Mysterious, intense, hypnotic, ironic and utterly fascinating

In Ondine’s new release Saudade the listener is taken over the course of an hour on an intense sensorial journey of music by the immensely talented New York-based Lithuanian composer Žibuokle Martinaityte.

The CD includes several works by Martinaityte composed by her within a span of the past seven years. They are given here superb performances by both the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra each conducted by Giedre Slekyte, with Gabrielius Alekna as the piano soloist.

The most recent of the works, the 2019 Saudade (so-ˈdädə ) takes for its title a Portuguese word that describes a bittersweet emotional state that mixes nostalgia and longing for something or someone no longer there. Martinaityte conveys her very personal emotional journey from loss to redemption into music of depth and import.

Millefleur (mēl-ˈflər) (2018) is a French word literally meaning thousand flowers that describes a perfume distilled from several different kinds of flowers, or an ornamental pattern depicting a large variety of flowers. In this work Martinaityte creates a gorgeous musical effect of splintering musical kernels into myriads of tiny pieces.

Martinaityte’s Chiaroscuro trilogy (2017) is a 3-movement work for piano and strings. Chiaroscuro (kyä-rəˈskoo-rō) the Italian word literally meaning light-dark describes the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting that creates an effect of contrasted light and shadow on a subject.

Chiaroscuro is used by the composer to depict in musical terms contrasts of the obscured and the fully seen. Divided into Tunnel, Meteor and Darkness of Light and making little observance as in much of her music of traditional compositional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint, the composer instead uses changes in the density and the texture of the instrumentation to create a full palette of orchestral colors that sustain the interest of the listener.

At times the piano in the Chiaroscuro Trilogy is called upon to sound like a celesta playing an insistent figuration in its highest octave, at others it is asked to plummet to the nether regions of its range. Oftentimes it uses repetitiveness and ostinato gestures to convey in musical terms inexpressible poetic notions of the intangible or of physical changes and mutations, as in Tunnel, where the regular “bumps” in the instrumentation remind us with dry humor of times traversing interminable railroad journeys through long tunnels that cut through mountains until at last coming out at the other end to encounter once more the longed-for light.

The overall orchestral effects throughout Žibuokle Martinaityte’s music are mysterious, intense, hypnotic, ironic and utterly fascinating. This is a composer whose music has heretofore been unknown by many, including this listener. As with many Ondine’s releases this CD is an introduction not only to an immensely talented composer but to the work of several Baltic artists most deserving of attention.

Rafael de Acha

Hidden Treasure

Hidden Treasure is the title of an BIS CD featuring thirty-one unpublished songs by the lesser known Austrian composer Hans Gal, performed in this album by baritone Christian Immler accompanied by Helmut Deutsch.

The settings of poetry by Mörike, Hesse, Heine, Tagore, Demmel, and Walther von de Vogelweide offer the pairing of Immler and Deutsch the opportunity to mine for variety and contrast among songs that range from the quietly lyrical to the slyly humorous to the dramatic.

Gal’s compositional skills are unimpeachable even though the composer negated the value of these delightful miniatures time and again, dismissing them as negligible efforts written during the first two and a half decades of the 20th century.

On listening to the variety and quality of these songs one discerns hints of the influence of the Lieder of Hugo Wolf, whose works Gal helped curate and catalogue. But Gal’s gift for providing the singer with plenty of opportunities to spin a nice melodic line and giving the collaborative pianist rich through never obstructive accompaniments ranks this unjustly neglected composer with the finest Lieder composers of the early 20th century, Wolf included.

Christian Immler bills himself as a bass-baritone, but in this album, sounding much of the time as a lyric baritone he extensively puts at the service of the music a brilliant top register which he uses effortlessly and which he colors imaginatively to suit the poetics of each song. Helmut Deutsch is the ideal collaborator, neither overshadowing the singer nor overly self-effacing. As collaborators Immler and Deutsch are impressive reminders that great Lieder music-making is alive and well today.

The BIS CD is accompanied by a nice booklet containing translations of the songs in three languages.

Rafael de Acha

Beethoven’s 1806 Leonore

Opera Lafayette has released an interesting video of Beethoven’s 1806 Leonore which made one think of how advantageous it is for painters to use the technique known as pentimento to literally repent over something already finished and paint over the previous work. Unfortunately Beethoven could only take his 1806 Leonore and start over again and rewrite what he had already penned. Thus he gave us an early and a final version of his one and only opera, the ultimately titled Fidelio.

Much to our delight Opera Lafayette has meticulously researched and brought back the 1806 Leonore in a fine production filmed in March of 2020 at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. The results are very good, starting with a dramatically and vocally capable cast that brings to vivid life characters that in lesser hands often come off as woodenly uninteresting. The seven principal roles are filled with young singers with essentially lyric, mid-weight voices that heard in the confines of a 600 -plus seat house more than suffice to serve the demands of their assignments.

As Florestan Canadian tenor Jean Michel Richer acquits himself well in the earlier and less brutally taxing version of the Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! scena that opens the third act of the opera. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus is vocally just right for the part of the fatherly Rocco, and Keven Geddes is comically ingratiating as Jacquino. Equipped with just the right amount of stamina and biting snarl Matthew Scollin is a maleficent Pizarro, delivering a riveting Ha! Welch ein Augenblick! Bass Alexandre Sylvestre is a sonorous and dignified Don Fernando.

Lyric soprano Pascale Boudin is visually pretty and vocally splendid in the usually easy to ignore part of Marzelline. In an unpredictable bit of casting Nathalie Paulin, a soprano whose repertoire encompasses mostly lighter soprano roles is here the very fine Leonore, bringing the right mix of vocal heft, pathos and nobility to the part of the heroic wife in male disguise. She sings the just as difficult if not more so 1806 version of the iconic act I aria with commitment and suppleness, then to return in act III with impressive results in the five numbers that lead to the moving duet with Florestan and the triumphant finale.

Nathalie Paulin

Opera Lafayette’s Artistic Director Ryan Brown leads the company’s excellent orchestra and 16 member chorus with complete authority and sensitive awareness of the musical and vocal needs of his singers. The physically uncomplicated production is well directed by Oriol Tomas, who keeps his talented cast from indulging in any operatic posturing.

Rafael de Acha

Music: my main source of sanity

When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest of times, and to the latest.

– Henry David Thoreau

Music has been and continues to be my main source of sanity during this insane time. I have self-quarantined in the company of my wife since March of 2020, enjoying the outdoors in our backyard and otherwise reading and doing a lot of listening to music and thereafter writing about it. Here are some of the cures that have helped me along:

Stewart Goodyear His recordings of anything are an addictive cure to Covid19 depression, especially his recording of the Beethoven piano concertos with Andrew Constantine leading the BBC Orchestra of Wales.

Time stops every time I listen to the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms played by the Alexander String Quartet and clarinetist Eli Eban in a Foghorn Records CD.

Mozart in Havana released by SONY features Simone Dinnerstein playing two Mozart concerti with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by José Antonio Méndez takes me on a trip to Salzburg and back via my birth hometown.

On a number of on-line radio stations and on You Tube I listen to everything from Brazilian pop music to French and Italian Baroque.

On more than one occasion watching her on TV specials I have been reminded of what a great singing artist Audra McDonald is.

At home I am often spoiled by my wife’s playing and singing of favorites from the Great American Songbook.

Concert Violinist Andrii Isakov shares his thoughts on 2020

The pandemic has lasted already almost a year. It is an obvious fact that many musicians have been suffering not only because there is almost no real communication between artists and the audience (I don’t count online as a real connection between those two), but also financially. It is a very sad, but an obvious fact.

From a student point of view, I have to say that I don’t think it has ever been easy for students to support themselves even before the pandemic. The pandemic made it even worse.

Speaking of myself, the amount of gigs I have had since the start of the pandemic has been close to zero. The gigs I was assigned to play were either cancelled or postponed until unknown times in the future.

I am able to pay my rent and make a living only because of my teaching. I think it is a good way for students to keep surviving. It might be not enough for more than rent and food, but at least it is something.

Because there is not any sureness as to what will happen in the future, I just try to keep going, keep improving, finding competitions, and making many recordings (since performing is a luxury nowadays).

Some of the competitions I got in are postponed until far from now, however, we should not give up even though it is very easy to do so during such a time as this.

However, we should fight even harder to keep improving and use this time for something that we might not be able to do during our normal super-busy musician lives.

Baritone James Newby sings songs of wandering

English baritone James Newby has just released a debut CD (BIS-2475)  on the BIS label. Titled I wonder as I wander the album features an unpredictably varied collection of Lieder thematically linked by the themes of an uprooted and restless sort of wandering and of searching often to no avail for a loved one all in an unquiet escape from loneliness.

Thus Beethoven with his Adelaide and An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert with Der Wanderer – both the lyrical Myrhofer setting and the intensely dramatic and better known Schlegel one are included, along with three somber Mahler songs: Revelge, Urlicht, and Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz.

Newby opens and ends his recital with a brace of songs by Benjamin Britten:  I wonder as I wander, There’s none to soothe, At the mid hour of night, The Last Rose of Summer, and  Sail on, sail on. Whether in the English or German languages, whether in the intimately Romantic Beethoven and Schubert or in the more operatic Mahler songs, James Newby displays full command of the musical and vocal challenges. He is capable of spinning a seamlessly long cantilena in The Last Rose of Summer and equally adept at a kind of jagged, semi-spoken delivery in certain moments of the Mahler Lieder. Throughout his vocal emission is even at full volume from several top F’s and G’s in Revelge to a full-voiced low E at the end of Der Wanderer.

This is, in short, an immensely promising young talent to be on the lookout for.

Pianist Joseph Middleton collaborates with James Newby throughout the more than a dozen selections in this CD with utmost attention to the pianistic and musical challenges presented by the music, achieving great results, most notably in the Mahler selections meant  originally created to be performed with orchestra.

Rafael de Acha

Wedding music from 1568

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One of the intriguing offerings from NAXOS CLASSICS at the start of 2021 is a collection of Renaissance vocal music by one of the most famous composers in 16th century Europe: the Flemish genius Orlande de Lassus, aka Orlando di Lasso.

The CD bears the title Lassus: Le Nozze in Baviera (8579063) and the “nozze” – Italian for wedding – to which the tile refers is the 1568 three-week nuptial bash celebrating the union of Renate of Lorraine and Wilhelm V of Bavaria, for which it is assumed that Orlando contributed a number of celebratory compositions.

Ensemble Origo, a superb early music ensemble brainchild of conductor Eric Rice authentically sings a number of compositions by Orlando that range from the pious to the downright naughty. Thus Te Deum laudamus  the lovely Motet that opens the CD is followed by Gratia sola Dei, a sacred song giving thanks to God, taken from the Cantiones aliquot (songs for several voices).

Then there follows a succession of madrigals, villanelle, and other Renaissance musical forms that utilize a mix of sacred and secular texts in several languages and dialects all idiomatically set by the multi-lingual Orlando and perfectly pronounced and exquisitely sung by the vocalists in the Ensemble Origo

Performing in both vocal and vocal-instrumental settings for 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8 voices and blending the voices with the instrumental ensemble the Ensemble Origo stylishly brings to life the music of Orlando di Lasso, a multi-national 16th-17th century master of polyphony and counterpoint.

Rafael de Acha

Vocal and instrumental music by Korngold, Lehár, Fried, and Schoenberg

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CHANDOS has just released a CD (CHSA 5243) of rare vocal and instrumental music by early 20th century composers.

Korngold’s Four Songs of Farewell use texts by Christina Rossetti, Edith Ronsperger, and Ernst Lothar. Through the use of a late Romantic, somewhat dissonant idiom the cycle deals with love-lost, longing, regret and involuntary separation between loved ones. At all times text and music work together to express fatalism, sadness, and helplessness before the forces of fate, life, or even war, as is the case with Gefasster Abschied, the fourth song in the cycle.

Franz Lehár wrote the song Fieber in 1915 as the closing one of his cycle Aus eiserner Zeit (From an iron time), giving the cycle an orchestral setting. The listener should be prepared to encounter a Lehár that inhabits a musically and textually desolate landscape far removed from the carefree worlds of the Land of Smiles and The Merry Widow.

Depicting the dying hours of a soldier in hospital the song is more of an operatic scene than a Lied, with the expected vocal and dramatic challenges that go along with the genre. Stuart Skelton once more avails himself of his keen dramatic instincts and his flawless vocalism as he brings to vivid life the turmoil and imaginings of a man in physical and mental pain.

Stuart Skelton and the fine mezzo-soprano Christine Rice join voices in Oscar Fried’s setting of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Even though it provides both singers with fine material with which to work Fried’s version setting of the Richard Dehmel text pales by comparison to the all-instrumental Schoenberg version, here given a perfect reading by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

What makes this collection of early 20th century music so special is the inclusion of Korngold’s Four Songs of Farewell, the stand alone song Fieber, and the clarion-voiced Stuart Skelton gloriously singing perfectly-inflected and beautifully expressed German lyric poetry.

Rafael de Acha

Heartbreak, tenderness, denial, and an ultimate acceptance of the inevitable

Luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein, founded the Violins of Hope project with the intention of bringing back to life violins that had been owned and played by Jewish musicians before the Holocaust. By allowing these invaluable instruments to be played today Amnon and Weinstein shed light on Jewish music history.

The Quartettsatz c-Moll (Quartet Movement in C minor) was composed by Franz Schubert in December 1820 as the first movement of a string quartet he did not complete. It occupies a segment of the superb PENTATONE MUSIC CD (PTC5186879 – UPC: 827949087967) which features Daniel Hope, Sean Mori, Kay Stern, Dawn Harms, Patricia Heller and Emile Miland  variously playing with a perfect mix of commitment, passion, mature musicality and elegant nobility the Quartettsatz, Jake Heggie’s song cycle Intonations, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as the peerless soloist, and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor.

Composed in 1847 and completed before he died two months later on November 4, 1847, Mendelssohn dedicated his last string quartet as a Requiem to the memory of Fanny Mendelssohn, his beloved sister, who had died just months before him.

All three of the works featured in this recording are uniformly dark-hued, soberly melodic, and often voiced in minor tonalities. All of the four movements that make up the Mendelsson quartet – three disquieting Allegros, one elegiac Adagio – are all imbued with a tragic tone.

Intonations: Songs of the Violins of Hope, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and string instruments by Jake Heggie uses texts by Gene Scheer inspired by the stories of the Jewish musicians who played their violins in the concentration camps during one of mankind’s most terrible times.

Both the Schubert and the Mendelssohn works express impatience with the inexplicable aspect of mortality, while Heggie’s mature work uses Gene Scheer’s text to at certain moments lament, at others question the very meaning of life and death. Divided into seven segments, three of which feature the plangent voice of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke Intonations: Songs of the Violins of Hope achieves the very essence of song as art in Feivel simultaneously conveying heartbreak, tenderness, denial, and an ultimate acceptance of the inevitable.

Rafael de Acha

Tangorama: a wonderful aural trip to the southernmost South American nation

Leave it to Paula Mlyn’s A440 Arts ( to share the good word about interesting new CD’s. At the top of 2021 Naxos on its Grand Piano label has released Tangorama  [GP 856], the first of an upcoming series of tango albums lovingly selected and superbly played by the terrific Argentine-American pianist Mirian Conti.

This first in the series features over two dozen gems that trace the development of the Argentine tango from its humble origins rooted in Afro-Argentine and Cuban-influenced dance forms birthed in the bars an dives on the shores of the River Plate to the sophisticated compositions of mid-20th century composer-performers that inflected the form with European harmonies and counterpoint while retaining the syncopated underpinning of the original dance form.

In compositions such as the iconic La Cumparsita of Matos Gerardo Rodriguez and El Choclo of Angel Villoldo both of which have the ONE-two-three-four rhythmic DNA of all Tango to the fast-paced, cut-time, mid-century tango-milongas Milonga de mis Amores by Pedro Laurenz, Mi Regalo by Orlando Goñi, and Alfredo Aieta’s Corralera to the laid-back melancholy of Roberto Pansera’s Naturaleza Muerta, Enrique Francini’s Tema Otoñal and Julian Plaza’s Melancólico, Mirian Conti turns her piano into a Banda Porteña that takes the listener on a wonderful aural trip to the southernmost South American nation.

Rafael de Acha