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


Latest on Forbes: Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie Opens. A Soundcheck of its Recital Hall and G.F.Haas' "Release" reviewed.

Hamburger Elbphilharmonie, view coming into the Harbor Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Thies Rätzke (2016)
Hamburger Elbphilharmonie, view coming into the Harbor
Photo courtesy Elbphilharmonie, © Thies Rätzke (2016)

Review: Hamburg Elbphilharmonie Opening And G.F.Haas World Premiere

This review over on Forbes focuses on the easily neglected, smaller "Recital Hall" and the Haas premiere that took place therein. A review of the 'main event' and Great Hall will be forthcoming.

...At about the same time, the same wandering sensation struck my seat neighbor, a dignified elder(ly) lady. She realized, coincidentally with me, that the electronic sounds raining down on us were in fact created by string players that huddled, in small groups, on the outer walking path above the wooden shell. Darkness-shrouded, blending in with the black ceiling. This discovery prompted a whispered remark and question to her husband, while being absorbed by the going-ons.

“Shut your trap now, if you will!”, snarled the person sitting in front of us at her, in a tone distinctively south of civil and audible to every other audience member.

The lady had just gotten upbraided by the composer himself...

...Also well played was the even more obvious physical reference to a particular historical model in creating here, with Release, a reverse Farewell Symphony. Instead of Joseph Haydn (Haas-compatriot and patron saint of chamber music) having his desk-by-desk disappearing musicians symbolize their desire to go home, Haas here writes a music that is calling for a new beginning with musicians joining and wanting to come to work and to get started already. A very charming touch.



Dip Your Ears, No. 216 (A Scarlatti-Haydn Romance)

available at Amazon

J.Haydn, D.Scarlatti
Chiaro e scuro (Keyboard Sonatas)
Olivier Cavé

I love this disc of Haydn and Scarlatti, partly because it spells out—literally (in Elaine Sisman’s perfect liner notes) and musically (through the pairing of the music)—what I have long, intuitively felt, namely that these two composers share a common genial, sunny disposition. Sisman sees a common rhythmic inventiveness and a sense of joy of creation. The booklet’s essay, almost itself worth the price of admission, explores the fascinating, actual proximity of these two composers through their interactions in Vienna. To the musicologically inclined, it reads like the latest Arthur Conan Doyle story: “The Mysterious Case of the Spanish Hoboken Numbers.”

Olivier Cavé’s playing coaxes immediately arresting joy out of already joyful works (this, at the risk of overlooking Scarlatti’s dark and somber side) and indeed, by the time Cavé hits the Haydn Partita’s Allegro, Haydn begins to sound like Scarlatti and Scarlatti begins to sound like Haydn as the music starts swimming before my ears. The inclusion of the Haydn Divertimento is most appreciated; the Allegro moderato of the F major sonata No38 is a thin slice of heaven. In terms of placing music into context and blurring the perceived borders, this is second only to Marino Formenti’s “Kurtag’s Ghosts” or “Liszt-Inspections” I am thoroughly enchanted… which is the reason, of course, this landed on my Best Classical Recordings of 2015 list. 



For Your Consideration: 'Rogue One'

Disney's profiteering from the Star Wars franchise continues apace. The company moved the story's timeline forward last year, with a visually beautiful yet dramatically stultifying Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams. The next phase is a spin-off film series, filling in other parts of the saga, beginning with this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If the first installment is any indication, these films will mostly look like Star Wars films but will not slavishly retain all the traditional elements, such as the receding block of text in the opening sequence. This particular film is sort of an Episode IIIb, which provides the background events leading up to the start of Episode IV, where the love of Star Wars began. (Spoilers to follow.)

Our hero is Jyn Erso, played by English actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). She is the daughter of a scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), whom the Empire has forced to build a moon-sized battle station capable of destroying an entire planet. Elements in the Rebellion save her from being sent to an imperial prison, because they hope she can lead them to one of their former allies, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who has become too militant and no longer trusts them. She agrees, on the condition that she will be set free, and sets off with a pilot named Cassian Andor, played by Mexican actor Diego Luna (Frida, Y Tu Mamá También), and a reprogrammed imperial droid named K-2SO, honest to a fault and voiced by Alan Tudyk.

Along the way they pick up a blind Jedi warrior monk, Chirrut Îmwe, played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, complete with impressive staff technique (Kung Fu meets The Force); his friend Baze Malbus (Chinese actor Wen Jiang), a man who trusts more in large weapons; and a defecting imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook, played by Riz Ahmed (Jason Bourne), a British actor of Pakistani descent. This Star Wars world is much less Euro-centric than its predecessors.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | The New Yorker | Washington Post | The Atlantic
David Edelstein | Hollywood Reporter | NPR | Christian Science Monitor

Thanks to an unremarkable script crafted by committee (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy's screenplay, based on a story credited to John Knoll and Gary Whitta), none of the characters has any real depth. As in The Force Awakens, the droid seems more human and gets bigger laughs, while some of the human characters, thanks to creepy digital technology, are played by living actors covered in dead actors' virtual skins. In both Peter Cushing's sneering Grand Moff Tarkin and the late Carrie Fisher's young Princess Leia, the performances fall somewhere in that "uncanny valley" that can turn a viewer's stomach.

Rogue One is visually just as beautiful and realistic as The Force Awakens, which makes it watchable but then instantly forgettable. English director Gareth Edwards, whose only major credit prior to this film was the 2014 remake of Godzilla, focuses on battle scenes, which thrilled Master Ionarts, without lingering much on any individual human element. Michael Giacchino furnishes a score that is symphonic in scope but is memorable only when it is quoting the famous themes of John Williams. (Williams, for his part, recently told an interviewer that he has never actually watched any of the finished Star Wars films and does not find any of the scores he wrote for the franchise particularly good.)

The good news is that there are more Star Wars movies to watch. Any fan of the franchise will enjoy guessing how the movie will tie up the loose ends to graft itself onto the start of Episode IV. The bad news is that the glory days of Star Wars are gone, likely never to return. What we have instead is another fiefdom of the Disney empire.

This film is currently playing everywhere.


Perchance to Stream: Concert de Noël Edition

Here is a special Christmas selection of links to online audio and online video for your holiday delectation as you cook and celebrate with friends and family. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio from the Philharmonie de Paris, with Le Poème Harmonique and Accentus. [Part 1 | Part 2]

  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio with Akademie für Alte Musik and René Jacobs (from 1996). [Ö1]

  • Concert de Noël from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Angela Meade stars in Rossini's "Hermione," with Alberto Zedda at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. [France Musique]

  • Daniel Harding conducts Schumann's 'Das Paradies und die Peri' with Matthias Goerne. [Philharmonie de Paris]

  • Emmanuelle Haïm conducts Vienna Philharmonic and soprano Sandrine Piau in music of Handel. [Ö1]

  • Recital by pianist Alain Planès at the Bouffes du Nord, music by Schubert, Shostakovich. [ARTE]

  • Recital by Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall, music by Schumann, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. []

  • Riccardo Chailly conducts the original version of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, recorded at La Scala. [BR-KLassik]

  • Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra perform Haydn and Mozart in Geneva. []

  • Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein play recital for two pianos at Fondation Louis Vuitton. []

  • Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godounov' (original version) starring Bryn Terfel, from the BBC Proms. [France Musique]

  • Herbert Blomstedt leads the Berlin Philharmonic in Franz Berwald's Third Symphony and Dvorak. [France Musique]

  • From Festival de Royaumont, recital by harpsichordist Andreas Staier. [France Musique]

  • Katia and Marielle Labèque in Osvaldo Golijov's 'Nazareno' inter alia. [France Musique]

  • Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča with Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Sarrebruck-Kaiserslautern. [ARTE]

  • Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the ONF in the Concert de Noël, with all American music. [France Musique]

  • Tasmanian Symphony Orch, excerpts from 'Tristan und Isolde' with Nina Stemme, Stuart Skelton. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Das Rheingold' at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Die Walküre' (Part 1) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Die Walküre' (Part 2) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Siegfried' (Part 1) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Siegfried' (Part 2) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Götterdämmerung' (Part 1) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • 'Götterdämmerung' (Part 2) at Opera Australia in Melbourne. [ABC Classic]

  • Organist Peter Peinstingl and trumpeter Dávid Ottmár in music of Buxtehude, Tomasi, others. [Ö1]

  • Tugan Sokhiev, Berlin Philharmonic in Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Scheherazade'. [Ö1]

  • Tugan Sokhiev leads Berlin Philharmonic and pianist Nikolai Lugansky, Franck's Le chasseur maudit. [Ö1]

  • Recording of Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor' with Edita Gruberová and Alfredo Kraus. [Ö1]

  • Danish National Symphony Orchestra with violinist James Ehnes. [Ö1]

  • Dutilleux, Jarrell, Posadas,and Guerrero with Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire. [France Musique]

  • Greatest hits from Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre National de France. [France Musique]

  • The Quatuor Hermès plays music by Gilbert Amy, György Ligeti, and Joseph Haydn. [France Musique]

  • Pianists Wilhem Latchoumia and Jay Gottlieb play music by Stravinsky, Bach, Widmann, and Satie. [France Musique]


The Worst Mozart Biography Ever. Paul Johnson: «Mozart -- A Life»

My apologies, first of all, for the hyperbolic headline, another eyesore in an age of click-bait headlines. I hope to escape total damnation[1]* by having resisted to add that intelligence-insulting trope of a sub-header: “You won’t believe the mistake on page 8!” As every hyperbole, it’s nonsensical, on top of aesthetically displeasing: I have not read every Mozart biography there is, nor can I look into the future. It is perfectly possible that there has been or will be a worse Mozart biography; my faith in the limitlessness of human ingenuity (or whatever the antonym of ingenuity is) is considerable. In my defense, however, it is not very probable that there is a worse Mozart biography, past or future, that will take the cake from (Forbes contributor) Paul Johnson. In any case, can I make up for it by offering a more reasoned, tempered headline now? Perhaps:

“Paul Johnson’s ‘Mozart – A Life’: A Review”?

Incidentally you actually won’t believe the howler on page 8, but if I mentioned it now, you might be tempted to assume that I gleefully found one major error in Johnson’s biography and then hung a whole damnation on it. I would loathe for that impression to take hold. So let me proceed more methodically. Firstly by acknowledging my indebtedness too – indeed co-authorship of – George A. Pieler[2], who wrote this book review with me when we initially hoped to publish it in our co-written column, when the biography came out.

To accompany this review, there is a discography with comment on ionarts and a corresponding playlist on Spotify: Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

In my graduate school, Paul Johnson – the author of “Modern Times” was revered and much quoted. (Tells you something about the school, but that’s not the point.) I was by and large on board with the admiration, but even then the ad hominem attacks against Bertrand Russell, which struck me beneath Johnson to make, raised some warning flags. Now the distinguished commentator, historian, and critic has written “Mozart – A Life”, a slender and personal primer on Mozart if not a biography per se. Johnson, who has lately specialized in short primers on famous figures, styles this is as a new look, giving Mozart’s religion, marriage and career successes their due place.

After two-and-a-half centuries’ worth of biographies, commentaries, and conjecture, it would be bold to claim to present a new view of the composer. Johnson doesn’t, but he has interesting thoughts on Mozart the musician and shares a wealth of personal reactions to his music and life. He wields a seasoned pen and knows how to tell a tale. Unfortunately there are so many problems, factual and analytic, with this work that it is of questionable use for the Mozart neophyte and an exasperating affair for experienced Mozarteans.

Exasperating, because the light entertainment is interwoven with unwarranted hyperbole, tiring laundry lists of works, strange and unsubstantiated biases, wild speculations, and uncritical adoration of the subject. Several statements are plain wrong, others dubious or