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


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)


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

LAVENA in your hands

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As with all new music I find there are two ways to listen to it: one is to try to analyze it as one listens so that one can do what is expected of a reviewer – to write coherently about both the music and the performance.

The other way, which I find more congenial is to let oneself be taken into a more spontaneous state which I would with some hesitation like to call, for lack of a better description, a semi-conscious one. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but that way of letting go while listening to new music, even when trying to write about it later is much more pleasant and much less restrictive.

As I listened to Gemma Peacocke’s mesmerizing work for cello and electronics Amygdala in BRIGHT SHINY THINGS soon to be released CD LAVENA in your hands (BSTC-0145) I was puzzled by its title, until I got to my Webster’s and was able to let its definition clear things up for me: “an almond-shaped mass of gray matter, one in each hemisphere of the brain, associated with feelings of fear and aggression and important for visual learning and memory.” I listened on, feeling neither fear nor aggressive impulses but rather a pleasant sensation akin to something halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness.

I then moved on to Jesse Montgomery Duo for Violin and Cello, a three-part work whose movements range from the agitated Meandering, chockfull of sul ponticello bowing from William Herzog’s violin to tapping on the body of the cello from Lavena Johanson, and from both various effects that lead to a humorously abrupt ending. Dirge, the second of the work’s three movements is a plangent lament for solo cello that receives soulful playing from Johanson. The final Presto – a dizzying moto-perpetuo is played at warp speed by the technically dazzling pair.

Carolyn Shaw’s beautifully meditative solo work for unaccompanied cello, in manus tuas gets its inspiration from the Catholic Compline Service textInto your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.”

In Ted Hearne’s Furtive Moments – a duo for cello and percussion – the composer commands the cellist to bow in various ways, even at times imitating the beating of a human heart, or else pause to pluck or beat the strings or the body of the instrument, using the entire melodic, harmonic and percussive potential of her instrument, including a haunting use of harmonics. The process is aided by the playing of Jeff Sterns on percussion.

Bryce Dessner’s Tuusula memories perhaps of a trip to Finland elicit from the cello a series of hauntingly evocative passages that call for the cellist to summon her impressive technique to work at capacity.

In Judah Adashi’s movingly tender my heart comes undone Johanson’s cello weaves in and out of a single melodic line that ascends musically towards a quiet ending.

Engineered by Edwin Huet and self-produced by Lavena Johanson LAVENA in your hands is a fascinating sampler of new music played by a gifted performer.

Rafael de Acha          ALL ABOUT THE ARTS (@rafaelmusicnotes.com)            


In the about-to-be-released Sony Classical CD REBIRTH soprano Sonya Yoncheva finds a musical rebirth of her own as she sets out to explore a repertoire as far afield from her Puccini-Verdi Fach as can be imagined. With no stage work to be had these days of Covid19 isolation, the Bulgarian soprano has sought a welcome respite in the vocal repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries and earlier from the Toscas and Elisabettas for which she has become well known and admired.

In the impressive company of a group of multi-talented multi-instrumentalists from the Early Music ensemble Capella Mediterranea, playing cornet, viola da gamba, lyre, archlute, theorbo, and banduria, along with more familiar woodwind, string, and percussion instruments, Yoncheva explores a variety of genres-within the Early Music field under the wonderful leadership of Argentine conductor Leonardo García Alarcón, .

The selections range from instrumental and vocal excerpts from 16th and 17th century stage, concert, and sacred works by Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Stradella and Barbara Strozzi, an intriguing selection of lesser-known Spanish language rarities, a poignant song by Orlando Gibbons, another by the Italian-born English composer Alfonso Ferrabosco,  the ubiquitous Dowland ballad Come Again, an off-the-wall choice by the Swedish pop group ABBA, and on to Zableyalo mi agǎnce, a hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian folk song with Medieval-Moslem roots.

Throughout more than a dozen plus vocal selections Yoncheva displays her affinity for the music of many periods along with an ample soprano voice that she generously applies to mostly slow moving, stately music where her command of a seamless legato line serves her to great advantage. The Bulgarian soprano’s silvery upper range is often used in these songs while her lower range is most effectively shown in the lower-lying Spanish selections. When she lets loose in No hay que decir el primor, a lively turn by the Baroque Spanish composer Tomás de Torrejón yVelasco, she is at her most exciting.

With detailed notes by Petya Ivanova, the fine production and engineering of Jonas Niederstadt, and elegant photography and packaging, this Sony Classical release is a welcome musical gift now more than ever.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Clarinetist Ron Selka and pianist Aviram Reichert play Brahms

Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinet of the Meiningen Orchestra and a virtuoso of his instrument, inspired Johannes Brahms to compose several chamber music works involving the clarinet, among them two sonatas. In these two final chamber music compositions Brahms, unencumbered by any thoughts of musical grandeur honored Mühlfeld’s artistry with music sublime in its delicacy and deceiving simplicity.

In their album of music for clarinet and piano clarinetist Ron Selka, and pianist Aviram Reichert take the listener on a musical journey that encompasses both of those late-career sonatas – the Clarinet Sonata in E-flat major, op. 120 no. 2 and the Clarinet Sonata in F minor, op. 120 no. 1, along with other music for clarinet and piano. Throughout the hour-long CD their playing is elegant and technically beyond reproach.

The TYXart compact disc, now available both as a hard copy and as a digital download (TXA20152)  includes four songs from Brahms’ op. 105: Wie Melodien Zieht es Mir, Immer Leiser wird mein Schlummer, Klage, and Auf dem Kirchhofe, along with another song without words: the Minnelied from op. 71.

For lovers of German Lieder, Selka’s clarinet and Reichert’s piano make felicitous substitutions for the poetic message of those songs by imbuing the music with the spirit of the words of several German poets, never more so than in the profoundly sad Immer Leiser wird mein Schlummer.  

In his album notes, Yoel Greenberg examines both the historical background for the composition of these delicate masterpieces and their musical structure.

Engineered, edited and mastered by Avi Elbaz, Yann Selka and Ben Bernfeld, and produced by Andreas Ziegler the sound is flawless, intimate and life-like, the packaging and photography first class.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS



Compelling music of Douglas Knehans

Ostro is a southerly wind in the Mediterranean Sea. Warm and humid, it often carries rain. Mistral is a strong, cold northwesterly wind that blows through the Rhône valley and southern France into the Mediterranean, mainly in winter. Elesian (or Elysian) conveys in its title the blessed peace at the end of all things mortal, where all winds are but gentle breezes.

The three titles: Ostro, Mistral, Elesian describe what the compelling concerto for flute TEMPEST of Douglas Knehans eloquently portrays in music that is at times jittery, at others elegiac, and still later in the third movement elegantly playful. Conceived as a tour de force concerto for the protean Gareth Davies, the principal flute player of the London Symphony Orchestra here soloing with the superb Brno Philharmonic Orchestra helmed by conductor Mikel Toms, the performance is as the composition itself nothing short of brilliant.

Whatever Knehans means by Tempering, the title to the first movement of UNFINISHED EARTH the intriguing composition that lends its title to this CD – perhaps to modify the character of the music by tempering it as one does steel – one thing is clear: this is massively orchestrated music – robust in its use of the brass and percussion, and altogether riveting.

In Eternal Ocean – the second of three movements – the ebb and flow of a great body of water is depicted by the use of woodwind and horn soli eerily paired to cluster chords in the lower strings, and by the use of a sort of moto perpetuo that underpins the entire movement. A full outburst breaks the quietude of the movement with the unpredictability of the ocean itself. Then an ominous choral progression accompanying an ascent into the upper range of the entire string section leads to yet another climactic moment. And finally the music subsides into rocking waves of melody.

Tearing Drift – the third movement – is tempestuous and unrelenting in its musical depiction of troubled waters. But, in the midst of all this 21st century musical Sturm und Drang there is nobility of utterance. Ultimately the angst expressed in this jagged, dangerous, electrifying music leads to a cathartically huge sonic explosion at the end of the movement.

Unfinished Earth, an unerringly original work, earns a rightful place among great compositions in the canon that depict with organized sound the utterly disorganized in nature and in human emotions.

The ABLAZE RECORDS CD is also available as a download in a number of platforms.