by= Marisa Martins, mezzosoprano; Mac MacClure, piano (Vol. I); Rosa Mateu, soprano; Àngels Cívit, mezzosoprano; Antonio Comas, tenor; Mac MacClure, piano (Vol. II)
product_id=Columna Música 1CM0080 [CD] (Vol. I); Columna Música 1CM0079 [CD] (Vol. II).

Posted by Gary at 2:09 PM

Paul Kellogg to retire as New York City Opera’s General and Artistic Director at the end of the 2006-07 Season

“This has been a hard decision, Mr. Kellogg said, “but I will have run two opera companies for 29 years, and that’s probably enough – for me and for the profession. It’s been a wonderfully exciting and satisfying time, and I’ve had the chance to meet extraordinary people, but it’s mostly a fifteen-hour-day, seven-days-a-week job that is probably better suited to someone forty-five years old. I’ve done the math and realize I’ll be within sight of seventy by then, which leaves just time enough to start a more rational life – whatever that is.

“As importantly, this is a good time for New York City Opera to look for new leadership and it leaves two years to conduct a search, during which I will be fully active as General and Artistic Director. The company is in a very good period artistically. We have developed a strong board and support group. And although nothing can be confirmed or discussed specifically at this point, I would say that our finally getting a new theater is more likely than not. There are still hurdles to jump, and it will take a great deal of work to bring it to completion, but the excitement of achieving it also adds enormously to the appeal of the job. I feel comfortable leaving City Opera in other hands, though I will miss it terribly. It’s an extraordinary company.”

Susan Baker, City Opera’s chairman commented, “Paul Kellogg has been a beloved and visionary leader of City Opera and we will miss him deeply. During the past ten years we have been fortunate to have had the benefit not only of his extraordinary artistic sensibility, his wise counsel and his inspirational leadership, but also of his impeccable human values, warmth and charm. That said, we cannot help but understand that he wishes to have more personal time after many years of service to the arts and we salute and thank him for his formidable accomplishments and significant contributions both to City Opera and to opera in general. Paul Kellogg’s vision for City Opera has charted our course for the coming years. We are grateful beyond measure and will miss him profoundly.”

Mr. Kellogg, who took on the management of City Opera in January of 1996, had been the director of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown New York since 1979. After coming to City Opera he remained at Glimmerglass Opera as Artistic Director, allowing the two companies to share in thirty productions in ten years, with three more in preparation. Mr. Kellogg has also announced that he will leave Glimmerglass Opera at the end of its 2006 summer season.

2005-2006 marks the tenth year of Paul Kellogg’s tenure as General and Artistic Director of New York City Opera. Under his leadership City Opera has continued to flourish as one of the country’s preeminent cultural institutions, widely acclaimed for its performing excellence, innovative repertory, and mentorship of gifted young American singers and composers.

Since Mr. Kellogg’s inaugural season, City Opera has added 62 new productions to its repertory—an achievement unmatched by any other American opera company. This new work has included an acclaimed cycle of Baroque operas, innovative re-imaginings of standard and rarely performed works, and the New York and world premieres of operas by leading American composers including Michael Torke, Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo, and Charles Wuorinen. He has also overseen the company’s development of a uniquely theatrical production style which pairs visionary theater directors and designers with today’s finest young singers, winning new audiences for the art form. In 1999, under Mr. Kellogg’s aegis, VOX: Showcasing American Composers was created - the country’s only festival devoted to orchestral readings of new American operas, furthering the company’s leadership role in American opera.

In addition to his responsibilities with City Opera, Mr. Kellogg has had a twenty-five year affiliation with the Glimmerglass Opera, which he ran as General Director and where he remains Artistic Director. During his time at Glimmerglass Opera, Mr. Kellogg presided over the construction of the Alice Busch Opera Theater, one of the finest venues for opera in the country. He also serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of OPERA America and serves on the boards of Shen Wei Dance Arts and the New York State Historical Association.

Mr. Kellogg, a native of Hollywood, California, received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas. He spent the following years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and taught in a lycée in the Lorraine under a French government grant while continuing his studies at the University of Nancy. He entered graduate school at Columbia University and began teaching French at the Allen-Stevenson School in New York, where in 1967 he was appointed Assistant Headmaster and then Head of the Lower School. Mr. Kellogg moved to Cooperstown, New York in 1975 to write, and three years later joined the Glimmerglass Opera.

[Source: NYC Opera Press Release, dated 15 September 2005]

image_description=NYC Opera Logo

Posted by Gary at 11:49 AM

September 14, 2005

SULLIVAN: Cox and Box; Trial by Jury

Cox and Box, which is billed as “a Triumviretta,” is a trifle designed as such. This recording replaces the dialogue with narration for Sergeant Bouncer. While Donald Maxwell handles it well, the dialogue would be nice. The plot, such as it is, involves Bouncer letting a flat to two men simultaneously, one (Box) who works at night and sleeps during the day, and one (Cox) who works opposite hours. The problem is solved through predicable complexities that result in the discovery that the two men are brothers. All live happily ever after, joining in Bouncer’s recurring chorus of “Rataplan.” (He is formerly of the Dampshire Yeomanry, seemingly by way of the chorus to La Fille du Regiment.)

The score is a sly pastiche of several recognizable styles. Bouncer’s opening aria, as the excellent booklet notes by David Russell Hulme inform us, is a parody of Handle’s heroic style, and other operatic styles are parodied in several arias. Sullivan also got effect, not to mention double duty, from setting several arias in the style of popular parlor songs of the era. Box’s lullaby to his morning bacon, for instance, was published separately as a song, although with different words. (Tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of this lovely moment, sung with exquisite simplicity and charm – not to mention beauty – is perhaps the highlight of the entire recording. Gilchrist is also superb in Trial by Jury. His is a name I’ll look for in the future.) Nothing in the score, however, jumps out as quintessentially Sullivan. The sure sense of rhythm is there, and the setting of the words is skillful, but we are not yet on the playing field with the pro we have come to know from his later works.

But when the chorus, at the top of Trial by Jury, begins to sing, “Hark, the hour of ten is sounding,” there is no doubt what, or, rather, who, we are listening to. The unique combination of words and music that characterizes the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan is at once apparent, as is Gilbert’s sly take on the society of his time. The Judge, for instance, who delightfully puts a stop to all proceedings to inform the court (and, more importantly, the audience) of how he reached his elevated station, is a delicious parody of the ineptness of the judiciary. (Although, since the Judge eventually winds up with the ingénue, perhaps inept is the wrong word.) Gilbert’s good-natured parodying is not without an occasional sting, but it maintains its tongue squarely in its cheek, as it does in the works that follow.

The performances in the second work are also recommended. Although if I were casting the Plaintiff I would look for a lighter voice than Rebecca Evans’s, I certainly would find no lovelier voice, and I doubt if I would find a richer performance, either. Gilchrist, as mentioned above, is again exceptional, and Donald Maxwell skillfully handles the patter of the Judge, creating a delightful character where many opt for a more generic approach. Matthew Brook also provides some wonderful moments as the Counsel for the Plaintiff. All the performances are arch without being self-conscious, and the vocal quality is generally excellent.

Recent recordings and / or performances of works by Gilbert and Sullivan have something in common with recent performances, especially by the British, of classic American musicals. They are not afraid to go beyond tradition and reexamine the works, finding elements that are not always apparent when performances concentrate more on well-established performance style than on the works themselves. This is not to say that tradition is thrown out the window – this recording is unmistakably G&S and is all the better for it. Instead, tradition is being enriched by a generation of performers who are capable of a dramatic (and comic) depth previously unexplored. Certainly this recording demonstrates new nuances being brought to works we thought we knew already.

Chandos’s Brian Couzens (recording producer) and Ralph Couzens (sound engineer) have provided a recording with sound as crisp as the singers’ superb diction. Aided by conductor Richard Hickox’s sense of balance and energetic tempos that are never frenetic, the recording sounds fresh and provides readings of one well-known work, and one not so well-known, that are worthwhile additions to the library of Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved operettas.

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

image_description=Cox and Box; Trial by Jury

product_title=Cox and Box; Trial by Jury
product_by=Sir Arthur Sullivan, Cox and Box (libretto by F. C. Burnand, from J. Maddison Morton’s farce) and Trial by Jury (libretto by W. S. Gilbert). With Rebecca Evans, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Donald Maxwell, baritone; Neal Davies, baritone; et al. Chamber Choir of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox.
product_id=Chandos 10321 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 8:43 PM

PROKOFIEV: Ivan the Terrible

For Prokofiev, the boundary between film music and art music was slight, and he often reused material from his film scores in his other compositions (and vice versa). The performance reviewed here continues in this tradition by bringing Prokofiev’s score for Ivan the Terrible to the ballet stage. Composer Abram Stassevich first raised the idea for such an adaptation in the late 1950s when the brief Khrushchev thaw opened the door for the release of part two of Ivan and a wider appreciation of Prokofiev’s music. The project was never realized in Stassevich’s lifetime—he instead chose to arrange a concert version of the score. It was not until the early 1970s that composer Mikhail Chulaki and choreographer Yuri Grigorovich—both top figures at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater—revived Stassevich’s original plan and produced the ballet version featured on this DVD. But Prokofiev purists beware: the Ivan ballet is far from a direct adaptation to the stage. Chulaki grafted segments of his own music to a significantly rearranged version of Prokofiev’s score, resulting in a work that only partially resembles the original Ivan. Aficionados of Prokofiev’s music will also recognize material from his other works embedded in the ballet, among them the Third Symphony and the Russian Overture (op.72). Grigorovich makes a similar departure from the original Ivan in his scenario, which puts the focus squarely on Ivan’s troubled place between Western rational action and Eastern mysticism and destructiveness. It is perhaps fitting that this adaptation of Ivan celebrates the ambiguities and uncertainties of the infamous tsar’s reign: the portrayal of uncertainties in Ivan’s character was one of the chief reasons Eisenstein’s original film encountered such difficulties with the Soviet authorities. Stalin’s identification with Ivan was well known, and, as such, any negative portrayal of the latter was heresy.

The fact that this ballet version of Ivan is not vintage Prokofiev or Eisenstein certainly should not detract from its interest. The Ivan the Terrible ballet represents a not only an attractive adaptation of Prokofiev’s work, but an example of the Soviet ballet tradition under the direction of one of its foremost choreographers, Mikhail Grigorovich. Grigorovich worked as the head ballet master at the Bolshoi from 1964 until 1995, during which time he became one of the major figures in Soviet ballet, receiving the prestigious Order of Lenin in 1976 for his work. Moreover, his tutelage guided several generations of dancers in the Soviet Union and played a role in creating and maintaining the distinctive arch-classical style of Russian dance in the twentieth century.

The dancing in this 1990 recording done at the Bolshoi is first-rate: the lead roles are given outstanding performances by two of the Bolshoi’s veteran dancers, Natalya Bessmertnova and Irek Mukhamedov. The sound quality of the recording lacks some depth and color, but the visual aspects more than make up for this (although the camera angle is rather static and there are few close-ups of the stage). The orchestral playing is a bit ragged at times—especially in the winds—but this does not detract substantially from this superb performance.

Kevin Michael Bartig
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

image_description: Ivan the Terrible

product_title= Sergei Prokofiev: Ivan the Terrible
product_by=Irek Mukhamedov, dancer / Natalya Bessmertnova, dancer / Gedminas Taranda, dancer / Yuri Grigorovich, choreographer. Bolshoi Theatre Children's Choir. Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Bolshoi Ballet. Algis Zhuraitis, conductor.
product_id=Arthaus Musik 101107 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 8:22 PM

Ouvertüren: Music for the Hamburg Opera

The lack of attention to all these composers (Handel aside) is no indication that there is anything wrong with their music; indeed, it makes for pleasant listening in these fine performances by the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin. This venerable ensemble, made up of a score or so of musicians playing on period instruments, began in 1982 in what was then East Germany. The group has also recorded individual albums devoted to works by Telemann, J. S. Bach, J. C. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and W. F. Bach, as well as other music.

The Keiser work, the Sinfonia from Der lächerlichePrince Jodelet (The ridiculous Prince Jodelet), gives the listener quite a workout. It begins with what might be called excited “chase” music, which is suddenly interrupted by the first half of the famous (and slow) “La Folia” tune, played with percussion, sounding appropriately ridiculous. Then a brief section of fast music again, followed by another brief slow section, followed by another brief fast section — well, you get the idea. As Bernhard Schrammek points out in his liner notes, Keiser (1674-1739) was appointed capellmeister of the Hamburg opera at the age of twenty-three. He wrote so many operas that even the pre-eminent music historian of the time, Johann Mattheson, lost count, writing that “there are far more than one hundred, but even the keenest reckoning may fail here, for many a piece is already forgotten.” Keiser went on to follow Mattheson as cantor of the cathedral in Hamburg, where he remained until his death. Meanwhile, his place at the opera went to Georg Philipp Telemann, who was also the city’s director of music and therefore Keiser’s nominal superior.

Although the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin does justice to the works on this CD, the pieces (the Handel included) do little more than display the tricks of the composition trade of the time, and only devoted Baroque-music listeners would seek out more of this repertoire.

Michael Ochs

image_description=Ouvertüren: Music for the Hamburg Opera

product_title=Ouvertüren: Overtures for the Hamburg Opera (1693-1726). Works by Schürmann, Erlebach, Keiser, Handel, Schieferdecker
product_by=Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
product_id= Harmonia Mundi HMC901852 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:26 PM

S.F. Opera opens on a high note

borodina_small.jpgBy Tiger Hashimoto [S. F. Examiner, 11 September 2005]

A famous French actor was quoted on his deathbed: "Tragedy is easy; comedy is hard." Which possibly explains why San Francisco Opera has not been very amusing for the last four years.

All was rectified Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House when the company unveiled only its second production ever of Gioachino Rossini's tart little satire, "L'Italiana in Algeri" (The Italian Girl in Algiers).

Posted by Gary at 3:11 PM

Le voyage de Provence à Paris profite grandement à "Cosi fan tutte"

cosi_paris_small.jpg[Le Monde, 14 September 2005]

Patrice Chéreau avait raison lorsqu'il déclarait que, une fois les répétitions terminées, c'est le chef d'orchestre qui "tient l'opéra" (Le Monde du 7 juillet). La reprise à Paris du Cosi fan tutte créé cet été au Festival d'Aix-en-Provence vient d'en fournir une preuve éclatante.

La défection de Daniel Harding dès le début des répétitions pour cause de mésentente avec l'Orchestre de l'Opéra a empêché les débuts du jeune chef britannique à l'Opéra de Paris ­ mais profité au spectacle (Le Monde du 12 juillet).

Posted by Gary at 2:53 PM

Linzer Brucknerfest: Back to the roots

bruckner_small.jpgAnton Bruckners 9. Symphonie: ein würdiger Festival-Auftakt.

[Die Presse, 13 September 2005]

Mehr und mehr entsinnt sich das Brucknerfest Linz wieder seiner ureigensten Aufgabe. Vier Symphonien - darunter die Siebente mit den Wiener Philharmonikern unter Pierre Boulez - stehen auf dem Programm, dazu die f-moll-Messe unter Fabio Luisi, Motetten, kleine Instrumentalstücke, die Transkription einer Symphonie für Orgel (Thomas Schmögner) - viel mehr kann man sich nicht wünschen. Oder vielleicht doch? Die gewichtigen Männerchöre, die großen Chor-Orchesterwerke "Helgoland", "Germanenzug", "Der 150. Psalm" . . .

Posted by Gary at 2:38 PM

FT Reviews Waiting for the Barbarians

Barbarians2.jpgBy Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 14 September 2005]

"Normally speaking, we would never approve of torture," sings Colonel Joll. "But I think it's generally understood that this is an emergency."

Philip Glass's newest opera is an allegory for our times. Waiting for the Barbarians tells a cautionary tale about the evils of imperialism, the moral quagmire of war and torture, about injustice masquerading as law and order, about individual responsibility. The work, a tidy 2½-hour music drama, received its world premiere in the Thuringian capital of Erfurt on Saturday.

Posted by Gary at 2:22 PM

View from the Top — David Daniels, ten years on

So, on a blazing hot July afternoon earlier this year, I was sitting with David Daniels in his rented flat near Covent Garden, London, near the end of his run as Farnace in Mozart’s “Mitridate Re di Ponto” at the Royal Opera. He looked tanned and relaxed in his habitual jeans, trainers and polo shirt, and both the computer screen and the golf on TV were vying for his attention as I arrived. It had been a difficult week for him and, in its way, a microcosm of the lifestyle: weeks of hard work in a challenging production, a triumphal opening night, a fine group of singing colleagues…..and then an infection, some sort of head-cold. One night he was too ill to sing, two performances were very hard work, but then a final matinee with a voice that was nearly back to the full bloom of the first night. He has a reputation for old-world Southern charm spiced with a sharp wit, so I hoped it wouldn’t be too testing a time to ask him to review how he’s met the challenges of his first decade in opera.

So we sat and discussed that opera-singer’s lifestyle, and how it has evolved in tandem with his achievements, and I came to realise that, like a growing tree, his artistic life was marked by growth-rings with good years and bad alike imprinted on his memory, with both combining to help produce a mature artist now hovering on the brink of his 40th year. That’s still young in opera terms of course, but it’s a good time in anybody’s life to take stock. Many people know Daniels’ story by now: how he came to give up on an essentially disappointing and frustrating career as a young tenor and took the plunge and changed to what he’d always considered his most natural instrument, his countertenor voice, that for too long had been relegated to the car, shower or bar. His ‘94/’95 season in the USA saw the birth of a new phenomenon in baroque opera: the ‘star’ countertenor — an oxymoron in previous decades. But to Daniels, it was simply fulfilling a dream, a career that, he thinks, was pre-destined. “I come from a small but very close-knit family, both parents were opera singers, and then singing teachers, and my brother’s a professional cellist and I just grew up with music — I’m very close to my parents and call them just about every other day. In fact when you arrived I was on the computer trying to organise a 50th wedding anniversary party for them down in their home state of South Carolina — I’ve booked a lovely old Southern mansion, pillars, the whole thing! It’s a real “Gone with the Wind” sort of place..…I just hope I’m not too jet lagged when I get there on Wednesday. I’ve planned it all from here, which probably explains my AOL bill — it’s enormous! But it’ll be great for them, I hope.”

Looking back over the last ten years since his first big break in “L'incoronazione di Poppea” at Glimmerglass in ’94/’95, I wondered if he was entirely happy with all his career choices? Were there any regrets? “I’m extremely happy, and no, I don’t think I’d have done anything really differently…you know, you learn a lot in a career like this, you make a few mistakes here and there but from the beginning I’ve always known myself….you know? I grew up in the business, knew about singers “blowing out” and having five-year careers — I’ve watched it! — so I think I’ve always made incredibly intelligent choices about singing, I know what’s right for me and I think I’m really in tune with my voice in that way. In fact, if anything I’m overly-critical of myself — to a fault — and I guess it’s the only thing in my life I’m a real perfectionist about. You learn, as time goes by, how to manage yourself, how to keep a balance say, between socialising and staying quiet, knowing how much of each is good for you and your voice, and that balance is always changing. Not just as you get older, but every day! Your body is different every day …yeah, that’s the curse of the singer”. He laughs ruefully.

So, what did he regard as highlights of that past ten years on the opera stage, where he’s regarded as pre-eminent in his voice-type? “Well, obviously, singing Nerone in “Poppea” at Glimmerglass in ’94 was pivotal….really pivotal in my career. And you know, I only got that role in a really strange way: a friend from college called me where I was waiting tables in a restaurant, between the occasional auditions and small roles, and told me about the Glimmerglass production. They were still casting for roles but Brian Asawa had been engaged already, for either Nerone or the other countertenor role, Ottone, and had been given the choice — he was a couple of years ahead of me in the business and more of a name than me then. He decided that Ottone suited his voice better — it’s a lower tessitura, Nerone is so high — and so I sent in a tape — and got the audition, and the role of Nerone. So, yes, if Brian had decided otherwise, who knows what would have happened…..I guess you could say I maybe owe my career to him! Certainly at that time no manager would bother to hear me…the countertenor voice just didn’t mean anything back then in the States. I lived, like I say, by waiting table between very sparse engagements, as I couldn’t get management. My partner John and my parents helped support me — my parents weren’t loaded for sure, but they helped me out when I really needed it, and I’m so grateful to them, the odd $500 — or even $5000 — was a godsend! Apart from that, I must say my debut as Sesto at the Met and my Carnegie Hall recital debut were really important, and my Munich roles…Munich has been so very important to my European career. And of course…… (adopting a deadpan expression) .. wearing “panniers” in “Mitridate” has just got to be one of my favourites.” Obviously, the unwieldy extravagances of that costume design were not to be easily forgotten.

Moving on swiftly, I wondered if it might be wise to broach the obvious next subject. To ask any opera singer to recall bad times as well as good is always a risk, but Daniels is pretty open and honest about such things and this perhaps tends to alleviate some of the more painful memories: for instance, when he injured his throat. How did it happen?

“I made a mistake — I was taking a blood-thinner for some back pain I had, just at the start of the run of “Giulio Cesare” at the Paris Opera Garnier in the fall of 2002, and my vocal cord leaked on me. It didn’t happen while I was singing the first night, but the next day. Now, that sort of thing can just get so out-of-proportion you know — “oh, a haemorrhage on the vocal cord — end of career — he’ll never sing again!” — yes, it’s crap, of course it is, it’s just an injury like any sportsman might get. A runner going for gold in the Olympics may pull a hamstring, it’s real bad luck, but it doesn’t mean that athlete won’t run again, he just needs time to heal. But I do wish opera people would be more understanding, more upfront and open about such things — it would certainly be more supportive ….more collegial” His voice trails off, thoughtfully. “You know, it was bad enough coming back from a thing like that, with your confidence shaken, wondering if it would happen again, and it took a full year and half for me to get over it in my mind. But I got through it with the support of John, my parents, my management and — my friends. You know, I’m a person with a huge, really huge, number of acquaintances, but I don’t open myself up to many people in that way — I just have a handful of very very close friends, and they are just so important to me.”

If there’s one thing an opera singer certainly needs friends around for, it is dealing with the potential hazards of press criticism. I wondered if one of the more important changes he’d faced over the last ten years was in his relationship with the music press? “Early in my career — like any person’s career in this business — I was a new product, a new commodity and could do no wrong: everything was “amazing”, “fabulous” “oh God, I’ve never heard anything like this before”…and so on. But now that’s so not the case and it’s pick and chip, chip and pick, so about four years ago I just decided it was time for me to stop reading everything. Occasionally friends will send me something if they think I really should see it, but no, nothing bad — because I’m way, way too thin-skinned. I go into this funky, funky depression and I take everything personally; it was utter stupidity for me to ever go and try to read something about myself — and certainly not on the Internet! Oh no, ho- ho no!! It’s all this personal crap ….it’s just so wrong”.

At this point he leans forward intently. “You know Sue, we’re in this business to make music, to create entertainment, yes, but also maybe something at a higher level too, and that’s what it should be about, and what I try to concern myself with. But it’s not always easy. If the criticism was just something about the voice, ok, but it’s often something really personal like the way I look or something and that drives me nuts. I’m sure other singers feel the same, although I know even established ones who still run to the newsstands, or discuss things in “chat rooms” with fans on the Net, even confronting those who complain about something! I think life is way too short for any of that. I like to talk to my fans after a performance and I hope I’m as gracious as possible, but I have to protect myself, my time and my privacy. I’m lucky, as none of my fans has ever ‘crossed the line’ but, (and here Daniels seems to really warm to his theme) sometimes, if I’m ill, I think that people need to realise that singers do get sick and miss concerts or opera performances. If a fan is buying a ticket and taking an air flight somewhere to hear me, or any singer, then that’s a risk that person is taking, and I sometimes feel that the blame is on me and that I should feel guilty. That’s when I don’t appreciate that sort of thing. And yes, of course it can be a crushing disappointment, but so it is too for the singer! After all, if we don’t sing, we don’t get a cent, not a cent, and it’s not only that material stuff, but it’s the fact that we’ve worked our ass off, as I have for this role (Farnace) and I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible — and you know what happened. Trust me — trust me — it’s just as frustrating for the performer as it is for the fans. But I can promise you that I never ‘cancel just to cancel’. I only cancel if I’m ill; I have way too much pride and respect for myself to ever walk on stage and be less than my best. That’s why you’ll never hear an announcement ‘Mr. Daniels is indisposed but he will sing tonight’ — I won’t do that. If I’m so ill that I need an announcement then I shouldn’t be on the stage. Except, maybe, maybe, if I don’t have a cover, like in Munich where they don’t have covers usually, then there is some pressure to sing and I might be forced to do it. Yes, every singer has a view on this — hey, yes, as does every fan.”

Since Daniels came on the opera scene over ten years ago, one way for a successful singer like him to lighten the pressure of fans’ interest in, and appetite for, artistic or personal news is the “official website”. Over the past decade these have blossomed into a mini-industry of their own with specialist site-designers and writers, and often include calendars of performances, audio clips, photos, and articles. Some involve the singer him or herself as well, if they want to get “hands on” with the fans. They are usually created and run by a singer’s publicity company, or agent, and can vary enormously in range of content and topicality. Was this an approach that attracted him? At that, Daniels waxes both lyrical and comedic: “oh no! No way! I’m just so not one of those singers who enjoy that sort of thing — you know: (adopts sing-song childish voice) ‘Hi fans! I’m here in sunny South Beach and blah de blah de blah ….’” Firmly: “I never even wanted one; I was forced to have one! God, if I was ever made to have to answer those personal questions and things for real I would,…. I would… (he looks around the flat in mock panic) — I’d rather cut my wrists!!” He’s laughing, but the message is clear. It’s time to move on.

One thing that all successful opera singers share is a need to manage an ever-contracting schedule. Recitals, recordings, rehearsals, all have to be juggled inside a diary that is forever changing and the most challenging thing, I thought, must surely be to have to learn a new role from scratch with the clock ticking. Somehow, I didn’t see Daniels as the studious type of singer, buried in libraries, dissecting texts and comparing performance practices in the role….. He chuckled at that. “You’d be absolutely right there! Your observations are — correct. I think that the majority of us in this business are people who do tend to leave the learning to pretty late and that’s because we just work too hard to be able to spend weeks at it in advance and it’s tough to get motivated. But once I start to learn, I memorize very quickly and I do that by repetition, over and over. I only really started to pound at this role, Farnace, in the two weeks before I came over for rehearsal but we’ve got a really fantastic new house back home, with a deck and trees, and it was really easy to sit out in the sun, with the music, and it came very quickly. I don’t think the neighbours were too bothered, I don’t sing out much when I’m studying…But, you know, the secret is to plan ahead. A full year and a half ago, for instance, I warned David Alden, the director for “Orlando” in Munich next year, that my schedule was looking really tight before I come over. Doing this opera was my idea, and I really am looking forward to it as it will be in Peter Jonas’s (Bavarian State Opera’s Intendent) last year there. They’ve been very loyal to me, and I hope that will continue — I’ve certainly got a contract with them for the next couple of years.”

Being away from home so much, be it in Munich, London, or even on the West Coast of America, did life on the road ever get too much either for him, or his partner of nearly twenty years, John Touchton? “Of course it’s a pressure, being away up to 9 months of the year, absolutely, but it’s also allowed us to enjoy things we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to enjoy had I been an insurance salesman in Washington DC or something. He’s incredibly supportive and happy about things generally; but of course sometimes the neurotic and paranoid fears that singers go through can drive him nuts, as he feels he wants to help protect me from it all, and that drives him crazy ….but it drives me crazy too! Two crazy people, but hey, if you’re married to a singer, you just deal with it — and he does. He’s been a huge help to me in staying sane — I think.” I wondered if that support extended to the wider gay community in the States and elsewhere. “Yes, a big percentage of them are supportive and are proud of what I’ve achieved (by being one of the very few ‘out’ opera singers) and appreciative too. I get some very personal and meaningful, respectful, thank you letters and notes and that’s nice. I’ve had some majorly moving letters from young gay people with problems coping with their sexuality, thanking me for being open and honest and showing that someone can be a successful, happy, openly gay man. They’ve read articles about me that have helped them through bad times at home, or wherever, and if you get just one letter like that, then it’s all worth it. Sure, I hear the occasional bitchy or unpleasant remark, but you know Sue, there’s only one thing I can do: and that’s just continuing being as real, honest and open as I can be, and not trying to make every single different person out there happy. I am who I am, I do what I do. I hope that the majority of people who come to see me realise that what I do is incredibly important to me and that is the bottom line. Other things are part of the story, but not the centre of my universe”.

That may be so, but there’s one more extraordinarily important element in his life that hasn’t changed a bit over the past ten years: his intense love of sport, and in particular of the quintessential American sports of basketball, baseball and American football. Make no mistake, these are more than passing interests or convenient topics of conversation — this man is serious about sport and serious about its place in his life. “Yes, it’s a huge thing, really huge for me, and you know I’d go nuts if I had to live in Europe for more than four months as I’d miss out on those sports.” I mention basketball in particular, as it’s the one he actually still plays at home, along with tennis, and he interrupts helpfully with “that’s the one with the orange ball you have to get into the basket…..” Continuing, I asked if he’d ever thought about the similarities of that game and being on the opera stage? “Yes of course, I think about it a lot — the agility, balance, training, teamwork — and it’s a similar good feeling afterwards too, only the pressures are a bit different: you can’t compare a game in a gym with ten friends to walking out in front of thirty eight hundred people!”

So is he a totally fulfilled artist, here in 2005? Is everything in the garden rosy? No, not entirely, and once the subject is broached — that of achievements versus aspirations — once again David Daniels reveals a degree of focus and determination to make the most of his extraordinary career. He is delighted with his ongoing relationship with EMI Virgin Classics Records, with whom he’s just signed for a third time as an exclusive artist — unusual enough in this day and age — as it means he can record virtually anything he likes as a solo artist and has done. His discography now numbers some ten ensemble/opera recordings and eight solo discs and he’s especially proud of three of them, the initial ‘Handel Arias’ cd, his ‘Serenade’ recital disc and his collaboration with Fabio Biondi on his Vivaldi sacred music recording. “There’s a lot of really good music on that”. And he’s also proudly defensive of perhaps his most risky venture to date, his recording of Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’Ete” which received quite a few “mixed” reviews, often from people who just couldn’t cope with the idea of an American countertenor singing those almost iconic French songs. Daniels is adamant: “I’m thrilled that I did that and ultimately, ultimately, I think that recording will be respected by more people.”

But it’s the state of complete opera recordings that really concerns him, especially his own: Virgin Classics are simply not able, in today’s economic climate, to commit to hugely-expensive studio recordings of complete operas any more, and that means that many of his signature roles in the baroque repertoire, such as Cesare in Handel’s “Guilio Cesare” are going unrecorded for posterity. “Its money; they say they can’t afford to do it. I’m not really complaining, I’m just so frustrated, and I know that I’m lucky to have my recording contract. But even the labels who are doing whole operas are recording them live to save money.” I add that they are mostly being done in Europe too. He agrees “yes, and I really only work regularly over here in Munich, although of course the Liceu in Barcelona is doing a DVD of the Britten “Midsummer Night’s Dream” I sang Oberon in last spring — so that’s something.”

It’s really bad luck to be singing opera now, as the industry battles with declining sales of CDs, illegal downloading, and no clear way forward. Daniels has, of course, two operas safely preserved on DVD already — the ground-breaking Peter Sellars production of Handel’s “Theodora” from Glyndebourne and the slightly wacky Munich take on his “Rinaldo”. Perhaps the “in-house” DVD of live performances will be the only way to keep performers of Daniels’ quality preserved beyond their singing lifetimes? “I’m singing more opera than any other countertenor in the history of the voice-type and in houses that never heard a countertenor sing before, and it would be nice to have some sort of discography to reflect that, before I stop. But we are trying to plan ahead.”

With that statement offering hope, we turn finally to a happier topic: his upcoming projects. It’s the first eighteen months of the next decade that are focussing his mind right now. Discs will include, in order of recording, Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” with Dorothea Roschmann, Bach Arias (“not another ‘Countertenor singing Bach Cantatas!”) and an American songs disc. In the opera house in the next year alone it’s more new or newly-staged roles: “Orfeo” at Chicago Lyric, “Orlando” at the Bavarian State opera in Munich, interspersed with returns to “Rodelinda” in San Francisco (this September) and “Cesare” at Glyndebourne. Just as exciting is the probable fulfilment of yet another item on the Daniels wish-list: another new work commissioned entirely for his voice. It’s not a whole opera — that remains a major goal — but it will be a considerable work of about 20 to 25 minutes, a “cantata for solo alto and orchestra” commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s the brainchild of the orchestra’s General Manager Paul Hughes, who has admired Daniels’ work for several years and will be composed by the outstanding British composer Jonathan Dove, with a premier scheduled for October 2006.

The sheer breadth and range of his next year’s work is daunting. Does he ever wish he was that “something in insurance in Washington DC?” He laughs …. “No way, never, this is what I was born to do ….. and this is how I do it.”

© Sue Loder 2005.

Related Links

image_description=David Daniels (Photo: Virgin Classics)

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product_by=Photo by Virgin Classics

Posted by Gary at 10:46 AM

September 13, 2005

DONIZETTI: Pietro il Grande

It was the fourth of Donizetti’s operas to be performed during his life, and the first of Donizetti’s to achieve any kind of performance history. It had at least seven stagings by 1827 , when its last known performance in the 19th century took place. It was neglected until 2003 when it was given in St. Petersburg. It was on the same subject as Pacini’s Falegname di Livonia, although the latter had a much better record of performances between its premiere (also in 1819) and 1840, when it was last heard. The Pacini work had an unusual total of 47 performances at La Scala in its premiere run, and was to have close to 40 more stagings. As a matter of fact, throughout the 1820s, it was Pacini rather than Bellini, Donizetti or Mercadante who gave Rossini the biggest competition in Italy.

The plot of Pietro il Grande is relatively simple. Carlo, a carpenter in an unnamed town in Livonia (Latvia), which was then under Russian rule, is in love with the orphan Annetta who also lives in the town. Carlo claims to be of noble origin and shows that he has a bit of a temper when the tsar and his wife, Caterina, arrive, both traveling incognito. They are looking for the tsarina’s lost brother, and have reason to suspect that it might be Carlo. The tsar asks the innkeeper, Madame Fritz, about this carpenter, when Carlo enters. Carlo, not knowing who the stranger is, is rather insolent to him, and an argument ensues, with Peter threatening Carlo with dire consequences. The town magistrate , Ser Cuccupis, also gets into an argument with Peter. This magistrate has pretensions of grandeur. Not knowing who the stranger is, he goes so far as to threaten him with his friend, the tsar. Peter decides to pull rank on the magistrate, and tells him that he is Menzikoff, a high officer of the tsar. The magistrate has Carlo imprisoned. The latter is about to be convicted when Madame Fritz runs in with some documents proving that he is Catherine’s brother. Carlo is not told this until Act II, at which time he introduces the girl to the imperial couple. He warns them that the tsar must never see her since she is the daughter of the traitor Mazeppa (the subject of several operas). When told that Mazeppa is dead, Menzikoff pardons the girl. The captain of the troops tells the magistrate that Menzikoff is actually the tsar. The magistrate sees an opportunity to advance himself, but since the tsar has already recognized him for what he is, he fires him from his position of authority and orders him to pay a fine. Peter, Catherine, Carlo and Annetta leave happily for St. Petersburg.

Donizetti was to write a second opera on Peter the Great’s incognito travels some eight years later (1827). The details of the plot differ, although the tenor is again a carpenter (falegname), the buffo becomes the town mayor rather than a magistrate, and the heroine the mayor’s daughter rather than an orphan. The action takes place at the seaport of Zaandam in Holland,, rather than the town in Livonia (Latvia). This second Donizetti work on the subject, Il Borgomastro di Saardam was to be less successful than the first, although the same plot was used in 1837 by Albert Lortzing for his tremendously successful Zar und Zimmermann . Another 17 years were to pass before Meyerbeer put his oar in with L’etoile du Nord , where Peter and Catherine first fall in love, not surprisingly, the tsar also starts out incognito in this work, in his customary disguise as a carpenter.

When I was first asked to review this recording, I expected a very Rossinian opera buffo. It is, to a large extent, but I was still able to see tiny glimpses of Donizetti’s own personality come shining through. An example is the lyric pathos of Annetta’s “veder l’amato bene” in the finale to Act I. There are other lovely numbers, including the duet for Pietro and the Magistrate: “Ser Decuppia siete voi”, definitely a forerunner of the delightful “Cheti, cheti” in Don Pasquale and Carlo’s aria “Il dolce nome e tenero”.

Martina Franca often uses unfamiliar, but talented young singers, as is the case here. I particularly enjoyed the Madame Fritz of Rosa Anna Peraino, the Pietro of Vito Priante and the intentionally obnoxious Magistrate of Giulio Mastrototaro. But the entire cast contributes to the success of the performance.

Still, if I may make a suggestion for future Dynamic releases of operas of the period, the consistency between the tabulation of the tracks on the CDs and the cast list could stand a little more attention. Thus, looking at the tabulation on pages 2 and 3, we see several “numbers” sung by the “Magistrato”. But there is no “Magistrato” in the cast list on page 1 — instead, he is listed under his other name of Ser Cuccupis.

Martina Franca has a long history of reviving long forgotten works, often giving these as part of a series with a thread in common. Perhaps they will give Peter the Great the same treatment, and revive Pacini’s Falegname di Livonia , Donizetti’s Borgomastro di Saardam, and Meyerbeer’s Etoile du Nord . Hopefully, if such a revival of operas dealing with Peter the Great takes place, they will all be recorded by Dynamic

This is a recording I can recommend not only to Donizetti completists, but to all who appreciate Italian opera

Tom Kaufman

image_description=Pietro il Grande

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Pietro il Grande
product_by=Rosa Sorice sop. (Annetta); Rosa Anna Peraino (Madama Fritz); Eufemia Tafuro mez. (Caterina); Alessandro Codeluppi ten. (Carlo)); Giulio Mastrototaro bar. (Ser Cuccupis); Vito Priante bar. (Pietro il Grande); Claudio Sgura bar. (Firman-Trombesi); Vittorio Bari ten. (Hondeski). Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Coro da Camera di Bratislava. Marco Berdondini, conductor
product_id=Dynamic CDS 473-1/2 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 10:25 PM

Waiting for the Barbarians

barbarians.jpgScene from Waiting for the Barbarians (Photo: Theater Erfurt)

by Andrew Clements [The Guardian, 13 September 2005]

Philip Glass still has a long way to go to match the opera productivity of some of his 18th- and 19th-century predecessors - but, for a contemporary composer, he is doing very well indeed. Premiered in Erfurt, central Germany, Waiting for the Barbarians is Glass's 21st opera. And if quality has not always gone hand in hand with that quantity, over the years he has developed a flexible and effective operatic style, one that can adapt to either narrative or non-narrative subject matter.

Posted by Gary at 4:33 PM

OPERA OPENING NIGHT — Caravan of the exotic in San Francisco

By Catherine Bigelow [SF Chronicle, 12 September 2005]

The 83rd season of the San Francisco Opera blew in sirocco-style Saturday at the company's opening-night gala.

But neither fierce winds nor the added drama of a presidential presence and a cranky camel derailed the colorful caravan that was the Opera Guild's Midnight at the Oasis Opera Ball.

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

For NYC Opera, 'Patience' is a virtue

sullivan.jpgby Michael Sommers [NJ Star-Ledger, 13 September 2005]

NEW YORK -- A Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera that enjoys too few revivals in America, "Patience" is the British team's spoof on the excesses of the aesthetic movement in Victorian arts and culture.

Posted by Gary at 2:19 PM

La Traviata at the Aotea Centre

verdi.jpgBy William Dart [New Zealand Herald, 14 September 2005]

Dmitry Bertman's La Traviata will doubtlessly ring a few changes on the Verdi classic when the NBR New Zealand Opera season opens tomorrow night at the Aotea Centre.

When this production debuted in Canada six years ago, Verdi's heroine was "more disco than salon" for one critic, who said there were boos mixed with the cheers during the curtain-calls. Not necessarily a bad thing, he concluded.

Posted by Gary at 2:11 PM

Singing Against Type

puccini.jpgBy Fred Kirshnit [NY Sun, 13 September 2005]

Not long after he purchased his first automobile, and immediately after his chauffeur drove it off an embankment, Giacomo Puccini found himself laid up for four months with a broken leg. After replacing the upright piano at the house at Torre del Lago with a grand so that his cast could fit underneath, he settled in to flesh out the music for "Madama Butterfly."

Posted by Gary at 2:05 PM

Classical Preview: London Concerts and Opera, Autumn 2005

maskarade.jpgScene from Nielsen's Maskarade at Bregenz, 2005 (Photo: Royal Opera House)

There's an autumnal whiff in the air as schools are back and the Proms draw to a close.

But all is not lost as the capital's opera companies and symphony orchestras return to business with the start of a new season of high quality music making.

Posted by Gary at 1:49 PM

Dom Sebastien, Roi De Portugal, Royal Opera House, London

Donizetti2.jpgby Roderic Dunnett [The Independent, 13 September 2005]

A Christian nation invades an Islamic desert state. The campaign gets bogged down. Their leader comes in for a bit of flak back home. Sound familiar? Donizetti penned his last opera, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal, for the Paris stage in 1843. It's rarely produced, and it's difficult to see why. Scribe, who concocted umpteen libretti, was at the height of his powers, and this one is neither slow nor stodgy.

Posted by Gary at 12:49 PM

September 11, 2005

Das Rheingold — An Overview

Composer: Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)

Composed: 1851-1854

First Performed: 22 September 1869, Königlich Hof- und Nationaltheater, München

Libretto: The composer

Prelude and Scene I

The Setting

At the bottom of the Rhine.

Introductory Stage Instructions

Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below. The upper part of the scene is filled with moving water, which restlessly streams from right to left. Towards the bottom the waters resolve themselves into a fine mist, so that the space, to a man’s height from the stage, seems free from the water which floats like a train of clouds over the gloomy depths. Every-where are steep points of rock jutting up from the depths and enclosing the whole stage; all the ground is broken up into a wild confusion of jagged pieces, so that there is no level place, while on all sides darkness indicates other deeper fissures.


Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde-the three seductive Rhinedaughters charged with protecting the Rhine gold-are swimming in the Rhine River. As they frolic in the water, Alberich the Nibelung, an ugly dwarf from the centre of the earth, approaches the water. He begins to flirt with the maidens, who tease and taunt him. Alberich becomes more and more frustrated as one by one the maidens reject him. A beam of light illuminates the Rhine gold, stopping Alberich's pursuit and drawing his full attention. Woglinde tells him that only a man who renounces love can steal the gold. The Rhinedaughters allow Alberich to get between them and the gold. He tricks the maidens, steals the gold and scurries away.

Scene II

The Setting

An open space on a mountain height

Introductory Stage Instructions

The dawning day lights up with growing brightness a castle with glittering pinnacles, which stands on the top of a cliff in the background. Between this cliff and the foreground a deep valley through which the Rhine flows is supposed.

Wotan and Fricka asleep.


Wotan, chief of the gods, lays sleeping, and his wife Fricka, goddess of marriage and fidelity, wakes him. A magnificent castle has appeared across the valley: Valhalla, the new home of the gods. Wotan has promised to give Fricka's sister Freia, goddess of youth and love, to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as reward for building the castle. Wotan tells his wife nevertheless not to worry; he would never harm the goddess who gives them all their youth and immortality through her golden apples. Freia appears, and in an attempt to escape the giants, calls for protection from her brothers, Donner, god of thunder, and Froh, god of the rainbow. Wotan tells Fricka and Freia that his ally Loge, demigod of fire, has a plan. Loge arrives, and tells the assembled crowd that although he has found no solution to their troubles, he does have news: Alberich has stolen the Rhine gold and will use it to forge a Ring that will give him absolute power over the entire world - including the gods. Wotan sees the gold as a way to pay the giants. Fasolt and Fafner agree to give Wotan until nightfall to bring them the Rhine gold, but until then, they will hold the terrified Freia hostage. The gods begin to feel weak as soon as Freia and her golden apples are taken away. Loge and Wotan depart, planning to surprise Alberich at his home in Nibelheim and take the gold from him.

Scene III

The Setting


Introductory Stage Instructions

Alberich drags the shrieking Mime from a side cleft.


Alberich has created a Ring from the Rhine gold and has used it to enslave the Nibelung - including his brother Mime - in his gold mine. Mime has crafted a golden cap for Alberich, a Tarnhelm, that can make him invisible and able to change shape at will. Alberich wrests the Tarnhelm from Mime and puts it on, becoming invisible. He taunts Mime, then leaves to lord his power over others. Wotan and Loge arrive, speaking with the cowed Mime. Alberich appears, brandishing the Ring, and taunts Wotan and Loge with threats of domination. Loge plays along with his taunts, tricking him into becoming first a dragon, then a toad. While Alberich is in toad form, Wotan and Loge trap him.

Scene IV

The Setting

Open space on mountain heights.

Introductory Stage Instructions

The prospect is shrouded in pale mist, as at the end of the second scene.


Bringing Alberich back to Valhalla, Wotan and Loge force him to hand over all the treasures, including Tarnhelm and the Ring, as ransom for his release. When Wotan takes the Ring from Alberich's hand and places it on his own, Alberich curses the wearer of the Ring to death, and others to envy. As Alberich leaves, Fasolt and Fafner return, bearing Freia. As Donner, Froh and Fricka gather, Fasolt tells Wotan that the reward for returning Freia must be large enough to hide her from his view. Wotan agrees, and the gold, including the Tarnhelm, is placed in front of Freia. Fafner and Fasolt examine the pile of gold and notice a small hole near Freia's eye. The Ring will fit the hole perfectly, but Wotan refuses to give it up. Erda, the Goddess of the Earth, rises from the ground and warns Wotan to give up the Ring and the curse that accompanies it. She tells Wotan that the world as he knows it will soon end. Wotan agrees to give up the Ring and completes the bargain. As Fasolt and Fafner gather their treasure, they begin to fight over the Ring. Fafner slays his brother and departs, taking the gold as he leaves. As the gods prepare to enter Valhalla, demigod Loge remains on earth in the form of fire. As he watches their entry into Valhalla, he states that he is ashamed to be involved with a group that deems itself so powerful it cannot fail, and wonders what the future will hold for the gods. In the distance, the Rhinedaughters lament the loss of their gold.

Click here for complete libretto.


Section Title/Description Character(s)
Scene One On the bed of the Rhine
Weia! Waga! Rhinedaughters
Alberich's Entrance Rhinedaughters, Alberich
Rheingold Appears Rhinedaughters, Alberich
Scene Two An open space on a mountain summit
Vollendet das ewige Werk! Wotan
Freia's Entrance Wotan, Fricka, Freia
Giant's Entrance Fasolt, Fafner
Froh's and Donner's Entrance Froh, Donner
Loge's Entrance Loge
Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn! Loge
Über Stock und Stein Loge
Jetzt fand ich's Loge
Scene Three Nibelheim
Hehe! Hehe! Alberich
Wer hülfe mir! Mime (Loge)
Hieher! Dorthin! Alberich
Die in linder Lüfte Alberich
Scene Four An open space on a mountain summit
Da, Vetter, sitze du fest! Loge
Wirklich frei! Alberich
Heda! Heda! Donner
Abendlich strahlt Wotan
Rheingold! Rheingold! Rhinedaughters

image_description=Richard Wagner

first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold.

product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold.
product_by=Bayreuth Festival 1976. Performance of the Festival, 24 July 1976 (Premiere). Production and staging - Patrice Chereau. Wotan - Donald McIntyre. Donner - Jerker Arvidsson. Froh - Heribert Steinbach. Loge - Heinz Zednik. Fricka - Eva Randova. Freia - Rachel Yakar. Erda - Ortrun Wenkel. Alberich - Zoltan Kélémen. Mime - Wolf Appel. Fasolt - Matti Salminen. Fafner - Bengt Rundgren. Woglinde - Yoko Kawahara. Wellgunde - Ilse Gramatzki. Flosshilde - Adelheid Krauss. Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor - Pierre Boulez.
product_id=Opera from Bayreuth AE 203

Posted by Gary at 7:56 PM

Das Rheingold

They will have some experience of the abundance of recordings, spanning the whole of the twentieth century, that preserve an infinity of Wagnerian nuances, inflections, performance styles, and interpretative conceits. For inexperienced ears and eyes, the stakes are higher. Until recently the available DVD printings of Wagner’s works were a small and motley assortment. The options ranged from superb documents like Claudio Abbado and Wolfgang Weber’s Vienna Lohengrin (1991), through middling successes like Charles Mackerras’ and Michael Hampe’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Opera Australia (1991), to chilling miscarriages like Peter Konwitschny’s and Zubin Mehta’s Tristan und Isolde for the Munich Opera (1999). Scattered, valuable historical performances are to be had on DVD such as Karl Böhm’s 1973 Tristan und Isolde featuring Nilson and Vickers singing at Orange’s Roman theater, but this is the eviscerated remains of what looks to have been a rapturous performance, and is easy neither to watch nor hear in its current preservation. The situation has changed rapidly in the last year or so, with releases of a host of superbly staged and sung interpretations, many from the Metropolitan Opera (Meistersinger, Tristan), and the options continue to expand rapidly. The Ring has been blessed with a relatively kind fate: one could choose the splendid, museum-quality James Levine and Otto Schenk Metropolitan Opera cycle or its smarter, sexier, and better sung predecessor by Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau for Bayreuth. The release on DVD of the Theatre de Liceu’s Ring cycle, directed by the prolific and widely sought director Harry Kupfer, and conducted by Bertrand de Billy, since 1999 General Music Director of the Liceu, contributes significantly to the choices available to the experienced and, more importantly, neophyte listener. Kupfer originally produced this new Ring for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1995 (with sets by frequent collaborator Hans Schavernoch), and this Opus Arte DVD (OA0910D) gives us its subsequent incarnation at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. This is the second of Kupfer’s Ring productions to be filmed. The first was created for Bayreuth in 1988 and distributed on laserdisc by Teldec. Teldec’s audio CD of this performance remains available, but the laserdisc disappeared from the firm’s catalogue, and the curious listener may find it difficult, as I did, to locate a copy. The Bayreuth production, however, is to appear on DVD this year starting with the June release of Rheingold (Warner Classics 2564-62319-2).

It is difficult to examine Kupfer’s Barcelona Rheingold entirely on its own merits. Inevitably raised are questions as to how Kupfer’s earlier, tendentious reading of the work has evolved; how Kupfer’s direction and de Billy’s reading of the score advance or complement what Kupfer’s and Barenboim’s collaboration; and what interpretation of the Ring’s meaning has now been fixed in this DVD. Preserving the performance on DVD, after all, gives the production heightened authority to shape our understanding of the work: witness the powerful impact of the Boulez and Chereau Ring on an entire generation of Wagnerians.

Kupfer’s career needs no review in here; suffice it to recall the directorial agility and evident respect for music and performers demonstrated by his Orfeo ed Euridice (created for the Berlin Komische Oper’s 1987 season and filmed in its production at Covent Garden in 1991), with its contemporized setting in a fluid architecture of urban projections and mirrors, and his smothering, reptilian Elektra for Vienna (1989). Bertrand de Billy has recorded Tristan excerpts and the Wesendock Lieder for Oehms Classics, but does otherwise not have a high profile as a conductor of Wagner. Nonetheless, under his direction the Liceu orchestra renders much of the Rheingold score in long strokes of orchestral melody with a broad palette of instrumental colors.

Kupfer’s new Ring sets out with a creaky pantomime of Wotan loosening a branch from an already moribund World Ash. The camera stays close up, and too dim lighting denies us the larger stage context. When the branch is taken, a red light glows within the tree’s new wound—it is bleeding, or angry. A crime has evidently been committed. This Ring, one infers, will exact Nature’s revenge for violations against her, and we have witnessed in this pantomime a primordial violation, though perhaps not the first. Kupfer seems inclined here to draw from the Ring a linear eschatology: an original sin followed by inheritance of guilt, ending only with tragic expiation. The focus on the assault on the World Ash calls attention to Wotan’s despoliation of nature and reckless ambitions, and de-emphasizes Alberich’s subsequent theft of the gold. In a significant way, then, the Liceu production departs from Kupfer’s Bayreuth Rheingold. There, the Ring began with a soundless vision of an apocalypse, lit like a James Turrel installation and—unlike the present production—beautifully filmed. (This moment of profound silence is ensured in the privacy afforded the viewer by the video medium). The prelude then began with a flash of green laser light slowly propagated to define the murky bed of a putrescent Rhine. In Bayreuth, the end was emphatically the beginning, and Kupfer thus emphasized the tetralogy’s cyclic nature, and the inevitable, iterative unfolding of humanity’s progress and self-destruction.

The Bayreuth production, with its convincingly sexual Rhine daughters, made much of the erotic catastrophe in scene one. There, Alberich made a marked transition from physical longing through despair to lust for power: “Erzwäng’ ich nicht Liebe, doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust?” In Barcelona, Kupfer has turned his sight on Wotan’s complicity. This decisive difference between the productions is underlined in Barcelona by the gripping mise-en-scène at Alberich’s warning in scene four that Wotan will be guilty of a greater crime should he take the ring (“an allem, was war, ist und wird, frevelst, Ewiger du”), one of the most compelling and best shot moments on this DVD. Wotan’s breaking of the branch is here a predecessor and counterpoise of Alberich’s crimes. Whether and how this apparent new focus will play out in the subsequent parts of the Barcelona Ring can only be known later.

Singers from the Bayreuth performance resume their roles here: Graham Clark returns as Loge, Günther von Kannen as Alberich, and Matthias Hölle, Fasolt in Bayreuth, is now heard as Fafner. Clark’s Loge, a cynical, athletic lout but an insinuating, ingratiatingly lyrical voice at Bayreuth, has changed physically and vocally. In Barcelona a single jumping jack stands in for his Bayreuth antics; vocally, we hear depravity rather than cynicism. He creates a very dark-hued character, a fire god with a good deal of smoke and ash. Von Kannen’s Alberich remains both a powerful actor and voice in the new Ring, although the Barcelona costuming—first grungy amphibian, later, gold lame--leave one nostalgic for the stylish lab coat of the Bayreuth production.

Apart from the apparently shifted focus of interpretation at Barcelona, much of the paraphernalia of the Bayreuth production is retained. The ring itself in both productions is an ostentatious bauble: visible, and visibly cheap. Scene one is quite differently conceived, a Rhine choking with the roots of the World Ash, populated by Rhine daughters more carp than minnow. The aquatics of the Rhine daughters are shot too close up, and awkward gestures are too apparent. Their most beautiful moment arrives as the light fades on the scene, when the three bow their heads in sorrow, clinging like lichen to the tree. The arrival of the gods in scene two takes place in dimly lit, nondescript ruins of what might be a modernist cloister or a warehouse interior, the stage floor patched with slag or pools of stagnant waste. Behind the ruins stands a scaffold supporting the lights that will later fluoresce to indicate the icy of blue of Erda’s subterranean realm and the rainbow bridge to Walhall. In Bayreuth the gods entered scene two decked in green garlands; the same garlands have now flowered in Barcelona. The gods still carry luggage, in Bayreuth transparent pieces, in Barcelona metal and opaque. If it was earlier clear that they carried nothing substantial with them, now they may have something, concealed … or the luggage might mean nothing at all. Reinhold Heinrich’s costumes approximate a generic Norse mythological style, perhaps touched by elements of timeless 1930’s or 40’s fashion. Wotan wears only half the sunglasses he wore in Bayreuth.

As Wotan, Falk Struckmann is all biker-dude, projecting vanity and arrogance without, after Erda’s warning, ever really becoming possessed by the paralyzing fear displayed by John Tomlinson at Bayreuth. Struckmann is entirely awake vocally as Freia rouses him at the opening of scene two; there is no slow emerging from dreams of “Mannes Ehre, ewige Macht.” Kupfer likewise rejected Wagner’s directions at Bayreuth (Wotan begins to sing “fortträumend”—while continuing to dream), perhaps to make the point that Wotan’s obsessions are manifested in full consciousness.

Lioba Braun’s Fricka sings with a cloudy diction, but otherwise within the boundaries marked by predecessors such as Kirsten Flagstad in Solti’s (Decca, 1958) or Josephine Veasey in Karajan’s (Deutsche Grammaphon, 1967) Rheingold. Flagstad produced a model of a bickering, stentorian, and somewhat frightening Fricka (a kind of Ortrud in a second marriage), and Veasey created a Mozartean, delicate, even sensual Fricka, with fleeting recitative rhythms and gentle lyricism in “Um des Gatten Treue besorgt.” Braun’s vocal characterization opts for neither of these sharply delineated characterizations, but hovers between them as a put-upon, disgruntled, but ultimately subdued wife. But Fricka delivers vitally important ideas in her exchange with Wotan: “Liebeloser, leidigster Mann! Um der Macht und Herrschaft müßigen Tand verspielst du in lästerndem Spott Liebe und Weibes Werth?” That shocked question, whether Wotan would treat love and women with such contempt, is prescient of Loge’s later inquiry into the special value of women (“Weibes Wonne und Werth”) and decisive for the action of Rheingold, indeed, of the whole Ring. The listener should be drawn to this verse by a Fricka who is deeply shaken by Wotan’s frivolous attitude. Braun does not quite carry this off vocally, but the camera gives the moment its needed intimacy, and the viewer is reminded that Wotan’s frivolity is another form of Alberich’s brutal rejection of love.

Elisabete Matos’ Freia is pleasing to hear but unengaging (there is little in the role to engage—Freia, much like like Notung, is hardly more than the tangible embodiment of an orchestral motive). Francisco Vas offers a convincing vocal characterization of the beleaguered Nibelung Mime, and his convulsive acting conveys pain and wile at the same time. It will be interesting to see how Vas develops the character’s sinister aspect in the soon to be released Siegfried. Andrea Bönig as Erda appears in stylized eighteenth-century coiffure and a diaphanous blue gown; the effect is striking but not more than decorative. An elevating rear stage takes the gods out of view, leaving Wotan to experience what might be a private vision, though Wagner’s poem makes it clear that all witness the Wala’s warning. (Kupfer’s Bayreuth production was more literal and made sense, with Erda rising through an exaggeratedly baroque mechanism: a pivoting stage floor simulating up-turned strata of earth. Kwanchul Youn (Fasolt) and Matthias Hölle (Fafner) sound good; they look helpless in their costumes, all hydraulics, pistons, and pincers that suggest the bane of mechanized industry.

The Rhine daughters are fine, but lack refinements we know from other performances. For example, Solti’s Woglinde (Oda Balsborg) sang a dazzling crescendo on the close of “fließt sein strahlender Stern” that was answered by the glisten of a trumpet before the Rhine daughters join in their hymn to the glittering gold. In Barcelona, there are no such subtleties. Many telling details like this are neglected in scene one, which is the weakest of this performance. The music sometimes feels rushed, and the unleashed energy encourages the Rhine daughters to let their praise of the gold drift perilously close to a drinking song.

Indeed under de Billy the Liceu orchestra generally inclines toward fast tempi. Some passages, like the prelude, only seem fast because of a lack of control. This prelude, which in the Solti Ring, for instance, is a subtly variegated, gradual expansion of tone color, becomes in the Liceu orchestra’s reading an uneasy transit from bare octaves and fifths to a raucous contest of irritable horns, anxious woodwinds, and overwhelmed strings. De Billy may be aiming for a more aggressive, disturbed prelude. In the famous opening of scene two, with its broad Walhall motive and rich scoring, de Billy emphasizes the staccati that punctuate the second and third beats of measures in the Walhall theme, which in other recordings are missing. Leaning toward faster tempi, he takes the accompaniment of Wotan’s “Vollendet das ewige Werk!” considerably faster than Solti’s luxuriant treatment. De Billy paces Alberich’s dialogue with Loge and Wotan (the “sehr lebhaft” in scene three) especially well, and the scene struck me with particular force in this performance. It is one of those strange hybrids found in the early acts of the Ring that preserves lineaments of the older ensemble style of Der Fliegende Holländer shot through with Wagner’s newer motivic and orchestral practices. The unobscured A major tonality, the regular, scalar figuration of the bass line, and the recapitulatory design all hint at his older, vanishing style. But an ingratiating solo violin variant of the Freia motive and its return, slightly inflected by clarinet, clamber from the orchestra to display one of the most chilling motivic transformations in Rheingold, and the whole episode is wonderfully executed here by orchestra and singers.

The Barcelona Ring is, as I’ve been suggesting, not entirely flattered by comparison with the 1988 Bayreuth production. It is in many details crude compared to the best extant audio recordings, and there is much to complain about with respect to the filming. Too many close-ups are miscalculated, including a long shot of Alberich that features one of the flood lights; lighting is often too dark, the set unintelligible. The magical moments are almost uniformly weak: on its introduction the gold itself is not visible (in any case I couldn’t see it) and Alberich too seems unsure where it is. The rainbow bridge is created with the thin device of gradually lengthening links of fluorescent light (the grid of lights that does this will be put to many uses throughout this cycle). And Alberich’s transformations into a giant serpent and frog are absurd: as far as we can tell, he becomes a large metallic lobster claw, and a rubbery frog is tossed about by a visible hand. But there are felicitous moments, such as the stretch in scene three when Wotan stands to the rear of the stage, arm outstretched, gazing at his newly captured ring, while Alberich bitterly laments the loss of the ring in the foreground, Loge between them.

On balance this Rheingold is a valuable contribution to the Ring options available to listeners. Its fine cast is accompanied by an interesting conductor and an orchestra who reveal--in patches--new and captivating aspects of Wagner’s score. The selective or harried viewer, forced to choose, might wait and be better served by Kupfer’s Bayreuth Ring. Some of the larger issues I raised at the outset of this review, meanwhile, may be better addressed at a later time in my comments on the forthcoming DVDs of this Ring cycle.

Anthony Barone

image= image_description=Rheingold product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold product_by=Falk Struckmann, Graham Clark, Günter von Kannen, Lioba Braun, Kwanchul Youn. Symphony Orchesta of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Stage Director: Harry Kupfer product_id=Opus Arte OA 0910 D [2 DVDs]
Posted by Gary at 7:30 PM


First impressions are important. For instance, one expects certain things from Bang on a Can and their four-year-old record label Cantaloupe – there are graphics, ideas, names, and especially musical styles that have become predictably associated with the New York festival/coterie since its inception in 1987. The cover of Elida manages to confound those expectations – it looks like a restrained library edition, or perhaps the documentation of an old live performance, using a single color (deep turquoise) and classic fonts. In fact, in a pleasant if not arresting postmodern twist, the coolly antiquarian fonts are perhaps the clearest indication that this is a ‘new’ work.

As for my first impression of the music, it was even more memorable. A lovely wash of piano and violin that suggests a marriage of Victorian parlor music and eastern European busking is shattered by a voice that sounds as though it belongs to an otherworldly descendant of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and for that matter one that is having a rather blithe nervous breakdown. With more time to absorb and reflect, the listener becomes acclimatized to this odd and not unpleasant universe – many of the sounds would be familiar to devotees of romanticism, others would fit well in a klezmer band, and many passages suggest gestures derived from a constellation of minimalism, new age, and folk ballads. In fact, the overall aesthetic concept seems most like that of progressive rock, or fusion jazz – a set of gestures freely assembled from a variety of styles and references that hold together mostly because of their mutual amiability, as though several different musical genres could build up good-humored, easy-going relationships over long acquaintance.

As a matter of fact, Elida is a collection of tracks by a Czech violinist/vocalist who has a background in classical, folk and various kinds of community performances. Bittová openly presents her personal life in her music, as well as in her publicity material; one has the impression she would be pleasant to make music with, and pleasant to know – in her biography she focuses on her country home, on growing up with music and dance, and on what appears to be a deeply integrated approach to living and playing. She seems, in fact, to be a skilled, flexible performer who has moved into composition – which is perhaps why the compositional side of this record, though competent, is not particularly innovative, nor does it outline a completely distinctive musical persona. In fact, after that startling first track, the rest of the CD settles down into a series of milder, less remarkable hybrids – at times I thought of Jane Siberry, at others Kate Bush, but when those singers came to mind it was with a certain longing to go hear their work instead.

Aside from that, this album is not like most of the music that comes out of the Bang on a Can composers and their circle. This is in fact a loose collection of songs, based on short, private lyric poems by Richard Müller and Vera Chase – it might be useful to think of Elida as a gentler, more popular version of one of those Kurtág song cycles, with their charged female musings and comparably spare textures. Unfortunately the poems themselves are rather adolescent and clichéd, except for the last lines of Müller’s ‘Painters in Paris’. As for Bang on a Can, although it was founded as an all-inclusive contemporary music festival (I was lucky enough to live in New York for several months the year it began, and still remember with pleasure the odd mixture of uptown and downtown styles that was so radical at the time, along with a gorgeous piece by Lois V Vierk performed by accordionist Guy Klucevsek), it has in the long run drifted towards something more predictable, and distinctly more limited. Bang on a Can has, in fact, settled down to a particular kind of post-minimalism that runs smack in the middle of the now very, very wide stream of musical works produced by the many clones of Louis Andriessen. I had expected Elida to be somewhat like Lost Objects (2001), the collaborative post-minimalist opera by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, Bang on a Can’s three founders; although Lost Objects is not as consistently interesting as, say, most of John Adams’ stage works, it nevertheless includes some solo-with-chorus sections that remain for me, even after numerous rehearings, disturbingly beautiful.

This is not, however, That Kind Of Thing. Bittová is undoubtedly talented and pleasant as a violinist and as a singer, with a flexible voice that employs several strongly contrasted colors – although it would be nice if she could bring more body and depth up into her high ‘chipmunk’ range, which becomes less enjoyable after one hears it for a while. And Elida is also pleasant, interesting at times, and always very musical – it is clear that this is a record made by good musicians who are doing the kinds of things they enjoy. Given all that, it may be mean of me to point out the limitations of the work; but, frankly, I have heard so many varieties of post-minimalism, hybridity, folk integrated with contemporary and popular, and playful vocalization, that it seems only fair to expect something more remarkable than this. Perhaps I’ve gotten jaded, as it seems that the postmodern styles I used to love continue to run and run, without growing or developing beyond boundaries that were too familiar ten years ago. But, let’s face it: so many people are engaged in all of these stylistic tropes these days, including many of my university students, that it doesn’t seem unfair to expect that a well-hyped new work produced in New York and featuring well-known names should have something, well, surprising about it. Unless, given that many contemporary musicians seem to have been marking time since the millennium, waiting until the next Big Idea pops up, while busily digging up grants, corporate sponsors, and trendy connections with formerly distant cultures, that is simply too much to ask?

Paul G. Attinello, Ph.D.
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


product_title=Iva Bittová: Elida
product_by=Performed by the composer with the Bang on a Can All-Stars – Robert Black, bass; David Cossin, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano; Mark Stewart, guitars; Wendy Sutter, cello; Evan Ziporyn, clarinets.
product_id=Cantaloupe CA21027 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 2:37 PM

September 8, 2005

L'Opéra de Paris Announces 2005-2006 Season

Season to include world premiere of Saariaho's Adriana Mater

L'Opera de Paris has announced its 2005-2006 season. It will begin on 9 September with Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka. This will be followed by Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and a new production, Paul Hindemith's Cardillac. Other productions include Martinu's Juliette ou la cle des songes and the world premiere of Adriana Mater by Kaija Saariaho. Additional details may be found here and here.

Posted by Gary at 8:07 PM

Peter Schreier and András Schiff in Budapest

Not at all disappointing

By Kevin Shopland [The Budapest Sun, 8 September 2005]

I WONDER if there's anyone out there who's never been disappointed in love. Probably not. Getting dumped, or never even getting started in the first place, is surely a universal experience, one we can all relate to.

Perhaps you've been disappointed in love, but I'm sure you won't be disappointed in the Schubert recital by famed German lyric tenor Peter Schreier and Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff, presented by Strem Koncert Kft and Jakobi Koncert Kft, at the Academy of Music on Monday, September 19.

Posted by Gary at 7:43 PM

Opera Australia Presents Death in Venice

Death in Venice

Reviewed by Peter McCallum [The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2005]

By Benjamin Britten
Opera Australia, Opera House
September 7 until September 23

Since opera began, composers have honoured, or pretended to honour, the principle that the music should serve the words, though, in reality, it is done more in the breach than the observance.

It is hard to think of an opera that comes closer to that ideal than Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, with a brilliant libretto by Mifanwy Piper based on Thomas Mann's novella. Few operas fall so heavily on one character, the author Aschenbach, who, as singer and actor, narrator and philosopher, must hold the audience through a self-doubting soliloquy on the dualities of order and desire, logic and sensuality, form and feeling, Apollo and Dionysus.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 7:33 PM

The Met Broadcasts Have a New Sponsor

Toll Brothers Becomes New Corporate Sponsor For The Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts

September 08, 2005

Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe announced today that Toll Brothers, America's luxury home builder(TM), will be the corporate sponsor for the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts which will celebrate their 75th anniversary this season. The twenty-one radio broadcasts will run from December 17 of this year to May 6, 2006, and will be heard over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network, which comprises over 300 stations in the United States and reaches eleven million people in forty-two countries around the globe. The Annenberg Foundation and the Vincent A. Stabile Foundation will continue to provide generous support for this season's broadcasts as part of their long-term commitments to the future of this program.

Mr. Volpe welcomed the new corporate sponsor to the Met broadcasts saying, "I am delighted that Toll Brothers has agreed to support this landmark series, the longest running classical radio program in the history of American broadcasting. I am certain I speak for millions of opera lovers around the world in expressing thanks to Toll Brothers for their generosity."

Robert I. Toll, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Toll Brothers, Inc., said, "We are honored and excited to share the spirit of excellence of The Metropolitan Opera."

Regular radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera began on December 25, 1931, with a broadcast performance of Humperdinck's "Haensel und Gretel." This season's 75th Anniversary celebration will include a special January 14 broadcast honoring the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth with excerpts from historic performances chosen from The Met's vast broadcast archives. In addition, special intermission features throughout the radio season will present great moments from both performances and intermissions of past Met broadcasts.

After the announcement in May 2003 that the broadcasts would lose their corporate sponsor following the 2003-04 season, The Metropolitan Opera launched the "Save the Met Broadcasts Campaign," under the leadership of Beverly Sills, the company's chairman at the time. Since then, thousands of individuals, corporations, and foundations from around the world have contributed to the campaign.

"Thanks to the generosity of these donations, The Met has been able to continue the broadcasts without interruption," said Mr. Volpe. "Our challenge now is to continue to build our Broadcast Fund to guarantee the future of these treasured broadcasts."

[Source: The Metropolitan Opera]

Posted by Gary at 7:21 PM

September 7, 2005

Fidelio in Stir

Taking Beethoven behind bars: Too much realism for opera

By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 September 2005]

First, you signed the waiver relieving the venue of any liability for your injury or death. Then, you were handed a flashlight and felt the chill in the air - not a typical cold draft but the prickly tingle that comes with unquiet spirits nearby.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 2:04 PM

Simone Young's Debut

Frau Young takes Hamburg

[The Age, 5 September 2005]

Last Thursday, Simone Young conducted her first performance as music director of the Hamburg State Opera. She talks to Michael Shmith about her new life a world away from Opera Australia.

Hamburg is a place that takes its culture seriously and never forgets its musical heroes. On the front of the Staatsoper building, a relief image of Gustav Mahler in profile stares blankly at a city he would not recognise. Hamburg, where the composer and conductor was the opera's music director from 1891 to 1897, was his "tryout" for Vienna.

Posted by Gary at 1:56 PM

September 5, 2005

Die Presse Interviews Welser-Möst

Welser-Moest: Ueber den Lifestyle als europaeische Kategorie

von Wilhelm Sinkovicz [Die Presse, 5 September 2005]

Interview. Franz Welser-Moest ueber seine Weltsicht und die Chance, beim Waldzell-Meeting die Kultur zu retten.

Entwuerfe fuer eine Zukunft mit Sinn" will das diesjaehrige "Waldzell-Mee ting" im Stift Melk finden, getreu dem Motto der Dialoge, welches ein "freies Fliessen von Sinn" zwischen den Diskussionspartnern ermoeglichen moechte. Zu den prominenten Teilnehmern am diesjaehrigen Treffen, das am 10. und 11. September stattfinden wird, zaehlt neben dem Erfolgsschriftsteller Paul Coelho auch der oesterreichische Dirigent Franz Welser-Moest.

Posted by Gary at 2:55 AM