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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 2 October 2011


October 1, 2011

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Ann Southam: Soundings for a new piano
R. Andrew Lee, piano
Irritable Hedgehog Music IHM 002 (22 min 44 s)

Soundings for a new piano by Canadian composer Ann Southam is magnificent music! Subtitled “12 meditations on a twelve-tone row,” the work is an elaborate construction in the tradition of Schoenberg’s serial technique. However, Ann Southam demonstrates that she is more versatile than the Viennese master, creating an intensely poetic, vividly coloured and evocative piece of music. Listening to these twelve lively miniatures confirms that there really is Canadian contemporary music of the highest calibre. The only drawback of the work is that it lasts only 22 minutes and, as the only program on this recording, does not suffice to fill the disc. Frankly, we should have gotten more! The composer deserves better, especially when performed with the precision and sensitivity of R. Andrew Lee. Nevertheless, this CD is a good introduction to the musical world of this creative Canadian, who died in 2010. Éric Champagne

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 8 “Pathétique”,
17 “Tempest” & 23 “Appassionata”
Ingrid Fliter, piano
EMI 0945732 (72 min 47 s)

Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter has already given us some beautiful recordings of Chopin. Here, she tackles three of Beethoven’s most popular works. Her vision of the works is sound, her technique strong, and her playing fluid and convincing. She begins her “Pathétique” with depth and rhythmic strength. Her “Tempest” swirls and strikes with more incisiveness than many others on the market, and her “Appassionata” is full of vivid constrasts. This disc is certainly worth a listen. Frédéric Cardin

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 Op. 125 “Choral”
Edith Wiens, soprano; Ute Walter, mezzo soprano; Reiner Goldberg, tenor; Karl-Heinz Stryczek, baritone; Dresden State Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
Profil Hänssler CD PH11009 (71 min 42 s)

At the age of 83, Herbert Blomstedt has become one of those conductors whose lifetime of experience and knowledge guarantees enormous respect from orchestras everywhere. In short, he has become a living legend. This performance of the Beethoven Ninth only adds to the legend. Although the liner notes give us no information about when or where this performance was given, the applause at the end indicates that it was a live performance and as such, a remarkable document.
Blomstedt is in the great tradition of Beethoven conducting from Weingartner through Busch, Böhm and Karajan. This Ninth, meticulously prepared, is tremendously exciting. The climax at the recapitulation in the first movement is appropriately apocalyptic, and so too is the finale. Tempi are brisk without being rushed. And there is plenty of time for expressive phrasing in the slow movement.
The Dresden State Opera Chorus sounds magnificent in the finale and the soloists led by Canadian soprano Edith Wiens are very good. This performance belongs with the very best the work has ever had on records.
Paul E. Robinson

Couperin: Concerts Royaux
Bruce Haynes, oboe; Arthur Haas, harpsichord; Susie Napper, viola da gamba
ATMA Classique ACD2 2168 (57 min 43 s)

This disc is a reissue of an album released in 1999 in honour of Bruce Haynes, instrument maker, musician, musicologist, teacher, editor and writer, who died, too soon, a few months ago. The assured elegance of Haynes’s playing still strikes home, and his passion and profound respect for the music are audible throughout the recording. Both Arthur Haas on harpsichord and Susie Napper (his wife) on viola da gamba are intimately connected with the soloist’s vision. Bruce Haynes’s contribution to the vitality and appreciation of the Baroque musical repertoire, as well as to the whole context of this rich historical period of human and artistic growth, has yet to be fully measured. Fortunately, thanks to productions like this one, his memory will be preserved and nurtured. Frédéric Cardin

Daniel Janke: Cinco Puntos Cardinales
Mark Fewer, violin, Daniel Janke, prepared piano;
Coro in Limine
Centrediscs CMCCD 16911 (34 min 23 s)

Included in this new Centrediscs release is music composed by Daniel Janke for Yvonne von Mollendorff’s 2002 choreographic work, created in Lima, Peru. Electroacoustic sequences and pieces for varied instrumental ensembles have been added to the original music created for this project (including some works for solo violin and others for male voices). Despite its brevity, the resulting audio mix and wide variety of styles is most interesting. The passages for solo violin are particularly compelling: simple and refined, they transport us to unexpected depths of meditation and contemplation. It is hard to imagine how this music accompanies the dance without having seen it. However, when listened to for itself, this musical work proves to be not only highly entertaining (the Grand Waltz is a good example), but also thoughtful, imaginative, and inspiring. A very fine accomplishment.
Éric Champagne

Dvořák: Symphonic Variations - Symphony No. 8
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
LPO - 0055 (CD: 60 min 21 s)

Australian conductor Charles Mackerras’s affinity for Czech music made him an internationally admired proponent of Janacek, Smetana, and Dvořák. This 1992 performance, recorded live before a London audience, is proof of his expertise. This is especially true for the Symphony, for the Symphonic Variations seem less lively, although quite genuine. This Eighth seems to achieve emotional depth almost effortlessly. The conductor sets the London Philharmonic Orchestra ablaze, but the sound recording of the more powerful passages leaves much to be desired. Mackerras’s performance of the Eighth with the Prague Symphony Orchestra was better (Supraphon, 2005). Mackerras’s refusal to use any effects demonstrates his mastery of the fine art of transition. In this work, rhythmic and melodic contrasts abound. This was one of the greatest interpretations of what might be this composer’s finest symphony. Alexandre Lazaridès

Jadin: String Quartets Op. 1
Quatuor Franz Joseph
ATMA Classique ACD2 2610 (65 min 17 s)

Child prodigy Hyacinthe Jadin (1776-1800) is little known today, even though his short life (ended by tuberculosis) and even shorter career produced several works that had a marked influence on the development of French music, significantly contributing to the emerging Romantic period. Before his death at 24, Jadin wrote no less than three piano concertos, a dozen string quartets, some trios, and several sonatas. This young man showed amazing depth of character and inspiration. The Quatuor Franz Joseph is perfectly assured in its reading of the three opuses presented here, the first three of Jadin’s cycle of twelve. The members of the Montreal-based ensemble offer a decisive interpretation of this extremely rich repertoire, which was waiting for just such virtuosity to be fittingly revived. Surprisingly, it is the first (in B flat major) which is the most dramatic. The other two are lighter and friendlier and are definitely worthy of mention. We cannot dismiss Haydn’s strong influence, but the dramatic power of certain passages shows that Jadin was about to take French music into a completely different range. What a pity that he did not have the time to realize this vision. Frédéric Cardin

Les Caractères de la Danse
La Tour Duo Baroque (Tim Blackmore, recorders, harpsichord; Michel Cardin, lute, baroque lute)
LT1-11CD Tower (72 min 51 s)

On this disc, the Duo Baroque La Tour offers us an interesting program of pre-Baroque music composed before the eighteenth century. Works by composers as diverse as Gabrieli, Van Eyck, Couperin, Corelli, and Hotteterre Rebel, among others, help us discover a part of the large recorder repertoire, as well as the numerous dances written for the instrument. The whole is interspersed with harpsichord and theorbo solos. This variety, both instrumental and in the choice of works, serves the musicians’ purpose admirably. There is no room for boredom! Overall, it emanates a quiet sense of reverence. Michel Cardin allows himself a few liberties in adapting Pachelbel’s Canon and “Greensleeves” for the Baroque lute. These well-known pieces seem revitalized by the instrument’s deep resonance. One of the disc’s finest moments is the interpretation of Corelli’s Tenth Sonata from Op. 5, originally written for violin and basso continuo. The recorder and theorbo are well suited to this beautiful and unpretentious music. Emotion and musicality are in store throughout this excellent disc. René François Auclair

Mathieu Lussier: Passages
Pentaèdre Wind Quintet; Claudia Schaetzle, alto saxophone; Fraser Jackson, contrabassoon; Louise Lessard, piano
ATMA Classique ACD2 2657 (71 min 39 s)

A very busy musician on the Québec music scene (Arion, Les Violons du Roy, Pentaèdre ...), bassoonist Mathieu Lussier has been actively composing for the last fifteen years. Naturally, the bassoon and wind instruments are the focus of his interest. For the first time, in Passages Mathieu Lussier brings together a full program of his musical compositions, performed here by his Pentaèdre Wind Quintet colleagues and other guest musicians. With its tonal language and classical aesthetics, his works are light years away from the avant-garde! However, some parts have a quaint, generous lyricism, evoking chamber music of the nineteenth century. The quality of writing is there, but his music is still very traditional, and sometimes a little too restrained (one would rather the Bacchanal were more orgiastic). The magnificent Sextuor is worth a mention: it is much more passionate, and its final variations are captivating. An enjoyable disc, flawlessly interpreted, which will appeal to lovers of wind instruments and chamber music. Éric Champagne

Martha Argerich and Friends: Live from the Lugano Festival
Martha Argerich, piano; various artists
EMI Classics 50999 0 70836 2 4 (CD1: 80 min 33 s; CD2: 80 min 38 s; CD3: 78 min 53 s)

The Martha Argerich Project has been an integral part of the Lugano Festival for some years now. This annual June festival brings together the pianist’s friends for some memorable moments and brilliant performances, immortalized in boxed sets like this one. Is it a best-of? No, it’s just a taste. There are few flops (those probably didn’t make it into the compilation), but there are some awkward moments. The Argerich-Rivera duet struggles painfully through Liszt’s Les Préludes. But with so many pure, graceful moments, any shortcomings are quickly forgotten. Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 is stunningly executed by Argerich. She is at one with the concerto; the public and orchestra hold their breath. Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion played by Argerich, Kovacevic, and two percussionists is glorified by an entrancing musical duel that verges on savagery, rising to a joyful crescendo: simply sublime. Two little-known piano and string quintets captivate. Korngold and Granados find themselves elevated to the ranks of major composers by the talented performers and friends of the queen of piano. The list could go on and on. This album is a vital addition to your collection that you will cherish forever. Normand Babin

Mozart & me, Piano Works
Lucille Chung, piano
XXI XXI-CD 2 1732 (65 min 49 s)

Montreal-born pianist Lucille Chung explains her vision of Mozart’s works in this new recording’s programme notes—how she has been devoted to this music since childhood and why this corpus is important for her. Chung’s Mozart is joyful, tender and accessible. She forgets perhaps that the Viennese composer was also known for his eccentricities and escapades and there is no doubt that Mozart finally became an adult, going through somber periods, both compositionally and personally. The whole album exudes freshness, innocence, honesty and propriety. In other words, it desperately lacks spirit, passion and audacity. The pianist chose a little-known repertoire that doesn’t necessarily deserve being brought back into the limelight. The performance of three Mozart pieces transcribed by Liszt ending the programme is extremely disappointing. Imagine a Confutatis extracted from an all too pretty Requiem, an Ave verum corpus that sounds like a music box. Yes, Lucille Chung is technically very talented, but her image of Mozart does not seem to have changed since childhood. Normand Babin

Per la Vergine Maria
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Naïve OP 30505 (CD: 63 min)

This recording brings together liturgical choral works from the 17th and 18th centuries, including the most well-known Latin Marian texts—in particular the Magnificat and the Salva Regina—by Monteverdi, Bencini, Melani, Soler, A. Scarlatti, and Carissimi. The only exception in time period and tone is Stravinsky’s very brief Ave Maria. The choir, accustomed to these kinds of pieces, is made up of nine singers and supported by two theorbos and an organ. Alessandrini’s conducting is careful, as usual, though in this case suitably unceremonious, cultivating the mundane side of these compositions. This isn’t such a paradox, given that the Catholic Church intended these pieces to be edifying. With Melani’s nine-voice Salve Regina, listeners are transported to the opera, not surprising since the Concerto Italiano founder has conducted many operas in recent years. On the other hand, the anticipated spiritual elevation of Monteverdi’s six-voice Litanies is missing. Despite some reservations, this CD makes for some interesting comparisons. Alexandre Lazaridès

Schubert String Quartet in G Major, D. 887; Beethoven String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135
New Orford String Quartet (Jonathan Crow, Andrew Wan, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola; Brian Manker, cello)
Bridge 9363 (CD: 74 min 57 s)

The quartet formation is one of the most difficult to perfect. There needs to be a harmony which, as a general rule, is the fruit of many hours of collaborative work. The dialogue between the voices seeking instrumental fusion must respect the text and the personalities—an almost paradoxical undertaking which explains why eminent soloists, gathered together around a chamber score, have not always managed to get along. The New Orford String Quartet, made up of respected Canadian instrumentalists, was formed two years ago, but this recording’s ambitious programme needed a more experienced ensemble. Their approach, too cautious, has the major inconvenience of stalling the momentum of these famous pages, with intonations that are often uncertain, phrases too hesitant, and rhythms lacking confidence. These performances of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s last quartets simply fall flat. Alexandre Lazaridès

Lucerne Festival Academy: Webern, Stravinsky, Mahler
Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Accentus Music ACC30230 (1 h 54 min)

It must be said, Boulez knows how to stay the course, even at the venerable age of 85. His Mahler’s Sixth seems almost impossible to distinguish from his superb 1995 version with the Vienna Philharmonic, especially from the point of view of tempo and phrasing. What it lacks in fluidity and intensity (albeit only slightly), the sense of colour gains in refinement. Colour: here is the word of the day, as shown by his dazzling Stravinsky (Le Chant du Rossignol in its all too rare form of symphonic poem) and his irreproachable Webern. His longstanding respect for the latter propels Boulez to the heights of musical maturity, to the point where Passacaille Op. 1 becomes as accessible as Im Sommerwind, and the dodecaphonic Variations Op. 30 takes on a totally “classical” allure. Optimal listening conditions are required for music of such extreme dynamic contrasts. René Bricault


Somers: Louis Riel
Bernard Turgeon (Riel), Patricia Rideout (Julie), Mary Morrison (Sara), Roxolana Roslak (Marguerite), Donald Rutherford (Sir John A. MacDonald), Joseph Rouleau (Bishop Taché); Victor Feldbrill, conductor
Centrediscs CMCDVD 16711 (126 min 26 s)

Considered the definitive Canadian opera, Louis Riel, composed by Harry Somers with a libretto by Mavor Moore, was premiered by the COC in the fall of 1967 at the O’Keefe Centre and Place des Arts on the occasion of the Canadian Centennial. It was revived in 1975, with performances in Toronto, Ottawa and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Since then, the only other revival was at Opera McGill in 2005. An audio recording of the Kennedy Center performance was issued in 1985, but no video was ever made available until now. This release was filmed for CBC TV in 1969, with a largely identical cast, produced by Franz Krämer and directed by Leon Major. No information on the orchestra is found anywhere in the booklet, except the conductor is noted as Victor Feldbrill, who also conducted the premiere. Composer Harry Somers’ distinctive musical idiom is very much in evidence, with very sparse and percussive orchestration, an austere style that was popular at the time of composition. The large cast boasts many of Canada’s best singers, all in their prime, with Bernard Turgeon giving a particularly fine account of the title role. Roxolana Roslak plays his wife Marguerite, singing the vocally challenging lullaby, Kuyas. The late mezzo Patricia Rideout plays Riel’s mother in a memorable performance. (If I were to nitpick, she looks much too young to be Turgeon’s mother.) A very youthful looking Joseph Rouleau is excellent as Bishop Taché, and it’s good to have Mary Morrison, who is underrepresented on video, as Riel’s sister. Filmed in a television studio, the videography now appears rather dated. The film lacks the spaciousness of an opera stage; as a result the impact of the larger-scaled scenes is rather diminished. One misses the subtitles that opera audiences take for granted nowadays. The accompanying booklet has a very informative essay by Andrew Zinck. However, no mention is made that this is a TV film, nor is there one word of updated information. There’s also an embarrassing video editing error in Mavor Moore’s introduction under Extra Features. Despite these flaws, this is an important and long awaited release of a significant chapter in Canadian opera history. Joseph K. So


The Empty Voice: Acting Opera
By Leon Major with Michael Laing
Milwaukee, WI: Amadeus Press 2011 (224 pp.)
ISBN: 978-1-57467-195-7
“Prima la voce” was for decades the battle cry of opera fans, by and large accepting overweight divas and divos with their wooden acting as long as they sounded great. With the advent of DVDs and opera at the movies with their close-ups, however, the pressure has been on for singers to look good and be believable on stage. Long-time stage director Leon Major has written a succinct volume, sort of a primer for aspiring opera singers on how to inject life into the characters they portray. Major is well known to Toronto audiences for his productions at the COC and masterclasses at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is currently artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio. In this volume, Major offers advice to singers on how to break down a scene, to find “character clues” in the libretto and the music, to make sense of the action, and to present a character (and a production) to the audience that is coherent and convincing. In six slim chapters, Major analyses the characters and dramatic situations in Le nozze di Figaro, L’incoronazione di Poppea, La traviata, Falstaff, L’italiana in Algeri, Faust, Xerxes, Don Pasquale, and Eugene Onegin, offering suggestions on how to make these works come to life on stage, above and beyond their inherent musical values. It’s fair to say that acting, like singing, can’t really be learned from a textbook—it needs actual practice in the studio or on stage. That being said, this volume is useful, nevertheless, in articulating on paper the main ideas on acting opera, and it serves to inform and benefit beginning opera students. This is not meant to be a coffee table book—there are only eight full-page, black and white photos, mostly from the Maryland Opera Studio. There is also a handy, but by no means comprehensive, glossary of musical terms. Overall a modest but useful book that fills the void on acting in opera. Joseph K. So

Translations from French: Lindsay Gallimore, Aleshia Jensen & Lynn Travers

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