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Hindemith's Ballet Music

Of all the things one might associate with the name of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), ballet is likely not the first thing that leaps to mind. Only one of his ballets remains somewhat well known, The Four Temperaments, commissioned by George Balanchine and premiered by New York City Ballet in 1946, and it remains in the repertory of NYCB and of Sarasota Ballet, among others. Before that work, Hindemith composed music for a couple of experimental ballets in Germany, beginning with the odd yet wonderful Triadisches Ballett (Stuttgart, 1922), a ground-breaking abstract ballet, set in visual and musical sets of three (thus, triadic ballet). As seen in the film made a few years after the premiere, the dancers performed in bulky, geometric costumes, designed by Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus, that made them look like marionettes against brightly colored backdrops. The following year Hindemith composed a daring score for Der Dämon (Darmstadt, 1923), set to a disturbing scenario by Max Krell about a sadomasochistic demon that subjugates two sisters.

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Nobilissima Visione (complete ballet), Seattle Symphony, G. Schwarz

(released on July 8, 2014)
Naxos 8.572763 | 58'24"
Around the same time as Hindemith finished his opera Mathis der Maler, he received a commission for a ballet from Léonide Massine, which eventually became Nobilissima Visione (London, 1938; with one subsequent performance at the Metropolitan Opera). Like Mathis, the ballet was inspired by art, in this case Giotto's frescoes on the life of St. Francis of Assisi in the Bardi Chapel, in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, which Hindemith visited in 1937. He suggested the life of St. Francis to Massine, who was hesitant but eventually accepted; though Massine ended up dancing the role of Francis, he ultimately decided that the score was not really a ballet. Hindemith made a three-movement suite of music excerpted from the ballet, which has had great success on concert programs, but this new disc by the Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz is the first recording of the complete ballet score.

The ballet sets many of the famous episodes from the life of the Poverello of Assisi, beginning with the saint's love of troubadour songs, for which Hindemith incorporates the 13th-century song Ce fut en mai (It was in May), weaving into later parts of the score. Working as a cloth seller for his father, he gives everything he has to a beggar in Assisi, and then pursues a career in the military. He has a vision of three women, representing Humility, Chastity, and Poverty, which causes his change of heart so that he loses all interest in his friends' feasting. He meditates on the message he receives from the icon crucifix in the church of San Damiano, in which Christ told Francis to rebuild his church, and convinces a wolf to stop attacking people in the town of Gubbio, here charming it by pretending to play a violin using two sticks. He celebrates his mystical marriage to Lady Poverty, and the work ends with a movement evoking the composition of the Canticle of the Animals, set as a passacaglia on a six-measure ground bass. Schwarz and his musicians turn in a fine reading of this fascinating score, paired with the Five Pieces for String Orchestra (op. 44/4), although it would be even better to see Massine's choreography with it.

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Hérodiade (complete ballet), Inscape, R. Scerbo

[digital only]
(released on June 24, 2014)
Dorian SL-D-97202 | 20'36"
After Hindemith emigrated to the United States, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned another ballet score from Hindemith, which became Hérodiade, premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944, with Martha Graham dancing the title role. (Get just a taste of Graham's performance as the mother of Salome in the video embedded below.) The score is closely based on Stéphane Mallarmé's dialogue poem, consisting largely of a conversation between Hérodiade and a nurse. Mallarmé labored on the poem for over thirty years but would never complete it. He was still working on the poem when Oscar Wilde published his play Salomé, an act widely criticized as a betrayal of Mallarmé, whose poem he knew. Hindemith scored the ballet for piano, string quintet, and wind quintet, using an unusual system of musical declamation for the instruments, in a way, to "speak" the words. Although the lines of the Mallarmé poem are spoken on top of the music in some performances, Inscape's version leaves the words out altogether, although they remain embedded in Hindemith's music and can still, in a sense, be "heard." While not perhaps a standout, this is a worthy follow-up to Inscape's debut CD last year.


Briefly Noted: Il Diario di Chiara

available at Amazon
Il diario di Chiara, Europa Galante, F. Biondi

(released on February 25, 2014)
Glossa GCD923401 | 72'30"
The Pio Ospedale della Pietà was a rather famous charitable institution in Venice, which took in abandoned children. More than an orphanage, it also provided the girls who chose to stay there a place to live and work, in a sense, as professional musicians or in other occupations. It remains so famous because of the music composed for the girls there to perform, not least by Antonio Vivaldi, who was employed there as chaplain for a part of his career. One of the girls at La Pietà was named Chiara (or Chiaretta), taken in in 1718, when she was two months old, and she became an excellent violinist, trained by one of Vivaldi's students. This new disc from Fabio Biondi and his historically informed performance ensemble, Europa Galante -- their first on the Glossa label -- includes concertos composed for Chiara and pieces that she played in the orchestra at La Pietà. The selection is based on the copies of scores collected together by Chiara herself, a document that is still preserved in the archives of La Pietà.

Biondi takes the solo parts, on both violin and viola d'amore, both of which Chiara mastered, as well as making revised versions of the scores, including reworking a Vivaldi oboe concerto for violin (F Major, RV 457). Particularly fine discoveries on this disc include a sinfonia da camera (G major, op. 2/1, two movements only) by Nicola Porpora, who was based in Venice in the late 1720s, and two concertos dedicated to Chiara, both by Antonio Martinelli (c. 1702-1782), a cellist and composer disciple of Vivaldi's. The playing of Europa Galante is vital and at times slightly sharp and edgy, with Biondi's tone becoming harsh and not quite accurate at fast speeds, but the disc offers an intriguing glimpse inside the life of La Pietà, beyond just the usual connection with Vivaldi. (The disc comes with a bonus DVD, not reviewed, a documentary by Lucrezia Le Moli that explains the story of Chiara and includes footage with the musicians.)


Briefly Noted: San Marco Vespers

available at Amazon
Vespri solenni per la festa di San Marco, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini

(released on August 26, 2014)
Naïve OP30557 | 79'34"
Rinaldo Alessandrini has led his historically informed performance ensemble, Concerto Italiano, in fine performances of large swaths of Claudio Monteverdi's music, including Orfeo, the madrigals, and the monumental 1610 Vespers. For the group's 30th anniversary, he has made an unusual recording that is both gorgeous and of musicological significance, if rather speculative in nature. Their new disc contains one possible reconstruction of a solemn Vespers service for the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, combining various pieces by Monteverdi from the 1610 Vespers, which represents the fruit of Monteverdi's work in Mantua, and especially from the Selva morale e spirituale, a compilation of pieces made for the forces and acoustic space of San Marco, as well as one of his motet collections. One eight-part canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli and plainchant antiphons and responses from a 17th-century source of the San Marco liturgy make an appropriate nod to the glorious past of the basilica.

The only shortcoming of this reconstruction is that it was not recorded in San Marco itself, not available to the performers "for obvious reasons," according to Alessandrini's program essay. Whatever those obvious reasons may have been, the substitute space, the palatine basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua, has a gorgeous acoustic. Monteverdi's music, which trades on rapid alternations between loud and soft dynamics, full and spare textures, is captured in crisp sound, with the full blossom of those magnificent "concerto" combinations of instruments and singers. Only occasionally does Alessandrini's tendency toward extremely fast tempi trip up his singers in their melismatic passages. In physical release, the disc comes with a DVD (not reviewed) of a movie about Alessandrini's work with Concerto Italiano, directed by Claudio Rufa.


Perchance to Stream: Gaudent Angeli 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, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • From the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence last month, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble perform Rameau's Les Boréades, starring soprano Julie Fuchs. [France Musique]

  • Listen to another Rameau opera, Castor et Pollux, performed in Montpellier, with Raphaël Pichon conducting the Pygmalion Ensemble, starring Colin Ainsworth, Florian Sempey, and Emmanuelle de Negri. [RTBF]

  • Kirill Petrenko conducts Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival, starring Johan Botha, Wolfgang Koch, and Anja Kampe. [France Musique]

  • Listen to a performance of Schubert's opera Fierrabras from the Salzburg Festival, with Ingo Metzmacher conducting Julia Kleither, Michael Schade, Dorothea Röschmann, and others. [ORF]

  • From the Salzburg Festival, watch Daniele Gatti conduct Verdi's Il Trovatore, in a production directed by Alvis Hermanis and starring Anna Netrebko, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Francesco Meli, and Plácido Domingo. []

  • Bernard Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Schubert's fifth symphony and Mahler's fourth symphony. [BBC Proms]

  • Listen to the world premiere of a piece for soprano and orchestra by Manfred Trojahn, Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit, wtih soprano Marlis Petersen, recorded at the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmish in June. [BR-Klassik]


Briefly Noted: Jonathan Dove Song Cycles

available at Amazon
J. Dove, Song Cycles, C. Booth, P. Bardon, N. Spence, A. Matthews-Owen

(released on August 12, 2014)
Naxos 8.573080 | 70'40"
Jonathan Dove is an English composer, specializing in music for voices, with a side career making slimmed-down versions of large operas, most famously, Wagner's Ring Cycle. His music is not performed around here all that often, but we have admired his operas Flight and Tobias and the Angel. This new release brings together four of his song cycles, all previously unknown to me and all worth getting to know. Out of Winter (2003) sets poetry by the late tenor (and accomplished writer) Robert Tear, with themes of late-life regret and the insignificance of human life in the grand sweep of time. Britten-style tenor Nicky Spence, a young singer from Scotland, sings it with bittersweet sincerity. In Cut My Shadow (2011), to brutal poetry of Federico García Lorca translated into English by Gwynne Edwards, Dove uses an accompaniment that mimics the sound of strummed guitar and the rhythms of castanets. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon gives the cutting melodic line a bristling energy, sometimes a little too much, and Andrew Matthews-Owen provides sensitive support at the piano.

Ariel (1998) is the only one of these four cycles that is not receiving its first recording, with texts by Shakespeare drawn from The Tempest, both song texts and spoken lines. Soprano Claire Booth acquits herself well, with just a few signs of scratchy weakness along the way, with no piano to help cover, for the songs have no accompaniment. Dove includes some interesting effects, like the sound of whistling wind or the crash of waves on the shore (a "Shhhhh" noise made by the singer), which appears throughout the cycle, and a big, gulping breath before the line "I drink the air before me" in the last song. The voice bubbles along on its own, seeming to flit mindlessly from thought to unrelated thought, most mesmerizing in the third song, a vocalise on the vowel 'O', which casts a spell. All You Who Sleep Tonight (1996), also sung by Bardon, uses poetry by Vikram Seth, much of it witty epigrams in sing-songy quatrain form. Dove makes them into pleasing miniatures, with a substantial but not overpowering whiff of Broadway and a conclusion that is both tragic and reaffirming.


Classical Music Agenda (October 2014)

The classical music season in Washington gets fully under way in the month of October, meaning that there are definitely more than ten performances on my calendar. Here are the Top Ten that you definitely do not want to miss. The rest of the calendar follows after the jump.

Opera Lafayette returns to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Its staging of Les Fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour (The Celebrations of Marriage and Love, or the Gods of Egypt), the last of Rameau's large-scale opéras-ballets to be revived in the modern era (October 6, 7:30 pm). The dances of the Egyptians, Amazons, and the gods of the Nile will be performed by dancers from the New York Baroque Dance Company, Kalanidhi Dance, and Seán Curran Company.

One of my favorite tenors, Mark Padmore, will give a song recital with pianist Jonathan Biss at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park (October 10, 8 pm). The program features the op. 24 Liederkreis and op. 90 Sechs Gedichte und Requiem by Robert Schumann, Tippett's Boyhood’s End, and Fauré's La Bonne Chanson.

The Choir of Westminster Abbey comes to Washington for the British Choirs Festival at Washington National Cathedral (October 22, 7:30 pm), a space made for a group like them.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made quite an impression a few years ago, as a young singer with Wolf Trap Opera and Santa Fe Opera. Having won the Marian Anderson Award, Opera International’s Young Artist Award, and the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, her star is on the rise, and she returns to the Barns at Wolf Trap for a recital with Wolf Trap Opera's general director Kim Pensinger Witman at the piano (October 24, 8 pm). The program will include songs and Lee Hoiby’s comic chamber opera Bon Appétit.

The Dover Quartet swept all the prizes at the Banff String Quartet Competition in 2013, and we were the only media outfit to cover their concert in Washington last year. The group returns for a Fortas Chamber Music concert in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (October 8, 7:30 pm). The program includes Glazunov's Five Novelettes, Mozart's Hoffmeister Quartet, and Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet.

The new piece we most want to hear this season, so far, is Serbian-born Aleksandra Vrebalov's Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, to be given its world premiere by the Kronos Quartet as part of its residency at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park (October 25, 8 pm). The score incorporates music by Bartók and Byzantine hymns, as well as live music, all to accompany a film by Bill Morrison, to mark the centenary of World War I.

When pianist Adam Laloum (pictured) won the Clara Haskil Competition in 2009, we wondered when we would be able to hear him play live. We have a chance when he plays a recital at the Phillips Collection (October 26, 4 pm).

We have reviewed the Belcea Quartet all over the world, including here in Washington. They return to the area for a recital at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (October 26, 5:30 pm), where they were last in 2009, playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Pianist Angela Hewitt comes to Washington in October, to play Mozart's 22nd piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra (October 9 to 11). Conductor David Zinman, whose time with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra we remember so fondly and who has just stepped down from the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, also leads Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra.

Let me not sound like Doktor Döhring, the thorn in Richard Strauss's side, and heartily recommend the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concerts at the end of the month (October 23 in Baltimore, October 26 at Strathmore), combining Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, Scriabin's Poème de l'extase, and Christopher Rouse's Rapture.

The rest of the calendar follows after the jump.


Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 9 )
Anton Bruckner Cycle • Bruckner IX

Philharmonia Orchestra 1 • Dohnányi • Camilla Tilling

Phully Harmonias

Above and below pictures (details) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Click for the whole picture.

With the Te Deum being out of the running already, at this year’s Salzburg Festival, the program of the Philharmonia Orchestra (that most consistently excellent of London’s orchestras) was stuffed with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. That work, too, goes into the direction of lachrymose farewell, granted, but programmed ahead of the Bruckner it’s not bound to color the appreciation of the Symphony. And it’s an ever appreciated—anniversary or not—gorgeous nod to Strauss.

Behind the wheel of the Philharmonia on Thursday, August 7th, was their former Principal Conductor and now “Honorary Conductor for Life”, Christoph von Dohnányi. The orchestra had performed the piece a few times before heading to Salzburg with it… but that was with Eva-Maria Westbroek who had to cancel her Festival appearance. In place of her Dutch colleague, Swede Camilla Tilling filled in, and how! Soaring, not so much with ease as with drama, she rose above the orchestra which supported her with ever right dynamic shadings to a musical and malleable whole. The orchestral warmth, the honed ensemble playing provided a down-right feathery bed of sounds for Camilla Tilling, who was dressed—obviously!—to catch men’s eyes. It complemented her voice, neither of the very powerful, nor the thin-and-cutting type, very well. If it didn’t sound so darn obvious, it’d say it was a very soprano-ish interpretation, and certainly a wonderfully moving one. Now if the text had been made to be understood a little more easily, too, there wouldn’t have been any quibbling possible at all.

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, "Nachtviolen"
C.v.Dohnányi / Cleveland
For all of Tilling’s splendor, she very nearly got outshone by the concert master’s solo in “Beim Schlafengehen”. That challenging part was not just spot on, accurate and with perfect intonation (one always hopes for that, but usually with gritted teeth of doubtful anticipation), but with such longing and such soulful expression and on top of that with a darkly veneered tone to match that it simply could not have been bettered.

Then for Bruckner:

Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 13 )
Der Rosenkavalier • Richard Strauss

Der Rosenkavalier • Richard Strauss

A Rosenkavalier for all Tastes

Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival © Monika Rittershaus. Click on details to see entire picture.

There’s a buzz at big-ticket opera productions at the Salzburg Festival that you don’t have at concerts, even where the latter sell out. A whiff of excitement is in the air, the dresses are fancier, the hair whiter, and the pleasing feeling of partaking in event abounds. And then there’s even music to listen to, while enjoying the subtle, cultural celebration of one self! Harry Kupfer’s Rosenkavalier is perfect for all that this year: It’s generously cast, well played, and the production itself a brilliant—which is to say functional—compromise between those who are into a bit of good old fashioned costume drama and those who get dust-allergies at the sight of reactionary efforts from yesteryear.

The production relies on gorgeous, vast photo-projections on the wide backdrop of the Grosses Festspielhaus that shows pictures (architectural exteriors and interiors, often drained of color; scenes in the park, near a Heuriger…) in front of which individual props smoothly move about laterally on several lanes: At first the assemblage of mirror, bed, door, decorative amphora & candelabra et al. looked as though it might have been pilfered from Cosí, Otello, Tosca, and I vespri siciliani productions, respectively, but blended in soon enough. Everything fit into the Rosenkavalier time-period from the pre-War years: The Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture in Herr von Faninal’s city palace, the costumes, ditto the car in which Faninal and the Feldmarschallin drove off leaving Sophie and Octavian behind… All very pretty, yet never dusty.

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, "Nachtviolen"
C.Gerhaher & G.Huber

The result was a hands-off approach that relied on the acting of the singers, which was splendid, indeed. Krassimira Stoyanova, in her debut as Feldmarschallin, was all regal warmth, dignified sensuality, and gracious sadness. Sophie Koch was the expectedly fine Octavian—not a surprise, because she’s owned that part for years now (on stage, in concert, on DVD…). But she might have benefited from toning it down just a little further: her fidgety and high-energy flippancy didn’t always make sense in the context of the subdued or shy realism of the others. Not the least Mojca Erdmann’s, who was heartwarmingly lovely and believably innocent-curious-understanding as Sophie. She’s such a slip of a thing, even English critics would


Briefly Noted: Latest from Stile Antico

available at Amazon
The Phoenix Rising, Stile Antico

(released on August 13, 2013)
HMU 807582 | 74'18"

available at Amazon
From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg, Stile Antico

(released on September 9, 2014)
HMU 807595 | 71'07"
British choir Stile Antico, founded in 2001, has become the young vanguard for Renaissance polyphony in my ears, alongside the more established Tallis Scholars. Their recordings and their live performances -- in Washington, in 2011 and 2013 -- have both justified this admiration. Both of their most recent discs show perhaps a minor few cracks in the foundation (some tremulous sounds in the sopranos, some wobbles here and there, some intonation infelicities) but are on the whole rewarding listening.

Last year's The Phoenix Rising was offered in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Carnegie UK Trust, which funded the publication of the Denkmäler, that is, monumental edition, Tudor Church Music. For many composers featured on the disc -- Byrd, Gibbons, Morley, Tallis, Taverner, all so beautifully recorded by Stile Antico over the years -- TCM was the first edition in modern notation available to choral singers, sparking the Renaissance of English Renaissance church music. Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, with its smoldering Agnus Dei, provides the foundation for a selection of motets, including gorgeous renditions of Byrd's evergreen Ave verum corpus and Robert White's extraordinary alternatim Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies.

From the Imperial Court, set to be released next month, brings together the music of composers in the employ of Maximilian I and other Hapsburg emperors, including Josquin Desprez, Heinrich Isaac, Pierre de la Rue, Ludwig Senfl, Thomas Crecquillon, and others. The works chosen reveal some intriguing historical moments in the Hapsburg family (these are largely pieces that cannot be sung in a liturgical context), like Isaac's Virgo prudentissima (composed for the Reichstag in 1507, proclaiming Maximilian I as Holy Roman Emperor, with text and music making a nifty parallel between the new words and the cantus firmus at the words "electa ut sol") and Crecquillon's Andreas Christi famulus (probably for a meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose patron was St. Andrew). There are delightful discoveries to be made, too, including Gombert's six-voice augmentation of Josquin's Mille regretz (alongside the original) and Clemens non Papa's Carole magnus eras.


Classical Music Agenda (September 2014)

Hopefully you have marked your calendar with the twenty-five concerts picked in our season preview. Now in the Classical Music Agenda we list the ten concerts we want to hear in each month. Here is September.

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Hérodiade, Inscape
As part of the season-opening festivites at the Clarice Smith Center, Inscape Chamber Orchestra gives a free concert (September 12, 9 pm). The program includes Hindemith's ballet score Hérodiade, based on the dialogue poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, which the group recorded for a recent release.

The three pianists of the Verge Ensemble -- Jenny Lin, Lura Johnson, and Audrey Andrist -- give a free concert on the Steinway Series at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (September 14, 3 pm), with solo pieces by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Scriabin, plus Rachmaninoff’s Valse and Romance for piano, six hands, and a transcription of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps for piano, four hands.

Pianist Brian Ganz offers his latest recital at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville (September 14, 7:30 pm). The program combines two Beethoven sonatas (opp. 13 and 109), and a selection of pieces by Debussy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I write program notes for this venue's concert series, but that is not the reason that I selected this recital.)

Like clockwork, every eight years, pianist Hélène Grimaud returns to Baltimore to give a recital at Shriver Hall (September 21, 5:30 pm). Her program includes music by Liszt, Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, and Albéniz.

For your early music fix, we recommend the first program from the Folger Consort (September 26 to 28). With assistance from tenor James Taylor and Arcadia Viols, the theme is Music and Patronage in Shakespeare's England, including dance music by John Dowland and lute songs from the period.

Steven Lin may not have won the Kapell Competition two years ago, but he was the favorite of many in the audience. The young pianist gets a recital sponsored by Washington Performing Arts next month (September 27, 2 pm) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

available at Amazon
D. Catán, Florencia en el Amazonas, Houston Grand Opera
Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Colombia, died this spring, but his influence can be felt in Florencia en el Amazonas, the ground-breaking opera by Daniel Catán from 1996. Produced in 2010 by Maryland Opera Studio, this opera about an opera singer's voyage down the Amazon will star the powerful soprano Christine Goerke in the production from Washington National Opera (September 20 to 28) in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Olga Peretyatko and Kate Lindsey will sing the leads in the performance of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi by the Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University (September 28, 6 pm).

Both of the subscription concerts from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make my list this month. Marin Alsop conducts Mahler's fourth symphony (September 18 at Strathmore, September 19 and 21 in Baltimore), with soprano Tamara Wilson singing the Wunderhorn song movement. Hilary Hahn will also be on hand to play Beethoven's violin concerto on the first half. The following week, violinist James Ehnes will play Korngold's violin concerto (September 27 at Strathmore, September 26 and 28 in Baltimore), with Marin Alsop also conducting Rachmaninoff's first symphony and the BSO premiere of Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral, from 1999.

The rest of the calendar follows after the jump.


Wolf Trap Closes Season with Surreal Double-Bill

Mireille Asselin (Thérèse) in Les mamelles de Tirésias, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Teddy Wolff)

The gods of ancient Greece punished presumption. This was the theme, in a way, that united the double-bill of early 20th-century French opera that closed the season at Wolf Trap Opera, heard on Sunday afternoon. The eponymous sailor of Milhaud's Le pauvre matelot (1927), on a libretto by Jean Cocteau, is punished for returning home to his waiting wife but deceiving her -- not by the gods, but by his wife herself, unknowingly. Hera punished the prophet Tiresias by turning him into a woman, during which time he even gave birth to children before Hera turned him back. The story was reversed and updated by Guillaume Apollinaire in his play Les mamelles de Tirésias, set as an opera by Poulenc in 1947, in which a wife named Thérèse proclaims her feminist independence and is turned into a man.

Apollinaire used a neologism to describe the tone of his play, "surréaliste," which he explained by adding that "if it is not newer than everything found under the sun, it has at least served to formulate no credo, no artistic and literary affirmation." The two operas form an odd pairing, but the musical styles of the two composers have something in common and one is left scratching one's head by both of them. Each opera also featured a soprano who is one of the company's major discoveries of the last couple years. Dramatic soprano Tracy Cox had a compelling turn as the sailor's wife, demonstrating a serious side that complemented her turn as Alice Ford in last year's Falstaff, both with a powerful instrument that is deployed with compelling pliancy and force. Lyric soprano Mireille Asselin, who was a fairy-light Nannetta in the same production last season, was equally fine in the role of Thérèse, created for Poulenc's soprano muse Denise Duval, taming the role's high-flying excesses with a comic edge that lightened the more incomprehensible parts of the story.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Wolf Trap Opera presents engaging French duo: Sailors and breasts (Washington Post, August 11)

---, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Festival launch unevenly but laudably on same weekend (Washington Post, June 29)

Charles T. Downey, 'Carmen' at Wolf Trap (Ionarts, July 29)
In the same category was the hilarious performance of baritone Tobias Greenhalgh as the husband in Les mamelles, who had both the extended high range for the role and the confidence and comic range to pull off singing much of the evening in drag. Tenor Robert Watson had the power side of the role of the sailor in Le pauvre matelot, if not quite the head voice needed at a few points. Norman Garrett and Ryan Speedo Green were effective as the sailor's father-in-law and friend, although further French pronunciation coaching is needed. Baritone Joo Won Kang was fun as both the theater director and the gendarme, and many of the company's studio artists filled out the rest of the cast.

Conductor Timothy Myers, whom we have reviewed at the Castleton Festival and at Wolf Trap before, had a good handle on both scores, although allowing the orchestra too much free rein in that some of the singers sometimes struggled to be heard. This was surprising in Les mamelles, since the performance did not use the complete orchestration, with only one of each woodwind, brass, and harp (a substantial and disappointing reduction, but necessary because of the constraints of the pit at the Barns -- hear the full effect in this performance from the Opéra de Lyon). The staging by Matthew Ozawa was minimal but caught something of the essence of each work, through simple means, like a white steel frame box that surrounded the sailor's wife in Le pauvre matelot, setting her off in her loneliness, and the two little pink balloons that floated out of Asselin's dress when Thérèse began her transformation in Les mamelles.

This performance will be repeated on August 16, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.


Perchance to Stream: Back to Santa Fe 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, press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • From the Festival de Saintes, Hervé Niquet leads Le Concert Spirituel in music by François Couperin, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Michel-Richard Delalande. [France Musique]

  • Wagner's Das Rheingold from the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Kirill Petrenko. [France Musique]

  • Also, a broadcast of Wagner's Tannhaüser from the Bayreuth Festival. [RTBF]

  • From the Salzburg Festival, listen to Verdi's Il Trovatore with Anna Netrebko and Plácido Domingo. [ORF]

  • Watch this season's production of Verdi's La Traviata from Glyndebourne, directed by Tom Cairns, with Mark Elder conducting the London Philharmonic and starring Venera Gimadieva and Michael Fabiano. [Glyndebourne]

  • Paul Agnew leads Les Arts Florissants in music of Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Cavalieri, recorded at the Festival du Haut-Jura. [RTBF]

  • Watch Sven-Eric Bechtolf's staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach at the Salzburg Festival. []

  • Listen to Verdi's Otello, performed at the Chorégies d'Orange, starring Inva Mula, Sophie Pondjiclis, and Roberto Alagna. [France Musique]

Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )
Camerata Salzburg • Thomas Zehetmair

Camerata Salzburg • Thomas Zehetmair

Genial Mozart and Casken Double Concerto

As I wrote about a Mozart-Matinee with Ingo Metzmacher from last year’s Salzburg Festival, “Mozart Serenades are all-in-one concerts: A march to open with, a symphony (the opening and three closing movements)… and a veritable violin concerto in between (movements 2-4).” That was meant to describe the Serenade No.5 in D, K.204, but it fits just as well to Mozart’s “Haffner-Serenade”*.

Mozart’s Serenades are really less suited to sitting quietly on chairs in a concert hall, and much more so for imbibing a good one or two of something zesty, while sitting on a bench, outside, or strolling in a moonlit garden. Those were the occasions the Serenades were composed for (in this case the wedding festivities of the sister of Sigmund Haffners Jr.), not for reverent and hushed straining of the ears in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall on Wednesday evening, August 6th. Happily, instead of turning into an elaborate tedium of prettiness, and even with everyone but conductor/violinist Thomas Zehetmair sitting down, it ended up a stand-up affair!

It was swift and spirited and simply very well played… The whole string section of the Camerata Salzburg was particularly fine: Together and on-the-front-of-the-foot phrasing. Notable, too, the rhythmic figures of the second violins in the first movement, the coy double bass playing, the oboe in the second Andante, the natural trumpets and flutes in the third Menuetto… Good stuff, all. Zehetmair’s playing in the quasi-violin-concerto was pointed, spot-on (mostly), and smile-inducing. If it felt a little forced, a little tight at times, it didn’t hurt the very fine overall impression in the least. Richard Bratby closes his program essay with a brilliant phrase, accusing the Haffner Serenade of being “infinitely better than it has any need to be”. And, must be added, sounding, on this occasion, very much shorter than it is!

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, "Haffner" Serenade
S.Vegh / Camerata Salzburg
Felix Mendelssohn-B.’s Melusine Overture, which opened the concert, is of the expected Mendelssohnian lovliness. It’s not a tone-poem quite yet, but not a full step away from it either, with its depiction of the name-giving mermaid and her lover-knight: Melusine—a close relative of her lady-fish colleagues Undine and Rusalka—is depicted with a wave of a musical figure (a little like what Wagner would later use in Rheingold, as Dirk Möller points out in the program notes—though not nearly as direct and explicit as the ‘stormy sea’ theme that Wagner pilfered from the Scottish Symphony for his Flying Dutchman overture), him with a robust, strident theme. The Camerata under Zehetmair—not the most natural looking conductor, but effective!—veered beautifully between the lyrical and the abrasive, the outbreaks and the calm. Mendelssohn was given a bit of grit in the process, which becomes the composer very well, indeed.

The unsuspected surprise was the

Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 7 )
Liederabend • GerhaherHuber

Liederabend • Salzburg contemporary • Rihm • GerhaherHuber

To every Limit

Pictures (details) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Click to see full pictures.

When going to a GerhaherHuber recital, there is no need to look at the program beforehand: Anyone who knows and appreciates the “symbiotic duo” (Eleonore Büning) will go whatever they play, knowing that it will be predictably serious, intelligent fare, well put together, and of course performed to a standard that no one else exceeds. The closest Gerhaher has ever come to presenting a potpourri was his Mahler album with which, I assume, he also toured… so there you go. Gerhaher, as Büning’s eulogy* after the concert, when she aptly pointed out, the best Lied-singer of our time: “everything he sings becomes alive and true. It is this that may be the highest merit that can be bestowed on any artist: the gift of absolute authenticity.”

This is true and known and, as mentioned, predictable, and consequently it becomes very boring to write about them… there is only a limited amount of superlatives and hyperbolic adjectives... so many GerhaherHuber recitals one hopes to live to hear, and the danger of (self)plagiarizing ever around the corner. One the other hand, one wouldn’t simply want to sit back and hope for the first deviation from excruciating excellence, and then go Ha-haa, like Nelson from the Simpsons.

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F.Schubert, "Nachtviolen"
C.Gerhaher & G.Huber
In this program in the steamy Haus für Mozart on Tuesday, August 5th, Gerhaher brought his  plaintive sounds of heartrending grays (verging, often enough, on the pitch black) to Goethe Songs by Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm. He likes to go for pain, not beauty, of course, as he did in “Who never at his bread with tears” from the Three songs of Gesänge des Harfners ‘aus Wilhelm Meister’. He turned from a patient suffering in “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” to a more aggressive, less patient tone, and Huber’s pianism felt as though through his sensitive pleading he meant to just keep a good friend on the right side of the emotional precipice. Rihm’s Goethelieder frames Goethe’s words in Rihm’s rhythm, in a musical language the difficulty of which seemed a logical extension from the bleak fare GerhaherHuber had already given us in the Schubert. Insistent, repetitive, minimalist, he gives the text in “Höchste Gunst” a whole new emphasis. “Aus Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahren” in its halting and lost phrases was ever shadowy and abstract which contrasted almost surprisingly with the melodious soft swing of “Sehnsucht”, D.123. Into that, Huber sneaked a level of near-innocence onto the wings of the described raven, as he did bubbling murmur into the stanza that mentions a river (“Sie wandelt am Bach / Die Wiesen entlang”). And the last strophe of the “Shepard’s Lament” D.121 sounded truly like a lullaby.

The long, perhaps too long, program picked up, after intermission, with “Prometheus” D. 674 (what a wonderful troubled character for Gerhaher to sink his musical fangs into), and through it and “Mahomet’s Song” D.594 he went towards a light… a dawn… not outright sunshine. Not here, not in “Ganymede” (D.544), not in “An Schwager Kronos” D.369. The central work of the second half, and the reason why the concert was not just billed as one of the Liederabends but also as part of “Salzburg contemporary”, was Wolfgang Rihm again, with his “Winter Journey through the Harz Mountains” which got its Austrian premiere. Rihm composed a bitter-sweet music, like the text, and tailored it to the artists, exploring both the rough and even brutal tones, as well as a detached, child-like beauty. “Willkommen und Abschied” D.767, an encore (“Wanderer’s Nachtlied” II, after having already sung the first, D.224, earlier), a prize, and off he was into the night. Not really, actually, because he went on to sign CDs, but the cliché demands that he went off to some lair of intellectual despair, instead of a beer in gay company, which is much more likely what he and Huber did, good Bavarians that they are at heart.

The recital will be broadcast on Ö1 on August 20th, at 7.30PM CET.

* The Lifetime-so-far-Achievement-Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik that Eleonore Büning, as chairwoman of the German Record Critics' Award, handed over after the Liederabend at the Haus für Mozart went just to Gerhaher, who also does opera and oratorios, of course. He isn’t, admittedly, attached by the hip to his musical co-conspirator and pianist Gerold Huber, but every success in the Lied that is Gerhaher’s is also the success of Huber’s.


Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Dr. Sun Yat-sen'

Joseph Dennis and Corinne Winters in Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 2014 (photo by Ken Howard)

Charles T. Downey, Santa Fe Opera’s leaden “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” leaves one hungry for more musical substance (The Classical Review, August 9)
When Santa Fe Opera decided to pull the plug on the world premiere of Judith Weir’s new opera Miss Fortune this year, the company settled instead on an American premiere. For the final production of the season, it has presented Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the first opera by Huang Ruo, a little-known China-born American composer. The results...
Huang Ruo, Dr. Sun Yat-sen
Santa Fe Opera

See Also:
Nick Frisch, Opera Ends; Some Cite Censorship (New York Times, October 11, 2011)

Charles T. Downey, 'An American Soldier' Gets Its Premiere (Ionarts, June 14, 2014)

Lindsley Cameron Miyoshi, An Epic Life Sings (Opera News, June 2014)

James M. Keller, East meets West in ‘Dr. Sun Yat-sen’ (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 27)

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, A Revolutionary Who Cannot Be Silenced (New York Times, July 28)

Scott Cantrell, ‘Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’ dramatic, but not entirely convincing (Dallas Morning News, July 31)

Heidi Waleson, Santa Fe's Modern Makeovers (Wall Street Journal, August 5)

Anne Midgette, Santa Fe Opera’s sustained high note (Washington Post, August 8)

Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 6 )
Anton Bruckner Cycle • Bruckner II & Te Deum

Vienna Philharmonic • Philippe Jordan

Unexpected Glory

Pictures above and below (details) courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Click on above for entire picture.

The less well known a work, the less often heard, and the less easily digested (either due to lack of immediate quality or excess of complexity), the more you will want to hear it as best possibly performed. Both Bruckner’s Second Symphony and his Te Deum fall into this greater category—the former the quality/rarity one, the latter into the digestibility one.

The Vienna Philharmonic (7 ♀) and Philippe Jordan (and a fine cast of singers) should be just the ticket, then, to make these works shine. While the WPh alone is no guarantor of quality, Jordan just about is. The new music director of the Vienna Symphony leaves a trail of satisfied audiences, pleased musicians, and impressed critics—whether in Bayreuth, Vienna, Salzburg or elsewhere. Ditto here, at the Grosses Festspielhaus on Saturday, August 3rd, the second of two successive matinées with that program.

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A.Bruckner, Symphony No.2
H.Stein / WPh
Decca Eloquence
The above claim about Bruckner’s Second is easily backed up with reference to performances and recordings… many great Brucknerians have eschewed the first two (four) Symphonies and start counting at No. 3. Understandably, if one is honest, but at the same time unjustly. Certainly listening to this rendition (and presuming some love for Bruckner), there were so many gorgeous, downright sunny spots, so much excellence, so much momentum, his qualities as a musician became obvious. Perhaps most pleasing of all: There was a certain lightheartedness that emerged that one doesn’t think of, in Bruckner II. That was true for all movements:

For the unusually melodious opening movement, quicksilver-fleet, with a nice contrast between high and low strings, in which clmaxes sounded like a bunch of trains whirring into town, circling each other. For the especially serene Andante, played like the orchestra really meant it, with nostalgic wonderfulness and a flute and first violin duo to marvel at. For the vigorous Scherzo (“Little Big Bruckner” style: blowing its cheeks yet still playful). And for the somehow-kept-together stop-and-go finale. The English program notes of Nicholas Attfield spoke of a “truly