Standing on the shoulders of Mihkail Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky for inspiration, and those of Nicolai Rimsky Korsakoff for mentoring, Modest Mussorgsky had to peddle his Boris Godunov from creation to submission to rejection to second production and on to triumph for six grueling years, all the while dealing with gossip, overbearing censors, egocentric prima donnas, the fear of displeasure from the Imperial family, and the demands of his military career.

Yet, the 1874 premiere became one big success, albeit one resented by many in the press who failed to appreciate Mussorgsky’s quirky harmonic ways and byways and his melding of Russian folk and Eastern Orthodox chant into his melodies, along with his rigorous command of classic compositional tenets and technique.

All well and good, one would say, as one contemplates the magnificence of Mussorgsky’s Olympian score, were it not for the elephant in the room: which Boris Godunov? For, unlike other giants who tortured and tweaked and transformed their scores over and over again to suit the demands of particular productions, Mussorgsky’s spirit has had to look down from up above on the supposed improvements posthumously wrought by lesser mortals on the masterpiece of one of the great geniuses of Russian opera.

Simply said, Mussorgsky would have been quite happy keeping his 1869 musical urtext as the one and only and definitive Boris. Take it or leave it.

I will take the 1869 original version of Mussorgsky’s rough-hewn, big-boned Boris Godunov and thank again and again a long list of musical entrepreneurs and artists, starting with BIS records, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano, and the sterling cast they assembled for this project.

Boris Godunov is shy on women’s roles – the 1874 version’s Marina being in and out in the blink of an eye, and the Hostess at the Inn, the Nurse, and the young Tsar-to-be Fyodor reduced in the original version to little more than supporting roles.

Ah but the basses!

This recording stars the young Ukrainian Alexander Tsymbalyuk in the title role. He is sensationally good, commanding yet restrained, and in control of the crowd in the Coronation scene, stunning in the Kremlin scene, vulnerable and ultimately heartbreaking in his Death scene.

Finnish bass Mika Kares is Pimen, singing patricianly and lyrically at all times. Alexey Tikhomirov is no mere buffo bass but a sonorously menacing Varlaam.

The Shuisky, Maxim Paster and the Grigory, Sergei Skorokhodov are both first-tier tenors luxuriously cast in their supporting roles, especially with the absence of the tacked-on Polish scene and the Mussorgsky original and shorter Granovitaya Palace sequence.

Kent Nagano commands his forces magisterially, eliciting sheer musical magic from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenburg Opera Chorus, and the Brunnsbo Music Classes Children’s Chorus. The engineering by Carl Talbot is flawless, the overall production by Robert Suff impeccable. Bolshoi spasibo!!!

**** Excellent

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


Florian-Sempey-incarne-Figaro-alternanceGuillaume-Andrieux-Michele-Angelini-comte-Almaviva_0_1173_1725.jpgGioacchino Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Lebanese-French stage director Pierre Audi ill-conceived Barber of Seville wears out its welcome during the first ten minutes of Rossini’s first act. Clocking in at three hours that feel much longer than 180 minutes this relentlessly unfunny staging now available on a NAXOS DVD relies largely on visual tricks – Figaro makes his entrance on a trapeze, Fiorello and his musicians playing with real bows on imaginary violins, Rosina incarcerated behind the bars of a vertical pentagram while all of the action and inaction takes place on a stack of music paper the size of the Champs-Élysées Opera House.

The set, the costumes, even the make-up are monochromatic – blacks and grays and little else, with neither a hint of Spanish charm nor a glimmer of Seville sun, just a conceptually wrongheaded film noir look and feel to the entire affair.

Once an enfant terrible of the opera stage, Audi at age 63 is now more terrible than enfant, imposing well-worn acting clichés and schticks on his mostly charmless cast, led by baritone Florian Sempey, a well sung but totally humorless, bullying Figaro, badly in need of a shave and a cut himself. Catherine Trottmann is a physically and vocally petite Rosina, pretty as a picture, not so pretty vocally.

The two buffos – Peter Kalman and Robert Gleadow are musically heavy-handed and histrionically clueless, the comprimarios- Fiorello and Berta undernourished.

Only the Almaviva, played more as a cad than as Count, and brilliantly sung by tenor Michele Angelini survives the ordeal, getting the biggest piece of the pie with a fabulously agile Cessa di più resistere at the end of the evening. A little too little too late…

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

**** Excellent *** Good ** OK * Mediocre



Imagine my surprise when our friend Paula Mlyn insisted (gently but still rare for her) I should sit down and listen to the NAXO’s CD 8.559871, titled MIGRATIONS, assuring me that I would not be disappointed.

It was one of quite a pile of CD’s sitting on my desk waiting to be reviewed and making me feel guilty about my procrastinating ways.

Paula’s email gave me the kick in the butt I needed.

But I must confess I sat down to listen to what I feared was going to be a catch-all sampler of music by a composer of renown about whose work I knew little much to my dismay.

I began to listen and curiosity grew into sheer delight, as I listened to Derek Bermel’s Migration Series for Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra, a work commissioned by Wynton Marsalis that embraces cutting edge jazz melded into big-bones music demanding serious symphonic chops from its players.

Twenty-nine minutes of boldly polytonal, complexly contrapuntal, harmonically unpredictable, swinging music played to the hilt by the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, with soloists Ted Nash on sax and Bermel himself on clarinet kept me on the edge of my seat.

I was hooked.

As lyric wordsmiths go, the Modernist Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade is not an obvious choice for a piece for voice and orchestra. But for those of us who love the mellifluous language of the Lusitanians at the extreme Southwest corner of Europe and the way Andrade makes it sing on the printed page, the choice Bermel made to set Mar de Setembre (September Sea) to nice and easy music to be sung by a Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza, rather than a classical soprano was nothing short of brilliant.

In a smoky, come-hither, laid back delivery Souza enchants the listener through five settings of poems by the Portuguese master. In this short cycle music and words are so happily married one would venture a guess that the creative mind and the impassioned heart behind this work were Portuguese. I actually later found out Bermel’s family background is partly Portuguese.

No wonder.

A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace, is the closing work on the CD. A triple-titled, triple-structured homage to Béla Bartók, its three parts titled in Hungarian AmericanizationDrop of Music… and “veg”, its music Magyar to the core, joyfully jagged rhythmically, luxuriantly lyrical, defiantly dissonant at times, inventively orchestrated, provides a rousing conclusion  to this sampler of Derek Bermel’s music.

With part of the CD given a terrific reading by the Albany Symphony led by its resourceful maestro David Alan Miller, and top of the line engineering by Silas Brown and Doron Schacter, MIGRATIONS is worthy of serious attention.

Talk about a geographic and musical journey!

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



In PREACH, SISTER, PREACH, the new Navona CD (nv6244) of new vocal works by Evan Williams, Katherine Bodor, and Evan Mack, Parma Records producer Bob Lord, and recording engineer D. James Tagg provide the safety net for the partnership between the three composers and the interpreters. As the heart and soul of the project, the superbly supple soprano Katherine Jolly sings of heartbreak, solitude, and other matters of the human soul in ten poems of Emily Dickinson, set to ethereally beautiful music by Evan Williams in his song cycle Emily’s House.

The Uninhabitable Earth, a piece written by David Wallace-Wells for New York Magazine is an anguished cri de coeur that pleads for the ecological rescue of our planet. Not the usual sort of material to marry to a song, Wallace-Wells’ text allows composer Katherine Bodor to format Absent an Adjustment into a free-form one-movement cantata. With Katherine Jolly at her intense best, partnered by Christa Cole’s and Samantha Johnson-Helms’ violins, Rachel Mossburg’s viola, Per Bjorking’s double bass, all led by conductor Joshua Harper the six artists shine in Bodor’s compellingly dramatic music

Preach Sister Preach, an unfailingly theatrical musical and vocal tour de force for both Katherine Jolly and her sterling partner Emily Yap Chua, allows the two artists to pull all the vocal and pianistic stops, with Jolly having a jolly good time injecting into the various song snippets the personalities of Simone de Beauvoir and Daphne du Maurier at the slightly serious level to don’t mess with me moments by Leslie Jones and Mae West, to heartfelt empowerment counseling by Gloria Steinem, Tina Fey, Anne Landers and Ellen DeGeneres.

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



So far this year… 6465 visitors from the United States, the United Kingdom, The Philippines, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Austria, Russia, the Netherlands, Cuba, Mexico, Finland, Poland, Romania, Belgium, Japan, South Korea, Austria, Iceland, Azerbaijan, Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Greece, India, Sweden, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey, Hungary, Thailand, New Zealand, Indonesia, Latvia, Georgia, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Mongolia, Taiwan, Singapore, Denmark, Malaysia, Armenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Lithuania, Chile, Tunisia, Kenya, Macedonia, Slovenia, Northern Marianas, United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Trinidad, Tobago, Brunei, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Brunei, Paraguay, Peru, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Cyprus, Croatia, Luxemburg, US Virgin Islands, Tanzania, El Salvador, Barbados, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Seychelles, Kuwait, Palestine, Oman, Jamaica, Belarus, Montenegro, Nigeria

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



I just listened to RING OUT, a BRIGHT SHINY THINGS CD (BSTC 0128) of the music of Jessica Meyer.

And before I get around to tell you how fascinating I find her work, let me preamble my comments, so as to make my enthusiasm more understandable.

Way back when, in the ages in which music making was not structured, codified and organized, but left to the spontaneous and the improvisatory, there was no one to tell a Greek shepherd or an Egyptian court musician or, centuries later, a wandering minstrel to put down their Aeolian harp or their pipes of pan and stop the noise. Music-making then was a spontaneous, self-initiated act always welcome in the court or in the village.

But the years passed, and the bulk of Greek and Egyptian music, largely improvisatory and passed orally from generation to generation was lost. And when Pope Gregory made the chants of the medieval monks conform to a set of rules and when, much later the Council of Trent bore down on liturgical music and made some official and some not sanctioned, the music of the west was set on a collision course between creativity and conformity that led to most of the compositions that now form The Canon.

The circuitous road above takes me where I want to take you: to music that is endlessly inventive, rules-defying, surprising, lyrical when called for, and even bluntly forceful at times. The composer is a young violist who not long ago decided that yet another gig playing her fiddle would not completely fulfill her artistic impulses. And then she wrote.

The BRIGHT SHINY THINGS CD, titled RING OUT is a plainly packaged, deftly engineered enterprise that yields terrific results in each and every one of its 11 tracks, starting with Meyer and cellist Andrew Yee in But Not Until, a fiercely written and played duet for their instruments. Dating back fifteen years the music of this brief composition is already imprinted by Meyer’s multi-tonal, free-wheeling, emotional sensibility.

In a three-part setting of spirituality-filled Rumi poems titled I Only Speak of the Sun I caught compelling modal riffs, rhythm irregularity, and snippets of melody all redolent of ancient Persian music, vigorously played by Meyer, Miranda Cuckson on violin, and cellist Caleb van der Swaagh

Scordatura is the purposeful mistuning of a stringed instrument – cello in this case – to achieve special effects. It is also what is asked of cellist Andrew Yee, compounded with bowing and plucking techniques that portray in musical terms a human tragedy that had a profound effect on the composer.

Seasons of Basho is a four-song cycle for countertenor (the excellent Nicholas Tamagna), viola (Meyer), and piano (Adam Marks). The four poems – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – are set to texts by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō that examine the ups and downs of love and all its vicissitudes.

Only a Beginning delivers highly-charged emotional music in a duet for viola and violin (Meyer and Cuckson).

The CD comes to a rousing ending with the words of Tennyson set against a mix of the vocalizations of eight members of Roomful of Teeth and a field recording that evoke the pleasantly chaotic simultaneous tolling and clanging of church bells on a Sunday morning.

There is an exciting music scene out there. If you travel to or live in one of the big cities, one with a rich musical life, you will be likely to encounter the music of Jessica Meyer. I just did.

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



Let us remember what a great summer season we had in Cincinnati this year, and praise where praise is due before we dive headlong into 2019-2020’s musical lineup.

SONG: May 26 – Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise

In one of the Art of the Piano events, baritone Simon Barrad measured up on every count in Schubert’s musical depiction of a human being’s journey from the unhappiness of living to the quietude of the grave. Awadagin Pratt proved to be the singer’s perfect partner at the piano, summoning a multitude of dynamics and colors from his instrument. . Barrad’s and Pratt’s Winterreise was a musical map of the human soul that for the length of an unforgettable evening we took in as awed companions of two superlative artists.

CHORAL: May 28 – Craig Hella Johnson’s Conspirare – Considering Matthew Shepard

On a bare stage, one could discern the silhouettes of Conspirare’s vocalists in low light, Craig Hella Johnson seated at the piano, and next to him a small ensemble of musicians near a rustic fence that one might encounter in the vastness of the Wyoming plains – a symbol for the crucifixion of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who on October 6, 1998 was driven to a desolate spot in the outskirts of Laramie, beaten, tortured, and left to die. Johnson’s extraordinarily conceived Considering Matthew Shepard took the stage of Cincinnati’s Corbett Auditorium and for its two-hour duration held its audience enthralled.

OPERA: July 24 – CINCINNATI OPERA –  Blind Injustice

A variety of characters are subjected to the sorrowful vagaries of the American legal system and wrongfully convicted. Every one of the six convicted persons tells — through David Cote’s potent libretto and Scott Davenport Richards’ emotionally charged score — their stories of incarceration, exoneration, and redemption. In Blind Injustice, a memorable world premiere brilliantly staged by Robin Guarino and fiercely conducted, sung, and played with John Morris Russell at the helm, the focus remained on the visceral rather than on the legal details, which made for a riveting experience that Cincinnati will remember for a long time.


During the dog days of August, the fully blossomed Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra once more brought to Cincinnati’s music lovers a plentiful supply of world class soloists, up and coming young artists, and the playing of a cohesive, disciplined, and fluent ensemble made up of some of the best musicians in these parts, led by the never predictable, ever reliable Eckart Preu in off-the-beaten path programs that surprised and stimulated both brain and heart. The CCO has carved a unique place in the Queen City’s musical landscape.

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



If April is “the cruellest month” because it signaled some bad stuff to T. S. Eliot then September of 2019 turns out to be the kindest month to music lovers in Cincinnati, highlighted by the start of the seasons of the CSO, CCM, Matinee Musicale Cincinnati, Chamber Music Cincinnati, and the Immaculata Chamber Music Concerts.

Half a dozen concerts in just two weeks will keep music lovers on the go in September. Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear will take on all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas for the piano in a day-long Sonatathon. Chamber Music Cincinnati (http://cincychamber.org)  on Saturday 7 at Memorial Hall.

The following day we will surely be reminded how youth and musical maturity can sometimes go magically together as we sit in Mt. Adams’s Immaculata Church for the first FREE concert of its 2019 Chamber Music Series, listening to Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quintet and Dvořák’s “Bass” Quintet played by Christina Nam, Kanako Shimasaki, Mariko Shimasaki, Martin Hintz, Jonathan Lee, and Ian Saunders.

Barely a week later a member’s only lunch-time concert will feature the chronologically young and musically mature cellist Miriam K. Smith playing music of Manuel de Falla, and the few-years older but still young and utterly gifted South African pianist Eben Wagenstroom playing a mix of Mozart and Chopin for the Cincinnati Women’s Club.

At the end of that week and in a marathon weekend of concert-going Cincinnati will hear the brightly talented trumpeter Ashley Hall in recital for Matinee Musicale Cincinnati (Phone: 513-977-8838) and the formidable Labeque Sisters in the first half of the opening concert of the CSO season (www.cincinnatisymphony.org) playing the world premiere of Bryce Dessner’s concerto for two pianos.

And, at the end of the month one must return to Music Hall to hear violinist Anna-Sophie Mutter in the Beethoven violin concerto, with the meteorically successful Korean maestra Eun Sun Kim at the CSO‘s podium.

And that’s just September and that does not even including CCM’s event-packed schedule (www.ccm.uc.edu), highlighted by the professional-level Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Mark Gibson in an opening concert with Giora Schmidt essaying the Dvořák violin concerto.

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


Charles Gounod had three opera theatres to choose from when he shopped out his Faust in 1859 Paris. At that point he had three operas in his short resume: Sapho, La none sanglante and Le médecin malgré lui, all three of which had had reasonable runs.

Gounod decided, or perhaps it was decided for him through an offer he could not refuse that the Théâtre Lyrique would be the venue for his new work. The offer came with strings attached: Madame Carvalho, the homely-looking and not very talented wife of the Théâtre Lyrique’s impresario had to sing Marguerite, and the new opera had to have spoken dialogue.

Gounod acquiesced and Faust had its not so easy birth on a stage of a theater with inadequate technical facilities and an audience spoiled by second-rate light operas by equally second-rate composers and ill-suited translations into French of some works by a few important foreign composers.

Gounod and his brainchild survived the ordeal and some years later, after revisions, additions, deletions and the dropping of the original spoken dialogue and its substitution with recitatives, Faust had a rebirth in the shape that is now familiar to us.

All for the better I say, for the story of the aging philosopher’s pact with Méphistophélès sadled with spoken dialogue would have stayed as an occasional revival in French theaters and nothing more.

So, what is so interesting about the original 1859 Faust now in a new release from the joint French label Palazzetto/Bru Zane is merely its rarity. Missing is one of the opera’s best-known pieces, Valentin’s Avant de quitter ce lieux, here replaced by an unmemorable duet for Valentin and Marguerite. There’s also a good second aria for Siebel, and lots of spoken dialogue, which given its annoying presence forced this listener to fast-track to the next musical number time and again.

The singers are a mixed lot, all very light-voiced, very French sounding, with flawless diction and the men’s typically-Gallic slightly constricted vocal production. Faust is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, a light tenor better suited to the role’s lyrical moments than to the ones requiring more vocal heft.

The Marguerite is Veronique Gens, a lyric soprano familiar to most of us from her notable work in French mélodies and Baroque Operas. Here she delivers a youthful-sounding heroine with the agility for a nice Jewel Song and the power to hold her own in the Church Scene and in the final trio.

When it comes to dramatic baritone Andrew Foster Williams the sound needed for the role of Méphistophélès is simply not there. And yes, there is a long line of lean-voiced French high basses who sang the role successfully, unctuousness, humor and elegance making up for decibels. But here neither the elegance of a Pol Plançon or a Marcel Journet, nor the mordant Italian wit of an Italo Tajo nor the massive sound of a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov are present.  We end up with a Devil with a nice-brother Valentin sound.

Both the light-weight Valentin of Jean-Sebastien Bou and the lovely Siebel of Juliette Marx are what’s needed. The choral ensemble and orchestra – Les Talens Lyriques and the Flemish Radio Choir are both very good under the direction of Christophe Rousset, as is the engineering of Jiri Heger. The packaging is elegant, with three CD’s contained in a handsome hard-bound book.

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