La Scena Musicale

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Biber: Fidicinium Sacro Profanum

Les Plaisirs du Parnasse / David Plantier, violon & dir.
Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT080701 (71 min 49 s)
**** $$$$

L’esthétique musicale du XVIIe siècle s’est longtemps attachée à distinguer la musique sacrée de la musique profane, du moins en théorie. En pratique, les compositeurs se sont eux-mêmes de moins en moins souciés de la différence. Le recueil de Biber, restitué ici par David Plantier avec les sept musiciens des Plaisirs du Parnasse, illustre ce goût pour le mélange des genres. Le Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum (1683) comprend douze Sonates de trois à huit mouvements et de durée variable; l’écriture elle-même est étourdissante de variété et de virtuosité. À vrai dire, l’auditeur est plus impressionné que touché par cette musique où s'entremêlent le sacré et le profane. Les interprètes viennent à bout de toutes les difficultés, mais sans nous convaincre de l’égale valeur de ces Sonates. Par ailleurs, la prise de son trop proche crée une enflure sonore qui ne sert pas le recueil.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Prokofiev: The Symphonies

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / Dimitrji Kitajenko
Phoenix 136 / 137 / 138 / 139 / 140 (5 CD – 282 min 53 s)
***** $$

In praise of Sergei Prokofiev and with all due homage to Chuck Berry:

Ridin’ around in my automobile,
Box set beside me at the wheel,
Sergei P’s Number One at the turn of a mile,
My curiosity runnin’ wild.
Cruising and playing the stereo,
Discovering what we need to know.
Hail! Hail! Gürzenich,
And Dmitrij K wielding the stick.
Drive for five and I gotta say,
This is the best there is today.

Auditioning recordings while operating a moving vehicle is inherently unsafe and very bad for fuel economy. Busy reviewers routinely take such risks and invariably repeat the exercise in a suitably equipped listening room at home. Most collectors appreciate Prokofiev’s First and Fifth Symphonies. Yet as Benjamin Ivry points out in his fine booklet note, “At their best, his symphonies sound like exhaled, dramatized history, capturing and evoking a point in time,” and “A complete set of Prokofiev’s symphonies provides a satisfyingly all-encompassing look at the composer’s creativity throughout the years of his mastery.” Kitajenko and the Gürzenich have already given us an incisive Shostakovich symphony cycle of uncommon power (Capriccio SACD) and it is not surprising that they have come out on top with the Prokofiev set. Their accounts of Numbers 1, 5, 6 and 7 are within striking distance of benchmark status and the ‘orphans’ (Nos 2, 3 and both versions of No 4) receive performances that should persuade listeners of the superior quality of these neglected works. Kitajenko goes beyond issues of tempo and dynamic emphasis here. He makes his marvelously honed players recreate these challenging pieces with sparkling wit and genuine affection. At the moment, this is not only the best Prokofiev cycle on the market but also the least expensive (although Jarvi’s RSNO set from Chandos is due to appear in a bargain box at roughly the same cost as the newcomer). This is another winning entry from Phoenix Edition of Vienna.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Glazunov: Symphony No. 6 / La Mer / Introduction and Dance from Salome

Royal Scottish National Orchestra / José Serebrier
Warner Classics & Jazz 2564 69627-0 (65 min 32 s)
**** $$$$

There is not word on Serebrier in the album booklet, but he is one of the busiest recording conductors around – and a very good one. He was born in Uruguay but made his career mostly in the United States. At one time he was Stokowski’s assistant at the American Symphony Orchestra. Serebrier helped Stokowski make the first-ever recording of Charles Ives’ difficult Fourth Symphony before making an even better one himself.

This is the latest installment from Serebrier’s Glazunov symphony cycle with the RSNO. The Sixth is rich in melody and orchestral virtuosity with a wonderfully grand tune in the last movement. The performance is exciting and full-blooded with excellent sound.

A couple of intriguing fillers: La Mer, Op. 28 was composed six years before Debussy’s more famous piece by the same name and has nowhere near the same poetry and subtlety. But if you like massive, crashing waves in music you’ll enjoy this work anyways. Likewise, Glazunov’s Dance of the Seven Veils doesn’t challenge Richard Strauss but it is evocative and richly scored.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Glass: Portrait

Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà
Analekta AN 2 8727 (65 min 35 s)
****** $$$

Ce nouvel opus d’Angèle Dubeau accompagnée de La Pietà est le meilleur de tous, un envoûtement même. La facture à la fois très contemporaine et romantique de l’univers hypnotique de Philip Glass sied merveilleusement à l’ensemble, qui a obtenu la permission du compositeur lui-même (privilège rarissime, semble-t-il) de ré-interpréter ses œuvres en version « arrangée ». Le résultat est très heureux. Les cordes de La Pietà, aidées par l’excellente prise de son de Carl Talbot, résonnent avec somptuosité. La musique, on l’a dit, est hypnotique dans le sens positif du terme. Une impression de doux flottement submerge l'auditeur; il imagine facilement un ciel scintillant d’étoiles vibrant au rythme de son pouls et tournant doucement comme dans une lente sarabande. Ce disque est infiniment plus satisfaisant que les arrangements pop ou autres réductions édulcorées d’œuvres orchestrales proposés précédemment par La Pietà. Un beau filon qui pourrait être parfaitement complété par le Concerto pour violon de Glass, que Mme Dubeau a déjà étudié attentivement et qui figure parmi les chefs-d’œuvre du XXe siècle.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Munich's Cuvillies Theater flooded by False Alarm

Interior of the Cuvillies Theater
Photo: Joseph So

Fellow journalist and colleague Frank Cadenhead reported in Musical America that the exquisite Rococo Theater that is the pride and joy of the Bavaria State Opera and the city of Munich was accidentally flooded when an estimated 7900 liters of water rained down. The cause of the mishap was originally attributed to a malfunctioning of the sprinkler system. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the system was triggered by a false alarm received by the security firm. The circumstances leading to the mishap is still under investigation.

I visited the Cuvillies Theater last July as a guest of the Munich Opera Festival. As you can see from the above photo I took, arguably this performance space is the most elaborately beautiful of all Rococo Theaters in the world. Built in 1750 by court architect Francois Cuvillies and rebuilt after being destroyed during the Second World War, the theater had just reopened last July following a four-year closure and a 25 million Euro renovation, designed to bring the new backstage technology up to modern standards.

The good news is that none of the public area was affected by the flooding, as it was localized to the backstage. The lighting and sound system appear to be functioning normally but the stage equipments have suffered flood damage. Finance Minister Georg Fahrenschon pledged speedy repair so as the performance schedule won't be disrupted. While most of the performances of the Bavarian State Opera take place in the larger National Theater, certain productions, particularly of Mozart operas, use the more intimate space of the Cuvillies Theater. The next opera performance in the theatre, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, is slated for April.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 10 (Milnes, Maisky)

1935 - Sherrill Milnes, Downers Grove, IL, U.S.A.; opera baritone

Unofficial website

Sherrill Milnes sings The Prologue from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Arena di Verona, 1985)

1948 - Mischa Maisky, Riga, Latvia; cellist

Official website

Mischa Maisky performs "The Swan" from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns (introduction by Roger Moore; Richard Hyung-ki Joo, piano; Julian Rachlin and Friends Chamber Music Festival)

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Kabalevsky: The Symphonies

NDR Chor; The Choir of Hungarian Radio; NDR Philharmonie / Eiji Oue
Cpo 999 833-2 (2CD 105 min 38 s)
**** $$$$

This set is especially welcome at a time when previous recordings of the four symphonies of Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) are absent from the catalogue. Kabalevsky was by no means a great composer but these performances demonstrate his ample gifts for lyrical melody and clever, transparent orchestration. Kabalevsky’s music has features which seem to echo the musical language of Shostakovich and Prokofiev but without any pretense toward their towering intellects. In a nutshell, Kab was a convinced Communist and a strong candidate for the title of ‘Mr Socialist Realism’. According to Fred Prieberg, “[Kabalevsky] was the only significant composer of the Soviet Union who never, not even in 1948, had to endure an official rebuke.” Suspicion that he was on the wrong side of the Zhdanov-Shostakovich confrontation of that year probably diminished the popularity of his compositions, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For collectors with a special interest in Soviet music, this issue will be irresistible. Eiji Oue secures excellent performances from his Hanover musicians. The Third Symphony (or, “Requiem for Lenin”) from 1934 includes a choral setting of verses by Nikolai Asseyev. Translation of the text is buried in the booklet note.

- Stephen Habington

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Shostakovich Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Dimitri Maslennikov, cello; NDR Sinfonieorchester / Christoph Eschenbach
Phoenix Edition 128 (67 min 52 s)
**** $$$$
Daniel Müller-Schott, cello; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks / Yakov Kreizberg
Orfeo C659081A (66 min 31 s)
**** $$$$

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote what are probably the two most important cello concertos of the past 100 years. They both came late in his career – 1959 and 1966 respectively – and the one grew out of the other. Both are anguished and brooding, except when they lurch forward into a kind of danse macabre. This is music that was inspired by cruelty and ugliness in the Soviet Union and one is left with very dark thoughts indeed after hearing either of these pieces.
Two new recordings have appeared almost simultaneously, each one containing both concertos. And the soloists – both in their twenties – are among the most gifted performers on their instrument to come to prominence in years. Müller-Schott won the Tchaikovsky Competition at age fifteen, while Maslennikov won the International Young Soloists Competition in Moscow at the age of twelve. On the basis of these recordings I would have to say that both cellists are wonderful artists up to the greatest technical challenges and able to make the instrument express the full range of human emotions. What is more, I could not possibly choose between them. The soloists play well, their orchestras and conductors are excellent and the recording engineers have done fine work. And one can’t even choose between the instruments either: both cellists are playing Goffriller cellos made around 1700!

- Paul E. Robinson

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"It's all a bunch of crap!" - Thaïs on Met HD Live!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

Over the years opera has developed a reputation for telling stories that are too often silly, risible or incomprehensible, and sometimes all three at once. As we settle into the twenty-first century most managers of opera companies have faced up to this problem, and to the fact that it makes selling their product very difficult indeed. The solution is often to bring in a director whose primary function seems to be to alter everything except the music. So, we often see stories set in Biblical times moved up to the present on the premise that they will thereby seem to be less ridiculous. The result is usually that they then appear both ridiculous and mismatched with the text and the music.

These thoughts came to mind as I watched John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs, a vehicle for Renée Fleming and made available to millions around the world last week via the Met’s HD Live series.

Massenet’s libretto is based on a contemporary novel by Anatole France set in Alexandria, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Cox has updated it to something close to our time, presumably, to clarify the universality of the story. Cox’s updating, however, is so haphazard that we end up losing our bearings completely.

Some characters in the Cox production appear to be dressed in costumes approximating fourth century Egypt, others in modern dress and still others seem to have grabbed whatever was left on the racks in the Met’s wardrobe department. Set and costume designer Paul Brown created a lavish world for his Thaïs - so lavish that one might think he had somehow benefited from all the billions of bucks flying around New York these days, as Wall Street investment houses run amok and the U.S. Treasury rushes to reimburse them!

Cox’s vision called for monumental sets requiring battalions of high-priced stage hands to move them around – Met HD Live generously showed us in great detail how it was all done – but in the end Cox could probably have achieved much more with a bare stage.

These observations notwithstanding, the basic problem with this opera, is that Louis Gallet’s libretto is dreadful. The story originally told by Anatole France has a monk Athanaël attempt to convert the courtesan Thaïs to a Christian life (i.e. enter a convent). No sooner has Athanaël achieved his goal, however, than he realizes that he lusts after the girl himself. Too late! He rushes back to the convent to declare himself, but Thaïs passes away in his presence without understanding or appreciating his declaration of love.

The tough part here is Thaïs’ conversion, and Gallet simply couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Without a convincing conversion, the opera really doesn’t work. Nor is there much in the libretto to enable the singer playing Athanaël to grow from religious obsession to earthly passion.

In an interview published in the Met HD Live Program Guide, Thomas Hampson, singing Athanaël, articulated perfectly what it is all about: “It’s in the last scene, when Athanaël comes crashing into reality, that he probably blurts out the most self-examining line of the entire evening, right before she dies and (he) says, ‘It’s all a bunch of crap; it’s only about finding love in life – that’s the only thing that matters.’ ”

The problem lies in convincing the audience that this man Athanaël could really come to such a realization based on who he appeared to “be” earlier in the opera. The libretto doesn’t give him much to work with, and the director John Cox hasn’t offered much help to either Hampson, or Fleming in working out their characters. What he does do is throw in some pathetic Middle Eastern kitsch in the form of laughable belly dancing.

A more imaginative director could have mirrored the motivations of the protagonists by means of projections, or perhaps some kind of dramatic tableau during the famous Méditation, beautifully played by concertmaster David Chan. Such elements could have been incorporated into a production still based in the fourth century, or even into a more abstract version. Cox just didn’t seem to be able to come with anything integrally creative.

The result was that Fleming and Hampson were left to fend for themselves. The direction, sets and costumes all seemed to be working against them. Fortunately, they both sang magnificently and for many opera fans that was more than enough. But why then bother spending all that money on sets and costumes?

Another factor that worked against one’s enjoyment – at least mine – was the way the opera was presented to the Met HD Live audience. The producer seems to feel that the audience needs to be looking at something interesting all the time; accordingly, we got to see every scene change in great detail, including all the sweating and some of the swearing too.

All this backstage business was engaging, perhaps, but it doesn’t belong in the live performance. After all, in any theatrical production, the curtain is lowered so that our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge) is not utterly destroyed.

This Met HD Live producer apparently doesn’t understand that when there is music being played by the orchestra, as in the Méditation and the Prelude to Act Three, it is meant to express feelings related to the story, not to be an accompaniment to parts of sets being heaved about behind the curtain.

Finally, I could also have done without the breathless interviews done by Placido Domingo, as Fleming and Hampson either prepare to go on stage or as they are leaving the stage. This ‘between innings chatter’ may be alright for sports events but it again breaks the spell of the drama.

There is not much point in the artists suiting up as Thaïs and Athanaël if they are going to present themselves to the audience seconds later - still in costume and make-up - as, well, Fleming and Hampson.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 9 (Bing, W. Meier)

1902 - Rudolf Bing, Vienna, Austria; opera impresario

Obituary (New York Times, Sept. 1997)

Rudolf Bing's Farewell (Metropolitan Opera, 1972)

1956 - Waltraud Meier, Würzburg, Germany; opera mezzo-soprano

Official website

Waltraud Meier sings Isolde's "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (filmed at Bayerische Staatsoper München, 1999; Zubin Mehta conducting)

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Moravec: Cool Fire

Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival
Naxos 8.559393 (45 min 30 s)
*** $

Entre le climat d’ingénuité (sincère ou affectée) du post-modernisme et la rigueur (justifiée ou non) de l’avant-garde se trouve un terrain d'expression plus indéterminé occupé par quelques rares compositeurs, dont Paul Moravec. Sa sensibilité mélodique, ses textures légères, son humour subtil et ses formes nettes deviendraient facilement risibles si l'écriture n'était à ce point achevée; ne pourrait-on pas en dire autant d’un certain Haydn ? L’auditeur ne semble pas le seul désarçonné : en effet, les interprètes gagneraient à jouer plus de Bartók avant de s’attaquer aux tempi vigoureux et mordants de Moravec. (Déplorons aussi, au passage, le timbre mince de la flûte de Martin et la brièveté de l'enregistrement.) Il n'empêche, on s’amuse ferme à écouter cette musique tout ce qu'il y a de plus légitime.

- René Bricault

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Shostakovich, Weinberd, Ichmouratov

Trio Muczynski (Airat Ichmouratov, clarinette; Luo Di, violoncelle; Evgenia Kirjner, piano); I Musici de Montréal / Yuli Turovsky
Analekta AN 2 9899 (58 min 33 s)
***** $$$
Yuli Turovsky poursuit avec ce nouveau disque son exploration d’un répertoire méconnu, situé quelque part entre le classicisme et le modernisme, foncièrement ancré dans le tonalisme mais jamais sentimental. Chostakovitch y figure, bien sûr, Turovsky demeurant fidèle à ses racines musicales et civiques. Prélude et Scherzo est une œuvre de jeunesse, souriante malgré des accents prémonitoires des vicissitudes qui attendent le compositeur. Le nom de Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), un ami proche de Chostakovitch, est encore obscur aujourd’hui, et c’est dommage. Sa musique est le prolongement direct de l’œuvre de celui qui fut sa principale influence stylistique. Avec 23 symphonies, 7 opéras, 17 quatuors à cordes, des ballets et j'en passe, Weinberg mérite de voir les amateurs de musique du 20e siècle fouiller son œuvre. Cette Symphonie de chambre rappelle Chostakovitch, mais n’en est pas un sous-produit. Pleine de vie, incisive, parfois sarcastique, elle est également tendre et introspective. Une magnifique découverte. Airat Ichmouratov (né en 1973) est installé à Montréal depuis déjà de nombreuses années. Ses Danses fantastiques mêlent agréablement l’esthétique chostakovitchienne avec les sonorités klezmer si chères à la diaspora juive. Les Musici jouent avec aplomb et conviction.

- Frédéric Cardin

Buy this CD at

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 8 (Feltsman, Tozzi)

1952 - Vladimir Feltsman, Moscow, Russia; pianist

Official website

Vladimir Feltsman demonstrates Chopin's Sonata #3 at SUNY New Paltz masterclass

1923 - Giorgio Tozzi, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.; opera bass


Giorgio Tozzi sings "Wahn !Wahn!" from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1970 film)

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Canadian Opera Company announces new season - and new music director

Johannes Debus Photo credit: Michael Cooper
I just returned from the COC press conference at the Four Season's Centre, where its new intendant Alexander Neef announced the 2009-10 season.

The season opens with Madama Butterfly, a whopping 15 performances worth of this Puccini warhorse, double cast - Adina Nitescu and Yannick Muriel-Noah shares the title role; David Pomeroy shares Pinkerton with Bryan Hymel, a name new to me. James Westman and Brett Polegato (Sharpless) and Allyson McHardy/Anita Krause (Suzuki) round out the cast. This is followed by a Robert Lepage world premiere of The Nightingale and other Short Fables, which includes a Lepage cutting edge treatment of Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, plus a piece based on the animal fable The Fox, and the jazz inspired orchestral piece, Ragtime. This is a coproduction with Aix en Provence and Lyon. Soprano Olga Peretyatko, whom I heard in the recording sessions of Wuthering Heights in Valencia last September, will be the Nightingale.

The winter season begins with a revival of the Montreal Opera production of Carmen, with American mezzo Beth Clayton in the title role. I last heard Clayton in Santa Fe where she makes her home, as Olga in Onegin. She also sang in the COC Cunning Little Vixen some years ago if I remember correctly. Bryan Hymel is Jose. This Carmen is paired with Otello, marking the return of heldentenor Clifton Forbis. It will also mark the return of the popular Paolo Olmi as conductor.

The Company continues with an expanded Spring season, opening with a revival of Dutchman, starring Russian Yvgeny Nikitin and American Julie Makerov. Mats Almgren returns as Daland, and Robert Kunzli returns to sing Erik. This show will be conducted by the new COC music director, Johannes Debus, who made a remarkable company debut last fall in War and Peace. This 34 year old conductor received excellent critical and audience acclaim and had great rapport with the orchestra. I heard his conducting of Elektra in Munich last July and he was extremely impressive. I was so taken by his work that I e-mailed him at the time, and I received a gracious reply. Little did I know 6 months later he would be the COC music director! His is an inspired choice.

Dutchman will be followed by a rare foray into bel canto by the COC, in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. It stars one of my favorite Italian sopranos, Serena Farnocchia in the title role, opposite the Elisabetta of Alexandrina Pendatchanska, a terrific Bulgarian soprano whom I heard as Ermione and Vitellia previously. American tenor Eric Cutler sings Leicester and Patrick Carfizzi is Talbot - a great cast! The season closes with a new production of Idomeneo, with American tenor Paul Groves making his COC debut in the title role. Former COC Ensemble members Krisztina Szabo returns as Idamante and Michael Colvin as Arbace. Isabel Bayrakdarian is Ilia, a role tailormade for her. Early music specialist Harry Bicket conducts. One performance will feature the current crop of COC Ensemble artists.

In addition to the above shows - a great season, by the way - will be a Ben Heppner concert, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the COC. Neef mentions that Heppner is booked up for the next few seasons, so we are fortunate to have him back in a gala concert.

There you have it - a mixture of war horses and the unfamiliar, with some exciting casting. I was hoping for a Parsifal or Tristan, or an Ariadne, but that was not to be. Still, it promises to be an excellent season.

- Joseph So
> COC Season Press Release

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 7 (Poulenc, Rampal)

1899 - Francis Poulenc, Paris, France; composer


Final scene from Dialogue des Carmélites (Teatro alla Scala, Riccardo Muti conducting)

Francis Poulenc and Jacques Février play Concerto for Two Pianos, 3rd mvt. (Orchestre national de la RTF, Georges Prêtre conducting)

1922 - Jean-Pierre Rampal, Marseilles, France; flautist

The Man with the Golden Flute

Jean-Pierre Rampal and Francis Poulenc play Poulenc's Flute Sonata, 2nd mvt.

"Véloce" from Claude Bolling's Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio, played by Jean-Pierre Rampal , Claude Bolling and Marcel Sabiani

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Today's Birthday in Music: January 6 (Bruch)

1838 - Max Bruch, Cologne, Germany; composer and conductor


Gil Shahan plays Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, 1st mvt. (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Dan Ettinger conducting; Tel Aviv 2002)

Jascha Heifetz plays and conducts Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, 2nd mvt.

"Nachtgesang" from Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (Brise Soleil Trio, Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts, 2006)

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Arthur Loesser's Well-Tempered Klavier Revived!

Review by Paul E. Robinson


Pianist Arthur Loesser (1894-1969) made few recordings for the world to remember him by; happily, one of his most important has recently been brought back to life by Jacob Harnoy of the Canadian record company, DOREMI.

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is one of those monumental works worshipped by all musicians as something akin to 'holy writ.' The forty-eight 'Preludes and Fugues' are endlessly fascinating as compositions, and as challenges for aspiring performers. Only a master musician with both technique and maturity, however, can do them justice. On the other hand, this is not audience-grabbing music; the entire “48” are rarely programmed for live concert performance. Record companies have not been enthusiastic either.

Arthur Loesser spent a lifetime studying and playing the “48” and when no record company asked him to preserve his performance for future generations, he did it himself. In 1964, Kenneth Hamann brought his microphones into Loesser’s studio in Cleveland, and just last year Jacob Harnoy restored and remastered that original recording with the help of Jack Silver and Clive Allen. The result is a 3-CD set for posterity (DHR-7893-5).

Loesser was 70 years old when he made this recording, but age is a factor only in a positive way. His technique was equal to whatever the music required, and he chose some very fast tempos indeed.

Loesser is never dazzling in a way that Glenn Gould could be dazzling in his inimitable detaché style of playing baroque music; neither is he ponderous, as German pianists and others can often be in this music. In Loesser’s hands, the music is pretty much what it looks like on the page – what the composer intended, in one sense – but always alive and fresh in its phrasing.

Loesser wrote extensively about the “48”, and his insightful notes are included with the CDs. From the notes, it is clear that Loesser thought deeply about the type of keyboard Bach had in mind for this music, and shaped his performances accordingly. He concludes that Bach certainly did not have the piano in mind for this music, but that with understanding and restraint, the performer can use the piano to do justice to the music. There are, for example, several places where Bach has written a note to be held for so long that its sound entirely dies out. Loesser allows himself the liberty of repeating this note to clarify the harmony. I wish he had done it more often - say, in the concluding bars of the fugue in BWV 846.

An added feature of this new CD set is an appreciation of Loesser by former pupil Anton Kuerti, himself an internationally renowned artist. When the consummate history of music performance in Canada comes to be written, Kuerti's name will, no doubt, figure prominently. He is one of the few Canadian pianists to have achieved international stature and maintained it for many decades. He is himself a teacher whose pupils rank among the foremost pianists of their generation.

Loesser, Kuerti recalls, was “the best (teacher) I have had”... “there was a palpable joy in him as he played, and an uncanny instinct for how to make the dance rhythms infect and delight the listener.”

The all-but-forgotten Arthur Loesser, a fixture at the Cleveland Institute of Music in his day, was not only a fine musician and teacher, but an author as well. His classic text - Men, Women and Pianos: a Social History (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1954. Reprinted by Dover in 1990) - recounts the evolution of the piano, its glory days of the late nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, and then ends on a note of sadness, as Loesser documents how the rise of the phonograph and radio undermined music-making in the home and how the emancipation of women meant that feminine accomplishments of previous generations, such as playing the piano “now began to turn stale and trivial” (p.606). “Skepticism of the piano," he notes, "went with skepticism of the way of life that had nurtured it” (p. 608).

As Loesser tells the story, the 'Age of the Piano' was all but over. He was on to something, especially with his observations on how the rise of the piano as a popular instrument was closely connected to the ebb and flow of history and cultures. He may, however, have been somewhat premature with his gloomy conclusion concerning the imminent demise of the piano.

Why, he wondered, had “the 'electronic piano' never caught on” (p. 613). He was writing in 1954, and one could say that it had indeed ‘caught on' - in the form of the 'synthesizer'. Keyboards of all kinds are, after all, uniquely suited to express musical ideas. The piano is no less a ‘period instrument’ than any other, and it probably has one or two permutations yet to go.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Betty Freeman, RIP

Our dear friend Betty died yesterday in Los Angeles. I'm a bit too choked up to write much about her now, but I don't think anyone did more to develop musical creativity in the past generation. I once called her the Midwife to Post-Modernism. I think she liked that.

She had a musical ear and a certainty of taste the like of which I have rarely found in the most celebrated conductors. She also had the capacity to stand apart from her work, and everyone else's, which is the hallmark of true art.

I attach below a short tribute that my wife's company has sent out. Betty did a power of good in music and art. She took us into a new era.



Betty Freeman, who died at her home in Los Angeles on January 4, 2009 at the age of 87, was the leading patron of new music in the late 20th and early 21st century.

She was the force behind such modern classics as John Adam's opera Nixon in China, Steve Reich's electronic string quartet Different Trains and Harrison Birtwistle's Antiphonies, and the dedicatee of works by Cage, Feldman, Berio and dozens more. She found Harry Partch living on the streets of Los Angeles and gave him shelter in her garage. In all, more than 80 composers were beneficiaries of her support, in over 400 works.

Betty was also a close friend of the artists David Hockney and R B Kitaj and a gifted photographer in her own right. Her portraits of modern composers, taken with the privilege of close and prolonged collaboration, are exclusively represented by Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library.

An accomplished pianist, Betty established a musical salon in Los Angeles in the 1980s. She had no nostalgia for 19th century romantics and supported without prejudice both streams of post-modernism - both the minimalist and atonal tendencies. Few people could claim to be a close friend of both Philip Glass and Pierre Boulez.

Among other composers she commissioned are George Benjamin, Markus Stenz, Thomas Ades, Hanspeter Kyburz, Harry Partch, Anders Hillborg, Philippe Boesmans, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, Helmut Lachenmann, George Crumb, Jorg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher, Friedrich Cerha, Olga Neuwirth, Luciano Berio, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Kurtag and LaMonte Young.

Her friendship with Lebrecht Music and Arts dates almost from its foundation in the early 1990s. The knowledge that her work was professionally and internationally represented encouraged Betty to continue making photographs right up to her final illness. She was a kind and extraordinarily considerate friend who put the interests of art above personal comfort and
convenience. She was also a funny, witty, strong-minded woman who will be terribly missed by all who knew her the world over.

For more links see: (search 'Betty Freeman')
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And Alan Rich has written beautifully here:

Source: Artsjournal

Today's Birthday in Music: January 5 (Brendel)

1931 - Alfred Brendel, Wiesenberg, Moravia (now Czech Republic); pianist

Alfred Brendel website

Alfred Brendel plays:

Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat major, D. 960, 1st mvt. (1988)

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, 3rd mvt. (Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducting)

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Today's Birthday in Music: January 4 (Bumbry)

1937 - Grace Bumbry, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.; opera soprano and mezzo-soprano

"Grace Ann Under Pressure" (Opera News, March 2001)

Grace Bumbry sings:

"Nel giardin del velo" from Verdi's Don Carlo (Théâtre Antique d'Orange, 1984)

"Les tringles des sistres tintaient" from Bizet's Carmen (1967 film, Herbert von Karajan conducting)

Grace Bumbry and Juan Diego Flórez sing "Angels from the realm of glory" (Christmas in Vienna, 2006)

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