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It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
22 Mar 2009
Songs by Samuel Barber
Among the impressive contributions to the American song literature of the twentieth century are works by Samuel Barber (1910-81), whose efforts in this genre reflect his own musical training as a singer, as well as the influence of his aunt, Louise Homer, whose professional relationships put her nephew in contact with other vocalists of the day.
Among Barber’s contributions are a number of sets of songs from throughout his career, works that are heard periodically in performance and available in various recordings. This selection by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake offers a fine cross-section of Barber’s songs on a single CD and collects his set of Hermit Songs, Op. 29; Mélodies passagères, Op. 27; Three Songs, Op. 10; Dover Beach, Op. 3; and several individual songs. Lacking, of course, Knoxville 1915, Op. 24, since it was intended for soprano and orchestra (albeit performed by tenor), this recording of Barber’s song is a rich selection which captures the composer’s major efforts in the genre in interpretations by two of the finest performers of the day.
The spiritual aspects of the Hermit Songs implicit in the texts require the clear and fervent execution Finley and Drake offer. With texts from various sources, primarily translations of Medieval verse, the turns of phrases in modern English are nicely supported by Barber’s music. The plaintive quality of “The Crucifixion” reflects simultaneously the vocal idiom of an earlier time and yet the dissonant idiom that Barber used to punctuate the music contributes to the welcome complexity of the song. Julius Drake’s approach to the accompaniment of this song and the one that succeeds it in the recording, “Sea Snatch” by making the pianistic touches work well with Gerald Finley’s sensitive interpretations of the works. Such details emerge aptly in Finley’s delivery, not only in shorter settings, like “St. Ita’s Vision” (translated by Chester Kallman) but also in one of the more extended songs, “The Monk and His Cat” (translated by W. H. Auden). One of the particularly moving performances is that of “The Desire for Hermitage” (translated by Seán O’Faoláin), which, as the culmination of the cycle, serves as a kind of summary of the entire set.
The sometimes angular settings of English-language translations receipt apt settings by Barber, but his craft at composing the French artsong is apparent in the set of Mélodies passagères, which are based on verse by Rainer Maria Rilke. These sometimes enigmatic poems bear rehearing for the nuances of the texts, and Finley’s approach invites returns to the songs to capture some of the details he and Drake bring to the music. “Un cynge” (“A swan”) receives its appropriate delicacy, a quality implicit in the music and effectively rendered in this performance. The subtle accompaniment works well with Finley’s sinuous approach to the text. Yet the entire set merits attention for the well-placed details that beg for a repeated hearings not only of the music, but also this compelling performance.
In addition to these pieces, the performers include a selection of Barber’s earlier songs on this recording. Some of the music is quite familiar from vocal recitals of various performers, as is the case with “Sure on Thdsis Shining Night,” a work that receives fresh treatment from Finley and Drake. The pacing of the vocal line and accompaniment are key to the interpretation found here, with model phrasing between the strophes of the verse. Equally impressive is Barber’s early masterpiece, Dover Beach, which involves the Aronowitz Ensemble. Part of the select vocal repertoire which involves chamber music, like Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“The Shepherd on the Rock”), Dover Beach retains a special place in vocal literature. The maturity that Finley brings to the work is clear from the start, and as the piece progresses, the performance demonstrates an incredible level of involvement.
In this piece and the others on the recording, Finley shows himself to be a major interpreter of Barber’s music. Just as he is impressive on stage in such a powerful role as Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, Finley is also commanding in the more intimate solo vocal literature. This is a fine addition to recent recordings of twentieth-century song, and also an impressive contribution to the discography of Samuel Barber.
James L. Zychowicz