Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Saverio Mercadante: Appealing symphonic music from an operatic master

Saverio Mercadante
Gran Sinfonia sopra motivi dell Stabat mater del celebre Rossini
Orchestra Sinfonic di Roma
Francesco La Vecchia, conductor
Giammarco Casani, clarinet

"Omaggion a Bellini and the Gran Sinfonia sopra motivi dello Stabat Mater del celeb re Rossini" owe a lot to their source material. Mercadante is an imaginative arranger, but its the quality of the tunes that carry these works.

The Seconda Sinfonia caratteristica napoletana reminds me somewhat of Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony. The Neopolitan melodies and rhythms are orchestrated in a similar fashion -- with two major differences. First, Mercadante's Sinfonia is shorter and lighter. Second, Mercadante's speaking the musical language of his own country, instead of intepreting it second-hand as Mendelssohn did.

"Garibaldi - Sinfonia a grand'orchstra sopra l'inno dei cacciatori delle Alpi" also interprets Italian folk music for the concert stage, but in a much more serious fashion. Mercadante's work celebrates Italian unification, giving the work greater emotional weight than the light hearted Second Sinfonia.

The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World

The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World 
Photography by Guillaume de Laubier
Text by Antoine Pecqueur
hardcover, 240 pages
Abrams Books

One of the many pleasures of attending operatic performances is enjoying the many beautiful venues–the great opera houses of the world. In pre-20th Century Europe building an opera house was seen as a tribute to the ruling dynasty.

The Semper Oper in Dresden, for example, will always be associated with the Elector August the Strong, a massive equestrian statute of whom still greats visitors to this greatest of all opera houses in Eastern Germany, and one of the finest in all of Europe.

Today the enormous cost of building and maintaining an opera house can be sustained only by government and patrons of vast wealth. The very idea of building a purely functional opera house is considered absurd. Despite recurring wars, revolutions, fires, and the final cataclysm of World War II, many of Europe’s great opera houses survived or have been restored to their former grandeur. Even Berlin, a city prostrate and largely destroyed in 1945, again has three opera houses, one of which, the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, is one of the most beautiful and impressive in all of Europe. Vienna, another defeated capital, could hardly be imagined without its magnificent opera house restored to its pre-war glory.

The world’s great opera houses have frequently been chronicled in photographs, posters, and lavishly illustrated books. The most recent of the latter is The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World, photographs by Guillaume de Laubier and text by Antoine Pecqueur (Abrams 2013). It is a large-format coffee-table book with superb photographs of the interiors and exteriors of 32 of the world’s finest opera houses, most of which are in Europe.

The two in the United States include one of my least favorite opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and one of my favorites, the Civic Opera House in Chicago. The Met, despite being the home of one of the finest opera companies in the world, is a vast barn of a place with mediocre acoustics. The Civic Opera House, also home to a very fine company, despite its large dimensions still retains a feeling of intimacy. Its art deco furnishings, such as decorative motifs in the form of stylized gilt sheaves of grain, exemplifies Chicago's Midwestern identity and noble architectural heritage.

Bayreuth could hardly be left out, though it is not grand in the tradition of Europe's other temples of operatic grandeur. Richard Wagner intended the Festspielhaus to exemplify his democratic principles, which were contrary to the perceptions of opera generally. The house that he built has an environment, both architectural and acoustic, that is unique in all the world.

Mention "opera" and one house immediately springs to mind: Teatro alla Scala in Milan, beautiful, extravagant, and steeped in the traditions of the art. No house has been the venue for the premieres of more of the enduring works of the operatic repertoire than this grande dame of all the opera world. It is the repository of Italy's cultural soul. After being heavily damaged by Allied bombing near the end of World War II, it was restored and opened a few years later and only recently reopened after a controversial renovation that has brought its technical capabilities up to the standard of more modern houses, like the Met.

The book features photographs of more recently constructed opera houses in Oslo and Copenhagen, worthy examples of Scandinavian architectural modernism. Opera houses and performance halls of all kinds are being built at a furious pace in China, which is using its new wealth to validate itself as a cultural destination for the world. Although none of the Chinese halls are featured in the book, later chronicles of the world's opera houses can hardly ignore them.

The photographs are beautiful, and the text is graciously written. The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World, belongs on the book shelves of all serious opera lovers.
-- WTJU Opera

Monday, January 27, 2014

Massenet: Ballet Music from the Operas

Massenet: Ballet Music
Barcelona Symphony Orchestra
Patrick Gallois, conductor

This release presents four ballet suites compiled from Massent operas. The most famous of these is "Thais," the origin of Massenet's greatest hit. The ballet music proves to be of similar quality, conveying the drama and the sensual nature of the title role, interspersed with moments of pious religiousity (there's an extended sequence for solo organ, for example).

The suite from "Herodiade" is in a similar vein, and no wonder -- the opera concerns Herod, Salome, and the death of John the Baptist. A good portion of this suite uses Jewish melodic turns to set the stage.

Lesser known are Massenet's operas "Bacchus" and "Le Cid." The former is based on Greek myth, and its ballet sequences are the most straight-forward of Massenet's works on this recording. By contrast, "Le Cid" is all about evoking the flavor of Spain (albeit filtered through a French sensibility).

Overall, this is fine orchestral music that provides a pleasant listening experience. Patrick Gallois conducts the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in a straight-forward fashion, letting the inherently dramatic nature of the music come through on its own. Perhaps, given the location of the orchestra, it's not surprising that the suite to "Le Cid" seems to sound a little more engaging.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kaufmann Sings Verdi

In this Verdi Bicentennial year, we are the beneficiaries of an abundance of recorded riches. Among them is Jonas Kaufmann's Verdi recital disc. He sings 12 (13 on the "deluxe edition" disc) of the Maestro's tenor arias, both familiar ("La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto) and less familiar ("Destatevi, o pietre. . . Giuri ognun questo canuto" from I masnadieri). All are sung by Kaufmann, who is in sumptuous voice, with consummate technical skill. The baritonal quality of his voice often belies the delicacy of his delivery. The German tenor proves himself a master of Italian style, but without most of the vocal and emotional excess that often typifies less skillful tenors in this repertoire.

Where to begin? Rarely is the entrance aria of Radamès from Aida, "Se quel guerrier io fossi! . . .Celeste Aida," sung with the concluding diminuendo as it was written by Verdi, much less with perfect messa di voce. On this disc, Kaufmann's performance rivals Corelli's legendary recording of the aria. If Kaufmann can manage the same feat on stage, he will bring down the house. Manrico's great aria, "Ah! si, ben mio. . . Di quella pira" from Il trovatore, is introduced with such delicacy that the thrilling cabaletto sounds like a hurricane is being released. The concluding top "C" is held long enough to bring any opera audience to its feet.

Among the amazing accomplishments that Kaufmann brings to Verdi is the contrast between the rich, burnished quality of his voice and the control and lyricism of his delivery. At times it is possible to imagine that he is a "pushed" baritone, until he unleashes the high notes. Extraordinary singing is on display throughout this disc. The two arias from Otello, "Dio! mi potevi scagliar" and "Niun mi tema" make any Verdi lover long for the day when Kaufmann takes up this great role on stage. This writer had the privilege and pleasure of seeing both Vickers and Domingo sing the role on stage, and Kaufmann shows every promise of being the next in that noble line of interpreters of Verdi's greatest tenor role. When and if Kaufmann sings Otello, I hope to be in the audience, wherever that may be.

While the conducting of Pier Giorgio Morandi is perfectly acceptable, the playing of the Orchestra dell'Opera di Parma is on the whole lackluster. But what singing!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Miklos Rozsa: String Quartets

Miklos Rozsa: String Quartets
Tippett Quartet

Miklos Rozsa's film scores are well-known. His classical compositions less so -- especially his chamber music. The Tippett Quartet perform his two string quartets and an early string trio, three works worthy of our attention.

The String Trio (1922) was written when Rosza was 15 and just starting his career in Vienna. Although not as polished as the quartets, the work shows Rozsa's talent for creating interesting melodies supported by lush harmonies was there from the first.

Listening to the 1950 String Quartet No. 1, I was reminded of Shostakovich's quartet writing. Rozsa's quartet is a strongly tonal work, but one with a decided edge to it. The biting unison passages to me had the same impact as those in Shostakovich's Op. 110 quartet.

Rosza's String Quaret No. 2 appeared 31 years after the first. It's the most prickly of the three works, though still very much neoromantic. The scherzo especially brims with good humor, and the andante melody is beautifully constructed, as one might expect.

The Tippett Quartet is a young ensemble. They have a clean, precise sound that can sometimes seem a little reserved. Perhaps that will soften over time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Warm, lively and regal!

We'll try to keep you warm and happy this Friday on Vivace.

Much of our first hour is music from nice, warm Spain, the Suite Espanola by Isaac Albeniz.

At 7 o'clock, we'll have a concerto from a popular composer, Josef Fiala, and a light-hearted work by Mozart.

After 8 o'clock, we will be putting on our very best outfits for some very regal music. We'll play a symphony written by a reigning European king, and then an overture conducted by another reigning European king! Music by Bach and Elgar will round out a warm, lively and regal edition of Vivace.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, this Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. This program will be available for replay through 2/7/14.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Starobin: New Music with Guitar, Vol. 8 - A personal program

New Music with Guitar, Vol. 8
David Starobin; Paul Lansky; Poul Ruders; George Crumb
David Starobin, guitar
Bridge Records

David Starobin's New Music with Guitar series has done much to expand the repertoire for the instrument. Volume 8 continues the same high standards set for composition and performance set by the previous volumes. Only this time it's personal.

It's sort of a Bridge family release. David Starobin, in addition to being the featured artist (and one of the composers), is also  the co-founder of Bridge Records. Bridge has long championed the compositions of Poul Ruders, and is releasing an on-going series of George Crumb's music. And all four composers share the same manager.

That collegial relationship gives the record, despite the disparity in styles, a unified and somewhat intimate-feeling program. (at least to my ears).

The album starts with David Starobin's "Nielsen Variations" for solo guitar. It's the most tonal of the selections, probably because of the source material. Starobin is an imaginative composer -- especially when he's writing for his own instrument. A delightful work from start to finish.

Paul Lansky's "Partita" for guitar and percussion, is quite accessible. Lanksy's music has a New York City feel to it -- not quite Broadway, but quite cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and full of bustling energy.

"Six Pages" by Poul Ruders is just that -- six short epigrams. The whole piece only takes about seven minutes to play. Still, these are no slight pieces. Ruders carefully constructs each "page" using minimal music resources to maximum effect.

"The Ghosts of Alhambra" is classic George Crumb. This work for baritone, guitar, and percussion reminds me somewhat of his "Madrigals" and "Ancient Voices of Children." It has that same atmospheric sound and use of extended techniques that gives Crumb's music its unique character.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Roberto Sierra: Sinfonia No. 4 -- Classical Latino

Roberto Sierra: Sinfonia No. 4
Nashville Symphony
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra writes in an original post-romantic style that reminds me of Villa-Lobos and Chavez -- but only a little. "Fandangos" which opens the album may be inspired by the music of Spain, but it's no pastiche. Sierra incorporates characteristic melodic turns into his music, giving it spice. The feel of the dance is there, making this a rousing curtain-raiser.

The Sinfonia No. 4 also has some Spanish elements in it. the third movement "Tiempo de Bolero" for example, emulates the rhythms of that dance. And the final movement uses gestures from Latino dance orchestra -- the piano playing rhythmic punctuations in octaves, and extensive use of Latin percussion, such as bongos, congas, and claves.

"Carnaval" is a set of five characteristic pieces, each one representing a fantastical monster. Each movement is a brilliant miniature, painting a vivid portrait of its subject through Sierra's skillful orchestrations.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Evelyn Glennie conjures up a great performance with Corgliano concerto

John Corigliano
Conjurer for percussion soloist and string orchestra
Vocalise for soprano and orchestra
Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Hila Plitmann, soprano
Albany Symphony Orchestra
David Allen Miller, conductor

This new recording brings together two unusual additions to John Corigliano's repertoire. "Conjurer" is a percussion concerto composed for Evelyn Glennie (who performs on this release). The work has six sections: three cadenzas, and three movements, labeled Wood, Metal, and Skin. Each movement uses percussion instruments only belonging to its own group.

Corigliano blends tonal and non-tonal percussion instruments with alacrity. Each cadenza leads into a movement where the string orchestra further develops the themes, along with the soloist. It's an effective work when done well -- and in this recording, it's done very well.

"Vocalise" is the older of the two works, being completed in 1999. This challenging work for soprano, electronics and orchestra plays against audience expectations. When the piece begins, it sounds like a typical contemporary work. The melody seems to skip all over the place, the electronics add a strangeness and artificiality to the sound, and the orchestra bloops and bleeps away with tone clusters and glissandi.

But very soon things start to change. Like a flower blossoming, the work opens up. The melody becomes more tonal, the electronics more subtle, and the ensemble more expansive. It ends quietly, having made the journey through the full potential of the human voice.

The Albany symphony performs admirably in both works. Soprano Hila Plitmann has a pure sustained tone that gives her performance an ethereal quality -- one in keeping with the intent of "Vocalise."


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Good News from American Orchestras

Two days ago, the Minnesota Orchestra finally approved a new three-year contract, ending a 15 month lockout that brought the major US orchestra to a standstill.  For those of us who were keeping watch throughout the impasse, this is definitely welcome news.  Although the orchestra can finally move forward and create music, it's important to look at the severe damage that has occurred.

To begin with, the return of the former music director, Osmo Vänskä, is still uncertain.  Aaron Jay Kernis also left his post as the Director of the Composer Institute, an innovative program within the Minnesota Orchestra that provided opportunities to up-and-coming composers throughout the country.  Kernis has previously stated he believes the Composer Institute will take a lot of reviving work to get it running efficiently once again, depending on whether or not the program is even continued.  His future with the program is also uncertain.  The lockout also resulted in more than 15 musicians leaving for other orchestras.  Finally, in spite of no concerts occurring and no musicians to pay, the Minnesota Orchestra managed to lose $1.1 million during its last fiscal year.

This is definitely a moment of truth for the Minnesota Orchestra.  It's plainly obvious they are a group of talented individuals (while the lockout was occurring, they were nominated for a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance).  However, the key to their future is how the organization chooses to run itself.  The issues that created the deadlock revolved around a deep mistrust and lack of understanding between the administrative Board and the members of the Orchestra.  Only time will tell whether they can work together and help the organization safely get back on its own two feet.

In spite of this uncertainty, they can find inspiration out there from other American orchestras.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike during the recession, and after what many saw as the death throes of a once great organization, everybody came out of talks with large pay cuts, but also more accessibility for the suffering citizens of the Motor City.  Last December saw the DSO finally balancing its budget for the first time since 2007.  And just yesterday, eight months ahead of schedule, the DSO ratified a new three-year contract

This positive work between administration and performers is just the vision the Minnesota Orchestra needs to take up.  Let's hope they can.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some intriguing birthdays!

This Friday on Vivace, we will celebrate some interesting musical birthdays, including those of three fine but rarely-heard composers, Johann Muthel, John Stanley and François Gossec.

Two other important men feature in Friday's line-up.  We'll include some music of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, on the anniversary of his appointment as Prime Minister of Poland.  He was a composer who became a politician.  And at around 8 o'clock, you'll hear a unique string quartet by another birthday celebrant, a politician who became a composer, the man who, among other things, discovered the Gulf Stream and invented the lightning rod and bifocals.  

We start with an hour of Mozart's music, some of it arranged by Beethoven.

Altogether, we can promise you and interesting and delightful three hours of music this Friday.  As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company from 6-9 am for Vivace, here on WTJU.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. This program will be available for replay through 1/31/14,

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

University of Kansas Wind Ensemble excels with Glass/Fairouz release

Philip Glass: Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra
Mohammed Fairouz: Symphony No. 4, 'In the Shadow of No Towers'
University of Kansas Wind Ensemble
Paul W. Popiel, conductor

The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble turns in an excellent recording of some challenging and memorable compositions. this university ensemble is first-rate, especially the soloists. The ensemble blend is seamless, and the playing rock-solid.

Philip Glass' concerto, Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, works quite well in this transcription for wind ensemble. Glass' sparse ensemble writing sounds even more so without strings. The result is a work with a razor-sharp edge to it.

Mohammed Fairouz's Symphony No. 4 was based on the Art Spiegelman graphic novel "In the Shadow of the Towers." Fortunately, one doesn't have to be familiar with the source to make sense of the music. Fairoz's composition uses the more traditional voicings found in wind ensemble literature. But that doesn't make this work any less original. His take on Spiegelman's take on 9/11 juxtaposes the known and familiar with the strange and unknown.

Although the work deals with an emotionally heavy topic, it does so in an authentic fashion. No maudlin tune to mourn the fall of the towers, nor uplifting Coplandesque hymn at the end to signify hope. Fairouz uses a sophisticated musical language to convey the complex and sometimes conflicting emotions 9/11 sparked. And I think he succeeds.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Machaut: Songs from "Le Voir Dit" - Intimate music in an intimate performance

Machaut: Songs from Le Voir Dit
The Orlando Consort

Machaut’s poem Le Voir Dit, written when he was in his sixties, recounts a love affair between himself and a young girl. Machaut included several pieces of music to help illustrate the text – a true multi-media medieval work of art.

This is spare, yet intimate music. Machaut was acknowledged to be one of the greatest poets and composers of his age – and that dual mastery is apparent. The 20-minute Le Lay De Bon Esperance, for example, is set for solo voice. Yet the text and music so perfectly match that the emotion of the poem is communicated even when the listener (such as myself) understands not a word.

The polyphonic songs, such as Se Pour Ce Muir, are textbook examples of ars nova. Macheaut uses isorhythms to develop each line independently. And yet all the voices work together, making the sound an organic whole that is as stark and beautiful as the gothic architecture that inspired it.

The Orlando Consort is recorded with microphones closely placed. It’s a very clean record with virtually no ambiance. And in this case, that’s a good thing. Unlike Machaut’s religious works, meant to be sung in the resonant spaces of cathedrals, these songs are private messages to the reader of Le Voir Dit. Which is how the Orlando Consort performs them.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Garrick Ohlsson: Liszt with Fluency and Finesse

Franz Liszt, Vol. 2
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Bridge Records

The challenge with playing Franz Liszt's piano music is finding that balance between technical brilliance and insightful musicianship. The technical challenges in the music are huge -- which is why so many pianists take them on. If you can play Liszt without breaking a sweat, you can play just about anything. But what sometimes gets lost is the reason for all those notes.

Liszt had tremendous piano chops, and he used them to express his musical ideas. Garrick Ohlsson understands that, which makes his new recording of Liszt piano works so exciting.

Mastery of the music is a given with Ohlsson. He moves beyond that to get to the essence of the compositions, and expresses those insights clearly and effectively. In "Adelaide," for example, one hears Beethoven's voice coming through Liszt's arrangement. Ditto with the "Fantasy and Fugue." Bach-inspired, Liszt-arranged, both composers are given equal weight in Ohlsson's performance.

Purely Liszt compositions, such as "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" have plenty of showy drama -- but it's not over wrought. Ohlsson keeps the fireworks in check, delivering one cohesive musical work after another. This may well be the Liszt album for people who don't like Liszt.

The recording itself adds greatly to the enjoyment. Ohlsson performs on a Bosendorfer Imperial, which has an extended bass register. That gives the overall piano sound added weight. Yet the instrument's recorded clearly with just enough resonance to give it a natural sound.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Telemann Double Concerti a welcome reminder

Georg Philipp Telemann
Double Concerti for Winds & Strings
Rebel ; Jörg-Michael Schwarz conductor
Bridge Records

I always forget about Telemann. Unlike his contemporaries Bach and Handel, he didn't write anything that became a breakout hit, like the "Air on a G String," or "Water Music." But his music was all of a very high quality, full of inventiveness and skill -- as Rebel reminded me with this new recording of Telemann double concerti.

Played with authentic instruments, Rebel presents these works as fresh, robust compositions, brimming with energy. And that makes this a very appealing recording.

The soloists balance nicely between authentic performance practices and individual expression. As a result, these concertos sound like living, breathing works rather than museum pieces.

Recording Rebel in a church was an excellent call. The ambiance is well-suited to the ensemble, vibrant enough to give the music depth, yet intimate enough to hear every detail.

This release is a welcome reminder, indeed.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sharon Bezaly - Great Works for Flute and Orchestra

Great Works for Flute and Orchestra
Sharon Bezaly, flute
Residentie Orkest Den Haag
Neeme Jarvi, conductor

Sharon Bezaly has been steadily gaining attention in the classical world, and this recording simply adds to her reputation.

Bezaly plays with a very clear, pure tone that's well-suited to the material in this collection. Her command of the flute is exemplary. She maintains control in the extremes of the upper register, keeping the sound warm and rounded, never edgy or shrill. Her agility and precision make difficult passages seem easy -- and makes them easy to follow.

The "Great Works for Flute and Orchestra" are a mixture of pieces originally written for that configuration, and some interesting arrangements.Original works include concertos by Carl Nielsen and Carl Reinecke, a concertino by Cecile Chaminade, and the Poem for flute and orchestra by Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Arrangements include Tchaikovsky's largo and allegro, and the perennial encore piece, "Flight of the Bumblebee." Lennox Berkeley's orchestration of Francis Poulenc's Flute Sonata retains character of the work, fleshing out the structure in an interesting fashion.

The Nielsen concerto is the most aggressive of the works in the program, and one Bezaly plunges into with great relish. By contrast, she performs the Chaminade concertino with a charming tenderness entirely appropriate to the work.

Neeme Jarvi draws a warm, sympathetic sound from the  Resident Orchestra of the Haag, and BIS (as always) delivers a natural-sounding recording. Although available for download, I recommend the SACD version if you have the playback equipment. The subtleties of Bezaly's phrasing (and remarkable breath control) can only be fully appreciated in this higher fidelity format.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Penderecki: Piano Concerto "Resurrection"

Krysztof Penderecki: Piano Concerto "Resurrection"
Florian Uhlig, piano
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Lukasz Borowicz, conductor
Hänssler Classic

The events of 9/11 triggered the creation of many musical works. Some are only of passing interest, while others, such as Pendereicki's piano concerto have taken on a life of their own. This new recording presents the revised version of this concerto. In 2007 Penderecki rewrote the final movement, and in the process made it a more hopeful and inspiring work.

Although some of the tone clusters and and atonal gestures reminded me of his 1964 "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima," Pendericki's piano concerto is a vastly different work. I'd almost classify it as post-romantic. It has the same sprawling bigness of a Rachmaninoff concerto. Although there's not a discernible cadenza, the piano plays almost non-stop throughout the work with virtuoso runs and chords. And although there are sections of great intimacy and delicacy, there are even more where the full orchestra's playing with maximum volume.

Florian Uhlig plays with the right emotional tone. He's a brilliant technician, of course, but he also understands that this is a work of deep emotion. Uhlig effectively communicates that emotion with virtually every note. And conductor Likasz Borowicz is right there with him. The work has some sudden shifts and juxtapositions, but under Borowicz' direction, there's never a misstep.

The revised "Resurrection" concerto is a powerful work that should find a place in the standard repertoire. Yes, it's that good -- and so is this recording.