Music of Florent Schmidt

French composer Florent Schmidt (1870-1958) bridged many epochs and essayed many ideas in his compositions. Coming of age during the so called Belle Époque and maturing as an artist during the first decades of the 20th century, Schmidt became friends with the who’s who of French artists when he fell in with Les Apaches, a group of artists that at one time or another included the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky.

Even though it would have logical for Schmidt to be influenced by the teachings of Massenet and Fauré, with both of whom he studied at the Conservatoire, as well as by the music of Ravel and some of the other French members of Les Apaches, Schmidt gravitated instead to the Germanic ideas about orchestration of Wagner and Strauss and Stravinsky’s modernisms.

Not well liked in Parisian musical circles not only by the mere fact of being a caustic critic, but also by both his eccentric behavior at concerts which he would disrupt by yelling insults at the performers, and by his Anti-Semitism (once yelling “Vive Hitler!” at a concert featuring the music of Kurt Weill), Schmidt was hated by his off-putting personality and ill-mannered behavior.

But personality aside and sixty years after his death, Schmidt’s music is largely neglected so that the release of this CD of his music, beautifully executed by Maestra JoAnn Falletta, here conducting Orianne with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the honeyed-voice mezzo-soprano Susan Platts singing both La Tragédie de Salomé and Musique sur l’eau, and the superb violinist Nikki Choi playing Légende, is a welcome addition to the NAXOS catalogue.

Rafael de Acha


Heitor Villa⁠-⁠Lobos wrote eleven symphonies, written between 1916 and 1957. Ranging from his first five: nos. 1 –O Imprevisto (Unforeseen); 2 – Ascensão (Ascension); 3 – Guerra (War); 4 – A Vitória  (Victory); through the mature no. 6- Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil (On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil); and numbers 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12; the tenth: Sinfonia ameríndia com coros (Amerindian Choral Symphony, and the lost 5th , they offer a panoramic aural landscape of the Brazilian composer’s talent.

Villa-Lobos – self-taught, alternately abhorred for his politics and admired by both his compatriots and the likes of Segovia, Milhaud and Rubinstein for his artistry – is a figure of great contrasts who found his true musical soul and inspiration in the sounds of Brazilian popular music.

At times his early works come off sounding derivative and pseudo-European, but when inspired and mature, his compositions burst forth with tremendous energy, Brazilian rhythmic pulse, and sweeping melody, never more than in his sixth and tenth symphonies and in the symphonic poem Uirapuru, a 1917 work subtitled O passarinho encantado (The Enchanted Little Bird) as enchanting a composition as the feathered subject of its title.

I highly recommend this six-CD Naxos collection (Naxos 8.506039) that continues the label’s invaluable ongoing exploration of Brazilian concert music, here played to utter perfection by the superb São Paulo Symphony Orchestra led by Isaac Karabtchevsky.

Rafael de Acha        

Ian Bostridge sings Die schöne Müllerin

English tenor Ian Bostridge recently sang a Wigmore Hall performance of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin accompanied by pianist Saskia Giorgini captured and now released by Pentatone (PTC5186775, CD).

Needed for a great performance of Die schöne Müllerin, to begin with, are a keen pair of interpreters – the pianist not merely an accompanist but a sensitive artist with a gift for both following the singer and for imprinting on Schubert’s piano part the collaborative artist’s viewpoint, one consonant with that of the singer.

As for the singer, a gifted artist is required, one endowed with a supple vocal instrument capable of singing twenty songs, many of them strophic, avoiding sameness and with the ability to imbue each song with a gamut of colors ranging from melancholy, to passion, to anger and to ultimate resignation.

While tenor Ian Bostridge has enjoyed a successful career primarily as a recitalist and concert singer since making his professional debut at the age of 27, today his vocal instrument betrays some wear and tear, most evident in the top range that once was easy vocal territory for his light lyric voice. While  he is fully in command of the most dramatic of the songs in the cycle – Ungeduld, for example, in an earlier recording with pianist Mitsuko Uchida, today at age 56 he has to reach for the top notes in that song, creating the impression of discomfort in that part of his voice and evidencing some roughness in his tone.

Ian Bostridge is still capable of singing with utter gentleness the more lyrical songs in the cycle – Wohin, for one, and the final sequence of Trockne Blumen, Der Müller und der Bach, and Des Baches Wiegenlied.

Schubert wrote these songs for the tenor voice, although he later transposed them to medium voice keys accessible to baritones, such as Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Gerard Souzay, Mathias Goerne, and Hermann Prey. Tenors Jonas Kauffmann, Christoph Prégardien, and Fritz Wunderlich among countless others have sung and recorded Schubert’s song cycle  Die schöne Müllerin in the original keys all with a modicum of success. I prefer the recordings of baritone Hermann Prey and tenor Fritz Wunderlich, both of which attain vocal perfection and the ability to get across the words of Wilhelm Müller.

To summarize, throughout his thirty year career Ian Bostridge has achieved many glories. Perhaps   the time has come for him to reconsider his repertory choices, so that we can remember him not only as the great singer of three decades ago but as one of today’s most skilled concert singers.

Rafael de Acha

Gloriae Dei Cantores sing the music of Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt came across the story of the fourth century Christian hermit Agathon, who lived alone in the Egyptian desert. Agathon met a leper who tested his Christian mettle through a series of tests. Once Agathon met the challenge, the leper revealed himself as an angel of God, and Agathon was blessed. Thus the story goes that inspired Estonian composer to pen his L’Abbé Agathon, a choral work that adopts some characteristics from Opera, some from Oratorio, and which creates in its own unique manner a compelling musical narrative featured in a new NAXOS release of Arvo Pärt choral music by the extraordinarily gifted Gloriae Dei Cantores in their very own label.

The album – available on several platforms –  also includes five other works by the Estonian master. An ethereal hymn to the Virgin mother, Salve Regina and an intensely emotional Magnificat, a heartfelt Nunc dimitis, and the closing Stabat Mater, a celebratory choral-instrumental paean to Mary exemplify the compositional breadth and depth of Arvo Pärt, an iconic 20th century musical genius who has traversed from an early career dalliance with Atonalism to a sui generis mature aesthetic he termed Tintinnabulation  whose roots grow out of Medieval Chant and Renaissance Polyphony.

Pärt’s compositions are impeccably sung by the Gloriae Dei Cantores: immaculately musical, pure of tone, perfect of diction, the superb ensemble is powerfully led by Richard K. Pugsley in an album that should provide the listener, as it did me, with a quiet hour of utterly peaceful music.

Rafael de Acha

Two works by Jonathan Leshnoff

Thanks to various CD’s released by REFERENCE RECORDINGS I have become an admirer of the music of American composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Over the past two years I have enthusiastically reviewed two of his works: the Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon, and his Symphony no. 4, “Heichalos.”

In a recent REFERENCE RECORDINGS release featuring Leshnoff’s piano concerto and his Symphony no. 3, Michael Stern leads the formidable Kansas Symphony Orchestra, with Joyce Yang as the concerto soloist and baritone Stephen Powell as the vocal soloist in the symphony’s third movement.

The impressive lineup of soloists and the sterling work of the Kansas musicians numbers immense artistic rewards in this treasure of a recording, impeccably engineered and produced by Dirk Sobatka of Soundmirror.

Jonathan Leshnoff explains and insightfully annotates his music better than anyone else could in his excellently written liner notes. The concerto – a 2019 composition dedicated to Joyce Yang is, as so much of Leshnoff music a spiritual work, deeply anchored in Jewish mysticism. Structured in four movements – a straightforward Allegro, a meditative Lento, a playful and brief Scherzo, and a rousing Finale – the composition is technically challenging, and it affords the soloist numerous opportunities to display her virtuosity.  Her sensitivity, when the music calls for a cantabile approach, reminds the listener of the immensity of Joyce Yang’s pianistic gifts.

The Symphony no. 3 is a riveting composition that incorporates into its third movement the texts of two letters unearthed by the composer in the archives of the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas. One is from Dr. Charles Irons, who served with the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia. The other is from Lieutenant James Kellogg Burnham Hockaday, a First Lieutenant, 354th Infantry, 89th Division, from Kansas City, Missouri.

While the symphony’s first movement begins slowly and meditatively, the music eventually climaxes, leading to a restless second movement that in Leshnoff’s words is “depiction of war and battles.” The second movement leads to the heart and soul of the composition: a third movement that quietly makes its case musically to then calmly taper off into silence in a remarkable ending to a masterful work.

The texts are both touching and noble, with the composer allowing the words to be up front and center. Baritone Stephen Powell was chosen for the task and he delivers a wonderful performance with utmost vocal ease and flawless diction.

The Kansas City Symphony, led by Michael Stern provides first class support to the soloists and a deeply committed approach to the music of Jonathan Leshnoff.

Rafael de Acha


Bright Shiny Things is releasing VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS

In a world-premiere recording of eighteenth century a cappella music conceived by and written for members of the Pennsylvania Ephrata community, Bright Shiny Things introduces the listener to American music by members of a Pietist community of celibate men and women that flourished during the 1700’s in Colonial America.

Dedicated to a simple life of work and worship, the self-sustaining Ephrata community, founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, encouraged the talents of its residents, among them Christianna Lassle, two of whose compositions are heard in this album.

Over 126 works, eleven of which are performed in this recording were unearthed, transcribed and edited by musicologist Christopher Dylan Herbert, who acted as both musical director and producer of the recording.

The results could hardly be improved upon. The flawless engineering, mastering, and mixing, the thoroughly informative liner notes, and the handsome packaging are all in service of the music, which proves to be beautiful and eminently accessible on first listening. The writing is straightforward, unembellished, true to the texts, and obeying a no-nonsense compositional code established by Conrad Beissel, the founder and director of the Ephrata Community.

In spite of the severe aesthetic of Beissel, the response of this listener was one of enchantment with the purity of the music and enormous respect for the various works and the dedication of its creators and the excellence and artistry of a superb quartet: Soprano Elizabeth Bates, Male Alto Clifton Massey, Tenor Nils Neubert, and Bass Steven Hrycelak.

VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS (BSTC 0141) is available from Bright Shiny Things ( )

Rafael de Acha

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER Douglas Knehans’ monodrama with libretto by Juanita Rockwell

Ice doubles the glass/divides in here from out there/white webbing the dark/– glazing patch wire branch and stone/crazing the snow’s smooth expanse/one red and one black/two koi move, each one solo/now this way now that/swim beneath a frozen sky/longing for another sun/your coat around me/hollowing out your pillow/your lamp still burning/making snow angels in sheets–nothing warms our empty bed/divides in here from out there

Thus begins Douglas Knehans’ monodrama BACKWARDS FROM WINTER, with a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, a work for voice, electronic cello and electronics issued by ablaze records (ar-00054)

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is an unusually structured musical journey taken in a retrograde manner, commencing with a desolate depiction of a woman in a darkening winter of the physical world and the soul.

Longing, separation, grief – are motives that will echo throughout a four chapter account that begins with the chill of winter, then moves to the cool of fall, then to the heat of summer, and finally to the joys of spring, with interludes separating the sections, in each of which the emotions that began the trip into memory gradually change from utter desolation to recent grief to the memory of intense passion to the hope eternal that lives in spring.

With great economy of means composer Douglas Knehans has created a potently compelling composition for the stage that should prove utterly viable for production now more than ever in the perilous world in which the arts live.

Conceived for soprano voice and one non-singing actor and scored for one accompanying instrument and electronics, BACKWARDS FROM WINTER should allow great freedom to any stage director, given its poetic, non-linear narrative.

The role of the woman is taxing, calling for endurance and utter comfort in the upper reaches of the soprano range, demands that do not seem to faze soprano Judith Weusten, who delivers an impressively sung and intensely expressive performance in this recording.

The electronic cello part is beautifully played by Antonis Pratsinakis, and composer Knehans provides all manner of electronic effects, strongly supported by engineers Greg Gurr and Silas Brown.

All in all BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is a superb chamber opera whose future – we fervently hope – will be bright and fruitful.

Rafael de Acha     September 24, 2020           

MUSIC FROM LATVIA by Talivaldis Keninš

Talivaldis Keninš (1919–2008) is like many other artists of Latvian heritage – through no fault of his – a victim of the Latvian Diaspora endured by the people of the small European nation during the years in which their country was under Soviet domination.

Born in Latvia, Ķeniņš lived most of his life in Paris and Canada, where he taught and continued to compose, before returning home in his latter years.

His Concerto di camera No. 1 (1981) written for flute, clarinet and piano is intriguingly structured and nobly played on this CD by Tommaso Pratola (flute), Mārtiņš Circenis, (clarinet), and pianist Agnese Egliņa. It is here given a compelling performance led by Guntis Kuzma,.

Keninš’ Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1990) is a dramatic and at times anguished work in which the composer expresses his feelings about the events that led to the long awaited liberation of Latvia in 1991.

The concerto is divided into a fast/slow/fast structure, in which the brief first and last movements call for virtuosic playing here generously provided by percussionist Edgars Saksons and pianist Agnese Egliņa, led again by Guntis Kuzma.

Ķeniņš wrote his First Symphony in 1959. The work melds the folk music of the Baltic people and the contemporary in a composition brief in duration but expansive in scope, given in this Ondine release a superb rendition under the baton of Andris Poga.

As someone who writes about music I have become familiar with the work of Latvian conductors Andris Nelsons and Mariss Jansons, violinist Gidon Kremer, and soprano Kristine Opolais. Yet I shamefully confess to complete ignorance about Latvian music, which this terrific Ondine release will help me gradually remedy.

Rafael de Acha September 23, 2020

For those wishing to listen to a sample of Talivaldis Keninš’ music here are two of his choral numbers:

CHORAL MUSIC FROM ESTONIA: Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits

A recently composed work for choir and orchestra, Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits has been released by ONDINE featuring the peerless pairing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra, beautifully led by Risto Joost,

The poetry of the 20th-century Italian writer Cesare Pavese, filled as it is with symbols about nature and their imprint on the life and death of human beings, is brought to life by Kõrvits in lyrical, meditative music, wherein elements of nature: wind, fire, water, earth are equated to aspects of the human condition: longing , regret, loneliness, love.

Kõrvits’ melodic, utterly Romantic, tonally-centered music is haunting and evocative, and his keen talent for text setting and tone painting is never more vividly present than in his setting of Pavese’s Tu sei come una terra (here in our translation) first sung by the chorus:

You are like a land that no one has ever uttered

You wait for nothing other than the word

Which like a fruit amidst tree branches

Will be dredged out of the bottom

It is a wind that nears you

Dried and dead things obscure you, swept away by the wind

Limbs and ancient words

You tremble in summer

A sample of the music of Tõnu Kõrvits: Peegeldused tasasest maast (The Northern Wild) –

Rafael de Acha www. 9/23/20


Not quite October yet, but given both some personal circumstances and the upcoming political turmoil that will most likely surround the final weeks of 2020, here’s our BEST OF YEAR list, culled from hundreds of DVD’s and CD’s sent to us for reviewing starting in January. Should more outstanding new recordings should reach us between now and January 1st 2021, they will be taken into consideration and added to our list. One more thing: the recordings in our BEST OF YEAR are listed here in random order, neither preferentially nor chronologically.

  • Mozart y Mambo released by ALPHA joins our list as one of the best albums of the year. It defies categorization merely inviting the listeners to set aside preconceptions and listen to a cool mix of the Austrian (Mozart) and the Cuban (Perez Prado, Ibrahim Ferrer) played with a mixed combination of Cuban sabor and classical elegance by horn player Sarah Willis, saxophonist Yuniet Lombida, trumpeter Harold Madrigal, pianist Jorge Aragón, and the enormously versatile Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by José Antonio Méndez. Full review:
  • The release IF THE NIGHT GROWS DARK by BRIGHT SHINY THINGS [BSTC-0140, CD] is a treasure trove of Spanish songs arranged for guitar and voice by Graciano Tarragó, and exquisitely performed by soprano Camille Zamora and guitarist Cem Duruöz. With their easy back and forth musical dialogue, with Zamora‘s perfect diction in Castilian, Catalan, Gallego and Basque, and a sublime voice perfectly suited to this music, and with Duruöz’s elegantly idiomatic playing, the two artists deliver musical gold throughout the entire duration of the album. FULL REVIEW:
  • SOMM Recordings released a fascinating album featuring two late-19th-century Romantic Piano Concertos: the Fifth Piano Concerto in F major, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the unfamiliar and enormously impressive Piano Concerto, Op.10 by the Brazilian Henrique Oswald, both replete with mind-boggling technical hurdles which the formidable Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun elegantly tosses off in a stunning performance that also boasts the solid support of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra superbly led by Dutch maestro Jac Van Steen. FULL REVIEW:
  • Commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and beautifully conducted by Manfred Honeck, Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon on REFERENCE RECORDS affords two of the orchestra’s principals: Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) the opportunity to shine as soloists in this gorgeous composition. We enjoyed in addition a boldly exhilarating performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor included in this CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • The Jupiter String Quartet delivered in a MARQUIS CLASSICS release a noble performance of György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 and Métamorphoses Nocturnes filled with gravitas that never lapsed into self-importance. Ligeti’s music calls for muscular playing and chameleonic changes of attack, tonality and mood, and the Jupiter String Quartet astonished with its virtuosic playing and its meticulous musicianship in one of the finest albums of the year. FULL REVIEW:
  • SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: A CHARACTER OF QUIET released by Orange Mountain Music, featured Dinnerstein’s playing of three of Philip Glass’s Etudes revealing the seemingly simple beauty of these miniatures with utmost clarity, and comfortably embracing the at times deceivingly static nature of these delicate gems. By contrast Dinnerstein’s rendition of Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – his last –  is deeply Romantic, affectingly portraying the music of an ailing young man holding on for dear life to life while continuing to make music. FULL REVIEW:
  • There are times when music can provide healing, induce calm, soothe our troubled hearts, allay our fears, and for a moment dispel our cares. As I sat late one night, and let this music so exquisitely played and shared with me by five formidable artists create its magic, time stopped and all that mattered in that moment was the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms magically played by the Alexander String Quartet and Eli Eban in a  Foghorn Records CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • During the two and a half hours musical-dramatic journey that the protean Stuart Skelton shares with a marvelous cast led by the superb English conductor Edward Gardner the splendid Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus shine in the several interludes that depict the ever changing surrounding seas that mirror the equally fluctuating human emotions that permeate Britten’s Peter Grimes – a harrowing story about an odd man out given a superbly engineered production in a new CD by CHANDOS. Full review:
  • Jonas Kaufmann – at the age of 51 a dramatic tenor at the top of his game – is an artist of uncommon sensitivity with the vocal equipment to surmount the perils in Verdi’s Otello a score chockfull of them. Carlos Alvarez is a superb Iago, Federica Lombardi a marvelous Desdemona, possessing a crystalline voice ideal for the role of the guiltless young wife. Antonio Pappano is the ideal Verdi interpreter, summoning fire and brimstone from his Santa Cecilia forces when needed and at other times eliciting delicate, shimmering playing in the Sony Classical CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • In DESIRE, her Sony Classical release of operatic arias Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak delivers a gorgeous lyric sound, pinpoint accuracy, intensity, and the sort of respectfulness for the written note that includes observing repeats and executing what’s written rather than what comes to the singer’s whim. Add to that flawless diction in Italian, French, Polish, Czech and Russian, and one quickly concludes that this artist has come into her own with complete artistic-vocal equipment. FULL REVIEW:
  • ORCHID CLASSICS (ORC100127) 3 CD release of all five of Beethoven’s concertos for piano and orchestra features Stewart Goodyear in command of immensely challenging music with never a hint of self-aggrandizement or posturing. With Andrew Constantine superbly helming the BBC Orchestra of Wales, Goodyear lets us know that he is a past master of both the grand gesture and the delicate and intimate, playing with the nobility and intense musicality listeners have come to expect of him. FULL REVIEW: