La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 6 - 12)

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 6 - 12)

- Joseph So

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)

In this post-Christmas/New Year week, the concert offerings are typically slim. If you are a Mozart fan, you are in luck. January is Mozart Month in Toronto, as classical music venues big and small are featuring the composer's works. The Canadian Opera Company's winter season begins with Cosi fan tutte in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting Mozart@258. This festival started in Mozart's centennial year, and it has continued ever since.  A marketing gimmick, you say? Maybe, but anything to bring the public to the glorious works of Mozart is fine with me!  The TSO is presenting his Symphony 39, Piano Concerto No. 18, and the overture to his opera La clemenza di Tito. At the podium and the keyboard is pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn. Moscow-born American pianist Solzhenitsyn is of course the son of the famous father writer/political icon Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Two performances - Saturday Jan. 11 7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and Sunday Jan. 12 3 pm at the acoustically friendly confines of George Weston Recital Hall in North York.

Pianist/Conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn (Photo: Arts Management Group)

Toronto's premiere chamber music organization, Music Toronto, is once again presenting the St. Lawrence String Quartet in recital at the Jane Mallett Theatre on Thursday Jan. 9 8 pm. This is an annual event for the last 15 years. Now in its 25th season, the SLSQ has undergone some changes. This is the first Music Toronto concert where violinist Mark Fewer replaces Scott St. John who has left the ensemble.  The program consists of quartets by Haydn, Dvorak and Martinu.

While the COC is still in the process of gearing up to its winter season, the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre noon hour concert series are humming this week. As part of its Piano Virtuoso series, Algerian pianist Mehdi Ghazi is presenting The Colours of Passion, a recital of works by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Messiaen and Liszt on Tuesday Jan. 7. Detailed program is available at  Be sure to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

Pianist Mehdi Ghazi (Photo: Ariane Lecomte)

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Monday, 6 January 2014

Bravissimo a Scintillating Farewell to 2013

Bravissimo a Scintillating Farewell to 2013 (Review)

- Joseph So

Erika Sunnegardh, soprano
Rebecca Nelsen, soprano
Wallis Giunta, mezzo
Emanuele D'Aguanno, tenor
James Westman, baritone
Chorus Niagara and Orpheus Choir / Robert Cooper, director
Opera Canada Symphony / Roberto Pasternostro, conductor
Roy Thomson Hall, Tuesday December 31 7 pm.

Overture to Nabucco
Tacea la notte placida - Il Trovatore / Sunnegardh
Non si da follia maggiore - Il Turco in Italia  / Nelsen
Non piu mesta - La cenerentola / Giunta
Va pensiero - Nabucco / Chorus
Va pour Kleinzach - Les contes d'Hoffmann / D'Aguanno
Yeletsky's Aria - Pique Dame / Westman
Mira, o Norma - Norma/ Sunnegardh and Giunta
Carlo-Rodrigo Duet Act One - Don Carlos/ D'Aguanno and Westman
Chacun le sait - La fille du regiment / Nelsen
Triumphal March - Aida / Chorus
Entry of the Guests - Tannhauser / Chorus
O du, mein holder Abendstern - Tannhauser / Westman
Je veux vivre - Romeo et Juliette / Nelsen
Parto, parto - La clemenza  di Tito / Giunta
In questa Reggia - Turandot / Sunnegardh
Nessun dorma - Turandot /  D'Aguanno
Fiordiligi-Dorabella Act 1 duet - Cosi fan tutte / Nelsen, Giunta
Leonora-di Luna Act 3 duet - Il Trovatore / Sunnegardh, Westman

Encores - Libiamo - La traviata and Auld lang syne

(l. to r.) Wallis Giunta, Emanuele D'Aguanno, Roberto Paternostro, Rebecca Nelsen, James Westman, Erika Sunnegardh taking a bow (Photo: Joseph So) 

Now in its 6th year, Bravissimo is a New Year's Eve venue of choice for opera lovers. It is the brainchild of Attila and Marion Glatz of Glatz Concert Productions, the impresarios also responsible for New Year's Day Salute to Vienna. It is a program of 'opera's greatest hits', meant to provide a sort of 'easy-listening', feel-good evening of arias and and duets while ushering in the new year. I've been attending this annual show for the last few years and I've always been entertained. Bravissimo 2013 was one of the strongest yet musically, with five terrific soloists, all in their prime and all with lovely voices and attractive stage presence. This is a good way to discover singers who may not have sung in the Toronto area, as well as getting re-acquainted with others who have made a splash locally in the past. This year's cast included two Canadian stars - baritone James Westman and mezzo Wallis Giunta.  Westman was most recently heard as soloist in Carmina Burana with the Toronto Symphony, plus a rip-roaring star turn as Frank in the COC Die Fledermaus. Giunta, a former Ensemble Studio member, returns to the Company as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte later this month. Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh was a marvelous Salome last season, and Italian tenor Emanuele D'Aguranno was Cassio in Otello four seasons ago. Rounding out the cast was American soprano Rebecca Nelsen, a voice new to Toronto audiences. Strangely American Nelsen is billed as from Austria, though her career has been almost entirely European based, primarily at the Wiener Volksoper. For the first time, there was a 100 voice chorus - combining Chorus Niagara and Orpheus Choir under the direction of Robert Cooper. The maestro was veteran conductor Roberto Paternostro. While Salute to Vienna has been consistently selling out the last few years, Bravissimo's attendance has been steadily on the rise. This time, the audience was treated to an uncommonly fine evening of vocalism.

Two Canadians - baritone James Westman and mezzo Wallis Giunta (Photo: Joseph So) 

Typically of these events, the Opera Canada Symphony was really a pickup orchestra, made up mostly of local orchestral musicians free-lancing, all experienced artists capable of beautiful music-making. As in previous years, the Concertmaster was violinist Marie Berard, who serves in the same capacity for the Canadian Opera Company.  The orchestra kicked off the proceedings with an energetic reading of the overture to Nabucco, not terribly subtle but perfectly idiomatic. This was followed by Sunnegardh's "Tacea la notte placida".  Sunnegardh's voice is what the German fach system would call a "youthful dramatic soprano." Her tone is rich, well focused, somewhat steely, with a cool timbre and a laser-beam top ideal in Salome and Turandot, as opposed to the bel canto roles the likes of Leonora and Norma. But she was able to scale her voice down for Leonora's aria, and for the "Mira O Norma" duet with Giunta. There was some tentativeness at first in the Trovatore aria, and the tempo was on the slow side, but overall the singing was beautiful. Her 'Mira O Norma' with Giunta was also lovely, with their voices blending very well. Giunta's high mezzo makes an ideal Adalgisa, as the two singers' timbres are similar. They sang their duet passages with beauty and precision, if somewhat cautiously. Perhaps due to insufficient rehearsals that is typical of these type of events, there was a miscue by the mezzo at the beginning of the cabaletta with the words "Cedi, Deh cedi..." Despite this blemish, it was one of the highlights of the first half, where Giunta also contributed a pert Non piu mesta from La cenerentola.  

MC  Rick Phillips and Chorus master Robert Cooper joins in the singing of Auld lang syne (Photo: Joseph So) 

Since Italian tenor Emanuele D'Aguanno's last appearance here as Cassio in Otello, the voice has grown larger and darker, with a more substantial middle range, yet the top remains secure and ringing. As a warm up, he began with Kleinzach's aria from Hoffmann Act 1, ably supported by the men's chorus. This was followed by the Carlo-Rodrigo duet (with several cuts) from Act 1 Don Carlo, well sung by the tenor and baritone James Westman, with exemplary Italianate style. In the second half, D'Aguanno brought the house down with Calaf's Nessun dorma. This has become something of a failsafe hit in gala concerts. Here D'Aguanno was very impressive, singing with firm tone and an excellent top range. Perhaps the biggest hit of the evening was American soprano Rebecca Nelsen, who combined a pleasing lyric-coloratura with an exuberant stage personality. Her aria from Turco in Italia was nice, but nothing prepared us for Marie's "Chacun le sait" where she accompanied herself, on the trumpet! Yes there were a few sour notes from the trumpet but no matter - it was just this kind of high jinks that really got the audience going. The first half came to a rousing close with the Triumphal March from Aida. Veteran conductor Paternostro led the forces with a firm hand.     

Hamming it up in Libiamo (l. to. r.) Wallis Giunta, Emanuele D'Aguanno, Rebecca Nelsen (Photo: Joseph So) 

The second half opened with the "Entry of the Guests" in Act 1 Scene 2 of Tannhauser. I half expected Sunnegardh to follow with "Dich, teure Halle" but no such luck!  Too bad, as Elisabeth is perfect for her jugenliche-dramatischer sopran. Instead we had James Westman singing a warm and ingratiating "O du mein holder Abendstern".  He would make a great Wolfram, if he ever were to leave his Verdi baritone repertoire and move into Wagner. Then it's Ms. Nelsen again with Juliette's aria, sung with a surfeit of effervescence. Wallis Giunta offered an excellent "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito, a real test piece for the high mezzo. She later teamed with Nelsen for the Fiordiligi-Dorabella duet from Cosi. You can catch Giunta as Dorabella at the COC later this month and next. Sunnegardh was at her very best in In questa Reggia from Turandot, sung with blazing high notes, and her cool timbre ideal as the ice princess. It really makes one wonder why Swedish sopranos, from Nilsson and Varnay in the past to Irene Theorin and Nina Stemme today, have such amazing top notes!  The final lines in this piece is really a duet with Calaf, here supplied by D'Aguanno, a tenor with an excellent top. But he was no match for Sunnegardh whose high C completely obliterated his. The formal part of the program ended with the Leonora-di Luna extended duet from Il Trovatore. There were a few cuts, and sadly "Miserere" was not included at the start, a missed opportunity given the presence of the terrific choral forces. But what was there was hugely enjoyable, with both singers in top form. The tentativeness in Sunnegardh's Leonora completely disappeared and she was matched note for note by the di Luna of Westman, arguably his best Verdi baritone role. Needless to say they were greeted with salvos of ovations, well deserved I might add. The audience was rewarded with the obligatory "Libiamo" from La traviata, and finally Auld lang syne, with everyone joining in, a great musical end to 2013.  

The droll James Westman with COC Salome Erika Sunnegardh in Auld lang syne (Photo: Joseph So)

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Sunday, 5 January 2014

Sternberg Collection Volume 2

Schubert/Hoiby: Introduction, Theme and Variations Op. 82 No. 2/Rieti: Capers/Menotti: Sebastian
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Jonathan Sternberg
Pierian 0050 (78 m 35 s)

Jonathan Sternberg was music director of the Harkness Ballet in 1966-68. He led performances with the company on tour across the U.S. and in Europe and South America. These recordings were probably made during a tour of Europe in 1967, but they were never released.

Leo Hoiby (1926-2011) was an American pianist-composer who often worked with the Harkness Ballet. He orchestrated an obscure piano four-hands piece by Schubert into a sort of concerto movement for piano and orchestra. It is a charming piece and the performance is quite good.

The Italian-American composer Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994) ) studied with Respighi and his Capers recalls Respighi’s ballet score La boutique fantasque. Capers is light music but witty and entertaining.

The most substantial piece on the CD is Menotti’s (1911-2007) ballet score Sebastian. It dates from 1944 and is nearly 40 minutes in length. The “Cortège and Procession” movement is brilliant in the Russian style of Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov, with piccolo, tam-tam and bells to the fore, but elsewhere the music is often hauntingly lyrical. Stokowski recorded Sebastian in 1954 and there have been several recordings since, but this one is well done too.

All the recordings on this CD are from Jonathan Sternberg’s own collection and as well as documenting his Harkness Ballet years, they remind us of his efforts to promote American composers.

Sternberg first came to prominence in Vienna right after World War II. He linked up with the great Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon and together they made some of the first recordings of a number of Haydn symphonies and masses. Sternberg went on to build a career in Europe before returning to the U.S. He was one of the foremost American conductors of his generation. During 1957-58 he was conductor of the Halifax Symphony.

Paul E. Robinson

Purchase here

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Elgar Conducts Elgar The Complete Recordings 1914-1925

Elgar Conducts Elgar The Complete Recordings 1914-1925, Elgar: Symphony No. 2/Violin Concerto (Marie Hall)/Cello Concerto (Beatrice Harrison)/Sea Pictures (Leila Megane)/Cockaigne Overture/In the South Overture, etc. Symphony Orchestra/Royal Albert Hall Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar Producer & Transfer/Restoration Engineer: Lani Spahr Music & Arts CD-1257(4)(296 m 2 s)

For collectors this is a gold mine of historic recordings. For music lovers – not so much. These are recordings from the acoustical era, and Elgar went on to make much better-sounding recordings of nearly all the same pieces using the electrical microphone. Frankly, ploughing through many of these performances is almost painful. Given the primitive recording technology, the music comes through greatly diminished. In big orchestra pieces strings are often totally obliterated by brass and dynamics are very limited. The larger pieces are mercilessly cut to fit the time available on sides of a 78 rpm recording.

To really appreciate these recordings, one must transport oneself back to London in 1914. It was a world in which the idea of capturing the sound of a symphony orchestra on a machine, then being able to make it available for millions of people to listen to the same music at home, was still a dream not a reality. Imagine also what it would have been like for a great composer like Elgar to be able to record his own music so that soloists, orchestras and conductors 50 or 100 years later could know exactly what he had in mind when he wrote the music. Being the musician that he was Elgar was very much aware of the limitations of the early recording technology. But to him it was much, much better than nothing and he was thrilled by both the first results and the possibility of what might come later. Interestingly, these amazing new transfers by Lani Spahr are based on recordings from Elgar’s personal record library. Obviously, they meant a great deal to him.

One invests in a CD set like this one not for enjoyment but to learn something. What do we learn? Well, we learn that for a 1914 recording Elgar took his famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 more slowly than I have ever heard it before, and with a huge dose of sentimentality. We also learn that in 1921 he took “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations very fast. This performance is totally devoid of its usual gravitas.

And when violinists today come to prepare their own performances of the Violin Concerto what will they make of Marie Hall’s recording with the composer conducting? Such a generous dose of portamento – sliding from one note to another – is frowned upon today. But in our time we are taught that we need to learn more about period performance and seek to reproduce that style of playing. So if that approach is good for Bach and Mozart shouldn’t it apply to Elgar too?
History of a different kind was captured January 29, 1915 in Elgar’s Carillon Op. 75. This is a setting of a poem by the Belgian Emile Cammaerts, composed just after the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914. Henry Ainley is the speaker and the work evokes deeply felt patriotism even as the dreadful carnage of World War I was underway in Europe. Unfortunately, it is hard to overlook the poor quality of the music and the performance.

Paul E. Robinson

Purchase here

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