PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST: AMY JOHNSON

In PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, a newly released MSR Classics CD, soprano Amy Johnson sings nine selections by eight composers. Ranging from Massenet and Wagner to a surprising sampling of 20th century operatic arias, they span the familiar: the Final Scene from Richard Strauss’ Salome, along with several revelatory excerpts from works by Stephen Schwartz, Anton Coppola, Thea Musgrave, and Robert Livingston Aldridge. There are also a scene from Káťa Kabanová by Leos Janáček, and Arabella’s Mein Elemer from Strauss’ Arabella.

Amy Johnson’s peripatetic career has spanned appearances in European and American Opera houses in a repertoire so wide-ranging that it defies any possible pigeonholing of this fine artist. On the evidence of this recording, Amy Johnson demonstrates her enormous versatility, a gift that allows her to handle both the lyrical, high lying lines of Myra in Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon and the jagged utterances of Manuela in Thea Musgrave’s Simon Bolivar.

With an assured handling of the Spanish of Musgrave’s historical opera, to the Czech of Janáček, to the idiomatic French in her impeccably-vocalized Mirror aria from Massenet’s Thais, to the clearly articulated English of several of the selections, to the German of the selections by Wagner and Strauss, Johnson is at all times in complete command of the text.

Add to her language skills, and to what appears to be a limitless top voice that allows her to climax the Thais aria with a bell-like high D, a rock solid technique earmarked by complete flexibility, steadiness of vocal emission, and a keen instinct for never pushing past the sensible in intensity and volume, and you get a complete singing artist: one that can straddle the lush line of Massenet and the schizophrenic writing Strauss assigned to his bad girl soprano, Salome. And therefore we find cause for celebration.

Steven Mercurio superbly leads the MAV SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA with a gift for the give-and-take that accompanying an opera singer requires. Vernon Hartman contributed his sturdy baritone and his organizational skills to the production of this excellently engineered CD.

TWO PIANISTS

As a young, aspiring, and green-as-the-grass singer I had the audacity many years ago while in my early twenties to take on Johannes Brahms’ Four Serious Songs.

My vocal coach – the extraordinary Ms. Sylvia Ogden Lee pointedly reminded me as I sailed care-free into one after another of the cycle’s four songs and landed on the final one, with its repeated use of the word Liebe – German for love, that its Ecclesiastes verses did not refer to whatever I felt for the “pretty young thing” I had just married, but to another aspect of Liebe: Charity.

While that helped the basic idea sink into the brain of a young singer I still had quite a bit of growing up to do before I could begin to inhabit the gravitas of Brahms’ musical world and the portent of those words from the Bible.

And that brings me round to the first of the two subjects of this review: Igor Levit’s SONY CD of mostly piano music by Bach and Brahms, arranged by Ferruccio Busoni (the Bach Preludes) and Max Reger (the Brahms songs).

I have been and remain an admirer of Levit’s Germanic austerity in music of the Classical period, always balanced with his Russian penchant for the grandly Romantic. Here, in his well-crafted, clearly-conceived, cleanly engineered, impeccably played new album, the Russian-born, now German by choice pianist rendering of Busoni’s Bach interpretations and Reger’s pianistic versions of Brahms songs stimulates the brain more than it impacts the soul.

Might it be a matter of age, since early thirties is still youth for pianists? Or is it temperament? Here all is correct, clear articulation, sobriety, cool elegance, flawless technique. What this listener missed after repeated hearings is the goose-bumps I get when I turn to my Hans Hotter recording of the Brahms or my Glenn Gould Bach recording.

SIMONE DINERSTEIN: A CHARACTER OF QUIET – TWO PHILIP GLASS ETUDES AND A SCHUBERT SONATA released on Orange Mountain Music.

The American pianist Simone Dinnerstein has just completed an album recorded in the quiet of her living room, with producer and friend Adam Abeshouse in control of the controls, and Dinnerstein in control of the music-making: three Philip Glass Etudes and Schubert’s rapturous Sonata in B Flat Major, his last, completed in the final year of his all-too-brief life.

Thorough her playing of three of Philip Glass’s Etudes she reveals the seemingly simple beauty of these miniatures with utmost clarity, comfortably embracing the at times deceivingly static nature of these delicate gems. Her Schubert is deeply Romantic, affecting, portraying the music of an ailing young man holding on for dear life to life and trying to continue to make music. To be able to achieve this kind of emotional depth in the playing of a piece of music is awe-inspiring.

This recording reminds me of what I thought Liebe meant after I grew up and life happened: Dinnerstein Liebe is an act of charitable music-making that reminds us all that music is a tool for healing troubled hearts.

Simone Dinnerstein has been keeping quiet. I get it. Many of us have been in desperate need of the sort of quietude that brings about contemplative reflection. But she has been missed. Her return to us is cause for celebration.

Rafael de Acha

SELIGE STUNDE JONAS KAUFMANN

At age 51 German tenor Jonas Kaufmann ought to be at the top of his game. By that I mean he should be singing better than ever before. He has survived the rigors of every Wagnerian Heldentenor role and has lived to tell. His repertoire encompasses tenor roles from the lyric to the heroic with mostly good results. His past vocal troubles have caused him to rethink his approach to singing, and on the evidence of his last forays here and abroad he appears to have surmounted them and sung on. But even the sturdiest of voices, even the most successful vocalists must at some point in their careers take stock, rethink, reassess how they want to continue and how long they will carry on.

Now Kaufmann is out with Selige Stunde a new SONY CD containing over two dozen Lieder by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Strauss, Brahms… mostly the best known ones from the German 18th, 19th, and early 20th century songbooks. There are also a few rarities by Silcher, Carl Bohm, Zemlinsky…standards by Grieg, Dvořák, Tschaikovsky (sic) in German all of them. There’s even a stab at Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – a song that ought to remain the sole property of mezzo-sopranos or at least singers of any gender with an uncanny gift for floating the voice. And if you don’t know what that means have a listen at any male or female Lieder singer of your choice delivering this extraordinary song.

In tackling this repertory, the usually reliable, often exciting Jonas Kaufmann comes up short. First and foremost, lesser voices have achieved success singing the intimate, narrative miniatures of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss by virtue of the one and essential gift that Jonas Kauffman seems to lack on the evidence of this album: the ability to interpret and bring to life the drama inherent in the words of the poets set to music by these composers. There is but sameness in vocal color, intent and inflexion that track after track of 29 early on grows numbing. Pianist Helmut Deutsch is the stalwart companion through this musical journey.

And then there’s the vocalism itself. Kauffman appears to be tentative in his handling of his large operatic voice and uncertain as to how to approach the ever tricky passage from the middle to the high voice. At times the tenor applies full volume to phrases that should caress, not impress – an example being his handling of the climactic moments in Adelaide. At other times he arbitrarily slides into an easy croon rather than engaging a true mezza voce up and down from start to finish – an example being his Verschwiegene Liebe, Eichendorff’s rapturous elegy to silent love whose silence is broken by Kaufmann’s blunt approach.

The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans
Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind.

Rafael de Acha

CONCERT MUSIC IS ALIVE AND WELL IN TODAY’S CUBA – PART ONE IN A SERIES

Having just recently come into contact with a number of Cuban musicians I am becoming more and more impressed by the number of extraordinarily gifted instrumentalists, conductors, and singers I have met on line.

Camerata Romeu

We have all admired for many years the glories of Cuban popular music. I, for one, have been listening to Cuban pop singers going all the way back to Maria Teresa Vera and Benny Moré and the Trio Matamoros of my grandfather’s era… But what reminds me every time I encounter one of these young Cuban talents of today is that the field of music in today’s Cuba is rich and diversified, with quite a number of orchestras, chamber music groups, Early Music ensembles, choral groups, and lyric theatres operating in Havana and throughout the island, affording a number of these young artists the opportunity to practice their craft.

Let me share with you the following four samples.

Bryan Lopez Gonzalez, a superb lyric tenor with a terrific top voice and enormous musicality was trained in  Cuba and took his first steps in his birth country, rising up to star status through his frequent appearances in operatic productions fresh out of  conservatory. He is now in Europe, waiting to kick-start his young career while still in the limbo brought about by the current pandemic. Young and good looking and earmarked for the big time, here he is, delivering a very elegant Un aura amorosa from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in performance at the Festival della Valle D’itria 2016 in Martina Franca, Italy.

Camerata Romeu is an all- women string orchestra considered by many to be the first and the best of its kind in Latin America. Founded in Havana in 1993 by its director Zenaida Romeu, its style is accessible and easy, with its rank and file made up of pretty young women perfectly coiffed and dressed to the ninths. But it is the musicianship, the technique and the artistic finesse this talented group and their leader exhibit and the polish they bring to the playing Cuban and Latin American music that ranks it world class. Here they are in an undulating version of a soulful Cuban guaguanco: https://youtu.be/d11NGffLcYU

Ars Longa is a terrific Early Music group that features five singers, among them Yunié  Gainza a superb countertenor and seven instrumentalists. Listen to them in a New York appearance performing the 18th century Cuban composer Esteban Salas’ “Vayan unas especies” https://youtu.be/_hFGxvWhKzM

Another Early Music group is the Villa Clara-based Conjunto de Música Antigua Ars Nova here playing a composition by another Classical Cuban composer, the 19th century-born Cratilio Guerra Sardá, during the Tenth Festival de Música Antigua de La Habana

Ars Longa

LA MÚSICA DE CONCIERTO ESTÁ VIVA Y BIEN EN LA CUBA DE HOY: PRIMERA PARTE DE UNA SERIE

Después de haber entrado recientemente en contacto con varios músicos cubanos, estoy quedando cada vez más impresionado por el número de extraordinariamente dotados instrumentistas, directores de orquesta y cantantes que he conocido.
Muchos de nosoros hemos admirado durante muchos años las glorias de la música popular cubana. Yo, por mi parte, he estado escuchando a cantantes cubanos de música popular algunos de los cuales se remontan a la época de mi abuelo tales como la gran María Teresa Vera y el inolvidable Trío Matamoros y otros mas cercanos a mi tiempo, tal como Beny Moré .

Pero lo que me maravilla cada vez que me encuentro con uno de estos jóvenes talentos cubanos de hoy es que el campo de la música en la Cuba actual es rico y diversificado, con un buen número de orquestas, grupos de música de cámara, conjuntos de música antigua, grupos corales, y teatros líricos que operan en La Habana y en toda la isla, ofreciendo a varios de estos jóvenes artistas la oportunidad de practicar su arte.

Permítanme compartir los cuatro ejemplos siguientes:

Bryan López González, un excelente tenor, con una voz aguda sin limites y dotado de enorme musicalidad se formó en Cuba y dio sus primeros pasos allí, ascendiendo a la categoría de estrella recién salido del conservatorio a través de sus frecuentes apariciones en producciones operísticas.

Ahora está en Europa, esperando poder poner en marcha su joven carrera mientras todavía permanece  en el limbo provocado por la actual pandemia. Joven y guapo y destinado para un gran carrera, aquí se le escucha cantando una muy elegante Un’ aura amorosa de Cosi fan tutte en el Festival della Valle D’itria 2016, en Martina Franca, Italia.
https://youtu.be/6-G5N3nmxFA

Camerata Romeu es una orquesta de cuerdas totalmente integrada por jovenes mujeres y considerada por muchos como la primera y la mejor de su tipo en América Latina. Fundada en La Habana en 1993 por Zenaida Romeu, su estilo es accesible y fácil, formado por jóvenes perfectamente peinadas y vestidas con gran estilo. Pero es la música, la técnica y la finura artística que este talentoso grupo y su líder traen a la música cubana y latinoamericana lo que clasifican a esta notable orquesta en primera clase.Aquí están en una ondulante versión de un guaguancó cubano: https://youtu.be/d11NGffLcYU

Ars Longa es un excelente grupo de Música Antigua del Barroco que cuenta con cinco cantantes, entre ellos Yunié  Gainza, un excelente contratenor, y siete instrumentistas. Escúchenlos en una aparición neoyorquina interpretando del compositor cubano del siglo XVIII Esteban Salas’ “Vayan unas especies” https://youtu.be/_hFGxvWhKzM

Otro notable grupo que se especializa en  Música Antigua es el Conjunto de Música Antigua Ars Nova, con sede en Villa Clara. Los encontamos durante el Décimo Festival de Música de La Habana interpretando una obra de otro compositor cubano clásico: Cratilio Guerra Sardá, nacido en Santiago de Cuba en el siglo XIX.

Cuban sabor and classical elegance by Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis, a horn player with the Berlin Philharmoniker, arrived in Cuba some years ago to teach some master classes to young musicians.

Enamored with the warmth of the people of the island she has since gone back there to visit and make music with fellow artists. Combining the music of Mozart with the popular music that is alive and well and thriving in the Caribbean nation, a terrific album has just been released by NAXOS.

It is a result of an unpredictably successful collaboration between Sarah Willis and the superb Havana Lyceum Orchestra and its magisterial young conductor Pepe Méndez.

The CD includes alongside Cuban music of the 50’s though the 90’s, Mozart’s Concerto no.3 and the Rondo for Horn, K371 alongside the whimsically titled Rondo alla Mambo, Sarahnade Mambo, and a Cuban Eine kleine Nachtmusik all three familiar Mozartian tunes injected with a good dose of spicy Cuban salsa.

What could have turned into a mere gimmick has instead produced felicitous results thanks to the excellence of the participating musicians and the straightforwardly honest approach to the music at hand.

This gem of an album joins my list of BEST OF 2020, as it defies categorization merely inviting the listeners to set aside preconceptions and listen to a cool mix of the Austrian and the Cuban, and swivel their hips to hot, sensually sinuous tunes by Perez Prado, Ibrahim Ferrer, and other Cuban old time icons played with a mixed combination of Cuban sabor and classical elegance by Sarah Willis, saxophonist Yuniel Lombida, trumpeter Harold Madrigal, pianist Jorge Aragon, and the enormously versatile Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by Maestro Méndez.

Rafael de Acha

https://youtu.be/XeQKXjONFKA

Unexplored Brazilian concert music

Seresta (Portuguese for forest), a rhapsody for piano and orchestra in three movements by Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri features the excellent pianist Olga Kopylova, with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo led by Isaac Karabtchevsky.

In three compact movements: Decidido (decisively), Sorumbático (somber), and Gingando (swaying), the composer achieves a multitude of colors in a densely-orchestrated work rich in unpredictable multi-tonal twists and turns, surprisingly inventive harmony, and, in the first and last of its sections unrelentingly-driving rhythmic pulsation.

A work by Guarnieri a largely unheralded composer outside his native Brazil, this composition and the others in this album provide an entrance into the world of a 20th century Latin American master. Guarnieri’s Paulista (São Paulo) roots define him aesthetically as Brazilian in his soul, yet European in intellect, his music deeply influenced by some of the French masters with whom he studied at the beginning of his career.

The two-movement Chôro (Portuguese for “cry”) for Bassoon and Orchestra affords Alexandre Silvério an opportunity to deftly shine as soloist in a composition that begins with a slow Calmo (calmly) and then breaks out into a rhythmically intricate Allegro that is immediately followed by the lengthier Chôro for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, a work-within–work in which the peerlessly musical flautist Cláudio Nascimento shares the musical heavy-lifting with his bassoonist colleague Silvério in a hauntingly moody composition evocative of an otherworldly Brazilian musical landscape.

Throughout these quintessentially Brazilian chôros the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, led by maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky proves the ideal partner, claiming stage center at moments, self-effacingly supportive at others.

Violinist Gavi Graton excels in the tri-partite Chôro for Violin and Orchestra, ostensibly the most concerto-like of all three of the works in the album. In the first and second movements the soloist asserts his presence from the very onset with his handling of Guarnieri’s expansively melodic lines, against which the chamber orchestra provides passages of quiet support often alternating with massive fortissimo outbursts. Graton then engages in an intricately rhythmic dialogue with the ensemble that leads the final movement of the work to a riotously concluding finale.

Naxos must again be saluted for its enterprising venture in the largely unexplored yet fertile field of Brazilian concert music.

Rafael de Acha

GUITAR MUSIC FROM SPAIN, MEXICO and CHINA

The Concierto de Aranjuez is the opening work in this lovely album about to be released by NAXOS. The familiar work by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo is exquisitely played by virtuoso Junhong Kuang

When Brazilian composer Heitor Villalobos met in 1920’s Paris his Mexican counterpart composer Manuel Ponce – both then young men in their thirties – he expressed strong feelings of commonality in both their efforts to mine the folklore of their individual birth countries. Much of Ponce’s music is that and more: a joyous celebration of all that is Mexican in music, elevated to the status of concert compositions.

Ponce’s 1941 Concierto del Sur (Southern Concert) takes a different artistic route by paying homage to the music of Spain – Asturias specifically – in a richly melodic work originally created for Andrés Segovia, masterly played here by Junhong Kuang.

The traditional three-movement concerto structure is brilliantly put to work by the composer, opening with a stately Allegro, followed by a straightforward Andante, and concluding with a filigreed filled Allegro Festivo that gives the work a celebratory ending.

Hong Kong-born composer Gerald Garcia’s China Sings expressly composed for Junhong Kuang is a brief two-movement rhapsody that, like its companion compositions in this CD taps into folkloric roots – Chinese in this case – with splendid results.

Junhong Kuang creates a variety of colors in his playing of the opening Dark Sky, Silver Clouds and in the second movement, Silver Clouds across the Moon, at times making his instrument sound like a Chinese Pipa.

The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice led by Darrell Ang provides perfect partnership to the soloist throughout this remarkable NAXOS release.

Rafael de Acha

Elgar from America, Volume II

SOMM announces Elgar from America, Volume II featuring three historic performances from the 1940’s by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductors Malcolm Sargent and Arturo Toscanini at the helm of the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Menuhin is heard here in a 1945 performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, followed by Elgar’s Cockaigne Concert-Overture.

Toscanini leads the Introduction and Allegro for Strings joined here by NBC Symphony Orchestra principal violinists Mischa Mischakoff and Edwin Bachmann, violist Carlton Cooley, and cellist Frank Miller.

Elgar’s music is that of a steadfast Romantic holdout, structurally traditional, with – to the ears of this listener – no hint of any kind of influence from whatever many other composers of his time were writing. But his gift for melody is great, and he regaled the interpreters of his compositions with accessible, often tuneful, and showy music that would inevitably elicit ovations from the listeners and reward its players for their hard work.

Menuhin delivers an impassioned performance with a remarkable full sound undoubtedly enhanced by the limpid re-mastering by audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr. The playing in the violin concerto and in the other two compositions that fill the album is sweepingly grand, boldly broad, and typical of the style that was the trademark of both the NBC Symphony Orchestra and of the 29 year old Yehudi Menuhin, a masterful violinist already at the peak of his powers.

Rafael de Acha

Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun in a stunning performance

SOMM Recordings is releasing a fascinating album (SOMMCXD76) featuring two late-19th-century Romantic Piano Concertos: the familiar Fifth Piano Concerto in F major, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the unfamiliar yet enormously impressive G minor Piano Concerto, Op.10 by Saint-Saëns contemporary, virtuoso pianist, composer, and personal friend, the Brazilian Henrique Oswald, whose Piano Concerto was composed before Saint-Saëns’ Fifth.

Both concerti are replete with mind-boggling technical hurdles which the formidable Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun elegantly tosses off and then balances with passages of exquisite lyricism in a stunning performance that also boasts the solid support of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra superbly led by Dutch maestro Jac Van Steen. The production and engineering are both vintage SOMM.

A rare treat – Brazilian composer Alberto Nepomuceno’ four-movement Suite Antiga is included in the album, affording the listener the opportunity to enjoy a 19th century Brazilian take on an 18th Century European Baroque construct played with utmost delicacy by a major pianistic talent.

Rafael de Acha

Divine Liturgy

From DELOS, a new release: Divine Liturgy by the composer Komitas, offers a rare sampling of the liturgical music of the Armenian people.

The hour-long work – performed in this recording by the superb Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava – introduces the listener to the hauntingly exotic music of the 19th century priest and multi-talented musician Soghomon Soghomonian, known in his country by his given priestly name of Vardapet Komitas.

Widely regarded as a pillar of Armenian music and revered by his people as a national hero, Komitas survived the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire only to tragically die in a Paris mental hospital.

Komitas composed music imbued with Eastern melody, intriguing harmonies, and complex counterpoint. His uncanny gift for exploring how choral singing can induce a state of deep spiritual calm eventually conducive to reflection and religious ecstasy is present in this one of a kind album, beautifully produced, engineered and annotated by DELOS.

Originally created for an all-male choir, this recording arranged for a mixed choir will deservedly begin to divulge the glories of this music from the remote Republic of Armenia to a wider audience than the congregation of faithful for which it was originally conceived.

Rafael de Acha