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


#morninglistening: Helmut Rilling, Cantatas for the first Advent Sunday

Perchance to Stream: Giving Thanks for Music 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.

  • As I have said before, a stop in the cathedral of Paris to hear Olivier Latry play the organ is a must-do for any visitor to that city. Now you can have the experience on video, as Latry plays the famous Cavaillé-Coll in Notre-Dame de Paris. [ARTE]

  • Also watch Thierry Escaich inaugurate the concert organ at the Philharmonie de Paris, playing an improvisation and the "Organ Symphony" of Saint-Saëns, plus the world premiere of Jörg Widmann's viola concerto. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • Listen to Mariss Jansons conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien in Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Shostakovich's tenth symphony. [ORF | Part 2]

  • André de Ridder conducts the Finnish National Opera in a performance of Kaija Saariaho's opera Emilie, starring soprano Camilla Nylund. [RTBF]

  • If you, like me, missed the recent Washington recital by Leif Ove Andsnes, have a listen to his recital recorded earlier this month in Vienna, with music by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin. [ORF]

  • Have a listen to a performance of Vatroslav Lisinski's opera Ljubav i zioba, starring Evelin Novak (Ljubuca), Domagoj Dorotic (Vukosav), and Leon Kosavic (Obren), with Mladen Tarbuk conducting the Croatian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. [ORF]

  • Bernard Haitink leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's seventh symphony, recorded last April. [CSO]

  • Truls Mørk kicks off his residency with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Dvořák's cello concerto. Leonidas Kavakos also conducts music of Mendelssohn and Musorgsky. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of polyphonic music from the Codex Las Huelgas by David Catalunya, the Peregrina Ensemble, Canto Coronato, and other choirs, recorded last May in the Leonhardskirche in Basel. [ORF]

  • Violinist Bojan Cicic joins the Academy of Ancient Music for a concert of music by Vivaldi, Biber, Manfredini, Vejvanovsky, and Leclair, recorded at the West Road Concert Hall. [BBC3]

  • Yuri Temikanov conducts music of Ravel and Mahler, with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. [France Musique]

  • The St. Petersburg Philharmonic perform Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony and Prokofiev's third piano concerto, with Nikolai Demidenko as soloist, recorded at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • From last May at the Göttingen Handel Festival, a performance of Handel's Agrippina, with Laurence Cummings leading a cast starring Ulrike Schneider, Christopher Ainslie, and Jake Arditti. [ORF]

  • The London Philharmonic plays music by Liadov, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, with conductor Susanna Mälkki and pianist Beatrice Rana. [BBC3]

  • Pianist Christian Ihler joins the Danish String Quartet at the Bergen Festival in a concert recorded last May, with music by Nielsen and Brahms. [RTBF]

  • Violinist Vadim Repin joins Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra for music by Shostakovich, recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. [France Musique]

  • More Shostakovich from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, this time with violinist Alena Baeva, recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From the Hirschsprung Collection Museum in Copenhagen, a concert by the Danish String Quartet recorded last March, with music by Carl Nielsen and Per Norgaard. [RTBF]

  • Juanjo Mena leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in music of Carl Nielsen, recorded last June in Copenhagen. [RTBF]

  • Julian Rachlin leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in music by Mozart and Mendelssohn, recorded at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. [BBC3]

  • Pianist Kirill Gerstein joins the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, and Vassily Sinaisky also conducts Elgar's second symphony. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the recording of Handel's Rinaldo, with Jean-Claude Malgoire conducting La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy, and a cast starring Ileana Cotrubas, Carolyn Watkinson, and Jeanette Scovotti. [ORF]


The Hobbit Returns: Thomas Fey & the Heidelberg Symphony will finish their Haydn Cycle

It has just been informally announced that Hänssler CLASSIC, which was recently, partially merged with PROFIL Hänssler (see "Merger Reunites Classical Music Labels Of Father And Son" on, will continue the wildly imaginative, musically successful Haydn Symphony cycle that Thomas Fey and the Heidelberger Sinfoniker had been working on for the last few years. Yay!

Fey (*1960), who has attained the lovingly-meant nickname “The Hobbit” in an internet forum that teems with appréciateurs for that particular cycle, founded the orchestra in 1993 and has its roots in an early music ensemble that Fey founded as a student, several years earlier. Fey, who had studied under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is greatly influenced by, but not beholden to, the historically informed performance ideology or movement. (The orchestra calls itself “historically oriented”.)

When their Haydn recording project began shortly after the orchestra assembled, in 1999, the results were modern, small-scale, spirited, sometimes idiosyncratic or at least unusual. And they were always, always exciting in a way that I happen to think totally befits Haydn. They have recorded 58 symphonies in 22 volumes, many of which are favorites of mine (although I still lack several). Volume 3 even made the Forbes list of 8 (9) recordings of How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library For $100 that I wrote with George Pieler.

Then things took a turn to the disappointing and dramatic when Hänssler CLASSIC pulled the plug on the cycle (with 46 symphonies still to go) and, much more distressing, when Thomas Fey suffered a domestic accident (now well over a year ago) where he suffered a traumatic brain injury from which he has yet to recover fully. (The orchestra’s website states that it still isn’t clear when Thomas Fey will be able to get back on stage. Early hopes that he might be able to lead the new year’s concert and be back on stage in 2016 might turn out too optimistic.) Further, the city of Heidelberg (and Mannheim, where the more or less identical orchestra operates under the name of “Mannheim Mozart Orchestra”) opted not to endow the orchestra with any public moneys, which put its very survival in question. They’ve kept afloat all the same and this bit of news that they Haydn cycle shall be resumed and hopefully finished, is a very heartening sign that things are on the mend.

As I gather more information about the situation, I will post it here.

The entire Haydn Symphony cycle—as extant—is listed below, in order of recording date.

Luc Bondy, Rest in Peace

Swiss director Luc Bondy has died, age 67, after a protracted illness. Likely best known in the United States as the director of a disastrous Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, he was director of the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe since 2012. Armelle Heliot has an appreciation (Luc Bondy, la mort du phénix, November 28) in Le Figaro (my translation):

There was something of an unending childhood about him. Nothing could keep him down. Nothing kept him from dreaming, planning, sharing, directing. Whether he was directing actors according to his very fine interpretations, writing his own novels, essays, short stories, poems, or making films, he always had this strength in him, and this honesty, that made it seem that nothing could ever stop him.

And then the sad news came this morning. Luc Bondy died on this beautiful sunny late autumn day, a lovely Chekhov day, a beautiful day that will not soothe the tears of all those who love him forever. He turned 67 this past July 18, when his production of Chekhov's Ivanov had triumphed at the Odéon, which he has directed for a few seasons. The staging was repeated at the start of this season and has known again a triumphant reception. Then he was hospitalized. His wife, Marie-Louise, had taken up the work. One thinks of her first and her children, beautiful twin sons.
There was no mention in the article of his work directing opera, but after that Tosca, Bondy went on to direct the premiere production of Marc-André Dalbavie's opera Charlotte Salomon at the Salzburg Festival last year.


Briefly Noted: Denève Champions Honegger

available at Amazon
A. Honegger, Symphonies 2 and 3 (inter alia), Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, S. Denève

(released on October 9, 2015)
SWR Klassik CD93.343 | 70'19"
Stéphane Denève took the position of music director at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra a decade ago, after troubles he experienced with French ensembles. A few years later he moved to the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, with whom he recorded a series of discs devoted to later French composers, on that ensemble's private label. The last of those recordings takes up two symphonies by Arthur Honegger, as well as two shorter orchestral pieces by the same composer. I had hoped that Denève might be on someone's list to consider as a successor to Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony Orchestra, but Denève's work with the NSO has not been universally praised. In any case, he has just opened his first season with the Brussels Philharmonic last month, where he is now chief conductor.

Honegger's music is heard with shameful infrequency in these parts. This single disc, in Denève's capable hands, offers a summary of why this is unfortunate. The third symphony, known as "Symphonie Liturgique," is a smoldering commemoration of the horrors of World War II. The slow movement ("De profundis clamavi") is especially beautiful, representing a more tonal strand of 20th-century music that now seems more relevant than ever. The second symphony, for intensely scored string orchestra, grows in its anguished statement until a trumpet rises heroically out of the strife, played here by Thomas Hannes. As lagniappe, Denève offers two more familiar single movements: the agitated Rugby (Mouvement Symphonique No. 2), with the Stuttgart RSO's blazing brass, and the famous Pacific 231.


À mon chevet: 'La Muse du département'

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

book cover
There was in their lives a first phase, lasting six years, during which Dinah, alas! became utterly provincial. In Paris there are several kinds of women: the duchess and the financier's wife, the ambassadress and the consul's wife, the wife of the minister who is a minister, and of him who is no longer a minister; then there is the lady--quite the lady--of the right bank of the Seine and of the left. But in the country there is but one kind of woman, and she, poor thing, is the provincial woman.

This remark points to one of the sores of modern society. It must be clearly understood: France in the nineteenth century is divided into two broad zones--Paris, and the provinces. The provinces jealous of Paris; Paris never thinking of the provinces but to demand money. Of old, Paris was the Capital of the provinces, and the court ruled the Capital; now, all Paris is the Court, and all the country is the town.

However lofty, beautiful, and clever a girl born in any department of France may be on entering life, if, like Dinah Piedefer, she marries in the country and remains there, she inevitably becomes the provincial woman. In spite of every determination, the commonplace of second-rate ideas, indifference to dress, the culture of vulgar people, swamp the sublimer essence hidden in the youthful plant; all is over, it falls into decay. How should it be otherwise? From their earliest years girls bred in the country see none but provincials; they cannot imagine anything superior, their choice lies among mediocrities; provincial fathers marry their daughters to provincial sons; crossing the races is never thought of, and the brain inevitably degenerates, so that in many country towns intellect is as rare as the breed is hideous. Mankind becomes dwarfed in mind and body, for the fatal principle of conformity of fortune governs every matrimonial alliance. Men of talent, artists, superior brains--every bird of brilliant plumage flies to Paris. The provincial woman, inferior in herself, is also inferior through her husband. How is she to live happy under this crushing twofold consciousness?

But there is a third and terrible element besides her congenital and conjugal inferiority which contributes to make the figure arid and gloomy; to reduce it, narrow it, distort it fatally. Is not one of the most flattering unctions a woman can lay to her soul the assurance of being something in the existence of a superior man, chosen by herself, wittingly, as if to have some revenge on marriage, wherein her tastes were so little consulted? But if in the country the husbands are inferior beings, the bachelors are no less so. When a provincial wife commits her "little sin," she falls in love with some so-called handsome native, some indigenous dandy, a youth who wears gloves and is supposed to ride well; but she knows at the bottom of her soul that her fancy is in pursuit of the commonplace, more or less well dressed. Dinah was preserved from this danger by the idea impressed upon her of her own superiority. Even if she had not been as carefully guarded in her early married life as she was by her mother, whose presence never weighed upon her till the day when she wanted to be rid of it, her pride, and her high sense of her own destinies, would have protected her. Flattered as she was to find herself surrounded by admirers, she saw no lover among them. No man here realized the poetical ideal which she and Anna Grossetete had been wont to sketch.

-- Honoré de Balzac, La Muse du département (trans. James Waring)
The "Scènes de la vie de province" portion of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine has offered no disappointments yet. The pettiness of provincial life is expressed in the characters' often vicious obsession with inheritance, which keeps poor Pierrette under the thumb of her relatives in Pierrette, ruins the life of a small-town priest in Le Curé de Tours (a short, but especially brilliant portrait of life around the Cathedral of Tours), and fills the early life of the gifted painter Joseph Bridau (a mixture of actual artists Xavier Sigalon and Eugène Delacroix) with misery in La Rabouilleuse.

The portrait of Dinah de La Baudraye (née Piédefer) in The Muse of the Department, including the excerpt shown above, is of an intelligent woman trapped in a bad marriage, whose talent is largely wasted on her surroundings. Balzac's work is so striking because of its brutal honesty, and that quality comes across here in Dinah, thought to be a thinly veiled portrait of Caroline Marbouty, a writer who had an affair with Balzac. During their trip to Italy together, Balzac ordered Marbouty to dress as a boy so she could masquerade as his page. The ruse worked for the most part, but Marbouty was none too happy to see herself portrayed in this novel as a sort of second-rate George Sand (who was herself the inspiration for the writer character Félicité des Touches in Béatrix).

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers!


The Real Top 10 Bach Recordings

Addendum to the Forbes Article

To accompany the Gramophone-inspired bit over on about the ‘Real’ Top 10 Bach Recordings (as opposed to those picked by Gramophone, which I am calling out for a touch of pro-Anglo bias), here the discography of my top choices and mentioned and praised alternatives. The Gramophone choices 3, 6, and 9 seem particularly biased/off. 1, 2, 5, 8, 10 could have been ionarts choices, as well. About the Goldberg Variations, ionarts has a long track record of reviewing and discussing, which can be delved into via this link. Wherever CDT’s choices differ from mine, they are indicated, although true in-house dissent among us is extremely rare.


Rossini's 'Semiramide' in Concert

available at Amazon
Rossini, Semiramide (complete), A. Penda, M. Pizzolato, Virtuosi Brunensis, A. Fogliani
(Naxos, 2013)
(released on October 23, 2015)
Paraty 135205 | 68'02"
Semiramis probably never existed. "Empress over many tongues," as Dante called her, she was Queen of Babylon, often associated with the story of the Tower of Babel. Dante condemned her to the Circle of the Lustful in Inferno because of her many sexual escapades, even supposedly with her own son. Upset by society's disapproval of her proclivities, Semiramis took advantage of her position as ruler, having succeeded her husband on the throne, and simply changed the laws of the state to make what she did legal. "She was so given to the vice of lechery," Dante wrote in Inferno, Canto V, in the translation by Prof. Robert Hollander, "she made lust licit in her law / to take away the blame she had incurred."

Semiramide, Rossini's last Italian opera before moving to Paris, rarely sees the stage today, long after its premiere at La Fenice in 1823. It is a perfect option for Washington Concert Opera, which regularly brings top-notch performances of operas you will likely never hear anywhere else in Washington. The score has some gorgeous music, but the libretto, by Gaetano Rossi after a play by Voltaire, is a dud. Spanning three and a half hours when it is complete, the opera requires some cuts, but this performance excised only about fifteen minutes of music. Without some magnificent sets and costumes to distract the eye, it made for a long but mostly enjoyable evening in the theater.

Australian soprano Jessica Pratt was outstanding in the title role, with broad power at the top to carry over the full textures, a shimmering high pianissimo, and excellent agility in the melismatic passages. She was regal in vocal presence, the only reservation being a low range that did not really carry. Sadly, she was not matched well with mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who has always impressed in Baroque opera recordings but not so much in 19th-century opera when a large hall has to be filled with sound. Genaux brilliantly handled the fioriture as Arsace, whom Semiramide wishes to take as her lover before discovering he is her long-lost son, but the voice just did not have enough heft, requiring conductor Antony Walker to rein in his orchestra whenever she sang.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Stars dimmer than expected in the concert Rossini opera ‘Semiramide’ (Washington Post, November 24)

David Rohde, ‘Semiramide’ with Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 23)
Tenor Taylor Stayton made a fine Idreno, the man who wants to marry Azema, the woman Arsace loves, with a heroic squillo that was just nasal enough to have clarion force. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges had plenty of braying sound as Assur, the man who helped Semiramide poison her husband, but often seemed to hit only every other note when his part went into florid runs. Evan Hughes made a blustery Oroe, the Babylonian high priest, and in the supporting cast, Wei Wu and Natalie Conte had pleasing turns as the ghost of Semiramide's husband and Azema, respectively.

The orchestra and chorus both sounded under-rehearsed and maybe under-staffed, in the case of the chorus, where a seemingly smaller number of singers were not as sure as they could have been. The four horns, which feature in the final scene of Act I, when Semiramide announces that she will marry Arsace, and in the overture, were on the money, but the string sound was often ragged. Too many early entrances (timpani, trumpet) and flubbed notes contributed to the sense of general confusion, in spite of Walker's best attempts to wade through all that music at the podium.

Hopefully, things will be in better shape for the second performance of Washington Concert Opera, featuring Donizetti's La Favorite, starring Ionarts favorite Kate Lindsey (March 4, 2016).


CD Review: For Bunita Marcus

available at Amazon
M. Feldman, For Bunita Marcus, I. Ilić

(released on October 23, 2015)
Paraty 135205 | 68'02"
Charles T. Downey, CD reviews: Muti presents Berlioz; Ilic explores Feldman
Washington Post, November 22
Ivan Ilić, a Serbian-American pianist living in Paris, records on a small label and chooses unusual repertory. A release last year, “The Transcendentalist,” brought together music by Alexander Scriabin, Morton Feldman and John Cage around the influence of the Transcendentalist authors of New England. That disc was the first part of a trilogy devoted to Feldman’s music, a set completed by his latest release, a recording of Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus,” a 70-minute piano cycle completed in 1985, just two years before the American composer’s death.

“In my art,” Feldman said, “I feel myself dying very, very SLOWLY.” Listeners often have the same sensation... [Continue reading]
Ivan Ilić, piano
Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus

Bunita Marcus (Twitter: @bunitamuse)

Daniel Coombs, MORTON FELDMAN: For Bunita Marcus – Ivan Ilić, piano – Paraty (Audiophile Audition, October 18)

Andrew Clements, Feldman: For Bunita Marcus review – fluidity and impatience from pianist Ivan Ilić (The Guardian, October 8)


Perchance to Stream: Midwest Snow 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.

  • Watch the production of Jonathan Dove's opera The Monster in the Maze, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at last summer's Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. [ARTE]

  • Listen to Christian Thielemann conduct a performance of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel at the Wiener Staatsoper, starring Ileana Tonca (Gretel) and Daniela Sindram (Hänsel). [ORF]

  • From the Grand Théâtre in Geneva, Marko Letonja conducts a performance of Cherubini's Médée with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, starring Alexandra Deshorties (Medea), Andrea Carè (Jason), and Sara Mingardo (Neris). [ABC Classic]

  • Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout join the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for music of Haydn and Mozart, two concerto plus a Haydn symphony, recorded at the Grand Théâtre de Provence. [France Musique]

  • Listen to Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Les Quatre Saisons performed by Les Paladins, under Jérôme Corréas. [France Musique]

  • La Fenice and Vox Luminis join forces to perform sacred music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, recorded this past June at the German Church in Stockholm. [RTBF]

  • A performance of Nielsen's Saul og David, starring Johan Reuter, Michael Kristensen, Ann Petersen, and Niels Jörgen Riis, with Michael Schönwand conducting at the Danish Royal Opera. [RTBF]

  • Rolando Villazon, Magdalena Kozena, and Toni Lehtipuu join Le Concert d'Astrée, under conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, for music of Claudio Monteverdi. [France Musique]

  • Watch a performance of Play and Play, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, recorded at La Maison de la Danse de Lyon. [ARTE]

  • Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong play a recital at the Wigmore Hall in London, recorded this past May. [RTBF]

  • Arias and duets by Verdi, Donizetti, Gounod, and Massenet, with Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon joining Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, recorded in 2006. [France Musique]

  • From the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, John Storgards leads the BBC Philharmonic in music by McCabe, Stravinsky, Turnage, Ives, and Antheil. [BBC3]

  • The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin plays a concert at the Conservatoire de Bruxelles, recorded this past October. [RTBF]

  • Riccardo Minasi and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra give the Australian premiere of forgotten gems from baroque Naples. [ABC Classic]

  • From a concert recorded in 2012, William Christie leads Les Arts Florissants in sacred music by Charpentier in the Chcpelle Royale du Château de Versailles. [France Musique]

  • Handel's Coronation Anthems and organ concertos, performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Laurence Cummings. [ORF]

  • Amaury Closel leads the Klangforum Wien in a program on avant-garde music in Weimar and Leningrad in the early 20th century, with music by Nikolai Roslavets, Nikolai Obukhovs, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, recorded last month in Vienna. [ORF]

  • Violinist David Grimal joins the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, for Berg's violin concerto, plus music of Webern and Brahms. [France Musique]

  • Soprano Graciela Gibelli joins Il Suonar Parlante and conductor Vittorio Ghielmi, recorded last May in the church of St. Oswald in Regensburg. [RTBF]

  • Maxime Pascal conducts the Orchestre National de Lille Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Maderna and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. [France Musique]

  • A recital by pianist Nikolai Lugansky, with music by Franck, Schubert, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky, recorded last month at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [ORF]

  • Watch Jean-Claude Casadesus lead a concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Orchestre National de Lille, including Mahler's second symphony. [ARTE]

  • Have another listen to Alice Coote's Handel recital, with Harry Bicket and The English Concert, recorded in September at the Proms. [ORF]

  • Clarinetist Paul Meyer joins the English Chamber Orchestra for music by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, recorded at the Bath Mozartfest. [BBC3]

  • Kirill Gerstein joins the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for music by Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski, conducted by Edward Gardner. [ORF]

  • Alain Altinoglu leads music of Saint-Saens and Fauré, with the Choeur de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France, recorded at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. [France Musique]

  • From 2013, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Sibelius, Adès, and Debussy, with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki and violinist Leila Josefowicz. [CSO]

  • Listen to the recording of Massenet's Le Cid, starring Placido Domingo (Rodrigo) and Grace Bumbry (Chimene), conducted by Eve Queler at the Metropolian Opera in 1976. [ORF]


Second Opinion: Bělohlávek Brings Martinů

available at Amazon
Martinů, Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek
(Onyx, 2011)

available at Amazon
Mozart, "Prague" Symphony, Prague Philharmonia, J. Bělohlávek
(Supraphon, 2003)
For a National Symphony Orchestra program concluding with Beethoven's evergreen "Emperor" concerto, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was surprisingly undersold on Friday night. Your reviewer was the only soul in Row T on the left side of the auditorium, and mine was not the only such row. The Beethoven was also the debut of Igor Levit, a pianist still in his 20s who has garnered unreserved praise from Alex Ross among others. Levit had to cancel his Washington recital debut this past May, an event that might have brought more attention: even so, it was somewhat surprising to see such a low turnout, especially with Mozart's always popular "Prague" symphony as a concert opener. Surely, the unfamiliar name of Bohuslav Martinů, whose sixth symphony the NSO played for the first time, could not have turned people off?

Martinů is an Ionarts favorite, an undervalued composer whose music we wish we heard far more often in performance. Günther Herbig was the last conductor we heard lead the sixth symphony, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Bělohlávek, though, is a Martinů specialist, and he expertly guided the NSO musicians through the piece: the growls and murmurs and endless color variations the composer creates with the large orchestra, but with the focus on long-lined melodies that soar atop the chaos of fantasy. If Martinů indeed had in mind a reference to Berlioz -- he reportedly thought of subtitling the work "Nouvelle symphonie fantastique" before settling on "Fantaisies symphoniques" -- then the idée fixe was likely the obsessively stated half-step motif that runs through the work, opposed to a more tender second theme in the first movement, ornamented with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Other obsessions, perhaps, are expressed in the buzzing second movement, tinged with more biting dissonant edges, repeated chords and notes, and almost Shostakovich-like turns toward militarism. The idea of a series of symphonic fantasies, as the subtitle puts it, is expressed in an endless range of exotic colors, ending in a third movement that opens with and returns to an intense funeral march or a sort of elegy. The piece fascinates, and this performance was gripping.

Other Reviews:

Robert R. Reilly, Jiří Bělohlávek and the NSO (Ionarts, November 20)

Anne Midgette, Czech guest conductor leads pianist Igor Levit in strong debut at NSO (Washington Post, November 20)

David Rohde, The National Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Pianist Igor Levit (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 20)
Bělohlávek seemed to have chosen Mozart's "Prague" symphony by way of contrast, reducing the NSO strings to a size similar to that of the Prague Philharmonia, the chamber orchestra he founded in the 1990s. While the NSO did not always seem to be right in synch with Bělohlávek's gestures, leading to some sloppy articulations in the violins, the result was a rarefied sound, controlled and soft. Articulations were often clean and detached, giving a graceful lilt, and he brought out as many inner contrapuntal details as he could, even at loud dynamics. The musicians also seemed to struggle with Bělohlávek's subdivided tempo in the second movement, which he kept trying to keep from bogging down too much in rubato, but the delicacy of the performance, with filigree clarity, was a pleasure to hear. The third movement, taken on the breakneck side of Presto, was equally graceful, especially the percolating woodwind sections.

Little about Levit's performance in the Beethoven seemed to justify the raptures he has received from other critics. There were certainly no technical complaints, as he opened the piece with those swirling cadenzas, and the third movement was assured and clean, although something about his playing was perhaps too well-behaved. He took some of the softer moments with a music-box, tinkling approach, savoring the first hints of the finale's main theme as he transitioned into the third movement, for example. At the same time, many of those moments felt etiolated more than anything else, the attempt to make them special falling flat. Levit is a musician to keep an ear on, to be sure, but this was not his finest hour.

This concert repeats this evening.

Apollo's Fire @ LoC

available at Amazon
The Power of Love (Handel, opera arias), A. Forsythe, Apollo's Fire, J. Sorrell
(Avie Records, 2015)
Charles T. Downey, Cleveland’s Apollo’s Fire short of greatness
Washington Post, November 21
How do historically informed performance ensembles from the U.S. stack up against those in other countries? On Thursday night, the 90th anniversary season of the Library of Congress’s free concert series offered the chance to hear a leading American ensemble, Apollo’s Fire from Cleveland, in the same month as the renowned international group Bach Collegium Japan. While this concert was certainly good, the American ensemble fell shy of the greatness heard earlier in the month.

This program was at least a marked improvement over the last Washington appearance by Apollo’s Fire, in 2009... [Continue reading]
Apollo's Fire
With Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Library of Congress

Aaron Keebaugh, Amanda Forsythe shines with Apollo’s Fire (Boston Classical Review, November 21)

David Schulenberg, Glowing Orb Shone Brilliantly (Boston Musical Intelligencer, November 21)

Mark Satola, Apollo's Fire lavishes delights with 'Beowulf' and tour preview double-header (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 16)

Charles T. Downey, Apollo's Fire Has Fuel, Does Not Ignite (Ionarts, November 11, 2009)


Jiří Bělohlávek and the NSO

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

available at Amazon
Martinů, Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek
(Onyx, 2011)
I came for the Bohuslav Martinů, heard it, and was conquered. I apologize for the campy gloss on Julius Caesar’s famous "Veni, vidi, vici," but I needed to say something special about what turns out to be the National Symphony Orchestra's debut of Martinů’s Sixth Symphony, Fantaisies symphoniques. I like to think that Washington, D.C., is not a provincial place, but then how is it that the NSO had not played this 1955 composition until the evening of November 19, 2015, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall? No matter, it was worth the 60-year wait, because this is a brilliantly fantastical piece of music.

World War II drove Martinů from Europe to America, where he undertook, after the age of 50, the composition of his six symphonies. He largely shed the Baroque forms and sewing machine music that he had indulged in earlier, and let his inspiration find its own unique shape from the Moravian melodies he used and the extraordinary kaleidoscopic colors he drew from the orchestra. In the mid-1940s, Martinů told his biographer, “From now on, I’m going in for fantasy.” And he did. It is quite difficult to describe exactly how Martinů’s best music from this period, like the Sixth, works. Not even he knew. Concerning the Fantaisies Symphoniques, he said: “Something holds it together, I don’t know what, but it has a single line and I have expressed something in it -- the future will show.”

Like his countrymen Leos Janáček’s, Martinů’s music seems to function by building up large mosaics of fragmentary, repetitive motifs. Short motivic phrases are relentlessly repeated out of sheer excitement or to create tension. Martinů uses accelerating rhythms and rising volume of sound to propel his abbreviated motifs in a scalar ascent, at the top of which a melody erupts and sweeps all before it. Out of the swirling strings and gurgling winds, a broader theme invariably arises. These melodic moments provide both relief from the tense buildups and exhilaration at their resolution. One perceptive critic noted that “no matter how rhythmic Martinů tries to be, lyricism keeps breaking through.”

Making up for lost time, the NSO engaged Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, an acclaimed specialist in Martinů’s music (Complete Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra -- Onyx 4061), to bring us the Sixth. This symphony must snap, crackle, and soar to work. It did under Bělohlávek’s direction. Martinů created what sounds at times like the musical equivalent of a beehive -- the music swarms and buzzes with great excitement, and then gets whacked, usually by the timpani. These alarming moments were perfectly captured, but so was the singing lyricism. Because this music is so inimitably idiosyncratic, I was delighted to hear how well the NSO was able to play it in its first time out. It admirably met the challenge, and I’m sure will only improve in the next two performances. All sections of the orchestra did well in this kaleidoscopic music, with special moments for the first violin and principal clarinet. I also have to say the timpanists did an excellent job in contributing to Martinů’s shimmering sound.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Czech guest conductor leads pianist Igor Levit in strong debut at NSO (Washington Post, November 20)

David Rohde, The National Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Pianist Igor Levit (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 20)
Suitably enough for a conductor born in Prague, Bělohlávek began the evening with Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony No. 38. Bělohlávek took a relaxed approach to the music. On an interpretive scale going from the jittery, driven approach of Charles Mackerras to the mellow operatic approach of Josef Krips, Bělohlávek clearly favored the latter. Some might have found it a bit lacking in spirit, but it did give the opportunity to savor the inner voices.

After intermission, pianist Igor Levit joined the NSO to play Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. I cannot say I was thrilled with this programming. Couldn’t we have heard more Prague music, for instance, one of Martinů’s sadly neglected piano concertos? I admit that only the greatest playing could’ve captured my attention for another Fifth. There is nothing wrong with what I heard, except for the soloist and orchestra occasionally being out of sync with each other, but I was not mesmerized until halfway through the second movement, and then suitably energized. However, the combination of power and poetry that characterizes the very greatest performances of this great music was not quite there, notwithstanding the standing ovation.

In any case, go for the Martinů. By itself, it’s very much worth it, and it might be another 60 years before you get another chance.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow.


Anne Sofie von Otter @ LoC

available at Amazon
Sogno barocco, A. S. von Otter, S. Piau, S. Sundberg, Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea, L. García Alarcón

(released on August 28, 2012)
Naïve V 5286 | 71'
As noted yesterday, Anne Sofie von Otter is a versatile singer; but maybe not able to do everything. Her recital at the Library of Congress on Tuesday night, in a packed Coolidge Auditorium, had some high points, but it raised eyebrows, too, and not just mine. Her renditions of John Dowland's pearl-like lute songs came nowhere near the artful grace of Iestyn Davies in his Dowland recital, when he also partnered with lutenist Thomas Dunford last year. There were moments of vocal strain, probably related to being at the end of an American tour with this program, which exposes Otter's voice at the top in not always pleasant ways. The instrumentalists, Dunford on theorbo and Jonathan Cohen on harpsichord and organ, even got into the act, singing the part-song versions of some of the pieces, in a way that recalled Sting's excursion into Dowland territory a few years ago. This added a certain roughneck charm on Dowland's Fine knacks for ladies, with its wares-hawking text rendered in a street vendor's broad accent.

The later Baroque selections often suited von Otter's voice better, except for when some odd musical characterization drove her to excess, as in the shivering repetitions of Purcell's What Power Art Thou from King Arthur. The composer's more conventional pieces, like Music for a While and especially Venus's Fairest Isle, also from King Arthur, were lovely. At least a partial reason for von Otter's choice of repertory seemed to be based on the oddity of some pieces, beginning with Francesco Provenzale's cantata Squarciato appena havea, which interpolates Neapolitan street ballads, of extremely low, even ribald content, into an artful lament by the Queen of Sweden Maria Eleonora over her dead husband. Recorded on her Sogno barocco album, it is a truly weird piece, and von Otter brought out all its eccentricities, reaching for a tambourine and other percussion instruments to heighten the shift between learned and popular.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Anne Sofie von Otter has chosen to be a singer who is expressive, not excessive (Washington Post, November 19)

James R. Oestreich, Review: The Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter at the Frick Collection (New York Times, November 15)

David Patrick Stearns, Anne Sofie von Otter at the Perelman: Warm, expansive, charismatic (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 13)
Dunford's solo contributions were some of the best parts of this concert, especially a heartfelt performance of Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan, the instrumental version of his wrenching song Flow My Tears. It reduced me to tears, an unspoken tribute to the victims of the Paris terror attacks the previous Friday, something that Dunford did not need to say aloud. His version of Robert de Visée's D Minor Chaconne was equally touching, a nice connection to the theme of ground bass tunes in the French part of the program -- including Michel Lambert's Vos mespris chaque jour, composed on the same bass pattern as Monteverdi's famous Pur ti miro from L'incoronazione di Poppea. While Cohen provided beautiful continuo playing, his solo pieces, composed for harpsichord by Couperin (Les barricades misterieuses) and Rameau (Les sauvages) became slightly odd with accompanying parts improvised by Dunford on theorbo.

One of the highlights was an austere rendition of Arvo Pärt's My Heart's in the Highlands, from 2000, which introduced a concluding section of recent popular songs (not reviewed). Pärt's original organ part was here split between Cohen playing the longer notes on the Baroque organ and Dunford taking the arpeggiated notes on theorbo. In a twelve-measure pattern, with four measures of the voice declaiming the text on a single note followed by eight bars of instruments alone, the piece has a mesmerizing quality and the combination of these three musicians created a sense of timeless stasis. Since my family's trip this past summer to see where our Downey ancestors came from in Scotland, this poem by Robert Burns and this musical setting have greater meaning for me.

The Library of Congress's 90th anniversary season continues this evening with a concert by Apollo's Fire, the Baroque ensemble based in Cleveland, and soprano Amanda Forsythe (November 19, 8 pm).


Briefly Noted: Von Otter's Baroque Dream

available at Amazon
Sogno barocco, A. S. von Otter, S. Piau, S. Sundberg, Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea, L. García Alarcón

(released on August 28, 2012)
Naïve V 5286 | 71'
Anne Sofie von Otter is a versatile singer. She was an asset to an otherwise mixed performance of Mahler's third symphony with the National Symphony Orchestra earlier this month. She returns to Washington this evening in an entirely different repertory, lute songs and Baroque pieces with Thomas Dunford and Jonathan Cohen, at the Library of Congress (November 17, 8 pm). This is the same selection of music she has performed earlier this week, at the Frick Collection and in Philadelphia. Apart from an ill-advised set of songs by Simon and Garfunkel, it will hopefully have an effect similar to that heard from Iestyn Davies when he partnered with Thomas Dunford last year.

By way of introduction, revisiting von Otter's rather lovely recital disc of Baroque duets and solos with Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea is a listening pleasure. Von Otter has previous credentials in Monteverdi, and here she has three exquisite duets with the equally delectable soprano Sandrine Piau, two from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and one from Cavalli's La Calisto. The famous duet from the former, Pur ti miro, is almost certainly not originally by Monteverdi, but this is a rendition to be treasured. Von Otter is also beautifully matched with contralto Susanna Sundberg in another Monteverdi duet, "Di miseria regina" from Il ritorno d'Ulisse. Von Otter has the musicality and care with diction to hold interest in the long recitative solos by Cavalli and Luigi Rossi. On the instrumental side, Leonardo García Alarcón's forces are all in top form, with especially gorgeous work by Gustavo Gargiulo.