Salon Mexicano (CD review)

Music of Castro, Villanueva, Ponce, and Rolon. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille CDR 900000 132.

Nowadays, we tend to look askance at “salon music” as a sort of shallow, lowbrow attraction for little old ladies at their afternoon tea. But throughout most of the nineteenth century, back when people didn’t have radios, television, Internet, CD’s, DVD’s, BD’s, or any other D’s at their disposal, they listened to music the old-fashioned way--live. And that meant listening to it in a theater, concert hall, or church for big orchestral or choral works or a living room or drawing room, a “salon,” for many chamber and solo works. The latter, understandably, became a more economical proposition. For example, Chopin and Liszt were but two of the illustrious pianist/composers who found performing in the intimate setting of the salon attractive.

The present disc offers twenty “salon” selections from four Mexican pianists/composers, exquisitely performed by the celebrated international pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. The music runs high to waltzes and other dances, rhapsodic and melodic.

The program begins with the Caprice Vals, Op. 1, by Ricardo Castro (1864-1907). It’s a beautiful, gently flowing waltz that a Viennese composer could as easily have written. Osorio provides a delicate touch and a lightly exaggerated lilt that gives a delightful animation and warmth to the piece. It’s gorgeous. In addition, we get six other pieces by Castro, all of them in a similar vein.

The next composer is Filipe Villanueva (1862-1893), represented first by his Suena Dorado:  Mazurka. There is genuine grace and charm here in a genteel but lively setting. Again, Osorio shows us how a performer can conjure up music that is sweet, refined, and lyrical yet powerful and concentrated at the same time. This is more than mere lightweight entertainment; it’s art. Further down on the program, we get five more such pieces from Villaneueva.

Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1948) follows, the most-recent composer of the lot, with his 8th Mazurca de Salon. The pieces by Ponce, of which there are four, sound like the most seriously “classical” art music on the program. They haven’t got quite the popular appeal of some of the other works on the disc, but they can impart a more lasting impression. As before, Osorio is expressive, nuanced, and singing in his piano playing.

The final piece is the only work on the disc from Jose Rolon (1876-1945), a contemporary of Ponce.  Rolon dedicated his Vals Capricho, Op. 14, to pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Its variations on the familiar tune “Over the Waves” by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas takes flight in a most virtuosic manner and closes the show in high style.

The titles of most of the pieces say it all: sentimental, melancholic, romantic, and poetic. The result is music both soothing and stimulating. Add Osorio’s pianistic command, and it seems to me a winning combination.

This is a recording from audio engineer Bill Maylone, so you know it’s going to be good. Cedille recorded the program in 2012 in the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio of 98.7 WFMT, Chicago, Illinois. The sound is of the reach-out-and-touch-it kind, where if you close your eyes, there is a piano in the room with you. The sonics are clear and clean, miked at a moderately close distance, with strong impact and articulation. It’s one of the best piano recordings you’re likely to hear.

JJP

Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete (SACD review)

Also, Petrushka, complete. Robert Craft, Philharmonia Orchestra. Naxos SACD 6.110081.

The benefits of this issue are that you get both the Firebird and Petrushka ballets complete, some seventy-nine minutes’ worth of music, on a single, dual-layered hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, playable in both two-channel stereo and five-channel surround sound. And all at a most-reasonable mid price. Or at least it was available until Naxos apparently decided to withdraw the SACD and go only with the two-channel CD. Still, I’m sure the CD is equally fine.

Moreover, the Firebird is a world-première recording of Stravinsky’s original 1910 version as never heard before. Robert Craft, the distinguished American conductor who was friends with and worked alongside of Stravinsky during the last years of the composer’s life, leads the equally prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra. Craft tells us in an accompanying booklet insert that “this is the first recording of the complete original version of Stravinsky’s most popular work.... Among the many differences between the present recording and its predecessors is the restoration of two long, valveless trumpets on stage, each playing a single note standing out above the entire orchestra.” The MusicMasters label originally recorded Firebird in 1996 and Petruchka a year later, both of them in multichannel and both of them eventually showing up on the present Naxos disc.

All well and good, plus we get a pair of nicely executed performances of both ballets. The Firebird, especially, comes across as both ardent and comforting. My guess is that Craft was attempting to create the ethereal quality of a fairy tale here, which works reasonably well. However, the rambunctious entrance of Kastchei doesn’t seem to generate as much excitement as I would have liked. Maybe my listening was a tad unfair, though, because by coincidence, at about the same time I heard these recordings, I had just listened again to Mercury’s reissue of Antal Dorati’s celebrated 1959 recording of the Firebird,  also on a multichannel SACD and for only a few dollars more than this disc. The difference in sheer vitality seemed astounding to me, Dorati stirring the blood and Craft simply competent.

The sound of the two ballets on this Naxos SACD hybrid probably appears slightly different only because Stravinsky orchestrated the two pieces differently. The Firebird seems a bit warmer, cushier, and more lavish than Petrushka since the composer scored it for more instruments. Otherwise, both works display a wide stereo spread, an excellent orchestral depth, and a prodigious bass drum. However, played in two-channel stereo as I listened to them, they seemed a touch too resonant, with a few too many reflections that might have come off better in multichannel. The result is a somewhat reverberant sound that does not provide as much inner detail as, say, the aforementioned Mercury recording, which is in a class by itself sonically and interpretively.

JJP

Bizet: Carmen, complete (CD review)

Magdalena Kozena, Jonas Kaufmann, Genia Kuhmeier, Kostas Smoriginas; Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. EMI 50999 4 40285 2 7 (2-disc set).

Because so many people these days, particularly younger people, expect to get their music free or nearly free, and because the weak world economy has been making it hard for most orchestras to produce records, we are seeing fewer and fewer major symphony ensembles in new recordings. When we do get a few new recordings, the orchestras themselves most often release them on their own label, or they record them in front of a live audience in which instance the paying folk essentially subsidize some of the costs. So, it’s a pleasure to hear a new, 2012 recording such as this one from a big record label like EMI of one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic.

French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) would never live to see how popular his final completed opera would become, the work seeing a poor opening in the year of the composer’s early death. Nevertheless, nowadays Carmen is among the handful of most well-known operas the world over, the epitome of opera for a lot of opera fans and non-fans alike.

Still, to compete, any new Carmen contender has to come up against formidable rivals. We have great recordings of it from conductors like Karajan (DG and RCA), Bernstein (DG), Beecham (EMI), Solti (Decca), Abbado (DG), Plasson (EMI), Petrie (EMI), Sinopoli (Teldec), and others. Does Rattle’s new recording make the cut and join the ranks of greatness, a Carmen for the ages?  Maybe, maybe not.

Set in Seville, Spain, during the early nineteenth century, the opera’s narrative concerns a beautiful and tempestuous Gypsy girl, Carmen (Magdalena Kozena), who lavishes her affections on a young, unsophisticated soldier, Don Jose (Jonas Kaufmann). He becomes so enamoured with Carmen, he spurns his former lover, deserts his regiment, and joins Carmen and a crew of smugglers. When Carmen subsequently rejects him and takes up with a bullfighter, Don Jose becomes so enraged with jealousy, he murders her. After Bizet’s own death, critics and audiences found enough drama and romance in the piece to help transform French opera comique into the emerging Italian realism of Verdi and Puccini.

Over the years there have been any number of scores used in the opera’s production, Bizet having died before he could make any absolutely final editing of it. According to a booklet note, the text used for this EMI recording “is based on Fritz Oeser’s revolutionary 1964 Barenreiter edition, which was the first to restore not only the original dialogue but virtually all of the cut material, especially in the long first act.”

Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation overall sounds quite refined, smooth, and elegant, yet it seems to lack a little something in sheer earthiness, in rawness and swagger. In other words, it sounds a mite too pat, too polished, too safe, at least for my taste, even though his tempos are on the moderately quick side. This is not surprising to me, though, as I have found the conductor’s performances getting progressively more sedate ever since he took over the principal conductorship of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002.

The choruses--the choir and children’s choir of the German State Opera, Berlin--sound most cultured, letter perfect in their execution. The children, markedly, sing in charmingly sweet voice.

When Czech mezzo-soprano Kozena enters as the seductress Carmen, we hear a beautifully dramatic reading of the role, without being quite as sensual as some fans may like. The Habanera flows in wonderfully lyrical fashion, yet neither the singer nor conductor quite manages to wring from it the last ounce of lusty sinuousness.

Tenor Kaufmann as the naive, ill-fated Don Jose seems well suited to his part. When he and Kozena finally get to sing together, they make a good pair. However, I still don’t hear some of the sexy allure of competing versions. That is, this Carmen may not be as overtly melodramatic as it could be. Rattle and his players perhaps try too hard to tame it.

The celebrated Toreador tune, featuring baritone Kostas Smoriginas, comes off well, with a full-bodied tone and authoritative air. Indeed, it is one of the highlights of the set, not counting a few lifelike stage effects.

Nevertheless, things get more exciting as Rattle finally warms to the project and the closing action commences. It’s almost as if the conductor were holding everything back for a big finish. I suppose it’s as the Bard wrote in his famous play of the same name: “All’s well that ends well.”

The recording, which EMI made at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in 2012, is slightly more distant and veiled than I would have expected--not excessively so but noticeably. Individual instruments like castanets come over with excellent clarity and attack, but the full orchestra seems less than transparent. There is a relatively narrow stereo spread, too. I mean, half a century ago EMI made a more open recording for Beecham and his crew, so it’s hard to convince me that the state-of-the-art in audio recording has advanced that much over the years. Anyway, the sound is dynamic, with a wide range; and voices, all-important in an opera recording, are fairly natural. It helps a bit to play this one a tad louder than usual in order to nudge it into coming alive. Then it’s fine, and you’ll enjoy it.

EMI managed to get the opera onto just two discs, which they package in a hardbound Digipak-type container. It’s most handsome, with the discs inserted into sleeves on the inside front and back covers. Bound within the covers are more than sixty pages of text and pictures. However, the company do not include a libretto; for that, you have to go to EMI’s Web site and download it. This appears to me a massive inconvenience, not only to download but to store afterwards. Oh, well, the package is attractive in any case.

JJP

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 (CD review)

Adrian Leaper, Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria. Arte Nova ANO 304750.

Of Mahler’s nine, ten, or ten-and-a-half symphonies (take your pick), it’s the Seventh that often gets the least love. Along with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Seventh forms a middle trio of Mahler symphonies, all of them purely orchestral, with the Seventh being the oddest of the group. Even more so than most of Mahler’s works, its five movements are open to multiple interpretations, and with seemingly every conductor on the planet having recorded them, we get a variety of readings. I remember one critic long ago explaining that the symphony was a recounting by Mahler of his trip to the countryside, complete with his packing of suitcases, traveling along rural roads, along pastures, and on to his destination. Other critics see its five movements more generally as a journey from dusk until dawn or a nightly walk into morning, a kind of eccentric, extended nocturne.

This Arte Nova reissue of the Seventh from conductor Adrian Leaper performing the work with the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra brings us yet another realization of the music, this one at low cost. At best, however, I would describe Leaper’s performance as cautious. It’s certainly sturdy and straightforward, but not entirely distinctive.

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1904-05, and admirers sometimes refer to it as Lied der Nacht (“Song of the Night”), probably in part because of its two Nachtmusik (“Night Music”) movements as well as its stylistic evocation of night.

Leaper opens the long first movement with an abundant degree of atmosphere and then moves into the whirling night music with relative ease. Mahler certainly intended it as a movement of contrasts, from its erratic nervousness to its moments of extreme stillness, and Leaper makes the transitions well enough, if not so memorably.

My own favorite performance of the Seventh Symphony is by Bernard Haitink in an old Philips analogue recording now out of print. Haitink, too, might face the criticism of being too straightforward, but he had the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra working with him, making the music glisten and shine like the stars. By comparison, Leaper’s Gran Canaria Philharmonic is merely competent.

Of the two Nachtmusik movements that flank the central Scherzo, the first one is more jaunty, a march into the night, and the second a more serene serenade. Leaper takes both of them almost perfunctorily; they’re still curiously lovely, just not particularly distinguished. I would like to have heard either a little more of Mahler or a little more of Leaper in this music. Instead, it’s all a bit detached and bland.

Leaper’s handling of the Scherzo, while not as imaginative or energetic as I’ve heard, is probably the best thing about the performance. The conductor creates and sustains typically bizarre Mahlerian moods that range from humorous to grotesque to sinister.

The lively, vigorous finale brings us back into daylight, and whether Mahler meant for us to take it in a positive manner or ironically is anybody’s guess. Surely, “the dawn comes up like thunder,” as Kipling wrote. This final chapter is mainly light and cheery, which is what we hear from Leaper and his forces, with some mild grandeur along the way. Mahler and Leaper end the work in a brief, shining moment of glory that remains quite satisfying.

Arte Nova made the recording in 1995 at the “La Nave,” El Cebadal, Los Palmas de Gran Canaria, about a year after Maestro Leaper took over as Chief Conductor of the Filarmonica. The sound, miked at a moderate distance, displays a fairly good depth of field, a favoring of the upper midrange in the frequency balance, and a slight edge to the strings. The dynamic range and impact could be stronger, clarity greater, bass deeper, and resonance less. So, while the sonics are not at all bad, they are, like Leaper’s performance, sort of middle-of-the-road. Even the cowbells sound barely audible in the distance.

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, August 26, 2012

Six Scenes from Composers & the Voice

Concert and dialogue with AOP composer fellows
Mentors: John Corigliano, Daron Hagen, John Musto, Tobias Picker, Kaija Saariaho, and Stephen Schwartz

A dominatrix dungeon, a Nazi concentration camp, and the end of space and time are just three of the places audiences will find themselves at when AOP (American Opera Projects) presents Six Scenes 2012, concert readings from operas-in-development created during AOP's Composers & the Voice (C&V) program. Performances will be held on Friday, September 7 and Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 7:30PM, at South Oxford Space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, home of AOP. Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students/seniors and are available at www.operaprojects.org or at the door.

Six emerging composers were chosen in 2011 by AOP to spend a year writing for the operatic voice. The Six Scenes program for voice(s) and piano, represents compositions created during the free fellowship - "The Waiting Woman" by Ronnie Reshef, "Stop and Frisk" by Sidney Marquez Boquiren, "Companionship" by Rachel Peters, "Safe Word" by Robert Paterson, "Decoration" by Mikael Karlsson, and "Male Identity" by Zach Redler and Sara Cooper. The composers will discuss with the audience what it takes to create new operas that range from topical subjects like repercussions from a stop-and-frisk incident to the dark humor of an emotionally delicate woman's relationship to her sentient baking dough.

Members of the AOP Resident Ensemble of Singers for the 11-12 season will perform the scenes: sopranos Amy Shoremount-Obra (Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera), mezzo-sopranos Rebecca Ringle (Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Washington National Opera) and Rosalie Sullivan (Carnegie Hall, SF Opera Merola program), tenor Brandon Snook (Cincinnati Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Sarasota Opera), baritone Jorell Williams (New York City Center Encores!, Caramoor International Music Festival, Ravinia Festival), and bass Justin Hopkins (Fort Worth Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia). Supporting on piano will be Composers & the Voice Music Directors Jeanne-Minette Cilliers, Mila Henry and Kelly Horsted.

Selected scenes from this concert will perform later in September as part the inaugural BEAT (Brooklyn Emerging Artists in Theater) Festival www.beatbrooklyn.com and in March 2013 at the Manhattan School of Music as part of the New American Opera Previews: "From Page to Stage."

Previous Six Scenes by C&V alumni produced in the Brooklyn-based bi-annual series featured the first performances of Jack Perla's Love/Hate (World Premiere 2012, San Francisco Opera at ODC Theater) and Gregory Spears's Paul's Case (World Premiere Spring 2013, in Washington, DC and New York).

--Matt Gray, American Opera Projects

Out of Nowhere: World-Premiere Recordings of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Wward-Winning Violin Concerto and Nyx to be released October 16 on Deutsche Grammophon
The works are performed by violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Salonen embarks on U.S. tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra this fall; additional engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony this season.

On October 16, Deutsche Grammophon will release Out of Nowhere, a collection of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto and Nyx, featuring Leila Josefowicz and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Trained in the austere world of European modernism and enjoying a close relationship with the sunny city of Los Angeles, Salonen moves freely between contemporary idioms in his compositions. Combining intricacy and technical virtuosity with playful rhythmic and melodic innovation, the two works on Out of Nowhere deliver Salonen's distinctive sound. The title of the disc comes from the pencil markings Josefowicz and Salonen wrote over the first movement of the original score for the Violin Concerto.

Both the conductor and composer of these pieces, Esa-Pekka Salonen holds a rare place of being equally invested in these disciplines. His understanding of both sides of the podium is on full display here. The Violin Concerto was written at the end of his 17-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, consequently, was crafted with a complete understanding of orchestra and orchestration. Personally, the composer notes, the work was in many ways, "a summary of my experiences as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50." Salonen has also written that the concerto is "not reflecting upon what was, but something that might still come, for my own sake, if not for anything else." The piece was written specifically for the soloist on the disc, Leila Josefowicz, with whom Salonen enjoys a close relationship. Josefowicz has performed the concerto in Paris, Stockholm, Lisbon, London, Berlin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Brussels, Luxembourg, Dortmund, Ferrara and New York City with the composer conducting.

The Violin Concerto was critically acclaimed upon its 2009 premiere: The Los Angeles Times called the piece "pure, euphoric poetry with a singular sound and voice;" the Boston Globe reported that the work was "a fascinating hybrid, a combination of European modernist rigor and polyglot Californian cool;" and the New York Times cheered that it sounded "like some hip West Coast answer to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring." In 2010, the concerto was used in a Peter Martins premiere for the New York City Ballet, with Salonen conducting and Josefowicz performing. In 2012, Salonen's Violin Concerto won the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, one of the most prestigious international awards for new music.

Nyx received its world premiere in February 2011 at the final concert of Festival Présences Paris with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Salonen's first fully orchestral piece since 2005, Nyx was commissioned by Radio France, Carnegie Hall, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Centre and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Named after the Greek goddess of night, Nyx is a mysterious and shadowy rumination. In program notes, Salonen writes, "Rather than utilizing the principle of continuous variation of material, as is the case mostly in my recent music, Nyx behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their properties throughout the piece while the environment surrounding them keeps changing constantly. Mere whispers grow into roar; an intimate line of the solo clarinet becomes a slowly breathing broad melody of tutti strings at the end of the 18-minute arch of Nyx."

--Amanda Ameer, First Chair Promotion

Lang Lang and Friends in Concert, Hosted By Alec Baldwin
Performances by renowned pianist Lang Lang with Joshua Bell, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Oh Land, and surprise special guests, October 30, 2012, at Carnegie Hall. One night only concert benefiting the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.

The international megastar pianist Lang Lang will give a special one-night only concert, hosted by Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award-winning entertainer Alec Baldwin, at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium on Tuesday, October 30 at 6:30PM to raise funds for the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell, Grammy and Tony Award-winning jazz artist Dee Dee Bridgewater and Danish singer-songwriter Oh Land will make special guest appearances along with other surprise star performances to be announced.

Lang Lang will offer solo piano works by Frederic Chopin which are featured on his new Sony Classical recording “The Chopin Album,” available October 9, 2012. For the first time ever Joshua Bell will join him in a performance of the Grieg Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in C minor, and Dee Dee Bridgewater will sing Broadway hits. Six child prodigies from three different continents, who have been supported by the Foundation in their music studies, will perform alongside Lang Lang. The program will be followed by a gala dinner. All proceeds from the event will benefit The Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which the celebrated pianist created to enrich the lives of children through a deeper understanding and enjoyment of classical music and to inspire and financially support the next generation of musicians.

Since 2008, the mission of The Lang Lang International Music Foundation is to educate and inspire the next generation of classical music lovers and performers by cultivating tomorrow’s top pianists, delivering music education, and building a young audience through live music experiences. Lang Lang’s commitment to music education is at the core of the Foundation’s programs designed to cultivate tomorrow’s top pianists and build a young audience through memorable and exciting live music experiences. The vision of the Foundation is based on one simple principle: music is a universal language of the world. For more information about the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, visit www.langlangfoundation.com.

Lang Lang, the megastar pianist has played sold out recitals and concerts in every major city in the world and is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by every top international orchestra. Lang Lang has appeared in Time Magazine's annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. His 2008 Grammy's performance was broadcast live to 45 million viewers worldwide. More than 5 billion people watched Lang Lang play at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. His influence transcends the classical music world. His audience includes millions of young forward-thinking and ambitious people. His brand is associated with cutting-edge technology and social responsibility. He represents today's open, fast and connected world.

Listings Information:
Acclaimed pianist Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Oh Land, host Alec Baldwin and other stars TBA play Carnegie Hall, Tuesday, October 30 at 6:30 PM. The program will be followed by a gala dinner. All proceeds from the event will benefit The Lang Lang International Music Foundation. Via Subway: take the N/R/W to 57th Street, the F to 57th Street or the 1/A/C/B/D to Columbus Circle. Tickets, which are $18-$109, are available through www.carnegiehall.org, 212-247-7800, or at the Carnegie Hall box office. Student discount tickets are available at the box office with valid ID on the day of the concert. Discounts for groups with 10-25 are available by contacting 212-903-9705 or groupsales@carnegiehall.org.

For more information about Lang Lang visit www.langlang.com.

--Elisa Peimer, Sony Masterworks

Pasion (CD review)

Milos Karadaglic, guitar. Christoph Israel, Studioorchester der Europaischen FilmPhilharmonie. DG B0017000-02.

Following the successful debut release of his album Mediteranno in 2011, Montenegrin guitarist Milos Karadoglic gives us much of the same in a program of Latin-American music, Pasion, from 2012. By “much of the same” I mean he provides skillful renditions of popular classical works, this time with perhaps a shade more panache and bravura than before.

Mr. Karadoglic goes by the single name “Milos,” and I hope it does not bespeak any vanity or pretentiousness on his part. I rather suspect that as he is a movie-star handsome young man, the name is merely another component in DG’s promotion of him, like the eight or so pictures of him we get on the disc cover, on the back, and in the booklet insert. When you’ve got a hot item, you go with it.

Anyway, Milos begins this newest album with Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, with the Studioorchester der Europaischen FilmPhilarmonie in accompaniment. It’s a brief piece, with a surging forward pulse.  I suppose it exemplifies the disc’s title, being fiery and passionate and all. It works pretty well as a curtain raiser, although I found the sound a little too big, close, and soft for my taste.

More music in a like vein follows, Jorge Morel’s Danza brazilera more subtle and subdued, with Milos’s playing even more nuanced. It’s quite lovely. Then it’s on to Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Prelude No. 1 in E minor, a popular tune that sounds reminiscent of Anton Karas’s Third Man theme but predates it by a decade. The Preludes are popular guitar pieces, and Milos does this one up pretty well.

And so it goes, with one of my favorite tangos getting a revved-up treatment from Milos and the orchestra: Carlos Gardel’s Por una cabeza. Any number of movies have featured it in their soundtrack, and here Milos emphasizes perhaps a bit too much the lilt of the dance rhythms. The music doesn’t really need further embellishment. Wait, I think I just saw Jamie Lee and Big Arnold dancing off the floor. Or was it Al Pacino?

By the middle of the program with Jorge Cardoso’s Milonga and Agustin Barrios Mongore’s Un sueno en la floresta, things take a turn toward the lyrical, the latter item among the most appealing things on the album with its extensive tremolo, that tremulous or vibrating effect that can sometimes sound corny but here works considerably well. The program continues with pieces by Leo Brouwer, Osvaldo Farres, Isaias Savio, Manuel Ponce, and Gerardo Matos Rodriguez.

When Milos performs live, he says “it's close to dreaming for me--afterwards I don't remember much about it. I just remember feeling very well, with a high level of energy and emotion.” That sentiment seems to describe his studio music making here as well. Classical guitar fanciers will enjoy another disc to add to their collection, and while they may find Milos’s performances a tad too flamboyant, there’s no denying they’re fun. Moreover, the Latin-American theme is intriguing.

DG recorded the music at St. Mary’s Church, Chilham, England, and b-sharp Studio, Berlin, Germany, in 2011-2012. The guitar is front and center, rather warm and ultrasmooth to match the playing. I would have preferred a little more bite to the strings. The orchestral accompaniment sounds slightly recessed but displays a strong dynamic thrust when necessary. This is slick, round, refined sound, light on transparency and heavy on atmosphere. 

JJP

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic. DG 00289 477 5377.

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is not exactly the most manageable work in the classical orchestral repertoire. It is so big and unwieldy that no one wanted to play it in Bruckner’s own time, and not even the composer heard his original 1878 version in his lifetime. After conductors performed many truncated editions, it was only in 1935 that the public finally got to hear the original version. The poor thing is still something of a slow starter and among the least-recorded of the composer’s nine symphonies.

Anyway, Christian Thielemann’s way with it makes it seem even longer by his playing it more slowly than usual. Certainly, this brings out all the lofty, dramatic qualities of music, making it sound far more like Wagner than Mahler or Richard Strauss, fellows whose music critics sometimes compare to Bruckner’s. Indeed, under Thielemann the symphony times out at almost eighty-three minutes, yet, surprisingly, it fits on a single CD. The wonders of modern compression, I guess.

The first two movements alone take up some forty-two minutes, and if you can get through them (especially the long, ambiguous first movement), the third and fourth movements are a delight. After such deep, dark, heavy, and solemn opening movements, the Scherzo and Finale are breaths of fresh air. Thielemann’s strong suit is his ability to sustain the listener’s attention through most of the first half, leaving the second half to Bruckner. Thielemann maintains a firm concentration and a secure passion throughout, no matter how slow things get.

I wouldn’t say this displaces my first two choices in the work, however. I still think Sinopoli’s DG recording sounds more strongly characterized and Klemperer’s EMI recording the better sonically. DG recorded Thielemann’s performance live (as they did Sinopoli’s), and the result has a certain dull veneer covering it, although the engineers miked it reasonably close up. By comparison, the Klemperer sonics are much clearer and more open. The downside to Klemperer is that he’s more wayward and quixotic, and Thielemann is more straightforward and consistent. Maybe Sinopoli represents the best of both worlds.

JJP

Dvorak: Symphonic Poems (CD review)

Vaclav Neumann, Walter Weller, David Zinman; SWR Symphony Orchestra. Arte Nova Classics ANO 277760.

Toward the end of his career, after he’d made his mark with nine symphonies, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) turned his attention to things uniquely Czech, returning to Prague to compose a series of orchestral ballads, symphonic poems, three of them here based on folk songs collected by Prague archivist Karel Jaromir Erben. They are typical fairy-tale stories, often lurid and grisly, as so many folk stories can be, mostly about monsters eating people. The other tone poem on the album is quite different and concludes the program on a distinctly more upbeat note. Arte Nova pulled all four works from their back catalogue and offer them together on this single collection.

Things begin with The Water Goblin, 1896, performed by Vaclav Neumann and the SWR Symphony Orchestra. This wonderfully macabre little story tells of a water sprite who metes out his anger in retaliation for a reputed wrong done him years before. Neumann could be a most refined if somewhat restrained conductor most of the time, but in the first two of these tone poems, he is quite animated. What Neumann’s rendition slightly lacks is a sense of dread, suspense, or fear, replaced by excitement and thrills.

Next comes The Noon Witch, 1896, with Neumann again leading the orchestra. This is an even more frightful story than The Water Goblin, wherein a limping demon carries off naughty children at midday. Here, Neumann’s sense of adventure works a little better than it did in The Water Goblin, and he conjures up a pretty creepy characterization of the ogre. He also creates some extreme moments of quiet to set off the spookier moods of the music.

With The Wood Dove, also from 1896, Walter Weller takes over the conducting duties. This time the narrative is a bit more subtle than the outright monsters of the first two tales, and Weller builds the tension nicely. The plot involves a tree growing out of the grave of a man poisoned by his wife. A wood dove cooing in the tree so upsets the guilt-stricken widow, who has by now remarried, that she eventually commits suicide. The grimness of the story is more about atmosphere than outright shocks, and that is what Weller gives us, a colorfully chilling account.

The fourth and final work on the disc, In Nature’s Realm from 1891, is one Dvorak wrote several years earlier than the preceding ones. Unlike the dark fairy-tale imagery of the first three symphonic poems, this one has a pastoral setting, emphasizing what the composer saw as “a peaceful state of harmony in Nature.” David Zinman conducts the SWR Symphony in what seems to me the most-successful, most-comprehensive reading on the program, providing beauty, poetry, and power aplenty.

For anyone who doesn’t already own these pieces or for those who do but enjoy them so much they’d like to hear additional interpretations, the compilation offers a good, low-cost alternative to several other pricier collections. However, I have to admit that I still prefer Harnoncourt (Teldec or Warner Classics), Kertesz (Decca), and Kubelik (DG) in this repertoire, even if they do cost a little more.

Arte Nova made the recordings between 1986 and 1988 at the SWR Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Germany. The sound is rather one-dimensional, not too wide nor too deep, but compensating in part for this lack of dimensionality we find a reasonably balanced frequency response, if a tad thin at the bottom end. There is a small degree of hard edge to the sonics as well, which at least has the advantage of imparting a greater clarity to the midrange. In all, the disc offers good middle-of-the-road sound, with a pleasant high-end extension.

JJP

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (CD review)

Also, overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont. Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. DG 479 0250.

Three things surprised me about this recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony from Gustavo Dudamel. First, the boy wonder is no longer as young as I remembered him, being in his early thirties at the time he made this disc. Second, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has dropped the “Youth” from its title, apparently because the average age of its members has grown along with Dudamel’s. And, third, the youthful nervous energy I had heard Dudamel produce in earlier performances seems now replaced by a more concentrated, more focused joy and excitement. I liked this new rendition of the Third.

Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Op. 55, in 1804 and premiered it in 1805, observing something of a new beginning in the development of symphonic structure and still prompting endless discussions among critics about what it all means. Dudamel gives us a riveting, often scintillating interpretation of a warhorse that has already seen terrific readings from just about everyone. My own favorites include those by Otto Klemperer (EMI), Sir John Barbirolli (Dutton Lab), Karl Bohm (DG), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Paavo Jarvi (Sony), Klaus Tennstedt (EMI), and even a cheerfully eccentric one from Hermann Scherchen (HDTT). Dudamel’s reading may not be quite as individual as these, but it’s in the running.

Without going all crazy on us with ultrafast speeds, Dudamel creates a vibrant yet appropriately grand, imposing vision in the opening Allegro con brio. Although the movement can occasionally exhibit some ferocious passages, under Dudamel it is consistently steady...and heady. The orchestra, maturing under Dudamel’s leadership over the years, sounds wonderfully nuanced, enthusiastic, and controlled, attacking each note with conviction and assurance.

The second-movement funeral march, sometimes the bane of conductors, doesn’t drag as much under Dudamel as it has under others, even though Dudamel takes it at a properly slow, funereal gait. It sounds dignified, almost classical in structure, with well-thought-out contrasts. Still, it’s a long time to maintain a steady tension, and not even Dudamel is entirely successful.

The conductor’s reading of the third movement Scherzo is fiery without being breathless or tiring. What it may lack in pure adrenaline rush it makes up for in its well-meaning spirit. Nevertheless, it was the one moment in the symphony that seemed ordinary to me.

Borrowing a tune from his Prometheus ballet, Beethoven wrote a finale that at once appears lightweight and gloriously triumphant. The conductor will have us hear the light, lyrical elements but emphasizes the more-weighty triumph above all. Dudamel’s Beethoven Third is perhaps not so unusually memorable as other renditions, yet it is a sensible, sincere, and distinguished account.

Lively realizations of Beethoven’s overtures to The Creatures of Prometheus and Egmont make a strong and entirely suitable coupling. Egmont is especially eloquent, forceful, and impressive.

The sound, recorded in Caracas, Centro de Accion Social por la Musica (Sala Simon Bolivar), in early 2012, is full, warm, and rich, never entirely transparent but nicely dynamic. There is a minor veiling of the midrange, thanks to a mild resonance, but it imparts to the music a realistic sense of hall ambience. While bass and treble extension could be a tad better, I’m not really complaining. The sonics are quite smooth and soothing and add considerably to one’s enjoyment of the music.

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, August 19, 2012

A 21st-Century “Ring” for Wagner’s 200th Anniversary Year

Wagner’s Ring presents the ultimate challenge for any opera company, and the New York Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, unveiled between 2010 and 2012 and starring some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of today, is among the most ambitious Ring stagings ever mounted.

The Met’s production, directed by legendary theatre visionary Robert Lepage, uses a 90,000 lb “tectonic” set – an infinitely mobile, writhing, rotating raft of 24 individually pivoting aluminium planks that came to be nicknamed “The Machine” – in a dazzlingly cinematic staging that harnesses the latest interactive and 3D video technology to realize many previously “unstageable” aspects of Wagner’s epic drama. It is at once a state-of-the-art production for the 21st century and a deeply traditional Ring. In Lepage’s words, “it’s the movie that Wagner wanted to make before movies existed.” For the Boston Globe, it’s “a high-tech Ring with a traditional heart”. In the London Telegraph’s view, it’s “a triumph, at once subtle and spectacular, intimate and epic”.

Already seen by over a million people in the theatre and at cinemas around the globe, the Met Ring was filmed live in high definition and is now being released on both DVD and Blu-ray to launch Deutsche Grammophon’s celebration of the composer’s bicentenary year in 2013.

With Bryn Terfel, widely acknowledged as one of the finest bass-baritones of our age, performing his first complete cycles as the embattled god Wotan and American soprano Deborah Voigt making her role debut as his disobedient warrior-daughter Brünnhilde, alongside international stars Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as the incestuous Siegmund and Sieglinde, and last-minute stand-in Jay Hunter Morris – a thrilling new tenor from Paris, Texas – saving the day as the fearless but ill-fated hero Siegfried, the New York Times declared the cast “as strong a lineup of vocal artists for a Wagner opera as I have heard in years”.

Acclaim was equally enthusiastic for the cycle’s two conductors: James Levine, the Met’s longstanding Music Director, who has conducted 21 complete Ring cycles at the Met; and Fabio Luisi, the Met’s Italian-born Principal Conductor, who took over conducting the second half of the cycle after illness caused Levine to withdraw. “Levine drew exciting, wondrously natural playing from the great Met orchestra,” wrote the New York Times, while “Luisi brings out the score’s three-dimensional detail and animal heat,” wrote New York Magazine.

Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met since 2006, says: “Nothing defines an opera house more than its new productions, and there’s no new production that is more significant than a new Ring cycle. That is why I invited Robert Lepage, one of theatre’s great visionaries, to create our new cycle.”

Mark Wilkinson, President of Deutsche Grammophon, says: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the Met to help take Wagner’s spectacular, breathtaking music, boldly realized here by Robert Lepage, to as wide an audience as possible. Both collectors and newcomers to Wagner’s extraordinary world will find it at once spectacular, visually spell-binding and deeply thought-provoking.”

To complement the complete Ring cycle on both DVD and Blu-ray, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing two related titles: Twilight of the Gods, a 2-CD compilation of audio highlights from the Met Ring – featuring all the major stars of the production and such famous extracts as The Ride of the Valkyries, Wotan’s “Farewell,” the “Magic Fire Music,” “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” and the concluding “Immolation Scene” – and Wagner’s Dream, a frank and revealing documentary about the five-year making of the Met’s new Ring that has already been acclaimed as “simply the best documentary about the Met ever made” (Film Journal), “a must-see for any creative soul” (Cinespect) and “destined to be one of the classic documentaries about opera” (Philadelphia Inquirer).

--Olga Makrias, Universal Music

Lincoln Trio Opens Music Institute’s 10th Season at Nichols Concert Hall
As the first of 10 stellar musical performances celebrating 10 years at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, the Music Institute of Chicago presents ensemble in residence and faculty members The Lincoln Trio September 23.

The program for the Lincoln Trio’s concert will include Brahms’ Trio in C Major; Turina’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major, Op. 35; and other works to be determined.

Other highlights of the Music Institute’s 10th anniversary season at Nichols include a Billy Strayhorn festival featuring jazz great Terell Stafford in late October, the internationally acclaimed Pacifica Quartet in February, and pianist Sergei Babayan in April. Noteworthy annual events include Family Concerts in December and March; the Martin Luther King, Jr. concert with the Brotherhood Chorale in January; the Four Score Festival of contemporary music in March; and the third annual Emilio del Rosario Distinguished Alumni Concert, this year featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Matthew Hagle in May.

The Lincoln Trio:
The celebrated, Chicago-based Lincoln Trio, made up of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, cellist David Cunliffe, and pianist Marta Aznavoorian, has been praised for its polished presentations of well-known chamber works and its ability to forge new paths with contemporary repertoire. The Lincoln Trio performs frequently, including recent engagements with Chicago’s WFMT radio, Music in the Loft, NEIU Jewel Box Series, Fazioli Concert Series, and the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series. Champions of new music, the Lincoln Trio has performed numerous compositions written especially for them. The trio made its Ravinia Festival debut in 2009.

Nichols Concert Hall:
The 2012–13 season marks the 10th anniversary of Nichols Concert Hall, originally designed by noted architect Solon S. Beman as the architecturally and acoustically magnificent First Church of Christ, Scientist, located at 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, in 1912 (celebrating its centennial). Restored in 2003, the building has become Nichols Concert Hall, a state-of-the-art, 550-seat performance space and music education destination, which annually reaches approximately 15,000 people and hosts a world-class chamber music series, workshops and master classes, student recitals, and special events.

Music Institute of Chicago:
The Music Institute of Chicago believes that music has the power to sustain and nourish the human spirit; therefore, our mission is to provide the foundation for lifelong engagement with music. As one of the three largest and most respected community music schools in the nation, the Music Institute offers musical excellence built on the strength of its distinguished faculty, commitment to quality, and breadth of programs and services. Founded in 1931 and one of the oldest community music schools in Illinois, the Music Institute is a member of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts and accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. Each year, the Music Institute’s world-class music teachers and arts therapists provide the highest quality arts education, reaching more than 10,000 students of all ability levels, from birth to 102 years of age, at campuses in Evanston, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Lincolnshire, Winnetka, and Downers Grove and through its longstanding partnership with the Chicago Public Schools. The Music Institute also offers lessons and programs at the Steinway of Chicago store in Northbrook and early childhood and community engagement programs throughout the Chicago area and the North Shore. The Music Institute offers lessons, classes, and programs through four distinct areas: Community School, The Academy, Creative Arts Therapy (Institute for Therapy through the Arts), and Nichols Concert Hall.

The Lincoln Trio performs Sunday, September 23 at 3 p.m. at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students, available online or 847.905.1500 ext. 108. For more information visit musicinst.org.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Andris Nelsons Renews Contract with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra announced today that Andris Nelsons, one of the world’s most sought after conductors, will be extending his contract with the CBSO on the basis of an annual rolling renewal from the 2014/15 season onwards.

Andris was unanimously invited to be Music Director from 2008 by the CBSO’s players and board of trustees, after just a private concert and recording session. Since his appointment, he and the Orchestra have created many ‘once in a lifetime’ performances such as Wagner’s Lohengrin and the 50th Anniversary performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. The partnership attracts some of the best singers and musicians from across the world, performing to ecstatic audiences at both Symphony Hall, Birmingham and throughout Europe. Award-winning recordings released by the record label Orfeo, including acclaimed series of Tchaikovsky and Strauss, also continue to cement this distinctive relationship.

Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the CBSO, said: “The chemistry between Andris and the musicians and audiences of the CBSO family has always been very special and there have been many electric performances and recordings since his appointment here.

“As we start our Beethoven cycle in Birmingham, visit the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh International Festival, and depart for a major European Summer Tour, including a five day residency at the Lucerne Festival, we are delighted to confirm the extension of this relationship and look forward to sharing our plans for the future in due course.”

Away from Birmingham, Andris has earned himself a distinguished name on both the opera and concert podiums, collaborating with the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic. He has toured Japan with the Vienna Philharmonic and regularly appears at the Royal Opera House and the Bayreuth Festival.

Andris said: “My colleagues and friends in the CBSO family are very important to me and it is a great pleasure to be continuing our partnership into future seasons. We have shared many wonderful experiences over the last four years and I am looking forward to exploring more thrilling music together. It is a privilege to be working with this fantastic orchestra and to represent Birmingham together across the world. I look forward, in hope, to the continuation of the wonderful support that we have gratefully received from our many audiences and partners!"

Over the summer, Andris and the CBSO will be appearing at some of the most prestigious European festivals, including their residency at the Lucerne Festival with the CBSO Chorus. Highlights in the 2012-13 season include Mahler’s momentous Resurrection Symphony, Wagner’s romantic opera The Flying Dutchman and a Beethoven cycle which features all of the great composer’s symphonies.

For full details on the 2012-13 season or to find out more visit www.cbso.co.uk.

--Ruth Green, CBSO

Mozart: Symphonies 38 & 41 (CD review)

Rene Jacobs, Freiburger Barockorchester. Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901958.

The sound on this 2012 Harmonia Mundi rerelease is glorious, sensational, terrific, tremendous, superb, first-class, tiptop. Which is to say very good.

The performances, well, maybe not so clear-cut. Let’s say they’re a little more problematical, though fascinating.

The album opens with conductor Rene Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague.” The popular nickname “Prague” came about because the composer premiered it in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), in 1787, in appreciation of the Czech people, who loved his music. However, it contains no specific Bohemian allusions, themes, or flavor.

What is different about Jacobs’s approach to the symphony is that, first, he performs it with a period-instruments ensemble. Well, OK, that’s not too different anymore, since the early-music movement has been going strong for many years, and one can find any number of other period-instruments performances of Mozart from the likes of Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, Franzjosef Maier and the Collegium Aureum, etc. Still, we don’t hear too many such performances.

What’s also different, of course, is that Mozart himself only wrote three movements for the “Prague” symphony, omitting a Minuet. Yet that is not a serious “difference,” either, as Mozart had done it several times before. No, the most striking difference about Jacobs’s reading is in his speeds. While Mozart indicated in his tempo markings variations like “Vivace” and “Presto,” Jacobs seems to take more than a few things either at a spirited gallop or at a routinely mundane pace. Now, don’t get me wrong. The early-music crowd have been debating tempos forever, with some of them declaring, for example, that in the eighteenth century orchestras routinely played faster movements slower than we do today and slower movements faster. Other folks have suggested that orchestras played everything slower back then and still others that orchestras played everything faster. Jacobs apparently adheres to the latter belief, at least most of the time.

To say that the opening Adagio-Allegro provides dramatic punch would be putting it mildly. Under Jacobs, it rolls zestfully and dramatically along, perhaps trying to capture some of the atmosphere of Mozart’s operas at the time, The Marriage of Figaro just before it and Don Giovanni just after. Allowing no cuts, Jacobs even with his bracing pace takes over fifteen minutes to complete it. Remarkable. It’s a long, breathless run. The Andante and Finale come up likewise animated and exciting but lose some of the beauty of their melodic line along the way. Jacobs’s approach may or may not be one Mozart might have taken, which is a bit beside the point: It doesn’t sound much like any “Prague” I’ve ever heard; it is, as I say, different.

Be that as it may, I found Jacobs’s reading of the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter,” far more to my liking. The first, second, and fourth movements appear well judged, if a tad quicker and with a freer rubato (of tempo and dynamic accent) than the norm. Here, Jacobs provides stimulating interpretations that seem to me the equal of any I’ve heard. Nevertheless, in the Minuet Jacobs reverts to his Ferrari style and races through it in record time. What you don’t get with Jacobs is much of the lyricism or lilt of Mozart’s music, replaced by a theatrical energy and fleetness, which in their way can be quite refreshing.

Harmonia Mundi originally recorded the music at the Saal Tirol, Congress Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria, in 2006, and the sound they obtained is as vital as the performances. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is a relatively small chamber ensemble, so what we get is nicely transparent, ideally miked to provide wide stage dimensions and a touch of depth, too. Dynamic contrasts and sonic impact are strong, with a flat frequency balance and vibrant timpani support. There is a reasonable degree of air around the instruments, and along with the clarity of sound I described comes a pleasant ambient warmth. I can say without a doubt that even if you don’t like the interpretations, it’s hard to say these aren’t some of the best-recorded Mozart symphonies you’ll find anywhere.

JJP

Britannia (SACD review)

Music of Elgar, Davies, Turnage, MacMillan, and Britten. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc SACD-60677.

Besides being the Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles is the Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Guest Conductor of the San Francisco Opera among other things, so he is, indeed, a busy man. His album here of twentieth-century British music is along the lines I would have expected, a little daring, a little volatile, and a little sedate, too.

The sedate part starts and ends the program, Sir Edward Elgar’s First and Fourth Pomp and Circumstance Marches from 1901-1907 (with the Fourth coming first). There’s nothing sedate about the way Runnicles plays them, though. He goes at them with gusto. Probably too much gusto for my taste, as his tempos suggest something other than marches and tend to diminish the grandeur and ceremony of the works in favor of pure excitement.

Following the first Elgar piece is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise from 1984, and it is probably the best thing Runnicles does on the disc. Davies himself described the music as “a picture postcard,” and that’s how the conductor approaches it, as a tone painting. It’s really fun, lively, and picturesque.

The next couple of things, frankly, I disliked. But that’s just me, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with Runnicles’s readings of the music. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes and James MacMillan’s Britannia are simply too noisy for me. They seem typical of mid-to-late twentieth-century music that dispenses with anything approaching traditional melodies to create sonic impressions that jar the senses rather than soothe them. I’m old fashioned, I admit; I don’t want my senses jarred. Turnage’s work has elements of jazz infused throughout that are sort of fun, but, overall, I don’t think I’d want to revisit it. MacMillan’s Britannia is a bit more conventional, playing out a little like Charles Ives in that the composer sneaks in bits and pieces of other works--Arne and Elgar among them--to create a broad, modern canvas of British orchestral music.

Then, just before the final Elgar march, Runnicles gives us Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem from 1939. Britten wrote it on a commission from the Japanese government just before World War II, but the Japanese were dissatisfied with the Catholic references in it and never performed it. Britten was happy to take the money and run. Anyway, Runnicles offers it up in a most dramatic fashion, with all the power, intimacy, and proper repose it requires.

The Telarc engineers do a fine job on their end as well, capturing a good stereo spread, good imagery, good depth, and good, taut bass. However, in the hybrid SACD’s regular two-channel mode, playable on any standard CD or DVD player, there is a touch of veiling, a kind of mist. In the disc’s two-channel SACD mode played back on an SACD player, the sound clears up better and appears a tad more dynamic. So if you have an SACD player, more power to you.

JJP

Busoni: Clarinet Concertino (CD review)

Also, Eine Lustspielouverture, Gesang vom Reigen der Geister, Rondo arlecchinesco, Divertimento for flute and small orchestra, Tanzwalzer. Giammarco Casani, clarinet; Francesco La Vecchia, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. Naxos 8.572922.

Ferruccio (how could I not like a guy with a name like that?) Busoni (1866-1924) was an Italian pianist, writer, teacher, editor, conductor, and, almost lost among his other endeavors, composer. After his death, with the possible exceptions of his Piano Concerto, his Turandot Suite, and his opera Doktor Faust, the popularity of his compositions went into serious decline, but in the 1980’s conductors began to rediscover him. This is the case with Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, who seems to be on a mission to resurrect as many overlooked Italian composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries as possible. On the present album, we find six of Busoni’s shorter orchestral works, all of which display a charm and wit deserving of reconsideration.

The program follows Busoni’s music more or less chronologically, beginning with the earliest piece, Eine Lustspielouverture, Op. 38 ( “A Comedy Overture,” 1897). The composer called this piece “Mozartian” in style, but you’d hardly notice. Mendelssohnian perhaps. Still, there are not the sweet melodies you’d hear in either Mozart or Mendelssohn, although there is a lively, cadenced thrust throughout that Maestro La Vecchia seems to enjoy about this “comedy overture.”

Following that, we find Gesang vom Reigen der Geister, Op. 47 (“Song of the Spirit Dance,” 1915).  Scored for chamber-orchestra forces, the work couldn’t be more different from the opening number. It is somber and intimate, part of a trilogy and recalling the Indian massacre of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. 

Next is Rondo arlecchinesco, Op. 46 (“Rondo harlequinesque,” 1915). Again, it’s something different, this time relatively light and amusing, a martial procession of instruments featuring a heap of mock heroics. La Vecchia has fun with it, as does tenor Granluca Terranova at the end.

Then comes the centerpiece of the album, the Clarinet Concertino in B flat major, Op. 48 (1918).  Like the “Spirit Dance” it’s scored for chamber forces, and it does sound Mozartian in its way, with clarinetist Giammarco Casini making a delightful soloist.

After that is the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra, Op. 52 (1920). Under conductor La Vecchia and with flautist Laura Minguzzi, the piece sounds more varied and mercurial than the preceding clarinet work. There are, indeed, passages of lively wit and others of exquisite beauty. It is among the best things on the program.

Finally, the album concludes with Busoni’s Tanzwalzer, Op. 53 (“Dance Waltz,” 1920), which reminds us that Busoni was of German ancestry on his mother’s side; the composer dedicated the music to the Austrian waltz king Johann Strauss II. However, the music takes a while to get around to its waltz themes, and then don’t expect quite the bracing, lilting rhythms found in Strauss. Nevertheless, it’s an agreeable piece, and La Vecchia does his best with it.

There is nothing about any of the music on the disc that cries out as “classic” in the sense that future generations may cherish it. The music is not imaginative enough, inventive enough, memorable enough, or rhapsodic enough for that. But it does take us on a journey from the lingering Romanticism of the late nineteenth century to the beginnings of modernism in the early twentieth century. And a fascinating journey it is, reminding us that some of Busoni’s students and followers were Percy Grainger, Kurt Weill, Edgard Varese, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Dimitri Tiomkin, Rudolf Ganz, Philipp Jarnach, and many others.

Naxos recorded the music between 2008 and 2011 at the Auditorium Conciliazione and ORS Studios, Rome. The sound displays a healthy dynamic range and impact, a fairly natural if slightly thick midrange, and reasonably good bass and treble extensions. While orchestral breadth and depth seem a tad limited, the lightly resonant acoustic helps to make up for it. Overall, the sonics are warm and smooth, with a light, pleasant hall ambience that makes it easy on the ear.

JJP

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, highlights (CD review)

Andrew Mogrelia, Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572931.

I had never heard Andrew Mogrelia’s complete recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, which he made some two decades ago, but I had heard many good things about it. So it was with some hopeful anticipation that I looked forward to hearing these highlights from the complete set. At well over seventy-five minutes of excerpts, this highlights disc supplies the bulk of the work’s most-memorable music, and it did not disappoint me.

But why an excerpts album when the two-disc is only a few dollars more? Although many of Tchaikovsky’s fans regard The Sleeping Beauty as the best of the composer’s three big ballets, I have always found it has less to offer than Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, with some of the music sounding redundant to me. Thus, a highlights disc seems ideal for people like me.

Anyway, you remember the story, if only from the familiar Disney cartoon. An offensive and offended evil fairy places a spell upon a beautiful princess, condemning her eventually to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep forever. A more benevolent fairy modifies the spell, allowing her to awaken in a hundred years with a Prince’s kiss. Various other fairy-tale characters show up later in the story, until it all ends happily.

In the Introduction, Prologue, and preliminary scenes, which seem to go on forever, Maestro Mogrelia does his best to provide ample drive and forward thrust, which he does nicely. There is a minor relentlessness to Tchaikovsky’s music, though, which not even Mogrelia’s vibrant conducting can tame entirely.

By the time Tchaikovsky's more sweetly melodic tunes arrive, Mogrelia is ready for them with an elegant, graceful, rhapsodic flourish. Moreover, he well represents the fairies in the story early on, both the good ones and the wicked Carabosse.

When the three major acts of the ballet finally arrive with the entrance of the famous waltz, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the kind of performance we’re in for. Mogrelia provides all the vitality, beauty, and exuberance one could want, if not always all the magic of the fairy tale.

The “however”: Given the weak state of the economy when Naxos released this highlights disc in 2012, most of the major record companies (EMI, DG, Decca, Sony) were producing little or no orchestral music, so one couldn’t find a lot of newer recordings of The Sleeping Beauty available. Still, one could find several outstanding alternative older recordings, even though mostly in complete sets. Chief among them is that of Andre Previn and the London Symphony (EMI), which I find an even more enchanting account of the score than Mogrelia’s and in better sound. Then, too, there are renditions by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Royal Philharmonic (Decca), Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra (DG), Antal Dorati and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony (BBC), among others to consider. Which is not to take anything away from Mogrelia, whose complete and highlights editions are very fine choices, indeed.

Recorded at the House of Arts, Kosice, Slovakia in 1991, the sound is typical of what one usually hears from a good Naxos product. On the plus side, it’s smooth, warm, mellow, lightly resonant, and easy on the ear. On the minus side, the midrange is not especially transparent, nor is the orchestral breadth or depth particularly impressive. In addition, the upper midrange can get a tad fierce in the loudest passages. Nevertheless, as I say, it’s a pleasant enough sound, and with a reasonably strong dynamic range and impact, it keeps one involved.

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, August 12, 2012

Tony-Award Winning Alfie Boe Set for Extensive U.S. Fall Concert Tour

CNN “Piers Morgan Tonight” appearance in early August; Summer success with PBS hit “Alfie Live” and #1 Billboard classical crossover chart debut for Alfie, from the Decca label.

The UK platinum singing star Alfie Boe is slated for an extensive fall U.S. concert tour on the heels of his chart-topping album, Alfie, and successful PBS television special and DVD release “Alfie Live.” The Huffington Post raved that Alfie and PBS are “a match made in heaven.” The Tony-Award winning singer’s self-titled second album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart in June, and features notable special guests Robert Plant and Nick Jonas. The album is a thoughtful collection of timeless pop songs and musical theatre favorites that showcases Alfie’s soaring tenor.

Alfie’s fall, seventeen-city tour kicks off in Dallas, TX on October 2nd and will make stops in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Boston, before wrapping on October 30 in Pittsburgh (select shows have already sold out; dates attached). Much like his PBS special, his live concerts will feature material from his new album as well as selections from his Decca debut, Bring Him Home. Alfie will also be making a special appearance on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” in early August around the Olympics; he recorded Queen’s “One Vision” especially for Team Great Britain’s participation in the games.

Another career highlight saw Boe joining Paul McCartney, Elton John and more A-list music stars for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in June. To watch his performance click here: http://youtu.be/5vka2ST2Q4c

To watch Alfie’s video feature on Time.com click here: http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,1661682609001_2115956,00.html          

Alfie Boe’s impressive resume also includes playing the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables 25th Anniversary at London’s 02 Arena, followed by a run of 6 months in the role on London’s West End and winning a Tony for his role in legendary director Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed Broadway production of Puccini’s La Boheme. Luhrmann described Alfie as “absolutely extraordinary.” His record sales exceed 750,000 copies in the UK alone., paving the way for his autobiography which will be published there this fall. Promising to be an intimate account of Alfie’s life, the book covers his childhood growing up as the youngest of nine children to a family in the north of England, being discovered while working as a car mechanic, bringing his music to fans across the globe, and singing on Broadway and legendary opera houses all while developing his successful recording and touring career. More about Alfie Boe at http://www.facebook.com/alfieboe and https://twitter.com/alfieboe.

--Olga Makrias, Decca Label Group

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 2012 U.S. Tour: Conductor Zubin Mehta and IPO Tour Four Cities with Pianist Yuja Wang
Gala at Carnegie Hall to feature special sacred music program with the New York premiere of Noam Sheriff’s Mechaye Hametim.

In the spirit of peace and camaraderie, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Zubin Mehta, returns to the United States in October 2012. Traveling with internationally renowned pianist and Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient Yuja Wang, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is slated for concerts in New York, Palm Desert, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, beginning with a gala event at Carnegie Hall co-chaired by Adrienne Arsht and Lauren and John Veronis and presented by American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO).

After the enthusiastic and heartfelt reception the Israel Philharmonic received at the 2012 Salzburg Festival in July (and at the urging of devoted friends and fans of the IPO), the Orchestra has opted to bring Arnold Schoenberg's Kol Nidre and Israeli composer Noam Sheriff's Mechaye Hametim (Revival of the Dead)—two works performed in Salzburg—to New York City for the Carnegie Hall gala on October 25 along with Grammy Award-winning baritone Thomas Hampson and The Collegiate Chorale. The Salzburg performance of these works on July 24 prompted The New York Times to state, "Abetted by Mr. Hampson's tour de force, in which he also served as narrator in the Schoenberg and spoke and sang in the Sheriff, the evening's performances were everywhere excellent...The concert was greeted warmly, even clamorously..." The concert at Carnegie Hall also features Yuja Wang performing Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor. This performance marks the New York premiere of Sheriff's Mechaye Hametim.

The concerts in Palm Desert (October 28), Las Vegas (October 29) and Los Angeles (October 30) all feature Schubert's Symphony No. 3 in D major, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor (with Yuja Wang) and Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in C minor (for the complete schedule, click here.) The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra acts as Cultural Ambassador for the State of Israel during this tour to the United States.

This tour comes at the beginning of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's 2012-2013 season (its 77th season), a year that will be rich in collaboration. Guest artists include musicians such as Boris Andrianov, Semyon Bychkov, Christoph von Dohnányi, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Kurt Masur, Murray Perahia, Kirill Petrenko, David Robertson, András Schiff, Anoushka Shankar, Pinchas Zukerman, and many others. Pianist Yuja Wang opens the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's 2012-2013 season in Tel-Aviv with a gala on October 4, performing Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor.

Due to the efforts of the AFIPO and the generous support of donors worldwide, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra returns to its home at Tel-Aviv's Heichal Hatarbut in March 2013 after extensive renovations. After a significant financial contribution by philanthropist Charles Bronfman, the Mann Auditorium (Heichal Hatarbut) is to be renamed the "Charles R. Bronfman Auditorium." Since its inception in 1936, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (originally named the Palestine Orchestra) has been dedicated to presenting great classical music with the most distinguished and talented artists of every generation. An integral part of the international music scene, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra continues its tradition of enriching the lives of music-lovers across the globe.

Maestro Zubin Mehta, one of the world's great conductors, continues his role as a leader and friend of the IPO and the State of Israel. In addition to his title as Music Director for Life of the IPO, Mehta has held the post of Music Director for the Montreal Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bavarian State Opera and New York Philharmonic—for which, at 13 years, he remains the organization’s longest-serving Music Director, conducting over one thousand concerts. He was also made an Honorary Member of the New York Philharmonic, an homage formerly bestowed on Wagner, Liszt, Dvorák, Copland and Bernstein, among others.

Zubin Mehta has maintained a strong commitment to exposing today’s youth to classical music. He founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in his birthplace of Mumbai, where more than 300 children annually find access to Western Classical Music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv educates young talents in Israel and is closely related to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab-Israelis in the cities of Shwaram and Nazareth, in conjunction with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro Mehta has conducted over two thousand concerts as Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, including multiple tours spanning five continents. In 2006, Zubin Mehta was recognized for his extraordinary artistic achievements as a Kennedy Center Honoree. In 2011, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and became a recipient of the Furtwängler Prize at Bonn's prestigious Beethovenfest for his "dedication both to music and social issues." Recently, Maestro Mehta conducted the NHK Symphony Orchestra in a benefit concert for the victims and survivors of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster.

--Patrick Gullo, Kirshbaum Demler & Associates

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (CD review)

Also, Hebrides Overture. Philippe Herreweghe, Orchestre de Champs-Elysees and Choeur de la Chapelle Royale & Collegium Vocale Gent. Harmonia Muni Gold HMG 501502.

As practically every classical music fan (and a whole lot of others as well) knows, German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) started working on his music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was but a teen, composing the Overture in 1826 when he was only seventeen. But he wasn’t in any hurry, completing the work sixteen years later in 1841 while employed by the Prussian court. The King suggested he compose some complete incidental music for a new production of the Shakespeare play, and Mendelssohn complied, already having written the opening tune.

Maestro Philippe Herreweghe provides on the album all of the most-popular numbers from the work, without some of the smaller, less-familiar connecting music. It’s pretty much what most listeners expect. Moreover, Herreweghe’s approach to the score comes across as quite comforting, if not so airy, mercurial, or magic as the performances by Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Andre Previn (EMI). The music, of course, is highly programmatic, representing Shakespeare’s major plot ideas and characters, most notably Puck, Bottom, the Duke, and the fairies.

Herreweghe offers us a stately, sedate introduction to the Overture, and then opens it up with a fairly lively flurry of fairies and pixie dust. After that, the whole movement settles down into a more traditional approach, sweet and characterful. It’s indicative of the kind of performance we’re going to get, one filled with color and romance, yet refined and elegant, too.

Likewise, the Scherzo displays plenty of bounce; the March of the Elves offers a welcome rhythmic charm; and “Ye Spotted Snakes” is suitably enchanting, even sung in German rather the more commonly heard English of Shakespeare.

One minor disconcerting moment comes with the Nocturne, which Herreweghe takes at a brisker pace than one usually hears. While it perhaps matches the rest of his zesty reading of contrasts, it doesn’t entirely convey the gentle, enchanting atmosphere the scene deserves.

Fortunately, the Wedding March brings us back to the regal festivities of the play with a telling gaiety. The concluding tunes also go comfortably well, with the choral-orchestral Finale bringing us full circle to echoes of the Overture’s melodies.

The album concludes with a coupling of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave (1830-32). Herreweghe’s rendering seems a bit lightweight for the craggy countenance of the coastline it describes. It also seems a little too solemn for my liking, losing some of the strangeness and “Scottishness” the composer said he encountered upon visiting the site of the music’s inspiration. I suppose you could say it’s rather a Gallic vision of the Scottish landscape.

The sound, which Harmonia Mundi recorded in 1994 and have reissued here in their “Gold” series, is warm and resonant and a tad heavy, perhaps not ideally suited for audiophile listening but fitting nicely with the sort of Romantic idealism and adventure Herreweghe wants to communicate. The sound, like the performance, is at once cozy and intimate yet glittering and extrovert. You’ll find a golden glow around the sonics that is quite alluring, with reasonably wide dynamics and a smooth execution.

JJP

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.