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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 19, No. 7


by Joseph So, Paul E. Robinson, Pemi Paull & Dwain Richardson / June 1, 2014

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Lifting My Voice: A Memoir
Barbara Hendricks
Forward by Kofi A. Annan
Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press 2014 (488 pp.)
ISBN: 978-1-61374-852-7
American soprano Barbara Hendricks made her debut in 1974 at San Francisco Opera and Glydnebourne. To mark the 40th anniversary, her autobiography is finally coming out in an English edition. The French edition first appeared in 2010, followed by a Swedish edition in 2012 for readers in her adopted country. Last year, a Castilian edition appeared in Spain. Thus the English edition is really long overdue. At 500 dense pages plus copious illustrations, this is arguably the most substantial of all singer biographies. Remarkably she wrote it without a co-author. Lifting My Voice is no simple-minded “Diva-Speak” – it’s a serious, thoughtful, and deeply insightful book on the meaning of being an artist and a morally conscious global citizen. Having immersed myself in it the last few days, I came away with a new-found admiration and respect for Hendricks. Having had the pleasure of seeing her Sophie (twice) and in recitals several times in the 80s and 90s, I can say I’ve always liked her voice, but this book shows me a different dimension of the singer.

Dedicated to her parents, her children, and second husband Ulf, the book is organized into fourteen chapters. It tells of her growing up poor as a pastor’s daughter in rural Arkansas, experiencing first-hand what it meant to be black in the American South. Her inner voice with its strong sense of purpose and moral compass served as the guiding light in her life and work, first as a student in physics and mathematics, and later going on to a major career in opera and concerts. The chapters detailing her journey as an artist and as a human being are immensely readable. Particularly fascinating are her reminiscences of the people most important to her – her teacher Jennie Tourel, conductors (von Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, Giulini), her family (her two marriages and her two children), her work as ambassador of the UN High Commission on Refugees, and many political figures (Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Francois Mitterand, Aung San Suu Kyi).

Through it all, one senses strength of conviction in the way she lives her life and in remaining true to herself as an artist, a woman, and a world citizen. While always diplomatic and adverse to gossip – a few people where negative comments are directed remain nameless – she isn’t afraid to confront and question. Public figures who have disappointed her in her refugee relief efforts are not spared, nor does she have good things to say about her long-time record company EMI. She doesn’t take kindly to critics either, when she feels they are unjust. Curiously, other than Marian Anderson and George Shirley, there’s little mention of fellow African-American colleagues, particularly the women. One wishes there were a performance chronology at the end. Lifting My Voice is a noble undertaking and a totally absorbing read. Highly recommended. JS

Mozart Opera and Concert Arias
Karina Gauvin, soprano
Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie, conductor
ATMA Classique ACD2 2636 (63m 26s)
***** (5/5)
One of the most distinguished Canadian artists of our time, Quebec soprano Karina Gauvin is also likely the most recorded. Her huge discography ranges from early music to contemporary, although it is in the baroque and classical repertoires that she is the most identified. This Mozart opera and concert arias disc on the ATMA label was recorded back in July 2012 but for some reason only released this spring. It has been worth the wait. Gauvin’s beauty of tone and impeccable musicianship are very much in evidence. Considering she has been singing since the age of 8 – first as a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and as a soprano since the early 90’s, her tone is still remarkably fresh and appealing, her technique formidable. Listening to “Deh vieni, non tardar,” one is struck by her amazingly youthful timbre, totally believable as Susanna. She brings the appropriate pathos and nobility to Pamina’s aria, “Ach ich fühl’s.” I had the pleasure of hearing her concert performance of Die Zauberflöte in Toronto three years ago, and this selection brings back happy memories. It’s good to have “Come scoglio” and “Non più di fiori,” as to my knowledge Gauvin has never sung Fiordiligi or Vitellia on stage. She meets the technical and dramatic challenges of these two difficult arias splendidly, although the extreme low notes in the Vitellia aria is really out of her working range. Gauvin benefits from the solid and sympathetic support of a frequent collaborator, Bernard Labadie and his Les Violons du Roy. Included on the disc are overtures from Lucio Silla and La clemenza di Tito. Highly recommended. JS

Christos Hatzis: Departures: Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra (2011); Overscript: Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (1993/2012)
Patrick Gallois, flute
Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra/Alexandre Myrat
Naxos 8.573091 (72:14)
**** (4/5)
Christos Hatzis (b. 1953) teaches in the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and in his “spare” time is a prolific composer of works notable for their spiritual inspiration and wide range of eclectic sources. In his compositions Hatzis incorporates elements of music from his Greek heritage but also from many other cultures. In addition, he is interested in jazz and pop music.

On this new Naxos CD we are offered two flute concertos: one of them partly inspired by the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, and the other by the g minor flute concerto of J.S. Bach. These two pieces are very different, although I suspect that most listeners would find the concerto called “Departures” much more accessible.

“Departures” begins with a lovely quasi-oriental movement and goes on to make use of what the composer calls a “Hollywood-like theme.” It is all very beautiful – up until the devastating ending. How else can we think of the horrors of the tsunami?

“Overscript” is a very different kind of piece. It is a musical commentary on Bach’s g minor flute concerto. Hatzis is not the first to try this sort of thing. Lukas Foss did it pretty effectively back in 1967 in his Baroque Variations. But some listeners will view Hatzis’s gloss on Bach as more desecration than illumination. For anyone interested in the technical procedures Hatzis used in this piece, his website (www.hatzis.com) provides an extended and complex essay on the subject. It was written in 1998 and is titled “The Art of the Palimpsest: Compositional Approaches to the Music of J.S. Bach.”

The performances here seem to be exemplary. Flutist Patrick Gallois makes a lovely sound and has no trouble at all with the technical challenges. PER

Terra Incognita:Seven Sound Portraits
Arturo Parra, guitar
La Grenouille Hirsute (LGH1301)
***** (5/5)
Arturo Parra’s Terra Incognita was inspired by conversations, observations, and evocative imagery of wind, darkness, feelings and animals. The seven sound portraits we hear are a combination of cinema, classical and traditional Latin American music. “Miroitements de quartz,” the second of seven movements, takes its inspiration from Schubert and Brahms. “Rayo de sol,” on the other hand, evokes traditional Columbian dances like the merengue.

Each movement represents a different image for the seven people Parra met. After encountering and observing these individuals, Parra set their images to music. These images may be portrayed in a number of ways, including pizzicato, use of shakers, vibratos, and tempo or dynamic contrasts.

Unlike Parra’s previous albums, Terra Incognita focuses solely on the guitar (no other instruments have been added, aside from the odd shaker and background vocals in some movements). Overall, the music is melodic, rich with many harmonic textures, relaxing, pleasant to the ears. In 60 minutes of music, this guitarist and composer invites us to explore a wide range of soundscapes—and allow listeners to discover Parra’s many guitar techniques. DR

Love’s Minstrels
Philippe Sly, baritone
Michael McMahon, piano
Analekta AN2 9967 (62m 29s)
**** (4/5)

Winner of the 2012 Montreal International Musical Competition (Voice Edition), bass-baritone Philippe Sly is one of a seemingly endless stream of excellent baritones from Canada. Having seen him as a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, I can say with certainty that he’s the “real deal” – a wonderful, warm baritone of beauty and flexibility, coupled with solid technique, abundant musicality, and striking stage presence. This disc is his third for Analekta and his second solo CD for the label, featuring familiar English songs by John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, plus arrangements of traditional folksongs by Healey Willan. He sings these pieces with his customary warmth, ingratiating timbre and musical intelligence. Though a bass-baritone, his top voice is secure and clarion, which he uses unstintingly. Everything is textbook clean and neat by both the singer and Michael McMahon, the pianist. If one were to quibble, a bit more expression and textual emphasis would have been welcome. These songs are strong on sentimentality and nostalgia – thus a little push and pull of rhythm, a few rubati here and there would have been appropriate. The recorded sound is fine. The thin booklet has artist bios, albeit a much too short one on the singer, plus a rather generalized essay by Cody Growe that doesn’t actually address the specific songs. For song texts, one would have to download them from www.analekta.com. On balance, this is a fine disc, particularly for fans of English songs. JS

Szymanowski/Shostakovich Sonatas for violin and piano
Frédéric Bednarz - violin Natsuki Hiratsuka - piano
Metis Islands MIM-0004 (53’58”)
***** (5/5)

Violinist Frédéric Bednarz has been a ubiquitous presence in Montreal’s chamber music community for many years. Now a member of the Molinari String Quartet, he has also begun of late to turn his attention to the violin and piano duo repertoire, aided and abetted by Natsuki Hiratsuka, a pianist of great skill and sensitivity. Together, they offer up mesmerizing performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s great violin sonata, and the less well-known, but fascinating and beautiful late-romantic sonata by Karol Szymanowski. Bednarz has a warm, round, almost sweet sound, but he is not afraid to get his hands dirty. There are moments in the Shostakovich that are absolutely searing, all the more so because of the strength and intensity of Hiratsuka’s pianism, and the duo’s lockstep ensemble playing. The less familiar Op. 9 sonata by Szymanowski makes for a very pleasing pairing, with its late-romantic language evocative of Franck and to some extent, the impressionists – it is a work that simultaneously looks forward and backwards, inviting a certain amount of levity that very effectively balances out the tortured intensity of the Shostakovich. This is a disc worth having. PP

Dutilleux: Symphony No. 1/Tout un monde lointain*/The Shadows of Time
Xavier Phillips, cello*
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
Seattle Symphony Media SSM1001 (78:29)
**** (4/5)
During the Gerard Schwarz era the Seattle Symphony made dozens of recordings and distinguished itself for its dedication to the music of American composers. Schwarz made an enormous contribution to American music but stayed a little too long in Seattle. By the time he left, the organization was badly split over his stewardship. His successor is the gifted 40-year-old French conductor Lodovic Morlot. The orchestra has now formed its own company to produce CDs and in terms of repertoire might seem to be headed in a different direction. One of the first releases features music by French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and it is the first in a series devoted to a survey of the composer’s complete orchestral works. However, the first three releases by Seattle Symphony Media also include an all-American album and another devoted to music by Ravel and Saint-Saëns.

Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1, dating from 1951, should be recognized as one of the finest first symphonies by any composer past or present. It shows the influence of Messiaen but also demonstrates a fertile and unique musical imagination. It is beautiful and inventive from beginning to end.

Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World”) written for Rostropovich in 1970 is similarly fresh and compelling and played with command and understanding by French cellist Xavier Phillips.

The Shadows of Time was composed between 1995 and 1997 and shows how productive Dutilleux remained in his late 70s. The work is a set of five miniatures inspired by the memories of World War II. One movement is dedicated to “Anne Frank and to all innocent children of the world (1945-1995).” PER

Verso Venezia: Castello, Merula, Legrenzi Sonata & Canzoni
Pallade Musica
ATMA ACD2 2697 (60’23”)
***** (5/5)
Verso Venezia is the eagerly anticipated debut CD by Montreal’s Pallade Musica, Grand Prize winners of the 2012 Early Music America Baroque Performance Competition. This charming album offers a tantalizing glimpse into the sound world of 17th-century Venetian musical culture, highlighting the work of three masters of the era, Tarquinio Merula, Dario Castello, and Giovanni Legrenzi. Important and influential musical figures though they were, their work is not performed often, and Pallade Musica must be commended for making a vibrant case for their work. The programming of the disc is also very intelligent, focusing only on two genres, the Canzona and the Sonata, and, in doing so, highlights the fascinating transition out of the language of the Renaissance and into the Baroque that was taking place in Venice at the time. By the time you get to Legrenzi, the youngest of the three composers on this album, you have a sonata form that would influence later and better-known Baroque masters, from Corelli and Vivaldi, to Bach. This is a fantastic debut by Pallade Musica, and it will be interesting to see where their inquisitive spirit and vibrant playing takes them next! PP

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in b minor Op. 74 “Pathétique”/Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in b minor Op. 54
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900123 (75:25)
**** (4/5)
Mariss Jansons recently announced that he will be stepping down as principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the end of the 2014-2015 season. But he will retain a similar post with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Munich. This is a fine orchestra created by Eugen Jochum and nurtured by Rafael Kubelik and Lorin Maazel, and Jansons has been recording extensively with this ensemble.

The coupling of two sixth symphonies by Russian composers, and both in the key of b minor makes some sort of sense, and in the past Jansons has demonstrated an affinity for the music of both composers. There is fine playing here and excellent sound, and Jansons has a meticulous ear for dynamics, especially at the softer end. The last movement of the Tchaikovsky is perhaps softer than I have ever heard it, and not just in the closing pages. However, if you like your Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” to be soul-searching and impassioned you won’t find these qualities in the present recording. To my taste this is a blueprint of a performance rather than a real, committed interpretation.

On the other hand, the Shostakovich seems more intense, especially in the last movement. The timpanist holds nothing back and that is a good thing in this music. Perhaps the difference between these two performances has a lot to do with the fact that one is live (Shostakovich) and the other is not (Tchaikovsky). PER

Tour de France
Trio Arkaède
www.leaf-music.ca LM202 (64’22”)
**** (4/5)
Formed in 2006, Trio Arkaéde brings together three of Atlantic Canada’s finest chamber musicians. Their new album, titled Tour de France, has flutist Karin Aurell, violinist Isabelle Fournier, and pianist Julien Leblanc exploring the exotic chamber music landscape of early 20th century Paris. The curation that went into this album is impressive. Although Debussy makes an appearance (his Violin sonata, performed by Fournier and Leblanc with subtlety and an introspective approach that is refreshing), many of this album’s composers are not well remembered today, including the very fascinating Melanie Bonis, the first female composer admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. Her Suite en Trio op. 59, written in 1903, beautifully played by Trio Arkaede is charming, compact salon music that hints of Debussy, while still firmly grounded in 19th century. Another highlight is Medailles Antiques, written by early 20th century composer and flautist Phillipe Gaubert, full of color and impressionist reverie. There are plenty of other gems to discover, and the obscurity of many of the works makes for a very interesting listen, while the ensemble’s playing is unruffled and lovely throughout — perfectly stylized to evoke the atmosphere of a French salon concert. PP

Beethoven: Fidelio Overture Op. 72
Blacher: Orchestra Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1: Allegro maestoso*
Stravinsky: Petrouchka
Dvořák: Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No. 8 in g minor (encore)
Sarah Chang, violin*
Berlin Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta
Palazzo Vecchio (Florence, Italy)
EuroArts Blue Ray Disc 2012024 (106 min)
***** (5/5)
Every year on May 1, the Berlin Philharmonic gives a concert in a different city in Europe. This is the Europakonzert, and it has been a special occasion for over 20 years. In 1995 the concert was given in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In the sixteenth century this was a residence for the Medici family. In addition to dozens of masterpieces by famous artists, the palace contains a remarkable collection of violins from Cremona, including instruments by Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri. For this concert, 14-year-old Sarah Chang chose a Guarneri, and on the evidence of this disc, made it sound glorious.

This concert was given 19 years ago and had been previously released on the TDK label. EuroArts has now given it the full Blue Ray refurbishment, and it looks and sounds fantastic. The hall itself is incredibly reverberant and one wonders how the Berlin Philharmonic could play with such precision. But hey, it’s the Berlin Philharmonic!

The highlight of the concert is undoubtedly Petrouchka. Mehta leads a performance that is exciting and colorful beyond one’s wildest dreams.

In addition to the concert, as is customary in the Eurokonzert series there is a 19-minute documentary about Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio. The documentary also includes interviews with Sarah Chang and Zubin Mehta. PER

Valérie Milot, harp, Claire Marchand, flute & Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie
Haendel, Boieldieu, Mozart
Analekta AN 2 9990
**** (4/5)
This is the ultimate disc for your summer listening, recordings of concertos for harp, which are usually hard to find. Here the perfect touch of Canadian Valérie Milot and Les Violons du Roy will captivate you. The sound of the harp is mesmerizing, and Milot plays each piece with great agility. As soon as you hear the first few seconds of this recording, you'll all sigh in admiration! Yes, I am referring to Handel’s Concerto for Harp. Labadie and his ensemble adapt perfectly to the harp’s timbre. It would have been easy to overwhelm the harp, but here you will find a perfect equilibrium of nuances. Boieldieu’s Concerto is played with a fuller style. While having a stronger character, this concerto showcases Milot’s musicality--the cadences, articulations and trills are finely executed. Mozart’s Concerto for harp and flute closes the disc. The combination is perfect. Flautist Claire Marchland projects a pure sound, with minimal vibrato. The ensemble created by the orchestra, harp and flute is just wonderful. MOL

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