Sabine Devieilhe Breaks Through


MIRAGES / MESSAGER: Madame Chrysanthème: Le jour sous le soleil béni. DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande: Mes long cheveux. La Romance d’Ariel.3 DELIBES: Lakmé: Où va la jeune Hindoue. Viena, Mallika…Sous le dôme épais.2 Tu m’ai donné. DELAGE: 4 Poèmes Hindous. STRAVINSKY: Le Rossignol: Ah, joie, emplis mon cœur.3 THOMAS: Hamlet: À vos jeux, mes amis. BERLIOZ: La Mort d’Ophélie.3 MASSENET: Thaïs: Celle qui vient est plus belle.1,2 KOECHLIN: Le Voyage / Sabine Devieilhe, sop; 1Jodie Devos, sop; 2Marianne Crebassa, mezzo; 3Alexandre Tharaud, pn; Les Siècles; Franços-Xavier Roth, cond / Erato 190295767686

And here we go with yet another coloratura soprano new to me, but unlike Pretty Yende, Sabine Devieilhe has the real goods. She originally studied both the cello and musicology, but once her singing voice was discovered she put the cello aside and studied voice in earnest.

Interestingly, the liner notes indicate that this album came to be from her desire to record the role of Lakmé. Why Erato did not allow her to do so is beyond me, because the three excerpts contained herein reveal her to be possibly the best-suited voice for this role since Mady Mesplé recorded it way back in the 1970s. This is not to say that Devieilhe’s voice is like Mesplé’s because it is not. Where Mesplé was heady and vibrant, Devieilhe has a very smooth tone production, almost creamy, all the way up through her highest notes, but they share an inner enthusiasm for the role that is exactly what is needed to put it over for the public.

But creaminess of tone is not all that Devieilhe has to offer. She also has a fully integrated technique, one in which all the little niceties of coloratura singing—trills, mordents, grace notes and the like—just roll out of her like natural speaking. Like her Australian-born counterpart Danielle de Niese, Devieilhe also has an enthusiasm when singing that is infectious, and this, too, is a necessary ingredient for Lakmé. But I was also very impressed by her ability, very rare even for some of the finest rivals in her voice range, to sustain great breath control, which allows her to go up into the stratosphere without a break for breath. In addition to all this, look who her accompanist is: the great conductor François Xavier Roth, whose recordings of the orchestral repertoire have garnered critical acclaim around the world.

So why didn’t Erato just let her record a complete Lakmé? You got me. I’m stumped. All they needed was a tenor like Spyres or Calleja, a good mezzo (Marianne Crebassa, who sings the flower duet here, is certainly good enough) and bass (perhaps a little rarer, but Nikalantha isn’t that difficult to sing) and boom, we’d have a first-rate Lakmé to treasure forever.

Well, at least we have this recital, and it’s certainly good enough to whet your appetite. Judging from this recital, Devieilhe isn’t quite as detailed an interpreter as de Niese, but de Niese her diction is flawless and, being French, perfectly idiomatic. Interestingly, I also hear in some of her range the kind of sweetness that Mado Robin possessed, and Robin, too, was a first-rate Lakmé (just don’t expect Devieilhe to sing the B above high C, as Robin could).

I have to admit that the 4 Hindu Poems of Maurice Delage were entirely new to me. Delage (1879-1961) was a contemporary of Ravel and Milhaud but neither as impressionistic as the first or as harmonically daring as the second. His music has some of the touches of the Impressionist school but, at least in these songs, more tonal and less amorphic harmonically. Nonetheless, the songs are well written and Devieilhe sings them with creamy ease. Oddly, much the same things can be said of Debussy’s La Romance d’Ariel, a pleasant song but scarcely one of his best or most memorable. Again, Devieilhe sings it beautifully.

Yet perhaps the greatest performance on this disc is her version of the aria from Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. She sings it better than anyone I’ve ever heard, including Reri Grist on Stravinsky’s own excellent recording of the complete opera—and it is by no means easy. Devieilhe’s unique ability to keep her high range creamy and perfectly centered is exactly what this music needs, and here, for once, it gets it.

I personally questioned the inclusion of the complete “mad scene” from Thomas’ Hamlet, surely one of the most sugary and least dramatic settings of Shakespeare known to mankind. Yes, it’s a vocal showpiece and yes, Devieilhe sings it perfectly, but “Camptown Races” with runs and trills would have had as much musical value (plus, it has “Doo-dahs.” Does Thomas’ music have doo-dahs? Does it?). Ophelia sounds about as “mad” as Katie Couric with a hangnail, and it goes on and on for almost 12 minutes. Not enough time to vaccum the house, but more than is needed to clean the cat’s litter pan. Berlioz’ setting of the Death of Ophelia, also lyrical, is more interesting music although I don’t think much of its dramatic value, either. The duet from Thaïs is slightly better music, and soprano Jodie Devos joins Devieilhe and Crebassa here to give a first-rate performance, helped along by Roth’s lyrical yet taut conducting.

Koechlin’s setting of Le voyage is typical of his genius: melodic but not predictable, the tonal melody set to floating, bitonal piano accompaniment. Along with the arias from Pelléas and Rossignol, it is surely one of the highlights of the album.

We end our journey with yet another Lakmé excerpt, the arietta “Tu m’ai donné le plus doux rave,” which of course is right up Devieilhe’s alley. A beautiful and at times interesting journey, worth exploring with her.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Leistner-Mayer’s Psychotropic Quartets


LEISTNER-MAYER: String Quartets Nos. 5-7 / Sojka Quartet / Tyxart 17090

You never know where startling new music is going to come from. Here’s a Bohemian composer with a very British-sounding name, Roland Leistner-Mayer, whose string quartets sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before in your life.

Leistner-Mayer, born in 1945, studied composition with Harald Genzmer and Günter Bialas at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Munich. Among his awards won is a distinction in the Alfredo Casella 1970 competition and third prize in the 1996 Swiss International Competition for Composition. Yet he distinced himself early on, say the liner notes, “from fashionable trends and avant-garde experimentation in favor of a forceful, expressive and authentic diction. Form is for him the result rather than the means of expression…From the time of his early string quartets (Nos. 2 and 3) on, he has occasionally moved towards a Bohemian idiom, similar to Leoš Janáček, audible in the rhapsodic themes, eruptive expansion of form, and a tendency to the ‘informal’ which are the main features of his music.”

All of which sounds very nice, but none of which actually describes the strangeness of his aesthetic. Listening to the Fifth Quartet’s opening movement, for instance, one is immediately struck by the odd fluttering of the violins, following which the viola and cello play an overlying modal theme; a few bars in, and the fluttering figures seem fair to overwhelm the ongoing musical discourse, although the broader theme keeps trying to break into the conversation. This is truly bizarre, mind-altering music, and even when the fluttering figures dissipate and the broad theme is developed, Leistner-Mayer introduces a pungent, stabbing figure played in a downward plunge by the violins, which suddenly drag the music into strange harmonic territory filled with angst and passion. This is absolutely extraordinary music; I haven’t heard its like anywhere. It then turns out that the stabbing figure is itself developed, with the volume and intensity somewhat ameliorated by a theme in the minor that tries to assert itself and fails. This music speaks of a great internal struggle, a struggle of both mind and spirit (jeez, I’m starting to sound like WGUC now!), which ends abruptly. But the second-movement “Scherzo” is no less intense, no less intricately constructed or moving, the key continually shifting from within the chord positions as the music moves along. A strange pizzicato passage is heard in the middle, followed by a broad theme played on the viola against it. Half the quartet then plays tremolos while the other half (cello and one of the violins) continue to develop the music above it. Yes, there is a certain kinship here to Janáček’s quartets, but not as close as the liner notes would have you believe. This music is really “out there,” so speak, pushing the envelope in a strange but wonderful way.

Even the slow movement has its quirks. Ostensibly in D minor (or D modal, take your pick), the constant fluidity of the harmony keeps shifting us up and down chromatically as well as shifting us into other keys, including one or two notes in the relative major. In this way, Leistner-Mayer writes music that by definition is “tonal” while in fact it is constantly in a state of flux. The strange passage in this movement beginning at 5:58 is a perfect case in point. The last movement, marked “Poco vivace,” begins as a fairly conventional-sounding piece, but 37 seconds in and it’s already shifting and morphing into something more complex and startling. Nonetheless, this movement, at least, follows a fairly recognizable rhythmic pattern (mostly in 6/8) and so is easier for untrained ears to follow. It’s also not nearly as complex harmonically as the preceding three movements.

My general impression of Leistner-Mayer’s music is that it is comprised of musical labyrinths. He seems to run into walls or traps he can’t get out of, yet somehow, miraculously, finds an alternate escape route and takes it, only to find himself in another trap, find another escape route, etc. on through to the end of the piece. Music critic Christoph Schüren is quoted in the booklet as saying that “The great inner complexity of the artistic experience does not have to result in greater structural complexity. Quite the opposite: Roland Leistner-Mayer has searched unwaveringly for the simplest and most direct expression of the internal necessities.” Again, the liner notes are misleading. True, this music isn’t nearly as dense as the tangled scores of a Ligeti, Crumb or Penderecki, but “complexity” isn’t always measured by how many notes you throw in or how dense the musical texture is. Complexity can also come from structurally “simple” building blocks. The music of Thelonious Monk, for instance, is structurally simple compared to most contemporary classical music, yet it is extremely difficult to play properly because the rhythm is continualy broken up by stiffish figures that alternate with the swing, and the harmonic progression often moves from simple to complex in the blink of an eye. Similar things may be said for Leistner-Mayer’s scores.

In the Sixth Quartet, subtitled Seven Unbrave Bagatelles, Leistner-Mayer assumes a similar pattern, creating swirling figures in G minor that take unexpected detours into dark emotional territory. The modus operandi is the same, but the result is oddly different. This first movement, by the way, is only 2:33 long; Leistner-Mayer doesn’t believe in long-winded diatribes but, rather, says what he has to say and then moves on. Although his music has a somewhat more conventional form in regards to rhythm and pacing, I felt that it also had a certain kinship to the music of Leif Segerstam. This is particularly true of the second movement here, marked “Hinter dem Fenster, ‘Behind the Window,’ Allegro moderato,” in which the string tremolos become part and parcel of the development. The third movement, titled “View of the Mountain,” is absolutely terrifying; perhaps Leistner-Mayer was on the verge of falling off a cliff! The composer describes this quartet as not standing up to ignorance and insecurity, but rather of “repression and pushing aside of these questions into the prison of Time.” Thus each of these musical vignettes are meant to represent someone fleeing danger and allowing fear to override reason. Needless to say, most of this music represents stark, blind terror. Only the slow fifth movement, “Ricordanza: Larghetto,” escapes this mood, presenting us with a remarkably soothing melody in B-flat, albeit with his usual excursions into neighboring keys, including A minor. The sixth movement, “Glimpse through the gateway,” begins with almost humorous upward glissandi that eventually give way to a mysterious theme that keeps breaking up and shifting themes around. In the last movement, “Passare in…Arioso allotanandosi,” we hear a nice relaxed fugue, “unbrave” perhaps yet with deep feeling and sensitivity.

The Seventh Quartet, like the fifth, has no program. Subtitled the “Andante Quartet,” it is clearly the most lyrical of the three and the one least involved in angst. Indeed, the first movement in G-flat major is so relaxed that when the fast, edgier passage comes around just before the three-minute mark, it almost takes us by surprise. Yes, it’s still emotional but there’s a bit less of an edge to the music. It’s not as hair-raising or existential as the outbursts in the previous two quartets, although it does play a major role in the development section. Eventually the lyrical theme returns, infused at times by more tremolos, leading to a quiet conclusion. The second movement does indeed have more of an edge to it, as one would expect—apparently, Leistner-Mayer doesn’t believe in “jolly” scherzi—but there’s not quite as much angst as in the Fifth Quartet, and the secondary theme is actually quite pleasant (although brief). The slow third movement, in G-flat minor, begins with four broad quarter notes played by the strings in an almost marcia funebre movement. This leads in turn to another lyrical but somewhat obscure melody, with the funeral march feeling coming and going as it progresses. The slow development of the themes and their great solemnity also contribute to this feeling. Part of the development also includes a very lyrical cello passage beginning at 6:18. The last movement, “Presto precipitando,” tries to recapture some of the angst found in the previous two quartets, but is again tempered by greater lyricism. Perhaps we should call it quasi-angst.

In all this music, the Sojka Quartet is right on the mark in terms of both technical security and emotional commitment. They have apparently had a good relationship with the composer, and in fact premiered the Seventh Quartet in Pilsen on February 23 of this year. This is a great CD; you need to hear it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Pavel Haas Quartet’s Electrifying Dvořák


DVOŘÁK: Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81.* String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97+ / Pavel Haas Quartet; *Boris Gilburg, pn; +Pavel Niki, vla / Supraphon SU4195-2

Over the last two decades or so, Felix Mendelssohn and Antonin Dvořák have slowly become among my favorite composers, but in the latter’s case I’ve found some music in his output (like most of his string quartets except the “American”) that I find lacking in drama and substance. Happily, these two quintets are among his finest compositions.

Indeed, the first movement of the former is almost a mini-drama in itself, vacillating as it does between a dreamy, lyrical melody that sounds suspiciously like Richard Strauss’ Wiegenlied (although, since Strauss’ song came later, he was the one doing the copying) and intensely dramatic passages in the minor. The Haas quartet, with guest Boris Gilburg on piano, play this with a perfect sense of the duality of the music and a wonderfully intense attack. At the 8:30 mark, the lyrical theme is suddenly heard in the minor, which completely changes its effect on the listener, and it doesn’t last long before the drama picks up again. The way the musicians explode in these dramatic sections is absolutely breathtaking; the underlying motor rhythms taking on a life of their own, driving the music forward explosively. If the first movement sounds like Wiegenlied, the second (“Dumka”) reminded me of Eden Ahbez’s classic pop tune Nature Boy. It’s an almost sad-sounding piece, and the quartet’s treatment of it is sensitive and well-shaded. Once again there is an alternate theme at a quicker tempo, but here it is not quite as fast or quite as dramatic in scope. There’s a remarkable passage where Dvořák changes the key three times in the course of two bars. The one real emotional outburst occurs at the 7:15 mark, the music literally exploding with passion. By contrast, the third-movement “Scherzo (furiant)” is jolly and stress-free, despite vacillating between the major and minor. The last movement, though ostensibly in the home key of A major, vacillates harmonically in a quite startling fashion. Here the good vibes of the third movement are combined with some minor-key drama, though never quite as angst-filled as the first two movements.

The string quintet also sets a mood that seems to be quite placid but bursts forth emotionally as it goes along. This music, however, sounded much more Czech in character to me than that of the piano quintet, which seemed built around Germanic ideas. Here, too, Dvořák integrates the outbursts into the fabric of the music more completely, making them sound (as they are) logical in their progression and development. Bits of the music here put me in mind of the “New World” Symphony without ever really quoting it. The long central development section, starting around 4:50, was particularly well-thought-out and interesting. In this piece, too, Dvořák’s writing seemed to me much more “orchestral” in its voicing; he seldom plays the violins against the violas or cello, or the two violins against each other. In this respect only the work is similar to the great Schubert string quintet in C. Because of this, it was more difficult for me to gauge the playing of guest violist Pavel Niki since he blended right in with the quartet.

I found the second movement pleasant and lyrical without being particularly inventive. Here, Dvořák seemed to be content to fall back on prior forms, although the music was well written and did not merely “coast.” The third-movement “Larghetto,” set in B major, is more interesting, falling through a harmonic trap into A-flat major for the secondary theme. Again, Dvořák shifts gears rhythmically, giving us a peppy alternate theme; then, when he returns to the slow theme for the variations, he employs a number of striking devices, among them a vacillation between major and the minor as well as rapid sixteenths played by the cello with the edge of the bow. We arrive at A minor for yet another variation on the theme, then somehow find ourselves in A-flat minor once again. The most violent emotional outburst, however, occurs at 8:45, after a pause that almost sounds like the end of the movement. It goes on from there, easing up on the tension while developing the theme once again. The final movement, back in the home key of E-flat, also shifts harmonic gears frequently, this time evoking drama with a sudden shift to G minor. The music gains interest from the very creative ideas that Dvořák throws in as it goes along, somehow tying them all together neatly when they could have ended up as disparate elements in the movement. Edgy string tremolos enter the picture, ramping up the energy of the movement, gradually, to an almost fever pitch.

The only comparison I can make, since they are the only other performances I’ve heard, are to the Vlach Quartet Prague in the string quartet and to both the Vlach Quartet and Arthur Rubinstein with the Guarneri Quartet in the Piano Quintet. Vlach surprisingly underplays this music, making little of both the lyrical themes and the more dramatic moments; what sounds elegant and then explosive in Pavel Haas’ reading sounds tame and mild here. The Guarneti Quartet sounds lame and klunky in the lyrical theme, and also too reticent to cut loose in the dramatic moments…but then again, I’ve always hated Guarneri’s sound (muddy and indistinct) and style (lacking both rhythmic bounce and a sense of forward momentum) in everything they ever recorded (particularly their miserable set of the Beethoven Quartets), so that’s not too surprising for me.

These are clearly the preferred performances of these works for me.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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All Hail Hailstork’s String Quartets

Hailstork front

HAILSTORK: 3 Spirituals: We Shall Overcome; Kum Bah Yah; Great Day. Eslanda Dances. String Quartet No. 2, Variations on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 1: II. Adagio / Ambrosia Quartet / Albany TROY1680

I’m always open to new music I haven’t heard before by Adolphus Hailstork, since everything I’ve heard to date has been first-rate. This new album encompasses much of his music for string quartet, played by the Ambrosia Quartet from Virginia. Formed in 2002, all the musicians are members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Most of this disc consists of Hailstork’s settings of spirituals. The first three, fairly brief, are developed in traditional classic style, i.e. the opening melody of We Shall Overcome is followed by a fantasia in triplets played by one of the violins à la Bach while cello plays pizzicato notes on beats 1 and 3 and the other two strings play around it. The effect is mesmerizing, not at all what one might expect when it begins. By contrast, Kum Bah Yah is a slow, beautiful canon in which he uses Gospel harmonies while Great Day, with its strong rhythm (almost like a cakewalk) features a syncopated figure played by the viola and second violin around which the first violin and cello play exuberant variations.

The Eslanda Dances were composed as a tribute to Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Robeson, an anthropologist who saw many exotic tribal folk dances. The music here, though original and written in a simple style to reflect what she might have heard, is developed in a quite sophisticated manner. Interestingly, I found the music much closer related to American folk dances than those in foreign countries, but once again the music is developed with rigorous attention to form and detail. The third dance, marked “Adagietto,” is particularly interesting and the least American-like of the group, using some surprisingly advanced harmonic movement and an unusual rhythmic figure played throughout by the viola. Gospel harmony is evoked once again in the final “Adagietto.”

The String Quartet No. 2, based on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is undoubtedly the most complex of all his spiritual pieces on this CD. Hailstork pulls out all the stops here, literally (in the playing of the strings) and figuratively, turning the simple tune into something quite complex. In his very brief comments on this piece, Hailstork writes that the theme is “interrupted by abrupt dissonant chords that serve as ‘fate motifs’ to remind the listener that the ‘carry me home’ in the spiritual text is an end of life request.” What continually amazes me with Hailstork’s music is how the formal devices never sound cluttered or affected, as if he is just trying to impress the listener with cleverness. All of it comes from the heart, and I daresay that if you were to start playing this music after the theme is stated you might not even realize for some time what piece it is based on. The development section becomes quite involved as the piece goes on, ending with a quiet resolution representing acceptance.

The most substantial work on the CD is the three-movement String Quartet No. 3. Here the spiritual allusion does not appear until the last movement, which is based on There is a Balm in Gilead, yet even in the first movement, marked “Moderato sostenuto,” Hailstork’s original theme has certain spiritual-like qualities. This movement, very slowly and elegantly developed, is less technical and more mood-oriented than most of the other music on this disc. The lively second movement has a strong, dance-like beat, but is in an irregular meter (it sounds to me like 7/8, 6/8 with an extra beat at the end of each bar) which makes it more for listening than dancing. Throughout all of this music, the Ambrosia Quartet plays with great style and lively energy, and this shows particularly in movements like this. Typically of Hailstork, the last movement does a good job of concealing the original theme somewhat, swathed as it is in interesting chord positions and diverse meters.

The quartet chose to include only the second movement of Hailstork’s String Quartet No. 1. It’s a lovely “Adagio,” but I would have liked to have heard the entire piece. Nonetheless, the heartfelt performance given here makes a fine close to a disc devoted to Hailstork’s chamber works.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Quattro Mani Play Re-Structures

Quattro Mani0001

RE-STRUCTURES / LANSKY: Out of the Blue. RUDERS: Cembalo d’Amore (Second Book).1 MACHOVER: Re-Structures. KURTÁG: Életút Lebenslaud, Op. 32.2 BEN-AMOTS: Tango for the Road / Quattro Mani: Steven Beck, pn/1hpd/2quarter-tone pn; Susan Grace, pn/2quarter-tone pn; 2Andy Stevens, Sergei Vassiliev, basset hn / Bridge 9496

I think that, by now, my regular readers know that I’m generally allergic to duo-piano recordings as a rule. Too often I find them uninteresting, particularly when they play Romantic repertoire. Just about the only regular working duo that I really enjoyed over the years was that of Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, which sadly came to an end this January when Goldstone died. But Quattro Mani has slowly worked their way into my favor, not just because they’re such good musicians but also because they play an adventurous repertoire.

This CD is no exception. The only two composers whose names I recognized on the CD inlay were that of György Kurtág and Ofer Ben-Amots, both of whose music I’ve generally liked, but I’m always open to musical adventures and I generally trust Quattro Mani’s taste.

We start this latest adventure with Paul Lansky’s Out of the Blue for two pianos, described by the composer as “part of a kind of musical chain letter. It’s based on the fourth movement of his horn trio, Etudes and Parodies, which was in turn inspired by Kopprasch’s exercises for horn and Ligeti’s piano prelude Fanfares. I found the music a bit in the minimalist vein, at least in terms of the continual, unvarying rhythm, but Lansky keeps the melodic line moving and introduces odd “close chords” within the piece to keep up interest.

But if you think Out of the Blue is strange, wait ‘til you hear Paul Ruders’ Cembalo d’Amore for harpsichord and piano! This is not one of the selections on which Susan Grace plays a quarter-tone piano, but you’d almost swear it was using quarter tones. The music never really settles into any firm tonality in any of its eight movements. I found the music endlessly fascinating, a sort of perpetuum mobile in which the deconstruction of the harmony actually “leads” the music melodically. The slow movement is one of the most interesting since it shows how Ruders put this music together, almost in slow motion. Ruders has created brief scalar movements that almost move like clockwork.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of Tod Machover’s Re-Structures for two pianos and live electronics. The music alternates between crushed chords and splatterings of notes that didn’t strike me as very coherent, so I will pass on to the next work.

This was Kurtág’s Életút Lebenslaud which, though very dense (both Beck and Grace play quarter-tone pianos here, and the two basset horns slighter through pitches), has a recognizable underlying structure. Because of the fluidity of pitch, the music sounds quite weird, with one of the quarter-tone pianos tuned ¼ tone below the standard A=440.

Although I’m usually a bit averse to piano tangos, Ben-Amots’ Tango for the Road, written for Quattro Mani, has unusual chromatic movement in it that delights the attentive listener. The melody sounds completely characteristic, as if it were written by Piazzolla, except with more sentimentality tossed in, particularly in the warm and relaxed second half. Quattro Mani play it as if this were their bread-and-butter repertoire, which clearly it is not. Eventually the music develops into swirling double-time figures before returning to the principal theme. It’s a delightful piece that could easily serve as an encore.

By and large, then, a very interesting disc, well worth a listen!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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An Abundance of Alkan!

93667-Vivaldi-40CDBox:Opmaak 1

ALKAN: 12 Études in the minor keys, Op. 39. 3 Morceau dan la genre pathétique. Marches Opp. 26 & 27. Grande Sonate, “Les Quatre Âges.” 3 Petits Fantaisies. Minuetto. Capriccio alla soldatesca. Le tambour bat aux champs. Sonatine, Op. 61. Esquisses, Op. 63 No. 49. Grande Étude, Op. 76, No. 3. Petit Prélude. Prélude, Op. 31/8, “Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore” / Vincenzo Maltempo, pn / 2 Petits Pièces. 3 Grandes Études, Op. 76 / Alessandro Deljavan, pn / Chants, Op. 65, Nos. 5 & 6. Chant Op. 67, No. 2. Les Mois Op. 74, Nos. 1, 10, 12 / Stanley Hoogland, pn / Variations sur un thème de Steibelt. Rondeau chromatique. Alleluia, Op. 25. 25 Préludes in the major and minor Keys. Impromptus, Op. 32. Salut, cendre du pauvre. 49 Esquisses, Op. 63. Super flumina Babylonis / Laurent Martin, pn / 3 Menuets, Op. 51. Une fusée. Nocturnes, Op. 57, Nos. 2 & 3. Sonatine Op. 61 / Constantino Mastroprimiano, pn / 12 Études in the major keys / Mark Viner, pn / Nocturne, Op. 22 No. 1. Chants Op. 38a Nos. 1, 5 & 6 / Alan Weiss, pn / Grand Duo Concertante, Op. 21. Sonate de concert, Op. 47. Trio in G min. / Trio Alkan / 3 Concerti di Camera, Op. 10 (reconstructed by François Luguenot). 3 Scherzi de bravoure. 3 Variations on Donizetti’s “Ah, segnata e la mia” from Anna Bolena, Op. 16, No. 4. Variations on Bellini in G, Op. 16, No. 5. Variations quasi fantaisie sur une barcarolle Napolitaine, Op. 16, No. 6 / Giovanni Bellucci, pn; Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto; Roberto Forés-Veses, cond / 13 Prières, Op. 64. Impromptu sur un choral de Luther. Petits Préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant / Kevin Bowyer, org / Brilliant Classics 95568 (13 CDs)

One day in the early 1880s, a piano student at the Paris Conservatoire was heading towards the rehearsal room when he heard a phenomenally gifted pianist playing there. Walking in, he saw an old man of about 70 with long white hair and a beard. The man turned to him with a smile and said, “Hello! I am Charles-Valentin Alkan, and now I am going to play for you Beethoven’s great Op. 110 sonata.” And he did, with superb technique and musicianship, much to the student’s amazement.

The student was amazed because he had never even heard of him.


Charles-Valentin Alkan

When Alkan died in 1888 at age 74, he provoked one of the strangest obituaries ever published: “Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.” A man who had once been such a celebrated and in-demand pianist that even Franz Liszt was nervous to play in his presence had become such a recluse over the last 40 years of his life (with only occasional forays back into concertizing) that people simply forgot about him. Eventually, except for his two close friends César Franck and Ferdinand Hiller, with whom he did indeed socialize, they forgot he had even lived. For nearly a century, an urban legend grew up that Alkan, who spent hours studying the Talmud and the Bible, died reaching for the former at the top of his bookcase (orthodox Jewry dictates that the Talmud must not have any book higher on the shelf than it) but that the bookcase fell on and crushed him. Sadly, the reality was more prosaic. He suffered a stroke in his kitchen, grabbing onto a coat rack for support which fell on him, and cried out for help. When they found him he was breathing laboriously but still alive. He died in his bed a few hours later.

And when he died, he left behind the reputation of a man who wrote gargantuan, “unplayable” music (when he and his friend Chopin played together, at two pianos or one piano four hands, the Polish pianist-composer could scarcely keep up with him), and that was how it stayed until British pianist Ronald Smith recorded his Concerto for Solo Piano in the late 1940s, a performance of which I was unaware (you can stream it on YouTube). Then, in 1953, American pianist Raymond Lewenthal, building a good name and reputation for himself, was attacked by three thugs in New York’s Central

Lewenthal in full regalia

Lewenthal in full regalia (minus candles)

Park and had both hands and arms broken. His life in ruins, he spent seven years slowly healing and rebuilding his technique, bit by painful bit, and in that interim he ran across the mind-boggling scores of Alkan. Upon his return to the concert stage he decided to become the champion of several neglected composers, but Alkan in particular. WBAI in New York broadcast his two-hour concert-lecture on Alkan; someone at RCA Victor heard it and offered him a recording contract, and the really big Alkan Revival was underway in earnest. He dressed in 19th-century Gothic clothing (possibly inspiring the vampire-and-werewolf soap opera Dark Shadows), playing Alkan, Moscheles, Hummel, Scharwenka, Reubke and Dussek by candlelight to delighted audiences in both New York and London. Lewenthal received an award from the French government for championing a composer that even they had forgotten.

By the time of Lewenthal’s death in 1988 he himself had become a recluse due to ill health. Only a few hardy souls were playing and recording Alkan then, among them Bernard Ringeissen, but it took Canadian Marc-André Hamelin to fully revive his music once again in the 1990s. Since then Alkan has been an occasional visitor to the concert hall, generally by super-virtuosi like Hamelin and Vincenzo Maltempo, the latter of whom plays a goodly amount of this set. And this brings us to this cornucopia of Alkan.

Not everyone is enamored of Alkan, to say the least. One critic, whose name I have blissfully forgotten, called his music “a charnel-house of notes.” While it is true that Alkan’s music is among the most note-filled in history, rivaling the scores of Liszt and Sorabji, I find it endlessly fascinating due to his continually original and imaginative treatment of themes and variants. You never know where Alkan is going at any given moment, and his almost inexhaustible fund of ideas contain such things as hands moving in contrary motion, continual crossed-hand passages in which it sounds like two pianists playing, and daring harmonic leaps that were close to 70 years ahead of their time. Whether you buy into his aesthetic or not, Alkan was obviously a visionary whose mind never stopped inventing. Indeed, when one considers that his music became ever more complex, futuristic and interesting during his long periods of retirement from performing, I would say that it was necessary for him to cut himself off from the world in order to create. The concierge of his apartment building was paid to tell anyone who asked for him that “Monsieur Alkan is not in,” even if they could hear him banging the piano behind the door to his rooms, yet when he felt like it he would go out and socialize or, as in the case of the opening story in this review, play the piano for anyone who happened to wander by.

But taking in this much Alkan requires time and patience. Like Art Tatum, Alkan is not a pianist you listen to for casual enjoyment. His music is so dense that you, too, need to cut yourself off from the world around you in order to enter his.

We start our journey here with what is often considered Alkan’s masterpiece, the 12 Études in the minor keys. What looks on the surface like a relatively straightforward collection of piano pieces turns out to be anything but; the 12 Études run something like two hours to play, and include such impossible pieces as Comme le vent, En rhythme molossique, the Scherzo diabolico, Le festin d’Ésope, the nearly 15-minute Ouverture and the 52-minute Concerto for solo piano. Vincenzo Maltempo, who gets the lion’s share of this set (and rightfully so), is clearly one of the best Alkan interpreters of all time. Comparing the works also recorded by Lewenthal (whose RCA Alkan recordings, reissued on CD two decades ago, are indispensable gems), one hears a similar clarity of note-production as well as an irresistible forward pulse. These traits are paramount to a proper representation of this composer, whose mind ran so quickly that his fingers on the keyboard, skilled as they were, could scarcely keep up with his imagination. Comparing Maltempo’s performance of the Concerto pour piano to both Ronald Smith and Hamelin, the only other performances of the complete work I’ve heard, shows the meticulous clarity of the former and the headlong rush of the latter, making his performance, for me, the best of the three. Moreover, he, like Smith, introduces moments of tenderness and relaxation into Alkan’s music whereas Hamelin just plays softly, which is not the same thing. This is not a condemnation of Hamelin; his recording of the Concerto, which appeared in 1992, was such a sensation that it set a new standard, particularly for those who found Smith just a shade too relaxed for this composer (although Smith played with considerable fire). Brilliant Classics was particularly fortunate to obtain his services. Unfortunately, this pressing contains a flaw not found in the original three-disc release (Alkan: Genius-Enigma on Piano Classics), a series of loud clicking noises between 11:53 and 14:00 of the long first movement.


Vincenzo Maltempo

Prior to this release, the only portion of the Grand Sonate, Op. 33 I knew was the second movement, titled “Quasi-Faust,” which was recorded by Lewenthal, but the rest of the sonata is equally fine music if not quite as bizarre. The third movement, for instance, titled “A happy household,” is one of the loveliest things Alkan ever wrote, an utterly charming piece, yet typical of him the music is developed over a long stretch of time (the movement runs 13:14) and within that time-frame he still manages to hold your attention. Likewise the final movement, “Prometheus unchained,” is even slower, moodier and deeper in feeling. I would equate it to some of the finest slow movements in the late Beethoven sonatas, and that is a high compliment indeed. To a certain extent, Lewenthal’s focus on presenting only the most modernistic and outré of Alkan’s pieces created an imbalance. It led listeners to believe that all or most of his output was like that, when in fact the most startling and grotesque music was intermittent. This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when British pianist Steven Osborne recorded the 48 Esquisses for Hyperion in 2003. Osborne was one of the Alkan-haters; hearing the Symphonie while in college, “I just didn’t ‘get it’ at all and its extreme virtuosity meant I ended up pigeonholing him as an empty showman.” This music is scarcely the product of an empty showman.


A page from “Quasi-Faust”

Maltempo’s performance of the Sonatine, an 18-minute work that could easily pass for a full-blown sonata by many another composer, is considerably crisper and more exciting than the 1988 recording by Bernard Ringeissen for French Harmonia Mundi, but you need to remember that his was the first time this piece ever appeared on a record, and we were all thrilled to have it at the time. The outré Alkan shows himself particularly in the last movement, where strange harmonic clashes (as at 1:45) remind one of early Stravinsky. The manic perpetuum mobile of the Grande Étude Op. 76, No. 3 is so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine how many hours it must have taken Maltempo to get this music under his fingers!

Pianist Mark Viner plays the much rarer 12 Études in the major keys, no less virtuosic than their minor-key brethren but more Chopinesque in quality. He’s a fine pianist, with fast fingering and good articulation, if less dynamic in forward momentum than Maltempo (I think it has to do with his sense of rhythm being a bit more metronomic). That being said, their less grotesque, more melodic qualities suit his style very well.

If the previous work is somewhat Chopinesque, most of the 49 Esquisses are entirely in that style. In fact, the very odd Menuet (No. 32) bears a slight resemblance to the funeral march in Chopin’s sonata. I’m sure they were influenced by his being Chopin’s neighbor for a considerable amount of time and admiring the Polish composer’s lyrical, appealing style. Laurent Martin, a superb pianist who studied with Germaine Audibert and Pierre Sancan, recorded these works, almost with other pieces by Alkan, for the old Marco Polo label which Naxos eventually bought out. If his playing here is less floated or atmospheric than Osborne, I find it more “Alkan-like” in its clarity and energy. Martin has a sure grasp on the style and makes the Esquisses sound more of an integral part of Alkan’s oeuvre: note, particularly, the clarity and strength of the fugue in No. 6. There are also such unquestionable Alkan touches as the rapidly-shifting chromatic changes in No. 9, “Confidence,” and in No. 10, “Increpatio,” we come face-to-face with the grotesque Alkan, shifting both rhythm and harmony in almost demonic fashion. There are even more typically Alkan-style pieces towards the end of the series, such as No. 41, “Les enharmoniques,” No. 45 “Les diablotins,” and the No. 47 “Scherzetto.” Osborne makes very little of these when compared to Martin.

Martin also plays excerpts from the 25 Préludes in the major and minor Keys, Variations sur un thème de Steibelt. Rondeau chromatique. Alleluia, the Impromptus and Super flumina Babylonis. In all of these he is exemplary in his command of both timing and use of space in the music, but particularly in the 25 Preludes. “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer,” the song of the madwoman by the ocean, is particularly outstanding. Near the end of the first suite in the 25 Préludes, we hear No. 9, “Placiditas; Tranquillo,” which sounds for all the world like a lullaby written by late Mozart or early Beethoven, immediately followed by the “Dans le style fugue: Très vite,” an almost ferocious perpetuum mobile, which is in turn followed by a Baroque-sounding “Un petit rien.” To this extent, then, Alkan encompassed the whole of classical piano style from the Baroque to the late Romantic, including glimpses of more modern piano music to come. Listen, for instance, to the “Vivace” from the second book of the Op. 32 Impromptus, and you’ll hear a motor rhythm and melodic treatment that sounds as if it were written yesterday.

But of course Alkan, a product of his time, included lots of variations on other composers’ themes—inferior composers like Steibelt and Donizetti as well as superior ones like Mozart and Beethoven. It was just the way things were, the “pops concerts” of their time.

Pianist Alan Weiss plays the nocturne and the Op. 38a Chants. He has a nice style but tend to round off Alkan a bit too much, avoiding the edginess of the music. This was the same way that Bernard Ringeissen played his music back in the 1980s. On the other hand, Alessandro Deljavan has the full measure of Alkan’s style in the two Petits Pièces and three Grandes études, sounding almost like Maltempo. In the midst of Chopinesque music, we suddenly get the first of the 3 Petits Fantaisies, played by Maltempo, which suddenly sounds like Latin music. Alessandro Deljavan, who plays the 3 Grandes études and 2 Petits pièces, also digs into the music much like Maltempo, particularly in the demonic third etude, “Mouvement semblable et perpetual.”

Continuing through the solo piano music we find frequent examples of Alkan’s polyglot tastes and variegated style. His nocturnes, surprisingly, are not at all like those of Chopin or Field, being a bit more wide-awake, yet his Les mois is hypnotic, built around soft motor rhythms. Personally, I wasn’t happy with the duplication of the Sonatine in an alternate performance by Constantino Mastroprimiano, not because his performance is inferior to Maltempo’s but, on the contrary, because it’s so much alike that it doesn’t really add anything. On the other hand, Maltempo’s interpretation of the “Song of the madwoman by the sea” is considerably different from Laurent Martin’s, though to be honest I liked Martin’s version better.

Moving on to his chamber music, we hear Alkan redistributing some of the “impossible” figures he normally required pianists to play by themselves to the violin and/or cello, yet although the violin and cello parts are also virtuosic he did not require them to stretch beyond normal human limitations as he did in his solo keyboard works. Moreover, the Grand Duo Concertant for violin and piano is really quite melodic in the conventional 19th-century sense of the term, despite his adventurous theme developments. I was lucky enough to hear a live performance of his Piano Trio at Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music back in the 1990s, and was somewhat amazed by its lyricism and lack of “Alkan-isms” in its harmonic vernacular. These recordings by Trio Alkan, who consist of violinist Kolja Lessing, pianist Rainer Klaas and cellist Bernhard Schwarz, were made (like Martin’s) for the old Marco Polo label. Brilliant Classics must have leased them from Naxos for this issue, and I’m glad they did as they give his music a different dimension.

I was almost shocked to hear the Concerti da camera because I had never heard anything written by Alkan for piano and orchestra. It turns out that he wrote these in 1832, but the orchestral parts were lost for a very long time so the music was only known in his arrangement for solo piano. The first two are in three parts but linked, as in the case of Weber’s Konzertstück which seems to have been his inspiration for the first of them. The music is indeed Weber-like, with little of Alkan’s famed harmonic audacity and, surprisingly, only intermittently impossible to play; most of it could easily be learned by an intermediate piano student. Apparently this was a time (the early 1830s) when he was trying to appeal to a mass audience. The second one sounds much more like Alkan, with edgier orchestral music and flashier pianism. François Luguenot is credited with having fully reconstructed these scores. They are played by Giovanni Bellucci, who has a lighter, more Chopin-like touch at the keyboard, but this suits them to a T. I really liked the three Scherzi bravoure but could have lived without the variations on a rather punk aria from Donizetti’s equally punk opera, Anna Bolena. Alkan did create something quite interesting out of the Variations on Bellini, and the Variations quasi fantaisie sur une barcarolle Napolitaine take an exceptionally simple tune into complex rhythmic and harmonic territory.

The last disc presents some of Alkan’s organ music as performed by Kevin Bowyer. With its “softer” attack and more diffuse sound, the organ wasn’t really an instrument that Alkan had a great affinity for, thus some of this music sounds more pedantic than his piano scores, yet there are moments of interest where he allowed himself to play in his mind with the music qua music and forget about the instrument as such. Some of the Prières could easily be played as musical preludes to a Christian church service and no one would be the wiser as to who wrote it. Most of them are relatively simple exercises that toodle along, creating a nice atmosphere but little else. Of course, having never heard any of it before, I don’t know how much of this music’s quietude comes from the score and how much comes from Bowyer, with whose work I was unfamiliar. No. 4, marked “Moderato,” is one of the liveliest of them before one gets to No. 8 (“Tempo giusto”) or No. 12 (“Allegretto”), yet No. 5 (“Adagio”) is a long crescendo that builds to fairly exciting climaxes and No. 6 (“Moderato”) is exceptionally virtuosic, calling for his patented two-handed runs at quadruple speed, with audacious shifts of key and odd pauses. Unusually, the final piece, marked “Andantino,” is a jaunty 6/8 tune that I’m not sure would be anyone’s idea of a “prayer.”

The Petits Préludes are just that, a series of very brief pieces, some running only about a half minute, which gives lie to the fact that everything Alkan wrote was a monstrosity. They are, in fact, charming and well-crafted pieces. The organ set, and the collection in general, ends with one of his most impressive pieces, the Impromptu sur le choral de Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The variations therein range from harmonically adventurous to chipper to moody, with Alkan redistributing rhythms and accents, at one point completely rewriting the hymn as something that almost resembles a saltarelle overlaid on a 4/4 beat. At another point he has the right hand, in a particularly soft, “buzzy” registration, playing the hymn melody while the left plays strange chromatic swirls around it. Even weirder, it wraps up with a multitonal mélange of sound that leads into the organist playing one key in the left hand and another in the right. Wild!

This whole set is selling at Presto Classical for $35.50 and $39.52 at Europadisc, which is a steal (Amazon, for some strange reason, is charging almost $60). If you are fan of Alkan or have an interest in outstanding 19th-century piano music, you can’t afford to pass this one up.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Calandra Turns Up the Heat in “Erotica Antiqua”


EROTICA ANTIQUA / DELL’ARPA: Villanella che all-acqua vai. Vorria crudel tornare. ANONYMOUS: Boccuccia d’uno persic’ aperturo. Madonna tu mi fai lo scorrucciato. Tu sai che la cornacchia. Che sia malditta l’acqua. La morte di marito. Oi ricculina. Vurria ca fosse ciaola. DA NOLA: Fontana che dai acqua. Fuggit’ Amore. AZZAIOLO: Girometta senza to non viverò. DI LASSO: Matona mia cara. Sto core mio. Madonna mia, pietà. O occhi manza mia. DONATO: Chi la gagliarda. FALCONIERI: O belissimi capelli. Vezzosette e care pupillette ardenti. Occhietti amati / Letizia Calandra, sop; Ensemble Arte Musica; Francesco Cera, hpd/dir / Brilliant Classics 95448

This is a rarity for me, a CD I chose to review based on someone else’s review. Going through the Brilliant Classics website I chanced upon this disc and was intrigued by the review posted there, so I took a chance on it. I’m glad I did.

Soprano Letizia Calandra is an utterly remarkable singer whose voice combines sensuality with a folk-singer-like sound. In the latter respect she reminded me of Jantina Noorman, the great Dutch folk singer whose voice was so good that she crossed over and did several classical recordings. My regular readers will know, as I stated in my long review of Gabriel Garrido’s Monteverdi operas, that early “classical singers” were most often not trained voices, that many of them were popular or folk singers of their time who crossed over to perform this music. Calandra certainly fits into this category.

In fact, I will give you fair warning. If you’re a man, you are going to be seduced by Calandra’s voice, so much so that you may want to marry her! It’s that sensuous, and no lie. As for the music, it mostly dates from the early to mid-16th century, which is pre-Baroque, so “Antiqua” is indeed an appropriate title for this music. Since the CD booklet has no song texts, I’ve included them here, courtesy of Brilliant Classics, albeit in Italian only. Once you know what some of the lyrics are, you come to appreciate her interpretations all the better. Unfortunately, Google Translate has a hard time with early Italian, but I think your eyes may pop out of your head when you see lyrics like this pop up:

Beloved eyes
You’re fucking me
Why ruthless
Henceforth your
Gorgeous serenity
Of full joy
Your splendor
Flames of the Choirs
Vermilion mouth

The best description I can give of Calendra’s voice is that it is simultaneously bright in timbre and sensuous in its well-shaded delivery. She almost sounds like a female counterpart to Italian tenor/folk singer Pino di Vittorio, whose recordings of early music on the Glossa album Canto della Sirena (Glossa 922603) I raved about in Fanfare magazine several years ago. THIS is how you sing this material, with life and feeling and earthiness, not like it’s a vocal exercise to be produced by well-placed but boring tones. I also need to lavish praise on her accompanists, Ensemble Arte Musica, who play the music as enthusiastically as Calendra sings it. There is absolutely no comparison one can make of this record to the majority of “early music” dead-heads out there; they remind me of the once-famous early music group Kalenda Maya, whose recordings of the 1980s garnered short-lived but enthusiastic critical acclaim.

You may not believe your ears when listening to the songs by Orlando di Lasso, as these are miles removed from his normal stuffy religious music. Apparently, these were the kinds of songs he wrote when he wasn’t in church!

This is, quite simply, a fun recording!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Thierry Fischer’s Mind-Boggling Mahler Eighth


MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, “Symphony of a Thousand” / Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer, Amy Owens, sop; Charlotte Hellekant, Tamara Mumford, mezzos; Barry Banks, ten; Markus Werba, bar; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; The Madeleine Choir School; Utah Symphony Orchestra; Thierry Fischer, cond / Reference Recordings FR-725 SACD

This is, without question, the most sheerly beautiful recording of the Mahler Eighth I’ve ever heard. and I’ve heard a bunch of them. Up until now, I would have given the nod for beauty to the 1980s recording conducted by Bernard Haitink, but comparing the two is like comparing luminescent 2-D color to a 3-D ViewMaster slide. Even without surround sound (and bear in mind that, since I review most recordings from downloads, I’m not even playing them on my good system speakers but on my computer’s Klipsch speakers), you feel totally immersed in the chorus and orchestra from the very first note.

In addition, all of the singers are quite good, although the only two names I recognized were that of tenor Barry Banks, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. This is not insignificant. The singers carry a goodly portion of the music, more so in the second half than the first, and Mahler wrote these vocal parts in “Italian opera style,” meaning very high up in their tessitura or average range. In short, the music calls not just for singers with good voices but singers who can literally “live” in their upper registers. Even very fine singers on past recordings failed the test. I’ve only heard four recordings of this work where the singers could hold their own properly: the old 1950 mono broadcast by Leopold Stokowski, the Rafael Kubelik and Michael Gielen recordings, and this one. I was particularly impressed by baritone Markus Werba’s rich, resonant voice. Banks gets by but is a tad brittle; the sopranos, so key to the ensemble blend, all have wonderful voices.

Whether due to Fischer’s conducting, the engineering of the recording or both, one also hears a great deal of orchestral detail, so essential in Mahler but not always achieved, particularly in this monster of a symphony. The participation of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir almost guaranteed that the choral music would be performed to perfection from a technical standpoint, but Fischer literally outdid himself in pushing them to give more of themselves emotionally: listen, for instance, to the “Accende lumen sensibus” section in the first part. There is tremendous energy and dynamism here, so much so that I would not recommend putting this CD on for your Sunday “clah-ssical” brunch. You might blow your brunch guests out the windows.

Fischer also understands the importance of rhythmic drive, even in slow sections. His orchestra responds with playing so luminous and breathtaking that they literally compete with the Georg Solti-era Chicago Symphony. I heard that orchestra in person back in the 1980s, and folks, let me tell you, they were everything you heard on the records and then some. Every musician in every section plays their little hearts out in this performance. It’s almost mind-boggling.

In the subtler and, for some, more interesting second part of the symphony, Fischer delicately limns the music like a master painter. The luminous sound, then, is not just for the louder and more extroverted first part. Here, with the lone exception of Barry Banks, the solo singers don’t seem to be interpreting the words so much as just singing—gloriously, I admit, but just singing. A bit of a disappointment, but my only one in this stupendous performance. Fischer keeps the music moving at a good pace, however, and this is certainly no real cause for a negative review, just a fair warning that it’s a bit glib. I still find that the singers on the Kubelik performance, particularly tenor Donald Grobe and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are tops in this respect.

I had one niggling complaint, though: since this entire performance runs only 79:41, why put it on two CDs? A CD isn’t like an LP; the music doesn’t sound better or more spacious if you give it more “groove room” on the disc. Yet I still find it excellent. It could easily be your only Mahler Eighth if you so choose, though I’d personally also recommend Kubelik and Gielen. It does, however, supersede the historic Stokowski version by a wide margin. This is the “surround sound” Eighth par excellence.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The “Other” Mendelssohn’s Complete Songs

Fanny Mendelssohn0001

F. MENDELSSOHN: Morgenständchen.1 Ich kann wohl manchmal singen.3 Im herbst.4 Vorwurf.3 Traurige wege.4 Der Eichwald brauset.2 Gegenwart.3 Gleich Merlin, dem eitlen Weisen.4 Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus.4 Fichtenbaum und Palme.4 Ach, die Augen sind es wieder.3 Die fruhen Gräber.2 Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß.1 Harfner’s Lied.4 Dämmerung sentke sich von oben.4 Suleika.1 Die Schiffende.1 Kein Blick der Hoffnung.3 Die Mainacht.2 Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.4 Wanderers Nachtlied.4 Nach Süden.1 Wanderlied.1 Bergeslust1 / 1Susana Gaspar, sop; 2Kitty Whately, mezzo; 3Gary Griffiths, 4Manuel Walser, bar; Malcolm Martineau, pn / Champs Hill CHRCD124

Fanny Mendelssohn, often known by her married name of Hensel, was Felix’s sister and, by all accounts, just as precocious and brilliant musically as he. During their childhood and adolescence, they bounced ideas off each other, gave constructive criticism, praised when appropriate, and essentially developed together. Yes, their music was tonal, but it was also kissed by genius: brilliantly constructed, never too long, and almost always appropriate to the format. But as we all know, Fanny married, had children, and was then told by Felix to stop composing and tend to raising her family. She bristled but eventually obeyed. Towards the end of her brief life she couldn’t take it any more and began writing music again. But that is why her output is so much smaller than her brother’s.

This album of her complete songs is something of a mixed bag, but the quality of the music isn’t the problem. It was the decision to use not one, not two, but four different singers, and they are of uneven gifts. Soprano Susana Gaspar, who has but five songs, has a bright, clear voice that is pleasant to listen to and our second baritone, Manuel Walser, has a dark voice that slightly resembles that of Hermann Prey and is an outstanding interpreter. Our first baritone, however, Gary Griffiths, has an unsteady flutter in the voice that, despite a nice timbre, mars his singing pretty consistently, and mezzo Kitty Whately just gets by, also showing an uneven vibrato.

So much for a review of the singers. As for the songs, they are consistently excellent. Were you to play this CD for someone and tell them that these were little-known songs by Mendelssohn (which is technically true), they would be delighted by them. Like her brother Felix, Fanny wrote in a melodic but dramatic style, seldom using a strophic style as Schubert did in his most dramatic songs (Erlkönig, Der tod und das Mädchen, and several of the songs in Winterreise), but did use dramatic pauses in the musical flow to emphasize changes of mood. Traurige wege, a song based on the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau about lovers in the wood who pass by tombstones, is particularly excellent, but nearly all of these songs have their moments. She was a master of mood-setting and word-painting. Pianist Malcolm Martineau, who pushed for these songs to be recorded, is consistently excellent from start to finish, supporting his singers brilliantly and bringing out the flavor of the music with tasteful dynamics and phrasing.

In some of the songs Fanny alternates the major and minor with ease, i.e. in Fichtenbaum und Palme, and none of these songs lack interest. A virtuoso pianist like her brother, she could write for that instrument in her sleep and knew how to bring out its best side. In Die fruhen Gräber (The Early Gaves), a slow, moody song based on a poem by Friedrich Klopstock, she brings out mood and color superbly, as she also does in Heinrich Heine’s Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß? Interestingly, Fanny knew Heine personally and mostly disliked him. “He’s too affected,” she wrote, “speaks endlessly about himself…but if one has felt contempt for him ten times in a row, the eleventh tim he forces one to recognize that he’s a poet, a true poet!”

In addition to the songs being excellent, they are also programmed quite well. My only complaint was with the packaging. Nowhere on the CD cover, inlay or booklet were the singers for each song identified. I had to go to YouTube and listen to the two baritones in order to tell them apart, and took an educated guess as to which was singing what song, so if I made any errors don’t blame me, blame Champs Hill Records. Otherwise, this is a first-rate album that every lover of classical song should own.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Yoncheva’s “Norma” a Mixed Bag


BELLINI: Norma / Sonya Yoncheva, sop (Norma); Sonia Ganassi, mezzo (Adalgisa); Joseph Calleja, ten (Pollione); Brindley Sherratt, bass (Oroveso); David Junghoon Kim, ten (Flavio); Vlada Borovko, mezzo (Clotilde); Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Antonio Pappano, cond; Àlex Ollé, dir / Opus Arte DVD OA 1247D (also available as a Blu-Ray DVD)

If my readers wonder why I’ve never reviewed an opera DVD before on my blog, I’ll tell you. It’s for two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, most of them coming out nowadays are only available as Blu-Ray discs, and I don’t own one of those stupid players. For one thing, they’re just a gimmick, and for another, they’re too expensive for someone like me who lives on Social Security. But secondly, it’s because modern opera productions are so freaking ugly, perverted and unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent that I take one look at the covers and don’t even bother asking for them.

This one, however, didn’t look too bad—a rarity, even for the Royal Opera House nowadays—so I decided to take a chance on it. Another reason I chose to review it was that the cast choices were obviously geared towards a more appropriate and authentic cast for the era in which the opera first appeared (1831). None of the three principals, Yoncheva, Calleja or Ganassi, have cannon-sized voices, which is pretty much what we had singing Norma throughout most of the 20th century (Maria Callas’ modest-sized lyric voice being a rare exception). Unfortunately, we became so used to such Normas as Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna and Cristina Deutkeom, Polliones like Mario del Monaco, Robleto Merolla and Jon Vickers, and Adalgisas like Giulietta Simionato that people began to expect the big voices and the similarly huge orchestras that went with them. Now, I’m not averse to a really well-sung “big” Norma—one of my top recommendations in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music is the Deutekom-Troyanos-Merolla Norma from San Francisco in the 1970s—but once you’ve heard a smaller-scaled version like that of Cecilia Bartoli and Sumi Jo, the added intimacy of a small orchestra and voices makes a lot of sense.

In this production, we have some strangeness in the costuming, concocted by some idiot named Lluc Castrells who I think should be Castrellated, such as Oroveso dressed like the Dean of a University and the male chorus looking like acolytes at Midnight Christmas Mass at your local church (and a few inexplicably dressed like Army Generals, go figure), and way too many Christian crosses representing the pagan Druids, but compared to the average run of productions nowadays it at least passes muster. The booklet touts this production as representing “A Norma trapped by society’s norms,” with the following explaining some of the drivel you see:

Themes such as the fear of God, processions, ritual, celibacy, chastity and confession are woven from start to finish…Religion is the glue that holds society together, an unconscious way of ordering the known world, but it is also the means to repress anyone who dares deviate from the “norm.” This is religion as fanaticism, an intolerant,unbending law, a blind, intimidating and terrible instrument of power.

Well, I could name a religion other than Christianity that should have been used to represent this aesthetic, but even that would have been wrong. Just portray them as Druids. That’s what they are, not ersatz Christians.

Some guy they picked out of a police lineup, Brindley Sherratt, sings Oroveso with a stifled, forced and quite ugly bass voice, but thankfully the opening scene is his biggest exposure and we can move on from there. Pollione and Flavio appear dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, which they then remove to reveal modern-day business suits. Like I said, unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent. Ah, but who cares nowadays? Obviously there are Hipsters out there who love this crap or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Calleja is in excellent voice, firm and brilliant, as is the secondary tenor, Kim, as Flavio. But you would have thought that Calleja could at least have shaved his scruffy face before appearing before a paid audience, wouldn’t you? I would. But he does sing superbly; his tone has darkened a bit over the years, and his breath control is nothing short of phenomenal. Del Monaco and Merolla could never sing the role this well; they were all muscle and stress. And Pappano’s conducting is simply fabulous, taut yet lyrical, even more exciting than Giovanni Antonini on the Bartoli set. Calleja’s high notes are so perfectly placed that they sound as if they’re right in the middle of his voice. I only wish he wasn’t just singing to the audience and outstretching his arms so much. Couldn’t he at least have watched Vickers’ Pollione, even if he didn’t want to emulate the huge sound of Vickers’ voice? I did, however, question as to whether or not a lighting director was used. The stage is so dark that only a few candles provide what little light there is. Opera by candlelight…oh well, that does hark back to the early 19th century, all right. More Ku Kluc Klan figures show up to walk across the stage, this time wearing black hoods with their white robes. Must be a Democratic Convention (look it up on Google, boys & girls, under the title “Klanbake,” the 1924 Democratic Convention).

But then Yoncheva begins singing, and acting, and all the folderol of this production falls away. This is a GREAT Norma voice, strong and bold, and interestingly she has a bit of Maria Callas’ smoldering sulfur sound in her timbre. And she is a great actress, her facial expressions matching her body language to perfection. Unfortunately, there’s too much motion on the stage just as “Casta diva” starts…Dancin’ Druids in the background, their arms outstretched and veils over their faces, who happily stop moving once the aria proper begins. Yoncheva never really achieves a real piano tone during the aria, though she does sing somewhat softly, but with phrasing and interpretation this good, who cares? She’s got the character down pat, as did Deutekom who was a LOUSY actress (physically, not vocally). The great Lilli Lehmann (not Lotte) once said that Norma was harder to sing than all three Brünnhildes, and she was right. It calls for almost ungoldly breath control in addition to dramatic fire plus coloratura technique, and Yoncheva has all of that. Not to say hers is a Brünnhilde voice by any means, but for this opera it’s perfect. Not surprisingly, the audience goes berserk, applauding between the aria and the cabaletta, but I don’t blame them. You just don’t hear singing like this often enough nowadays. Her sustained phrasing in “Bello a me ritorna” is absolutely mind-boggling, no joke. You have to hear it to believe it. And she sings variations in the second verse, simple, tasteful variations, with absolute ease. What’s more, it’s interesting to hear a Norma whose voice not only has all the requisite qualities for the role but who also sounds relatively youthful. Deutekom was great in 1975, but sounded mature.

During the orchestral interlude following the cabaletta, Ganassi snuffs out the candles on stage, leaving us in total darkness. Maybe this lighting director was impressed by Herbert von Karajan. When she starts singing, one is underwhelmed to say the least. Her voice is all wobble and flutter; there is no central core to it. Oh God, I hope she warms up before her big scenes. PLEASE let her warm up! But at least she’s a good stage actress, which helps a little bit, though Calleja literally sings her off the stage in their ensuing duet (with a little light coming down from stage right over Calleja’s shoulder, through a group of Christian crosses). When Norma reappears, she’s dressed like an altar boy with rosary beads wrapped around her right hand. Pollione, on the other hand, just keeps going in his gray business suit. Ganassi never really warms up her flawed voice, but is a shade better by the time of the dramatic trio near the end of Act 1. Fortunately, the other two are so rock-solid that they mask her deficiencies.

Act 2 begins with a modern-day apartment setting. Stark, square, stylized modern furniture, including a “bed” that I first thought was a space-aged sofa, a huge red exercise ball with a grinning cow face on it, a table lamp and a small plasma screen that moves somewhere at stage right. Who designed this scene? Is this Druid chic? Later on, while Norma sings with a huge knife in her hand, the picture on the screen changes to cartoon bunny rabbits and we see a boxed Monopoly game on the table behind her. Symbolism, folks, symbolism! In their long duet Yoncheva is superb, Ganassi close to awful. During the cabaletta to their duet, Norma is hugging one child close to her while another, oblivious that Mom and someone else are singing, is playing with blocks. Later, the same kid bounces on the exercise ball in rhythm with the music. The next scene has bodies and Christian crosses swathed in a dark blue light, with ten or twelve of them holding their arms up as if being crucified. Then they all start singing softly, even the crucified ones. Shades of Life of Brian!

Then the College Dean (Oroveso), now dressed like Fearless Leader, appears with two Generals to announce the war. Oddly, however, our intrepid director seems to have run out of nutty ideas, because nothing much changes after this. The stage remains very dark with just a little bluish light, the principals sing in front of all the crosses and crucifixes, Oroveso remains donned as Fearless Leader, and they just sort of block their movements (with Yoncheva doing the lion’s share of the acting) and finish singing the opera as a giant cross, in fake orange flames, burns in the background. The perfect Christmas gift for your Christian friends.

So there you have it. Yoncheva, Calleja and Pappano, all excellent. Sherratt crummy to start with, but he warms up a bit. Ganassi bad from start to finish, and the production quirky, overly busy and offensive to Christians. Stage lighting, In Darkness Let Me Dwell. I give it a B-. Better than most Normas out there on DVD, but caveat emptor.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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