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


Second Opinion: Playing with Mermaids: Conlon and the NSO

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

The only disappointing thing about the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2014 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was that it was not full. When the National Symphony Orchestra chooses such interesting repertory as it did for this concert under conductor James Conlon, the musical idealist imagines the place full to the rafters.

The Profound Existentialism of Charles Ives: Kent Nagano in Conversation

…Americans hear Ives differently. Maybe. Actually, that’s not true. Maybe now in the 21st century we can begin to hear Ives differently than we did before because… [the Pianist unnerves us] …but what Ives wrote was in many ways so visionary such that today the techniques he introduced are just simply a part of our normal sound-fabric that we interact with constantly. For us as Americans, or at least I, as an American, when I hear Ives I hear the United States of America. And I hear Canada. I hear all of North America. I think probably I also hear the ties of North America to Europe, because his formation, his training was directly tied to the European tradition. And he was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, the Second Viennese School. And you can hear that somehow, that time of going over the century… from the 19th to the 20th century. But you can also hear tremendous optimism, a sense of joy, you hear the strength and power of nature and the inconsequence of mankind, you hear profound existentialism…

Continue here, at the Konzerthaus Magazin.


Conlon and 'The Mermaid'

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon's stint with the National Symphony Orchestra last week was one of my Top Ten concert picks for the month. There were other assignments in the way for the first two performances, but as noted on Saturday, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to hear Conlon conduct Alexander Zemlinsky's tone poem Die Seejungfrau, at the last performance on Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program was inverted from the usual order of a symphony concert, with the major Zemlinsky work performed first, followed by the concerto and the short piece that would usually be a concert-opener. At the outset, Conlon took microphone in hand and gave a savant and convincing introduction to Die Seejungfrau, speculating that Zemlinsky saw himself in the mermaid and the beautiful and inaccessible Alma Schindler, with whom he was in love, as the unapproachable prince. Alma Schindler -- later Mahler, Gropius, finally Werfel -- provided the common thread of the program, too, as she was the dedicatee of Korngold's violin concerto on the second half, composed when both Korngold and Alma lived in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Die Seejungfrau is in three movements, which are not identified with elements of the story but correspond roughly as follows: the little mermaid's life in the sea and first encounter with the prince; the spell that transforms her into a human and her attempt to get the prince to marry her; and her ultimate embrace of death, because she will not accept the Mer-Witch's offer to kill the prince and be returned herself to the sea. The first movement evokes the deep rolling of the sea, with static motifs, including deep harp notes, layered on top of groaning bass instruments, leading to huge tidal swells of sound. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was mercurial and passionate in the violin solos of the little mermaid, numerous enough to make the work almost a sort of violin concerto. Conlon gave the work a decisive pacing, which added gritty excitement to the faster passages. A rollicking horn theme signifies the prince and his men, and a passage of music in the second movement, excised from the score after the work's premiere, has been put back into the score, recovered from the holograph score in the Library of Congress, heard for the first time in the United States in these performances.

As Conlon noted, the second movement has a number of waltzes in it, and the solo violin gets swept up in one of them. If you only know this story from the sanitized Disney movie version, Andersen's mermaid suffers terrible searing pain every time she walks on her magical legs. The Mer-Witch tells her that she will move more gracefully than any human but with this terrible pain, which she endures quite happily for the chance to please the prince. The stakes in the Andersen story are deadly: if a human does not marry her, thereby sharing his immortal soul with her, the soulless mermaid will dissolve into the sea foam. The mermaid's family strikes another pact with the Mer-Witch, trading their hair for an enchanted blade: if the mermaid kills the prince with it, her fish's tail will return and she can go back to the sea. Selflessly, the mermaid throws the knife into the sea, giving up her life, but she joins spirits in the air, who can earn a soul by performing acts to help the living. Zemlinsky's has its eeriest effects in the third movement, including the return of the menacing deep sea music from the opening of the piece, with radiant string strings lifting up the violin solo, with harp twinkles and muted brass, quite ethereal. It is a score that should be on every conductor's To Do list.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO concert stuffed with Romantic music by Zemlinsky, Korngold and Brahms (Washington Post, April 11)

Terry Ponick, NSO, James Conlon highlight 20th century’s missing masterpieces (Communities Digital News, April 11)

Jesse Hamlin, James Conlon leads musical revival of Nazi-banned composers (San Francisco Chronicle, April 9)
Gil Shaham has been specializing in 20th-century violin concertos, and here he was the soloist for the sugary Korngold concerto. Shaham's tone is often beautiful and his phrasing sensitive, when the sound of the orchestra does not push him too far and the writing is not too high on the E string or otherwise demanding, so the delicate parts of this concerto were lovely, often colored by the celesta, seated right in front of Conlon's podium in this performance. In recent years, though, elements of Shaham's playing have unraveled a bit, and there were some hairy flautando notes here, iffy intonation, and slightly sketchy double-stops -- not enough to make the performance disastrous by any means, but dulling some of its shine. After these two large works, the Brahms "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" were probably unnecessary, especially since it was last heard from the NSO only in 2009, but it offered another chance for the NSO musicians to shine, especially the contraforte player Lewis Lipnick, whose line was given special prominence in the theme and several variations. Conlon kept most of the piece moving along, with a minimum of oozy sentiment to the rubato, making the minore variation (no. 4) legato and smoldering.

The NSO season continues next week, with guest conductor Cornelius Meister leading performances of overly familiar Mendelssohn and Mozart, plus Prokofiev's third piano concerto, with Nikolai Lugansky as soloist (April 17 to 19).


Another Year, Another 'Carmen'

Charles T. Downey, Virginia Opera stages ‘Carmen’
Washington Post, April 14, 2014

An opera company is unlikely to have a triumph, in the critical sense, by staging “Carmen,” but Georges Bizet’s story of passion and murder will fill a house. It worked for Virginia Opera, which staged the opera on Friday night at George Mason University Center for the Arts. With some talented singers and a handsome production, updated by director Tazewell Thompson to Franco-era Spain, it was bound to be a crowd-pleaser.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson... [Continue reading]
Bizet, Carmen
Virginia Opera
GMU Center for the Arts

Falstaff | Magic Flute | Ariadne auf Naxos

Sadly, Virginia Opera will celebrate its 40th anniversary season by giving over half of its productions to music theater and operetta. It is a long way from the company's daring 2011-12 season.


In Brief: Tax Man Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (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.

  • Listen to a concert of Vivaldi by Vivica Genaux and Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi. [France Musique]

  • From the Wiener Staatsoper, Wagner's Lohengrin, with Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Camilla Nylund (Elsa von Brabant), and conductor Mikko Franck. [ORF]

  • From the Théâtre Graslin de Nantes, a performance of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, recorded last month. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Jaroussky and Emöke Barath perform Pergolesi's Stabat Mater at the Château de Fontainebleau. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Violinist Thomas Zehetmair joins conductor Alan Gilbert and the Berlin Philharmonic for music by Lutoslawski, LJanacek, Bernd-Alois Zimmermann, and Bartok. [France Musique]

  • Philippe Herreweghe conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, joined by mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg and Collegium Vocale Gent in music of Brahms. [France Musique]

  • Jordi Savall leads violinist Manfred Kraemer and Le Concert des Nations in music by Michael Praetorius, William Brade, Guillaume Dumanoir, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Johann Rosenmuller, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. [France Musique]

  • Thomas Hengelbrock conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven's Mass in C Major and Schubert's Stabat mater and "Unfinished" Symphony. [ORF]

  • Watch Marin Alsop conduct the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, in music by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. [ARTE Live Web]

  • Semyon Bychkov conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall. [BBC3]

  • A program of Vivaldi concerts from Gli Incogniti, led by violinist Amandine Beyer. [ORF]

  • Shostakovichs 13th symphony and Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine, with Ingo Metzmacher leading the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien. [ORF]

  • Watch Myung-Whun Chung conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, in music by Gustav Mahler. [Cité de la Musique Live]

  • Conductor Tugan Sokhiev and cellist Johannes Moser join the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, in music by Miecyslaw Weinberg, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Albert Roussel. [ORF]

  • London Handel Players perform at the Wigmore Hall, as part of the London Handel Festival 2014. [BBC3]

  • Music of Bach, Richard Danielpour, and Prokofiev performed by violinist Gil Shaham and musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. [France Musique]

  • Harpists Iris Torossian and Marion Lénart join La Maîtrise de Radio France, under conductor Sofi Jeannin, to perform music by Francis Poulenc, André Caplet, Holst, Bernard Andres, and Daniel Lesur. [France Musique]

  • Violinist Arabella Steinbacher joins the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Andrés Orozco-Estrada at the podium, in music by Haydn, Prokofiev, Ysaye, Friedrich Cerha, and Rachmaninov. [France Musique]

  • The ensemble Sillages offers a celebration of composer Allain Gaussin, with the world premiere of his latest work, Le vent se lève, plus music by Javier Torres Maldonado, Francisco Guerrero, and Alex Mincek. [France Musique]

  • A performance of Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland, starring Paul Schöffler (Sebastiano), Oskar Czerwenka (Tommaso), Gre Brouwenstijn (Marta), and Hans Hopf (Pedro), with the Vienna Symphony. [ORF]


Briefly Noted: 'The Mermaid'

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Gürzenich Orchester Köln, J. Conlon
(EMI, 1997)
James Conlon has devoted much of his career to the revival of forgotten works and composers from the early 20th century. One of those composers is Alexander Zemlinsky, one-time teacher of Arnold Schoenberg and eventually his relative, when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde. A little-known tone poem by Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, was given its premiere in 1905, on a concert sponsored by the Society of Creative Musicians that also featured Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky's 45-minute work, for a massive orchestra [4 3 4 3 - 6 3 4 1 - timp, perc(2), hp(2), str], is based on the same Hans Christian Andersen story (Den lille Havfrue) that was (loosely) the basis for Disney's film The Little Mermaid, except that in the Danish story the mermaid decides not to stab the prince, who has betrayed her by marrying another woman, opting instead to throw her knife into the sea and dissolve into the air as a sort of benevolent spirit. Conlon was not the first to record this work, but it has become associated with him since this recording with the Gürzenich Orchester Köln. In his concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra this week -- the last performance is this evening -- Conlon is leading the first U.S. performances of a new critical edition of the work, which restores a section of 83 measures cut by the composer after the work's premiere, from the mermaid's visit to the Mer-witch.

According to Antony Beaumont's biography of Zemlinsky, it was Die Seejungfrau "that stole the show" at that 1905 concert: "His diaphanous orchestration teased the ear; the rich harmonies and passionate climaxes gave pleasure, and with his experience as a conductor of operetta, he knew how to articulate the finest nuance, to negotiate the subtlest of rubatos." During the Schoenberg piece, on the other hand, the audience grew restless, and many listeners left. Conlon's recording is well worth revisiting, or hearing for the first time, revealing a work that is in keeping with other fairy-tale music works of the same era, including the Pelléas adaptations by Fauré and Debussy. Listening to it now (see embedded video below), as with many of Zemlinsky's works, it is hard to believe that this composer could have passed into obscurity.


Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Charles T. Downey, Library of Congress’s contemporary music show scores
Washington Post, April 11, 2014

available at Amazon
E. Rautavaara, String Quintet No. 1 (inter alia), Sibelius Quartet, J.-E. Gustafsson
(Ondine, 1998)
The past week’s concert schedule has been loaded with contemporary music, from an anniversary celebration for Louis Andriessen to a residency by British composer Oliver Knussen. In the midst of it all, the Library of Congress hosted a performance of yet more recent music on Thursday night, as part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s touring program. A slate of musicians performed selections from the last two decades, which were paired with the monumental “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen.

Pierre Jalbert’s... [Continue reading]
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Music by Jalbert, Carter, Rautavaara, Messiaen
Library of Congress

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Rasputin (2006) | Percussion concerto with BSO
Rautavaara's conclusion to Sibelius's sixth symphony (Vienna Symphony)


Iestyn Davies and Melancholia

Charles T. Downey, Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford at the Kennedy Center
Washington Post, April 10, 2014

available at Amazon
The Art of Melancholy: Songs by John Dowland, I. Davies, T. Dunford
(Hyperion, 2014)
Both countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford have given first-rate concerts here in the last few years, the former at the Phillips Collection and the latter at the French Embassy. We have Vocal Arts DC to thank, however, for presenting the combination of the two musicians in an immaculate and affecting concert on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Davies possesses one of the most refined and lucent countertenor voices, with flawless intonation, ease and beauty across its range and not even a hint of shrillness. With his love of text, intelligent phrasing and clean but not overdone English diction, Davies is a natural match for the English Renaissance lute-song repertory, and Dunford, who has a similarly delicate approach to his instrument, matched him phrase for phrase. [Continue reading]
Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Thomas Dunford (lute)
Vocal Arts D.C.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

David Gordon Duke, The enchantment of the lute song (Edmonton Journal, April 1)

Iestyn Davies:
Midsummer Night's Dream (Metropolitan Opera, 2013)

Phillips Collection, 2011

Thomas Dunford:
La Maison Française (2011, 2012)

With William Christie, Les Arts Florissants


Andriessen at 75

Charles T. Downey, Monica Germino performs at Andriessen 75 tribute at Atlas
Washington Post, April 9, 2014

available at Amazon
L. Andriessen, De Materie, R. de Leeuw
(Nonesuch, 1996)
The city-wide festival for Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday continued on Monday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center with a concert featuring a piece by the Dutch composer and music by composers he influenced. The hour-long program was performed by violinist Monica Germino, the composer’s wife, and her instrument and voice were enhanced and processed by sound designer Frank van der Weij.

Andriessen’s “Xenia” is a three-movement etude-like piece, commissioned by the Manchester International Violin Competition. A “Sarabande” of slow glissandi in double-stops is contrasted with a “Caccia” of pulsing repeated notes, followed by a melody sung by the performer and accompanied by the violin, coming to rest on a major chord. [Continue reading]
Monica Germino, violin
Frank van der Weij, sound designer
Atlas Performing Arts Center

Anne Midgette, ‘La Commedia,’ at National Gallery, opens Louis Andriessen festival (Washington Post, April 8)

---, Classical Music spring preview: Washington celebrates Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday (Washington Post, February 1)

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The Road to Hell and Back Is Paved With Surprises (New York Times, April 8)

Alex Ross, Brazen (The New Yorker, May 3, 2010)

Workers Union (1975, any group of loud instruments)

De Staat (1976)

De Materie
3. De Stijl (1984)

La Passione (2002)

Mysteriën (2013)


Appleby and Hopkins in Sparsely Attended Recital

Charles T. Downey, WNO singers’ pre-‘Magic Flute’ recital is charming but uneven
Washington Post, April 8, 2014

Washington National Opera will perform a new English translation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” next month. On Sunday evening, the company presented a recital by two of the lead singers from its production, tenor Paul Appleby and baritone Joshua Hopkins, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello promised that it was the first of a new series of such concerts to introduce audiences to some of its young artists.

Appleby has a pretty, sometimes powerful voice and considerable charm in his stage presence, but previous recitals in the area have showcased a regrettable taste for... [Continue reading]
Paul Appleby (tenor) and Joshua Hopkins (baritone)
With Natalia Katyukova, piano
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

As a response to the idea that an opera company needs more of this kind of thing, the empty seats in the half-filled house hopefully speak louder than anything a critic might write.


Akademie für alte Musik Berlin

available at Amazon
C. P. E. Bach, Magnificat / Heilig ist Gott (motet), Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, H.-C. Rademann
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)

available at Amazon
J. Christian Bach, Missa da Requiem / Miserere, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, H.-C. Rademann
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
Sometimes the attention from an anniversary year does not really change one's opinion about a composer's works. Such has been the case during the two-day concert series devoted to the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach at the Library of Congress. The most famous Bach son's keyboard music was overshadowed by other works on a recital by American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. This was followed on Saturday night, in the performance by Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, by an upstaging of his symphonies by a delightful little barn-burner from the hand of his younger brother, Johann Christian Bach. As has struck me before, it is really C.P.E.'s concertos that are the most deserving of attention. This was borne out by the Akamus performance, their first in the area since their Washington debut at the Library of Congress in 2005, which might have been billed as the Xenia Löffler Show.

Löffler is the group's principal oboist, and as in their 2005 tour, her consummate musicianship and excellent command of a sometimes unruly instrument were featured in a concerto, this time by C.P.E. Bach (E-flat major, H. 468). In the first movement, the oboe is scored mostly with just cello and harpsichord, sometimes with light strings, meaning that Löffler could focus on beauty of sound, rather than volume. Two cadenzas (uncredited), in the first and second movements, were expressive and diverting, and the minor-mode second movement, in particular, featured the soloists's plangent shaping of the piece's beautiful melodies. The third movement featured some flawless passagework, too, with one key malfunction, from which Löffler recovered with graceful ease.

By contrast, C.P.E.'s fifth symphony (B minor, H. 661) seemed like not one of his best efforts, with some very high violin writing that sounded pinched here. Its three compact movements featured lots of rocketing violin doodles, strong bass lines, and violent contrasts of piano and forte -- and not much else. Two horn players came on the tour only to play the final piece on the program, a G minor symphony by Johann Christian Bach, a work that does everything the C.P.E. work does and does it better. The well-played horn parts, always reinforcing full tutti sections, were perhaps an unfair advantage, but the work does get bogged down in its middle movement, which felt like it needed some continuo decoration to liven things up.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin celebrates C.P.E. Bach with a well-performed program (Washington Post, April 7)
The rest of the program was more familiar, beginning with the same J. S. Bach orchestral suite the group played here in 2005 (C major, BWV 1066). Again, the "trio" group in many of the second dances -- two oboes and bassoon, especially the latter -- distinguished itself, and the Forlane stood out for its whirling motif of very fast notes, as did the second Menuett, for its ultra-soft, legato rendition by strings alone. If the playing felt just a little rough at the start of the Bach, it had definitely smoothed itself out for the F major concerto grosso by Handel (op. 6/2, HWV 320). Two violinists, Georg Kallweit and Gudrun Engelhardt, took the solo parts in a double-treble texture that recalled Corelli, from Handel's time in Rome. The slow transitions, many of them in this piece, seemed a little drab, calling out for some Handelian improvisation at the keyboard, which it did not receive. A spirited encore, the final (fugal) movement of Haydn's third symphony -- composed in the early 1760s, the piece actually predates the music by the Bach sons on this program -- rounded out a fine evening of music.

The Library of Congress concert series shifts from early music to contemporary music this week, with the residency of British composer Oliver Knussen (April 7 to 12).

Mahan Esfahani

Charles T. Downey, Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s alternately rousing, bland birthday tribute to C.P.E. Bach (Washington Post, April 7, 2014)

available at Amazon
C. P. E. Bach, Württemberg Sonatas, M. Esfahani
(Hyperion, 2014)
Mahan Esfahani came home Friday night, in a sense, to play a recital at the Library of Congress. The American harpsichordist, who grew up in Potomac, Md., offered a tribute to C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S. Bach who was born 300 years ago last month. The program included only two sonatas by the birthday boy, paired with music by other members of his famous family and some unexpected choices, including a piece by Domenico Cimarosa as an encore.

Whenever the music offered fast-moving scales and figuration, as in J.S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue,” Esfahani ran with it, his agile fingers making remarkably clean and accurate contact with every key. By the last piece, C.P.E. Bach’s A minor “Württemberg” sonata (Wq. 49/1), though, both his hands and my ears had tired of dazzling runs. [Continue reading]
Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord
Music of C. P. E. Bach, others
Library of Congress

Lloyd Grove, Reliable Source (Washington Post, February 23, 2000)

Mahan Esfahani, Leave us alone (The Iranian, October 11, 2003)


In Brief: Whan That Aprill Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio, online video, and other good things in Blogville and Beyond. (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.

  • For the Whan That Aprille Day celebration, a day to read from texts in ancient languages, which took place on April 1, an excerpt from Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, ou le Chevalier au Lion (lines 2017-2024): "Dame, fet il, la force vient / de mon cuer, qui a vos se tient; / an ce voloir m'a mes cuers mis. -- Et qui le cuer, biax dolz amis? -- Dame, mi oel. -- Et les ialz, qui? / -- La granz biautez que an vos vi. / Et la biautez qu'i a forfet? / -- Dame, tant que amer me fet." [Yvain et le Lion]

  • Translation of the above: "Lady, he said, the power comes / from my heart, which binds itself to you; / in that desire has my heart put me. -- And who did that to your heart, beautiful, sweet friend? -- Lady, my eye. -- And your eyes, who? -- The great beauty that I see in you. And the beauty, in what was its fault? / -- Lady, all that which love does to me." [Project Gutenberg]

  • A performance of Francesco Maria Veracini's 1735 opera Adriano in Siria, with Fabio Biondi leading Europa Galante and singers Sonia Prina, Ann Hallenberg, and Roberta Invernizzi, recorded in January at the Wiener Konzerthaus. [France Musique]

  • From the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, a performance of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier with Kirill Petrenko leading the Bavarian State Orchestra and Chorus, starring Soile Isokoski, Peter Rose, Sophie Koch, and Christiane Karg. [France Musique]

  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Mozart's Don Giovanni with Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, starring Andrè Schuen (Don Giovanni), Christine Schäfer (Donna Anna), and Maite Beaumont (Donna Elvira), recorded last month at the Theater an der Wien. [ORF]

  • Another Don Giovanni, from Covent Garden, starring Mariusz Kwiecien and Véronique Gens, recorded in February. [RTBF]

  • The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Haydn's Cello Concerto in C and Bruckner's Symphony No 7, with cellist Truls Mørk and conductor Mariss Jansons. [BBC3]

  • Listen to the 2007 recording of Bellini's La Straniera, with the London Philharmonic and Geoffrey Mitchell Choir: David Parry conducts a cast led by Patrizia Ciofi (Alaide), Mark Stone (Valdeburgo), and Dario Schmunck (Arturo). [ORF]


Briefly Noted: Wagner and Dietsch

available at Amazon
Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer (excerpts) / P.-L. Dietsch, Le vaisseau fantôme, ou le maudit des mers, Les Musiciens du Louvre--Grenoble, Eesti Filarmoonia Kammerkoor, M. Minkowski

(released on November 19, 2013)
Naïve V 5349 | 4 CDs
Wagner's Flying Dutchman was rejected by the Paris Opéra on the basis of its first few pages. Not impressed, then-director Léon Pillet did accept the story from the libretto, which the impecunious Wagner gladly sold for 500 francs. He sent it on to librettists who made Le vaisseau fantôme ou le maudit des mers, with music by Pierre-Louis Dietsch (1808-1865), who was the chorus master and conductor at the Paris Opéra. It was Dietsch who conducted the 1861 premiere of Wagner's Tannhäuser -- both were relatively short works, meant to be performed before a complete ballet (the fortitude, or inattention, of the Paris audience was legendary). Jens already wrote about the Vienna performances of both the Paris version of Der fliegende Holländer and Dietsch's mostly unknown Le vaisseau fantôme, brought together by Marc Minkowski and his ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Naïve has since released a recording of the two works, made at the Grenoble performances, a set which is worth acquiring for any Wagner fan.

The original Paris version of Der fliegende Holländer, from 1841 and in one act, is preserved in the so-called Meudon score, named for the suburb of Paris where Wagner wrote this first version. It has been recorded before and is a valuable document in terms of understanding how Wagner became Wagner. Evgeny Nikitin is a fine Dutchman, at the top of a generally fine cast. Alexander Dratwicki (of the Bru Zane Foundation) has made a new edition of the score of Le vaisseau fantôme, published in conjunction with the Wagner anniversary and used here. Musically, it does not hold a candle to Wagner's version of the story, either the first draft or the later revision, but it has some interesting moments, like the harps in the orchestra in the music for the doomed sailor's redemption. The story is also quite different, with Dietsch's Minna pledged in marriage by her father, a merchant named Barlow in Shetland, to the cursed seaman, Troile, because he owes him his life. Her childhood sweetheart, Magnus, pledges himself to the priesthood instead, even offering to officiate at Minna's marriage, but he recognizes Troile for who he really is, the murderer of his father. Troile calls demonic forces to help him escape, but Minna sacrifices herself for him, guiding him before God's throne in the final scene.


John Ruskin the Artist

J. Ruskin, Study of Part of the Trees in
Turner's Crossing the Brook
Garry Wills has an article on John Ruskin (Ruskin: The Great Artist Emerges, April 3) in The New York Review of Books. Not on Ruskin the writer, Ruskin the social reformer, or Ruskin the art critic -- Ruskin the artist. It is based on an exhibit of Ruskin's artwork, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (through May 11) and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh this summer. Not just a painter, in fact, but as Conal Shields, one of the authors of the exhibition catalogue, puts it, a great painter:
Shields places him “among the greatest of English painters and draftsmen,” and wonders at “the relative neglect of his achievement.” Going through the 140 artworks collected here — some from private collections, and some never before exhibited in public — one is tempted to agree with him. The precision and detail of Ruskin’s prose descriptions are given sharp vindication in the pen, graphite, and chalk drawings—and especially in the brilliant watercolors. Ruskin was a fascinated student of geology, crystallography, botany, dendrology, ornithology, and meteorology, and his drawings in all these fields express his love (the only proper word) for each item his brush fondles onto the paper.

One of his most-used books, over the years, has been The Elements of Drawing, in which he mainly teaches his students how to see. Most people, he says, see what they expect — for instance, this is a tree — and look no deeper. They never actually realize what a complex, living thing any particular tree is. His drawings give a virtual biography of every tree he draws: "How troublesome trees have come in its way, and pushed it aside, and tried to strangle or starve it; where and when kind trees have sheltered it, and grown up lovingly together with it, bending as it bent; what winds torment it most; what boughs of it behave best, and bear most fruit; and so on."

So, in the exhibition, Ruskin gives us the tremendous drama of a whole tree, in graphite, pen, and pencil, with wash and white bodycolor; but also, with finest lines of pen and ink, he records the particularities in a foot or so of lightning-gashed trunk, with sprays of leaves growing from its wounds.
You can take a little guided tour through the exhibit in the video embedded below, and see more images of the artwork here. To get a broader view of Ruskin, you can read his books The Stones of Venice, Modern Painters, and The Elements of Drawing.


Glittery 'Jewels' from New York City Ballet

Teresa Reichlen in George Balanchine's Rubies from Jewels,
New York City Ballet (photo by Paul Kolnik)
George Balanchine's opulent Jewels is a favorite of Miss Ionarts, and she has watched it many times in the DVD from the Mariinsky Ballet. From her point of view, it is pretty, colorful, varied, and there are no scary villains. Created in 1967 for the New York City Ballet, it is also Balanchine's survey of the state of dance, with each of its three acts focused on the heritage of three ballet traditions -- French Romanticism in Emeralds, New York modernism in Rubies, and Russian imperialism in Diamonds. The New York City Ballet has brought its refurbished production to the Kennedy Center this week, along with a mixed program of shorter choreographies, and it is well worth seeing.

The music of each act reflects those orientations, beginning with two refined scores of incidental music by Gabriel Fauré, for Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande (also heard on Sunday night from the Israel Philharmonic) and Shylock, Edmond Haraucourt's reworking of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Neither story appears in any appreciable way in the choreography, but with Balanchine, as with all gifted choreographers, the music was his guide. The horn call of the first movement summons the corps de ballet into a diagonal line; the spinning movement features a ballerina making many turns; arms tick-tocked, clock-like, with gently pulsed repeated notes; each phrase or surge or motif is matched with an evocative movement. Both of these scores are diaphanous wonders -- movements from Shylock are inserted between the third and fourth movements of Pelléas, the last of which ends the act -- and the company's interim music director Andrews Sill led a capable, if not yet perfectly polished performance by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Unlike their visit last spring, the company's resident orchestra did not accompany them. One could sense at times a tug of war between conductor and musicians, as in that gorgeous flute solo of the third movement of Pelléas, which needed to go a little faster than the orchestra seemed to want.