Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dussek Symphonies: Comfort Music

Dussek: Four Symphonies 
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra
Aapo Hakkinen, conductor

Naxos' new release presents four smphonies of Franz Xaver Dussek, who was a close friend of Mozart. After hearing the works, that fact didn't surprise me. There's a distinct similarity in sound.

Dussek was one of several talented composers living and working in Bohemia in the 1760s-1770s,, and his music is very much of its time and place. Just like the early and middle symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, Dussek's are all in clearly delineated forms. And Dussek's melodies similarly drive steadily towards their cadence points, pause briefly, and start the process over again.

That's not to say these symphonies sound trite -- far from it. Dussek captures that same spirit of excitement one hears in Mozart's works of 1770's (when the symphonies on this release were written). Orchestration is light, and the music zips along, more concerned about elegant turns of phrase than expressing deep emotion. While Dussek follows the forms of the day, he does so with imagination. There's nothing cliche about these works, just a feeling of familiarity.

Three of the symphonies follow the three-movement fast-slow-fast structure of the early classical period. They're short, to the point, and entertaining. The last work on the disc, the Sinfonia in B-flat major (altner Bb3), is more substantial. It has four movements, and sounds more like Haydn than Mozart. The themes are a little more substantial, and more fully developed.

Aapo Hakkinen and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra find just the right balance with this music. The ensemble is crisp, and plays with a lightness that keeps these works buoyant.

I found these symphonies thorough enjoyable. Comfort food isn't gourmet dining, but it makes you feel good when you eat it. Dussek isn't Mozart, but his music made me feel good when I heard it. So let's just call these symphonies comfort music -- and call this a positive review.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Report for Verona

The Festival at the Arena di Verona is one of the great operatic spectacles. Staged in the vast Roman arena in Verona, the stage is probably the world's largest. The program for 2012 was unique in the Festival's long history, since it featured the first Mozart opera to be staged there, Don Giovanni, in a production by Franco Zeffirelli.

For once the venue was worthy of Zeffirelli's tendency to monumentalism. The Don of Erwin Schrott fairly dominated the stage, capably aided and abetted by his somewhat loyal retainer Leporello, sung and acted with verve by Marco Vinco. Rarely does Don Ottavio threaten to steal the show, but the creamy lyricism of Mozart's music as sung by Saimir Pirgu almost managed to accomplish the feat. The ladies were sung capably but with no particular distinction, and Daniel Oren's conducting was nothing if not lively, almost to a fault. The performance of July 12 was interrupted briefly by some sprinkles of rain in Act II, but it failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the artists or of the public's reception of a fine performance.

Aida is a fixture at Verona, and this season was no exception. Gianfranco di Bosio's staging was appropriately grand, but the singing was only adequate. Unfortunately, Dolora Zajick, the eagerly awaited Amneris, cancelled the July 15 performance due to illness. Jorge de Léon sang Celeste Aida with distinction, however. Lucrecia Garcia, who sang Aida, demonstrated an appalling moment of amateurism by stepping out of character and waiving to the audience after only an adequate rendition of Ritorna vincitor!.

Audiences love Carmen, and Franco Zeffirelli's new production at Verona was no exception. The staging was appropriately spectacular, with lighting design effects that cannot be equaled elsewhere, given the vast venue of the Arena. Anita Rachvelishvili, who sang Carmen, has a vast voice and knows how to use it. She is originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, and she has not yet reached her 30th birthday. Although not exactly a refined singer at this stage in her career, she has the dusky good looks and rich mezzos-oprano voice to make her a convincing Carmen. Marco Berti sang Don José's music with his customary suavity. Julian Kovatchev's choices of tempo ran from the brisk to the frantic. For color, spectacle, and sheer fun this Carmen will be difficult to equal.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Holmboe Chamber Symphonies -- Miniature Gems

Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Symphonies
Lapland Chamber Orchestra 
John Storgards, conductor 
Dacapo SACD 

I wasn’t that familiar with Vagn Holmboe’s music before I received this collection of his chamber symphonies. But after listening to them for a while, I would definitely like to explore the repertoire of this Danish composer further.

Written in 1951, the first of Holmboe’s three chamber symphonies shows a composer in full command of his material. 1 somewhat spare and lean at the beginning, building inexorably as it moves towards its big climax at near the end of the work, before finishing quietly with a reappearance of material from the opening movement.

The second chamber symphony is subtitled “Elegy.” Overall it’s a quiet, atmospheric work. Holmboe makes effective use of mallet percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, which brings a hint of unearthliness to the mix. Holmboe was a conservative composer, using a primarily tonal language, but the somber harmonies and downward-turning chromatic melodic motifs almost sound atonal.

Holbmoe’s third chamber symphony, “Frise” is actually an orchestration of a choral work of the same name. Both were written to commemorate the unveiling a new frieze at a school. Although technically an occasional work, it’s much more substantial than just a “grand opening” fanfare. Holmboe digs deep into the ensemble, bringing instruments to the fore in groups of two and three to spotlight a melody. It’s a kaleidoscope of instrumental timbres changing in slow motion. The work has six movements, which, with a playing time of about 20 minutes, gives it a somewhat episodic quality and sounding very different in character than the first two works on the disc.

John Storgards leads the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in a compelling reading of these works. The performances sound fresh and engaging – even more so when played on an SACD player.