Tristan und Isolde und Bernstein

During a period of eleven months in 1981 Leonard Bernstein set aside time from his ever busy schedule to travel to Munich to work on a project near and dear to his heart. It took several rehearsals prior to each of the three public performances – one per act – to make this set (C Major A05005284) of three DVD’s of Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. That happened in the very same city where 106 years earlier the story about the two lovers united in love after death was first given.

In the liner notes to this release Bernstein is quoted saying ”…this is the finest thing I’ve ever done.” I, for one, am inclined to believe him. Standing both physically in Munich’s Herkulessaal and symbolically at the very center of this recording, the 63 year old maestro gives a performance for the ages. It is the good fortune of all lovers of great music that Unitel and CMajor have joined forces to release in June of this year a 38-year old treasure. It comes in an impeccably engineered DVD set that delivers impressive sound and superb images.

With Wagnerian music dramas one must first and foremost single out the orchestra, here the superb Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein’s favorite European ensemble. The orchestra, at one with Bernstein’s idea of how the score should be played is on view here engaged, ever attentive, always ready to give its conductor their very best. The strings produce when needed a massive sound that easily is scaled down to subtle dynamics in order for the voices to predominate. Equally effective the orchestra’s brass section is just maybe now and then the finest of any orchestra in Europe. The woodwinds could not be better, with the cor anglais player shining in several instances and most movingly in act III.

The luxury cast of this recording astonishes, starting with the 37 year old Czech tenor Peter Hoffman – vocally and physically ideal for one of the most demanding roles in the Wagnerian canon. In each of the three separate performances, each recorded as a staged concert in front of a live audience, Hoffman conquers the perils of the role. He sings with romantic sweep the love duet in act II and surmounts the rigors of the mad scene and subsequent death scene of act III. Both these are mine fields where many tenors come to grief and others barely survive to tell. Hoffman sails victorious through these turbulent waters.

Each act is long, running in the vicinity of an hour and a half, and each demands extraordinary endurance from its lead soprano. In the role of the Irish princess, the late Hildegarde Behrens reminds one that in her prime she was the legitimate heiress to the Wagnerian Hochdramatische soprano repertory once dominated by the legendary Birgit Nilsson. The extraordinary Behrens husbands her resources at every turn, singing with seamless legato and mezzo-piano dynamics in the tricky middle voice range in which Wagner sets much of Isolde’s music. When she opens up for the big outbursts, such as the Act I curse, she does so without applying the pedal to the metal approach of many other singers of this role.

The rest of the cast is magnificent. Yvonne Minton’s regales the recording with a gorgeously sung and honestly acted Brangaene. The vocally rock-solid Bernd Weikl portrays a nobly acted Kurwenal. The sonorous and imposing Hans Sotin as King Marke is heartbreaking in his remonstration to Tristan in act II. Raimund Grumbach provides a lovely lyric sound for the role of the Steersman. The great character tenor Heinz Zednick makes his mark in the role of the Shepherd in act III. Thomas Moser as a Young Sailor and Heribert Steinbach as Melot perfectly fulfill their short yet important assignments.

The release of this important historical recording is cause to celebrate as we already celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.

Rafael de Acha



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So…what happens if you are an underage Opera hopeful and it is summer and there’s nothing happening on this side of the ocean and school is out for the summer and your voice teacher or your conducting coach is out of town? Or……….what if you are just an Opera fan and you need an additional shot of Mozart or Donizetti or Offenbach or Milhaud? For free!

Then CCM Opera Bootcamp is just what you need. For further information on enrollment stay tuned for further announcements ON THIS BLOG.

An intense and dynamic program led by Mark Gibson and Amy Johnson designed to develop career skills for conductors, singers and aspiring opera coaches. During the three-week program, students will mount a fully staged production of Don Pasquale, with Metropolitan Opera veteran and faculty mentor Vernon Hartman in the title role, as well as fully-staged with orchestra double bill of Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot and Offenbach’s L’lle de Tulipatan, plus one program of fully-staged with orchestra scenes & arias, all with orchestra, all in original languages. All in three weeks!
Performance Schedule:
7:00 p.m. Thursday, July 26
MOZART SCENES AND ARIAS at the Cohen Family Studio Theater. Free and open to the public
7:00 p.m. Saturday, July 28
Darius Milhaud’s Le pauvre Matelot and Jacques Offenbach’s L’Ile de Tulipatan at the Cohen Family Studio Theater. Free and open to the public.
4 p.m. Sunday, July 29
Gaettano Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE in Corbett Auditorium. Free and open to the public



The Maiden from Guatemala


A family member sent me this little poem by our Cuban national poet and patriot José Martí. I had not heard or read these words in more than fifty years, but still they did not fail to move me and bring back many memories of Cuban poet and patriot José Martí and one of his most famous poems: The Maiden from Guatemala

This is a sort of homage and elegy to young María García Granados, daughter of Guatemalan president Miguel García Granados who fell in love with Martí while he was a professor at the school that she attended. The schoolgirl’s crush was unrequited, however, and Martí went away to México, to be with Carmen Zayas Bazán, a woman closer to him in age, whom he later married.

On May 10, 1878 Martí returned to Guatemala to attend the funeral of his friend’s daughter, who had died mysteriously. Her well known and unrequited love for Martí branded her as “the one who died of grief, brokenhearted.”

Following her death, Martí returned to Cuba where he later respectfully penned this poem, which I now offer in my own English translation.

Upon a wing I will let
A story of one who departed
Be told. One of a maiden I met.
She died of grief, brokenhearted

There were lilies in her casket,
There was jasmine still in bloom
Close by in a small basket,
On that dreaded day of gloom.

She gave him a gift to carry,
A sachet, when he departed.
He was going off to marry.
She died of grief, brokenhearted.

Marching in the procession,
Bringing flowers, with respect
Clergy and ambassadors followed
Solemn and circumspect.

She went to a promontory
To meet the dear one departed
He was married. He was sorry.
She died of grief, brokenhearted.

A brightly shining bronze flame
Lit her face, the day he left her.
He swore on his mother’s name
That he would never bereft her.

In a river, late one night
She was found floating, disheartened
Some said: “a chill…or a fright…”
She died of grief, brokenhearted.

Inside of the icy place
He kissed her delicate fingers,
The bier sat upon a dais,
He kissed both her silken slippers

Evening shadows descended
As one more time he departed
He’d left her weeping, abandoned.
She died of grief, brokenhearted.







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When June 1 comes around the thermometer normally lets us know that it’s summer, and with its onset the end of the fall-to-spring music season and the start of musical offerings in the hot days ahead. Both nasty daytime heat and hopefully cooler evenings can be expected in Cincinnati this year along with some great music-making. Here’s a quick look back and an ever quicker look ahead.


Cincinnati’s 140-year old Music Hall re-opened in October after an extensive renovation that spruced up the grand old venue, providing better acoustics than ever before.  Maestro Louis Langrée led a memorable concert that closed with Bernstein’s Candide Overture, with the maestro reminiscing about the show’s “Make Our Garden Grow” anthem and its implications about the future or music in Cincinnati.

Later on the refurbished Memorial Hall hosted Metropolitan Opera star Jamie Barton, who gave Matinee Musicale Cincinnati’s 105th Season ( a sell-out concert in January, reminding us of what a gem this group is and what musical treasures it provides.

Sam Martin’s Cincinnati Song Initiative ( then in its third season gave proof that the all-about-song group is here to stay.

Multi-tasker par excellence Ixi Chen had her concert:nova achieve its eleventh season ( as it brought us all a half-dozen cutting edge concerts, now augmented by an additional late-night series, both of which broke barriers and erased preconceptions about what concert music should be.

Jill Jantzen‘s Salon 21 ( hit the ground running as Cincinnati’s newest kid on the musical block with its petite salon concerts of mostly piano music mixing classics and a hip 21st century attitude in rep.

The Dayton Opera put on the best-ever in my memory The Consul, a Gian Carlo Menotti opera tailor-made for our tempestuous times, with Karah Shay Thompson, Cindy Sadler, Tyler Alessi and Ken Shaw flawlessly cast in key roles, under the superlative direction of Gary Briggle and Patrick Reynolds perfectly pacing the Dayton Philharmonic in the pit.

And then my all-time favorite Broadway songstress, Audra McDonald flew in for a smashing concert backed up by the Cincinnati Pops.



At home but not alone I enjoyed listening and reviewing and in several instances being stunned by several great releases, two out of dozens linger in my memory. First,  the protean Rumanian pianist Matei Varga‘s CD, EARLY DEPARTED on the SONO LUMINUS label, featuring music by two of his Rumanian fellow countrymen: pianist-composers, Tudor Dumitrescu and Dinu Lipatti, augmented by Leoš Janáček‘s In the Mists.

We said goodbye to the great Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky listening to him still in top form in the title role of Rigoletto, in a Delos release, his last recording ever.


It used to be the Cincinnati Zoo Opera. It’s now out of the zoo and finally back in Music Hall, with a line-up that includes Verdi’s La Traviata, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea and a couple of contemporary operas: Another Brick on the Wall and As One. (

And finally the indispensable Summermusik, a nickname for the wonderfully hyperactive Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra ( that this summer will again surprise and stimulate us with its assortment of pub crawls, Sunday afternoon mini-concerts and several main events, led by the energetic maestro Eckart Preu.

Music is an ephemeral art. No sooner the last note is sounded, the composition is gone. So we hold on to all thee musical memories just waiting for the next one to come and help keep us alive.

Rafael de Acha