La Scena Musicale

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Debussy/Poulenc : Sonate pour violoncelle et piano

Jean-Guihen Queyras, violoncelle ; Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902012 (62 min 47 s)
***** $$$
Le tandem Queyras-Tharaud nous avait donné, il y a deux ans, une interprétation remarquable de la Sonate "Arpeggione" de Schubert. Il lui avait accolé des pièces de Webern et de Berg, comme pour marquer une filiation entre le premier et les seconds, tous trois nés à Vienne mais à un siècle d'écart. Dans ce nouvel enregistrement, les interprètes rapprochent deux compositeurs dont les univers ne se touchaient pas mais qui se réclamaient l'un et l'autre de la grande tradition française représentée par Couperin et Rameau, qu’ils estimaient menacée par l’influence germanique. L’un et l’autre ont écrit une sonate pour violoncelle et piano. Celle de Debussy est souvent jouée. Celle de Poulenc, en revanche, est sous-estimée. Elle présente pourtant des qualités et son deuxième mouvement, une Cavatine, est fort beau. Diverses pièces plus légères, dont des transcriptions, complètent le programme. L’interprétation, autant chez Queyras que chez Tharaud, est d’une finesse toute française. Les notes du livret, très intéressantes, sont signées Anne Roubet.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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A Mozart Gala

Anna Netrebko, Magdalena Kožená, Patricia Petibon, Ekaterina Siurina, Michael Schade, Thomas Hampson, René Pape
Wiener Philharmoniker / Daniel Harding
Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 4430 (93 min)
***** $$$
Filmed live at the Salzburg Felsenreitschule July 2006 as part of the Mozart at 250 festivities, this gala concert has finally made it to the record stores. A two-year turn-around time is now considered slow, given that record companies rush everything to market – strike while the iron is hot, as they say. But Mozart never goes out of style, so this release is very welcome. Five operas are featured – Don Giovanni, Mitridate, re di Ponto, La Clemenza di Tito, Così fan tutte, and Idomeneo, starring seven big-name singers, all Mozart “specialists” to varying degrees. Filmed in HD, viewers are given a brief glimpse of the breathtaking scenery of Salzburg before the concert. Rene Pape kicks off the proceedings with a rich-voiced “Catalogue Aria”, followed by Canada's Michael Schade in “Dalla sua pace”, arguably his calling-card. French soprano Patricia Petibon is an exquisite soubrette, and she sings Aspasia's aria very well, except for a totally unexpected shout right in the middle – in the name of expressivity to be sure, but this is Mozart, not verismo! A highlight is the Idamante-Ilia duet with Kožená and Siurina, their voices blending beautifully. Anna Netrebko, arguably the biggest star on the program, contributes a fiery “D'Oreste, d'Ajace” singing with opulent tone but also some pitch problems and smudged coloratura. The weakest singing, surprisingly, comes from Thomas Hampson, in his single contribution – Guglielmo's aria from Così. He has all the notes, but the voice sounds strained and thin. Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna forces stylishly, with all the requisite élan and incisiveness. The picture quality is perfect, as is the 5.0 DTS Surround Sound. A great choice for Mozart devotees and aficionados of the gala genre.

- Joseph K. So

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Today's Birthday in Music: December 27 (Schipa)

1888 - Tito Schipa, Lecce, Italy; opera tenor

Schipa family website

Tito Schipa sings:

"Che farò senza Euridice?" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, conducted by Carlo Sabajno.  1932 HMV recording)

"M'appari" from Flotow's Martha

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Friday, December 26, 2008

William Lawes: The Harp Consorts

Maxine Eilander, harp; Les Voix Humaines
Atma Classique ACD2 2372
**** $$
William Lawes’ pieces for harp, bass viol, and violin were originally written for the court of Charles I and have never been recorded in their entirety – until now. The group includes Seattle harpist Maxine Eilander, baroque violinist David Greenburg, Steven Stubbs on theorbo, and Montreal’s Susie Napper and Margaret Little of Les Voix Humaines on viola da gamba.

Though the recording is titled The Harp Consorts, the works don’t exclusively feature the harp. Each instrument has its own musically demanding part. This group meets these demands with aplomb, imparting more than just technical capability to the long lines of Lawes’ distinctive melodic style. Subtly and varied articulations from the violin and viols bring something special to these pieces while rhythmically energetic playing gives the melodies direction.

Fine musicianship doesn’t end with the violin and viol: Maxine Eilander plays on the triple-strung harp, navigating the three rows of closely spaced strings with ease and lively dynamic contrast.

The only slight disappointment is the sound mix itself. One wishes that in these consorts the harp and the theorbo were slightly more audible; at times it is difficult to hear the instruments in the background of the viola da gamba. Minor objections aside, this is truly fine music – and history – making.

- Dawna Coleman

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Todays's Birthdays in Music: December 26 (Thea King, Earle Brown)

1925 - Thea King, Hitchin, England; clarinetist

Obituary (The Independent, UK, June 2007)

Thea King, with the Allegri String Quartet, plays Crusell's Clarinet Quartet in C minor

1926 - Earle Brown, Lunenburg, MA, U.S.A.; composer


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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 25 (De Luca, Swarthout)

1876 - Giuseppe De Luca, Rome, Italy; opera baritone

Official website

Giuseppe De Luca sings the Largo al Factotum from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1920s?)

1900 - Gladys Swarthout, Deepwater, MO, U.S.A.; opera contralto

Biography and more

Gladys Swarthout sings "Stride la vampa" from Verdi's Il Trovatore (1937 recording)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: December 24 (Larsen, Stich-Randall)

1950 - Libby Larsen, Wilmington, DE, U.S.A.; composer

Official website

"Concert Piece for Tuba and Piano" (Beth McDonald, tuba; Tedrin Lindsay, piano.  Singletary Center for the Arts, 2008)

1927 - Teresa Stich-Randall, New Hertford, CT, U.S.A.; opera and concert soprano

Biography and pictures
Obituary (The Times, London, July 2007)

Teresa Stich-Randall sings "Non mi dir" from Mozart's Don Giovanni (1960)

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Massenet: Werther

Keith Ikaia-Purdy, Silvia Hablowetz, Armin Kolarczyk, Ina Schlingensiepen Badische Staatskapelle / Daniel Carlberg
Arthaus Musik DVD 101 317 (140m)
*** $$$
With the decline of the studio opera recording, we have witnessed a concomitant rise of live performances, particularly on DVD. This Werther from Karlsruhe, a German regional house, would not have been released even a few short years ago. There are no starry principals, just typical “house singers” on fest contracts – competent, occasionally very fine artists as members of an ensemble. Updated to modern day, this Regietheater Werther is par for the course in Germany. There are lots of little touches – some work better than others: a physically handicapped Sophie, the Bailiff, Johann and Schmidt as major drunks, a Charlotte completely unhinged at the end, and the addition of a flashback in the beginning, with Charlotte sobbing at Werther’s newly dug grave. Director Robert Tannenbaum’s vision is unrelentingly dark. Practically everyone has a long face, including Sophie. Musically it is uneven, the major liability being Hawaiian tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy as Werther. He sang a fine Nemorino for Opera Ontario some years ago, but his lyric tenor has become darker and heavier, and afflicted with a slow vibrato. His singing is effortful, resorting to a constant mezzo forte that becomes monochromatic and dull very quickly. There isn’t much chemistry between him and the quite well-sung Charlotte of Silvia Hablowetz – his being quite a bit shorter than her doesn’t help matters. The sets and costumes aim for realism at the expense of Romanticism – frankly, watching Werther in a raincoat the whole opera is not my idea of good costuming. The conducting of Daniel Carlberg and the playing of the Badische Staatskapelle save this show. This is a curiosity at best, as there are better updated versions around, such as the Alvarez-Garanca-Wiener Staatsoper version.

- Joseph K. So

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Today's Birthdays in Music: December 23 (Gruberová, Boismortier)

1946 - Edita Gruberová, Bratislava, Slovakia; opera and concert soprano

Biography and pictures

Edita Gruberová sings "Ach ich liebt" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1989, Karl Böhm conducting)

1689 - Joseph Boismortier, Thionville, France; composer


"Air de dessus" from Motet à grand choeur (Véronique Gens, soprano, with Le Concert Spirituel, directed by Hervé Piquet)

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Tan Dun : The First Emperor

Plácido Domingo, Elizabeth Futral, Michelle De Young, Paul Groves, Hao Jiang Tian, Wu Hsing-Kuo; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet / Tan Dun
Production : Zhang Yimou
Director : Brian Large
EMI Classics 50999 2 151299 5 (2 DVD : 177 min)
**** $$$$
Cette production du Met est d’abord un spectacle, et vaut plus par ce que l’on voit que par ce que l’on entend. Les costumes sont somptueux et la scénographie impressionne par son caractère monumental ; il n’en fallait pas moins pour accueillir plus d’une centaine de choristes et de figurants dont les déplacements sont chorégraphiés comme une liturgie. Le sujet de ce quatrième opéra de Tan Dun, créé en 2006, est plutôt mince : le premier empereur chinois, celui-là même qui fit édifier la première Grande Muraille et mit fin au belliqueux régime féodal, exige d’un compositeur ennemi qu’il lui écrive un hymne national. Le compositeur tombe amoureux de la fille de l’empereur, laquelle est déjà promise à l’un des fidèles généraux du royaume Qin... La fusion entre l’art musical de la Chine et celui de l’Occident dont Tan Dun s’est fait le champion n'est pas consommée. Si l’écriture orchestrale est souvent séduisante, les chanteurs ont du mal à rendre des lignes vocales rendues périlleuses par des sauts incessants de l’aigu au grave propres à l’opéra chinois. Plácido Domingo ne semble pas à l'aise en premier empereur; les autres chanteurs ne le sont pas davantage.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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All's quiet at the NY Philharmonic

Since last week's sordid events, there have been three developments:
  • The Philharmonic's chief executive is apparently unwell.
  • The critic who praised Gilbert Kaplan's performance of Mahler's second symphony has admitted he did not acknowledge the conductor's full authority in his review.
  • And two more players have reiterated the trombonist's attack on the guest conductor in language so similar to one another as to suggest a football huddle.
On the first matter, there is nothing to add except to wish Zarin Mehta a speedy recovery.

Steve Smith, the critic (who is also music editor for Time Out New York), deserves much credit for disclosing on his blog that he regrets having omitted a phrase in which he described Kaplan as co-editor of the critical edition of the score - in other words, as the man who helped produce the text that is truest to the composer's final intentions.

The two new grumblers deserve no credit at all, not even name credit.

They were playing for the first time an authentic version of the symphony and all they could do was whinge about aspects of the conductor's technique. Have these people lost all interest in music? Don't they want to know more about the stuff they play? Can't they see beyond a physical rehearsal-room limitation to the possibility of actual enlightenment?

The New York Philharmonic has come out of this seedy episode looking like a rabble without a cause. When its music director invites a man to conduct a concert for the benefit of the orchestra's pension fund, it is worse than just bad manners for the players to insult him to their heart's content. It is a symptom of exceedingly bad management, of an organisation that has run out of control. Somebody needs to get a grip, to state a position, to invoke a principle of collective responsibility.

It is no surprise that Riccardo Muti turned down the offer to become music director in favour of Chicago, that Simon Rattle won't go near the band with a bargepole and that the only person with enough insurance to succeed Lorin Maazel is the son of two members of the orchestra who think they can keep the hyenas from his door. What a shambles.

Source: Artsjournal

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Today's Birthday in Music: December 22 (Puccini)

1858 - Giacomo Puccini, Lucca, Italy; composer


Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas in the finale of Act 2 of Tosca (Covent Garden, 1964)

Renata Scotto sings "Quando m'en vo'" (Musetta's Waltz Song) from La Bohème (1982 Franco Zeffirelli Metropolitan Opera production; conductor James Levine)

"Gloria" from Messa di Gloria (Coro Rossini, Sassano, Sardinia)

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Brahms Piano Quartets

Xiayin Wang, piano; Amity Players
Marquis 774718-1377-2-2 (73 min 47 s)
*** $$$$
The young Amity Players collaborated with pianist Xiayin Wang on two of Brahms’ dramatic piano quartets, both conceived at times of personal tumult. He began the Piano Quartet in C Minor in the mid 1850s after his mentor, Robert Schumann, attempted suicide. His Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor was composed between 1857 and 1859, following Schumann’s death. Brahms had formed a close relationship with Schumann’s wife Clara that intensified after her husband’s death and was the subject of much speculation. Both quartets are informed by turbulent emotions, oscillating between anguished brooding and violent abandonment. In livelier movements, such as the G minor Rondo, the Player’s tempo and accent style detracts from the vigorous intensity that could electrify the composition. However, Wang sparkles with precision, solidifying and invigorating the quartet. Cellist Raphael Dubé plays expressively, with singing tone in the C minor Andante, and the group produces a thick, murky texture that beautifully darkens the G minor Andante con moto. Overall, the Amity Players and Xiayin Wang capture the dark and confused emotions that permeate the two compositions.

- Hannah Rahimi

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Met in HD: Thais

Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in Metropolitan Opera's Thais

Photo credit: Ken Howard

by Joseph So

In the genre of "diva opera", Thais certainly ranks right up there with the best of them. Since its 1894 premiere at the Palais Garnier starring American Sybil Sanderson, it has always been a vehicle for great - and not so great - prima donnas. Any singer who dares to take on this role, from Mary Garden to Beverly Sills to the current Renee Fleming, must possess the vocal chops for this role, one that requires a full, rich middle, lustrous bottom, and a brilliant top, all the way up to a full throttle high D in the Mirror Aria and the final scene. And it goes without saying that she must look sufficiently glamorous and seductive to impersonate a famous courtesan from ancient Alexandria. Unfortunately, sopranos who look good and sound good don't grow on trees...

Indeed an examination of the performance history of this role reveals few successes. American Carol Neblett achieved notoriety early in her career, not so much for the way she sang but for baring her bosom in the New Orleans Opera production, a very daring move in 1973, in a land that frowns upon "wardrobe malfunctions". Anna Moffo certainly looked believable enough as a courtesan, but the voice was in tatters when she recorded it for RCA. In the late 1970s, Beverly Sills had a qualified success at the Met in this role, mostly through the force of her personality rather than the quality of her singing, and she retired within a couple of years after singing this role. Occasionally you have less well known sopranos taking this on, such as Irish American Mary Dunleavy, who sang it quite respectably, in English, for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2003 opposite Canadian baritone James Westman as Athanael. Big-name Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli has just taken a stab at this role in Torino this season. While she is a beautiful woman, her voice with its wide vibrato is far from ideal and she pales in comparison to Renee Fleming, who has sung it to great success in Chicago, and has recorded it a few seasons back.

Renee Fleming has gone on record as saying Thais could have been written with her voice in mind. To my ears, her singing certainly does this role justice. Few sopranos, alive or dead, look as good as she does in closeup. She also has a tendency to throw herself into a role, acting up a storm - indeed sometimes her exaggerated acting and cloying mannerisms tend to distort and overwhelm her singing in roles like Tatyana and Desdemona. But as the coquette Thais, Fleming is near perfection. That said, I find her much more convincing in the pre-transformation, "material girl" phase of Thais, while she is much less convincing as the penitant, the once fallen woman now "saved" by Athanael. Her sweet smile and carefully struck poses in the death scene get high marks for glamour but scores very low in the spiritual depth department.

This Met revival - first time in 30 years since Sills sang it in 1978 - uses the Chicago Lyric John Cox production with some modifications. If you are confused about the time period, you are not alone. The decor is vaguely Art Deco - I suppose you can argue that it is sort of neo-Egyptian - but why do the men wear tuxedos, of all things? They look like they've just wandered off the set of Die Fledermaus or Lustige Witwe. Fleming gets to show off her now ultra-slim figure in a series of form-fitting Christian Lacroix gowns. They are undeniably gorgeous, especially the frocks in Acts 1 and 2. But in her death scene, instead of a nun's habit, she is wearing an equally tight-fitting grey pleated number - in a convent? Thais, now a penitant, dies sitting up in a throne, with a smile on her face. I suppose in diva vehicles like Thais, dramatic verisimilitude takes a backseat to the necessity of making the prima donna look good.

As Athanael, American baritone Thomas Hampson was in the best voice I have heard him in some time. He sang with firm, rich tone and admirable legato, only in forte passages did he sound a little pressed. Canadian tenor Michael Schade did well in the thankless role of Nicias, coping well with the tricky tessitura, although his tone has become increasingly hard-edged. Alain Vernhes contributed a characterful Palemon. Spanish conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos gave a fluent and suave reading of the perfumy score, and I would be remiss not to mention the resplendent playing of the violin solo "Meditation" by Met concertmaster David Chan. This tune is recycled over and over again throughout the second half, but with such lovely playing, who can complain. There you have it - this production of Thais is a feast for diva worshippers, but don't take Massenet's fake religiosity too seriously or you will be disappointed - reserve that for Parsifal.

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Maxwell Davies : Naxos Quartets 9 & 10

Maggini Quartet
Naxos 8.557400 (63 min 54 s)
**** $
Peter Maxwell Davies semble s’être bien amusé à remplir la commande de l’étiquette Naxos pour la composition de dix quatuors, dont ce disque représente l'étape finale. Il en a fait un véritable exercice d’exploration formelle: approche familière pour les deux premiers, mouvement unique pour les Quatrième et Huitième, collections hétéroclites pour les Troisième (Marche, Fugue, 4 Inventions et Hymne…) et Dixième (Reel, Air, Passamezzo, Hornpipe…), séquence de sept mouvements lents pour le Septième, etc. Le style hautement référentiel du Britannique se reconnaît partout, mais de façon subtile : les passages tonaux sont brefs, comme pour rappeler la source de la déconstruction – on sent la référence plus qu’on ne l’entend, ce qui s’avère efficace d’un point de vue dramatique. Le tout est assez bien livré par les Maggini, et c'est heureux, car il y a fort à parier que la prochaine version intégrale de ces quatuors n'est pas pour demain.

- René Bricault

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Strauss: Arabella

Renée Fleming, Julia Kleiter, Morten Frank Larsen, Johan Weigel
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich / Franz Welser-Möst
Decca 074 3263 (147 min)
*** $$$
I had the pleasure of being present at Renée Fleming’s first performance of Arabella with the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. She was splendid and consolidated her position as one of the great Straussians of her generation. She went on to repeat this triumph at the Met in 2001, again with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Now comes a DVD of a 2007 performance in Zürich. Fleming is better than ever but she is part of a production by Götz Friedrich that sucks most of the charm and magic right out of the piece.

The opera is essentially a lightweight, operetta-style love story set in 1860s Vienna. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmanstahl were very specific as to time and place and the peculiarities of social etiquette and entertainment. But Friedrich chose to move the story to some vaguely 1920s place and offered no apparent imaginative concept to replace the Viennese original. What’s more, the sets suggest not so much a new vision but simply lack of time or money or both. The Act I set is so bare it looks less like a Viennese hotel room than a hospital waiting room. The critical staircase in the last scene has as much character as a neon sign. Worst of all, the orchestra appears to have been recorded in a closet and a very small one at that; the sound is dry and boxy in the extreme.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Today's Birthdays in Music: December 21 (Turp, Tilson Thomas)

1925 - André Turp, Montreal, Canada; opera tenor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

1944 - Michael Tilson Thomas, Los Angeles, U.S.A.; conductor, pianist, composer

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, 1st mvt. (BBC Promenade Concert, London, 2007)

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