Posts Tagged ‘Deutsche Grammophon’

Margaine, Tézier Find Favor

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

La Favorite at Bavarian State Opera in Munich

Published: February 27, 2018

MUNICH — Sometimes the revival has the better cast. So it was for La Favorite at Bavarian State Opera on Sunday, when Giacomo Sagripanti, Clémentine Margaine and Ludovic Tézier made more sense of the music than their counterparts in the 2016 production’s first run (a Deutsche Grammophon DVD) — conductor Sagripanti instilling new urgency and sweep, Margaine singing magnificently as Léonor, Tézier’s Alphonse resonant and incisive. Matthew Polenzani and Mika Kares reprised their monastic duties as Fernand and Balthazar, Kares with impressive control of line. Much applause. It was, though, a night to listen rather than look because Amélie Niermeyer’s morally confused, for-the-camera staging serves neither the historical characters nor Donizetti’s.

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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Fall Discs

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Recommended CDs and DVDs

Published: November 26, 2017

MUNICH — Post is under revision.

Photos © Arthaus, BelAir Classiques, Querstand, Supraphon, Warner Classics

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Safety First at Bayreuth

Friday, August 19th, 2016

Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2016

Published: August 19, 2016

BAYREUTH — Clouds over Europe’s festivals this summer are as figurative as they are literal. The trouble is not lower standards or Regietheater, or even money, but has to do with Europe itself and macabre shifts that are gradually threatening the way of life accepted since 1945. Last year, you could see it in the organized beggars at the very doors of the Salzburg Festival under the noses of undirected Austrian police. Now it shows, conversely, in a massive security operation around this city’s Festspielhaus. Nobody knows what is coming for the various main seasons.

Consider: nine police vans at Wagner’s theater, forty officers; Arndt Gruppe protective staff, carrying; no visitor walk-around of the building without recourse to the street; segmented access areas; Siegfried-Wagner-Allee closed to vehicles; taxis on a footpath loop to the Liszt-Büste; endless patrols; bag searches (but no metal detectors); and ticket checks at the doors, at the feet of the interior stairs, and on entry to the auditorium. Heightened security was announced months ago — before an Afghan asylum-seeker armed with an ax hurt four people on a train here in Bavaria on July 18, before an Iranian-German obsessed with mass killings shot nine people dead in Munich on July 22, before a Syrian asylum-seeker slew a pregnant woman with a meat cleaver near Stuttgart on July 24, and, pertinently, before another Syrian that same evening botched a plan to explode his metal-piece-filled backpack among two thousand listeners at a different music festival in this state.

No extra measures applied, the Bayreuth Festival said, for Tristan und Isolde (Aug. 1) or Parsifal (Aug. 2, pictured) with Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel in discreet attendance. Both performances upheld high levels of artistry, at least in terms of the listening.

Christian Thielemann, whose impulsive musicianship suits the love-potion work, gauged the score’s climaxes shrewdly and made as much of its barely pulsing nostalgia as of its ecstasies. His hidden orchestra — drawn from a roster of 198 musicians from no fewer than 55 orchestras, 52 of them German — delivered entrancing, duly rapturous sounds, though detail in this instrumentally driven Musikdrama would have registered more luminously in a normal theater. Petra Lang, a past Brangäne for Thielemann and here for the first time an Isolde, produced consistently full and secure dark tones but swallowed much of the text; stage direction presented the promised bride as violent as well as sarcastic. Stephen Gould’s noble Breton tended toward blandness in the high notes, but a musically astute and unstinting portrayal in accented German emerged anyway. Georg Zeppenfeld sang Marke richly, with solid lows, but projected little in the way of authority; being depicted as a kind of thug did not help. Claudia Mahnke’s Brangäne got somewhat quashed by Lang’s timbre and haughty stage presence, while Iain Paterson, as Kurwenal, wobbled vocally on the approach to Cornwall before finding his form.

Hartmut Haenchen’s way with Parsifal, finely executed by the orchestra, brought a perceptive sense of purpose to each phrase, not least in a deeply focused Act I Vorspiel. But the conductor proved less potent in ensembles and dense passages, seemingly unwilling to home in on any single musical line. He had a strong cast: Elena Pankratova, whose thrilling top notes, resonant chest voice and attentive musicianship as Kundry reinforced impressions of a major artist, albeit one who appears to have doubled her weight in three seasons; Klaus Florian Vogt, a pleasing and relatively credible Parsifal; Ryan McKinny, intoning suavely as Amfortas; and Gerd Grochowski, musically incisive but dramatically betrayed as Klingsor. Zeppenfeld, alas, conveyed limited pathos in his neat delivery of Gurnemanz.

Neither of the two stagings offers an uplifting visual counterpart to the music or masterful use of color and form. Katharina Wagner’s considered production of Tristan und Isolde, new last summer, at least allies its Personenregie with cues in the score, and at Kareol musters a plausible probe of Tristan’s mind. But its spaces are confined, notably in Act I when the composer is breathing the sea air. And the young régisseuse undercuts the nobility of both Isolde and Marke. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s Parsifal staging is at its most poignant as Act III ends and the stage is left bare by exiting Muslims, Christians and a token group of Jews. What comes before is a leaden admonition, set in the unholy and here timeless Middle East, on the perils of religion. Topically for the German audience, it begins with Muslim refugees in Christian sanctuary. Act I’s Verwandlung lifts us on a cosmic flight out of Iraq courtesy of NASA and Google Maps. A quasi-Muslim Gurnemanz hands us off to a quasi-Muslim Klingsor who collects and fetishizes crucifixes. Kundry starts in a hijab, progresses to a mini-dress (in which she bizarrely nods off during her mission to seduce), and terminates as a graying kitchen hag in the service of the ruined knighthood. Less inventively, Laufenberg has Amfortas’ wound parallel Jesus’ stigmata; it won’t heal because the knights keep knifing it open to refill their sacred chalice. So much for ambiguity. DVDs of both operas are promised under a new deal with Deutsche Grammophon.

After a prolonged renovation, the wraps are off the Festspielhaus’s iconic façade for this first summer under the sole leadership of Katharina. The place looks spiffy, an impression reinforced by the uniforms as much as the gowns. A window right next to the unused central door now ventilates a men’s room. Newly sponsored carry-in cushions now enhance comfort in the auditorium. To their credit, festival staff are keeping up an amiable demeanor despite the security strictures. The caterer, meanwhile, is keeping up its margins. Steigenberger Hotel Group, out of Frankfurt, sells a wild boar sausage on a roll for €7 and a small beer for €5.50 (versus €5 for a better sandwich and €3.50 for a beer in Munich’s National Theater); its on-site manager jokes that steep prices pay for the security. In what amounts to a slap in the face for Landkreis Bayreuth’s own pilsners, such as the outstanding Hütten Pils made with water from the same mountain range as above Plzeň, Steigenberger serves a Saxon beer.

BR Klassik will audio-stream the Aug. 1 Tristan und Isolde at 12:05 p.m. EDT on Aug. 27, 2016, here. Video of the opening night of Parsifal (July 25) is here: Act I, Act II, Act III.

Still image from video © BR Klassik

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Winter Discs

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2012

Published: March 31, 2015

MUNICH — Arts projects in Europe with any visual aspect to them nowadays migrate to DVD whether or not there is a need, partly to justify public subsidy through distribution. Many are operas filmed too often, like Nationaltheater Mannheim’s just-released Der Ring des Nibelungen, which joins DVD tetralogies from Barcelona, Copenhagen, Erl, Frankfurt, Milan, Stuttgart, Valencia and Weimar issued since 2002. (The same staging nearly bankrupted Los Angeles Opera yet could not be filmed in the movie capital for lack of funds.) Others are more worthy or at least cover rarer material, and generally record labels can license their adventurous content with only modest investment. Here are seven such DVD releases along with some live or live-related European CDs, mostly from recent seasons.

Ivan Alexandre’s staging of Hippolyte et Aricie premiered in 2009 in the intimate Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. Its fluid interweaving of Rameau’s vocal and dance elements and credible Personenregie adapted to the composer’s pace earned it a transfer to Paris in 2012, now viewable on a 2-DVD Erato set. Alexandre approaches scenography using methods consistent with period practice and potential. Helped by handsome flat designs and tight control of color, the effects were intriguing and refreshing to watch in both cities’ theaters, and happily they advance the story equally well through the camera lens. Indeed the project is of a quality to set beside Jean-Marie Villégier’s legendary Montpellier production of Lully’s Atys and faithful to Rameau’s tragédie lyrique in a way the modish competing Glyndebourne DVD of 2013 could be only in its audio. Dynamic musicianship underpins the effort, with an admirable cast, notably Stéphane Degout as a mellifluous Thésée (pictured, right, aux enfers). Emmanuelle Haïm’s conducting, all elbows and fists, apparently suits her orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée.

Warner Classics, the new EMI, has issued a Berlin Philharmonic CD pairing live 2012 and 2010 performances of Rachmaninoff’s Kolokola (Bells) and Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle’s urbane and at times sultry reading of the cantata — the composer called it a choral symphony — disappoints, with his veteran soprano thin-voiced and only Mikhail Petrenko, his bass in the concluding Mournful Iron Bells, injecting much Russian flavor. But in the dances the conductor’s refinement creates an enthralling balance of power and grace, and he presents a progression from the bucolic first movement, through a hardened Andante con moto, to the contrasts and drama of the suite’s lengthy third part. The string sound has bloom and the woodwinds find a huge range of expression and character.

The Pergolesi tricentennial of 2010 did the Jesi-born Neapolitan composer proud, prompting Claudio Abbado’s priceless 3-CD survey of his choral music as well as a 12-DVD “tutto” collection of the operas, filmed in Jesi. Perhaps the richest single work is the comedy Lo frate ’nnamorato, written at the same time as Hippolyte et Aricie but a world away from it (and pointing forwards to Mozart rather than back at Lully). It is ably led by Fabio Biondi in the big set, but Teatro alla Scala in 1989 had a cast for this opera of charming da capo arias that won’t soon be equaled in technique or liveliness, and their RAI-televised work is currently an Opus Arte DVD. Several Italian singers at the start of good careers — Nuccia Focile, Luciana d’Intino, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, Alessandro Corbelli — energize the story of Ascanio (Focile), “the brother enamored” unknowingly of his two sisters and, luckily, a third woman too. It is unavoidably a larger-scale staging than the piece wants, but Roberto de Simone directs the action neatly on a revolving unit set. The orchestral playing has poise and discipline even if Riccardo Muti propels the score at a tad slower pace than would be ideal.

Twelve years after Cecilia Bartoli’s exploratory Decca disc of rare Gluck arias, the label has issued a companion CD introducing German lyric tenor Daniel Behle. Recorded under sponsorship in Athens in 2013, it leaps out of the loudspeakers. The Bavarian composer’s pre-reform music, now more familiar, can still startle in its inventive turns and loose palettes, and Behle, who sang a riveting Tito in the Mozart opera last fall here at the Staatsoper, opts for several pieces that lie high. In two contrasted arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta he copes manfully with technical demands while keeping power in reserve, as he did on stage. Se povero il ruscello from Ezio brings relaxed lyricism and a mellow timbre that caresses the line. The stunning scena that opens La contesa de’ Numi is duly dramatic. But who oversaw this project? Everything is closely miked. Period orchestra Armonia Atenea accompanies vigorously as led by George Petrou, right in your ear. Misplaced vowel sounds from Behle, in the context of generally accurate delivery, were not fixed. And we jump to French arias at the end, familiar ones, including a bizarrely jovial J’ai perdu mon Eurydice. Producers matter.

Stage director Pierre Audi in 2009 combined Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Christophe Rousset conducted imaginatively over an extended evening as Euripides’ heroine appeared first as teenager in a Greek port and then as adult exile somewhere in Crimea. Two years later Audi’s literally clunky conception — on metal steps and without backdrop — resurfaced in Amsterdam with a mostly changed cast and, alas, Marc Minkowski defining the music through irksome rhythmic stresses, missing much beauty. There it was filmed. Unenhanceable by camera blocking and with Aulide cut by thirty fine minutes, the production is now an Opus Arte 2-DVD set. Gluck’s first opera has the more lyrically inspired and stately score, with a terrific overture; in Tauride his musical frame is tauter and more overtly theatrical. Véronique Gens and Nicolas Testé excel as the young Iphigénie and her father, while Anne Sofie von Otter returns affectingly to Clytemnestre, a role she recorded 24 years earlier; Frédéric Antoun contributes a credible, unstraining Achille. Tauride revolves around the smart Mireille Delunsch, abetted by Yann Beuron (Pylade), Jean-François Lapointe (Oreste) and Laurent Alvaro (Thoas); all sing with imposing dedication.

The less rare Werther received an uncommonly strong cast at the Bastille home of the Opéra National de Paris in 2010, resulting in a 2-DVD Decca set that is reportedly selling well. Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann impersonate Goethe’s awkward soulmates, both fresh of voice. Originally created for London, Benoît Jacquot’s innocuous yet intriguing, glum and sparse production presents the characters faithfully, the action plainly. Unusually Jacquot serves as video director too, lending style by shooting from behind the scenes and above the proscenium as well as from out front. These angles provide glimpses of the conductor, Michel Plasson, who unfortunately blunts the contrasts in Massenet’s score and weighs it down.

When the French, or at least the Franks, helped the Roman Church standardize chant cycles and structures for worship in order to make the liturgy operable and enforceable across regions, their effort left out Milan. Charlemagne’s 8th-century directives invoking St Gregory encouraged steps to document if not yet notate chants, but in the city where St Ambrose had promoted the Church’s adoption of Latin — his small corpse still lies there wondrously on display — a divergent liturgy prevailed. Canto ambrosiano has accordingly stood apart, its manuscripts complete in one place, unlike the scattered repositories of Gregorian chant. In 2010 the Arcidiocesi di Milano, manager of this legacy, commissioned a book and recordings to survey and better disseminate the chants.

The resulting Antifonale Ambrosiano is invaluable. It reproduces scores in early and modern notation. It details Milan’s chant practices in italiano and truly spans the subject: chants for the Ordinary of the Mass and for the Hours (Vigilie, Lodi, Prima, Terza, Sesta, Nona, Vespri, Compieta), chants proper to seasons and saints, chants with psalm and canticle texts — each in one musical line, most to be sung antiphonally. Although not free of audible splices, the recordings are vivid yet with a resonant aura. Italian women and men sing in glorious Latin (and the vernacular), a joy in itself. The three CDs hold about as much music as Parsifal and are issued, with the book, by Libreria Musicale Italiana, an academic body whose website offers a handy carrello and U.S. shipping.

Then there is Bejun Mehta’s Orlando. The countertenor first personified the mad soldier at Glimmerglass in 2003 and must relish the vocal fireworks and range Händel gives him. A performance in Brussels leaked onto video, but in 2013 the same team reconvened in Bruges for a studio recording that Forum Opéra justly hails as an “Orlando d’une époustouflante intensité.” Mehta rises to every ornamental challenge, adjusts his tone to paint words, sings with evenness from bottom to top, and sounds so believably on the fringes of sanity that a Zoroastrian mend is only logical. Senesino lives. But it is not a one-man show. The other principals likewise inhabit their roles even if they crush countless Italian consonants. Sophie Karthäuser: super trills, too closely miked. Sunhae Im: charm in the voice, sweet-sounding. Kristina Hammarström: a focused alto with smooth, masculine tones. Konstantin Wolff: assured and agile. The conducting lacks subtlety but René Jacobs does support his singers, and Ah! Stigie larve! … Vaghe pupille, the accompagnato climax to Act II, properly showcases Mehta. Engineers of the 2-CD Archiv set alas place the B’Rock Orchestra Ghent far forward, so that even the expertly played harpsichord can grate. Fine, fleet woodwinds announce themselves in the overture.

Equally brilliant on a 2012 disc of seldom-heard Mozart concert arias is Rolando Villazón, the tenor whose voice and career were supposedly kaputt. After streamed (and moving) portrayals of Offenbach’s Hoffmann here at the Staatsoper in late 2011, he went to Abbey Road to make this Deutsche Grammophon CD with the London Symphony Orchestra. There the sound engineers proved that the art of balancing musicians hasn’t been totally lost, and conductor Antonio Pappano proved a resilient foil in the bold, precocious, clever, sad, amusing scores, even gracing one aria with a dryly comic bass voice. The results are essential listening, largely because Villazón gets straight to the heart of every piece and finds all the color, truth and humanity anyone could wish for. Even the juvenile work sounds masterly.

Alexander Pereira’s long years as Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich (1991–2012) brought a wave of sponsors for the company and, significantly, its “cantonization,” making it the charge not just of the city but of a wealthy catchment area reaching to the German border. Pereira had a confident ear for talent, built an ensemble, and gave lead roles to unknown singers like the tenors Piotr Beczala (from 1997), Kaufmann (1999) and Javier Camarena (2007). Working with a quintet of conductors — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie, Nello Santi, Ádám Fischer and Franz Welser-Möst — he widened the audience for the small house through DVDs, ahead of a trend. Two such projects late in the tenure were Rossini operas led by veteran Muhai Tang, with Bartoli, Liliana Nikiteanu, and Camarena in stagings by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. These are now out on Decca after a delay, poles apart in nature but both vividly impressive.

Stendhal described Rossini’s Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia, as “volcanic”; certainly it is an unsettling score and a contrast in sensibility to the other heroic operas. Zurich’s staging straddles the line between tragedy and melodrama, with credible interactions and an inner focus that does not let up. Sparse but graphically textured sets lend a tension of their own. Otello needs three tenors who can cope with a high tessitura and sing accurately through wild embellishments, and these it received when filmed in 2012. John Osborn is a duly martial moro, while the romantic role of Rodrigo is ardently taken by Camarena. The two are phenomenal in Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue, their bilious Act II clash. Edgardo Rocha is skilled as Iago (strictly “Jago”), a smaller role. Bass-baritone Peter Kálmán makes an imposing Elmiro (and Graham Chapman lookalike), but the capable women come across less ideally: Bartoli’s Desdemona machine-gun in delivery and Nikiteanu’s Emilia a deer in the headlights. Tang has the mood of the piece and conducts it with unfailing propulsion.

Great fun is Le comte Ory, a farce that brought down the Swiss house when premiered in Jan. 2011. Anyone who knows it through Bartlett Sher’s misfiring production for the Metropolitan Opera owes it to themselves to see Decca’s DVD: it is full of joie de vivre, keenly observed in its humor by the directing partners despite a seven-century advance in the action to 1950s France. Carlos Chausson sang hilariously at the premiere as the Gouverneur, who has a smug early scene, but he is alas replaced in the video (filmed later) by a discomfited Ugo Guagliardo. That said — and the Gouverneur does fade from the plot — there are outstanding musical turns from the other principals and all play the comedy straight. Bartoli moves from Isolier, the suitor role she sang in Milan long ago, to Adèle, Comtesse de Formoutiers, and is a stitch, literally, as directed, exuding dignity except where circumstance overtakes her. Rebeca Olvera essays a chain-smoking warrior of an Isolier. Nikiteanu is deadpan as Ragonde, making sparing use of emotive poses. Camarena smirks sweetly as the “ermite” but upholds due gravity as “Soeur Colette”; he and Oliver Widmer, the excellent Raimbaud, parade the virtues of ensemble acting as well as singing, not to mention comic timing. Tang and the orchestra breezily convey the score’s spirit.

Against the odds, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (1964) has become a repertory opera in German-speaking lands. The visionary magnum opus with its depraved storyline sanctions a grab bag of what are now Regietheater clichés, magnified by pluralism, simultaneous scenes and surround sound. Its 110 minutes embrace various musical forms and want a massive orchestra, plus jazz combo, such that, all told, the composer’s concept remains barely feasible. Recent stagings in Salzburg (2012), Zurich (2013*) and Munich (2014*) inevitably went their separate ways; the first, by Alvis Hermanis, is now a EuroArts DVD. Filmed in the Felsenreitschule and presenting a row of arched vignettes mimicking the venue’s rock-carved backdrop, it is preset for simultaneous drama. But once adjusted to the tritone stills of vintage porn backed by live-action images of walking horses, masturbating soldiers and Peeping Toms, the viewer tires of the left-and-right back-and-forth. A striking cast is headed by Laura Aikin as Marie; Ingo Metzmacher works magically with a somewhat backwardly balanced Vienna Philharmonic, not heard with the impact experienced at the venue.

[*Presumably in the DVD pipeline, worth or not worth the wait. Zurich’s has Marc Albrecht conducting a Calixto Bieito concept (less refinement, more degradation, spatially restricted and with lesser musical forces); Munich’s offers Kirill Petrenko on the podium and Andreas Kriegenburg directing traffic (less sex, more clichés). John Rhodes on the Swiss show: “Most sexual perversions and some torture were presented quite graphically … . Marie was in a constant state of undress. At the end she poured blood on herself and stood … as though crucified at the front of the stage.” In Munich the opening scene was overplayed, weakening what followed. Kriegenburg’s box-based staging offered unedifying and in the end unenlightening views, but Petrenko presided over an inflamed Bavarian State Orchestra and a superb cast centered on Barbara Hannigan’s Marie.]

Still image from video © Warner Classics

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Pollini Seals His Beethoven

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Beethoven Piano Sonatas played by Maurizio Pollini

Published: November 24, 2014

MUNICH — It took him 39 years, but Maurizio Pollini has now completed his recorded survey of Beethoven sonatas here in the Herkulessaal, where the project began. The final sessions, for the Opp. 31 and 49 pieces, were held in June this year, and the resulting CD set is due for U.S. release on Dec. 2, according to Amazon.

In all, twenty-three of the sonatas were taped in the 1,270-seat shoebox hall, part of Munich’s Residenz arts complex and a favorite venue of the 72-year-old Lombard pianist since he used it for his legendary Chopin Etudes disc in 1972. First built in 1842 as Bavarian King Ludwig I’s throne room, bombed during World War II and reopened for concerts in 1953, the stately but drab Herkulessaal remains this city’s one acoustically satisfactory venue for symphonic music and is a home to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Pollini’s slowly deliberated cycle, involving no second passes, started with the Opp. 109 and 110 sonatas in June 1975, when he was 33. Munich sessions continued in 1988, 1991, 2002 and 2007, while nine sonatas were recorded in Vienna and Lucerne. The record label is Deutsche Grammophon.

Photo © Rosanna Sibora

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At the Konzerthaus, a German Premiere and a half-empty Hall

Friday, March 14th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid


The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin presented what was announced as a “French evening” on March 12 featuring the German premiere of Dutilleux’s Le temps l’horloge. The RSB has its share of competition between the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (another orchestra with broadcast roots), the Staatskapelle and others. But it was a surprise to see the main hall of the Konzerthaus half-full for guest artist Laura Aikin—one of today’s finest sopranos in contemporary repertoire—and the conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Dutilleux left behind only a small body of works, first writing for the voice later in his career, although he called it “the most beautiful instrument of all.” Poetry settings such as Correspondances, released by Deutsche Grammophon in a version updated for Barbara Hannigan shortly before the composer’s death last year, have already proved their staying power. In Le temps, a short song cycle written for René Fleming in 2007, the composer builds delicate worlds of sound around the singer, from the molten bed of strings in Le Masque, to the accordion and bass pizzicati of Le Dernier Poème.

In the final Enivrez-vous, the vocal lines become positively vertiginous against an orchestral backdrop at once frightening and playful, perhaps a self-conscious warning against Baudelaire’s hedonist sentiments. Aikin mastered the technical demands with flexible but full-bodied lines, moving through each atmosphere with a clear sense of musical architecture. It is a shame her French diction did not rise to the same standards, making it difficult to appreciate the poetry’s beauty. Morlot coaxed, at least from my seat directly above the stage, what sounded like a clean, well-calibrated performance from the orchestra. The instrumental Interlude beginning with a fugato in the cellos took on a dreamy quality that allowed the listener to wander aimlessly through the sea of emotions.

Martinù’s Sixth Symphony opened the evening with swirling textures that recalled the cycle’s first poem and namesake, Le temps l’horloge. Despite the symphony’s distinctive and mainly Czech-influenced orchestration, one can detect shades of Débussy and Stravinsky in the atmospheric timbres and biting harmonies. The music has moments of quick vacillation between peace and despair, such as the violin solo above timpani in the opening movement, or the angry brass and woodwind blasts that interrupt the humdrum strings in the following Poco allegro. But even ominous moments have a tremendous sense of momentum which Morlot captured with the orchestra, even if its vigorous playing at times compromised a sense of elegance.

The brass playing sounded less clean when I moved further away from the stage for the second half of the program, Débussy’s Images for orchestra, part of a series he undertook parallel to writing La mer. The RSB etched the textures in bold lines rather than shading in pastel, although Les parfums de la nuit of the second movement, Ibéria, proved an exception with gentle, swelling phrases. The following Le matin d’un jour de fête captured the playful atmosphere of a fair as the violinists strummed their instruments in dialogue with the winds. And although the diaphanous Rondes de Printemps still felt too opaque, Morlot maintained a high energy among the players that captured the fresh splendour of spring. Perhaps the atmosphere would have been even better with more listeners in the hall.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

Ives: Violin Sonatas on CD

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Violin sonatas of Charles Ives on CD

Published: September 25, 2013

MUNICH — Hilary Hahn threw a spotlight recently on benchmark American chamber music: the four violin sonatas of Charles Ives. Fond of the Third Sonata (1914), she recorded the whole cycle for Universal Music Group in 2009, up the Hudson Valley accompanied by Internet pianist Valentina Lisitsa. The scores are probing, refined and intimate here, bold and sovereign of spirit there. They make an engaging group, and a lucid one: Ives’s propensity for throwing in the kitchen sink faces the agreeable constraint of two voices. The First Sonata (1908), at least, attests to Yankee genius.

But the highly touted CD from Hahn and Lisitsa is one of a dozen Ives cycles around and, it turns out, has not always the most to say. The discreet Munich label ECM Records, for instance, sells a 1995 traversal by violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger and pianist Daniel Cholette. To this recording, made near Heidelberg, the duo brought twenty years’ experience playing Ives, and Schneeberger, at 69, a certain éminence, having premiered violin concertos of Frank Martin and Bartók in the 1950s.

Not surprisingly, Hahn is at her most persuasive in the 1914 work. Its central Allegro lights up the Deutsche Grammophon disc, buoyed throughout by Lisitsa’s gutsy playing. The last movement, which Schneeberger and Cholette allow to turn saccharine, is saved by Hahn’s sense of purpose and cool clean manner. Similar qualities bring shape to the extended and ambitious first movement, where the ECM pair sparsely limp along.

Schneeberger and Cholette excel elsewhere. Their masterful First Sonata finds Ives’s lyrical and energetic impulses deftly balanced, and its Largo cantabile — affectionate, never precious — is traced with palpable American style. Here Hahn and Lisitsa sound cursory and the violin part wants more personality.

The Second and Fourth sonatas are shorter. The Second (1910) shares thematic material with the First; it is a more direct and perhaps lesser work than the other three despite the nostalgic labels on its movements. Schneeberger, and only he, makes an effort to present it in independent colors.

The concise, perplexing Fourth (1916) bears the title Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting. Ives began its composition with a child’s playing ability in mind but soon veered off in dark and tricky directions. Hahn and Lisitsa find the sonata’s lyricism but not much else. Schneeberger and Cholette adopt a painfully slow pace in the middle movement, famously marked Largo—Allegro con slugarocko, lending gravitas. Cholette is forceful here. The ECM musicians then bathe in irony the truncated last movement, with its reference to Shall We Gather At the River? Ambiguity reigns as the music trails off.

Alternative readings of the Ives cycle include: Rafael Druian, violin, and John Simms, piano, recorded in 1956 (Mercury); Paul Zukofsky and Gilbert Kalish, 1963 (Folkways); Zukofsky and Kalish again, 1972 (Nonesuch); Millard Taylor and Frank Glazer, 1975 (Vox); János Négyesy and Cornelius Cardew, 1976 (Thorofon); Daniel Stepner and John Kirkpatrick, 1981 (MHS); Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon, 1988 (Bridge); Alexander Ross and Richard Zimdars, 1992 (Bay Cities); Curt Thompson and Rodney Waters, 1998 (Naxos); Nobu Wakabayashi and Thomas Wise, 1999 (Arte Nova); and Lisa Tipton and Adrienne Kim, 2004 (Capstone).

Photos © Edition Zeitgenössische Musik and © Universal Music Group

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Hillary Hahn and Hauschka join Forces on ‘Silfra’; Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Friday, May 18th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Hillary Hahn’s taste for the unconventional has in recent years taken her career onto a trajectory unlike that of most violin prodigies. Last October, she appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series improvising to traditional American melodies that inspired the works of Charles Ives, donning a fedora for the occasion. She maintains an active web presence, blogging and twittering about her life on the road, perplexing critics last year when she posted a Skype interview with a fish on YouTube.

Her latest project is a collaboration with the German master of the prepared piano, Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka). After playing together at the behest of folk singer Tom Brosseau two years ago in San Francisco, the duo began meeting regularly to improvise and ultimately decided to consolidate their endeavors on a recording with Deutsche Grammophon. The recently-released Silfra, named after an island outside Reykjavik that lies just between the European and American continents, is a collection of non-notated works documented at a studio in Iceland.

“We had a hunch,” Hahn said to the audience during a DG “Yellow Lounge “ concert at Berlin’s Club Asphalt on May 10. “We played, then we recorded just improvising together, and now we’re on tour to capture that spirit.” Their next stops include Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Boston.

Hahn greets the audience at the DG Yellow Lounge © Stefan Höderath

The violinist, wearing a polka-dot dress and matching headpiece, seemed to revel in the freedom of entering the percussive and melodic layers of Haushka’s sound world. From my seat on a short wall at the far corner of the stage (the small basement venue was packed to the point that oxygen felt scarce), I spied wooden sticks, duct tape and tin foil inside the grand piano. Hahn responded with an intuitive, relaxed air to the whirring textures emanating from the instrument, from brief melodic gestures to full-thrust harmonics, yet her immaculate technique was always present. As she admits in an interview with local magazine concerti, she remains a perfectionist.

While several tracks on Silfra feature an atmospheric, minimalist blend that may not captivate those after ground-breaking developments in contemporary classical music, the album reveals a range of subtle ventures. One of the most effective works, at least for this listener, is fearlessly lyrical and neo-Romantic. “Ashes,” inspired by the eruption of Grimsvotn just a few days into recording, opens with a violin melody innocently inquiring into the underlying forces of nature against simple harmonic accompaniment. “No one walked outside. The birds went silent,” the musicians write in the liner notes. “The only sounds we heard were the one we made.”

The pieces all last under ten minutes with the exception of “Godot,” a slow exploration of Hauschka’s raw industrial sounds complimented by whinnying and other timbral exploration on the violin. The musicians write that the track is hypnotic in surround sound, which I haven’t been able to test yet. “Halo of Honey,” dedicated to Brosseau, traps the violin in a ghostly netherworld against crinkling and muted, distorted piano. The final track “Rift,” referring to the “deepness and isolation” of the island of Silfra, creates a sense of suspended time and nostalgia before launching into a mesmerizing minimalist tapestry. Hahn and Hauschka open the album with the last track they recorded, “Stillness,” which hovers in the upper registers of the violin and piano only to fleet by like an afterthought. Such free collaborations are rare in the classical music establishment, and while it may take an artist of Hahn’s stature to find the backing of a label such as Deutsche Grammophon, it could set a precedent for other soloists itching to explore another side of their creativity.

Mahler and Ravel with the Gewandhaus Orchester

A spring tour brought Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig to the Konzerthaus this week, a rare occasion to hear this fine orchestra in the German capital. For a moment I lost my orientation, as I’ve never heard a guest orchestra on the stage of the East Berlin hall, and the Leipzigers’ incisive string playing made me do a double-take. The program, seen May 15, opened with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G-major featuring Hélène Grimaud, elegant as ever in velvet pants and a fitted silver jacket. The French pianist gave a poignant, introspective account of the nocturne-like passage that opens the middle Adagio movement while Chailly stood with his eyes closed on the podium. He subsequently summoned graceful entrances from the winds, particularly in the flute and English horn solos, while the piano continued as if trapped in its own world. Ravel’s brief use of bi-tonality in this movement is one of its most captivating moments, and Grimaud did not wander from a tender but focused pianissimo.

The opening Allegro, peppered with the quote of a falling melody from Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and jazz rhythms, received a vigorous if not muscular reading from the orchestra. Grimaud indulged in impressionist textures that, while evocative of the spirit in which Ravel synthesized the influences of his time into a personal blend, threatened to submerge the piano’s inner melodies in a bleeding wash of colors, such as through the passage of Spanish-inflected triolas in the section Meno vivo. While Grimaud’s ability to subsume emotion contributes strongly to her appeal, a bit more Sitzfleisch would have made the performance stronger. By contrast, she revealed a razor-sharp technique through the rapid chordal spans and arpeggiations of the final Presto, whose tempo Chailly kept particularly fleet. As a colleague noted, the brass could barely keep up speed.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, also in G-major, created a more serene atmosphere for the second half of the concert. Following the Mahlerthon that occupied programming during the composer’s centennial last season, this work feels as commonplace as a Mozart Symphony, yet it is hard to resist Mahler’s delicious harmonies and searing Lebensschmerz, particularly in the inner Adagio. The Gewandhausorchester plays with a directness that nevertheless conveyed a sense of inner torment beneath the vital sheen of sleigh bells and nods to Viennese Classicism in the opening movement. The strings produced an even, warm pianissimo.

Chailly created unbearable tension through his use of ritardando in the Ruhevoll (Poco adagio) movement, steering through tearful laughter before the gates opened for Das Himmlische Leben, a song from the Knaben Wunderhorn cycle. Soprano Christina Landshamer’s youthful, clear timbre captured the childish delight Mahler explicitly instructed, yet there was no sense of the subtle irony that emerges in a more dramatically nuanced performance. While she and Chailly gave clear emphasis to the final stanza’s critical line “Eleven thousand virgins/allow themselves to dance,” the delivery was almost too reverential, failing to provide a window into Mahler’s ambivalent spirituality. An elderly couple to my left was following the text with a nearly pious air, not sure whether to give in to the movement’s mordant satire.