Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (CD review)

Also, Concertos 8 and 9 of Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione. Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico, Milano. Teldec Classics/Warner Classics 2564 64763-0.

You can find recordings of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) performed on period and modern instruments in arrangements for chamber orchestras, full orchestras, guitar ensembles, wooden blocks, tin drums, and glockenspiels. My own preference is for period instruments and a number of players that approximates what Vivaldi had in mind when he wrote it, so this release from Warner Classics of a 1993 recording by Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico nicely fills the bill. The fact that they do it up quite inventively helps, too.
That said, let me continue by saying that while Il Giardino Armonico play the Seasons splendidly and while I like period instruments, I’m not entirely sure any orchestra in Vivaldi’s day would have performed the concertos this way. Armonico’s way with them is, to say the least, unusual by today’s standards. Of course, they represent probably what any modern listener would want in a recording, considering that there are already hundreds of other, more conventional versions available. However, in the long run I’d consider the rendition of things by Il Giardino Armonico (“The Harmonious Garden”) primarily an addition to one’s other recordings of The Four Seasons rather than being one’s only recording.

Even though Italian violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote hundreds of pieces of music, most folks probably only recognize him for his Four Seasons violin concertos, those little tone poems with their chirping birds, galumphing horses, barking dogs, dripping icicles, and howling winds. Meant to accompany four descriptive sonnets, they make up the first four sections of a longer work the composer wrote in 1723 titled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention). People hardly remember the other concertos in the set.

I recall reading years ago that in Baroque times orchestras usually played fast movements slower than they do in subsequent eras and slow movements faster. Later, I read just the opposite. In any case, Baroque orchestras would probably have emphasized tempo contrasts among movements more vividly than we do today. If that’s the case (and it’s a case still debated), then Il Giardino Armonico must stand firmly behind contrast because they definitely fill their Seasons with differences and deviations from the norm. What’s more, they tend to overplay Vivaldi’s descriptive elements, making this an entertaining but decidedly unusual Four Seasons, one that will delight some listeners and infuriate others.

We hear from Spring onward that the Il Giardino Armonico players not only emphasize tempo changes from movement to movement but practice a volatile rubato within movements with their extreme ritardandos and accelerandos, often along with magnified dynamics. The effect is dramatic, to be sure, and fun, but Antonini and his team never convinced me that this is the way Vivaldi or his contemporaries might have performed things.

Anyway, Armonico’s two most persuasive movements are in the Summer and Fall concertos, the former because the playing is the most creative, the latter because the slight hyperbole seems best to fit the occasion of drunken peasants, baying hounds, fleeing animals, dancing, and singing. Armonico’s most traditional reading is of the first, Spring Concerto, wherein the players take things easy. Compared to the other concertos, it actually sounds a little mundane.

Where Armonico’s style works least best is in Winter. Here, ensembles over the years have interpreted the opening moments of the first movement either by following the accompanying sonnet to the letter, that is, first slowly shivering in the cold and then quickly running and stamping to keep warm, with abrupt tempo changes between the two; or maintaining a more consistent tempo throughout. Obviously, the Armonico group elect the first option, making the shivering very slow and deliberate and the running fast and exuberant. But it’s the slow, second movement that may seriously annoy some listeners. It’s one of Vivaldi’s most amiable, most comforting tunes, a warm, cozy number suggesting folks sitting inside a cottage by the fire, free from the wind and snow. Vivaldi intended it as a Largo and marked it “peaceful and content.” With Il Giardino Armonico the music sounds like another Allegro, racing along pell-mell and losing most of its charm in the process.

We get some fine playing from the members of Il Giardino Armonico but especially from first violinist Enrico Onofri. Moreover, the disc’s two other pieces, Concerto No. 8 in G minor and Concerto No. 9 in D minor, also from Il Cimento dell-Armonia e dell’Inventione, make excellent couplings because we don’t hear them often enough, and their creativity is boundless. Then, too, without having to compare them to a ton of other recorded interpretations, they seem just right. These certainly come off as spirited realizations.

So, in the end, for whom might Teldec/Warner Classics have intended this rerelease? It’s not my business to make guesses or to tell people what to buy, but if pressed I’d say the two primary audiences are (1) folks who already have 800 copies of The Four Seasons on their shelves and are looking for something unique to break the monotony; or (2) folks who have never cared much for The Four Seasons and need something as captivating as this one to get them excited. Still, as I said before, I wouldn’t want Il Giardino Armonico’s interpretation as the one-and-only album in my library but as a supplement to period-instruments recordings by the likes of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBP), La Petite Bande (Sony), the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (BIS), the English Concert (DG Archiv), or Tafelmusik (Sony). I think these other recordings are safer bets than Il Giardino Armonico, just as entertaining, and at least as well or better recorded.

Producer Wolfgang Mohr and engineer Lucienne Rosset recorded the music for Teldec at Lugano, Radio della Svizzera Italiana (RTSI) Studio 1 in 1993. Warner Classics released it 2013. There is some discussion in the booklet notes about Il Armonico’s choice of pitch, suggesting that if they had followed Venetian practices, the result would have been too “brilliant and aggressive.” Fair enough, except that the sound still appears to favor the high end slightly and might still appear too brilliant and aggressive depending on one’s speakers. It’s not excessively bright, though, just a little light, and this small degree of brightness may even contribute to the overall clarity of the sonics.

The miking is fairly close-up, providing good definition, if not the most entirely realistic perspective. The recording doesn’t offer a lot in the way of room resonance or ambience, either, but, as I say, it does supply good, clean, clear playback. Additionally, the small number of Il Giardino Armonico players (about ten) contributes to the sound’s transparency, as do the recording’s quick transient response and taut impact.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Beethoven: String Quartets (SACD review)

No. 3, Op. 18; No. 5, Op. 18; No. 16, Op. 135. The Hagen Quartet. Myrios Classics MYR009.

No doubt I’m showing my age when I still think of the Hagen Quartet as a young, new ensemble of Austrian players. In fact, the siblings first began performing as a group professionally in 1981, making them today among the oldest string quartets around. But, then, for me 1981 seems like yesterday. Since the quartet’s formation, second violinist Rainer Schmidt has replaced sister Angelika Hagen, joining first violinist Lukas Hagen, violist Veronika Hagen, and cellist Clemens Hagen. Together, they have recorded over forty albums for Decca, DG, Myrios Classics, and other labels. Following up a highly successful and internationally celebrated thirtieth season devoted to the Beethoven string quartet cycle, the Hagens offer the present album of three Beethoven string quartets, an album that illustrates the group’s virtuosity, sensitivity, and versatility.

The Hagens begin the program with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, which was actually the composer’s first string quartet composition, probably written around 1798. This quartet’s most salient feature is its second-movement Andante con moto, a piece of music that is not only beautiful in anybody’s hands but especially so given the expertise of the Hagens. It flows gently along, and even in its most energetic moments the group keeps the tone relaxed and charming. Another unique aspect of the quartet is a concluding Presto for which Beethoven indicates a speed of some ninety-six beat per minute. That’s a heck of a fast pace, and the Hagens try to emulate it while still keeping the tempo as flexible as possible. Remarkably, they never make it appear breathless.

Next is the String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, a lighter work than No. 3, with greater lilt.  Beethoven patterned it more closely than No 3 on the quartets of Mozart, and the Hagens play it with great felicity. It’s delightful in every way, particularly in the Minuetto with its halting rhythms and in the Andante Cantabile with its melancholy overtones.

The disc closes with the last quartet Beethoven ever wrote, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 from 1826, composed nearly three decades after his first quartet. There is quite a difference in style, with No. 16 being far more creative, inventive, and mature than his previous quartets, more completely “Beethoven” if you will. Here, it is again the slow movement that stands out, one the composer marked “cantante e tranquillo.” Beethoven would die shortly thereafter, making it, indeed, his final tranquil song. The Hagens afford it all the sweet peace the music deserves.

A most generous playing time of almost eighty minutes, pretty much the upper limit of a compact disc, puts the icing on the cake.

Myrios Classics recorded the music in 2012, No. 3 at Siemens-Villa, Berlin, and Nos. 5 and 16 at Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal. Although the disc is an SACD with the possibility for multichannel playback, it’s also a hybrid with a regular two-channel stereo layer to which I listened (albeit from an SACD player). I found the sound in both recording venues very wide for so small an ensemble, so expect the stage to spread across your two front speakers. It’s not quite as realistic an image as I’d like, it’s a tad bright in the lower treble, and the balance tends slightly to favor the left side of the stage. Otherwise, we get excellent definition, and certainly we hear a big, open, airy sound, with a a more than ample dynamic range.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, July 28, 2013

The Orion Ensemble Opens 21st Season with “Celebrating Brahms”

Guest horn Gregory Flint also performs in Geneva (Sep. 8), Chicago (Sep. 11), and Evanston (Sep. 22).

Johannes Brahms is the focus of the 2013-14 season opener of The Orion Ensemble, winner of the prestigious Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. These performances include debuts at two venues--September 8 at First Baptist Church of Geneva and September 11 at the Concert Hall at the Columbia College Chicago Music Center, 1014 S. Michigan Avenue--as well as a return to Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, September 22.

Joining Orion is guest horn Gregory Flint, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and member of the award-winning Asbury Brass Quintet, Tower Brass of Chicago and Fulcrum Point Brass Quintet.

The Program:
“Celebrating Brahms” features two contrasting trios by the early 19th century German composer, written more than 25 years apart. Both reveal the composer’s emotional depth and intensity, as well as his superb musical craftsmanship and understanding of the varied instruments he used in combination.

In the Trio in E-Flat Major for Horn, Violin and Piano, Op. 40, Brahms honors his mother, who passed away shortly before he composed this work, as well as his father, with the use of his instrument, the horn. Other than the hauntingly beautiful Elegie, the movements have a youthful energy; the high sounds of the violin and horn, the characteristic folk and hunting-call motives associated with the horn and the rhythmic play between the instruments contribute to that aesthetic.

Brahms wrote the Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, after he had retired from composing. However, he was so moved after hearing clarinetist Richard Mühfeld he began to work on this trio. He juxtaposes themes in ways that sound inevitable, as are the imaginative combinations of sounds from the three instruments.

Also on the program is the edgy Café Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (1986) by Paul Schoenfield. The music of this Jewish American composer and pianist clearly shows his keen interest in jazz and the folk music of many cultures, particularly his Jewish roots. About Café Music he said, "My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music--music that could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. Early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, Gypsy and Broadway styles are all represented,” as well as a Hasidic melody.

Orion’s 2013–14 season:
Orion’s “Musical Travels” season continues with a series of Beethoven Trios, one on each of the three remaining programs, which include “Danube Destinations” in October and November, featuring guest violist Stephen Boe and other works by Hindemith and Mozart; “Sounds of Russia” in March, featuring guest pianist Sebastian Huydts, violist Stephen Boe, a guest narrator from the Chicago High School for the Arts and other works by Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff; and “Czech and American Romance” in May and June, featuring violist Stephen Boe and other works by Amon, Gershwin and Dvorak.

In addition to its annual four-concert series in three areas, Orion appears on the broadcast series “Live from WFMT” in November 2013 (date TBD) and on March 24, 2014. Orion also tours, performing in chamber music series across the country. Its most recent CD is Twilight of the Romantics.

Performance and ticket information:
The Orion Ensemble’s “Celebrating Brahms” concert program takes place Sunday, September 8 at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Geneva, 2300 South Street in Geneva; Wednesday, September 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago; and Sunday, September 22 at 7:30 p.m. at Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston. Single tickets are $26, $23 for seniors and $10 for students; admission is free for children 12 and younger. A four-ticket flexible subscription provides a 10 percent savings on full-priced tickets. For tickets or more information, call 630-628-9591 or visit http://orionensemble.org

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

The Second Season of The Salomé Music Festival at The Hamptons
Violist David Aaron Carpenter to star in Salome Chamber Orchestra’s returning festival, with a Gala Opening Concert to benefit Nova’s Ark Project and a free concert, “Music of the Jewish Diaspora,” at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

Straight from opening the Yahoo! “On the Road” concert series with singer/songwriter John Legend, a European tour, as well as its 2012/13 residency at New York’s Metropolitan Music of Art, the Salomé Chamber Orchestra returns to the Hamptons for the festival it inaugurated last year. The Salome Music Festival (August 23-25) will present accessible classical music in various venues around the famous Hamptons region of Long Island.

The orchestra will be led by international viola soloist David Aaron Carpenter, described as “The hottest violist of the 21st century” by influential music journalist Norman Lebrecht, and as “stunningly talented” by the New Yorker. Carpenter and the orchestras will perform at the prestigious Nova’s Ark Project and at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

The Gala Opening concert at Nova’s Ark Project’s Castle Barns on August 23rd (7pm) will explore “Music Inspired by Nature” with works of Vivaldi, Paganini, Piazzolla, and Schubert, as well as works recently commissioned for Salomé. The same venue on Sunday, August 25th at 3pm, will see a Jacques Offenbach world premiere, with his one-act operetta, The Babysitter, perfect for families with young children and Offenbach fans alike (some of course, may be both). Salomé will perform the comic opera with members of Divaria Productions, with dialogue in English and arias sung in French. Tickets to both concerts are $20, with children under 12 free on Sunday, and both concerts will conclude with a post-concert reception!  Both concerts will benefit The Ark Project and Terra Nova Foundation, a 95-acre preserve consisting of sculpture fields, galleries, performance spaces and workshops founded by the Romanian sculptor Nova Mihai Popa.

On 24th August at 8PM, a free “Music of the Jewish Diaspora” concert will present music of Jewish composers at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. David Aaron Carpenter and Salomé will perform works by Gershwin, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, composer-in-residence Alexey Shor and Klezmer selections by Ljova. The concert is free and open to the public.

Tickets for the Salomé Music Festival can be purchased via Salome’s website: www.salomechamber.org/concerts.

--Inverne Price

PAAIA Brings World Premiere of The King Cyrus Symphonic Suite to San Francisco
The San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra will perform an exclusive one-night world premiere of a modern symphonic suite in celebration of the legacy of Cyrus the Great of Persia: The King Cyrus Symphonic Suite: From Birth to the Proclamation of Human Rights.

August 10, 2013, 7 p.m.
Nob Hill Masonic Center
San Francisco, CA

The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) is proud to announce the world premiere of The King Cyrus Symphonic Suite: From Birth to the Proclamation of Human Rights for a one night only performance on August 10, 2013.

Composed and conducted by Maestro Loris Tjeknavorian and performed by the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra—a specially assembled 77-piece orchestra—the symphonic suite will feature performances by soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, pianist Tara Kamangar, with narration performed by Houshang Touzie. The San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra is comprised of the best musicians from the Bay Area’s most elite performing institutions including symphony, opera, and ballet organizations.

The King Cyrus Symphonic Suite provides the listener with a musical portrait of King Cyrus (576-530 BC), the first Achaemenid Emperor of Persia. Often referred to as Cyrus the Great for his political and diplomatic achievements, he is best known as a leader who had the vision and the strength of character to implement reforms that brought peace to his subjects and respected the principles of human rights and religious tolerance. Cyrus is also remembered for his masterful diplomacy and his magnanimous treatment of defeated rivals. He is attributed with authoring the first proclamation of human rights, written in cuneiform and preserved on the legendary Cyrus Cylinder.

The symphonic suite celebrates the life of Cyrus from childhood, through the early years of his reign, culminating with his declaration of human rights. The composition is a masterful work by renowned composer, Loris Tjeknovarian, who brings to life the ancient and rich culture of Persia and the human challenges faced by a benevolent and visionary leader.

--Kimberly Verde

Composers & the Voice, 2013-2014
The next wave of opera has arrived.

American Opera Projects is proud to introduce to you the emerging composers and librettists who will develop songs and operas as part of our seventh season of “Composers & the Voice.” Working with C&V Artistic Director Steven Osgood, a team of music directors, world-renowned mentors, and our current group of resident singers, they will hone their skills beginning in September at AOP's home in Brooklyn.

Follow their progress starting today (#C&V) on Facebook, Twitter, and the AOP Blog as we build toward their “First Glimpse” concert on May 18 & 19, 2014.

C&V Fellows:
Guy Barash
Avner Finberg
Jeremy Gill
Jason Kim
Andreia Pinto-Correia
Gity Razaz
Joseph Rubinstein

Artistic Director:
Steven Osgood

Music Directors:
Mila Henry
Kelly Horsted
Charity Wicks

Improv Instructor:
Terry Greiss

Resident Singers:
Deborah Lifton
Kristin Sampson
Rachel Calloway
Dominic Armstrong
Jorell Williams
Matthew Burns

Artistic Chairs:
Mark Campbell
Daron Hagen
Jake Heggie
John Musto
Tobias Picker
Stephen Schwartz

--AOP News

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 41st Season
The third week of concerts includes pianist Jeremy Denk in performance, pianist Shai Wosner in recital, baritone Matthew Worth singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and two concerts featuring the Johannes String Quartet.

With its ever-sparkling dialogues between groups of instruments, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, presented in its original instrumentation, begins the Festival’s third week of concerts. The wind group is comprised of Julie Landsman as horn player, bassoonist Theodore Soluri, and clarinetist Todd Levy.  Violinist Jessica Lee, violist Choong-Jin Chang, cellist Joseph Johnson, and bassist Kristen Bruya encompass the string section. Celebrated worldwide as a soloist and chamber musician, pianist Jeremy Denk joins Avery Fisher Career Grant Winner, violinist Soovin Kim, and cellist Peter Stumpf for Brahms's stately Piano Trio No. 1.

Sunday, July 28 at 6pm and Monday, July 29 at 6pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, Sante Fe, NM

Beethoven: Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20
Todd Levy, clarinet; Julie Landsman, horn; Theodore Soluri, bassoon;
Jessica Lee, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Joseph Johnson, cello;
Kristen Bruya, bass

Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8
Soovin Kim, violin; Peter Stumpf, cello; Jeremy Denk, piano

Tickets: Sunday or Monday Series subscription: $390;
Single tickets: $53-73; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Shai Wosner Solo Piano Recital
Tuesday, July 30 at 12pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Pianist Shai Wosner has attracted international recognition for his exceptional artistry, musical integrity, and creative insight.  In his Festival solo recital debut, Mr. Wosner presents a Schubert-themed program including the composer’s final major work for the piano, Sonata No. 21, D. 960, Klavierstück No. 1, alongside a recent work by German composer Jörg Widmann, the Schubert homage Idyll and Abyss.

Schubert: Klavierstück in E-flat minor, D. 946, No. 1
Jorg Widmann: Idyll and Abyss (Six Schubert Reminiscences)
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960

Tickets: Music at Noon subscription: $198;
Single tickets: $20-25; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Schumann Songs, Schubert Strings, Baritone Matthew Worth and Pianist Shai Wosner, Johannes String Quartet
Wednesday, July 31 at 7:30pm
Simms Auditorium, Albuquerque Academy
And Thursday, August 1 at 6pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Baritone Matthew Worth is enjoying success in opera houses and concert halls across the United States.  He joins pianist Shai Wosner for two concerts of Schumann’s beloved song cycle Dichterliebe.  The Johannes String Quartet ends the concert with Schubert’s dramatically melancholic String Quartet No. 13.  The first of these concerts appears as part of the extended Albuquerque series with a repeat performance August 1 in Santa Fe.

Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op. 48
Matthew Worth, baritone; Shai Wosner, piano

Schubert: String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804
Johannes String Quartet: Soovin Kim, violin; Jessica Lee, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Peter Stumpf, cello

Tickets: Albuquerque Series subscription (Simms Auditorium): $140;
Single tickets: $30-40; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Thursday Series subscription (St. Francis Auditorium): $305;
Single tickets: $31-69; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Johannes String Quartet Music at Noon Series
Thursday, August 1 at 12pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Praised for its special combination of passion, warmth, elegance, and poetry, the Johannes String Quartet is comprised of the first American to win the Paganini Violin Competition in 24 years, a Concert Artist Guild International Competition Winner, Principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and former Principal cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit (Thus the Night) for String Quartet
Johannes String Quartet: Soovin Kim, violin; Jessica Lee, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola;
Peter Stumpf, cello
Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67
Johannes String Quartet

Tickets: Music at Noon subscription: $198; Single tickets: $20-25; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Thursday Series subscription (St. Francis Auditorium): $305; Single tickets: $12-69; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Bach Plus Series: A Johann Sebastian Bach Spectacular
Saturday, August 3 at 5pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

As part of the Bach Plus series, the Festival presents the third of five concerts surrounding the enduring music of J.S. Bach. Cellist Joseph Johnson’s final concert in the Festival’s 41st season sees him in the spotlight performing one of classical music’s most familiar works, Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major for Solo Cello.  Longtime friend of the Festival and international harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh partners with violist Choong-Jin Chang for the composer’s Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord.  GRAMMY Award-nominated flutist, Joshua Smith, closes the program with Bach’s Partita in A minor for Solo Flute.

J.S. Bach: Suite No. 1 in G major for Solo Cello, BWV 1007
Joseph Johnson, cello
Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord, BWV 1029
Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Kathleen McIntosh, harpsichord
Partita in A minor for Solo Flute, BWV 1013
Joshua Smith, flute

Tickets: Bach Plus subscription: $190; Single tickets: $32-40; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

For more information on Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's concerts and to order tickets, please call 505-982-1890 or visit www.SantaFeChamberMusic.com. The box office is located in the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Art at 107 West Palace Avenue and is open daily from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm.

--Ashlyn Damm, Kirshbaum Demler & Associates

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Tod und Verklarung. Francois-Xavier Roth, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden un Freiburg. Hanssler Classic CD 93.299.

Is it really such tall leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben? From Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Sea Hawk? Or from Korngold’s Sea Hawk to John Williams’s Star Wars? I think not. All composers owe a little something to those who went before them, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) was a natural step in the progression of the tone poem, here given a rousing rendition by Maestro Francois-Xavier Roth and his Southwest German Radio Orchestra. What’s more, the orchestra plays with the precision and solidity you would expect of a thoroughly polished German ensemble, helping Roth immensely to recreate Strauss’s picturesque musical poem.

A note before we continue, though, about the ensemble involved, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (also known in English as the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra or SWR Symphony Orchestra, and in German as the Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks or SWR Sinfonieorchester) is a radio orchestra located in the German cities of Baden-Baden and Freiburg.” Francois-Xavier Roth has been the orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 2011. Now that we’ve cleared that up, on to the music.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography, a semi-serious self-portrait. Strauss was only thirty-four years old at the time, showing his supreme self-confidence by writing a musical autobiography as he did at such an early age. Mainly, though, he seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into seven parts describing seven stages in the artist’s life. The first segment, “The Hero,” obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, Maestro Roth is appropriately dashing, with plenty of panache. Next, the music turns to “The Hero’s Adversaries,” his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion; Roth captures their trivialities, yet their possibly sinister nature as well. Following that is “The Hero’s Companion,” his wife, whom violinist Christian Ostertag sweetly defines in solo; then in the ensuing “Love Scene” we find from Roth not only a loving, harmonious wife but an apparently complex one.

“The Hero’s Battlefield” is the centerpiece of the work, where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments with bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Roth provides it with an adequate urgency and excitement without too much hectic, bombastic action.

“The Hero’s Works of Peace” is another slow movement, again a remembrance of the composer’s previous tone poems as an almost-final rebuke of his foes. After that, the work closes with “The Hero’s Retirement from the World and His Fulfillment,” the longest movement, a concluding note of possible contentment and repose for a life of art well spent. However, Roth ends the piece more ominously than most conductors, so there’s still a question about the hero’s actual resolution of his problems.

Tod und Verklarung (“Death and Transfiguration”), which Strauss wrote in 1889, a full ten years before Ein Heldenleben, is much more serious in tone than the more playful later work, yet it pursues a similar theme. It describes the death of an artist, who, as he lies dying, thinks of life, the innocence of childhood, the struggles of manhood, and the achievement of goals. Finally, the artist receives a desired transfiguration "from the infinite reaches of heaven.” It is, perhaps, the kind of reflection on death that only a very young (or a very old) man could write.

Roth takes his time to develop the various motifs in Tod und Verklarung, keeping everything as somber as I’ve heard, yet without being too maudlin about it. In fact, in some sections Roth will positively startle you from your seat. Of course, the excellent recording helps here, too.

As this is apparently the first volume of Maestro Roth’s Strauss tone poems, he’s off to an auspicious start.

Hanssler Classic recorded the music at the Konzerthaus, Freiburg, Germany, in November 2012, and they did a really good of it. The acoustic sounds very spacious, with a realistic hall ambience. There is a good tonal balance, with perhaps a hint of mid-treble brightness and a slight veiling but in general more than enough detailing. A nicely controlled low end helps, too, given the resonance of the venue. The dynamic impact is moderate, the stereo spread wide, and the depth of image impressive. It’s a fine, lifelike presentation.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, A Night on Bald Mountain, and others. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA SACD 82876-61394-2.

Many record companies continue to see something in Super Audio Compact Discs because even RCA jumped into the fray a number of years back with an SACD collection of their old “Living Stereo” recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. The idea is that some recording companies made many of these old recordings originally with microphones to the left, center, and right of the stage, the three channels subsequently mixed down into two-channel stereo. With the availability of multiple channels of sound on SACDs, the companies can now utilize the original mixes of three front channels to the fullest. And for those of us who don’t own an SACD player, most of these discs are hybrids, meaning there is also a regular two-channel layer that one can play on any regular CD machine. The theory is that companies can remaster the regular two-channel layer and make it sound even better than what they previously provided, as the folks at RCA have supposedly done in their “Living Stereo” series, the sound remastered via DSD, Direct Stream Digital.

Well, yes, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, RCA did slightly improve the sound of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Maestro Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The highs no longer sound quite so bright or hard-edged. However, I also happened to have on hand the audiophile-remastered JVC disc of the same Mussorgsky recording, and I found the JVC smoother still, with a marginally greater depth of image. But that’s another story. The differences among the two-channel renderings on the three discs are really so small that I doubt most people would notice them except on direct comparison, let alone care. So I suppose the point is mostly moot unless you really, really love the performance, which I do, and then you want only the very best version of it.

The main thing about this whole affair is that Reiner’s 1957 interpretation of the Mussorgsky work is still the best one available, each “picture” an elegant little masterpiece, and RCA’s SACD edition has certain advantages over its regular competition. The SACD sounds good in two-channel stereo, with wonderful detailing and range, if not quite so good as the higher-priced JVC. It offers three-channel performance for those able to play it back that way. And coupled with it you’ll find the additional goodies that also come on the regular RCA release: Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Marche miniature, Borodin’s Polovtsian March, Tchaikovsky’s March slave, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, all of them filled with the color and excitement you’d expect from Reiner performances.

Don’t you hate decisions? I’m glad it’s not my job to make them for you. But for myself alone, I can’t think of a better Mussorgsky Pictures than Reiner’s.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Mozart: Horn Concertos (CD review)

Herman Jeurissen, horn; Roy Goodman, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 94644.

You might think that a fellow like Roy Goodman, who has specialized over the years in conducting early music and leading period-instruments ensembles like the Hanover Band, would when working with a modern-instruments group like the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra perhaps overindulge himself in historical practice and go all lickety-split on us. In these performances of Mozart’s Horn Concertos, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Not that Goodman doesn’t give us historically informed readings, but they are also graceful and relaxed, with horn player Herman Jeurissen making a most elegant contribution.

Mr. Jeurissen plays on a modern valved horn, and while his tone is not as plummy as many horn players I’ve heard, it is pleasantly warm and resonant. Goodman’s direction follows Jeurissen’s lead, fluent and articulate, the Netherlands musicians performing with precision, and all of them maintaining a sensible pace throughout the concertos.

Jeurissen and Goodman begin the program with the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat, K.417 because despite the numbering, Mozart wrote it first. As the composer did with the other three horn concertos, Mozart wrote No. 2 for his friend, the virtuoso horn player Joseph Leutgeb. He wanted to give Leutgeb something that would show off his friend’s unique abilities on the natural horn, in the meantime the composer writing sometimes crude, joking, mocking comments about his friend throughout the score. This was the Mozart we see in the movie and stage play Amadeus. Leutgeb apparently didn’t mind the teasing, and the two men remained friends until the composer’s death.

Anyway, under Goodman No. 2 has a snappy gait yet still sounds mellifluent and urbane. In the finale’s familiar hunting theme Jeurissen is appropriately playful while pursuing the generally urbane approach of the interpretation.

No. 3 in E flat, K.447, No. 4 in E flat, K.495, and No. 1 in D, K.412 continue in a like manner, with Jeurissen making the Romance of No. 3 particularly affecting.

Coupled with the Horn Concertos we find some of Mozart’s unfinished horn works, reconstructed or completed by Mr. Jeurissen: the Concerto Movement in E, K.494A; the Horn Concerto in E flat, K.370B/371; and, just for fun, the Rondo: Allegro of No. 1 with Mozart’s original text read by Giorgo Mereu.

One minor thing that continues to annoy me about most albums of Mozart’s Horn Concertos is that by themselves they don’t quite offer enough material to fill out a disc. So, fair enough, the people involved usually include other bits and pieces of Mozart horn music as accompaniment, but which they most often spread out all over the place, as we see here. Personally, I’d rather just hear the four concertos and then at the end listen to anything else the program had to offer. Also, I’d rather hear the four concertos arranged numerically rather than chronologically. Of course, I can always program my CD player to play back the music any way I like it, but who wants to go to the trouble? Yeah, I’m just being difficult. Sorry.

At mid price, Jeurissen/Goodman’s rendering of the Horn Concertos offers good value. The only snag is that there are many other worthy contenders in a crowded field, including Dennis Brain’s celebrated mono account with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Lowell Greer with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi), Alan Civil with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI), Ab Koster and Tafelmusik (Sony or Newton Classics), Barry Tuckwell and the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca), Eric Ruske and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc), and a ton of others. Decisions, decisions.

Brilliant Classics licensed the recording from Olympia, who made it in 1996 at Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam. The sonics are round and slightly soft, extremely smooth, and very comforting. The engineers miked the players at a modest distance, narrowing the stereo spread somewhat but replicating a fairly realistic presentation. The horn sounds well integrated with the orchestra, never too far out in front nor enveloped by the other instruments. Although inner detailing could be better, the overall aural effect is quite pleasing.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Conrad Tao: Voyages (CD review)

Music of Monk, Rachmaninov, Tao, and Ravel.  Conrad Tao, piano. EMI Classics 50999 9 34476 2.

EMI Records has a long tradition of helping and promoting talented newcomers, and the present disc is no exception. Although Voyages is not the first album from enormously talented American pianist, violinist, and composer Conrad Tao (b. 1994), it is his first full-length solo effort.

I wish I could say the album was entirely successful, but it did not strike me that way. Of the five works on the disc, one of them, the Monk piece, is extremely short; two of them Tao wrote himself, and they did not interest me much; and the other two are by old hands, Rachmaninov and Ravel, which come off best. However, because the latter works are so famous, one may find any number of equally good competing discs with even more attractive material on them. Still, Voyages should please Tao’s fans, and it certainly shows off his pianistic versatility.

The program begins with Railroad (Travel Song) by Meredith Monk, a rhythmically dynamic piece that suggests the sounds and feel of a fast-moving train. It’s a fascinating little work that lasts about two minutes (you can hear it below). The only drawback I found in Tao’s rendering of it is that I never got the impression of the size and power of a locomotive and railroad carriages. Tao’s version of it is more like a night ride in a sleeping car--at once animated and restful but not exactly vibrant.

Next come some of the most-pleasing things on the album: five Preludes by Sergei Rachmaninov, which Tao chose from the composer’s Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets. They range from soft and ethereal (No. 5, Op. 32) to big and swirling (No. 7, Op. 23), both of which Tao handles in a very Debussy-like way, full of color, strong passions, and gentle persuasions. In the Rachmaninov, Tao demonstrates his poetic sensibility above all, while still projecting a skillful sense of authority (No. 2, Op. 23). If he had devoted the entire album just to the Preludes, I think I would have been happier.

Tao also does well conveying the surreal imagery of Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (“Treasurer of the Night,” or in some interpretations, “The Devil”). The pianist appears ideally suited to illustrate the sensitivity of the French idiom, and I enjoyed the open airiness of Tao’s playing.

Then there are the two works Tao composed himself: Vestiges and Iridescence for piano and iPad. Both pieces, the former in four movements, create small tone pictures of dreamy, changeable landscapes; both are easily accessible; and both are worth hearing. Once. I’m just not sure how often I’d want to return to them, as they seem rather lightweight, spacey, and pop sounding. But what do I know. At least they’re easy on the ears.

Producers Marina and Victor Ledin and engineer Leslie Ann Jones recorded the album in 2012 at Skywalker Sound, the world-famous venue in Marin County, California, not too far from me and one I have visited on several occasions. It’s not surprising the recording team found a suitable location for showing off Tao’s abilities. The sound is warm and comfortable, miked at a moderate distance for a piano recording, yet with suitable detail. Perhaps some listeners will prefer more bite to the notes, but the sound seems to fit the music nicely, especially Tao’s delicate approach to things. Then, too, the engineers capture a pleasant hall ambience that helps communicate the music in a most relaxing manner.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Classical Music News of the Week, July 21, 2013

Harry Bicket and the English Concert Celebrate 40th Anniversary

The 2013-14 season highlights include Founder Trevor Pinnock’s return to the podium, expanded Wigmore Hall Series, Messiah at Spitalfields, and Handel’s Theodora in Europe and the United States.

Odds that Harry Bicket and The English Concert could trump their successes of 2012-13 might seem long, but the orchestra's 40th anniversary season is set to do just that. With highlights including founder Trevor Pinnock returning to conduct the orchestra in concert for the first time in over a decade, five appearances at the Wigmore Hall, and an international tour of Handel's oratorio Theodora - following last season's triumphant presentation of Radamisto - 2013-14 promises to deliver a defining celebration of TEC's first four decades.

The English Concert's first London performance of the 40th anniversary season, on 15 October, sees the return of Trevor Pinnock who founded the orchestra in 1973. In the first of five TEC concerts this season at the Wigmore Hall, the programme is typically Trevor, displaying his virtuosity at the keyboard and directing the orchestra in works by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. The programme will be repeated on 18 October at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford, and on 9 November at St. Alfege Church in Greenwich.

Though these mark the first live performances with Trevor and TEC since he retired as Artistic Director in 2001, last year he and the orchestra collaborated in the recording studio with esteemed trumpeter Alison Balsom for the acclaimed and chart-topping release on EMI Classics, Sound the Trumpet. That collaboration has extended to Gabriel, a unique theatrical and musical production at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre which will run for 16 performances between 13 July and 18 August. Further performances of the musical programme will take place on 21 July at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk, 26 July at the Ryedale Festival in North Yorkshire, 20 August at the Snape Proms, 24 October at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, and 25 October at St. George's Bristol.

Continuing the trumpet theme, Harry Bicket directs TEC in a programme of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi that features the orchestra's own virtuoso Mark Bennett as well as soprano Katherine Watson. Two performances, in Warwick's St. Mary's Church on 1 October, and Liverpool's St. George's Hall on 4 October, are an important part of the orchestra's regional touring scheme supported by the Arts Council's National portfolio funding.

Back in London, TEC's 40th anniversary season enjoys an expanded season at the Wigmore Hall with four concerts that feature a dazzling display of vocal fireworks. On 20 November, Bicket welcomes soprano Sally Matthews who makes her TEC debut in an all-Mozart programme that also spotlights TEC's principal bassoonist Alberto Grazzi. On 25 March, frequent collaborator Laurence Cummings guest-directs a programme of J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach and Telemann, which will be preceded by a performance in Birmingham's Barber Institute on 24 March. On 17 April, guest director Bernard Labadie returns to the orchestra for a programme of two Italian Stabat Maters by Vivaldi and Pergolesi, featuring soprano Roberta Invernizzi and mezzo soprano Sonia Prina, which will also be presented at the Sage Gateshead on 15 April, and St. George's Bristol on 16 April. On 21 May, Bicket ends TEC's celebratory Wigmore season with Il caro Sassone, a programme highlighting Handel's successful early years in Italy and welcoming soprano Lucy Crowe whose harmonia mundi recording of the same name with Bicket and the orchestra was praised by Gramophone magazine for Crowe's "panache" and the "virtuoso playing from The English Concert."

For more information on The English Concert, click here: http://englishconcert.co.uk/

--Melanne Mueller, Music Cointernational

Online Voting Continues for Pianist Valentina Lisitsa’s Opening Night Program at 92nd Stree Y
New York, NY: Acclaimed pianist Valentina Lisitsa makes her New York City solo recital debut October 19 as 92Y’s season-opening artist.  The Ukraine-born pianist has discovered an impressive audience through social media and is the first classical artist to have converted her internet success into a global concert career. Since launching her YouTube channel in 2007, Ms. Lisitsa has garnered over 60 million views and over 93,000 followers. As part of a continued effort to include her online community in her live performances, audiences from around the world have the unique opportunity to select the pianist’s 92Y recital program through online voting. Ms. Lisitsa is asking audiences to vote on one of three proposed programs via www.92y.org/Valentina between July 9 and September 9. In a video posted today, Ms. Lisitsa presents the three programs and details of the voting process. The winning program will be announced on September 9, at which time Ms. Lisitsa will ask her audience to vote for the recital encores to be performed October 19. Encore voting continues throughout the night of the concert and will not close until the final work on the winning program has been performed.

An exclusive Decca Classics recording artist since 2012, Ms. Lisitsa will release her third album on the label, Liszt, October 8. The album features the composer's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, Ballade No. 2, Schubert song transcriptions and more. An unedited LP edition of Liszt recorded in full-analog sound will also be released. Ms. Lisitsa’s first Decca release, Live at the Royal Albert Hall, was released in June 2012 and followed by Rachmaninov, the composer's complete concertos and Paganini Rhapsody with the London Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Michael Francis.

To vote or learn more about the concert, visit http://www.92y.org/valentina

--Ashlyn Damm, Kirshbaum Demler & Associates

Music Institute of Chicago Announces 2013-14 Nichols Concert Hall Season
Highlights Include Benny Goodman Festival with guest artists Victor Goines and Larry Combs
From celebrated solo artists to a classic jazz festival, the Music Institute of Chicago presents its 2013–14 Faculty and Guest Artist Series at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL.

Music Institute Faculty Concert
Saturday, September 21, 7:30 p.m.
To open the season, more than 30 members of the renowned Music Institute faculty perform music composed for and of the night. The program includes several Chopin Nocturnes, Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos “La nuit... L'amour...” (The night...the love...), and Schoenberg’s stunning work for strings Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night).

Benny Goodman Festival
Friday and Saturday, November 1 and 2, 7:30 p.m.
The Music Institute of Chicago’s fourth annual jazz festival celebrates the enduring legacy of Chicago’s own Benny Goodman. On Friday, November 1, guest clarinetist Victor Goines joins an all-star jazz faculty quintet for an evening of high-stepping swing. The festival continues on Saturday with an afternoon documentary film screening and panel discussion (details to follow) and concludes with a concert of music that Goodman performed, commissioned, or premiered. The program includes works by Poulenc and Mozart, including the Clarinet Quintet KV 581 with Quintet Attacca and Music Institute faculty clarinetist Barbara Drapcho. Soloist Larry Combs closes the concert with Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and a performance of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with conductor James Setapen leading an orchestra of Music institute faculty, Academy students, and special guests.

Peter Seidenberg
Saturday, November 16, 7:30 p.m.
Music Institute alumnus and cellist Peter Seidenberg has performed throughout Europe, the U.S., and Asia, making his concerto debut in 1983 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was a founding member of the Elements String Quartet and has played with members of the Cleveland, Tokyo, Juilliard, and Emerson Quartets. Seidenberg’s program features a work written for this performance by composer and Music Institute alumnus David MacDonald.

Quintet Attacca, Axiom Brass, Mark George
Saturday, March 1, 7:30 p.m.
Music Institute of Chicago President and CEO and pianist Mark George collaborates with the Music Institute’s Ensembles in Residence Quintet Attacca and Axiom Brass for an exciting program that includes Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat, Op. 16 and the music of Alec Wilder.

Notes from Hollywood
Co-sponsored by Dempster St. Pro Musica
Sunday, April 20, 7 p.m.
Leonard Slatkin serves as narrator, conductor, and pianist in a tribute to Hollywood movie music of the 1940s and ’50s as well as to his parents, violinist Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, leading film and recording musicians of the era and founders of the Hollywood String Quartet. Slatkin leads an ensemble comprising members of Dempster St. Pro Musica (most also members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis, who perform chamber music by Miklos Rozsa, Erich Korngold, Nino Rota, Enrico Morricone, Franz Waxman, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. To acknowledge the close friendship between the Slatkins and Frank Sinatra, vocalist Tom Heitman performs selections from Sinatra’s groundbreaking album Close to You, accompanied by string players using the original Hollywood Quartet orchestrations.

Inna Faliks
Saturday, May 3, 7:30 p.m.
The fourth annual Distinguished Alumni Concert features pianist Inna Faliks, one of the most inspiring artists on today’s concert scene. Her imaginative concert program includes live readings by contemporary poets to explore the connection between words and music.

Nathan Laube
Saturday, May 17, 3 p.m.
Brilliant young concert organist and faculty member at the Eastman School of Music, Nathan J. Laube delivers a spectacular program in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago’s E.M Skinner organ.

--Jill Chukerman, JAC Communications

Renee Fleming Recipient of Prestigious 2012 National Medal of Arts Presented by President Obama on July 10, 2013
On September 17, 2013, four-time Grammy winner Renée Fleming releases Guilty Pleasures - the eagerly-awaited sequel to her 1999 best-selling, landmark recording, The Beautiful Voice, both on Decca. Guilty Pleasures is a musical feast poised to delight old and new admirers, featuring some of Renée’s personal favorite selections she has long wanted to record.  The album includes arias from operas by Dvorak, Smetana and Tchaikovsky, coupled with indulgences such as “Danny Boy,” John Corigliano's “The Ghosts of Versailles” and the 'Flower Duet' from Delibes Lakmé, for which she is joined by the incomparable Susan Graham.

News of the release of Guilty Pleasures follows on the heels of President Barack Obama presenting Fleming with the 2012 National Medal of Arts on July 10th “for her contributions to American music.” Among those who also received honors in the East Room of the White House, in the presence of the First Lady, were filmmaker George Lucas, comedy actress Elaine May and jazz legend Allen Toussaint.  The Medal is the highest honor for achievement in the arts conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the American people.

The White House citation said: “Known to many as ‘the people's diva,’ Ms Fleming has captivated audiences around the world with an adventurous repertoire spanning opera and the classical tradition to jazz and contemporary pop.”

--Olga Makrias, Universal Music

The Second Week of Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s 41st Season Introduces a New String Quartet Workshop for Young Composers and Jeremy Denk in Recital 
Brahms: Piano Quartet
Sunday, July 21 at 6pm & Monday, July 22 at 6pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Week Two of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival kicks off with pianist Soyeon Kate Lee, alongside clarinetist Todd Levy for Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet & Piano – the first work the composer dedicated to his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg. Violinist Benny Kim, violist Scott Lee and cellist Keith Robinson perform Brahms’ muscular and exuberant Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major. Returning artist Daniel Hope joins Keith Robinson for Erwin Schulhoff’s Czech folksong-influenced Duo for Violin & Cello.

Tickets: Sunday or Monday Series subscription: $390.
Single tickets: $53-73; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Jeremy Denk Solo Piano Recital--Bach’s Goldberg Variatiions: Music at Noon Series
Tuesday, July 23 at 12pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Jeremy Denk has steadily built a reputation as one of today’s most compelling and persuasive concert pianists with an unusually broad repertoire. The pianist returns to the Festival for a highly anticipated Music at Noon recital performing J.S. Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations.

Tickets: Music at Noon subscription: $198.
Single tickets: $20-25; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Mendelssohn & More
Wednesday, July 24 at 7:30pm
Simms Auditorium, Albuquerque Academy
Thursday, July 25 at 6pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

For over twenty years, their diversity in programming, poise in performance, and impeccable musicality has made the Miami String Quartet one of the most sought-after quartets in chamber music today. The group returns to Santa Fe to play Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor -- an emotional piece written after the sudden death of the composer’s beloved sister. Festival debut artist, pianist Soyeon Kate Lee, joins the Quartet for Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi’s intense Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat minor. Schulhoff’s serious and virtuosic Sextet for Strings is performed by violinists Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza, violists Scott Lee and Max Mandel, and cellists Keith Robinson and Felix Fan.

Tickets: Albuquerque Series subscription (Simms Auditorium): $140. Single tickets: $30-40; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Thursday Series subscription (St. Francis Auditorium): $305.
Single tickets: $31-69; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Beethoven & Shostakovich: Music at Noon Series
Thursday, July 25 at 12pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

This Music at Noon concert features the Miami String Quartet performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat major, a work that exhibits the composer’s signature combination of pain and suffering as well as cynicism and humor. Violinists Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza pair for Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata for Two Violins -- a prime example of French Baroque writing, especially in its florid ornamentation, this composition provides both violinists equal opportunities to display their talents. Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano & Winds in E-flat major closes the program with Robert Ingliss, oboe; Todd Levy, clarinet; Gabrielle Finck, horn; Theodore Soluri, bassoon; and Jeremy Denk, piano.

Tickets: Music at Noon subscription: $198. Single tickets: $20-25; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Modern Masters: Young Composer’s String Quartet Workshop
Friday, July 26 at 6pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

In keeping with its commitment to perpetuate the future of chamber music, the Festival launches a week-long young composers’ string quartet workshop that culminates in three world premieres presented alongside Marc Neikrug’s String Quartet No. 4 and Conlon Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3. Composers Reena Esmail, David Hertzberg, and Elizabeth Ogonek will be mentored by Festival Artistic Director and world-renowned composer, Marc Neikrug, who will oversee daily rehearsals with the FLUX Quartet and provide feedback and guidance.  Executives from G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes will meet regularly with the composers to offer development strategies and professional advice.

Tickets: Single tickets: $21 general admission; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

Music from the Time of Goya: Bach Plus Series
Saturday, July 27 at 5pm
St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art

Figuring prominently in the Festival’s Bach Plus series is “Reflection and Revolution: Music in the Time of Goya,” a multimedia presentation showcasing the romantic Spanish painter’s art alongside his musical contemporaries. Creator and host, GRAMMY Award-nominated guitarist Richard Savino, joins renowned soprano Christine Brandes, violinists L.P. How and Kathleen Brauer, violist Kimberly Fredenburgh, and cellist Joseph Johnson for a program that draws parallels between Goya’s masterpieces and the music composed across Europe during the same time.

Tickets: Bach Plus subscription: $190. Single tickets: $32-40; Ages 35 & Under $15; Ages 6-10 $10

For more information on Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's concerts and to order tickets, please call 505-982-1890 or visit www.SantaFeChamberMusic.com. The box office is located in the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Art at 107 West Palace Avenue and is open daily from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm.

--Ashlyn Damm, Kirshbaum Demler & Associates

Sarah Fox, from the Berlin Philharmonic to Rufus Wainwright
Preparing for The Last Night of the Halle Proms, the leading English soprano comments on loving her new voice and her spot of genre-jumping.

Sarah Fox, increasingly acknowledged as one of the most talented English sopranos of her generation, has been going through changes in recent years. Richard Hickox, a mentor and great supporter, sadly passed away just as other conductors have forged newer close professional relationships – Ian Page and his much-respected Classical Opera Company; darling of the BBC Proms John Wilson; and most recently Sir Simon Rattle with his renewed association with her for Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in Vienna.  Ms. Fox’s voice itself has changed – the Baroque lightness of old has now blossomed into a refulgent, gorgeously secure Mozart/Strauss-style soprano.

And she herself is perfectly comfortable swapping the solemn grandeur of Mahler with a Rattle or a Maazel for the high-kicking romanticism of Rodgers and Hart – as with her hit concerts with “Wilson at the Proms” – or touring European venues alongside Rufus Wainwright. And, of course, back again – this year brings four Wigmore Hall dates including their New Year’s Eve concert. IPMC’s James Inverne asked her about coping with change and, indeed, thriving on it.

JI: You’ve cultivated almost two different sides of your musical personality, even though they’re clearly linked – over the last few weeks, for instance, you’ve sung Mahler’s Second Symphony for Simon Rattle and the BPO in Vienna, given concerts alongside Rufus Wainwright in Europe and starred in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury for John Wilson and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. You also sing a great deal with John Wilson’s own orchestra, MGM musicals and the like. Is the experience of singing all of these the same?

SF: I get completely the same satisfaction. Even though the Berlin Phil and John Wilson Orchestra are chalk and cheese repertoire-wise, the standard has to still be the same. In the case of the lighter repertoire, people often make the mistake of thinking it’s easier to sing, but it needs just as much work as Mahler or Strauss or anything else. In some ways it makes no difference to me because music is music, and if your voice feels like it fits the music then you treat it with the same seriousness you treat any other job.

JI: Perhaps the (very sad) closing of so many record shops actually open up an opportunity of sorts – that people don’t in their minds categorise music into so many micro-genres the way they used to when they were billed that way on the shelves. So they’re more open.

SF: Good point, especially as regards classical, as I suspect a lot of people never used to go into the classical section of Tower Records. So maybe there are advantages.

JI: Is your preparation essentially different for the heavier than the lighter stuff?

SF: All I ever do is prepare from the vocal viewpoint, and then I might do a bit of listening to recordings, though not too much so I’m not over-influenced. Once I’ve decided I want to do something one way I find it hard to change my mind, so I try not to have made those decisions before turning up for rehearsal.

Simon Rattle, for instance, wanted me to sing the first phrase in Mahler’s Second Symphony with almost no vibrato at all. I would never decide to do that, so you have to just prepare and be flexible to the conductor, they will tell you how they want it. With Rufus as the composer of his music he would even change things while working with me, even modelling certain things on my voice, which I’d never had before. And John Wilson knows his craft so well and gives very good instructions in rehearsals. So I like to be a canvas for the conductor.

JI: Your voice has changed significantly in the last few years, really gaining in body and warmth and that has changed the kinds of roles you can sing. You’re now much more a Figaro Countess than a Susanna, so to speak. How has that quite fundamental change affected you?

SF: The year I did Mimi in La boheme was the turning-point, 2009-10. I had two contracts in a row – one in Norway and one at Opera North and they were both Mimi. So I did 17 performances of the role, and it really felt like it trained my muscles up. But it’s only when you emerge from doing repertoire like that, that you notice changes. The September after that Mimi, I recorded French songs with Malcolm Martineau and suddenly I could diminuendo properly on sustained notes, and that had come from singing Mimi over eight months!

But, yes, the voice itself has changed a lot. It’s now ready for the Countess in Figaro, Pamina, some of the Britten roles, Strauss - definitely the Marschallin and also Capriccio. I’m singing Micaela at Covent Garden later this year and that’s perfect timing for me. You need a certain size of voice because of the duet with Don Jose, the meatiest part of the whole role art, more than the aria.

The great thing about my voice changing is that at last it’s ready to do things I’ve hungered for, for the best part of 20 years. Mind you, most of the opera roles I’ve done are the kinds of people in daily life who I’d want to slap, so it can be quite a test of acting! The parts I can sing now are finally the ones that are also more suited to my own personality.

--Inverne Price Music

Bach: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Amsterdam Bach Soloists. Brilliant Classics 94666.

This disc has a lot going for it. Thomas Zehetmair is a world-renowned violinist; the Amsterdam Bach Soloists comprise a little over a dozen players from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra; and while they perform on modern instruments, they adhere largely to historically informed performance practice. Thus, we get the best of all worlds: world-class playing; smooth, mellifluous sound; and convincing interpretations.

Bach wrote his two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 and No. 2 in E major, BWV1042, somewhere between 1717 and 1723, around the same time he was writing the Brandenburg Concertos, so if you hear any similarities, especially in the opening of 1042, you know why.

The program begins with BWV1042, which is probably the earlier of the two concertos, despite its catalogue number. Zehetmair and his players perform it in a lively style, with great flair; the ensemble is precise and spirited; and the reading remains animated without resorting to breakneck speeds. In the slow middle movement Zehetmair sounds lyrically refined; and in the final movement the whole group play as one, with an excellent, uniform response, exuberant and fun.

The program continues with BWV1041, which is probably the last of the specifically named violin concertos, again despite the catalogue number. Here, the entire ensemble begin the main theme, with the soloist quickly taking the lead. Zehetmair tackles it playfully, darting in and out of the accompaniment with a fleet ease. The tutti and solo parts alternate rapidly, and everyone involved appears to be on the same page in terms of the overall joy they bring to the music. In the Andante we find a more solemn or sedate mood, still played with much character. Then comes the finale, possibly the most virtuosic of all the music, with Zehetmair and company in full command. These are first-rate performances in every way.

Accompanying the two violin concertos are two violin arrangements reconstructed from harpsichord concertos, the Violin Concerto in D minor BWV1052 and the Violin Concerto in G minor BWV1056. Since Bach often reused his own material--re-arranging things for other instruments--it is quite possible that he initially wrote these two concertos for the violin in the first place and later transcribed them for harpichord. Whatever, they sound as though Bach had written them specifically for the violin, which is all that counts. Whether or not these transcriptions sound as Bach might have intended or if Bach even wrote the harpsichord concertos themselves is of little consequence when one hears how well Zehetmair and the Amsterdam Bach Soloists perform them. There is an air of authority about the music that pronounces all of it right and proper.

Yes, I would rather the coupling had been the usual Concerto for Two Violins, BWV1043, that we hear so often on these discs, but that’s neither here nor there. We have what we have, and it’s plenty good enough. And, besides, there’s that exquisite Largo in 1056 to consider.

Originally recorded at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in 1994 by Edel Classics and released on the Berlin Classics label, Brilliant Classics have re-released it in 2013. The sound is quite transparent, among the best I’ve heard in these works. It’s a small ensemble so we might expect as much. The miking catches the solos in clear, vibrant, natural sonics, without the violin being too far forward. Good dynamics and a quick transient response contribute to the lifelike effect, along with a realistic tonal balance and a fairly wide stereo spread. Like everything else about the recording, the sound is practically ideal.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Rondo in B flat; Choral Fantasy. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Clemens Hagen, cello. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Warner Classics 2564 60602-2.

I immensely enjoyed this Warner Classics recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto for a combination of reasons. First and foremost, you’ll hardly find a better played account. Aimard, Zehetmair, Hagen, Harnoncourt, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe take it more gently than I’ve heard it most often before (also surprising from Harnoncourt), yet it benefits from the tender, loving care. If I found any snag at all in it, it’s that I thought the piano sometimes sounded too big, too close, while the other two soloists seemed more realistically positioned. Well, we might expect that, I suppose, as the piano in this particular piece of music generally takes pride of place amongst all the instruments.

Second, I enjoyed the harmonious interplay among the three soloists, Aimard on piano, Zehetmair on violin, and Hagen on cello, as well as their non-obtrusive accompaniment by Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. True, no one is going to mistake this group’s work for the more grand and opulent performance by Richter, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI or Hi-Q), but look at what giants we had working there.

Third, I liked the two companion pieces on the disc, the Rondo in B flat, which may have been the original closing movement of the B-flat Piano Concerto, Aimard giving it a lively reading; and the Choral Fantasy, which is a sort of miniature, scaled-down Ninth Symphony, complete with a rousing choral finale.

Finally, I liked the sound: Very subtle, very refined, very natural. Perhaps not always so transparent as it might be, it always appeared wonderfully realistic and was a definite pleasure to listen to. In all, a most felicitous release.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Schumann: Carnaval (CD review)

Also, Kinderszenen. Canadian Brass. Opening Day ODR 7438.

German composer and music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote Carnaval, a set of short, solo piano works, in 1834-35. Although various folks have orchestrated them over the years, including a ballet in 1910, I believe this is the first time anyone has arranged them for brass quintet. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be Canadian Brass, the world’s premier exponent all things brass.

Trumpeters Chris Coletti and Brandon Ridenour adapted Carnaval and the accompanying Kinderszenen for brass quintet, nicely maintaining the spirit of both works. Then it’s up to the players to do justice to the transcriptions, and that they do just that. Joining the aforementioned Coletti and Ridenour are Eric Reed, horn; Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone and baritone horn; Chuck Daellenbach, tuba; and Caleb Hudson, additional piccolo trumpet and Bb trumpet.

In Carnaval, Schumann portrayed masked revelers at Carnaval, a festive season occurring in mainly Catholic countries just before Lent. Schumann portrays himself, his friends, and his colleagues in the music, as well as characters from Italian comedy. It’s all quite showy and rambunctious, with Schumann going so far as to include in the musical notations an embedded puzzle that he expected people to decipher.

Whether you fancy the puzzle angle in the masked revelers is beside the point; the music is vibrant and colorful, expertly presented by Canadian Brass. I have to admit that there is a certain quality about these pieces on brass instruments that kept reminding me of Scott Joplin orchestrations, yet I mean that in the best possible way; undoubtedly Schumann influenced Joplin’s ragtime creations. The remarkable thing is that these Schumann pieces should work so well with a brass quintet. They almost sound as though Schumann intended them that way, with the added nuances the various brass instruments contribute. Of course, it helps that Carnaval is so vibrant a work itself, with so much energy to expend. Fun stuff, done up in high good spirits.

Accompanying Carnaval on the disc is perhaps an even better-known set of Schumann piano pieces, Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), which he wrote in 1838. In the work, Schumann looks back in fond remembrance of younger days. If Carnaval seemed a stretch for brass quintet, Kinderszenen takes things a step even further. Yet, again, Canadian Brass pull it off with an uncommon aplomb, combining their usual virtuosic playing with the utmost delicacy.

Like Carnaval, Kinderszenen comprises a set of descriptive tone poems, but judging their success in adaptation is another story. The various “Scenes” are more ephemeral than Carnaval, their mood more ethereal and sentimental. It takes all of Canadian Brass’s expertise to pull them off and not sound like a circus band. They handle it well enough, although I wouldn’t want these transcriptions to replace the piano originals. That said, the famous “Traumerei” (“Dreaming”) comes off more tenderly than I would have thought and exemplifies the sensitivity with which Canadian Brass approach these scores.

In short, the music on the program is endlessly inventive and entertaining, and Canadian Brass’s versions of it show just how flexible the music is and how flexible the group is performing it. If you’re a fan of Canadian Brass, you’ll no doubt find this album a fascinating listen.

Producers M.B. Daellenbach and Dixon Van Winkle and engineer Philippe Fages recorded the music for Opening Day Entertainment Group at Christ Church Deer Park, Toronto, Canada, in August 2012. They captured a pleasant hall resonance that gives the instruments a rich, mellifluous sound. With no undue brightness or edginess, we get plenty of detail from the group, plus a good separation of the players. There is also a realistic depth and air around the instruments making the whole affair quite lifelike.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

Bach: Organ Works, Vol. II (CD review)

Robert Quinney, organ. CORO COR16112.

Robert Quinney, Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral, is a relatively young man (b. 1976) insofar as classical organists are concerned, and his playing shows it. His music is full of youthful dash, vigor, and élan. Whether or not you like your J.S. Bach performed with such enthusiastic verve is obviously a matter of taste, but certainly it’s good to have such choices available.

Quinney plays this second volume of Bach organ works on the Metzler Organ of Trinity College, Cambridge, which produces a gorgeous sound. This second volume concentrates on the composer’s early organ music, most of it from the 1710’s and 20’s.

Quinney begins the program with probably Bach’s most well-known organ music, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. The organist attacks it with a fury, yet he doesn’t actually rush it too much. Compared to four or five other recordings of the work I had on hand, Quinney is the quickest but not by much. Let’s say it’s about 10-20% faster than the others. It’s enough, though, to supercharge the old warhorse with an extra degree of vigor that makes the interpretation sound like something fresh, new, and invigorating. Of course, he misses out on some of the music’s dynamic contrasts that he might have emphasized if he had taken more time, yet that’s the trade-off we have to accept for the additional thrills.

People of Bach’s day considered him “the world-famous organist.” He was a virtuoso on the instrument. Apparently, Mr. Quinney wants to make sure we still see Bach that way, with performances that point up the man’s virtuosity (and Quinney’s own). I have to admit, though, that sometimes Quinney goes so lickety-split through the readings, it’s hard to tell if he isn’t just showing off. He’s that good.

Anyway, among the other pleasurable pieces on the disc, we have the Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, with its wonderfully sonorous variations; the inventive Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564, that Bach wrote just before his more-celebrated one; the three refreshingly relaxed presentations of Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 662-664; and the very early Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540, which sounds both powerful and sensuous.

These are performances of strength and beauty, and even if you find Quinney’s style a little too relentlessly fast-paced, it’s hard to knock the sense of excitement and wonder he creates. Maybe this is Bach for the twenty-first century; I don’t know. I do know that while it’s a little different, it is not without merit.

Producer David Trendell and engineer David Hinitt recorded the music at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, England, in 2013. There is good depth to the setting, as we might expect from a large chapel organ and a room providing spacious, resplendent sound. Needless to say, any good organ recording lives or dies by its bass response, and this one lives it up pretty well. The bass is very deep and very taut. Overall, we get a realistic sound in every way; very impressive. Quinney doesn’t always allow too many pauses, however, so we don’t hear as much of the organ’s decay time as we might. Still, fans of organ music will no doubt appreciate this new entry in the field.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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.