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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 3


November 1, 2011

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Aldridge: Elmer Gantry
Florentine Opera Company; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/William Boggs
Naxos (2CD) 8.669032-33 (2 h 21 min 38 s)

One wonders why record companies still insist on producing opera recordings when a production is much more interesting to watch on DVD. This is what comes to mind when listening to this particular Elmer Gantry (from the eponymous novel by Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize), especially as it is a live recording and the audience’s reactions suggest that it was an entertaining creation. Furthermore, visuals might have given us a fuller understanding of this rich and detailed libretto. We are left with only the music, which is frankly traditional, along the lines of Gershwin, Copland, and Floyd. Far from revolutionizing the genre, Robert Aldridge’s score is nonetheless colorful and appropriate to the theatre. The various traditional religious hymns and gospel songs are so compelling that one must admire the composer’s skill in juggling with these musical idioms of a bygone America. A good voice cast and orchestra are well blended. While not a must, this opera will appeal to those interested in the American repertoire or who are eager to hear a work rich in historical references. Éric Champagne

Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18, No. 3 and No. 5 and Op. 135
Artemis Quartet (Natalia Prischepenko, Gregor Sigl, violin; Friedemann Weigle, viola; Eckart Runge, cello)
Virgin Classics 50999 0708342 6 (78 min 34 s)

As is the case with the previous volume in their series of Beethoven’s complete works, one can admire Artemis’ mastery of technique without subscribing to its overly spectacular concept of Beethoven’s string quartets. The performance of the last movement of Quartet No. 3 (“Presto”) is similar to that of Prazak—a comparison that does it no favours. Despite Artemis’ stunning performance—not without certain moments of confusion, due in part to reverberation on the recording—the Prazak Quartet, without taking away from the brio of the piece, takes the time to give it meaning and strength, with a clarity of instrumental dialogue and awareness of the melodic line that its rival doesn’t possess to the same extent. As for the last Quartet, Op. 135, it is full of joy— or of suffering, depending on the listener’s point of view—characteristic of the German ensemble’s approach. Alexandre Lazaridès

Beethoven: 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli in C major, Op. 120
Beth Levin, piano
Centaur CRC3046 (69 min 38 s)

Though not mentioned in the booklet, this is a live performance of Beethoven’s renowned “Diabelli” Variations. The tiny, very noisy audience (of friends or students, perhaps?) makes it difficult to hear the piece. However, Beth Levin’s courage is commendable. With just one chance to get the difficult parts right, she plays the whole without a single false note. She is nervous at the start and it shows: for the first few pages, her hands are unsynchronized and the sound is slightly too harsh. Despite her good intentions and obvious respect for the piece, Levin doesn’t manage a convincing performance. The tempi are all too slow, draining the virtuosity of the works altogether and, even worse, the rhythmic beat all but disappears in some of the slower movements. In addition, the American pianist’s technique is not always up to the task, the trills are colourless and the main themes often under-emphasized. Lastly, the main disadvantage of a live recording is submitting the listener to a piano that goes out of tune after the first third of the long suite of variations. Normand Babin

Brahms: Symphony No. 3 Op. 90 – Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 Op. 74 “Pathétique”
Novaya Rossiya State Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Bashmet
ICA Classics ICAC 5023 (81 min 28 s)

Yuri Bashmet is well known as a viola soloist but, at least in Russia, he spends much of his time conducting. He has been conductor of the Novaya Rossiya (New Russia) Symphony Orchestra for the past ten years. On the basis of these performances he is one of the most compelling musicians to mount a podium in the past quarter century. While one may take issue with some interpretative choices—the huge crescendo in the brass in the opening bars of the Brahms, for example—there is never any doubt that a powerful creative imagination is at the helm.
The writer of the liner notes (David Nice) keeps invoking Evgeny Mravinsky for comparison, yet I was reminded of Furtwängler. It is not just the tempo fluctuation; it is also the energy and precision in the playing. While Bashmet conducts Brahms with heart and soul and great passion, there is also a beauty of phrasing that is exceptional.
The Tchaikovsky is thrilling in its intensity with supercharged trombones at the climax of the first movement. I look forward to more, much more, from conductor Yuri Bashmet. Paul E. Robinson

Capricho Latino
Rachel Barton Pine, violon
Cedille 125 (79 min 11 s)

Discs dedicated to the repertoire for solo violin are few; rarer still are discs of Latin works for solo violin! Rachel Barton Pine loves exploring the untrodden paths of concert music, a source of pleasure for the enquiring music lover, and what’s more, she does it with great passion and conviction. Featured on this disc are familiar composers such Albéniz (Asturias, in a very successful arrangement), Rodrigo (“Presto” excerpt from Capriccio), Piazzolla (Tango Etude No. 3), and Tarrega (Recuerdos de la Alhambra), as well as others, somewhat more obscure, such as Espejo (Iberian Prelude), White (Etude No. 6), or the contemporary Ridout (Ferdinand the Bull). It would take too long to comment on every piece of this extensive program, but, suffice to say, each is performed with panache by Ms. Pine and all would be of interest to the informed music lover. Frédéric Cardin

Concord Chamber Music Society: Brubeck, Gandolfi, Foss
Concord Chamber Music Society
Reference Recordings RR-122 (63 min 30 s)

The Concord Chamber Music Society presents three contemporary American works, in a decidedly consonant and accessible aesthetic. Though the work of Michael Gandolfi (Line Drawings, for clarinet, violin, and piano) seems to be the most complex compositionally, it is interesting and very catchy nonetheless. Chris Brubeck (son of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck) offers up a delightful blend of classically structured Latin rhythms. Written for six musicians, Danza del Soul is an accomplished work, consistent and a pleasure to listen to. The fun continues with the last recording on the disc, Lukas Foss’s Central Park Reel for violin and piano. Yes, this is indeed a reel, but far from being folksy, the piece has some surprising changes, always holding the listener’s attention and even raising a smile here and there. The musicians are of the highest calibre (some are members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra!) and their performance is both polished and riveting. An appealing and entertaining disc. Éric Champagne

Debussy: Orchestral Works Volume 6 (Suite bergamasque/Petite Suite/En blanc et noir/Printemps/Symphony in B minor)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.572583 (74 min 21 s)

The sixth and presumably last volume in this series contains orchestral transcriptions of piano pieces, some done by Debussy’s colleagues and others in our own time. The Suite bergamasque in four movements is one of the composer’s most accessible works and includes the ever-popular “Clair de lune.” But it well deserves its popularity and one could hardly imagine a more accurate orchestration than the one given it here by Andre Caplet. Similarly, Henri Büsser’s orchestration of the Petite suite captures perfectly the music’s evocative charm.
It is also Büsser who orchestrated Debussy’s more impressionistic Printemps, and again he finds the ideal range of subtle colours. En blanc et noir is a far stranger set of pieces, and Robin Holloway’s 2002 orchestration underscores that strangeness. I suspect that Caplet or Büsser would have softened the edges.
Finally, we have Debussy’s very early attempt at a symphony. He was 18 when he started on it. He got as far as writing most of a first movement for piano duet then gave it up. Tony Finno has done the recent orchestration. His work adds to our understanding of Debussy but fails to convince us that this is a neglected masterpiece. The performances throughout the CD are merely adequate. Paul E. Robinson

Echoes: Classic Works Transformed
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.559676 (53 min 41 s)

The idea was entertaining—ask contemporary composers to use their imagination to transform a work from the classical repertoire. However, the result is rather uneven. Some composers limited themselves to creating orchestrations that were fairly tame (like the Intermezzo by Brahms chosen by Bright Sheng) or somewhat flavourless arrangements (like the Concerto Grosso by Handel arranged by conductor Gerard Schwarz). Perhaps the most disappointing is a piece by Aaron Jay Kernis, an orchestration of his own string quartet—not bad, but not exactly a classic revisited. Was the concept explained to him properly? Despite all of this, certain pieces stand out. David Stock offers his vision of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary with a surprising mastery of orchestral effects and John Harbison brings us a symphonic rendition of the famous “Ruby, My Dear” by Thelonius Monk. Though a bit subdued, the rendition brings a certain class and touching elegance to this charming music. The highlight of the project is probably David Schiff’s Infernal, a jazzy version of “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s Firebird that has the benefit of being as original as it is interesting. Éric Champagne

Elgar: In the South – Introduction and Allegro – Enigma Variations
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR)/Roger Norrington
Hänssler Classic CD 93.191 (70 min 16 s)

Norrington has been in charge of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony since 1998. By all accounts his regime has been a memorable one. His legacy there is by now well documented on Hänssler Classics through a wide-ranging repertoire. Music lovers brought up on the Boult Elgar recordings will likely find Norrington’s Elgar much more robust. Norrington is not shy about giving full weight to Elgar’s brass and percussion parts. The sound perspective, probably due to the recording, gives very short shrift to the strings. The opening of In the South has never sounded so Straussian in my experience. But Norrington wrings every last drop of sadness from the episode with the viola solo, too.
The Introduction and Allegro shows off the excellent Stuttgart strings although once again the engineers don’t give them much warmth or depth. The Enigma Variations is impressive for its vivid characterizations of the personages portrayed. Paul E. Robinson

Ferrara: Fantasia Tragica; Tempesta di Notte; Burlesca; Prelude
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
Naxos 8.572410 (46 min 41 s)

Franco Ferrara (1911-1985) was a teacher and orchestra conductor and also, apparently, a competent composer. Of course, the greatest example of an orchestra conductor whose written work was later rediscovered is Gustav Mahler. In recent years, however, scores by Furtwängler, Szell, and even Serebrier have also been revived. While Ferrara was not a famous conductor (illness prevented him from developing this talent, but he was much sought after as a private teacher), he nonetheless left his mark. His compositions are eminently enjoyable and accessible, while firmly rooted in the 20th century. The Fantasia Tragica builds slowly but inexorably to an emotionally charged conclusion and has quite an appealing melody. Other works on the program are reminiscent of Shostakovich, but lack the Russian composer’s vehemence. Frédéric Cardin

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 104, 101 & 88
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-02 0945732 (62 min 14 s)

The Philharmonia Baroque (San Francisco) is one of the finest ensembles devoted to early music, particularly the baroque. Nicholas McGegan knows how to energize the works under his baton. These symphonies by the mature “Papa” Haydn are no exception. Under McGegan’s spirited leadership, the woodwinds soar, the strings quiver, and Haydn’s melodies take a sprightly turn. The orchestra sometimes lacks the dynanism needed to give balance to the desired effect, especially in the finales, but the ensemble remains lively.
Frédéric Cardin

J. S. Bach and I. F. Biber: Sonatas
Evgeny Sviridov, violin, Zita Mikijanska, harpsichord
Genuin GEN 11 207 (CD: 65 min 46 s)

The German label Genuin has reserved the usual celebrity treatment for the winner of the Russian Bach International Competition, violin class, held in Leipzig in 2000. Due to the layout and typography on the CD cover, Sviridov’s name dominates the composers’. His accompanist, a talented Latvian, is not even mentioned. Listening to it, such coverage hardly seems justified. The two Bach sonatas (BWV 1016 and 1021) and the Third Partita are supremely difficult works, and are rendered faithfully; but the violinist’s performance lacks self-confidence. At times, the upper register seems imperfectly mastered (the close sound recording and acoustically live hall may have something to do with it). In the two ingenious Biber sonatas, Sviridov at last shows greater self-assurance. He is a promising talent, and, for that reason, he would be worth listening to again in a few years’ time. Alexandre Lazaridès

Max Reger: Four Sonatinas
John Newmark, piano
XXI-21 Productions XXI-CD 2 1691 (CD1: 41 min 15 s; CD2: 45 min 11 s)

Since its creation, XXI has been reissuing rare recordings, working to make them better known and allowing the listener to discover and rediscover composers that are less known but no less interesting. This time, it’s Bavarian composer Max Reger (1873-1916). Perhaps better known for his variations and fugues on the themes of Bach and Mozart, it is Reger’s short pieces for piano that show the full extent of his talent and immense sensitivity. Pianist John Newmark recorded these sonatinas by Reger in 1964 and, thanks to the team at XXI-21 Productions, this intense yet tender music is a delight for today’s music lovers. The box set of two CDs, simple and classic, won’t go unnoticed on the shelves. Francine Bélanger

René Maillard: Surviving after Hiroshima
Sarah Jouffroy, mezzo-soprano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dionysios Dervis-Bournias
Naxos 8.572623 (71 min)

The life of a composer is not easy: many give up faced with the instability of such a career. Charles Ives, for example, worked his whole life in the insurance business, only composing on his vacations and in his free time. French composer René Maillard, born in 1931, has a similar story, despite the promise of his early career. He won the Prix de Rome in 1955 and his work was even commissioned by the State. Nevertheless, he opted for a position as an executive for a pharmaceutical company before returning to music upon his retirement, after 40 years of silence. With its classic style, his music follows the French musical tradition, somewhere between Dukas and Dutilleux. The cantata Survivre à Hiroshima (Surviving after Hiroshima) is fraught with sensitivity, while the two orchestral pieces that complete the programme, Concerto grosso and Concerto da Camera no. 2, are lighter fare. An impressive mastery of the orchestration makes up for the simple, direct— and at times folk-like—musical ideas. Overall, the inspiration is sincere and holds the listener’s attention. Éric Champagne

Respighi: Aria for Strings/Violin Concerto in A major/Suite for Strings/Rossiniana
Laura Marzadori, violin; Chamber Orchestra of New York “Ottorino Respighi”/Salvatore Di Vittorio
Naxos 8.572332 (77 min 32 s)

Respighi composed over 200 pieces but he earned his place in history with just two works: The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome. The hodgepodge of early Respighi pieces on this new CD does little to enhance his reputation. Respighi later put together a fairly effective Rossini pastiche in La Boutique Fantasque but Rossiniana is not nearly on the same level. Among other qualities Rossini was known for writing catchy tunes and for being funny. Respighi seems to have found some of Rossini’s least inspired melodies and to have little sense of humour himself.
The other pieces are also more or less based on the work of other composers, most of them from the baroque period. They sound like student exercises. Both the Violin Concerto and the Suite for Strings were revised and completed by the conductor Salvatore Di Vittorio. Violinist Laura Marzadori struggles with intonation in the Violin Concerto and in the final movement the entire ensemble threatens to come apart. Elsewhere the orchestra plays fairly well but the conductor does little to make these pieces sound better than they are. Paul E. Robinson

Robert Moran: Trinity Requiem
Trinity Choir & Trinity Wall Street/Robert Ridgell
Innova 244 (66 min 8 s)

The music of American composer Robert Moran, associated with the minimalist movement (especially after a collaboration with Philip Glass), is characterized by its minimalist tonal tendencies and its sensitivity. His Trinity Requiem arrives just in time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. With remarkable serenity, this piece possesses the gentle aura of Fauré’s Requiem, while maintaining an eminently American tone. The programme is completed by two choral pieces that are emblematic of this composer’s work. A highlight is Seven Sounds Unseen for mixed a cappella choir. The masterful writing technique and melodic touch combine to create hypnotic and mesmerizing music, worthy of the Renaissance’s vocal masterpieces. There again, the minimalist approach and the simplicity of the sound hit the mark and touch the heart. The disc closes with a strange tribute to composer Philip Blackburn, who creates a remix of Trinity Requiem from various pre-recorded tracks. A curious idea, but the result is true to Moran. A nice record, at once calming and inspiring; a must for any fan of choral music. Éric Champagne

Schoenberg: A Chamber Symphony No. 1,
Op. 9/Suite, Op. 29
Zahir Ensemble/Juan García Rodríguez
Naxos 8.572442 (CD: 56 min 52 s)

Although written and conceived for fifteen instruments (five strings, eight woodwinds, and two brass), the Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1907) is presented in the transcription arranged by Webern for five instruments, with the piano replacing the instruments left behind. This transcription, lead with remarkable know-how and a profound understanding of the Opus 9, highlights the structure and the themes, but sacrifices the sonorities intended by Schoenberg, and maybe a bit of the iconoclastic spirit that drove him, while more or less preserving the principal of tonality. As for the Suite (1927), written for seven instruments (three strings, three woodwinds, and piano) and made up of four movements, it ironically subverts the suite of traditional dances, integrating jazz and popular music without the usual pitfalls of mixing genres. The Sevillian Zahir Ensemble, founded in 2005 by Rodríguez, champions this music with conviction, but something a bit livelier would have been preferable. Alexandre Lazaridès

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C “The Great”
Royal Flemish Philharmonic/Philippe Herreweghe.
Pentatone Classics PTC 5186372 (57min 49 s)

In 1926, after several failed attempts, Franz Schubert finally finished his “Great” symphony. At the time, it was judged too difficult to be played well. Since then, it has been recorded more than once by renowned orchestras. It is a majestic piece of regal proportions. Herreweghe, best known as a choral conductor and specialist in baroque music, has opted for a lighter approach: strings without vibrato, a smaller orchestra, and fast tempi. His signature is evident right from the start: the purity of the melodic lines, the clarity of the musical discourse, and the incisive attacks from the orchestra. The conductor leads the Royal Flemish Philharmonic with great energy and virtuosity. His aesthetic choices might please and surprise upon the first listening, but they might also disappoint those used to slower tempi and more general grandeur. Thus, certain passages seem to lack lyricism and warmth. The listener searches for drama and emotion in certain movements, but in vain. In the louder passages, the orchestra’s sonority at times becomes clamouring. Some false notes can be heard from the wind section. In the end, the result is disappointing despite the aesthetic qualities mentioned. For more depth, try Wand (RCA), Böhm (DG), or Blomstedt (BC). René François Auclair

Schumann: Requiem - Der Königssohn – Nachtlied
Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Adolph Seidel, baritone; Yorck Felix Speer, bass; Kammerchor Saarbrücken; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie; Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Georg Grün
Hänssler CD 93.270 (72 min 20 s)

This recording is an event in itself. Three little-known choral pieces by Schumann are lit up with panache and sensitivity in this recording that is nothing short of exceptional. Almost Mozart-like in its fatality, this Requiem, composed in 1852 (four years before the composer’s death) was never heard by Schumann. It is executed with ease and moderation, the Schumannian equivalent, one might say, of the same exercise accomplished by Fauré many years later. Here, Schumann seems to confide his soul to its inexorable destiny, a far cry from the devastating torment of his last years. This masterpiece of intimate spirituality is remarkably beautiful. The fact that it has been all but forgotten, even today, is totally incomprehensible. The ballad Königssohn (the king’s son), Op. 116, is from 1851 and in six movements tells the story of a king’s son who sets off penniless in search of a kingdom to conquer. Typically romantic, the unveiling of the hero’s destiny, of his courage and his success complete a kind of rite of passage characteristic of ancient tales. Schumann accompanies the text with music that is edifying and lyrical. Nachtlied, Op. 108, is a short piece for choir and orchestra, full of subtle colours and harmonic and vocal contours. Frédéric Cardin

Les Boréades/Francis Colpron
ATMA Classique ACD2 2658 (CD: 59 min)

Two precisions given by the programme notes explain this CD’s title: “Music for the Tabarin theatre” and “French instrumental dances and songs (1550-1650).” Here we have music for popular theatre: entertaining, certainly, but also critical of the social shortcomings of the time. Tabarin was the soul, and Molière didn’t miss seeing him for the forerunner and inspiration that he was. This is festive music too, recreated for us by Les Boréades, in top shape with their thirteen instrumentalists, under the attentive baton of Francis Colpron. Some thirty pieces, of which several have been adapted by the conductor, are signed by around fifteen more-or-less well-known composers. Playful and very rhythmic thanks to lively percussion, they all seem imprinted with nostalgia, even melancholy. This is particularly felt in the pieces reserved for strings alone, perhaps because of their husky tone. On the flute, Francis Colpron thrills with his masterful chirps and twitters. A real treat for the ears! Alexandre Lazaridès


Aaron Copland: Fanfare for America. A Film by Andreas Skipis
Arthaus Musik DVD 101 573 (60 min)

Copland is generally regarded as the man who all but created a distinctively American music in the 1920s. This 2001 German-made documentary combines live performances—mostly by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony led by Hugh Wolff—with interviews and historic clips to tell his story. Although it is reasonably well done, with a particularly imaginative video of the Fanfare for the Common Man, the settings sometimes get in the way of the story. Why is Copland biographer Howard Pollack always photographed on a subway train?
As it happens, there is another Copland documentary available on DVD that uses a similar format but does the job much better. It is called Copland and the American Sound, part of the San Francisco Symphony’s “Keeping Score” series. Conductor and host Michael Tilson Thomas knew Copland personally and is able to quickly pinpoint important features in various pieces either by playing them on the piano or conducting. In the same length of time this documentary covers far more ground and takes us closer to the man and his music. Paul E. Robinson

Argerich & Maisky: Dvořák, Shchedrin, Franck and Shostakovich
Martha Argerich, piano; Mischa Maisky, cello; Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Accentus Music DVD ACC 20224 (111 min 36 s)

This is quite a novelty: Martha Argerich playing music by a living composer, and a world premiere no less! She has made her reputation on the basis of jaw-dropping performances of Nineteenth Century repertoire. But being the great musician she is it should come as no surprise that she can play anything. The only issue has been whether she wants to. In this case Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin was inspired to write a piece for Argerich and her long-time friend and colleague Mischa Maisky. After two hearings I found the piece increasingly compelling. Lots of rumination and lots of driving excitement. Will any other duo dare to play it after hearing what Argerich and Maisky can do with it?
This concert given in Lucerne last year is oddly constructed but each performance is a winner. Argerich and Maisky make the overplayed Franck Sonata seem like one long inspired improvisation—a glorious performance. Neeme Järvi and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra—not to be confused with Abbado’s all-star Lucerne Festival Orchestra—are somewhat overshadowed in this company but make some great music too. The orchestra is excellent and Järvi brings a master’s insight to the works by Dvo
řák and Shostakovich. Paul E. Robinson

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis Op. 123
Krassimira Stoyanova, El
īna Garanča, Michael Schade, Franz Josef Selig; Dresden State Opera Choir, Staatskapelle Dresden/ChristianThielemann
C Major DVD 705408 (90 min)

Every February the Staatskapelle Dresden gives a Memorial concert to commemorate the aerial destruction of Dresden and its opera house near the end of World War II. Last year, principal conductor designate Christian Thielemann directed the Missa Solemnis in the Semperoper. Although Thielemann officially doesn’t take up his duties until next year he is already a revered figure in Dresden.
This performance is magnificent in nearly every respect. The choral work is outstanding for its accuracy and beauty of tone. With the exception of an occasionally strident Stoyanova the soloists are eloquent and mellifluous. But what gives the performance unusual stature is Thielemann’s conducting. He has an odd style of conducting which appears to favour upbeats instead of downbeats and he can seem restrained to the point of being robotic. There is no doubt, however, about the care that has been taken over dynamics and balances. Above all, Thielemann brings out the depth and drama of the score in full measure without the slightest exaggeration. Audio and video are likewise ideal for the Missa Solemnis. Paul E. Robinson

Handel: Theodora
Christine Schäfer (Theodora), Bejun Mehta (Didymus), Joseph Kaiser (Septimius), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Valens), Bernarda Fink (Irene), Ryland Davies (Messager); Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Bachchor/Ivor Bolton
Christof Loy, director
Cmajor 705708 (2 DVD: 189 min)

This 2009 Salzburg production proves that Handel was right to prefer Theodora to his other compositions. This oratorio, rich in arias and magnificent choral contributions, is delivered by a gamut of excellent soloists, especially Schäfer, brimming with intensity during the highlight of the second act, “With Darkness Deep as my Woe.” The Freiburger Barockorchester is well-lead by the conductor, though it sounds perhaps a bit heavy due to overemphasized basses. It remains that Theodora is not an opera. Handel here subordinated the conflict between the two Christian martyrs and Valens, the brutal Roman governor, with mystically inspired introspection. To compensate for the lack of visual effects, the director opted for an audacious modernization, almost forced, meant to be read at another level than that of the libretto. Actors and bit players are dressed informally, and certain performances lack interest to say the least. From a dramatic standpoint, Septimus (a Roman officer) and Irene (a Christian) lose their already questionable relevance. The vast stage scattered with chairs and closed in by an immense organ is the scene of multiple comings and goings, which the choppy video editing makes difficult to follow. Alexandre Lazaridès

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Placido Domingo (Gustavo), Josephine Barstow (Amelia), Leo Nucci (Anckarström), Sumi Jo (Oscar), Florence Quivar (Ulrica); Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
Arthaus Musik 107 271 (145 min)

This Ballo was to have been conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who passed away during the rehearsal period. Georg Solti saved the show by stepping in at the eleventh hour. John Schlesinger and William Dudley created an extremely lavish and totally conventional production that was revived the following year and then consigned to history. It is not clear why this astronomically expensive production had such a short lifespan, but one could speculate that its ultra-traditional style was at odds with the ethos of the artistic leadership. This Ballo uses the original Swedish setting as intended by Verdi—thus Riccardo is King Gustavo III and Renato is Count Ankarström. Solti’s conducting is incisive and exciting, yet, one could argue, without the ultimate lyricism that Karajan would have brought to the work. (For comparison, go to the studio recording with Karajan conducting the same forces the year before on DG.) The singing is overall very strong: Riccardo is one of Domingo’s greatest roles, and he acted with intensity and sang with burnished, ringing tone except for a few constricted top notes and the omission of the high C in the love duet. Josephine Barstow is not a natural Verdi soprano vocally, but she rose to the occasion and gave a respectable performance. Leo Nucci was an excellent Renato; Florence Quivar, a Karajan favourite, was equally fine as Ulrica. Sumi Jo (Oscar) sang with crystalline tone but sounded small. No exact recording date is given in the accompanying booklet but the performance here is likely a composite. The videography is very good if a little dark. This is arguably the best Ballo on video, with Domingo its chief pleasure. The tenor can also be heard and seen in many other recordings of this opera. For a more youthful Riccardo, his 1975 audio recording with Muti and the 1975 Covent Garden live performance with Abbado are also great choices. Joseph K. So
Translations: Lindsay Gallimore, Aleshia Jensen & Lynn Travers

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