BACKWARDS FROM WINTER Douglas Knehans’ monodrama with libretto by Juanita Rockwell

Ice doubles the glass/divides in here from out there/white webbing the dark/– glazing patch wire branch and stone/crazing the snow’s smooth expanse/one red and one black/two koi move, each one solo/now this way now that/swim beneath a frozen sky/longing for another sun/your coat around me/hollowing out your pillow/your lamp still burning/making snow angels in sheets–nothing warms our empty bed/divides in here from out there

Thus begins Douglas Knehans’ monodrama BACKWARDS FROM WINTER, with a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, a work for voice, electronic cello and electronics issued by ablaze records (ar-00054)

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is an unusually structured musical journey taken in a retrograde manner, commencing with a desolate depiction of a woman in a darkening winter of the physical world and the soul.

Longing, separation, grief – are motives that will echo throughout a four chapter account that begins with the chill of winter, then moves to the cool of fall, then to the heat of summer, and finally to the joys of spring, with interludes separating the sections, in each of which the emotions that began the trip into memory gradually change from utter desolation to recent grief to the memory of intense passion to the hope eternal that lives in spring.

With great economy of means composer Douglas Knehans has created a potently compelling composition for the stage that should prove utterly viable for production now more than ever in the perilous world in which the arts live.

Conceived for soprano voice and one non-singing actor and scored for one accompanying instrument and electronics, BACKWARDS FROM WINTER should allow great freedom to any stage director, given its poetic, non-linear narrative.

The role of the woman is taxing, calling for endurance and utter comfort in the upper reaches of the soprano range, demands that do not seem to faze soprano Judith Weusten, who delivers an impressively sung and intensely expressive performance in this recording.

The electronic cello part is beautifully played by Antonis Pratsinakis, and composer Knehans provides all manner of electronic effects, strongly supported by engineers Greg Gurr and Silas Brown.

All in all BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is a superb chamber opera whose future – we fervently hope – will be bright and fruitful.

Rafael de Acha     September 24, 2020           

MUSIC FROM LATVIA by Talivaldis Keninš

Talivaldis Keninš (1919–2008) is like many other artists of Latvian heritage – through no fault of his – a victim of the Latvian Diaspora endured by the people of the small European nation during the years in which their country was under Soviet domination.

Born in Latvia, Ķeniņš lived most of his life in Paris and Canada, where he taught and continued to compose, before returning home in his latter years.

His Concerto di camera No. 1 (1981) written for flute, clarinet and piano is intriguingly structured and nobly played on this CD by Tommaso Pratola (flute), Mārtiņš Circenis, (clarinet), and pianist Agnese Egliņa. It is here given a compelling performance led by Guntis Kuzma,.

Keninš’ Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1990) is a dramatic and at times anguished work in which the composer expresses his feelings about the events that led to the long awaited liberation of Latvia in 1991.

The concerto is divided into a fast/slow/fast structure, in which the brief first and last movements call for virtuosic playing here generously provided by percussionist Edgars Saksons and pianist Agnese Egliņa, led again by Guntis Kuzma.

Ķeniņš wrote his First Symphony in 1959. The work melds the folk music of the Baltic people and the contemporary in a composition brief in duration but expansive in scope, given in this Ondine release a superb rendition under the baton of Andris Poga.

As someone who writes about music I have become familiar with the work of Latvian conductors Andris Nelsons and Mariss Jansons, violinist Gidon Kremer, and soprano Kristine Opolais. Yet I shamefully confess to complete ignorance about Latvian music, which this terrific Ondine release will help me gradually remedy.

Rafael de Acha September 23, 2020

For those wishing to listen to a sample of Talivaldis Keninš’ music here are two of his choral numbers:

CHORAL MUSIC FROM ESTONIA: Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits

A recently composed work for choir and orchestra, Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits has been released by ONDINE featuring the peerless pairing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra, beautifully led by Risto Joost,

The poetry of the 20th-century Italian writer Cesare Pavese, filled as it is with symbols about nature and their imprint on the life and death of human beings, is brought to life by Kõrvits in lyrical, meditative music, wherein elements of nature: wind, fire, water, earth are equated to aspects of the human condition: longing , regret, loneliness, love.

Kõrvits’ melodic, utterly Romantic, tonally-centered music is haunting and evocative, and his keen talent for text setting and tone painting is never more vividly present than in his setting of Pavese’s Tu sei come una terra (here in our translation) first sung by the chorus:

You are like a land that no one has ever uttered

You wait for nothing other than the word

Which like a fruit amidst tree branches

Will be dredged out of the bottom

It is a wind that nears you

Dried and dead things obscure you, swept away by the wind

Limbs and ancient words

You tremble in summer

A sample of the music of Tõnu Kõrvits: Peegeldused tasasest maast (The Northern Wild) –

Rafael de Acha www. 9/23/20


Stuart Skelton is the best Peter Grimes I have ever heard.

Comparisons are odious, so that I will spare the reader that annoyance. I will merely mention the name of Peter Pears, the original Peter Grimes, flawless in diction, his odd vocal production an acquired taste, but his earnest acting (which can be viewed on You Tube) one of his many assets, with an essentially lyric voice rising up to the Olympian challenges of the role by sheer willpower.

But the role of Peter Grimes, the tormented English fisherman, when taken up by any tenor, even a great dramatic-heroic tenor like Stuart Skelton, is a different kettle of fish. The part lies oddly, often sitting right on the tricky area of the passage from upper middle to high voice, as in the scene with Ellen Orford – the wonderful soprano Erin Wall – in which Britten asks the singer of Grimes to stay forever and a day on the E at the top of the treble staff and sing from piano to forte without competing with or obliterating the work of his partner.

Skelton, who could easily throw caution to the winds and open up at a middle-of-the-road mezzo forte all the time maintains instead a beautiful tone at whatever dynamic level is required. At moments he summons a baritone timbre that he has displayed to advantage in his recently heard Tristan, but at no time there is any evidence of his inflating the sound. In his arioso – In dreams I’ve built and in his soliloquy about the stars above in the pub scene Skelton establishes himself as the finest heroic tenor of his generation: one capable of singing with a true mezza voce and next thunder at full throttle.

And so it goes throughout the two and a half hours musical-dramatic journey that the protean Stuart Skelton shares with a marvelous cast in which baritone Roderick Williams is a rock solid Balstrode. Led by the superb English conductor Edward Gardner the splendid Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus shine in the several interludes that depict the ever changing surrounding seas that mirror the equally fluctuating human emotions that permeate this harrowing story about an odd man out.

This CHANDOS recording of Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece is a treasure and now available to all lovers of great Opera.

First Interlude:

Rafael de Acha