The spirit of Finland in Sibelius music

When asked by his publisher to explain the source of inspiration for his tone poem Tapiola, Sibelius responded thus: Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests/ Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams/ Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God / And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The northern spirit of Finland so expressively depicted in the music of that nation’s greatest composer is evident in this symphonic work commissioned and premiered by Walter Damrosch in 1926 with the New York Symphonic Society. So it is with the other works included in this superbly varied CHANDOS (CHSA 5217) release.

Luonnotar is a tone-poem for soprano and orchestra. The 1913 work was dedicated to the Finnish soprano Aino Ackté – Richard Strauss’s “one and only Salomé” – who premiered it in its original form before Sibelius arranged it for voice and piano.

Based on Finnish mythology, the words come from the Kalevala, and they celebrate the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas. Sibelius’ first language was Swedish and most of his earlier settings had been to Swedish texts, except Luonnotar, which is entirely in Finnish.

Rakastava (The Lover) is an orchestral suite inspired by a collection of Finnish folk poetry – a literary cousin to the Kalevala. Vårsång (Spring Song) is a single-movement tone poem written in 1894. In both these early career works Sibelius evidences complete mastery of orchestration and an unpredictable gift for harmonic and melodic inventiveness.

Sibelius created Debussy-influenced incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande in 1905. It was first performed in 1905, three years after the Paris premiere of the opera of the same title and conducted by the composer. The eight brief excerpts included in this CD reveal a lyrical strain not often heard in the often muscular music of Sibelius.

Throughout the CD Edward Gardner magisterially leads the Bergen Philharmonic drawing all kinds of nuance from Sibelius’ familiar Tapiola and from the less familiar and most impressive Rakastava, Luonnotar, Vårsång and Pelléas och Mélisande.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen is luminous in her singing of the challenging Luonnotar and in the brief Song of the Three Blind Women from Pelléas och Mélisande.



The superb players of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra led by Marek Janowski shine in a new recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio (PENTATONE PTC5186880)

Janowski proves himself once more the ideal conductor of German opera, opening with a movingly eloquent reading of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, and then drawing out a performance from his cast, chorus and orchestra rich in colors and attentive to textual details.

The cast features the plush voiced Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonore, who sings Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? with unflappable aplomb, balancing lyricism and dramatic heft.

The resonant Christian Elsner as Florestan, the object of Lonore’s heroic search, rides with rock solid assurance the implacably difficult tessitura of his assignments in act II leading up to the reunion duet with his wife.

The other roles are filled to perfection by basses Georg Zeppenfeld, an impressive Rocco and Günther Groissböck, a noble Don Fernando.

Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle is a menacing and well sung Don Pizzarro. The supple voiced Soprano Christina Landshamer as Marzelline and the ringing tenor Cornel Frey as Jaquino round out the cast.

Fidelio is the iconic rescue opera, celebrating love and courage in a fight against tyranny and injustice. PENTATONE’s release of Beethoven’s masterpiece was recorded in two studio sessions, with two superb choirs: the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, and the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir. Both shine in the two great choral moments of this opera: the finale and the prisoner’s chorus.

The engineering and all the production details of this recording are uniformly excellent.

Rafael de Acha       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS



CARMEN – Music by Georges Bizet   JULY 17, 22, 26 & 30, 2021 at 8:30 P.M.
Sung in French with projected English translation
Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission  

In the cast: J’Nai Bridges, Janai Brugger, Stephen Costello, Christian Pursell

Conductor Ramón Tebar      Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia

TOSCA – Music by Giacomo Puccini JULY 23, 27 & 31, 2021 | 8:30 P.M.
Sung in Italian with projected English translation
Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

In the cast: Ana Maria Martinez, Russell Thomas, Quinn Kelsey   

Conductor  Xian Zhang     Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE – Music by Gioachino RossinI JULY 24 & 29, 2021 | 8:30 P.M.
Sung in Italian with projected English translation
Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

In the cast: Rihab Chaieb, Aaron Blake, Chris Kenney, Reginald Smith Jr., Burak Bilgili,

Conductor  Renato Balsadonna    Stage Director Joshua R. Horowitz

All tickets will be sold individually in seating pods. Each of our 10-by-10-foot pods seats between one and six guests. You will not be asked to share your pod with anyone outside of your party, and pods are separated by six feet on all sides from the nearest pod. Tickets are priced at $15, $25, or $50 each. The $50 tickets include chairs.  

(513) 241-2742
Monday-Friday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.

Music for violin and piano from Brazil

Turbulent emotions are given restless, anguished music from a composer in search of a voice all his own in the one-movement Sonata No.1 for violin and piano Desesperança – Sonata Fantastica e Capricciosa no. 1 composed by the 28-year old Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1915.

Two more sonatas followed, both in a classically-structured, three-movement format, both longer in duration than the Sonata No.1.

The Sonata No. 2, named “Fantasia” by its composer boasts plenty of melodic ideas in a first movement Allegro that is followed by a stately Largo and capped by a lively Rondo.

The violin part soars, dips and ascends in musical flights of fancy throughout all three movements in a Neo-Romantic idiom that owes more in its freely tonal construct to what was being composed in Paris during the first two decades of the twentieth century than to what Latin American composers may have sought to imitate. That said, the sound one hears is authentically that of a composer sure of what his musical identity to be, perhaps not yet intrinsically Brazilian, but definitely no longer pseudo-European.

Even though Villa-Lobos did not get to hear his 1917 tone poem Amazonas performed until 1929 and his extraordinary Uirapuru from the same year until quite a bit later, his musical identity was solidly in place as he set out to write his Third Sonata for Violin and Piano, a vibrant work in which an opening Adagio vaguely atonal at times is followed by a straight ahead Allegro and an even quicker Finale – all three movements owing something to Debussy’s late career works.

The pairing of Paolo Rossi’s technically unimpeachable, solidly supportive pianistic gifts, to Emmanuele Baldini’s boldly Romantic approach to this music makes for a felicitous result in this remarkable Naxos CD that features two formidable Brazilian artists at the top of their game in music by their great compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Duo Praxedis makes musical magic with Piazzolla’s New Tangos

Praxedis Hug-Rütti, harp and Praxedis Geneviève Hug, piano are the Praxedis Duo, and in their double CD PIAZZOLLA (ARS38592) for ARS PRODUKTION they bring to vivid life seventeen pieces by Astor Piazzolla that range from the large scale Le Grand Tango to the multi-faceted Tangata which seems to salute Debussy from the shores of the River Plate before kicking up its heels.

A casual look at what recorded music by Piazzolla is available and who plays it will reveal that cellists, pianists, violinists, chamber orchestras and, of course, Piazzolla himself on the Bandoneón have embraced this vibrantly varied music from the southernmost country in the Americas. But a duo made up of harp and piano playing Piazzolla’s angular, muscular New Tango? Not that I can recall… So it is with complete delight that I report that the results of this initiative are wonderful.

Hug-Rütti’s plays with consummate technique, summoning from what is, essentially a lyrical, melodic instrument all the necessary colors, dynamics and rhythmic drive of a one-person orchestra. Geneviève Hug has full command of her instrument, providing percussiveness when needed, melody when essential, contrapuntal tension and release at times, and harmonic underpinning throughout. Together the two accomplished artists create musical magic in this indispensable album.

Praxedis Hug-Rütti, harp Praxedis Geneviève Hug, piano play Astor Piazzolla’s Revirado… Introducción al Ángel… Muerte del Ángel… Milonga del Ángel…Violentango Undertango…Michelangelo…Tangata…Decarísimo…Adios Nonino…Suite Porteña de Balle…Libertango…Buenos Aires Hora Cero…Verano Porteño…Fuga y misterio…Oblivion…


Two violinists and one pianist

Violinist Ilya Gringolts embraces contemporary music side by side with the standard concert repertoire. He has also cultivated the study of historical performance practice, focusing on this instance on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In this impeccably programmed BIS album, titled Ciaccona [BIS-2525 SACE] Bach’s Chaconne keeps company with similar works in the contemporary idioms of European composers Roberto Gerhard and Brice Pauset, including a diminutive Ciacconina composed by Heinz Holliger for Isabelle Faust.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has recorded for PENTATONE before. This time he returns with a rendering of Beethoven’s monumentally challenging Hammerklavier Sonata. On the same CD, Aimard delivers a take on the Eroica Variations, a pianistic minefield in which Beethoven revisited the key melody from the finale of his Third Symphony, one which he also recaptured for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.  

NAXOS will soon release the latest installment in its Music of Brazil series: Heitor Villa-Lobos Complete Violin Sonatas. Featuring violinist Emmanuele Baldini and pianist Pablo Rossi, each sonata shares some influence from 20th century French music. While all three are early works, the first’s title, Désespérance (“Despair”) with its Brazilian saudade, the intensity of the second, and the complexity of the third foretell Villa-Lobos’ growth as a composer for the very instrument that he himself played and loved. The two Brazilian artists in this recording should excel in their understanding of the music of their country’s greatest composer.


The sad and funny ghosts of Versailles

Since the 1991 MET world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991 a precious few new American operas have seen the light of day in our largest and arguably most important opera house. New works by Nico Muhly, Thomas Adés, and revivals of operas by John Adams and Phillip Glass have received both positive reviews and lukewarm response from deferential critics and audiences weaned on a steady diet of the Puccini-Verdi canon. So it was with much surprise that John Corigliano’s opera buffa received a warm response from audiences in its initial sold out run at the MET. No wonder, what with a stellar cast that included Teresa Stratas, Marilyn Horne, Renée Fleming, and Gino Quilico.

Now the Château de Versailles label has issued an exhaustively annotated, impeccably engineered, and faultlessly produced release with an immensely promising cast of young singers, beautifully led by Joseph Colaneri at the helm of the Orchestre de l’ Opéra Royal, in an imaginatively staged production by Jay Lesinger that originated at the Glimmerglass Festival, before traveling to France to be filmed live in the jewel box theatre at Versailles. The release comes in an elegant box combining a CD, a Blue Ray, and a DVD.

The results are rewarding, and they range from standout performances by baritone Ben Schaefer as a lively, vocally and dramatically nimble Figaro, the impressive baritone Jonathan Bryan as the half-ghostly, yet one-of-us Beaumarchais, the amply sonorous and appropriately ridiculous bass-baritone Peter Morgan as Louis XVI, the excellent tenor Christian Sanders as the perfectly over-the-top villain Bégearss, and the sterling tenor Brian Wallin as Almaviva, the nobleman we all love to hate.

The female contingent of the sizeable cast is strong as well: Teresa Perrotta’s lovely lyric soprano elicits memories of Teresa Stratas, the original Marie- Antoinette, and the supple-voiced mezzo-soprano Kayla Siembieda is an absolute hoot in her double assignment as Susanna and as an ersatz Turkish hoochie-coochie dancing diva.

John Corigliano tapped the late playwright William M. Hoffman to be his librettist. While much of Hoffman’s libretto has plenty to commend it, including language that is both elegant and easy to sing, there are longueurs that at times make Corigliano’s opera, clocking-in at over two and one half hours overstay its welcome notwithstanding its many musical riches. Very likely an attempt to trim the running time of this opera would skirt legal trouble, so that whatever company sets out to revive The Ghosts of Versailles will have to be content to play it as is or leave it alone.

But in the comfort of one’s home Corigliano’s music and the theatrical values of the Opéra Royal-Climmerglass coproduction make these funny and sad ghosts pleasant company.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS


The main reasons to consider the purchase of the quite wonderful UNITEL CD of Mozart’s third of his three Da Ponte operas are two: an exceptional cast assembled by Nicholas Harnoncourt for this 2016 live recording, starting with the two couples of lovers: Mari Eriksmoen (Fiordiligi), Mauro Peter (Ferrando), Katija Dragojevic (Dorabella), and André Schuen (Guglielmo, and the conductor himself at the helm of his Concentus Musicus Wien.

All four singers have lighter voices than one might be used to hearing in casts assembled for big opera house productions of this opera, but the 2,200 seat Theater and der Wien with its perfect acoustics and horseshoe-shaped auditorium provides ideal visual and aural circumstances that, in combination with the chamber-sized Concentus Musicus Wien and its assembly of period instruments makes for a close to perfect arrangement.

This is not a fully-staged production. The singers carry the scores in their hands or place them on stands to assist their memory. Yet the cast delivers an engaging performance made all the more enjoyable by virtue of their good looks and their stylish and straight-forward delivery.

The Alfonso and  the Despina, though fine singers, both sound somewhat miscast: he, Markus Werba, a lyric baritone, when a bass-baritone would provide better contrast to the youthful sound of Guglielmo – the other baritone – and she, Elisabeth Kulman, a soprano with a heftier sound than that of Fiordiligi – the other soprano, where that of a soubrette is a better fit. This might sound like quibbling, but in the ensembles these contrasts become all important.

Harnoncourt draws a splendid sound from his cast and from his orchestral forces in a historic recording made in the last year of the Maestro’s life.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS                                               

A memorable album from an exceptional pianist

Sono Luminus will soon release The Sound of Black & White (DSL-92249)

This recording of solo piano works by Aram Khachaturian, Oscar Levant, Earl Wild, and George Gershwin features the superb Armenian-American pianist Raffi Besalyan’s here in his second album for Sono Luminus.

The recording includes Oscar Levant’s Sonatina for Piano, selections of Khachaturian’s concert, ballet, and incidental music, Gershwin’s Three Preludes, variations on several of his show tunes, Rhapsody in Blue, and Earl Wild’s Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin

Listen to Besalyan’s handling of the Cuban-inflected “clave” rhythms and the choo-choo train humor that Gershwin so inventively injected into his Rhapsody in Blue. Check out Besalyan’s dazzling agility in I got Rhythm, his laid back, leisurely stride of the left hand in the Three Etudes, and his rippling arpeggios in Embraceable You and in the Debussy-influenced The Man I Love.

The protean technique of this formidable pianist is put to use in all of the music heard in this album, as he commands all the intricacies of Khachaturian’s concert, incidental, and dance music, and the awesome challenges of Earl Wild’s Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin.

Besalyan’s interpretive gifts comfortably encompass the classical and the salon worlds in a truly memorable album soon available from Sono Luminus.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Saint-Saëns gave as good as he got

As his life-long battle with anything remotely smelling of new proved again and again Camille Saint-Saëns gave as good as he got. He labeled Stravinsky, Debussy, and several members of Les Six candidates for the nuthouse. Considering that he was born and musically educated in an era in which Adam, Auber, Rossini, Berlioz, Franck, Bizet, Gounod, and Halévy dominated the Parisian music scene during several decades, he must be forgiven for his frequent bouts of grumpiness.

Further acknowledging that he lived for 85 years through the rise of Fauré, Liszt, and Wagner (all of whom he enthusiastically admired) and into the third decade of the 20th century, it is nothing short of admirable that Saint-Saëns slowly earned the reputation of grey eminence in the cut-throat world of classical music throughout the changing times in which he composed.

NAXOS has released a splendidly packaged, annotated and engineered three-CD box set that includes all five symphonies of Saint-Saëns along with the symphonic poems Le rouet d’Ompahle, La jeunesse d’Hercule, and Phaéton – all three richly orchestrated compositions inspired by Greek myths, and the ever present Danse Macabre.

Of the five symphonies included in the set, the youthful work Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 2 keeps company with the Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55 – a work written but seven years after already evidencing a mature technique and style.

By the time the massively-orchestrated 1886 “Organ” Symphony came around the composer was in full command of his art and craft, influenced by but not imitative of Wagner. The lesser-known 1856 Urbs Roma and the equally off-the-beaten path 1850 A major Symphony both show all the earmarks of the Saint-Saëns many love and admire, including a knack for the dramatic gesture that reminds listeners of his uncanny gifts as a gifted composer for the lyric stage.

Marc Soustrot leads the impeccably accomplished musicians of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra with an elegant balance of panache and rigorous attention to balance and detail, partnering to perfection the very fine organist Carl Adam Landström in the final movement of the C minor symphony and violinist Marika Faltskogh, dazzling in the Danse Macabre.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS