La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Ehnes-Parker Recital an Auspicious Start to Toronto Summer Music Festival

Left: James Ehnes and Jon Kimura Parker taking a bow (Photo: Joseph So)
Below: James Ehnes (Photo: Anna Keenan)
and Jon Kimura Parker

The 2009 Toronto Summer Music Festival got off to a suitably festive start last evening at the Carlu, the legendary concert venue that used to be known as the Eaton Auditorium, in the building that used to house the old Eaton's department store. Now we know it as College Park, of course. After years of disuse and neglect, the refurbished concert hall re-opened a few years ago. The concert last evening attracted a very diverse crowd of music lovers - I noticed many long time supporters of the Toronto music scene in attendance, as well as many youngsters who are participating in the 'academy' part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. I was of course looking forward to the joint concert of violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jon Kimura Parker, two of the shining lights in Canadian music today. As unbelievable as it may seem, this was their first time playing together. They have chosen a very challenging program -

Mozart Sonata in G Major, K 301
Prokofiev Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80
Aaron Jay Kernis Air
Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano

The hall was completely sold out, and this being opening night, there was a real sense of occasion. The harmony and precision of the two artists making music in a duo recital was exceptional - it is hard to being this was their first time playing together. Ehnes's trademark singing tone was very much in evidence throughout. Parker, a celebrated soloist in his own right, adopted just the right dynamic level, never overpowering the violin but at no time receding into the background either. I understand the two had just a single day of rehearsals, but they played as if they had been doing this together all their lives - a remarkable achievement. If the Mozart set a happy tone, the Prokofiev sonata was one of the composer's darkest works. Ehnes brought out its inherent lyricism without glossing over its pain. (This work, incidentally, was performed by Oistrakh and Richter at Prokofiev's funeral) For those in the audience who were not chamber music aficionados, this piece was challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

In the second half, the mood changed considerably. It began with a work by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. A violinist himself, Kernis composes gratefully for the instrument, with a full spectrum of tone colours. I find this very lyrical piece totally accessible and delightful - it was a highlight of the evening. There are moments of extreme high tessitura, an acid test for the violinist's technical control. As expected, Ehnes played with power, nuance, and ethereal tone. The formal part of the concert concluded with the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano, a real tour de force, and arguably the centerpiece of the evening. Stylistically it echoes the Kernis piece - their pairing, back-to-back, is an inspired stroke. The first movement was exquisitely played by both artists. Ehnes played the second movement with its jazzy rhythms and extra sound effects with great panache. The meaty third movement, the "perpetual motion", is a bravura showcase for the violin, and Ehnes demonstrated why he is the Canadian violinist non pareil today, one with a prodigious technique, but always at the service of the composer and the music. This brought the audience to its collective feet time and again. This was probably the most vocal and demonstrative chamber music audience I have witnessed in a very long time! The two artists rewarded the sold out crowd with two peices, the rousing Square Dance, and a second encore by Ravel.

The musical values of this concert were of the highest order, but I must point out that the venue left something to be desired. Perhaps because of its infrequent use, the two stage spotlights were aimed too far into the auditorium, blinding the audience. It was painful and distracting - a situation that must be corrected the next time this hall is used for a concert again. Also, surprisingly I find the acoustics a little cold, especially for the piano. But my major complaint is the lighting. Even when all the lights are turned on, the auditorium remains dimly lit. The seats, while padded, are put too close together, making for very uncomfortably seating. After the concert, everyone was invited for champagne, strawberries and cookies in the spacious lobby - a generous gesture by the evening's sponsors.

The next concert of TSMF is tomorrow (Thursday July 23 8pm), with the legendary Menahem Pressler joining forces with violinist Alexander Kerr, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins in an evening of Mozart and Dvorak, at the MacMillan Theatre.

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Friday, 17 July 2009

Letter from Munich: Palestrina

Left: Christopher Ventris as Pierluigi Palestrina
Act Three of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina
Bayerische Festspiele July 2009

Photo: Wilfrid Hosl

Palestrina, Hans Pfitzner's masterpiece, is held in high regard in German-speaking countries, but only rarely performed in the rest of the world. It didn't receive a professional premiere in the UK until 1997 at Covent Garden. The production subsequently travelled to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it received mixed reviews. There are a number of reasons for its checkered performance history. Composed in 1917, Pfitzner's musical idiom is considered old fashioned for its time - he bucked the trend when all his contemporaries were moving away from tonal compositions towards serialism. The score is stylistically closer to Wagner and Strauss than Schoenberg and Webern. Also there is the not-so-minor issue of Pftizner's Nazi leanings. There exists plenty of documented evidence of his racist and anti-Semitic views, and it's inevitable that Pfitzner the composer and Pfitzner the man are often conflated in any discussion. Even within Germany, a musically worthy opera like Palestrina received scant attention - until now, that is. There appears to be a mini-renaissance at the moment. Frankfurt Opera is offering a Harry Kupfer production of Palestrina with Kirill Petrenko in the pit, slated for June-July 2010. Munich is bringing back its production in spring 2010 with major changes, chiefly Charles Workman replacing Christopher Ventris in the title role, and Asher Fisch taking over from Simone Young. And finally, Chemnitz Opera staged the composer's Die Rose vom Liebesgarten starring its house prima donna Astrid Weber this past season.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to greater popularity of Palestrina is its musical complexity and its inordinate length - with two intermissions, it typically runs in excess of five hours. It takes a house with deep pockets like the Bavarian State Opera to do it justice, and it is fitting that a revival of this work takes place in Munich, as it began life in the Prinzregententheater in Munich in 1917, with Karl Erb in the title role and conducted by Bruno Walter. The opera tells the story of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina writing the Missa Papae Marcelli in the 16th century, a time when the church was trying to ban polyphony and return to Gregorian chant. His writing of this mass prevented the regression of church music.

The current production, first seen last January, is by director Christian Stuckl, who has done a superb job in coming up with a modern, stylized production that pulls no punches in its condemnation of the Catholic Church. The use of vibrant colours, the various updating - including Giovanni Morone (Michael Volle) arriving in a white stretch limo! - and most of all his ability to inject action into an essentially static opera all make it much more accessible than it would have been. Despite his best efforts however, there is no escaping the fact that there is simply too much text in the opera. Act One moves at glacial pace. In about one hour forty-five minutes, the only thing that happens is Palestrina - sung magnificently (July 10) by British tenor Christopher Ventris - sitting at his desk trying to compose but suffering from writer's block. He is interrupted by the arrival of Borromeo (Falk Struckmann), and the two men carry on a very lengthy dialogue. Without English translations, it's hard sledding for non-German speakers, no matter how well prepared one is beforehand. The appearance of angels in the last fifteen minutes relieved the tedium somewhat.

Act Two is set in the Great Hall in Cardinal Madruscht's Palace in Trent, where a convention is taking place. Stuckl livens up this ninety minutes with a colourful display of papal-wear. Each character is finely drawn, and expertly acted by the large ensemble cast. They all wear black makeup around the eyes and mouth, creating an air of grotesquerie. As incongruous as it may seem, there are actually moments of slapstick involving Bishop of Budoja (tenor Ulrich Ress) and other characters, particularly the highly unlikable Bernardo Novagerio, played and sung brilliantly by tenor John Daszak. Act Two ends in a brutal massacre, and an all-out brawl reminiscent of the end of Act Two Die Meistersinger.

After the two lengthy acts, Act Three at forty minutes is refreshingly brief. It is also here that Pfitzner is at his most musically inspired. Palestrina, now aged and weak, faces imprisonment by Borromeo. He is saved by his student Ighino (soprano Christiane Karg in a luminous performance) who hands over the music of the Mass. The work is then performed and is well received. The populace can be heard offstage singing the praise of Palestrina. Pop Pius IV appears and invites Palestrina to lead the Sistine Choir. There are moments of great beauty in the score here that rivals Act Three Parsifal. Palestrina dies amidst cries of "Evviva Palestrina!" Seen on July 10, I find Ventris supremely moving and heart-felt throughout, but particularly in Act Three. When Ighino makes a garland from branches and puts it on Palestrina, the echos of Act Three Meistersinger is unmistakable. However, the star of the evening was the orchestra under Simone Young, who coaxed fabulous sounds from the Munich forces. The singers and conductor were rewarded with enthusiastic ovations at the end. But it must be said that the intensity of the ovations in no way matched the other evenings at the opera. It seems that even for Germans, five hours of theological debate is too much - I noticed more empty seats with each passing intermission. I also noticed that there were six cameras in the auditorium, so we can expect a DVD release sometime in the near future. I look forward to experiencing it again, this time with subtitles!

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Thursday, 16 July 2009

Letter from Munich: Lohengrin

Photo: Wilfrid Hosl

The centerpiece of this year's Munich Opera Festival is undoubtedly the new production of Lohengrin. It features a stellar cast led by German tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann in his first assumption of the title role, which he is scheduled to reprise in Bayreuth next year. Kaufmann is partnered by the fast rising Greek-German soprano Anja Harteros in her first Elsa. The stage director is Briton Richard Jones, who has a long list of cutting edge productions to his credit. My own experience of Jones's work is limited to the Queen of Spades at the COC four years ago (originally staged for WNO), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ROH, as well as Hansel and Gretel at the Met (also originally staged at WNO). To my eyes, the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are successes, but I find his vision of the Humperdinck excessively dark. When it comes to the musical side of things, one can be assured of excellence in the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Kent Nagano. So it is no wonder that this Lohengrin is the most highly anticipated event of the summer. Tickets were sold out months in advance. In the performance I attended on July 8, I saw more people than usual milling about in front of the National-Theater before the show, holding up 'Suche karte' signs. Thanks to the Oper fur alle program, over 10,000 people got to experience the July 5 opening al fresco and for free, in Max-Joseph-Platz. The weather was threatening all day, and it did rain a little during Act One. The faithful stuck around and finally the they were rewarded with sun and dry weather to go with the magnificent singing for the rest of the evening.

How to describe the production? Upon entering the theatre, one sees flyers being handed out with the photo of a child, with the word "Vermisst" (missing) printed on top. A few of these are even pasted inside the auditorium. It doesn't take long to figure out the child in question is Gottfried, Elsa's brother. With the first strains of the prelude, Elsa stands with her back to the audience, in front of a vertically placed drafting table, designing what appears to be a house. In fact the house metaphor figures prominently throughout the opera. It is obvious that Jones has a singular vision in his re-interpretation of this most beloved of Wagner operas. His concept may be well thought out, but its execution I find problematic. If one is looking forward to a glamorous and Romantic production, he/she will have to look elsewhere. There are no pretty scenary and little hint of nature. Also problematic is the way the characterization of the leads. Dressed in track pants and a blue T shirt, this Lohengrin is a common man - albeit one who hangs out with a mechanical swan - someone who longs to settle down with Elsa into a middle-class existence, making babies in a suburban house with a nicely planted flowerbed. The two spend a lot of time building their dream home onstage, but a house without a proper foundation isn't going to withstand evil winds. When the doubting Elsa can't hold her tongue anymore on wedding night, their dream of a life together is dashed. But who could have anticipated that this Lohengrin would douse the crib with gasoline and setting it on fire! Telramund (Wolfgang Koch) is a big bully, manhandling Elsa throughout Act One. At one point, poor Elsa is threatened with immolation a la Joan of Arc at the hands of Telramund, only to be saved in the nick of time by the arrival of Lohengrin. The townspeople are also a curious bunch, the men in brown shirts and the women in sneakers and uniforms that recall National Socialist youths - the implication is clear. The opera ends with the townspeople sitting on barracks-like long tables, each drawing a pistol pointing to the mouth, a mass suicide that is both unnecessary and gratuitous. It's no wonder that the vociferous booing at the end was targeted for Mr. Jones. To be sure, protests of concept productions in European houses are par for the course. Yes, opera houses should not be museums and it is imperative to re-think and make historical works relevant to the 21st century audiences, but it is also important that such re-imaginings not go against the music, and the overall spirit of the work.

If the production was not to everyone's taste on July 8, the musical side of things received only kudos. To my eyes and ears, Jonas Kaufmann is simply the finest heldentenor since Jon Vickers. His timbre is reminiscent of the great Canadian, except Kaufmann has a more secure high register. Kaufmann embodies the role of Lohengrin fully. His In fernem Land was the most poetic I have heard. Arguably the best jugendlich dramatischer sopran to come out of Germany in years, Anja Harteros sang a radiant Elsa on Wednesday, her rich, luminous tone an unalloyed pleasure. She was dramatically powerful as well - this Elsa is no shrinking violet. The rest of the cast was almost as good, with Christoph Fischesser a well sung and unusually youthful Heinrich. As Telramund, Wolfgang Koch gave an intensely dramatic performance in his interaction with Ortrud. If there was a weak link, it was the Ortrud of Michaela Schuster - her voice is a bit underpowered and her timbre not sufficiently dark and menacing to contrast with Harteros. Schuster was mightily taxed in the final outburst in Act Three. Nagano led the Munich forces in a thrilling performance, perhaps a little too much power at the expense of spirituality. But all in all, this was a most memorable evening at the opera.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

This Week in Toronto (July 13 - 19)

After a brief hiatus in late June and early July, the classical music scene in Toronto and beyond has come alive again with a number of festivals that are well worth investigating. Now in its fourth season, the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy under music director Agnes Grossmann (July 21 to August 13) has proven singularly successful in offering high quality performances that Torontonians previously could only get by leaving the city. I remember fondly last year's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. The Festival opens on July 21, 8 pm at the Carlu with violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jon Kimura Parker, playing together for the first time in a program of Mozart, Ravel Prokofiev and Kernis. If you haven't been to the beautifully restored Carlu at the downtown College Park location, it is well worth experiencing. For information and tickets, visit or call (416) 597-7840.

Several other southern Ontario festivals are currently in full swing. The venerable Elora Festival (July 10 - August 2) opened with Berlioz Requiem, with tenor soloist Lawrence Wiliford, the Elora Festival Singers, the Mendelssohn Choir, andthe Elora Festival Orchestra under Noel Edison. Go to for more details and ticket information. Starting this week is the Festival of the Sound (July 17 - August 9) in its 30th anniversary season. Located in Parry Sound - a little farther afield from Toronto but well worth the effort. It opens on July 17 with Gold Medal Brass, a program of brass fanfares played by the Hannaford Street Silver Band under conductor Curtis Metcalf. On Saturday July 18, the Canadian Brass offers Swing that Music - A Tribute to Louis Armstrong. For more information, go to or call toll free at 1-866-364-0061 to purchase tickets.

Also of note is the Westben Concerts at the Barn in Campbellford, in the rolling countryside of eastern Ontario, a comfortable drive from Toronto. On Saturday, July 18 will be Schubertiad: Esterhazt 1809. It contains three separate segments - Segment 1 at 5 pm is Haydn Chamber Music, Segment 2 at 7 pm is Songs of Haydn, Schubert and Mendelssohn sung by soprano Virginia Hatfield, and Segment 3 at 9 pm is Mendelssohn Chamber Music. Go to for more information. Going in the other direction is the Brott Music Festival, under the artistic directorship of conductor Boris Brott. It has been under way since June 13 and will go until August 20. This week, pianist Sarah Davis Buechner plays Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto, with the National Aacademy Orchestra conducted by Brott. For light fare, on Saturday July 18 is Gilbert and Sullivan Go to the Proms featuring music from Priates of Penzance, plus such perennial Proms favourites as Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory, and Rule Britannia. For information and tickets, go to

Finally, I want to mention Digiscreen's Summer Cinema Series of productions from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, to be shown in selected Empire Theatre locations across Canada. In Toronto, it will be at the Empire Theatres in North York. It opens on July 25 and 26, with BBC's Last Night of the Proms from the Royal Albert Hall in London. It is conducted by Sir Roger Norrington in his first Last Night at the Prom's appearance. This and other shows are pre-recorded, but the sense of occasion is still very much in evidence. Tickets are at $19.95 per adult, $16.95 senior and $9.95 per child, tax extra. For exact cinema locations and to purchase advance tickets, visit

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Sunday, 12 July 2009

Mozart Mistreated at Aix-en-Provence Festival

At the festival of Aix-en-Provence, now in its sixty-first year, the final installment of Wagner’s Ring, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, has hogged the spotlight. Nevertheless, Mozart has always been at the core of the Festival repertory and the new production of Idomeneo did look good on paper. The opera has 6 performances, from June 4 through 17, in the traditional venue, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace in Aix.

Director Olivier Py has been heaped with praise for his work at Geneva’s opera for the past several years. Recently appointed to head the top Odéon–Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris (where the great Giorgio Strehler did much of his best work) he seemed a theater god who could do no wrong. This lumpy, limping production, however, suggests a serious case of clay feet.

First seen on stage are well-dressed African boat people (the Trojan prisoners in the libretto) who are menaced by AK-47 bearing men in black for no apparent reason. The story-telling did not subsequently improve. The use of massive amounts of structural steel led one critic to suggest that it was like Mozart meeting Gustav Eiffel. Actually, it was Eiffel who consistently demonstrated how light and graceful steel structures could be. Py’s “heavy metal” approach was garishly lit and oppressive to the eye. The ungainly sections twirled on wheels and, during duets, couples were compelled to sing while ascend stairs and opening doors all the while negotiating Mozartian rapids. The usually-cut ballet sequences (no choreographer was credited in the program) had half-naked young men camping it up when they were not pretending to dismember each other, reminding me of Madonna’s back-up dancers on tour.

It was not great vocal night when the singer with the only real feel for Mozartian style was the Arbace. Very impressive here, young Xavier Mas is clearly one to track. In the title role, tenor Richard Croft (Mozart’s 1789 tenor version was used) often had fine moments and his "Fuor del mar" was well received. However, his singing was strained when the music went “forte” and beyond. French tenor Yann Beuron, as Idamante, has had his voice fill out and thicken these past years and, while still lovely, it no longer has ease and agility. The talented Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser impressed as Ilia but, as with the decor, less steel would have been preferred.

When the grand Mireille Delunsch first descended the staircase as Elettra there was electricity in her voice that demanded attention. But, reaching stage level and directorial requirements - silent-screen gesticulations that would have embarrassed Theda Bara - all hope of a definitive character vanished. Later, during her final scene, there actually was a bucket of blood and she went ahead with the sponge bath, putting to rest the French idea of “du trop.” The Neptune - almost always on stage waiving his trident - was wearing what appeared to be a Woolworth’s bargain Halloween costume.

The singing, while not up to highest festival standards, served the music and Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble contributed a strong orchestral underpinning with their traditional gusto. A few orchestral sour notes could be attributed to the changing humidity as night falls - a traditional problem with outdoor concerts. This opera written when Mozart was only 25 year has been receiving much deserved attention in recent years; for instance, a fine new production of Luc Bondy at the Paris Opera. The Aix production, however, broadcast throughout Europe on the night I saw it, July 10, is not likely to induce a flood of ticket request for next season. This is an extraordinary opera but marred by cumbersome staging.

- Frank Cadenhead

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Saturday, 11 July 2009

Harry Somers: The Fool/The Death of Enkidu

The Fool: Tamara Hummel, soprano; Sandra Graham, mezzo-soprano; Darryl Edwards, tenor; Gary Relyea, Bass-baritone; David Currie, conductor; The Death of Endiku: Amanda Parsons, actor; Julie Nesrallah, mezzo-soprano; Martin Houtman, David Pomeroy, tenor; Doug Macnaughton, baritone; Alain Coulombe, bass; Les Dala, conductor
Centrediscs CMCCD 14209 (CD1: 46 min 50 s; CD2: 40 min 22 s)
***** $$$$
Harry Somers (1925-1999) est le compositeur canadien ayant obtenu le plus de reconnaissance internationale dans le domaine de l’opéra. Son Louis Riel de 1967 a d’ailleurs connu du succès à travers le monde et demeure à ce jour l’un des rares opéras canadiens encore montés. The Fool (Le Fou) est une œuvre précoce, créée en 1953. C’est une fable psychologique mettant en scène quatre personnages symboliques : le roi, la reine, la suivante et le fou. Ils représentent chacun une facette de l’homme en tant qu’individu. Le contrepoint relationnel des personnages sert de fondation à une exploration de l’esprit humain. La musique est un savant dosage de techniques atonales et de mélodies résolument tonales, qui font écho à un certain archaïsme véhiculé par les personnages eux-mêmes. Le tout évite heureusement l’écueil du mariage forcé et contre-nature, grâce au raffinement et à l’immense intelligence de ce compositeur encore beaucoup trop méconnu ici au Québec. The Fool est à la fois ludique et sérieux, une œuvre difficile à classer, mais à coup sûr un petit chef-d’œuvre. The Death of Enkidu (1977), projet à la fois inachevé et plus ambitieux, souffre un peu de ce trop-plein de prétention. Le sujet a pourtant de quoi stimuler l’esprit et l’imagination : L’Épopée de Gilgamesh, récit fondateur de la civilisation mésopotamienne. La saga babylonienne, écrite environ 2700 ans avant notre ère, est un support parfait pour les techniques atonales, les effets de percussions et la déclamation serrée proposés par Somers. Bien que fascinant à bien des égards, l’opéra n’atteint pas le degré de cohérence et de concision de The Fool. Le projet initial prévoyait une trilogie. La mort ayant emporté le compositeur avant qu’il n’entame la suite, nous n’aurons malheureusement jamais la possibilité de savoir jusqu’où cette épopée mythique aurait pu aller sur scène. Cela étant dit, peu importe les bémols, voici un document essentiel pour la mémoire et la culture nationale du pays.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Friday, 10 July 2009

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 6

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
LPO-0038 (2 CD – 83 min 53 s)
***** $$$

In 1991, Norman Lebrecht wrote of the phenomenal effect of Klaus Tennstedt in concert: “He found his favourite audience in London, where luridly coifed punks stood motionless in the bear pit of the Royal Albert Hall through his 90-minute performance of Mahler’s Sixth.” About the conductor’s return to the podium after surgery and treatment for cancer, Lebrecht went on, “He returned to give an awesome Mahler Sixth… that left many in tears.” And here is Tennstedt live in this crucial work captured by BBC engineers at the peak of his powers. It is an astonishing account and one that amply demonstrates the virtuosity of the LPO of 1983 and its consummate devotion to the fragile and chronically insecure conductor. This is a disc that no self-respecting Mahlerian should be without. Note also that the LPO label also offers an equally impressive 1985 performance of Mahler’s First (LPO-0012) coupled with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen sung by Thomas Hampson.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Deadline for Apero à l'opéra July 12, 2009

The deadline for non-professional singers to enter l'Opéra de Montréal's training program Apéro à l'opéra is this Sunday, July 12, 2009.

According to the press release:


To kick off its 30th anniversary activities, the Opéra de Montréal is pleased to announce that it is opening its doors to six non-professional singers chosen by audition to take part in a six-week intensive training programme, at the end of which the two best candidates will be given a chance to sing on stage at Place des Arts.

APÉRO À L’OPÉRA is the Opéra de Montréal’s latest outreach project, which allows talented, non-professional singers to show off their abilities on the Opéra de Montréal stage: in December at the Gala, and in January 2010 during a performance of Tosca at the Opéra de Montréal.

Non-professional singers must be fluent in French as that is the language of instruction. The application, including a letter of motivation, 2 photos, a CV and a home video of two performances including one opera aria, must be postmarked by July 12, 2009 (although it is a Sunday, try mailing it from a post-office in a pharmacy).

For more information, visit

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Jiří Kylián : Svadebka, Symphonie des Psaumes, Torso

Musiques d’Igor Stravinski et Toru Takemitsu
Nederlands Dans Theater; Jiří Kylián, choreographer
Arthaus Musik 102 115 (68 min)
***** $$$$

Ce DVD présente la captation de trois œuvres du chorégraphe tchèque Jiří Kylián – figure marquante du ballet moderne – réalisées entre 1975 et 1982 alors qu’il prenait la tête du Nederlands Dans Theater à titre de directeur artistique. Sur des bases classiques, Kylián développe un langage chorégraphique à la fois traditionnel dans les gestes et contemporain dans le propos. Dans Svadebka, basé sur Les Noces de Stravinski, Kylián démontre une vision énergique et joyeuse de la partition. Le chorégraphe utilise dans Torso, un duo créé à partir de Textures du japonais Toru Takemitsu, une gestuelle plus abstraite pour traiter des conflits vécus au sein d’un couple. Enfin, dans la Symphonie des Psaumes, musique de Stravinski, les gestes et les corps tendent à un absolu d’exaltation et de recueillement. Ce ballet d’une grande puissance poétique est certainement la création la plus marquante de Kylián. Ces captations vidéo réalisées en 1983 et 1984 par les télévisions publiques néerlandaises et suédoises ont une qualité visuelle qui date un peu (les couleurs sont légèrement défraîchies), mais leur qualité sonore est globalement très bonne. Le plaisir de découvrir ces magnifiques créations l’emporte sur les réalités technologiques des années 1980!

- Éric Champagne

Buy this CD at

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Mozart: Idomeneo

Richard Croft (Idomeneo); Bernarda Fink (Idamante); Sunhae Im (Ilia); Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Elettra); Kenneth Tarver (Arbace); Nicolas Rivenq (Gran Sacerdote); Luca Tittoto (La Voce)
RIAS Kammerchor; Freiburger Barockorchester/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902036.38 (3CD: 3 h 11 min + 1DVD: 45 min 50 s)
****** $$$$
Quel orchestre et quel chef ! À la tête d’un ensemble baroque galvanisé, René Jacobs conduit sans faillir le premier véritable chef-d’œuvre que Mozart aura donné au genre lyrique. Après Harnoncourt et Gardiner, il réussit à nous en faire saisir d’autres beautés, loin du hiératisme figé de l’opera seria. Il réitère ainsi le tour de force accompli, il y a trois ans, avec La Clemenza di Tito, faisant des récitatifs des moments dramatiques ou à tout le moins significatifs. Notre bonheur aurait été complet si la prestation soliste ou chorale était toujours de la même qualité. Oubliant qu’il fut grand guerrier, Richard Croft réduit un peu trop son Idoménée au ton élégiaque, ce qui fait double emploi avec le rôle d’Idamante, et la voix de Sunhae Im est trop éthérée pour faire croire à l’éprouvée Ilia, mais Bernarda Fink et Alexandrina Pendatchanska sont bien à leur place. Ces réserves peuvent être tenues pour mineures en regard d’une magnifique réalisation d’ensemble. Un DVD nous permet de jeter un coup d’œil sur les séances de travail intensif qui ont précédé l’enregistrement, tout en nous livrant les réflexions du chef et des artistes sur l’œuvre.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Janitsch : Sonate da camera Vol. 1 – Notturna

Christopher Palameta, hautbois, hautbois d’amour et dir.; Stephen Bard, hautbois; Mika Putterman, traverso; Hélène Plouffe, violon et alto; Kathleen Kajioka, alto; Karen Kaderavek, violoncelle; Erin Helyard, clavecin
Atma classique ACD2 2593
***** $$$

Si Johann Gottlieb Janitsch est un compositeur inconnu, ce n’est pas faute de talent, mais bien parce que la plus grande partie de son œuvre a disparu lors de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Heureusement, vingt-sept quatuors survivent, dont Atma entreprend ici l’édition, audacieux projet discographique appelé à faire date. Les œuvres révélées dans ce premier volume, pour la plupart inédites, sont en effet du meilleur cru. Actif à la cour de Frédéric II de Prusse, Janitsch développe un langage personnel raffiné où l’art du contrepoint savant hérité de la tradition côtoie l’esprit galant des frères Graun et le style fantasque de Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach. Pour notre plus grand plaisir, chaque pièce est présentée dans une instrumentation différente et souvent inusitée, voire rarissime, dont la seule mention est déjà prometteuse (flûte traversière, hautbois et hautbois d’amour, deux hautbois et un alto, hautbois d’amour et deux altos et ainsi de suite). Les musiciens du jeune ensemble montréalais Notturna, dont c’est ici le premier disque, maîtrisent parfaitement leurs instruments et en exploitent tout le grain sonore en de savoureux échanges colorés. Néanmoins, l’ajout d’une contrebasse ou d’un basson serait peut-être souhaitable, afin d’insuffler plus de vigueur au continuo, ici un peu en retrait.

- Philippe Gervais

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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Handel: Chandos Anthems

Emma Kirkby, soprano; Iestyn Davies, alto; james Gilchrist, tenor; Neal Davies, bass
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Layton
Hyperion CDA67737 (66 min 9 s)
***** $$$

Le duc de Chandos, immensément riche, se fit construire, comme le faisaient les aristocrates de l’époque, une gigantesque demeure à la mesure de sa fortune. Sauf qu’il décida de se payer également un ensemble musical personnel et un lieu magnifique pour y entendre les concerts de la plus belle musique existante. C’est comme si un milliardaire d’aujourd’hui se faisait ériger une salle de concert ou une maison d’opéra avec grand orchestre. Fantasme ? Oui, mais à une certaine époque pas si lointaine, et dans un autre pays, cela relevait de la réalité. Les Hymnes, ou Anthems, composés par Haendel pour le duc sont des exemples de la vitalité haendelienne à son plus brillant et admirablement contagieux. Pour ceux qui aiment les Coronation Anthems, le plaisir sera vite retrouvé dans ces œuvres irrésistibles. Les solistes sont impeccables. Emma Kirkby est toujours aussi lumineuse et la basse puissante et gracile de Neal Davies est particulièrement séduisante. La direction solide et précise de Stephen Layton contribuent fortement à la force de cette musique. Une très belle réussite.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Franz Schubert: Symphony No 8 in C major “The Great”

Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
Tudor 7144 (Hybrid SACD – 61 min 47 s)
**** $$$$

Until the relatively recent but belated arrival of the Zurich-based Tudor label, we had been denied a Schubert symphony cycle in super audio. Now the omission has been handsomely rectified. This disc (in the revised numerology in which the ‘Unfinished’ is designated No 7) caps a cycle of the highest merit and in state-of-the art sound. The other symphonies have been coupled as 1, 3 and 7 (7141); 2 and 4 (7142); and 5 and 6 (7143). Recorded between 2004 and 2008, these are performances to rival the effervescent finesse of the 1980s cycle from Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (DG). In this account of the ‘Great’ C major, Jonathan Nott treads a lighter and more flexible path than we may be accustomed to. This pays off in the wider dynamic of the super audio sound stage. If you overlooked RB’s enthusiastic reviews of Nott in Mahler and Janáček (LSM 14.9, June), this is a rewarding introduction to an up-and-coming British conductor and a highly responsive orchestra.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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An Emotional Journey: Clarinet Works of Johannes Brahms

Kennedy Center Chamber Players (Loren Kitt, clarinet; Lambert Orkis, piano; David Hardy, cello)
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90902 (65 min 15 s)
*** $$$$

This disc contains all the clarinet works of Brahms’ late period except for the Quintet. I must confess that I have always considered these pieces to be second-rate Brahms and this new recording doesn’t change my opinion. The Quintet is a glorious piece but these works often seems tedious and uninspired. Clarinetists love them, of course, but then they have precious few works by major composers to call their own.

The performers are all members of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., and the best-known is undoubtedly pianist Lambert Orkis. He is Anne-Sophie Mutter’s regular sonata partner and a fine artist. But listening to these performances I began to feel that either his personality was too strong or that of his colleague’s too weak. Especially in the sonatas clarinetist Loren Kitt plays beautifully but in a self-effacing kind of way. I think it is also Brahms’ fault in giving the piano much more to do. The notes by Kitt and Orkis are more interesting than the performances.

- Paul E. Robinson

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A French Collection : Pièces de clavecin

Skip Sempé, clavecin
Paradizo PA0007 (62 min 11 s)
***** $$$$

C’est une sélection des plus colorées que propose Skip Sempé dans son récent disque consacré aux pièces de clavecin françaises du XVIIIe siècle. Presque toutes sont à peu près inconnues, à l’exception de la flamboyante Marche des Scythes de Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer qui clôt le disque dans un feu d'artifice de virtuosité. Ce sont donc d’heureuses découvertes que Les Grâces de Jacques Duphly et Les Etoiles de Michel Corrette, véritables joyaux d’une tendresse exquise. Le jeu de Sempé est sensible et raffiné, mais il prend des libertés discutables quant au texte, notamment en ce qui a trait aux reprises et à l’ornementation. C’est par contre un plaisir que d’entendre dans une prise de son aussi chaleureuse un son de clavecin à la fois clair et riche qui saura séduire toutes les oreilles, les amoureux de clavecin tout comme ceux qui restent à convaincre. Un beau disque de découvertes à déguster.

- Camille Rondeau

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Letter from Munich: Trouble in Tahiti

Photo: Wilfrid Hosl

This rare Bernstein piece has always been problematic in the theatre. Its short 50-minute length means it isn’t quite sufficient for an evening’s entertainment. Like a few other Bernstein’s pieces, it is considered too lightweight by opera house when there are so many other, more “serious” Bernstein creations to choose from. European houses for some reason have always had greater appreciation for works the likes of West Side Story and Candide – I recall a staging of the former at the venerable La Scala. Set in suburban America in the 1950s, Trouble in Tahiti is a true period piece. My first encounter with it was a student production as an undergraduate more years ago can I care to recall. I never saw it again until two months ago when the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio did a concert, albeit rather enjoyable, version at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. By a strange coincidence, I saw it again here in Munich, this time in a big budget, elaborate production starring Rodney Gilfry and Beth Clayton. Additional material in a sort of German cabaret style was composed for the occasion, expanding the show to approximately one hour fifteen minutes, so technically this version qualifies as a world premiere. It is part of “Under Construction”, a part of the 2009 Munich Opera Festival that focuses on the new and the experimental, thus the addition of new material.

It opened on July 7th – to a torrential downpour outside – at the Cuvillies-Theater, a stone’s throw from the National-Theater where incidentally a performance of Werther was in progress. The heavily gilded Rococo Cuvillies-Theater and Bernstein’s jazzy score make for strange bedfellows, yet on a certain level it works given the eclectic and deconstructionist aesthetic that have dominated European opera productions in recent decades. Apparently no expenses were spared in this production, with lots of extra material added on, including elaborate filmed sequences of the characters, presumably shot on location in suburban New York. Before a note of Bernstein’s score, a character made up to look like a latter-day Pierrot does a little skit in German of material composed for the occasion. In the background we see filmed footages of the daily lives of Dinah (Clayton) and Sam (Gilfry), the middle-class American couple. The scrim goes up to reveal a very well executed replica of the American home, down to the angel stone on the fireplace. The style is tongue-in-cheek irony. The yellow Happy Face takes pride of place over the fireplace, never mind that this ubiquitous icon of pop culture had not yet been invented in 1952 when Bernstein wrote the piece! It’s soon clear that all is not well – despite the exterior façade, the marriage is falling apart. Throughout, a jazz trio, not unlike the typical commedia dell’arte troupe, periodically interject to do a song and dance, giving us a running commentary. Each character ruminates about life, the wishes and dreams unfulfilled. There is really no resolution at the end, with Sam and Dinah agreeing to go see the latest movie in town, something called Trouble in Tahiti. Will they manage to reconcile? It’s left up to the audience. This ambiguous unresolved ending was an inspired stroke by Bernstein, as it was composed at a time (1952) when audiences still wanted, indeed expected, some sort of resolution, if not happy endings. It was unusual at the time, but despite all that was lavished on this piece in this production, it still comes across as awfully dated. I daresay if Bernstein were alive today, he would have composed something probably very different, maybe more along the lines of the recent film, Revolutionary Road. Clayton and Gilfry were visually perfect as the ideal American couple, and each gave a strong vocal performance. Her big number, ‘A Quiet Place’, was delivered with just the right mix of wistfulness and panache. The much-reduced Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Ken Nagano played well if a tad too loudly. A few of the set design and directorial touches by Schorsch Kamerun bordered on overkill, such as the giant inflated, Ken and Barbie-like dolls, or junior’s dinosaur. Even the lovely chandeliers in the theatre were called into service, flashing on and off during a particularly spirited jazz number! At the end of the day, it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti is a frothy yet astute commentary on American culture, marriage and family life, no more and no less. This production, while fun to watch and very nicely performed, does appear to be rather inflated, even a little heavy-handed. Still, it’s not a bad way to spend 80 minutes in this incredibly beautiful theatre.


Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Stravinsky: The Ballets – Robert Craft Edition

Various Artists
Naxos 8.506009 (6 CD : env. 7 h 30 min)
**** $$$$

Au premier regard, l’amateur s’étonne du fait que plusieurs opéras font partie du coffret. L’explication est toute simple : Naxos a regroupé toutes ses parutions de ballets existantes avec Craft à la barre (en conservant jusqu’aux boîtiers et pochettes), qu’elles incluent d’autres genres ou non. Évidemment, cela désavantagera l’offre pour les mélomanes, les plus scrupuleux optant avec raison pour l’achat « à la pièce » de leurs œuvres préférées – surtout lors des fréquentes promotions des produits Naxos. Cela étant dit, les mordus de Stravinsky ne devraient pas se casser la tête et se procurer directement ce généreux coffret, malgré des versions peu mémorables de L’Oiseau de feu et de Petrouchka. Car Les Noces et les Scènes de ballet sont époustouflantes et nombre de lectures sont supérieures à la moyenne (notamment Agon, Oedipus Rex, Capriccio pour piano et orchestre).

- René Bricault

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Wagner: Das Rheingold

Hoff, Caves, Hansmann, Mowes, Aurich, Meszar, Tsumaya, Weissmann
Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St. Clair
Stage Director: Michael Schulz
Arthaus Musik DVD 101 353 (166 min)
** $$$

There has been a proliferation of Ring Cycles on video in recent years. The latest entry is the Weimar Ring, this Das Rheingold being its first installment, with Die Walkure on the way. Premiered in July 2006 and taped in 2008, it features singers drawn mostly from the Weimar ensemble, none of whom is of international rank. German theatres have long abandoned traditional interpretations of the Ring in favour of concept productions. This one by director Michael Schulz underscores the strengths and weaknesses of this aesthetic. Before a single bar of music has sounded, three young girls – called Norns in the booklet – come onstage with hand puppets, reciting a few lines from Wagner’s original text on the Ring. This sets the tone, shall we say! In the first scene, the three Rhinemaidens are joined by their topless girl friends, for reasons unknown. Alberich wears fake boots and walks on his knees. The gods are a real motley crew. Visually there are some striking moments, even an occasional inspired stroke – I like the unveiling of Valhalla as a gigantic oil painting into which the gods enter at the end. But perhaps because of budget constraints, some of the sets look like they come from Wal-Mart. The singing is variable, from very good (Erda) to serviceable (Loge and the Giants) to the downright awful. There are too many unsteady voices – Fricka, Mime, and worst of all, the Alberich of Tomas Möwes, who cannot sustain a note without collapsing into a huge wobble. Problematic is the Wotan of Mario Hoff, whose high baritone, while pleasant enough, lacks the requisite authority and gravitas. One bright spot is the playing of the Staatskapelle Weimar under the knowing baton of Carl St. Clair. I’d hate to introduce anyone new to the Ring with this show. The high definition picture is exemplary – too bad the content doesn’t quite measure up.

-Joseph K. So

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Alla Francesca (Brigitte Lesne, chant, harpe médiévale, harpe gothique, percussions; Pierre Hamon, flûtes à bec, traversière bansuri, double flûte, flûte et tambour, cornemuse; Carlo Rizzo, tammorra, tamburello, tambourins, chant)
Zig Zag Territories ZZT 090402 (63 min 14 s)
**** $$$$

Cet enregistrement reflète les multiples visages d’une Méditerranée millénaire, visages nostalgiques ou enjoués, mystiques ou sensuels, selon la perception qu’en ont eu les peuples qui ont vécu sur ses bords ou dans ses îles. C’est dans des langues encore mal dégagées du latin (occitan, castillan, florentin, napolitain) que sont donnés ces chants dont la plupart remontent au Moyen Âge ou sont traditionnels; la traduction fournie par le livret s’avère indispensable. Leur communauté d’inspiration saute aux oreilles, pourrait-on dire, et les thèmes traités, religieux ou profanes, de la berceuse au chant d’amour, sont universels. Malheureusement, on se rend compte un peu trop vite de cette communauté, en raison d’atmosphères et de rythmes qui frôlent la monotonie. Le chant témoigne certes de science et de conviction, mais la réalisation est trop limitée par l’instrumentation typique de la flûte et du tambourin. Un document qui devrait intéresser le musicologue et l’historien des civilisations.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Mozetich: Lament in the Trampled Garden; Angels in Flight; Hymn of Ascension; Scales of Joy and Sorrow

Erica Goodman, harp; Nora Shulman, flute; Shalom Bard, clarinet; Christopher Dawes, harmonium; Penderecki String Quartet; The Gryphon Trio
Centrediscs CMCCD 14009 (62 min 24 s)
**** $$$

Le Canadien Marjan Mozetich (né en 1948 de parents slovènes) est l’un des compositeurs les plus en demande aujourd’hui au pays. On peut comprendre pourquoi. Le type de néo-impressionnisme teinté de minimalisme qu’il défend est très en vogue dans la musique de film et procure un plaisir instantané à un public néophyte en création musicale contemporaine. Plusieurs critiques du compositeur qualifient volontiers sa musique de superficielle. Or, bien que la couleur et le trait prennent beaucoup de place dans son écriture, l’auditeur attentif aura quand même le plaisir de goûter à la substance qui se camoufle derrière le joli colorisme. Angels in Flight (pour quatuor à cordes, harpe, flûte et clarinette) suggère habilement le vol délicat de quelques légers chérubins. Lament in the Trampled Garden (pour quatuor à cordes) est une lamentation sur le destin tragique d’une nature piétinée par l’homme. Quelque part entre Philip Glass et Henryk Górecki, cette œuvre exprime avec force les considérations environnementalistes du compositeur. Hymn of Ascension juxtapose audacieusement cordes et harmonium. Cette pièce est la plus sombre du programme, mais aussi la plus poignante. Scales of Joy and Sorrow (pour violon, violoncelle et piano) nous transporte dans un cinéma musical empreint de nostalgie et de mélancolie.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas – 2

Vesa-Matti Leppanen, violin
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Peter Breiner
Naxos 8.570556 (70 min 31 s)
**** $

La suite orchestrale est généralement le sous-produit d’une œuvre de plus grande envergure (ballet, musique de scène, opéra) qui avait pendant longtemps une fonction de diffusion, un peu comme la bande-annonce au cinéma. Certaines de ces suites se sont cependant imposées au répertoire – que l’on pense seulement à celles tirées de l’Oiseau de feu ou de Peer Gynt. En ce qui concerne Janáček, seule La petite renarde rusée à fait l’objet d’une suite symphonique en deux mouvements, jouée à l’occasion par les grands orchestres de ce monde. Voici que le compositeur, arrangeur et chef d’orchestre Peter Breiner propose ses arrangements symphoniques des opéras de son compatriote tchèque. Le tout est musicalement sans faille : ces suites sont habilement arrangées et structurées, reprenant les passages les plus significatifs des opéras dont elles sont issues. De plus, l’orchestre symphonique de Nouvelle-Zélande fait preuve d’une sonorité d’ensemble exemplaire, avec en prime une riche section de cordes et une grande diversité de coloris dans les vents. La seule question qui s’impose est la suivante : pourquoi acheter un disque de suites orchestrales alors que l’intégrale de ces opéras est nettement plus satisfaisante ? Question de goût j’imagine. Ce sera au consommateur de trancher.

- Éric Champagne

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GF Handel: Tamerlano

Plácido Domingo (Bajazet), Monica Bacelli (Tamerlano), Ingela Bohlin (Asteria), Sara Mingardo (Andronico), Jennifer Holloway (Iren), Luigi De Donato (Leone)
Orchestra of the Teatro Real (Madrid Symphony Orchestra)/Paul McCreesh
Stage Director: Graham Vick
Video Director: Ferenc van Damme
Opus Arte OA 1006 D (3 DVD – 241 min)
***** $$$$

Here is Plácido Domingo at the age of 70 giving the performance of a lifetime. The voice may no longer be the immaculate instrument of the past but Domingo has lost nothing of his ability to project a character on stage. This appearance, in Handel’s most dramatic tenor role, amply confirms his standing as the commanding singer-actor of the era. Tamerlano is a work of annihilating gloom. Bajazet is the Ottoman sultan taken captive by the Oriental tyrant Tamerlano. In the first scene, he is anguished and seeking death (which will take him most of three acts to find). The plot is thickened by a diabolical love quadrangle, the mutually destructive devotion of a father and daughter and attempted regicide. Domingo’s performance is remarkable, yet it is Monica Bacelli, in the title role, who really steals the show. She delivers inspired singing (with an impressive lower register so important in a ‘trousers’ role) in a strikingly kinetic manner. This lady can move to awesome effect. The remainder of the cast is excellent. The sets and costumes designed by Richard Hudson are gorgeous. Paul McCreesh directs a fine account of the orchestral score (on modern instruments), which supplements the momentum created by Graham Vick. An informative interview with McCreesh is included as a special feature on disc 1.

The general entertainment value of baroque opera in general and Handel in particular on DVD has escalated sharply in the past few years. Tamerlano as produced by Jonathan Miller and conducted by Trevor Pinnock in 2001 (Arthaus DVD) looks static and seems a lot longer than four hours when compared to this exciting Madrid production. The trend for the small screen was set in 2005 with David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare (Opus Arte) and continued with a sophisticated Zurich staging of Handel’s Orlando (Arthaus) last year. William Christie conducted both and returned to Zurich with Cecilia Bartoli for Semele, which is being released by Decca. The key point to remember is that Handel illustrated everlasting characters and timeless relationships with his music. The new wave of baroque opera films has taken the works out of dusty archives for presentation in your home theatre.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Gustav Mahler: Symphonie No 1

Bamberger Symphoniker/Jonathan Nott
Tudor SACD 7147 (55 min 25 s)
**** $$$$

Dommage que les harmoniques aux cordes et les trompettes en coulisse se perdent tant face aux bois plus costauds dans l’introduction du premier mouvement, car ces derniers font preuve d’un extraordinaire équilibre entre eux, un vrai plaisir à entendre. Le reste du mouvement ne peut se jouer plus lentement, car on frise déjà l’insupportable. (Ici, la nature ne s’éveille pas, mais paresse au lit par un beau dimanche matin.) Cette lenteur donne aux dynamiques dernières mesures un caractère de débarras expéditif – ce ne sera d’ailleurs pas la seule fois. L’excellent second mouvement se passe de critique, avec son rythme piquant et ses sonorités opulentes mais sans lourdeur. Le troisième contient juste assez d’ironie pour passer la rampe, et le quatrième serait recommandable n’eût été, entre autres, l’étrange transition entre phrases vers 1:40. Montage ?. Bravo aux exceptionnels percussionnistes, seuls éléments vraiment « essentiels » de ce disque.

- René Bricault

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Letter from Munich: Lucrezia Borgia

Photo: Wilfrid Hösl

The raison d’etre of this new production of Lucrezia Borgia at the Bayerische Staatsoper is undoubtedly the great Edita Gruberova. Sopranos come and go, but there is always Edita, who has been in front of the public for almost forty years and still going strong, thank you very much. At the age of 62, many of her contemporaries would likely have retired to a teaching post somewhere, or at least moved on to the old ladies, the maids, the witches, and other assorted “character roles” in opera, or disappeared from public view altogether. Not Edita Gruberova, who remains the undisputed Queen of Bel Canto. We in North America don’t get many chances to hear her, and it is entirely our loss. The few times that I have managed to catch her were in European houses like Munich where she has a particularly vociferous following. To put it simply, last evening’s performance was a total triumph. The voice was very much as I had remembered, with only minimal aging of the tone. Her coloratura – and the seemingly infinite variations in dynamics – is as amazing as ever. She obviously warmed up sufficiently just before coming on stage, as the voice was already in full flight from the beginning. The voice had a pronounced beat in beginning of Act Two, likely due to the long intermission, but it soon disappeared. The final high note was attacked a little flat but pushed up to pitch. The volume was impressive as always. I was in the 18th row dead center parkett and she was loud! The theatre had video cameras in strategic places, so you can expect a telecast and commercial DVD release in the near future. Lucrezia is not exactly a charming character, poisoning everyone in sight, but Gruberova managed to make her sympathetic. The final scene was a vocal and dramatic tour de force that one rarely encounters these days. She pulled out all the stops, never mind the vocalism wasn’t quite note-perfect – with such a remarkable performance, to complain about an occasional flat note or pitch deviation would be mere quibbling.

She was well partnered by a fellow Slovak, tenor Pavel Breslik, who was an exceptionally fine Gennaro. Celebrated in Mozart, I wasn’t prepared for his idiomatic Italian, his plangent timbre and stylish yet heart-on-sleeve singing/acting was an unalloyed pleasure. Looking handsome and youthful, he complemented the soprano perfectly, but with enough star power of his own so as not to recede into the background. Given his buff build, he is a natural candidate for any director wanting to show some flesh onstage, witness his Idamante last season. Christof Loy had him scraping a knee, taking off his shirt ostensibly to wipe off the blood. Then Lucrezia materializes (in his dream) and shows her maternal instincts towards her wounded son. I give Loy credit for turning the little gratuitous striptease into something dramatically logical. Another example – the libretto calls for Gennaro to destroy Lucrezia’s coat of arms. In this contemporary production, it was replaced by her name in large illuminated letters attached to the gray background. Gennario rips the B off her name and throws it on the stage floor – rather amusing as “ORGIA” remains on the wall, the implications of which rather unmistakable.

The production is extremely pared-down, with really no set to speak of, a bare stage save for a few office chairs. It is as far removed as one can get from the Venetian grandeur of the Duca D’Este palazzo. Yet there is something to be said about this approach, as it allows one to focus on the emotional and dramatic core of the work. Whether an audience member like Christof Loy’s re-interpreting the libretto depends on the person’s affinity towards the Regietheater aesthetic. The most conspicuous costume touches are the schoolboy garb with rolled up pant legs – why does it remind me of Clockwork Orange or the Barcelona Lohengrin? – and Lucrezia’s Jean Harlow hairdo and smart black pantsuit. Ultimately this is a vehicle for the prima donna so nothing else really matters, especially when the diva delivered in spades like last evening. I understand that at the premiere, there were some vociferous, if predictable, boos for director Christof Loy of the Covent Garden/Ariadne/Little Black Dress fame. But last evening there was nothing but cheers. The third vocal standout was British mezzo Alice Coote as Maffio Orsini. She makes quite a convincing boy, and blends well with the chorus all dressed up as schoolboys with bad behaviour, though for some reason she was the only one without uncovered calves. I must say some of these directorial touches are a tad gimmicky. The Gennaro-Maffio duet was a highlight of the evening. The role of Maffio lies a little low for Coote, who struggled a bit in the Prologue, but her Act Two extended scena was terrific. Baritone Franco Vassallo was a firm voiced, macho Don Alfonso, complete with an interpolated high G at the end of his aria. With such high voltage goings on, the conductor Bertrand de Billy was decidedly second fiddle. Despite a good performance, he received polite applause at the end. This is a much-see show for Gruberova fans and anyone into diva worship – but if you haven’t got a ticket during the July run in hand, you are out of luck as everything was gone a long time ago. Hopefully there might still be a few tickets available for performances this September.

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Telemann: Brockes-Passion

Birgitte Christensen, Lydia Teuscher, sopranos; Marie-Claude Chappuis, mezzo-soprano; Donát Havár, Daniel Behle, tenors; Johannes Weisser, baritone
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902013.14 (2CD: 2 h 19 min 51 s)
****** $$$$

On l’a souvent dit, si Bach n’avait pas existé, la stature de Telemann en aurait été changée pour la postérité. En fait, c’est une sorte de révélation que cette Brockes-Passion sous la baguette inspirée de René Jacobs à la tête d’un ensemble dont la maîtrise du répertoire baroque est notoire. La beauté purement instrumentale ressort bien ici, grâce à l’orchestration constamment inspirée de Telemann, à commencer par la saisissante Sinfonia inaugurale qui semble ouvrir sur le mystère. Là où Bach nous montrait la Passion du Fils de Dieu et nous aspirait vers le haut, Telemann semble voir le drame d’un homme souffrant et par moments véhément, « humain, trop humain », pourrait-on dire. Le réalisme presque physique souligné dans plusieurs numéros, comme la description musicale de la douleur que peut causer une couronne d’épines, fait frissonner. Par ailleurs, l’art d’animer un dialogue ou les scènes de foule est celui d’un homme de théâtre. Si l’on peut trouver quelques duretés aux sopranos, les solistes sont néanmoins justes et le chœur, très sollicité par cette immense composition, l’est également. Prise de son irréprochable.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Monday, 6 July 2009

Britten: Double Concerto for Violin and Viola/Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge/Les Illuminations

Sally Matthews, soprano; Pieter Schoeman, violin; Alexander Zemtsov, viola
London Philharmonic/Vladimir Jurowski
LPO 0037 (70 min 37 s)
**** $$$$
It is good to see that the LPO is at least a little bit adventurous in its repertoire choices on its new house label. They already have a live Britten War Requiem conducted by Masur (LPO – 0010) and now this excellent Britten collection under its current principal conductor. The Double Concerto dates from 1932, when Britten was only nineteen. But he was a precocious composer and this piece is consistently engrossing. He never got beyond writing the piece in short score but in 1997 his assistant Colin Matthews very effectively brought it to its present form. It had its first recording the following year with Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet and conductor Kent Nagano (Erato 25502). The new recording is first-rate.
Sally Matthews sings with great artistry in Les Illuminations, but above mezzo-forte her wide vibrato becomes distinctly unpleasant. Here and in the Frank Bridge Variations – premiered at the 1937 Salzburg Festival by the Boyd Neel Orchestra – the strings of the LPO play with virtuosity and a wide range of colours.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Puccini: La rondine

Svetla Vassileva, (Magda); Maya Dashuk, (Lisette); Fabio Sartori, (Ruggero); Emanuele Giannino, (Prunier); Marzio Giossi, (Rambaldo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival/Alberto Veronesi
Director: Lorenzo Amato
Naxos 2.110266 (110 min 54 s)
**** $$$
It’s good to have this performance, previously available as an expensive import on the Dynamic label, now on Naxos in Canada at more affordable prices. Dynamic specializes in live performances from Italian regional houses. While often not on the level of La Scala, these productions often have their special charm. This La Rondine comes from the 2007 Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago. Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassilieva – the best-known singer here – is a good but not scintillating Magda, rather lean of voice and occasionally shrill at the top (incidentally, she was replaced in the recent La Scala I due Foscari by Quebec soprano Manon Feubel). Russian soprano Maya Dashuk is an unusually glamorous Lisette; tenor Emanuele Giannino sings a stylish Prunier. Even though he does not cut a romantic figure, the most outstanding is the ingratiating tenor of Fabio Sartori as Ruggero. Puccini wrote three versions of this opera, but producer Alberto Dellepiane could not resist tinkering with it. He combines parts of the first two versions with a 1994 orchestration by Lorenzo Ferrero in the finale of the third version, left unfinished by Puccini. The co-production with Opera de Nice has nice costumes and decent sets, except for the huge monochrome projections as backdrops. The endless ballet sequences with Broadway-style choreography and heightened eroticism in the background prove jarring in a period production, also hopelessly upstaging the singers. These quibbles aside, anyone who has seen the recent Met in HD production will find this Italian performance an interesting contrast.

- Joseph K. So

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Handel: Rodrigo

María Bayo, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, Anne-Catherine Gillet, soprano; Maria Riccarda Wesseling, mezzo-soprano; Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor; Kobi van Rensburg, tenor; Al Ayre Español/Eduardo Lopez Banzo
Ambroisie AM 132 (3CD)
****** $$$$
Rodrigo est le premier opéra qu’écrivit Haendel lors de son séjour de formation en Italie, et on y retrouve la fougue et la fraîcheur qui caractérisent les plus belles œuvres de cette période, comme le Dixit dominus et la Résurrection. Les airs de Rodrigo sont généralement courts, mais toujours finement caractérisés et souvent virtuoses. C’est toute la palette des affects baroques dont s’empare ici le jeune Haendel, avec une assurance qu’auraient pu lui envier bien des compositeurs italiens. L’œuvre avait déjà été enregistrée par Alan Curtis en 1999, mais la présente version s’avère infiniment supérieure. Eduardo Lopez Banzo dirige un orchestre sensationnel, dont la vigueur et la précision ne sont pas sans rappeler les Musiciens du Louvre, qui servaient jadis si bien ce répertoire. Sous la baguette du chef espagnol, même les récitatifs prennent vie et n’ennuient jamais, soutenus par un magnifique clavecin de facture italienne. Exception faite du chant un peu maniéré de Maria Bayo, la distribution est plus que satisfaisante. Si le Rodrigo de Maria Riccarda Wesseling séduit dès le premier air, on aura tôt fait d’apprécier aussi l’agilité d’Anne-Catherine Gillet, le timbre androgyne de Max Emanuel Cencic et la bravoure du ténor Kobie van Rensburg, très sollicité ici. Un incontournable pour tout amateur de Haendel.

- Philippe Gervais

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Grey: Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio

Scott Hendricks, baritone
Phoenix Symphony Chorus; Phoenix Symphony/Michael Christie
Naxos 8.559604 (68 min 43 s)
*** $
La création en 2007 de cet oratorio « navajo » a remporté un immense succès local en Arizona, et tant mieux pour la musique contemporaine. Cette rencontre inhabituelle entre l’univers amérindien et le monde moderne occidental se décline ici à travers le processus de guérison, de rédemption et de résurrection spirituelle d’un soldat d’origine autochtone revenu d’Irak blessé, physiquement et mentalement. À la fois une critique de la guerre et une main tendue vers la communauté amérindienne, cet oratorio a plusieurs qualités. Par contre, la musique de Grey manque d’originalité et d’inventivité. L’occasion aurait été belle de créer un dialogue non seulement conceptuel et thématique, mais véritablement musical avec la culture autochtone. Au contraire, ce que l’on entend ici, c’est du John Rutter ou de la musique de film avec plus de dissonances. Rien de désagréable, mais rien non plus de vraiment surprenant. Pour le principe surtout, pour la musique, un peu.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Letter from Munich: Diana Damrau Liederabend

Lohengrin or Diana Damrau? How’s that for a tough decision! That was the choice I had to make when planning my trip to the 2009 Münchner Opernfestspiele. I decided to forgo the Lohengrin premiere so I could go the one-night-only recital by soprano Diana Damrau. Luckily, there will be several more performances of the Wagner, the second of which I will attend on July 8. Long after having booked the tickets, it was announced that the opening of Lohengrin would be shown on a giant screen in the Max-Joseph Platz in front of the National Theater. The weather was suitably operatic today – a heat wave having given way to bouts of heavy downpour interspersed by brilliant sunshine. It was really touch and go whether the open-air simulcast, part of Munich’s Oper für alle outreach program, would be rained out. As it turned out, there were brief showers in Act One, which began at 6 pm, but the heavens took pity on the opera lovers braving the elements to enjoy Jonas Kaufmann’s first Lohengrin. Since I was a couple of miles away at the Prinzregententheater for the Damrau recital, I did not experience the performance. After Damrau finished at a little after 10 pm, we rushed by U-bahn to the National Theater, only to see people leaving the square. We managed to meet up with a friend and got a brief report, but since I did not see it, I will reserve my comments until after I have seen the July 8 performance.

What can I say about Diana Damrau? She is simply the hottest coloratura around these days. I saw her incredible Zerbinetta last year right here in Munich, also at the Prinzregententheater, in the Robert Carsen production of Ariadne auf Naxos that starred Canada’s own Adrianne Pieczonka. Not only is Damrau a great singer, she is also a totally alluring actress. One got a real taste of it tonight. Her program included songs by Faure, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, all “chestnuts” – not a single unfamiliar song. The only rarity on the program was a song cycle called Day turned to night by contemporary composer Iain Bell (b. 1980), with song texts from Queen Victoria’s writings concerning her love for Prince Albert! It turned out to be a very interesting and accessible cycle of five songs, beginning with a letter the then Princess Victoria wrote to her uncle, King of the Belgians, upon meeting Albert. The last song is from a letter by Queen Victoria to her daughter, the Crown Princess off Prussia, after the death of Albert. This cycle for some reason reminds me of Frauenliebe und Leben, of course only superficially as the content is very different. Damrau sang it with great dramatic commitment, in really quite good English. I read the text over once at intermission and did not refer to it during the performance, wanting to see how much I could understand what she was singing. I was able to understand quite a bit of it. At the end of the cycle during the applause, Damrau gestured to someone sitting directly in front of her in the audience. This person turned out to be the composer, who joined Ms. Damrau for a bow onstage.

Given that it was a contemporary cycle and in a “foreign language”, it would be fair to say that the Bell cycle drew warm enough applause but not the tumultuous reception the audience reserved for the more familiar pieces on the program. Damrau began with a group of six Faure songs. These pieces sit very well in her voice. Despite being a high soprano, Damrau has an unusually warm and full middle voice, and she sang these with plenty of expression and attention to the textual nuances. The seven Debussy songs that followed were even better. Her silvery tone is absolutely ideal and it was a scintillating performance. Damrau’s voice is blessed with a whole palette of tone colours, unlike so many high sopranos with glassy voices and relatively little dynamic variation. Damrau sang with plenty of chiaroscuro, including some wonderful pianissimos tonight! She was also playful onstage when called for in the text, altogether a winning first half. After the intermission, she sang the Bell cycle, followed by Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia, op. 67. I can’t say this is my favourite Strauss, but Damrau’s performance was superb in every way. She saved the best for last, three of the most beautiful of Strauss songs – Morgen, Wiegenlied, and Cäcilie. These brought the house down, needless to say! Throughout the recital, her pianist, the great Helmut Deutsch, offered expert support. He is certainly among the half-dozen or so greatest collaborative pianists on the circuit today. Damrau gave three encores, all Strauss, but the only one I can recall is Nichts. A lovely Liederabend is always something to treasure, and this was one of them. Now onto Lucrezia Borgia with La Gruberova tomorrow!

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Sunday, 5 July 2009

Music Across Cultures: Composer/Conductor Tan Dun Creates Map!

by Paul E. Robinson

The First Emperor
Placido Domingo/Elizabeth Futral/Paul Groves/Michelle DeYoung/Wu Hsing Kuo/Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet
Composer/Conductor: Tan Dun
Director: Zhang Yimou
EMI DVD 215129-9

After spending several weeks in China earlier this year, it took me some time to absorb what I had seen and heard and to properly evaluate the enormity of the changes taking place in that vast and multi-faceted country.

I can’t presume to analyse China’s current role in world affairs, let alone predict what it will be in years to come. Even the various strands in China’s musical life are too complex and growing too fast to warrant easy characterizations. Music critic Anne Midgette recently visited China with the National Symphony Orchestra and made some interesting observations about Chinese audiences and the role of Western music in Chinese society.

From my own perspective, the recent works of composer Tan Dun would be a useful starting point for anyone trying to understand where China and its music are today.

For the past decade, China has been quite welcoming of Western music and performers. A corollary to this tolerance and appreciation is the influx of Chinese - students and performers at all levels - to the United States and to other Western countries. Some of these musicians – Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and Yuja Wang – have been internationally acclaimed as major artists. The musical interaction between China and the West has become enormously rich in recent years and appears to be increasing exponentially.

With respect to composers, this exchange has been very real too, although the results thus far have been uneven.

One hundred years ago, Ravel and Debussy became fascinated with Chinese music and incorporated elements of it in their own compositions. In our own time, however, though China is so open and receptive to foreigners, Western composers, for the most part, appear to be apathetic; the creative cross-fertilization seems to be coming almost entirely from Chinese musicians - composer/conductor Tan Dun, for example.

Tan Dun, born in Hunan province in 1957, studied at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. From there he went to New York. He now straddles two worlds and reflects that cross-culturalism in many of his works. He is - without a doubt - China’s most successful composer of Western classical music, but more than that – his success is international. Few composers, whatever their national origin, are commissioned to write an opera for the Met.

Tan Dun is best-known for a film score - the music he wrote for Zhang Yimou’s Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon. In that score, he demonstrated a gift for theatricality and for creating sound effects in a Chinese idiom. These are qualities evident in his operas too, not least of all in The First Emperor, which Tan Dun was commissioned to write for New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company.

The Met production of this opera got very mixed reviews. Some critics suggested that Tan Dun’s music was no more than sound effects coupled with a musical style borrowed from Puccini and Peking Opera, and that the mixture was unconvincing.

There is some truth in these harsh observations, but they fail to account for the beauty and originality of both the opera and the production. Though Tan Dun may have failed to write a great opera, he nonetheless created a highly stimulating encounter between East and West.

In his orchestration of the story of The First Emperor, Tan Dun uses the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra ensemble pretty much ‘as is’, adding Chinese instruments to the percussion section as well as a giant bell and an amplified zheng – a sort of Chinese zither – on stage. This instrument is used with great imagination, in combination with the two harps in the pit at the beginning of Act Two. On the whole, the instrumental sounds are fresh, exciting and beautiful throughout the opera.

Tan Dun is on more uncertain ground in his vocal writing.

The First Emperor opens with a long scene featuring Wu Hsing-Kuo, a brilliant singer from the Peking Opera. This man plays the role of the Yin-Yang Master. He is superb in his scene in front of the curtain. His range of gestures from the most subtle to the overtly acrobatic was amazing and evidence of a tradition that does not exist in the West outside, perhaps, the Cirque du Soleil.

When we get into the story of the opera and the big stars appear – Placido Domingo as the Emperor and Elizabeth Futral as his daughter – the musical style changes. The Chinese musical character seems to become peripheral and a more or less (some might call it “tortured”) traditional Western operatic idiom is more prominent - perhaps a concession to the Western performers . Whatever its inspiration, this uneasy mixture of exotic and traditional elements continues through to the end of the opera, and is ultimately unconvincing.

So be it. It is an enormous challenge to blend East and West and Tan Dun needs time and experience to show what he can do.

There are other problems with The First Emperor. The story of the opera is based on fact, but as scripted on stage at the Met, it came across as exceedingly silly. Admittedly, silliness is not uncommon in opera librettos, but in operas that hold their place in the repertoire, the silliness is greatly outweighed by the quality of the music.

That is not the case with The First Emperor. There are no show-stopping arias or ensembles. What the opera does have going for it is music that is often fresh and imaginative, and sets and costumes that are lavish and colorful and undoubtedly very expensive. Unfortunately, these assets may also work against the inclusion of this opera in popular repertoire. To be successful, The First Emperor needs a lavish production and few companies will be able to afford it.

Some revisions may or may not make this a better opera. It is certainly far too static. Many of the scenes go on too long, the chorus sits more than it participates, and apart from the gyrations of the Yin-Yang Master, there is not nearly enough movement.

On balance, I would applaud the Met for commissioning Tan Dun to write this opera and for making such a major financial commitment to trying to bridge the gap between East and West. The First Emperor may not be a great opera, but it was – and is - a noble effort.

The Map: A Multimedia Event in Rural China
Anssi Karttunen/Shanghai Philharmonic
Composer/Conductor: Tan Dun
DG DVD 00440 073 4013

While in China I bought the DVD of another major Tan Dun work, The Map: A Multimedia Event in Rural China. The work was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony in 2002 and it is to my mind a remarkable piece of artistic invention, and can be considered another attempt to bridge East and West.

The DVD documents a performance of The Map given outdoors in 2003 in the ancient city of Fenghuang in Hunan province. The concept of the piece is to blend film of various types of traditional Chinese music from the region, with music newly composed by Tan Dun. The use of giant screens behind the orchestra adds immensely to the theatricality of the experience.

In The Map, Tan Dun’s composition often begins where the traditional music leaves off and becomes a kind of riff or improvisation on the older material. In this terrific performance, the transitions are almost seamless, and the effect is extremely engrossing and powerful. Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen plays like a man possessed and Tan Dun conducts the Shanghai Symphony with intensity and precision.

One of the most compelling aspects of the work is to see vivid examples of the wide variety of strange and beautiful music in Chinese folk culture. There is “cry-singing”, a stylized form of choral singing by old women, and amazing music created by banging stones together – “stone music” which also appears in Tan Dun’s opera, The First Emperor.

Altogether there are eight different kinds of traditional music used in The Map and they are put together in such a way that their strangeness is transformed into a kind of universal music. This is Tan Dun’s achievement and it is amazing. Some might say that the piece is merely another sound effects opus by Tan Dun, and in its way, simply another film score. I don’t agree. I think The Map is a highly original blending of Eastern and Western musical idioms. If you have a chance to see it performed, don’t miss the opportunity.

As it happens, there is a performance scheduled at the Festival International de Lanaudière (Quebec, Canada) on July 11. The cello soloist is Matthew Barley and Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts the Festival Orchestra.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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