The Juilliard String Quartet plays Beethoven, Bartók, and Dvořák

The Juilliard String Quartet plays Beethoven, Bartók, and Dvořák

THE MUSIC

Beethoven’s Quartet op. 59, no. 2 in E minor, Rasumovsky

Beethoven’s Opus 59 includes three quartets the composer wrote to pay homage to Count Andreas Rasumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, and a sponsor and friend of the composer.

In the energetic first and fourth movements of his Quartet op. 59, no. 2 in E minor, Beethoven dazzles the listener with his unending inventiveness. But it is the second movement of the Quartet that which moved the composer and pianist Carl Czerny, a friend of the composer, to write how this music must have come to Beethoven “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.”

Later, in the third movement of the quartet the composer honors his Russian friend by miraculously using and transforming a Russian folk hymn that would much later be heard in the coronation scene of the opera Boris Godunov, a work written several decades after the 1808 Rasumovsky quartets.  That Russian Orthodox theme of praise to the Divine can also be heard in Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa, in a Rachmaninoff piano composition, and in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, seemingly as if those Russian composers had wanted to follow in the Bonn master’s footsteps all the while celebrating their Russian heritage.

Bela Bartók Quartet no. 3

The 1927 composition of the single-movement, fifteen-minute-brief, Third Quartet preceded Bartók’s first visit to America, when he came to collect a $6,000 composition prize and, at the end of 1928, to hear his work performed by a quartet integrated by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The blunt, though by no means coarse music of this quartet is, in the composer’s own words, “… peasant music, real old music, one-part music…unconventional and liberal in its use of rhythm… elements almost unknown to so-called ‘romantic’ music.”

Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet in F major, Opus 96, “American”

Franz Kneisel became the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony in 1885, and later the head of the violin department at the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City, eventually renamed the Juilliard School. The German violinist’s Kneisel Quartet gave the first performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet in F major, Opus 96, a work firmly anchored in pure Americana.

As director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, the composer gradually became an admirer of the multi-cultural currents of American music, strengthening his deep belief that music must ever be rooted in what is truly national, and, in the case of this remarkable composition, in the musical strains of American culture.

After an exhausting first year in his New York City post, Dvořák spent a summer in a village in Iowa in the company of many fellow Czechs and in contact with nature. He wrote in a letter, “I was walking in the woods and heard birdsong for the first time in months.” African-American and Native American melodies – some authentic, some born in the composer’s mind, along with music that can express in its own terms the sounds of nature served to inspire this beloved composition.

THE PERFORMANCE

In this recording, the four members of the Juilliard Quartet – Areta Zhulla, violin (the quartet’s newest member); Ronald Copes, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello – celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding with the sort of elegantly executed, musically impassioned, technically flawless playing that has earned their ensemble its reputation as one of the finest string quartets in the world.

Steven Epstein is both the gifted producer and engineer of this impeccably engineered and packaged release.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Missing the real thing

All across our country the performing arts have been on a kind of deep-freeze. Large organizations like the Metropolitan Opera have bled enormous amounts in lost ticket revenues with no end in sight, while musicians, chorus members, principal singers, stage hands, and artistic-administrative personnel live on, barely scraping by financially, some relocating outside of New York, others moving in with parents, while waiting for it all to be over.

In Cincinnati, a microcosm of the larger national arts debacle, live theatres remain closed, while the larger and financially resilient, such as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play a limited number of performances with reduced orchestral forces, in shorter, intermission-less concerts, to socially-distanced audiences.

Summer-arts organizations hold off announcing their plans hoping things will soon change. Same goes for the smaller arts organizations, some of which may never come back. Cincinnati’s two major museums – the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Art Museum linger on with reduced hours and no major exhibits.

The College-Conservatory of Music – in its heyday the largest presenter of live arts events in the State of Ohio – is exclusively presenting digital performances with carefully-distanced student musicians and dancers, while its ensemble-centric programs – musical theatre and opera – remain on hold for the time being. After a one-year hiatus the 173 year old Cincinnati May Festival bounces back in a modest version of its old self when it opens on May 2 with three programs of mostly smaller pieces involving reduced forces.

Audience members manage to get by watching on-line performances – many archival ones dating back years – of operas and concerts available on You Tube, the Metropolitan Opera’s digital presentations, and European on-line sources like Opera Vision. But every music and theatre and visual arts fan of my acquaintance aches for the return of the unique and irreplaceable in-person experiences of sitting in a concert hall or a darkened theatre or standing in front of a work of art in a museum as great art unfolds before our eyes and ears.

In a private exchange a musician friend wrote:  “I had to take a year off and start a business venture, in case our orchestra world imploded! I could certainly share what our experience has been during the pandemic and how that will impact us moving forward.”

Oh, how we understand!

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

AROUND THE WORLD with three musicians in little over one hour

Around the World, a new release by Heritage Records features music for clarinet, violin and piano by Aram Khachaturian, Darius Milhaud, Peter Schickele, and Roger J. Henry.

The players are the Ensemble Next Parallel, and its three members – Yevgeny Dokshansky, Enrique Reynosa, and Anna Nizhegorodtseva make an absolutely fulfilling journey out of the sixty-two minutes and fifty-two seconds that it takes to listen to Khachaturian’s 1932 Trio in G Minor for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, Darius Milhaud’s 1936 Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, Peter Schikele’ 1993 Serenade for Three, and Roger J. Henry’s 2019 Trio No. 2 for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano.

Traveling musically through Armenian, French, American and Caribbean music, Around the World is immaculately played by three friends from opposite corners of the map, all three superb musicians. Dokshansky, a Belorussian met his colleague Roger J. Henry while teaching at the University of Trinidad and Tobago and that eventually led to a commission to write Trio No. 2 for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, the composition that is receiving its premiere in this recording.

Serendipity brought Mexican violinist Enrique Reynosa, and Russian Anna Nizhegorodtseva to join the enterprising Dokshansky and form the ensemble that he leads in this debut CD, recorded in the Melodiya Studio at the Lutheran Church of St. Catherine in St. Petersburg in July of 2019. Together they embrace the Eastern flavor of Aram Khachaturian’s inventive Trio in G Minor, with Dokshansky’s clarinet and Reynosa’s violin exchanging filigrees throughout the work’s three brief movements ever sustained with the rock-solid support of Nizhegorodtseva anchoring every moment.

Darius Milhaud’s 1936 Suite is quick moving and glib and demanding of accuracy and agility from all three members of the ensemble. Peter Schickele, best known to most as PDQ Bach is the author of Serenade for Three, a sometimes wacky, sometimes heartfelt composition that takes the listener through an all-American musical landscape. Roger J. Henry’s charming music for his Trio No. 2 for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano is rooted in the composer’s rigorous classical training, spiced up with hints of the Caribbean inflections of soca music of his birthplace in a felicitous combination.

Engineered and produced by Dokshansky and Aleksey Barashkin, the Heritage Records HTGCD 170 album is available from www.heritage-records.com. A gem that will undoubtedly satisfy devotees of chamber music this lovingly played album featuring an admirable young ensemble is eminently worthy of attention.

Rafael de Acha                ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A fine ballo in maschera

Much as it had been earlier in his career with Rigoletto and La Traviata, Verdi had no end of trouble with the censors when it came to Un ballo in maschera, one of his most popular operas.

After working with Antonio Somma, his chosen librettist for his long-in-the-works Lear, Verdi had to deliver a commission for Naples, so Lear fell by the wayside never to be picked up again. The new work turned out a reworking by Somma of an old libretto for a French opera by Auber titled Le bal masqué of which Verdi made the most although he failed to leave out some of its melodramatic improbabilities.

After being blocked by the Austrian censors that objected to the portrayal of the murder of a King on stage, Verdi had to change the historically accurate setting from 18th century Sweden to 18th century Massachusetts (!) with less than felicitous results. However, Verdi was posthumously vindicated when the proper Swedish setting became the preferred version of the work.

Ultimately the music prevailed, including some fabled ensembles and several show-stopping arias for the tenor, soprano, baritone, and contralto principals. In the recently released Orfeo recording (ORF-C210062) soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, tenor Piotr Beczala, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva acquit themselves quite well, with top honors going to the Amelia (oops, Emilia!) – the Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, a superb Verdian, ample of voice and fiery of temperament, with an even mix of the steel called for in Ecco l’orrido campo and the ensuing duet with Gustaf, and the plangent lyricism required for Morrò, ma prima in grazia.

Nadia Krasteva is a fine Ulrica, definitely more mezzo-soprano than the contralto ideally best suited to the role of the soothsayer. But then, these days true-blue contraltos are rarer than hens’ teeth.

The men in the recording are a mixed bag. Piotr Beczala’s voice has never been one of my favorite ones, especially in the Verdi roles for which I find his grainy sound not Italianate enough. That said I cannot think of many tenors singing today that can move so comfortably into the Verdi canon and sing Forse la soglia attinse… Ma se m’è forza perderti as well as the versatile Beczala can.  

The late great Dmitri Hvorostovsky recorded this Ballo roughly a year and a half before his untimely death. While the style and the volcanic high notes were still there, the sheer beauty of his sound had begun to disappear and a tendency to bark some of the angry utterances of the character of Renato started to take the place of singing.

The late Spanish conductor Jesús López-Cobos leads the Vienna State Opera orchestra with a sure hand, always alert to the give and take asked for by Verdi in this excellent live recording.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

An enchanting album of Baroque music from the Spanish colonies

Throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s and beyond, the Spanish colonies in the New World emerged as centers of musical activity. Cathedrals demanded music to be played and sung as part of religious services and festivities, and the common people, mostly untrained musicians participated enthusiastically in music-making for worship as well as for many other mostly practical uses.

The music they created was folk music that utilized guitars, harp, percussion and singing. It was music with roots in the Spanish, African, and in the native Mayan, Aztec and Inca cultures.

These humble musicians created songs and dances unique to their region of the Americas. Some of the music is naïve and earnest, some surprisingly sophisticated, all of it is pure delight.

In ARCHIVO DE GUATEMALA, an enchanting NAXOS album of music originating in the Cathedral of Guatemala City, music by composers whose names have long languished in obscurity has been lovingly brought back to life by the enterprising ensemble El Mundo, led by Richard Salvino. Throughout a dozen tracks that feature danceable tunes by Juan García de Zéspedes, Sebastián Durón, José de Torres y Martínez Bravo, and others the EL Mundo musicians play with vibrancy and great gusto music more than three centuries old in a treasure of an album.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Mephistopheles’ Merry Moments

It takes a lot of work to mount a good Faust, Charles Gounod’s 1859 operatic behemoth. There is the issue of staging what in many ways is close to impossible to put on stage and keep a straight face. There’s the instant transformation of Faust, the old scholar into Faust, the dashing young man. There are other hurdles: decisions to be made, what to keep, what to cut… And most important: a good quartet of singers must be employed – ideally four artists with acting chops, big voices, and style by spades. French opera does not sit well in all voices, and good French diction is hard to come by in non-Gallic singers. In the Royal Opera House Opus Arte DVD the cast only partially rises to the occasion.

Michael Fabiano provides a pleasant alterative to the choice of either a big bellower (no names need be mentioned) or a bleating light weight. He is neither. Fabiano, a fast rising big-voiced lyric tenor with Spinto possibilities is well chosen for the title role of Gounod’s opera. He is an intelligent singer with a lovely sound, a secure top, and excellent technique. He phrases well and  acts the part with conviction.

In the key role of Mephistopheles, the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott has a strange take on the role of the demon who makes a pact with Faust. Perhaps hand  in hand with the stage director David McVicar, the singer has a disconcertingly jokey approach to the part that makes light of moments in which the demonic should outweigh any hint of humor. Vocally Schrott is alright, although more baritone than bass and hence lacking the dark color the role demands at several key moments.

Soprano Iirina Lungu is a lovely Marguerite who manages to pull off the Ballad of the King of Thulé and the following Jewel Song with not a whit of help from her stage director. Mezzo-soprano Marta Fontana-Simmons sings beautifully and acts a convincingly boyish Siebel.

The French baritone Stephane Degout is flawless as Valentin, cutting a handsome soldierly figure and singing up a storm in his Avant de quitter, in the Duel Trio and in his Death Scene.

Sadly, it is the staging of David McVicar that ultimately proves to be the major disappointment by resorting to corny tricks when sensible solutions are best used. He equips the Mephistopheles with a bag of tricks that eventually grows irksome: a group of hangers on that indulge in silly choreography with gyrating bodies on the floor, multiple and often ridiculous costume changes, and attitudinizing substituting for acting.

Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger leads his cast, orchestra and chorus with an even mix of flexibility and assured leadership.

Rafael de Acha             All About the Arts

A Basque Orchestra playing Ravel

In the simply titled Ondine CD Ravel Robert Trevino conducts the Basque National Orchestra in La Valse, Alborada del gracioso, Rapsodie espagnole, Une barque sur l’océan, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Bolero.

In the extensively annotated accompanying booklet Trevino shares his insights on the music of Ravel:

“Ravel embodies many different labels – French, Basque, he also wrote Spanish music. The Basque National Orchestra too has different facets. It is headquartered in San Sebastian just a few kilometers from the French border, where there is a confluence and flow of French, and of course Spanish, influences in the area.”

“Many of our musicians live in France and travel across the border every day and this fluidity makes sense for us… Yet for all this fluidity, the orchestra is unmistakably of the Basque people and culture. “

The Basque National Orchestra sounds marvelous under Trevino’s baton and Trevino draws from them a wonderfully idiomatic performance, taking deliberately slow tempi that allow the musicians plenty of breathing room to play with the necessary suppleness to bring out all the orchestral color that Ravel injected into his music.

Particularly in La Valse the orchestra and its conductor mine the danceable quality of the music – precisely what Ravel conceived it to be: a ballet celebrating the waltz as a celebration of life.

Interestingly, Trevino gives the melancholy Pavane pour une infante défunte a reasonably moderate tempo, rather than that of a funeral dirge.

Elsewhere in the CD the orchestra delivers fiery renditions of Alborada del Gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole both quintessentially Iberian works, rather than French music trying to be Spanish.

The CD is beautifully engineered and produced.

Rafael de Acha             ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Magyar and Romani melancholy

In 2018 a group of Hungarian musicians got together to give a concert in the Grand Hall of Budapest’s Liszt Academy. Guitarist Ferenc Snétberger was joined by bassist Gyula Lázár, and by the Keller Quartet, an ensemble that includes violinists András Keller and Zsófia Környei, violist Gábor Homoki, and cellist László Fenyő.

The goal was to record live for ecm records Hallgató, an album to included music by Snétberger himself, Dimitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, and John Dowland. ECM has just released the recording, available  on various platforms, and the results are superb.

Guitarist Ferenc Snétberger is also an accomplished composer of music that straddles both the classical and the jazz and blues worlds. In this instance the highlight of the album is In Memory of My People, a concerto for guitar and orchestra arranged for Snétberger’s guitar and the Keller Quartet by Béla Szakcsi Lakatos.

The music of Snétberger‘s In Memory of My People is infused with the spirit of the composer‘s own Romani background. Snétberger’s intensely emotional composition depicts in three movements the harrowing, moving and ultimately  inspiring journey of the Roma people, whose valiant struggles, heroic survival, and noble triumph throughout centuries of persecution are relived in music at times blunt and fretful, at others profoundly sad , and all throughout melodically tonal, harmonically inventive, and open to the asperities of atonality without fully embracing that sonic world. Above all this is music that moves the listener as it reminds one of the vicissitudes of Snétberger’s paternal and maternal ancestors.

The album is filled with elegant music, some of it by the English lutenist John Dowland – Flow my Teares and I saw my lady weep, some from the mid-to-late 20th century: the neo-Romantic Serenade for Strings of Samuel Barber, and the 20th century modern:  Dimitri Shostakovich’s anguished String Quartet No. 8 in C minor

Two more of Snétberger’s compositions – the utterly melodic and melancholy Rhapsody I for Guitar and Orchestra in a version for guitar and string quintet arranged by Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, and the bluesyYour Smile complete the remainder of the album.

Throughout the album Snétberger and his musical companions play with their hearts on their sleeves and with flawless technical command of their instruments, providing an hour of unalloyed musical pleasures.

Is there a melancholy trait in the soul of the Hungarian and Romani people? Hungarian author László F. Földényi asserts a positive answer to the question, and many others of Hungarian or Roma lineage also claim there is something to the Magyar and to the Romani characters that permeates the music of their peoples with a sad melancholy.

In Ferenc Snétberger’s artistry there is a strongly compelling quality – call it Romani melancholy if one must – that touches deeply the hearts of listeners. If the reader doubts my words just sit and listen to Your Smile, Snétberger’s musical musing on love.

Here’s a teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aiiNaFpg4s&feature=emb_logo

Rafael de Acha         ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Weathering withering music criticism

A recent obit of the late music critic Peter G. Davis in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/arts/music/peter-g-davis-dead.html) brought to mind Mr. Davis’  book The American Opera Singer (Random Books, 1997).

The enthusiastic praise by the Times’ Clay Risen: “an exhaustive, exhilarating and often withering history in which he praised the versatility of contemporary American performers while taking many of them to task for being superficial workhorses” caught my interest.

I spent $25 on a paperback copy from Amazon, and after receiving it I eagerly sat down to read it.

Risen’s words – “often withering” – should have raised a red flag. These days my tolerance level for “often withering” critical bitchiness is at an all-time low, and after painfully plowing through the one third of the book that focuses on singers that I have been listening to over the past sixty-plus years, I finally gave up.

Mind you, the book’s back-cover and inside front cover are full of the praise of fellow critics, but I could not find one single recommendation by a singer, conductor, composer, or working musician.

Davis had a nasty way with words, especially when dispensing caustic remarks along the lines of “…her flouncy, braying Carmen was truly vulgar and self-indulgent…” when speaking about mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

When commenting on Leontyne Price’s farewell performance in Aida in 1973, Davis writes: “…few had the nerve to point out that most of Aida’s music was no longer at her command… By then she was reduced to a collection of desperate whoops, careening roller-coaster portamentos, and wild register shifts – once was left with the queasy sensation of Aida sung by a nightclub singer.” Say what?

Anyone who has listened to Price’ O patria mia in that 1973 performance, followed by an ovation that seemingly went on forever would dismiss that statement of Davis as nonsense. Even when meaning to praise, Davis often misses the critical boat by omission or by exaggeration. At one point he speaks of Price as “…the first classically trained black opera singer to attain worldwide stardom.” Did Davis ever hear of Marian Anderson?

But I will spare the reader more. Leonard Bernstein’s famous quip “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic” kept coming to mind as I encountered few words of unqualified heartfelt praise or, for that matter, a worthy in-depth critical evaluation of those singers who did not make the cut for Davis, instead of backstage gossip, trivia, sarcasm and little else of value.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

À Claude, Benedetto Boccuzzi’s extraordinary debut album

Claude Debussy wrote Images as a set of six compositions for solo piano in two series, each consisting of three pieces. The second series includes three gorgeous miniatures: Cloches à travers les feuilles, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, and Poissons d’or. Each of the three pieces is inspired by things that infuse these delicate compositions with the power to evoke free-associations: bells in a church, moonlight bathing an ancient temple, or fish swimming in a pond. In this respect Debussy’s Images are impressionistic works – much as Debussy loathed the term – which invite the listener to let the imagination roam.

And that freeing up of the mind is exactly what À Claude, Benedetto Boccuzzi’s 2021 extraordinary debut album (DCTT111) for the Italian label Digressione Music brings about.

Featuring a richly executed palette of works by Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Diana Rotaru, and Boccuzzi himself, and now available for worldwide distribution by Milano Dischi/Naxos, À Claude was born as a result of Italian pianist Claudio Boccuzzi’s love of Claude Debussy’s music. The program encompasses both music by Debussy himself and by several of the French master’s spiritual heirs.

Makrokosmos is a collection of short pieces for piano by the American composer George Crumb, from which Boccuzzi chooses six that musically describe the various temperaments of Taurus, Leo, Gemini (twice), and Pisces (twice). The work calls for all sort of techniques from the resourceful Bocuzzi, ranging from plucking of the strings to slamming down massive tone clusters to eliciting overtones from depressed keys not played, to humorously and evocatively quoting Chopin now and then.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty visions of the infant Jesus”) is a suite of 20 pieces for solo piano by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Deeply spiritual, as is the case with most of this composer’s output, the three miniatures chosen and lovingly played by Boccuzzi range from the delicate Regard de l’étoile and Regard de la Vierge to the surprisingly blunt Regard des hauteurs.

The felicitous pairing of Debussy to Crumb to Messiaen – musical and aesthetic comrades –  continues in this varied album with the addition of two names, one well known – Toru Takemitsu – one lesser known – the Rumanian Diana Rotaru, whose 2007 Debumessquisse salutes Debussy with imaginative wit. Takemitsu in turn states his own musical idea with Les yeux clos II (“With closed eyes”) and then salutes Messiaen with Rain tree sketch to both of which Boccuzzi brings non-pareil pianistic resourcefulness. Most impressively the protean Benedetto Boccuzzi brings his own exquisite arrangement of two Debussy Dances for harp and orchestra to joyously end this memorable debut album.

Where to find the CD?

on www.digressionemusic.it

on www.benedettoboccuzzi.com/links

and on most all digital platforms

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS