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Briefly Noted: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Composer

available at Amazon
E.T.A. Hoffmann / F. Witt, Symphonies / Overtures, Kölner Akademie, M. A. Willens

(released on February 10, 2015)
cpo 777208-2 | 61'39"
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) is likely familiar to most readers as a writer, especially through the musical works his stories have inspired. He was also a talented music critic, artist, and composer. Although I was aware that Hoffmann had actually composed music, I had never heard any of it before until this recording by the Kölner Akademie came across my desk. Although Hoffmann wrote music for a setting of the Mass, a number of operas and other stage works, and a symphony, little seems available in modern recording. In addition to their fine Mozart piano concerto cycle, with Ronald Brautigam, Michael Alexander Willens and his ensemble continue to unearth obscure music in their series of discs for the CPO label.

Hoffmann's most important opera Undine, praised by Carl Maria von Weber in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, was premiered five years before that composer's Der Freischütz. It likely influenced Weber in his creation of that work, now generally seen as the beginning of German Romantic opera. Willens offers only the overture, a tantalizing glimpse of a Zauberopera that has been recorded before but is no longer easily available, at least by traditional means (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra's performance is on YouTube). It is paired with the overture and a march from the final scene of Hoffmann's earlier opera Aurora, which never saw the stage in Hoffmann's lifetime.

Hoffmann once offered an appreciative critique of the symphonies of his contemporary, Friedrich Witt (1770-1836), a minor German Kapellmeister, after sponsoring a performance of one of them. In his review for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Hoffmann perceptively described the German symphony of the time as "the ultimate form of instrumental music -- the opera of instruments as it were." He was that rare sort of critic: one who had actually composed a symphony himself. Both Hoffmann's Symphony in E-Flat Major and Witt's Symphony in A Major, which bookend the overtures on this disc, are in the mold of Haydn, diverting and beautifully played. Neither work strikes me as a masterpiece, compact at around 20 minutes in duration, with mild Andante serenade movements and short-but-sweet menuetti, but either one would make a fine alternative for a concert program.


À mon chevet: 'Sindbad'

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

book cover
I embarked with a group of prominent merchants, and we became friends, as we sailed with a fair wind in peace and good health until we passed by a city called the City of China, and while we were in the utmost joy and happiness, talking among ourselves about travel and commerce, a violent head wind blew suddenly, and a heavy rain began to fall on us until we and our babies were drenched. So we covered the bales with felt and canvas, fearing that the goods would be spoiled by the rain, and began to pray and implore God the Almighty to deliver us from the peril we were in. Then the captain, girding his waist and tucking up his clothes, climbed up the mast and began to look to the right and left. Then he looked at the people in the ship and began to slap his face and pluck his beard. We asked him, "Captain, what is the matter?" And he said, "Implore the Almighty God for deliverance from the peril we are in, and weep for yourselves and bid each other farewell, for the wind has prevailed against us and driven us into the farthest of the seas of the world." He then descended from the mast, opened a chest, and took out of it a cotton bag. Then he untied the bag, took out of it some dust, like ashes, wetted it with water, and, waiting a little, smelled it. Then he took out of the chest a small book and began to read in it. Then he said to us, "Passengers, in this book there is an amazing statement that whoever comes to this place will never leave it safely and will surely perish, for this region is called the Province of the Kings, and in it is the tomb of our Lord Solomon, the son of David (peace be on him), and there are huge, horrible-looking whales, and whenever a ship enters this region, one of them rises from the sea and swallows it with everything in it."

When we heard the captain's explanation, we were dumbfounded, and hardly had he finished his words when the ship suddenly began to rise out of the water and drop again, and we heard a great cry, like a peal of thunder, at which we were struck almost dead with terror, sure of our destruction. Suddenly we saw a whale heading for the boat, like a towering mountain, and we were terrified and wept bitterly for ourselves and prepared for death. We kept looking at that whale, marveling at its terrible shape, when suddenly another whale, the most huge and most terrible we had ever seen, approached us, and while we bade each other farewell and wept for ourselves, a third whale, even greater than the other two, approached, and we were stupefied and driven mad with terror. Then the three whales began to circle the ship, and the third whale lunged at the ship to swallow it, when suddenly a violent gust of wind blew, and the ship rose and fell on a massive reef, breaking in pieces, and all the merchants and the other passengers and the bales sank in the sea.

I took off all my clothes, except for a shirt, and swam until I caught a plank of wood from the ship and hung on it. Then I got on it and held on to it, while the wind and the waves toyed with me on the surface of the water, carrying me up and down. I was in the worst of plights, with fear and distress and hunger and thirst. I blamed myself for what I had done and for incurring more hardships, after a life of ease, and said to myself, "O Sindbad the Sailor, you don't learn, for every time you suffer hardships and weariness, yet you don't repent and renounce travel in the sea, and when you renounce, you lie to yourself. I deserve my plight, which had been decreed by God the Almighty to cure me of my greed, which is the root of all my suffering, for I have abundant wealth." I returned to my reason and said to myself, "In this voyage, I repent to the Almighty God with a sincere repentance, and I will never again embark on travel, nor mention it, nor even think of it, for the rest of my life." I continued to implore the Almighty God and to weep, recalling my former days of play and pleasure and cheer and contentment and happiness.

-- Sindbad, and Other Stories from the Arabian Nights, pp. 54-55 (trans. Husain Haddawy)
Husain Haddawy's translation of The Arabian Nights revealed the historical core of the famous collection of stories. The most famous tales -- Sindbad the Sailor, 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and 'Ala al-Din and the Magic Lamp -- are actually much latter accretions to the collection, and Haddawy could not resist offering a translation of them, along with The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and His Two Sons, Amjad and As'ad. Sindbad's seven tales, told to a porter also named Sindbad, recount his miraculous escapes from all sorts of dangerous situations and fantastical places and creatures, until finally in this seventh voyage he recants of his desire to seek adventure.


Luc Besson May Film in Hungary

French director Luc Besson may not shoot his next film in France. Because of tax laws that impose penalties on English-language films, he may shoot his upcoming feature, Valérian, in Hungary instead. So reports an article (Luc Besson pourrait ne pas tourner son prochain film en France, August 25) in Le Monde (my translation):
"I do not know if I will be able to shoot in France. It's all about political arcana... I think that everyone would like it if we made the film here, if we had the right," the director stated to RTL on August 24. "I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am working on my film, and I hope it will work itself out," he added.

"I want to work in my own country with French technical crew. It puts me off, as one says. I warned the authorities," Besson confirmed, citing the name of François Hollande. "There is just one small problem with the tax credits in France: 20% for French films, and 30% for foreign films. This is a French film in English, so I get no credit for being a French film. At the same time I get no credit as a foreign film because the producer is French. It's a Catch-22 (Je suis dans une espèce de trou juridique)."
If he shoots the film in Hungary, that country will reimburse him for 35 to 40% of the total cost. "I am a patriot," he quipped, "but 15 to million euro is a bit much." The film is an adaptation of the science fiction graphic novel by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Losing the production of the film is not insignificant by any means: with an estimated budget of 170 million euro, it would employ 1,200 people over a period of six months.


Briefly Noted: Campra's 'Tancrède'

available at Amazon
Campra, Tancrède, B. Arnould, I. Druet, Les Temps Présents, Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, O. Schneebeli

(released on July 31, 2015)
Alpha 958 | 166'52"
When I was researching my doctoral dissertation, most of the sources in question were not published in modern editions, let alone recorded. One of the exceptions was Jean-Claude Malgoire's recording of Tancrède, an opera by André Campra (1660–1744), made in the early 1990s and brand new at the time. Mostly I just had to read scores and play what I could reduce at sight on the piano. Two decades later, I could do a good part of the primary source research I had to do in Paris at home on my laptop: a manuscript version of this opera and the short score are available on IMSLP.

Premiered in 1702 at the Palais-Royal theater in Paris, the opera had over a half-century in the repertoire of the Académie Royale de Musique. Made with librettist Antoine Danchet, the work hews closely to the Lullian model, sumptuously filled out with dance music, even though by this point in Louis XIV's reign, the monarch's interest in opera and dance had faded. Campra's training as a chorister and church composer gave him greater contrapuntal range in this and his other operas. This new recording is more complete than Malgoire's, which is shorter by over twenty minutes, and although it was recorded live, during two staged performances in May 2014 in the recently restored Opéra Royal of the Château de Versailles, it is an improvement in sound quality as well. Blemishes here and there cannot be avoided in live recordings, but the forces of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles are generally excellent.

Act II's opening scene between Tancrède and Clorinde, where he captures the haughty warrior-maiden and then is compelled to confess his love for her, is such gorgeous music, here admirably sung by baritone Benoît Arnould and mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet. It leads into a lovely divertissement of warriors and battle-maids, and conductor Olivier Schneebeli adds percussion colors to some of the dance numbers. The flute playing is especially beautiful, both in the somber opening of Act III, where Herminie and Argant lament that those they love have instead found each other, and in Herminie's devastating aria Cessez, mes yeux sung with plaintive yearning by soprano Chantal Santon, as is the trumpet playing in the last act's triumphal music. In my dissertation I was focusing mostly on the ways that composers set the magical scenes in these stories, so the second part of the third act and the fourth act were of most interest to me, where Tancrède enters the lair of the sorceror Ismenor and then the confrontation in the enchanted forest. Both are treated here with plenty of instrumental variation and inventive color.


Perchance to Stream: Back to School 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.

  • From the Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival, watch Christoph Eschenbach celebrate his 75th birthday with a gala concert of music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, with Eschenbach serving as both conductor and piano soloist. [ARTE]

  • Watch Andris Nelsons conduct Mahler's fifth symphony and the "Surprise" symphony by Haydn, recorded at the Lucerne Festival. [ARTE]

  • Piotr Beczala and Angela Gheorghiu star in a performance of Massenet's Werther, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • Have another listen to Klaus Florian Vogt in Wagner's Lohengrin, recorded at the Bayreuth Festival. [BR-Klassik]

  • Listen to Bernard Haitink conduct Haydn's Symphony No. 60 and Mahler's fourth symphony, with Anna Lucia Richter as soloist, at the Lucerne Festival. [RTBF]

  • Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Brett Dean's Dramatis personae and Mahler's sixth symphony. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Tenor Juan Diego Florez and pianist Vicenzo Scalera perform a program of opera arias, recorded at Geneva's Victoria Hall. [France Musique]

  • Gianandrea Noseda conducts soprano Diana Damrau and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in music of Verdi, Strauss, and Stravinsky, recorded in Geneva. [France Musique]

  • Axel Kober conducts a performance of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at the Bayreuth Festival. [France Musique]

  • From the Proms, Osmo Vänskä conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music by Sibelius. [France Musique]

  • András Schiff performs Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Royal Albert Hall. [BBC Proms]

  • Charles Dutoit leads the Royal Philharmonic in music of Debussy, Mozart, and Shostakovich. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Listen to a recital by pianist Herbert Schuch, recorded last month at the Salzburg Festival. The program is quite similar to what he will play here in Washington in October. [RTBF]

  • Gérard Korsten conducts the Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg, with soprano Measha Brueggergosman, in music by Peter Eötvös, Wagner, and Brahms, recorded at the Bregenz Festival. [ORF]

  • The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music perform music of Bach at the Royal Albert Hall. [BBC Proms]

  • Charles Dutoit conducts the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in music of Mozart, with soloist Louis Lortie, and Respighi, recorded in Geneva. [France Musique]

  • Fabio Luisi conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in music of Nielsen and Brahms. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Apollo's Fire, under conductor Jeanette Sorrell, performs music by C.P.E. Bach, Vivaldi, and others, with violinist Alina Ibragimova, recorded at the Proms. [ORF]

  • At the Styriarte Festival, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe performs music of Dvorak. [RTBF]

  • Zubin Mehta conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in music of Strauss, Nielsen, Grieg, and others at Schloss Schönbrunn. [France Musique]

  • The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, under conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada, perform's Mozart's "Jupiter" symphony and Schubert's Mass in B-flat Major, D. 678, at the Salzburg Festival. [RTBF]

  • From Amsterdam's Festival Robeco, Daniel Harding conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in music by Dvorak and Mozart, with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout. [France Musique]

  • From the Festival de Saint Riquier, Hervé Niquet conducts Le Concert Spirituel in a performance of Handel's Messiah. [France Musique]

  • At the Resonanzen Festival in Vienna last January, Jordi Savall conducts the Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespérion XXI, and Le Concert des Nations in sacred music for large forces by Biber and Bartholomäus Riedl. [RTBF]

  • Flutist Emmanuel Pahud and friends perform chamber music by Martinu, Beethoven, and Brahms at the Château de l'Empéri. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Scriabin's piano concerto with pianist Daniil Trifonov and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, recorded in Geneva. [France Musique]

  • Eliahu Inbal conducts violinist Sergey Khachtryan and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, with music by Beethoven and Brahms, recorded in Geneva. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Olli Mustonen performs music by Sibélius, Grieg, Scriabin, and Prokofiev, at a recital recorded in Warsaw. [France Musique]

  • The Quatuor Ellipse plays music of Mozart at the Festival de Radio France in Montpellier. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears*, No. 205 (The Blue Notebooks or: Recycling Gone Wrong)

available at Amazon
The Blue Notebooks,
Max Richter, Tilda Swinton et al.

Not even Background Muzak

As good as Max Richter’s “Recomposed” version of the Four Seasons was—one of my favorites that year—as ghastly is his “Blue Notebook”, originally from 2004 but now re-released on Deutsche Grammophon. The aggressive simplicity of the music, the—perhaps intentional—barely-competent way single, repetitive violin or piano lines are performed, the dearth of ideas and the derivative style makes it an experience akin to chewing broken Philip Glass. Do you know the third-rate film music that makes you feel cheated for every emotion it manages to muster, against your will? Typewriter-background noise and crows crowing and raindrops dripping undermine any goodwill as Tilda Swinton makes read-out Kafka excerpts sound fearfully hackneyed. The liner notes have nothing to say about the release at hand, instead they just promote Richter and projects past and upcoming and the added bonus track is (or sounds like) a discarded out-take from the Vivaldi recording. Yikes!

(* Dip... or not. This should probably be part of the "Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended" series.)


Classical Month in Washington (October 2015)

October is a banner month for the new classical music season, with six performances already selected for my Top 25 Season Preview. Some other concerts just missed the cut for the year, but here are the ten performances you will not want to miss in October.

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin is an Ionarts favorite. For his latest recital, at the Clarice Smith Center, he will play music by Feinberg, Medtner, and Liszt (October 4, 3 pm).

Pianist András Schiff is undertaking an interesting Last Sonatas cycle. Washington Performing Arts presents the second installment, with the penultimate sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, in the Music Center at Strathmore (October 26, 8 pm).

Any calendar year with two recitals by Evgeny Kissin is a good year for Ionarts. Washington Performing Arts brings the Russian pianist to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a recital of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Albeniz, and Larregla (October 28, 8 pm).

This is also a month with several operatic rarities to see, beginning with a concert performance of Wagner's Rienzi by the National Philharmonic, in the Music Center at Strathmore. Piotr Gajewski conducts a cast starring tenor Issachah Savage in the title role (October 3, 8 pm).

Virginia Opera opens its season with Offenbach's goofy Orpheus in the Underworld, in an English-language production that comes to the GMU Center for the Arts early in the month (October 3 and 4).

Cantate Chamber Singers revive their winning production of Benjamin Britten's mystery play Noye's Fludde, the delightful one-act mini-opera featured to such brilliant effect in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (pictured at left). At the first performance, Bowen McCauley Dance will also perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s ballet The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore, and both will take place at St. Columba's Episcopal Church (October 17 and 18). This ensemble's Web site has not been updated from last year. Sorry!

The In Series will mount a rare production of Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land, in its home at GALA Hispanic Theater (October 17 to 25). Not many details to report yet, but worth hearing.

The National Symphony Orchestra opens its subscription season with a program of Mozart (the overture to Magic Flute), Elgar (Serenade for Strings and Enigma Variations), and Strauss (Four Last Songs). The primary reason to hear this is not soprano Olga Peretyatko as soloist in the Strauss, although she is a singer we want to hear, but because Donald Runnicles will be at the podium. He is a fine conductor, and his commitment as music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ends in 2016. The NSO, let us not forget, is looking for a successor to Christoph Eschenbach, and Runnicles might be a possibility, if experience wins out over youth (October 1 to 3).

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is also one of the singers you want to hear right now, and she gives a recital for Vocal Arts D.C. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (October 15, 7 pm).

Cellist Steven Isserlis plays on wound-gut strings, not always to the best effect in later music. His recital with fortepianist Robert Levin, playing an all-Beethoven program, should be top-notch when presented by Washington Performing Arts in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (October 29). (This concert is already sold out, so it does not really count as a recommendation.)

Composer Meredith Monk has appeared in the Washington suburbs a couple of times in recent years. Any performance of hers is worth hearing, and her concert with her vocal ensemble at the Library of Congress will also be free (October 30).

Also at the Library of Congress and also free are concerts by the contemporary music ensemble yarn|wire, performing music of Luciano Berio (October 10, 8 pm), and by the esteemed Pavel Haas Quartet, playing music by Martinů and Dvořák (October 23, 8 pm).

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Houellebecq Revealed

book cover
Michel Houellebecq, author of Les Particules élémentaires, was for some time the darling of the French press. This week Le Monde is publishing a six-part exposé on the excesses and growing oddness of the best-selling French author. An anonymous writer friend of Houellebecq's, "whom he admires," was interviewed by journalist Ariane Chemin for the piece, which has caused quite a media tempest in France. Le Point has published a summary of the juiciest bits ("Houellebecq est devenu un tyran", August 18), where among other things the anonymous source is quoted saying that Houellebecq is "surrounded by a Chinese emperor's court: he poses as a victim, as a person suffering pain whom literature has allowed to rise above his destiny" (my translation):
The first article described the writer's unusual life, in his apartment situated high up an apartment building in Paris's 13th arrondissement, which "looks out toward the Paris beltway more than toward the city." She also evokes his last book, the controversial Soumission, published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, and which has now earned the author a police bodyguard. Soumission takes place in 2022, in a France governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic party in France. The book, which caused a media storm even before it was published, quickly rose to the top of the best seller lists in France, as well as in several countries in Europe.
Houellebecq has refused to respond to Le Monde, agreeing instead to be interviewed by Le Figaro. The folks at The Paris Review have recently published a section of Houellebecq's Soumission in English. The book will appear in the U.S. in October, so it looks like I will be reading it after the new Elena Ferrante novel.


Stunning Composition: Whistler at the Clark

As you cross through the roundabout in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and bear right onto South Street, you will notice a long line of cars parked along the roadside. They stretch all the way to the Clark Art Institute, including every available parking space on the Clark campus. Parking space is at a rare premium these days.

This is what it’s like to be so popular. Not only does the Clark have a stunning new Tadao Ando addition, but Van Gogh is also in town, through the 13th of September, proving once again to be a massive draw. Vincent is great, of course, and there are some stunners in the exhibit. But instead I suggest heading right up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to visit one of the grandes dames of American painting: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), popularly known as Whistler’s Mother. There’s plenty of parking, too.

On loan from the Musée d'Orsay, this beautiful yet dour lady fills the small entry gallery, and the dim lighting gives her a mysterious presence. I've seen this painting several times in Paris, but this time it was different. Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler has never looked better. Her black figure is solidly seated, feet resting squarely on a raised cushion. She holds her own against the sharp black edges of the framed pictures on the wall behind her. We’re supposed to keep our focus interior, but the dancing patterns on the drapery entice your eyes and allude to something more.

Anna is a stoic woman in her mourning dress, but the artist has softened her. The delicate handkerchief in her sturdy hands and the feathery lace of her cap that enshrines her face gently drapes to her breast. There is a similar quality to the paint that is also in the curtain. She is forever bound by that grey wall and the structure of the sharp black frames. But those amazing subtle brush strokes add a complexity to Anna Whistler, as her son lovingly depicts.


Luxury Hotel at Versailles

You may have heard of the plan to open a small number of luxury hotel rooms on the grounds of Versailles. The news shocked me because it struck me as so very un-French. Well, the backlash has been growing against the idea, as reported by Claire Rodineau (Versailles: mauvaise réception pour l'hôtel du château, August 18) for Le Figaro (my translation):
"Versailles is not a slot machine!" cries Arnaud Upinsky. The president of the association Coordination Défense de Versailles is strictly opposed to the plan to transform several buildings on the site into a luxury hotel. At the beginning of August, the leadership of the château launched a call for proposals to create a hotel of 23 rooms in the Grand Contrôle, the Petit Contrôle, and the Pavillon des premières cent marches. The three locations have been unused since 2008 and require work costing around 7 million euro. According to the château management, this plan "is part of the politics of renovation and improvement of the space [...], defined some years ago by the Minister of Culture and the Secretary of State for Tourism."

For his part Arnaud Upinsky sees in it more the symptoms of a "business-ification of Versailles, in the clutches of shop owners and soup sellers." The essayist laments, "The emblem of France is in the midst of becoming Disneyland, and that will not bring profit to the town of Versailles, no more than it will to French people. This will bring profit only to the business owners. A symbol like Versailles, there is only one of them."
Other politicians and activists are also coming out against the plan. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former Minister of Culture and former director of Versailles, approves the project, noting that the site the hotel will occupy is not in a central part of the grounds.


Classical Month in Washington (September 2015)

Fall is around the corner, so we have already made our Top 25 Picks for the classical music season, a year of many significant anniversaries for concert presenters. In each month, though, there are many performances we could not include in the season preview. Here are a few options that look to be intriguing for the month of September.

Violinist Lana Trotovšek
Last September's concert by Lana Trotovšek was a season highlight. The Slovenian violinist returns for a recital with pianist Anna Shelest at the Embassy of Slovenia, sponsored by the Embassy Series (September 11, 7:30 pm).

Vocal Arts D.C. celebrates its 25th anniversary by opening its season with a recital by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Jake Heggie in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. She will sing Iconic Legacies, a new song cycle by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, plus music by Schumann, Berlioz, Bachelet, and Hahn. Note the new start time for Vocal Arts events this year (September 12, 7 pm).

The Tuesday free concert series at the Church of the Epiphany is going full guns this month. The recital of lute songs by alto Barbara Hollinshead and lutenist Howard Bass should be a good one (September 15, 12:10 pm).

The season-opening galas of the area's symphony orchestras are to be avoided, if listening is your focus. The first subscription concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, however, should be worth hearing, with Anna Clyne's Masquerade and Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Olga Kern joins as soloist in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (September 17, 8 pm at Strathmore; September 18 and 19 at the Meyerhoff).

The following weekend the BSO debuts its new contemporary series, Pulse. It's the flavor of the month for area concert presenters, combining classical music somehow with indie rock or whatnot. The stuff that comes early in the evening is not of much interest to us, but it concludes with the BSO performing Philip Glass's third symphony at the Meyerhoff (September 24, 8 pm). Later that same weekend, the BSO performs a program of Prokofiev, Glazunov (the violin concerto with concertmaster Jonathan Carney as soloist), and Beethoven, with Juanjo Mena as guest conductor (September 26, 8 pm at Strathmore; September 25 and 27 at the Meyerhoff).

Music by Jenny Olivia Johnson, Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis, Armando Bayolo, and other living composers will be on the program for the Great Noise Ensemble's season opener at the Atlas Center (September 19, 8 pm).

Another anniversary celebrated this year is fifty years of the concert series at Baltimore's Shriver Hall. Pianist Yefim Bronfman kicks things off with a recital of music by Prokofiev and Schumann (September 20, 5:30 pm).

Washington Performing Arts opens its season with a recital by two golden oldies, violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Emanuel Ax, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (September 28, 7 pm).

See the complete calendar after the jump.


Perchance to Stream: Assumption 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.

  • From the Bayreuth Festival, listen to a performance of Lohengrin starring Klaus-Florian Vogt and Petra Lang. [France Musique]

  • Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic in Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie. [BBC Proms | Part 2]

  • Michael Fabiano and Ana María Martínez star in the Glyndebourne Festival's production of Donizetti’s Poliuto, directed by Mariame Clément. [Glyndebourne]

  • Diego Torre and Ferruccio Furlanetto star in a performance of Verdi's Don Carlos, recorded at the Sydney Opera House. [ABC Classic]

  • Ivan Fischer conducts the sixth and seventh symphonies of Beethoven with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded in Amsterdam. [France Musique]

  • From the Royal Albert Hall, the Glyndebourne Festival performs Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio. [BBC Proms | Part 2 | [Part 3]

  • Matthias Goerne joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to sing Lieder by Strauss and Schubert, with Jaap van Zweden also conducting Beethoven's fifth symphony at a concert recorded last February. [CSO]

  • Leonard Slatkin conducts François Dumont, the Britten Choir, and Orchestre National de Lyon in Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Brahms second symphony and the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist, with Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • Violinist Lisa Batiashvili joins the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Andris Nelsons, for a concert recorded last month in Bad Kissingen. [RTBF]

  • The Arnold Schoenberg Chor, under Erwin Ortner, perform music by Schubert and Brahms, recorded at the Styriarte Festival. [ORF]

  • Listen to the past week's concerts from the Proms in London. [BBC Proms]

  • Violinist Julia Fischer joins the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and conductor Lionel Bringuier, for music by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. [RTBF]

  • Listen to a performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, starring Simone Kermes and Nuria Rial, recorded at the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2013. [RTBF]

  • Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt perform string trios by Schubert and Dvorak, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • A concert of concertos, featuring Martha Argerich and friends, recorded in Lugano in June. [RTBF | Part 2]

  • Ton Koopman conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a performance of Haydn's Il mondo della luna, Beethoven's second symphony and Mozart's 25th symphony. [France Musique]

  • Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber perform Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Kindertotenlieder, recorded last month at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • Paolo Carignani leads the Vienna Symphony at the Bregenz Festival, in a performance of Rossini's Messa di Gloria. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Vilde Frang and friends perform chamber music by Kodály, Tchaikovsky, and others, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. [ORF]

  • I Musici di Roma perform at the Carinthischer Sommer festival, with trumpeter Gábor Boldoczki in music by Rossini, Torelli, Vivaldi, and others, recorded last month at the Stiftskirche Ossiach. [ORF]

  • From the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa plays music by Vivaldi, Kapsberger, and Monteverdi, with countertenor Maarten Engeltjes, recorded in 2013. [France Musique]

  • Harry Christophers conducts music by Palestrina, Victoria, Schütz, and Kuhnau, recorded in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 204 (Schulhoff for String Quartet)

available at Amazon
E.Schulhoff, SQ4ts Nos.1 & 2, 5 Pieces for SQ4t,
Aviv Quartet

Schulhoff for String Quartet

The string quartets of Schulhoff’s are masterpieces, on par with the best of the 20th century. If you look or listen beyond the first page of String Quartet No.1 (1924), inauspiciously black with notes and an unisono assault on the listener, things turn immediately to the charming, and then to unbridled fun. The viola friendly quartet features lots of sul ponticello whispering, there are slides, tickles and spider-feet, pizzicato picking, au talon bowing, and col legno knocking… in short: it’s a whole bag of fun and stomps around the block with gusto. I remember hearing the quartet live for the first time with the Dutch EnAccord Quartet and what a revelation that was! Much the same goes for the barn-burning razzmatazz Five Pieces for String Quartet, arguably his best work for string quartet.

The performances here are good and the sound is varying but decent, but the main reason to pick the Aviv Quartet’s renditions on Naxos are availability, economy, and convenience – having both quartets and the Five Pieces in one place. If Capriccio decides to reissue the Petersen Quartett recordings (which cover the complete works for String Quartet except for the Divertimento, plus the Violin Sonata, the Duo, and the Sextet), that will be the obvious first choice with neither sound- nor performance-qualms of any kind.

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À mon chevet: 'Cold Mountain'

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

book cover
When supper was done, Stobrod took his sack off the ground and drew from it a fiddle and set it across his knees. It was of novel design, for where the scroll would normally be was instead the whittled head of a great serpent curled back against the neck, detailed right down to the scales and the slit pupils of the eyes. It was clear Stobrod was proud as could be of it, and he had a right, for though the fiddle was far from perfect, he had fashioned it himself during the months of living fugitive. His previous instrument had been stolen from him during his trip home, and so, lacking a model, he had shaped the new one from memory of a fiddle's proportions, and it therefore looked like a rare artifact from some primitive period of instrument-making.

He turned it front and back so they could admire its faces, and he told them the story of its creation. He had spent weeks tramping the ridges to cut spruce and maple and boxwood, and when they were cured he sat for hours on end knifing out fiddle parts. He cut forms and clamps of his own devising. Boiled the wood of the side pieces soft and shaped them so that when they cooled and dried they set to the forms in smooth curves that would not come unsprung. He carved the tailpiece and bridge and fingerboard freehand. Boiled down deer hooves for glue. Augered out holes for the tuning pegs, pieced it all together, and let it dry. Then, he set the sound post with aid of a wire, dyed the boxwood fingerboard dark with the juice of poke berries, and sat for hours carving the viper's head curled over against its body. Finally, he stole a little tin of varnish from a man's toolshed in the dark of night and put the finish on it. Then he strung it up and tuned it. Even went out one night and trimmed a horse's tail to hair his bow.

He then looked upon his work and thought, I've almost got my music now, for he had but one job left, the killing of a snake. For some time, he had speculated that putting the tailpiece to a rattlesnake inside the instrument would work a vast improvement on the sound, would give it a sizz and knell like no other. The greater the number of rattles the better, was his thinking on the matter. He described it along the lines of a quest. The musical improvement he was seeking would come as likely from the mystic discipline of getting the rattles as from their actual function within the fiddle.

-- Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, pp. 289-91
This book was the source work for Jennifer Higdon's first opera of the same name, reviewed at Santa Fe Opera last week. Most critics liked the opera a lot better than I did, but my admiration for the book is another matter. The wonderful Collected Works Bookstore, on Galisteo St. in Santa Fe, had a copy signed by the author, who was in town for the premiere, and it has been absorbing reading. The passage quoted here, where Ruby's father, Stobrod, plays on his rustic fiddle is only one of many memorable passages in the novel that completely fell flat on stage. Sometimes music imagined is better than music heard. How Stobrod acquires the tail end of a large rattlesnake is another story, too long to quote here.


Briefly Noted: Motets from the Hiller Collection

available at Amazon
Motetten der Hiller-Sammlung, Sächsisches Vocalensemble, M. Jung

(released on July 10, 2015)
Carus83.269 | 70'25"
German composer Johann Adam Hiller (1728–1804) was also a music theorist and editor of music publications. From 1776 to 1791 he supervised the publication of six volumes of four-part motets and arias for use in German-speaking churches. These collections included his own music, as well as that of composers he admired, including his teacher in Dresden, Gottfried August Homilius (1714–1785). This new disc gives a sampling of some of the pieces in those volumes, which have also been published by the company that released the recording, Carus Verlag. Other composers featured include Johann Gottlob Harrer (1703–1755), the short-lived successor of J.S. Bach in Leipzig; Theodor Christlieb Reinhold (1682–1755); Christoph Ludwig Fehre (1718–1772); Johann Heinrich Rolle (1716–1785); Johann Gottfried Weiske (1745–1806); Christian Friedrich Penzel (1737–1801), student and copyist of J.S. Bach in Leipzig; and Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759), the biggest name in a list of mostly minor Kapellmeisters.

Matthias Jung leads the Sächsisches Vocalensemble in even performances, in tune and generally balanced. The sound was captured in the Annenkirche in Dresden, where both Fehre and Reinhold were organists, with a lot of ring and long decay. These motets, none of which one is likely to call a masterpiece, could provide some much-needed diversification for the average Sunday offerings of many churches, Lutheran and otherwise. None are that far beyond the ability of an average church choir.


Briefly Noted: Bach's Lutheran Masses from Japan

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Lutheran Masses, Vol. 1, J. Lunn, H. Blažíková, R. Blaze, G. Turk, P. Kooij, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki

(released on July 10, 2015)
BIS-2081 | 65'30"
Other than the famous B Minor Mass, with music for the entire Latin Ordinary, Bach set the so-called Lutheran Mass, which was only the Kyrie and Gloria from the Catholic service. Created during his tenure in Leipzig, these pieces are adaptations of Bach's own earlier music, mostly cantata movements. The last time these pieces were under review here, it was in the recording by Cantus Cölln with Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi, 2007). Now Masaaki Sukuki and Bach Collegium Japan have released the first volume of their recording, continuing to round out their complete Bach edition.

This disc has the first two of Bach's settings of the Lutheran Mass, and the delightful interpretation of BWV 235 has enough to recommend it. In the "Christe" section of the Kyrie, Bach does not mark the motif that runs through all the voices as staccato (but also not legato), but Suzuki has all the parts really separate the notes, to whimsical effect. Suzuki then smooths the return of the "Kyrie" section back out, a choice that accentuates the leaps up and down a tritone that come in the middle and at the end of the motif, which is also quite charming. BWV 236 is a less pleasing piece to my ear, more in a backward-looking style and with all five voice parts doubled by instruments. The reading of the "Quoniam" movement in the Gloria sounds a little off: the oboe solo sounds rhythmically unstable especially on the slurred 32nd-note motif, the tenor soloist is a little on the whiny side, and they do not always line up well.

Suzuki rounds out the disc with four little Sanctus movements, all short and sweet, especially BWV 241, which is a rather complex double-chorus confection. It also includes a version of the Kyrie, with the outer movements adapted from the work of Italian composer Francesco Durante, an interesting nod to Bach's interest in all sorts of other composers' work, from Palestrina onward. This disc comes on the heels of a recording of the Lutheran Masses by The Sixteen with Harry Christophers, which is mostly sung with one voice per part and some doubling to cover breathing in long phrases (Vol. 1 / Vol. 2). It is also good listening, but their reading of BWV 235 is just not as interesting: Christophers takes that "Christe" motif legato, with the last note kept short, probably more in keeping with the score, but once you have heard what Suzuki does, it is hard to forget.