Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, III: Clitennestra

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“Il rimorso di Oreste” by Giordio di Chirico

PIZZETTI: Clitennestra / Clara Petrella, soprano (Clittenestra); Luisa Malagrida, soprano (Cassandra); Mario Petri, bass (Agamennone); Raffaele Arié, bass (Egisto); Floriana Cavalli, soprano (Elettra); Ruggero Bondino, tenor (Oreste); Rena Garazioti, soprano (Cilissa); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Oreste’s assistant); Piero de Palma, tenor (A Herald); Virgilio Carbonari, baritone (Una scolta); Laura Londi, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Walter Gullino, tenor (Primo corifeo); Alfredo Giacomotti, bass-baritone (Secondo corifeo); Anna Novelli, soprano (1st Priestess of Artemis); Luciana Piccolo, mezzo-soprano (2nd Priestess of Artemis); Antonio Zerbini, bass (Un vecchio del coro); Teatro alla Scana, Milan Orch. & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: March 1, 1965)

Pizzetti in 1964

We now move forward to the mid-1960s. Here, near the end of his long life, Pizzetti wrote what many consider his greatest masterpiece based on Greek legend, Clittenestra. It is sometimes referred to as “the Italian Elektra,” but there are considerable differences between the operas of Pizzetti and Strauss. For one thing, it is the queen who is the central character, not the daughter. For another, Pizzetti chose to end the opera by having Orestes go into exile after having murdered his mother to, as the composer put it, “look for himself through his own tormented life, a valid reason for redemption, considering a desperate and inexorable condemnation right.” Andrea Della Corte thought this ending to be the least convincing part of the opera, characterized by “declaimed recitative of the text and expressive harmonistic concomitance,” but personally it doesn’t bother me and, from a dramatic standpoint, it certainly makes sense.

But alas, like Ifegenia, it has eluded further performances after the composer’s death in 1968 and a modern stereo recording. Again, however, I must stress that it is extremely difficult to find modern singers who can both sing with excellent techniques and also declaim dramatically without harming their delicate vocal equipment.

Petrella as Clitennestra

Clara Petrella as Clitennestra

The cast here is virtually flawless. Clara Petrella, an exceptional Italian soprano whose acting skills were so great that she was called “the Duse of opera,” gives the performance of her life in the title role. Mario Petri, a fine singing actor if not quite on the level of Rossi-Lemeni, sings a convincing Agamemnon while the often-underrated bass Raffaele Arié sings Aegisthus. Both Luisa Malagrida and Floriana Cavalli are surprisingly excellent as the seer Cassandra and Elektra. In the case of Fedra, the conductor is again Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who pulls the work together in a taut, dramatic reading. Since the Prelude to the opera was not only in awful sound but badly truncated, missing about 3 ½ minutes’ worth of music, I inserted the recording of this piece—the only part of the opera to be recorded in stereo—by Myron Michailidis and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra.

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Luisa Malagrida as Cassandra

Alas, without a synopsis or libretto, I can’t go into too much detail on what is being sung here, but anyone familiar with the story will undoubtedly be able to follow the plot. Sad to say, there is no bloodcurdling scream when Orestes kills Clytemnestra; you might imagine that he killed her in her sleep, while in bed with Aegisthus. To compensate, there’s a neat mother-daughter confrontation between Clytemnestra and Elektra that doesn’t appear in the Strauss opera. To compensate for the lack of a text, I am happy to present here the first page of the score which was available for free online.

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A pleasant mother-daughter chat between Clitennestra (Petrella) and Elettra (Cavalli) in Act II

Like Elektra, Pizzetti’s music here is almost constantly on edge. The tension is palpable and he creates a fascinating web of sound in the orchestra to accompany the drama, thus the advances he made in Ifigenia are brought to fruition here. It’s almost incredible to think that during the period in which he wrote this opera he was between 82 and 84 years old. Sadly, he died just before the revival of the work in 1968 which, so far as I can tell, was the last time it was staged.

There are so many extraordinary passages in the score that it would take three long paragraphs to describe them all. Better you should just listen and hear for yourself. Although there are no arias in the strict sense of the word, there are several sung monologues, and in these Pizzetti, for once, used a more lyrical and less parlando style—including some climactic high notes. This heightens the excitement of the drama without really making the performers break character in order to soliloquize.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, II: Ifigenia

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PIZZETTI: Ifigenia / Rosanna Carteri, soprano (Ifigenia); Fiorenzo Cossotto, mezzo-soprano (Clitennestra); Ottorino Begali, tenor (Achille); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Agamennone); Jolanda Michieli, mezzo-soprano (Una corifea); Guido Mazzini, baritone (Altro corifeo); Teatro la Fenice Chorus & Orch.; Nino Sanzogno, conductor / live: 1960; available for free streaming on YouTube

There was a considerable gap—35 years, to be exact—between Pizzetti’s Fedra and his Ifigenia, during which time he wrote six other operas and a ton of instrumental music.

Pizzetti c. 1947

Pizzetti c. 1947

Since the plot that he chose for this opera concerns just one incident, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigénie to the gods in order to ensure smooth sailing for his fleet in the Trojan war, Pizzetti chose to keep it short, only 50 minutes. Moreover, he initially conceived it as a radio opera without staging, and it received its premiere in this format at the RAI auditorium on October 3, 1950. The cast included Rosanna Carteri as Ifigenia, Elena Nicolai as Clitennestra, Aldo Bertocci as Achille and Giacomo Vaghi as Agamennone with Fernando Previtali conducting. The opera was so well received, however, that a stage production was soon in the works. This premiere occurred at the Teatro Comunale in Florence on May 9, 1951; the only cast change was Antonio Annaloro as Achille. In this performance, the composer himself conducted.

There was another performance, this one recorded, given in 1956 with young Anna Moffo as Ifigenia, but Pizzetti, who also conducted this performance, was not as pleased by her interpretation. Thus, when this performance was given in Venice in 1960, Carteri was back as Ifigenia and Pizzetti’s new favorite basso, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, sang the crucial role of Agamennone.

Perhaps the most controversial cast change was that of the young mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto as Clitennestra. Although Cossotto had a much more beautiful voice than Nicolai, she was not nearly as well admired for her acting skills, but as in the case of the 1959 Fedra, conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni worked with her to bring out her best. The sound quality of the surviving tape is quite excellent for its time, in fact the clearest of the three Greek operas.

One interesting twist to the original story added by Pizzetti comes at the end. In an epilogue, when the mist descends to hide the sacrificial act is thinned out, a mysterious voice rises to ask why the eternal perpetuation of war. But there is no answer, and the same voice, after the intervention of the choir, which symbolically multiplies the painful question in several languages “Pourquoi? Por qué? Warum? Why? Quare?”, and chanting the prayer in Latin “Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, quis substinevit ?, irascaris, Domine. Dona nobis pacem” for all the victims and perpetrators of war.

Pizzetti, then, was clearly a pacifist, thus it must have angered and pained him when Mussolini, to whom he had sworn an oath in 1925, joined forced with Hitler and Hirohito to start World War II. Those who knew him said that the composer withdrew as much as possible from public life, though his new music was still performed, and in 1939 or 1940 Mussolini pressed him into writing a symphony honoring his new ally, Japan. But this was clearly not his own sentiment.

The writing in Ifigenia marks a considerable advance on Fedra; here, the musical lines are much more varied; indeed, the barked-out orders of Agamemnon dominate the early part of the opera, though they surprisingly shift towards a more lyrical, arioso style of writing. The somewhat edgy harmonies of the opera’s beginning shift, at the six-minute mark, to surprisingly jolly, tonal music, apparently celebrating the successful launch of the Greek fleet.

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri as Ifigenia

Carteri is simply magnificent as Ifigenia. She always did have a good-sized and attractive soprano voice, but here she also proves herself a fine vocal actress as well. Pizzetti’s continued variance of both the vocal line and, more importantly, the shifts in rhythm hold one’s attention from start to finish. It’s easy to hear why this short, compact opera made such a strong impression in the early 1950s.

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Rossi-Lemeni as Agamennon

Yet for all the excellences of Carteri’s and Cossotto’s singing, it is clearly Rossi-Lemeni who dominates with his dramatically powerful performance. He never really had a “classic” bass voice; it was always very pointed, with a narrow focus and a strong baritonal quality. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that tenor Jonas Kaufmann sounds more like a bass than Rossi-Lemeni did, but he could always descend to the standard bass range (but not any further) when needed. I saw him on stage as Boris Godunov in the mid-1980s and, though his voice had dried out a bit and was somewhat weaker, you didn’t notice so much because his stage presence and his acting, both physically and with the voice, were so potent that they completely riveted your attention.

Pizzetti’s orchestral score, aside from the frequent harmonic and tempo changes, is also more colorful than in Fedra, using the brass and winds in an ingenious manner to create color and atmosphere. Mind you, this is not to criticize Fedra, which for its time and place was a major breakthrough in Italian opera (I wonder what Boito, who was still alive at the time, thought of it), but simply to point out that in the intervening decades Pizzetti had grown as an artist. In certain respects, Fedra was a more subtle score, but Ifigenia is more gripping dramatically. It has even more verismo elements in it, but verismo transformed into something more truly dramatic and less cheaply melodramatic. Note, for instance, how at 23:30 Pizzetti uses the chorus to sing a coarse, jingoistic “war march” that is almost as brutally effective as the opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

And, wonder of wonders, Ifigenia actually gets an aria near the end of the opera, just before the epilogue in which she says goodbye to life and love. Yes, it’s an aria that focuses more on the drama of the situation and not a “set-piece” where the soprano just stands there and warbles a pretty tune for three or four minutes, but an aria nonetheless…and Carteri sings it superbly.

This is quite an opera and quite a performance. Highly recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, I: Fedra

Fedra OD 11119-2

PIZZETTI: Fedra / Régine Crespin, soprano (Fedra); Gastone Limarilli, tenor (Ippolito); Dino Dondi, baritone (Teseo); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Eurito d’Ilasco); Marta Rose, mezzo (Etra); Edda Vincenza, soprano (Theban Slave); Anna Maria Canali, mezzo (Gorgo); Paolo Montarsolo, bass (Phoenician Pirate); La Scala Orchestra & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Opera Depot OD 11119-2 or available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: Milan, December 28, 1959)

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), a man with a permanent scowl on his face and knitted brows (I bet he must have been a laugh riot at parties!), is primarily known as a composer of orchestral music and a famous Requiem, but during his ling life he wrote no less than 16 completed operas and three unfinished ones dating from 1897, when he was only 17 years old, to 1964 when he was 84. Unfortunately, none of them are in the standard repertoire and in fact only this one, Fedra, has been commercially recorded in digital stereo sound, but that lone recording is substandard in both conducting and singing.

So why are his operas, and particularly those based on Greek drama which I consider to be the cream of the crop, so overlooked? Partly, I think, because he has a much higher reputation in instrumental music, which is softer in contour, less spiky harmonically, less edgy and less dramatic, and partly because his greatest operas are dramatic and somewhat edgy. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he was too infatuated by Wagner for an Italian composer but, as we shall see, although he clearly adored the German master, particularly in his early years, he was by no means a slavish disciple.

I first ran across an extended excerpt from this opera and this very performance on an Opera Depot CD devoted to soprano Régine Crespin. I let the CD play without looking at what aria or excerpt was coming up next, and after an excerpt from Parsifal this excerpt (“Figlia, di Pasifàe, Fedra vertiginosa”) came up. I thought I was listening to an excerpt from Parsifal that I had never heard before, but as the music progressed I realized that it was clearly no Wagner at all. But who, and what, was it? I soon found out by investigating the opera online.

Pizzetti in 1915

Pizzetti, c. 1915

Fedra was based on a 1912 play of the same name by the infamous Italian poet-playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio, who later in life became an ardent Fascist. In his play, d’Annunzio apparently wanted to reap some of the success of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. On the Opera Lively website, a member using the name Schigolch put up a ton of interesting posts on this opera in April and May of 2013. As he put it, d’Annunzio “made Phaedra an insatiable, wild woman, bordering on madness,” but there is more. He made her

A primeval being, unrest(ing), deluding herself. To indulge her passions she will confront everyone, including the gods themselves. Still traumatized by her kidnapping and how Theseus forced her into being his wife, she is suffering from “mania insonne,” and is emotionally separated from her fellow human beings.

This mania insonne will be the main Leitmotif. Fedra’s loneliness. A loneliness that places her opposite to Theseus, to the gods. This is her “hybris” (Greek word for excess, fir misguided pride). She is not seducing Hippolytus out of love, or lust. She is searching revenge on Theseus, Aphrodite and Artemis.

She is also a nocturnal  creature. Sleepless. A true messenger of Thanatos and Hecate. All (of) the opera in enveloped by an atmosphere of violent death.

Thus one can hear in this opera, as later in Ifigenie, how Pizzetti developed his music from a soft, Wagner-like prelude into a tangle of Greek passion filtered through the lens of Italian music. For all the Wagnerian elements in Fedra, there are also elements of Boito and some of the better ideas from Italian verismo. Pizzetti remained an Italian at heart and never strayed so far towards the Wagner ideal that he forgot his own cultural identity. Fedra had its premiere on March 20, 1915 at La Scala with a cast that included the powerful Ukrainian soprano Salomea Kruscelniski, who was also Puccini’s first Butterfly, as Fedra, American tenor Edward Johnson (singing under the name Eduardo di Giovanni) as Ippolito (Hippolytus) and the now-forgotten baritone Edmondo Grandini as Teseo (Theseus). Gino Marunicci conducted the performance. In the performance under review, the role of Ippolito was sung by Gastone Limarilli, a protégé of Mario del Monaco’s who studied with del Monaco’s teacher. This performance was his La Scala debut.

Crespin as Iphigenia

Crespin as Iphigenia

Like the best verismo operas, Fedra inhabits a febrile musical environment though it never uses the aria-duet-ensemble format favored by Mascagni or Puccini. Perhaps one reason for this, which is not widely known, is that despite his early piano lessons from his father Pizzetti was first and foremost interested in becoming a playwright. In fact, he wrote several plays, two of which were actually produced, before he finally decided to become a musician at the age of 15. In his later years—also not widely known—he also became a music critic and in fact wrote several books on the music of Italy and Greece. A close friend and colleague of d’Annunzio, he shared his penchant for dark, neoclassic themes. Sadly, he also followed d’Annunzio’s footsteps as an ardent supporter of Fascism and Mussolini, signing the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925. This was a black mark on his character which he was somehow able to shake himself free of after World War II. Sadly, not all great artists are saints.

Gastone Limarilli

Gastone Limarilli

The music of Fedra remains basically tonal but, taking its cue from its complex, contradictory central character, it swirls in and out of dissonance, particularly in the orchestra. In this performance, one of only two that exist as broadcast transcriptions (the other is from 1954 with inferior sound and singers), conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, himself a composer, fully understands both the style of the music and psyche of the character, and he is aided by the resplendent soprano voice of Crespin who perhaps falls a bit short of projecting Fedra’s total madness but certainly manages to make her sound confused and vindictive. She is supported by two excellent singing actors, baritone Dino Dondi as Teseo (Theseus) and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, one of the most outstanding stage actors of his time (Pizzetti wrote his 1958 opera Assassasinio nella cattredale specifically for him), as Eurito (Eurytus). Gavazzeni had clearly rehearsed this cast down to the core of the characters’ conflicting motives and emotions, for he gets the best out of all of them, even the lovely-voiced but not always exciting mezzo Anna Maria Canali as Gorgo.

Dino Dondi as Teseo

Dino Dondi as Teseo

The only real drawback to Fedra is that the music is not quite as colorful and varied as in Pizzetti’s Greek operas which followed. The music is always interesting, but many of the vocal lines here tend to follow similar patterns. It’s the kind of score that works pretty well as an exclusively listening experience, but would clearly make a better impact if the opera were seen as well as heard. Luckily, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, the cast does a splendid job of inhabiting the characters as best they can and bringing them to life.

Fedra has apparently been one of the very few Pizzetti operas to be revived in the 21st century, but none of those performances seem to have been recorded and certainly not uploaded online for streaming. To be honest, however, I wonder if one could find a conductor and cast as committed to this searing musical drama as the one heard here. Nowadays it seems that we have opera singers who can act up a storm on the stage but not with their voices, and in fact most of them have such vocal defects—wobbles, poor voice placement, defective phrasing—that I’m afraid that they would get in the way of a great performance. Yes, there are some great singers out there, often not famous ones, toiling in the smaller operatic venues and just looking for a break, but sadly the ones with the high-powered agents either never had much of a voice or blew it out after five years or less of heavy singing.

Although I had a few caveats (noted above” regarding Fedra, it was a very innovative opera for its time and place, and I strongly urge you to listen to it. My upload on the Internet Archive is considerably better than the one on YouTube which was its source, since I deleted dozens of drop-outs in the sound and cleaned it up to some degree.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Prokofiev “By Arrangement”

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PROKOFIEV: Tales of an Old Grandmother: No. 2, Andantino (arr. Milstein). 5 Pieces from “Cinderella” (arr. Fikhtengolts). Visions Fugitives (arr. Derevianko). War and Peace: Waltz (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Egyptian Nights Suite: No. 6, “The Fall of Cleopatra” (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Tarantella (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Boris Godunov: Amoroso (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). 4 Pieces for Piano: No. 2, Minuet (arr. Reitikh-Zinger) & No. 3, Gavotte (arr. Heifetz). Music for Children: Evening (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). Love for Three Oranges Suite: March (arr. Heifetz). The Tale of the Stone Flower: Diamond Waltz (arr. Reitikh-Zinger). 10 Pieces for Piano: No. 6, Legend; No. 3, Rigaudon (arr. Reitikh-Zinger) / Yuri Kalnits, vln; Yulia Chaplina, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC0135

Normally I dislike reviewing arrangements of classical music for instruments other than those for which the piece was composed, even if the composer himself made the arrangement, but Kalnits and Chaplina play these pieces with so much energy and affection that I couldn’t resist.

The music covers virtually the whole of Prokofiev’s creative life, from the very early Tarantella written when he was only 10 years old (1901) to the Diamond Waltz from The Tale of the Stone Flower written near the end of his life in 1953. Yes, of course Prokofiev’s late years were sad and dreary ones when he was often censored by the musical bureaucrats who Stalin put in place and thus was forced to write alternate, more “pleasing” and popular endings to works which he hated, but frankly, no one told him to go back to the Soviet Union when he was out, safe, and having a fine career in France. Did he really think he was going to be feted by the Soviets because he was coming home the conquering hero, having proven himself with a hit opera, symphonies and concerti which he had written while in Western Europe? If so, he was clearly deluding himself. He should have had a chat with Rachmaninov who, though he was homesick for the rest of his life, absolutely refused to go back to Mother Russia once he got the hell out—and who talked Nikolai Medtner into doing the same.

Eight of the pieces here get their first recordings: the 1901 Tarantella plus The Fall of Cleopatra, the Boris Godunov “Amoroso,” the “Minuet” from 4 Pieces, “Evening” from Music for Children, the Stone Flower “Diamond Waltz” and the “Legend” and “Rigaudon” from 10 Pieces for Piano. But as one can tell from the listing above, the focus here is on short works, the kind of pieces that violinists love to play as encores (note that Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz are two of the arrangers on certain pieces) rather than meaty works.

This, then, is an album clearly built around playfulness and enjoyment. I was just a bit startled to hear Kalnits playing with a great deal of portamento, giving much of this music a schmaltzy sound akin to that of Fritz Kreisler, but why not when enjoyment is your primary purpose? This is the kind of album that’s perfect for raw fall days when the temperatures barely hit 62 and it’s been raining on and off all night and all day. Prokofiev has the advantage over Rachmaninov in that his music was rather more modern and a bit spikier in harmony, not so much as to alienate the average listener but also not as overtly Romantic as his older colleague. A perfect example is the “Passapied” from Cinderella, a piece that I’m sure got him in Dutch with the Soviet Politbureau.

As I say, a delightful disc to listen to.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jackie Yoo Plays Etudes

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what a performanceLIGETI: Etudes for Piano, First Book. LUTOSŁAWSKI: 2 Etudes. LISZT: Grand Etudes of Paganini / Jackie Jaekyung Yoo, pno / Genuin 20720

Korean pianist Jackie Jaekyung Yoo has taken this recording opportunity to present etudes by Ligeti, Lutosławski and Liszt in reverse chronological order. Reading through the liner notes, her choice of these three composers seems to be that they all presented “breakthroughs” in the creation of piano etudes, but when you come down to it there really is no connection between their very different music except for the adoption of that form—that, plus the fact that all three composers’ names begin with an L.

But I must say, the way Yoo attacks the Ligeti Etudes is exciting and bracing. No shy wallflower she, but a bold, powerful pianist who plays her instrument like a man. I love it! These performances, in fact, are more exciting than those recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard for Sony Classical, a recording which has received praise from many quarters. Nor does Yoo ignore the tender moments in this series, such as the second etude. She is some incredible pianist. The extraordinarily complex cross-rhythms of the Etude No. 3 are child’s play for her.

Yes, the two Lutosławski Etudes do sound eerily like Ligeti’s, even though they were written 44 years earlier, in 1941…at least, the way Yoo plays them they sound alike in both form and character. These are clearly among the composer’s best pieces, full of energy, strong rhythms and imagination.

But it was in the Liszt Etudes, played in a crisp, strong, non-Romantic manner, that I was really sold on Yoo’s extraordinary talent as an interpreter. She clearly took an entirely new view towards these pieces, emphasizing their virtuosic quality over the warm, gooshy legato style in which his music is normally played. Some listeners may object to this, but since they are Etudes based on Paganini, who himself wrote powerful, virtuosic pieces for the violin that avoid Romantic sentimentality, I find her interpretations to be completely valid. Not since the late György Cziffra have I heard Liszt played in such a bracing manner. Just listen to the way she plays the famous “La Campanella” for an example.

Thus what could easily have been a disappointing finish to this album turned out to be, for me at least, an extraordinary listening experience. There are very few younger pianists on the scene today who I consider to be in that rare category of musical masters, but on the basis of this recording I would place Yoo in that category. I would crawl over broken glass to hear her play in person—that’s how good she is.

Quite simply, a fantastic CD.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Babar the Elephant!

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POULENC: Histoire de Babar, le Petit Elephant / Miriam Margoyles, narr; Simon Callaghan, pno / Nimbus NI1571

Finally, an album that everyone can enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t like at least some of Francis Poulenc’s music? I’ve not met that person. And what could be more fun than a story for children, written spontaneously for his cousin’s children out of the goodness of his heart? It doesn’t get any better than this.

When I was a teenager going to high school, I would sometimes stop in the Woolworth’s in Passaic, New Jersey to rummage over the remaindered books they sold. Among them were two series of books from France, happily translated into English. One series covered The Adventures of Tintin, a sort of one-boy Hardy Boys, a young detective who solved crimes. The other was Babar the Elephant, which was also quite unknown to me at the time but which I found really charming in its own way. So I feel myself qualified to review this music!

I was quite happy to get a recording narrated in English, which made the story easier for me to follow. I must say, however, that I found Miriam Margoyles’ narration just a bit over-precious. A little less “oh wow” in her voice would have worked better for me.

But there can be no mistaking Simon Callaghan’s excellent pianism. He fully captures the blithe spirit of the music, which is just easy enough to be enjoyed by children though it is far more complex than Prokofiev’s score for Peter and the Wolf. For this reason, however, it has never achieved the widespread popularity of the Prokofiev piece. Hopefully this recording, the first I could find in English since Peter Ustinov’s (with the orchestral version that Poulenc wrote in 1962), will appeal to at least some children whose brains aren’t to rotted out from rock music.

Well worth giving to your favorite 9-year-old (I’d say no younger than that) as a holiday present. And no mention of the Coronavirus!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Strange Music of Enno Poppe

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POPPE: Fett.1 Ich Kann mich an Nichts Erinnern2 / Bavarian Radio Orch.; 1Susanna Mälkki, cond; 2Bernhard Haas, org; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Matthias Pintscher, cond / BR Klassik 900636 (live: Munich, 1July 5, 2019 & 2May 8, 2015)

Swiss composer Enno Poppe (b. 1969) “is now regarded as one of the leading of new music among the younger generation in Germany,” but at age 51 I would not really be prone to call him “young.” Among his subjects in school were “sound synthesis and algorithmic composition,” so right off the bat we know we’re in for a real sound treat, right, gang?

His music is not merely atonal but uses a great deal of microtones and clashing harmonies. Fett opens slowly with the lower strings (violas and cellos) playing a real fun tune that everyone can hum (I’m being facetious) and just gets stranger from there. Yet I have to admit that the music sucks you in as does the equally microtonal music of Harry Partch, clearly a spiritual predecessor. As Poppe puts it,

the piece consists exclusively of individual pitches, that is, notes that have to be played individually. And these pitches always appear in linear relation to the previous tone—so there are no jumps in the piece. Either musicians play slow lines, by means of which chords change gradually, or they don’t play at all.

The aural effect is of a rather drunken harmonium crawling along the recesses of your mind. With the strings not really playing like normal strings, and the brass playing smears to match the string sound, there’s very little for the listener to hold on to; I can’t say that it’s music I would willingly listen to twice, but as I say, the effect is interesting. I can well imagine that this is not easy music to play or conduct, but Susanna Mälkki and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra certainly give it their all.

The biggest problem I have with Poppe’s music is that it doesn’t really go anywhere; it pretty much stays in one musical and emotional space. Long before Fett is finished, you’ve lost interest in it because it is too much of the same and doesn’t really evolve except in small, subtle ways, and that’s just not enough to satisfy the well-trained listener. It’s hip, cool and edgy, but it says nothing. It just gets louder at the end, moving towards a finale that is the only thing that really evolves.

Yet I found Ich Kann mich, to which an organ and chorus are added, much more interesting. Here, Poppe actually uses some rhythm and establishes a certain amount of little motifs (not really full-formed themes) which intermingle and eventually help to develop the piece, though the harmony is relatively static. The other thing I liked about this piece was that it used the acoustic space of the performing venue to good advantage. Even when Poppe uses microtonalism in this piece, it helps move the music forward rather than just “lying there.”

Bottom line: it’s an album worth hearing at least once, but not music that will survive another 30 years.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Quatuor Molinari Plays Penderecki

cover ACD2 2736

PENDERECKI: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Der unterbrochene Gedanke [The Broken Thought]. String Trio. Quartet for Clarinet & Strings / Quatuor Molinari; André Moisan, cl / Atma Classique ACD2 2736

I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of Penderecki’s music. I generally find it confused and pointlessly ugly and, to be honest, the first string quartet presented here, from 1960, fits into that category. This isn’t music; this is sonic garbage.

But, as the old sports cliché goes, I “hung with ‘em” and just kept on listening. Although the second quartet from 1968 is also pretty ugly, it was more coherent to my ears than the first—in fact, it almost sounded like an instrumental version of a portion of Ligeti’s Requiem—using microtonalism rather than just a splattering of random pizzicato notes. Mind you, it wasn’t great music, but it was far more interesting than the first piece. And one thing you have to say about Quatuor Molinari, they play this music with passion and drive.

With Der unterbrochene Gedanke or The Broken Thought we jump ahead 20 years, to 1988, and by this time Penderecki was writing actual music and not just sound effects…and, it turns out, he really did know how to compose music after all! Whadda ya know?!? This is an excellent piece, modern but coherent, with an excellent sense of drama. So if you do spring for this CD, I suggest that you start here, because this is where the music gets good.

The String Trio from 1990 opens with sharp, edgy chords, leading one to think that we are headed backwards to the ‘60s, but this turns out to be a mere prelude for a surprisingly lyrical first movement with the opening theme played by the cello. The edgy chords return, but then we hear a quicker, more rhythmic theme, also played by the cello, which leads into a passionate solo by the violinist. This, then, is a string trio in which the strings play mostly solo lines, only coming together on occasion. This is very interesting music and, again, well played.

Even more surprisingly, the Clarinet Quartet from 1993 opens with a sinuous, lyrical line played by the clarinetist, mostly in his low register, and when the strings enter it is to surround the clarinet with a warm cushion of sound. The second-movement “Scherzo,” though comprised of fast passages, do not put an emphasis on edginess but rather on energy and a forward momentum, and here the clarinet plays odd but somewhat jolly jagged lines. Near the end of this movement the music slows down and blends perfectly into the opening of the “Larghetto,” a very lyrical movement with a fascinating, moving theme. This is better than just “good” music; this is a masterpiece.

And then, we end with the third String Quartet, subtitled “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary,” from 2008. This, too, is a masterpiece, using ostinato rhythms in the first movement but being clever enough to vary the beat ever-so-slightly as the music moves along. Here, Penderecki throws in some edgy passages, but they are blended into the following music and developed, so they’re not just a series of noxious sounds hanging in the air. He really did mature as a composer as he got older.

There is no question but that Quatuor Molinari plays this music splendidly. My recommendation, however, is that you obtain the album as a download and just skip tracks 1 and 2, which contain the first two quartets. You’ll be glad you did.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Tommasini’s Thomson Recordings Reissued

1002 coverwhat a performanceTHOMSON: 5 Ladies for Violin & Piano.1 7 Selected Portraits for Piano. A Portrait of Two, for Oboe, Bassoon & Piano.3,4 Violin Sonata.1 Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp & Percussion: I. Rapsodico for Solo Flute.2 3 Portraits for Violin & Piano (arr. Dushkin).1 Piano Sonata No. 2. Serenade for Flute & Violin.1,2 Etude for Cello & Piano: A Portrait of Frederic James.5 Lili Hastings. 6 Selected Portraits for Piano. Northeastern Suite (arr. Wheeler).1-5 Susie Asado.6 Pigeons on the Grass, Alas.10 Praises and Prayers.7 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon.” 6,11 Mostly About Love.6 Commentaire sur Saint Jérome.9 From “Sneden’s Landing Variations.” 6 Shakespeare Songs.7 Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de Franc reine de la Grande-Bretagne.6 Capital Capitals 8-10 / Anthony Tommasini, pno (all tracks except Concerto for Flute, Serenade for Flute & Violin, No. 2 of 3 Portraits for Violin & Piano and 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon”); 1Sharan Leventhal, vln; 2Fenwick Smith, fl; 3Frederic T. Cohen, oboe; 4Ronald Haroutunian, bsn; 5Jonathan Miller, cel; 6Nancy Armstrong, sop; 7D’Anna Fortunato, mezzo; 8Frank Kelley, 9Paul Kirby, ten; 10Sanford Sylvan, bar; 8David Ripley, bs; 11James Russell Smith, perc / Everbest 1002

Years before he became a music critic for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini was a pianist and music educator, but not receiving tenure pushed him into the role of music critic. Tommasini was very lucky to have had both Virgil Thomson, himself a critic for the New York Herald-Tribune as well as a composer, as one of his mentors, along with the Boston Globe’s critic, Richard Dyer.

These two excellent recordings, which I missed the first time around, were recorded for Northeastern Records in 1990 (Portraits and Self-Portraits) and 1994 (Mostly About Love). After having joined the Times staff, he wrote Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, which received the 1998 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and Opera: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings.

These two important releases, both funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, are reissued here as a 2-CD set by Everbest, the record label of the Virgil Thomson Foundation at 254 West 31st St. in New York. The reissue was funded by Tommasini himself.

In my own Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, I noted that Thomson was a very fine composer but unfortunately didn’t write as much music in his long life because of his other commitments. In most respects he was one of America’s greatest music critics, a man who turned a surprisingly objective eye and ear on the contemporary concert scene and one who, I’m happy to say, also appreciated and promoted jazz artists in addition to classical. He was, however, diametrically opposed to the objectivist performances of Arturo Toscanini; he didn’t “get” them, he didn’t like them, and therefore he spent a great deal of time and a large amount of bile dumping on the conductor every chance he got. I’ve heard from some insiders that this was in part because Toscanini never performed any of his music, which in itself is true, and there certainly were some Toscanini performances that even I find harsh and brutal, but Thomson even carped about some of his very best interpretations. But of course he was entitled to his opinion. I can’t stomach the music of Bruckner or the conducting of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, in which I seem to be singularly alone among music critics.

Despite his occasional lack of time to compose, Thomson was, in my view, very diverse in his musical styles. He was not, like so many composers nowadays, locked into one style or mode of expression, to which he was committed “do or die.” He was very fond of the music of Erik Satie (particularly that composer’s Socrate, which he considered an early minimalist masterpiece), Igor Stravinsky, Bach, Scarlatti, and even to some extent Aaron Copland (in The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains). One can hear elements of all these in his works, although to my mind his greatest masterpiece was The Mother of Us All, in which he took a libretto by Gertrude Stein (one of his favorite writers) and turned it into a cracked-mirror mosaic of overlapping lines by the vocalists, all singing different words at the same time. In my view, it is wholly unique in the world of opera and still one of the most underrated works ever composed in that genre.

You can hear all these influences and more in the music presented here. Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and bit of Satie’s minimalism inform the opening 5 Ladies for Violin and Piano, and in the 7 Selected Portraits for Piano one hears some elements of formal 18th-century music. This little suite in itself is proof of my comment above that Thomson never got bogged down in just one composing style. He was the closest thing I can think of to being a “musical polyglot,” which is why his scores remain so fascinating.

About the only small complaint I have of the recording is its very dry acoustic. As far as the performance goes, it is excellent in every respect. Violinist Sharan Leventhal had a bright, pointed tone which was perfect for this music, and I’m happy to say that Tommasini was (and, for all I know, still is) an excellent pianist. In this work, at least, he uses virtually no pedal, yet he is able to “bind” the phrases due to his superb ear for legato as well as the work’s structure. Nor are these virtues confined to the violin and piano works; he gives us excellent performances of the solo piano works as well and, in fact, every piece on this album. One wonders if his mentorship with Thomson included some tips on performing his music; I would think they did, which for me makes these truly “historically-informed performances.”

PortraitsThe first CD contains chamber works with oboe, bassoon and flute which add to the diversity of one’s listening experience, but it’s really the music itself that holds one’s attention. Largely tonal but never sentimental, Thomson cut his own swath through the classical music world. If much of his output is encapsulated by small-scale pieces such as these, at least they were small-scale pieces of great imagination, imbued with warmth and energy. Except for his few full-length works, I like to think of him as the Ned Rorem of American instrumental music. He was apparently incapable of writing anything banal.

One good example is the second movement of the Violin Sonata. Sounding very much like 18th-century formality, there are nonetheless a number of little touches in the score that would tell the educated listener that it is not 18th-century music, and as it goes along the unusual turns of harmony make it a certainly. Yes, there are some later American composers who have written in a style like this, but Thomson was one of the first to do so. And you talk about miniature: his Piano Sonata No. 2 is, in three movements, only 7:14 long! Then, after the sweet sounds of the Serenade for Flute & Violin, we get the Etude for Cello & Piano, a dark, mostly dissonant piece that seems to borrow a few things from such modernist French composers as Honegger. In the second movement of the Six Portraits, “Paul Sanfraçon: On the Ice” (a suite which he wrote over a period of 55 years, from 1929 to 1984!), Thomson suddenly uses the pentatonic scale as its basis. Interestingly, the sixth portrait is of our intrepid pianist. This one uses an odd mode which alternates with the normal tempered scale.

Mostly About LoveThe second album consists of vocal pieces, starting with the very odd Susie Asado for soprano and piano. This begins with the soprano repeating the same note for a few bars before moving into an angular, Stravinsky-like melodic line yet, surprisingly, the Gertrude Stein text for Pigeons on the Grass, Alas is set to a very simple, tonal melodic line. Happily our baritone, Sanford Sylvan, not only had a fine voice but superb diction. Praises and Prayers are sung by D’Anna Fortunato, a mezzo-soprano with a lovely voice but, sadly, not always clear enunciation. There are a few surprising harmonic shifts in this otherwise tonal piece. Perhaps because he was used to being a soloist and concerto pianist, in these recordings Tommasini seemed to me to be operating on a different level than as accompanist in several of these pieces.

Soprano Nancy Armstrong, who also has some diction problems in her upper register, is also a superb singer in terms of vocal tone and control, and her performance of 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon” with percussion accompaniment is particularly outstanding. The Commentaire sur Saint Jérome is sung by tenor Paul Kirby with an excellent tone but poor French diction. Oddly, the first of the Shakespeare songs, “Was this fair face the cause,” has a melodic line and rhythm closer in style to old French than British songs, but it is simple and attractive—and, again, in a different style from his other vocal music—while the second, “Take, oh take those lips away,” is set to a lovely waltz tune that could easily have been a popular tune. No doubt about it, Thomson was always surprising the listener. Only when he reaches “Sigh no more, ladies” does he give us a tune that does indeed sound like an old English lute song—but in the second half he ups the tempo and changes the rhythm.

The Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de Franc reine de la Grande-Bretagne begins with a fairly simple melodic line but then shifts the tonality around as it goes along. Armstrong’s French diction, though not perfect, is more idiomatic than Kirby’s. The disc ends with one of Thomson’s most whimsical pieces, Capital Capitals, again based on a Gertrude Stein text. This one is written for male quartet, two tenors, baritone and bass, and I was extremely happy to recognize the bright voice of tenor Frank Kelley, who I remember well from his student years at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where I heard him sing in a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and give a splendid rendition of the duet “All’idea di qual metallo” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia in his graduate recital. The music is, again, mostly tonal, the rhythm starting and stopping at whim. Although not really a minimalist piece, Thomson keeps the melodic line within a narrow range of notes and often repeats notes within his phrases. Although not a masterpiece, it’s a very clever and amusing piece and I’m very glad to have it.

This is clearly one of the best and most important reissues of the year. Bravos all around!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Leyla Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia”

0 ANA FOTO Erika Davidson 3

DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor / Leyla Gencer, soprano (Lucia); Giacinto Prandelli, tenor (Edgardo); Nino Carta, baritone (Enrico); Lilia Hussu, mezzo-soprano (Alisa); Antonio Massaria, bass (Raimondo); Lorenzo Sabatucci, tenor (Arturo); Raimondo Botteghetti, tenor (Normanno); Teatro Verdi di Trieste Orchestra & Chorus; Oliviero de Fabritiis, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: December 13, 1957)

Although the Maria Callas legend continues to live on, the Leyla Gencer legend slowly grows. Ignored by record companies, British and French audiences and the Metropolitan Opera during her lifetime, Gencer nonetheless carved out a fabulous career spanning nearly 90 roles in addition to concert works like the Donizetti Requiem for Bellini. Moreover, in A-B comparisons, it is Gencer and not Callas who normally pins you to the wall and rivets your attention.

But since Callas knew that Gencer’s voice was almost as quirky-sounding as her own, she harbored no jealousy towards her Turkish-born rival. It was Tebaldi who obsessed her, in part because the record companies (EMI on Callas’ side, Decca on Tebaldi’s) created this silly rivalry between them and in part because she really was jealous of Tebaldi’s more beautiful timbre. Perhaps she should have watched over her shoulder, however, because as Callas’ career wound down into occasional stage performances and concerts, Gencer’s was ramping up.

In fact, except for a small number of roles such as Iphigénie and Amina, Gencer encompassed most of Callas’ repertoire: Gioconda, Aida, Tosca, Medea, Leonora, Amelia, Gilda, even Giulia in La Vestale…the list goes on and on and on. Plus, Gencer sang a ton of roles that Callas never tackled, such as Donna Elvira, Elektra in Idomeneo, Lucrezia Borgia, Charlotte in Werther, Lida in La Battaglia di Legnano, Odabella in Attila, Donizetti’s “Queen Trilogy” and Antonina in his Belisario, even Sister Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites and Lisa in Pique Dame. The woman was, quite simply, fearless, and in everything she sang she gave a real performance. She never held back and never cheated her audience. What made her voice controversial, despite having had excellent Italian training from former soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and baritone Apollo Granforte, was that her timbre seemed to always go between ear-ravishing sweetness and a somewhat abrasive metallic sound, but for those who could overlook the occasional harshness she had even more to offer the listener than Callas did.

Ironically, her forays into Lucia came about as a result of Callas’ hedging. In San Francisco to sing Liú in Turandot opposite Leonie Rysanek, director Kurt Herbert Adler noticed that she had Lucia on her resumé. Callas was scheduled to sing the role there but, since she kept postponing her arrival date, Adler asked Gencer to step in for her. She agreed, not telling him that all she really knew of the opera were the arias, but she kept quiet and learned the full role in a week and had a terrific success. That, in turn, was what led to this Trieste performance in December 1957.

Although this is not the complete score, but rather the “standard” performing version of Lucia used until the 1960s when they began re-inserting the Tower Scene, to say this performance is exciting would be an understatement. To begin with, Lucia was one of conductor de Fabritiis’ specialties; he conducted it for an Italian film version in 1946 starring Nelly Corradi and Mario Filippeschi, at Mexico City in 1951 with Callas, in this 1957 Trieste performance, and in fact was still conducting the opera in person 19 years later than this. The music was in his blood; he pulled the score together to produce a taut, exciting reading, and was blessed on this occasion with an exceptional cast from top to bottom.

Prandelli as Edgardo

Prandelli as Edgardo

Prior to hearing this recording, I had never even heard of baritone Nino Carta, bass Antonio Massaria or mezzo Lilia Hussu, but all had absolutely phenomenal voices and inhabited their roles superbly. In fact, I would rank Carta’s Enrico alongside that of Mario Sereni or Tito Gobbi’s as one of the best I’ve ever heard, and to be honest I’ve never heard an Amelia who could sing and act with the voice as well as Hussu. But the stars of the show are, rightly, Gencer and Prandelli, two outstanding singing actors who pour their whole hearts and souls into their roles. In my experience, only Pavarotti was a good an Edgardo as Prandelli, and NO ONE surpasses Gencer. No one—not even Callas in her fabled 1955 Lucia with Karajan. She’s very good in that performance, but it ranks behind what Gencer accomplished here, and neither di Stefano nor Panerai did on that performance what Prandelli and Carta do here. This is, quite simply, opera as drama in the fullest sense of the word. Even in the “mad scene,” surely the silliest music in the entire opera, Gencer casts a spell over the listener that never breaks until she has sung her final note.

Lucia front coverBut there were some technical issues that had to be overcome. The orchestral opening of Act I was an absolute mess, with soft passages blasting and loud ones recessed, and the orchestral-choral opening of Act III was exceedingly noisy. I corrected this by replacing them with the same passages conducted by de Fabritiis from a later performance. I then had to correct several “drop-outs” in the sound and removed all the crackle. All of Act III was extremely muddy and indistinct, which required a treble boost of anywhere from 12 to 15 decibels. The second scene of Act III was also a half-tone flat, and in the middle there were roughly 30 seconds’ worth of music missing. This, too, I added from the later de Fabritiis performance. Thus I cannot really recommend any of the existing CD issues of this performance because none of these defects have been addressed, but I uploaded it on the Internet Archive for your enjoyment.

UPDATE: Since posting the full performance with inserts, I have since discovered the missing segment of Act III, Scene 2. The sound is harsher and somewhat inferior to the rest of the act, but it IS the same performance with Giacinto Prandelli as Edgardo. You may still prefer the other version I uploaded, but this one is more correct. You can access this scene HERE.

I sincerely hope you like it as much as I did. I’d welcome your feedback, especially if it is positive.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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