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Classical Corner Featured — 17 July 2013

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Best of Spring 2013

Here it is already, our quarterly review of outstanding classical releases. This installment covers (roughly) March through June 2013. Turns out it divides neatly into music that either makes a good introduction to a genre or else provides a good next step in enjoying it. Well, why not? C.P.E. Bach marketed his keyboard music that way, bringing out several sets of sonatas “für Kenner und Liebhaber,” i.e., for aficionados and amateurs. Something for everyone!

Works for me. Feel free to put yourself in either camp or both. I heard some great recordings this spring. It’s a pleasure to share them with you via these capsule reviews.

Orchestral Music

Basic Repertoire: Mahler, Symphony No. 4. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly cond. (Accentus Blu-ray ACC 10257). Having already released outstanding video performances of 2 and 8, the two blockbusters among Mahler’s symphonies, Chailly and the Leipzigers now turn to gentler fare, the Symphony No. 4, a series of pastoral snapshots capped by a child’s view of heaven. But the snapshots darken at times. One is reminded of this composer’s drive to express not only wonder but also pain and paradox in the symphonic universes he created. Because high drama and cosmic issues go largely missing in the 4th, interpreters have to work harder, yet on a more intimate scale to maintain a balance between substance and sweetness.

For Chailly that has meant re-introducing an element of restraint in his Mahler performances. This is not the most swooningly Romantic performance you’ll ever encounter, but it is enormously satisfying. Every member of the orchestra makes richly characterized contributions—given the chamber-like scoring, there’s no way to hide—including soprano Christina Landshamer, whose unaffected, heartfelt delivery of the “heavenly feast” poetry from Des Knaben Wunderhorn provides just the right conclusion. First-rate camera work and sound; exquisite instrumental colors and balances. One feels a real sense of occasion, enveloped in the special ambiance of the Gewandhaus and its great orchestra. Producer Paul Smaczny has given us another disc to cherish.

Good Next Step: Definitely Stravinsky: Complete Music for Piano & Orchestra, with Steven Osborne and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov (Hyperion CDA67870). This is a big Stravinsky year, what with the centennial of The Rite of Spring and all. It is a treat and a half to turn away from this composer’s three Romantic-Primitive early ballets and hear some music that’s arguably superior in many respects. Osborne’s disc includes the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923–24), Capriccio (1928–29), and Movements (1958–59). As intriguing makeweights we get Song of the Volga Boatmen (1917) for winds and percussion; Concerto in D (1946) for string orchestra; and Canon on a Russian Popular Tune (1965).

Both the Concerto and Capriccio make delicious main courses that deserve much wider recognition. They date from Stravinsky’s neoclassic (“back to Bach”) years, although they chart dissimilar paths within that general style. The Concerto is rhythmic, playful, crackling with ‘20s energy. Give a listen:

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Did you catch that sly quotation from Bach’s Musical Offering?

The Capriccio uses full orchestra as accompaniment, and the strings bring more warmth and lyricism to Stravinsky’s manner here. He was under the “spell” of Carl Maria von Weber at the time, or so he said. At any rate the delicately ornamented traceries of piano and orchestra weave a more fanciful, improvisatory texture:

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This is a delightful collection, one that I’ve enjoyed at home, in the car, and even in various hotel fitness centers over the last few weeks.

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And by the way: Naxos has issued volume 1 of its promising Rossini overtures series as an audio Blu-ray disc (NBD0028). Hearing this new, improved, higher-rez set, it felt like a veil had been lifted from my speakers! ;-) Now—volume 2, please!

Early Music

Basic Baroque: There’s something very comforting in the newest Bach collection (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902145) from the Freiburger Barockorchester and the directors who double as violin soloists here, Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz. Each gets a solo concerto apiece (BWV 1041, 1042). They join for the famous Bach Double (BWV 1043) and are joined by Anne Katharine Schreiber for a triple (BWV 1064R, reconstructed from the version for three harpsichords). The two solo concertos and the Double are canonic works that have been recorded dozens of times, often by well-known artists.

What sets this set apart might be called the “Goldilocks principle.” It’s not driven by star power or some radical reconception of the music. Instead, these versions achieve a near-ideal balance of elements, offering just-right tempi, balances, dynamics and accents, plus a winning combination of expressivity and tight ensemble. Here’s some of the slow movement from the reconstructed triple concerto:

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One Step Further: For some reason, this quarter brims with recommendable 18th-century music. My favorite? Arte dei Suonatori’s Telemann: Ouvertures pittoresques (BIS-1979; SACD), a sparkling collection of dance movements organized into suites, a very popular instrumental genre of the day. Those on this disc belong to a sub-genre in which Telemann excelled: the “character overture” or programmatic suite. Side by side with “serious,” conventional movements (minuet, loure, gigue) we find national sketches (“Les Turcs,” “Les Moscovites”) and tone-paintings of everyday life (“Les Boiteux,” literally “The Hobblers”). High spirits abound.

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Here is a Harlequinade from the Overture in D Major TWV 55:D15.

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And here’s a bit of “L’hypocondre” (The Hypochondriac), an absent-minded sarabande. I will not spell out its obvious comedy for you but only note that it gives way to a grandiose little march labeled “Remède: Souffrance héroïque” (Remedy: Heroic Suffering) in the Ouverture, Jointes d’une Suite Tragi-comique in D Major, TWV 44:D22:

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And further still: While we’re in Bach territory, how about some lute music? Bach wrote or arranged a few pieces for lute, a popular instrument well into the 18th century. And his solo violin works lend themselves well to transcription for a polyphonic instrument, because they so often suggest multi-voice textures themselves. So here we have Miguel Rincón offering his own transcriptions of the Sonata BWV 1001 and Partita BWV 1004 (Carpe Diem CD-16295). He’s not the first to do this—you can still obtain Nigel North’s very well-received recordings (Linn, various configurations). Like North, Rincón tunes his lute to a lower-than-modern pitch and avoids equal temperament like the plague. This results in a mellower tone and a marked difference in the “affect” of the music, depending on the particular key it’s in. Here is an excerpt from the first movement of BWV 1001, Rincón’s arrangement of the G-minor violin sonata:

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Sounds utterly right, doesn’t it? Get the album!

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Chamber Music

Basics: Here’s a recording that puts it all together, combining period instruments with modern; orchestral works with chamber music; and rising young musicians with cornerstones of the repertoire. The Storioni Trio’s newest release couples Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with his “Archduke” Trio (Challenge Classics CC72579). The Storionis are no strangers to multichannel high-rez, having done very fine work already with PentaTone and Ars Produktion. This would hardly matter if they were not also exceptional musicians who bring a sense of total commitment to every project.

For these works that commitment includes the use of gut strings on Wouter Vossen’s violin and his brother Marc’s cello, plus pianist Bart van de Roer’s use of a sumptuously reconditioned Lagrasse 1815 fortepiano from the collection of Edwin Beunk. The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, which accompanies the trio in the Triple Concerto, uses period brass and hard timpani mallets.

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The Triple Concerto bears away the prize, in fact. I have never heard a recording that so clarifies the contrasts between orchestra and solo group in this work, while firmly establishing that this work is a piano trio with orchestral accompaniment, not an orchestral work with occasional soloists. The Storionis, conductor Jan Willem de Vriend, and Bert van der Wolf’s NorthStar Recording Services deserve equal praise for their efforts. Orchestral tuttis strike forth in the thrilling, dramatic way they should, while trio passages emerge with a tenderness and unity that can only come about with many years of ensemble collaboration, i.e., with two brothers and a friend who can virtually read one another’s minds at this point. Forget all those big-name, one-off discs that are undoubtedly gathering dust on your shelves. This is the real thing. Listen:

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The “Archduke” performance is good, too, although I confess to being disappointed in the occasional limitations of the fortepiano as an expressive voice—there are effects it just can’t bring to the table. Still, the trio’s performance is razor-sharp and heartfelt, and it’s useful to hear the work as it may have sounded in 1808. Beethoven didn’t have a nine-foot Steinway either.

Opera

Basic Verdi: Very late in 2012 C Major Entertainment released its entire Tutto Verdi collection, which I had described in a November column, “Young Verdi.” So now for around $700 you can own all the Verdi operas plus the Requiem, in state-of-the-art Blu-ray sight and sound. Is it time to pull out your credit card?

That depends. I’ve spent the last few days bingeing on Tutto Verdi’s Macbeth, Il corsaro, Luisa Miller, and Rigoletto. They’re all good, although some are better than others. Maybe I have also gotten to appreciate Verdi’s work just a bit more because of this immersion.

I am not an opera fanatic. As an instrumentalist and a choral singer, I came to opera relatively late in my musical development. A good chunk of the repertoire still strikes me as unforgivably long or precious or predictable or histrionic, and perhaps it always will. But I’ve tried to keep an open mind. Someday I may actually enjoy Elektra.

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In the meantime, there’s Rigoletto. This was the first opera I ever saw in live performance (in high school, via Boris Goldovsky’s venerable touring company), and it still tops my all-time favorites list. In other words, it’s basic: if you are an absolute beginner, this is the Verdi opera for you. It’s got a great story, with characters of surprising depth and humanity. It boasts phenomenal tunes, set for vocal types that epitomize the bel canto genre as Verdi developed it: a lyric-coloratura soprano (the virginal Gilda), a lyric tenor capable of some power (the attractive but corrupt Duke of Mantua), a “Verdi baritone” (the title character, a hunchbacked court jester) whose paternal authority anchors the drama. (For an excellent longer introduction to the opera, click here.)

In a decent production, the potency of this music and story virtually guarantees success, especially if you have good singing actors in the principal roles. That is certainly the case for Tutto Verdi’s offering. As with the other operas, it was produced by the Teatro Regio di Parma, a good regional company with a long connection to Verdi. The staging is lavish and traditional—no skimping on silk, velvet, or wind-and-thunder here! Leo Nucci, the leading Verdi baritone of his generation, gives it all he’s got, which is considerable. Rising tenor talent Francesco Demuro portrays the Duke as an eager but vulnerable cad. (His occasional vocal tightness and insecurity, like his faintly clumsy movement onstage, coax an empathetic response from us in spite of his character’s willful behavior.)

The real find here, though, is the Gilda of Nino Machaidze. I have never seen a “Caro nome” more beautifully acted. The beauty and skill of her singing match the characterization perfectly. We see not only a young woman in love, but also someone discovering that she is a young woman, fully embracing grown-up emotions for the first time. Her YouTube clip for that has been taken down, but you can catch other glimpses of her thrilling performance there, including this, the “Vendetta” duet that ends Act 2 (with Leo Nucci):

Going further: The other early Verdi operas I sampled this time around share most of the strengths of the Parma Rigoletto. I can recommend Macbeth largely because of its leading lady, the charismatic Sylvie Valayre, but also for capable direction from Liliana Cavani. Case in point: the witches, who often pose a staging problem because Verdi’s scoring encourages the use of a sizable female chorus. Here they are turned into village washerwomen, working girls (or rather working-class girls) who dabble in sorcery for pin money and amusement. Some of them are dancers, who make a nice meal of the Act 3 ballet Verdi wrote for the opera’s first Paris performances.

And then there’s Leo Nucci. He barks, he scoops, he croons. He’s a force of nature. Italian audiences love him—just listen to them react after any of his big numbers. (Corollary: anything Nucci sings will become a big number). Yet Nucci can’t completely paper over the one-dimensional nature of this operatic Macbeth. Even some of his music inevitably strikes the listener as a warm-up for later, more fully developed Verdi baritones.

That’s one reason I so enjoyed Luisa Miller. Here Nucci gets to portray a gentle, “ordinary” father—a retired soldier concerned about his daughter’s romantic entanglement with a young nobleman. Class consciousness and snobbery drive the story line, and Verdi seems to have reacted more strongly and instinctively to that dramatic situation than he had to the supernatural skullduggery of Macbeth. In any case the opera’s intimate portrayal of individuals fatally bound by repressive social codes both foreshadows the themes of La Traviata and hints at the fervent nationalism on the rise in what would become a unified Italy. Fiorenza Cedolins, in the title role, and Marcelo Álvarez, who portrays her lover Rodolfo, generate genuine electricity together and apart. The villains of the piece, Giorgio Surian (Count Walter) and Rafał Siwek (Wurm), do a fine job as well. And the Parma chorus, too often ignored or neglected, gets multiple opportunities to shine. Recommended, especially if you are ready to move beyond standard Verdi.

Here is a clip of the Act 1 finale, in which Rodolfo, now revealed as Count Walter’s son, pledges his love for Luisa in her father’s presence. Count Walter arrives with fresh accusals of Luisa as a “venal seductress.” Her father rushes to her defense, as does Roldolfo, who rebuffs his father by threatening to reveal a dark family secret:

I can’t recommend Il corsaro as warmly, partly because it has not aged well, and partly because of this production. The story is rather slim and contains orientalist elements that have become offensive. Seid, Pasha of Coron (baritone Luca Salsi), is a thoroughly savage, bloodthirsty tyrant with a sizable harem. When not occupying himself with Muslim ritual, he enjoys devising new tortures for his enemies. Naturally, Seid’s harem serves as a slithery backdrop for the laments of Gulnara (mezzo Silvia Dalla Benetta), his favorite: in the Parma staging, scantily clad young women fulfill all the expectations of the prurient Westerner, languorously reclining in fleshy heaps, embracing and stroking one another. It’s distracting, darn it, even though Ms. Dalla Benetta herself seems very much at ease in I Dream of Jeannie drag. (And she gets some of the best music in the show.)

When we first encounter Corrado and Medora, the doomed lovers of Il corsaro, they are already preparing to separate—he is a pirate, after all, so he can’t miss his chance to knock over Pasha Seid’s castle. By the time these two get back together, in Act 3, Medora has already taken poison in despair. Not exactly a fun couple. Tenor Bruno Ribeiro and soprano Irina Lungu sing nicely enough but exhibit no chemistry when together. This is not entirely the fault of the libretto: Lungu tends to get through recitative as efficiently as possible, never varying the speed of her delivery or inflecting the occasional word that might reveal her character’s thinking. Director Lamberto Puggelli, forced to work on Busseto’s tiny stage, seems to aim for continuous motion regardless of whether the dramatic moment requires it. The orchestra was reduced for the Busseto pit, resulting in a threadbare string sound at times. So this video gives us an opportunity to see a seldom-staged work, but it comes with pluses and minuses. To sum up: Pirates! Harem girls! Minor swashbuckling! Embarrassing stereotypes!

A word about the recording quality in the series: it’s very good. I noticed with this batch of performances that many of the principal singers were wearing body mics. Apparently this practice has become the norm for video capture of opera in Italy. That explains how the Tutto Verdi engineers have managed to maintain balances in which solo voices are never covered by the orchestra. Stage noise is kept to a minimum, but any sense of the “hall acoustic” is lost. The exception to that is the Corsaro recording at Busseto, in which the singers’ voices ring as if they were indeed at work in a 300-seat house. Generally, though, in these Blu-rays you have to put up with a loss of ambiance in exchange for the richness and presence of the solo voices. I do wish the chorus had gotten equal consideration more often, but that will be a minor consideration for most viewers.

Between his 1842 success with Nabucco and the 1853 premiere of La traviata, Verdi wrote 16 operas and supervised several revivals. Eight of those operas, including Macbeth, appeared in less than four years, between 1844 and ’47. Verdi later referred to this period in his life as his “galley years,” and he repeatedly vowed to quit the composing racket once he had fulfilled his contracts and achieved some measure of financial security. Frequently ill from overwork, moving from one city to another to prepare each new production, he made extraordinary sacrifices to launch his career. Once he hit the trifecta that assured his fame—Rigoletto, La traviata, and Il trovatore—he never again worked so feverishly and so much at the beck and call of others. But he had learned a lot in those 11 years, as these early operas demonstrate.

When I pick up the story of Verdi again, it will be November, and we will limit our talk to the Requiem, one or two of the great “grand” operas of his later years, and his final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.

adelaide

And (speaking of bel canto) further still: The principal pleasure of the new Arthaus Musik Blu-ray (108 060; also available as DVD) of Rossini’s Adelaide di Borgogna (1817) lies in getting to hear large doses of nimble, wonderfully musical singing from two of the young superstars in this repertoire, Jessica Pratt and Daniela Barcellona. Australian-born soprano Pratt excels in the sort of limpid lines, rapidfire passagework, and stunning high notes that earned fame for Joan Sutherland fifty years ago. But Ms. Pratt is a much better actor, as is Barcellona, the go-to gal for trouser roles in Rossini et al. these days. They match up well physically too, never a disadvantage in video. It is a delight to hear—and see—their many arias and duets.

Other than the vocals, Adelaide doesn’t amount to much. It’s a two-act opera seria written for Rome and seldom staged today. That may be due partly to its by-then anachronistic writing of King Otto of Germany as a travesti part, although Barcellona certainly makes that aspect work well in this production. Its neglect may also stem from Rossini’s decision—more or less forced upon him by the librettist—to treat a complex historical episode as a fable, reducing the story’s politics and psychology to an archetypal tale of Good vs. Evil and Girl Meets Boy (actually, she meets two “boys”: one tenor and one mezzo in pants). If you enjoy great singing, you won’t care. Pier’ Alli’s staging further emphasizes the work’s archetypal quality without introducing other too many distractions. (Okay, toward the end I did find the guys-fencing-with-umbrellas bit rather eccentric.) Sound and camerawork are first-rate. The “Making Of” featurette is also pretty good.

Here is a promotional clip that should give you some sense of the singing and staging:

I had intended to include a capsule review of a more basic Rossini item newly available on Blu-ray, namely La Cenerentola with the formidable Elīna Garanča in the title role (DG 735014). But there’s no more space. Likewise, my comments on the new Puccini Turandot from Opera Australia (OPOZ56033BD) will have to wait. I hope to include both in a late-July column otherwise devoted to French Romantic chamber music.

Hope you are enjoying a musical summer!

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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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