La Scena Musicale

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 17 (G. Weir, Morawetz)

1941 - Gillian Weir, Martinsborough, New Zealand; organist

Gillian Weir's website

1917 - Oskar Morawetz, Světlà nad Sàzavou. Czechoslovakia; composer

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

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Friday, January 16, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 17 - 23, 2009)

Photo: conductor Bernard Labadie

By Joseph So

Welcome to the first installment of the weekly column on the classical music scene in the Greater Toronto Area! In this space, I plan to highlight a few noteworthy concerts and events that are of particular interest. I should say right off that there is no attempt to be comprehensive, as my focus has always been things vocal and operatic, plus a smattering of others.

At the top of the list is the continuation of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Mozart Festival that runs Jan. 10 to 24. The centerpiece of this festival is the the Magic Flute in Concert, to take place on January 22 and 24, 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. It stars a completely Canadian cast - well almost, since Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea, originally announced for Sarastro, has been replaced by Oren Gradus. Quebec maestro Bernard Labadie leads an exceptionally strong cast, led by Karin Gauvin as Pamina, Benjamin Butterfield as Tamino, Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, and Aline Kutan as Queen of the Night! All four have not performed in Toronto for some time so this is a great opportunity to hear them. I saw Hopkins sang Papageno opposite the divine Natalie Dessay in her first-ever Pamina about four years ago. He was a particularly engaging birdcatcher and I look forward to hearing him again. Another highlight for me will be the Qeen of Aline Kutan. She sang Der holle Rache at a COC Gala to celebrate the opening of the opera house. When she interpolated the coloratura but singing the HIGH option, the audience let out a collective gasp! Before this, I had not heard a modern-day performance where the soprano dared do such a stratospheric attempt. I wonder if she will do it again...perhaps rather unlikely since this will be a serious performance and not a gala concert.

Supporting cast members include Nathan Berg (Sprecher), Gillian Keith (Papagena), Shannon Mercer (First Lady), Krisztina Szabo (Second Lady), Allyson McHardy (Third Lady), Rufus Muller (Monostatos). Everyone of these singers are well known in Canada and elsewhere, and well worth hearing. The U of T MacMillan Singers will provide the choral voices. I think this will be semi-staged, sung in German with English Surtitles. This is an event absolutely NOT to be missed! I bought myself a ticket several days ago and as I understand it, it is practically sold out.

Other than this blockbuster, I can also recommend the encore performance of Berlioz's La Damnation du Faust, as part of the Met in HD series. It will be on Saturday Jan. 17 at the Cineplex chain. I will attend the show at the Sheppard Grande location. Do call to inquire about ticket availability. When it was shown on Nov. 22, the Robert Lepage direction was stunning. The Quebec director Lepage will bring his cutting-edge sensibilities to the COC for a production of Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, bound to be a highlight of the 2009-10 season.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 16 (Horne, Lorengar)

1934 - Marilyn Horne, Bradford, PA, U.S.A.; opera mezzo-soprano


Marilyn Horne sings "Pensa alla patria" from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (Metropolitan Opera, 1986)

1928 - Pilar Lorengar, Zaragoza, Spain; opera and zarzuela soprano

Wikipedia (mistakenly gives y.o.b. as 1929)
Obituary (New York Times, June 1996)

Pilar Lorengar sings "Mañanica era" by Granados (1988)

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bartók: Divertimento, Musique pour cordes, percussions et célesta, Danses populaires roumaines (arr. Zeitouni)

Les Violons du Roy / Jean-Marie Zeitouni
Atma ACD22576 (64 min 47 s)
**** $$$

Les Violons du Roy proposent un Bartók opulent, dansant, mesuré. Ils prennent littéralement d'assaut les enceintes acoustiques par la richesse de leur timbre, tant individuel que collectif. Des tempi souples, dénués d’exagération, et un phrasé clairement découpé – tout est mis en œuvre, d’un point de vue technique, pour rehausser le plaisir du jeu. Par contre, seront déçus ceux qui, comme moi, préfèrent un Bartók délirant, sauvage, qui fusionne la plus brute authenticité folklorique avec la plus haute sophistication d’écriture. Ces mélomanes pourront se dire nostalgiques du passé, mais un fait demeure : les Violons du Roy ont le poids de la légitimité musicale de leur côté.

- René Bricault

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Flawless Touch & Temperament: Ohlsson Triumphs in Dvorak Rarity!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson


There is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great piano virtuoso in action with a big orchestra. Hands a blur at the keyboard, showers of notes played at blinding speed, the Steinway grand all but demolished under the onslaught while the conductor whips the orchestra into a frenzy. Wonderful!

Most of the great virtuoso vehicles – by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - were composed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and have been exciting audiences ever since. There are, however, other piano concertos from this period that are less flashy, but well worth a hearing. Dvořák’s piano concerto of 1876 is just such a piece. I have had a special affection for this fine work for many years and I was delighted that pianist Garrick Ohlsson and conductor Peter Bay decided to present it this season with the Austin Symphony at the Long Center.

Ohlsson Brings Flawless Touch & Temperament to Rare Masterpiece

As a young man, Ohlsson won the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1970. He went on to establish himself as one of the foremost Chopin players of his generation. With this kind of musical pedigree, he was just the man to do justice to Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33.

Op. 33 is a piece for consummate musicians. It calls for beauty of sound and the most natural sense of rubato. In other words, it is Chopinesque in its piano writing. Any pianist who approaches it with hammer and tongs will make a hash of it, and might better leave it alone. There is drama in the score, and deep romantic temperament; but again, its special beauty is apt to be destroyed if the passion is overdone.

One of the great moments for me is the opening of the slow movement – a solo horn with soft string accompaniment, playing a haunting melody then picked up by the piano. Nothing much to it, except the totally unexpected B major chord that intrudes in the key of D major. It reminds me also of the inspired harmonic chemistry to be found in the great soprano aria “O silver moon” from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. The piano concerto has several moments of this quality, and if you like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, you’ll find more of the same here, especially in the last movement.

Ohlsson gave one of the finest performances I ever expect to hear of this lovely work and Peter Bay and the ASO provided stellar accompaniment. At the height of the applause came a special treat – as an encore - Chopin’s familiar Grand Valse Brillante, played by Ohlsson with such effortless mastery that one hoped it would never end.

Dell Hall Sound Fails Conductor & Orchestra in Epic Rachmaninov!

The major orchestral offering of the evening, Rachmaninov’s epic Symphony No. 2, (1907), came after intermission. Interestingly, Dvořák and Rachmaninov were close to the same age – Dvořák was 36 and Rachmaninov 34 – when they wrote these two pieces; in short, they were both young men but well-established as important composers.

In the case of Rachmaninov, his first symphony was received so badly that it practically ended his career. The Second Symphony, however, was another matter. It is full of soaring melody, and structurally it hangs together far better than the First Symphony. It is, nonetheless, a massive, sprawling score and much of the music is dark and melancholy. Unlike the Dvořák Piano Concerto, it calls for a large orchestra and the biggest possible sound.

Unfortunately, while Peter Bay had added a few extra double basses and had the full complement of brass and percussion that the score requires, the Michael and Susan Dell Hall at the Long Center simply refused to cooperate.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 requires a depth of sound that sets the floor shaking and gives you the feeling of being punched in the gut. Nothing like that sound reached me in my seat about two-thirds of the way back on the ground floor. I don’t doubt for a moment that the ASO is capable of producing a full rich sound, but I am concerned that we may never hear it in this hall.

It so happens that the very next night I was sitting in a similar location in the Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas. The orchestral sound I heard there was exactly what was missing in Austin. It wasn’t the fault of the conductor or the orchestra in Austin; it was the hall. The Myerson happens to be one of the world’s great concert halls and what a difference it makes to the sound of an orchestra and to the sound of the music.

Let me emphasize that Peter Bay and the ASO musicians had obviously worked hard to get this difficult music under control and the hard work paid off. This was an extremely well-organized and well-executed performance. There was fine playing from principal clarinet and horn, and the trumpets threw off their brilliant flourishes in the last movement with great panache. Even the best performance, however, suffers when given on a poor instrument, and the Dell Hall may just be such an instrument. Let us hope not.

Finding the Right Mix No Easy Matter

It might be worthwhile for Bay and the ASO – if they have not already done so - to experiment with different orchestral seating arrangements, various types of risers and baffles, or moving at least some of the musicians out in front of the proscenium to see if any of these changes improve the sound.

There is another way of looking at the problem. The ASO might think about what repertoire avoids the hall’s deficiencies, and instead plays to its strengths. In my experience, the hall does not deal well with big, romantic repertoire. There is not enough resonance and not enough of the sound projects into the hall. On the other hand, the hall is generally flattering to soft music and to music with a lighter texture. Mozart symphonies and concertos, for example, might work very well.

Unfortunately, the heart of the repertoire and the music that appeals to a wider audience is – you guessed it – the big, romantic stuff.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar; Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, and Stokowski (Spring 2009), all available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website.

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Today’s Birthday in Music: January 15 (Frager)

1935 – Malcolm Frager, St. Louis, MO, U.S.A.; pianist


Malcolm Frager plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5, K. 175, 3rd mvt. (Orchestra della Radio-televisione della Svizzera Italiana, Marc Andreae conducting; Mantua, 1989)

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lieder Recital: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss

Nathan Berg, bass baritone; Julius Drake, piano
Atma Classique ACD2 2571 (67 min 27 s)
**** $$$

C’est une entreprise audacieuse que de programmer quatre grands noms du lied romantique et post-romantique dans un même récital. Les exigences sont considérables, et Nathan Berg, un Saskatchewanais de naissance, ne les relève pas toutes. Les Sechs Gedichte op. 90 de Schumann sont un peu raides, et les Quatre Chants sérieux op. 121 de Brahms manquent décidément d'intensité, surtout quand on se rappelle l'interprétation qu'en a donnée un Fischer-Dieskau. En revanche, les six lieder de Schubert conviennent bien à Nathan Berg; le baryton-basse trouve la variété de timbre voulue pour représenter le narrateur et les trois protagonistes de Erlkönig, sans doute la piste le plus mémorable de ce CD. Quatre lieder de Richard Strauss, composés dans la dernière décennie du XIXe siècle, complètent de façon convaincante le programme. L’accompagnement de l’excellent Julius Drake vole par moments la vedette au chanteur.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Bach: Goldberg Variations (arr. Sitkovetsky)

Jonathan Crow, violon; Douglas McNabney, alto; Matt Haimovitz, violoncelle
Oxingale OX 2014 (73 min 26 s)
***** $$$$

On apprête le génie de Bach à toutes les sauces. Les arrangements pour cordes de chefs-d’œuvre tels l’Art de la fugue par Marriner chez Philips ou les Variations Goldberg de Labadie chez Dorian comptent parmi les réussites. Jumelant l’intimité du clavier et l’expressivité de voix individuelles au timbre complémentaire, le trio à cordes jouit d’un avantage naturel pour les Variations. N'étaient d'une réverbération un tantinet excessive et de la tendance de Haimovitz à laisser échapper des frottements d’archet dans les passages rapides, ce serait le bonheur, car virtuosité et cohérence sont au rendez-vous. L’ensemble exhale la sobriété moderne et la passion romantique, mais dans un tel respect de l’esprit de la partition que sa prestation ne dégage aucune impression d’anachronisme. Voici un disque qui vous suivra longtemps.

- René Bricault

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 14 (Heppner, Schweitzer)

1956 - Ben Heppner, Murrayville, Canada; opera and concert tenor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

Ben Heppner sings Walter’s Prize Song from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera, 2001)

1875 - Albert Schweitzer, Keyserberg, Germany; theologian, musician, philosopher, physician

Albert Schweitzer and Music

Albert Schweitzer plays J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F minor, BWV 639

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

W.A. Mozart: Così fan tutte

Barbara Frittoli (Fiordigili), Angelika Kirchschlager, Bo Skovhus (Guglielmo), Michael Schade (Ferrando), Monica Bacelli (Despina), Allesandro Corbelli (Don Alfonso)
Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Riccardo Muti
Stage Director: Roberto de Simone
Video Director: Brian Large
Medici Arts 2072368 (2 DVD – 187 min)
***** $$$$

Opera on DVD went from strength to strength during the past year. There have been a number of sensational new works on the medium and chart-topping productions of standard repertory. This 1996 staging from Vienna’s historic Theater an der Wien can be safely recommended as a first choice for both seasoned collectors and newcomers to the work. With an excellent cast of motivated soloists, superb conducting from Muti, marvelous sets (Mauro Carosi), gorgeous costumes (Odette Nicoletti) and musically informed stage direction, this is the version to have and to return to. In every respect it surpasses Muti’s 1989 Milan performance (Opus Arte/Scala).

Così fan tutte was the third Mozart collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte. Like Don Giovanni, it is designated as a Dramma giocoso but the opening credits proclaim ‘Opera buffa’ in the manner of Figaro. Buffa is presumably what director Roberto de Simone had in mind for this production. His Così presents split-second comic timing fully integrated with the score. The hapless couples (Barbara Frittoli, Angelika Kirchschlager, Bo Skovhus and our own Michael Schade) enter the fray with enthusiasm while the fulcrum of trickery and deceit is provided by Monica Bocelli and Allesandro Corbelli. The director exploits the intimate stage-frame of the Theater an der Wien while the 18th century Neapolitan landscapes of Jacob Philipp Hackert are adapted very effectively to provide sumptuous backdrops. Swift, stylish and constantly amusing, this production exemplifies the definition of opera as, “The ultimate art.”

- Stephen Habington

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Bach: The Masterworks

Artistes variés
Brilliant Classics 93668 (40 CD, env. 42 heures)
*** $$$$

À environ trois dollars le disque, taxes incluses, voilà une véritable aubaine. À ce prix le coffret ne contient pas de livret, mais les pochettes individuelles donnent une information de base et le boîtier, une « table des matières ». La présentation est logique (successivement: œuvres pour orchestre, musique pour claviers, musique de chambre, musique vocale) et le choix des œuvres, assez judicieux. Mais on s’interroge quand même : pourquoi sept disques de cantates ET les deux Passions (entre autres œuvres vocales) mais pas la Messe en si mineur ? Et pourquoi tant de musique pour clavecin et orgue mais pas l’Art de la fugue ? Au moins peut-on écouter les œuvres en format intégral, cela console un peu… Les enregistrements (réalisés entre 1987 et 2006) font majoritairement appel aux instruments d’époque et leur qualité sonore est tout à fait acceptable. En ce qui a trait à l’interprétation, on est loin de la perfection : une trompette chancelante dans le second Brandebourgeois, des tempi ennuyants de régularité dans les Partitas pour clavecin, un archet mal maîtrisé dans les Sonates et Partitas pour violon, un florilège de trilles inhabituels dans la célèbre Toccate pour orgue, des prestations vocales honnêtes mais sans éclat, et, surtout, une erreur d’inversion des deux disques de Suites pour violoncelle (du moins dans le coffret reçu à La Scena). Mais le rapport qualité/prix reste bon et l'ensemble est très recommandable, surtout si vous lorgniez déjà en direction des gros coffrets.

- René Bricault

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Folk Mass

Mark O’Connor, violon ; Elizabeth C. Patterson ; Gloriæ Dei Cantores
OMAC - 10 (57 min 47 s)
**** $$$$

Mark O’Connor (né en 1961) est un violoniste « folk » américain (ce que nous, Québécois, appellerions un « violoneux ») aussi amateur de reels et de rigodons du type bluegrass, que de concertos, de musique de chambre et de collaborations avec les artistes classiques les plus en vue aux États-Unis (Yo-Yo Ma et Joshua Bell, entre autres). Ce touche-à-tout souvent inspiré a écrit il y a quelques années un concerto pour fiddler (violoneux) et orchestre qui constitue désormais une œuvre-phare du répertoire appelé à rapprocher les cultures « savante » et « populaire » chez nos voisins du Sud. L’œuvre présentée ici vise le même noble objectif dans le domaine sacré. Extraits de l’Ancien Testament, les textes évoquent le voyage jalonné de conflits, de douleur et d’adversité du peuple juif, depuis le premier appel de Yahvé jusqu’à la rédemption finale. O’Connor est ici plus austère que dans ses œuvres précédentes, mêlant non sans intelligence les mélodies populaires aux allusions polyphoniques ou grégoriennes. Le résultat, certainement moins populiste que ses précédents opus, est également une œuvre plus raffinée et plus exigeante, baignant dans des harmonies d’une grande beauté.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Today's Birthday in Music: January 13 (Flórez)

1973 - Juan Diego Flórez, Lima, Peru; opera tenor

Official website

Juan Diego Flórez sings:

"Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête" from Donizetti's La fille du régiment (Metropolitan Opera, 2008)

"A te o cara" from Bellini's I Puritani (with Mariola Cantarero as Elvira; Las Palmas, 2004)

"J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (2004)

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Four Last Songs

Renée Fleming, soprano; Münichen Philharmoniker / Christian Thielemann
Decca 4780647 (56 min 16 s)
**** $$$

Renée Fleming recorded Vier letzte Lieder for the first time for RCA in 1995, with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Houston forces. This recording is still in the catalogue for good reason – it is one of the most glorious pieces of singing of this song cycle one is likely to encounter. Now we have a second version from Ms. Fleming, with Christian Thielemann and the Munich forces. However fine the Houston Symphony under Eschenbach is, it cannot seriously challenge the supremacy of the Münchner Philharmoniker in this repertoire, especially with Thielemann at the helm. Fleming is in great form – her rich, opulent voice with an impressive top is beautifully captured on microphone. Now with years of experience performing this cycle, all the stars are seemingly aligned for a desert-island Four Last Songs. So I am sorry to say that her second Four Last Songs consists of beautiful singing marred by some self-indulgent mannerisms. The lovely legato in “Fruhling” is compromised by her impulse to emphasize certain words, such as a ludicrous “zittert.” When she refrains from over-acting, the singing is wonderful, as in “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Im Abendrot.” “Ein Schönes war” is truly gorgeous but “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne is too low for her. More congenial is the high tessitura of “Zweite Brautnacht” from Die Aegyptische Helena, rising to a C sharp. These quibbles aside, this disc will prove highly enjoyable for her legions of fans.

- Joseph K. So

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Zubin Mehta Los Angeles Philharmonic: Dvořák/Mozart/Bartók

Los Angeles Philharmonic / Zubin Mehta
Euroarts DVD 2072248 (110 min)
**** $

This is another release from the vaults of Unitel, the Munich-based company that spent a small fortune making classical music films in the 1970s. Karajan and Bernstein were featured in dozens of films but other conductors such as Böhm, Abbado and Solti also appeared. Most of these productions were initially released on VHS years ago but only recently have they made their way to DVD. Deutsche Grammophon has been issuing the bulk of the Unitel catalogue but other companies are issuing those passed on.

The Mehta release documents an important stage in this conductor’s career. Mehta was twenty-six when he became conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and he stayed for seventeen years, growing into a major conductor. These performances were recorded in 1977 in concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Mehta left the following year to take over the New York Philharmonic. Kirk Browning of Live from Lincoln Center was the producer and RCA veteran Max Wilcox was the sound engineer and their work is first-rate.

There are two major works: Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. The orchestra plays superbly and Mehta is at his charismatic best. He could pass for either a Hollywood or a Bollywood film star playing a great conductor. Fortunately, he was also a great musician. From these same concerts there are two shorter Dvořák pieces and Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with the LAPO’s principal bassoonist as soloist.

- Paul E. Robinson

Buy this CD at

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Bruckner, Wagner: Symphony No. 9, Siegfried-Idyll

The Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra / Bruno Walter
Music & Arts CD-1212(1) (67 min 16 s)
** $$$

Quel mauvais enregistrement : la prise de son trahit ses cinquante ans passés, les bruits émanant du public sont très gênants, les erreurs de synchronisation et de justesse écorchent l'oreille. Mais ce disque n'est pas seulement un document d'archives historico-musicologique. En effet, Walter donne ici, malgré tous ces défauts, une solide leçon de direction. Son approche n'est ni exagérément subjective ni trop technique. Il fait simplement de la musique – en toute honnêteté, et avec naturel. À une époque où l'orchestre symphonique est au cœur de l'expérience du concert, on sent les musiciens à l'aise dans leur rôle de professionnels. Comme quoi les réputations ne sont pas toujours surfaites, même si les figures mythiques poussent parfois les producteurs à commercialiser ce qui ne devrait pas l'être.

- René Bricault

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Today's Birthday in Music: January 12 (Wolf-Ferrari)

1876 - Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Venice, Italy; composer

Ermanno-Wolf Ferrari website

Renata Scotto sings "O gioia le nube leggera" from Il segreto di Susanna (1980 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra under John Pritchard)

Tito Gobbi sings "Aprile o bella" from I gioielli della Madonna (1954 recording)

Concertino for bassoon, 2 horns and strings, 1st mvt. (Jim Morgan, bassoon, with the RI Community Orchestra, John Eells conducting; 2003)

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bach: Violin Concertos in A minor and E major; Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev
DGG 4777450 (63 min 47 s)
**** $$$

Anne-Sophie Mutter souffle le chaud et le froid avec ce disque, porteur de tensions stylistiques et interprétatives extrêmes dans son contenu: deux « magnum opus » du grand JSB, suivis d’une œuvre contemporaine sans compromis de la Russe Sofia Gubaïdulina. Mutter attaque les concertos de Bach avec beaucoup de retenue, trop même. Sa lecture est extrêmement polie, voire poncée jusqu’à élimination presque totale de la fantaisie qui illumine l’humanité intrinsèque de Bach. Au contraire, son violon sauvage et déchaîné dans In tempus praesens de Gubaïdulina transporte l'auditeur dans l'apocalypse. Ici Mutter, passionnée qu'elle est par cette musique si intransigeante, abandonne toute réserve et s’affirme comme l’une des grandes interprètes du violon contemporain. Soit, on devine parfois longtemps à l’avance où mèneront, ici les entrées de l’orchestre, là les soliloques de la soliste, là encore les déchirements de cuivres. Ce type d'oeuvre est devenu bien prévisible. Mais cela n’enlève rien à son excellence, ni à celle de tous les musiciens qui l’expriment ici haut et fort.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Brahms: Symphony No. 4

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Marek Janowski
PentaTone PTC 5186 309 Hybrid SACD (57 min 01 s)
***** $$$$

Let’s make this official and unequivocal. With this concluding issue in the Janowski/Pittsburgh Brahms symphony cycle, we now have the best recordings of these works since the onset of the digital era. Here is an all-round collaborative triumph and full vindication of PentaTone’s policy of pursuing new performances of standard repertory. It is a mighty achievement. Think of Claudio Abbado and the BPO (DG), who turned out an excellent Brahms cycle until they stumbled with a congested Fourth. There are no errors in these live recordings from Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. Discriminating collectors starting with the present disc will not be able to live without the preceding two. This release presents performances of the highest artistic truth. The roster of musicians included in the booklet note is something to be grateful for; you will want to know who these people are. With this project, a great orchestra has gone through resurrection as a recording ensemble and a master conductor should now be recognized as such.
- Stephen Habington

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Messiaen: Chants de Terre et de Ciel

Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Laura Andriani, violon; Robert Kortgaard, piano
ATMA Classiques ACD2 2564
***** $$$

As musicians around the world celebrate Olivier Messiaen’s centenary birthday with an abundance of concerts and recordings, here we have a disc that showcases some of his lesser-known early works, composed in the first few years of his marriage to violinist and composer Claire Delbos before her eventual psychological decline. It is interesting to hear a different side of Messiaen; he is often associated with his later experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany and his innovative compositional techniques. This disc shows a young Messiaen growing into his own voice with works rooted in impressionism and traditional French lyricism, recalling such composers as Debussy and Poulenc. Although she specializes in 17th and 18th century repertoire, Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc inhabits these difficult works with ease, imbuing the lyrics with pure and exquisite tone. Seldom recorded, the dramatic cantata La Mort du nombre is one of the most interesting works on this disc, ranging from lyrical to dramatic. Written for piano, violin, soprano and tenor, the piece explores the theme of love between man and woman, human and god with lyrics written by Messiaen himself. He weaves a rich tonal tapestry, at times evoking Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. Tenor Lawrence Wilford lends a compelling voice, flowingly expressive with a large dramatic capacity. The young composer’s originality later blossomed into extraordinary vision.

- Hannah Rahimi

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Current: This isn’t silence

Artistes variés
Centrediscs CMCCD 12607 (56 min 50 s)
**** $$$

Dès les premières mesures, le compositeur canadien Brian Current expose son credo esthétique : appliquer les techniques révolutionnaires de Xenakis sur un matériau moins dissonant. Là où le célèbre Grec fait preuve d’une rigueur mathématique sophistiquée, Current est au contraire très ludique. Ne répugnant pas aux accords classés, voire aux bribes de cellules répétées à la Glass, ces morceaux pour orchestre font aussi penser par moments à de la musique de film. Mais qu’on ne s’y trompe pas : la violence et le muscle de Xenakis y sont, même s'ils font moins peur. L’interprétation et la qualité de l’enregistrement n’ajoutent ni n'ôtent quoi que ce soit aux oeuvres – si on a craint bien pire, on aurait souhaité mieux. En cette époque d'insensibilité fédérale à l'égard des artistes, on devrait s’intéresser davantage au travail de nos compatriotes. Voici un excellent candidat à considérer.

- René Bricault

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Met in HD: Puccini's La Rondine

Angela Gheorghiu as Magda in Metropolitan Opera's La Rondine

La Rondine, the "wall flower" among Puccini's operas, has barely a tenuous hold on the fringes of standard repertoire and for good reason. Others may disagree, but to my ears, this piece marks a low ebb in the composer's creative genius. Yes, it does have its moments, particularly the showpiece "Che il bel sogno di Doretta" and the splendid concertato in the Second Act, two genuinely inspired moments. But the rest of the piece does not really represent Puccini at his best, despite an occasional perfumy melody here and there. Also problematic is the rather thin, sugary plot where there is little action, particularly in Act One. The story bears some resemblance to La traviata except less developed, with elements of Strauss's Die Fledermaus thrown in for good measure. Frankly it pales in comparison to those two, far more successful operas. True, Puccini intended to write an operetta in the great Viennese tradition, complete with opulent setting, frothy melodies - but minus the spoken dialogue. In the end, the composer reverted back to the more conventional operatic form. There is even an alternate ending (to the one performed currently at the Met) where Magda dies. But either way, the end result does not measure up to some of Puccini's greatest creations, whether as an opera or operetta. It is no wonder that it has been absent from the Met stage since the 1930s.

The raison d'etre for the current production is Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Much like the Met Thais for American prima donna Renee Fleming, a production of Rondine can be successful as a diva vehicle. Gheorghiu has a particular affinity for this opera, having recorded it a decade ago and has previously sung it on stage. The Met spared no expenses in mounting a super-lavish production by Nicolas Joel to showcase the soprano. The decor is fin-de-siecle Art Nouveau, suitably French, with lovely imitations of Tiffany glass panels mixed in with splashes of early Deco. Some of the decor reminds me so much of the Franz von Stuck house (now a museum) in Munich I visited last summer! Some may criticize the Joel production for its rather cold aesthetics but overall it's really pleasing to the eye. The period costumes are uniformly gorgeous, the ones worn by Gheorghiu are particularly lovely, although the summer dress in Act Two with its uneven hemlines aren't terribly authentic.

As to the musical side of things - Peter Gelb went in front of the curtain to announce that Ms. Gheorghiu had a bad cold but didn't want to disappoint her fans so she consented to sing. Her first phrases were low, sounding uncomfortable in the chest voice. There wasn't much time before she had to sing the big aria, and it was clear that she wasn't sufficiently warmed up for "Che il bel sogno". With the big screen HD in Sheppard Grande, one could clearly see her working hard to get the saliva going to lubricate her throat for the aria. Other than a couple of pushed notes and a lack of high pianissimo singing, she did well under the circumstances. Her acting as Magda was endearing but not overdone, unlike Fleming's excessive posturing as Thais. Roberto Alagna was in acceptable voice, a little dry in spots and his forte top notes typically went sharp, but he was clearly enjoying himself as Ruggero, savouring the chance of singing with his wife. The two exhibited a dramatic and physical freedom with each other in art that is only possible (and probable) when such freedom extends to their personal lives as well. At one point, Alagna spontaneously kissed Gheorghiu's bosom - I ask you, when was the last time you see that happen between two singers onstage?!

The second couple were well taken by Marius Brenciu (Prunier) and Lisette Oropesa, suitably as - Lisette! The 2001 Cardiff winner Brenciu has a slender voice which he uses with taste and style, refraining from pushing it beyond its limits. Oropesa, who made her Met debut as Susanna in fall 2007 replacing a very pregnant Isabel Bayrakdarian, was a delicious Lisette, acting up a storm and her soubrette tailor-made for the part of the maid. The only superannuated singer onstage was Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo. His once impressive bass isn't what it used to be, and he wobbled his way through. But given the character of Rambaldo, this kind of imperfect vocalism actually adds to the role, and Ramey did well. Marco Armiliato deserves credit for treating the lightweight score with the respect of a work many times its status.

I saw it at my theatre of choice, the Sheppard Grande in North York. The facility was late opening this time. Given that the mostly elderly opera audience has a tendency to be early, the queue waiting to get in was extremely long by noon, and I heard quite a lot of grumbling. I spoke with Greg Buller, the theatre manager, who explained that he was short-staffed that day and for safety reasons he couldn't open the facilities any earlier. The transmission in Cinema #3 was perfect except for a few seconds worth of silence at the beginning of Act Three. The cinemas were as usual well maintained and spotless, no sticky floors anywhere that I was able to find. The service at the coffee-sandwich concessions continued to be on the slow side. Given that there are usually four or even five staff members behind the counter, service should be a lot more brisk. The washrooms had attendants stationed outside to take care of any special needs should they arose - a nice touch. The next show is the encore presentation of Damnation of Faust next Saturday, and the next new presentation is Orfeo ed Euridice on January 24.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 11 (Glière, Duruflé)

1875 - Reinhold Glière, Kiev, Ukraine; composer

Life and Work

Emma Dogliani sings Glière's Concerto for Coloratura Soprano, 1st mvt.

Glière's Horn Concerto, 3rd mvt. (Ionut Podgoreanu, horn; Ploiesti Symphony Orchestra, Romania; Ilarion Ionescu-Galati, conducting)

1902 - Maurice Duruflé, Louviers, France; composer, organist; arranger

Biography and pictures

Introit and Kyrie from Duruflé's Requiem (University Singers, Laura Artisani, organ; Dennis Cox conducting; University of Maine, 2008)

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