“I wrote it in a few days and almost carelessly” wrote the 22-year-old Felix Mendelssohn about his first piano concerto, which he himself premiered while on a visit to Munich in 1831.

Mendelssohn wanted to ready the Second Piano Concerto for its premiere in Birmingham, ten years after his First Piano Concerto, and he wanted to impress the English concert-going audience and critics. The composer was known to write abundantly and fast, and yet, the Second Piano Concerto bedeviled him for quite a long time before he was able to complete it.

All three works are inventively inspired, rich in melody and full of technical hurdles for the soloist, especially the uncharacteristically fiery, fast and furious opening Allegro movements of both concertos.

The ONDINE CD includes the composer’s Capriccio Brillant along with the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. German pianist and conductor Lars Vogt plays impeccably, while impressively conducting from the piano the fine Orchestre de Chambre de Paris.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS


Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra piano concerto was written in the summer of 1933, when the composer was only 26 years old, and just a few weeks after the completion of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, a work which got him in seriously hot water with Stalin’s cultural minions.

It is a lively, joyful composition that pokes good natured fun at a number of musical styles. Originally meant to be a double concerto, it eventually became a hybrid: a not-too-difficult for the most part concerto for piano with a sort of trumpet obbligato that runs away with the show in the last movement.

Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, which premiered on November 3, 1945 just two months after the end of the Second World War, was a different matter. Unlike that of the patriotic Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad”, the music of the Ninth failed to convince the critics, who were expecting to hear a celebratory, patriotic work and instead heard a musically complex work tempered at times by unfettered joy.

But that was Shostakovich, a musical rebel who, living in very difficult times, managed to survive Stalin and his censors by writing the kind of music he damned well wanted to write and playing dumb when questioned.

Structured in five moments, the Ninth is idiosyncratic in many ways: its movements are brief and to the point. Its orchestration is vintage Shostakovich, dense at times, utterly clear at others, and ever inventively original. As in earlier works, the composer flirts here with atonality but ever in his sui generis way, and always generally melodic.

In this superb BR KLASSIK (BRK900202) the late Mariss Janssons brilliantly leads the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, giving the superb trumpeter Hannes Läubin and the great Yefim Bronfman plenty of room to shine as soloists in the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Sondra Radvanovsky: one of the great singers of our time

Between 1816 and 1845, Gaetano Donizetti composed 75 operas. Of those, three or four are definitely part of the standard repertory, depending what country you’re in: Don Pasquale, L’Elisir d’amore, and Lucia di Lamermoor, and when a star coloratura soprano is available, there’s La Fille du regiment. Once in a while there is a revival of La Favorita, when a first-rank mezzo-soprano can be found for the central role who might be interested in taking on the challenge.

But the so-called Three Queen Operas: Anna BolenaMaria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux are an altogether different matter. Each of these works was written with a different kind of singer in Donizetti’s mind.

The title part of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena belonged hands down, except for applause, to the legendary Giuditta Pasta, a rangy singer described by the critics of her time as a mezzo-soprano, but one with the ability to handle the high-lying tessitura of Bellini’s Annina (La Sonnambula) and the title role of Norma. Listen to the largely lyric music and one can easily see how Beverly Sills scored a success in this role.

When it comes to Maria Stuarda, the Spanish Diva Maria Malibran, another singer who comfortably sang both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles originated the part of Mary, Queen of Scots. In our time Joan Sutherland, Leyla Gencer, and, much later, Joyce Di Donato all were praised for their interpretations of this role. Any one of these star singers could and did bring something unique to the role of Mary.

Roberto Devereux was first sung by Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, a soprano whose nasty temperament appears to have been her biggest claim to fame. The role is daunting, and its abundance of show-stopping arias tempted a number of divas throughout the years, notably Montserrat Caballé and Edita Gruberová.

But to our mind no singer in memory has been equal to the challenge the Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky met in 2019 when, at the invitation of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and maestro Riccardo Frizza, she performed a long program featuring highlights from each of these three operas in one evening. The results were recorded and recently released by Pentatone in an impressive set of CD’s.

Sondra Radvanovsky is essentially a lyric-spinto soprano, but one capable of summoning the lung power for the kind of long-lined legato singing required to effectively deliver in Roberto Devereux the aria Vivi, ingrato and the many messa-di-voce demanded throughout the role’s range. On the other hand, she can surmount climactic moments with total aplomb. Her coloratura technique is inexhaustible. Her musicality, her elegant phrasing, her intelligent choice of embellishments, her idiomatic understanding and delivery of the text define Sondra Radvanovsky as one of the great singers of our time.



Several years ago, Naxos began a series of releases titled Music of Brazil. Since then, the label’s efforts to rediscover the lesser-known works of widely neglected composers from South America’s vastest nation have yielded wonderful results, the latest being a compact disc (8.574402) featuring the music of Claudio Santoro (1919-1989), a gifted 20th century master whose prolifically substantial output includes a number of large orchestral works, two of which are included in this impressively recorded compact disk.

As other composers who left their homelands in search of greener musical pastures only to finally return to their cultural roots, Santoro first developed at home under the tutelage of several European masters, later journeying to Europe, where he pursued further studies under Nadia Boulanger, and finally returning home

The superb maestro Neil Thomson leads the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra in a formidable reading of Claudio Santoro’s symphonies nos. 5 and 7. The various sections of the orchestra are absolutely first class: the woodwinds have several first seat players among them with soloist chops, the percussion section is as good as any this listener has heard, the string section plays as a chamber ensemble, combining precision and a sumptuous tone, the brass section plays brightly yet never stridently. In short, this is a world class ensemble.

As one listens to this vibrantly compelling, exuberantly orchestrated Symphony no.7, one discerns a mix of Brazilian rhythmic elements in a spontaneous combination with 20th century European atonality.

The lengthy opening Allegro announces itself as an event that comprises foreboding episodes, some contrapuntally intricate, some offering here and there a bit of quiet. A decisively reappearing Hemiola rhythm drives the movement forward but always contrasted with respite from the woodwinds.

In the second movement of his Symphony No. 7, premiered in 1960 on the occasion of the opening of Brazilia, Brazil’s new capital, one hears mysterious rumblings in the lower strings juxtaposed to boldly atonal yet lyrical solos from the oboe and later the clarinet, then augmented by melancholy melodies coming from the strings. What could easily add up to a mélange of compositional ideas coalesces into an emotionally charged movement frequently interrupted by massive fortissimo tutti outbursts.

The third movement – playfully dance-like – is an oasis of quietude that nonetheless refuses to become musically complacent: the rhythmic insistence is there, providing the percussion section plenty of work, leading to a surprisingly abrupt ending.

The symphony comes to an end in a dramatic finale that felicitously binds all of the work’s ideas in a cohesive manner.   

Santoro’s Symphony No. 5 – an earlier work – also has all the ingredients that make a large orchestral work come together: superb orchestration, intelligent structuring, and an abundance of compositional ideas, many of them quintessentially Brazilian.

Listening to this work and to Santoro’s Symphony No. 7 this listener is again reminded of the narrow scope of the repertoire of American symphony orchestras, this being the first time in over sixty years of concert-going and listening to music recordings that one has encountered the music of Claudio Santoro.

Here is hoping against hope that the superb Naxos Music of Brazil series will bring about a salutary change.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS


Beethoven was a musically promising 13 year old when he composed his first piano concerto. 24 years later he premiered his Concerto no. 5 in E flat major. In a new recording just issued by Naxos [8.574153], Russian Pianist Boris Giltburg has made it his musical mission to include what remains of Beethoven’s first youthful effort in this form – a work of which only the piano part survives – in the same CD as another E flat major work:  the Concerto no. 5, “Emperor.”

It would be easy not to go beyond labeling that early unfinished work as a naïve adolescent effort and leave it at that. But listen with an open ear and mind and one will hear moments of genuine inspiration in which the boy that would soon blossom into one of the greatest composers of all time is already capable of spinning cantabile melody and forging fairly complex contrapuntal passages.

Not so much a miracle of youthful inspiration as the result of the hard work that was expected of him by his musical mentors, the unnamed concerto – numbered No. 0, WoO 4 in the Beethoven catalogue –   is not a mere musical curio, but a charming creation by a budding musical genius. Absent an orchestra, Boris Giltburg gives this musical discovery a respectfully elegant rendition that reveals its many youthful charms.

When it comes to the Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, popularly known as the “Emperor”, Giltburg, in the good company of Vasily Petrenko at the helm of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic delivers a rich performance, muscular in the first and last movements, heartfelt in the middle movement, energetic when needed, calm and reflective when called for.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Plenty of Poulenc

In a terrific NAXOS collection of Francis Poulenc vocal and instrumental works, baritone Franck Leguérinel has a ball singing Francis Poulenc’s Masked Ball (Le Bal Masqué), a zany surrealist concoction with text by the composer’s gay, converted Catholic, soulmate, Max Ernst, whose harrowing end in a French hospital while awaiting extradition to Auschwitz was in ironically tragic contrast to his devil-may-care life.

Poulenc’s sardonically wacky setting of Ernst’s sometimes outrageous, sometimes heartfelt verse is one of several treasures found in the fourth of five volumes of the NAXOS collection Poulenc Complete Chamber Music (8.505258) a set of CD’s that in addition to including several compositions for a variety of instrumental ensembles also offers Le Bestiaire, a miniaturist setting of six of Apollinaire’s descriptions of furry, feathered, and scaled critters.

Also featured in the mostly-vocal volume are four of Poulenc’s settings of Max Ernst’s poems. Ranging from the nonsensical wordplay of C’est pour aller au bal to the poignancy of Poete et Tenor, Leguérinel delivers these little gems with honest vocalism in a pleasantly bright Baryton Martin coupled to a native speaker’s impeccable command of the text.

The Rhapsodie Negre, written when the composer was 17 years old is a silly musical joke that today would be dismissed as a politically incorrect work, were it not for its youthful provenance.

The delightfully varied album closes with Poulenc’s Cocardes, a small collection of instrumental and vocal ditties again featuring the resourceful Leguérinel in the good company of a dozen instrumentalists.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini: a rarity whose long-overdue time has come

The first thing one will encounter in the NAXOSD DVD of the Deutsche Oper Berlin production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is an image of the façade of the company’s home, designed by architect Fritz Bornemann in 1961.

The blunt brutalist aesthetic of the building is echoed in many of the company’s operatic productions, including this one by Christof Loy, in which the director and his design team emphasize the contemporaneous quality of the story at the expense of the once-upon-a-time tone of the opera’s libretto.

The 1914 opera, inspired by a passage in the Fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno tells of the fate of an Italian woman who was murdered by her husband when he discovered her and his brother in flagrante delicto.

Tito Ricordi’s libretto, based in turn on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s eponymous poem brings to vivid life the story’s larger than life characters and their passions.

Beyond being an accomplished orchestrator, Zandonai’s greatest gift resides in writing for the voice in an unforced manner that accommodates text to music naturally. In addition one hears throughout the four acts of Francesca da Rimini flashes of inspired melodic brilliance, interspersed with a simple linking of scene to scene and moment to moment.

Francesca da Rimini is a musical mix of late 19th century Italian Romanticism – the one ever present in Puccini along with the gritty Realism of Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Cilea, Giordano and Boito – all composers who, in one way or another, influenced, or mentored, or supported the efforts of Zandonai.

Zandonai’s theatrical style could be simply labeled Naturalism, while its musical counterpart may be described as a kind of second cousin to the blood and guts Verismo of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  But, unlike that of either one of those operas, the music of Francesca da Rimini is structured as a kind of continuous thorough-composed dialogue that lacks many if any set pieces. When one suspects that one of those might be coming around, like in the pre-coital encounter for Paolo and Francesca, Paolo, datemi pace the straight-shooting approach of both the composer and the director are just perfect.

The cast of first-rank Europe-based singers is superb. In the title role of Francesca, American soprano Sara Jakubiak is visually, dramatically, and vocally brilliant. So is her counterpart, the sonorous tenor Jonathan Tefelman in the role of Paolo. Both these singers have resilient vocal equipment that can withstand the rigors of Zandonai’s no-holds barred vocal writing.

Baritone Ivan Inverardi is vocally impressive and dramatically pure coiled anger personified as Giovanni. In a supporting role made more important by his talent, Charles Workman is flawless as the physically and emotionally impaired Malatestino.

Carlo Rizzi perfectly paces a dozen more principal singes, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra and Chorus in this indispensable, impeccably engineered video recording of a rarity whose long-overdue time has come.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS


In questa reggia is the title of a new album of warhorse arias by Puccini and Verdi featuring soprano Oksana Dyka. In the nicely packaged and cleanly engineered Delos release, Constantine Orbelian perfectly paces the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra.

Throughout 68 minutes of playing time the Ukrainian soprano fearlessly takes on the vocal minefields of Verdi’s Macbeth and Nabucco, and Puccini’s Turandot with a fair degree of success, knocking out high B flats and C’s like nobody’s business. But soon a numbing sameness sets in.

In the case of the selections from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca, and those from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and La forza del destino, in which the payoff comes not exclusively from high decibel singing but from subtler matters – phrasing and a variety of dynamics – Ms. Dyka’s acidly Slavic timbre and relentlessly full-out singing does not serve the music well.

In a perfect world, a calling card album of this nature would have included more rarities: Verdi’s Giovanna d’ Arco, Alzira, and Attila come to mind. How about one of Minnie’s ariosos from La fanciulla del West or O fior del giorno from Puccini’s Edgar?

Oksana Dyka is still, in her mid-forties, an artist of immense promise. She should be encouraged to explore the inexhaustible repertoires of the Verdi and Puccini lyric-spinto and dramatic soprano: a pursuit that will unearth for her some rewarding musical treasures.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

BR KLASSIK’s Verdi Requiem: An altogether remarkable accomplishment.

Verdi’ Requiem, a masterpiece dedicated to the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni takes the text of the Mass for the Dead and turns it by way of its music into a journey that grapples with the mysteries of life and death, voyaging through the darkness of its Kyrie and Dies Irae, then finding temporary relief from life’s vicissitudes in the Quid sum miser trio and the Recordare duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano, then bluntly interrupted by the thundering bass aria Confutatis Maledictus, and intensely weeping for life’s misery and begging for peace in the central Lachrymosa.  

The Requiem has been called a Sacred Opera because of its setting of a text that deals with matters of Faith and Life and Death – perfect for the genius of a man who grappled in one way or another with these very subjects in each and every one of his three dozen operas as well as in his personal life.

Jessye Norman, Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, and Yevgeny Nesterenko are four among the great singers of our time.  The Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are two top-notch German ensembles. At the age of 80 Riccardo Muti remains one of the finest conductors in the world. Given these artistic elements it is not surprising that a reissued recording of the Manzoni Requiem should be cause for celebration.

With Norman and Nesterenko both gone, and with Baltsa and Carreras both now retired it is fortunate that a 1981 Munich performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has been lovingly recorded and preserved for posterity by BR KLASSIK.

The re-mastered sound remains as fresh as it was when new almost forty years ago. The singing from all four soloists is to be treasured.

Norman’s dramatic soprano is a variable source of fiery excitement and plangent lyricism. Baltsa’s gorgeous sound – essentially that of a lyric mezzo-soprano can match her colleagues’ decibel for decibel, and Carreras, for this listener, ranks as one of the finest lyric tenors of the century. Yevgeny Nesterenko’s Slavic-accented Latin is not one’s cup of vodka, but his sound is noble and he rises to a lofty Confutatis early in the recording, with plenty of fire and brimstone reserves.

The music ultimately leads to the ecstatically quiet contemplation of Lux aeterna, but Verdi does not give his composition a placid ending, for it is the lone voice of the soprano who utters a final plea in the unaccompanied Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death.

Muti draws out fearsome fortissimi and touching pianissimi from his chorus and orchestra, and all along elicits impeccable ensemble work from his star soloists.

An altogether remarkable accomplishment.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

In Opera, hope blooms eternal

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 lineup of Saturday matinee broadcasts continues today, February 5, 2022 with a special program that highlights the first ten years of MET broadcasts, between 1931 and 1941 and in so doing also celebrates their 90th birthday

I hadn’t been born yet, and it wasn’t until I came to the United States and began to entertain the idea of studying music that I then began to listen to the MET’s broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, with Milton Cross providing lively commentary on that afternoon’s singers. I quickly became a fan of Opera, and have remained one to this day

Today’s program features a series of highlights from that decade, providing a walk down memory lane for some lucky listeners who might have actually listened to some of these artists in person or on the radio. I am not among them, so that by the time I started to sit down by the radio to listen to the MET broadcasts, the grand old days of Rosa Ponselle, Lawrence Tibbett, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Ezio Pinza, Bidú Sayão, and Lily Pons were gone. But, like many fans of great operatic singing I heard recordings of these stars and even collected LP’s of their singing. And, to this day any of us can go to You Tube and enjoy Ponselle’s amazing singing of any Verdi at all or Pinza’s Figaro or you name it.

And that brings me around to reflect – ever the critic – on the nature of the singing of those past greats. Regularly reviewing recordings of many of today’s singers I am often baffled by the blandness and the sameness I hear. Yes, the accuracy and discipline are there, but I miss the occasionally erratic but ever exciting individuality of a Zinka Milanov, the vocal personality of an Ezio Pinza, the thrilling devil-may-care approach of a Lawrence Tibbett, the exquisite way with the sung word of a Bidú Sayão, the larger than life sound of a Kirsten Flagstad, the no-holds-barred singing of Lauritz Melchior, the mix of manliness and sweetness of the timbre of Jussi Björling, the elegance of Lily Pons, or the superb resilience of a Leonard Warren.

Nevertheless I continue to listen and to hope to hear the kind of singing that was regularly heard back in those days. I am often amazed and surprised when I do, and never hesitate to say so. A recent recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio sent shivers up my spine while listening to the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen – already at the top of her game and still in her thirties. That’s just one instance of great singing, among many others.

In Opera, hope blooms eternal: that’s why some of us keep going back for more.