Cue Sheet – June 2011
posted by James Reel
A review I wrote for Fanfare:
MENDELSSOHN Symphonies: No. 1; No. 4, “Italian.” Ruy Blas Overture • Andrew Litton, cond; Bergen PO • BIS 1584 (SACD: 67:07)
With so many fine recordings of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony already in the catalog, there’s little justification for a new one unless it’s part of a Mendelssohn symphony cycle, of which there have been surprisingly few. Here is the middle panel in Andrew Litton’s triptych of Mendelssohn symphony SACDs for BIS, and it’s very fine indeed.
I’ll cover the “Italian” Symphony only briefly, because the main interest of this disc frankly lies in the rarer items. Litton’s performance holds up very well against most of the competition; it’s a lyrical approach, but always up to tempo—about as spirited as George Szell’s classic account, which Sony reissued about a decade ago on an SACD that is not compatible with standard players, but Litton is also a bit less brittle than Szell.
This is a smartly programmed disc. It begins with the overture Mendelssohn provided for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas—a work the composer detested, yet he managed to write a stirring curtain-raiser for it that’s not nearly as popular as it was several decades ago. This leads to the First Symphony, which begins in a manner similar to Ruy Blas, but with even greater urgency. (If you like the early symphonies of Schubert, particularly the “Tragic,” you should enjoy Mendelssohn’s First.) In both the overture and the symphony, the Bergen Philharmonic’s performance under Litton is dynamic but not manic. Litton does not call attentionn to himself (which Mendelssohn would appreciate, since he was notoriously averse to “interpretation”); at the same time, Litton manages to achieve just the right spirit. He can stand back a bit without seeming uninvolved. Now, his tempo in the Scherzo and the final movement may be a little to fast for some listeners, but even so, Litton doesn’t take it to extremes; he knows how to ease off in the contrasting passages. (Besides which, orchestral music and opera were apparently played faster in the 19th century than they have been in our lifetime; just look at the early, fleet timings from Bayreuth for evidence.)
BIS provides typically detailed, natural, beautiful recorded sound in surround format, and very good liner notes by Horst A. Scholz. Whether as a whole Litton’s Mendelssohn cycle will fully measure up to the outstanding Abbado and Dohnanyi versions remains to be seen, but I would not hesitate to recommend this individual disc to anyone, whether they prefer two channels or five. James Reel
posted by James Reel
Today, June 29, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bernard Herrmann, best known for his scores for Psycho, not to mention 67 other films. Today on KUAT-FM, we're celebrating the occasion by sampling several of his film scores through the day, and also looking into his concert-hall works: among them a garitty sinfonietta for string orchestra and a lovely clarinet quintet called "Souvenir de Voyage," a bittersweet work that should appeal to anyone who loves the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Stay tuned.
posted by James Reel
A review I contributed to Fanfare magazine ...
PURCELL Dido and Aeneas • Christopher Hogwood, cond; Sarah Connolly (Dido); Lucas Meachem (Aeneas); Lucy Crowe (Belinda); Sara Fulgoni (Sorceress); Anita Watson (Second Woman); Eri Nakamura (First Witch); Pumeza Matshikiza (Second Witch); Iestyn Davies (Spirit); Ji-Min Park (Sailor); O of the Age of Enlightenment (period instruments); Royal Op Extra Chorus; Dancers of the Royal Ballet • OPUS ARTE BD 7049 D (Blu-ray: 72:00) Live: 4/3,8/2009
Although it lasts only an hour, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas presents any number of problems that are rarely apparent in audio recordings, because the challenges tend to be conceptual rather than musical. The basic story is tragic: A vindictive sorceress manipulates Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, her Trojan lover, so that Aeneas feels compelled to abandon Dido and continue his travels,which will lead to his founding of Rome. Dido, distraught, commits suicide. Yet this very serious action is leavened by several dance interludes, and the role of the sorceress is often treated comically—should it be? And how can the lighter dance sequences be intergrated into the rest of the action? And how is the important role of Belinda, Dido’s maid, to be handled without making her seem like a mere lapdog? When you listen to a CD, you can work these issues out for yourself, or ignore them entirely.
On stage and on video, a director’s treatment of these issues is imposed on you, and brings great complications to what otherwise for most audiences is usually a purely musical experience.
“Purity” is a word that might be applied to Wayne McGregor’s staging of the work for England’s Royal Opera House; performances from a year ago are documented on this new Blu-ray disc from Opus Arte. If McGregor has a sense of humor, it isn’t manifested in this particular project. Oh, there are elements of the grotesque in his handling of the Sorceress and her two witches, which are here played as biracial conjoined twins who don’t get along, but they certainly don’t come off as comic. Neither do they really seem very terrifying, so the tone McGregor is trying to set is puzzling. Furthermore, the three of them—Sara Fulgoni as the Sorceress, Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza as the witches—deliver the least appealing vocalism in this production, and I don’t think it’s because they’re trying to sing in character. As for the dance interludes (and dance overlays with some of the vocal numbers), McGregor’s choreography seems almost tense; the dancers tend to maintain ramrod posture and favor repetitive gestures that allude to the imagery from the vocal text, and never break away as independent beings. There’s much to be said for such a consistent approach to the total work, unless you find a full hour of unrelieved gloom to be unbearable.
Similarly, Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are extraordinarly spare: a wall of faux granite in the palace, a line of emaciated young trees in the forest scene, a ruined ship’s hull on the beach, the only objects relieving the expanse of a bare stage.Fotini Dimou’s costumes further the notions of spareness and darkness: somber hues for all but the principal singers, almost everyone, male and female, clad in unisex tunics and ankle-length skirts.
The musical elements work with and against the rest of the production in interesting ways. Christopher Hogwood, that longtime by-the-book HIP specialist, leads the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a typically light and lean reading that makes all the necessary points while eschewing most special effects. The singers, in contrast, are hardly the white-voiced wraiths that dominated English Baroque performance 30 years ago. Aside from the impassioned Aeneas, Lucas Meachem, who seems to have wandered in not from Troy but from some 19th-century Italian opera house, the singers expertly employ just enough vibrato and other subtle techniques to bring substantial warmth to their work without creating an excessively anachronistic sound. In this regard, Sarah Connolly as Dido and Lucy Crowe as Belinda are outstanding—expressive, focused, entirely comfortable in their roles’ tessituras, keenly attuned to the text (and always employing crystal-clear diction). Dido doesn’t give Connolly much emotional range, but Crowe makes Belinda a bundle of devotion, concern, anguish, and even at one point a little jealousy without ever overplaying.
Perhaps this production sounds too ascetic to you, but be assured that it is hardly bloodless. The audio formats are limited to PCM 2.0 and 5.1. The only special feature worth noting is a fairly interesting 10-minute interview with McGregor; there’s also a good booklet note by Rebecca Herissone on how Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has fared through history. James Reel
posted by James Reel
I've gotten about a year behind in posting the reviews I write for Fanfare. I'll try to catch up in the next few weeks, and here's a start: Rachmaninov and Bruckner on SACD.
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini • Denis Matsuev (pn); Valery Gergiev, cond; Mariinsky O • MARIINSKY MAR0505 (SACD: 63:15)
In these two of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works, Denis Matsuev is a more nuanced interpreter than I’d expected from his past work, now taking more care with the phrase-to-phrase tension and release; only one or two passages in the concerto’s third movement are as glib as I’d feared. Still, what most defines Matsuev’s approach is the remarkably accurate rendering of the fastest, most glittering material (in the concerto, by the way, he uses the shorter first-movement cadenza). If your taste runs to virtuosic showmanship in this music, Matsuev’s performance might be satisfactory if it weren’t for the bland orchestral contribution, which suffers from poor recording balance and inattentive work from the podium. Valery Gergiev, as so often these days, is functioning on autopilot; despite Matsuev’s attempts to goad Gergiev into the proper sprit, the early pages of the Paganini Rhapsody lack any trace of the whimsy so evident in, for example, the old Reiner version with Rubinstein. In the concerto, the lower strings are almost inaudible when they take over the melody about a minute into the first movement, leaving the keyboard passagework to dominate in a balance that turns to aural clutter and remains that way through much of the disc. For the concerto, on SACD alone, you’d be better sticking with the classic Cliburn/Kondrashin account on RCA, or, among more recent versions, Volodos/Levine on Sony or, for personality galore, Lang Lang/Temirkanov on Telarc. James Reel
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 7 • Mariss Jansons, cond; Bavarian RSO • BR KLASSIK 403571900100 (SACD: 65:08)
If you believe Bruckner needs to be tamed, this is the disc for you. To his credit, Mariss Jansons does not lose interest in the Seventh Symphony’s small-scale passages, like the quasi-minuet turned quasi-nocturne beginning about six minutes into the first movement. Still, he can’t quite overcome Bruckner’s typical start-and-stop structural problems or his tendency to squander too much time obsessing over the least interesting material, and consequently Jansons doesn’t really succeed in shaping a long-term argument. What Jansons produces instead is a highly professional but neutral delivery of the score in a neutral recording space, with just enough reverb to help bring the music to life without then drowning it in cathedral echo. There are many appealing passages in this performance, such as the dark nobility with an undercurrent of grief in the opening of the second movement, and the firm, extroverted string work in the Scherzo. On the other hand, there’s just not enough swing through the second half of the symphony, and there are times when the brass lines are barely projected. (By the way, Jansons uses the Nowak edition, with the cymbal crash in the Adagio.) Overall, this Jansons account reminds me of Bernard Haitink’s old Bruckner recordings for Philips. Not incidentally, Haitink’s recent remake of the Seventh with the Chicago Symphony is available in surround sound on CSO Resound, and if you like this way of performing Bruckner, Haitink’s performance is more consistently managed and balanced. James Reel
posted by James Reel
Tuesday, June 21 is the first day of summer, and we've lined up a full day of classical music for the season. It all starts after the 6 a.m. news with Gershwin's "Summertime," and concludes in the 6 p.m. hour with Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. In between will be summer favorites by Vivaldi, Berlioz, Barber, Honegger and Delius (it seems like half his pieces have the word "summer" in their titles). There will also be lots of lesser-known items by the likes of Copland, Rodrigo, Higdon and Prokofiev. And just so you don't feel oppressed by the summer musical heat, we'll survey all four seasons via compositions by Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Piazzolla. Turn up the air conditioning and join us.