TWO NEW CD RELEASES FOR MARCH

Newly arrived from SOMM we welcome a wonderful album that features British pianist Peter Donohoe playing five works for the keyboard in Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 4.

This new gem from this artist’s ongoing survey of the Salzburg master’s piano works includes the Sonata No.1 in C major, K279; the Sonata No.5 in G major, K283; the Minuet in D major, K355; the Allegro in G minor, K312, and the Sonata No.12 in F major, K332.

Recorded in 2018 at the Royal Conservatory in Birmingham on a Bechstein D282 grand with Paul Arden-Taylor peerlessly engineering the session, the new CD, insightfully annotated by Christopher Morley and just now being released is a special gift to aficionados of piano playing in the grand manner by a master of the keyboard.

In The Great Violins Volume 4 the music of the lesser known 17th century Austrian violinist and composer Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr is heard in the CD The Great Violins, Vol. 4.

Playing a 1629 Amati violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved guides the listener on a musical journey through six partitas for solo violin titled as a collection Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera. The unique sound of the Amati is perfectly captured in the athene recording which includes exhaustive information on the composer and his works.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Alceste

Due to the restrictions Gluck imposed on his own work in a 1779 preface to the published score of Alceste, he paved the way for Opera to transition from the Baroque operas of his predecessors to the achievements of Mozart.

In his famous preface Gluck stipulated among several do’s and don’ts, no vocal embellishments, exclusively syllabic setting of the text, blurring the difference between aria and accompanied recitative, and no textual repeats.

Ironically, Mozart effected a major transition from the excesses of Baroque Opera while still putting to work many of the devices Gluck had fought against, including repeats, vocal embellishments, and separation of secco recitatives from arias and ensembles.

In Alceste Gluck took Calzabigi’s libretto based on Alkestis, a tragedy by Euripides about a Queen willing to give her life to save her husband’s, and wrought a stage work long in longueurs and short on truly inspired music. Other than the title character’s aria Divinités du Styx, one is hard put to think of another truly memorable moment in this 135 minute-long, three-act opera.

In the UNITEL/Cmajor CD, Dorothea Roschmann undertakes the title role with mixed results. The German soprano, a notable Lieder singer and recognized interpreter of light-lyric roles on which she has built an international career, here tries on for size the role of the tragic Queen of Thessaly.

The role of Alceste, long associated with large-voiced dramatic sopranos the likes of Maria Callas, Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Leyla Gencer, and, more recently, Jessye Norman, and Christine Brewer taxes the voice of Roschmann, now an older singer in her mid-fifties and well past the prime of a light-voiced soprano.

The role of King Admète is relegated by Gluck into a supporting one that does not appear until act two. Once he does show up, the American tenor Charles Castronuovo does a fine job with what little Gluck gives him to work with.

The Regieoper production by Antwerp-based choreographer Sidi Larki Cherkaoui comes off as portentously pretentious, with dance sequences that sport a largely-derivative kinetic vocabulary redolent of the work of fellow Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, along with sequences replete with much arm wiggling and meaningless still poses.

Ultimately the entire proceedings comes off as endlessly repetitive and unable to contribute anything to the driving forward of the story, notwithstanding the fine conducting of Antonello Manacorda at the helm of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

The Bayerische Staatsoper 2019 production of the 1776 Paris (French language) version of Gluck’s Alceste is now available as a single CD.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

A musical message from Japan

Toshio Hosokawa is a composer of contemporary classical music whose aesthetic is informed by classical Japanese culture. Momo Kodama is a classical pianist with a commitment to divulge works by contemporary Japanese composers. Seiji Ozawa is known for his advocacy of modern composers and for his work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which he led for 29 years. These three artists came together in 2006 to record two works of great significance to all three of them: W.A. Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Major, No. 23, and Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight.

Leading his own Mito Chamber Orchestra, the Japanese maestro gave the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight, a one-movement concerto with Momo Kodama as soloist. The German label ECM has recently announced the re-release of the 14-year old recording, straightforwardly engineered by Yoshinori Yishiwaki and Suenori Fukui in an ECM recording soon to be available on various platforms.

Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight is an intriguingly compelling work whose harmonic and melodic traits reveal both European and Japanese roots. At all times Hosokawa’s exquisite composition is ineffably Eastern in its economy of means, noble in its intentions, and rich in its depiction of the birth and life of a lotus flower that rises out of the water to embrace the moonlight and the universe beyond.

Momo Kodama is the soloist in both Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight and in Mozart’s beloved A Major, K. 488 concerto.

The Allegro that opens the 1786 composition reflects Mozart’s state of mind at the time: he was a happy man, piano soloist in this and two other concertos, his Le Nozze di Figaro was about to open in Prague. But then a doleful F# minor middle movement follows as a revelation of the spiritual conflict that ever lived in Mozart’s soul. Then a third movement Allegro  (Italian for both lively and happy) is both lively in speed and happy in spirit, episodic in nature, calling for elegance and suppleness of execution, all of which the protean Momo Kodama joyfully delivers with the beloved maestro Ozawa as an elegant partner at the helm of the sterling Mito Chamber Orchestra.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

RISURREZIONE – a resurrection of a neglected gem

In a perfect world Franco Alfano’s RISURREZIONE would be resurrected by opera companies with more frequency. But the world of Opera being as imperfect as we all know it and its repertory can be, we luckily have a DYNAMIC video recording of a January 2020 production by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at our disposal any time we want to hear and see this opera. For one, I plan to do that again so as to enjoy the many beauties this recording offers.

First things first: Franco Alfano, is best known for having completed Turandot in 1924, after Puccini had died two years earlier. Even though he was much more prolific than many of his peers Alfano’s operas, including Risurrezione, fell into obscurity after his death in 1954. Now, more than sixty years later, Ireland’s Wexford Festival gave Alfano’s work a worthy production which was later shared this year by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Alfano’s music for Risurrezione is unabashedly Romantic, lushly orchestrated, and singer-friendly. The Florence production does not stint in the vocal department, having as its two leads the French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels and the American tenor Matthew Vickers.

Duprels is a petite, big-voiced lady with enormous gifts as a singer and as an actress. As Katerina Mihailova (Katyusha) she is at first fragile and pretty as a young servant in an aristocratic household. The French soprano’s dramatic progression from youthful innocence to homeless pregnant unmarried woman to half-crazed inmate in the company of criminals and prostitutes in a woman’s jail to a lifer in a Siberian camp for men and women, where she ministers to the needy among her fellow prisoners, is simply extraordinary.

Beyond her acting ability Anne Sophie Duprels can sing. Oh and how she can sing well and sing on!  Alfano’s score is through-composed, which means no stops and starts. Most of the music for the soprano is emotionally-charged, with a good number of show-stopping moments that do not allow for anything to stop.  The opera’s first act is structured as a long duet for the soprano and the tenor, once the comprimario singers leave. Ditto for a second act which is essentially a soprano solo with a few brief interjections by more supporting-role singers, The third act is a tour de force for the soprano, whose character’s mind and life are unraveling into madness. By the fourth act, Katyusha achieves a state of spiritual enlightenment in which she makes peace with those who wronged her, embracing a sad and uncertain future as her lot in life. Throughout Duprels is non pareil, delivering extraordinary singing and acting

In order to accomplish this dramatic feat Duprels has Rosetta Cucchi, a wonderful director to guide her trough these challenges. And, importantly, she has the excellent tenor Matthew Vickers as a perfect acting and singing partner. With hardly a moment in which he is not partnering Duprels in extended duets, Vickers still shines vocally with a lovely lyric voice that can deliver heft when heft is needed. And he is an honest actor, utterly convincing as Prince Dimitri Ivanovich Nehlyudov.

The production is sterling, with a poetic set by Tiziano Santi, period-perfect costumes by Claudia Pernigotti, and chiaroscuro lighting by  Ginevra Lombardo. Rosetta Cucchi masterfully moves around her principals and cast never allowing for operatic posturing to take the place of life-like behavior, and she creates with the help of her designers some truly stunning stage pictures.

Other than the excellent baritone Leon Kim, who impresses in a brief appearance as a fellow prisoner in the final act, the remainder of the cast has small roles to fill. They and the chorus and orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the world class direction of maestro Francesco  Lanzillotta and chorus master Lorenzo Fratini would do any opera company proud.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Violeta Vicci’s Mirror Images

Gramola’s upcoming release Mirror Images [GRAM98010] features works for solo violin and viola and one intriguingly Eastern-inflected cantilena for solo voice performed by violinist Violeta Vicci.

The album includes Ragnar Söderlind’s Elegia II for Solo Violin; J.S. Bach’s Partita in E Major for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from J. S. Bach Suite No. 5 in C Minor; Imogen Holst’s Suite for Solo Viola, Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata in A Minor Op. 27, No. 2 “A Jacques Thibaud” and a Vocalise by Jean-Louis Florentz.

Violeta Vicci’s accomplishments are both those of a violinist/violist gifted as a fine interpreter of traditional and new music and as an improvisational artist with a penchant for the intricacies of quarter-tone music.

Vicci’s playing of Ragnar Söderlind’s Elegia II for Solo Violin is impressive. She excels in both J.S. Bach’s Partita in E Major for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C Minor, and in both instances her playing is idiomatically apt, clean of execution, and eloquently rendered.

Such is also the case with the young artist’s felicitous playing of Eugène Ysaÿe’s four-movement Sonata in A Minor Op. 27, No. 2 – dedicated to another great violinist, Jacques Thibaud – whose Late Romantic idiom Vicci embraces with lyrical purity of tone and expansiveness.

Imogen Holst’s bucolic Suite for Solo Viola is deftly taken up by Vicci who mines the capabilities of her second instrument potential for mimicking the sound of an English country fiddle.

Mirror Images was produced at Space Mountain Studios in Spain, with recording, editing, mixing and mastering by Jon Alexander Audio. 

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

An American Mosaic

Throughout fifteen short pieces variously titled as arias, chorales, interludes, and other more poetic names, givers and receivers, patients and doctors, ministers, rabbis, writers and poets, teachers and students, the healthy and the sick, the living and the millions who succumbed, are given hope and homage, celebrated and or commemorated for their deeds, for their notable or obscure but never negligible lives, and for merely having existed and survived and helped or for having valiantly fought but perished.

Simone Dinnerstein, both a notable pianist and pioneer of music as a vehicle for healing of the mind and the spirit, gives Richard Danielpour’s delicate, economical of means, elegantly tonal, plainly harmonized, sometimes restless, most often tranquil music a noble, straightforward, sensitive reading that renders this treasure of an album essentially important to those who love meaningful music that matters.

The Supertrain Records album to be released in mid-March also includes as a movingly fitting finale three transcriptions created by Richard Danielpour for Simone Dinnerstein of Bach’s Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and the chorale Wenn Ich einmal soll scheiden (When someday I shall depart), both from the Mass in B minor, and the final chorus Wir setzen, uns mit Tränen nieder (Tearfully we sit) from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A Journey for Piano Four Hands

Oh that Franz Liszt! He composed the two Lenau Faust Episodes for orchestra, including the well-known Mephisto Waltz, and then turned around and pilfered himself by turning them into two tour de force pieces for a demonically gifted keyboardist (himself of course) that only he could tackle thanks to allegedly having made a pact with Satan, no less. Or so many thought, for long after the Abbé passed on to a better life down below or elsewhere, many a piano star of Liszt’s time and many thereafter hesitatingly added these fearfully finger-breaking pieces to their concert arsenals.

How fortunate it is to have the duo of Turkish pianist Zeynep Ucbasaran and the Italian pianist Sergio Gallo joining their formidable technical and musical prowess without the need of having to make any infernal pacts in this divine music 2016 release.

Together Ms. Ucbasaran and Signor Gallo, greatly aided by recording engineer Barbara Hirsch make an orchestra unnecessary in this album of mostly originally-orchestral pieces. Here you will hear a lively rendition of three Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances: the lively Furiants nos. 1 and 8, and the laid-back Dumka no. 2. The listener will find further delights in selections from Gounod’s Faust (the other one), Godard’s lovely lullaby from Jocelyn, the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen, and Darius Milhaud’s zany Brazilian-inflected depiction of a bull up on a roof Le Boeuf sur le toit.

Were it not for the enterprise of these two superb interpreters of music of all kinds and the support of the good folks at divine music, much of this music – lighter fare and salon ditties in this instance – would be inaccessible in piano-duo format, just as in the 19th century a trip to the concert hall in the big city was out of reach, were it not for the home piano – often four hands – that made a happy and economical substitute for tickets to hear Liszt in person.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Never underestimate the potency of cheap music

Noël Coward’s famous one-liner “Never underestimate the potency of cheap music” comes to mind when listening to Liszt’s unavoidably stirring 1847 Grand Paraphrase of a March of Donizetti composed by the Italian for His Majesty Sultan Abdul-Medjid Khan and refashioned by him into a more-is-more study in musical grandiosity bordering on the humorous. 

That, the Réminiscences de Lucia Di Lammermoor de Donizetti, which takes the Chi mi frena in tal momento sextet and turns it into a deranged study in musical grandstanding, and just about every other piece in the terrific CD 1847 Liszt in Istanbul helps to re-establish Liszt’s partial identity as a guiltless pilferer of other composer’s music and shameless showman of mid-19th century salon music.

Liszt takes Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and re-labels it Rondo Briliant in Db major. He takes three Big Moments from Norma and a soprano aria from I Puritani (Son vergin vezzosa) and refashions them into vehicles for his larger than life pianistic skills, even if at the expense of sacrificing Bellini’s seamless Bel Canto melodies by over-embellishing them into musical mush.

Elsewhere the Hungarian Abbé-composer  delivers a pretty decent facsimile of a Chopin Mazurka and of Schubert’s Lied The Earl King, but neither begins to compare to the real thing.

None of this is to say that Liszt was only a shameless copier always out to foray into others’ music and take what he could. His three vibrant Magyar Dalok (Hungarian Melodies) bring out the best in him, successfully tapping into his Central European roots. And by way of redemption, overall, Liszt proves here to be an entertaining salon composer.

Turkish pianist Zeynep Ucbasaran is a formidable artist who elevates this music to lofty heights by virtue of her sensitive musicality and dazzling technique. Here’s hoping that divine art will bring her out again to delight us with music worthy of her technique and sensibilities.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

AT LAST, A GREAT MEZZO-SOPRANO!

Welcome Belarusian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova, now into the second decade of a stellar career that has taken her to most of the major opera houses in Europe. The MET will hopefully welcome her back when it opens, offering her some major roles that, judging by this superb DELOS recording she should be invited to sing, thus allowing American audiences to embrace this extraordinary artist.

The Delos CD opens with O ma lyre immortelle from Gounod’s rarely done Sapho. In this aria and in two selections from Samson et Dalila: Printemps qui commence and Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix  the Belarusian singer displays a luscious sound that she commands up and down her ample range along with a seamless technique.

Beyond the technical prowess required to sing the selections featured in this CD Volkova has at her command a palette of colors that coupled to interesting interpretive choices make her an artist to reckon with.

Her Connais-tu le pays from Thomas’ Mignon bears the sound of innocence throughout, in contrast with the heroic outpouring of her Ximena in Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux from Massenet’s Le Cid or her fiery Carmen, whose Seguidilla  Volkova brings to vibrant life with supple agility and potent chest tones. The singer conveys the anguish of Charlotte in the brief air des larmes from Massenet’s Werther as eloquently as this listener recalls from memories of some of the great interpreters of this part.

Volkova is equally at home in the French repertoire, which she sings with flawless diction, and in the Italian Verismo of Cavalleria Rusticana and Adrianna Lecouvreur from both of which she sings signature arias with intense passion.

And, naturally, she shines in the Russian selections that include rarities – an aria from The Gray Legend by Belarusian composer Dmitry Smolski, and Lyubava’s tender scene from Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Sadko. Volkova is magnificent in the well-known aria of Joan from Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans and bone-chilling in Marfa’s somber prophecy from Khovanshchina . In both excerpts Volkova lets her dramatic temperament and her imposing voice to go full out all in service of Tchaikovsky’s and Mussorgsky’s music without ever overstepping the limits of good judgment.

Throughout the CD Constantine Orbelian leads the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra ever supportive of and attentive to his artist.

Comparisons can be odious if negatively used, but positively applied when praise is given: Volkova’s stylish singing, her ever unflagging sound, her impeccable way with texts in French, Italian and her native Belorussian and Russian remind this listener of some of her Slavic compatriots – notably the no-holds-barred sound of the late and great Elena Obraztsova – along with the Italianate lyricism of both Giulietta Simionato and Ebe Stignani. But when all is said and done, Oksana Volkova is her own, unique, special artist – one at the peak of her powers.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS (c/o www.rafaelmusicnotes.com)

Petulant gods and goddesses courting and quarreling

One can imagine that the audience that sat in the Salle des Machines in 1662 Paris to watch the premiere of Francesco Cavalli’s rather long Ercole amante (made even longer by the addition of not one but eighteen ballet sequences courtesy of Monsieur Lully) endured the evening’s longueurs so as not to slight the King himself. The French aristocracy was more interested in the various appearances of classical Deus ex machina Greek deities than in the music itself or, for that matter, the excellent singing by a mostly Italian cast with the top stars of the 17th century.

So it not surprising that in the superb Naxos double CD video of a live performance of Cavalli’s opera, filmed over two days in November of last year at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, the emphasis is not on the music or the singing – excellent as both are – but on a superbly funny staging co-directed with panache by Valerie Lésort and Christian Neco, and lusciously designed with no budgetary-strings-attached by Laurent Peduzzi (set) and Vanessa Sannino (costumes). The production is made even livelier by the enchanting oversized puppets of Carole Allemand, Sophie Coeffic, and director Valerie Lésort.

The convoluted action takes place in a cartoonish Greece of Antiquity peopled by petulant gods and goddesses, nymphs and heroes occupying all sorts of flying, floating and rolling conveyances, and courting and quarreling their way into a finale in which the hapless Hercules of the title is elevated to godly status after being burned alive, past which ordeal all is well once more.

In a superb cast of Baroque specialists, the young Italian bass Nahuel di Pierro is top notch vocally and very funny as Hercules. Sopranos and mezzos Anna Bonitatibus, Giuseppina Bridelli, Francesca Aspromonte, Giulia Semenzato, and Eugénie Lefevbre are all five superb singers game for having a good time poking good natured fun at the eccentricities of their art and singing beautifully all the while.

Two wonderful countertenors – Ray Chenez and Dominique Visse all but steal the show with their outrageous comic turns, and tenor Krystian Adam brings welcome lyricism to his role. Bass Luca Tittoto is a sonorous Neptune who commands a miniature submarine for two.

Cavalli’s contribution to the development of Opera must be acknowledged, even though his modest gifts as a melodist pale by comparison to his precursors – Monteverdi above all. But the Lombardian composer – a singer himself – knew how to both write for the voice and for a small orchestral ensemble, which in this performance – the Orchestra Pygmalion – is beautifully helmed by the young maestro Raphaël Pichon, who, as a singer himself – knows precisely both how to lead when needed and how to follow when called for.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS