Arizona Public Media
AZPM on Facebook AZPM on Twitter AZPM on YouTube AZPM on Google+ AZPM on Instagram

Cue Sheet


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.

Classical Music,


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

Classical Music,


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

Classical Music,


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.

Classical Music,


Here are a couple of reviews I wrote a year or two ago for Fanfare covering discs that make unusual use of multichannel sound.

BRAHMS String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 • Auryn Qrt • TACET D155 (multichannel DVD-A: 102:26)

Richard A. Kaplan reviewed the conventional two-channel CD issue of this set in Fanfare 32:2; he rightly praised the group’s “remarkable ensemble, intonation, and rhythmic precision,” but found the readings to be “consistently unbreathing and inflexible.” I wouldn’t go that far; I hear sufficient tempo differentiation from one section to another, although moment-to-moment phrasing is not very loose. Like Kaplan, one of my longtime favorites in this matrial is the Melos Quartet on DG, which employs a more relaxed, elastic Central European style. Still, I find the Auryn Quartet’s traversal quite satisfactory. It’s also your only choice if you’re looking for the Brahms quartets in DVD-Audio.

The problem here for some listeners is that each instrument of the quartet comes from a different direction: the first violin from the left front, the viola from the right front, the cello from the right rear, and the second violin from the left rear. This is a configuration that you will never hear in nature, unless you are a music stand in a practice room. Somehow the effect is not claustrophobic; there’s a bit of distance between the listener and the instruments. Not surprisingly, the individual lines are remarkably clear, and the viola has an unaccustomed prominence. But if you insist on a realistic concert-hall perspective, this DVD-A is not for you; nor should you consider it if you’re using cheap “effects” speakers in the rear, because the instruments’ timbres won’t match and you may be creating balance problems. For many listeners, a better high-resolution-audio choice would be the Prazák Quartet’s Brahms series on Praga, if the label ever releases everything on SACD (it hasn’t as of this writing).

One final two-part question: Why did Tacet release the Auryn Quartet’s collaboration with Peter Orth in the Brahms Piano Quintet on a separate DVD-A? Wouldn’t there have been room for it on this single, long-duration disc? James Reel

VIVALDI The Four Seasons (two mixes). Concertos: in g, RV 317; in E-flat, RV 257 • Daniel Gaede (vn); Wojciech Rajski, cond; Polish CPO • TACET 16342 (DVD-A: 98:16)

In Fanfare 32:2, David L. Kirk declared the SACD version of this release to be “extraordinarily pleasing to the ear and the performances were equally pleasurable.” This DVD-Audio version is not simply the same thing in a different format; The Four Seasons appear twice, the second time in a surround-sound remix that will captivate a few Fanfare readers and send many others into a state of high dudgeon.

First, let me just reinforce my colleague’s positive reaction to the modern-instrument performances. Some of the solo work is absolutely fierce, and many of the fast passages—tutti as well as solo—really fly by, but elsewhere the playing eases off and lingers over the programmatic details. The opening sequence of “Spring” is especially arresting; the orchestral portion comes off like a quick march, which I don’t think is very effective, but then the solo instruments play their birdcalls with extreme rubato. It’s a very hands-on performance of The Four Seasons; the two extra concertos are played less audaciously, but the renditions are still quite nimble and extroverted.

DVD-A never really took off in classical circles, and at this point the only reason to flirt with it is the extended storage capacity. In this case, The 56-minute music program is presented in Tacet’s usual concept of surround sound, which places the listener at the center of the ensemble. Here, violinist Daniel Gaede is positioned front and center, with the first violin section on the left, the second violins and double bass on the right, the violas rear left, and the cellos and harpsichord rear right. The first time around, the instruments stay there. The second time through, things get wild.

What Tacet calls its “Moving Real Surround Sound” mix bounces everything around; sometimes sections hold their positions through a movement, but more often they jump to a new location between phrases. The sense of ambient space is large and reverberant enough that it usually sounds as if a very large orchestra encircles the listener, and only a few players from each direction participate at any time; in other words, it doesn’t usually sound like an electronic stunt. Usually. By the time we’re into autumn, though, the engineers seem to be reproducing some acid trip from the 1960s. They start manipulating the timbral nature of the instruments while they move things around, and that concerto’s slow movement sounds like a quadraphonic Wendy Carlos synthesizer production. Things do ease off thereafter, but it’s less a musical experience than a display of engineering virtuosity. This would work very well as part of an art installation, and some home listeners will love the sonic roller-coaster ride. If you know it will offend you, stick to the straightforward SACD edition. James Reel

Classical Music,


This May 24 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Paul Paray, an exceptional French conductor best known for his early-stereo hi-fi Mercury recordings with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, many of which were reissued on CD, and even in buffed-up SACD format (the latter taming Mercury's original over-bright sonics). You can read a little bio I wrote of Paray for the All Music Guide here, and, more importantly, listen to samples of his work through the day (Tuesday) on KUAT-FM. Stylistically, he was something of a French Toscanini, but had the benefit of an orchestra a bit superior to Toscanini's NBC Symphony, and of course much better sonics. We'll have Paray conducting items by Chabrier, Berlioz, Saint-Saens (including the "organ" Symphony), Bizet, Schmitt, Ravel and Debussy, and even Rossini, Lisz and, Dvorak (the "New World" Symphony). We'll cap it all about 6:20 p.m. with a recording of one of Paray's own compositions, the Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc.

Classical Music,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.