xsusnna phillips

Out of Schubert’s 1500 compositions, 600 are Lieder (songs) for solo voices. There are a handful of duets, trios, quartets and choral numbers of various levels of quality. But, by and large, if one is mining for gold one better dig into the Schubert treasure trove of song cycles and his many stand-alone songs.

That said, the Delos CD A Lost World is a welcome gift culled from the Schubert mother lode and a nice item to have in one’s collection of vocal rarities.

Neither Ganymede nor perhaps Elysium are all that rare. They are sung here with delicacy and limpidity by soprano Susanna Phillips with the ever flexible and supportive Brian Zeger at the piano, providing  a welcome relief from the ponderousness and unremittingly somber moods of most of the other selections on the CD, even when sung impressively by bass-baritone Shenyang.

Odious as comparisons can be, I unhesitatingly place Ms. Phillips rendition of these two Schubert songs in the company of the similarly-voiced Ely Ameling and Barbara Bonney. Phillips’ honestly uncomplicated vocalism brings the poetry of Schiller and Goethe to life in flawless German.


Shenyang, a young bass-baritone impresses this listener with his committed delivery of An die Dioskuren, in which he succeeds in scaling down his massive sound to the intimacy of a sailor’s prayer to the stars. Elsewhere, he unleashes a torrent of sound in the grimly descriptive Gruppe aus dem Tartarus and follows it with the equally infernal Fahrt zum Hades. Shenyang delivers Grenzen dee Menscheit with gravitas, dipping assuredly and repeatedly into his lower range.

Both singers sing to rather than with each other in two songs with operatic ambitions: Hektor’s Abschied and Antigone und Oedip. More like operatic scenes than duets, these two pieces sadly never allow for the soprano and bass-baritone in this CD to unite their voices in song.

It would have been nice to hear Phillips and Shenyang to undertake Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt. The forgiven omission will hopefully allow for many of us to have these two fast-rising artists back in an album of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann duets. If only Delos cooperates…

Rafael de Acha



Handel was a young 24-year old aspiring opera composer when in 1709 he penned and premiered Agrippina, his sixth stage work, just in for the Carnival Season in Venice. He had thirty-nine operas left to write mostly for his glory days in London as a composer-impresario.

Naxos has just released a double-CD issue of this Handel rarity. It was filmed in 2016 over two performances at the intimate Theater an der Wien in Vienna, with a cast led by Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon in the title role, soprano Danielle de Niese as Poppea, and an ensemble of European singers some of which are associated with the Baroque repertory. The production was staged by Robert Carsen, and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble was led by Thomas Engelbrock.

It is old news that all of Handel’s operas are built on a set formula that worked wonders for the composer but taxes the endurance of contemporary audiences accustomed to expeditious realism on stage. Handel gives us arias that follow arias only interrupted by recitatives that move forward the action provided one can follow the convoluted plots. It would all make better sense if a copy of the libretto could accompany this CD.

The arias in Agrippina are by and large standard issue Handel, and the occasional choral interludes come off as formulaic. Absent the glorious music of many of his more mature operas, Agrippina leaves the listener longing for more but better Handel.

The singers in this release could help matters were they better interpreters of Baroque music, but sadly and save for the ever-reliable Danielle de Niese, the cast fails to set off any vocal fireworks.

The acting, as directed by Robert Carsen, consists of striking poses and sustaining attitudes for long stretches of time. The director seems to have encouraged his cast to take a ham-fisted approach to a couple of simulated sex scenes that would not rate in the worst of soft porn sites. This reaches the nadir of tackiness early in Act I when the viewer is subjected to two back-to-back squirm-inducing quickies on top of Agrippina’s high tech desk in her oh-so-today office.

Too bad that such a rarity as this opera does not get a better production and cast. Handel certainly deserves better.

Rafael de Acha



The Art of Song is Alive and Well in Cincinnati. Daniel Weeks and Donna Loewy proved that to be true as they made musical magic happen on the stage of CCM’s Werner Recital Hall last night. The two artists did this not through sleight of hand but through musicality, technique and artistry. It was a recital that uncompromisingly avoided well-worn repertory choices and tidy groupings in chronological patterns. And, at the end it was a theatrical event that broke free of the formality of the concert platform.

The evening opened with Drei Lieder aus Wilhelm Tell – three songs by Franz Liszt, with Schiller texts from William Tell. The words for these songs, culled by the playwright-poet from his epic play about the Swiss struggle for Independence, deal with the bucolic rather than the dramatic. That said, there is vivid drama in the way Liszt’s music depicts first a gentle shepherd boy’s tale, then a young man’s journey from town to countryside, and lastly an account of a mature man in awe of nature high in the Alps.

As can be expected, Liszt’s pianistic writing is daunting, and Ms. Loewy handled the accompaniments with impassioned abandon. The texts are set in a consistently high tessitura for the voice that Weeks rode with ease, displaying a vibrant lyric tenor sound and utter comfort with the German language.

Ich möchte hingehn, another rarity was given a stand-alone position rather than appended to the Liszt group. A somber meditation on Death that approaches the scope of an operatic soliloquy, it was given an intensely moving performance by Weeks, with Ms. Loewy ever the sensitively supportive partner remarkably handling the frequent colla voce instances and the many tempo changes in the musically complex song.

From the dark hues of the Middle-European Romanticism of Liszt, the artists moved to the sunny songs of Antón Garcia Abril. The octogenarian Spanish composer writes in a lush tonal idiom that,  along with a frequent use of Moorish-Aragonese musical filigree places him in the company of Turina, Granados, de Falla and Rodrigo. The texts of Canciones de Noche y Estrellas (Songs of Night and the Stars) and Canciones del Recuerdo (Songs of Remembrance) are set by the composer in a vocally-friendly manner, and Daniel Weeks sang them in flawless Spanish and with plenty of Iberian flair, while Ms. Loewy provided sensitive partnering throughout.

The Land of Nod is the title of a four-song cycle by Tom Cipullo, with surrealist texts about dreams and nightmares by the late American poet Alice Wirth Gray. The first of the songs, The Land of Nod sustains a wistful, yearning, pensive tone. A Death in the Family abruptly courts dissonance and moments of declamation. Deer in Mist and Almonds returns to near-stasis and a meditation on loss. On a Nineteenth Century Color Lithograph of Red Riding Hood by the Artist J. H. is a comic tour de force for both singer and pianist. It brought the evening to a theatrically humorous ending that allowed Ms. Loewy plenty of soloist fun and Weeks to show the audience the accomplished singing actor he is.

It was a memorable song recital by two great artists and it reminded us of what a treasure we have in the teaching-performing faculty of CCM.

Rafael de Acha



“There is nothing more difficult than talking about music” is supposedly what Camille Saint-Saëns said over a century ago. I would add that there’s nothing more difficult than to endure the vindictive invective heaped on the composer by so many lesser lights than the grey-bearded eminence who gave us the three piano concertos featured in a Chandos CD with the BBC Philharmonic helmed by Edward Gardner backing up the protean Louis Lortie at the keyboard and taking on the piano concertos one, two and four.

Even when insults are spared, the tone of much criticism about Saint-Saens is patronizing. True, the old codger had some of it coming, for he gave as good as he got as often as he could, fighting for what he believed was true French music and, famously against Debussy and Stravinsky and Les Six.

In a perfect world none of this would have taken place, Saint-Saëns would not have had to compete for prizes half-way through his career, and he and the society in which he lived would have openly accepted his closeted homosexuality.

But no, the world of the arts in fin de siècle Paris sported a mine field of fractious factions endlessly skirmishing among themselves, and Saint-Saëns often got caught in the crossfire. Too bad, but by the time of his death at age 86, Camille Saint-Saëns had grabbed the brass ring, composed up a storm and died in peace, frankly not giving a hoot any more about all the negativity.

The Lortie/Gardner CD is a musical act of love. I settled down to listen to it from tracks one through ten several times and was won over. Gorgeously engineered by Mike George and Brian Pidgeon, classily produced by Ralph Couzens, annotated with scholarly authority by Roger Nichols, and, above all, given inspired performances of concertos number 1, 2 and 4 by the Lortie-Gardner-BBC Philharmonic team, the 2018 Chandos 20031 release provides a revisit to us long term members of the Camille Saint-Saens fan club.

Rafael de Acha



The Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams opened its 2018-2019 Chamber Music Series with string players Christina Nam, Holly Nelson, Kanako Shimasaki, Yu-Ting Huang, Hojoon Choi, and Jonathan Lee assembled into what we hope will be a permanent ensemble playing a concert of music by Haydn and Schubert.

Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 77 is one of the last two of sixty-eight the composer wrote. He dedicated both the quartets from this opus to his patron and former employer, Prince Lobkowitz in 1799. Haydn would live for still ten more years but his composing and performing days were waning down, though mot his inspired writing. The quartet is vintage Haydn, a stately, mature work that opens with an elegant martial rhythm that spans the first movement. The members of the quartet quickly established their like-minded approach to this music at the onset, moving on to deeply soulful playing in the Adagio that follows it. The third movement, a lively Scherzo in ¾ time, was executed with panache, and followed by an even livelier final Allegro that brought the work to a happy ending.

Franz Schubert‘s one and only String Quintet was his final chamber work, composed in 1828 and completed just weeks before his untimely death. Known as the “Cello Quintet” because of the addition of a second cello to its instrumentation, the C Major quintet is filled with a pervading sadness, as if the composer had a foreboding of the end being near. This is a substantial and lengthy work that takes its time, taking the listener on an episodic journey infused with profound pathos. Melodically rich, harmonically daring, rhythmically restrained, Schubert’s final chamber opus (D.956) is decidedly a Romantic masterpiece, and the members of the quintet played it with technical assurance and intense emotional commitment.

In a city rich in musical offerings it is difficult for an ensemble of young players to establish an identity and make a mark. All the more remarkable then it is that this musically ad-hoc group that cries out for a name should begin its young journey so auspiciously. We look forward to more from Christina Nam, Holly Nelson, Kanako Shimasaki, Judy Huang, Hojoon Choi, and Jonathan Lee, individually and as a group

Will Immaculata bring them back, please?

Rafael de Acha



thISW2TE0LGive us a haven upon judgment day, plead the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in a 12th chant that opens the stunning Sono Luminus double CD Impermanence. It features the Lorelei Ensemble, a group of nine women under the leadership of Beth Willer singing a wide ranging repertoire unified by the themes of migration and movement.

Sarah Brailey, Margot Rood, Sonja Tengblad, Christina English, Claire McNamara, Sophie Michaux, Stephanie Kacoyanis, and Emily Marvosh, led by Beth Willer take the listener on a musical journey that spans the centuries and thousands of miles that separate us from the chant of the 15th Flemish composer Guillaume Du Fay and the Japan of Toru Takemitsu, the plainchants of the late Middle Ages and brings us closer to the contemporary sounds of Peter Gilbert.

The Lorelei Ensemble’s way with all of this music is a thing of wonder. Whether imploring the Divinity for salvation, singing the praises of the Apostles, extolling the healing powers of the Virgin, or lauding the earthly and heavenly powers of St. Anthony of Padua, the Lorelei Ensemble sings in clear, idiomatic Medieval Latin and flawless Middle French. The ensemble members sustain throughout a limpid tone even as the sopranos reach the area above the treble staff with utter comfort and seeming abandon. The mezzo-sopranos and contraltos of the ensemble anchor the music with a velvety sound, providing a solid foundation for the melismatic writing that abounds in much of this music.

Uttering poetic metaphors in the classic Japanese of Saiyo Hoshi, Fujiwara no Tadamichi, and several other ancient poets, and set to music by Toru Takemitsu and Peter Gilbert, the chameleonic group adjusts its sound, making it edgier, adding more vibrato now and then, while navigating all along much of the tonally vague yet hauntingly compelling music.

The scholarly program notes, the accompanying translations, the classy packaging, the impeccable engineering by Daniel Shores, and the overall production by Dan Merceruio make Impermanence deserving of permanence in the library of any collector interested in vocal music off the beaten path.

Rafael de Acha



Before receiving the NAXOS recording of Alexander Kastalsky’s 1917 choral composition Vechnaya Pamiat Geroyam (Memory Eternal) I had never heard the name of this composer nor had I had many opportunities to listen to any Russian Orthodox Liturgical music. Now, thanks to the exquisite work of The Clarion Choir, led by its conductor Steven Fox I have instantly become a convert not to the Eastern Orthodox Faith itself but to its mesmerizingly beautiful music.

Alexander Kastalsky wrote the music comprised in tracks 1 through 11 of this CD as a posthumous homage to the more than 16 million military and civilian fallen during the terrible years of what then came to be termed “The war to end all wars.” Kastalsky got the Soviets to allow this music to be performed in a memorial concert in Petrograd not long after the end of the war. His intention in renaming the streamlined version of his original was to avoid possible objections from both the Orthodox and Communist Party Hierarchies. He combined chorus and organ in an unusual pairing and Bratskoye Pominoveniye (The Fraternal Commemoration) went off without a hitch.

But the composer wanted to return to his original setting of these religious texts and thus he reworked his composition by doing away with the organ, an instrument never heard in the Orthodox Church. Using a refined compositional technique he had acquired as a student of Tchaikovsky, Kastalsky deftly juxtaposed the chanting of a Deacon – Bass Leonid Roschko in this recording – to choral polyphony – The Clarion Choir here – to create a hauntingly beautiful musical tapestry.

The choir is astounding. Inky-voiced basses anchor the fluctuating harmonies pitted against a ringing lyrical tenor section. A sterling fifteen-strong alto and soprano grouping capable of comfortably switching from vibrato-less hushed singing to throbbing outbursts in the upper range collectively delivers a cohesive sound in flawlessly pronounced Slavonic.

Three choral works augment this priceless collection recorded in New York in 2018, impeccably produced and engineered by Martha de Francisco and enhanced with liner notes by Vladimir Morossan. Steven Fox is the music director of The Clarion Choir, as well as The Clarion Orchestra and the Cathedral Choral Society of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Heartfelt thanks go to him for his enterprising leadership and to Naxos Records for continued contributions from obscure though rich pockets of the classical music canon.

The choral/orchestral version given in 1917 was not the final version of Vechnaya Pamiat Geroyam. The Clarion Choir, in collaboration with D.C.’s Cathedral Choir Society and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s led by Leonard Slatkin will give the World Premiere of the choral/orchestral version in D.C. on Sunday, October 21 at the National Cathedral.

Rafael de Acha



Stewart Goodyear tackles the Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Hans von Bülow famously called the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven The New Testament. Few pianists have conquered this Mount Everest of piano music. Fewer yet have recorded all 32 of them. Others have even attempted to play all 32 over the course of a few days – even a few hours, turning the whole affair into an endurance test for both player and public.

Like the finest of wines, these works must be enjoyed slowly – ideally over several listening sessions. The extraordinarily gifted Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, equal to the task of taking on all of these works has just released a ten-CD collection of three sonatas per disc, except for a couple into which he and his producer manage to fit as many as five onto a single CD.

Having previously reviewed his work and heard him in person, I can vouch for Goodyear’s total devotion to the task before him anywhere at any time. Here he sails into Beethoven’s 1795 Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 and 3 all from the early opus 2 with the freshness of a curious young man discovering a new music world.

More like Mozart than Mozart in their inventiveness, more Haydn-like than Haydn in their elegance, yet utterly Beethovenian in their capricious changes of mood, dynamics and tempi these are seemingly simple sonatas that nonetheless demand of their interpreter assuredness and clarity, which Goodyear abundantly provides.

The tempo of the opening Allegro con brio of the C Major Sonata number 3, for example is taken at such a speed than at its onset one wonders if it will be much too fast to allow for a clean execution of the cascading scales at its halfway point. But Goodyear neither plays it safe nor is he ever reckless for the sake of showing his titanic technique, and so he sails triumphantly through the perilous moments that Beethoven sets up for his pianist.

And so it goes, through each and every movement of the three sonatas that comprise the opus number 2 from the year 1795, a happy and productive one for the young Beethoven. Even the second movements of each of the three works, all marked Adagio are expressive, at times melancholy, but never do they approach the depths of profound sadness present in the works from the year 1799 onwards, at which time the still young composer was beginning to experience the first symptoms of the deafness that plagued him for the remainder of his life.

The ten-CD collection, simply titled Beethoven/Stewart Goodyear – The Complete Piano Sonatas is available from Marquis Recordings ( and nicely packaged and engineered. Yet another plus are the insightful and at times irreverently humorous liner notes by Goodyear himself.

I will endeavor to leisurely listen to the remaining 29 sonatas included in this set and make further comments in upcoming posts. For now I simply say that I am thrilled to have this collector’s treasure in my CD library.

Rafael de Acha