THE GERSHWIN’S PORGY AND BESS

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2.jpgJust as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was getting a green light from the Gershwin estate back in 2011 the adaptation’s authors got a short email message from one of the estate’s trustees. It had two words: BE BOLD.

Judging by this streamlined Porgy and Bess and the remainder of this season there’s no doubt that the Cincinnati Opera’s Evans Mirageas operates all of the time with that belief.

But why The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and not just Porgy and Bess?

To get a straight answer to that you’d have to go back eight years and ask Diane Paulus, the director who took Gershwin’s opera hand in hand with playwright Susan Lori-Parks, and after negotiating with the Gershwin estate took the loveable old dinosaur of a work into the 21st century, where it has been getting productions in opera houses all over the world.

What director Paulus and playwright Parks did, had no major impact on the music. It is the opera’s libretto that which got trimmed of several chunks of stage fat. Mercifully the surgery brought the show’s running time to today’s 2:30 hours.

Good news: the Cincinnati Opera has taken Gershwin’s glorious music and, in a production originally conceived by Francesca Zambello, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is getting what promises to be a rousing rendition on the stage of Music Hall now through July 28.

The show’s success will surely be largely due to a made in heaven cast helmed by  Talise Trevigne, a gleaming soprano and the physically and vocally monumental bass Morris Robinson.

THE GERSHWIN’S PORGY AND BESS RUNS JULY 20, 25, & 27, 2019 | 7:30 PM AND JULY 28, 2019 | 3:00 PM

Bass-baritone Stephan Loges teams up with pianist Alexander Schmalcz

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Bass-baritone Stephan Loges teams up with pianist Alexander Schmalcz

Fourteen years ago bass-baritone Stephan Loges teamed up with pianist Alexander Schmalcz to record a CD of Lieder by Schumann, Franz and Brahms simply titled with the singer’s name. Now and then the indefatigable musical enterprisers at Divine Art Records are putting their promotional derring-do behind this valuable CD all in an effort to obtain a wider listenership in America for these two artists.

Here in our shores the vocal and pianistic art of the Lied has fallen by the wayside outside the hallowed halls of Academia, and, along with its practice, we have witnessed the gradual disappearance of an audience willing to sit through an hour plus worth of Schumann and Brahms and Schubert. Wolf? Strauss Lieder? Both are a stretch for most American concertgoers, sorry to say. So it is with grateful thanks that I receive this musical gift from our friends at Divine Art.

Stephan Loges must have been in his twenties when this album was recorded. Ever since he has been enjoying a nice European career focused primarily on recital and oratorio work, with occasional forays into opera, singing the lyrical area of the bass-baritone Fach, one that encompasses roles as diverse as Papageno, Golaud, Wolfram and the Sprecher (in The Magic Flute).

But in the realm of Lieder singing there is no rigid dividing of voices into categories. You sing Lieder you sing it all. Welcome, then, this capable artist who takes on the chameleonic demands of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, follows them with six songs by the sadly neglected Robert Franz, and follows them with seven songs from Brahms opus 63, opus 86, and a grouping of four from opus 49.

Throughout the hour-long recital, greatly helped by his superbly capable partner, Alexander Schmalcz, Loges delivers a musically rich performance highlighted by flawless diction, impeccable musicianship, elegant vocalism, and pliant idiomatic musicality, with never a moment of the sort of self-indulgent vocal grandstanding of which opera singers moonlighting as recitalists are frequently guilty.

Loge’s pliant and burnished voice is eminently suited to this repertory. He does not show off money notes, He simply delivers high and middle and low as required by the music, with no hesitancy and no ego. That sort of vocal sound coupled to the pianistic brilliance of Schmalcz is all this listener asks for and this CD delivers from start to finish.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

AN OUTSTANDING ELGAR ANTHOLOGY

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By the time Edward Elgar – make that Sir Edward Elgar, if you please – passed on to a better life in Mt. Parnassus, the 20th century in all its disturbing restlessness raged on and the arts reflected the tenor of the times in the visual arts, literature and music.

Sir Edward’s career as a composer had seen quieter days in which the English master could luxuriate in his brand of post-Romanticism. Ravel and Debussy had all but reinvented harmony, Strauss reigned supreme on the operatic and symphonic stages, and Schoenberg and the other Dodecaphonists, and Stravinsky had disassembled any remaining notions of melody as understood by the generation of concertgoers who still attended the evenings of music-making at Carnegie Hall in the 1940’s, the decade during which all three of the works included in this SOMM/Ariadne 5005 Elgar anthology were recorded.

Arturo Toscanini’s podium was with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and his magisterial command of his forces comes through in an elegantly re-mastered – thanks to Leni Spahr – 1949 recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The 25-minute, fifteen-part opus 36 is a fully-mature work which to this day continues to occupy a slot in many a symphonic concert program. The tenth variation, labeled Nimrod after the biblical hunter is slightly longer and better known than all, but the finale, with its return of Elgar’s noble melody a thing to be treasured.

The Italian Maestro, known for his often eccentrically quick tempi, here takes things easy, pacing the NBC musicians with elegiac gravity throughout. Even in the brisk tempi of the finale, the third, fourth, fifth, eighth, twelfth, and eleventh variations, the latter utterly charming in its scherzo mood, the speed never goes into hyper-drive. The attacks are razor-sharp throughout – a Toscanini signature, and the balance always even to a fault.

Sir John Barbirolli succeeded Toscanini at the helm of the New York Philharmonic from 1936 to 1943 before returning to England after the war to lead the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. In the 1940 live Carnegie Hall recording featured in this album, he has next to him no less than Igor Piatigorsky, who sounding for the world like the master cellist he was delivers a profoundly heartfelt Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85.

The work was written in 1919, a few months after the end of the Great War, and its dialogue between a lamenting, quivering cello and the orchestra that seems to answer the soloist’s phrases with blunt responses is riveting. The work’s four movements follow each other without a break and with an unusually unorthodox mix of unity of mood and contrasting tempi, as if to signify that the traditional four-movement structure of concertos is here subservient to the composer’s artistic urge to express his soulful lament for the war’s dead.

The concerto, now a de-rigueur staple of the cellist’s repertoire is not at all about technical fireworks but about making the cello sing, and Piatigorsky reminds us of what a superb musician he was with his patrician singing musicality.

The Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 shows Elgar in a lighter mood. The composition, subtitled Falstaff is a six movement series of episodes depicting the adventures of Sir John Falstaff, and leading to his repudiation by Hal, now King Henry, and the Fat Man’s descent to an ignominiously sad end.

Elgar evidences his mastery of orchestration, assigning to the bassoon the personality of the weight-challenged Sir John. Falstaff’s proclivity for trouble-making for himself and for creating trouble for others is depicted in the quicksilver tempo and tonal changes. The NBC musicians show their mettle, with notably nimble playing by the woodwinds.

For collectors of recordings of historical interest this offering by SOMM/Ariadne is a must-have.

Rafael de Acha            http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

DON’T TALK AND PASS THE POPCORN

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Nobody I know who is still alive remembers the days when the movies were silent and movie houses had a pianist on staff to bang away on an upright musical accompaniments to silent flicks featuring the grainy images of Rudolph Valentino and Theda Bara mutely emoting on the flickering screen.

After Al Jolson uttered “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” that being the first spoken line ever heard on a Hollywood film, everything changed and composers of all stripes were able to find gainful employment writing scores for the movies.

European Jewish composers fled Germany one step ahead of Nazi thugs and settled in sunny California, among them Erich Korngold and Max Steiner. Younger generations followed – Jerome Moross, a standout with his quintessentially American score for The Big Country, with melodies as vast and sweeping as the landscape Gregory Peck encountered in the 1958 film about Easterners in the West.

And who can ever forget sitting in a darkened theater and being transported to antebellum Georgia for Gone with the Wind with the help of Max Steiner’s Tara’s Theme or watching Errol Flynn capering around Merry Olde England as Robin Hood to the accompaniment of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s hyper-energetic March from The adventures of Robin Hood.

Of more rent vintage, the place of honor is unarguably occupied by John Williams, represented here by snippets from his iconic Star Wars, The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

William Walton is respectfully included in the CD with his Henry V score and the lesser known 1942 biopic The First of the Few.

Sergei Prokofiev’s big-bones score for Sergei Einsenstein’s classic Alexander Nevsky is included here, along with samples of film music by Francis Lai (Love Story), Ron Goodwin (Squadron), and the Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, used in Mayerling, an obscure 1968 film.

Film music must by necessity be subservient to the medium for which it is written. It should be emotionally charged or energetic or both but never ever call attention to itself. All the compositions featured in this fun-filled album fulfill those simple requirements.

For one to sit down to listen to this nifty anthology just released by Ariadne (5006) via SOMM Recordings all preconceived notions must be abandoned: this is guilty-pleasure, middle-brow music in dressy wear, given lush symphonic renderings by the splendid Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra, Iain Sutherland at the helm.

Is this concert music? Not really. Is it good music? You bet!

Whether you saw the movie or didn’t but read the book or are too young to have seen most of these films or don’t care, I do. So please don’t talk and pass the popcorn.

Rafael de Acha http://www.www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Mozart’s “German Opera”

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Cmajor/Unitel jointly recorded last August the Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Naxos has just released it for the American market.

The results are pleasing, starting with a cast that features both internationally-known singers and up and coming ones. The production is inventive, the playing by the Vienna Philharmonic impeccable, and the conducting by Constantinos Carydis elegant and flexible.

In the Salzburg production director Lydia Steier begins the opera in an early 20th century Austrian household in which marital trouble bubbles up under the seemingly placid surface of a colorless middle-class world. Mother (soprano Albina Shagimuratova) has anger issues that moments later become if not logical at least understandable when she returns as the Queen of the Night.

The family has three well-behaved boys (three enchanting and unnamed young singers from the Vienna Boys Choir) who are for no apparent reason sent to bed early, and who are then used by the director as the Three Spirits that accompany Tamino (tenor Mauro Peter) in the company of Papageno (baritone Adam Plachetka) in a quest to find and liberate Pamina (soprano Christiane Karg), presumably a princess, but here costumed as a circus performer, from captivity by Sarastro (bass Matthias Goerne), who has put the goulish Monostatos (tenor Michael Porter) in charge of her custody.

Let us not forget the very randy and funny Three Ladies (Ilse Eerens, Paula Murrihy, and Genevieve King) and the Speaker (bass Tareq Nazmi) costumed here as a Groucho Marx type, cigar and all. If you are beginning to wonder what happened to the original middle-class home of the opening scene, you are not alone.

In a brash mixing of metaphors, the director transports us into a mad, mad world of acrobats, animal tamers, clowns, freaks, and jugglers that keep things hyperactively happening visually but make not much sense as an accompaniment to the words being sung or the story being told

The employing of the respected Austrian stage actor Klaus Maria Breandauer as a warm and fuzzy Grandpa-narrator saves the production from collapsing under the weight of all the slapsticks, helium-filled balloons, midgets, fright wigs, trained bears and men on stilts, but just barely.

The music-making is much clearer and much better thought out by conductor Constantinos Carydis as a neo-Romantic opera in which ritardandi, freely-sung cadences, and quicksilver changes of tempi are all allowed to be flexibly executed and in so doing nicely fit into the musical fabric of the entire opera, remaining elegantly Classical and perfectly idiomatic.

The singing is all good, some better than good, none embarrassing, starting with the central couple of tenor Mauro Peter, an excellent Tamino, and soprano Christiane Karg, a lovely Pamina.

Baritone Adam Plachetka portrays a loveable and well-sung Papageno, the Bird Catcher, in spite of a blood-soaked apron that turns him into Papageno, the bird butcher.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova tosses off the dreaded high F’s in both her arias without breaking a sweat.

On the other hand, bass-baritone Matthias Goerne sounds growly and out of his depth in the depths of Sarastro’s low-lying music.

Mozart’s “German Opera” (his words on paper) is tricky to stage, its tone vacillating between the comic and the serious. And then there are male chauvinist groaners in Schikaneder’s libretto, which no matter what the staging approach might be must be dealt with in the Me-too era. Here’s hoping for a Magic Flute to hold a candle to Ingmar Bergman’s glorious 1975 film adaptation of Mozart’s opera.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com