Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids


For Your Consideration: 'Diplomacy'

Volker Schlöndorff, known for his film adaptation of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, has just made a film of Cyril Gély's play Diplomatie, with the playwright serving as screenwriter. The play, premiered in 2011, takes up the same events as the book and film Is Paris Burning?, on a fateful night in 1944 when the German governor of Nazi-occupied Paris decided whether to carry out his orders to blow up the French capital as a final act of retribution. The play, which imagines the fateful all-night conversation between Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling and General Dietrich von Choltitz, as the former tries to persuade the latter not to give the order, is a fictionalization, good theater but no more.

This is the strength of the film as well, as two veteran actors -- both reprising the roles they played on stage -- square off on opposing sides of this debate: can the love of art and culture ever triumph over the base instincts of war? Niels Arestrup (War Horse) is the inflexible German officer, who feels he cannot disobey an order from Berlin for fear that his wife and children will be made to pay for his insubordination. The Nordling of André Dussollier (Un Coeur en Hiver), the smooth voice that narrated Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, tries every avenue to convince von Choltitz that he can spare Paris, the city that they both love. The consul gains entry to the general's office by a secret passage, which he says was installed when the Hôtel Meurice played host to one Miss Howard, a paramour of Napoléon III. The manner of his appearance, however, suggests that this dialogue is really taking place within the mind of von Choltitz.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | The Guardian
New Yorker | Christian Science Monitor | Variety | Hollywood Reporter

This is not a suspense or action movie, although there are a few tense sequences outside the headquarters as the German army prepares the explosives. Most of the appeal comes from the verbal sparring of the two protagonists, neither of whom is being quite honest with the other, and the dialogue, in French, is beautifully articulate. Somewhat surprisingly, Schlöndorff and his cinematographer, Michel Amathieu, do not flood the movie with eye-candy images of Paris. The decision is shrewd, for each viewer is allowed to summon up those parts of the city that he cannot imagine living without.

This movie opens today at the E Street Cinema.


NSO and Busoni

available at Amazon
F. Busoni, Piano Concerto, G. Ohlsson, Cleveland Orchestra, C. von Dohnányi
(Telarc, re-released in 2002)
Ferruccio Busoni's piano concerto is an epic, crazy piece of music: over seventy minutes in length, in five movements, one of them involving a men's chorus chanting to Allah. Needless to say, one does not hear it live all that often, although there are a couple of pianists who will play it from time to time, including Marc-André Hamelin (who played the composer's second piano sonatina last year) and Garrick Ohlsson, who last night was the first to attempt it with the National Symphony Orchestra in over seventy years.

As excited as I was to hear this piece, in all its ungainly glory, what became clear in this performance is that this concerto can be a trial for the ears. Unwieldy in its proportions -- the introduction before the first solo entrance goes on forever -- there may not be enough bang for the buck when it is all said and done. Ohlsson had the piece mostly in hand, conquering the necessity of giving the solo part, at times, a scope equivalent to that of the entire orchestra, although there were a few minor blips here and there and the coordination with conductor Rossen Milanov, last heard with NSO in last year's Messiah, was not always optimal. This was most pronounced in the rather silly fourth movement, which devolves at times into an Offenbach galop and then a Rossini-overture crescendo, but perhaps too often the Lisztian excesses of the piece go too far. The Washington Men's Camerata was mostly solid in the last movement, on the text from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger, which Busoni had long considered setting as an opera, although when the tenors were exposed at one point, the sound was not pretty. In the score, Busoni directs that the chorus should be "invisibile," a request that apparently could not be honored, since the singers were placed in full view in the chorister seats above the stage.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Ohlsson brings elegance to a whiz-bang performance of massive Busoni (Washington Post, November 21)

---, Pianist Garrick Ohlsson on Busoni’s 70-minute concerto: ‘A noble, beautiful work’ (Washington Post, November 20)
The last couple performances of Stravinsky's music for The Firebird have been of the complete score, last year from the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, and from the NSO in 2009 with Charles Dutoit. Milanov led the 1919 version of the suite, which greatly reduces the amount of music and the lavish orchestration, halving the numbers of woodwinds and eliminating many of the most inventive coloristic effects, and he did so with startling clarity. His approach tended to favor very slow tempi for the slow movements -- an ominous, oozing introduction, for example -- and perhaps an edge too breathless in the fast ones, like the Firebird theme. His gestures, though, were all razor-sharp, creating a delicate and warm "Round Dance of the Princesses" and a drowsy Berceuse, but also a savagely unified and harsh "Infernal Dance," with just a few fuzzy spots in the woodwinds and second violins. The only drawback was a somewhat flat conclusion, where the conductor's grim efficiency made the effect of the last few pages too mechanical.

This program repeats Friday and Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Czech Philharmonic Marks Velvet Revolution

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Smetana, Má vlast, Czech Philharmonic, K. Ančerl
(Supraphon, re-released in 2009)
At the end of a U.S. tour that began in California, with a performance marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czech Philharmonic played a tribute on November 17 for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the student-led uprising which began on that day in 1989 and led to the election of Václav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. After a concert in Fairfax on Friday and another at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, the musicians and their conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, were back in the area, seated in the crossing of Washington National Cathedral.

Like many diplomatic events, the ceremony did not begin until some time after its 7 pm start time, and after the performance of the American and Czech national anthems, there were lengthy speeches, by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Czech Prime Minsiter Bohuslav Sobotka, among others. The music that was eventually offered -- the "Vltava" movement from Smetana's Má vlast and a repeat performance of Dvořák's ninth symphony -- had something much more eloquent to say about the ties between Czechs and Americans. If the characterization of the Dvořák as a "hymn to freedom" seemed a bit of a stretch, there was no doubt the two pieces represented Czech culture quite well -- the first evoking the river that flows through Bohemia, and the second premiered here in the United States.

Vltava, or Moldau as it is also known, featured the fluttering sound of the flutes and the silvery lightness of the strings, its principal melody charged with nostalgia and the tidal surges of the conclusion rising and falling beautifully. Bělohlávek gave the orchestra its head for the most part in the Dvořák, often indicating only downbeats, which created a few mis-coordinated spots between sections. The horn solos were sterling, as were the outdoorsy, not to say rustic, woodwinds. The Wagnerian brass were lush at the start of the slow movement, with a bucolic English horn solo, answered so delicately by the strings, and Bělohlávek did not overdo the rests that cut up the end of the movement, deepening the sense of memory, coming in starts. The third movement was sprightly and light, with those clear references to Beethoven's ninth symphony, and the energy was not allowed to flag at all in the triumphant finale, the various themes woven together effortlessly.


Classical Music Agenda (January 2015)

The year is rapidly drawing to a close, so it must be time to make your concert plans for January. Here are the ten performances we most want to hear.

available at Amazon
Mozart / Haydn, A. Tharaud, J. DiDonato, Les Violons du Roy, B. Labadie
(Erato, 2014)
Ionarts favorite Alexandre Tharaud comes to town every two years or so, most recently in 2012. For his recital at the Phillips Collection (January 25), he will play Couperin, plus sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven (op. 110) and some Schubert dances. Not to be missed.

Later the same week, the Mariinsky Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center Opera House with an assortment of choreographies, headlined by Millicent Hodson's reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's original movements for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (January 27 to February 1). Other highlights include choreographies by Fokine, Le Spectre de la Rose and The Swan.

We will also make the trip to Charm City for the recital by violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Daniil Trifonov at Shriver Hall (January 18). The pair will play music a Mozart sonata and a Schubert fantasy, and cellist Geidre Dirvanauskaite will join them for Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque No. 2.

It is indeed a good season for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which offers two excellent programs in the month of January. Günther Herbig returns to conduct Bruckner's eighth symphony, with Alon Goldstein as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (January 17 at Strathmore). Then Marin Alsop is back on the podium for Mahler's third symphony, with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as soloist (January 31 at Strathmore).

available at Amazon
Mozart / Haydn, A. Tharaud, J. DiDonato, Les Violons du Roy, B. Labadie
(Erato, 2014)
Celebrate the New Year with a program of music from medieval England, performed by the Folger Consort and Lionheart at Washington National Cathedral (January 9 and 10), including a song mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, dances, and sacred music.

The series of concerts by the Emerson Quartet at the National Museum of Natural History continues with a program of music by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven (January 10).

Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings a program of songs by Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Satie, and Barber with pianist Julius Drake, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (January 14).

Tzimon Barto joins the National Symphony Orchestra for the U.S. premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's new piano concerto, paired with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (January 15 and 17).

Finally, Washington National Opera continues its American Opera Initiative with a performance of Penny by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg (January 23 and 24), presented at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Czech Philharmonic Comes to Fairfax

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the GMU Center for the Arts.

available at Amazon
Dvořák, Complete Symphonies and Concertos, Czech Philharmonic, J. Bělohlávek
(Decca, 2014)
At the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Friday evening, November 14, 2014, the Czech Philharmonic, under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, offered an almost all-Czech program of music during the Washington-area leg of its American tour. The first half of the evening consisted of Leos Janáček’s rhapsody Taras Bulba and Franz Liszt’s second piano concerto (A Major, S. 125), with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. The second half was taken up with Antonin Dvořák’s ninth symphony (E minor, op. 95, B. 178, "From the New World").

This orchestra has been my gold standard in Czech music for many years. I think the last time I heard them live was in a volcanic performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass back in the 1980s in Carnegie Hall. My very favorite recordings of Janáček and Martinů remain those of the Czech Philharmonic, under the late, great conductor Karel Ančerl. I wondered how well served my memories would be by the current iteration of this orchestra, under a conductor who brought with him great expectations, having just been awarded this year’s Antonín Dvořák Prize (and last heard here with the Prague Philharmonia in 2012).

The answer is well served, indeed. From the beginning of the Janáček, it was clear that Bělohlávek deserves his fine reputation in the Czech repertory, particularly with the works of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Suk, and Martinů. He and the Czech Philharmonic are native to the wildness of Janáček’s eccentric music, its orchestral brilliance, and its use of punchy motifs and dramatic abbreviation. Together, they brought Taras Bulba vividly to life, with all its wild swagger, clashing swords, pounding hooves, swirling dances, and poignant melodies. The piece was pulsing with life, with finely articulated playing from the winds and brass, and a very strong, surging string section. An early entry of the chimes seemed to stick out a little too far from the orchestral fabric, but that could be due to the acoustics of the room. In any case, every instrument is answering every other instrument in this vital portrayal of its subject matter, and these forces caught the urgent sense of communication.

I confess that Franz Liszt is not one of my favorite composers, except for his magnificent oratorio Christus. In any case, it was a great pleasure to hear Thibaudet’s superb pianism in the second concerto. I could not imagine a more limpid touch in the opening Adagio or a stronger forte in the soon-to-follow Allegro. The work itself has a wild, almost improvisatory character that, to me, verges on hodgepodge. It certainly contains a lot of ear candy and has dazzling moments in the mercurial flow of marches, dances, and whatever else Liszt chooses to throw in. Because of the quality of playing by both the orchestra and soloist, this display piece made for an enjoyable romp.

Other Articles:

James R. Oestreich, Regardless of Offstage Worries, Onstage It’s All Artistry (New York Times, November 17)

Eric C. Simpson, Home dishes prove ideal menu for Czech Philharmonic (New York Classical Review, November 17)

Tom Huizenga, Played by Czech Philharmonic, 1890s Dvorak sounds fresh as ever (Washington Post, November 17)

Zachary Woolfe, A Maestro Returns, First There, Now Here (New York Times, November 14)
I admit that it was the Janáček that I principally came to hear. I am not sure I would have struggled out on a cold night to listen to another performance of the hugely popular Dvořák ninth. However, the Czech Philharmonic played with such warmth, power, and precision that my reservations at hearing this piece again were soon swept away.

The reaction of the audience was so enthusiastic that Bělohlávek offered two encores -- a scintillating rendition of Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride, and then a sweet Valse Triste by Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930), a Dvořák student, who later became conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Bělohlávek conducted effectively with an economy of motion -- no histrionics for him. Whatever he is feeling he lets the music express. He and his forces produced a wonderfully rich sound without sacrificing clarity.

Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic will perform Smetana’s Vltava, a symphonic poem from Ma Vlast, and Dvořák’s ninth symphony this evening at Washington National Cathedral (November 17, 7 pm) in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the legacy of Václav Havel.


Perchance to Stream: New Hall Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • To inaugurate the new Auditorium de la Maison de Radio France, a double concert by the Orchestre National de France, under Daniele Gatti, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under Myung-Whun Chung. [France Musique]

  • Check out the new production of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina, in the revision completed by Shostakovich, from the Wiener Staatsoper with Semyon Bychkov conducting Ferruccio Furlanetto, Christopher Ventris, Elena Maximova, and others. [ORF]

  • Listen to the gala season opening concert of the Opéra Comique, with contributions from Anna Caterina Antonacci, Patricia Petibon, and others. [France Musique]

  • Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov play all of Beethoven's works for cello and piano at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. [France Musique | Part 2]

  • From the Festival Baroque de Pontoise, Sabine Devieilhe and Les Ambassadeurs perform arias and symphonies by Rameau with conductor Alexis Kosseko. [France Musique]

  • Harpsichordist Blandine Rannou plays the world premiere of Gérard Pesson's Le Tombeau de Rameau, plus some pieces from Rameau's Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of Handel's Solomon with La Chapelle de Québec and Les Violons du Roy, with Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Karina Gauvin and conducted by Bernard Labadie, recorded last March at the Palais Montcalm de Québec. [France Musique]

  • A song recital by soprano Christina Landshamer and pianist Gerold Huber, with music by Schumann, Brahms, and Ullmann, recorded last May for the Bad Arolser Schlosskonzerte. [ORF]

  • Herbert Blomstedt leads the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Haydn and Beethoven. [ORF | Part 2]

  • The Ensemble Psallentes, directed by Hendrik Van Den Abeele performs with organist Arnaud Van De Cauter in a concert in the Eglise de La Chapelle in Brussels, recorded last August, introduced with the recording of Palestrina's Missa "Nasce la gioia mia" performed by the Tallis Scholars. [RTBF]

  • Arias by Alessandro Scarlatti with the English Concert, conductor Laurence Cummings, and soprano Elizabeth Watts, recorded at Milton Court in London. [BBC3]
  • Violist Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad joins the Oslo Philharmonic and conductor Eivind Aadland for music by Christian Sinding, Henri Vieuxtemps, and Robert Schumann. [RTBF]

  • The Netherlands Radio Choir performs Rachmaninoff's Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • A concert by violinist Ray Chen and pianist Timothy Young, presented by Musica Viva Australia at the Melbourne Recital Centre, with music by Mozart, Prokofiev, Bach, and Sarasate. [ABC Classic]

  • Simon Trpceski plays Tchaikovsky's first piano concert with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo and conductor Daniele Rustioni. [France Musique]

  • A recital by Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya at the Wiener Konzerthaus, with music by Brahms, Debussy, Bach, and Prokofiev. [ORF]

  • Sequenza 9.3, the Jeune Chœur de Paris, and others perform new music by Daniel Moreira and others at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. [France Musique]

  • Chamber music by Poulenc, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Dukas performed by violinist Gautier Capuçon and pianists Francesco Piemontesi, Nicholas Angelich, and Martha Argerich. [RTBF]

  • Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts Concerto Copenhagen and clarinetist Nicola Baud in music of Mozart ("Haffner" and "Jupiter" Symphonies, plus the clarinet concerto). [ORF]

  • From Glasgow, Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in music by Mozart and Beethoven, to mark the conductor's 60th birthday. [BBC3]

  • A concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Daniel Barenboim conducting music by Nicolai, Elgar (the symphonic study Falstaff), and Tchaikovsky, recorded last January in Berlin. [RTBF]

  • The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest performs music by Liszt, Schumann, and Macmillan. [AVRO Klassiek]

  • Pianist Kirill Gerstein joins the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Herrmann, Schoenberg, Gershwin, and Bartok. [BBC3]

  • Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra perform music by Respighi, plus William Walton's Sinfonia Concertante with pianist Danny Driver, recorded at the Proms last September. [ORF]

  • The Henschel Quartet performs music by Beethoven, Dvorak, and Brahms at St John's, Smith Square. [BBC3]

  • A tribute to Belgian composer Albert Huybrechts (1899-1938), with some rare recordings of his music. [RTBF]

  • Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with commentary for a family concert. [France Musique]

  • Esther Hoppe (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), and Alexander Lonquich (piano) perform music by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Britten, recorded at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival in July. [ORF]


Dip Your Ears, No. 181 (Doctor Atomic, Listener’s Digest)

available at Amazon
John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine
P.Oundjian / Royal Scottish NO
Chandos SACD

Scotch Doktarr Atommac

John Adams’ single movement tripartite Doctor Atomic Symphony is a splendid primer (even time-saving substitute) for his opera on the J. Robert Oppenheimer subject. From the opening shot of “The Laboratory”, the expansive central “Panic”, and the closing meditation “Trinity”, Adams takes the listener through a wild then subdued, brooding, organic, very much tonal and always loud work that owes to Varèse, occasionally reminds of Bruckner, and radiates original Adams. It is coupled with the classic quasi-Symphony of Adams’, Harmonielehre which is to Adams what Mathis der Maler is to Hindemith. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is exactly what the title says; a wild 4-minute romp that is among Adams’ most easily enjoyable orchestral amuse-bouches. 

Charles’ review of the whole shebang on DVD here.

Two Pianos, Naughton Twins

available at Amazon
Piano Duets, Christina and Michelle Naughton
(Orfeo, 2012)
Charles T. Downey, Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin piano act, are perfectly in sync at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 15, 2014)
College friends of mine who were identical twin sisters and both music majors used to claim they could communicate secretly with each other when they performed together. By this they were poking fun at other people’s often rude curiosity about what it was like to be an identical twin. Other twins embrace this phenomenon, like Christina and Michelle Naughton, one of several piano duos formed by identical twins. They gave a recital on the Fortas Chamber Music series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday night.

There were hints of the circus act in their performance of music for two pianos... [Continue reading]
Christina and Michelle Naughton, piano duo
Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Debussy, En blanc et noir
Lutosławski, Variations on a Theme of Paganini
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


For Your Consideration: 'The Better Angels'

If Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals brought the administration of Abraham Lincoln to life, Steven Spielberg's dour, overstuffed hagiography Lincoln seemed to stiffen the 16th President of the United States back into a statue. The Better Angels, the directorial debut of A. J. Edwards, an assistant to Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life and other films, going back to The New World, attempts to pierce the veil of saintliness, not by tearing down the image of the man but by focusing on his childhood, long before he had become the man we now venerate. Edwards, who directs his own screenplay, picks up the story in southern Indiana in 1817. There, Lincoln's father, Thomas, after losing all of his land holdings in Kentucky, had moved his family to a log cabin in what is now Spencer County.

There is little dialogue in the film, and what there is often hard to understand, one of several signs of Malick's influence on Edwards's style: what comes across is that the modern counterparts to these 19th-century Hoosiers, extremely taciturn by nature, are chatterboxes in comparison. In fact, the names "Abraham" and "Lincoln" are rarely (if ever) heard, even when the boy's first schoolmaster calls roll in his classroom. Most of the information the viewer needs to follow the story is related by voiceover (another Malick influence), based largely on the remembrances of Dennis Hanks, a cousin who grew up with Abraham Lincoln (the character is played in the film by newcomer Cameron Mitchell Williams), as interviewed for a book by Eleanor Atkinson.

We see how Lincoln's intellectual gifts were fostered by his mother, Nancy (the ethereal Brit Marling), who dies about a year into the story from milk sickness, when the family's cows graze on white snakeroot -- a type of poisoning that caused many deaths on the American frontier. His father, played with stoic severity by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky, leaving young Abe and his sister (as played by McKenzie Blankenship, seemingly younger than her brother, although she was two years older) to fend for themselves for the winter. The father returns with a second wife, with three more children in tow, who is just as beautiful and fostering as Nancy, played with golden felicity by Diane Kruger (Farewell, My Queen).

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | Variety
Village Voice | Hollywood Reporter

The film does not make clear to which of these maternal figures Lincoln was referring in the quotation attributed to him -- "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother" -- shown at the beginning of the film, as the camera examines the marble surfaces of the Lincoln Memorial. The title, drawn from the first inaugural address, seems to indicate it may have been both, although Lincoln gave just as much recognition to his older sister, who helped raise him. If you are hoping to learn from the film the childhood sources of Lincoln's later greatness, you will be disappointed, for there is little so heavy-handed here. On the boy's first trip away from the log cabin, he watches a group of slaves in shackles and chains pass by. There are references to his honesty and his bookishness, but all we see is potential and the rough necessities of the life he lived.

The film is slow-moving but beautifully shot, with the wilds of Indiana recreated in the Mohonk Preserve in the Appalachians, 90 miles north of New York City. The final Malick trait that shows up is the gorgeous music, with some original contributions by composer Hanan Townshend, including arrangements of other composers' music. The playlist includes some beautiful passages from Bruckner's seventh and eighth symphonies, the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin, the slow movement of Dvořák's ninth symphony. For some of the Americana flavor, there are bits of Copland's Rodeo, John Adams's Shaker Loops, and symphonies by Alan Hovhaness -- no. 2 ("Mysterious Mountain"), no. 60 ("To the Appalachian Mountains"), and no. 50 (Mount St. Helens: Volcano"). Just as in Malick's film, the music speaks more than the characters, giving voice to thoughts and atmospheres.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.


Golliwog Makes a Run for It

available at Amazon
Debussy, Complete Works for Solo Piano, A. Planès
(Harmonia Mundi, 2009)
Charles T. Downey, Salzburg Marionette Theater gets tangled in uneven production (Washington Post, November 4, 2014)
Sometimes child’s play can be serious business. The Salzburg Marionette Theater, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, returned to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. By contrast with their last visit, for a charming and traditional “Magic Flute” in 2005, this was a double-bill of Robert Schumann and Claude Debussy, with live music performed by pianist Orion Weiss, in an unusual concert presented by Washington Performing Arts.

Schumann’s “Papillons” tells a story from the end of Jean Paul’s novel “Flegeljahre,” slightly modified by the Salzburg puppeteers. Schumann’s two musical personalities, Eusebius and Florestan... [Continue reading]
Orion Weiss, piano
Salzburg Marionette Theater
Debussy, La boîte à joujoux
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Philip Kennicott, A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created (Washington Post, October 4)

Magic Flute in 2005

Illustration by André Hellé


À mon chevet: 'Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
I came out of the bookshop, I stopped in Piazza Cavour. The day was fine, Via Foria seemed unnaturally clean and solid in spite of the scaffolding that shored up the Galleria. I imposed on myself the usual discipline. I took out a notebook that I had bought recently, I wished to start acting like a real writer, putting down thoughts, observations, useful information. I read l'Unità from beginning to end, I took notes on the things I didn't know. I found the article by Pietro's father in Il Ponte and skimmed it with curiosity, but it didn't seem as important as Nino had claimed. Rather, it put me off for two reasons: first, Guido Airota used the same professorial language as the man with the thick eyeglasses but even more rigorously; second, in a passage in which he spoke about women students ("It's a new crowd," he wrote, "and by all the evidence they are not from well-off families, young ladies in modest dresses and of modest upbringing who justly expect from the immense labor of their studies a future not of domestic rituals alone"), it seemed to me that I saw an allusion to myself, whether deliberate or completely unconscious. I made a note of that in my notebook as well (What am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?) and, not exactly in a good mood, in fact with some irritation, I began to leaf through the Corriere della Sera.

I remember that the air was warm, and I've preserved an olfactory memory -- invented or real -- a mixture of printed paper and fried pizza. Page after page I looked at the headlines, until one took my breath away. There was a photograph of me, set amid four dense columns of type. In the background was a view of the neighborhood, with the tunnel. The headline said: Salacious Memoirs of an Ambitious Girl: Elena Greco's Début Novel. The byline was that of the man with the thick eyeglasses.

I was covered in a cold sweat while I read; I had the impression that I was close to fainting. My book was treated as an occasion to assert that in the past decade, in all areas of productive, social, and cultural life, from factories to offices, to the university, publishing, and cinema, an entire world had collapsed under the pressure of a spoiled youth, without values. Occasionally he cited some phrase of mine, in quotation marks, to demonstrate that I was a fitting exponent of my badly brought-up generation. In conclusion he called me "a girl concerned with hiding her lack of talent behind titillating pages of mediocre triviality."

I burst into tears. It was the harshest thing I had read since the book came out, and not in a daily with a small circulation but in the most widely read newspaper in Italy. Most of all, the image of my smiling face seemed to me intolerable in the middle of a text so offensive. I walked home, not before getting rid of the Corriere. I was afraid my mother might read the review and use it against me. I imagined that she would have liked to put it, too, in her album, to throw in my face whenever I upset her.

-- Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translation by Ann Goldstein), pp. 53-55
I have taken a break from Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to read the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, published in Italian last year (see Part 1 and Part 2). Toward the end of the second novel, the protagonist, Elena Greco, describes how she came to write her first novel, about the disturbing way that she lost her virginity. In all aspects except the date of publication, this corresponds to Ferrante's first novel L'amore molesto, just in 1992 instead of the 1960s. The protagonist is on the verge of marrying into one of the leading intellectual families of Italy, the Airotas, who have helped her to publish that first novel, which becomes an emblem of the opening of Italian society in that turbulent decade. Men start to speak openly to her about their sexual exploits, all of her friends and acquaintances in the old neighborhood in Naples read the book, focusing on its "risqué pages," and reviews appear, alternately condemning and exalting her as the model of the liberated woman. Worst of all, her mother becomes furious with her when she learns that the wedding will happen at city hall instead of in a church. The Italian author known as Elena Ferrante has just published a fourth volume this year, called Storia della bambina perduta, so we have that to look forward to as well.


Academy of Ancient Music, Orchestral Suites

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suites, Academy of Ancient Music, R. Egarr

(released on November 18, 2014)
AAM003 | 93'49"
Christopher Hogwood is no longer with us, but the Academy of Ancient Music, the group he founded in 1973, is still going strong. Under the leadership of Richard Egarr, the group has made tour stops in Washington in 2009, to perform the Brandenburg Concertos, and in 2007, at the National Gallery of Art. The distinguished historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble appeared on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, playing all four of Bach's orchestral suites, music to be released later this month on their new new personal record label, inaugurated this year.

As examined in some detail in my round-up of recent recordings of the orchestral suites, we have a lot more questions about these pieces than we used to. (In the booklet essay for the new AAM recording, scholar Christoph Wolff lays out the current understanding of when and why Bach composed these works.) Egarr has chosen to perform them with extremely small forces, all one musician on a part, including the string parts. On one hand the small ensemble made a sound perhaps too delicate for the large hall at Strathmore, where the audience was not able to fill the space either. On the other hand, this solved most of the balance problems, caused by delicate wind instruments, especially the historical versions played by this ensemble, being covered by too many strings. This worked just fine in the largest of the suites, no. 4, which came first on the program, with the three trumpets and timpani well behind the other players and never overpowering them. Bassoonist Ursula Leveaux had the first of many virtuosic turns in the Bourrées, cascades of smooth running notes over which the oboes chirped contentedly. Egarr, seated at the harpsichord, had considerable fun adding effects here and there on the continuo part, like a sort earthquake rumble in the concluding Réjouissance.

Other Reviews:

Patrick Rucker, Academy of Ancient Music gives Bach's Orchestral Suites the royal treatment (Washington Post, November 10)
Having just one string player on each part helped most obviously in no. 2, where the delicate traverso sound of Rachel Brown could be heard more clearly. The Rondeau was pleasingly sparkly, the Sarabande suave, and the Polonaise weighty and pleasingly rustic. The Badinerie, accelerated to a breathless pace on some recordings, here was more chatty than manic, leaving room for some complex embellishments. No. 1 put the three fine oboe players, and again the bassoon, in the spotlight and to good effect, with a breezy Courante, a smooth Forlane and Passepied, and exceptionally mellow Minuets, the last featuring just the highest four string instruments and plenty of embellishments from first violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk and Egarr at the harpischord. Only in no. 3 did Egarr seem to push the tempo of the Overture, again displaying the remarkable accuracy of the three trumpets, who benefited most from the lowered pitch used by the ensemble. Wisely, the musicians did not allow this suite's famous Air to wallow in a slow tempo, but not pushing it beyond a graceful pacing, again with Beznosiuk shaking things up with many embellishments.


Aimard Chases the Fugue

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, P.-L. Aimard

(released on August 19, 2014)
DG 479 2784 | 112'05"
Every performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard is full of unexpected things, and his recital at the Library of Congress on Friday night was no different. The experience of watching the French pianist play some of the preludes and fugues from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier -- what he did with the sustaining pedal, how he approached the keyboard -- helped me understand the sounds that are captured on his recent recording of the work.

Most of the Bach preludes and fugues were fairly close to how they were rendered on the disc, especially the pair in E-flat minor, one of the highlights of both recording and recital -- the operatic lament of the prelude heavily pedaled, the fugue a little deliberate. The A-flat prelude was one of the pieces that ticked away like a clock, with Aimard's quirky rolling of chords to set it apart. There Aimard applied the pedal in a fluttering way, while in the C# minor fugue, the pedaling created a resonant wash-like acoustic effect. In the F-sharp prelude, by contrast, the two voices danced in a clean and articulate way, the three lines of the fugue each given an independent character. Sometimes the choices were extravagantly weird, like the choppy, even truculent insistence on bringing out the subject in the E-flat fugue, or the endless trill in the tenor voice on the final chord of the G minor fugue, marking that Picardy third for what seemed like an eternity, just in case you missed it. The most complicated fugue, the A minor, reveled in untangling each strand of this complex web of moving parts. The B-flat prelude was shaped as a sort of wild toccata, with a rather fast take on the fugue, which helped make this piece into a convincing conclusion for the Bach selections.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, French pianist Aimard delivers strange recital at Library of Congress (Washington Post, November 10)
Beethoven's A-flat sonata, op. 110, was equally odd, the arpeggios light and feathery, with the pedal deployed again to create an often murky sound. Aimard took almost no pause before launching into the scherzo, with its silly folk-song references (snatches of Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt, or 'Our cat has had kittens', and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, or 'I'm a slob, you're a slob') all performed with an archly raised eyebrow. The recitative introduction to the last movement had a mercurial spontaneity, but what Aimard was really after here was its concluding fugue, which spun rapidly out of control from the moment the subject returns in inverted form. Not that it fell apart, although there were a few loose spots, but in trying to observe Beethoven's tempo marking literally ("poi a poi nuovo vivente") you had the sense of Beethoven forcing the music out of the performer's control -- that is, the fugue, most controlled of forms, slips out of its collar and runs away.

The final piece, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op. 24, by Brahms, was probably a case of the musician biting off more than he could chew, a long-winded and exhausting work that was not entirely in Aimard's fingers or brain. There were many intriguing diversions: the sweet perdu quality of the fifth variation, the sotto voce sixth, the hunting calls and obsessive horse-galloping motif in the left hand of seventh. The lesson, ultimately, is that even the best fugues of both Beethoven and Brahms are not half as ingenious as a Bach fugue, perhaps because they were trying to be twice as clever.

The next concert at the Library of Congress will feature recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute and Ensemble Caprice (November 21).

Beatrice Rana Returns

available at Amazon
Chopin, Preludes / Scriabin, Sonata No. 2, B. Rana, recorded at the Concours Musical International de Montréal
(ATMA Classique, 2012)
Charles T. Downey, Beatrice Rana, a pianist, returns to D.C.
Washington Post, November 4, 2014
Last year Beatrice Rana, on the heels of her silver medal at the Van Cliburn Competition, gave her Washington-area debut at Wolf Trap. The Italian pianist was back on Saturday afternoon for a concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented on the Hayes Piano Series by Washington Performing Arts. Her startling technique remains among the most faultless of young pianists today, and it was displayed, in this recital, in some dazzling repertoire.

Rana took some of the movements of Bach’s first partita (B-flat major, BWV 825) with rhythmic freedom... [Continue reading]
Beatrice Rana, piano
Washington Performing Arts
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater


Perchance to Stream: Dedication of the Lateran Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Wien, conducted by Peter Rundel, performs Georg Friedrich Haas's Concerto Grosso Nr. 1 for four alphorns and orchestra. [ORF]

  • The Orchestre National de France performs Schubert's third symphony, with conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, plus Mendelssohn's "Lobgesang" symphony with the Choeur de Radio France and soloists Christiane Karg, Carolina Ulrich, and Maximilian Schmitt, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • René Jacobs leads the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in a concert of music by Galuppi and Pergolesi, with soprano Im Sunhae soprano and mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet as soloists. [RTBF]

  • From the Ratisbon Baroque Music Festival last June, the choir Vox Luminis performs music by Heinrich Schütz and members of the Bach family, recorded at the Schottenkirche St. Jakob. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Gaetano Donizetti's opera Caterina Cornaro, starring Maria Pia Piscitelli (Caterina Cornaro) and Enea Scala (Gerardo), Fwith Paolo Carignani conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra National Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, recorded last July. [RTBF]

  • Christoph König leads the Solistes européens in music of Debussy and Bizet, plus the Brahms first piano concerto with Anna Vinnitskaia as soloist. [RTBF]

  • Pianist Cédric Tiberghien plays Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto with the Orchestre National d'Ile de France and conductor Enrique Mazzola, who also conducts Kodaly's Hary Janos and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. [France Musique]

  • A recital by pianist Till Fellner, with music by Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and Schumann. [RTBF]

  • Pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger joins the Modigliani Quartet to perform Louis Vierne's Quintet for Piano and Strings, op. 42, plus a Schubert string quartet, D. 87, recorded at the Auditorium du Louvre. [France Musique]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Strauss and Wagner, including the Four Last Songs with soprano Dorothea Röschmann. [RTBF]

  • Laurence Equilbey leads the Insula Orchestra and the choir Accentus in music by Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber. [France Musique]

  • Matthias Pintscher leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in music by Clara Iannotta (Intent on Resurrection), Luigi Nono (Omaggio a György Kurtag), and Helmut Lachenmann (Concertini), recorded at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Mariss Jansons conduct the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in his hometown of Riga in Latvia, with music by Dvorak and Shostakovich. [BR-Klassik]

  • From this past summer's Festival de Saint-Denis, Sofi Jeannin leads Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien and the Maîtrise de Radio France in chants by Hildegard von Bingen, followed by a new piece by Ibrahim Maalouf, based on Hildegard's music. [France Musique]

  • John Storgards conducts the BBC Philharmonic in music by Elgar, Nielsen, and Walton. [BBC3]

  • The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales perform Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, with Mark Wigglesworth conducting Anna Larsson and other soloists. [BBC3]

  • Listen to a performance of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier from last summer's Salzburg Festival, starring Krassimira Stoyanova (Marschellin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), and Mojca Erdmann (Sophie). [RTBF]

  • Riccardo Chailly leads the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in a selection of music by Richard Strauss, recorded last June in Leipzig. [ORF]

  • Listen to some archived performances of music by Richard Strauss, with Marek Janowski conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with soloists including Lucia Popp, Sumi Jo, and Soile Isokoski. [France Musique]

  • John Storgards conducts the BBC Philharmonic in music by Mozart, Panufnik, and Sibelius (Symphony No. 2). [BBC3]

  • Musica Alta Ripa, the Knabenchor Hannover, and Göttinger Knabenchor, with countertenor Henning Voss, perform music by Henry Purcell, William Turner, Thomas Tallis, and others, recorded last May at the Göttingen Handel Festival. [ORF]

  • Yuri Temirkanov leads the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in music by Liadov, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich. [BBC3]

  • Gianandrea Noseda conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in music by Elgar, Beethoven, and Sally Beamish. [BBC3]

  • Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Schubert, Henze, Larcher, and Adams. [BBC3]

  • Anna-Maria Helsing conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in music of Mahler, Weber, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Berg, with mezzo-soprano Monica Groop and soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano, recorded in 2013 in Helsinki. [ORF]

  • Ensemble Chelycus, with soprano Nele Gramss and other soloists, perform music by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Antonio Cesti, Antonio Draghi, and others, recorded in 2013 in Bremen. [ORF]

  • Pianist Muza Rubackyte performs a recital with music by Beethoven, Bach, and Liszt, recorded at the Salle Gaveau. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 180 (Cantatas for Ascension Day)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cantatas for Ascension Day
J.E.Gardiner / EBS, Monteverdi Choir / L.Ruiten, M.Bragle, A.Tortoise, D.Henschel

Gardiner, Ascending

In 2000 John Elliot Gardiner went cantata-hopping around the globe. The results were spirited but uneven. Four cantatas ruined by extraneous noises have been added now to complete the task. And how! Much more than a creditable capstone to this sensually most pleasing of Bach Cantata cycles, it combines some of Bach’s best with the best of Gardiner. The central work “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” The Ascension Oratorio BWV 11 sounds like a miniature passion: Jubilant magnificence in glorious C and D-major, trumpets, and many familiar moments where Bach parodies previous works, including that supremely touching closing chorale from BWV 43 also on this disc. Perhaps the best in the bunch! 

More "Dip Your Ears" reviews of Gardiner’ Bach Cantatas here (v.1 & 8) and here (v.24)