“Best of” will be popping up at every turn over the next few weeks in every imaginable kind of list. Here is mine, admittedly much earlier than most, with all ten items randomly listed: all ten  equal favorites. This selection includes some well known names and some up and coming artists, represented by recording labels both small and mid-size, whose choices are often infinitely more imaginative than those of much bigger labels.

Jaap Listening to the superb reading of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, led by Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden recently released by NAXOS in a 4-CD set just recorded live, this listener found himself not waiting for the next familiar moment, but wanting to linger at every minute of the 3 ½ hour musical journey. The cast is led by Gun-Brit Barkmin, a sensational Brunhilde.

lortie The Louis Lortie CD of Camille Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos is a musical act of love. Gorgeously engineered and given inspired performances by Lortie and the Edward Gardner-BBC Philharmonic team, the 2018 Chandos release provides a treat to all members of the Saint-Saëns Fan Club.

lorelei“Give 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.

goodyear Hans von Bülow famously called the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven The New Testament. 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 simply titled Beethoven/Stewart Goodyear – The Complete Piano Sonatas, available from Marquis Recordings and nicely packaged and engineered.

thK9J9OI77 Cuban composer Yalil Guerra’s Guerra Works for String Orchestra’s seven CD tracks more than hint at the deeply romantic undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of this young composer’s music. Playing with awesome technique and intense musicality, the Ensamble Solistas de la Habana led by its committed conductor Ivan Valiente delivers a performance recorded live with a flawless accumulation of artistic results. The CD is available for download through most digital platforms.

quartet A CD titled Apotheosis vol. 2 features the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Yang playing Mozart’s piano quartets: K. 478 and K. 493. The five musicians handle this music with an even mix of seriousness and flair, elegance and abandon during every minute of this CD from Foghorn Classics.

cover27809-1024x1024A superb 1928 studio recording flawlessly re-mastered and digitally restored by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio and reissued by divine art ( in its HISTORIC SOUND (DDH27809) series is a sonically satisfying labor of love, especially when one considers that this Carmen dates back to the very early days of electric recordings. The singers are beyond reproach, and the great Georges Thill, arguably the finest Don José of his generation, gives a first class performance that provides a lesson about how French opera ought to be sung.

th0M904SY5 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 C Major A05005284 set of three DVD’s of Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Peter Hoffman and HIldergarde Behrens at the top of their games as the two ill-starred lovers.

1540466731_matei-varga-early-departures-2018-hi-res Matei Varga is a deeply serious musician well in the midst of a major career. His playing of works by three of his fellow Rumanians is solid, elegant, substantial, profoundly musical and rigorous. Varga’s hour-long CD, Early Departures (Sono Luminus DSL92223) is available for purchase as either a CD or as a digital download from

untitledIn a collection of 8 CD’s and 1 DVD, ever-surprising Naxos has just paid homage to Lenny in its recent release Leonard Bernstein Marin Alsop: The Complete Naxos Recordings. The engineering of the 7 CD’s, some of it going back fifteen years is all top-notch, including several reissues and several brand new recordings. Throughout the seven CD’s, Marin Alsop magisterially commands orchestras with which she has had a long and fruitful relationship.

Rafael de Acha


Seixas, José Antonio Carlos de

José António Carlos de Seixas? Never heard of him – not until the good people of Divine Art sent us a copy of Japanese pianist Mariko Terashi’s CD of music by this lesser-known 18th century Portuguese composer. Senhor Seixas did his county proud as its finest organist, harpsichordist and composer at the height of Portugal’s Golden Age.

Seixas’ music navigates the transition between the not yet fully formed style of the 1600’s and that of 17th century, the ornate and quintessentially French Stile Galant that had its heyday in the music of Rameau and Couperin, both of whom are also amply represented in this CD.

Ms. Terashi’s playing is elegant, sober, and poetic, mining for more sonority than could ever be obtained from a harpsichord, while at no time abusing the use of the pedals and overwhelming the compositions featured on this CD.

Seixas is represented by four sonatas – two complete, two with movements excerpted from them. From Rameau we hear five teaching pieces culled from his various Livres de Pièces de Clavecin which include some delightful novelties. Couperin occupies six tracks of this CD with music that provides either amusement or enchantment or both.

Altogether this is a lovely collection of French Baroque gems, beautifully annotated, nicely engineered, and flawlessly played by Mariko Terashi.

Rafael de Acha



The text of almost any musical composition named Requiem should ideally be set to traditional sections of the Latin language, Catholic Mass for the Dead. Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi. All three wrote Requiems using mostly the text of the Missa pro  defunctis.

In 2002 John Harbison completed his Requiem after laboring on and off on his composition for over fourteen years. The results can be heard in the Naxos recording that was made on May 12 and 13, 2017 in Nashville’s Laura Turner Concert Hall, with Giancarlo Guerrero conducting the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Symphony Chorus. The quartet of soloists was comprised of Soprano Jessics Rivera, Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, Tenor Nicholas Phan and Baritone Kelly Markgraf.

About his Requiem, completed during the aftermath of 9-11, John Harbison has written, “I wanted a sense of ancient inheritance to inhabit my setting: a ritual steeped in the inevitability of death – gradually moving toward consolation and acceptance. My account of the genesis of the piece makes it clear that its sources go back fifteen years. But the events of that fall made my purposes clearer. I wanted my piece to have a sense of the inexorability of the passage of time, for good and ill, of the commonality of love and loss. I wanted to open up an aural space where this could be acknowledged.”

Harbison’s Requiem does not call for one to feel this or that way. The composer instead provides a world of sound that the listener is invited to enter for the space of nearly one hour. That world is inhabited by voices and instruments – four soloists, a chorus, and an orchestra with a good number of woodwinds, brass, percussion, piano and harp, plus strings. That amassed sound is bound to provoke emotions in the listener.

Today, October 27, 2018, I sat down to listen one more time to Harbison’s Requiem, but my listening was interrupted by the news of a gunman’s attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that caused the deaths of a dozen innocents that had assembled on the Sabbath to worship. Too moved to continue, I stopped writing, and listened to the news coming from out kitchen’s TV. To resume now could compromise my objectivity and yet I have to finish ad post this.

The first part of the text of Harbison’s Requiem is about the depiction of the human contemplating the inevitability of death. The music Harbison writes to express the wrath of God in the Dies Irae, the sounds he creates to accompany the terror we will feel when the trumpet sounds on the final Day of Judgment, the craft in orchestration he puts to use to convey the consolation of the Recordare and the deep grief of the Lacrymosa evolve in the second half into music that memorably assuages the disconsolate and offers a sense of spiritual commonality.

The soloists are beyond reproach. The chorus is simply perfect. The orchestra is marvelous. and Maestro Guerrero a superb leader. Outliving this embarrassment of riches, there will always be Harbison’s profound music, living as long as there are voices to sing it and an orchestra and a maestro up to the task.

Rafael de Acha



Music is its own language, and therefore it is unnecessary to attach adjectives to describe it. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and what one may describe as beautiful may sound positively ugly to someone else. Thus adverbs are preferable, for they are safer and more accurately objective. It’s simpler to say that Jo Ann Falletta conducts the music of Franz Schreker passionately than it is to call the music of the 20th century German composer ‘passionate’.

Given all that it’s easier to write Maestra Falletta conducts the music of the Austro-German post-Romantic composer with appropriate passion. Of course who know knows Ms. Falletta was feeling from June 19 to 23, 2017! I doubt that even she herself would not remember. One can only subjectively say how wonderfully satisfying the sounds she elicited from the members of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berlin’s GrosseSendesaal a year plus ago are to this listener’s heart and brain a year plus later.

Passionate? Sure!

Most of us know little or nothing about how Franz Shreker was feeling in 1914 when he composed Vorspiel zu einem Drama, or six years earlier when he wrote The Birthday of the Infanta (English title), after Oscar Wilde’s novella, or a year before that, when he penned his Opus 14, Romantische Suite. One can only surmise from the excellent liner notes attached to this NAXOS CD by Paul Conway and Chris Possiac that the hapless Shreker was none too happy with the cool reception the critics of his time were according his works, given the inevitable rise of the Dodecaphonists, and the large shadows cast by the rising Richard Strauss and the by then consecrated Gustav Mahler.

None of the three compositions included in this CD were conceived for the lyric stage, as much of Shreker’s work is. But theatrical they are, and framed not in the traditional forms of overture and symphony, but as concert pieces that may be used, if desired, in other ways, as was the case with The Birthday of the Infanta, which premiered as a balletic pantomime with sets by Gustav Klimt, no less. The music for this composition in particular reflects the largely gentler sentiments of love and heartbreak that the dwarf at the center of the story experiences during his all too-brief life in the Spanish Court of the 1600’s so colorfully depicted in Diego Velazquez Las Meninas.

Shreker’s complex music reflects the personal and professional vicissitudes that led to his premature death from a stroke at age 56. At times lyrical, at others dramatic, yet ever melodic this music is quintessentially post-Romantic and modern for its time.

The Nazi specter was rising in Germany, and already much of the music of Shreker’s contemporaries, Jewish or not, was being labeled Entertete (Contaminated) and kept out of German radio and concert halls. Paralyzed and embittered by circumstance, the composer’s death at age 55 spared him the exile that Kurt Weill and Ernest Krenek and Arnold Schoenberg chose, or an even worse fate suffered by Krasa, Ullmann, Haas, and others among the many European artists and musicians who perished during the Holocaust.

Rafael de Acha



Two things about this DVD make it a must-have: first is the extraordinarily good ensemble assembled for this live recording of a Salzburg performance last year. The second is the fact that this a revival of the1967 production designed by Günther Schneider-Simssen.

First things first: the men in the cast stand out. Vitalij Kowaljov is vocally and dramatically a magnificent Wotan: sullen, henpecked by Fricka, heartbroken by Brunhilde’s disobedience, prescient of what awaits him, at times taciturn, at others towering with rage. The Ukrainian bass gives a memorable performance in a role with a long history of interpreters.

Georg Zeppenfeld impresses in the role of Hunding – a potentially thankless part that appears and vanishes in the first act of the opera, but which this German bass turns into a key player, excelling with solid vocalism and intelligent acting.

Tenor Peter Zeiffert is a very fine Siegmund – moving in his Winterstürme, stentorian when extricating the magic Nothung from the tree, oozing carnal desire in his O süsseste Wonne, loving and tender with Sieglinde at all times, and dramatically and visually convincing throughout.

Anja Harteros is lovely to look at and listen to. But beyond that Harteros is a superb singing actress playing Sieglinde as a woman abused by a brute, swept off her feet by a stranger who walks into her life one fateful night and absolutely convinces her that the only way out of her loveless marriage lies in fleeing with him even after revealing that he is her long lost brother.

Anja Kampe plays Brunhilde as a coltish and spoiled young girl fond of talking back to her elders and ever ready to make her own decisions. Kampe is an extremely fine singer who here leaves no doubt as to her inexhaustible vocal resources, never better than in the Ride of the Valkyries.

Christa Mayer makes a strong impression as an aging, manipulative Fricka, fully aware that all she has let from her failed marriage is power over lesser mortals.

Johanna Winkel, Brit-Tone Müllerts, Christina Bock, Katherine Magiera, Alexandra Petersamer, Stepanka Pucelkova, Katrin Wundsam, and Simone Schröder are the Valkyries and all eight are very good singing actresses.

The 1967 production designed by Schneider-Simssen has been revived and largely respected by its current team: Vera Nemirova, its director and Jens Kilian, its costume designer.

The good news (first) is that the expansive vision of Schneider-Simssen is still evident in the “eye of God” image, the gigantic tree that functions as Hunding’s hut, the magic fire depicted as torches hand-held by a body of guards, and the circular ring upon which most of the action is played. The rear-projections and the appropriately murky lighting by Olaf Freese enhance the production’s wintery look.

The not-so-good news is the come-as-you-are look of the costumes, a Regietheater cliché that robs the characters of their dignity: Fricka’s fake-fur schmatte being but one case in point. Brunhilde’s helmet and those of her sisters look Aztec rather than Nordic. Wotan’s black eye is no substitute for the eyepatch he should have, making the singer look like he was involved in a bar brawl the night before. What gives?

The choice of some of the props is strange, or just plain tacky. Wotan’s throne looks like a plastic armchair his wife found on sale at Ikea. Then there’s Siegmund, who carries a nice Land’s End blanket which he struggles to get out of a backpack he could have bought at any sporting goods store. Nitpicking, I know, but the devil’s in the details.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden with forward sweep and precision, always supporting the singers, ever attentive to the minutest detail of orchestration. His musicians respond in kind, delivering a superb performance.

It is a gift to see and hear a Wagner opera staged largely devoid of the gimmickry that ruins so many Wagnerian productions these days. And, of course, it is immensely gratifying to be reminded that there are a good number of singing actors out there with Wagnerian voices and capable of delivering extraordinary performances. Just watch this Unitel C Major DVD and you will surely agree.

Rafael de Acha



Erich Wolfgang Korngold became one of the busiest film composers of all time, once he moved to the United States one step ahead of the Nazis, who immediately declared his music Enterte (contaminated) because of Korngold’s Jewish blood.

But prior to that hasty escape from Germany Korngold was a respected composer, whose opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) was first performed in Hamburg in 1927. Before its premiere in 1927 Korngold proclaimed that this would be his masterwork. But the critics thought otherwise, finding the music much too melodic and not dissonant enough for their taste. Too bad, for had the critical reception be different Das Wunder der Heliane could have enjoyed a much different stage life – its music being writ large and the large-scale writing just perfect for European singers weaned on Wagner and R. Strauss. Lotte Lenya called the title role of this opera, her favorite, and the Bulgarian Wagnerian Anna Tomowa-Simtow performed it in her prime.

Neither Korngold nor his librettist, Hans Mueller give proper names to the male characters, naming them instead: The Ruler, The Stranger and so forth, which tends to make them cipher-like rather than flesh and blood beings. The plot is fantastical, full of supernatural events, twists and turns, and the kind of symbolism much in vogue in the Germany of the first quarter of the twentieth century, including a last minute rise from the dead that affords both the tenor and soprano to ascend to the heavens for an eternal union.

Aris Argiris is a true-blue Heldenbariton with the endurance of a thoroughbred and a stentorian sound. Soprano, Annemaria Kremer sings a lovely Heliane, frequently spinning out ethereal sounds when needed. Tenor, Ian Storey delivers a convincing performance as The Stranger, holding up just fine in a part that sounds at times as if it were written for a Heldentenor. The supporting cast of mostly male singers satisfactorily fulfills its duties.

But it is the Philharmonic Orchestra Freiburg, the massive choral forces and Fabrice Bollon, their conductor who are the heart and soul of this three-CD Naxos release. The score is huge, densely orchestrated and replete with climactic moments. Maestro Bolton leads a nicely-paced reading, beautifully balancing all the artists at his command in a most satisfying performance worthy of a place in the libraries of opera connoisseurs.

Rafael de Acha


Jeffrey Zeigler Presents: Mike Block Solo Show

His name is Mike Block and he plays the cello that hangs from his neck while he is standing up. He plays with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble and he plays by himself in concert.

In his CD MIKE BLOCK ECHOES OF BACH recently issued by Bright Shiny Things Block establishes from the get go that he is a musician to the core, playing the G Major Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 1 of J.S. Bach with assurance and sober emotion.

Over the next eleven tracks Block travels back and forth between Gabrielli’s 17th century and Bach’s 18th century and on to the current one, felicitously juxtaposing with their Baroque predecessors pieces by the late Austrian composer György Ligeti, the 20th century Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun, and the contemporary Italian Giovanni Sollima.

Seven of the tracks feature Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues and Bourrées that can test the mettle and technique of lesser players, but here allow Block to establish himself as a flawless technician.

But Bach to show off dexterity is soulless Bach, and Block injects into his playing of these test pieces the same intensity of feeling and unceasing energy that he brings to his reading of the fourth movement of Saygun’s Eastern-inflected Partita for solo Cello and to Giovanni Solima’s percussively dance-like Citarruni, from The Taranta Project.

Engineered by Dan Cardinal, this outside-of-the standard-repertory box CD is a delight. Would Bright Shiny Things please consider more Block?

Rafael de Acha



In the theatre the connecting tissue between set piece and set piece in an opera is indispensable, as it serves to keep the audience focused on the dramatic action. In a recording of an opera the same connecting tissue keeps the listener on track while waiting for the next “big moment” to come.

Listening to the superb reading of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by the Hong Kong Philharmonic led by Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden and just recently released by NAXOS in a four CD set just recorded live this past January this listener found himself not waiting for the next familiar moment, but wanting to linger at every minute of the 3 ½ hour musical journey.

The sound, engineered by Phil Rowlands, James Clark and Roy Cheung is crystalline at both extremes of the dynamic range, and evenhandedly faithful to Wagner’s massive orchestration. The insightfully and succinctly written accompanying booklet annotated by Keith Anderson is perfect as well.

And then there is the Bamberg Symphony Chorus and the Latvian State Choir, both doing sterling work in key moments: Hagen’s call to the vassals being one of the many goose-bump inducing ones.

The soloists form a wonderful mix of veteran Wagnerians and up-and-coming stars integrated, thanks to Van Zweden into as good an ensemble as ever heard in a Wagner opera by this listener – every leading and supporting role is flawlessly cast.

The three Norns that open the Prologue: Sarah Castle, Stephanie Houtzeel, Jenufa Gleich, and the three Rhine Maidens that bring the opera to its close: Eri Nakamura, Aurthelia Varak, and Hermine Haselböck are cast with first-tier singers, several of them young Wagnerians on the rise.

Gun-Brit Barkmin is a sensational Brunhilde, an expressive singer endowed with unending energy and a ringing top voice that never turns shrill. The American tenor Daniel Brenna holds his own in this cast, impressively singing the impossibly demanding part of Siegfried.

The young American soprano Amanda Majeski delivers a sensitively sung Gutrune, and Michelle De Young brings her ample dramatic mezzo-soprano to the part of Waltraute with great success. The basses and bass-baritones are exemplary: Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang makes his mark as Gunther. Eric Halfvarson is riveting as Hagen, pouring out a torrent of pitch-black sound in the iconic Watch and earlier in the scene with the sinister Alberich of Peter Kálmán, a Hungarian bass who matches his colleague decibel for decibel.

There are plenty of recordings of both the Ring cycle and its components, but with Wagner and the Ring it’s never too many. Recorded live with no room for retakes and mistakes, this is a superb addition to the collection of any opera fan, whether Wagnerian or not.

Rafael de Acha



DELOS has just released a nicely assembled collection of Barber and Copland piano pieces impeccably played with fierce commitment and intensity by the American pianist Sean Kennard.

Titled American Classics Barber and Copland the Delos release (DE 3554) is good to look at and pleasurable to the ear. Kennard is an impressive technician, fleet and agile, yet capable of obtaining massive climaxes from his instrument with steely gravitas.

The choice of repertory is interesting, avoiding the tried and true, and revealing a darker aspect of Samuel Barber as shown in the composer’s Sonata for Piano, Op.26, written in 1949 by the then mature Barber and given its world premiere by Vladinir Horowitz, no less, who asked for a flashy fourth movement and got it. The Sonata for Piano and the 1977 Ballade are both complex works that open up to the musical language of dodecaphony.

With both those two works, written three decades apart their composer turned the corner into a world of dissonance where he remained well into the latter part of his career. With his earlier opus, Excursions Barber seems to be more at ease in a distinctly laid-back and utterly charming American musical landscape.

Copland’s Piano Variations dates back to 1930 and clearly show the influence of Paris-based composers whom Nadia Boulanger encouraged Copland not to imitate but study, which the composer proceeded to do with a vengeance. Massive cluster chords and a martellato use of the lower and upper registers alternate with moments of delicate lyricism in this composition.

The Four Piano Blues are miniatures dedicated to or else inspired by friends of the composer are brought to life with their bluesy, jazzy, vaporous sound by Sean Kennard’s at times delicate at others commandingly sonorous playing.

Typical of DELOS, the engineering is spot on, the accompanying notes succinct and insightful and the packaging simple and well designed.

Rafael de Acha