La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Nagano's New Recording of Beethoven's Third a Triumph

Beethoven: Gods, Heroes, and Men
The Creatures of Prometheus/Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano
Analekta AN2 9838 (73 min 51 s)

It is a sign of the times that the MSO has no major label willing to produce its CDs. Many fine orchestras are in the same situation and several of them – San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Toronto Symphony, etc. – have taken to producing their own recordings. Fortunately, the Canadian record company Analekta, with the help of the Department of Canadian Heritage, has been putting together several MSO projects. The latest venture, like the first one devoted to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is devoted to the music of Beethoven (including the Third Symphony) and bears the grandiose title Gods, Heroes and Men. Analekta and Nagano announced today that a cycle of Beethoven’s Symphonies is now in the offing: the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies will be recorded in April, while the Ninth will be recorded in September.

The album includes some explanatory notes by conductor Kent Nagano, whose writing style tends to the formal and prolix, but he makes some interesting points nonetheless. Nagano sees the Prometheus myth as symbolic of the entire European Enlightenment period. Prometheus is the new self-creating man beholden neither to gods nor kings. Napoleon was the Prometheus incarnate of the time and Beethoven – at least until Napoleon declared himself emperor – greatly admired this great man who would remake the world in the name of freedom. And for Nagano, that explains Beethoven’s interest in the Prometheus myth, his ballet score based on it, and the use of the Prometheus musical theme in the last movement of his Eroica symphony. But Nagano goes a step further in his musings. If Prometheus was enlightenment and progress, this progress also had a dark side. Science frees man but also enables him to annihilate himself: “The “Promethean Spirit” – for Beethoven and his time, a hope. And for us today – a warning, or perhaps even worse, - a curse…”

The CD begins with five excerpts from Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. Apart from the overture they are fragments and only occasionally compelling, but Nagano and the MSO play them with tremendous energy and attention to detail.

But the main business is the Eroica symphony. One might wonder why Nagano is recording it again only five years after making a DVD version with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (ArtHaus Musik 101 4XX). Will customers buy two recent Nagano Eroicas? Perhaps the marketing emphasis will have to be “MSO” or “Made in Canada.”

Nagano is known to be highly interested in historically informed performance practice and there is plenty such evidence in this Eroica. Tempi are quick in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings, vibrato is used sparingly, and the timpanist uses hard sticks. In addition, Nagano’s phrasing often involves swelling up and then falling away, as compared to the more sustained phrasing customary in music of the romantic era. There are plenty of examples in the first movement, and then again in the horn trio in the Scherzo. This historically informed approach to phrasing and dynamics verges on affectation when it is used so often.

On the other hand, there is no denying that Nagano has gone over the score with infinite care and made decisions about the shape of every phrase and the length of every note. But in being meticulous he has not ignored the big picture. This performance is consistently engrossing and often exciting.

In many traditional performances of the Eroica the first trumpet plays the entire main theme fortissimo at the climax in the coda of the first movement. You will hear that in any performance conducted by Furtwängler, Toscanini, Walter, Karajan or Klemperer. The only problem is that Beethoven didn’t write it this way. Nagano gives us Beethoven’s version. It is a little less thrilling, but Nagano almost gets the job done by the sheer intensity of the playing, especially in the strings and timpani.

The recording team deserves a lot of credit for achieving such an optimum balance between clarity and reverberation. This recording is a triumph for Nagano, the MSO and Analekta.

Paul E. Robinson

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Monday, 21 March 2011

Liszt's 200th All Icing No Cake!

by Paul E. Robinson
PETERBAY b&wcrop525
Not even the greatest of composers has left the world a portfolio of only masterpieces - a case in point being Franz Liszt (1811- 1886), undoubtedly one of the most famous composers who ever lived.
The Austin Symphony recently celebrated the Liszt bicentennial by programming the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Totentanz for piano and orchestra; the former remains solidly in the standard repertoire, while the latter barely qualifies for even an occasional performance.
Music director Peter Bay was hedging his bets in honouring Liszt. He gave us two Liszt works for piano and orchestra with Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo, but devoted the rest of the concert to works by Mozart and contemporary composer Mark Edwards Wilson.
In my opinion, Bay could have created a more interesting Liszt celebration with the addition of symphonic poems such as Orpheus or Mazeppa, or by going for broke with A Faust Symphony.
Liszt’s “sometime” assistant Joachim Raff used to run around claiming that it was he who orchestrated all of Liszt’s works at Liszt’s request. There is, however, strong evidence to the contrary. The truth notwithstanding, Liszt was only intermittently successful as a composer of orchestral music; his supreme achievements were in the realm of piano literature, written to show off the master’s prowess as a travelling virtuoso. Much of this repertoire is clever and entertaining; even more of it is shallow and silly.
Lupo’s Liszt Exciting but One-Dimensional
Lupo180The Piano Concerto No. 1 is showy music, but it is redeemed by tight construction and heartfelt lyricism. Benedetto Lupo (photo: right) tossed off the fireworks with great aplomb, without really getting much below the surface of the music.
On the other hand, he had no such challenge in Totentanz since the piece has no depth whatsoever. It is 15 minutes of variations on the four-note sequence from the Thirteenth Century chant known as Dies Irae. Used in this way, this four note sequence wears out its welcome as quickly as Liszt runs out of interesting ideas. But then, the point of performing the Totentanz – if there is one – may be to allow the soloist to impress audiences with the number of notes he/she can play in the shortest possible time; it is, as it was in this instance, a crowd pleaser! From my perspective, Totentanz may ultimately be of more value to the Guinness Book of Records than to serious musical literature.
One might describe Liszt’s treatment as “all icing and no cake, “ whereas Berlioz’s use of the same sequence in the final part of his Symphonie Fantastique suits very well the story he is telling in music. More recently, Rachmaninov used the same sequence with great imagination in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances.
So that was it for our Liszt celebration, and after Totentanz, not a moment too soon.
Wilson’s Phoenix Does Not Rise to the Occasion!
MEwilson180Unfortunately, it was followed by a recent work called The Phoenix by University of Maryland composer Mark Edwards Wilson (photo: right). By way of introduction in the programme notes, Mr. Wilson gave us a great deal of high-minded nonsense about birds in American Indian, Hindu, Chinese and Egyptian cultures. Apparently “the piece journeys through a series of strongly defined tonal centers, yet it does so using methods that liberate it from the traditional tonic/dominant hierarchy. Similarly, I have felt liberated from the strictures of writing in a conventional academic style, whether those strictures are tonal or atonal in nature.” Huh? I guess it loses something in the translation.
After a promising opening melody in cellos and basses, Mr. Wilson’s music settles into workmanlike sequences, which the members of the Austin Symphony duly played with workmanlike competence.
Mozart with Style Steals the Show
And what about the Mozart? What can one say about the great G minor symphony, except that it nearly always outclasses any other piece that appears on the same programme. Peter Bay had lavished exceptional care on its preparation for this concert and the ASO players responded accordingly. Tempos sounded just right for all four movements and the “Mozart style” was ideal, at least as Bruno Walter would have understood it. That said, purist Nikolaus Harnoncourt may not nave agreed.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, Classical Airs.
Maestro Peter Bay: photo by Marita

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Sunday, 20 March 2011

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 21 - 27)

Photo: Countertenor Daniel Taylor

Now that spring break is over, the concert scene has dramatically picked up again, with a wealth of interesting events to choose from. Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor is making one of his frequent - and highly welcome - visits to Tafelmusik, for a program of German and Italian Baroque that includes the music of Bach, Vivaldi, Cavalli, Frescobaldi, Cacccini, Uccellini and Telemann. This program will be recorded on CD. There was a time when Taylor was widely heard in the concert halls and opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic, but in recent years, his appearances seemed to have focused almost exclusively in North America. We are lucky that Taylor makes Toronto one of his frequent stops. Performances on March 24, 25, and 26 at 8 pm at Trinity St. Paul's Centre, and a matinee on Sunday March 29 3:30 pm at the George Weston Hall in North York. Details at

Two of my favourite Canadian singers, sopranos Nathalie Paulin and Monica Whicher, both superb recitalists, will appear in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music's Faculty Artists Series on Monday 21 at 7:30 pm at Walter Hall. On the wide-ranging program are solos and duets by Purcell, Schumann, Paladihle, Massenet, Chausson, Faure, Lysenko, Britten, and Greer. The collaborative pianist is Che Anne Loewen. Details at

A high profile concert this week is Ovation: A Celebration of 40 Years of the Juno Awards, on March 22 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. The star-studded line-up includes the Amici Chamber Ensemble, soprano Measha Brueggergosman, violinist Angele Dubeau & La Pieta, Duo Concertante, Gryphon Trio, pianist Anton Kuerti, violinist Lara St. John, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and cellist Winona Zelenka.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a program of Britten, Bruch, John Estacio and Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4. Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo plays Bruch's virtuoso Violin Concerto No. 1. Two performances on Wednesday Mar. 23 and Thursday 24m, both at 8 pm.

The Royal Conservatory of Music's Glenn Gould School is presenting its yearly opera. This showcases the talented singers and orchestral musicians at the GGS. The last two years, I attended their Cosi fan tutte and Cendrillon, both truly marvelous productions. This year, it is a double bill of Ravel's L'heure espagnole, with a piece that is relatively unfamiliar, Bizet's short operetta Le docteur Miracle. Before Koerner Hall, opera performances took place at the small Mazzoleni Hall, and there were at least three shows. Now at the more spacious Koerner Hall, it has been reduced to two, so be sure not to miss it! Performances on Mar. 23 and 25, both at 8 pm.

Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert, who won the Canadian Chopin Competition and represented Canada at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw last fall, is in town as soloist in the Mississauga Symphony Orchestras' The Music of Passion concert on March 26. He plays Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Also on the program is a world premiere by Kevin Lau, plus the Hary Janos Suite by Kodaly. Richard Moore is the Cimbalom soloist.

Opera in Concert is presenting the rarely staged - at least outside central European countries - The Devil and Kate, a comic opera by Dvorak. Mezzo soprano Marion Newman is Kate, tenor Adam Luther is Jirka, bass baritone Giles Tomkins is Marbuel. A single performance on Sunday Mar. 27 at 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre.


Opera de Montréal’s Salomé a Hit

by Wah Keung Chan
photo: Yves Renaud

The Montreal Opera has a bona fide hit on its hands with its current production of Richard Strauss’s Salomé. Across the board, the cast is exceptional starting with German soprano Nicola Beller Carbone whose youthful and svelte figure made her perfect for the lead. While her spinto voice lacked the fullness of legato desired in last year’s Tosca, it was ideal in this angst filled role. Dramatically, Beller Carbone was convincing, especially in the ghastly way she handled the head of John the Baptist.

This staging will surely be noted for the full nudity at the end of the dance of the seven veils. However, the one disappointment is the setting of the dance itself. Normally, design to titillate, American director Seán Curran provided a clumsy hohum sequence that did not always flow. The 10-second pause before the big “nude” reveal telegraphed the potential shock, which went off with a yawn.

Bruno Schwengl's sets (a co-production of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, San Francisco Opera and Montreal Opera) were imaginative with its circles and the main room draw in perspective, while the costumes combined avant-garde with roman.

British bass-baritone Robert Hayward was a commanding Jokanaan (John the Basptist). Tenor John Mac Master brought the right weight and drama to the role of Herod while mezzo Judith Forst was still in fresh voice as Herodias. Tenor Roger Honeywell distinguished as the infatuated Narraboth as did Chantal Denis as the Page.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin made the Orchestre Métropolitain sound Straussian.

Salomé repeats on March 23, 26, 28 and 31.


La Scena Musicale has a block of tickets for Salomé as a fundraiser. To order, call 514-948-2520 or email

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