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Classical Corner — 16 December 2012

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First I was going to call this installment Younger Mozart. (Because we’d just done Young Verdi, right?) But that didn’t reflect the rest of the column, which consists of my annual attempt to recommend music gifts for friends and loved ones. And therein lay a further problem: virtually none of my recommendations this year seemed “festive.” The music I really warmed to this quarter was unlikely to leave you with visions of sugar plums and all that. I even looked around for a Nutcracker Blu-ray that I could recommend, just to lighten the atmosphere a little. I’m still looking.

(And now I’m newly aware of what a critical minefield the arena of ballet videos has become. Everyone has an opinion. Aficionados lie in wait, ready to do mortal combat with those who champion some production or company they don’t care for. Hmm. Sounds a bit like the audiophile world. Time to drift back onto topic.)

Reader, ‘tis the season. Allow me to put aside my fear that these recommendations—everything from classic Britten to decidedly un-classic Bohemian Baroque—will seem ill-considered, esoteric, overly sober, whatever. This is what I like. You, or someone you love, might like it too.

I have made a half-hearted attempt to sort these choices into categories, but don’t worry too much about that. My North Star in such enterprises is my dear Aunt Mildred, a consummate musician of many years’ experience whose tastes are somewhat removed from my own. More about Aunt Mildred below; I know she’d like something on this list. In fact, I’m pretty sure I know what.

Big Deals. First here are a couple of recordings you might not consider as holiday gifts. But I think they are more than worthy at any season, especially the one dedicated to peace, love and understanding. So, here we go.

Britten: War Requiem. In November 1940, England’s Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a bombing raid that left the 14th-century structure in ruins. After the war, church authorities resolved to leave the ruins untouched, designating them as hallowed ground and building a garden of remembrance within. Alongside, a new cathedral arose, designed by modernist architect Basil Spence and consecrated in May 1962. Benjamin Britten was asked to compose new music to mark the re-consecration, and he responded with his War Requiem. Much has been written about this landmark work, and many recordings of it have been made. Rather than attempt a potted description of the music and its history here, I refer you to the excellent Wikipedia article. Suffice to say that at its spiritual heart lies the juxtaposition of the Latin Requiem for the Dead and the war poems of Wilfred Owen, young British officer who died in battle a week before the armistice that ended World War I. At its musical heart lies the tritone, a sour, wounded-sounding interval that for Britten symbolized all that is evil, unresolved, destructive in human life.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the re-consecration, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which had played the first performance of Britten’s work, returned to Coventry in May 2012 and offered another. It was broadcast and recorded, and is now available as a Blu-ray video from Arthaus Musik (108 070). How do I know, deep inside, that this new Blu-ray is a keeper? Because when I watch it, the performance seems to envelope me in an intimate embrace, even though the War Requiem is notoriously sprawling in scope, massive in forces, universal in its aspirations. Because when I listen to it, I experience a kind of joy—I am lifted up—even though Owen addressed “War, and the pity of War,” and he meant to toll a final bell of warning. Because when I watch and listen, the whole thing is over in a heartbeat, even though I know it’s been an hour and a half since I sat down. Because these performers—conductor Andris Nelsons, tenor Mark Padmore, soprano Erin Wall, baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, and the choirs involved—make it sound easy, almost spontaneous, though I know this is difficult music.

So I cannot recommend a better holiday gift for the thoughtful music lover than this commemoration. Even if you have John Culshaw’s storied 1963 recording for Decca, you will want this. First of all, it’s not at all inferior as a performance—Padmore in particular distinguishes himself here—and secondly, because it takes you inside Coventry Cathedral, which adds a crucial element. Do not pass this up. Here is a portion of the “Dies Irae” from the CBSO performance:

And  here is an audio clip of “Let Us Sleep Now,” from the 1963 Decca recording. We will fade out just after the children sing the tritone motif.

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Bach: St. Matthew Passion. Also not exactly a Christmas staple. Doesn’t matter. Just as the CBSO took you inside Coventry for its War Requiem, so does a new Blu-ray from Accentus (ACC10256) take you inside St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, for this performance of what is arguably the single greatest work of sacred drama by its former Director Musices, Johann Sebastian Bach. History seems to speak from every corner of this building, and the performers are deeply aware of that. It’s not a perfect performance—I don’t think I’ve ever heard one—but it comes pretty close. And I can’t help being charmed by the kids in the Thomanerchor, who exhibit the perfectly normal range of expressions that 11-year-olds will come up with over a three-hour period in a cramped choir loft. Wonderful stuff. Give yourself this experience.

For the Mozart Lover Who’s Heard It All. No, you haven’t. Specifically, you haven’t heard La finta giardiniera in its posthumous Prague reorchestration, but with none of the 1796 cuts in the arias. Now, thanks to René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester, that experience can also be yours. Let’s take a moment to reflect on this.

Will you (or your Mozart-loving giftee) enjoy this work, and this recording? Regarding the performance, no worries. Mr. Jacobs is renowned for the vigor of his presentations, and La finta giardiniera continues his nearly unbroken track record for freshly reconceived, exciting recorded performances. He has rounded up the usual assortment of extremely talented young European singers. They give it their all, which is very good indeed. Harmonia Mundi has done its typically fine production, recording under Martin Sauer in Berlin and dressing up the final package in a sturdy, attractive 3-CD box with a 318-page program book that includes full text of the opera and useful notes on the historical sources. I was very glad to have that around, because otherwise I would have felt ill-equipped to assess this early comic opera by one of the greatest composers ever.

Which brings us to the other half of the equation: will you enjoy the music? I think so, but some caveats creep in at this point. Friends, it’s not Figaro. If you are planning to devote the rest of your life to The Eternal Masterpieces and Nothing But (especially if they’re reissued on 200-gram vinyl, heh heh), then maybe this is not for you. Because in spite of offering a performance of anabolic-steroid intensity, with the Freiburgers playing an amplified late-18th-century rescoring, Mr. Jacobs cannot order Mozart and his librettist back in for major rewrites. What we have here is a pre-classic opera buffa scenario, with stock characters and plot stereotypes—lecherous old men, scheming servants, aristocratic lovers at odds, and more. Experiencing it will help you understand just how fortunate Mozart was in his eventual collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist for Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. Da Ponte’s gift for psychological realism perfectly matched Mozart’s profound musical insight. Here Mozart is doing his best with what’s he got, script-wise.

But perhaps that’s a good reason to make Giardiniera’s acquaintance. You can’t really appreciate the masterpieces unless you encounter a fair number of runners-up. Once I got over wishing it had a few more ensembles, consistent characterizations, dramatic coherence, etc. etc., I enjoyed this early work for what it was. Mozart is still Mozart. He enlivens some ridiculous situations with absolutely gorgeous music. Listen to this Act I aria from Sandrina, the mezzo carattere heroine from whom the opera derives its title. Geme la tortorella—“The turtledove sighs, far from her mate.”

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Or this moment, in which Ramiro, one of the pair of “serious” lovers, vows in anger to leave Arminda, whom he loves, because she is una perfida donna ingrata, a “treacherous, ungrateful woman.” It’s a trouser role, which encouraged Mozart to indulge in rather more high-flown musical language than he might otherwise have risked in a comic opera. Maybe that confused his first audiences; apparently there were only three performances given in Munich in 1775. The work was not revived in its original form until the 20th century.

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That aria is followed immediately by a hypnotically beautiful scene in the garden in which the two mezzo carattere lovers, Sandrina and Count Belfiore, had wandered moonstruck—quite out of their heads over love’s confusions—the night before. Now it is morning, and they awaken, at opposite ends of the stage, to “the sound of sweet music.” Dove mai son? each wonders—“where am I?”

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You’ve been listening to Sophie Karthäuser (Sandrina), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Ramiro) and Jeremy Ovendon (Belfiore).

More Mozart: There’s also a recent issue from Linn (CKD 398) to consider. That would be Apollo et Hyacinthus, an even earlier operatic work from Mozart. (He wrote it for a grammar-school celebration when he was 11.) Will your Mozart Lover want this one too? That depends. In its favor are the recording, which outshines the Jacobs issue by offering multichannel and stereo SACD in a pristine yet cozy studio acoustic. And it’s difficult to fault the performance: Ian Page leads Classical Opera, an early-music troupe that reliably garners accolades, in an impeccable reading. I cannot imagine this music ever being done better. Countertenor superstar Lawrence Zazzo leads a very competent, attractive cast, all of whom deliver their material with utter conviction.

The libretto is the sticking point. It was cobbled together by Rufinus Widl (1731–98), a monk who taught Latin syntax at Salzburg’s Benedictine University. He chose to adapt the mythological story of Apollo and Hyacinthus, adding characters that would provide Apollo with a heterosexual love interest and stress the importance of forgiveness and redemption, Christian virtues that resonated in the Salzburg of the Enlightenment. Mozart responded to his commission by creating perfect—and perfectly conventional—music like that he’d heard in his recent travels. Here, for example, is the ecstatic aria that Melia, daughter of King Oebalus, sings when she learns that she will marry Apollo, a powerful god who had dropped in for a chat earlier in the week:

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Reminds me a little of what Handel wrote for the title character in Semele at the height of her infatuation with Jupiter. As with Semele, bad things happen. And that brings us to the single number that really demonstrates Mozart’s genius, even in his first opera. Belatedly Melia and her father realize that the jealous treachery of Zephyrus, a rival for Melia’s hand, has resulted in Hyacinth’s death and led them to reject Apollo’s friendship, banishing him from the kingdom. In short, their lack of faith has put them in a morally awkward position. It’s also a dangerous one: as Oebalus sings in this duet, “A kingdom without its god will not survive for long.”

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Somehow the 11-year-old Mozart was able to recognize the mixture of grief, regret, and longing that had to be expressed in this duet. Truly astonishing. (We were listening to tenor Andrew Kennedy and soprano Klara Ek.)

Still More Mozart. Not there yet? Perhaps your Mozart Lover would prefer something in more concentrated form—a little brandy sometimes goes down better than a lot of wine. For that we’ve got the Freiburgers again, back with two terrific piano concertos featuring fortepiano whiz Kristian Bezuidenhout. I’m going to direct you to a YouTube video of their entire performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K. 482. Pay particular attention to the opening statement, which features some remarkably colorful wind writing, and to the moments in the slow movement and finale that bring back those sylvan colors again, lowering the temperature but soothing the heart for just a few moments before the dash to the finish. (For the time-conscious: the finale begins at 21:50, its affecting interlude at 26:13.)

On Harmonia Mundi HMC 902147, this is coupled with the charming Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453. For me, the real star in this recording is not Bezuidenhout, although his playing is sensitive and stylish. It’s the orchestra, who provide both whip-sharp ensemble precision and a fascinating range of colors—although to hear the latter, you really need to have the CD, since no YouTube clip can offer sufficient resolution to convey same. I hope HD Tracks gets us a high-resolution download very soon!

Chamber Music. Finally, here is something special for those who don’t care much for opera or church music. Or big symphonic works. Or famous composers. You’d prefer it different yet somehow familiar, right?

Actually, I think any open-minded listener would respond to a wonderful set of Ensemble Sonatas by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745). This comes to us courtesy of Linn (CKD 415) and an all-star band that calls itself Ensemble Marsyas. Not that it matters, but Marsyas was the satyr in Greek mythology who so excelled at playing reeds (the aulos, I presume) that he challenged Apollo to a cutting contest. Linn’s Ensemble Marsyas formed itself in Edinburgh in 2011, and it consists of three young first-chair double-reed players and a phenomenal “rhythm section” of theorbo, keyboards, and bass violone. You can read more about them here. For this album they are joined by celebrated early-music violinist Monica Huggett, which is a bit like having Eric Clapton agree to sit in at your guitar class’s spring recital. Except that everyone in this group is a player. And have they found some excellent music for us. (Recorded in Linn’s cutting-edge-excellent sound, of course!)

Zelenka was a Bohemian, from Louňovice. I am sure you’d like to know a little bit more about him, and so would I, frankly. I know there’s been an explosion of interest in his church music—I get review copies of his late Masses on a regular basis—and apparently the same sort of fevered interest in him occurred among wind players when scholarly editions of the six sonatas for two oboes and bassoon were published between 1955 and ’65. These are trio sonatas, which means they can and should be played by at least four players and possibly more. One of them is scored for violin, oboe, and bassoon, hence Huggett’s involvement. On this album we get three complete sonatas and the Andante from a Simphonie à 8 Concertanti.

If you think you know Baroque music, you’re in for a series of pleasant shocks. Zelenka’s compositional voice is unique. He favors unusual thematic lines, odd little contrapuntal detours, and plenty of terror-inducing technical challenges for the players. It’s music that both welcomes you in and gently surprises, delights, and moves you. Listen:

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How’s that for slightly different? Here’s some more:

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And then this:

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The musicologist in me wants to show you how these are related to the sonata da camera (dance movements) and the sonata da chiesa (adagios and fugues, suitable for church). But the human in me just wants to tell you what great Driving-Around Music this makes. Know what I mean? It’s got nice dynamic contrasts, but nothing so extreme that you find yourself fiddling with the volume knob while you’re trying to change lanes. It chugs along pleasantly, but offers details that keep you awake while you’re waiting for your exit ramp to appear. I love this music. It’s the recording I have played and replayed the most this month. It’s the one I won’t bother to put away for quite a while.

Really Big Deals: And so we come to the end of our December Classical Corner. And I still haven’t told you what I got Aunt Mildred yet. Well. I got her the big new box of Martha Argerich’s Lugano Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon 4779884). My pianist aunt, who once buttonholed Zubin Mehta after a NY Phil concert and took him to task for playing too much contemporary music (!), will love this. Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Prokofiev, Bartók—whoops, gettin’ a little too modern there—and such a deal, 4 CDs for $26 from Amazon! (Not that I would leave the price tag on.) Happy holidays, tante. You know I’ll always treasure the musical times we spent together.

Okay, time to go roast some cranberries or something. See you in January.

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Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

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