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CD Reviews: Carolyn Sampson

Charles T. Downey, Recording reviews: A limpid soprano’s chance to soar
Washington Post, February 3

available at Amazon
A Verlaine Songbook, C. Sampson, J. Middleton

(released on November 18, 2016)
BIS-2233 | 80'
Carolyn Sampson is known for her radiant performances of baroque music, having recorded widely with the world’s leading early-music ensembles. The British soprano’s voice combines limpid clarity with laser-focused precision, but with any possible harsh edges softened in a smooth finish. It is also beautifully suited to the corrupt delicacies of late Romantic French mélodie, as demonstrated in Sampson’s recent song recital recording on the BIS label, with the accomplished pianist Joseph Middleton.

All of the songs here are settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine. Some of the early works were inspired by Verlaine’s love for Mathilde Mauté, the young girl with the “Carolingian name,” as he put it in his collection “La Bonne Chanson,” set as a cycle by Gabriel Fauré. Verlaine married Mathilde, but not long after she had borne him a son, he ran off with a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud. Their scandalous love affair provided much of the material for his collection “Romances sans paroles,” including the poems set by Debussy in a set called “Ariettes oubliées.” After time in prison, Verlaine ran off again with Lucien Létinois, a 17-year-old student at the Jesuit school where Verlaine taught.

Multiple composers have composed songs on the same Verlaine poems, which makes for interesting comparison of musical settings. Sampson pairs Debussy's “Fêtes galantes” with songs on poems from the same collection by Poldowski, the nom de plume of Belgian-born pianist Régine Wieniawski. Individual songs by other composers, including Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Charles Bordes and Reynaldo Hahn, round out a most attractive program. Songs such as Déodat de Séverac's “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” and Josef Szulc's “Clair de Lune” are major discoveries.

Throughout, Sampson produces an elegant ribbon of sound, couched in refined French pronunciation, that can hang in the air — for instance, a long, exquisitely soft high G at the end of Chausson's “Apaisement.” The only minor setback is that when pushed to louder dynamics, Sampson’s voice loses some of its satiny quality, turning strident, but this is rare in the songs here.

available at Amazon
Mozart, Great Mass in C Minor / Exsultate jubilate, Carolyn Sampson, Olivia Vermeulen, Makoto Sakurada, Christian Imler, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

(released on December 9, 2016)
BIS-2171 | 65'52"
When Masaaki Suzuki reached the end of his epic traversal of Bach’s sacred cantatas with Bach Collegium Japan, he turned to Mozart. The Japanese conductor's authoritative recording of Mozart's Requiem was one of my favorite discs of 2015, and opened up a new line of specialization for his ensemble beyond the music of its namesake. Shortly after its release, Suzuki conducted another Mozart Mass, the “Great” C minor, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an astounding performance. Now, his recording of this work, with Bach Collegium Japan, is out on the BIS label.

It was hoped that Suzuki’s Requiem was the start of a recorded reexamination of Mozart’s music for the Catholic church. Mozart left the “Great” C minor Mass, like his Requiem, unfinished; he began it in Vienna as a complete setting of the Latin Ordinary but performed only parts of it on a honeymoon visit to Salzburg, Austria, with his wife, Constanze, in 1783. Suzuki has used the musicologist Franz Beyer’s careful reconstruction of the score, and the relevant historical details are laid out in a superlative booklet essay by Christoph Wolff.

Suzuki takes the opening “Kyrie” at a most satisfying, slow, grand tempo, like a dignified, crisply organized funeral march. The “Qui tollis” section of the “Gloria” has an equally cathedral-filling sound from both chorus and orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen, tenor Makoto Sakurada and bass Christian Imler ably take their parts in the quartet of vocal soloists. The star of this score, though, is the first soprano, a part written for and premiered by Mozart’s wife. It seems tailor-made for Carolyn Sampson. In the extended showpiece “Et incarnatus est” in the “Credo,” she interweaves her immaculate soprano with the intricate woodwind lines, sweet and tender.

Rounding out the recording is Mozart’s famous cantata “Exsultate, jubilate,” from a decade earlier, although here Sampson’s fast runs are not quite pristine. As a lagniappe, Suzuki has added Mozart’s slightly revised version of the first movement — more a curiosity than an absolute necessity.


A Survey of Sibelius Symphony Cycles

Discographies on ionarts: Bach Organ Cycles | Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycles I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX | Bruckner Symphony Cycles | Dvořák Symphony Cycles | Shostakovich Symphony Cycles | Sibelius Symphony Cycles

Update 02/14/2017: I've learned of the existence, thanks to spotting the spine in an Instagram picture, of another new cycle of Sibelius symphonies and included it here. It is with Kim Dae-jin (Daejin Kim) conducting the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra, released on Sony/Korea.

Update 01/12/2016: This survey, the first I wrote for ionarts, has been completely revamped and been put into an order, namely alphabetical, by conductor. This can be cumbersome when updating, but it is the easiest to search. Initially, only readily available cycles were meant to be included in these surveys, but they have grown a little more ambitious, since. This brings about the addition of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s first cycle on RCA (1987-88), which is very much oop. Saraste’s second cycle was recorded live in St. Petersburg. The individual releases on Warner-Teldec-Apex and Finlandia (the latter covers almost all the smaller orchestral works as well as the Violin Concerto and the Humoresques by other conductors and orchestras) are identical to the set that proclaims “live from St. Petersburg” (1993). It also means that I have included the first cycle of Akeo Watanabe, from 1962 (the first in stereo, paceLeonard Bernstein), even though it never made it from its Sony/Epic LPs onto CD. I have not (yet?) added Paavo Berglund’s Sibelius recordings with the LPO, although arguably they are as much an incomplete cycle as Bernstein’s Vienna one, with four symphonies. You can find it here; it would have been his 4th.

Update 01/11/2016: Three new cycles added: Adrian Leaper’s on Naxos (their first), which I had simply overlooked. (Did Leaper record a complete cycle with the Orquesta Filharmonica de Gran Canaria on Arte Nova?.) Hannu Lintu’s DVD-cycle on ArtHaus Musik has been added, which comes with introductions to the symphonies which I have been reliably told are very good and involving. Also the incomplete-yet-stuffed Philadelphia cycle of Ormandy’s which lacks symphonies 3 and 6 but contains 1, 2, and 7 twice and a bunch of other Sibelius. The Anthony Collins cycle has been re-issued in the Decca "Great Performances" box; Lorin Maazel I (Decca/Vienna) has been re-issued on CD and Blu-ray; Bernstein I (Sony/New York) has been remastered for CD.

Update 09/28/2015: Four new cycles added! Pietari Inkinen’s first cycle, recorded with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for Naxos, is finished (and has been for a while). It’s available on individual discs, but not yet boxed. Meanwhile he's already recorded a new cycle with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he's just been named the new Chief Conductor.
Also brand new (but not yet available on Amazon) Sir Simon Rattle’s brand new cycle performed, recorded, and filmed at the Philharmonie in Berlin with his Berliners. The set, as all the BPh’s own such sets, is lavish, includes high resolution audio and video options (though not SACD), and fits on no CD or book-shelf of man’s creation, thus offering a bit of a conundrum.
And, on SACD from BIS, a new set with the Lahti SO, this time under Okko Kamu, also known as the guy who 'finished' Karajan's Sibelius Cycle for Deutsche Grammophon.

Update 03/12/2015: HvK's not-quite-complete cycle on EMI (now Warner) is now in one box, remastered, shiny, and available. A completely new addition is the Arvo Volmer cycle from Adelaide on ABC Classics! It's about 10 to 5 years old, by my reckoning, and the first down-under Sibelius cycle.

Update 24/02/2015: Abranavel's has been released on Musical Concepts. Who knew. It's been added accordingly.

Update 12/01/2014: John Storgårds' new cycle, recorded live with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos, has been added.

Update 19/01/2013: Colin Davis' second (first LSO) cycle is being re-issued and already available in Europe.

Update 12/01/2013: Abranavel's, Karajan and Bernstein's incomplete, and Ashkenazy's Stockholm cycle added. Links and images updated and Amazon-links internationalized. Ionarts's Choice cycles updated. Misdirecting links double-checked after initial posting.

Update 04/01/2013: Paavo Berglund's first cycle with the Bournemouth SO, long out of print, has been re-issued as a super-basement bargain by EMI. It's been included below, replacing the Royal Classics release.

Update 12/12/2012: Colin Davis' third cycle (on LSO Live) is out in a box and has been included below. His first cycle has been boxed by Decca, and has been added in place of the two Philips twofers. To keep the symmetry, Sixten Ehrling's Stockholm cycle (available on German Amazon and on has been added.

Like the Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Survey, this is a mere "inventory" of what has been recorded and whether it is still available. Favorites are denoted with the "ionarts' choice" graphic.


Elbphilharmonie: Opening Concert as a Spotify Playlist

Latest on Forbes: Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie Opens. A Soundcheck of the Great Hall and the Wolfgang Rihm World Premiere reviewed.

Hamburger Elbphilharmonie, view coming into the Harbor Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Thies Rätzke (2016)
Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, Great Hall at intermission of the opening concert
Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Michael Zapf

Review: Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Opening And First Impressions Of The Great Hall

This review over on Forbes focuses on the music and performance of the Elbphilharmonie's opening concert, as well as on the acoustic properties of the impressive new hall.

...It was an exciting, slightly rainy New York Monday night in March of 2007, at Carnegie Hall. The North German Radio Symphony Orchestra was in town and I had come up from D.C. to hear their concert – part of a fund-, goodwill, and awareness-raising effort to get support for the ambitious new concert hall they were planning to build. Very cool! “See you in 2010,” they said. Last month, January 11, 2017, I stood on a launch in Hamburg’s harbor, with this musical Mordor temple towering 110m above me: The now infamous Elbphilharmonie about to open. The countdown to the opening chords was displayed in minutes on the narrow, harbor-facing façade of the building, with a huge light-projected metronome tick-tocking away, second by second...

...Ironically the interest and attention was probably heightened by the fact that for so long the Elbphilharmonie – already nicknamed #Elphie – had been one of Germany’s three biggest engineering/infrastructure/building disasters, along with Stuttgart’s alleged new central railway station and the mythical airport in Berlin… a tire-fire of ineptitude that very much dented the Hamburger’s self-image as an industrious people, sound businessmen who know how to plan and execute well and handle money most responsibly...

...The Elbphilharmonie’s General and Artistic Director Christoph Lieben-Seutter ... became increasingly relaxed from speech to speech. By the time he opened the Elbphilharmonie’s Recital Hall he joked, with a good dose of self-critical awareness, that currently they could put a kazoo-playing janitor into the Great Hall and still sell out...

...Another innovation, as per the marketing department, is the long, curved escalator – “The Tube” – that takes the inclined visitor through an oval tunnel up to the 7th floor in one fell 4-minite swoop. Upon taking it for the first time, this long ride enhances the anticipation and the patrons are rewarded at the end with a great view. I would suggest that the real innovation is elling a long escalator that curves as an innovation....

...The Elbphilharmonie’s Grosser Saal has been likened to many things; the official version speaks of the steep arrangement as a vineyard. Something to that. It reminds me also of the style of some greater Protestant churches, where the congregation does not stand, all turned in one direction, along a West-East axis but is arranged in a round. Most especially Dresden’s Frauenkirche comes to mind, with its tiered structure with the community (not the altar) at its center...

...For all the dark mass and might of Photoptosis, the sound was bright and cold in this hall, rich in overtones. Like early-generation LED lighting, this gave the hall, as I experienced it, a touch of operating theater. That in contrast to the actual, much warmer (LED) lights that shone out of hundreds and hundreds of individual, mouth-blown glass spheres that looked like beautiful gelatinized bubbles that have all slowly risen from the depth of a prehistoric sea beneath the Elbphilharmonie and gotten stuck beneath the ceilings of the various tiers, ranks, and pods of the hall...

...The switch back to Philippe Jaroussky – with “Amarilli mia bella” (from Giulio Caccini’s Le nuove musiche yet another renaissance work) – was, finally, one too many. Three years in the planning and programming-heads around Hengelbrock could not think of a piece – any piece – that wasn’t either from 1600 or ca. 1955 to show off the hall?!...



Ionarts-at-Large: Elgar in Vienna

Elgar on the continent is a rare occurrence for a number of reasons which would be worth an essay (or five) of its own. Vienna is no different.[1] When there is an Elgar-sighting, it’s either limited to the Enigma Variations, the Second Symphony, or the Cello Concerto. Amid this rarity of Elgar, another work has reared its head (or hundreds of heads) more frequently in the last decade or so: The lush choral non-oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Three performances in the last 8 years is pretty decent (altogether there have been five), and every Viennese orchestra has now got a shot at it. The first one was the most experimental band in town, the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras, which gave the Viennese (maybe even Austrian?) premiere of The Dream of Gerontius in 1986[2] [Edit: This is not correct; see footnote]. The last one to join the party was now the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra, whose technical HQ is in St. Pölten (basically to Vienna what Baltimore is to Washington D.C., if less charming) but whose center of gravity might be said to lie in Vienna. The third performance on January 31st, like the first, was at the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, conducted by the seasoned, excellent Thomas Michael* Schønwandt, and with the Vienna Singverein on choral duty.

available at Amazon
E.Elgar, Dream of Gerontius,
M.Elder/The Hallé/A.Coote, P.Groves, B.Terfel
Hallé HLD 7520

It’s not really a duty, of course, for a choir to sing Elgar’s most indulgent, catholic, perfumed and incense-enriched work – in fact, it’s probably the choirs that are behind pushing for Gerontius, which is choral red meat. The Singverein threw its excellence into grateful choral work with enthusiasm and sang like a well-oiled machine of 103 cylinders or throats. The Tonkünstler Orchestra sounded pretty darn good, too, with heft and dark breadth and surprisingly symphonic and warm, with the strings especially benefitting from the acoustic of the Golden Hall mixing the voices very nicely towards the back. (Closer to the action, it wasn’t quite as impressive; one could hear that the impression further away was the result of good blending rather than a instant of supreme instrument-for-instrument excellence. But that’s the point of such acoustics and that the Tonkünstler Orchestra isn’t quite the Cleveland Orchestra we knew before and no shame in it.)

The three juicy vocal parts want to be well cast, too. Despite two short-term replacements (Sara Fulgoni for Sarah Conolly und David Butt Philip for Steve Davislim), they were. Most notably the young David Butt Philip (a youthful British cheese-aficionado who looks like a young Wallace, minus Gromit), whose stentorian-lyrical, beautiful voice with just a hint of cliché (a mix of strain on emphasis and concordant increase in vibrato) was really very, very good. Indeed, just a touch of facelessness short of ideal.

The baritone was Matthew Rose, whom we have followed on ionarts over the years: I was unimpressed with his Figaro in a dull revival of a Dieter Dorn / Jürgen Rose production in Munich. Charles saw him in Don Giovanni in Santa Fe, where he “skewered the role with deadly accurate comic timing”, and again in 2014 at a Vocal Arts D.C. recital, where he noted that “Rose’s voice continues to grow, after first striking me as a little gruff and unrounded”, but that he “still tends, in some cases, to hurl [his powerful voice] at the music”. All that came up again in this Gerontius. It’s a very present, darkly radiant, and audible voice, that can grow huge, go high and low without diminishing at either end of his considerable range and is, within limits, hugely impressive as he belts it into deep space. But the louder it gets, the more operatic and less nuanced it becomes. Bellowing out his part in the first half, he sounded more like


'Little Humpbacked Horse' hops its way around the Kennedy Center

Alexei Ratmansky's The Little Humpbacked Horse (At the Bottom of the Sea), Mariinsky Ballet (photo by Nastasha Razina)

Over the years the Mariinsky Ballet has brought many beautiful ballet productions for its annual visits to the Kennedy Center. Miss Ionarts has grown up watching these often marvelous performances: Diana Vishneva's Kitri and Aurora and Giselle, the Soviet transformations of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, reconstructions of Rite of Spring and The Firebird. In recent years, the repertory has turned a little more obscure, beginning with last year's Raymonda and, opening on Tuesday night, this year's performances of The Little Humpbacked Horse. As with other examples in Russian opera and ballet, this is one of those works few people outside of Russia have ever heard of, but that all Russians know.

The tale by Pyotr Yershov became a ballet in the 19th century, produced with a libretto by Arthur Saint-Léon and music by Cesare Pugni at the Bolshoi in 1864. Parts of the story are quite familiar, as the foolish youngest brother, Ivan, seizes the feather of a mysterious Fire Bird to help him win a bride. For a new version of the ballet in the mid-20th century, with a revised libretto by Maxim Isaev, Rodion Shchedrin composed a new score, during the performance of which he met his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. This is the version that the Mariinsky commissioned a new choreography for in 2009, directed by Alexei Ratmansky. With colorful, geometric, minimal sets and bright, abstract costumes (both designed by Maxim Isaev), Ratmansky has given the piece a modern twist, while keeping in touch with the folk dance elements, of which the original ballet was the first example in Russia.

Shchedrin opens the first scene in a flurry of activity, fanfare-like brass followed by tittering woodwinds, and much of the score remains busy, sometimes to a fault. In a note written for the 2009 premiere of the Ratmansky production, Shchedrin wrote of the music as "a very early work of mine," in which he sees "much naivety and imperfection." The comic aspects of the music seem to have put Ratmansky in a slapstick mood, and some extended sections of the score inspired too many repetitions of the same ideas in the choreography. How many times do the three brothers have to throw each other around and get knocked to the floor? A few judicious cuts, especially in the crowd scenes, could strengthen the dramatic effect, especially since the best musical moments are elsewhere: with the wild dancing of the horses, the magical swoosh accompanying the little humpbacked horse (a delightfully agile and antic Yaroslav Baibordin), the evocative trills of the flock of Fire Birds, and the pretty music for the Wet-Nurses.

Top marks go to Vladimir Shklyarov, who brought the same delicate whimsy to the role of Ivan the Fool as he did in Le Spectre de la Rose and Romeo and Juliet. It is not a grand Romantic role, as he wins the heart of the Tsarevna (a lovely Anastasia Matvienko) through a combination of clutzy charm and pulling her hair. (He accomplishes this with a charming flute solo in the original choreography by Alexander Radunsky.) Zlata Yalinich was a spirited Young Mare, paired with the high-leaping Horses of Alexander Romanchikov and Alexander Beloborodov, and an enigmatic presence as the princess at the bottom of the sea. Fine comic turns came from Dmitry Pykhachov's daft, childish Tsar and the sebaceous villainy of Yuri Smekalov's Gentlemen of the Bed Chamber. Alexei Repnikov conducted a good performance by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, with an especially busy night for the percussionists, whose sounds were perhaps overused by Shchedrin.

The Little Humpbacked Horse by the Mariinsky Ballet runs through February 5, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


CD Review: Hallenberg as Farinelli

Tom Huizenga and Charles T. Downey, Recording reviews: a Glass harpist, arias for Farinelli
Washington Post, January 26

available at Amazon
Farinelli: A Portrait, Ann Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset

(released on February 17, 2017)
Aparte AP117 | 79'13"
The idea of castrating a pre-adolescent singer to create an extraordinary voice type is horrifying and unthinkable. But in earlier centuries, these men, with their voices frozen in treble mode, were celebrated in Italy, and none was more famous than Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the early music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques in 2011, the conductor Christophe Rousset led the Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg in a recital of music written for Farinelli by Handel, Geminiano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse, Leonardo Leo, the singer’s brother Riccardo Broschi and his patron Nicola Porpora. It joined similar Farinelli or castrato-themed recordings by Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky, Cecilia Bartoli and others.

The soundtrack of Gérard Corbiau’s highly fanciful 1994 film on Farinelli’s life digitally blended the singing of a male countertenor and a soprano to approximate the sound of the castrato. Contemporary accounts speak of the sweetness and power of the castratos’ tone, though the only recorded evidence was left by Alessandro Moreschi, a castrato who sang soprano in the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1914, and who no one claimed was the equal of his legendary antecedents. Moreschi sounds, if anything, most like a treble: pale in timbre, mostly devoid of vibrato and occasionally unstable — just on steroids in terms of breath support and volume.

Farinelli, in keeping with the style of the day, could certainly toss off melismatic passages with ease and added ornamentation in slow arias, something reflected in the music written for his voice. Even in this live performance, Hallenberg has relatively few bumps along the way in the long streams of running notes of the fast arias, and her ornamentation and cadenzas are florid and thrilling. The long-breathed vibrato sound is silky and refined, as in the aria “Alto Giove” from Porpora’s “Polifemo.” The only downsides are the normal artifacts of live performance caught by the microphones, such as noisy page turns, audience noises and Rousset’s sharp exhalations at opening downbeats.
Honoré de Balzac, Sarrasine (trans. Clara Bell)


ABT's 'Swan Lake' @ Kennedy Center

Swan Lake, American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

Swan Lake is such a perennial favorite that the run of performances by American Ballet Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House sold out before it opened. The work's popularity may make it easy to forget just how powerful it is in dramatic terms. Even in the reconfigured choreography by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, premiered in 2000, the combination of tragic love story and Tchaikovsky's masterful, poignant score is potent.

The focus in Swan Lake often tends to be on the character of Odette, the girl transformed into a swan by the evil sorceror von Rothbart. Principal dancer Hee Seo was extraordinary in the role at opening night on Wednesday, fragile and enigmatic in equal parts in the Act II pas de deux, to the accompaniment of the marvelous violin solo playing of concertmaster Oleg Rylatko. In Act III she was more seductive, with a naughty smile, as the Black Swan, quite striking in the infamous 32 fouetté turns. McKenzie's fourth act minimizes the centrality of Odette, but Seo again seemed like a creature from another world, only part woman.

At the center of this ballet, however, is really the role of Prince Siegfried, the only character to appear in all four acts, something that McKenzie's choreography made more apparent. Tchaikovsky's original inspiration for the character was King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another prince who would not marry as his family wanted him to do. Principal dancer Cory Stearns brought both remarkable strength and an aloof sadness to the role, a young man who seems uncomfortable in his skin, agonizing as the friends at his birthday party in Act I break off into couples.

Siegfried prefers to skulk into the darkness of the forest, where he finds this tragic creature neither fully woman nor something else. Ludwig II's homosexual inclinations, certainly known to Tchaikovsky, who struggled with the same yearning, make it easy to interpret Prince Siegfried's actions in this light. Ludwig was even found dead in a lake, having died in mysterious circumstances. In the original libretto, the story indicated by short references in Tchaikovsky's score, the lake rises up at the end and drowns both Odette and Siegfried, who fall into each other's arms. The famous B minor theme, the score's most famous motif, is associated with the flight of swans, a symbol of escape and freedom.

The ABT corps remains to these eyes one of the most disciplined and unified, and the scenes with the white swans were consistently beautiful, as the group of women responded as one to the movements of Odette in the second and fourth acts. McKenzie's most questionable decision in this choreography was to split the character of von Rothbart, with Patrick Ogle in the more character-dance role of the monster and Thomas Forster as the sorcerer's more seductive human form. Conductor Charles Barker led a flexible rendition of the score, with superlative playing by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, aside from a few horn bobbles in the opening scene.

Swan Lake runs through January 29, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different dancers in the lead roles.